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

Chapter 96

About the Rightful Mrs. Nutter of the Mills, and How Mr. Mervyn Received the News.

Little Doctor Toole came out feeling rather queer and stunned from Sturk’s house. It was past three o’clock by this time, and it had already, in his eyes, a changed and empty look, as his upturned eye for a moment rested upon its gray front, and the window-panes glittering in the reddening sun. He looked down the street towards the turnpike, and then up it, towards Martin’s-row and the Mills. And he bethought him suddenly of poor Sally Nutter, and upbraided himself, smiting the point of his cane with a vehement stab upon the pavement, for having forgotten to speak to Lowe upon her case. Perhaps, however, it was as well he had not, inasmuch as there were a few not unimportant facts connected with that case about which he was himself in the dark.

Mr. Gamble’s conducting clerk had gone up stairs to Mrs. Nutter’s door, and being admitted, had very respectfully asked leave to open, for that lady’s instruction, a little statement which he was charged to make.

This was in substance, that Archibald Duncan, Mary Matchwell’s husband, was in Dublin, and had sworn informations against her for bigamy; and that a warrant having been issued for her arrest upon that charge, the constables had arrived at the Mills for the purpose of executing it, and removing the body of the delinquent, M. M., to the custody of the turnkey; that measures would be taken on the spot to expel the persons who had followed in her train; and that Mr. Charles Nutter himself would arrive in little more than an hour, to congratulate his good wife, Sally, on the termination of their troubles, and to take quiet possession of his house.

You can imagine how Sally Nutter received all this, with clasped hands and streaming eyes, looking in the face of the man of notices and attested copies, unable to speak — unable quite to believe. But before he came to the end of his dry and delightful narrative, a loud yell and a scuffle in the parlour were heard; a shrilly clamour of warring voices; a dreadful crash of glass: a few curses and oaths in basses and barytones; and some laughter from the coachmen, who viewed the fray from outside through the window; and a brief, wild, and garrulous uproar, which made little Sally Nutter — though by this time used to commotion — draw back with her hands to her heart, and hold her breath. It was the critical convulsion; the evil spirit was being eliminated, and the tenement, stunned, bruised, and tattered, about to be at peace.

Of Charles Nutter’s doings and adventures during the terrible interval between his departure on the night of Mary Matchwell’s first visit to the Mills, and his return on this evening to the same abode, there is a brief outline, in the first person, partly in answer to questions, and obviously intended to constitute a memorandum for his attorney’s use. I shall reprint it with your leave — as it is not very long — verbatim.

‘When that woman, Sir, came out to the Mills,’ says this document, ‘I could scarce believe my eyes; I knew her temper; she was always damnably wicked; but I had found out all about her long ago; and I was amazed at her audacity. What she said was true — we were married; or rather, we went through the ceremony, at St. Clement Danes, in London, in the year ‘50. I could not gainsay that; but I well knew what she thought was known but to herself and another. She had a husband living then. We lived together little more than three months. We were not a year parted when I found out all about him; and I never expected more trouble from her.

‘I knew all about him then. But seventeen years bring many changes; and I feared he might be dead. He was a saddler in Edinburgh, and his name was Duncan. I made up my mind to go thither straight. Next morning the Lovely Betty, packet, was to sail for Holyhead. I took money, and set out without a word to anybody. The wretch had told my poor wife, and showed her the certificate, and so left her half mad.

‘I swore to her ’twas false. I told her to wait a bit and she would see. That was everything passed between us. I don’t think she half understood what I said, for she was at her wits’ ends. I was scarce better myself first. ’Twas a good while before I resolved on this course, and saw my way, and worse thoughts were in my head; but so soon as I made up my mind to this I grew cool. I don’t know how it happened that my foot-prints by the river puzzled them; ’twas all accident; I was thinking of no such matter; I did not go through the village, but through the Knockmaroon gate; ’twas dark by that time; I only met two men with a cart — they did not know me — Dublin men, I think. I crossed the park in a straight line for Dublin; I did not meet a living soul; ’twas dark, but not very dark. When I reached the Butcher’s Wood, all on a sudden, I heard a horrid screech, and two blows quick, one after the other, to my right, not three score steps away — heavy blows — they sounded like the strokes of a man beating a carpet.

‘With the first alarm, I hollo’d, and ran in the direction shouting as I went; ’twas as I ran I heard the second blow; I saw no one, and heard no other sound; the noise I made myself in running might prevent it. I can’t say how many seconds it took to run the distance — not many; I ran fast; I was not long in finding the body; his white vest and small clothes showed under the shadow; he seemed quite dead. I thought when first I took his hand, there was a kind of a quiver in his fingers; but that was over immediately. His eyes and mouth were a bit open; the blood was coming very fast, and the wounds on his head looked very deep — frightful — as I conjectured they were done with a falchion (a name given to a heavy wooden sword resembling a New Zealand weapon); there was blood coming from one ear, and his mouth; there was no sign of life about him, and I thought him quite dead. I would have lifted him against a tree, but his head looked all in a smash, and I daren’t move him. I knew him for Dr. Sturk, of the Artillery; he wore his regimentals; I did not see his hat; his head was bare when I saw him.

‘When I saw ’twas Doctor Sturk, I was frightened; he had treated me mighty ill, and I resented it, which I did not conceal; and I thought ‘twould look very much against me if I were any way mixed up in this dreadful occurrence — especially not knowing who did it — and being alone with the body so soon after ’twas done. I crossed the park wall therefore; but by the time I came near Barrack-street, I grew uneasy in my mind, lest Doctor Sturk should still have life in him, and perish for want of help. I went down to the river-side, and washed my hands, for there was blood upon ’em, and while so employed, by mischance I lost my hat in the water and could not recover it. I stood for a while by the river-bank; it was a lonely place; I was thinking of crossing there first, I was so frightened; I changed my mind, however, and went round by Bloody-bridge.

‘The further I went the more fearful I grew, lest Sturk should die for want of help that I might send him; and although I thought him dead, I got such a dread of this over me as I can’t describe. I saw two soldiers opposite the “Royal Oak” inn, and I told them I overheard a fellow speak of an officer that lay wounded in the Butcher’s Wood, not far from the park-wall, and gave them half-a-crown to have search made, which they promised, and took the money.

‘I crossed Bloody-bridge, and got into a coach, and so to Luke Gamble’s. I told him nothing of Sturk; I had talked foolishly to him, and did not know what even he might think. I told him all about M. M.‘s, that is Mary Duncan’s turning up; she went by that name in London, and kept a lodging-house. I took his advice on the matter, and sailed next morning. The man Archie Duncan had left Edinburgh, but I traced him to Carlisle and thence to York, where I found him. He was in a very poor way, and glad to hear that Demirep was in Dublin, and making money. When I came back I was in the Hue-and-Cry for the assault on Sturk.

‘I took no precaution, not knowing what had happened; but ’twas night when we arrived, Duncan and I, and we went straight to Gamble’s and he concealed me. I kept close within his house, except on one night, when I took coach. I was under necessity, as you shall hear, to visit Chapelizod. I got out in the hollow of the road by the Knockmaroon pond, in the park; an awful night it was — the night of the snow-storm, when the brig was wrecked off the Black Rock, you remember. I wanted to get some papers necessary to my case against Mary Duncan. I had the key of the glass door; the inside fastening was broke, and there was no trouble in getting in. But the women had sat up beyond their hour, and saw me. I got the papers, however, and returned, having warned them not to speak. I ventured out of doors but once more, and was took on a warrant for assaulting Sturk. ’Twas the women talking as they did excited the officer’s suspicions.

‘I have lain in prison since. The date of my committal and discharge are, I suppose, there.’

And so ends this rough draft, with the initials, I think, in his own hands, C. N., at the foot.

At about half-past four o’clock Nutter came out to the Mills in a coach. He did not drive through Chapelizod; he was shy, and wished to feel his way a little. So he came home privily by the Knockmaroon Park-gate. Poor little Sally rose into a sort of heroine. With a wild cry, and ‘Oh, Charlie!’ she threw her arms about his neck; and the ‘good little crayture,’ as Magnolia was wont to call her, had fainted. Nutter said nothing, but carried her in his arms to the sofa, and himself sobbed very violently for about a minute, supporting her tenderly. She came to herself very quickly, and hugged her Charlie with such a torrent of incoherent endearments, welcomes, and benedictions as I cannot at all undertake to describe. Nutter didn’t speak. His arms were about her, and with wet eyes, and biting his nether-lip, and smiling, he looked into her poor little wild, delighted face with an unspeakable world of emotion and affection beaming from the homely lines and knots of that old mahogany countenance; and the maids smiling, blessing, courtesying, and welcoming him home again, added to the pleasant uproar which amazed even the tipsy coachman from the hall.

‘Oh! Charlie, I have you fast, my darling. Oh! but it’s wonderful; you, yourself — my Charlie, your own self — never, never, oh! never to part again!’ and so on.

And so for a rapturous hour, it seemed as if they had passed the dark valley, and were immortal; and no more pain, sorrow, or separation for them. And, perhaps, these blessed illusions are permitted now and again to mortals, like momentary gleams of paradise, and distant views of the delectable mountains, to cheer poor pilgrims with a foretaste of those meetings beyond the river, where the separated and beloved shall embrace.

It is not always that the person most interested in a rumour is first to hear it. It was reported in Chapelizod, early that day, that Irons, the clerk, had made some marvellous discovery respecting Lord Dunoran, and the murder of which an English jury had found that nobleman guilty. Had people known that Mervyn was the son of that dishonoured peer — as in that curious little town they would, no doubt, long since have, at least, suspected, had he called himself by his proper patronymic Mordaunt — he would not have wanted a visitor to enlighten him half-an-hour after the rumour had began to proclaim itself in the streets and public haunts of the village. No one, however, thought of the haughty and secluded young gentleman who lived so ascetic a life at the Tiled House, and hardly ever showed in the town, except in church on Sundays; and who when he rode on his black hunter into Dublin, avoided the village, and took the high-road by Inchicore.

When the report did reach him, and he heard that Lowe, who knew all about it, was at the Phoenix, where he was holding a conference with a gentleman from the Crown Office, half wild with excitement, he hurried thither. There, having declared himself to the magistrate and his companion, in that little chamber where Nutter was wont to transact his agency business, and where poor Sturk had told down his rent, guinea by guinea, with such a furious elation, on the morning but one before he received his death-blow, he heard, with such feelings as may be imagined, the magistrate read aloud, not only the full and clear information of Irons, but the equally distinct deposition of Doctor Sturk, and was made aware of the complete identification of the respectable and vivacious Paul Dangerfield with the dead and damned Charles Archer!

On hearing all this, the young man rode straight to Belmont, where he was closeted with the general for fully twenty minutes. They parted in a very friendly way, but he did not see the ladies. The general, however, no sooner bid him farewell at the door-steps than he made his way to the drawing-room, and, big with his amazing secret, first, in a very grave and almost agitated way, told little ‘Toodie,’ as he called his daughter, to run away and leave him together with Aunt Rebecca, which being done, he anticipated that lady’s imperious summons to explain himself by telling her, in his blunt, soldierly fashion, the wondrous story.

Aunt Becky was utterly confounded. She had seldom before in her life been so thoroughly taken in. What a marvellous turn of fortune! What a providential deliverance and vindication for that poor young Lord Dunoran! What an astounding exposure of that miscreant Mr. Dangerfield!

‘What a blessed escape the child has had!’ interposed the general with a rather testy burst of gratitude.

‘And how artfully she and my lord contrived to conceal their engagement!’ pursued Aunt Rebecca, covering her somewhat confused retreat.

But, somehow, Aunt Rebecca was by no means angry. On the contrary, anyone who knew her well would have perceived that a great weight was taken off her mind.

The consequences of Dangerfield’s incarceration upon these awful charges, were not confined altogether to the Tiled House and the inhabitants of Belmont.

No sooner was our friend Cluffe well assured that Dangerfield was in custody of the gaoler, and that his old theory of a certain double plot carried on by that intriguing personage, with the object of possessing the hand and thousands of Aunt Rebecca, was now and for ever untenable, than he wrote to London forthwith to countermand the pelican. The answer, which in those days was rather long about coming, was not pleasant, being simply a refusal to rescind the contract.

Cluffe, in a frenzy, carried this piece of mercantile insolence off to his lawyer. The stout captain was, however, undoubtedly liable, and, with a heavy heart, he wrote to beg they would, with all despatch, sell the bird in London on his account, and charge him with the difference. ‘The scoundrels! — they’ll buy him themselves at half-price, and charge me a per centage besides; but what the plague better can I do?

In due course, however, came an answer, informing Captain Cluffe that his letter had arrived too late, as the bird, pursuant to the tenor of his order, had been shipped for him to Dublin by the Fair Venus, with a proper person in charge, on the Thursday morning previous. Good Mrs. Mason, his landlady, had no idea what was causing the awful commotion in the captain’s room; the fitful and violent soliloquies; the stamping of the captain up and down the floor; and the contusions, palpably, suffered by her furniture. The captain’s temper was not very pleasant that evening, and he was fidgety and feverish besides, expecting every moment a note from town to apprise him of its arrival.

However, he walked up to Belmont a week or two after, and had a very consolatory reception from Aunt Becky. He talked upon his old themes, and upon the subject of Puddock, was, as usual, very friendly and intercessorial; in fact, she showed at last signs of yielding.

‘Well, Captain Cluffe, tell him if he cares to come, he may come, and be on the old friendly footing; but be sure you tell him he owes it all to you.’

And positively, as she said so, Aunt Rebecca looked down upon her fan; and Cluffe thought looked a little flushed, and confused too; whereat the gallant fellow was so elated that he told her all about the pelican, discarding as unworthy of consideration, under circumstances so imminently promising, a little plan he had formed of keeping the bird privately in Dublin, and looking out for a buyer.

Poor little Puddock, on the other hand, had heard, more than a week before this message of peace arrived, the whole story of Gertrude’s engagement to Lord Dunoran, as we may now call Mr. Mervyn, with such sensations as may be conjectured. His heart, of course, was torn; but having sustained some score of similar injuries in that region upon other equally harrowing occasions, he recovered upon this with all favourable symptoms, and his wounds healed with the first intention. He wore his chains very lightly, indeed. The iron did not enter into his soul; and although, of course, ‘he could never cease but with his life to dwell upon the image of his fleeting dream — the beautiful nymph of Belmont,’ I have never heard that his waist grew at all slimmer, or that his sleep or his appetite suffered during the period of his despair.

The good little fellow was very glad to hear from Cluffe, who patronised him most handsomely, that Aunt Rebecca had consented to receive him once more into her good graces.

‘And the fact is, Puddock, I think I may undertake to promise you’ll never again be misunderstood in that quarter,’ said Cluffe, with a mysterious sort of smile.

‘I’m sure, dear Cluffe, I’m grateful as I ought, for your generous pleading on my poor behalf, and I do prize the good will of that most excellent lady as highly as any, and owe her, beside, a debt of gratitude for care and kindness such as many a mother would have failed to bestow.’

‘Mother, indeed! Why, Puddock, my boy, you forget you’re no chicken,’ said Cluffe, a little high.

‘And tomorrow I will certainly pay her my respects,’ said the lieutenant, not answering Cluffe’s remark.

So Gertrude Chattesworth, after her long agitation — often despair — was tranquil at last, and blessed in the full assurance of the love which was henceforth to be her chief earthly happiness.

‘Madam was very sly,’ said Aunt Becky, with a little shake of her head, and a quizzical smile; and holding up her folded fan between her finger and thumb, in mimic menace as she glanced at Gertrude. ‘Why, Mr. Mordaunt, on the very day — the day we had the pleasant luncheon on the grass — when, as I thought, she had given you your quietus —’twas quite the reverse, and you had made a little betrothal, and duped the old people so cleverly ever after.’

‘You have forgiven me, dear aunt,’ said the young lady, kissing her very affectionately, ‘but I will never quite forgive myself. In a moment of great agitation I made a hasty promise of secrecy, which, from the moment ’twas made, was to me a never-resting disquietude, misery, and reproach. If you, my dearest aunt, knew, as he knows, all the anxieties, or rather the terrors, I suffered during that agitating period of concealment —’

‘Indeed, dear Madam,’ said Mordaunt — or as we may now call him, Lord Dunoran — coming to the rescue, ‘’twas all my doing; on me alone rests all the blame. Selfish it hardly was. I could not risk the loss of my beloved; and until my fortunes had improved, to declare our situation would have been too surely to lose her. Henceforward I have done with mystery. I will never have a secret from her, nor she from you.’

He took Aunt Becky’s hand. ‘Am I, too, forgiven?’

He held it for a second, and then kissed it.

Aunt Becky smiled, with one of her pleasant little blushes, and looked down on the carpet, and was silent for a moment; and then, as they afterwards thought a little oddly, she said,

‘That censor must be more severe than I, who would say that concealment in matters of the heart is never justifiable; and, indeed, my dear,’ she added, quite in a humble way, ‘I almost think you were right.’

Aunt Becky’s looks and spirits had both improved from the moment of this eclaircissement. A load was plainly removed from her mind. Let us hope that her comfort and elation were perfectly unselfish. At all events, her heart sang with a quiet joy, and her good humour was unbounded. So she stood up, holding Lord Dunoran’s hand in hers, and putting her white arm round her niece’s neck, she kissed her again and again, very tenderly, and she said —

‘How very happy, Gertrude, you must be!’ and then she went quickly from the room, drying her eyes.

Happy indeed she was, and not least in the termination of that secrecy which was so full of self-reproach and sometimes of distrust. From the evening of that dinner at the King’s House, when in an agony of jealousy she had almost disclosed to poor little Lily the secret of their engagement, down to the latest moment of its concealment, her hours had been darkened by care, and troubled with ceaseless agitations.

Everything was now going prosperously for Mervyn — or let us call him henceforward Lord Dunoran. Against the united evidence of Sturk and Irons, two independent witnesses, the crown were of opinion that no defence was maintainable by the wretch, Archer. The two murders were unambiguously sworn to by both witnesses. A correspondence, afterwards read in the Irish House of Lords, was carried on between the Irish and the English law officers of the crown — for the case, for many reasons, was admitted to be momentous — as to which crime he should be first tried for — the murder of Sturk, or that of Beauclerc. The latter was, in this respect, the most momentous — that the cancelling of the forfeiture which had ruined the Dunoran family depended upon it.

‘But are you not forgetting, Sir,’ said Mr. Attorney in consultation, ‘that there’s the finding of felo de se against him by the coroner’s jury?’

‘No, Sir,’ answered the crown solicitor, well pleased to set Mr. Attorney right. ‘The jury being sworn, found only that he came by his death, but whether by gout in his stomach, or by other disease, or by poison, they had no certain knowledge; there was therefore no such coroner’s verdict, and no forfeiture therefore.’

‘And I’m glad to hear it, with all my heart. I’ve seen the young gentleman, and a very pretty young nobleman he is,’ said Mr. Attorney. Perhaps he would not have cared if this expression of his good will had got round to my lord.

The result was, however, that their prisoner was to be first tried in Ireland for the murder of Doctor Barnabas Sturk.

A few pieces of evidence, slight, but sinister, also turned up. Captain Cluffe was quite clear he had seen an instrument in the prisoner’s hand on the night of the murder, as he looked into the little bed-chamber of the Brass Castle, so unexpectedly. When he put down the towel, he raised it from the toilet, where it lay. It resembled the butt of a whip — was an inch or so longer than a drumstick, and six or seven inches of the thick end stood out in a series of circular bands or rings. He washed the thick end of it in the basin; it seemed to have a spring in it, and Cluffe thought it was a sort of loaded baton. In those days robbery and assault were as common as they are like to become again, and there was nothing remarkable in the possession of such defensive weapons. Dangerfield had only run it once or twice hastily through the water, rolled it in a red handkerchief, and threw it into his drawer, which he locked. When Cluffe was shown the whip, which bore a rude resemblance to this instrument, and which Lowe had assumed to be all that Cluffe had really seen, the gallant captain peremptorily pooh-poohed it. ’Twas no such thing. The whip-handle was light in comparison, and it was too long to fit in the drawer.

Now, the awful fractures which had almost severed Sturk’s skull corresponded exactly with the wounds which such an instrument would inflict, and a tubular piece of broken iron, about two inches long, exactly corresponding with the shape of the loading described by Cluffe, was actually discovered in the sewer of the Brass Castle. It had been in the fire, and the wood or whalebone was burnt completely away. It was conjectured that Dangerfield had believed it to be lead, and having burnt the handle, had broken the metal which he could not melt, and made away with it in the best way he could. So preparations were pushed forward, and Sturk’s dying declaration, sworn to, late in the evening before his dissolution, in a full consciousness of his approaching death, was, of course, relied on, and a very symmetrical and logical bill lay, neatly penned, in the Crown Office, awaiting the next commission for the county.

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