Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 6.

To Bed.

Mr. Longcluse jumped into a cab, and told the man to drive to his house in Bolton Street, Piccadilly. He rolled his coat about him with a kind of violence, and threw himself into a corner. Then, as it were, in furore, and with a stamp on the floor, he pitched himself into the other corner.

“I’ve seen to-night what I never thought I should see. What devil possessed me to tell him to go into that black little smoking-room?” he muttered. “What a room it is! It has seized my brain somehow. Am I in a fever, or going mad, or what? That cursed smoking-room! I can’t get out of it. It is in the centre of the earth. I’m built round and round in it. The moment I begin to think, I’m in it. The moment I close my eyes, its four stifling walls are round me. There is no way out. It is like hell.”

The wind had come round to the south, and a soft rain was pattering on the windows. He stopped the cab somewhere near St. James’s Street, and got out. It was late — it was just past two o’clock, and the streets were quiet. Wonderfully still was the great city at this hour, and the descent of the rain went on with a sound like a prolonged “hush” all round. He paid the man, and stood for a while on the kerbstone, looking up and down the street, under the downpour of the rain. You might have taken this millionaire for a man who knew not where to lay his head that night. He took off his hat, and let the refreshing rain saturate his hair, and stream down his forehead and temples.

“Your cab’s stuffy and hot, ain’t it? Standing half the day with the glass in the sun, I daresay,” said he to the man, who was fumbling in his pockets, and pretending a difficulty about finding change.

“See, never mind, if you haven’t got change; I’ll go on. Heavier rain than I fancied; very pleasant though. When did the rain begin?” asked Mr. Longcluse, who seemed in no hurry to get back again.

“A trifle past ten, Sir.”

“I say, your horse’s knees are a bit broken, ain’t they? Never mind, I don’t care. He can pull you and me to Bolton Street, I daresay.”

“Will you please to get in, Sir?” inquired the cabman.

Mr. Longcluse nodded, frowning and thinking of something else; the rain still descending on his bare head, his hat in his hand.

The cabman thought this “cove” had been drinking and must be a trifle “tight.” He would not mind if he stood so for a couple of hours; it would run his fare up to something pretty. So cabby had thoughts of clapping a nosebag to his horse’s jaws, and was making up his mind to a bivouac. But Mr. Longcluse on a sudden got in, repeating his direction to the driver in a gay and brisk tone, that did not represent his real sensations.

“Why should I be so disturbed at that little French fellow? Have I been ill, that my nerve is gone and I such a fool? One would think I had never seen a dead fellow till now. Better for him to be quiet than at his wit’s ends, devising ways and means to keep his seven cubs in bread and butter. I should have gone away when the game was over. What earthly reason led me into that d —— d room, when I heard the fuss there? I’ve a mind to go and play hazard, or see a doctor. Arden said he’d look in, in the morning. I should like that; I’ll talk to Arden. I sha’n’t sleep, I know; I can’t, all night; I’ve got imprisoned in that suffocating room. Shall I ever close my eyes again?”

They had now reached the door of the small, unpretending house of this wealthy man. The servant who opened the door, though he knew his business, stared a little, for he had never seen his master return in such a plight before, and looking so haggard.

“Where’s Franklin?”

“Arranging things in your room, Sir.”

“Give me a candle. The cab is paid. Mr. Arden, mind, may call in the morning; if I should not be down, show him to my room. You are not to let him go without seeing me.”

Up-stairs went the pale master of the house. “Franklin!” he called, as he mounted the last flight of stairs, next his bed-room.

“Yes, Sir.”

“I sha’n’t want you to-night, I think — that is, I shall manage what I want for myself; but I mean to ring for you by-and-by.” He was in his dressing-room by this time, and looked round to see that his comforts were provided for as usual — his foot-bath and hot water.

“Shall I fetch your tea, Sir?”

“I’ll drink no tea to-night; I’ve been disgusted. I’ve seen a dead man, quite unexpectedly; and I sha’n’t get over it for some hours, I daresay. I feel ill. And what you must do is this: when I ring my bell, you come back, and you must sit up here till eight in the morning. I shall leave the door between this and the next room open; and should you hear me sleeping uneasily, moaning, or anything like nightmare, you must come in and waken me. And you are not to go to sleep, mind; the moment I call, I expect you in my room. Keep yourself awake how you can; you may sleep all tomorrow, if you like.”

With this charge Franklin departed.

But Mr. Longcluse’s preparations for bed occupied a longer time than he had anticipated. When nearly an hour had passed, Mr. Franklin ventured up-stairs, and quietly approached the dressing-room door; but there he heard his master still busy with his preparations, and withdrew. It was not until nearly half-an-hour more had passed that his bell gave the promised signal, and Mr. Franklin established himself for the night, in the easy-chair in the dressing-room, with the connecting door between the two rooms open.

Mr. Longcluse was right. The shock which his nerves had received did not permit him to sleep very soon. Two hours later he called for the Eau-deCologne that stood on his dressing-table; and although he made belief to wet his temples with it, and kept it at his bedside with that professed design, it was Mr. Franklin’s belief that he drank the greater part of what remained in the capacious cut-glass bottle. It was not until people were beginning to “turn out” for their daily labour that sleep at length visited the wearied eye-balls of the Croesus.

Three hours of death-like sleep, and Mr. Longcluse, with a little start, was wide awake.

“Franklin!”

“Yes, Sir.” And Mr. Franklin stood at his bedside.

“What o’clock is it?”

“Just struck ten, Sir.”

“Hand me the Times.” This was done.

“Tell them to get breakfast as usual. I’m coming down. Open the shutters, and draw the curtains, quite.”

When Franklin had done this and gone down, Mr. Longcluse read the Times with a stern eagerness, still in bed. The great billiard match between Hood and Markham was given in spirited detail; but he was looking for something else. Just under this piece of news, he found it —“Murder and Robbery, in the Saloon Tavern.” He read this twice over, and then searched the paper in vain for any further news respecting it. After this search, he again read the short account he had seen before, very carefully, and more than once. Then he jumped out of bed, and looked at himself in the glass in his dressing-room.

“How awfully seedy I am looking!” he muttered, after a careful inspection. “Better by-and-by.”

His hand was shaking like that of a man who had made a debauch, or was worn out with ague. He looked ten years older.

“I should hardly know myself,” muttered he. “What a confounded, sinful old fogey I look, and I so young and innocent!”

The sneer was for himself and at himself. The delivery of such is an odd luxury which, at one time or other, most men indulge in. Perhaps it should teach us to take them more kindly when other people crack such cynical jokes on our heads, or, at least, to perceive that they don’t always argue personal antipathy.

The sour smile which had, for a moment, flickered with a wintry light on his face, gave place suddenly to a dark fatigue; his features sank, and he heaved a long, deep, and almost shuddering sigh.

There are moments, happily very rare, when the idea of suicide is distinct enough to be dangerous, and having passed which, a man feels that Death has looked him very nearly in the face. Nothing more trite and true than the omnipresence of suffering. The possession of wealth exempts the unfortunate owner from, say, two-thirds of the curse that lies heavy on the human race. Two thirds is a great deal; but so is the other third, and it may have in it, at times, something as terrible as human nature can support.

Mr. Longcluse, the millionaire, had, of course, many poor enviers. Had any one of all these uttered such a sigh that morning? Or did any one among them feel wearier of life?

“When I have had my tub, I shall be quite another man,” said he.

But it did not give him the usual fillip; on the contrary, he felt rather chilled.

“What can the matter be? I’m a changed man,” said he, wondering, as people do at the days growing shorter in autumn, that time had produced some changes. “I remember when a scene or an excitement produced no more effect upon me, after the moment, than a glass of champagne; and now I feel as if I had swallowed poison, or drunk the cup of madness. Shaking! — hand, heart, every joint. I have grown such a muff!”

Mr. Longcluse had at length completed his very careless toilet, and looking ill, went down-stairs in his dressing-gown and slippers.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lefanu/checkmate/chapter6.html

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