Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 61.

A Waking Dream.

There is something in that pale face and spectral smile that fascinates the terrified girl; she cannot take her eyes off him. His dark eyes are near hers; his lips are still close to her; his arm is touching her dress; he leans his face to her, and talks on, in an icy tone little above a whisper, and an articulation so sharply distinct that it seems to pain her ear.

“The oratorio!” he continued: “the music! The words, here and there are queer — a little sinister — eh? There are better words and wilder music — you shall hear them some day! Saul had his evil spirit, and a bad family have theirs — ay, they have a demon who is always near, and shapes their lives for them; they don’t know it, but, sooner or later justice catches them. Suppose I am the demon of your family — it is very funny, isn’t it? I tried to serve you both, but it wouldn’t do. I’ll set about the other thing now: the evil genius of a bad family; I’m appointed to that. It almost makes me laugh — such cross-purposes! You’re frightened? That’s a pity; you should have thought of that before. It requires some nerve to fight a man like me. I don’t threaten you, mind, but you are frightened. There is such a thing as getting a dangerous fellow bound over to keep the peace. Try that. I should like to have a talk with you before his worship in the police-court, across the table, with a corps of clever newspaper reporters sitting there. What fun in the Times and all the rest next morning.”

It is plain to Miss Arden that Mr. Longcluse is speaking all this time with suppressed fury, and his countenance expresses a sort of smiling hatred that horrifies her.

“I’m not bad at speaking my mind,” he continues. “It is unfortunate that I am so well thought of and listened to in London. Yes, people mind what I say a good deal. I rather think they’ll choose to believe my story. But there’s another way, if you don’t like that. Your brother’s not afraid —he’ll protect you. Tell your brother what a miscreant I am, and send him to me — do, pray! Nothing on earth I should like better than to have a talk with that young gentleman. Do pray, send him, I entreat. He’d like satisfaction — ha! ha! — and, by Heaven, I’ll give it him! Tell him to get his pistols ready; he shall have his shop! Let him come to Boulogne, or where he likes — I’ll stand it — and I don’t think he’ll need to pay his way back again. He’ll stay in France; he’ll not walk in at your hall-door, and call for luncheon, I promise you. Ha! ha! ha!”

This pale man enjoys her terror cruelly.

“I’m not worthy to speak to you, I believe — eh? That’s odd, for the time isn’t far off when you’ll pray to God I may have mercy on you. You had no business to encourage me. I’m afraid the crowd is getting on very slowly, but I’ll try to entertain you: you are such a good listener!”

Miss Arden often wondered afterwards at her own passiveness through all this. There were, no doubt, close by, many worthy citizens, fathers of families, who would have taken her for a few minutes under their protection with honest alacrity. But it was a fascination; her state was cataleptic: and she could no more escape than the bird that is throbbing in the gaze of a snake. The cold murmur went distinctly on and on:

“Your brother will probably think I should treat you more ceremoniously. Don’t you agree with him? Pray, do complain to him. Pray, send him to me, and I’ll thank him for his share in this matter. He wanted to make it a match between us — I’m speaking coarsely, for the sake of distinctness — till a title turned up. What has become of the title, by-the-bye? — I don’t see him here. The peer wasn’t in the running, after all: didn’t even start! Ha! ha! ha! Remember me to your brother, pray, and tell him the day will come when he’ll not need to be reminded of me: I’ll take care of that. And so Sir Richard is doomed to disappointment! It is a world of disappointment. The earl is nowhere! And the proudest family on earth — what is left of it — looks a little foolish. And well it may: it has many follies to expiate. You had no business encouraging me, and you are foolish enough to be terribly afraid now — ha! ha! ha! Too late, eh? I daresay you think I’ll punish you! Not I! Nothing of the sort! I’ll never punish anyone. Why should I take that trouble about you. Not I: not even your brother. Fate does that. Fate has always been kind to me, and hit my enemies pretty hard. You had no business encouraging me. Remember this: the day is not far off when you will both rue the hour you threw me over!”

She is gazing helplessly into that dreadful face. There is a cruel elation in it. He looks on her, I think, with admiration. Mixed with his hatred, did there remain a fraction of love?

On a sudden the voice, which was the only sound she heard, was in her ear no longer. The face which had transfixed her gaze was gone. Longcluse had apparently pushed a way for her to her friends, for she found herself again next her Uncle David. Holding his arm fast, she looked round quickly for a moment: she saw Mr. Longcluse nowhere. She felt on the point of fainting. The scene must have lasted a shorter time than she supposed, for her uncle had not missed her.

“My dear, how pale you look! Are you tired?” exclaims Lady May, when they have come to a halt at the door.

“Yes, indeed, so she does. Are you ill, dear?” added her uncle.

“No, nothing, thanks, only the crowd. I shall be better immediately.” And so waiting in the air, near the door, they were soon joined by Sir Richard, and in his carriage he and she drove home to Mortlake. Lady May, taking hers, went to a tea at old Lady Elverstone’s; and David Arden, bidding them good-bye, walked homeward across the park.

Richard had promised to spend the evening at Mortlake with her, and side by side they were driving out to that sad and sombre scene. As they entered the shaded road upon which the great gate of Mortlake opens, the setting sun streamed through the huge trunks of the trees, and tinted the landscape with a subdued splendour.

“I can’t imagine, dear Alice, why you will stay here. It is enough to kill you,” says Sir Richard, looking out peevishly on the picturesque woodlands of Mortlake, and interrupting a long silence. “You never can recover your spirits while you stay here. There is Lady May going all over the world — I forget where, but she will be at Naples — and she absolutely longs to take you with her; and you won’t go! I really sometimes think you want to make yourself melancholy mad.”

“I don’t know,” said she, waking herself from a reverie in which, against the dark background of the empty arches she had left, she still saw the white, wicked face that had leaned over her, and heard the low murmured stream of insult and menace. “I’m not sure that I shall not be worse anywhere else. I don’t feel energy to make a change. I can’t bear the idea of meeting people. By-and-by, in a little time, it will be different. For the present, quiet is what I like best. But you, Dick, are not looking well, you seem so over-worked and anxious. You really do want a little holiday. Why don’t you go to Scotland to shoot, or take a few weeks’ yachting? All your business must be pretty well settled now.”

“It will never be settled,” he said, a little sourly. “I assure you there never was property in such a mess — I mean leases and everything. Such drudgery, you have no idea; and I owe a good deal. It has not done me any good. I’d rather be as I was before that miserable Derby. I’d gladly exchange it all for a clear annuity of a thousand a year.”

“Oh! my dear Dick, you can’t mean that! All the northern property, and this, and Morley?”

“I hate to talk about it. I’m tired of it already. I have been so unlucky, so foolish, and if I had not found a very good friend, I should have been utterly ruined by that cursed race; and he has been aiding me very generously, on rather easy terms, in some difficulties that have followed; and you know I had to raise money on the estate before all this happened, and have had to make a very heavy mortgage, and I am getting into such a mess — a confusion, I mean — and really I should have sold the estates, if it had not been for my unknown friend, for I don’t know his name.”

“What friend?”

“The friend who has aided me through my troubles — the best friend I ever met, unless it be as I half suspect. Has anyone spoken to you lately, in a way to lead you to suppose that he, or anyone else among our friends, has been lending me a helping hand?”

“Yes, as we were driving into town today, Uncle David told me so distinctly; but I am not sure that I ought to have mentioned it. I fancy, indeed,” she added, as she remembered the reflection with which it was accompanied, “that he meant it as a secret, so you must not get me into disgrace with him by appearing to know more than he has told you himself.”

“No, certainly,” said Richard; “and he said it was he who lent it?”

“Yes, distinctly.”

“Well, I all but knew it before. Of course it is very kind of him. But then, you know he is very wealthy; he does not feel it; and he would not for the world that our house should lose its position. I think he would rather sell the coat off his back, than that our name should be slurred.”

Sir Richard was pleased that he had received this light in corroboration of his suspicions. He was glad to have ascertained that the powerful motives which he had conjectured were actually governing the conduct of David Arden, although for obvious reasons he did not choose that his nephew should be aware of his weakness.

The carriage drew up at the hall-door. The old house in the evening beams, looked warm and cheery, and from every window in its broad front flamed the reflection which showed like so many hospitable winter fires.

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