Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 45.

Collision.

“Lord Wynderbroke!” said Uncle David, and bowed rather ceremoniously.

Lord Wynderbroke, a little surprised, extended two fingers and said, “How d’ye do, Mr. Arden?” and smiled drily, and then seemed disposed to pass on.

“I beg your pardon, Lord Wynderbroke,” said David Arden, “but would you mind giving me a few minutes? I have something you may think a little important to say, and if you will allow me, I’ll say it in this room”— he indicated the half-open door of the dining-room, in which there was still some light —“I shall not detain you long.”

The urbane and smiling peer looked on him for a moment — rather darkly — with a shrewd eye; and he said, still smiling —

“Certainly, Mr. Arden; but at this hour, and being about to write a note, you will see that I have very little time indeed — I’m very sorry.”

He was speaking stiffly, and any one might have seen that he suspected nothing very agreeable as the result of Mr. Arden’s communication.

When they had got into the dining-room, and the door was closed, Lord Wynderbroke, with his head a little high, invited Mr. Arden to proceed.

“Then, as you are in a hurry, you’ll excuse my going direct to the point. I’ve come here in consequence of a note that reached me about an hour ago, informing me that my niece, Alice Arden, has suffered a great deal of annoyance. You know, of course, to what I refer?”

“I should extremely regret that the young lady, your niece, should suffer the least vexation, from any cause; but I should have fancied that her happiness might be more naturally confided to the keeping of her father, than of a relation residing in a different house, and by no means so nearly interested in consulting it.”

“I see, Lord Wynderbroke, that I must address you very plainly, and even coarsely. My brother Reginald does not consult her happiness in this matter, but merely his own ideas of a desirable family connection. She is really quite miserable; she has unalterably made up her mind. You’ll not induce her to change it. There is no chance of that. But by permitting my brother to exercise a pressure in favour of your suit ——”

“You’ll excuse my interrupting for a moment, to say that there is, and can be, nothing but the perfectly legitimate influence of a parent. Pressure, there is none — none in the world, Sir; although I am not, like you, Mr. Arden, a relation — and a very near one — of Sir Reginald Arden’s, I think I can undertake to say that he is quite incapable of exercising what you call a pressure upon the young lady his daughter; and I have to beg that you will be so good as to spare me the pain of hearing that term employed, as you have just now employed it — or at all, Sir, in connection with me. I take the liberty of insisting upon that, peremptorily.”

Mr. Arden bowed, and went on:

“And when the young lady distinctly declines the honour you propose, you persist in paying your addresses, as though her answer meant just nothing.”

“I don’t quite know, Sir, why I’ve listened so long to this kind of thing from you; you have no right on earth, Sir, to address that sort of thing to me. How dare you talk to me, Sir, in that — a — a — audacious tone upon my private affairs and conduct?”

Uncle David was a little fiery, and answered, holding his head high —

“What I have to say is short and clear. I don’t care twopence about your affairs, or your conduct, but I do very much care about my niece’s happiness; and if you any longer decline to take the answer she has given you, and continue to cause her the slightest trouble, I’ll make it a personal matter with you. Good-night!” he added, with an inflamed visage, and a stamp on the floor, thundering his valediction. And forth he went to pay his brief visit to his brother — not caring twopence, as he said, what Lord Wynderbroke thought of him.

Sir Reginald had got into his dressing-gown. He was not now in any pain to speak of, and expressed great surprise at the sudden appearance of his brother.

“You’ll take something, won’t you?”

“Nothing, thanks,” answered David. “I came to beg a favour.”

“Oh! did you? You find me very poorly,” said the baronet, in a tone that seemed to imply, “You might easily kill me, by imposing the least trouble just now.”

“You’ll be all the better, Reginald, for this little attack; it is so comfortably established in your foot.”

“Comfortably! I wish you felt it,” said Sir Reginald, sharply; “and it’s confoundedly late. Why didn’t you come to dinner?”

David laughed good-humouredly.

“You forgot, I think, to ask me,” said he.

“Well, well, you know there is always a chair and a glass for you; but won’t it do to talk about any cursed thing you wish tomorrow? I— I never, by any chance, hear anything agreeable. I have been tortured out of my wits and senses all day long by a tissue of pig-headed, indescribable frenzy. I vow to Heaven there’s a conspiracy to drive me into a mad-house, or into my grave; and I declare to my Maker, I wish the first time I’m asleep, some fellow would come in and blow my brains out on the pillow.”

“I don’t know an easier death,” said David; and his brother, who meant it to be terrific, did not pretend to hear him. “I have only a word to say,” he continued, “a request you have never refused to other friends, and, in fact, dear Reginald, I ventured to take it for granted you would not refuse me; so I have taken Alice into town, to make me a little visit of a day or two.”

“You haven’t taken Alice — you don’t mean — she’s not gone?” exclaimed the baronet, sitting up with a sudden perpendicularity, and staring at his brother as if his eyes were about to leap from their sockets.

“I’ll take the best care of her. Yes, she is gone,” said David.

“But my dear, excellent, worthy — why, curse you, David, you can’t possibly have done anything so clumsy! Why, you forgot that Wynderbroke is here; how on earth am I to entertain Wynderbroke without her?”

“Why, it is exactly because Lord Wynderbroke is here, that I thought it the best time for her to make me a visit.”

“I protest to Heaven, David, I believe you’re deranged! Do you the least know what you are saying?”

“Perfectly. Now, my dear Reginald, let us look at the matter quietly. The girl does not like him; she would not marry him, and never will; she has grown to hate him; his own conduct has made her despise and detest him; and she’s not the kind of girl who would marry for a mere title. She has unalterably made up her mind; and these are not times when you can lock a young lady into her room, and starve her into compliance; and Alice is a spirited girl — all the women of our family were. You’re no goose like Wynderbroke — you only need to know that the girl has quite made up her mind, or her heart, or her hatred, or whatever it is, and she won’t marry him. It is as well he should know it at first, as at last; and I don’t think, if he were a gentleman, peer though he be, he would have been in this house to-night. He counted on his title: he was too sure. I am very proud of Alice. And now he can’t bear the mortification — having, like a fool, disclosed his suit to others before it had succeeded — of letting the world know he has been refused; and to this petty vanity he would sacrifice Alice, and prevail on you, if he could, to bully her into accepting him, a plan in which, if he perseveres, I have told him he shall, besides failing ridiculously, give me a meeting; for I will make it a personal quarrel with him.”

Sir Reginald sat in his chair, looking very white and wicked, with his eyes gleaming fire on his brother. He opened his mouth once or twice, to speak, but only drew a short breath at each attempt.

David Arden rather wondered that his brother took all this so quietly. If he had observed him a little more closely, he would have seen that his hands were trembling, and perceived also that he had tried repeatedly to speak, and that either voice or articulation failed him. On a sudden he recovered, and regardless of his gout started to his feet, and limped along the floor, exclaiming —

“Help us — help us — God help us! What’s this? My — my — oh, my God! It’s very bad!” He was stumping round and round the table, near which he had sat, and restlessly shoving the pamphlets and books hither and thither as he went. “What have I done to earn this curse? — was ever mortal so pursued? The last thing, this was; now all’s gone — quite gone — it’s over, quite. They’ve done it — they’ve done it. Bravo! bravi tutti! brava! All — all, and everything gone! To think of her — only to think of her! She was my pet.” (And in his bleak, trembling voice, he cried a horrid curse at her.) “I tell you,” he screamed, dashing his hand on the table, at the other end of which he had arrested his monotonous shuffle round it, when his brother caught suddenly his vacant eye, “you think, because I’m down in the world, and you are prosperous, that you can do as you like. If I was where I should be, you daren’t. I’ll have her back, Sir. I’ll have the police with you. I’ll — I’ll indict you — it’s a police-office affair. They’ll take her through the streets. Where’s the wretch like her? I charge her — let them take her by the shoulder. And my son, Richard — to think of him! — the cursed puppy! — his post obit! One foot in the grave, have I? No, I’m not so near smoked out as you take me — I’ve a long time for it — I’ve a long life. I’ll live to see him broken — without a coat to his back — you villanous, swindling dandy, and I’ll ——”

His voice got husky, and he struck his thin fist on the table, and clung to it, and the room was suddenly silent.

David Arden rang the bell violently, and got his arm round his brother, who shook himself feebly, and shrugged, as if he disdained and hated that support.

In came Crozier, who looked aghast, but wheeled his easy-chair close to where he stood, and between them they got him into it, trembling from head to foot.

Martha Tansey came in and lent her aid, and beckoning her to the door, David Arden asked her if she thought him very ill.

“I ‘a’ seen him just so a dozen times over. He’ll be well enough, soon, and if ye knew him as weel in they takins, ye’d ho’d wi’ me, there’s nothing more than common in’t; he’s a bit teathy and short-waisted, and always was, and that’s how he works himself into them fits.”

So spoke Tansey, into whose talk, in moments of excitement, returned something of her old north-country dialect.

“Well, so he was, vexed with me, as with other people, and he has over-excited himself; but as he has this little gout about him, I may as well send out his doctor as I return.”

This little conversation took place outside Sir Reginald’s room-door, which David did not care to reenter, as his brother might have again become furious on seeing him. So he took his leave of Martha Tansey, and their whispered dialogue ended. One or two sighs and groans showed that Sir Reginald’s energies were returning. David Arden walked quickly across the vast hall, in which now burned duskily but a single candle, and let himself out into the clear, cold night; and as he walked down the broad avenue he congratulated himself on having cut the Gordian knot, and liberated his niece.

It was a pleasant walk by the narrow road, with its lofty groining of foliage, down to the village outpost of Islington, where, under the shadow of the old church-spire, he found his cab waiting, with Alice and her maid in it.

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