Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 52.

Mr. Longcluse Employed.

The funeral was not to be for some days, and then to be conducted in the quietest manner possible. Sir Reginald was to be buried in a small vault under the little church, whose steeple cast its shadow every sunny evening across the garden-hedges of the “Guy of Warwick,” and could be seen to the left from the door of Mortlake Hall, among distant trees. Further it was settled by Richard Arden and his uncle, on putting their heads together, that the funeral was to take place after dark in the evening; and even the undertaker’s people were kept in ignorance of the exact day and hour.

In the meantime, Mr. Longcluse did not trouble any member of the family with his condolences or inquiries. As a raven perched on a solitary bough surveys the country round, and observes many things — very little noticed himself — so Mr. Longcluse made his observations from his own perch and in his own way. Perhaps he was a little surprised on receiving from Lady May Penrose a note, in the following terms:—

“DEAR MR. LONGCLUSE,

“I have just heard something that troubles me; and as I know of no one who would more readily do me a kindness, I hope you won’t think me very troublesome if I beg of you to make me a call tomorrow morning, at any time before twelve.

“Ever yours sincerely,

“MAY PENROSE.”

Mr. Longcluse smiled darkly, as he read this note again. “It is better to be sought after than to offer one’s self.”

Accordingly, next morning, Mr. Longcluse presented himself in Lady May’s drawing-room; and after a little waiting, that good-natured lady entered the room. She liked to make herself miserable about the troubles of her friends, and on this occasion, on entering the door, she lifted her hands and eyes, and quickened her step towards Mr. Longcluse, who advanced a step or two to meet her.

“Oh! Mr. Longcluse, it is so kind of you to come,” she exclaimed; “I am in such a sea of troubles! and you are such a friend, I know I may tell you. You have heard, of course, of poor Reginald’s death. How horribly sudden! — shocking! and dear Alice is so broken by it! He had been, the day before, so cross — poor Reginald, everybody knows he had a temper, poor old soul! — and had made himself so disagreeable to her, and now she is quite miserable, as if it had been her fault. But no matter; it’s not about that. Only do you happen to know of people — bankers or something — called Childers and Ballard?”

“Oh! dear, yes; Childers and Ballard; they are City people, on ‘Change — stockbrokers. They are people you can quite rely on, so far as their solvency is concerned.”

“Oh! it isn’t that. They have not been doing any business for me. It is a very unpleasant thing to speak about, even to a kind friend like you; but I want you to advise what is best to be done; and to ask you, if it is not very unreasonable, to use any influence you can — without trouble, of course, I mean — to prevent anything so distressing as may possibly happen.”

“You have only to say, dear Lady May, what I can do. I am too happy to place my poor services at your disposal.”

“I knew you would say so,” said Lady May, again shaking hands in a very friendly way; “and I know what I say won’t go any further. I mean, of course, that you will receive it entirely as a confidence.”

Mr. Longcluse was earnest in his assurances of secresy and good faith.

“Well,” said Lady May, lowering her voice, “poor Reginald, he was my cousin, you know, so it pains me to say it; but he was a good deal embarrassed; his estates were very much in debt. He owed money to a great many people, I believe.”

“Oh! Really?” Mr. Longcluse expressed his well-bred surprise very creditably.

“Yes, indeed; and these people, Childers and Ballard, have something they call a judgment, I think. It is a kind of debt, for about twelve hundred pounds, which they say must be paid at once; and they vow that if it is not they will seize the coffin, and — and — all that, at the funeral. And David Arden is so angry, you can’t think! and he says that the money is not owed to them, and that they have no right by law to do any such thing; and that from beginning to end it is a mere piece of extortion. And he won’t hear of Richard’s paying a farthing of it; and he says that Richard must bring a law-suit against them, for ever so much money, if they attempt anything of the kind, and that he’s sure to win. But that is not what I am thinking of — it is about poor Alice, she is so miserable about the mere chance of its happening. The profanation — the fracas — all so shocking and so public — the funeral, you know.”

“You are quite sure of that, Lady May?” said Longcluse.

“I heard it all as I tell you. My man of business told me; and I saw David Arden,” she answered.

“Oh! yes; but I mean, with respect to Miss Arden. Does she, in particular, so very earnestly desire intervention in this awkward business?”

“Certainly; only she — only Miss Arden — only Alice.”

He looked down in thought, and then again in her face, paler than usual. He had made up his mind.

“I shall take measures,” he said quietly. “I shall do everything — anything in my power. I shall even expose myself to the risk of insult, for her sake; only let it soften her. After I have done it, ask her, not before, to think mercifully of me.”

He was going.

“Stay, Mr. Longcluse, just a moment. I don’t know what I am to say to you; I am so much obliged. And yet how can I undertake that anything you do may affect other people as you wish?”

“Yes, of course you are right; I am willing to take my chance of that. Only, dear Lady May, will you write to her? All I plead for — and it is the last time I shall sue to her for anything — is that my folly may be forgotten, and I restored to the humble privileges of an acquaintance.”

“But do you really wish me to write? I’ll take an opportunity of speaking to her. Would not that be less formal?”

“Perhaps so; but, forgive me, it would not answer. I beg of you to write.”

“But why do you prefer my writing?”

“Because I shall then read her answer.”

“Then I must tell her that you are to read her reply.”

“Certainly, dear Lady May; I meant nothing else.”

“Well, Mr. Longcluse, there is no great difficulty.”

“I only make it a request, not a condition. I shall do my utmost in any case. Pray tell her that.”

“Yes, I’ll write to her, as you wish it; or, at least, I’ll ask her to put on paper what she desires me to say, and I’ll read it to you.”

“That will answer as well. How can I thank you?”

“There is no need of thanks. It is I who should thank you for taking, I am afraid, a great deal of trouble so promptly and kindly.”

“I know those people; they are cunning and violent, difficult to deal with, harder to trust,” said Longcluse, looking down in thought. “I should be most happy to settle with them, and afterwards the executor might settle with me at his convenience; but, from what you say, Mr. David Arden and his nephew won’t admit their claim. I don’t believe such a seizure would be legal; but they are people who frequently venture illegal measures, upon the calculation that it would embarrass those against whom they adopt them more than themselves to bring them into court. It is not an easy card to play, you see, and they are people I hate; but I’ll try.”

In another minute Mr. Longcluse had taken his leave, and was gone.

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