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

Chapter 51

How Charles Nutter’s Tea, Pipe, and Tobacco-Box Were All Set Out for Him in the Small Parlour at the Mills; and How that Night was Passed in the House by the Church-Yard.

Mrs. Nutter and Mrs. Sturk, the wives of the two men who most hated one another within the vicinage of Chapelizod — natural enemies, holding aloof one from another, and each regarding the other in a puzzled way, with a sort of apprehension and horror, as the familiar of that worst and most formidable of men — her husband — were this night stricken with a common fear and sorrow.

Darkness descended on the Mills and the river — a darkness deepened by the umbrageous trees that grouped about the old gray house in which poor Mrs. Nutter lay so ill at ease. Moggy carried the jingling tray of tea-things into Nutter’s little study, and lighted his candles, and set the silver snuffers in the dish, and thought she heard him coming, and ran back again, and returned with the singing ‘tea-kitchen,’ and then away again, for the thin buttered toast under its china cover, which our ancestors loved.

Then she listened — but ’twas a mistake — it was the Widow Macan’s step, who carried the ten pailfuls of water up from the river to fill the butt in the backyard every Tuesday and Friday, for a shilling a week, and ‘a cup o’ tay with the girls in the kitchen.’

Then Moggy lighted the fire with the stump of a candle, for the night was a little chill, and she set the small round table beside it, and laid her master’s pipe and tobacco-box on it, and listened, and began to wonder what detained him.

So she went out into the sharp still air, and stood on the hall-door step, and listened again. Presently she heard the Widow Macan walking up from the garden with the last pail on her head, who stopped when she saw her, and set down the vessel upon the corner of the clumsy little balustrade by the door-step. So Moggy declared her uneasiness, which waxed greater when Mrs. Macan told her that ‘the masther, God bless him, wasn’t in the garden.’

She had seen him standing at the river’s edge, while she passed and repassed. He did not move a finger, or seem to notice her, and was looking down into the water. When she came back the third or fourth time, he was gone.

At Moggy’s command she went back into the garden, though she assured her, solemnly —’’twas nansince lookin’ there’— and called Mr. Nutter, at first in a deferential and hesitating way; but, emboldened and excited by the silence, for she began to feel unaccountably queer, in a louder and louder a key, till she was certain that he was neither in the garden nor in the orchard, nor anywhere near the house. And when she stopped, the silence seemed awful, and the darkness under the trees closed round her with a supernatural darkness, and the river at the foot of the walk seemed snorting some inarticulate story of horror. So she locked the garden door quickly, looking over her shoulder for she knew not what, and ran faster than she often did along the sombre walk up to the hall door, and told her tale to Moggy, and begged to carry the pail in by the hall-door.

In they came, and Moggy shut the hall-door, and turned the key in it. Perhaps ’twas the state in which the poor lady lay up stairs that helped to make them excited and frightened. Betty was sitting by her bedside, and Toole had been there, and given her some opiate, I suppose, for she had dropped into a flushed snoring sleep, a horrid counterfeit of repose. But she had first had two or three frightful fits, and all sorts of wild, screaming talk between. Perhaps it was the apparition of Mary Matchwell, whose evil influence was so horribly attested by the dismal spectacle she had left behind her, that predisposed them to panic; but assuredly each anticipated no good from the master’s absence, and had a foreboding of something bad, of which they did not speak; but only disclosed it by looks, and listening, and long silences. The lights burning in Nutter’s study invited them, and there the ladies seated themselves, and made their tea in the kitchen tea-pot, and clapped it on the hob, and listened for sounds from Mrs. Nutter’s chamber, and for the step of her husband crossing the little court-yard; and they grew only more nervous from listening, and there came every now and then a little tapping on the window-pane. It was only, I think, a little sprig of the climbing-rose that was nailed by the wall, nodding at every breath, and rapping like unseen finger-tops, on the glass. But, as small things will, with such folk, under such circumstances, it frightened them confoundedly.

Then, on a sudden, there came a great yell from poor Mrs. Nutter’s chamber, and they both stood up very pale. The Widow Macan, with the cup in her hand that she was ‘tossing’ at the moment, and Moggy, all aghast, invoked a blessing under her breath, and they heard loud cries and sudden volleys of talk, and Biddy’s voice, soothing the patient.

Poor Mrs. Nutter had started up, all on a sudden, from her narcotic doze, with a hideous scream that had frightened the women down stairs. Then she cried —

‘Where am I?’ and ‘Oh, the witch — the witch!’

‘Oh! no, Ma’am, dear,’ replied Betty; ‘now, aisy, Ma’am, darling.’

‘I’m going mad.’

‘No, Ma’am, dear? — there now — sure ’tis poor Betty that’s in it — don’t be afear’d, Ma’am.’

‘Oh, Betty, hold me — don’t go — I’m mad — am I mad?’

Then in the midst of Betty’s consolations, she broke into a flood of tears, and seemed in some sort relieved; and Betty gave her her drops again, and she began to mumble to herself, and so to doze.

At the end of another ten minutes, with a scream, she started up again.

‘That’s her step — where are you, Betty?’ she shrieked, and when Betty ran to the bedside, she held her so hard that the maid was ready to cry out, leering all the time over her shoulder —‘Where’s Charles Nutter? — I saw him speaking to you.’

Then the poor little woman grew quieter, and by her looks and moans, and the clasping of her hands, and her upturned eyes, seemed to be praying; and when Betty stealthily opened the press to take out another candle, her poor mistress uttered another terrible scream, crying —

‘You wretch! her head won’t fit — you can’t hide her;’ and the poor woman jumped out of her bed, shrieking ‘Charles, Charles, Charles!’

Betty grew so nervous and frightened, that she fairly bawled to her colleague, Moggy, and told her she would not stay in the room unless she sat up all night with her. So, together they kept watch and ward, and as the night wore on, Mrs. Nutter’s slumbers grew more natural and less brief, and her paroxysms of waking terror less maniacal. Still she would waken, with a cry that thrilled them, from some frightful vision, and seem to hear or see nothing aright for a good while after, and muttering to the frightened maids —

‘Listen to the knocking — oh! — breathing outside the door — bolt it, Betty — girls, say your prayers —’tis he,’ or sometimes, ‘’tis she.’

And thus this heavy night wore over; and the wind, which began to rise as the hours passed, made sounds full of sad untranslatable meaning in the ears of the watchers.

Poor Mrs. Sturk meanwhile, in the House by the Church-yard, sat listening and wondering, and plying her knitting-needles in the drawing-room. When the hour of her Barney’s expected return had passed some time, she sent down to the barrack, and then to the club, and then on to the King’s House, with her service to Mrs. Stafford, to enquire, after her spouse. But her first and her second round of enquiries, despatched at the latest minute at which she was likely to find any body out of bed to answer them, were altogether fruitless. And the lights went out in one house after another, and the Phoenix shut its doors, and her own servants were for hours gone to bed; and the little town of Chapelizod was buried in the silence of universal slumber. And poor Mrs. Sturk still sat in her drawing-room, more and more agitated and frightened.

But her missing soldier did not turn up, and Leonora sat and listened hour after hour. No sound of return, not even the solemn clank and fiery snort of the fiend-horse under her window, or the ‘ho-lo, ho-la — my life, my love!’ of the phantom rider, cheated her with a momentary hope.

Poor Mrs. Sturk! She raised the window a few inches, that she might the better hear the first distant ring of his coming on the road. She forgot he had not his horse that night, and was but a pedestrian. But somehow the night-breeze through the aperture made a wolfish howling and sobbing, that sounded faint and far away, and had a hateful character of mingled despair and banter in it.

She said every now and then aloud, to reassure herself —‘What a noise the wind makes to be sure!’ and after a while she opened the window wider. But her candle flared, and the flame tossed wildly about, and the perplexed lady feared it might go out absolutely. So she shut down the window altogether; for she could not bear the ill-omened baying any longer.

So it grew to be past two o’clock, and she was afraid that Barney would be very angry with her for sitting up, should he return.

She went to bed, therefore, where she lay only more feverish — conjecturing, and painting frightful pictures, till she heard the crow of the early village cock, and the caw of the jackdaw wheeling close to the eaves as he took wing in the gray of the morning to show her that the business of a new day had commenced; and yet Barney had not returned.

Not long after seven o’clock, Dr. Toole, with Juno, Cæsar, Dido, and Sneak at his heels, paid his half-friendly, half-professional visit at the Mills.

Poor little Mrs. Nutter was much better — quiet for her was everything, packed up, of course, with a little physic; and having comforted her, as well as he was able, he had a talk with Moggy in the hall, and all about Nutter’s disappearance, and how Mrs. Macan saw him standing by the river’s brink, and that was the last anyone near the house had seen of him; and a thought flashed upon Toole, and he was very near coming out with it, but checked himself, and only said —

‘What hat had he on?’

So she told him.

‘And was his name writ in it, or how was it marked?’

‘Two big letters — a C and an N.’

‘I see; and do you remember any other mark you’d know it by?’

‘Well, yes; I stitched the lining only last month, with red silk, and that’s how I remember the letters.’

‘I know; and are you sure it was that hat he had on?’

‘Certain sure — why, there’s all the rest;’ and she conned them over, as they hung on their pegs on the rack before them.

‘Now, don’t let the mistress be downhearted — keep her up, Moggy, do you mind. I told her the master was with Lord Castlemallard since yesterday evening, on business, and don’t you say anything else; keep her quiet, do ye mind, and humour her.’

And away went Toole, at a swift pace, to the town again, and entered the barrack, and asked to see the adjutant, and then to look at the hat the corporal had fished up by ‘Bloody Bridge;’ and, by Jupiter! his heart gave a couple of great bounces, and he felt himself grow pale — they were the identical capitals, C N, and the clumsy red silk stitching in the lining.

Toole was off forthwith, and had a fellow dragging the river before three-quarters of an hour.

Dr. Walsingham, returning from an early ride to Island Bridge, saw this artist at work, with his ropes and great hooks, at the other side of the river; and being a man of enquiring mind, and never having witnessed the process before, he cried out to him, after some moments lost in conjecture —

‘My good man, what are you fishing for?’

‘A land-agent,’ answered Isaac Walton.

‘A land-agent?’ repeated the rector, misdoubting his ears.

The saturnine angler made no answer.

‘And has a gentleman been drowned here?’ he persisted.

The man only looked at him across the stream, and nodded.

‘Eh! and his name, pray?’

‘Old Nutter, of the Mills,’ he replied.

The rector made a woeful ejaculation, and stared at the careless operator, who had a pipe in his mouth the while, which made him averse from conversation. He would have liked to ask him more questions, but he was near the village, and refrained himself; and he met Toole at the corner of the bridge who, leaning on the shoulder of the rector’s horse, gave him the sad story in full.

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