Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 62.

Love and Play.

“Here we are, Alice,” says Sir Richard, as they entered the hall. “We’ll have a good talk this evening. We’ll make the best of everything; and I don’t see if Uncle David chooses to prevent it, why the old ship should founder after all.”

They are now in the house. It is hard to get rid of the sense of constraint that, in his father’s time, he always experienced within those walls; to feel that the old influence is exorcised and utterly gone, and that he is himself absolute master where so lately he hardly ventured to move on tip-toe.

They did not talk so much as Sir Richard had anticipated. There were upon his mind some things that weighed heavily. He had got from Levi a list of the advances made by his luckily found friend, and the total was much heavier than he had expected. He began to fear that he might possibly exceed the limits which his uncle must certainly have placed somewhere. He might not, indeed, allow him to suffer the indignity of a bankruptcy; but he would take a very short and unpleasant course with him. He would seize his rents, and, with a friendly roughness, put his estates to nurse, and send the prodigal on a Childe Harold’s pilgrimage of five or six years, with an allowance, perhaps, of some three hundred a year, which in his frugal estimate of a young man’s expenditure, would be handsome.

While he was occupied in these ruminations, Alice cared not to break the silence. It was a very unsociable tête-à-tête. Alice had a secret of her own to brood over. If anything could have made Longcluse now more terrible to her imagination, it would have been a risk of her brother’s knowing anything of the language he had dared to hold to her. She knew from her brother’s own lips, that he was a duellist; and she was also persuaded that Mr. Longcluse was, in his own playful and sinister phrase, very literally a “miscreant.” His face, ever since that interview, was always at her right side, with its cruel pallor, and the vindictive sarcasm of lip and tone. How she wished that she had never met that mysterious man! What she would have given to be exempted from his hatred, and blotted from his remembrance!

One object only was in her mind, distinctly, with respect to that person. She was, thank God, quite beyond his power. But men, she knew, live necessarily a life so public, and have so many points of contact, that better opportunities present themselves for the indulgence of a masculine grudge; and she trembled at the thought of a collision. Why, then, should not Dick seek a reconciliation with him, and, by any honourable means, abate that terrible enmity.

“I have been thinking, Dick, that, as Uncle David makes the interest he takes in your affairs a secret, and you can’t consult him, it would be very well indeed if you could find some one else able to advise, who would consult with you when you wished.”

“Of course, I should be only too glad,” says Sir Richard, yawning and smiling as well as he could at the same time; “but an adviser one can depend on in such matters, my dear child, is not to be picked up every day.”

“Poor papa, I think, was very wise in choosing people of that kind. Uncle David, I know, said that he made wonderfully good bargains about his mortgages, or whatever they are called.”

“I daresay — I don’t know — he was always complaining, and always changing them,” says Sir Richard. “But if you can introduce me to a person who can disentangle all my complications, and take half my cares off my shoulders, I’ll say you are a very wise little woman indeed.”

“I only know this — that poor papa had the highest opinion of Mr. Longcluse, and thought he was the cleverest person, and the most able to assist, of any one he knew.”

Sir Richard Arden hears this with a stare of surprise.

“My dear Alice, you seem to forget everything. Why, Longcluse and I are at deadly feud. He hates me implacably. There never could be anything but enmity between us. Not that I care enough about him to hate him, but I have the worst opinion of him. I have heard the most shocking stories about him lately. They insinuate that he committed a murder! I told you of that jealousy and disappointment, about a girl he was in love with and wanted to marry, and it ended in murder! I’m told he had the reputation of being a most unscrupulous villain. They say he was engaged in several conspiracies to pigeon young fellows. He was the utter ruin, they say, of young Thornley, the poor muff who shot himself some years ago; and he was thought to be a principal proprietor of that gaming-house in Vienna, where they found all the apparatus for cheating so cleverly contrived.”

“But are any of these things proved?” urges Miss Arden.

“I don’t suppose he would be at large if they were,” says Sir Richard, with a smile. “I only know that I believe them.”

“Well, Dick, you know I reminded you before — you used not to believe those stories till you quarrelled with him.”

“Why, what do you want, Alice?” he exclaims, looking hard at her. “What on earth can you mean? And what can possibly make you take an interest in the character of such a ruffian?”

Alice’s face grew pale under his gaze. She cleared her voice and looked down; and then she looked full at him, with burning eyes, and said —

“It is because I am afraid of him, and think he may do you some dreadful injury, unless you are again on terms with him. I can’t get it out of my head; and I daresay I am wrong, but I am sure I am miserable.”

She burst into tears.

“Why, you darling little fool, what harm can he do me?” said Richard fondly, throwing his arms about her neck and kissing her, as he laughed tenderly. “He exhausted his utmost malice when he angrily refused to lend me a shilling in my extremity, or to be of the smallest use to me, at a moment when he might have saved me, without risk to himself, by simply willing it. I didn’t ask him, you may be sure. An officious, foolish little friend, doing all, of course, for the best, did, without once consulting me, or giving me a voice in the matter, until he had effectually put his foot in it, as I told you. I would not for anything on earth have applied to him, I need not tell you; but it was done, and it only shows with what delight he would have seen me ruined, as, in fact, I should have been, had not my own relations taken the matter up. I do believe, Alice, the best thing I could do for myself and for you would be to marry,” he says, a little suddenly, after a considerable silence.

Alice looks at him, doubtful whether he is serious.

“I really mean it. It is the only honest way of making or mending a fortune now-a-days.”

“Well, Dick, it is time enough to think of that by-and-by, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps so; I hope so. At present it seems to me that, as far as I am concerned, it is just a race between the bishop and the bailiff which shall have me first. If any lady is good enough to hold out a hand to a poor drowning fellow, she had better ——”

“Take care, Dick, that the poor drowning fellow does not pull her in. Don’t you think it would be well to consider first what you have got to live on?”

“I have plenty to live on; I know that exactly,” said Dick.

“What is it?”

“My wife’s fortune.”

“You are never serious for a minute, Dick! Don’t you think it would be better first to get matters a little into order, so as to know distinctly what you are worth?”

“Quite the contrary; she’d rather not know. She’d rather exercise her imagination than learn distinctly what I am worth. Any woman of sense would prefer marrying me so.”

“I don’t understand you.”

“Why, if I succeed in making matters quite lucid, I don’t think she would marry me at all. Isn’t it better to say, ‘My Angelina,’ or whatever else it may be, ‘you see before you Sir Richard Arden, who has estates in Yorkshire, in Middlesex, and in Devonshire, thus spanning all England from north to south. We had these estates at the Conquest. There is nothing modern about them but the mortgages. I have never been able to ascertain exactly what they bring in by way of rents, or pay out by way of interest. That I stand here, with flesh upon my bones, and pretty well-made clothes, I hope, upon both, is evidence in a confused way that an English gentleman — a baronet — can subsist upon them; and this magnificent muddle I lay at your feet with the devotion of a passionate admirer of your personal — property!’ That, I say, is better than appearing with a balance-sheet in your hand, and saying, ‘Madam, I propose marrying you, and I beg to present you with a balance-sheet of the incomings and outgoings of my estates, the intense clearness of which will, I hope, compensate for the nature of its disclosures. I am there shown in the most satisfactory detail to be worth exactly fifteen shillings per annum, and how unlimited is my credit will appear from the immense amount and variety of my debts. In pressing my suit I rely entirely upon your love of perspicuity and your passion for arithmetic, which will find in the ledgers of my steward an almost inexhaustible gratification and indulgence.’ However, as you say, Alice, I have time to look about me, and I see you are tired. We’ll talk it over tomorrow morning at breakfast. Don’t think I have made up my mind; I’ll do exactly whatever you like best. But get to your bed, you poor little soul; you do look so tired!”

With great affection they parted for the night. But Sir Richard did not meet her at breakfast.

After she had left the room some time, he changed his mind, left a message for his sister with old Crozier, ordered his servant and trap to the door, and drove into town. It was not his good angel who prompted him. He drove to a place where he was sure to find high play going on, and there luck did not favour him.

What had become of Sir Richard Arden’s resolutions? The fascinations of his old vice were irresistible. The ring of the dice, the whirl of the roulette, the plodding pillage of whist — any rite acknowledged by Fortune, the goddess of his soul, was welcome to that keen worshipper. Luck was not always adverse; once or twice he might have retreated in comparative safety; but the temptation to “back his luck” and go on prevailed, and left him where he was.

About a week after the evening passed at Mortlake, a black and awful night of disaster befel him.

Every other extravagance and vice draws its victim on at a regulated pace, but this of gaming is an hourly trifling with life, and one infatuated moment may end him. How short had been the reign of the new baronet, and where were prince and princedom now?

Before five o’clock in the morning, he had twice spent a quarter of an hour tugging at Mr. Levi’s office-bell, in the dismal old street in Westminster. Then he drove off toward his lodgings. The roulette was whirling under his eyes whenever for a moment he closed them. He thought he was going mad.

The cabman knew a place where, even at that unseasonable hour, he might have a warm bath; and thither Sir Richard ordered him to drive. After this, he again essayed the Jew’s office. The cool early morning was over still quiet London — hardly a soul was stirring. On the steps he waited, pulling the office-bell at intervals. In the stillness of the morning, he could hear it distinctly in the remote room, ringing unheeded in that capacious house.

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