The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XLVI



When Magnolia and the major had gone out, each on their several devices, poor Mrs. Macnamara called Biddy, their maid, and told her, in a vehement, wheezy, confidential whisper in her ear, though there was nobody by but themselves, and the door was shut.

'Biddy, now mind—d'ye see—the lady that came to me in the end of July—do you remember?—in the black satin—you know?—she'll be here to-day, and we're going down together in her coach to Mrs. Nutter's; but that does not signify. As soon as she comes, bring her in here, into this room—d'ye mind?—and go across that instant minute—d'ye see now?—straight to Dr. Toole, and ask him to send me the peppermint drops he promised me.'

Then she cross-questioned Biddy, to ascertain that she perfectly understood and clearly remembered; and, finally, she promised her half-a-crown if she peformed this very simple commission to her mistress's satisfaction and held her tongue religiously on the subject. She had apprised Toole the evening before, and now poor 'Mrs. Mack's sufferings, she hoped, were about to be brought to a happy termination by the doctor's ingenuity. She was, however, very nervous indeed, as the crisis approached; for such a beast as Mary Matchwell at bay was a spectacle to excite a little tremor even in a person of more nerve than fat Mrs. Macnamara.

And what could Mary Matchwell want of a conjuring conference, of all persons in the world, with poor little Mrs. Nutter? Mrs. Mack had done in this respect simply as she was bid. She had indeed no difficulty to persuade Mrs. Nutter to grant the interview. That harmless little giggling creature could not resist the mere mention of a fortune-teller. Only for Nutter, who set his face against this sort of sham witchcraft, she would certainly have asked him to treat her with a glimpse into futurity at that famous-sibyl's house; and now that she had an opportunity of having the enchantress tête-à-tête in her own snug parlour at the Mills, she was in a delightful fuss of mystery and delight.

Mrs. Mack, indeed, from her own sad experience, felt a misgiving and a pang in introducing the formidable prophetess. But what could she do? She dared not refuse; all she could risk was an anxious hint to poor little Mrs. Nutter, 'not to be telling her anything, good, bad, or indifferent, but just to ask her what questions she liked, and no more.' Indeed, poor Mrs. Mack was low and feverish about this assignation, and would have been more so but for the hope that her Polonius, behind the arras, would bring the woman of Endor to her knees.

All on a sudden she heard the rumble and jingle of a hackney coach, and the clang of the horses' hoofs pulled up close under her window; her heart bounded and fluttered up to her mouth, and then dropped down like a lump of lead, and she heard a well-known voice talk a few sentences to the coachman, and then in the hall, as she supposed, to Biddy; and so she came into the room, dressed as usual in black, tall, thin, and erect, with a black hood shading her pale face and the mist and chill of night seemed to enter along with her.

It was a great relief to poor Mrs. Mack, that she actually saw Biddy at that moment run across the street toward Toole's hall-door, and she quickly averted her conscious glance from the light-heeled handmaid.

'Pray take a chair, Ma'am,' said Mrs. Mack, with a pallid face and a low courtesy.

Mistress Matchwell made a faint courtesy in return, and, without saying anything, sat down, and peered sharply round the room.

'I'm glad, Ma'am, you had no dust to-day; the rain, Ma'am, laid it beautiful.'

The grim woman in black threw back her hood a little, and showed her pale face and thin lips, and prominent black eyes, altogether a grisly and intimidating countenance, with something wild and suspicious in it, suiting by no means ill with her supernatural and malign pretensions.

Mrs. Mack's ear was strained to catch the sound of Toole's approach, and a pause ensued, during which she got up and poured out a glass of port for the lady, and she presented it to her deferentially. She took it with a nod, and sipped it, thinking, as it seemed, uneasily. There was plainly something more than usual upon her mind. Mrs. Mack thought—indeed, she was quite sure—she heard a little fussing about the bed-room door, and concluded that the doctor was getting under cover.

When Mrs. Matchwell had set her empty glass upon the table, she glided to the window, and Mrs. Mack's guilty conscience smote her, as she saw her look towards Toole's house. It was only, however, for the coach; and having satisfied herself it was at hand, she said—

'We'll have some minutes quite private, if you please—'tisn't my affair, you know, but yours,' said the weird woman.

There had been ample time for the arrangement of Toole's ambuscade. Now was the moment. The crisis was upon her. But poor Mrs. Mack, just as she was about to say her little say about the front windows and opposite neighbours, and the privacy of the back bed-room, and to propose their retiring thither, felt a sinking of the heart—a deadly faintness, and an instinctive conviction that she was altogether overmatched, and that she could not hope to play successfully any sort of devil's game with that all-seeing sorceress. She had always thought she was a plucky woman till she met Mistress Mary. Before her her spirit died within her—her blood flowed hurriedly back to her heart, leaving her body cold, pale, and damp, and her soul quailing under her gaze.

She cleared her voice twice, and faltered an enquiry, but broke down in panic; and at that moment Biddy popped in her head—

'The doctor, Ma'am, was sent for to Lucan, an' he won't be back till six o'clock, an' he left no peppermint drops for you, Ma'am, an' do you want me, if you plase, Ma'am?'

'Go down, Biddy, that'll do,' said Mrs. Mack, growing first pale, and then very red.

Mary Matchwell scented death afar off; for her the air was always tainted with ominous perfumes. Every unusual look or dubious word thrilled her with a sense of danger. Suspicion is the baleful instinct of self-preservation with which the devil gifts his children; and hers never slept.

'What doctor?' said Mrs. Matchwell, turning her large, dismal, wicked gaze full on Mrs. Mack.

'Doctor Toole, Ma'am.' She dared not tell a literal lie to that piercing, prominent pair of black eyes.

'And why did you send for Doctor O'Toole, Ma'am?'

'I did not send for the doctor,' answered the fat lady, looking down, for she could not stand that glance that seemed to light up all the caverns of her poor soul, and make her lies stand forth self-confessed. 'I did not send for him, Ma'am, only for some drops he promised me. I've been very sick—I—I—I'm so miserable.'

And poor Mrs. Mack's nether lip quivered, and she burst into tears.

'You're enough to provoke a saint, Mrs. Macnamara,' said the woman in black, rather savagely, though coldly enough. 'Why you're on the point of fortune, as it seems to me.' Here poor Mrs. Mack's inarticulate lamentations waxed more vehement. 'You don't believe it—very well—but where's the use of crying over your little difficulties, Ma'am, like a great baby, instead of exerting yourself and thanking your best friend?'

And the two ladies sat down to a murmuring tête-à-tête at the far end of the room; you could have heard little more than an inarticulate cooing, and poor Mrs. Mack's sobs, and the stern—

'And is that all? I've had more trouble with you than with fifty reasonable clients—you can hardly be serious—I tell you plainly, you must manage matters better, my good Madam; for, frankly, Ma'am, this won't do.'

With which that part of the conference closed, and Mary Matchwell looked out of the window. The coach stood at the door, the horses dozing patiently, with their heads together, and the coachman, with a black eye, mellowing into the yellow stage, and a cut across his nose—both doing well—was marching across from the public-house over the way, wiping his mouth in the cuff of his coat.

'Put on your riding-hood, if you please, Madam, and come down with me in the coach to introduce me to Mrs. Nutter,' said Mrs. Matchwell, at the same time tapping with her long bony fingers to the driver.

'There's no need of that, Madam. I said what you desired, and I sent a note to her last night, and she expects you just now; and, indeed, I'd rather not go, Madam, if you please.'

Tis past that now—just do as I tell you, for come you must,' answered Mrs. Matchwell.

As the old woman of Berkley obeyed, and got up and went quietly away with her visitor, though her dead flesh quivered with fear, so poor Mrs. Mack, though loath enough, submitted in silence.

'Now, you look like a body going to be hanged—you do; what's the matter with you, Madam? I tell you, you mustn't look that way. Here, take a sup o' this;' and she presented the muzzle of a small bottle like a pistol at her mouth as she spoke—

'There's a glass on the table, if you let me, Ma'am,' said Mrs. Mack.

'Glass be——; here, take a mouthful.'

And she popped it between her lips; and Mrs. Mack was refreshed and her spirit revived within her.

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