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

Chapter 57

In which Dr. Toole and Mr. Lowe Make a Visit at the Mills, and Recognise Something Remarkable While There.

After church, Dr. Toole walking up to the Mills, to pay an afternoon visit to poor little Mrs. Nutter, was overtaken by Mr. Lowe, the magistrate who brought his tall, iron-gray hunter to a walk as he reached him.

‘Any tidings of Nutter?’ asked he, after they had, in the old world phrase, given one another the time of day.

‘Not a word,’ said the doctor; ‘I don’t know what to make of it; but you know what’s thought. The last place he was seen in was his own garden. The river was plaguy swollen Friday night, and just where he stood it’s deep enough, I can tell you; often I bathed there when I was a boy. He was consumedly in the dumps, poor fellow; and between ourselves, he was a resolute dog, and atrabilious, and just the fellow to make the jump into kingdom-come if the maggot bit: and you know his hat was fished out of the river a long way down. They dragged next morning, but — pish! —’twas all nonsense and moonshine; why, there was water enough to carry him to Ringsend in an hour. He was a good deal out of sorts, as I said, latterly — a shabby design, Sir, to thrust him out of my Lord Castlemallard’s agency; but that’s past and gone; and, besides, I have reason to know there was some kind of an excitement — a quarrel it could not be-poor Sally Nutter’s too mild and quiet for that; but a — a — something — a — an — agitation — or a bad news — or something — just before he went out; and so, poor Nutter, you see, it looks very like as if he had done something rash.’

Talking thus, they reached the Mills by the river side, not far from Knockmaroon.

On learning that Toole was about making a call there, Lowe gave his bridle to a little Chapelizod ragamuffin, and, dismounting, accompanied the doctor. Mrs. Nutter was in her bed.

‘Make my service to your mistress,’ said Toole, ‘and say I’ll look in on her in five minutes, if she’ll admit me.’ And Lowe and the doctor walked on to the garden, and so side by side down to the river’s bank.

‘Hey! — look at that,’ said Toole, with a start, in a hard whisper; and he squeezed Lowe’s arm very hard, and looked as if he saw a snake.

It was the impression in the mud of the same peculiar foot-print they had tracked so far in the park. There was a considerable pause, during which Lowe stooped down to examine the details of the footmark.

‘Hang it — you know — poor Mrs. Nutter — eh?’ said Toole, and hesitated.

‘We must make a note of that — the thing’s important,’ said Mr. Lowe, sternly fixing his gray eye upon Toole.

‘Certainly, Sir,’ said the doctor, bridling; ‘I should not like to be the man to hit him — you know; but it is remarkable — and, curse it, Sir, if called on, I’ll speak the truth as straight as you, Sir — every bit, Sir.’

And he added an oath, and looked very red and heated.

The magistrate opened his pocket-book, took forth the pattern sole, carefully superimposed it, called Toole’s attention, and said —

You see.’

Toole nodded hurriedly; and just then the maid came out to ask him to see her mistress.

‘I say, my good woman,’ said Lowe; ‘just look here. Whose foot-print is that — do you know it?’

‘Oh, why, to be sure I do. Isn’t it the master’s brogues?’ she replied, frightened, she knew not why, after the custom of her kind.

‘You observe that?’ and he pointed specially to the transverse line across the heel. ‘Do you know that?’

The woman assented.

‘Who made or mended these shoes?’

‘Bill Heaney, the shoemaker, down in Martin’s-row, there —’twas he made them, and mended them, too, Sir.’

So he came to a perfect identification, and then an authentication of his paper pattern; then she could say they were certainly the shoes he wore on Friday night — in fact, every other pair he had were then on the shoe-stand on the lobby. So Lowe entered the house, and got pen and ink, and continued to question the maid and make little notes; and the other maid knocked at the parlour door with a message to Toole.

Lowe urged his going; and somehow Toole thought the magistrate suspected him of making signs to his witness, and he departed ill at ease; and at the foot of the stairs he said to the woman —

‘You had better go in there — that stupid Lynn is doing her best to hang your master, by Jove!’

And the woman cried —

‘Oh, dear, bless us!’

Toole was stunned and agitated, and so with his hand on the clumsy banister he strode up the dark staircase, and round the little corner in the lobby, to Mrs. Nutter’s door.

‘Oh, Madam, ’twill all come right, be sure,’ said Toole, uncomfortably, responding to a vehement and rambling appeal of poor Mrs. Nutter’s.

‘And do you really think it will? Oh, doctor, doctor, do you think it will? The last two or three nights and days — how many is it? — oh, my poor head — it seems like a month since he went away.’

‘And where do you think he is? Do you think it’s business?’

‘Of course ’tis business, Ma’am.’

‘And — and — oh, doctor! — you really think he’s safe?’

‘Of course, Madam, he’s safe — what’s to ail him?’

And Toole rummaged amongst the old medicine phials on the chimneypiece, turning their labels round and round, but neither seeing them nor thinking about them, and only muttering to himself with, I’m sorry to say, a curse here and there.

‘You see, my dear Ma’am, you must keep yourself as quiet as you can, or physic’s thrown away upon you; you really must,’ said Toole.

‘But doctor,’ pleaded the poor lady, ‘you don’t know — I— I’m terrified — I— I— I’ll never be the same again,’ and she burst into hysterical crying.

‘Now, really, Madam — confound it — my dear, good lady — you see — this will never do’— he was uncorking and smelling at the bottles in search of ‘the drops’—‘and — and — here they are — and isn’t it better, Ma’am, you should be well and hearty — here drink this — when — when he comes back — don’t you see — than — a — a —’

‘But — oh, I wish I could tell you. She said — she said — the — the — oh, you don’t know —’

She — who? Who said what?’ cried Toole, lending his ear, for he never refused a story.

‘Oh! Doctor, he’s gone — I’ll never — never — I know I’ll never see him again. Tell me he’s not gone — tell me I’ll see him again.’

‘Hang it, can’t she stick to one thing at a time — the poor woman’s half out of her wits,’ said Toole, provoked; ‘I’ll wager a dozen of claret there’s more on her mind than she’s told to anyone.’

Before he could bring her round to the subject again, the doctor was called down to Lowe; so he took his leave for the present; and after his talk with the magistrate, he did not care to go up again to poor little Mrs. Nutter; and Moggy was as white as ashes standing by, for Mr. Lowe had just made her swear to her little story about the shoes; and Toole walked home to the village with a heavy heart, and a good deal out of humour.

Toole knew that a warrant would be issued next day against Nutter. The case against him was black enough. Still, even supposing he had struck those trenchant blows over Sturk’s head, it did not follow that it was without provocation or in cold blood. It looked, however, altogether so unpromising, that he would have been almost relieved to hear that Nutter’s body had been found drowned in the river.

Still there was a chance that he made good his retreat. If he had not paid his fare in Charon’s packet-boat, he might, at least, have crossed the channel in the Trevor or Hillsborough to Holyhead. Then, deuce was in it, if he did not make a fair run for it, and earth himself snugly somewhere. ’Twas lighter work then than now. ‘The old saying at London, among servants,’ writes that good-natured theatrical wag, Tate Wilkinson, ‘was, “I wish you were at York!” which the wronged cook has now changed for, “I wish you were at Jamaica.” Scotland was then imagined by the cockney as a dreary place, distant almost as the West Indies; now’(reader, pray note the marvel) ‘an agreeable party may, with the utmost ease, dine early in the week in Grosvenor Square, and without discomposure set down at table on Saturday or Sunday in the new town of Edinburgh!’ From which we learn that miracles of celerity were already accomplishing themselves, and that the existing generation contemplated their triumphs complacently. But even upon these we have improved, and nowadays, our whole social organisation is subservient to detection. Cut your telegraph wires, substitute sail boats for steam, and your old fair and easy forty-miles-a-day stage-coaches for the train and the rail, disband your City police and detective organisation, and make the transit of a letter between London and Dublin a matter of from five days to nearly as many weeks, and compute how much easier it was then than now for an adventurous highwayman, an absconding debtor, or a pair of fugitive lovers, to make good their retreat. Slow, undoubtedly, was the flight — they did not run, they walked away; but so was pursuit, and altogether, without authentic lights and official helps — a matter of post-chaises and perplexity, cross-roads and rumour, foundering in a wild waste of conjecture, or swallowed in the quag of some country inn-yard, where nothing was to be heard, and out of which there would be no relay of posters to pull you until nine o’clock next morning.

As Toole debouched from Martin’s-row, on his return, into the comparative amplitude of the main street of Chapelizod, he glanced curiously up to Sturk’s bed-room windows. There were none of the white signals of death there. So he ascended the door step, and paid a visit — of curiosity, I must say — and looked on the snorting image of his old foe, and the bandaged head, spell-bound and dreamless, that had machinated so much busy mischief against his own medical sovereignty and the rural administration of Nutter.

As Toole touched his pulse, and saw him swallow a spoonful of chicken broth, and parried poor Mrs. Sturk’s eager quivering pleadings for his life with kind though cautious evasions, he rightly judged that the figure that lay there was more than half in the land of ghosts already — that the enchanter who met him in the Butcher’s Wood, and whose wand had traced those parallel indentures in his skull, had not only exorcised for ever the unquiet spirit of intrigue, but wound up the tale of his days. It was true that he was never more to step from that bed, and that his little children would, ere many days, be brought there by kindly, horror-loving maids, to look their last on ‘the poor master,’ and kiss awfully his cold stern mouth before the coffin lid was screwed down, and the white-robed image of their father hidden away for ever from their sight.

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