Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 53.

The Night of the Funeral.

Mr. Longcluse smiled as he sat in his cab, driving City-ward to the office of Messrs. Childers and Ballard.

“How easily, now, one might get up a scene! Let Ballard, the monster — he would look the part well — with his bailiffs, seize the coffin and its precious burden in the church; and I, like Sir Edward Maulay, step forth from behind a pillar to stay the catastrophe. We could make a very fine situation, and I the hero; but the girl is too clever for that, and Richard as sharp — that is, as base — as I; knowing my objects, he would at once see a plant, and all would be spoiled. I shall do it in the least picturesque and most probable way. I should like to know the old housekeeper, Mrs. Tansey, better; I should like to be on good terms with her. An awkward meeting with Arden. What the devil do I care? besides, it is but one chance in a hundred. Yes, that is the best way. Can I see Mr. Ballard in his private room for a minute?” he added aloud, to the clerk, Mr. Blotter, behind the mahogany counter, who turned from his desk deferentially, let himself down from his stool, and stood attentive before the great man, with his pen behind his ear.

“Certainly, Mr. Longcluse — certainly, Sir. Will you allow me, Sir, to conduct you?”

Most men would have been peremptorily denied; the more fortunate would have had to await the result of an application to Mr. Ballard; but to Mr. Longcluse all doors flew open, and wherever he went, like Mephistopheles, the witches received him gaily, and the cat-apes did him homage.

Without waiting for the assistance of Mr. Blotter, he ran up the back-stairs familiarly to see Mr. Ballard; and when Mr. Longcluse came down, looking very grave, Mr. Ballard, with the red face and lowering countenance which he could not put off, accompanied him down-stairs deferentially, and held open the office-door for him; and could not suppress his grins for some time in the consciousness of the honour he had received. Mr. Ballard hoped that the people over the way had seen Mr. Longcluse step from his door; and mentioned to everyone he talked to for a week, that he had Mr. Longcluse in his private office in consultation — first it was “for a quarter of an hour by the clock over the chimney,” speedily it grew to “half-an-hour,” and finally to “upwards of an hour, by — — ” with a stare in the face of the wondering, or curious, listener. And when clients looked in, in the course of the day, to consult him, he would say, with a wag of his head and a little looseness about minutes, “There was a man sitting here a minute ago, Mr. Longcluse — you may have met him as you came up the stairs — that could have given us a wrinkle about that;” or, “Longcluse, who was here consulting with me this morning, is clearly of opinion that Italian bonds will be down a quarter by settling day;” or, “Take my advice, and don’t burn your fingers with those things, for it is possible something queer may happen any day after Wednesday. I had Longcluse — I daresay you may have heard of him,” he parenthesised jocularly —“sitting in that chair today for very nearly an hour and a half, and that’s a fellow one doesn’t sit long with without hearing something worth remembering.”

From the attorney of Sir Richard Arden was served upon Messrs. Childers and Ballard, that day, a cautionary notice in very stern terms respecting their threatened attack upon Sir Reginald’s funeral appointments and body; to which they replied in terms as sharp, and fixed three o’clock for payment of the bond.

It was a very short mile from Mortlake to that small old church near the “Guy of Warwick,” the bit of whose grey spire and the pinnacle of whose weather-cock you could see between the two great clumps of elms to the left. Sir Reginald, feet foremost, was to make this little journey that evening under a grove of black plumes, to the small, quiet room, which he was henceforward to share with his ancestor Sir Hugh Arden, of Mortlake Hall, Baronet, whose pillard monument decorated the little church.

He lies now, soldered up and screwed down, in his strait bed, triply secured in lead, mahogany, and oak, and as safe as “the old woman of Berkeley” hoped to be from the grip of marauders. Once there, and the stone door replaced and mortared in, the irritable old gentleman might sleep the quietest sleep his body had ever enjoyed, to the crack of doom. The space was short, too, which separated that from the bed-room he was leaving; but the interval was “Jew’s ground,” trespassing on which, it was thought, he ran a great risk of being clutched by frantic creditors. A whisper of the danger had got into the housekeeper’s room; and Crozier, whose north-country blood was hot, and temper warlike, had loaded the horse-pistols, and swore that he would shoot the first man who laid a hand unfriendly on the old master’s coffin.

There was an agitation simmering under the grim formalities and tip-toe treadings of the house of death. Martha Tansey grew frightened, angry as she was, and told Richard Arden that Crozier was “neither to hold nor to bind, and meant to walk by the hearse, and stand by the coffin till it was shut into the vault, with loaded pistols in his coat-pockets, and would make food for worms so sure as they villains dar’d to interrupt the funeral.”

Whereupon Richard saw Crozier, took the pistols from him, shook him very hard by the hand, for he liked him all the more, and told him that he would desire nothing better than their attempting to accomplish their threats, as he was well advised the law would make examples of them. Then he went up-stairs, and saw Alice, and he could not help thinking how her black crapes became her. He kissed her, and, sitting down beside her, said —

“Martha Tansey says, darling, that you are unhappy about something she has been telling you concerning this miserable funeral. She ought not to have alarmed you about it. If I had known that you were frightened, or, in fact, knew anything about it, I should have made a point of coming out here yesterday, although I had fifty things to do.”

“I had a very good-natured note today, Dick, from Lady May,” she said —“only a word, but very kindly intended.” And she placed the open note in his fingers. When he had read it, Richard dropped the note on the table with a sneer.

“That man, I suspect, is himself the secret promoter of this outrage — a very inexpensive way, this, of making character with Lady May, and placing you under an obligation — the scoundrel!”

Looks and language of hatred are not very pretty at any time, but in the atmosphere of death they acquire a character of horror. Some momentary disturbance of this kind Richard may have seen in his sister’s pale face, for he said —

“Don’t mind what I say about that fellow, for I have no patience with myself for having ever known him.”

“I am so glad, Dick, you have dropped that acquaintance!” said the young lady.

“You have come at last to think as I do,” said Richard.

“It is not so much thinking as something different; the uncertainty about him — the appalling stories you have heard — and, oh! Richard, I had such a dream last night! I dreamt that Mr. Longcluse murdered you. You smile, but I could not have imagined anything that was not real, so vivid, and it was in this room, and — I don’t know how, for I forget the beginning of it — the candles went out, and you were standing near the door talking to me, and bright moonlight was at the window, and showed you quite distinctly, and the open door; and Mr. Longcluse came from behind it with a pistol, and I tried to scream, but I couldn’t. But you turned about and stabbed at him with a knife or something; it shone in the moonlight, and instantly there was a line of blood across his face; he fired, and I saw you fall back on the floor; I knew you were dead, and I awoke in terror. I thought I still saw his wicked face in the dark, quite white as it was in my dream. I screamed, and thought I was going mad.”

“It is only, darling, that all that has happened has made you nervous, and no wonder. Don’t mind your dreams. Longcluse and I will never exchange a word more. We have turned our backs on one another, and our paths lie in very different directions.”

This was a melancholy and grizzly evening at Mortlake Hall. The undertakers were making some final and mysterious arrangements about the coffin, and stole in and out of the dead baronet’s room, of which they had taken possession.

Martha Tansey was alone in her room. It was a lurid sunset. Immense masses of black cloud were piled in the west, and from a long opening in that sombre screen, near the horizon, the expiring light glared like the red fire at night, through the clink of a smithy. Mrs. Tansey, dressed in deepest mourning, awaited the hour when she was to accompany the funeral of her old master.

Without succumbing to the threat of Messrs. Childers and Ballard, David Arden and his nephew would have been glad to evade the risk of the fracas, which would no doubt have been a dismal scandal. Martha Tansey herself was not quite sure at what hour the funeral was to leave Mortlake. Opposite the window from which she looked, stand groups of gigantic elms that darken that side of the house, and underwood forms a thick screen among their trunks. Upon the edges of this foliage glinted that fierce farewell gleam, and among the glimmering leaves behind she thought she saw the sinister face of Mr. Longcluse looking toward her. Her fear and horror of Longcluse had increased, and if the very remembrance of him visited her with a sudden qualm, you may be sure that the sight of him, on this melancholy evening, was a shock. Alice’s wild dream, which she had recounted to her, did not serve to dissociate him from the vague misgivings that his image called up. She stared aghast at the apparition — itself uncertain — while in the deep shadow, with a foreground of fiercely flashing leaves, had on a sudden looked at her, and before she could utter an exclamation it was gone.

“I think it is my old eyes that plays me tricks, and my weary head that’s ‘wildered wi’ all this dowly jummlement! What sud bring him there? It was never him I sid, only a fancy, and it’s past and gone; and so, in the name of God, be it now, and ever, amen! For an evil sight it is, and bodes us no good. Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Mrs. Tansey,” said Crozier, who had just come in. “Master Richard desired me to tell you it is to be at ten o’clock to-night. He and Mr. David thinks that best, and you’re to please not to mention it to no one.”

“Ten o’clock! That’s very late, ain’t it? No, surely, I’ll not blab to no one; let him tell them when he sees fit. Martha Tansey’s na that sort; she has had mony a secret to keep, and always the confidence o’ the family, and ‘twould be queer if she did not know to ho’d her tongue by this time. Sit ye down, Mr. Crozier — ye’re wore off yer feet, man, like myself, ever since this happened — and rest a bit; the kettle’s boilin’, and ye’ll tak’ a cup o’ tea. It’s hours yet to ten o’clock.”

So Mr. Crozier, who was in truth a tired man, complied, and took his seat by the fire, and talked over Sir Reginald’s money matters, his fits, and his death; and, finally, he fell asleep in his chair, having taken three cups of tea.

The twilight had melted into darkness by this time, and the clear, cold moonlight was frosting all the landscape, and falling white and bright on the carriage-way outside, and casting on the floor the sharp shadows of the window-sashes, and giving the brilliant representations of the windows and the very veining of the panes of glass upon the white boards.

As Martha sat by the table, with her eyes fixed, in a reverie, on one of these reflections upon the floor, the shadow of a man was suddenly presented upon it, and raising her eyes she saw a figure, black against the moonlight, beckoning gently to her to approach.

Martha Tansey was an old lass of the Northumbrian counties, and had in her veins the fiery blood of the Border. The man wore a great-coat, and she could not discern his features; but he was tall and slight, and she was sure he was Mr. Longcluse. But “what dar’ Longcluse say or do that she need fear?” And was not Crozier dozing there in the chair, “ready at call?”

Up she got, and stalked boldly to the window, and, drawing near, she plainly saw, as the stranger drew himself up from the window-pane through which he had been looking, and the moonlight glanced on his features, that the face was indeed that of Mr. Longcluse. He looked very pale, and was smiling. He nodded to her in a friendly way once or twice as she approached. She stood stock-still about two yards away, and though she knew him well, she deigned no sign of recognition, for she had learned vaguely something of the feud that had sprung up between him and the young head of the family, and no daughter of the marches was ever a fiercer partisan than lean old Martha. He tapped at the window, still smiling, and beckoned her nearer. She did come a step nearer, and asked sternly —

“What’s your will wi’ me?”

“I’m Mr. Longcluse,” he said, in a low tone, but with sharp and measured articulation. “I have something important to say. Open the window a little; I must not raise my voice, and I have this to give you.” He held a note by the corner, and tapped it on the glass.

Martha Tansey thought for a moment. It could not be a law-writ he had to serve; a rich man like him would never do that. Why should she not take his note, and hear what he had to say? She removed the bolt from the sash, and raised the window. There was not a breath stirring.

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