Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 7.

Fast Friends.

In little more than half-an-hour, as Mr. Longcluse was sitting at his breakfast in his dining-room, Richard Arden was shown in.

“Dressing-gown and slippers — what a lazy dog I am compared with you!” said Longcluse gaily as he entered.

“Don’t say another word on that subject, I beg. I should have been later myself, had I dared; but my Uncle David had appointed to meet me at ten.”

“Won’t you take something?”

“Well, as I have had no breakfast, I don’t mind if I do,” said Arden, laughing.

Longcluse rang the bell.

“When did you leave that place last night?” asked Longcluse.

“I fancy about the same time that you went — about five or ten minutes after the match ended. You heard there was a man murdered in a passage there? I tried to get down and see it but the crowd was awful.”

“I was more lucky — I came earlier,” said Longcluse. “It was perfectly sickening, and I have been seedy ever since. You may guess what a shock it was to me. The murdered man was that poor little Frenchman I told you of, who had been talking to me, in high spirits, just before the play began — and there he was, poor fellow! You’ll see it all there; it makes me sick.”

He handed him the Times.

“Yes, I see. I daresay the police will make him out,” said Arden, as he glanced hastily over it. “Did you remark some awfully ill-looking fellows there?”

“I never saw so many together in a place of the kind before,” said Longcluse.

“That’s a capital account of the match,” said Arden, whom it interested more than the tragedy of poor little Lebas did. He read snatches of it aloud as he ate his breakfast: and then, laying the paper down, he said, “By-the-bye, I need not bother you by asking your advice, as I intended. My uncle David has been blowing me up, and I think he’ll make everything straight. When he sends for me and gives me an awful lecture, he always makes it up to me afterwards.”

“I wish, Arden, I stood as little in need of your advice as you do, it seems, of mine,” said Longcluse suddenly, after a short silence. His dark eyes were fixed on Richard Arden’s. “I have been fifty times on the point of making a confession to you, and my heart has failed me. The hour is coming. These things won’t wait. I must speak, Arden, soon or never —very soon, or never. Never, perhaps, would be wisest.”

“Speak now, on the contrary,” said Arden, laying down his knife and fork, and leaning back. “Now is the best time always. If it’s a bad thing, why, it’s over; and if it’s a good one, the sooner we have it the better.”

Longcluse rose, looking down in meditation, and in silence walked slowly to the window, where, for a time, without speaking he stood in a reverie. Then, looking up, he said, “No man likes a crisis. ‘No good general ever fights a pitched battle if he can help it.’ Wasn’t that Napoleon’s saying? No man who has not lost his head likes to get together all he has on earth, and make one stake of it. I have been on the point of speaking to you often. I have always recoiled.”

“Here I am, my dear Longcluse,” said Richard Arden, rising and following him to the window, “ready to hear you. I ought to say, only too happy if I can be of the least use.”

“Immense! everything?” said Longcluse vehemently. “And yet I don’t know how to ask you — how to begin — so much depends. Don’t you conjecture the subject?”

“Well, perhaps I do — perhaps I don’t. Give me some clue.”

“Have you formed no conjecture?” asked Longcluse.

“Perhaps.”

“Is it anything in any way connected with your sister, Miss Arden?”

“It may be, possibly.”

“Say what you think, Arden, I beseech you.”

“Well, I think, perhaps, you admire her.”

“Do I? Do I? Is that all? Would to God I could say that is all! Admiration, what is it? — Nothing. Love? — Nothing. Mine is adoration and utter madness. I have told my secret. What do you say? Do you hate me for it?”

“Hate you, my dear fellow! Why on earth should I hate you? On the contrary, I ought, I think, to like you better. I’m only a little surprised that your feelings should so much exceed anything I could have supposed.”

“Yesterday, Arden, you spoke as if you liked me. As we drove into that place, I fancied you half understood me; and cheered by what you then said, I have spoken that which might have died with me, but for that.”

“Well, what’s the matter? My dear Longcluse, you talk as if I had shown signs of wavering friendship. Have I? Quite the contrary.”

“Quite the contrary, that is true,” said Longcluse eagerly. “Yes, you should like me better for it — that is true also. Yours is no wavering friendship, I’m sure of it. Let us shake hands upon it. A treaty, Arden, a treaty!”

With a fierce smile upon his pale face, and a sudden fire in his eyes, he extended his hand energetically, and took that of Arden, who answered the invitation with a look in which gleamed faintly something of amusement.

“Now, Richard Arden,” he continued excitedly, “you have more influence with Miss Arden than falls commonly to the lot of a brother. I have observed it. It results from her having had during her earlier years little society but yours, and from your being some years her senior. It results from her strong affection for you, from her admiration of your talents, and from her having neither brother nor sister to divide those feelings. I never yet saw brother possessed of so evident and powerful an influence with a sister. You must use it all for me.”

He continued to hold Arden’s hand in his as he spoke.

“You can withdraw your hand if you decline,” said he. “I sha’n’t complain. But your hand remains — you don’t. It is a treaty, then. Henceforward we live fædere icto. I’m an exacting friend, but a good one.”

“My dear fellow, you do me but justice. I am your friend, altogether. But you must not mistake me for a guardian or a father in the matter. I wish I could make my sister think exactly as I do upon every subject, and that above all others. All I can say is, in me you have a fast friend.”

Longcluse pressed his hand, which he had not relinquished, at these words, with a firm grasp and a quick shake.

“Now listen. I must speak on this point, the one that is in my mind, my chief difficulty. Personally, there is not, I think, a living being in England who knows my history. I am glad of it, for reasons which you will approve by-and-by. But this is an enormous disadvantage, though only temporary, and the friends of the young lady must weigh my wealth against it for the present. But when the time comes, which can’t now be distant, upon my honour! upon my soul! — by Heaven, I’ll show you I’m of as good and old a family as any in England! We have been gentlemen up to the time of the Conqueror, here in England, and as far before him as record can be traced in Normandy. If I fail to show you this when the hour comes, stigmatise me as you will.”

“I have not a doubt, dear Longcluse. But you are urging a point that really has no weight with us people in England. We have taken off our hats to the gentlemen in casques and tabards, and feudal glories are at a discount everywhere but in Debrett, where they are taken with allowance. Your ideas upon these matters are more Austrian than ours. We expect, perhaps, a little more from the man, but certainly less from his ancestors than our forefathers did. So till a title turns up, and the heralds want them, make your mind easy on matters of pedigree, and then you can furnish them with effect. All I can tell you is this — there are hardly fifty men in England who dare tell all the truth about their families.”

“We are friends, then; and in that relation, Arden, if there are privileges, there are also liabilities, remember, and both extend into a possibly distant future.”

Longcluse spoke with a gloomy excitement that his companion did not quite understand.

“That is quite true, of course,” said Arden.

Each was looking in the other’s face for a moment, and each face grew suddenly dark, darker — and the whole room darkened as the air was overshadowed by a mass of cloud that eclipsed the sun, threatening thunder.

“By Jove! How awfully dark in a moment!” said Arden, looking from the face thus suddenly overcast through the window towards the sky.

“Dark as the future we were speaking of,” said Longcluse, with a sad smile.

“Dark in one sense, I mean unseen, but not darkened in the ill-omened sense,” said Richard Arden. “I have great confidence in the future. I suppose I am sanguine.”

“I ought to be sanguine, if having been lucky hitherto should make one so, and yet I’m not. My happiness depends on that which I cannot, in the least, control. Thought, action, energy, contribute nothing, and so I but drift, and — my heart fails me. Tell me, Arden, for Heaven’s sake, truth — spare me nothing, conceal nothing. Let me but know it, however bitter. First tell me, does Miss Arden dislike me — has she an antipathy to me?”

“Dislike you! Nonsense. How could that be? She evidently enjoys your society, when you are in spirits and choose to be amusing. Dislike you? Oh, my dear Longcluse, you can’t have fancied such a thing!” said Arden.

“A man placed as I am may fancy anything — things infinitely more unlikely. I sometimes hope she has never perceived my admiration. It seems strange and cruel, but I believe where a man cannot be beloved, nothing is so likely to make him hated as his presuming to love. There is the secret of half the tragedies we read of. The man cannot cease to love, and the idol of his passion not only disregards but insults it. It is their cruel nature; and thus the pangs of jealousy and the agitations of despair are heightened by a peculiar torture, the hardest of all hell’s torture to endure.”

“Well, I have seen you pretty often together, and you must see there is nothing of that kind,” said Arden.

“You speak quite frankly, do you? For Heaven’s sake don’t spare me!” urged Longcluse.

“I say exactly what I think. There can’t be any such feeling,” said Arden.

Longcluse sighed, looked down thoughtfully, and then, raising his eyes again, he said —

“You must answer me another question, dear Arden, and I shall, for the present, task your kindness no more. If you think it a fair question, will you promise to answer me with unsparing frankness? Let me hear the worst.”

“Certainly,” answered his companion.

“Does your sister like anyone in particular — is she attached to anyone — are her affections quite disengaged?”

“So far as I am aware, certainly. She never cared for any one among all the people who admired her, and I am quite certain such a thing could not be without my observing it,” answered Richard Arden.

“I don’t know; perhaps not,” said Longcluse. “But there is a young friend of yours, who I thought was an admirer of Miss Arden’s, and possibly a favoured one. You guess, I daresay, who it is I mean?”

“I give you my honour I have not the least idea.”

“I mean an early friend of yours — a man about your own age — who has often been staying in Yorkshire and at Mortlake with you, and who was almost like a brother in your house — very intimate.”

“Surely you can’t mean Vivian Darnley?” exclaimed Richard Arden.

“I do. I mean no other.”

“Vivian Darnley? Why, he has hardly enough to live on, much less to marry on. He has not an idea of any such thing. If my father fancied such an absurdity possible, he would take measures to prevent his ever seeing her more. You could not have hit upon a more impossible man,” he resumed, after a moment’s examination of a theory which, notwithstanding, made him a little more uneasy than he would have cared to confess. “Darnley is no fool either, and I think he is a honourable fellow; and altogether, knowing him as I do, the thing is utterly incredible. And as for Alice, the idea of his imagining any such folly, I can undertake to say, positively never entered her mind.”

Here was another pause. Longcluse was again thoughtful.

“May I ask one other question, which I think you will have no difficulty in answering?” said he.

“What you please, dear Longcluse; you may command me.”

“Only this, how do you think Sir Reginald would receive me?”

“A great deal better than he will ever receive me; with his best bow — no, not that, but with open arms and his brightest smile. I tell you, and you’ll find it true, my father is a man of the world. Money won’t, of course, do everything; but it can do a great deal. It can’t make a vulgar man a gentleman, but it may make a gentleman anything. I really think you would find him a very fast friend. And now I must leave you, dear Longcluse. I have just time, and no more, to keep my appointment with old Mr. Blount, to whom my uncle commands me to go at twelve.”

“Heaven keep us both, dear Arden, in this cheating world! Heaven keep us true in this false London world! And God punish the first who breaks faith with the other!”

So spoke Longcluse, taking his hand again, and holding it hard for a moment, with his unfathomable dark eyes on Arden. Was there a faint and unconscious menace in his pale face, as he uttered these words, which a little stirred Arden’s pride?

“That’s a comfortable litany to part with — a form of blessing elevated so neatly, at the close, into a malediction. However, I don’t object. Amen, by all means,” laughed Arden.

Longcluse smiled.

“A malediction? I really believe it was. Something very like it, and one that includes myself, doesn’t it? But we are not likely to earn it. An arrow shot into the sea, it can hurt no one. But oh, dear Arden, what does such language mean but suffering? What is all bitterness but pain? Is any mind that deserves the name ever cruel, except from misery? We are good friends, Arden: and if ever I seem to you for a moment other than friendly, just say, ‘It is his heart-ache and not he that speaks.’ Good-bye! God bless you!”

At the door there was another parting.

“There’s a long dull day before me — say, rather, night; weary eyes, sleepless brain,” murmured Longcluse, in a rather dismal soliloquy, standing in his slippers and dressing-gown again at the window. “Suspense! What a hell is in that word! Chain a man across a rail, in a tunnel — pleasant situation! let him listen for the faint fifing and drumming of the engine, miles away, not knowing whether deliverance or death may come first. Bad enough, that suspense. What is it to mine! I shall see her to-night. I shall see her, and how will it all be? Richard Arden wishes it — yes, he does. ‘Away, slight man!’ It is Brutus who says that, I think. Good Heaven! Think of my life — the giddy steps I go by. That dizzy walk by moonlight, when I lost my way in Switzerland — beautiful nightmare! — the two mile ledge of rock before me, narrow as a plank; up from my left, the sheer wall of rock; at my right so close that my glove might have dropped over it, the precipice; and curling vapour on the cliffs above, that seem about to break, and envelope all below in blinding mist. There is my life translated into landscape. It has been one long adventure — danger — fatigue. Nature is full of beauty — many a quiet nook in life, where peace resides; many a man whose path is broad and smooth. Woe to the man who loses his way on Alpine tracks, and is benighted!”

Now Mr. Longcluse recollected himself. He had letters to read and note. He did this rapidly. He had business in town. He had fifty things on his hands; and, the day over, he would see Alice Arden again.

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