Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 31.

About the Grounds.

Lady Hummington, well pleased at having found in Mr. Longcluse what she termed a kindred mind, was warned by the hour that she must depart. She took her leave of Mr. Longcluse with regret, and made him promise to come to luncheon with her on the Thursday following. Mr. Longcluse called her carriage for her, and put in, besides herself, her maiden sister and two daughters, who all exhibited the family leanness, with noses more or less red and aquiline, and small black eyes, set rather close together.

As he ascended the steps he was accosted by a damsel in distress.

“Mr. Longcluse, I’m so glad to see you! You must do a very good-natured thing,” said handsome Miss Maubray, smiling on him. “I came here with old Sir Arthur and Lady Tramway, and I’ve lost them; and I’ve been bored to death by a Mr. Bagshot, and I’ve sent him to look for my pocket-handkerchief in the tea-room; and I want you, as you hope for mercy, to show it now, and rescue me from my troubles.”

“I’m too much honoured. I’m only too happy, Miss Maubray. I shall put Mr. Bagshot to death, if you wish it, and Sir Arthur and Lady Tramway shall appear the moment you command.”

Mr. Longcluse was talking his nonsense with the high spirits which sometimes attend a painful excitement.

“I told them I should get to that tree if I were lost in the crowd, and that they would be sure to find me under it after six o’clock. Do take me there; I am so afraid of Mr. Bagshot’s returning!”

So over the short grass that handsome girl walked, with Mr. Longcluse at her side.

“I’ll sit at this side, thank you; I don’t want to be seen by Mr. Bagshot.”

So she sat down, placing herself at the further side of the great trunk of the old chestnut-tree. Mr. Longcluse stood nearly opposite, but so placed as to command a view of the hall-door steps. He was still watching the groups that emerged, with as much interest as if his life depended on the order of their toing and froing. But, in spite of this, very soon Miss Maubray’s talk began to interest him.

“Whom did Alice Arden come with?” asked Miss Maubray. “I should like to know; because, if I should lose my people, I must find some one to take me home.”

“With her brother, I fancy.”

“Oh! yes, to be sure — I saw him here. I forgot. But Alice is very independent, just now, of his protection,” and she laughed.

“How do you mean?”

“Oh! Lord Wynderbroke, of course, takes care of her while she’s here. I saw them walking about together, so happy! I suppose it is all settled.”

“About Lord Wynderbroke?” suggested Longcluse, with a gentle carelessness, as if he did not care a farthing — as if a dreadful pain had not at that moment pierced his heart.

“Yes, Lord Wynderbroke. Why, haven’t you heard of that?”

“Yes, I believe — I think so. I am sure I have heard something of it; but one hears so many things, one forgets, and I don’t know him. What kind of man is he?”

“He’s hard to describe; he’s not disagreeable, and he’s not dull; he has a great deal to say for himself about pictures, and the East, and the Crimea, and the opera, and all the people at all the courts in Europe, and he ought to be amusing; but I think he is the driest person I ever talked to. And he is really good-natured; but I think him much more teasing than the most ill-natured man alive, he’s so insufferably punctual and precise.”

“You know him very well, then?” said Longcluse, with an effort to contribute his share to the talk.

“Pretty well,” said the young lady, with just a slight tinge flushing her haughty cheek. “But no one, who has been a week in the same house with him, could fail to see all that.”

Miss Maubray herself, I am told, had hopes of Lord Wynderbroke about a year before, and was not amiably disposed towards him now, and looked on the triumph of Alice a little sourly; although something like the beginning of a real love had since stolen into her heart — not, perhaps, destined to be much more happy.

“Lord Wynderbroke — I don’t know him. Is that gentleman he whom I saw talking to Miss Arden in the music-room, I wonder? He’s not actually thin, and he is not at all stout; he’s a little above the middle height, and he stoops just a little. He appears past fifty, and his hair looks like an old-fashioned brown wig, brushed up into a sort of cone over his forehead. He seems a little formal, and very polite and smiling, with a flower in his button-hole; a blue coat; and he has a pair of those little gold Paris glasses, and was looking out through the window with them.”

“Had he a high nose?”

“Yes, rather a thin, high nose, and his face is very brown.”

“Well, if he was all that, and had a brown face and a high nose, and was pretty near fifty-three, and very near Alice Arden, he was positively Lord Wynderbroke.”

“And has this been going on for some time, or is it a sudden thing?”

“Both, I believe. It has been going on a long time, I believe, in old Sir Reginald’s head; but it has come about, after all, rather suddenly; and my guardian says — Mr. David Arden, you know — that he has written a proposal in a letter to Sir Reginald, and you see how happy the young lady looks. So I think we may assume that the course of true love, for once, runs smooth — don’t you?”

“And I suppose there is no objection anywhere?” said Longcluse, smiling. “It is a pity he is not a little younger, perhaps.”

“I don’t hear any complaints; let us rather rejoice he is not ten or twenty years older. I am sure it would not prevent his happiness, but it would heighten the ridicule. Are you one of Lady May Penrose’s party to the Derby tomorrow?” inquired the young lady.

“No; I haven’t been asked.”

“Lord Wynderbroke is going.”

“Oh! of course he is.”

“I don’t think Mr. David Arden likes it; but, of course, it is no business of his if other people are pleased. I wonder you did not hear all this from Richard Arden, you and he are so intimate.”

So said the young lady, looking very innocent. But I think she suspected more than she said.

“No, I did not hear it,” he said carelessly; “or, if I did, I forgot it. But do you blame the young lady?”

“Blame her! not at all. Besides, I am not so sure that she knows.”

“How can you think so?”

“Because I think she likes quite another person.”

“Really! And who is he?”

“Can’t you guess?”

“Upon my honour, I can’t.”

There was something so earnest, and even vehement, in this sudden asseveration, that Miss Maubray looked for a moment in his face; and seeing her curious expression, he said more quietly, “I assure you I don’t think I ever heard; I’m rather curious to know.”

“I mean Mr. Vivian Darnley.”

“Oh! Well, I’ve suspected that a long time. I told Richard Arden, one day — I forget how it came about — but he said no.”

“Well, I say yes,” laughed the young lady, “and we shall see who’s right.”

“Oh! Recollect I’m only giving you his opinion. I rather lean to yours, but he said there was positively nothing in it, and that Mr. Darnley is too poor to marry.”

“If Alice Arden resembles me,” said the young lady, “she thinks there are just two things to marry for — either love or ambition.”

“You place love first, I’m glad to hear,” said Mr. Longcluse, with a smile.

“So I do, because it is most likely to prevail with a pig-headed girl; but what I mean is this: that social preeminence — I mean rank, and not trumpery rank; but such as, being accompanied with wealth and precedence, is also attended with power — is worth an immense sacrifice of all other objects; my reason tells me, worth the sacrifice of love. But that is a sacrifice which impatient, impetuous people can’t always so easily make — which I daresay I could not make if I were tried; but I don’t think I shall ever be fool enough to become so insane, for the state of a person in love is a state of simple idiotism. It is pitiable, I allow, but also contemptible; but, judging by what I see, it appears to me a more irresistible delusion than ambition. But I don’t understand Alice well. I think, if I knew a little more of her brother — certain qualities so run in families — I should be able to make a better guess. What do you think of him?”

“He’s very agreeable, isn’t he? and, for the rest, really, until men are tried as events only can try them, it is neither wise nor safe to pronounce.”

“Is he affectionate?”

“His sister seems to worship him,” he answered; “but young ladies are so angelic, that where they like they resent nothing, and respect selfishness itself as a manly virtue.”

“But you know him intimately; surely you must know something of him.”

Under different circumstances, this audacious young lady’s cross-examination would have amused Mr. Longcluse; but in his present relations, and spirits, it was otherwise.

“I should but mislead you if I were to answer more distinctly. I answer for no man, hardly for myself. Besides, I question your theory. I don’t think, except by accident, that a brother’s character throws any light upon a sister’s; and I hope — I think, I mean — that Miss Arden has qualities illimitably superior to those of her brother. Are these your friends, Miss Maubray?” he continued.

“So they are,” she answered. “I’m so much obliged to you, Mr. Longcluse! I think they are leaving.”

Mr. Longcluse, having delivered her into the hands of her chaperon, took his leave, and walked into the broad alleys among the trees, and in solitude under their shade, sat himself down by a pond, on which two swans were sailing majestically. Looking down upon the water with a pallid frown, he struck the bank beneath him viciously with his heel, peeling off little bits of the sward, which dropped into the water.

“It is all plain enough now. Richard Arden has been playing me false. It ought not to surprise me, perhaps. The girl, I still believe, has neither act nor part in the conspiracy. She has been duped by her brother. I have thrown myself upon her mercy; I will now appeal to her justice. As for him — what vermin mankind are! He must return to his allegiance; he will. After all, he may not like to lose me. He will act in the way that most interests his selfishness. Come, come! it is no impracticable problem. I’m not cruel? Not I! No, I’m not cruel; but I am utterly just. I would not hang a mouse up by the tail to die, as they do in France, head downwards, of hunger, for eating my cheese; but should the vermin nibble at my heart, in that case, what says justice? Alice, beautiful Alice, you shall have every chance before I tear you from my heart — oh, for ever! Ambition! That coarse girl, Miss Maubray, can’t understand you. Ambition, in her sense, you have none; there is nothing venal in your nature. Vivian Darnley, is there anything in that either? I think nothing. I observed them closely, that night, at Mortlake. No, there was nothing. My conversation and music interested her, and when I was by, he was nothing.

“They are going to the Derby tomorrow. I think Lady May has treated me rather oddly, considering that she had all but borrowed my drag. She might have put me off civilly; but I don’t blame her. She is good-natured, and if she has any idea that I and the Ardens are not quite on pleasant terms, it quite excuses it. Her asking me here, and her little note to remind, were meant to show that she did not take up the quarrel against me. Never mind; I shall know all about it, time enough. They are going to the Derby tomorrow. Very well, I shall go also. It will all be right yet. When did I fail? When did I renounce an object? By Heaven, one way or other, I’ll accomplish this!”

Tall Mr. Longcluse rose, and looked round him, and in deep thought, marched with a resolute step towards the house.

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