Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 50.

Uncle David’s Suspicions.

Mr. David Arden, therefore, had made a call at the office of Paller, Crapely, Plumes, and Co., eminent undertakers in the most gentleman-like, and, indeed, aristocratic line of business, with immense resources at command, and who would undertake to bury a duke, with all the necessary draperies, properties, and dramatis personæ, if required, before his grace was cold in his bed.

A little dialogue occurred here, which highly interested Uncle David. A stout gentleman, with a muddy and melancholy countenance, and a sad suavity of manner, and in the perennial mourning that belongs to gentlemen of his doleful profession, presents himself to David Arden, to receive his instructions respecting the deceased baronet’s obsequies. The top of his head is bald, his face is furrowed and baggy; he looks fully sixty-five, and he announces himself as the junior partner, Plumes by name.

Having made his suggestions and his notes, and taken his order for a strictly private funeral in the neighbourhood of London, Mr. Plumes thoughtfully observes that he remembers the name well, having been similarly employed for another member of the same family.

“Ah! How was that? How long ago?” asked Mr. Arden.

“About twenty years, Sir.”

“And where was that funeral?”

“The same place, Sir, Mortlake.”

“Yes, I know that was ——?”

“It was Mr. ‘Enry, or rayther ‘Arry Harden. We ‘ad to take back the plate, Sir, and change ‘Enry to ‘Arry —‘Arry being the name he was baptised by. There was a hinquest connected with that horder.”

“So there was, Mr. Plumes,” said Uncle David with awakened interest, for that gentleman spoke as if he had something more to say on the subject.

“There was, Sir — and it affected me very sensibly. My niece, Sir, had a wery narrow escape.”

“Your niece! Really? How could that be?”

“There was a Mister Yelland Mace, Sir, who paid his haddresses to her, and I do believe, Sir, she rayther liked him. I don’t know, I’m sure, whether he was serious in ‘is haddresses, but it looked very like as if he meant to speak; though I do suppose he was looking ‘igher for a wife. Well, he was believed to ‘ave ‘ad an ‘and in that ‘orrible business.”

“I know — so he undoubtably had — and the poor young lady, I suppose, was greatly shocked and distressed.”

“Yes, Sir, and she died about a year after.”

David Arden expressed his regret, and then he asked —

“You have often seen that man, Yelland Mace?”

“Not often, Sir.”

“You remember his face pretty well, I daresay?”

“Well, no, Sir, not very well. It is a long time.”

“Do you recollect whether there was anything noticeable in his features? — had he, for instance, a remarkably prominent nose?”

“I don’t remember that he ‘ad, Sir. I rather think not, but I can’t by no means say for certain. It is a long time, and I ‘aven’t much of a memory for faces. There is a likeness of him among my poor niece’s letters.”

“Really? I should be so much obliged if you would allow me to see it.”

“It is at ‘ome, Sir, but I shall be ‘ome to dinner before I go out to Mortlake; and, if you please, I shall borrow it of my sister, and take it with me.”

This offer David Arden gladly accepted.

When the events were recent, he could have no difficulty in identifying Yelland Mace, by the evidence of fifty witnesses, if necessary. But it was another thing now. The lapse of time had made matters very different. It was recent impressions of a vague kind about Mr. Longcluse that had revived the idea, and prompted a renewal of the search. Martha Tansey was aged now, and he had misgivings about the accuracy of her recollection. Was it possible, after all, that he was about to see that which would corroborate his first vague suspicions?

Sir Richard had a busy and rather harassing day, the first of his succession to an old title and a new authority, and he was not sorry when it closed. He had stolen about from place to place in a hired cab, and leaned back to avoid a chance recognition, like an absconding debtor; and had talked with the people whom he was obliged to call on and see, in low and hurried colloquy, through the window of the cab. And now night had fallen, the lamps were glaring, and tired enough he returned to his lodgings, sent for his tailor, and arranged promptly about the

“—— inky cloak, good mother,

And customary suits of solemn black;”

and that done, he wrote two or three notes to kindred in Yorkshire, with whom it behoved him to stand on good terms; and then he determined to drive out to Mortlake Hall. An unpleasant mixture of feelings was in his mind as he thought of that visit, and the cold tenant of the ancestral house, whom in the grim dignity of death, it would not have been seemly to leave for a whole day and night unvisited. It was to him a repulsive visit, but how could he postpone it?

Behold him, then, leaning back in his cab, and driving through glaring lamps, and dingy shops, and narrow ill-thriven streets, eastward and northward; and now, through the little antique village, with trembling lights, and by the faded splendours of the “Guy of Warwick.” And he sat up and looked out of the windows, as they entered the narrow road that is darkened by the tall overhanging timber of Mortlake grounds.

Now they are driving up the broad avenue, with its noble old trees clumped at either side; and with a shudder Sir Richard Arden leans back and moves no more until the cab pulls up at the door-steps, and the knock sounds through hall and passages, which he dared not so have disturbed, uninvited, a day or two before. Crozier ran down the steps to greet Master Richard.

“How are you, old Crozier?” he said, shaking hands from the cab-window, for somehow he liked to postpone entering the house as long as he could. “I could not come earlier. I have been detained in town all day by business, of various kinds, connected with this.” And he moved his hand toward the open hall-door, with a gloomy nod or two. “How is Martha?”

“Tolerable, Sir, thankye, considerin’. It’s a great upset to her.”

“Yes, poor thing, of course. And has Mr. Paller been here — the person who is to — to ——”

“The undertaker? Yes, Sir, he was here at two o’clock, and some of the people has been busy in the room, and his men has come out again with the coffin, Sir. I think they’ll soon be leaving; they’ve been here a quarter of an hour, and — if I may make bold to ask, Sir — what day will the funeral be?”

“I don’t know myself, Crozier; I must settle that with my uncle. He said he thought he would come here himself this evening, at about nine, and it must be very near that now. Where is Martha?”

“In her room, Sir, I think.”

“I won’t see her there. Ask her to come to the oak-room.”

Richard got out and entered the house of which he was now the master, with an oppressive misgiving.

The oak-parlour was a fine old room, and into the panels were set four full-length portraits. Two of these were a lady and gentleman, in the costume of the beginning of Charles the Second’s reign. The lady held an Italian greyhound by a blue ribbon, and the gentleman stood booted for the field, and falcon on fist. It struck Richard, for the first time, how wonderfully like Alice that portrait of the beautiful lady was. He raised the candle to examine it. There was a story about this lady. She had been compelled to marry the companion portrait, with the hawk on his hand, and those beautiful lips had dropped a curse, in her despair, when she was dying, childless, and wild with grief. She prayed that no daughter of the house of Arden might ever wed the man of her love, and it was said that a fatality had pursued the ladies of that family, which looked like the accomplishment of the malediction; and a great deal of curious family lore was connected with this legend and portrait.

As he held the candle up to this picture, still scanning its features, the door slowly opened, and Martha Tansey, arrayed in a black silk dress of a fashion some twenty years out of date, came in. He set down the candle, and took the old woman’s hand, and greeted her very kindly.

“How’s a’ wi’ you, Master Richard? A dowly house ye’ve come too. Ye didna look to see this sa soon?”

“Very sudden, Martha — awfully sudden. I could not let the day pass without coming out to see you.”

“Not me, Master Richard, but to ha’e a last look at the face of the father that begot ye. He’ll be shrouded and coffined by this time — the light ‘ill not be lang on that face. The lid will be aboon it and screwed down tomorrow, I dar’ say. Ay, there goes the undertaker’s men; and there’s a man from Mr. Paller — Mr. Plumes is his name — that says he’ll stay till your Uncle David comes, for he told him he had something very particular to say to him; and I desired him to wait in my room after his business about the poor master was over; and the a’ad things is passin’ awa’ and it’s time auld Martha was fittin’ herself.”

“Don’t say that, Martha, unless you would have me think you expect to find me less kind than my father was.”

“There’s good and there’s bad in every one, Master Richard. Ye can’t take it in meal and take it in malt. A bit short-waisted he was, there’s no denyin’, and a sharp word now and again; but none so hard to live wi’ as many a one that was cooler-tempered, and more mealy-mouthed; and I think ye were o’er hard wi’ him, Master Richard. Ye should have opened the estate. It was that killed him,” she continued considerately. “Ye broke his heart, Master Richard; he was never the same man after he fell out wi’ you.”

“Some day, Martha, you’ll learn all about it,” said he gently. “It was no fault of mine — ask my Uncle David. I’m not the person to persuade you; and, beside, I have not courage to talk over that cruel quarrel now.”

“Come and see him,” said the old woman grimly, taking up the candle.

“No, Martha, no; set it down again — I’ll not go.”

“And when will you see him?”

“Another time — not now — I can’t.”

“He’s laid in his coffin now; they’ll be out again in the mornin’. If you don’t see him now, ye’ll never see him; and what will the folk down in Yorkshire say, when it’s told at Arden Court that Master Richard never looked on his dead father’s face, nor saw more of him after his flittin’ than the plate on his coffin. By Jen! ’twill stir the blood o’ the old tenants and gar them clench their fists and swear, I warrant, at the very sound o’ yer name; for there never was an Arden died yet, at Arden Court, but he was waked, and treated wi’ every respect, and visited by every living soul of his kindred, for ten mile round.”

“If you think so, Martha, say no more. I’ll — go as well now as another time — and, as you say, sooner or later it must be done.”

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