Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 36.

Mr. Longcluse Sees a Lady’s Note.

Next day Mr. Longcluse paid an early visit at Uncle David’s house, and saw Miss Maubray in the drawing-room. The transition from that young lady’s former, to her new life, was not less dazzling than that of the heroine of an Arabian tale, who is transported by friendly genii, while she sleeps, from a prison to the palace of a sultan. Uncle David did not care for finery; no man’s tastes could be simpler and more camp-like. But these drawing-rooms were so splendid, so elegant and refined, and yet so gorgeous in effect, that you would have fancied that he had thought of nothing else all his life but china, marqueterie, buhl, Louis Quatorze clocks, mirrors, pale-green and gold cabriole chairs, bronzes, pictures, and all the textile splendours, the names of which I know not, that make floors and windows magnificent.

The feminine nature, facile and self-adapting, had at once accommodated itself to the dominion over all this, and all that attended it. And Miss Maubray being a lady, a girl who had, in her troubled life, been much among high-bred people — her father a gentle, fashionable, broken-down man, and her mother a very elegant and charming woman — there was no contrast, in look, air, or conversation, to mark that all this was new to her: on the contrary, she became it extremely.

The young lady was sitting at the piano when Longcluse came in, and to the expiring vibration of the chord at which she was interrupted she rose, with that light, floating ascent which is so pretty, and gave him her hand, and welcomed him with a very bright smile. She thought he was a likely person to be able to throw some light upon two rumours which interested her.

“How do you contrive to keep your rooms so deliciously cool? The blinds are down and the windows open, but that alone won’t do, for I have just left a drawing-room that is very nearly insupportable; yours must be the work of some of those pretty sylphs that poets place in attendance upon their heroines. How fearfully hot yesterday was! You did not go to the Derby with Lady May’s party, I believe.”

He watched her clever face, to discover whether she had heard of the scene between him and Richard Arden —“I don’t think she has.”

“No,” she said, “my guardian, Mr. Arden, took me there instead. On second thoughts, I feared I should very likely be in the way. One is always de trop where there is so much love-making; and I am a very bad gooseberry.”

“A very dangerous one, I should fancy. And who are all these lovers?”

“Oh, really, they are so many, it is not easy to reckon them up. Alice Arden, for instance, had two lovers — Lord Wynderbroke and Vivian Darnley.”

“What, two lovers charged upon one lady? Is not that false heraldry? And does she really care for that young fellow, Darnley?”

“I’m told she really is deeply attached to him. But that does not prevent her accepting Lord Wynderbroke. He has spoken, and been accepted. Old Sir Reginald told my guardian his brother, last night, and he told me in the carriage, as we drove home. I wonder how soon it will be. I should rather like to be one of her bridesmaids. Perhaps she will ask me.”

Mr. Longcluse felt giddy and stunned; but he said, quite gaily —

“If she wishes to be suitably attended, she certainly will. But young ladies generally prefer a foil to a rival, even when so very beautiful as she is.”

“And there was Vivian Darnley at one side, I’m told, whispering all kinds of sweet things, and poor old Wynderbroke at the other, with his glasses to his eyes, reporting all he saw. Only think! What a goose the old creature must have looked!” And the young lady laughed merrily. “But can you tell me about the other affair?” she asked.

“What is it?”

“Oh! you know, of course — Lady May and Richard Arden; is it true that it was all settled the day before yesterday, at that kettle-drum?”

“There again my information is quite behind yours. I did not hear a word of it.”

“But you must have seen how very much in love they both are. Poor young man! I really think it would have broken his heart if she had been cruel, particularly if it is true that he lost so much as they say at the Derby yesterday. I suppose he did. Do you know?”

“I’m sorry to say,” said Mr. Longcluse, “I’m afraid it’s only too true. I don’t know exactly how much it is, but I believe it is more than he can, at present, very well bear. A mad thing for him to do. I’m really sorry, although he has chosen to quarrel with me most unreasonably.”

“Oh? I wasn’t aware. I fancied you would have heard all from him.”

“No, not a word — no.”

“Lady May was talking to me at Raleigh Court, the day we were there — she can talk of no one else, poor old thing! — and she said something had happened to make him and his sister very angry. She would not say what. She only said, ‘You know how very proud they are, and I really think,’ she said, ‘they ought to have been very much pleased, for everything, I think, was most advantageous.’ And from this I conclude there must have been a proposal for Alice; I shall ask her when I see her.”

“Yes, I daresay they are proud. Richard Arden told me so. He said that his family were always considered proud. He was laughing, of course, but he meant it.”

“He’s proud of being proud, I daresay. I thought you would be likely to know whether all they say is true. It would be a great pity he should be ruined; but, you know, if all the rest is true, there are resources.”

Longcluse laughed.

“He has always been very particular and a little tender in that quarter; very sweet upon Lady May, I thought,” said he.

“Oh, very much gone, poor thing!” said Grace Maubray. “I think my guardian will have heard all about it. He was very angry, once or twice, with Richard Arden about his losing so much money at play. I believe he has lost a great deal at different times.”

“A great many people do lose money so. For the sake of excitement, they incur losses, and risk even their utter ruin.”

“How foolish!” exclaimed Miss Maubray. “Have you heard anything more about that affair of Lady Mary Playfair and Captain Mayfair? He is now, by the death of his cousin, quite sure of the title, they say.”

“Yes it must come to him. His uncle has got something wrong with his leg, a fracture that never united quite; it is an old hurt, and I’m told he is quite breaking up now. He is at Buxton, and going on to Vichy, if he lives, poor man.”

“Oh, then, there can be no difficulty now.”

“No, I heard yesterday it is all settled.”

“And what does Caroline Chambray say to that?”

And so on they chatted, till his call was ended, and Mr. Longcluse walked down the steps with his head pretty busy.

At the corner of a street he took a cab; and as he drove to Lady May’s, those fragments of his short talk with Grace Maubray that most interested him were tumbling over and over in his mind. “So they are angry, very angry; and very proud and haughty people. I had no business dreaming of an alliance with Mr. Richard Arden. Angry, he may be-he may affect to be-but I don’t believe she is. And proud, is he? Proud of her he might be, but what else has he to boast of? Proud and angry — ha, ha! Angry and proud. We shall see. Such people sometimes grow suddenly mild and meek. And she has accepted Lord Wynderbroke. I doubt it. Miss Maubray, you are such a good-natured girl that, if you suspected the torture your story inflicted, you would invent it, rather than spare a fellow-mortal that pang.”

In this we know he was a little unjust.

“Well, Miss Arden, I understand your brother; I shall soon understand you. At present I hesitate. Alas! must I place you, too, in the schedule of my lost friends? Is it come to this? —

‘Once I held thee dear as pearl,

Now I do abhor thee.’”

Mr. Longcluse’s chin rests on his breast as, with a faint smile, he thus ruminates.

The cab stops. The light frown that had contracted his eyebrows disappears, he glances quickly up at the drawing-room windows, mounts the steps, and knocks at the hall door.

“Is Lady May Penrose at home?” he asked.

“I’ll inquire, Sir.”

Was it fancy, or was there in his reception something a little unusual, and ominous of exclusion?

He was, notwithstanding, shown up-stairs. Mr. Longcluse enters the drawing-room: Lady May will see him in a few minutes. He is alone. At the further end of this room is a smaller one, furnished like the drawing-room, the same curtains, carpet, and style, but much more minute and elaborate in ornamentation — an extremely pretty boudoir. He just peeps in. No, no one there. Then slowly he saunters into the other drawing-room, picks up a book, lays it down, and looks round. Quite solitary is this room also. His countenance changes a little. With a swift, noiseless step, he returns to the room he first entered. There is a little marqueterie table, to which he directs his steps, just behind the door from the staircase, under the pretty old buhl clock that ticks so merrily with its old wheels and lever, exciting the reverential curiosity of Monsieur Racine, who keeps it in order, and comments on its antique works with a mysterious smile every time he comes, to any one who will listen to him. The door is a little bit open. All the better, Mr. Longcluse will hear any step that approaches. On this little table lies an open note, hastily thrown there, and the pretty handwriting he has recognised. He knows it is Alice Arden’s. Without the slightest scruple, this odd gentleman takes it up and reads a bit, and looks toward the door; reads a little more, and looks again, and so on to the end.

On the principle that listeners seldom hear good of themselves, Mr. Longcluse’s cautious perusal of another person’s letter did not tell him a pleasant tale.

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