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

Chapter 47

In which Pale Hecate Visits the Mills, and Charles Nutter, Esq., Orders Tea.

Poor Mrs. Nutter, I have an honest regard for her memory. If she was scant of brains, she was also devoid of guile — giggle and raspberry-jam were the leading traits of her character. And though she was slow to believe ill-natured stories, and made, in general, a horrid jumble when she essayed to relate news, except of the most elementary sort; and used to forget genealogies, and to confuse lawsuits and other family feuds, and would have made a most unsatisfactory witness upon any topic on earth, yet she was a ready sympathiser, and a restless but purblind matchmaker — always suggesting or suspecting little romances, and always amazed when the eclaircissement came off. Excellent for condoling — better still for rejoicing — she would, on hearing of a surprising good match, or an unexpected son and heir, or a pleasantly-timed legacy, go off like a mild little peal of joy-bells, and keep ringing up and down and zig-zag, and to and again, in all sorts of irregular roulades, without stopping, the whole day long, with ‘Well, to be sure.’ ‘Upon my conscience, now, I scarce can believe it.’ ‘An’ isn’t it pleasant, though.’ ‘Oh! the creatures — but it was badly wanted!’ ‘Dear knows — but I’m glad — ha, ha, ha,’ and so on. A train of reflection and rejoicing not easily exhausted, and readily, by simple transposition, maintainable for an indefinite period. And people, when good news came, used to say, ‘Sally Nutter will be glad to hear that;’ and though she had not a great deal of sense, and her conversation was made up principally of interjections, assisted by little gestures, and wonderful expressions of face; and though, when analysed it was not much, yet she made a cheerful noise, and her company was liked; and her friendly little gesticulation, and her turning up of the eyes, and her smiles and sighs, and her ‘whisht a bit,’ and her ‘faith and troth now,’ and ‘whisper,’ and all the rest of her little budget of idiomatic expletives, made the people somehow, along with her sterling qualities, fonder of her than perhaps, having her always at hand, they were quite aware.

So they both entered the vehicle, which jingled and rattled so incessantly and so loud that connected talk was quite out of the question, and Mrs. Macnamara was glad ’twas so; and she could not help observing there was something more than the ordinary pale cast of devilment in Mary Matchwell’s face — something, she thought, almost frightful, and which tempted her to believe in her necromantic faculty.

So they reached Nutter’s house, at the mills, a sober, gray-fronted mansion, darkened with tall trees, and in went Mrs. Mack. Little Mrs. Nutter received her in a sort of transport of eagerness, giggle, and curiosity.

‘And is she really in the coach now? and, my dear, does she really tell the wonders they say? Mrs. Molly told me — well, now, the most surprising things; and do you actually believe she’s a conjuror? But mind you, Nutter must not know I had her here. He can’t abide a fortune-teller. And what shall I ask her? I think about the pearl cross — don’t you? For I would like to know, and then whether Nutter or his enemies — you know who I mean — will carry the day — don’t you know? Doctor Sturk, my dear, and — and — but that’s the chief question.’

Poor Mrs. Mack glanced over her shoulder to see she wasn’t watched, and whispered her in haste —

‘For mercy’s sake, my dear, take my advice, and that is, listen to all she tells you, but tell her nothing.’

‘To be sure, my dear, that’s only common sense,’ said Mrs. Nutter.

And Mary Matchwell, who thought they had been quite long enough together, descended from the carriage, and was in the hall before Mrs. Nutter was aware; and the silent apparition overawed the poor little lady, who faltered a ‘Good-evening, Madam — you’re very welcome — pray step in.’ So in they all trooped to Nutter’s parlour.

So soon as little Mrs. Nutter got fairly under the chill and shadow of this inauspicious presence, her giggle subsided, and she began to think of the dreadful story she had heard of her having showed Mrs. Flemming through a glass of fair water, the apparition of her husband with his face half masked with blood, the day before his murder by the watchmen in John’s-lane. When, therefore, this woman of Endor called for water and glasses, and told Mrs. Mack that she must leave them alone together, poor little empty Mrs. Nutter lost heart, and began to feel very queer, and to wish herself well out of the affair; and, indeed, was almost ready to take to her heels and leave the two ladies in possession of the house, but she had not decision for this.

‘And mayn’t Mrs. Mack stay in the room with us?’ she asked, following that good lady’s retreating figure with an imploring look.

‘By no means.’

This was addressed sternly to Mrs. Mack herself, who, followed by poor Mrs. Nutter’s eyes, moved fatly and meekly out of the room.

She was not without her fair share of curiosity, but on the whole, was relieved, and very willing to go. She had only seen Mary Matchwell take from her pocket and uncase a small, oval-shaped steel mirror, which seemed to have the property of magnifying objects; for she saw her cadaverous fingers reflected in it to fully double their natural size, and she had half filled a glass with water, and peered through it askew, holding it toward the light.

Well, the door was shut, and an interval of five minutes elapsed; and all of a sudden two horrible screams in quick succession rang through the house.

Betty, the maid, and Mrs. Mack were in the small room on the other side of the hall, and stared in terror on one another. The old lady, holding Betty by the wrist, whispered a benediction; and Betty crying —‘Oh! my dear, what’s happened the poor misthress?’ crossed the hall in a second, followed by Mrs. Mack, and they heard the door unlocked on the inside as they reached it.

In they came, scarce knowing how, and found poor little Mrs. Nutter flat upon the floor, in a swoon, her white face and the front of her dress drenched with water.

‘You’ve a scent bottle, Mrs. Macnamara — let her smell to it,’ said the grim woman in black, coldly, but with a scarcely perceptible gleam of triumph, as she glanced on the horrified faces of the women.

Well, it was a long fainting-fit; but she did come out of it. And when her bewildered gaze at last settled upon Mrs. Matchwell, who was standing darkly and motionless between the windows, she uttered another loud and horrible cry, and clung with her arms round Mrs. Mack’s neck, and screamed —

‘Oh! Mrs. Mack, there she is — there she is — there she is.’

And she screamed so fearfully and seemed in such an extremity of terror, that Mary Matchwell, in her sables, glided, with a strange sneer on her pale face, out of the room across the hall, and into the little parlour on the other side, like an evil spirit whose mission was half accomplished, and who departed from her for a season.

‘She’s here — she’s here!’ screamed poor little Mrs. Nutter.

‘No, dear, no — she’s not — she’s gone, my dear, indeed she’s gone,’ replied Mrs. Mack, herself very much appalled.

‘Oh! is she gone — is she — is she gone?’ cried Mrs. Nutter, staring all round the room, like a child after a frightful dream.

‘She’s gone, Ma’am, dear — she isn’t here — by this crass, she’s gone!’ said Betty, assisting Mrs. Mack, and equally frightened and incensed.

‘Oh! oh! Betty, where is he gone? Oh! Mrs. Mack — oh! no — no — never! It can’t be-it couldn’t. It is not he — he never did it.’

‘I declare to you, Ma’am, she’s not right in her head!’ cried poor Betty, at her wits’ ends.

‘There — there now, Sally, darling — there,’ said frightened Mrs. Mack, patting her on the back.

‘There — there — there — I see him,’ she cried again. ‘Oh! Charley — Charley, sure — sure I didn’t see it aright — it was not real.’

‘There now, don’t be frettin’ yourself, Ma’am dear,’ said Betty.

But Mrs. Mack glanced over her shoulder in the direction in which Mrs. Nutter was looking, and with a sort of shock, not knowing whether it was a bodily presence or a simulacrum raised by the incantations of Mary Matchwell, she beheld the dark features and white eye-balls of Nutter himself looking full on them from the open door.

‘Sally — what ails you, sweetheart?’ said he, coming close up to her with two swift steps.

‘Oh! Charley —’twas a dream — nothing else — a bad dream, Charley. Oh! say it’s a dream,’ cried the poor terrified little woman. ‘Oh! she’s coming — she’s coming!’ she cried again, with an appalling scream.

Who — what’s the matter?’ cried Nutter, looking in the direction of his poor wife’s gaze in black wrath and bewilderment, and beholding the weird woman who had followed him into the room. As he gazed on that pale, wicked face and sable shape, the same sort of spell which she exercised upon Mrs. Mack, and poor Mrs. Nutter, seemed in a few seconds to steal over Nutter himself, and fix him in the place where he stood. His mahogany face bleached to sickly boxwood, and his eyes looked like pale balls of stone about to leap from their sockets.

After a few seconds, however, with a sort of gasp, like a man awaking from a frightful sleep, he said —

‘Betty, take the mistress to her room;’ and to his wife, ‘go, sweetheart. Mrs. Macnamara, this must be explained,’ he added; and taking her by the hand, he led her in silence to the hall-door, and signed to the driver.

‘Oh! thank you, Mr. Nutter,’ she stammered; ‘but the coach is not mine; it came with that lady who’s with Mrs. Nutter.’

He had up to this moved with her like a somnambulist.

‘Ay, that lady; and who the devil is she?’ and he seized her arm with a sudden grasp that made her wince.

‘Oh! that lady!’ faltered Mrs. Mack —‘she’s, I believe — she’s Mrs. Matchwell — the — the lady that advertises her abilities.’

‘Hey! I know — the fortune-teller, and go-between — her!’

She was glad he asked her no more questions, but let her go, and stood in a livid meditation, forgetting to bid her good evening. She did not wait, however, for his courteous dismissal, but hurried away towards Chapelizod. The only thing connected with the last half-hour’s events that seemed quite clear and real to the scared lady was the danger of being overtaken by that terrible woman, and a dreadful sense of her own share as an accessory in the untold mischief that had befallen poor Mrs. Nutter.

In the midst of her horrors and agitation Mrs. Mack’s curiosity was not altogether stunned. She wondered vaguely, as she pattered along, with what dreadful exhibition of her infernal skill Mary Matchwell had disordered the senses of poor little Mrs. Nutter — had she called up a red-eyed, sooty-raven to her shoulder — as old Miss Alice Lee (when she last had a dish of tea with her) told her she had once done before — and made the ominous bird speak the doom of poor Mrs. Nutter from that perch? or had she raised the foul fiend in bodily shape, or showed her Nutter’s dead face through the water?

With these images flitting before her brain, she hurried on at her best pace, fancying every moment that she heard the rumble of the accursed coach behind her, and longing to see the friendly uniform of the Royal Irish Artillery, and the familiar house fronts of the cheery little street, and above all, to hide herself securely among her own household gods.

When Nutter returned to the parlour his wife had not yet left it.

‘I’ll attend here, go you up stairs,’ said Nutter. He spoke strangely, and looked odd, and altogether seemed strung up to a high pitch.

Out went Betty, seeing it was no good dawdling; for her master was resolute and formidable. The room, like others in old-fashioned houses with thick walls, had a double door. He shut the one with a stern slam, and then the other; and though the honest maid loitered in the hall, and, indeed, placed her ear very near the door, she was not much the wiser.

There was some imperfectly heard talk in the parlour, and cries, and sobs, and more talking. Then before Betty was aware, the door suddenly opened, and out came Mary Matchwell, with gleaming eyes, and a pale laugh of spite and victory and threw a look, as she passed, upon the maid that frightened her, and so vanished into her coach.

Nutter disengaged himself from poor Mrs. Nutter’s arms, in which he was nearly throttled, while she sobbed and shrieked —

‘Oh! Charley, dear — dearest Charley — Charley, darling — isn’t it frightful?’ and so on.

‘Betty, take care of her,’ was all he said, and that sternly, like a man quietly desperate, but with a dismal fury in his face.

He went into the little room on the other side of the now darkening hall, and shut the door, and locked it inside. It was partly because he did not choose to talk just now any more with his blubbering and shrieking wife. He was a very kind husband, in his way, but a most incapable nurse, especially in a case of hysterics.

He came out with a desk in his hands.

‘Moggy,’ he said, in a low tone, seeing his other servant-woman in the dusk crossing at the foot of the stairs, ‘here, take this desk, leave it in our bed-room —’tis for the mistress; tell her so by-and-by.’

The wench carried it up; but poor Mrs. Nutter was in no condition to comprehend anything, and was talking quite wildly, and seemed to be growing worse rather than better.

Nutter stood alone in the hall, with his back to the door from which he had just emerged, his hands in his pockets, and the same dreary and wicked shadow over his face.

‘So that —— Sturk will carry his point after all,’ he muttered.

On the hall wainscot just opposite hung his horse-pistols; and when he saw them, and that wasn’t for a while — for though he was looking straight at them, he was staring, really, quite through the dingy wooden panel at quite other objects three hundred miles away — when he did see them, I say, he growled in the same tone —

‘I wish one of those bullets was through my head, so t’other was through his.’

And he cursed him with laconic intensity. Then Nutter slapped his pockets, like a man feeling if his keys and other portable chattels are all right before he leaves his home. But his countenance was that of one whose mind is absent and wandering. And he looked down on the ground, as it seemed in profound and troubled abstraction; and, after a while, he looked up again, and again glared on the cold pistols that hung before him — ready for anything. And he took down one with a snatch and weighed it in his hand, and fell to thinking again; and, as he did, kept opening and shutting the pan with a snap, and so for a long time, and thinking deeply to the tune of that castanet, and at last he roused himself, who knows from what dreams, and hung up the weapon again by its fellow, and looked about him.

The hall-door lay open, as Mary Matchwell had left it. Nutter stood on the door-step, where he could hear faintly, from above stairs, the cries and wails of poor, hysterical Mrs. Nutter. He remained there a good while, during which, unperceived by him, Dr. Toole’s pestle-and-mortar-boy, who had entered by the back-way, had taken a seat in the hall. He was waiting for an empty draught-bottle, in exchange for a replenished flask of the same agreeable beverage, which he had just delivered; for physic was one of poor Mrs. Nutter’s weaknesses, though, happily, she did not swallow half what came home for her.

When Nutter turned round, the boy — a sharp, tattling vagabond, he knew him well — was reading a printed card he had picked up from the floor, with the impress of Nutter’s hob-nailed tread upon it. It was endorsed upon the back, ‘For Mrs. Macnamara, with the humble duty of her obedient servant, M. M.’

‘What’s that, Sirrah?’ shouted Nutter.

‘For Mrs. Nutter, I think, Sir,’ said the urchin, jumping up with a start.

‘Mrs. Nutter,’ repeated he —‘No — Mrs. Mac — Macnamara,’ and he thrust it into his surtout pocket. ‘And what brings you here, Sirrah?’ he added savagely; for he thought everybody was spying after him now, and, as I said, he knew him for a tattling young dog — he had taken the infection from his master, who had trained him.

‘Here, woman,’ he cried to Moggy, who was passing again, ‘give that pimping rascal his —— answer; and see, Sirrah, if I find you sneaking about the place again, I’ll lay that whip across your back.’

Nutter went into the small room again.

‘An’ how are ye, Jemmie — how’s every inch iv you?’ enquired Moggy of the boy, when his agitation was a little blown over.

‘I’m elegant, thank ye,’ he answered; ‘an’ what’s the matther wid ye all? I cum through the kitchen, and seen no one.’

‘Och! didn’t you hear? The poor mistress — she’s as bad as bad can be.’ And then began a whispered confidence, broken short by Nutter’s again emerging, with the leather belt he wore at night on, and a short back-sword, called a coutteau de chasse, therein, and a heavy walking-cane in his hand.

‘Get tea for me, wench, in half an hour,’ said he, this time quite quietly, though still sternly, and without seeming to observe the quaking boy, who, at first sight, referred these martial preparations to a resolution to do execution upon him forthwith; ‘you’ll find me in the garden when it’s ready.’

And he strode out, and pushing open the wicket door in the thick garden hedge, and, with his cane shouldered, walked with a quick, resolute step down towards the pretty walk by the river, with the thick privet hedge and the row of old pear trees by it. And that was the last that was heard or seen of Mr. Nutter for some time.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57