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

Chapter 52

Concerning a Rouleau of Guineas and the Crack of a Pistol.

Dangerfield went up the river that morning with his rod and net, and his piscatory fidus Achates, Irons, at his elbow. It was a nice gray sky, but the clerk was unusually silent even for him; and the sardonic piscator appeared inscrutably amused as he looked steadily upon the running waters. Once or twice the spectacles turned full upon the clerk, over Dangerfield’s shoulder, with a cynical light, as if he were on the point of making one of his ironical jokes; but he turned back again with a little whisk, the jest untold, whatever it was, to the ripple and the fly, and the coy gray troutlings.

At last, Dangerfield said over his shoulder, with the same amused look, ‘Do you remember Charles Archer?’

Irons turned pale, and looked down embarrassed as it seemed, and began plucking at a tangled piece of tackle, without making any answer.

‘Hey? Irons,’ persisted Dangerfield, who was not going to let him off.

‘Yes, I do,’ answered the man surlily; ‘I remember him right well; but I’d rather not, and I won’t speak of him, that’s all.’

‘Well, Charles Archer’s here, we’ve seen him, haven’t we? and just the devil he always was,’ said Dangerfield with a deliberate chuckle of infinite relish, and evidently enjoying the clerk’s embarrassment as he eyed him through his spectacles obliquely.

‘He has seen you, too, he says; and thinks you have seen him, hey?’ and Dangerfield chuckled more and more knowingly, and watched his shiftings and sulkings with a pleasant grin, as he teased and quizzed him in his own enigmatical way.

‘Well, supposing I did see him,’ said Irons, looking up, returning Dangerfield’s comic glance with a bold and lowering stare; ‘and supposing he saw me, so long as we’ve no business one of another, and never talks like, nor seems to remember — I think ‘tisnt, no ways, no one’s business — that’s what I say.’

‘True, Irons, very true; you, I, and Sturk — the doctor I mean — are cool fellows, and don’t want for nerve; but I think, don’t you? we’re afraid of Charles Archer, for all that.’

‘Fear or no fear, I don’t want to talk to him nor of him, no ways,’ replied the clerk, grimly, and looking as black as a thunder-cloud.

‘Nor I neither, but you know he’s here, and what a devil he is; and we can’t help it,’ replied Dangerfield, very much tickled.

The clerk only looked through his nearly closed eyes, and with the same pale and surly aspect toward the point to which Dangerfield’s casting line had floated, and observed —

‘You’ll lose them flies, Sir.’

‘Hey?’ said Dangerfield, and made another cast further into the stream.

‘Whatever he may seem, and I think I know him pretty well,’ he continued in the same sprightly way, ‘Charles Archer would dispose of each of us — you understand — without a scruple, precisely when and how best suited his convenience. Now doctor Sturk has sent him a message which I know will provoke him, for it sounds like a threat. If he reads it so, rely on’t, he’ll lay Sturk on his back, one way or another, and I’m sorry for him, for I wished him well; but if he will play at brag with the devil I can’t help him.’

‘I’m a man that holds his tongue; I never talks none, even in my liquor. I’m a peaceable man, and no bully, and only wants to live quiet,’ said Irons in a hurry.

‘A disciple of my school, you’re right, Irons, that’s my way; I never name Charles except to the two or three who meet him, and then only when I can’t help it, just as you do; fellows of that kidney I always take quietly, and I’ve prospered. Sturk would do well to reconsider his message. Were I in his shoes, I would not eat an egg or a gooseberry, or drink a glass of fair water from that stream, while he was in the country, for fear of poison! curse him! and to think of Sturk expecting to meet him, and walk with him, after such a message, together, as you and I do here. Do you see that tree?’

It was a stout poplar, just a yard away from Irons’s shoulder; and as Dangerfield pronounced the word ‘tree,’ his hand rose, and the sharp report of a pocket-pistol half-deafened Irons’s ear.

‘I say,’ said Dangerfield, with a startling laugh, observing Irons wince, and speaking as the puff of smoke crossed his face, ‘he’d lodge a bullet in the cur’s heart, as suddenly as I’ve shot that tree;’ the bullet had hit the stem right in the centre, ‘and swear he was going to rob him.’

Irons eyed him with a livid squint, but answered nothing. I think he acquiesced in Dangerfield’s dreadful estimate of Charles Archer’s character.

‘But we must give the devil his due; Charles can do a handsome thing sometimes. You shall judge. It seems he saw you, and you him — here, in this town, some months ago, and each knew the other, and you’ve seen him since, and done likewise; but you said nothing, and he liked your philosophy, and hopes you’ll accept of this, which from its weight I take to be a little rouleau of guineas.’

During this speech Irons seemed both angry and frightened, and looked darkly enough before him on the water; and his lips were moving, as if in a running commentary upon it all the while.

When Dangerfield put the little roll in his hand, Irons looked suspicious and frightened, and balanced it in his palm, as if he had thoughts of chucking it from him, as though it were literally a satanic douceur. But it is hard to part with money, and Irons, though he still looked cowed and unhappy, put the money into his breeches’ pocket, and he made a queer bow, and he said —

‘You know, Sir, I never asked a farthing.’

‘Ay, so he says,’ answered Dangerfield.

‘And,’ with an imprecation, Irons added, ‘I never expected to be a shilling the better of him.’

‘He knows it; and now you have the reason why I mentioned Charles Archer; and having placed that gold in your hand, I’ve done with him, and we sha’n’t have occasion, I hope, to name his name for a good while to come,’ said Dangerfield.

Then came a long refreshing silence, while Dangerfield whipt the stream with his flies. He was not successful; but he did not change his flies. It did not seem to trouble him; indeed, mayhap he did not perceive it. And after fully twenty minutes thus unprofitably employed, he suddenly said, as if in continuation of his last sentence —

‘And, respecting that money you’ll use caution; a hundred guineas is not always so honestly come by. Your wife drinks — suppose a relative in England had left you that gold, by will, ‘twould be best not to let her know; but give it to Dr. Walsingham, secretly, to keep for you, telling him the reason. He’ll undertake the trust and tell no one — that’s your plan — mind ye.’

Then came another long silence, and Dangerfield applied himself in earnest to catch some trout, and when he had accomplished half-a-dozen, he tired altogether of the sport, and followed by Irons, he sauntered homewards, where astounding news awaited him.

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