Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 71.

Night.

At about eight o’clock that evening, a hurried note reached Alice Arden, at Mortlake. It was from her brother, and said —

“MY DARLING ALICE,

“I can’t get away from town to-night, I am overwhelmed with business; but tomorrow, before dinner, I hope to see you, and stay at Mortlake till next morning. — Your affectionate brother,

“DICK.”

The house was quiet earlier than in former times, when Sir Reginald, of rakish memory, was never in his bed till past three o’clock in the morning. Mortlake was an early house now, and all was still by a quarter past eleven. The last candle burning was usually that in Mrs. Tansey’s room. She had not yet gone to bed, and was still in “the housekeeper’s room,” when a tapping came at the window. It reminded her of Mr. Longcluse’s visit on the night of the funeral.

She was now the only person up in the house, except Alice, who was at the far side of the building, where, in the next room, her maid was in bed asleep. Alice, who sat at her dressing-table, reading, with her long rich hair dishevelled over her shoulders, was, of course, quite out of hearing.

Martha went to the window with a little frown of uncertainty. Opening a bit of the shutter, she saw Sir Richard’s face close to her. Was ever old housekeeper so pestered by nightly tappings at her window-pane?

“La! who’d a thought o’ seeing you, Master Richard! why, you told Miss Alice you’d not be here till tomorrow!” she says pettishly, holding the candle high above her head.

He makes a sign of caution to her, and placing his lips near the pane, says —

“Open the window the least bit in life.”

With a dark stare in his face, she obeys. An odd approach, surely, for a master to make to his own house!

“No one up in the house but you?” he whispers, as soon as the window is open.

“Not one!”

“Don’t say a word, only listen: come, softly, round to the hall-door, and let me in; and light those candles there, and bring them with you to the hall. Don’t let a creature know I have been here, and make no noise for your life!”

The old woman nodded with the same little frown; and he, pointing toward the hall door, walks away silently in that direction.

“What makes you look so white and dowley?” mutters the old woman, as she secures the window, and bars the shutters again.

“Good creature!” whispers Sir Richard, as he enters the hall, and places his hand kindly on her shoulder, and with a very dark look; “you have always been true to me, Martha, and I depend on your good sense; not a word of my having been here to any one — not to Miss Alice! I have to search for papers. I shall be here but an hour or so. Don’t lock or bar the door, mind, and get to your bed! Don’t come up this way again — good-night!”

“Won’t you have some supper?”

“No, thanks.”

“A glass of sherry and a bit o’ something?”

“Nothing.”

And he places his hand on her shoulder gently, and looks toward the corridor that led to her room; then taking up one of the candles she had left alight on the table in the hall, he says —

“I’ll give you a light,” and he repeats, with a wondrous heavy sigh, “Good-night, dear old Martha.”

“God bless ye, Master Dick. Ye must chirp up a bit, mind,” she says very kindly, with an earnest look in her face. “I’m getting to rest — ye needn’t fear me walkin’ about to trouble ye. But ye must be careful to shut the hall-door close. I agree, as it is a thing to be done; but ye must also knock at my bed-room window when ye’ve gane out, for I must get up, and lock the door, and make a’ safe; and don’t ye forget, Master Richard, what I tell ye.”

He held the candle at the end of the corridor, down which the wiry old woman went quickly; and when he returned to the hall, and set the candle down again, he felt faint. In his ears are ever the terrible words: “Mind, I take command of the house, I dispose of and appoint the servants; I don’t appear, you do all ostensibly — but from garret to cellar, I’m master. I’ll look it over, and tell you what is to be done.”

Sir Richard roused himself, and having listened at the staircase, he very softly opened the hall-door. The spire of the old church showed hoar in the moonlight. At the left, from under a deep shadow of elms, comes silently a tall figure, and softly ascends the hall-door steps. The door is closed gently.

Alice sitting at her dressing-table, half an hour later, thought she heard steps — lowered her book, and listened. But no sound followed. Again the same light foot-falls disturbed her — and again, she was growing nervous. Once more she heard them, very stealthily, and now on the same floor on which her room was. She stands up breathless. There is no noise now. She was thinking of waking her maid, but she remembered that she and Louisa Diaper had in a like alarm, discovered old Martha, only two or three nights before, poking about the china-closet, dusting and counting, at one o’clock in the morning, and had then exacted a promise that she would visit that repository no more, except at seasonable hours. But old Martha was so pig-headed, and would take it for granted that she was fast asleep, and would rather fidget through the house and poke up everything at that hour than at any other.

Quite persuaded of this, Alice takes her candle, determined to scold that troublesome old thing, against whom she is fired with the irritation that attends on a causeless fright. She walks along the gallery quickly, in slippers, flowing dressing-gown and hair, with her candle in her hand, to the head of the stairs, through the great window of which the moonlight streams brightly. Through the keyhole of the door at the opposite side, a ray of candlelight is visible, and from this room opens the china-closet, which is no doubt the point of attraction for the troublesome visitant. Holding the candle high in her left hand, Alice opens the door.

What she sees is this — a pair of candles burning on a small table, on which, with a pencil, Mr. Longcluse is drawing, it seems, with care, a diagram; at the same moment he raises his eyes, and Richard Arden, who is standing with one hand placed on the table over which he is leaning a little, looks quickly round, and rising walks straight to the door, interposing between her and Longcluse.

“Oh, Alice? You didn’t expect me: I’m very busy, looking for — looking over papers. Don’t mind.”

He had placed his hands gently on her shoulders, and she receded as he advanced.

“Oh! it don’t matter. I thought — I thought — I did not know.”

She was smiling her best. She was horrified. He looked like a ghost. Alice was gazing piteously in his face, and with a little laugh, she began to cry convulsively.

“What is the matter with the little fool! There, there — don’t, don’t — nonsense!”

With an effort she recovered herself.

“Only a little startled, Dick; I did not think you were there — good-night.”

And she hastened back to her chamber, and locked the door; and running into her maid’s room, sat down on the side of her bed, and wept hysterically. To the imploring inquiries of her maid, she repeated only the words, “I am frightened,” and left her in a startled perplexity.

She knew that Longcluse had seen her, and he, that she had seen him. Their eyes had met. He saw with a bleak rage the contracting look of horror, so nearly hatred, that she fixed on him for a breathless moment. There was a tremor of fury at his heart, as if it could have sprung at her, from his breast, at her throat, and murdered her; and — she looked so beautiful! He gazed with an idolatrous admiration. Tears were welling to his eyes, and yet he would have laughed to see her weltering on the floor. A madman for some tremendous seconds!

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