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

Chapter 91

Concerning Certain Documents which Reached Mr. Mervyn, and the Witches’ Revels at the Mills.

I would be ashamed to say how, soon after Dangerfield had spoken to Mr. Mervyn in the church-yard on the Sunday afternoon, when he surprised him among the tombstones, the large-eyed young gentleman, with the long black hair, was at his desk, and acting upon his suggestion. But the Hillsborough was to sail next day; and Mr. Mervyn’s letter, containing certain queries, and an order for twenty guineas on a London house, glided in that packet with a favouring breeze from the Bay of Dublin, on its way to the London firm of Elrington Brothers.

On the morning of the day whose events I have been describing in the last half-dozen chapters, Mr. Mervyn received his answer, which was to the following effect:—

‘SIR — Having made search for the Paper which you enquire after, we have Found one answering your description in a General way; and pursuant to your request and Direction, beg leave to forward you a Copy thereof, together with a copy of a letter concerning it, received by the same post from Sir Philip Drayton, of Drayton Hall, Sometime our Client, and designed in Part to explain his share in the matter. Your order for twenty guineas, on Messrs. Trett and Penrose, hath come to hand, and been duly honoured, and we thankfully Accept the same, in payment for all trouble had in this matter. ‘&c, &c, &c.’

The formal document which it enclosed said:—

‘This is to certify that Charles Archer, Esq., aged, as shortly before his death he reported himself, thirty-five years, formerly of London, departed this life, on the 4th August, 1748, in his lodgings, in the city of Florence, next door to the “Red Lion,” and over against the great entrance of the Church of the Holy Cross, in the which, having conformed to the holy Roman faith, he is buried. — Signed this 12th day of August, 1748.

‘PHILIP DRAYTON, Baronet.

‘GAETANO MELONI, M.D.

‘ROBERT SMITH, Musician.

‘We three having seen the said Charles Archer during his sickness, and after his decease.’

Then followed the copy of the baronet’s letter to his attorneys, which was neither very long nor very business-like.

‘Why the plague don’t you make the scoundrel, Jekyl, pay? His mother’s dead only t’other day, and he must be full of money. I’ve scarce a marvedy in hand, now; so let him have a writ in his, drat him. About that certificate, I’m almost sorry I signed it. I’ve bin thinking ’tis like enough I may be troubled about it. So you may tell ’em I know no more only what is there avouched. No more I do. He played at a faro-table here, and made a very pretty figure. But I hear now from Lord Orland that there are many bad reports of him. He was the chief witness against that rogue, Lord Dunoran, who swallowed poison in Newgate, and, they say, leaned hard against him, although he won much money of him, and swore with a blood-thirsty intention. But that is neither here nor there; I mean ill reports of his rogueries at play, and other doings, which, had I sooner known, my name had not bin to the paper. So do not make a noise about it, and maybe none will ask for’t. As for Jack Jekyl, why not take the shortest way with him. You’re very pitiful fellows; but I wish o’ my conscience you’d take some pity o’ me, and not suffer me to be bubbled,’ &c., &c.

There was only a sentence or two more, referring in the same strain to other matters of business, of which, in the way of litigation, he seemed to have no lack, and the letter ended.

‘I’ll go direct to London and see these people, and thence to Florence. Gaetano Meloni — he may be living — who knows? He will remember the priest who confessed him. A present to a religious house may procure — in a matter of justice, and where none can be prejudiced, for the case is very special — a dispensation, if he be the very Charles Archer — and he may — why not? — have disclosed all on his death-bed. First, I shall see Mr. Dangerfield — then those attorneys; and next make search in Florence; and, with the aid of whatever I can glean there, and from Irons, commence in England the intensest scrutiny to which a case was ever yet subjected.’

Had it not been so late when he found this letter on his return, he would have gone direct with it to the Brass Castle; but that being quite out of the question, he read it again and again. It is wonderful how often a man will spell over and over the same commonplace syllables, if they happen to touch a subject vitally concerning himself, and what theories and speculations he will build upon the accidental turn of a phrase, or the careless dash of a pen.

As we see those wild animals walk their cages in a menagerie, with the fierce instincts of suppressed action rolling in the vexed eye and vibrating in every sinew, even so we behold this hero of the flashing glance and sable locks treading, in high excitement, the floor of the cedar parlour. Every five minutes a new hope — a new conjecture, and another scrutiny of the baronet’s letter, or of the certificate of Archer’s death, and hour after hour speeding by in the wild chase of successive chimeras.

While Mr. Justice Lowe’s servant was spurring into town at a pace which made the hollow road resound, and struck red flashes from the stones, up the river, at the Mills, Mistress Mary Matchwell was celebrating a sort of orgie. Dirty Davy and she were good friends again. Such friendships are subject to violent vicissitudes, and theirs had been interrupted by a difference of opinion, of which the lady had made a note with a brass candlestick over his eye. Dirty Davy’s expressive feature still showed the green and yellow tints of convalescence. But there are few philosophers who forgive so frankly as a thorough scoundrel, when it is his interest to kiss and be friends. The candlestick was not more innocent of all unpleasant feeling upon the subject than at that moment was Dirty Davy.

Dirty Davy had brought with him his chief clerk, who was a facetious personage, and boozy, and on the confidential footing of a common rascality with his master, who, after the fashion of Harry V. in his nonage, condescended in his frolics and his cups to men of low estate; and Mary Matchwell, though fierce and deep enough, was not averse on occasion, to partake of a bowl of punch in sardonic riot, with such agreeable company.

Charles Nutter’s unexpected coming to life no more affected Mary Matchwell’s claim than his supposed death did her spirits. Widow or wife, she was resolved to make good her position, and the only thing she seriously dreaded was that an intelligent jury, an eminent judge, and an adroit hangman, might remove him prematurely from the sphere of his conjugal duties, and forfeit his worldly goods to the crown.

Next morning, however, a writ or a process of some sort, from which great things were expected, was to issue from the court in which her rights were being vindicated. Upon the granting of this, Mistress Matchwell and Dirty Davy — estranged for some time, as we have said — embraced. She forgot the attorney’s disrespectful language, and he the lady’s brass candlestick, and, over the punch-bowl of oblivion and vain glory, they celebrated their common victory.

Under advice, M. M. had acquiesced, pending her vigorous legal proceedings, in poor little Sally Nutter’s occupying her bed-room in the house for a little while longer. The beleagured lady was comforted in her strait by the worthy priest, by honest Dr. Toole, and not least, by that handsome and stalworth nymph, the daring Magnolia. That blooming Amazon was twice on the point of provoking the dismal sorceress, who kept her court in the parlour of the Mills, to single combat. But fortune willed it otherwise, and each time the duel had been interrupted in its formal inception, and had gone no further than that spirited prologue in which the female sex so faithfully preserve the tradition of those thundering dialogues which invariably precede the manual business of the Homeric fray.

This was the eve of a great triumph and a memorable gala. Next morning, Sally Nutter was to be scalped, roasted, and eaten up, and the night was spent in savage whoopings, songs and dances. They had got a reprobate blind fiddler into the parlour, where their punch-bowl steamed — a most agreeable and roistering sinner, who sang indescribable songs to the quaver of his violin, and entertained the company with Saturnalian vivacity, jokes, gibes, and wicked stories. Larry Cleary, thou man of sin and music! methinks I see thee now. Thy ugly, cunning, pitted face, twitching and grinning; thy small, sightless orbs rolling in thy devil’s merriment, and thy shining forehead red with punch.

In the kitchen things were not more orderly; M. M.‘s lean maid was making merry with the bailiff, and a fat and dreadful trollop with one eye — tipsy, noisy, and pugnacious.

Poor little Sally Nutter and her maids kept dismal vigil in her bed-room. But that her neighbours and her lawyer would in no sort permit it, the truth is, the frightened little soul would long ago have made herself wings, and flown anywhere for peace and safety.

It is remarkable how long one good topic, though all that may be said upon it has been said many scores of times, will serve the colloquial purposes of the good folk of the kitchen or the nursery. There was scarcely half-an-hour in the day during which the honest maids and their worthy little mistress did not discuss the dreadful Mary Matchwell. They were one and all, though in different degrees, indescribably afraid of her. Her necromantic pretensions gave an indistinctness and poignancy to their horror. She seemed to know, by a diabolical intuition, what everybody was about — she was so noiseless and stealthy, and always at your elbow when you least expected. Those large dismal eyes of hers, they said, glared green in the dark like a cat’s; her voice was sometimes so coarse and deep, and her strength so unnatural, that they were often on the point of believing her to be a man in disguise. She was such a blasphemer, too; and could drink what would lay a trooper under the table, and yet show it in nothing but the superintensity of her Satanic propensities. She was so malignant, and seemed to bear to all God’s creatures so general a malevolence, that her consistent and superlative wickedness cowed and paralysed them. The enigma grew more horrible every day and night, and they felt, or fancied, a sort of influence stealing over them which benumbed their faculty of resistance, and altogether unstrung their nerves.

The grand compotation going on in the parlour waxed louder and wilder as the night wore on. There were unseen guests there, elate and inspiring, who sat with the revellers — phantoms who attend such wassail, and keep the ladle of the punch-bowl clinking, the tongue of the songster glib and tuneful, and the general mirth alive and furious. A few honest folk, with the gift of a second sight in such matters, discover their uncanny presence — leprous impurity, insane blasphemy, and the stony grin of unearthly malice — and keep aloof.

To heighten their fun, this jovial company bellowed their abominable ballads in the hall, one of them about ‘Sally M’Keogh,’ whose sweetheart was hanged, and who cut her throat with his silver-mounted razor, and they hooted their gibes up the stairs. And at last Mary Matchwell, provoked by the passive quietude of her victim, summoned the three revellers from the kitchen, and invaded the upper regions at their head — to the unspeakable terror of poor Sally Nutter — and set her demon fiddler a scraping, and made them and Dirty Davy’s clerk dance a frantic reel on the lobby outside her bed-room door, locked and bolted inside, you may be sure.

In the midst of this monstrous festivity and uproar, there came, all on a sudden, a reverberating double-knock at the hall-door, so loud and long that every hollow, nook, and passage of the old house rang again. Loud and untimely as was the summons, it had a character, not of riot, but of alarm and authority. The uproar was swallowed instantly in silence. For a second only the light of the solitary candle shone upon the pale, scowling features of Mary Matchwell, and she quenched its wick against the wall. So the Walpurgis ended in darkness, and the company instinctively held their breaths.

There was a subdued hum of voices outside, and a tramping on the crisp gravel, and the champing and snorting of horses, too, were audible.

‘Does none o’ yez see who’s in it?’ said the blind fiddler.

‘Hold your tongue,’ hissed Mary Matchwell with a curse, and visiting the cunning pate of the musician with a smart knock of the candlestick.

‘I wisht I had your thumb undher my grinder,’ said the fiddler, through his teeth, ‘whoever you are.’

But the rest was lost in another and a louder summons at the hall-door, and a voice of authority cried sternly,

‘Why don’t you open the door? — hollo! there — I can’t stay here all night.’

‘Open to him, Madam, I recommend you,’ said Dirty Davy, in a hard whisper; ‘will I go?’

‘Not a step; not a word;’ and Mary Matchwell griped his wrist.

But a window in Mrs. Nutter’s room was opened, and Moggy’s voice cried out —

‘Don’t go, Sir; for the love o’ goodness, don’t go. Is it Father Roach that’s in it?’

‘’Tis I, woman — Mr. Lowe — open the door, I’ve a word or two to say.’

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