Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 40.

An Interview in the Study.

“Is my uncle at home?”

“No, Sir; I expect him at five. It wants about five minutes; but he desired me to show you, Sir, into the study.”

He was now alone in that large square room. The books, each in its place, in a vellum uniform, with a military precision and nattiness — seldom disturbed, I fancy, for Uncle David was not much of a book-worm — chilled him with an aspect of inflexible formality; and the busts, in cold white marble, standing at intervals on their pedestals, seemed to have called up looks, like Mrs. Pentweezle, for the occasion. Demosthenes, with his wrenched neck and square brow, had evidently heard of his dealings with Lord Pindledykes, and made up his mind, when the proper time came, to denounce him with a tempest of appropriate eloquence. There was in Cicero’s face, he thought, something satirical and conceited which was new and odious; and under Plato’s external solemnity he detected a pleasurable and roguish anticipation of the coming scene.

His uncle was very punctual. A few minutes would see him in the room, and then two or three sentences would disclose the purpose he meditated. In the midst of the trepidation which had thus returned, he heard his uncle’s knock at the hall-door, and in another moment he entered the study.

“How d’ye do, Richard? You’re punctual. I wish our meeting was a pleasanter one. Sit down. You haven’t kept faith with me. It is scarcely a year since, with a large sum of money, such as at your age I should have thought a fortune, I rescued you from bad hands and a great danger. Now, Sir, do you remember a promise you then made me? and have you kept your word?”

“I confess, uncle, I know I can’t excuse myself; but I was tempted, and I am weak — I am a fool, worse than a fool — whatever you please to call me, and I’m sorry. Can I say more?” pleaded the young man.

“That is saying nothing. It simply means that you do the thing that pleases you, and break your word where your inclination prompts; and you are sorry because it has turned out unluckily. I have heard that you are again in danger. I am not going to help you.” His blue eyes looked cold and hard, and the oblique light showed severe lines at his brows and mouth. It was a face which, generally kindly, could yet look, on occasion, stern enough. “Now, observe, I’m not going to help you; I’m not even going to reason with you — you can do that for yourself, if you please — I will simply help you with light. Thus forewarned, you need not, of course, answer any one of the questions I am about to put, and to ask which, I have no other claim than that which rests upon having put you on your feet, and paid five thousand pounds for you, only a year ago.”

“But I entreat that you do put them. I’m ashamed of myself, dear Uncle David; I implore of you to ask me whatever you please: I’ll answer everything.”

“Well, I think I know everything; Lord Pindledykes makes no secret of it. He’s the man, isn’t he?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“That’s the sallow, dissipated-looking fellow, with the eye that squints outward. I know his appearance very well; I knew his good-for-nothing father. No one likes to have transactions with that fellow — he’s shunned — and you chose him, of all people; and he has pigeoned you. I’ve heard all about it. Everybody knows by this time. And you have really lost fifteen thousand pounds to him?”

“I am afraid, uncle, it is very near that.”

“This, you know,” resumed Uncle David, “is not debt: it is ruin. You chose to mortgage your reversion to some Jews, for fifteen hundred a year, during your father’s lifetime. Three hundred would have been ample, with the hundred a year you had before — ample; but you chose to do it, and the estates, whenever you succeed to them, will come to you with a very heavy debt charged, for those Jews, upon them. I don’t suppose the estates are destined to continue long in our family; but this is a vexation which don’t touch you, nephew. I am, I confess, sorry. They were in our family, some of them, before the Conquest. No matter. What you have to consider is your present position. They will come to you, if ever, saddled with a heavy debt; and, in the meantime, you have fifteen hundred a year for your father’s life; and I don’t think it will sell for anything like the fifteen thousand pounds you have just lost. You are therefore insolvent; there is the story told. I see nothing for it but your becoming formally an insolvent. It is the bourgeoisie who shrink from that sort of thing; titled men, and men of pleasure and fashion, don’t seem to mind it. There are Lord Harry Newgate, and the Honourable Alfred Pentonville, and Sir Aymerick Pigeon, one of the oldest baronets in England, have been in the Gazette within the last twelve months. The money I paid, on the faith of your promise, is worse than wasted. I’ll pay no more into the pockets of rooks and scoundrels; I’ll divide no more of my money among blackguard jockeys and villanous peers, simply to defer for a few months the consequences of a fool’s incorrigible folly.”

“But, you know, uncle, I was not quite so mad. The thing was a swindle; it can’t stand. The horse was not fairly treated.”

“I daresay: I suppose it was doctored. I don’t care; I only think that unless you meant to go in for drugging horses and bribing jockeys, you had no business among such people, and at that sort of game. All I want is that you clearly understand that in this matter — though I would gladly see you safely out of it — I’ll waste no more money in paying gambling debts.”

“This might have happened to anyone, Sir; it might indeed, uncle. Every second man you meet is more or less on the turf, and they never come to grief by it. No one, of course, can stand against a barefaced swindle, like this thing.”

“I don’t care a farthing about other people; I’ve seen how it tells upon you. I don’t affect to value your promises, Dick; I don’t think that they are worth a shilling. How many have you made me, and broken? To me it seems the vice is incurable, like drunkenness. Tattersall’s, or whatever is your place of business, is no better than the gin-palace; and when once a fellow is fairly on the turf, the sooner he is under it, the better for himself and all who like him. And you have lost money at play besides. I heard that quite accidentally; and I daresay that is a ruinous item in what I may call your schedule.”

“I know what people are saying; but it isn’t so immense a sum, by any means.”

“I’m sorry to hear it. I wish it was enormous; I wish it was a million. I wish your failure could ruin every blackguard in England: the more heavily you have hit them all round, the better I am pleased. They hit you and me, Dick, pretty hard last time; it is our turn now. It is not my fault now, Dick, if you don’t understand me perfectly. If at any future time I should do anything for you — by my will, mind — I shall take care so to tie it up that you can’t make away with a guinea. My advice is not worth much to you, but I venture to give it, and I think the best thing you can do is to submit to your misfortune, and file your schedule; and when you are your own master again, I shall see if I can manage some small thing for you. You will have to work for your bread, you know, and you can’t expect very much at first; but there are things — of course, I mean in commercial establishments, and railways, and that kind of thing — where I have an influence, of from a hundred and twenty to two hundred pounds a year, and for some of them you would answer pretty well, and you can tide over the time till you succeed to the title: and after a little while I may be able to get you raised a step; and when once you get accustomed to work, you can’t think how you will come to like it. So that, on the whole, the knock you have got may do you some good, and make you prize your position more when you come to it. Will you go up-stairs, and take a cup of tea with Miss Maubray?”

He used to call her Grace, when speaking to Richard. Perhaps, in the concussion of this earthquake, the fabric of a matrimonial scheme may have fallen to the ground.

Richard Arden was too dejected and too agitated to accept this invitation, I need hardly tell you. He took his leave, chapfallen.

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