Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 38.

Gentlemen in Trouble.

Mr. Longcluse had now reached a turn in the road, at which stands an old house that recedes a little way and has four poplars growing in front of it, two at each side of the door. There are mouldy walls, and gardens, fruit and vegetables, in the rear, and in one wing of the house the proprietor is licenced to sell beer and other refreshing drinks. This quaint greengrocery and pot-house was not flourishing, I conjecture, for a cab was at the door, and Mr. Goldshed, the eminent Hebrew, on the steps, apparently on the point of leaving.

He is a short, square man, a little round shouldered. He is very bald, with coarse, black hair, that might not unsuitably stuff a chair. His nose is big and drooping, his lips large and moist. He wears a black satin waistcoat, thrust up into wrinkles by his habit of stuffing his short hands, bedizened with rings, into his trousers pockets. He has on a peculiar low-crowned hat. He is smoking a cigar, and talking over his shoulder, at intervals, in brief sentences that have a harsh, brazen ring, and are charged with scoff and menace. No game is too small for Mr. Goldshed’s pursuit. He ought to have made two hundred pounds of this little venture. He has not lost, it is true; but, when all is squared, he’ll not have made a shilling, and that for a Jew, you know, is very hard to bear.

In the midst of this intermittent snarl, the large, dark eyes of this man lighted on Mr. Longcluse, and he arrested the sentence that was about to fly over his shoulder, in the disconsolate faces of the broken little family in the passage. A smile suddenly beamed all over his dusky features, his airs of lordship quite forsook him, and he lifted his hat to the great man with a cringing salutation. The weaker spirit was overawed by the more potent. It was the catape doing homage to Mephistopheles, in the witch’s chamber.

He shuffled out upon the road, with a lazy smile, lifting his hat again, and very deferentially greeted “Mishter Longclooshe.” He had thrown away his exhausted cigar, and the red sun glittered in sparkles on the chains and jewelry that were looped across his wrinkled black satin waistcoat.

“How d’ye do, Mr. Goldshed? Anything particular to say to me?”

“Nothing, no, Mr. Longclooshe. I sposhe you heard of that dip in the Honduras?”

“They’ll get over it, but we sha’n’t see them so high again soon. Have you that cab all to yourself, Mr. Goldshed?”

“No, Shir, my partner’sh with me. He’ll be out in a minute; he’sh only puttin’ a chap on to make out an inventory.”

“Well, I don’t want him. Would you mind walking down the road here, a couple of hundred steps or so? I have a word for you. Your partner can overtake you in the cab.”

“Shertainly, Mr. Longclooshe, shertainly, Shir.”

And he halloed to the cabman to tell the “zhentleman” who was coming out to overtake him in the cab on the road to town.

This settled, Mr. Longcluse, walking his horse along the road, and his City acquaintance by his side, slowly made their way towards the City, casting long shadows over the low fence into the field at their left; and Mr. Goldshed’s stumpy legs were projected across the road in such slender proportions that he felt for a moment rather slight and elegant, and was unusually disgusted, when he glanced down upon the substance of those shadows, at the unnecessarily clumsy style in which Messrs. Shears and Goslin had cut out his brown trousers.

Mr. Longcluse had a good deal to say when they got on a little. Being earnest, he stopped his horse; and Mr. Goldshed, forgetting his reverence in his absorption, placed his broad hand on the horse’s shoulder, as he looked up into Mr. Longcluse’s face, and now and then nodded, or grunted a “Surely.” It was not until the shadows had grown perceptibly longer, until Mr. Longcluse’s hat had stolen away to the gilded stem of the old ash-tree that was in perspective to their left, and until Mr. Goldshed’s legs had grown so taper and elegant as to amount to the spindle, that the talk ended, and Mr. Longcluse, who was a little shy of being seen in such company, bid him good evening, and rode away townward at a brisk trot.

That morning Richard Arden looked as if he had got up after a month’s fever. His dinner had been a pretence, and his breakfast was a sham. His luck, as he termed it, had got him at last pretty well into a corner. The placing of the horses was a dreadful record of moral impossibilities accomplished against him. Five minutes before the start he could have sold his book for three thousand pounds; five minutes after it no one would have accepted fifteen thousand to take it off his hands. The shock, at first a confusion, had grown in the night into ghastly order. It was all, in the terms of the good old simile, “as plain as a pike-staff.” He simply could not pay. He might sell everything he possessed, and pay about ten shillings in the pound, and then work his passage to another country, and become an Australian drayman, or a New Orleans billiard-marker.

But not pay his bets! And how could he? Ten shillings in the pound? Not five. He forgot how far he was already involved. What was to become of him. Breakfast he could eat none. He drank a cup of tea, but his tremors grew worse. He tried claret, but that, too, was chilly comfort. He was driven to an experiment he had never ventured before. He had a “nip,” and another, and with this Dutch courage rallied a little, and was able to talk to his friend and admirer, Vandeleur, who had made a miniature book after the pattern of Dick Arden’s and had lost some hundreds, which he did not know how to pay; and who was, in his degree, as miserable as his chief; for is it not established that —

“The poor beetle, that we tread upon,

In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great

As when a giant dies”?

Young Vandeleur, with light silken hair, and innocent blue eyes, found his paragon the picture of “grim-visaged, comfortless despair,” drumming a tattoo on the window, in slippers and dressing-gown, without a collar to his shirt.

“You lost, of course,” said Richard savagely; “you followed my lead. Any fellow that does is sure to lose.”

“Yes,” answered Vandeleur, “I did, heavily; and, I give you my honour, I believe I’m ruined.”

“How much?”

“Two hundred and forty pounds!”

Ruined! What nonsense! Who are you? or what the devil are you making such a row about? Two hundred and forty! How can you be such an ass? Don’t you know it’s nothing?”

“Nothing! By Jove! I wish I could see it,” said poor Van; “everything’s something to any one, when there’s nothing to pay it with. I’m not like you, you know; I’m awfully poor. I have just a hundred and twenty pounds from my office, and forty my aunt gives me, and ninety I get from home, and, upon my honour, that’s all; and I owed just a hundred pounds to some fellows that were growing impertinent. My tailor is sixty-four, and the rest are trifling, but they were the most impertinent, and I was so sure of this unfortunate thing that I told them I— really did — to call next week; and now I suppose it’s all up with me, I may as well make a bolt of it. Instead of having any money to pay them, I’m two hundred and forty pounds worse than ever. I don’t know what on earth to do. Upon my honour, I haven’t an idea.”

“I wish we could exchange our accounts,” said Richard grimly: “I wish you owed my sixteen thousand. I think you’d sink through the earth. I think you’d call for a pistol, and blow”—(he was going to say, “your brains out,” but he would not pay him that compliment)—“blow your head off.”

So it was the old case —“Enter Tilburina, mad, in white satin; enter her maid, mad, in white linen.

And Richard Arden continued —

“What’s your aunt good for? You know she will pay that; don’t let me hear a word more about it.”

“And your uncle will pay yours, won’t he?” said Van, with an innocent gaze of his azure eyes.

“My uncle has paid some trifles before, but this is too big a thing. He’s tired of me and my cursed misfortunes, and he’s not likely to apply any of his overgrown wealth in relieving a poor tortured beggar like me. I’m simply ruined.”

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