Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 34.

A Sharp Colloquy.

On foot, near the weighing stand, is a tall, powerful, and clumsy fellow, got up gaudily — a fellow with a lowering red face, in loud good-humour, very ill-looking. He is now grinning and chuckling with his hands in his pockets, and talking with a little Hebrew, young, sable-haired, with the sallow tint, great black eyes, and fleshy nose that characterise his race. A singularly sullen mouth aids the effect of his vivid eyes, in making this young Jew’s face ominous.

“Young Dick Harden’s ’ere,” said Mr. Levi.

“Eh? is he?” said the big man with the red face and pimples, the green cut-away coat, gilt buttons, purple neck-tie, yellow waistcoat, white cord tights, and top boots.

“Walking down there,” said Levi, pointing with his thumb over his shoulder. “I shaw him shpeak to a fellow in chocolate and gold livery.”

“And an eagle on the button, I know. That’s Lady May Penrose’s livery,” said his companion. “He came down with her, I lay you fifty. And he has a nice sister as ever you set eyes on — pretty gal, Mr. Levi — a reg’lar little angel,” and he giggled after his wont. “If there’s a dragful of hangels anyvere, she’s one of them. I saw her yesterday in one of Lady May Penrose’s carriages in St. James’ Street. Mr. Longcluse is engaged to get married to her; you may see them linked arm-inarm, any day you please, walkin’ hup and down Hoxford Street. And her brother, Richard Harden, is to marry Lady May Penrose. That will be a warm family yet, them Hardens, arter all.”

“A family with a title, Mr. Ballard, be it never so humble, Sir, like ‘ome shweet ‘ome, hash nine livesh in it; they’ll be down to the last pig, and not the thickness of an old tizzy between them and the glue-pot; and while you’d write your name across the back of a cheque, all’s right again. The title doesh it. You never shaw a title in the workus yet, Mr. Ballard, and you’ll wait awhile before you ‘av a hoppertunity of shayin’, ‘My lord Dooke, I hope your grashe’s water-gruel is salted to your noble tasht thish morning,’ or, ‘My noble marquishe, I humbly hope you are pleashed with the fit of them pepper-and-salts;’ and, ‘My lord earl, I’m glad to see by the register you took a right honourable twisht at the crank thish morning.’ No, Mishter Ballard, you nor me won’t shee that, Shir.”

While these gentlemen enjoyed their agreeable banter, and settled the fortunes of Richard Arden and Mr. Longcluse, the latter person was walking down the course in the direction in which Mr. Levi had seen Arden go, in the hope of discovering Lady May’s carriage. Longcluse was in an odd state of excitement. He had entered into the spirit of the carnival. Voices all around were shouting, “Twenty to five on Dotheboys;” or, “A hundred to five against Parachute.”

“In what?” called Mr. Longcluse to the latter challenge.

“In assassins!” cried a voice from the crowd.

Mr. Longcluse hustled his way into the thick of it.

“Who said that?” he thundered.

No one could say. No one else had heard it. Who cared? He recovered his coolness quickly, and made no further fuss about it. People were too busy with other things to bother themselves about his questions, or his temper. He hurried forward after young Arden, whom he saw at the turn of the course a little way on.

“The first race no one cares much about; compared with the great event of the day, it is as the farce before the pantomime, or the oyster before the feast.”

The bells had not yet rung out their warning, and Alice said to Vivian —

“How beautifully that girl with the tambourine danced and sang! I do so hope she’ll come again; and she is, I think, so perfectly lovely. She is so like the picture of La Esmeralda; didn’t you think so?”

“Do you really wish to see her again?” said Vivian. “Then if she’s to be found on earth you shall see her.”

He was smiling, but he spoke in the low tone that love is said to employ and understand, and his eyes looked softly on her. He was pleased that she enjoyed everything so. In a moment he had jumped to the ground, and with one smile back at the eager girl he disappeared.

And now the bells were ringing, and the police clearing the course. And now the cry, “They’re off, they’re off!” came rolling down the crowd like a hedge-fire. Lord Wynderbroke offered Alice his race-glass, but ladies are not good at optical aids, and she prefers her eyes; and the Earl constitutes himself her sentinel, and will report all he sees, and stands on the roof beside her place, with the glasses to his eyes. And now the excitement grows. Beggar-boys, butcher-boys, stable-helps, jump up on carriage-wheels unnoticed, and cling to the roof with filthy fingers. And now they are in sight, and a wild clamour arises. “Red’s first!” “No, Blue!” “White leads!” “Pink’s first!”

And here they are! White, crimson, pink, black, yellow — the silk jackets quivering like pennons in a storm — the jockeys tossing their arms madly about, the horses seeming actually to fly; swaying, reeling, whirring, the whole thing passes in a beautiful drift of a moment, and is gone!

Lord Wynderbroke is standing on tip-toe, trying to catch a glimpse of the caps as they show at the opening nearer the winning-post. Vivian Darnley is away in search of La Esmeralda. Miss Arden has seen the first race of the day, the first she has ever seen, and is amazed and delighted. The intruders who had been clinging to the carriage now jump down, and join the crowd that crush on towards the winning-post, or break in on the course. But there rises at the point next her a figure she little expected to see so near that day. Mr. Longcluse has swung himself up, and stands upon the wheel. He is bare-headed, his hat is in the hand he clings by. In the other hand he holds up a small glove — a lady’s glove. His face is very pale. He is not smiling; he looks with an expression of pain, on the contrary, and very great respect.

“Miss Arden, will you forgive my venturing to restore this glove, which I happened to see you drop as the horses passed?”

She looked at him with something of surprise and fear, and drew back a little instead of taking the proffered glove.

“I find I have been too presumptuous,” he said gently. “I place it there. I see, Miss Arden, I have been maligned. Some one has wronged me cruelly. I plead only for a fair chance — for God’s sake, give me a chance. I don’t say hear me now, only say you won’t condemn me utterly unheard.”

He spoke vehemently, but so low that, amid the hubbub of other voices, no one but Miss Arden, on whom his eyes were fixed, could hear him.

“I take my leave, Miss Arden, and may God bless you. But I rest in the hope that your noble nature will refuse to treat any creature as my enemies would have you treat me.”

His looks were so sad and even reverential, and his voice, though low, so full of agony, that no one could suppose the speaker had the least idea of forcing his presence upon the lady a moment longer than sufficed to ascertain that it was not welcome. He was about to step to the ground, when he saw Richard Arden striding rapidly up with a very angry countenance. Then and there seemed likely to occur what the newspapers term an ungentlemanlike fracas. Richard Arden caught him, and pulled him roughly to the ground. Mr. Longcluse staggered back a step or two, and recovered himself. His pale face glared wickedly, for a moment or two, on the flushed and haughty young man; his arm was a little raised, and his fist clenched. I daresay it was just the turn of a die, at that moment, whether he struck him or not.

These two bosom friends, and sworn brothers, of a week or two ago, were confronted now with strange looks, and in threatening attitude. How frail a thing is the worldly man’s friendship, hanging on flatteries and community of interest! A word or two of truth, and a conflict or even a divergence of interest, and where is the liking, the friendship, the intimacy?

A sudden change marked the face of Mr. Longcluse. The vivid fires that gleamed for a moment from his eyes sunk in their dark sockets, the intense look changed to one of sullen gloom. He beckoned, and said coldly, “Please follow me;” and then turned and walked, at a leisurely pace, a little way inward from the course.

Richard Arden, perhaps, felt that had he hesitated it would have reflected on his courage. He therefore disregarded the pride that would have scorned even a seeming compliance with that rather haughty summons, and he followed him with something of the odd dreamy feeling which men experience when they are stepping, consciously, into a risk of life. He thought that Mr. Longcluse was inviting the interview for the purpose of arranging the preliminaries of who were to act as their “friends,” and where each gentleman was to be heard of that evening. He followed, with oddly conflicting feelings, to a place in the rear of some tents. Here was a sort of booth. Two doors admitted to it — one to the longer room, where was whirling that roulette round which men who, like Richard Arden, could not deny themselves, even on the meanest scale, the excitement of chance gain and loss, were betting and bawling. Into the smaller room of plank, which was now empty, they stepped.

“Now, Sir, you’ll be so good as to observe that you have taken upon you a rather serious responsibility in laying your hand on me,” said Longcluse, in a very low tone, coldly and gently. “In France, such a profanation would be followed by an exchange of shots, and here, under other circumstances, I should exact the same chance of retaliation. I mean to deal differently — quite differently. I have fought too many duels, as you know, to be the least apprehensive of being misunderstood or my courage questioned. For your sister’s sake, not yours, I take a peculiar course with you. I offer you an alternative; you may have reconciliation — here is my hand” (he extended it)—“or you may abide the other consequence, at which I sha’n’t hint, in pretty near futurity. You don’t accept my hand?”

“No, Sir,” said Arden haughtily — more than haughtily, insolently. “I can have no desire to renew an acquaintance with you. I sha’n’t do that. I’ll fight you, if you like it. I’ll go to Boulogne, or wherever you like, and we can have our shot, Sir, whenever you please.”

“No, if you please — not so fast. You decline my friendship — that offer is over,” said Longcluse, lowering his hand resolutely. “I am not going to shoot you — I have not the least notion of that. I shall take, let me see, a different course with you, and I shall obtain on reflection your entire concurrence with the hopes I have no idea of relinquishing. You will probably understand me pretty clearly by-and-by.”

Richard Arden was angry; he was puzzled; he wished to speak, but could not light quickly on a suitable answer. Longcluse stood for some seconds, smiling his pale sinister smile upon him, and then turned on his heel, and walked quietly out upon the grass, and disappeared in the crowd.

Richard Arden was irresolute. He threw open the door, and entered the roulette-room — looked round on all the strange faces, that did not mind him, or seem to see that he was there — then, with a sudden change of mind, he retraced his steps more quickly, and followed Longcluse through the other door. But there he could not trace him. He had quite vanished. Perhaps, next morning, he was glad that he had missed him, and had been compelled to “sleep upon it.”

Now and then, with a sense of disagreeable uncertainty, recurred to his mind the mysterious intimation, or rather menace, with which he had taken his departure. It was not, however, his business to look up Longcluse. He had himself seemed to intimate that the balance of insult was the other way. If “satisfaction,” in the slang of the duellist, was to be looked for, the initiative devolved undoubtedly upon Longcluse.

Alice was so placed on the carriage, that she did not see what passed immediately beside it, between Longcluse and her brother. Still, the appearance of this man, and his having accosted her, had agitated her a good deal, and for some hours the unpleasant effect of the little scene spoiled her enjoyment of this day of wonders.

Very gaily, notwithstanding, the party returned — except, perhaps, one person who had reason to remember that day.

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