The House by the Church-Yard, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 1

The Rector’s Night-Walk to His Church.

A.D. 1767 — in the beginning of the month of May — I mention it because, as I said, I write from memoranda, an awfully dark night came down on Chapelizod and all the country round.

I believe there was no moon, and the stars had been quite put out under the wet ‘blanket of the night,’ which impenetrable muffler overspread the sky with a funereal darkness.

There was a little of that sheet-lightning early in the evening, which betokens sultry weather. The clouds, column after column, came up sullenly over the Dublin mountains, rolling themselves from one horizon to the other into one black dome of vapour, their slow but steady motion contrasting with the awful stillness of the air. There was a weight in the atmosphere, and a sort of undefined menace brooding over the little town, as if unseen crime or danger — some mystery of iniquity — was stealing into the heart of it, and the disapproving heavens scowled a melancholy warning.

That morning old Sally, the rector’s housekeeper, was disquieted. She had dreamed of making the great four-post, state bed, with the dark green damask curtains — a dream that betokened some coming trouble — it might, to be sure, be ever so small —(it had once come with no worse result than Dr. Walsingham’s dropping his purse, containing something under a guinea in silver, over the side of the ferry boat)— but again it might be tremendous. The omen hung over them doubtful.

A large square letter, with a great round seal, as big as a crown piece, addressed to the Rev. Hugh Walsingham, Doctor of Divinity, at his house, by the bridge, in Chapelizod, had reached him in the morning, and plainly troubled him. He kept the messenger a good hour awaiting his answer; and, just at two o’clock, the same messenger returned with a second letter — but this time a note sufficed for reply. ‘’Twill seem ungracious,’ said the doctor, knitting his brows over his closed folio in the study; ‘but I cannot choose but walk clear in my calling before the Lord. How can I honestly pronounce hope, when in my mind there is nothing but fear — let another do it if he see his way — I do enough in being present, as ’tis right I should.’

It was, indeed, a remarkably dark night — a rush and downpour of rain! The doctor stood just under the porch of the stout brick house — of King William’s date, which was then the residence of the worthy rector of Chapelizod — with his great surtout and cape on — his leggings buttoned up — and his capacious leather ‘overalls’ pulled up and strapped over these — and his broad-leafed hat tied down over his wig and ears with a mighty silk kerchief. I dare say he looked absurd enough — but it was the women’s doing — who always, upon emergencies, took the doctor’s wardrobe in hand. Old Sally, with her kind, mild, grave face, and gray locks, stood modestly behind in the hall; and pretty Lilias, his only child, gave him her parting kiss, and her last grand charge about his shoes and other exterior toggery, in the porch; and he patted her cheek with a little fond laugh, taking old John Tracy’s, the butler’s, arm. John carried a handsome horn-lantern, which flashed now on a roadside bush — now on the discoloured battlements of the bridge — and now on a streaming window. They stepped out — there were no umbrellas in those days — splashing among the wide and widening pools; while Sally and Lilias stood in the porch, holding candles for full five minutes after the doctor and his ‘Jack-o’-the-lantern,’ as he called honest John, whose arm and candle always befriended him in his night excursions, had got round the corner.

Through the back bow-window of the Phoenix, there pealed forth — faint in the distance and rain — a solemn royal ditty, piped by the tuneful Aldermen of Skinner’s Alley, and neither unmusical nor somehow uncongenial with the darkness, and the melancholy object of the doctor’s walk, the chant being rather monastic, wild, and dirge-like. It was a quarter past ten, and no other sound of life or human neighbourhood was stirring. If secrecy were an object, it was well secured by the sable sky, and the steady torrent which rolled down with electric weight and perpendicularity, making all nature resound with one long hush — sh — sh — sh — sh — deluging the broad street, and turning the channels and gutters into mimic mill-streams which snorted and hurtled headlong through their uneven beds, and round the corners towards the turbid Liffey, which, battered all over with rain, muddy, and sullen, reeled its way towards the sea, rolling up to the heavens an aspect black as their own.

As they passed by the Phoenix (a little rivulet, by-the-bye, was spouting down from the corner of the sign; and indeed the night was such as might well have caused that suicidal fowl to abandon all thoughts of self-incremation, and submit to an unprecedented death by drowning), there was no idle officer, or lounging waiter upon the threshold. Military and civilians were all snug in their quarters that night; and the inn, except for the ‘Aldermen’ in the back parlour, was doing no business. The door was nearly closed, and only let out a tall, narrow slice of candle-light upon the lake of mud, over every inch of which the rain was drumming.

The doctor’s lantern glided by — and then across the street — and so leisurely along the foot-way, by the range of lightless hall doors towards the Salmon House, also dark; and so, sharp round the corner, and up to the church-yard gate, which stood a little open, as also the church door beyond, as was evidenced by the feeble glow of a lantern from within.

I dare say old Bob Martin, the sexton, and grave Mr. Irons, the clerk, were reassured when they heard the cheery voice of the rector hailing them by name. There were now three candles in church; but the edifice looked unpleasantly dim, and went off at the far end into total darkness. Zekiel Irons was a lean, reserved fellow, with a black wig and blue chin, and something shy and sinister in his phiz. I don’t think he had entertained honest Bob with much conversation from those thin lips of his during their grizzly tête-à-tête among the black windows and the mural tablets that overhung the aisle.

But the rector had lots to say — though deliberately and gravely, still the voice was genial and inspiring — and exorcised the shadows that had been gathering stealthily around the lesser Church functionaries. Mrs. Irons’s tooth, he learned, was still bad; but she was no longer troubled with ‘that sour humour in her stomach.’ There were sour humours, alas! still remaining — enough, and to spare, as the clerk knew to his cost. Bob Martin thanked his reverence; the cold rheumatism in his hip was better.’ Irons, the clerk, replied, ‘he had brought two prayer-books.’ Bob averred ‘he could not be mistaken; the old lady was buried in the near-vault; though it was forty years before, he remembered it like last night. They changed her into her lead coffin in the vault — he and the undertaker together — her own servants would not put a hand to her. She was buried in white satin, and with her rings on her fingers. It was her fancy, and so ordered in her will. They said she was mad. He’d know her face again if he saw her. She had a long hooked nose; and her eyes were open. For, as he was told, she died in her sleep, and was quite cold and stiff when they found her in the morning. He went down and saw the coffin today, half an hour after meeting his reverence.’

The rector consulted his great warming-pan of a watch. It was drawing near eleven. He fell into a reverie, and rambled slowly up and down the aisle, with his hands behind his back, and his dripping hat in them, swinging nearly to the flags — now lost in the darkness — now emerging again, dim, nebulous, in the foggy light of the lanterns. When this clerical portrait came near, he was looking down, with gathered brows, upon the flags, moving his lips and nodding, as if counting them, as was his way. The doctor was thinking all the time upon the one text:— Why should this livid memorial of two great crimes be now disturbed, after an obscurity of twenty-one years, as if to jog the memory of scandal, and set the great throat of the monster baying once more at the old midnight horror?

And as for that old house at Ballyfermot, why any one could have looked after it as well as he. ‘Still he must live somewhere, and certainly this little town is quieter than the city, and the people, on the whole, very kindly, and by no means curious.’ This latter was a mistake of the doctor’s, who, like other simple persons, was fond of regarding others as harmless repetitions of himself. ‘And his sojourn will be,’ he says, ‘but a matter of weeks; and the doctors mind wandered back again to the dead, and forward to the remoter consequences of his guilt, so he heaved a heavy, honest sigh, and lifted up his head and slackened his pace for a little prayer, and with that there came the rumble of wheels to the church door.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49