Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 10.

The Royal Oak.

Three people were sitting in Lady May Penrose’s drawing-room, in Chester Terrace, the windows of which, as all her ladyship’s friends are aware, command one of the parks. They were looking westward, where the sky was all a-glow with the fantastic gold and crimson of sunset. It is quite a mistake to fancy that sunset, even in the heart of London — which this hardly could be termed — has no rural melancholy and poetic fascination in it. Should that hour by any accident overtake you, in the very centre of the city, looking, say, from an upper window, or any other elevation toward the western sky beyond stacks of chimneys, roofs, and steeples, even through the smoke of London, you will feel the melancholy and poetry of sunset, in spite of your surroundings.

A little silence had stolen over the party; and young Vivian Darnley, who stole a glance now and then at beautiful Alice Arden, whose large, dark, grey eyes were gazing listlessly towards the splendid mists, that were piled in the west, broke the silence by a remark that, without being very wise, or very new, was yet, he hoped, quite in accord with the looks of the girl, who seemed for a moment saddened.

“I wonder why it is that sunset, which is so beautiful, makes us all sad!”

“It never made me sad,” said good Lady May Penrose, comfortably. “There is, I think, something very pleasant in a good sunset; there must be, for all the little birds begin to sing in it — it must be cheerful. Don’t you think so, Alice?”

Alice was, perhaps, thinking of something quite different, for rather listlessly, and without a change of features, she said, “Oh, yes, very.”

“So, Mr. Darnley, you may sing, ‘Oh, leave me to my sorrow!’ for we won’t mope with you about the sky. It is a very odd taste, that for being dolorous and miserable. I don’t understand it — I never could.”

Thus rebuked by Lady Penrose, and deserted by Alice, Darnley laughed and said —

“Well, I do seem rather to have put my foot in it — but I did not mean miserable, you know; I meant only that kind of thing that one feels when reading a bit of really good poetry — and most people do not think it a rather pleasant feeling.”

“Don’t mind that moping creature, Alice; let us talk about something we can all understand. I heard a bit of news today — perhaps, Mr. Darnley, you can throw a light upon it. You are a distant relation, I think, of Mr. David Arden.”

“Some very remote cousinship, of which I am very proud,” answered the young man gaily, with a glance at Alice.

“And what is that — what about uncle David?” inquired the young lady, with animation.

“I heard it from my banker today. Your uncle, you know, dear, despises us and our doings, and lives, I understand, very quietly; I mean, he has chosen to live quite out of the world, so we have no chance of hearing anything except by accident, from people we are likely to know. Do you see much of your uncle, my dear?”

“Not a great deal; but I am very fond of him — he is such a good man, or at least, what is better,” she laughed, “he has always been so very kind to me.”

“You know him, Mr. Darnley?” inquired Lady May.

“By Jove, I do!”

“And like him?”

“No one on earth has better reason to like him,” answered the young man warmly —“he has been my best friend on earth.”

“It is pleasant to know two people who are not ashamed to be grateful,” said fat Lady May, with a smile.

The young lady returned her smile very kindly. I don’t think you ever beheld a prettier creature than Alice Arden. Vivian Darnley had wasted many a secret hour in sketching that oval face. Those large, soft, grey eyes, and long dark lashes, how difficult they are to express! And the brilliant lips! Could art itself paint anything quite like her? Who could paint those beautiful dimples that made her smiles so soft, or express the little circlet of pearly teeth whose tips were just disclosed? Stealthily he was now, for the thousandth time, studying that bewitching smile again.

“And what is the story about Uncle David?” asked Alice again.

“Well, what will you say — and you, Mr. Darnley, if it should be a story about a young lady?”

“Do you mean that Uncle David is going to marry? I think it would be an awful pity!” exclaimed Alice.

“Well, dear, to put you out of pain, I’ll tell you at once; I only know this — that he is going to provide for her somehow, but whether by adopting her as a child, or taking her for a wife, I can’t tell. Only I never saw any one looking archer than Mr. Brounker did today when he told me; and I fancied from that it could not be so dull a business as merely making her his daughter.”

“And who is the young lady?” asked Alice.

“Did you ever happen to meet anywhere a Miss Grace Maubray?”

“Oh, yes,” answered Alice quickly. “She was staying, and her father, Colonel Maubray, at the Wymerings’ last autumn. She’s quite lovely, I think, and very clever — but I don’t know — I think she’s a little ill-natured, but very amusing. She seems to have a talent for cutting people up — and a little of that kind of thing, you know, is very well, but one does not care for it always. And is she really the young lady?”

“Yes, and —— Dear me! Mr. Darnley, I’m afraid my story has alarmed you.”

“Why should it?” laughed Vivian Darnley, partly to cover, perhaps, a little confusion.

“I can’t tell, I’m sure, but you blushed as much as a man can; and you know you did. I wonder, Alice, what this under-plot can be, where all is so romantic. Perhaps, after all, Mr. David Arden is to adopt the young lady, and some one else, to whom he is also kind, is to marry her. Don’t you think that would be a very natural arrangement?”

Alice laughed, and Darnley laughed; but he was embarrassed.

“And Colonel Maubray, is he still living?” asked Alice.

“Oh, no, dear; he died ten or eleven months ago. A very foolish man, you know; he wasted a very good property. He was some distant relation, also; Mr. Brounker said your uncle, Mr. David Arden, was very much attached to him — they were schoolfellows, and great friends all their lives.”

“I should not wonder,” said Alice smiling — and then became silent.

“Do you know the young lady, this fortunate Miss Maubray?” said Lady May, turning to Vivian Darnley again.

“I? Yes — that is, I can’t say more than a mere acquaintance — and not an old one. I made her acquaintance at Mr. Arden’s house. He is her guardian. I don’t know about any other arrangements. I daresay there may be.”

“Well, I know her a little, also,” said Lady May. “I thought her pretty — and she sings a little, and she’s clever.”

“She’s all that,” said Alice. “Oh, here comes Dick! What do you say, Richard — is not Miss Maubray very pretty? We are making a plot to marry her to Vivian Darnley, and get Uncle David to contribute her dot.”

“What benevolent people! You don’t object, I dare say, Vivian.”

“I have not been consulted,” said he; “and, of course, Uncle David need not be consulted, as he has simply to transfer the proper quantity of stock.”

Richard Arden had drawn near Lady May, and said a few words in a low tone, which seemed not unwelcome to her.

“I saw Longcluse this morning. He has not been here, has he?” he added, as a little silence threatened the conversation.

“No, he has not turned up. And what a charming person he is!” exclaimed Lady May.

“I quite agree with you, Lady May,” said Arden. “He is, take him on every subject, I think, about the cleverest fellow I ever met — art, literature, games, chess, which I take to be a subject by itself. He is very great at chess — for an amateur, I mean — and when I was chess-mad, nearly a year ago and beginning to grow conceited, he opened my eyes, I can tell you; and Airly says he is the best musical critic in England, and can tell you at any hour who is who in the opera, all over Europe; and he really understands, what so few of us here know anything about, foreign politics, and all the people and their stories and scandals he has at his fingers’ ends. And he is such good company, when he chooses, and such a gentleman always!”

“He is very agreeable and amusing when he takes the trouble; I always like to listen when Mr. Longcluse talks,” said Alice Arden, to the secret satisfaction of her brother, whose enthusiasm was, I think, directed a good deal to her — and to, perhaps, the vexation of other people, whom she did not care at that moment to please.

“An Admirable Crichton!” murmured Vivian Darnley, with a rather hackneyed sneer. “Do you like his style of —beauty, I suppose I should call it? It has the merit of being very uncommon, at least, don’t you think?”

“Beauty, I think, matters very little. He has no beauty, but his face has what, in a man, I think a great deal better — I mean refinement, and cleverness, and a kind of satire that rather interests one,” said Miss Arden, with animation.

Sir Walter Scott, in his “Rob Roy”— thinking, no doubt, of the Diana Vernon of his early days, the then beautiful lady, long afterwards celebrated by Basil Hall as the old Countess Purgstorf (if I rightly remember the title), and recurring to some cherished incident, and the thrill of a pride that had ceased to agitate, but was at once pleasant and melancholy to remember — wrote these words: “She proceeded to read the first stanza, which was nearly to the following purpose. [Then follow the verses.] ‘There is a great deal of it,’ said she, glancing along the paper, and interrupting the sweetest sounds that mortal ears can drink in-those of a youthful poet’s verses, namely, read by the lips which are dearest to them.” So writes Walter Scott. On the other hand, in certain states, is there a pain intenser than that of listening to the praises of another man from the lips we love?

“Well,” said Darnley, “as you say so, I suppose there is all that, though I can’t see it. Of course, if he tries to make himself agreeable (which he never does to me), it makes a difference, it affects everything — it affects even his looks. But I should not have thought him good-looking. On the contrary, he appears to me about as ugly a fellow as one could see in a day.”

“He’s not that,” said Alice. “No one could be ugly with so much animation and so much expression.”

“You take up the cudgels very prettily, my dear, for Mr. Longcluse,” said Lady May. “I’m sure he ought to be extremely obliged to you.”

“So he would be,” said Richard Arden. “It would upset him for a week, I have no doubt.”

There are few things harder to interpret than a blush. At these words the beautiful face of Alice Arden flushed, first with a faint, and then, as will happen, with a brighter crimson. If Lady May had seen it, she would have laughed, probably, and told her how much it became her. But she was, at that moment, going to her chair in the window, and Richard Arden would, of course, accompany her. He did see it, as distinctly as he saw the glow in the sky over the park trees. But, knowing what a slight matter will sometimes make a recoil, and even found an antipathy, he wisely chose to see it not — and chatting gaily, followed Lady May to the window.

But Vivian Darnley, though he said nothing, saw that blush, of which Alice, with a sort of haughty defiance, was conscious. It did not make him like or admire Mr. Longcluse more.

“Well, I suppose he is very charming — I don’t know him well enough myself to give an opinion. But he makes his acquaintances rather oddly, doesn’t he? I don’t think any one will dispute that.”

“I don’t know really. Lady May introduced him to me, and she seems to like him very much. So far as I can see, people are very well pleased at knowing him, and don’t trouble their heads as to how it came about,” said Miss Arden.

“No, of course; but people not fortunate enough to come within the influence of his fascination, can’t help observing. How did he come to know your brother, for instance? Did any one introduce him? Nothing of the kind. Richard’s horse was hurt or lame at one of the hunts in Warwickshire, and he lent him a horse, and introduced himself, and they dined together that evening on the way back, and so the thing was done.”

“Can there be a better introduction than a kindness?” asked Alice.

“Yes, where it is a kindness, I agree; but no one has a right to push his services upon a stranger who does not ask for them.”

“I really can’t see. Richard need not have taken his horse if he had not liked,” she answered.

“And Lady May, who thinks him such a paragon, knows no more about him than any one else. She had her footman behind her — didn’t she tell you all about it?”

“I really don’t recollect; but does it very much matter?”

“I think it does — that is, it has been a sort of system. He just gave her his arm over a crossing, where she had taken fright, and then pretended to think her a great deal more frightened than she really can have been, and made her sit down to recover in a confectioner’s shop, and so saw her home, and that affair was concluded. I don’t say, of course, that he is never introduced in the regular way; but a year or two ago, when he was beginning, he always made his approaches by means of that kind of stratagem; and the fact is, no one knows anything on earth about him; he has emerged, like a figure in a phantasmagoria, from total darkness, and may lose himself in darkness again at any moment.”

“I am interested in that man, whoever he is; his entrance, and his probable exit, so nearly resemble mine,” said a clear, deep-toned voice close to them; and looking up, Miss Arden saw the pale face and peculiar smile of Mr. Longcluse in the fading twilight.

Mr. Longcluse was greeted by Lady May and by Richard Arden, and then again he drew near Alice, and said, “Do you recollect, Miss Arden, about ten days ago I told you a story that seemed to interest you — the story of a young and eloquent friar, who died of love in his cell in an abbey in the Tyrol, and whose ghost used to be seen pensively leaning on the pulpit from which he used to preach, too much thinking of the one beautiful face among his audience, which had enthralled him. I had left the enamel portrait I told you of at an artist’s in Paris, and I wrote for it, thinking you might wish to see it — hoping you might care to see it,” he added, in a lower tone, observing that Vivian Darnley, who was not in a happy temper, had, with a sudden impulse of disdain, removed himself to another window, there to contemplate the muster of the stars in the darkening sky, at his leisure.

“That was so kind of you, Mr. Longcluse! You have had a great deal of trouble. It is such an interesting story!” said Alice.

In his reception, Mr. Longcluse found something that pleased, almost elated him. Had Richard Arden been speaking to her on the subject of their morning’s conversation? He thought not, Lady May had mentioned that he had not been with them till just twenty minutes ago, and Arden had told him that he had dined with his uncle David and Mr. Blount, upon the same business on which he had been occupied with both nearly all day. No, he could not have spoken to her. The slight change which made him so tumultuously proud and happy, was entirely spontaneous.

“So it seemed to me — an eccentric and interesting story — but pray do not wound me by speaking of trouble. I only wish you knew half the pleasure it has been to me to get it to show you. May I hold the lamp near for a moment while you look at it?” he said, indicating a tiny lamp which stood on a pier-table, showing a solitary gleam, like a lighthouse, through the gloom; “you could not possibly see it in this faint twilight.”

The lady assented. Had Mr. Longcluse ever felt happier?

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