Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 35.

Dinner at Mortlake.

Lady May’s party from the Derby dined together late, that evening, at Mortlake. Lord Wynderbroke, of course, was included. He was very happy, and extremely agreeable. When Alice, and Lady May, who was to stay that night at Mortlake, and Miss Maubray, who had come with Uncle David, took their departure for the drawing-room, the four gentlemen who remained over their claret drew more together, and chatted at their ease.

Lord Wynderbroke was in high spirits. He admired Alice more than ever. He admired everything. A faint rumour had got about that something was not very unlikely to be. It did not displease him. He had been looking at diamonds the day before; he was not vexed when that amusing wag, Pokely, who had surprised him in the act, asked him that day, on the Downs, some sly questions on the subject, with an arch glance at beautiful Miss Arden. Lord Wynderbroke pooh-pooh’d this impertinence very radiantly. And now this happy peer, pleased with himself, pleased with everybody, with the flush of a complacent elation on his thin cheeks, was simpering and chatting most agreeably, and commending everything to which his attention was drawn.

In very marked contrast with this happy man was Richard Arden, who talked but little, was absent, utterly out of spirits, and smiled with a palpable effort when he did smile. His conversation with Lady May showed the same uncomfortable peculiarities. It was intermittent and bewildered. It saddened the good lady. Was he ill? or in some difficulty?

Now that she had withdrawn, Richard Arden seemed less attentive to Lord Wynderbroke than to his uncle. In so far as a wight in his melancholy mood could do so, he seemed to have laid himself out to please his uncle in those small ways where, in such situations, an anxiety to please can show itself. Once his father’s voice had roused him with the intimation, “Richard, Lord Wynderbroke is speaking to you;” and he saw a very urbane smile on his thin lips, and encountered a very formidable glare from his dark eyes. The only subject on which Richard Arden at all brightened up was the defeat of the favourite. Lord Wynderbroke remarked —

“It seems to have caused a good deal of observation. I saw Hounsley and Crackham, and they shake their heads at it a good deal, and ——”

He paused, thinking that Richard Arden was going to interpose something, but nothing followed, and he continued —

“And Lord Shillingsworth, he’s very well up in all these things, and he seems to think it is a very suspicious affair; and old Sir Thomas Fetlock, who should have known better, has been hit very hard, and says he’ll have it before the Jockey Club.”

“I don’t mind Sir Thomas, he blusters and makes a noise about everything,” said Richard Arden; “but it was quite palpable, when the horse showed, he wasn’t fit to run. I don’t suppose Sir Thomas will do it, but it certainly will be done. I know a dozen men who will sell their horses, if it isn’t done. I don’t see how any man can take payment of the odds on Dotheboys — I don’t, I assure you — till the affair is cleared up: gentlemen, of course, I mean; the other people would like the money all the better if it came to them by a swindle. But it certainly can’t rest where it is.”

No one disputing this, and none of the other gentlemen being authorities of any value upon turf matters, the subject dropped, and others came on, and Richard Arden was silent again. Lord Wynderbroke, who was to pass two or three days at Mortlake, and who had made up his mind that he was to leave that interesting place a promesso sposo, was restless, and longed to escape to the drawing-room. So the sitting over the wine was not very long.

Richard Arden made an effort, in the drawing-room, to retrieve his character with Lady May and Miss Maubray, who had been rather puzzled by his hang-dog looks and flagging conversation.

“There are times, Lady May,” said he, placing himself on the sofa beside her, “when one loses all faith in the future — when everything goes wrong, and happiness becomes incredible. Then one’s wisest course seems to be, to take off one’s hat to the good people in this planet, and go off to another.”

“Only that I know you so well,” said Lady May, “I should tell Reginald — I mean your father — what you say; and I think your uncle, there, is a magistrate for the county of Middlesex, and could commit you, couldn’t he? for any such foolish speech. Did you observe today — you saw him, of course — how miserably ill poor Pindledykes is looking? I don’t think, really, he’ll be alive in six months.”

“Don’t throw away your compassion, dear Lady May. Pindledykes has always looked dying as long as I can remember, and on his last legs; but those last legs carry some fellows a long way, and I’m very sure he’ll outlive me.”

“And what pleasure can a person so very ill as he looks take in going to places like that?”

“The pleasure of winning other people’s money,” laughed Arden sourly. “Pindledykes knows very well what he’s about. He turns his time to very good account, and wastes very little of it, I assure you, in pitying other people’s misfortunes.”

“I’m glad to see that you and Richard are on pleasanter terms,” said David Arden to his brother, as he sipped his tea beside him.

“Egad! we are not, though. I hate him worse than ever. Would you oblige me by putting a bit of wood on the fire? I told you how he has treated me. I wonder, David, how the devil you could suppose we were on pleasanter terms!”

Sir Reginald was seated with his crutch-handled stick beside him, and an easy fur slipper on his gouty foot, which rested on a stool, and was a great deal better. He leaned back in a cushioned arm-chair, and his fierce prominent eyes glanced across the room, in the direction of his son, with a flash like a scimitar’s.

“There’s no good, you know, David, in exposing one’s ulcers to strangers — there’s no use in plaguing one’s guests with family quarrels.”

“Upon my word, you disguised this one admirably, for I mistook you for two people on tolerably friendly terms.”

“I don’t want to plague Wynderbroke about the puppy; there is no need to mention that he has made so much unhappiness. You won’t, neither will I.”

David nodded.

“Something has gone wrong with him,” said David Arden, “and I thought you might possibly know.”

“Not I.”

“I think he has lost money on the races today,” said David.

“I hope to Heaven he has! I’m glad of it. It will do me good; let him settle it out of his blackguard post-obit,” snarled Sir Reginald, and ground his teeth.

“If he has been gambling, he has disappointed me. He can, however, disappoint me but once. I had better thoughts of him.”

So said David Arden, with displeasure in his frank and manly face.

“Playing? Of course he plays, and of course he’s been making a blundering book for the Derby. He likes the hazard-table and the turf, he likes play, and he likes making books; and what he likes he does. He always did. I’m rather pleased you have been trying to manage him. You’ll find him a charming person, and you’ll understand what I have had to combat with. He’ll never do any good; he is so utterly graceless.”

“I see my father looking at me, and I know what he means,” said Richard Arden, with a smile, to Lady May; “I’m to go and talk to Miss Maubray. He wishes to please Uncle David, and Miss Maubray must be talked to; and I see that Uncle David envies me my little momentary happiness, and meditates taking that empty chair beside you. You’ll see whether I am right. By Jove! here he comes; I sha’n’t be turned away so ——”

“Oh, but, really, Miss Maubray has been quite alone,” urged poor Lady May, very much pleased; “and you must, to please me; I’m sure you will.”

Instantly he arose.

“I don’t know whether that speech is most kind or un-kind; you banish me, but in language so flattering to my loyalty, that I don’t know whether to be pleased or pained. Of course I obey.” He said these parting words in a very low tone, and had hardly ended them, when David Arden took the vacant chair beside the good lady, and began to talk with her.

Once or twice his eyes wandered to Richard Arden, who was by this time talking with returning animation to Grace Maubray, and the look was not cheerful. The young lady, however, was soon interested, and her good-humour was clever and exhilarating. I think that she a little admired this handsome and rather clever young man, and who can tell what such a fancy may grow to?

That night, as Richard Arden bid him good-bye, his uncle said, coldly enough —

“By-the-bye, Richard, would you mind looking in upon me tomorrow, at five in the afternoon? I shall have a word to say to you.”

So the appointment was made, and Richard entered his cab, and drove into town dismally.

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