Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 30.

He Sees Her.

Mr. Longcluse’s attention was beginning to wander a little, and his eyes were now busy in search of some one whom he had not found; and knowing that the duration of people’s stay at a garden-party is always uncertain, and that some of those gaily-plumed birds who make the flutter, and chirping, and brilliancy of the scene, hardly alight before they take wing again, he began to fear that Alice Arden had gone.

“Just like my luck!” he thought bitterly; “and if she is gone, when shall I have an opportunity of seeing her again?”

Lady Hummington’s well-informed conversation had been, unheeded, accompanying the ruminations and distractions of this “passionate pilgrim;” and as they approached the door of the music-room, the little crush there brought the learned lady’s lips so near to his ear, that with a little start he heard the words —“All strictly arithmetical, you know, and adjusted by the relative frequency of vibrations. That theory, I am sure, you approve, Mr. Longcluse.”

To which the distracted lover made answer, “I quite agree with you, Lady Hummington.”

The music-room at Raleigh Court is an apartment of no great size, and therefore when, with Lady Hummington on his arm, he entered, it was at no great distance that he saw Miss Arden standing near the window, and talking with an elderly gentleman, whose appearance he did not know, but who seemed to be extremely interested in her conversation. She saw him, he had not a doubt, for she turned a little quickly, and looked ever so little more directly out at the window, and a very slight tinge flushed her cheek. It was quite plain, he thought, and a dreadful pang stole through his breast, that she did not choose to see him — quite plain that she did see him — and he thought, from a subtle scrutiny of her beautiful features, quite plain also that it gave her pain to meet without acknowledging him.

Lady Hummington was conversing with volubility; but the air felt icy, and there was a strange trembling at his heart, and this, in many respects, hard man of the world, felt that the tears were on the point of welling from his eyes. The struggle was but for a few moments, and he seemed quite himself again. Lady Hummington wished to go to the end of the room where the piano was, and the harmonium on which the organist had performed his feat of the three tunes. That artist was taking his departure, having a musical assignation of some kind to keep. But to oblige Lady Hummington, who had heard of Thalberg’s doing something of the kind, he sat down and played an elaborate piece of music on the piano with his thumbs only. This charming effort over, and applauded, the performer took his departure. And Lady Hummington said —

“I am told, Mr. Longcluse, that you are a very good musician.”

“A very indifferent performer, Lady Hummington.”

“Lady May Penrose tells a very different tale.”

“Lady May Penrose is too kind to be critical,” said Longcluse; and as he maintained this dialogue, his eye was observing every movement of Alice Arden. She seemed, however, to have quite made up her mind to stand her ground. There was a strange interest, to him, even in being in the same room with her. Perhaps Miss Arden saw that Mr. Longcluse’s movements were dependent upon those of the lady whom he accompanied, and might have thought that, the musician having departed, their stay in that room would not be very long.

“I should be so glad to hear you sing, Mr. Longcluse,” pursued Lady Hummington. “You have been in the East, I think; have you any of the Hindostanee songs? There are some, I have read, that embody the theories of the Brahmin philosophy.”

“Long-winded songs, I fancy,” said Mr. Longcluse, laughing; “it is a very voluminous philosophy, but the truth is, I’ve got a little cold, and I should not like to make a bad impression so early.”

“But surely there are some simple little things, without very much compass, that would not distress you. How pretty those old English songs are that they are collecting and publishing now! I mean songs of Shakespeare’s time — Ben Jonson’s, Beaumont and Fletcher’s, and Massinger’s, you know. Some of them are so extremely pretty!”

“Oh! yes, I’ll sing you one of those with pleasure,” said he with a strange alacrity, quite forgetting his cold, sitting down at the instrument, and striking two or three fierce chords.

I am sure that most of my readers are acquainted with that pretty old English song, of the time of James the First, entitled, “Once I Loved a Maiden Fair.” That was the song he chose.

Never, perhaps, did he sing so well before, with a fluctuation of pathos and scorn, tenderness and hatred, expressed with real dramatic fire, and with more power of voice than at moments of less excitement he possessed. He sang it with real passion, and produced, exactly where he wished, a strange but unavowed sensation. He omitted one verse, and the song as he delivered it was thus:—

“Once I loved a maiden fair,

But she did deceive me:

She with Venus could compare,

In my mind, believe me.

She was young, and among

All our maids the sweetest:

Now I say, Ah, well-a-day!

Brightest hopes are fleetest.

Maidens wavering and untrue

Many a heart have broken;

Sweetest lips the world e’er knew

Falsest words have spoken.

Fare thee well, faithless girl,

I’ll not sorrow for thee:

Once I held thee dear as pearl,

Now I do abhor thee.”

When he had finished the song, he said coldly, but very distinctly, as he rose —

“I like that song, there is a melancholy psychology in it. It is a song worthy of Shakespeare himself.”

Lady Hummington urged him with an encore, but he was proof against her entreaties. And so, after a little, she took Mr. Longcluse’s arm; and Alice felt relieved when the room was rid of them.

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