The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XX



Early next morning Lord Castlemallard, Dangerfield, and Nutter, rode into Chapelizod, plaguy dusty, having already made the circuit of that portion of his property which lay west of the town. They had poked into the new mills and the old mills, and contemplated the quarries, and lime-kilns, and talked with Doyle about his holding, and walked over the two vacant farms, and I know not all besides. And away trotted his lordship to his breakfast in town. And Dangerfield seeing the church door open, dismounted and walked in, and Nutter did likewise.

Bob Martin was up in the gallery, I suppose, doing some good, and making a considerable knocking here and there in the pews, and walking slowly with creaking shoes. Zekiel Irons, the clerk, was down below about his business, at the communion table at the far end, lean, blue-chinned, thin-lipped, stooping over his quarto prayer books, and gliding about without noise, reverent and sinister. When they came in, Nutter led the way to Lord Castlemallard's pew, which brought them up pretty near to the spot where grave Mr. Irons was prowling serenely. The pew would soon want new flooring, Mr. Dangerfield thought, and the Castlemallard arms and supporters, a rather dingy piece of vainglory, overhanging the main seat on the wall, would be nothing the worse of a little fresh gilding and paint.

'There was a claim—eh—to one foot nine inches off the eastern end of the pew, on the part of—of the family—at Inchicore, I think they call it,' said Dangerfield, laying his riding-whip like a rule along the top to help his imagination—'Hey—that would spoil the pew.'

'The claim's settled, and Mr. Langley goes to the other side of the aisle,' said Nutter, nodding to Irons, who came up, and laid his long clay-coloured fingers on the top of the pew door, and one long, thin foot on the first step, and with half-closed eyes, and a half bow, he awaited their pleasure.

'The Langley family had this pew,' said Dangerfield, with a side nod to that next his lordship's.

'Yes, Sir,' said Irons, with the same immutable semblance of a smile, and raising neither his head nor his eyes.

'And who's got it now?'

'His reverence, Dr. Walsingham.'

And so it came out, that having purchased Salmonfalls, the rector had compromised the territorial war that was on the point of breaking out among his parishioners, by exchanging with that old coxcomb Langley, the great square pew over the way, that belonged to that house, for the queer little crib in which the tenant of Inchicore had hitherto sat in state; and so there was peace, if not good will, in the church.

'Hey—let's see it,' said Dangerfield, crossing the aisle, with Irons at his heels, for he was a man that saw everything for himself, that ever so remotely concerned him or his business.

'We buried Lord ——' (and the title he spoke very low) 'in the vault here, just under where you stand, on Monday last, by night,' said Irons, very gently and grimly, as he stood behind Dangerfield.

A faint galvanic thrill shot up through the flagging and his firmly planted foot to his brain, as though something said, 'Ay, here I am!'

'Oh! indeed?' said Dangerfield, dryly, making a little nod, and raising his eyebrows, and just moving a little a one side—Twas a nasty affair.'

He looked up, with his hands in his breeches' pockets, and read a mural tablet, whistling scarce audibly the while. It was not reverent, but he was a gentleman; and the clerk standing behind him, retained his quiet posture, and that smile, that yet was not a smile, but a sort of reflected light—was it patience, or was it secret ridicule?—you could not tell: and it never changed, and somehow it was provoking.

'And some persons, I believe, had an unpleasant duty to do there,' said Dangerfield, abruptly, in the middle of his tune, and turning his spectacles fully and sternly on Mr. Irons.

The clerk's head bent lower, and he shook it; and his eyes, but for a little glitter through the eyelashes, seemed to close.

Tis a pretty church, this—a pretty town, and some good families in the neighbourhood,' said Dangerfield, briskly; 'and I dare say some trout in the river—hey?—the stream looks lively.'

'Middling, only—poor gray troutlings, Sir—not a soul cares to fish it but myself,' he answered.

'You're the clerk—eh?'

'At your service, Sir.'

'Dublin man?—or—'

'Born and bred in Dublin, your honour.'

'Ay—well! Irons—you've heard of Mr. Dangerfield—Lord Castlemallard's agent—I am he. Good-morning, Irons;' and he gave him half-a-crown, and he took another look round; and then he and Nutter went out of the church, and took a hasty leave of one another, and away went Nutter on his nag, to the mills. And Dangerfield, just before mounting, popped into Cleary's shop, and in his grim, laconic way, asked the proprietor, among his meal-bags and bacon, about fifty questions in less than five minutes. 'That was one of Lord Castlemallard's houses—eh—with the bad roof, and manure-heap round the corner?'—and, 'Where's the pot-house they call the Salmon House?—doing a good business—eh?' and at last—'I'm told there's some trout in the stream. Is there anyone in the town who knows the river, and could show me the fishing?—Oh, the clerk! and what sort of fish is he—hey?—Oh! an honest, worthy man, is he? Very good, Sir. Then, perhaps, Mr. a—perhaps, Sir, you'll do me the favour to let one of your people run down to his house, and say Mr. Dangerfield, Lord Castlemallard's agent, who is staying, you know, at the Brass Castle, would be much obliged if he would bring his rod and tackle, and take a walk with him up the river, for a little angling, at ten o'clock!'

Jolly Phil Cleary was deferential, and almost nervous in his presence. The silver-haired, grim man, with his mysterious reputation for money, and that short decisive way of his, and sudden cynical chuckle, inspired a sort of awe, which made his wishes, where expressed with that intent, very generally obeyed; and, sure enough, Irons appeared, with his rod, at the appointed hour, and the interesting anglers—Piscator and his 'honest scholar,' as Isaac Walton hath it—set out side by side on their ramble, in the true fraternity of the gentle craft.

The clerk had, I'm afraid, a shrew of a wife—shrill, vehement, and fluent. 'Rogue,' 'old miser,' 'old sneak,' and a great many worse names, she called him. Good Mrs. Irons was old, fat, and ugly, and she knew it; and that knowledge made her natural jealousy the fiercer. He had learned, by long experience, the best tactique under fire: he became actually taciturn; or, if he spoke, his speech was laconic and enigmatical; sometimes throwing out a proverb, and sometimes a text; and sometimes when provoked past endurance, spouting mildly a little bit of meek and venomous irony.

He loved his trout-rod and the devious banks of the Liffey, where, saturnine and alone, he filled his basket. It was his helpmate's rule, whenever she did not know to a certainty precisely what Irons was doing, to take it for granted that he was about some mischief. Her lodger, Captain Devereux, was her great resource on these occasions, and few things pleased him better than a stormy visit from his hostess in this temper. The young scapegrace would close his novel, and set down his glass of sherry and water (it sometimes smelt very like brandy, I'm afraid). To hear her rant, one would have supposed, who had not seen him, that her lank-haired, grimly partner, was the prettiest youth in the county of Dublin, and that all the comely lasses in Chapelizod and the country round were sighing and setting caps at him; and Devereux, who had a vein of satire, and loved even farce, enjoyed the heroics of the fat old slut.

'Oh! what am I to do, captain, jewel?' she bounced into the room, with flaming face and eyes swelled, and the end of her apron, with which she had been swobbing them, in her hand, while she gesticulated, with her right; 'there, he's off again to Island Bridge,—the owdacious sneak! It's all that dirty hussy's doing. I'm not such a fool, but I know how to put this and that together, though he thinks I don't know of his doings; but I'll be even with you, Meg Partlet, yet—you trollop;' and all this was delivered in renewed floods of tears, and stentorian hysterics, while she shook her fat red fist in the air, at the presumed level of Meg's beautiful features.

'Nay, Madam,' said the gay captain; 'I prithee, weep not; the like discoveries, as you have read, have been made in Rome, Salamanca, Ballyporeen, Babylon, Venice, and fifty other famous cities.' He always felt in these interviews, as if she and he were extemporising a burlesque—she the Queen of Crim Tartary, and he an Archbishop in her court—and would have spoken blank verse, only he feared she might perceive it, and break up the conference.

'And what's that to the purpose?—don't I know they're the same all over the world—nothing but brutes and barbarians.'

'But suppose, Madam, he has only gone up the river, and just taken his rod——'

'Oh! rod, indeed. I know where he wants a rod, the rascal!'

'I tell you, Madam,' urged the chaplain, 'you're quite in the wrong. You've discovered after twenty years' wedlock that your husband's—a man! and you're vexed: would you have him anything else?'

'You're all in a story,' she blubbered maniacally; 'there's no justice, nor feeling, nor succour for a poor abused woman; but I'll do it—I will. I'll go to his reverence—don't try to persuade me—the Rev. Hugh Walsingham, Doctor of Divinity, and Rector of Chapelizod (she used to give him at full length whenever she threatened Zekiel with a visitation from that quarter, by way of adding ponderosity to the menace)—I'll go to him straight—don't think to stop me—and we'll see what he'll say;' and so she addressed herself to go.

'And when you see him, Madam, ask the learned doctor—don't ask me—believe the rector of the parish—he'll tell you, that it hath prevailed from the period at which Madam Sarah quarrelled with saucy Miss Hagar; that it hath prevailed among all the principal nations of antiquity, according to Pliny, Strabo, and the chief writers of antiquity; that Juno, Dido, Eleanor Queen of England, and Mrs. Partridge, whom I read of here (and he pointed to the open volume of Tom Jones), each made, or thought she made, a like discovery.' And the captain delivered this slowly, with knitted brow and thoughtful face, after the manner of the erudite and simple doctor.

'Pretty Partridges, indeed! and nice game for a parish clerk!' cried the lady, returning. 'I wonder, so I do, when I look at him, and think of his goings on, how he can have the assurance to sit under the minister, and look the congregation in the face, and tune his throat, and sing the blessed psalms.'

'You are not to wonder, Madam; believe the sage, who says, omnibus hoc vitium est cantoribus.'

Devereux knew of old that the effect of Latin on Mrs. Irons was to heighten the inflammation, and so the matron burst into whole chapters of crimination, enlivened with a sprinkling of strong words, as the sages of the law love to pepper their indictments and informations with hot adverbs and well-spiced parentheses, 'falsely,' 'scandalously,' 'maliciously,' and suadente diabolo, to make them sit warm on the stomachs of a loyal judge and jury, and digest easily.

The neighbours were so accustomed to Mrs. Irons' griefs, that when her voice was audible, as upon such occasions it was, upon the high road and in the back gardens, it produced next to no sensation; everybody had heard from that loud oracle every sort of story touching Irons which could well be imagined, and it was all so thoroughly published by the good lady, that curiosity on the subject was pretty well dead and gone, and her distant declamation rattled over their heads and boomed in their ears, like the distant guns and trumpets on a review day, signifying nothing.

And all this only shows what every man who has ruralised a little in his lifetime knows, more than in theory, that the golden age lingers in no corner of the earth, but is really quite gone and over everywhere, and that peace and prisca fides have not fled to the nooks and shadows of deep valleys and bowery brooks, but flown once, and away to heaven again, and left the round world to its general curse. So it is even in pretty old villages, embowered in orchards, with hollyhocks and jessamine in front of the houses, and primeval cocks and hens pecking and scraping in the street, and the modest river dimpling and simpering among osiers and apple trees, and old ivied walls close by—you sometimes hear other things than lowing herds, and small birds singing, and purling streams; and shrill accents and voluble rhetoric will now and then trouble the fragrant air, and wake up the dim old river-god from his nap.

As to Irons, if he was all that his wife gave out, he must have been a mighty sly dog indeed; for on the whole, he presented a tolerably decent exterior to society. It is said, indeed, that he liked a grave tumbler of punch, and was sardonic and silent in his liquor; that his gait was occasionally a little queer and uncertain, as his lank figure glided home by moonlight, from the 'Salmon House;' and that his fingers fumbled longer than need be with the latch, and his tongue, though it tried but a short and grim 'bar'th door, Marjry,' or 'gi' me can'le, wench,' sometimes lacked its cunning, and slipped and kept not time. There were, too, other scandals, such as the prying and profane love to shoot privily at church celebrities. Perhaps it was his reserve and sanctity that provoked them. Perhaps he was, in truth, though cautious, sometimes indiscreet. Perhaps it was fanciful Mrs. Irons' jealous hullabaloos and hysterics that did it—I don't know—but people have been observed, apropos of him, to wink at one another, and grin, and shake their heads, and say: 'the nearer the church, you know'—and 'he so ancient, too! but 'tis an old rat that won't eat cheese,' and so forth.

Just as Mrs. Irons whisked round for the seventh time to start upon her long threatened march to Dr. Walsingham's study to lay her pitiful case before him, Captain Devereux, who was looking toward the 'Phoenix,' saw the truant clerk and Mr. Dangerfield turn the corner together on their return.

'Stay, Madam, here comes the traitor,' said he; 'and, on my honour, 'tis worse than we thought; for he has led my Lord Castlemallard's old agent into mischief too—and Meg Partlet has had two swains at her feet this morning; and, see, the hypocrites have got some trout in their basket, and their rods on their shoulders—and look, for all the world, as if they had only been fishing—sly rogues!'

'Well, it's all one,' said Mrs. Irons, gaping from the other window, and sobering rapidly; 'if 'tisn't to-day, 'twill be to-morrow, I suppose; and at any rate 'tis a sin and shame to leave any poor crature in this miserable taking, not knowing but he might be drownded—or worse—dear knows it would not be much trouble to tell his wife when the gentleman wanted him—and sure for any honest matter I'd never say against it.'

Her thoughts were running upon Dangerfield, and what 'compliment' he had probably made her husband at parting; and a minute or two after this, Devereux saw her, with her riding-hood on, trudging up to the "Salmon House" to make inquisition after the same.

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson