Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 29.

The Garden Party.

Next morning Mr. Longcluse rose with a sense of something before him.

“So I shall see her today! If she’s the girl I’ve thought her, she will meet me as usual. That frantic scene, in which I risked all on the turn of a die, will be forgotten. Hasty words, or precipitate letters, are passed over every day; the man who commits such follies, under a transitory insanity, is allowed the privilege of recalling them. There were no witnesses present to make forgiveness difficult. It all lies with her own good sense, and a heart proud but gentle. Let but those mad words be sponged out, and I am happy. Alice, if you forgive me, I forgive your brother, and take his name from where it is, and write it in my heart. Oh, beautiful Alice! will you belie your looks? Oh, clear bright mind! will you be clouded and perverted? Oh, gentle heart! can you be merciless?”

Mr. Longcluse made his simple morning toilet very carefully. A very plain man, extremely ugly some pronounce him; yet his figure is good, his get-up unexceptionable, and altogether he is a most gentlemanlike man to look upon, and in his movements and attitudes, quite unstudied, there is an undefinable grace. His accent is a little foreign — the slightest thing in the world, and Lady May Penrose declares it is so very pretty. Then he is so agreeable, when he pleases; and he is so very rich!

Some people wonder why he does not withdraw from all speculations, retire upon his enormous wealth, and with his elegant tastes, and the art of being magnificent without glare, even gorgeous without vulgarity — for has he not shown this refined talent in the service of others, who have taken him into council? — he could eclipse all the world in splendid elegance, and make his way, force d’argent, to the pinnacle of half the world’s ambition. Were those stories true that Richard Arden told his sister on the night before?

I don’t think that Richard Arden stuck at trifles, where he had an object to gain, and I don’t believe a word of his story of Mr. Longcluse’s insulting talk. It was not his way to boast and vapour; and he had a secret contempt for many of the Jewish and other agents whom he chose to employ. But undoubtedly Mr. Longcluse had the reputation among his discounting admirers of being a dangerous man to quarrel with; and also it was true that he had fought three or four savage duels in the course of his Continental life. There were other stories, unauthenticated, unpleasant. These were whispered with sneers by Mr. Longcluse’s enemies. But there’s a divinity doth hedge a King Croesus, and his character bore a charmed life, among the missiles that would have laid that of many a punier man in the dust.

With an agitated heart, Mr. Longcluse approached the pretty little place known as Raleigh Court, to which he had been invited. Through the quaint, old-fashioned gate-way, under the embowering branches of tall trees, he drove up a short, broad avenue, clumped at each side with old timber, to the open hall-door of the pretty Elizabethan house. Carriages of all sorts were discernible under the branches, assembled at the further side to the right of the hall-door, over the wide steps of which was spread a scarlet cloth. Croquet parties were already visible on the shorn grass, under boughs that spread high in the air, and cast a pleasant shadow on the sward. Groups were strolling among the flower-beds — some walking in, some emerging from the open door — and the scene presented the usual variety of dress, and somewhat listless toing and froing.

Did anyone, of all the guests of Lady May, mask so profound an agitation, under the conventional smile, as that which beat at Walter Longcluse’s heart? Two or three people whom he knew, he met and talked to — some for a minute, others for a longer time — as he drew near the steps. His eye all the time was busy in the search after one pretty figure, the least glimpse of which he would have recognised with the thrill of a sure intuition, far or near. He would have liked to ask the friends he met whether the Ardens were here. But what would have been easy to him a week before, was now an effort for which he could not find courage.

He entered the hall, quaint and lofty, rising to the entire height of the house, with two galleries, one above the other, surrounding it on three sides. Ancestors of the late Mr. Penrose, who had left all this and a great deal more to his sorrowing relict, stood on the panelled walls at full length — some in ruffs and trunk-hose, others in perukes and cut-velvet, one with a bâton in his hand, and three with falcon on fist — all stately and gentlemanlike, according to their several periods; with corresponding ladies, some stiff and pallid, who figured in the days of the virgin queen, and others in the graceful déshabille of Sir Peter Lely. This quaint oak hall was now resonant with the buzz and clack of modern gossip, prose, and flirtation, and a great deal crowded, notwithstanding its commodious proportions. Lady May was still receiving her company near the doorway of the first drawing-room, and her kindly voice was audible from within as the visitor approached. Mr. Longcluse was very graciously received.

“I want you so particularly, to introduce you to Lady Hummington. She is such a charming person. She is so thoroughly up in German literature. She’s a great deal too learned for me, but you and she will understand one another so perfectly, and you will be quite charmed with her. Mr. Addlings, did you happen to see Lady Hummington, or have you any idea where she’s gone?”

“I shall go and look for her, with pleasure. Is not she the tall lady with grey hair? Shall I tell her you want to say a word to her?”

“You’re very kind, but I’ll not mind, thank you very much. It is so provoking, Mr. Longcluse! you would have been perfectly charmed with her.”

“I shall be more fortunate, by-and-by, perhaps,” said Mr. Longcluse. “Are any of our friends from Mortlake here?” he added, looking a little fixedly in her eyes, for he was thinking whether Alice had betrayed his secret, and was trying to read an answer there.

Lady May answered quite promptly —

“Oh, yes, Alice is here, and her brother. He went out that way with some friends,” she said, indicating with a little nod a door which, from a second hall, opened on a terrace. “I asked him to show them the three fountains. You must see them also; they are in the Dutch garden; they were put up in the reign of George the First. — How d’ye do, Mrs. Frumply? How d’ye do, Miss Frumply?”

“What a charming house!” exclaims Mrs. Frumply, “and what a day! We were saying, Arabella and I, as we drove out, that you must really have an influence with the clerk of the weather, ha, ha, ha! didn’t we, Arabella? So charming!”

Lady May laughed affably, and said —“Won’t you and your daughter go in and take some tea? Mr. (she was going to call on Longcluse, but he had glided away)— Oh, Mr. Darnley!”

And the introduction was made, and Vivian Darnley, with Mrs. Frumply on his arm, attended by her daughter Arabella, did as he was commanded and got tea for that simpering lady, and fruit and Naples biscuits, and plum-cake, and was rewarded with the original joke about the clerk of the weather.

Mr. Longcluse, in the meantime, had passed the door indicated by Lady May, and stood upon the short terrace that overlooked the pretty flower-garden cut out in grotesque patterns, so that looking down upon its masses of crimson, blue, and yellow, as he leaned on the balustrade, it showed beneath his eye like a wide deep-piled carpet, on the green ground of which were walking groups of people, the brilliant hues of the ladies’ dresses rivalling the splendour of the verbenas, and making altogether a very gay picture.

The usual paucity of male attendance made Mr. Longcluse’s task of observation easy. He was looking for Richard Arden’s well-known figure among the groups, thinking that probably Alice was not far off. But he was not there, nor was Alice; and Walter Longcluse, gloomy and lonely in this gay crowd, descended the steps at the end of this terrace, and sauntered round again to the front of the house, now and then passing some one he knew, with an exchange of a smile or a bow, and then lost again in the Vanity Fair of strange faces and voices.

Now he is at the hall door — he mounts the steps. Suddenly, as he stands upon the level platform at top, he finds himself within four feet of Richard Arden. He looks on him as he might on the carved pilaster, at the side of the hall door; no one could have guessed, by his inflexible but unaffected glance, that he and Mr. Arden had ever been acquainted. The younger man showed something in his countenance, a sudden hauteur, a little elevation of the chin, a certain sternness, more melodramatic, though less effective, than the simple blank of Mr. Longcluse’s glance.

That gentleman looked about coolly. He was in search of Miss Arden, but he did not see her. He entered the hall again, and Richard Arden a little awkwardly resumed his conversation, which had suddenly subsided into silence on Longcluse’s appearance.

By this time Lady May was more at ease, having received all her company that were reasonably punctual, and in the hall Longcluse now encountered her.

“Have you seen Mr. Arden?” she inquired of him.

“Yes, he’s at the door, at the steps.”

“Would you mind telling him kindly that I want to say a word to him?”

“Certainly, most happy,” said Longcluse, without any distinct plan as to how he was to execute her awkward commission.

“Thank you very much. But, oh! dear, here is Lady Hummington, and she wishes so much to know you; I’ll send some one else. I must introduce you, come with me — Lady Hummington, I want to introduce my friend, Mr. Longcluse.” So Mr. Longcluse was presented to Lady Hummington, who was very lean, and a “blue,” and most fatiguingly well up in archæology, and all new books on dry and difficult subjects. So that Mr. Longcluse felt that he was, in Joe Willett’s phrase, “tackled” by a giant, and was driven to hideous exertions of attention and memory to hold his own. When Lady Hummington, to whom it was plain kind Lady May, with an unconscious cruelty, had been describing Mr. Longcluse’s accomplishments and acquirements, had taken some tea and other refection, and when Mr. Longcluse’s kindness “had her wants supplied,” and she, like Scott’s “old man” in the “Lay of the Last Minstrel,” “was gratified,” she proposed visiting the music-room, where she had heard a clever organist play, on a harmonium, three distinct tunes at the same time, which being composed on certain principles, that she explained with much animation and precision, harmonised very prettily.

So this clever woman directed, and Mr. Longcluse led, the way to the music-room.

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