Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 26.

The Garden at Mortlake.

Alice leaned back in her chair, smiling, and very much pleased.

“So my father seems disposed to relent ever so little — and ever so little, you know, is better than nothing,” said Richard Arden.

“I’m so glad, Dick, that he wishes you to take your dinner with us tomorrow; it is a very good sign. It would be so delightful if you could be at home with us, as you used to be.”

“You are a good little soul, Alice — a dear little thing! This is very pretty,” he said, looking at her drawing. “What is it?”

“The ruined castle near the northern end of the lake at Golden Friars. Mr. Longcluse says it is pretty good. Is he to dine here, do you know?”

“No — I don’t know — I hope not,” said Richard shortly.

“Hope not! why?” said she. “I thought you liked him extremely.”

“I thought he was very well for a sort of outdoor acquaintance for men; but I don’t even know that, now. There’s no use in speaking to Lady May, but I warn you — you had better drop him. There is very little known about him, but there is a great deal that is not pleasant said.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“But you used to speak so highly of him. I’m so surprised!”

“I did not know half what people said of him. I’ve heard a great deal since.”

“But is it true?” asked Alice.

“It is nothing to me whether it is true or not. It is enough if a man is talked about uncomfortably, to make it unpleasant to know him. We owe nothing to Mr. Longcluse; there is no reason why you should have an acquaintance that is not desirable. I mean to drop him quietly, and you can’t know him, really you mustn’t, Alice.”

“I don’t know. It seems to me very hard,” said Miss Alice spiritedly. “It is not many days since you spoke of him so highly; and I was quite pained when you came in just now. I don’t know whether he perceived it, but I think he must. I only know that I thought you were so cold and strange to him, your manner so unlike what it always was before. I thought you had been quarrelling. I fancied he was vexed, and I felt quite sorry; and I don’t think what you say, Richard, is manly, or like yourself. You used to praise him so, and fight his battles; and he is, though very distinguished in some ways, rather a stranger in London; and people, you told me, envy him, and try in a cowardly way to injure him; and what more easy than to hint discreditable things of people? and you did not believe a word of those reports when last you spoke of him; and considering that he had no people to stand by him in London, or to take his part, and that he may never even hear the things that are said by low people about him, don’t you think it would be cowardly of us, and positively base to treat him so?”

“Upon my word, Miss Alice, that is very good oratory indeed! I don’t think I ever heard you so eloquent before, at least upon the wrongs of one of my sex.”

“Now, Dick, that sneer won’t do. There may possibly be reasons why it would have been wiser never to have made Mr. Longcluse’s acquaintance; I can’t say. Those reasons, however, you treated very lightly indeed a little time ago — you know you did — and now, upon no better, you say you are going to cut him. I can’t bring myself to do any such thing. He is always looking in at Lady May’s, and I can’t help meeting him unless I am to cut her also. Now don’t you see how odious I should appear, and how impossible it is?”

“I won’t argue it now, dear Alice; there is quite time enough. I shall come an hour before dinner, tomorrow, and we can have a quiet talk; and I am quite sure I shall convince you. Mind, I don’t say we should insult him,” he laughed. “I only say this, and I’ll maintain it — and I’ll show you why — that he is not a desirable acquaintance. We have taken him up very foolishly, and we must drop him. And now, darling, good-bye.”

He kissed her — she kissed him. She looked grave for a moment after, after he had run down the stairs. He has quarrelled with Mr. Longcluse about something, she thought, as she stood at the window with the tip of her finger to her lip, looking at her brother as he mounted the showy horse which had cantered with him up and down Rotten Row for two hours or more, before he had ridden out to Mortlake. She saw him now ride away.

It was near eight o’clock, and all this time Mr. Longcluse had been in confidence with Sir Reginald about his miserable mortgage. Mr. Longcluse was cautious; but there floated in his mind certain possible contingencies, under which he might perhaps make the financial adjustment, which Sir Reginald desired, very easy indeed to the worthy baronet.

It was the tempting hour of evening when the birds begin to sing, and the level beams from the west glorify all objects. Alice put on her hat and ran out to the old gardens of Mortlake. They are enclosed in a grey wall, and lie one above the other in three terraces, with tall standard fruit trees, so old that their fruit was now dwarfed in size to half its earlier bearings, standing high with a dark and sylvan luxuriance, and at this moment, sheltering among their sunlit leaves, nestle and flutter the small birds whose whistlings cheer and sadden the evening air. Every tree and bush that bore fruit, in this old garden, had grown quite beyond the common stature of its kind, and a good gardener would have cut them all down fifty years ago. But there was a kind of sylvan and stately beauty in those wonderful lofty pear-trees, with their dense dark foliage, and in the standard cherries so tall and prim, and something homely and comfortable in the great straggling apples and plums, dappled with grey lichens and tufted with moss. There were flowers as well as fruits, of all sorts, in this garden. All its arrangements were out of date. There was an air, not actually of neglect — for it was weeded, and the walks were trim and gravelled — but of carelessness and rusticity, not unpleasant, in the place. Trees were allowed to straggle and spread, and rise aloft in the air, just as they pleased. Tall roses climbed the walls about the door, and clustered in nodding masses overhead; and no end of pretty annuals and other flowers, quite out of fashion, crowded the dishevelled currant bushes, and the forest of raspberries. Here and there were very tall myrtles, and the quince, and obsolete medlars, were discoverable among the other fruit-trees. The summits of the walls were in some places crowned, to the scandal of all decent gardening, with ivy, and a carved shaft in the centre of each garden supported a sun-dial as old as the Hall itself.

There are fancies, as well as likings and lovings. Where there is a real worship, however cautiously masked — and Mr. Longcluse was by no means so — it is never a mystery to a clever girl. And such adoration, although it be not at all reciprocated, is sometimes hard to part with. There is something of the nature of compassion, with a little gratitude, perhaps, mingling in the pang which a gentle lady feels at having to discharge for ever an honest love and a true servant, and send him away to solitary suffering for her sake. Some little pang of reproach of this sensitive kind had, perhaps, armed her against her brother’s sudden sentence of exclusion pronounced against Mr. Longcluse.

The evening sunlight travelled over the ivy on the discoloured wall, and glittered on the leaves of the tall fruit-trees, in whose thick foliage the birds were still singing their vespers. Walking down the broad walk towards the garden-door, she felt the saddening influence of the hour returning; and as she reached the door, overclustered with roses, it opened, and Mr. Longcluse stood in the shadow before her.

Miss Arden, thus surprised in the midst of thoughts which at that moment happened to be employed about him, showed for a second, as she suddenly stopped, something in her beautiful face almost amounting to embarrassment.

“I was called away so suddenly to see Sir Reginald, that I went without saying good-bye; so I ran up to the drawing-room, and the servant told me I should probably find you here; and, really without reflecting — I act, I’m afraid, so much from impulse that I might appear very impertinent — I ventured to follow. What a beautiful evening! How charming the light! You, who are such an artist, and understand the poetry of colour so, must admire this cloister-like garden, so beautifully illuminated.”

Was Mr. Longcluse also a very little embarrassed as he descanted thus on light and colour?

“It is a very old garden and does very little credit, I’m afraid, to our care; but I greatly prefer it to our formal gardens and all their finery, in Yorkshire.”

She moved her hand as if she expected Mr. Longcluse to take it and his leave, for it was high time her visitor should “order his wings and be off the west,” in which quarter, as we know, lay Mr. Longcluse’s habitation. He had stepped in, however, and the door closed softly before the light evening breeze that swung it gently. She was standing under the wild canopy of roses, and he under the sterner arch of grooved and fluted stone that overhung the doorway.

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