Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 13.

On the Road.

Next morning the baronet was in high good-humour. He has written a little reminder to Lord Wynderbroke. He will expect him at Mortlake the day he named, to dinner. He remembers he promised to stay the night. He can offer him, still, as good a game of piquet as he is likely to find in his club; and he almost feels that he has no excuse but a selfish one, for exacting the performance of a promise which gave him a great deal of pleasure. His daughter, who takes care of her old father, will make their tea and —voilà tout!

Sir Reginald was in particularly good spirits as he sent the waiter to the post-office with this little note. He thinks within himself that he never saw Alice in such good looks. His selfish elation waxes quite affectionate, and Alice never remembered him so good-natured. She doesn’t know what to make of it exactly; but it pleases her, and she looks all the more brilliant.

And now these foreign birds, whom a chance storm has thrown upon the hospitality of the “Royal Oak,” are up and away again. The old baronet and his pretty daughter, Louisa Diaper sitting behind, in cloaks and rugs, and the footman in front, to watch the old man’s signals, are whirling dustily along with a team of four horses; for Sir Reginald’s arrangements are never economical, and a pair would have brought them over these short stages and home very nearly as fast. Lady May’s carriage pleases the old man, and helps his transitory good-humour: it is so much more luxurious than the jolty hired vehicle in which he had arrived.

Alice is permitted her thoughts to herself. The baronet has taken his into companionship, and is leaning back in his corner, with his eyes closed; and his pursed mouth, with its wonderful involution of wrinkles round it, is working unconsciously; and his still dark eyebrows, now elevating, now knitting themselves, indicate the same activity of brain.

With a silent look now and then at his face — for she need not ask whether Sir Reginald wants anything, or would like anything changed, for the baronet needs no inquiries of this kind, and makes people speedily acquainted with his wants and fancies — she occupies her place beside him, for the most part looking out listlessly from the window, and thinks of many things. The baronet opens his eyes at last, and says abruptly,

“Charming prospect! Charming day! You’ll be glad to hear, Alice, I’m not tired; I’m making my journey wonderfully! It is so pretty, and the sun so cheery. You are looking so well, it is quite a pleasure to look at you — charming! You’ll come to me at Mortlake for a few days, to take care of me, you know. I shall go on to Buxton in a week or so, and you can return to Lady May to-night, and come to Mortlake shortly; and your brother, graceless creature! I suppose, will come to-night. I expect nothing from his visit, absolutely. He has been nothing to me but a curse all his life. I suppose, if there’s justice anywhere, he’ll have his deserts some day. But for the present I put him aside — I sha’n’t speak of him. He disturbs me.”

They drove through London over Westminster Bridge, the servant thinking that they were to go to Lady May Penrose’s in Chester Terrace. It was the first time that day, since he had talked of his son, that a black shadow crossed Sir Reginald’s face. He shrunk back. He drew up his Chinese silk muffler over his chin. He was fearful lest some prowling beak or eagle-eyed Jew should see his face, for Sir Reginald was just then in danger. Glancing askance under the peak of his travelling cap, he saw Talkington, with Wynderbroke on his arm, walking to their club. How free and fearless those happy mortals looked! How the old man yearned for his chat and his glass of wine at B——‘s, and his afternoon whist at W——‘s! How he chafed and blasphemed inwardly at the invisible obstacle that insurmountably interposed, and with what a fiery sting of malice he connected the idea of his son with the fetters that bound him!

“You know that man?” said Sir Reginald sharply, as he saw Mr. Longcluse raise his hat to her as they passed.

“Yes, I’ve met him pretty often at Lady May’s.”

“H’m! I had not an idea that anyone knew him. He’s a man who might be of use to one.”

Here followed a silence.

“I thought, papa, you wished to go direct to Mortlake, and I don’t think this is the way,” suggested Alice.

“Eh? heigho! You’re right, child; upon my life, I was not thinking,” said Sir Reginald, at the same time signalling vehemently to the servant, who, having brought the carriage to a stand-still, came round to the window.

“We don’t stop anywhere in town, we go straight to Mortlake Hall. It is beyond Islington. Have you ever been there? Well, you can tell them how to reach it.”

And Sir Reginald placed himself again in his corner. They had not started early, and he had frequently interrupted their journey on various whimsical pretexts. He remembered one house, for instance, where there was a stock of the very best port he had ever tasted, and then he stopped and went in, and after a personal interview with the proprietor, had a bottle opened, and took two glasses, and so paid at the rate of half a guinea each for them. It had been an interrupted journey, late begun, and the sun was near its setting by the time they had got a mile beyond the outskirts of Islington, and were drawing near the singular old house where their journey was to end.

Always with a melancholy presentiment, Alice approached Mortlake Hall. But never had she felt it more painfully than now. If there be in such misgivings a prophetic force, was it to be justified by the coming events of Miss Arden’s life, which were awfully connected with that scene?

They passed a quaint little village of tall stone houses, among great old trees, with a rural and old-world air, and an ancient inn, with the sign of “Guy of Warwick”— an inn of which we shall see more by-and-by — faded, and like the rest of this little town, standing under the shadow of old trees. They entered the road, dark with double hedge-rows, and with a moss-grown park-wall on the right, in which, in a little time, they reached a great iron gate with fluted pillars. They drove up a broad avenue, flanked with files of gigantic trees, and showing grand old timber also upon the park-like grounds beyond. The dusky light of evening fell upon these objects, and the many windows, the cornices, and the smokeless chimneys of a great old house. You might have fancied yourself two hundred miles away from London.

“You don’t stay here to-night, Alice. I wish you to return to Lady May, and give her the note I am going to write. You and she come out to dine here on Friday. If she makes a difficulty, I rely on you to persuade her. I must have someone to meet Mr. Longcluse. I have reasons. Also, I shall ask my brother David, and his ward Miss Maubray. I knew her father: he was a fool, with his head full of romance, and he married a very pretty woman who was a devil, without a shilling on earth. The girl is an orphan, and David is her guardian, and he would like any little attention we can show her. And we shall ask Vivian Darnley also. And that will make a very suitable party.”

Sir Reginald wrote his note, talking at intervals.

“You see, I want Lady May to come here again in a day or two, to stay only for two or three days. She can go into town and remain there all day, if she likes it. But Wynderbroke will be coming, and I should not like him to find us quite deserted; and she said she’d come, and she may as well do it now as another time. David lives so quietly, we are sure of him; and I commit May Penrose to you. You must persuade her to come. It will be cruel to disappoint. Here is her note — I will send the others myself. And now, God bless you, dear Alice!”

“I am so uncomfortable at the idea of leaving you, papa.” Her hand was on his arm, and she was looking anxiously into his face.

“So of course you should be; only that I am so perfectly recovered, that I must have a quiet evening with Richard; and I prefer your being in town to-night, and you and May Penrose can come out tomorrow. Good-bye, child, God bless you!”

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