The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XL



Mervyn was just about this time walking up the steep Ballyfermot Road. It was then a lonely track, with great bushes and hedgerows overhanging it; and as other emotions subsided, something of the chill and excitement of solitude stole over him. The moon was wading through flecked masses of cloud. The breath of night rustled lightly through the bushes, and seemed to follow her steps with a strange sort of sigh and a titter. He stopped and looked back under the branches of an old thorn, and traced against the dark horizon the still darker outline of the ivied church tower of Chapelizod, and thought of the dead that lay there, and of all that those sealed lips might tell, and old tales of strange meetings on moors and desolate places with departed spirits, flitted across his brain; and the melancholy rush of the night air swept close about his ears, and he turned and walked more briskly toward his own gloomy quarters, passing the churchyard of Ballyfermot on his right. There were plenty of head-stones among the docks and nettles: some short and some tall, some straight and some slanting back, and some with a shoulder up, and a lonely old ash-tree still and dewy in the midst, glimmering cold among the moveless shadows; and then at last he sighted the heavy masses of old elm, and the pale, peeping front of the 'Tyled House,' through the close and dismal avenue of elm, he reached the front of the mansion. There was no glimmer of light from the lower windows, not even the noiseless flitting of a bat over the dark little court-yard. His key let him in. He knew that his servants were in bed. There was something cynical in his ree-raw independence. It was unlike what he had been used to, and its savagery suited with his bitter and unsociable mood of late.

But his step sounding through the hall, and the stories about the place of which he was conscious. He battled with his disturbed foolish sensations, however, and though he knew there was a candle burning in his bed-room, he turned aside at the foot of the great stair, and stumbled and groped his way into the old wainscoted back-parlour, that looked out, through its great bow window, upon the haunted orchard, and sat down in its dismal solitude.

He ruminated upon his own hard fate—the meanness of man-kind—the burning wrongs, as he felt confident, of other times, Fortune's inexorable persecution of his family, and the stygian gulf that deepened between him and the object of his love; and his soul darkened with a fierce despair, and with unshaped but evil thoughts that invited the tempter.

The darkness and associations of the place were unwholesome, and he was about to leave it for the companionship of his candle, but that, on a sudden, he thought he heard a sound nearer than the breeze among the old orchard trees.

This was the measured breathing of some one in the room. He held his own breath while he listened—'One of the dogs,' he thought, and he called them quietly; but no dog came. 'The wind, then, in the chimney;' and he got up resolutely, designing to open the half-closed shutter. He fancied as he did so that he heard the respiration near him, and passed close to some one in the dark.

With an unpleasant expectation he threw back the shutters, and unquestionably he did see, very unmistakably, a dark figure in a chair; so dark, indeed, that he could not discern more of it than the rude but undoubted outline of a human shape; and he stood for some seconds, holding the open shutter in his hand, and looking at it with more of the reality of fear than he had, perhaps, ever experienced before. Pale Hecate now, in the conspiracy, as it seemed, withdrew on a sudden the pall from before her face, and threw her beams full upon the figure. A slim, tall shape, in dark clothing, and, as it seemed, a countenance he had never beheld before—black hair, pale features, with a sinister-smiling character, and a very blue chin, and closed eyes.

Fixed with a strange horror, and almost expecting to see it undergo some frightful metamorphosis, Mervyn stood gazing on the cadaverous intruder.

'Hollo! who's that?' cried Mervyn sternly.

The figure opened his eyes, with a wild stare, as if he had not opened them for a hundred years before, and rose up with an uncertain motion, returning Mervyn's gaze, as if he did not know where he was.

'Who are you?' repeated Mervyn.

The phantom seemed to recover himself slowly, and only said: 'Mr. Mervyn?'

'Who are you, Sir?' cried Mervyn, again.

'Zekiel Irons,' he answered.

'Irons? what are you, and what business have you here, Sir?' demanded Mervyn.

'The Clerk of Chapelizod,' he continued, quietly and remarkably sternly, but a little thickly, like a man who had been drinking.

Mervyn now grew angry.

'The Clerk of Chapelizod—here—sleeping in my parlour! What the devil, Sir, do you mean?'

'Sleep—Sir—sleep! There's them that sleeps with their eyes open. Sir—you know who they may be; there's some sleeps sound enough, like me and you; and some that's sleep-walkers,' answered Irons; and his enigmatical talk somehow subdued Mervyn, for he said more quietly—

'Well, what of all this, Sirrah?'

'A message,' answered Irons. The man's manner, though quiet, was dogged, and somewhat savage.

'Give it me, then,' said Mervyn, expecting a note, and extending his hand.

'I've nothing for your hand, Sir, 'tis for your ear,' said he.

'From whom, then, and what?' said Mervyn, growing impatient again.

'I ask your pardon, Mr. Mervyn; I have a good deal to do, back and forward, sometimes early, sometimes late, in the church—Chapelizod Church—all alone, Sir; and I often think of you, when I walk over the south-side vault.'

'What's your message, I say, Sir, and who sends it,' insisted Mervyn.

'Your father,' answered Irons.

Mervyn looked with a black and wild sort of enquiry on the clerk—was he insane or what?—and seemed to swallow down a sort of horror, before his anger rose again.

'You're mistaken—my father's dead,' he said, in a fierce but agitated undertone.

'He's dead, Sir—yes,' said his saturnine visitor, with the same faint smile and cynical quietude.

'Speak out, Sirrah; whom do you come from?'

'The late Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Dunoran.' He spoke, as I have said, a little thickly, like a man who had drunk his modicum of liquor.

'You've been drinking, and you dare to mix my—my father's name with your drunken dreams and babble—you wretched sot!'

A cloud passed over the moon just then, and Irons darkened, as if about to vanish, like an offended apparition. But it was only for a minute, and he emerged in the returning light, and spoke—

'A naggin of whiskey, at the Salmon House, to raise my heart before I came here. I'm not drunk—that's sure.' He answered, quite unmoved, like one speaking to himself.

'And—why—what can you mean by speaking of him?' repeated Mervyn, unaccountably agitated.

'I speak for him, Sir, by your leave. Suppose he greets you with a message—and you don't care to hear it?'

'You're mad,' said Mervyn, with an icy stare, to whom the whole colloquy began to shape itself into a dream.

'Belike you're mad, Sir,' answered Irons, in a grim, ugly tone, but with face unmoved. Twas not a light matter brought me here—a message—there—well!—your right honourable father, that lies in lead and oak, without a name on his coffin-lid, would have you to know that what he said was—as it should be—and I can prove it—'

'What?—he said what?—what is it?—what can you prove? Speak out, Sirrah!' and his eyes shone white in the moonlight, and his hand was advanced towards Irons's throat, and he looked half beside himself, and trembling all over.

'Put down your hand or you hear no more from me,' said Irons, also a little transformed.

Mervyn silently lowered his hand clenched by his side, and, with compressed lips, nodded an impatient sign to him.

'Yes, Sir, he'd have you to understand he never did it, and I can prove it—but I won't!'

That moment, something glittered in Mervyn's hand, and he strode towards Irons, overturning a chair with a crash.

'I have you—come on and you're a dead man,' said the clerk, in a hoarse voice, drawing into the deep darkness toward the door, with the dull gleam of a pistol-barrel just discernible in his extended hand.

'Stay—don't go,' cried Mervyn, in a piercing voice; 'I conjure—I implore—whatever you are, come back—see, I'm unarmed,' (and he flung his sword back toward the window).

'You young gentlemen are always for drawing upon poor bodies—how would it have gone if I had not looked to myself, Sir, and come furnished?' said Irons, in his own level tone.

'I don't know—I don't care—I don't care if I were dead. Yes, yes, 'tis true, I almost wish he had shot me.'

'Mind, Sir, you're on honour,' said the clerk, in his old tone, as he glided slowly back, his right hand in his coat pocket, and his eye with a quiet suspicion fixed upon Mervyn, and watching his movements.

'I don't know what or who you are, but if ever you knew what human feeling is—I say, if you are anything at all capable of compassion, you will kill me at a blow rather than trifle any longer with the terrible hope that has been my torture—I believe my insanity, all my life.'

'Well, Sir,' said Irons, mildly, and with that serene suspicion of a smile on his face, 'if you wish to talk to me you must take me different; for, to say truth, I was nearer killing you that time than you were aware, and all the time I mean you no harm! and yet, if I thought you were going to say to anybody living, Zekiel Irons, the clerk, was here on Tuesday night, I believe I'd shoot you now.'

'You wish your visit secret? well, you have my honour, no one living shall hear of it,' said Mervyn. 'Go on.'

'I've little to say, your honour; but, first, do you think your servants heard the noise just now?'

'The old woman's deaf, and her daughter dare not stir after night-fall. You need fear no interruption.'

'Ay, I know; the house is haunted, they say, but dead men tell no tales. 'Tis the living I fear, I thought it would be darker—the clouds broke up strangely; 'tis as much as my life's worth to me to be seen near this Tyled House; and never you speak to me nor seem to know me when you chance to meet me, do you mind, Sir? I'm bad enough myself, but there's some that's worse.'

'Tis agreed, there shall be no recognition,' answered Mervyn.

'There's them watching me that can see in the clouds, or the running waters, what you're thinking of a mile away, that can move as soft as ghosts, and can gripe as hard as hell, when need is. So be patient for a bit—I gave you the message—I tell you 'tis true; and as to my proving it at present, I can, you see, and I can't; but the hour is coming, only be patient, and swear, Sir, upon your soul and honour, that you won't let me come to perdition by reason of speaking the truth.'

'On my soul and honour, I mean it,' answered Mervyn. 'Go on.'

'Nor ever tell, high or low, rich or poor, man, woman, or child, that I came here; because—no matter.'

'That I promise, too; for Heaven's sake go on.'

'If you please, Sir, no, not a word more till the time comes,' answered Irons; 'I'll go as I came.' And he shoved up the window-sash and got out lightly upon the grass, and glided away among the gigantic old fruit-trees, and was lost before a minute.

Perhaps he came intending more. He had seemed for a while to have made up his mind, Mervyn thought, to a full disclosure, and then he hesitated, and, on second thoughts, drew back. Barren and tantalising, however, as was this strange conference, it was yet worth worlds, as indicating the quarter from which information might ultimately be hoped for.

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