Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 20.

Mrs. Tansey’s Story.

“The sun don’t touch these windows till nigh nightfall. In the short days o’ winter, the last sunbeam at the settin’ just glints along the wall, and touches a sprig or two o’ them scarlet geraniums on the windastone. ’Tis a cold room, Master David. In summer evenins, like this, ye have just a chilly flush o’ the sun settin’, and, before it’s well on the windas, the bats and beetles is abroad, and the moth is flittin’, and the gloamin’ fa’s,” said the old woman. “The windas looks to the west, but also a bit to the north, ye’ll mind, and that’s the cause o’t. I don’t complain. I ha’ suffered it these thirty years and more, and ‘tain’t worth while, for the few years that’s left, makin’ a blub and a blither about it. I’m an old wife now, Master David, and there can’t be many more years for me left aboon the grass, sa I e’en let be and taks the world easy, ye see; and that’s the reason I aye keep a bit o’ wood burnin’ on the hearth — it keeps the life in my old bones — and I hope it ain’t too warm for you, Master David?”

“Not a bit, Martha. This side of the house is cool. I remember that our room, when we were boys, looked out from it, high up, you recollect, and it never was hot.”

“That’s it, ye were in the top o’ the house; and poor Harry, wi’ his picturs o’ horses and dogs hangin’ up on the wa’s. Lawk! it seems but last week. How the years flits! I often thinks of him. See what a moon there is to-night. ’Twas just such a moon that night, only frostier, ye see — the same clear sky and bright moon; ‘twould make ye wink to look at. Ye’re not too hot wi’ that bit o’ wood lightin’ in the grate?”

“I like the fire, Martha, and I like the moon, and I like your company best of all.”

The truth was, he did like the flicker of the wood fire. The flame was cheery, and took off something of the dismal shadow that stole over everything whenever he applied his affectionate mind to the horrors of the dreadful night on which he was now ruminating. One of the window-shutters was open, and the chill brilliancy of the moon, and the deep blue sky, were serenely visible over the black foreground of trees. The wavering of the redder light of the fire, as its reflection spread and faded upon the wainscot, was warm and pleasant; and, had their talk been of less ghastly things, would have brightened their thoughts with a sense of comfort.

“I have not very long to stay, Martha,” said David Arden, looking at his watch, “so tell me your recollection as accurately as you can. Let me hear that first; and then I want to ask you for some particular information, which I am sure you can give me.”

“Why not? Who should I give it sooner to? Will ye take a cup o’ coffee? No. Well, a glass o’ curaçoa? No. And what will ye take?”

“You forget that I have taken everything, and come to you with all my wants supplied. So now, dear Martha, let me hear it all.”

“I’ll tell ye all about it. I was younger and stronger, mind, than I am now, by twenty years and more. ’Tis a short time to look back on, but a good while passing, and leaves many a gap and change, and many a scar and wrinkle.”

There was a palpable tremble always in Mrs. Tansey’s voice, in the thin hand she extended towards him, and in the head from which her old eyes glittered glassily on him.

“The road is very lonely by night — the loneliest road in all England. When it passes ten o’clock, you might listen till cock-crow for a footfall. Well, I, and Thomas Ridley, and Anne Haslett, was all the people at Mortlake just then, the family being in the North, except Master Harry. He went to a race across country, that was run that day; and he told me, laughing, he would not ask me to throw an old shoe after him, as he stood sure to win two thousand pounds. And away he went, little thinking, him and me, how our next meetin’ would be. At that time old Tom Clinton — ye’ll mind Clinton?”

“To be sure I do,” acquiesced David Arden.

“Well, Tom was in the gatehouse then; after he died, his daughter’s husband got it, ye know. And when he had outstayed his time by two hours — for he was going northwards in the morning, and told me he’d be surely back before ten — I began to grow frightened, and I put on my bonnet and cloak, and down I runs to the gatehouse, and knocks up Tom Clinton. It was nigh twelve o’clock then. When Tom came to the door, having dressed in haste, I said, ‘Tom, which way will Master Harry return? he’s not been since.’ And says Tom, ‘If he’s comin’ straight from the course, he’ll come down from the country; but if he’s dinin’ instead in London, he’ll come up the Islington way.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘go you, Tom, to the turn o’ the road, and look and listen for sight or sound, and bring me word.’ I don’t know what was frightenin’ me. He was often later, and I never minded; but something that night was on my mind, like a warning, for I couldn’t get the fear out o’ my heart. Well, who comes ridin’ back but Dick Wallock, the groom, that had drove away with him in the gig in the mornin’; and glad I was to see his face at the gate. It was bright moonlight, and says I, ‘Dick, how is Master Harry? Is all well with him?’ So he tells me, ay, all was well, and he goin’ to drive the gig out himself from town. He was at a place —you’ll mind the name of it — where it turned out they played cards and dice, and won and lost like — like fools, or worse, as some o’ them no doubt was. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘go you up, as he told you, with the horse, and I’ll stay here till he comes back, if it wasn’t till daybreak.’ For all the time, ye see, my heart misgave me that there was summat bad to happen; and when Tom Clinton came back, says I, ‘Tom, you go in, and get to your room, and let me sit down in your kitchen; and I’ll let him in when he comes, for I can’t go up to the house, nor close an eye, till he comes.’ Well, it was a full hour after, and I was sittin’ in the kitchen window that looks out on the road, starin’ wide awake, and lookin’, now one way and now another, up and down, when I hears the clink of a footfall on the stones, and a tall, ill-favoured man walks slowly by, and turns his face toward the window as he passed.”

“You saw him distinctly, then?” said David.

“As plain as ever I saw you. An ill-favoured fellow in a light drab great coat wi’ a cape to it. He looked white wi’ fear, and wild big eyes, and a high hooked nose — a tall chap wi’ his hands in his pockets, and a low-crowned hat on. He went on slow, till a whistle sounded, and then he ran down the road a bit toward the signal.”

“That was toward the Islington side?”

“Ay, Sir, and I grew more uneasy. I was scared wi’ the sight o’ such a man at that time o’ night, in that lonesome place, and the whistlin’ and runnin’.”

“Did you see the same man again that night?” asked David.

“Yes, ’twas the same I saw afterwards — Lord ha’ mercy on us! I saw him again, at his murderin’ work. Oh, Master David! it makes my brain wild, and my skin creep, to think o’ that sight.”

“I did wrong to interrupt you; tell it your own way, Martha, and I can afterwards ask you the questions that lie near my heart,” said Mr. Arden.

“’Tis easy told, Sir; the candle was burnt down almost in the socket, and I went to look out another — but before I could find one, it went out. ’Twas but a stump I found and lighted, after I saw that fellow in the light drab surtout go by. I wished to let them know, if they had any ill design, there was folks awake in the lodge. But he was gone by before I found the matches, and now that he was comin’ again, the candle went out — things goes so cross. It was to be, ye see. Well, while I was rummagin’ about, looking for a candle, I heard the sound of a horse trotting hard, and wheels rollin’ along; so says I, ‘Thank God!’ for then I was sure it must be Harry, poor lad. So I claps on my bonnet, and out wi’ me, wi’ t’ key. I thought I heard voices, as the hoofs and wheels came clinkin’ up to the gate; but I could not be quite sure. I was huffed wi’ Master Harry for the long wait he gev me, and the fright, and I took my time comin’ round the corner of the gatehouse. And thinks I to myself, he’ll be offerin’ me a seat in the gig up to the house, but I won’t take it. God forgi’e me for them angry thoughts to the poor laddie that I was never to have a word wi’ more! When I came to the gate there was never a call, and nothing but voices talking and gaspin’ like, under their breath a’most, and a queer scufflin’ sound, that I could not make head nor tail on. So I unlocked the wicket, and out wi’ me, and, Lord ha’ mercy on us, what a sight for me! The gig was there, with its shafts on the ground, and its back cocked up, and the iron-grey flat on his side, lashin’ and scramblin’, poor brute, and two villains in the gig, both pullin’ at poor Master Harry, one robbin’, and t’other murderin’ him. I took one o’ them — a short, thick fellow — by the skirt o’ his coat, to drag him out, and I screamed for Tom Clinton to come out. The short fellow turned, and struck at me wi’ somethin’; but, lucky for me, ‘appen, the lashin’ horse that minute took me on the foot, and brought me down. But up I scrambles wi’ a stone in my hand, and I shied it, the best I could, at the head o’ the villain that was killin’ Master Harry. But what can a woman do? It did not go nigh him, I’m thinkin’. I was, all the time, calling on Tom to come, and cryin’ ‘Murder!’ that you’d think my throat’d split. That bloody wretch in the gig had got poor Master Harry’s head back over the edge of it, and his knee to his chest, a-strivin’ to break his neck across the back-rails; and poor dear lad, Master Harry, he just scritched, ‘Yelland Mace! for God’s sake!’ They were the last words I ever heard from him, and I’ll never forget that horrid scritch, nor the face of the villain that was over him, like a beast over its prey. He was tuggin’ at his throat, like you’d be tryin’ to tear up a tree by the roots — you never see such a face. His teeth was set, and the froth comin’ through, and his black eyebrows screwed together, you’d think they’d crack the thin hooked nose of him between them, and he pantin’ like a wild beast. He looked like a madman, I tell you; ’twas bright moonlight, and the trees bare, and the shadows of the branches was switchin’ across his face.”

“You saw that face distinctly?” asked David Arden.

“As clear as yours this minute.”

“Now tell me — and think first — was he a bit like that Mr. Longcluse whose appearance startled you the other evening?” asked Mr. Arden, in a very low tone, with his eyes fixed on her intensely.

“No, no, no! not a bit. He had a small mouth and white teeth, and a great beak of a nose. No, no, no! not he. I saw him strike somethin’ that shone — a knife or a dagger — into the poor lad’s throat, and he struck it down at my head, as you know, and I mind nothin’ after that. I’ll carry the scar o’ that murderer’s blow to my grave. There’s the whole story, and God forgi’e ye for asking me, for it gi’es me t’ creepins for a week after; and I didn’t conceit ‘twould ‘a’ made me sa excited, Sir, or I would not ‘a’ bargained to tell it to-night — not that I blame ye, Master David, for I thought, myself, that I could bear it better — and I do believe, as I have gone so far in it, ’tis better to make one job of it, and a finish. So ye’ll ask me any question ye like, and I’ll make the best answer I can; only, Master David, ye’ll not be o’er long about it?”

“You are a good creature, Martha. I am sorry to pain you, but I pain myself, and you know why I ask these questions.”

“Ay, Sir, and I’d rather hear ye ask them than see you sit as easy under all that as some does, that owed the poor fellow as much love as ever you did, and were as near akin.”

“I am puzzled, Martha, and hitherto I have been baffled, but I won’t give it up yet. You say that the wretch who struck you was a singular-looking man, at least as you describe him. I know, Martha, I can rely upon your caution — you will not repeat to any one what passes in our interview.” He lowered his voice. “You do not think that this Mr. Longcluse — a rich gentleman, you know and a person who thinks he’s of some consequence, a person whom we must not look at, you know, as if he had two heads — you really don’t think that this Mr. Longcluse has any resemblance to the villain whom you saw stab my brother, and who struck you?”

“Not he — no more than I have. No, no, Mr. Longcluse is quite another sort of face; but for all that, when he came in here, and I saw him before me, his face and his speech reminded me of that night.”

“How was that, Martha? Did he resemble the other man — the man who was aiding?”

“That fellow was hanged, ye’ll mind, Master David.”

“Yes, but a likeness might have struck and startled you.”

“No, Sir — no, Master David, not him; surely not him. I can’t bring it to mind, but it frightens me. It is queer, Sir. All I can say for certain is this, Master David. The minute I heard his voice, and got sight of his face, like that,” and she dropped her hand on the table, “the thought of that awful night came back, bright and cold, Sir, and them black shadows —’twas all about me, I can’t tell how, and I hope I may never see him again.”

“Do you think there was another man by, besides the two villains in the gig?” suggested David Arden.

“Not a living soul except them and myself. Poor Master Harry said to Tom Clinton, ye’ll mind, for he lived half-an-hour after, and spoke a little, though faint and with great labour, and says he, ‘There were two: Yelland Mace killed me, and Tom Todry took the money.’ Tom Clinton heard him say that, and swore to it before the justice o’ peace, and after, on the trial. No, no, there wasn’t a soul there but they two villains, and the poor dear lad they murdered, and me and Tom Clinton, that might as well ‘a’ bin in York for any good we did. Oh, no, Heaven forbid I should be so unmannerly as to compare a gentleman like Mr. Longcluse to such folk as that! Oh, lawk, no, Sir! But there’s something, there’s a look — or a sound in his voice — I can’t get round it quite — but it reminds me of something about that night, with a start like, I can’t tell how — something unlucky and awful — and I would not see him again for a deal.”

“Well, Martha, a thousand thanks. I’m puzzled, as I said. Perhaps it is only something strange in his face that caused that odd misgiving. For I who saw but one of the wretches engaged in the crime, the man who was convicted, who certainly did not in the slightest degree resemble Mr. Longcluse, experienced the same unpleasant sensation on first seeing him. I don’t know how it is, Martha, but the idea clings to me, as it does to you. Some light may come. Something may turn up. I can’t get it out of my mind that somehow — it may be circuitously — he has, at least, got the thread in his fingers that may lead us right. Good-night, Martha. I have got the Bible with large print you wished for; I hope you will like the binding. And now, God bless you! It is time I should bid them good-night up-stairs. Farewell, my good old friend.” And, so saying, he shook her hard and shrivelled hand.

His steps echoed along the long tiled passage, with its one dim light, and his mind was still haunted by its one obscure idea.

“It is strange,” he thought, “that Martha and I— the only two living persons, I believe, who care still for poor Harry, and feel alike respecting the expiation that is due to his memory — should both have been struck with the same odd feeling on seeing Longcluse. From that white sinister face, it seems to me, I know not why, will shine the light that will yet clear all up.”

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