Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 68.

Sir Richard’s Resolution.

Two hours had passed, and more, of solitude. With a candle in his hand, and his hat and great-coat on, Sir Richard Arden came out into the hall. His trap awaited him at the door.

In the interval of his solitude, something incredible has happened to him. It is over. A spectral secret accompanies him henceforward. A devil sits in his pocket, in that parchment. He dares not think of himself. Something sufficient to shake the world of London, and set all English Christian tongues throughout the earth wagging on one theme, has happened.

Does he repent? One thing is certain: he dares not falter. Something within him once or twice commanded him to throw his crime into the fire, while yet it is obliterable. But what then? what of tomorrow? Into that sheer black sea of ruin, that reels and yawns as deep as eye can fathom beneath him, he must dive and see the light no more. Better his chance.

He won’t think of what he has done, of what he is going to do. He suspects his courage: he dares not tempt his cowardice. Braver, perhaps, it would have been to meet the worst at once. But surely, according to the theory of chances, we have played the true game. Is not a little time gained, everything? Are we not in friendly hands? Has not that little scoundrel committed himself, by an all but actual participation in the affair? It can never come to that. “I have only to confess, and throw myself at Uncle David’s feet, and the one dangerous debt would instantly be brought up and cancelled.”

These thoughts came vaguely, and on his heart lay an all but insupportable load. The sight of the staircase reminded him that Alice must long since have gone to her room. He yearned to see her and say good-night. It was the last farewell that the brother she had known from her childhood till now should ever speak or look. That brother was to die to-night, and a spirit of guilt to come in his stead.

He taps lightly at her door. She is asleep. He opens it, and dimly sees her innocent head upon the pillow. If his shadow were cast upon her dream, what an image would she have seen looking in at the door! A sudden horror seizes him — he draws back and closes the door; on the lobby he pauses. It was a last moment of grace. He stole down the stairs, mounted his tax-cart, took the reins from his servant in silence, and drove swiftly into town. In Parliament Street, near the corner of the street leading to Levi’s office, they passed a policeman, lounging on the flagway. Richard Arden is in a strangely nervous state; he fancies he will stop and question him, and he touches the horse with the whip to get quickly by.

In his breast-pocket he carried his ghastly secret. A pretty business if he happened to be thrown out, and a policeman should make an inventory of his papers, as he lay insensible in an hospital — a pleasant thing if he were robbed in these villanous streets, and the bond advertised, for a reward, by a pretended finder. A nice thing, good heaven! if it should wriggle and slip its way out of his pocket, in the jolting and tremble of the drive, and fall into London hands, either rascally or severe. He pulled up, and gave the reins to the servant, and felt, however gratefully, with his fingers, the crisp crumple of the parchment under the cloth! Did his servant look at him oddly as he gave him the reins? Not he; but Sir Richard began to suspect him and everything. He made him stop near the angle of the street, and there he got down, telling him rather savagely — for his fancied look was still in the baronet’s brain — not to move an inch from that spot.

It was half-past one as his steps echoed down the street in which Mr. Levi had his office. There was a figure leaning with its back in the recess of Levi’s door, smoking. Sir Richard’s temper was growing exasperated.

It was Levi himself. Upstairs they stumble in the dark. Mr. Levi has not said a word. He is not treating his visitor with much ceremony. He lets himself into his office, secured with a heavy iron bar, and a lock that makes a great clang, and proceeds to light a candle. The flame expands and the light shows well-barred shutters, and the familiar objects.

When Mr. Levi had lighted a second candle, he fixed his great black eyes on the young baronet, who glances over his shoulder at the door, but the Jew has secured it. Their eyes meet for a moment, and Sir Richard places his hand nervously in his breast-pocket and takes out the parchment. Levi nods and extends his hand. Each now holds it by a corner, and as Sir Richard lets it go hesitatingly, he says faintly —

“Levi, you wouldn’t — you could not run any risk with that?”

Levi stands by his great iron safe, with the big key in his hand. He nods in reply, and locking up the document, he knocks his knuckles on the iron door, with a long and solemn wink.

Sha-afe!— that’sh the word,” says he, and then he drops the keys into his pocket again.

There was a silence of a minute or more. A spell was stealing over them; an influence was in the room. Each eyed the other, shrinkingly, as a man might eye an assassin. The Jew knew that there was danger in that silence; and yet he could not break it. He could not disturb the influence acting on Richard Arden’s mind. It was his good angel’s last pleading, before the long farewell.

In a dreadful whisper Richard Arden speaks:—

“Give me that parchment back,” says he.

Satan finds his tongue again.

“Give it back?” repeats Levi, and a pause ensues. “Of course I’ll give it back; and I wash my hands of it and you, and you’re throwing away ten thoushand poundsh for nothing.”

Levi was taking out his keys as he spoke, and as he fumbled them over one by one, he said —

“You’ll want a lawyer in the Insholwent Court, and you’d find Mishter Sholomonsh azh shatisfactory a shengleman azh any in London. He’sh an auctioneer, too; and there’sh no good in your meetin’ that friendly cove here tomorrow, for he’sh one o’ them honourable chaps, and he’ll never look at you after your schedule’s lodged, and the shooner that’sh done the better; and them women we was courting, won’t they laugh!”

Hereupon, with great alacrity, Mr. Levi began to apply the key to the lock.

“Don’t mind. Keep it; and mind, you d —— d little swindler, so sure as you stand there, if you play me a trick, I’ll blow your brains out, if it were in the police-office!”

Mr. Levi looked hard at him, and nodded. He was accustomed to excited language in certain situations.

“Well,” said he coolly, a second time returning the keys to his pocket, “your friend will be here at twelve tomorrow, and if you please him as well as he expects, who knows wha-at may be? If he leavesh you half hish money, you’ll not ‘ave many bill transhactionsh on your handsh.”

“May God Almighty have mercy on me!” groans Sir Richard, hardly above his breath.

“You shall have the cheques then. He’ll be here all right.”

“I— I forget; did you say an hour?”

Levi repeats the hour. Sir Richard walks slowly to the stairs, down which Levi lights him. Neither speaks.

In a few minutes more the young gentleman is driving rapidly to his town house, where he means to end that long-remembered night.

When he had got to his room, and dismissed his valet, he sat down. He looked round, and wondered how collected he now was. The situation seemed like a dream, or his sense of danger had grown torpid. He could not account for the strange indifference that had come over him. He got quickly into bed. It was late, and he exhausted, and aided, I know not by what narcotic, he slept a constrained, odd sleep — black as Erebus — the thread of which snaps suddenly, and he is awake with a heart beating fast, as if from a sudden start. A hard bitter voice has said close by the pillow, “You are the first Arden that ever did that!” and with these words grating in his ears, he awoke, and had a confused remembrance of having been dreaming of his father.

Another dream, later on, startled him still more. He was in Levi’s office, and while they were talking over the horrid document, in a moment it blew out of the window; and a lean, ill-looking man, in a black coat, like the famous person who, in old woodcuts, picked up the shadow of Peter Schlemel, caught the parchment from the pavement, and with his eyes fixed corner-wise upon him, and a dreadful smile, tapped his long finger on the bond, and with wide paces stepped swiftly away with it in his hand.

Richard Arden started up in his bed; the cold moisture of terror was upon his forehead, and for a moment he did not know where he was, or how much of his vision was real. The grey twilight of early morning was over the town. He welcomed the light; he opened the window-shutters wide. He looked from the window down upon the street. A lean man with tattered black, with a hammer in his hand, just as the man in his dream had held the roll of parchment, was slowly stepping with long strides away from his house, along the street.

As his thoughts cleared, his panic increased. Nothing had happened between the time of his lying down and his up-rising to alter his situation, and the same room sees him now half mad.

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