Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 3.

Mr. Longcluse Opens His Heart.

The old housekeeper had drawn near her window, and stood close to the pane, through which she looked out upon the star-lit night. The stars shine down over the foliage of huge old trees. Dim as shadows stand the horse and tax-cart that await Mr. Longcluse and Richard Arden, who now at length appear. The groom fixes the lamps, one of which shines full on Mr. Longcluse’s peculiar face.

“Ay — the voice; I could a’ sworn to that,” she muttered. “It went through me like a scythe. But that’s a strange face; and yet there’s summat in it, just a hint like, to call my thoughts out a-seeking up and down, and to and fro; and ’twill not let me rest until I come to find the truth. Mace? No, no. Langly? Not he. Yet ’twas summat that night, I think — summat awful. And who was there? No one. Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord! for my heart is sore troubled.”

Up jumped the groom. Mr. Longcluse had the reins in his hand, and he and his companion passed swiftly by the window, and the flash of the lamps crossed the panelled walls of the housekeeper’s room. The light danced wildly from corner to corner of the wainscot, accompanied by the shadows of two geraniums in bow-pots on the window-stool. The lamps flew by, and she still stood there, with the palsied shake of her head and hand, looking out into the darkness, in rumination.

Arden and Longcluse glided through the night air in silence, under the mighty old trees that had witnessed generations of Ardens, down the darker, narrow road, and by the faded old inn, once famous in those regions as the “Guy of Warwick,” representing still on its board, in tarnished gold and colours, that redoubted champion, with a boar’s head on the point of his sword, and a grotesque lion winding itself fawningly about his horse’s legs.

As they passed swiftly along this smooth and deserted road, Longcluse spoke. Aperit præcordia vinum. In his brandy and water he had not spared alcohol, and the quantity was considerable.

“I have lots of money, Arden, and I can talk to people, as you say,” he suddenly said, as if Richard Arden had spoken but a moment before; “but, on the whole, is there on earth a more miserable dog than I? There are things that trouble me that would make you laugh; there are others that would, if I dare tell them, make you sigh. Soon I shall be able; soon you shall know all. I’m not a bad fellow. I know how to give away money, and, what is harder to bestow on others, my time and labour. But who to look at me would believe it? I’m not a worse fellow than Penruddock. I can cry for pity and do a kind act like him; but I look in my glass, and I also feel like him, ‘the mark of Cain’ is on me — cruelty in my face. Why should Nature write on some men’s faces such libels on their characters? Then here’s another thing to make you laugh — you, a handsome fellow, to whom beauty belongs, I say, by right of birth — it would make me laugh also if I were not, as I am, forced every hour I live to count up, in agonies of hope and terror, my chances in that enterprise in which all my happiness for life is staked so wildly. Common ugliness does not matter, it is got over. But such a face as mine! Come, come! you are too good-natured to say. I’m not asking for consolation; I am only summing up my curses.”

“You make too much of these. Lady May thinks your face, she says, very interesting — upon my honour, she does.”

“Oh, heaven!” exclaimed Mr. Longcluse, with a shrug and a laugh.

“And what is more to the purpose (will you forgive my reporting all this — you won’t mind?), some young lady friends of hers who were by said, I assure you, that you had so much expression, and that your features were extremely refined.”

“It won’t do, Arden; you are too good-natured,” said he, laughing more bitterly.

“I should much rather be as I am, if I were you, than be gifted with vulgar beauty — plump, pink and white, with black beady eyes, and all that,” said Arden.

“But the heaviest curse upon me is that which, perhaps, you do not suspect — the curse of — secrecy.”

“Oh, really!” said Arden, laughing, as if he had thought up to then that Mr. Longcluse’s history was as well known as that of the exEmperor Napoleon.

“I don’t say that I shall come out like the enchanted hero in a fairy tale, and change in a moment from a beast into a prince; but I am something better than I seem. In a short time, if you cared to be bored with it, I shall have a great deal to tell you.”

There followed here a silence of two or three minutes, and then, on a sudden, pathetically, Mr. Longcluse broke forth —

“What has a fellow like me to do with love? and less than beloved, can I ever be happy? I know something of the world — not of this London world, where I live less than I seem to do, and into which I came too late ever to understand it thoroughly — I know something of a greater world, and human nature is the same everywhere. You talk of a girl’s pride inducing her to marry a man for the sake of his riches. Could I possess my beloved on those terms? I would rather place a pistol in my mouth, and blow my skull off. Arden, I’m unhappy; I’m the most miserable dog alive.”

“Come, Longcluse, that’s all nonsense. Beauty is no advantage to a man. The being agreeable is an immense one. But success is what women worship, and if, in addition to that, you possess wealth — not, as I said, that they are sordid, but only vain-glorious — you become very nearly irresistible. Now you are agreeable, successful and wealthy — you must see what follows.”

“I’m out of spirits,” said Longcluse, and relapsed into silence, with a great sigh.

By this time they had got within the lamps, and were threading streets, and rapidly approaching their destination. Five minutes more, and these gentlemen had entered a vast room, in the centre of which stood a billiard-table, with benches rising tier above tier to the walls, and a gallery running round the building above them, brilliantly lighted, as such places are, and already crowded with all kinds of people. There is going to be a great match of a “thousand up” played between Bill Hood and Bob Markham. The betting has been unusually high; it is still going on. The play won’t begin for nearly half an hour. The “admirers of the game” have mustered in great force and variety. There are young peers, with sixty thousand a year, and there are gentlemen who live by their billiards. There are, for once in a way, grave persons, bankers, and counsel learned in the law; there are Jews and a sprinkling of foreigners; and there are members of Parliament and members of the swell mob.

Mr. Longcluse has a good deal to think about this night. He is out of spirits. Richard Arden is no longer with him, having picked up a friend or two in the room. Longcluse, with folded arms, and his shoulders against the wall, is in a profound reverie, his dark eyes for the time lowered to the floor, beside the point of his French boot. There unfold themselves beneath him picture after picture, the scenes of many a year ago. Looking down, there creeps over him an old horror, a supernatural disgust, and he sees in the dark a pair of wide, white eyes, staring up at him in an agony of terror, and a shrill yell, piercing a distance of many years, makes him shake his ears with a sudden chill. Is this the witches’ Sabbath of our pale Mephistopheles — his night of goblins? He raised his eyes, and they met those of a person whom he had not seen for a very long time — a third part of his whole life. The two pairs of eyes, at nearly half across the room, have met, and for a moment fixed. The stranger smiles and nods. Mr. Longcluse does neither. He affects now to be looking over the stranger’s shoulder at some more distant object. There is a strange chill and commotion at his heart.

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