Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 2.

Martha Tansey.

“By-the-bye, Longcluse,” said Richard, as they entered together the long tiled passage that leads to the billiard-room, “you like pictures. There is one here, banished to the housekeeper’s room, that they say is a Vandyck; we must have it cleaned and backed, and restored to its old place — but would you care to look at it?”

“Certainly, I should like extremely,” said Mr. Longcluse.

They were now at the door of the housekeeper’s room, and Richard Arden knocked.

“Come in,” said the quavering voice of the old woman from within.

Richard Arden opened the door wide. The misty rose-coloured light of the setting sun filled the room. From the wall right opposite, the pale portrait of Sir Thomas Arden, who fought for the king during the great Civil War, looked forth from his deep dingy frame full upon them, stern and melancholy; the misty beams touching the softer lights of his long hair and the gleam of his armour so happily, that the figure came out from its dark background, and seemed ready to step forth to meet them. As it happened, there was no one in the room but old Mrs. Tansey, the housekeeper, who received Richard Arden standing.

From the threshold, Mr. Longcluse, lost in wonder at the noble picture, gazed on it, with the exclamation, almost a cry, “Good heaven! what a noble work! I had no idea there could be such a thing in existence and so little known.” And he stood for awhile in a rapture, gazing from the threshold on the portrait.

At sound of that voice, with a vague and terrible recognition, the housekeeper turned with a start towards the door, expecting, you’d have fancied from her face, the entrance of a ghost. There was a tremble in the voice with which she cried, “Lord! what’s that?” a tremble in the hand extended towards the door, and a shake also in the pale frowning face, from which shone her glassy eyes.

Mr. Longcluse stepped in, and the old woman’s gaze became, as he did so, more shrinking and intense. When he saw her he recoiled, as a man might who had all but trod upon a snake; and these two people gazed at one another with a strange, uncertain scowl.

In Mr. Longcluse’s case, this dismal caprice of countenance did not last beyond a second or two. Richard Arden, as he turned his eyes from the picture to say a word to his companion, saw it for a moment, and it faded from his features — saw it, and the darkened countenance of the old housekeeper, with a momentary shock. He glanced from one to the other quickly, with a look of unconscious surprise. That look instantly recalled Mr. Longcluse, who, laying his hand on Richard Arden’s arm, said, with a laugh —“I do believe I’m the most nervous man in the world.”

“You don’t find the room too hot?” said Richard, inwardly ruminating upon the strange looks he had just seen exchanged. “Mrs. Tansey keeps a fire all the year round — don’t you, Martha?”

Martha did not answer, nor seem to hear; she pressed her lean hand, instead, to her heart, and drew back to a sofa and sat down, muttering, “My God, lighten our darkness, we beseech thee!” and she looked as if she were on the point of fainting.

“That is a true Vandyck,” said Mr. Longcluse, who was now again looking stedfastly at the picture. “It deserves to rank among his finest portraits. I have never seen anything of his more forcible. You really ought not to leave it here, and in this state.” He walked over and raised the lower end of the frame gently from the wall. “Yes, just as you said, it wants to be backed. That portrait would not stand a shake, I can tell you. The canvas is perfectly rotten, and the paint — if you stand here you’ll see — is ready to flake off. It is an awful pity. You shouldn’t leave it in such danger.”

“No,” said Richard, who was looking at the old woman. “I don’t think Martha’s well — will you excuse me for a moment?” And he was at the housekeeper’s side. “What’s the matter, Martha?” he said kindly. “Are you ill?”

“Very bad, Sir. I beg your pardon for sitting, but I could not help; and the gentleman will excuse me.”

“Of course — but what’s the matter?” said Richard.

“A sudden fright like, Sir. I’m all over on a tremble,” she quavered.

“See how exquisitely that hand is painted,” continued Mr. Longcluse, pursuing his criticism, “and the art with which the lights are managed. It is a wonderful picture. It makes one positively angry to see it in that state, and anywhere but in the most conspicuous and honourable place. If I owned that picture, I should never be tired showing it. I should have it where everyone who came into my house should see it; and I should watch every crack and blur on its surface, as I should the symptoms of a dying child, or the looks of the mistress of my heart. Now just look at this. Where is he? Oh!”

“I beg your pardon, a thousand times, but I find my old friend Martha feels a little faint and ill,” said Richard.

“Dear me! I hope she’s better,” said Mr. Longcluse, approaching with solicitude. “Can I be of any use? Shall I touch the bell?”

“I’m better, Sir, I thank you; I’m much better,” said the old woman. “It won’t signify nothing, only —” She was looking hard again at Mr. Longcluse, who now seemed perfectly at his ease, and showed in his countenance nothing but the commiseration befitting the occasion. “A sort of a weakness — a fright like — and I can’t think, quite, what came over me.”

“Don’t you think a glass of wine might do her good?” asked Mr. Longcluse.

“Thanks, Sir, I don’t drink it. Oh, lighten our darkness, we beseech thee! Good Lord, a’ mercy on us! I take them drops, hartshorn and valerian, on a little water, when I feel nervous like. I don’t know when I was took wi’ t’ creepins before.”

“You look better,” said Richard.

“I’m quite right again, Sir,” she said, with a sigh. She had taken her “drops,” and seemed restored.

“Hadn’t you better have one of the maids with you? I’m going now; I’ll send some one,” he said. “You must get all right, Martha. It pains me to see you ill. You’re a very old friend, remember. You must be all right again; and, if you like, we’ll have the doctor out, from town.”

He said this, holding her thin old hand very kindly, for he was by no means without good-nature. So sending the promised attendant, he and Longcluse proceeded to the billiard-room, where, having got the lamps lighted, they began to enjoy their smoke. Each, I fancy, was thinking of the little incident in the housekeeper’s room. There was a long silence.

“Poor old Tansey! She looked awfully ill,” said Richard Arden at last.

“By Jove! she did. Is that her name? She rather frightened me,” said Mr. Longcluse. “I thought we had stumbled on a mad woman — she stared so. Has she ever had any kind of fit, poor thing?”

“No. She grumbles a good deal, but I really think she’s a healthy old woman enough. She says she was frightened.”

“We came in too suddenly, perhaps?”

“No, that wasn’t it, for I knocked first,” said Arden.

“Ah, yes, so you did. I only know she frightened me. I really thought she was out of her mind, and that she was going to stick me with a knife, perhaps,” said Mr. Longcluse, with a little laugh and a shrug.

Arden laughed, and puffed away at his cigar till he had it in a glow again. Was this explanation of what he had seen in Longcluse’s countenance — a picture presented but for a fraction of a second, but thenceforward ineffaceable — quite satisfactory?

In a short time Mr. Longcluse asked whether he could have a little brandy and water, which accordingly was furnished. In his first glass there was a great deal of brandy, and very little water indeed; and his second, sipped more at his leisure, was but little more diluted. A very faint flush tinged his pallid cheeks.

Richard Arden was, by this time, thinking of his own debts and ill-luck, and at last he said, “I wonder what the art of getting on in the world is. Is it communicable? or is it no art at all, but a simple run of luck?”

Mr. Longcluse smiled scornfully. “There are men who have immense faith in themselves,” said he, “who have indomitable will, and who are provided with craft and pliancy for any situation. Those men are giants from the first to the last hour of action, unless, as happened to Napoleon, success enervates them. In the cradle, they strangle serpents; blind, they pull down palaces; old as Dandolo, they burn fleets and capture cities. It is only when they have taken to bragging that the lues Napoleonica has set in. Now I have been, in a sense, a successful man — I am worth some money. If I were the sort of man I describe, I should be worth, if I cared for it, ten times what I have in as many years. But I don’t care to confess I made my money by flukes. If, having no tenderness, you have two attributes — profound cunning and perfect audacity — nothing can keep you back. I’m a common-place man, I say; but I know what constitutes power. Life is a battle, and the general’s qualities win.”

“I have not got the general’s qualities, I think; and I know I haven’t luck,” said Arden; “so for my part I may as well drift, with as little trouble as may be, wherever the current drives. Happiness is not for all men.”

“Happiness is for no man,” said Mr. Longcluse. And a little silence followed. “Now suppose a fellow has got more money than ever he dreamed of,” he resumed, “and finds money, after all, not quite what he fancied, and that he has come to long for a prize quite distinct and infinitely more precious; so that he finds, at last, that he never can be happy for an hour without it, and yet, for all his longing and his pains, sees it is unattainable as that star.” (He pointed to a planet that shone down through the skylight.) “Is that man happy? He carries with him, go where he may, an aching heart, the pangs of jealousy and despair, and the longing of the damned for Paradise. That is my miserable case.”

Richard Arden laughed, as he lighted his second cigar.

“Well, if that’s your case, you can’t be one of those giants you described just now. Women are not the obdurate and cruel creatures you fancy. They are proud, and vain, and unforgiving; but the misery and the perseverance of a lover constitute a worship that first flatters and then wins them. Remember this, a woman finds it very hard to give up a worshipper, except for another. Now why should you despair? You are a gentleman, you are a clever fellow, an agreeable fellow; you are what is accounted a young man still, and you can make your wife rich. They all like that. It is not avarice, but pride. I don’t know the young lady, but I see no good reason why you should fail.”

“I wish, Arden, I dare tell you all; but some day I’ll tell you more.”

“The only thing is —— You’ll not mind my telling you, as you have been so frank with me?”

“Pray say whatever you think. I shall be ever so much obliged. I forget so many things about English manners and ways of thinking — I have lived so very much abroad. Should I be put up for a club?”

“Well, I should not mind a club just yet, till you know more people — quite time enough. But you must manage better. Why should those Jew fellows, and other people, who don’t hold, and never can, a position the least like yours, be among your acquaintance? You must make it a rule to drop all objectionable persons, and know none but good people. Of course, when you are strong enough it doesn’t so much matter, provided you keep them at arm’s length. But you passed your younger days abroad, as you say, and not being yet so well known here, you will have to be particular — don’t you see? A man is so much judged by his acquaintance; and, in fact, it is essential.”

“A thousand thanks for any hints that strike you,” said Longcluse good-humouredly.

“They sound frivolous; but these trifles have immense weight with women,” said Arden. “By Jove!” he added, glancing at his watch, “we shall be late. Your trap is at the door — suppose we go?”

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