Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 21.

A Walk by Moonlight.

While Martha Tansey was telling her grisly story in the housekeeper’s room, and David Arden listening to the oft-told tale, for the sake of the possible new lights which the narration might throw upon his present theory, the little party in the drawing-room had their music and their talk. Mr. Longcluse sang the song which, standing beside Uncle David on the landing, near the great window on the staircase, we have faintly heard; and then he sang that other song, of the goblin wooer, at Alice’s desire.

“Was the poor girl fool enough to accept his invitation?” inquired Miss Maubray.

“That I really can’t say,” laughed Mr. Longcluse.

“Yes, indeed, poor thing! I so hope she didn’t,” said Lady May.

“It’s very likely she did,” interposed Sir Reginald, opening his eyes — every one thought he was dozing —“nothing more foolish, and therefore, nothing more likely. Besides, if she didn’t, she probably did worse. Better to go straight to the ——”

“Oh, dear Reginald!” exclaimed Lady May.

“Than by a tedious circumbendibus. I suppose her parents highly disapproved of the goblin; wasn’t that alone an excellent reason for going away with him?”

And Sir Reginald closed his eyes again.

“Perhaps,” said Miss Maubray aside to Vivian Darnley, “that romantic young lady may have had a cross papa, and thought that she could not change very much for the worse.”

“Shall I tell that to Sir Reginald? — it would amuse him,” inquired Darnley.

“Not as my remark; but I make you a present of it.”

“Thanks; but that, even with your permission, would be a plagiarism, and robbing you of his applause.”

Vivian Darnley was very inattentive to his own nonsense. He was talking very much at random, for his mind, and occasionally his eyes, were otherwise occupied.

Alice Arden was sitting near the piano, and talking to Mr. Longcluse.

“Is that meant to be a ghost, I wonder, in our sense, like the ghost of Wilhelm in the ballad of Leonora? or is the lover a demon?”

“A demon, surely,” answered Longcluse, “a spirit appointed to her destruction. In an old ghostly writer there is a Latin sentence, Unicuique nascenti, adest dæmon vitæ mystagogus, which I will translate, ‘There is present at the birth of every human being a demon, who is the conductor of his life.’ Be it fortunate, or be it direful, to this supernatural influence he owes it all. So they thought; and to families such a demon is allotted also, and they prosper or wane as his function is ordained. I wonder whether such demons ever enter into human beings, and, in the shape of living men, haunt, plague, and ruin their predestinated victims.”

This sort of mysticism for a time they talked, and then wandered away to other themes, and the talk grew general; and Mr. Longcluse, with a pang, discovered that it was late. He had something on his mind that night. He had an undivulged use, also, to which to apply David Arden. As the hour drew near it weighed more and more heavily at his heart. That hour must be observed; he wished to be away before it arrived. There was still ample time; but Lady May was now talking of going, and he made up his mind to say farewell.

Lingeringly Mr. Longcluse took his leave. But go he must; and so, a last touch of the hand, a last look, and the parting is over. Down-stairs he runs; his groom and his brougham are at the door. What a glorious moon! The white light upon all things around is absolutely dazzling. How sharp and black the shadows! How light and filmy rises the old house! How black the nooks of the thick ivy! Every drop of dew that hangs upon its leaves, or on the drooping stalks of the neglected grass, is transmuted into a diamond. As he stands for an instant upon the broad platform of the steps, he looks round him with a deep sigh, and with a strange smile of rapture. The man standing with the open door of the brougham in his hand caught his eye.

“Go you down as far as the little church, before you reach the ‘Guy of Warwick,’ in the village, quite close to this — you know it — and wait there for me. I shall walk.”

The man touched his hat, shut the door, and mounted the box beside the driver, and away went the brougham. Mr. Longcluse lit a cigarette, and slowly walked down the broad avenue after the vehicle. By the time he had got about half-way, he heard the iron gates swing together, the sound of the wheels was lost in distance, and the feeling of seclusion returned. In the same vague intoxication of poetry and romance, he paused and looked round again, and sighed. The trunk of a great tree overthrown in the last year’s autumnal gales, with some of its boughs lopped off, lay on the grass at the edge of the avenue. There remained a little of his cigarette to smoke, and the temptation of this natural seat was irresistible; so he took it, and smoked, and gazed, and dreamed, and sometimes, as he took the cigarette from his lips, he sighed — never was man in a more romantic vein. He looked back on the noble front of the picturesque old house. The cold moonlight gleamed on most of the window-panes: but from a few tall windows glowed faintly the warmer light of candles. If anyone had ever felt the piercing storms of life, the treachery of his species, and the mendacity of the illusions that surround us, Longcluse was that man. He had accepted the conditions of life, and was a man of the world; but no boy of eighteen was ever more in love than he at this moment.

Gazing back at the dim glow that flushed through the tall window-blinds of the distant drawing-room, his fancy weaving all those airy dreams that passion lives in, this pale, solitary man — whom no one quite knew, who trusted no one, who had his peculiar passions, his sorrows, his fears, and strange remembrances; everything connected with his origin, vicissitudes, and character, except this one wild hope, locked up, as it were, in an iron casket, and buried in a grave fathoms deep — was now floated back, he knew not how, to that time of sweet perturbation and agonising hope at which the youth of Shakespeare’s time were wont to sigh like a furnace, and indite woeful ballads to their mistress’s eyebrows. Now he saw lights in an upper room. Imagination and conjecture were in a moment at work. No servant’s apartment, its dimensions were too handsome; and had not Sir Reginald mentioned that his room was upon a level with the hall? Just at this moment Lady May’s carriage drove down the avenue and past him. Yes, she had run up direct to her room on bidding Lady May good-night. How he drank in these rosy lights through his dark eyes! and how their tremble seemed to quicken the pulsations of his heart! Gradually his thoughts saddened, and his face grew dark.

“Two doors in life — only in this life, if all bishops and curates speak truth — one or other shut for ever in the next. The gate to heaven, the gate to hell. Heaven! Facilis decensus. Life is such a sophism. Yet even those canting dogs in the pulpit can’t bark away the truth. God sees not with our eyes! Revealed religion — Mahomet, Moses, Mormon, Borgia! What is the first lesson inscribed by his Maker on every man’s heart, instinct, intellect? I read the mandate thus: ‘Take the best care you can of number one.’ Bah! ‘It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’”

Uncle David’s carriage now drove by.

“There goes that sharp girl — pretty, vain — and they’re all vain; they ought to be vain; they could not please if they were not. Vain she is — devoured, mind, soul, passion, by vanity. Yes, and power — the lust of power, conquest, acquisition. She’s greedy and crafty, I daresay. Oh! Alice, who was ever quite like you? The most beautiful, the best, my darling! Oh! enchantress, work the miracle, and make this forlorn man what he might be!”

It passed like a magic-lantern picture, and was gone. The distant clang of the iron gate was heard again, the avenue was deserted and silent, and Longcluse once more alone in his dream. He was looking towards the house, sometimes breaking into a few murmured words, sometimes smoking, and just as his cigarette was out he saw a figure approaching. It was Uncle David, who was walking down the avenue. It so happened that his mind was at that moment busy with Mr. Longcluse, and it was with an odd little shock, therefore, that he saw the very man — whom he fancied by that time to be at least two miles away — rise up in his path, and stand before him, smiling, in the moonlight.

“Oh! — Mr. Longcluse?” exclaimed David Arden, coming suddenly to a halt.

“So it is,” said Longcluse, with a little laugh. “You are surprised to find me here, and I fancied I had seen your carriage go on.”

“So you did; it is waiting near the gate for me. Can I give you a seat into town?”

“Thanks,” said Longcluse, smiling; “mine is waiting for me a little further on.”

Longcluse walked slowly on toward the gate, with David Arden at his side.

“My ward, Miss Maubray, has gone on with Lady May, and Darnley went with them. So I’m not such a brute as I should be if I were making a young lady wait while I was enjoying the moonlight.”

“It was this wonderful moon that led me, also, into this night-ramble on foot,” said Mr. Longcluse; “I found the temptation absolutely irresistible.”

As they thus talked, Mr. Longcluse had formed the resolution of choosing that moment for a confidence which, considering how slender was his acquaintance with Mr. David Arden, was, to say the least, a little bold and odd. They had not very far to walk before reaching the gate, so, a little abruptly turning the course of their talk, Mr. Longcluse said, with a chilly little laugh, and a smile more pallid than ever in the moonlight —

“By-the-bye, we were talking of that shocking occurrence in the Saloon Tavern; and connected with it, I have had two threatening letters.”

“Indeed!” said David Arden.

“Fact, I assure you,” said Mr. Longcluse, with a shrug and another cold little laugh.

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