Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 1.

Mortlake Hall.

There stands about a mile and a half beyond Islington, unless it has come down within the last two years, a singular and grand old house. It belonged to the family of Arden, once distinguished in the Northumbrian counties. About fifty acres of ground, rich with noble clumps and masses of old timber, surround it; old-world fish-ponds, with swans sailing upon them, tall yew hedges, quincunxes, leaden fauns and goddesses, and other obsolete splendours surround it. It rises, tall, florid, built of Caen stone, with a palatial flight of steps, and something of the grace and dignity of the genius of Inigo Jones, to whom it is ascribed, with the shadows of ancestral trees and the stains of two centuries upon it, and a vague character of gloom and melancholy, not improved by some indications not actually of decay, but of something too like neglect.

It is now evening, and a dusky glow envelopes the scene. The setting sun throws its level beams, through tall drawing-room windows, ruddily upon the Dutch tapestry on the opposite walls, and not unbecomingly lights up the little party assembled there.

Good-natured, fat Lady May Penrose, in her bonnet, sips her tea and chats agreeably. Her carriage waits outside. You will ask who is that extremely beautiful girl who sits opposite, her large soft grey eyes gazing towards the western sky with a look of abstraction, too forgetful for a time of her company, leaning upon the slender hand she has placed under her cheek. How silken and golden-tinted the dark brown hair that grows so near her brows, making her forehead low, and marking with its broad line the beautiful oval of her face! Is there carmine anywhere to match her brilliant lips? And when, recollecting something to tell Lady May, she turns on a sudden, smiling, how soft and pretty the dimples, and how even the little row of pearls she discloses!

This is Alice Arden, whose singularly handsome brother Richard, with some of her tints and outlines translated into masculine beauty, stands leaning on the back of a prie-dieu chair, and chatting gaily.

But who is the thin, tall man — the only sinister figure in the group — with one hand in his breast, the other on a cabinet, as he leans against the wall? Who is that pale, thin-lipped man, “with cadaverous aspect and broken beak,” whose eyes never seem to light up, but maintain their dismal darkness while his pale lips smile? Those eyes are fixed on the pretty face of Alice Arden, as she talks to Lady May, with a strangely intense gaze. His eyebrows rise a little, like those of Mephistopheles, towards his temples, with an expression that is inflexibly sarcastic, and sometimes menacing. His jaw is slightly underhung, a formation which heightens the satirical effect of his smile, and, by contrast, marks the depression of his nose.

There was at this time in London a Mr. Longcluse, an agreeable man, a convenient man, who had got a sort of footing in many houses, nobody exactly knew how. He had a knack of obliging people when they really wanted a trifling kindness, and another of holding fast his advantage, and, without seeming to push, or ever appearing to flatter, of maintaining the acquaintance he had once founded. He looked about eight-and-thirty: he was really older. He was gentlemanlike, clever, and rich; but not a soul of all the men who knew him had ever heard of him at school or college. About his birth, parentage, and education, about his “life and adventures,” he was dark.

How were his smart acquaintance made? Oddly, as we shall learn when we know him a little better. It was a great pity that there were some odd things said about this very agreeable, obliging, and gentlemanlike person. It was a pity that more was not known about him. The man had enemies, no doubt, and from the sort of reserve that enveloped him their opportunity arose. But were there not about town hundreds of men, well enough accepted, about whose early days no one cared a pin, and everything was just as dark?

Now Mr. Longcluse, with his pallid face, his flat nose, his sarcastic eyebrows, and thin-lipped smile, was overlooking this little company, his shoulder leaning against the frame that separated two pieces of the pretty Dutch tapestry which covered the walls.

“By-the-bye, Mr. Longcluse — you can tell me, for you always know everything,” said Lady May —“is there still any hope of that poor child’s recovering — I mean the one in that dreadful murder in Thames Street, where the six poor little children were stabbed?”

Mr. Longcluse smiled.

“I’m so glad, Lady May, I can answer you upon good authority! I stopped today to ask Sir Edwin Dudley that very question through his carriage window, and he said that he had just been to the hospital to see the poor little thing, and that it was likely to do well.”

“I’m so glad! And what do they say can have been the motive of the murder?”

“Jealousy, they say; or else the man is mad.”

“I should not wonder. I’m sure I hope he is. But they should take care to put him under lock and key.”

“So they will, rely on it; that’s a matter of course.”

“I don’t know how it is,” continued Lady May, who was garrulous, “that murders interest people so much, who ought to be simply shocked at them.”

“We have a murder in our family, you know,” said Richard Arden.

“That was poor Henry Arden — I know,” she answered, lowering her voice and dropping her eyes, with a side glance at Alice, for she did not know how she might like to hear it talked of.

“Oh, that happened when Alice was only five months old, I think,” said Richard; and slipping into the chair beside Lady May, he laid his hand upon hers with a smile, and whispered, leaning towards her —

“You are always so thoughtful; it is so nice of you!”

And this short speech ended, his eyes remained fixed for some seconds, with a glow of tender admiration, on those of fat Lady May, who simpered with effusion, and did not draw her hand away until she thought she saw Mr. Longcluse glance their way.

It was quite true, all he said of Lady May. It would not be easy to find a simpler or more good-natured person. She was very rich also, and, it was said by people who love news and satire, had long been willing to share her gold and other chattels with handsome Richard Arden, who being but five-and-twenty, might very nearly have been her son.

“I remember that horrible affair,” said Mr. Longcluse, with a little shrug and a shake of his head. “Where was I then — Paris or Vienna? Paris it was. I recollect it all now, for my purse was stolen by the very man who made his escape — Mace was his name; he was a sort of low man on the turf, I believe. I was very young then — somewhere about seventeen, I think.”

“You can’t have been more, of course,” said good-natured Lady May.

“I should like very much some time to hear all about it,” continued Mr. Longcluse.

“So you shall,” said Richard, “whenever you like.”

“Every old family has a murder, and a ghost, and a beauty also, though she does not always live and breathe, except in the canvas of Lely, or Kneller, or Reynolds: and they, you know, had roses and lilies to give away at discretion, in their paint-boxes, and were courtiers,” remarked Mr. Longcluse, “who dealt sometimes in the old-fashioned business of making compliments. I say happy the man who lives in those summers when the loveliness of some beautiful family culminates, and who may, at ever such a distance, gaze and worship.”

This ugly man spoke in a low tone, and his voice was rather sweet. He looked as he spoke at Miss Arden, from whom, indeed, his eyes did not often wander.

“Very prettily said!” applauded Lady May affably.

“I forgot to ask you, Lady May,” inquired Alice, cruelly, at this moment, “how the pretty little Italian greyhound is that was so ill — better, I hope.”

“Ever so much — quite well almost. I’d have taken him out for a drive today, poor dear little Pepsie! but that I thought the sun just a little overpowering. Didn’t you?”

“Perhaps a little.”

Mr. Longcluse lowered his eyes as he leaned against the wall and sighed, with a pained smile, that even upon his plain, pallid face, was pathetic.

Did proud Richard Arden perceive the devotion of the dubious Longcluse — undefined in position, in history, in origin, in character, in all things but in wealth? Of course he did, perfectly. But that wealth was said to be enormous. There were Jews, who ought to know, who said he was worth one million eight hundred thousand pounds, and that his annual income was considerably more than a hundred thousand pounds a year.

Was a man like that to be dismissed without inquiry? Had he not found him good-natured and gentlemanlike? What about those stories circulated among Jews and croupiers? Enemies might affect to believe them, and quote the old saw, “There is never smoke without fire;” but dare one of them utter a word of the kind aloud? Did they stand the test of five minutes’ inquiry, such even as he had given them? Had he found a particle of proof, of evidence, of suspicion? Not a spark. What man had ever escaped stories who was worth forging a lie about?

Here was a man worth more than a million. Why, if he let him slip through his fingers, some duchess would pounce on him for her daughter.

It was well that Longcluse was really in love — well, perhaps, that he did not appreciate the social omnipotence of money.

“Where is Sir Reginald at present?” asked Lady May.

“Not here, you may be sure,” answered Richard. “My father does not admit my visits, you know.”

“Really! And is that miserable quarrel kept up still?”

“Only too true. He is in France at present; at Vichy — ain’t it Vichy?” he said to Alice.

But she, not choosing to talk, said simply, “Yes — Vichy.”

“I’m going to take Alice into town again; she has promised to stay with me a little longer. And I think you neglect her a little, don’t you? You ought to come and see her a little oftener,” pleaded Lady May, in an undertone.

“I only feared I was boring you all. Nothing, you know, would give me half so much pleasure,” he answered.

“Well, then, she’ll expect your visits, mind.”

A little silence followed. Richard was vexed with his sister; she was, he thought, snubbing his friend Longcluse.

Well, when once he had spoken his mind and disclosed his treasures, Richard flattered himself he had some influence; and did not Lady May swear by Mr. Longcluse? And was his father, the most despotic and violent of baronets, and very much dipt, likely to listen to sentimental twaddle pleading against a hundred thousand a year? So, Miss Alice, if you were disposed to talk nonsense, it was not very likely to be listened to, and sharp and short logic might ensue.

How utterly unconscious of all this she sits there, thinking, I daresay, of quite another person!

Mr. Longcluse was also for a moment in profound reverie; so was Richard Arden. The secrecy of thought is a pleasant privilege to the thinker — perhaps hardly less a boon to the person pondered upon.

If each man’s forehead could project its shadows and the light of his spirit shine through, and the confluence of figures and phantoms that cross and march behind it become visible, how that magic-lantern might appal good easy people!

And now the ladies fell to talking and comparing notes about their guipure lacework.

“How charming yours looks, my dear, round that little table!” exclaimed Lady May in a rapture. “I’m sure I hope mine may turn out half as pretty. I wanted to compare; I’m not quite sure whether it is exactly the same pattern.”

And so on, until it was time for them to order their wings for town.

The gentlemen have business of their own to transact, or pleasures to pursue. Mr. Longcluse has his trap there, to carry them into town when their hour comes. They can only put the ladies into their places, and bid them good-bye, and exchange parting reminders and good-natured speeches.

Pale Mr. Longcluse, as he stands on the steps, looks with his dark eyes after the disappearing carriage, and sighs deeply. He has forgotten all for the moment but one dream. Richard Arden wakens him, by laying his hand on his shoulder.

“Come, Longcluse, let us have a cigar in the billiard-room, and a talk. I have a box of Manillas that I think you will say are delicious — that is, if you like them full-flavoured.”

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