Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 15.

Father and Son.

Sir Reginald Arden had fallen into a doze, as he sat by the fire with his Revue des Deux Mondes, slipping between his finger and thumb, on his knees. He was recalled by Crozier’s voice, and looking up, he saw, standing near the door, as if in some slight hesitation, a figure not seen for two years before.

For a moment Sir Reginald doubted his only half-awakened senses. Was that handsome oval face, with large, soft eyes, with such brilliant lips, and the dark-brown moustache, so fine, and silken, that had never known a razor, an unsubstantial portrait hung in the dim air, or his living son? There were perplexity and surprise in the old man’s stare.

“I should have been here before, Sir, but your letter did not reach me until an hour ago,” said Richard Arden.

“By heaven! Dick? And so you came! I believe I was asleep. Give me your hand. I hope, Dick, we may yet end this miserable quarrel happily. Father and son can have no real interests apart.”

Sir Reginald Arden extended his thin hand, and smiled invitingly but rather darkly on his son. Graceful and easy this young man was, and yet embarrassed, as he placed his hand within his father’s.

“You will take something, Dick, won’t you?”

“Nothing, Sir, thanks.”

Sir Reginald was stealthily reading his face. At last he began circuitously —

“I’ve a little bit of news to tell you about Alice. How long shall I allow you to guess what it is?”

“I’m the worst guesser in the world — pray don’t wait for me, Sir.”

“Well, I have in my desk there — would you mind putting it on the table here? — a letter from Wynderbroke. You know him?”

“Yes, a little.”

“Well, Wynderbroke writes — the letter arrived only an hour ago — to ask my leave to marry your sister, if she will consent; and he says all he will do, which is very handsome — very generous indeed. Wait a moment. Yes, here it is. Read that.”

Richard Arden did read the letter, with open eyes and breathless interest. The old man’s eyes were upon him as he did so.

“Well, Richard, what do you think?”

“There can be but one opinion about it. Nothing can be more handsome. Everything suitable. I only hope that Alice will not be foolish.”

“She sha’n’t be that, I’ll take care,” said the old man, locking down his desk again upon the letter.

“It might possibly be as well, Sir, to prepare her a little at first. I may possibly be of some little use, and so may Lady May. I only mean that it might hardly be expedient to make it from the first a matter of authority, because she has romantic ideas, and she is spirited.”

“I’ll sleep upon it. I sha’n’t see her again till tomorrow evening. She does not care about anyone in particular, I suppose?”

“Not that I know of,” said Richard.

“You’ll find it will all be right — it will— all right. It shall be right,” said Sir Reginald. And then there was a silence. He was meditating the other business he had in hand, and again circuitously he proceeded.

“What’s going on at the opera? Who is your great danseuse at present?” inquired the baronet, with a glimmer of a leer. “I haven’t seen a ballet for more than six years. And why? I needn’t tell you. You know the miserable life I lead. Egad! there are fellows placed everywhere to watch me. There would be an execution in this house this night, if the miserable tables and chairs were not my brother David’s property. Upon my life, Craven, my attorney, had to serve two notices on the sheriff in one term, to caution him not to sell your uncle’s furniture for my debts. I shouldn’t have had a joint-stool to sit down on, if it hadn’t been for that. And I had to get out of the railway-carriage, by heaven! for fear of arrest, and come home — if home I can call this ruin — by posting all the way, except a few miles. I did not dare to tell Craven I was coming back. I wrote from Twyford, where I— I— took a fancy to sleep last night, to no human being but yourself. My comfort is that they and all the world believe that I’m still in France. It is a pleasant state of things!”

“I am grieved, Sir, to think you suffer so much.”

“I know it. I knew it. I know you are, Dick,” said the old man eagerly. “And my life is a perfect hell. I can nowhere in England find rest for the sole of my foot. I am suffering perpetually the most miserable mortifications, and the tortures of the damned. I know you are sorry. It can’t be pleasant to you to see your father the miserable outcast, and fugitive, and victim he so often is. And I’ll say distinctly — I’ll say at once — for it was with this one purpose I sent for you — that no son with a particle of human feeling, with a grain of conscience, or an atom of principle, could endure to see it, when he knew that by a stroke of his pen he could undo it all, and restore a miserable parent to life and liberty! Now, Richard, you have my mind. I have concealed nothing, and I’m sure, Dick, I know, I know you won’t see your father perish by inches, rather than sign the warrant for his liberation. For God’s sake, Dick, my boy speak out! Have you the heart to reject your miserable father’s petition? Do you wish me to kneel to you? I love you, Dick, although you don’t admit it. I’ll kneel to you, Dick — I’ll kneel to you. I’ll go on my knees to you.”

His hands were clasped; he made a movement. His great prominent eyes were fixed on Richard Arden’s face, which he was reading with a great deal of eagerness, it is true, but also with a dark and narrow shrewdness.

“Good heaven, Sir, don’t stir, I implore! If you do, I must leave the room,” said Richard, embarrassed to a degree that amounted to agitation. “And I must tell you, Sir — it is very painful, but, I could not help it, necessity drove me to it — if I were ever so desirous, it is out of my power now. I have dealt with my reversion. I have executed a deed.”

“You have been with the Jews!” cried the old man, jumping to his feet. “You have been dealing, by way of post obit, with my estate!”

Richard Arden looked down. Sir Reginald was as nearly white as his yellow tint would allow; his large eyes were gleaming fire — he looked as if he would have snatched the poker, and brained his son.

“But what could I do, Sir? I had no other resource. I was forbidden your house; I had no money.”

“You lie, Sir!” yelled the old man, with a sudden flash, and a hammer of his thin trembling fist on the table. “You had a hundred and fifty pounds a year of your mother’s.”

“But that, Sir, could not possibly support any one. I was compelled to act as I did. You really, Sir, left me no choice.”

“Now, now, now, now, now! you’re not to run away with the thing, you’re not to run away with it; you sha’n’t run away with it, Sir. You could have made a submission, you know you could. I was open to be reconciled at any time — always too ready. You had only to do as you ought to have done, and I’d have received you with open arms; you know I would — I would— you had only to unite our interests in the estates, and I’d have done everything to make you happy, and you know it. But you have taken the step — you have done it, and it is irrevocable. You have done it, and you’ve ruined me; and I pray to God you have ruined yourself!”

With every sinew quivering, the old man was pulling the bell-rope violently with his left hand. Over his shoulder, on his son, he glanced almost maniacally. “Turn him out!” he screamed to Crozier, stamping; “put him out by the collar. Shut the door upon him, and lock it; and if he ever dares to call here again, slam it in his face. I have done with him for ever!”

Richard Arden had already left the room, and this closing passage was lost on him. But he heard the old man’s voice as he walked along the corridor, and it was still in his ears as he passed the hall-door; and, running down the steps, he jumped into his cab. Crozier held the cab-door open, and wished Mr. Richard a kind good-night. He stood on the steps to see the last of the cab as it drove down the shadowy avenue and was lost in gloom. He sighed heavily. What a broken family it was! He was an old servant, born on their northern estate — loyal, and somewhat rustic — and, certainly, had the baronet been less in want of money, not exactly the servant he would have chosen.

“The old gentleman cannot last long,” he said, as he followed the sound of the retreating wheels with his gaze, “and then Master Richard will take his turn, and what one began the other will finish. It is all up with the Ardens. Sir Reginald ruined, Master Harry murdered, and Master David turned tradesman! There’s a curse on the old house.”

He heard the baronet’s tread faintly, pacing the floor in agitation, as he passed his door; and when he reached the housekeeper’s room, that old lady, Mrs. Tansey, was alone and all of a tremble, standing at the door. Before her dim staring eyes had risen an oft-remembered scene: the ivy-covered gatehouse at Mortlake Hall; the cold moon glittering down through the leafless branches; the grey horse on its side across the gig-shaft, and the two villains — one rifling and the other murdering poor Henry Arden, the baronet’s gay and reckless brother.

“Lord, Mr. Crozier! what’s crossed Sir Reginald?” she said huskily, grasping the servant’s wrist with her lean hand. “Master Dick, I do suppose. I thought he was to come no more. They quarrel always. I’m like to faint, Mr. Crozier.”

“Sit ye down, Mrs. Tansey, Ma’am; you should take just a thimbleful of something. What has frightened you?”

“There’s a scritch in Sir Reginald’s voice — mercy on us! — when he raises it so; it is the very cry of poor Master Harry — his last cry, when the knife pierced him. I’ll never forget it!”

The old woman clasped her fingers over her eyes, and shook her head slowly.

“Well, that’s over and ended this many a day, and past cure. We need not fret ourselves no more about it —’tis thirty years since.”

“Two-and-twenty the day o’ the Longden steeple-chase. I’ve a right to remember it.” She closed her eyes again. “Why can’t they keep apart?” she resumed. “If father and son can’t look one another in the face without quarrelling, better they should turn their backs on one another for life. Why need they come under one roof? The world’s wide enough.”

“So it is — and no good meeting and argufying; for Mr. Dick will never open the estate,” remarked Mr. Crozier.

“And more shame for him!” said Mrs. Tansey. “He’s breaking his father’s heart. It troubles him more,” she added in a changed tone, “I’m thinking, than ever poor Master Harry’s death did. There’s none living of his kith or kin cares about it now but Master David. He’ll never let it rest while he lives.”

“He may let it rest, for he’ll never make no hand of it,” said Crozier. “Would you object, Ma’am, to my making a glass of something hot? — you’re gone very pale.”

Mrs. Tansey assented, and the conversation grew more comfortable. And so the night closed over the passions and the melancholy of Mortlake Hall.

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