Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 18.

The Party in the Dining-Room.

And now, all being seated, began the talk and business of dinner.

“I believe,” said Mr. Longcluse, with a laugh, “I am growing metaphysical.”

“Well, shall I confess, Mr. Longcluse, you do sometimes say things that are, I fear, a little too wise for my poor comprehension?”

“I don’t express them; it is my fault,” he answered, in a very low tone. “You have mind, Miss Arden, for anything. There is no one it is so delightful to converse with, owing in part to that very faculty — I mean quick apprehension. But I know my own defects. I know how imperfectly I often express myself. By-the-way, you seemed to wish to have that curious little wild Bohemian air I sang the other night, ‘The Wanderer’s Bride’— the song about the white lily, you know. I ventured to get a friend, who really is a very good musician, to make a setting of it, which I so very much hope you will like. I brought it with me. You will think me very presumptuous, but I hoped so much you might be tempted to try it.”

When Mr. Longcluse spoke to Alice, it was always in a tone so very deferential, that it was next to impossible that a very young girl should not be flattered by it — considering, especially, that the man was reputed clever, had seen the world, and had met with a certain success, and that by no means of a kind often obtained, or ever quite despised. There was also a directness in his eulogy which was unusual, and which spoken with a different manner would have been embarrassing, if not offensive. But in Mr. Longcluse’s manner, when he spoke such phrases, there appeared a real humility, and even sadness, that the boldness of the sentiment was lost in the sincerity and dejection of the speaker, which seemed to place him on a sudden at the immeasurable distance of a melancholy worship.

“I am so much obliged!” said Alice. “I did wish so much to have it when you sang it. It may not do for my voice at all, but I longed to try it. When a song is sung so as to move one, it is sure to be looked out and learned, without any thought wasted on voice, or skill, or natural fitness. It is, I suppose, like the vanity that makes one person dress after another. Still, I do wish to sing that song, and I am so much obliged!”

From the other side her uncle said very softly —“What do you think of my ward, Grace Maubray?”

“Oughtn’t I to ask, rather, what you think of her?” she laughed archly.

“Oh! I see,” he answered, with a pleasant and honest smile; “you have the gift of seeing as far as other clever people into a millstone. But, no — though perhaps I ought to thank you for giving me credit for so much romance and good taste — I don’t think I shall ever introduce you to an aunt. You must guess again, if you will have a matrimonial explanation; though I don’t say there is any such design. And perhaps, if there were, the best way to promote it would be to leave the intended hero and heroine very much to themselves. They are both very good-looking.”

“Who?” asked Alice, although she knew very well whom he meant.

“I mean that pretty creature over there, Grace Maubray, and Vivian Darnley,” said he quietly.

She smiled, looking very much pleased and very arch.

With how Spartan a completeness women can hide the shootings and quiverings of mental pain, and of bodily pain too, when the motive is sufficient! Under this latter they are often clamorous, to be sure; but the demonstration expresses not want of patience, but the feminine yearning for compassion.

“I fancy nothing would please the young rogue Vivian better. I wish I were half so sure of her. You girls are so unaccountable, so fanciful, and — don’t be angry — so uncertain.”

“Well, I suppose, as you say, we must only have patience, and leave the matter in the hands of Time, who settles most things pretty well.”

She raised her eyes, and fancied she saw Grace Maubray at the same moment withdraw hers from her face. Lady May was talking from the end of the table with Mr. Longcluse.

“Your neighbour who is talking to Lady May is a Mr. Longcluse?”

“Yes.”

“He is a City notability; but oddly, I never happened to see him till this evening. Do you think there is something curious in his appearance?”

“Yes, a little, perhaps. Don’t you?”

“So odd that he makes my blood run cold,” said Uncle David, with a shrug and a little laugh. “Seriously, I mean unpleasantly odd. What is Lady May talking about? Yes — I thought so — that horrid murder at the ‘Saloon Tavern.’ For so good-natured a person, she has the most bloodthirsty tastes I know of; she’s always deep in some horror.”

“My brother Dick told me that Mr. Longcluse made a speech there.”

“Yes, so I heard; and I think he said what is true enough. London is growing more and more insecure; and that certainly was a most audacious murder. People make money a little faster, that is true; but what is the good of money, if their lives are not their own? It is quite true that there are streets in London, which I remember as safe as this room, through which no one suspected of having five pounds in his pocket could now walk without a likelihood of being garotted.”

“How dreadful!” said Alice, and Uncle David laughed a little at her horror.

“It is too true, my dear. But, to pass to pleasanter subjects, when do you mean to choose among the young fellows, and present me to a new nephew?” said Uncle David.

“Do you fancy I would tell anyone if I knew?” she answered, laughing. “How is it that you men, who are always accusing us weak women of thinking of nothing else, can never get the subject of matrimony out of your heads? Now, uncle, as you and I may talk confidentially, and at our ease, I’ll tell you two things. I like my present spinster life very well — I should like it better, I think, if it were in the country; but town or country, I don’t think I should ever like a married life. I don’t think I’m fit for command.”

“Command! I thought the prayer-book said something about obeying, on the contrary,” said Uncle David.

“You know what I mean. I’m not fit to rule a household; and I am afraid I am a little idle, and I should not like to have it to do — and so I could never do it well.”

“Nevertheless, when the right man comes, he need but beckon with his finger, and away you go, Miss Alice, and undertake it all.”

“So we are whistled away, like poodles for a walk, and that kind of thing! Well, I suppose, uncle, you are right, though I can’t see that I’m quite so docile a creature. But if my poor sex is so willing to be won, I don’t know how you are to excuse your solitary state, considering how very little trouble it would have taken to make some poor creature happy.”

“A very fair retort!” laughed Uncle David. And he added, in a changed tone, for a sudden recollection of his own early fortunes crossed him —“But even when the right man does come, it does not always follow, Miss Alice, that he dares make the sign; fate often interposes years, and in them death may come, and so the whole card-castle falls.”

“I’ve had a long talk,” he resumed, “with Richard; he has made me promises, and I hope he will be a better boy for the future. He has been getting himself into money troubles, and acquiring — I’m afraid I should say cultivating — a taste for play. I know you have heard something of this before; I told you myself. But he has made me promises, and I hope, for your sake, he’ll keep them; because, you know, I and your father can’t last for ever, and he ought to take care of you; and how can he do that, if he’s not fit to take care of himself? But I believe there is no use in thinking too much about what is to come. One has enough to do in the present. I think poor Lady May has been disappointed,” he said, with a very cautious smile, his eye having glanced for a moment on her; “she looks a little forlorn, I think.”

“Does she? And why?”

“Well, they say she would not object to be a little more nearly related to you than she is.”

“You can’t mean papa — or yourself!”

“Oh, dear, no!” he answered, laughing. “I mean that she misses Dick a good deal.”

“Oh, dear! uncle, you can’t be serious!”

“It might be a very serious affair for her; but I don’t know that he could do a wiser thing. The old quarrel is still raging, he tells me, and that he can’t appear in this house.”

“It is a great pity,” said she.

“Pity! Not at all. They never could agree; and it is much better for Dick they should not — on the terms Reginald proposes, at least. I see Lady May trying to induce you to make her the sign at which ladies rise, and leave us poor fellows to shift for ourselves.”

“Ungallant old man! I really believe she is.”

And in a moment more the ladies were floating from the room, Vivian Darnley standing at the door. Somehow he could not catch Alice’s eye as they passed; she was smiling an answer to some gabble of Lady May’s. Grace gave him a very kind look with her fine eyes as she went by; and so the young man, who had followed them up the massive stairs with his gaze, closed the door and sat down again, before his claret glass, and his little broken cluster of grapes, and half-dozen distracted bits of candied fruit, and sighed deeply.

“That murder in the City that you were speaking of just now to Lady May is a serious business for men who walk the streets, as I do sometimes, with money in their pockets,” said David Arden, addressing Mr. Longcluse.

“So it struck me — one feels that instinctively. When I saw that poor little good-natured fellow dead, and thought how easily I might have walked in there myself, with the assassin behind me, it seemed to me simply the turn of a die that the lot had not fallen upon me,” said Longcluse.

“He was robbed, too, wasn’t he?” croaked Sir Reginald, who was growing tired; and with his fatigue came evidences of his temper.

“Oh, yes,” said David; “nothing left in his pockets.”

“And Laroque, a watchmaker, a relation of his, said he had cheques about him, and foreign money,” said Longcluse; “but, of course, the cheques were not presented, and foreign money is not easily traced in a big town like London. I made him a present of ten pounds to stake on the game; I could not learn that he did stake it, and I suppose the poor fellow intended applying it in some more prudent way. But my present was in gold, and that, of course, the robber applied without apprehension.”

“Now, you fellows who have a stake in the City, it is a scandal your permitting such a state of things to continue,” said Sir Reginald; “because, though your philanthropy may not be very diffuse, each of you cares most tenderly for one individual at least in the human race — I mean self— and whatever you may think of personal morality, and even life — for you don’t seem to me to think a great deal of grinding operatives in the cranks of your mills, or blowing them up by bursting steam-boilers, to say nothing of all the people you poison with adulterated food, or with strychnine in beer, or with arsenic in candles, or pretty green papers for bed-rooms — or smash or burn alive on railways — yet you should, on selfish grounds, set your faces against a system of assassination for pocket-books and purses, the sort of things precisely you have always about you. Don’t you see? And it’s inconsistent besides, because, as I said, although you care little for life — other people’s, I mean — in the abstract, yet you care a great deal for property. I think it’s your idol, by Jove! and worshipping money — positively worshipping it, as you do, it seems a scandalous inconsistency that you should — of course, I don’t mean you two individually,” he said, perhaps recollecting that he might be going a little too fast; “you never, of course, fancied that. I mean, of course, the class of men we have all heard of, or seen — but I do say, with that sort of adoration for money and property, I can’t understand their allowing their pockets to be profaned and their purses made away with.”

Sir Reginald, having thus delivered himself with considerable asperity, poured some claret into his glass, and pushed the jugs on to his brother, and then, closing his eyes, composed himself either to listen or to sleep.

“City or country, East End or West End, I fancy we are all equally anxious to keep other people’s hands out of our pockets,” said David Arden; “and I quite agree with Mr. Longcluse in all he is reported to have said with respect to our police system.”

“But is it so certain that the man was robbed?” said Vivian Darnley.

“Everything he had about him was taken,” said Mr. Longcluse.

“But they pretend to rob men sometimes, when they murder them, only to conceal the real motive,” persisted Vivian Darnley.

“Yes, that’s quite true; but then there must be some motive,” said Mr. Longcluse, with something a little supercilious in his smile: “and it isn’t easy to conceive a motive for murdering a poor little good-natured letter of lodgings, a person past the time of life when jealousy could have anything to do with it, and a most inoffensive and civil creature. I confess, if I were obliged to seek a motive other than the obvious one, for the crime, I should be utterly puzzled.”

“When I was travelling in Prussia,” said Vivian Darnley, “I saw two people in different prisons — one a woman, the other a middle-aged man — both for murder. They had been found guilty, and had been kept there only to get a confession from them before execution. They won’t put culprits to death there, you know, unless they have first admitted their guilt; and one of these had actually confessed. Well, each had borne an unexceptionable character up to the time when suspicion was accidentally aroused, and then it turned out that they had been poisoning and otherwise making away with people, at the rate of two or three a year, for half their lives. Now, don’t you see, these masked assassins, having, as it appeared, absolutely no intelligible motive, either of passion or of interest, to commit these murders, could have had no inducement, as the woman had actually confessed, except a sort of lust of murder. I suppose it is a sort of madness, but these people were not otherwise mad; and it is quite possible that the same sort of thing may be going on in other places. People say that the police would have got a clue to the mystery by means of the foreign coin and the bank-notes, if they had not been destroyed.”

“But there are traces of organisation,” said Mr. Longcluse. “In a crowded place like that, such things could hardly be managed without it, and insanity such as you describe is very rare; and you’ll hardly get people to believe in a swell-mob of madmen, committing murder in concert simply for the pleasure of homicide. They will all lean to a belief in the coarse but intelligible motive of the highwayman.”

“I saw in the newspapers,” said David Arden, “some evidence of yours, Mr. Longcluse, which seemed rather to indicate a particular man as the murderer.”

“I have my eye upon him,” said Longcluse. “There are suspicious circumstances. The case in a little time may begin to clear; at present the police are only groping.”

“That’s satisfactory; and those fellows are paid so handsomely for groping,” said Sir Reginald, opening his eyes suddenly. “I believe that we are the worst-governed and the worst-managed people on earth, and that our merchants and tradespeople are rich simply by flukes — simply by a concurrence of lucky circumstances, with which they have no more to do than Prester John or the Man in the Moon. Take a little claret, Mr. Longcluse, and send it on.”

“No more, thanks.”

And all the guests being of the same mind, they marched up the broad stairs to the ladies.

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