The House by the Churchyard

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1004

Lord Dunoran, an Irish peer, was executed after being convicted of murdering a man named Beauclerc in London. His estates were declared forfeit to the crown, and his family was left under a shadow. Eighteen years after his death, his son, who assumed the name Mr. Mervyn, takes his father’s body back to Ireland and buries it in the family vault in the Anglican church in Chapelizod, a suburb of Dublin. After the burial, Mervyn moves into an old house that is reputed to be haunted; several families moved out of it after having seen strange apparitions and heard noises at night. Mervyn hopes that he might pick up some clues in the neighborhood that will lead him to the true murderer of Beauclerc, for the young man still believes his father innocent of the crime for which he paid with his life.

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About the same time that young Mervyn takes up residence in the haunted house, another stranger comes to Chapelizod, a man named Paul Dangerfield, who is looking after the affairs of a local nobleman. Dangerfield, a very rich man, soon ingratiates himself with the local people by his apparent good sense and liberality. The villagers are very suspicious of young Mervyn, however, for he keeps to himself and only a few people know his real identity.

The appearance of Dangerfield arouses apprehension in the minds of two men in Chapelizod, Zekiel Irons, the clerk at the Anglican church, and Dr. Barnaby Sturk, a surgeon at the garrison of the Royal Irish Artillery. They both recognize Dangerfield to be Charles Archer, the man who committed the murder for which Lord Dunoran was convicted. Irons was the murderer’s accomplice, and Dr. Sturk was a witness to the murder.

Irons resolves to help young Mervyn discover the guilt of Archer-Dangerfield, for he knows he can never live securely until the murderer is in prison or dead. Irons was present when Dangerfield killed his other accomplice after that man tried to blackmail him. On two occasions, Irons visits Mervyn and tells him some of what he knows; on both occasions, he warns Mervyn not to tell anyone about it, lest the information get back to Dangerfield, who will then kill Irons.

Sturk, who is pressed for money, is trying to become an agent for Lord Castlemallard, who is represented by Dangerfield. Sturk makes the mistake of threatening Dangerfield with exposure if the agency is not forthcoming, and shortly after he is found one night, terribly beaten. Since he is in a deep coma, no one knows who tried to kill him. Suspicion points to Charles Nutter, the man Sturk was trying to replace as the nobleman’s agent in Chapelizod, for Nutter disappeared on the same night that Sturk was attacked. No one suspects Dangerfield as the attacker, for he is known to have been helpful to Sturk.

Sturk lingers on, and for a time it even seems as if he might recover. Dangerfield convinces Mrs. Sturk that an operation is the only chance her husband has, and he arranges for a surgeon, for a high fee, to operate on the doctor. Dangerfield hopes the operation will be a failure and that Sturk will die without revealing the identity of his attacker. The operation is a partial success, for Sturk regains consciousness and lives for several days, during which time he makes depositions to the magistrates about the identity of his attacker and the fact that Dangerfield murdered Beauclerc years before. At this point, Irons, too, goes to the magistrates and tells what he knows about the identity of Dangerfield and the part he himself plays in the murder. Even in the face of that evidence, the magistrates find it difficult to believe Dangerfield guilty because, apart from the fact that Dangerfield paid for the operation and lent money to Mrs. Sturk, Nutter’s disappearance is cause for doubt.

Nutter is apprehended in Dublin within one day of Dangerfield’s arrest and is able to prove that he was away on other business at the time of the attack on Sturk. When he passed close to the scene of the crime, he frightened off Dangerfield and prevented his being able to finish the deed. Nutter did not run away; he had simply been to England and Scotland trying to straighten out his domestic affairs. A woman attempted to prove that he was a bigamist because he had married her several years before he wed the woman the people in Chapelizod knew as his wife. He married the first woman, but she herself was a bigamist, so Nutter is trying to find her first husband so as to prove that he was never legally married to the woman. He left secretly so as not to be arrested as a bigamist before he could gather evidence to clear his name.

In another quarter of the village, the apprehension of Dangerfield has great implications. He is engaged to the daughter of the commanding general of the Royal Irish Artillery, although he is many years older than the girl. General Chattesworth is quite anxious to have his daughter, Gertrude, marry Dangerfield because of his wealth. The girl, however, is in love with Mervyn and secretly engaged to him. Dangerfield’s arrest puts a stop to the general’s plan to marry his daughter to a man she does not love.

The apprehension of Dangerfield, however, does more than open the way for Mervyn’s marriage to the general’s daughter. The information that Sturk and Irons give concerning the murder of Beauclerc clears Mervyn’s father, Lord Dunoran. When Parliament meets again, it returns to Mervyn his good name, his title, and the estates forfeited at the time of his father’s conviction.

Dangerfield, alias Archer, is never convicted nor tried by a court. He dies mysteriously in his cell in the county gaol in Dublin while awaiting trial. Not long afterward, the new Lord Dunoran and Gertrude Chattesworth are married in a great ceremony at Chapelizod.

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