The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XI



Old Sally always attended her young mistress while she prepared for bed—not that Lilias required help, for she had the spirit of neatness and a joyous, gentle alacrity, and only troubled the good old creature enough to prevent her thinking herself grown old and useless.

Sally, in her quiet way, was garrulous, and she had all sorts of old-world tales of wonder and adventure, to which Lilias often went pleasantly to sleep; for there was no danger while old Sally sat knitting there by the fire, and the sound of the rector's mounting upon his chairs, as was his wont, and taking down and putting up his books in the study beneath, though muffled and faint, gave evidence that that good and loving influence was awake and busy.

Old Sally was telling her young mistress, who sometimes listened with a smile, and sometimes lost a good five minutes together of her gentle prattle, how the young gentleman, Mr. Mervyn, had taken that awful old haunted habitation, the Tiled House 'beyant at Ballyfermot,' and was going to stay there, and wondered no one had told him of the mysterious dangers of that desolate mansion.

It stood by a lonely bend of the narrow road. Lilias had often looked upon the short, straight, grass-grown avenue with an awful curiosity at the old house which she had learned in childhood to fear as the abode of shadowy tenants and unearthly dangers.

'There are people, Sally, nowadays, who call themselves free-thinkers, and don't believe in anything—even in ghosts,' said Lilias.

'A then the place he's stopping in now, Miss Lily, 'ill soon cure him of free-thinking, if the half they say about it's true,' answered Sally.

'But I don't say, mind, he's a free-thinker, for I don't know anything of Mr. Mervyn; but if he be not, he must be very brave, or very good, indeed. I know, Sally, I should be horribly afraid, indeed, to sleep in it myself,' answered Lilias, with a cosy little shudder, as the aërial image of the old house for a moment stood before her, with its peculiar malign, sacred, and skulking aspect, as if it had drawn back in shame and guilt under the melancholy old elms among the tall hemlock and nettles.

'And now, Sally, I'm safe in bed. Stir the fire, my old darling.' For although it was the first week in May, the night was frosty. 'And tell me all about the Tiled House again, and frighten me out of my wits.'

So good old Sally, whose faith in such matters was a religion, went off over the well-known ground in a gentle little amble—sometimes subsiding into a walk as she approached some special horror, and pulling up altogether—that is to say, suspending her knitting, and looking with a mysterious nod at her young mistress in the four-poster, or lowering her voice to a sort of whisper when the crisis came.

So she told her how when the neighbours hired the orchard that ran up to the windows at the back of the house, the dogs they kept there used to howl so wildly and wolfishly all night among the trees, and prowl under the walls of the house so dejectedly, that they were fain to open the door and let them in at last; and, indeed, small need was there for dogs; for no one, young or old, dared go near the orchard after night-fall. No, the burnished golden pippins that peeped through the leaves in the western rays of evening, and made the mouths of the Ballyfermot school-boys water, glowed undisturbed in the morning sunbeams, and secure in the mysterious tutelage of the night smiled coyly on their predatory longings. And this was no fanciful reserve and avoidance. Mick Daly, when he had the orchard, used to sleep in the loft over the kitchen; and he swore that within five or six weeks, while he lodged there, he twice saw the same thing, and that was a lady in a hood and a loose dress, her head drooping, and her finger on her lip, walking in silence among the crooked stems, with a little child by the hand, who ran smiling and skipping beside her. And the Widow Cresswell once met them at night-fall, on the path through the orchard to the back-door, and she did not know what it was until she saw the men looking at one another as she told it.

'It's often she told it to me,' said old Sally; 'and how she came on them all of a sudden at the turn of the path, just by the thick clump of alder trees; and how she stopped, thinking it was some lady that had a right to be there; and how they went by as swift as the shadow of a cloud, though she only seemed to be walking slow enough, and the little child pulling by her arm, this way and that way, and took no notice of her, nor even raised her head, though she stopped and courtesied. And old Dalton, don't you remember old Dalton, Miss Lily?'

'I think I do, the old man who limped, and wore the old black wig?'

'Yes, indeed, acushla, so he did. See how well she remembers! That was by a kick of one of the earl's horses—he was groom there,' resumed Sally. 'He used to be troubled with hearing the very sounds his master used to make to bring him and old Oliver to the door, when he came back late. It was only on very dark nights when there was no moon. They used to hear all on a sudden, the whimpering and scraping of dogs at the hall door, and the sound of the whistle, and the light stroke across the window with the lash of the whip, just like as if the earl himself—may his poor soul find rest—was there. First the wind 'id stop, like you'd be holding your breath, then came these sounds they knew so well, and when they made no sign of stirring or opening the door, the wind 'id begin again with such a hoo-hoo-o-o-high, you'd think it was laughing, and crying, and hooting all at once.'

Here old Sally's tale and her knitting ceased for a moment, as if she were listening to the wind outside the haunted precincts of the Tiled house; and she took up her parable again.

'The very night he met his death in England, old Oliver, the butler, was listening to Dalton—for Dalton was a scholar—reading the letter that came to him through the post that day, telling him to get things ready, for his troubles wor nearly over and he expected to be with them again in a few days, and maybe almost as soon as the letter; and sure enough, while he was reading, there comes a frightful rattle at the window, like some one all in a tremble, trying to shake it open, and the earl's voice, as they both conceited, cries from outside, "Let me in, let me in, let me in!" "It's him," says the butler. "'Tis so, bedad," says Dalton, and they both looked at the windy, and at one another—and then back again—overjoyed, in a soart of a way, and frightened all at onst. Old Oliver was bad with the rheumatiz. So away goes Dalton to the hall-door, and he calls "who's there?" and no answer. "Maybe," says Dalton, to himself, "'tis what he's rid round to the back-door;" so to the back-door with him, and there he shouts again—and no answer, and not a sound outside—and he began to feel quare, and to the hall door with him back again. "Who's there? do you hear? who's there?" he shouts, and receives no answer still. "I'll open the door at any rate," says he, "maybe it's what he's made his escape," for they knew all about his troubles, and wants to get in without noise, so praying all the time—for his mind misgave him it might not be all right—he shifts the bars and unlocks the door; but neither man, woman, nor child, nor horse, nor any living shape was standing there, only something or another slipt into the house close by his leg; it might be a dog, or something that way, he could not tell, for he only seen it for a moment with the corner of his eye, and it went in just like as if it belonged to the place. He could not see which way it went, up or down, but the house was never a happy one, or a quiet house after; and Dalton bangs the hall-door, and he took a sort of a turn and a trembling, and back with him to Oliver, the butler, looking as white as the blank leaf of his master's letter, that was between his finger and thumb. "What is it? what is it?" says the butler, catching his crutch like a waypon, fastening his eyes on Dalton's white face, and growing almost as pale himself. "The master's dead," says Dalton—and so he was, signs on it.

'After the turn she got by what she seen in the orchard, when she came to know the truth of what it was, Jinny Cresswell, you may be sure, did not stay there an hour longer than she could help: and she began to take notice of things she did not mind before—such as when she went into the big bed-room over the hall, that the lord used to sleep in, whenever she went in at one door the other door used to be pulled to very quick, as if some one avoiding her was getting out in haste; but the thing that frightened her most was just this—that sometimes she used to find a long straight mark from the head to the foot of her bed, as if 'twas made by something heavy lying there, and the place where it was used to feel warm—as if—whoever it was—they only left it as she came into the room.

'But the worst of all was poor Kitty Haplin, the young woman that died of what she seen. Her mother said it was how she was kept awake all the night with the walking about of some one in the next room, tumbling about boxes, and pulling over drawers, and talking and sighing to himself, and she, poor thing, wishing to go asleep, and wondering who it could be, when in he comes, a fine man, in a sort of loose silk morning-dress, an' no wig, but a velvet cap on, and to the windy with him quiet and aisy, and she makes a turn in the bed to let him know there was some one there, thinking he'd go away, but instead of that, over he comes to the side of the bed, looking very bad, and says something to her—but his speech was thick and choakin' like a dummy's that id be trying to spake—and she grew very frightened, and says she, 'I ask your honour's pardon, Sir, but I can't hear you right,' and with that he stretches up his neck nigh out of his cravat, turning his face up towards the ceiling, and—grace between us and harm!—his throat was cut across, and wide open; she seen no more, but dropped in a dead faint in the bed, and back to her mother with her in the morning, and she never swallied bit or sup more, only she just sat by the fire holding her mother's hand, crying and trembling, and peepin' over her shoulder, and starting with every sound, till she took the fever and died, poor thing, not five weeks after.'

And so on, and on, and on flowed the stream of old Sally's narrative, while Lilias dropped into dreamless sleep, and then the story-teller stole away to her own tidy bed-room and innocent slumbers.

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