Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 32.

Under the Lime-Trees.

At this garden-party, marvellous as it may appear, Lord Wynderbroke has an aunt. How old she is I know not, nor yet with what conscience her respectable relations can permit her to haunt such places, and run a risk of being suffocated in doorways, or knocked down the steps by an enamoured couple hurrying off to more romantic quarters, or of having her maundering old head knocked with a croquet mallet, as she totters drearily among the hoops.

This old lady is worth conciliating, for she has plate and jewels, and three thousand a-year to leave; and Lord Wynderbroke is a prudent man. He can bear a great deal of money, and has no objection to jewels, and thinks that the plate of his bachelor and old-maid kindred should gravitate to the centre and head of the house. Lord Wynderbroke was indulgent, and did not object to her living a little longer, for this aunt conduced to his air of juvenility more than the flower in his button-hole. However, she was occasionally troublesome, and on this occasion made an unwise mixture of fruit and other things; and a servant glided into the music-room, and with a proper inclination of his person, in a very soft tone said —

“My lord, Lady Witherspoons is in her carriage at the door, my lord, and says her ladyship is indisposed, and begs, my lord, that your lordship will be so good as to hacompany her ‘ome in her carriage, my lord.”

“Oh! tell her ladyship I am so very sorry, and will be with her in a moment.” And he turned with a very serious countenance to Alice. “How extremely unfortunate! When I saw those miserable cherries, I knew how it would be; and now I am torn away from this charming place; and I’m sure I hope she may be better soon, it is so (disgusting, he thought, but he said) melancholy! With whom shall I leave you, Miss Arden?”

“Thanks, I came with my brother, and here is my cousin, Mr. Darnley, who can tell me where he is.”

“With a croquet party, near the little bridge. I’ll be your guide, if you’ll allow me,” said Vivian Darnley eagerly.

“Pray, Lord Wynderbroke, don’t let me delay you longer. I shall find my brother quite easily now. I so hope Lady Witherspoons may soon be better!”

“Oh, yes, she always is better soon; but in the meantime one is carried away, you see, and everything upset; and all because, poor woman, she won’t exercise the smallest restraint. And she has, of course, a right to command me, being my aunt, you know, and — and — the whole thing is ineffably provoking.”

And thus he took his reluctant departure, not without a brief but grave scrutiny of Mr. Vivian Darnley. When he was gone, Vivian Darnley proffered his arm, and that little hand was placed on it, the touch of which made his heart beat faster. Though people were beginning to go, there was still a crush about the steps. This little resistance and mimic difficulty were pleasant to him for her sake. Down the steps they went together, and now he had her all to himself; and silently for a while he led her over the closely-shorn grass, and into the green walk between the lime-trees, that leads down to the little bridge.

“Alice,” at last he said —“Miss Arden, what have I done that you are so changed?”

“Changed! I don’t think I am changed. What is there to change me?” she said carelessly, but in a low tone, as she looked along towards the flowers.

“It won’t do, Alice, repeating my question, for that is all you have done. I like you too well to be put off with mere words. You are changed, and without a cause — no, I could not say that — not without a cause. Circumstances are altered; you are in the great world now, and admired; you have wealth and titles at your feet — Mr. Longcluse with his millions, Lord Wynderbroke with his coronet.”

“And who told you that these gentlemen were at my feet?” she exclaimed, with a flash from her fine eyes, that reminded him of moments of pretty childish anger, long ago. “If I am changed — and perhaps I am-such speeches as that would quite account for it. You accuse me of caprice — has any one ever accused you of impertinence?”

“It is quite true, I deserve your rebuke. I have been speaking as freely as if we were back again at Arden Court, or Ryndelmere, and ten years of our lives were as a mist that rolls away.”

“That’s a quotation from a song of Tennyson’s.”

“I don’t know what it is from. Being melancholy myself, I say the words because they are melancholy.”

“Surely you can find some friend to console you in your affliction.”

“It is not easy to find a friend at any time, much less when things go wrong with us.”

“It is very hard if there is really no one to comfort you. Certainly I sha’n’t try anything so hopeless as comforting a person who is resolved to be miserable. ‘There’s such a charm in melancholy, I would not if I could, be gay.’ There’s a quotation for you, as you like verses — particularly what I call moping verses.”

“Come, Alice! this is not like you; you are not so unkind as your words would seem; you are not cruel, Alice — you are cruel to no one else, only to me, your old friend.”

“I have said nothing cruel,” said Miss Alice, looking on the grass before her; “cruelty is too sublime a phrase. I don’t think I have ever experienced cruelty in my life; and I don’t think it likely that you have; I certainly have never been cruel to any one. I’m a very good-natured person, as my birds and squirrel would testify if they could.”

She laughed.

“I suppose people call that cruel which makes them suffer very much; it may be but a light look, or a cold word, but still it may be more than years of suffering to another. But I don’t think, Alice, you ought to be so with me. I think you might remember old times a little more kindly.”

“I remember them very kindly — as kindly as you do. We were always very good friends, and always, I daresay, shall be. I sha’n’t quarrel. But I don’t like heroics, I think they are so unmeaning. There may be people who like them very well and —— There is Richard, I think, and he has thrown away his mallet. If his game is over, he will come now, and Lady May doesn’t want the people to stay late; she is going into town, and I stay with her to-night. We are going to the Derby tomorrow.”

“I am going also — it was so kind of her! — she asked me to be of her party,” said Vivian Darnley.

“Richard is coming also; I have never been to the Derby, and I daresay we shall be a very pleasant party; I know I like it of all things. Here comes Richard — he sees me. Was my uncle David here?”

“No.”

“I hardly thought he was, but I saw Grace Maubray, and I fancied he might have come with her,” she said carelessly.

“Yes, she was here; she came with Lady Tramway. They went away about half-an-hour ago.”

So Richard joined her, and they walked to the house together, Vivian Darnley accompanying them.

“I think I saw you a little spooney today, Vivian, didn’t I?” said Richard Arden, laughing. He remembered what Longcluse once said to him, about Vivian’s tendre for his sister, and did not choose that Alice should suspect it. “Grace Maubray is a very pretty girl.”

“She may be that, though it doesn’t strike me,” began Darnley.

“Oh! come, I’m too old for that sort of disclaimer; and I don’t see why you should be so modest about it. She is clever and pretty.”

“Yes, she is very pretty,” said Alice.

“I suppose she is, but you’re quite mistaken if you really fancy I admire Miss Maubray. I don’t, I give you my honour, I don’t,” said Vivian vehemently.

Richard Arden laughed again, but prudently urged the point no more, intending to tell the story that evening as he and Alice drove together into town, in the way that best answered his purpose.

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