Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 66.

A Bubble Broken.

After a few words had been exchanged, Grace said in reply to a question of Sir Richard’s —

“Lady May and I are going together, you know: in a day or two we shall be at Brighton. I mean to bid Alice good-bye today. There — I mean at Brighton — we are to meet Vivian Darnley, and possibly another friend; and we go to meet your uncle at that pretty little town in Switzerland, where Lady May —— I wonder, by-the-bye, you did not arrange to come with us; Lady May travels with us the entire time. She says there are some very interesting ruins there.”

“Why, dear old soul!” said Sir Richard, who felt called upon to say something to set himself right with respect to Lady May, “she’s thinking of quite another place. She will be herself the only interesting ruin there.”

“I think you wish to vex me,” said pretty Grace, turning away with a smile, which showed, nevertheless, that this kind of joke was not an unmixed vexation to her. “I don’t care for ruins myself.”

“Nor do I,” he said, archly.

“But you don’t think so of Lady May. I know you don’t. You are franker with her than with me, and you tell her a very different tale.”

“I must be very frank, then, if I tell her more than I know myself. I never said a civil thing of Lady May, except once or twice, to the poor old thing herself, when I wanted her to do one or two little things, to please you.”

“Oh! come, you can’t deceive me; I’ve seen you place your hand to your heart, like a theatrical hero, when you little fancied any one but she saw it.”

“Now, really, that is too bad. I may have put my hand to my side, when it ached from laughing.”

“How can you talk so? You know very well I have heard you tell her how you admire her music and her landscapes.”

“No, no — not landscapes — she paints faces. But her colouring is, as artists say, too chalky — and nothing but red and white, like — what is it like? — like a clown. Why did not she get the late Mr. Etty — she’s always talking of him — to teach her something of his tints?”

“You are not to speak so of Lady May. You forget she is my particular friend,” says the young lady; but her pretty face does not express so much severity as her words. “I do think you like her. You merely talk so to throw dust in people’s eyes. Why should not you be frank with me?”

“I wish I dare be frank with you,” said Sir Richard.

“And why not?”

“How can I tell how my disclosures might be punished? My frankness might extinguish the best hope I live for; a few rash words might make me a very unhappy man for life.”

“Really? Then I can quite understand that reflection alarming you in the midst of a tête-à-tête with Lady May; and even interrupting an interesting conversation.”

Sir Richard looked at her quickly, but her looks were perfectly artless.

“I really do wish you would spare me all further allusion to that good woman. I can bear that kind of fun from any one but you. Why will you? she is old enough to be my mother. She is fat, and painted, and ridiculous. You think me totally without romance? I wish to heaven I were. There is a reason, that makes your saying all that particularly cruel. I am not the sordid creature you take me for. I’m not insensible. I’m not a mere stock of stone. Never was human being more capable of the wildest passion. Oh, if I dare tell you all!”

Was all this acting? Certainly not. Never was shallow man, for the moment, more in earnest. Cool enough he was, although he had always admired this young lady, when he entered the room. He had made that entrance, nevertheless, in a spirit quite dramatic. But Miss Maubray never looked so brilliant, never half so tender. He took fire — the situation aiding quite unexpectedly — and the flame was real. It might have been over as quickly as a balloon on fire; but for the moment the conflagration was intense.

How was Miss Maubray affected? An immensely abler performer than the young gentleman who had entered the room with his part at his fingers’ ends, and all his looks and emphasis arranged — only to break through all this, and begin extemporising wildly — she, on the contrary, maintained her rôle with admirable coolness. It was not, perhaps, so easy; for notwithstanding appearances, her histrionic powers were severely tasked; for never was she more angry. Her self-esteem was wounded; the fancy (it was no more), she had cherished for him was gone, and a great disgust was there instead.

“You shall ask me no questions till I have done asking mine,” said the young lady, with decision; “and I will speak as much as I please of Lady May!”

This jealousy flattered Sir Richard.

“And I will say this,” continued Grace Maubray, “you never address her except as a lover, in what you romantic people would call the language of love.”

“Now, now, now! How can you say that? Is that fair?”

“You do.”

“No, really, I swear — that’s too bad!”

“Yes, the other day, when you spoke to her at the carriage window — you did not think I heard — you accused her so tenderly of having failed to go to Lady Harbroke’s garden-party, and you couldn’t say what you meant in plain terms, but you said, ‘Why were you false?’”

“I didn’t, I swear.”

“Oh! you did; I heard every syllable; ‘false’ was the word.”

“Well, if I said ‘false,’ I must have been thinking of her hair; for she is really a very honest old woman.”

At this moment a female voice in distress is heard, and poor Lady May comes pushing out of the pretty little room, in which Grace Maubray had placed her, sobbing and shedding floods of tears.

“I can’t stay there any longer, for I hear everything; I can’t help hearing every word — honest old woman, and all — opprobrious. Oh! how can people be so? how can they? Oh! I’m very angry — I’m very angry — I’m very angry!”

If Miss Maubray were easily moved to pity she might have been at sight of the big innocent eyes turned up at her, from which rolled great tears, making visible channels through the paint down her cheeks. She sobbed and wept like a fat, good-natured child, and pitifully she continued sobbing, “Oh, I’m a-a-ho — very angry; wha-at shall I do-o-o, my dear? I-I’m very angry — oh, oh — I’m very a-a-angry!”

“So am I,” said Grace Maubray, with a fiery glance at the young baronet, who stood fixed where he was, like an image of death; “and I had intended, dear Lady May, telling you a thing which Sir Richard Arden may as well hear, as I mean to write to tell Alice today; it is that I am to be married — I have accepted Lord Wynderbroke — and — and that’s all.”

Sir Richard, I believe, said “Good-bye.” Nobody heard him. I don’t think he remembers how he got on his horse. I don’t think the ladies saw him leave the room — only, he was gone.

Poor Lady May takes her incoherent leave. She has got her veil over her face, to baffle curiosity. Miss Maubray stands at the window, the tip of her finger to her brilliant lip, contemplating Lady May as she gets in with a great jerk and swing of the carriage, and she hears the footman say “Home,” and sees a fat hand, in a lilac glove, pull up the window hurriedly. Then she sits down on a sofa, and laughs till she quivers again, and tears overflow her eyes; and she says in the intervals, almost breathlessly —

“Oh, poor old thing! I really am sorry. Who could have thought she cared so much? Poor old soul! what a ridiculous old thing!”

Such broken sentences of a rather contemptuous pity rolled and floated along the even current of her laughter.

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