Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 28.

Stories About Mr. Longcluse.

The irritation of this unpleasant interview soon subsided, but Mr. Longcluse’s anxiety rather increased.

Next day early in the afternoon he drove to Lady May’s and she received him just as usual. He learned from her, without appearing to seek the information, that Alice Arden was still at Mortlake. His visit was one of but two or three minutes. He jumped into a hansom and drove out to Mortlake. He knocked. Man of the world as he was, his heart beat faster.

“Is Miss Arden at home?”

“No, Sir.”

“Not at home?”

“Miss Arden is gone out, Sir.”

“Oh! perhaps in the garden?”

“No, Sir; she has gone out, and won’t be back for some time.”

The man spoke with the promptitude and decision of a servant instructed to deny his mistress to the visitor. He had not a card; he would call again another day.

He heard the piano faintly, and, he thought, Alice’s voice also; and certainly he saw Vivian Darnley in the drawing-room window, as his cab turned away from the door. With a swelling heart he drove into town. The portcullis, then, had fallen; access was denied him; and he should see her no more!

Good Heaven! what had he done? He walked distractedly, for a while, up and down his study. Should he employ Lady May’s intervention, and tell her the whole story? Good-natured Lady May! Perhaps she would undertake his cause, and plead for his readmission. But was even that so certain? How could he tell what view she might take of the matter? And were she to intercede for him ever so vehemently, how could he tell that she had any chance of prevailing?

No; on the whole it was better to be his own advocate. He would sit down then and there, and write to the offended or alarmed lady, and lay his piteous case before her in his own words and rely on her compassion, without an intervenient.

How many letters he began, how many he even finished, and rejected, I need not tire you by telling. Some were composed in the first, others in the third person. Not one satisfied him. Here was the man of a million and more, who would dash off a note to his stock-broker, to buy or sell a hundred thousand pounds’ worth of stock — who would draft a resolution of the bank of which he was the chairman, directing an operation which would make men open their eyes, without the tremor of a nerve or the hesitation of a moment — unmanned, helpless, distracted in the endeavour to write a note to a young and inexperienced girl!

O beautiful sex! what a triumph is here! O Love! what fools will you not make of us poor masculine wiseacres! The letter he dispatched was in these terms. I daresay he had torn better ones to pieces:—

“DEAR MISS ARDEN — I had hoped that my profound contrition might have atoned for a momentary indiscretion — the declaration, though in terms the most respectful, of feelings which I had not self-command sufficient to suppress, and which had for nearly a year remained concealed in my own breast. I am sure, Miss Arden, that you are incapable of a gratuitous cruelty. Have I not sworn that one word to recall the remembrance of that, to me, all but fatal madness shall never escape my lips, in your presence? May I not entreat that you will forget it, that you will forbear to pass upon me the agonising sentence of exclusion? You shall never again have to complain of my uttering one word that the merest acquaintance, who is permitted the happiness of conversing with you, might not employ. You shall never regret your forbearance. I shall never cease to bless you for it; and whatever decision you arrive at, it shall be respected by me as sacred law. I shall never cease to reverence and bless the hand that spares or — afflicts me. May I be permitted this one melancholy hope, may I be allowed to interpret your omitting to answer this miserable letter as a concession of its prayer? Unless forbidden, I will endeavour to construe your silence as oblivion.

“I have the honour to remain, dear Miss Arden, with deep compunction and respect, but not altogether without hope in your mercy,

“Yours the most unhappy and distracted man in England,

“WALTER LONGCLUSE.”

Mr. Longcluse sealed this letter in its envelope, and addressed it. He would have liked to send it that moment, by his servant, but an odd shyness prevented. He did not wish his servants to conjure and put their heads together over it; he could not endure the idea; so with his own hand he dropped it in the post. Somewhat in the style of the old novel was this composition of Mr. Longcluse’s — a little theatrical, and, one would have fancied, even affected; yet never was man more desperately sincere.

Night came, and brought no reply. Was no news good news, or would the morning bring, perhaps from Richard Arden, a withering answer? Morning came, and no answer: what was he to conjecture?

That day, in Grosvenor Square, he passed Richard Arden, who looked steadily and sternly a little to his right, and cut him.

It was a marked and decided cut. His ears tingled as if he had received a slap in the face. So things had assumed a very decided attitude indeed! Longcluse felt very oddly enraged, at first; then anxious. It was insulting that Richard Arden should have taken the initiative in dissolving relations. But had he not been himself studiously impertinent to Arden, in that brief colloquy of yesterday? He ought to have been prepared for this. Without explanation, and the shaking of hands, it was impossible that relations of amity should have been resumed between them. But Longcluse had been entirely absorbed by a threatened alienation that affected him much more nearly. There was a thesis for conjecture in the situation, which made him still more anxious. A very little time would probably clear all up.

He was walking homeward, saying to himself as he went, “No, I shall find no answer; I should be a fool to fancy anything else;” and yet walking all the more quickly, as he approached his house, in the hope of the very letter which he affected, to himself, to have quite rejected as an impossibility. Some letters had come, but none from Mortlake. His letter to Alice was still unanswered. He was now in the agony of suspense and distraction.

The same evening Richard Arden was talking about him, as he leaned with his elbow on the mantelpiece at Mortlake. He and Alice were alone in the drawing-room, awaiting the arrival of the little dinner-party. This, as you know, was to include Lord Wynderbroke, before whose advances, in Richard Arden’s vision, Mr. Longcluse had waned, and even become an embarrassment and a nuisance.

“It is easier to cut him than to explain,” thought Richard Arden. “It bores one so inexpressibly, giving reasons for what one does, and I’m so glad he has saved me the trouble by his vulgar impertinence.”

They had talked for some time, Alice chiefly a listener. How was she affected toward Mr. Longcluse? He was agreeable; he flattered her; he was passionately in love with her. All but this latter condition she liked very well; but this was embarrassing, and quite impracticable. Who knows what that tiny spark we term a fancy, a whim, a penchant might have grown to, had it not been blown away by this untimely gust? But, for my part, I don’t think it ever would have grown to a matter of the heart. There was something in the way. A fancy is one thing, and passion quite another. Pique is a common state of mind, and comes and goes, and comes again, in many a courtship. But a liking that has once entered the heart cannot be torn out in a hasty moment, and takes a long time, and many a struggle, to kill.

She was a little sorry, just then, to lose him so inevitably. Perhaps his letter, to which he had trusted to move her, had rendered the return of old relations impossible. In this letter she felt herself the owner of a secret — a secret which she could not keep without a sort of understanding growing up between them — which therefore she had no idea of keeping.

She was resolved to tell it. The letter she had locked, in marked isolation, as if no property of hers, but simply a document that was in her keeping, in the pretty ormolu casket that stood on the drawing-room chimney-piece. She had intended showing it, and telling the story of the scene in the garden, to Richard. But he was speaking with a mysterious asperity of Mr. Longcluse, which made her hesitate. A very little thing, it seemed to her, might suffice to make a very violent quarrel out of a coldness. Instinctively, therefore, she refrained, and listened to Richard while, with his arm touching the casket on the chimney-piece, he descanted on the writer of the unknown letter.

She experienced an odd feeling of insecurity as, in the course of his talk, his fingers began to trifle with the pretty fingers that stood out in relief upon the casket; for she knew that the ordeal of the pistol, discountenanced in England, was still in force on the Continent, and Mr. Longcluse’s ideas were all Continental; and how near were those fingers to the letter which might suffice to explode the dangerous element that had already accumulated!

“He has talked of us to his low companions; he chooses to associate with usurers and worse people; and he has been speaking of us in the most insolent terms.”

“Really!” said Alice. Her large eyes looked larger as they fixed on him.

“Yes, and I’ll tell you how I heard it. You must know, dear Alice, that I happened to want a little money; and when one does, the usual course is to borrow it. So I paid a visit to my harpy — and a harpy in need is a harpy indeed. Being hard up, he fleeced me; and the gentleman, I suppose, thinking he might be familiar, told me he was on confidential terms with Mr. Longcluse and wished me a good deal of joy. ‘Of what?’ I ventured to ask, for he had just hit me rather hard. ‘Of your chance,’ or, as he called it chanshe, he said, with a delightfully arch leer. I thought he meant I had backed the right horse for the Derby, but it turned out he meant our chance of inducing Mr. Longcluse to make up his mind to marry you. I was very near knocking him down; but a man who has one’s bill for three hundred pounds must be respected. So I merely ventured to ask on whose authority he congratulated me, when it appeared it was on Mr. Longcluse’s own, who, it seems, had said a great deal more, equally intolerable. In plain, coarse terms, he says that, being poor, we have conspired with you to secure him, Mr. Longcluse, for your husband. As to the fact of his having actually conveyed that, and to more people than one, there is and can be no doubt whatever. I can imagine, considering all things, nothing more vulgar, audacious, and cowardly.”

A blush of anger glowed in Alice’s face. Richard Arden liked the proud fire that gleamed from her dark grey eyes. It satisfied him that his words were not lost.

“I lighted on a man who knew more about him than I had learned before,” resumed Richard Arden. “He was suspected at Berlin of having been engaged in a conspiracy to pigeon Dacre and Wilmot, who were travelling. He did not appear, but he is said to have supplied the money, and had a lion’s share of the spoil. There is no good in repeating these things generally, you know, because they are so hard to prove; and a fellow like that is dangerous. They say he is very litigious.”

“Upon my word, if your information is at all to be relied on, it is plain we have made a great mistake. It is a disappointing world, but I could not have fancied him doing anything so low; and I must say for him that he was gentlemanlike and quiet, and very unlike the person he appears to be. I think I never heard of anything so outrageous! Vivian Darnley told me that he was a great duellist, and thought to be a very quarrelsome, dangerous companion abroad. But he had only heard this, and what you tell me is so much worse, so mean, so utterly intolerable!”

“Oh! There’s worse than that,” said Richard, with a faint sinister smile.

“What?” said she, returning it with an almost frightened gaze.

“There was a very beautiful girl at the opera in Vienna; her name was Piccardi, a daughter of a good old Roman family. You can’t imagine how admired she was! And she was thought to be on the point of marrying Count Baddenoff; Mr. Longcluse, it seems, chose to be in love with her; he was not then anything like so rich as he became afterwards — and this poor girl was killed.”

“Good heavens! Richard — what can you mean?”

“I mean that she was assassinated, and that from that day Mr. Longcluse was never received in society in Vienna, and had to leave it.”

“You ought to tell May Penrose,” said she, after a silence of dismay.

“Not for the world,” said Richard; “she talks enough for six — and where’s the good? She’ll only take up the cudgels for him, and we shall be in the centre of a pretty row.”

“Well, if you think it best ——” she began.

“Certainly,” said he. And a silence followed.

“Here is a carriage at the door,” said Richard Arden. “Let us dismiss Longcluse, and look a little more like ourselves.”

That evening there came letters as usual to Mr. Longcluse, and among others a note from Lady May Penrose, reminding him of her little garden-party at Richmond next day.

“By Jove!” he exclaimed, starting up and reading the cards on his chimney, “I thought it was the day after. It was very good-natured, poor old thing, her reminding me. I shall see Alice Arden there. Not one line does she vouchsafe. But is not she right? I think the more highly of her for not writing. I don’t think she ought to write. Oh, Heaven grant she may meet me as usual? Does she mean it? If she did not, would she not have got her brother to write, or have written herself a cold line, to end our acquaintance?”

So he tried to comfort himself, and to keep alive his dying hope by these artificial stimulants.

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