Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 27.

Winged Words.

“I was afraid I had vexed your brother somehow,” said Mr. Longcluse —“I thought he seemed to meet me a little formally. I should be so sorry if I had annoyed him by any accident!”

He paused, and Miss Arden said, half laughing —“Oh, don’t you know, Mr. Longcluse, that people are out of spirits sometimes, and now and then a little offended with all the world? It is nothing, of course.”

“What a fib!” whispered conscience in the young lady’s pretty ear, while she smiled and blushed.

Again she raised her hand a little, expecting Mr. Longcluse’s farewell. But she looked a great deal too beautiful for a farewell. Mr. Longcluse could not deny himself a minute more, and he said, “It is a year, Miss Arden, since I first saw you.”

“Is it really? I daresay.”

“Yes, at Lady May Penrose’s. Yes, I remember it distinctly — so distinctly that I shall never forget any circumstance connected with it. It is exactly a year and four days. You smile, Miss Arden, because for you the event can have had no interest; for me it is different — how different I will not say.”

Miss Arden coloured and then grew pale. She was very much embarrassed. She was about to say a word to end the interview, and go. Perhaps Mr. Longcluse was, as he said, impulsive — too precipitate and impetuous. He raised his hand entreatingly —

“Oh, Miss Arden, pray, only a word! — I must speak it. Ever since then — ever since that hour — I have been the slave of a single thought; I have worshipped before one beautiful image, with an impious adoration, for there is nothing — no sacrifice, no crime — I would shrink from for your sake. You can make of me what you will; all I possess, all my future, every thought and feeling and dream — all are yours. No, no; don’t interrupt the few half desperate words I have to speak, they may move you to pity. Never before, in a life of terrible vicissitude, of much suffering, of many dangers, have I seen the human being who could move me as you have done. I did not believe my seared heart capable of passion. And I stand now aghast at what I have spoken. I stand at the brink of a worse death, by the word that trembles on your lips, than the cannon’s mouth could give me. I see I have spoken rashly — I see it in your face — oh, Heaven! I see what you would say.”

His hands were clasped in desperate supplication, as he continued; and the fitful breeze shook the roses above them, and the fading leaves fell softly in a shower about his feet.

“No, don’t speak — your silence is sacred. I sha’n’t misinterpret — I conjure you, don’t answer! Forget that I have spoken. Oh! let it, in mercy, be all forgotten, and let us meet again as if there never had been this moment of madness, and in pity — as you look for mercy — forget it and forgive it!”

He waited for no answer: he was gone: the door closed as it was before. Another breath of wind ruffled the roses, and a few more sere leaves fell where he had just been standing. She drew a long breath, like one awaking from a vision. She was trembling slightly. Never before had she seen such agony in a human face! All had happened so suddenly. It was an effort to believe it real. It seemed as if she could see nothing while he spoke, but that intense, pale face. She heard nothing but his deep and thrilling words. Now it seemed as if flowers, and trees, and wall, and roses, all emerged suddenly again from mist, and as if all the birds had resumed their singing after a silence.

“Forget it — forgive it! Let it, as you look for mercy, be all forgotten. Let us meet again as if it never was.” This strange petition still rang in the ears of the astonished girl.

She was still too much flurried by the shock of this wild and sudden outbreak of passion, and appeal to mercy, quite to see her true course in the odd combination that had arisen. She was a little angry, and a little flattered. There was a confusion of resentment and compassion. What business had this Mr. Longcluse to treat her to those heroics! What right had he to presume that he would be listened to? How dared he ask her to treat all that had happened as if it had never been? How dared he seek to found on this unwarrantable liberty relations of mystery between them? How dared he fancy that she would consent to play at this game of deception with him?

Mingled with these angry thoughts, however, were the recollections of his homage, his tone of melancholy deference ever since she had known him, and his admiration.

Underlying all his trifling talk, there had always been toward her a respect which flattered her, which could not have been exceeded had she been an empress in her own right. No, if he had said more than he had any right to suppose would be listened to, the extravagance was due to no want of respect for her, but to the vehemence of passion.

He was driving now into town, at a great pace. His cogitations were still more perturbed. Had he, by one frantic precipitation, murdered his best hopes?

One consolation at least he had. Being a man, not without reason, prone to suspicion, he had a deep conviction that, for some reason, Richard Arden was opposed to his suit, and had already begun to work upon Miss Arden’s mind to his prejudice. His best chance, then, he still thought, was to anticipate that danger by a declaration. If that declaration could only be forgiven, and the little scene at old Mortlake garden door sponged out, might not his chances stand better far than before? Would not the past, though never spoken of, give meaning, fire, and melancholy to things else insignificant, and keep him always before her, and her alone, be his demeanour and language ever so reserved and cold, as an impassioned lover? Did not his knowledge of human nature assure him that these relations of mystery would, more than any other, favour his fortunes?

“That she should consign what has passed, in a few impetuous moments, to oblivion and silence, is no unreasonable prayer, and one as easy to grant as to will it. She will think it over, and, for my part, I will meet her as if nothing had ever happened to change our trifling but friendly relations. I wish I knew what Richard Arden was about. I soon shall. Yes, I shall — I soon shall.”

An opportunity seemed to offer sooner even than he had hoped; for as he drove towards St. James’s Street, passing one of Richard Arden’s clubs, he saw that young gentleman ascending the steps with Lord Wynderbroke.

Longcluse stopped his brougham, jumped out, and overtook Richard Arden in the hall, where he stood, taking his letters from the hall-porter.

“How d’ye do, again? I sha’n’t detain you a minute. I have had a long talk with your father about business,” said Longcluse, seizing the topic most likely to secure a few minutes, and speaking very low. “You can bring me into a room here, and I’ll tell you all that is necessary in two minutes.”

“Certainly,” said Richard, yielding to his curiosity. “I have only two or three minutes. I dine here with a friend, who is at this moment ordering dinner; so, you see, I am rather hurried.”

He opened a door, and looking in said —

“Yes, we shall be quite to ourselves here.”

Longcluse shut the door. There was no one to overhear them.

Richard Arden sat down on a sofa, and Mr. Longcluse threw himself into a chair.

“And what did he say?” asked Richard.

“They want to raise his interest on the Yorkshire estate; and he says you won’t help him; but that of course is your affair, and I declined, point-blank, to intervene in it. And before I go further, it strikes me, as it did today at Mortlake, that your manner to me has undergone a slight change.”

“Has it? I did not mean it, I assure you,” said Richard Arden, with a little laugh.

“Oh! yes, Arden, it has, and you must know it, and — pardon me — you must intend it also; and now I want to know what I have done, or how I have hurt you, or who has been telling lies of me?”

“Nothing of all these, that I know of,” said Richard, with a cold little laugh.

“Well, of course, if you prefer it, you may decline an explanation. I must however, remind you, because it concerns my happiness, and possibly other interests dearer to me than my life, too nearly to be trifled with, that you heard all I said respecting your sister with the friendliest approbation and encouragement. You knew as much and as little about me then as you do now. I am not conscious of having said or done anything to warrant the slightest change in your feelings or opinion; and in your manner there is a change, and a very decided change, and I tell you frankly I can’t understand it.”

Thus directly challenged, Richard Arden looked at him hard for a moment. He was balancing in his mind whether he should evade or accept the crisis. He preferred the latter.

“Well, I can only say I did not intend to convey anything by my manner; but, as you know, when there is anything in one’s mind it is not always easy to prevent its affecting, as you say, one’s manner. I am not sorry you have asked me, because I spoke without reflection the other day. No one should answer, I really think, for any one else, in ever so small a matter, in this world.”

“But you didn’t — you spoke only for yourself. You simply promised me your friendship, your kind offices — you said, in fact, all I could have hoped for.”

“Yes, perhaps — yes, I may, I suppose I did. But don’t you see, dear Longcluse, things may come to mind, on thinking over.”

What things?” demanded Longcluse quickly, with a sudden energy that called a flush to his temples; and fire gleamed for a moment from his deep-set, gloomy eyes.

“What things? Why, young ladies are not always the most intelligible problems on earth. I think you ought to know that; and really I do think, in such matters, it is far better that they should be left to themselves as much as possible; and I think, besides, that there are some difficulties that did not strike us. I mean, that I now see that there really are great difficulties — insuperable difficulties.”

“Can you define them?” said Longcluse coldly.

“I don’t want to vex you, Longcluse, and I don’t want to quarrel.”

“That’s extremely kind of you.”

“I don’t know whether you are serious, but it is quite true. I don’t wish any unpleasantness between us. I don’t think I need say more than that; having thought it over, I don’t see how it could ever be.”

“Will you give me your reasons?”

“I really don’t see that I can add anything in particular to what I have said.”

“I think, Mr. Arden, considering all that has passed between us on this subject, that you are bound to let me know your reasons for so marked a change of opinion.”

“I can’t agree with you, Mr. Longcluse. I don’t see in the least why I need tell you my particular reasons for the opinion I have expressed. My sister can act for herself, and I certainly shall not account to you for my reasons or opinions in the matter.”

Mr. Longcluse’s pale face grew whiter, and his brows knit, as he fixed a momentary stare on the young man; but he mastered his anger, and said in a cold tone —

“We disagree totally upon that point, and I rather think the time will come when you must explain.”

“I have no more to say upon the subject, Sir, except this,” said Arden, very tartly, “that it is certain your hopes can never lead to anything, and that I object to your continuing your visits at Mortlake.”

“Why, the house does not belong to you — it belongs to Sir Reginald Arden, who objects to your visits and receives mine. Your ideas seem a little confused,” and he laughed gently and coldly.

“Very much the reverse, Sir. I object to my sister being exposed to the least chance of annoyance from your visits. I protest against it, and you will be so good as to understand that I distinctly forbid them.”

“The young lady’s father, I presume, will hardly ask your advice in the matter, and I certainly shall not ask your leave. I shall call when I please, so long as I am received at Mortlake, and shall direct my own conduct, without troubling you for counsel in my affairs.” Mr. Longcluse laughed again icily.

“And so shall I, mine,” said Arden sharply.

“You have no right to treat anyone so,” said Longcluse angrily —“as if one had broken his honour, or committed a crime.”

“A crime!” repeated Richard Arden. “Oh! That, indeed, would pretty well end all relations.”

“Yes, as, perhaps, you shall find,” answered Longcluse, with sudden and oracular ferocity.

Each gentleman had gone a little farther than he had at first intended. Richard Arden had a proud and fierce temper when it was roused. He was near saying what would have amounted to insult. It was a chance opening of the door that prevented it. Both gentlemen had stood up.

“Please, Sir, have you done with the room, Sir?” asked the man.

“Yes,” said Longcluse, and laughed again as he turned on his heel.

“Because three gentlemen want the room, if it’s not engaged, Sir. And Lord Wynderbroke is waiting for you, please, Mr. Arden.”

So with a little toss of his head, which he held unusually high, and a flushed and “glooming” countenance, Richard Arden marched a little swaggeringly forth, to his dinner tête-à-tête with Lord Wynderbroke.

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