Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 11.

The Telegram Arrives.

Mr. Longcluse placed the little oval enamel, set in gold, in Miss Arden’s fingers, and held the lamp beside her while she looked.

“How beautiful! — how very interesting!” she exclaimed. “What suffering in those thin, handsome features! What a strange enthusiasm in those large hazel eyes! I could fancy that monk the maddest of lovers, the most chivalric of saints. And did he really suffer that incredible fate? Did he really die of love?”

“So they say. But why incredible? I can quite imagine that wild shipwreck, seeing what a raging sea love is, and how frail even the strongest life.”

“Well, I can’t say, I am sure. But your own novelists laugh at the idea of any but women — whose business it is, of course, to pay that tribute to their superiors — dying of love. But if any man could die such a death, he must be such as this picture represents. What a wild, agonised picture of passion and asceticism! What suicidal devotion and melancholy rapture! I confess I could almost fall in love with that picture myself.”

“And I think, were I he, I could altogether die to earn one such sentence, so spoken,” said Mr. Longcluse.

“Could you lend it to me for a very few days?” asked the young lady.

“As many — as long as you please. I am only too happy.”

“I should so like to make a large drawing of this in chalks!” said Alice, still gazing on the miniature.

“You draw so beautifully in chalks! Your style is not often found here — your colouring is so fine.”

“Do you really think so?”

“You must know it, Miss Arden. You are too good an artist not to suspect what everyone else must see, the real excellence of your drawings. Your colouring is better understood in France. Your master, I fancy, was a Frenchman?” said Mr. Longcluse.

“Yes, he was, and we got on very well together. Some of his young lady pupils were very much afraid of him.”

“Your poetry is fired by that picture, Miss Arden. Your copy will be a finer thing than the original,” said he.

“I shall aim only at making it a faithful copy; and if I can accomplish anything like that, I shall be only too glad.”

“I hope you will allow me to see it?” pleaded Longcluse.

“Oh, certainly,” she laughed. “Only I’m a little afraid of you, Mr. Longcluse.”

“What can you mean, Miss Arden?”

“I mean, you are so good a critic in art, every one says, that I really am afraid of you,” answered the young lady, laughing.

“I should be very glad to forfeit any little knowledge I have, if it were attended with such a misfortune,” said Longcluse. “But I don’t flatter; I tell you truly, a critic has only to admire, when he looks at your drawings; they are quite above the level of an amateur’s work.”

“Well, whether you mean it or not, I am very much flattered,” she laughed. “And though wise people say that flattery spoils one, I can’t help thinking it very agreeable to be flattered.”

At this point of the dialogue Mr. Vivian Darnley — who wished that it should be plain to all, and to one in particular, that he did not care the least what was going on in other parts of the room — began to stumble through the treble of a tune at the piano with his right hand. And whatever other people may have thought of his performance, to Miss Alice Arden it seemed very good music indeed, and inspired her with fresh animation. Such as it was, Mr. Darnley’s solo also turned the course of Miss Arden’s thoughts from drawing to another art, and she said —

“You, Mr. Longcluse, who know everything about the opera, can you tell me — of course you can — anything about the great basso who is coming?”

“Stentoroni?”

“Yes; the newspapers and critics promise wonders.”

“It is nearly two years since I heard him. He was very great, and deserves all they say in ‘Robert le Diable.’ But there his greatness began and ended. The voice, of course, you had, but everything else was defective. It is plain, however, that the man who could make so fine a study of one opera, could with equal labour make as great a success in others. He has not sung in any opera for more than a year and a half, and has been working diligently; and so everyone is in the dark very much, and I am curious to hear the result — and nobody knows more than I have told you. You are sure of a good ‘Robert le Diable,’ but all the rest is speculation.”

“And now, Mr. Longcluse, I shall try your good-nature.”

“How?”

“I am going to make Lady May ask you to sing a song.”

“Pray don’t.”

“Why not?”

“I should so much rather you asked me yourself.”

“That’s very good of you; then I certainly shall. I do ask you.”

“And I instantly obey. And what shall the song be?” asked he, approaching the piano, to which she also walked.

“Oh, that ghostly one that I liked so much when you sang it here about a week ago,” she answered.

“I know it — yes, with pleasure.” And he sat down at the piano, and in a clear, rich baritone, sang the following odd song:—

“The autumn leaf was falling

At midnight from the tree,

When at her casement calling,

‘I’m here, my love,’ says he.

‘Come down and mount behind me,

And rest your little head,

And in your white arms wind me,

Before that I be dead.

“‘You’ve stolen my heart by magic,

I’ve kissed your lips in dreams:

Our wooing wild and tragic

Has been in ghostly scenes.

The wondrous love I bear you

Has made one life of twain,

And it will bless or scare you,

In deathless peace or pain.

“‘Our dreamland shall be glowing,

If you my bride will be;

To darkness both are going,

Unless you come with me.

Come now, and mount behind me,

And rest your little head,

And in your white arms wind me,

Before that I be dead.’”

“Why, dear Alice, will you choose that dismal song, when you know that Mr. Longcluse has so many others that are not only charming, but cheery and natural?”

“It is because it is unnatural that I like that song so much; the air is so ominous and spectral, and yet so passionate. I think the idea is Icelandic — those ghostly lovers that came in the dark to win their beloved maidens, who as yet knew nothing of their having died, to ride with them over the snowy fields and frozen rivers, to join their friends at a merry-making which they were never to see; but there is something more mysterious even in this lover, for his passion has unearthly beginnings that lose themselves in utter darkness. Thank you very much, Mr. Longcluse. It is so very kind of you! And now, Lady May, isn’t it your turn to choose? May she choose, Mr. Longcluse?”

“Any one, if you desire it, may choose anything I possess, and have it,” said he, in a low impassioned murmur.

How the young lady would have taken this, I know not, but all were suddenly interrupted. For at this moment a servant entered with a note, which he presented, upon a salver, to Mr. Longcluse.

“Your servant is waiting, Sir, please, for orders in the awl,” murmured the man.

“Oh, yes — thanks,” said Mr. Longcluse, who saw a shabby letter, with the words “Private” and “Immediate” written in a round, vulgar hand over the address.

“Pray read your note, Mr. Longcluse, and don’t mind us,” said Lady May.

“Thank you very much. I think I know what this is. I gave some evidence today at an inquest,” began Mr. Longcluse.

“That wretched Frenchman,” interposed Lady May, “Monsieur Lebrun or ——”

“Lebas,” said Vivian Darnley.

“Yes, so it was, Lebas; what a frightful thing that was!” continued Lady May, who was always well up in the day’s horrors.

“Very melancholy, and very alarming also. It is a selfish way of looking at it, but one can’t help thinking it might just as well have happened to any one else who was there. It brings it home to one a little uncomfortably,” said Mr. Longcluse, with an uneasy smile and a shrug.

“And you actually gave evidence, Mr. Longcluse?” said Lady May.

“Yes, a little,” he answered. “It may lead to something. I hope so. As yet it only indicates a line of inquiry. It will be in the papers, I suppose, in the morning. There will be, I daresay, a pretty full report of that inquest.”

“Then you saw something occur that excited your suspicions?” said Lady May.

Mr. Longcluse recounted all he had to tell, and mentioned having made inquiries as to the present abode of the man, Paul Davies, at the police office.

“And this note, I daresay, is the one they promised to send me, telling the result of their inquiries,” he added.

“Pray open it and see,” said Lady May.

He did so. He read it in silence. From his foot to the crown of his head there crept a cold influence as he read. Stream after stream, this aura of fear spread upwards to his brain. Pale Mr. Longcluse shrugged and smiled, and smiled and shrugged, as his dark eye ran down the lines, and with a careless finger he turned the page over. He smiled, as prizefighters smile for the spectators, while every nerve quivered with pain. He looked up, smiling still, and thrust the note into his breast-pocket.

“Well, Mr. Longcluse, a long note it seems to have been,” said Lady May, curiously.

“Not very long, but what is as bad, very illegible,” said Mr. Longcluse gaily.

“And what about the man — the person the police were to have inquired after?” she persisted.

“I find it is no police information, nothing of the kind,” answered Longcluse with the same smile. “It comes by no means from one of that long-headed race of men; on the contrary, poor fellow, I believe he is literally a little mad. I make him a trifling present every Christmas, and that is a very good excuse for his plaguing me all the year round. I was in hopes this letter might turn out an amusing one, but it is not; it is a failure. It is rather sensible, and disgusting.”

“Well, then, I must have my song, Mr. Longcluse,” said Lady May, who, under cover of music, sometimes talked a little, in gentle murmurs, to that person with whom talk was particularly interesting.

But that song was not to be heard in Lady May’s drawing-room that night, for a kindred interruption, though much more serious in its effects upon Mr. Longcluse’s companions, occurred. A footman entered, and presented on a salver a large brown envelope to Miss Alice Arden.

“Oh, dear! It is a telegram,” exclaimed Miss Arden, who had taken it to the window. Lady May Penrose was beside her by this time. Alice looked on the point of fainting.

“I’m afraid papa is very ill,” she whispered, handing the paper, which trembled very much in her hand, to Lady May.

“H’m! Yes — but you may be sure it’s exaggerated. Bring some sherry and water, please. You look a little frightened, my dear. Sit down, darling. There now! These messages are always written in a panic. What do you mean to do?”

“I’ll go, of course,” said Alice.

“Well, yes — I think you must go. What is the place? Twyford, the ‘Royal Oak?’ Look out Twyford, please Mr. Darnley — there’s a book there. It must be a post-town. It was thoughtful saying it is on the Dover coach road.”

Vivian Darnley was gazing in deep concern at Alice. Instantly he began turning over the book, and announced in a few moments more —“It is a post-town — only thirty-six miles from London,” said Mr. Darnley.

“Thanks,” said Lady May. “Oh, here’s the wine — I’m so glad! You must have a little, dear; and you’ll take Louisa Diaper with you, of course; and you shall have one of my carriages, and I’ll send a servant with you, and he’ll arrange everything; and how soon do you wish to go?”

“Immediately, instantly — thanks, darling. I’m so much obliged!”

“Will your brother go with you?”

“No, dear. Papa, you know, has not forgiven him, and it is, I think, two years since they met. It would only agitate him.”

And with these words she hurried to her room, and in another moment, with the aid of her maid, was completing her hasty preparations.

In wonderfully little time the carriage was at the door. Mr. Longcluse had taken his leave. So had Richard Arden, with the one direction to the servant, “If anything should go very wrong, be sure to telegraph for me. Here is my address.”

“Put this in your purse, dear,” said Lady May. “Your father is so thoughtless, he may not have brought money enough with him; and you will find it is as I say — he’ll be a great deal better by the time you get there; and God bless you, my dear.”

And she kissed her as heartily as she dared, without communicating the rouge and white powder which aided her complexion.

As Alice ran down, Vivian Darnley awaited her outside the drawing-room door, and ran down with her, and put her into the carriage. He leaned for a moment on the window, and said —

“I hope you didn’t mind that nonsense Lady May was talking just now about Miss Grace Maubray. I assure you it is utter folly. I was awfully vexed; but you didn’t believe it?”

“I didn’t hear her say anything, at least seriously. Wasn’t she laughing? I’m in such trouble about that message! I am so longing to be at my journey’s end!”

He took her hand and pressed it, and the carriage drove away. And standing on the steps, and quite forgetting the footman close behind him, he watched it as it drove rapidly southward, until it was quite out of sight, and then with a great sigh and “God for ever bless you!”— uttered not above his breath — he turned about, and saw those powdered and liveried effigies, and walked up with his head rather high to the drawing-room, where he found Lady May.

“I sha’n’t go to the opera to-night; it is out of the question,” said she. “But you shall. You go to my box, you know; Jephson will put you in there.”

It was plain that the good-natured soul was unhappy about Alice, and, Richard Arden having departed, wished to be alone. So Vivian took his leave, and went away — but not to the opera — and sauntered for an hour, instead, in a melancholy romance up and down the terrace, till the moon rose and silvered the trees in the park.

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