Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 73.

At the Bar of the “Guy of Warwick.”

Next evening there came, not Richard, but a note saying that he would see Alice the moment he could get away from town. As the old servant departed northward, her solitude for the first time began to grow irksome, and as the night approached, worse even than gloomy.

Her extemporised household made her laugh. It was not even a skeleton establishment. The kitchen department had dwindled to a single person, who ordered her luncheon and dinner, only two or three plats, daily, from the “Guy of Warwick.” The housemaid’s department was undertaken by a single servant, a short, strong woman of some sixty years of age.

This person puzzled Alice a good deal. She came to her, like the others, with a note from her brother, stating her name, and that he had engaged her for the few days they meant to remain roughing it at Mortlake, and that he had received a very good account of her.

This woman has not a bad countenance. There is, indeed, no tenderness in it; but there is a sort of hard good-humour. There are quickness and resolution. She talks fluently of herself and her qualifications, and now and then makes a short curtsey. But she takes no notice of any one of Alice’s questions.

A silence sometimes follows, during which Alice repeats her interrogatory perhaps twice, with growing indignation, and then the new comer breaks into a totally independent talk, and leaves the young lady wondering at her disciplined impertinence. It was not till her second visit that she enlightened her.

“I did not send for you. You can go!” said Alice.

“I don’t like a house that has children in it, they gives a deal o’ trouble,” said the woman.

“But I say you may go; you must go, please.”

The woman looked round the room.

“When I was with Mrs. Montgomery, she had five, three girls and two boys; la! there never was five such ——”

“Go, this moment, please, I insist on your going; do you hear me, pray?”

But so far from answering, or obeying, this cool intruder continues her harangue before Miss Arden gets half way to the end of her little speech.

“That woman was the greatest fool alive — nothing but spoiling and petting — I could not stand it no longer, so I took Master Tommy by the lug, and pulled him out of the kitchen, the limb, along the passage to the stairs, every inch, and I gave him a slap in the face, the fat young rascal; you could hear all over the house! and didn’t he rise the roof! So missus and me, we quarrelled upon it.”

“If you don’t leave the room, I must; and I shall tell my brother, Sir Richard, how you have behaved yourself; and you may rely upon it ——”

But here again she is overpowered by the strong voice of her visitor.

“It was in my next place, at Mr. Crump’s, I took cold in my head, very bad, Miss, indeed, looking out of window to see two fellows fighting, in the lane — in both ears — and so I lost my hearing, and I’ve been deaf as a post ever since!”

Alice could not resist a laugh at her own indignant eloquence quite thrown away; and she hastily wrote with a pencil on a slip of paper:—

“Please don’t come to me except when I send for you.”

“La! Ma’am, I forgot!” exclaims the woman, when she had examined it; “my orders was not to read any of your writing.”

“Not to read any of my writing!” said Alice, amazed; “then, how am I to tell you what I wish about anything?” she inquires, for the moment forgetting that not one word of her question was heard. The woman makes a curtsey and retires. “What can Richard have meant by giving her such a direction? I’ll ask him when he comes.”

It was likely enough that the woman had misunderstood him, still she began to wish the little interval destined to be passed at Mortlake before her journey to Yorkshire, ended.

She told her maid, Louisa Diaper, to go down to the kitchen and find out all she could as to what people were in the house, and what duties they had undertaken, and when her brother was likely to arrive.

Louisa Diaper, slim, elegant, and demure, descended among these barbarous animals. She found in the kitchen, unexpectedly, a male stranger, a small, slight man, with great black eyes, a big sullen mouth, a sallow complexion, and a profusion of black ringlets. The deaf woman was conning over some writing of his on a torn-off blank leaf of a letter, and he was twiddling about the pencil, with which he had just traced it, in his fingers, and, in a singing drawl, holding forth to the other woman, who, with a long and high canvas apron on, and the handle of an empty saucepan in her right hand, stood gaping at him, with her arms hanging by her sides.

On the appearance of Miss Diaper, Mr. Levi, for he it was, directs his solemn conversation to that young lady.

“I was just telling them about the robberies in the City and Wesht Hend. La! there’sh bin nothin’ like it for twenty year. They don’t tell them in the papersh, blesh ye! The ‘ome Shecretary takesh precious good care o’ that; they don’t want to frighten every livin’ shoul out of London. But there’ll be talk of it in Parliament, I promish you. I know three opposition membersh myshelf that will move the ‘oushe upon it next session.”

Mr. Levi wagged his head darkly as he made this political revelation.

“Thish day twel’month the number o’ burglariesh in London and the West Hend, including Hizzlington, was no more than fifteen and a half a night; and two robberiesh attended with wiolensh. What wazh it lasht night? I have it in confidensh, from the polishe offish thish morning.”

He pulled a pocket-book, rather greasy, from his breast, and from this depositary, it is to be presumed, of statistical secrets, he read the following official memorandum:—

“Number of ‘oushes burglarioushly hentered lasht night, including private banksh, charitable hinshtitutions, shops, lodging-‘oushes, female hacadamies, and private dwellings, and robbed with more or less wiolench, one thoushand sheven hundred and shixty-sheven. We regret to hadd,” he continued, the official return stealing, as it proceeded, gradually into the style of “The Pictorial Calendar of British Crime,” a half-penny paper which he took in-“this hinundation of crime seems flowing, or rayther rushing northward, and hazh already enweloped Hizhlington, where a bald-headed clock and watch maker, named Halexander Goggles, wazh murdered with his sheven shmall children, with unigshampled ba-arba-arity.”

Mr. Levi eyed the women horribly all round as he ended the sentence, and he added —

“Hizhlington’sh only down there. It ain’t five minutesh walk; only a pleasant shtep; just enough to give a fellow azh has polished off a family there a happetite for another up here. Azh I ‘ope to be shaved, I shleep every night with a pair of horshe pishtols, a blunderbush, and a shabre by my bed; and Shir Richard wantsh every door in the ‘oushe fasht locked, and the keysh with him, before dark, thish evening, except only such doors as you want open; and he gave me a note to Miss Harden.” And he placed the note in Miss Diaper’s hand. “He wantsh the ‘oushe a bit more schecure,” he added, following her towards the hall. “He wishes to make you and she quite shafe, and out of harm’s way, if anything should occur. It will be only a few days, you know, till you’re both away.”

The effect of this little alarm, accompanied by Sir Richard’s note, was that Mr. Levi carried out a temporary arrangement, which assigned the suite of apartments in which Alice’s room was as those to which she would restrict herself during the few days she was to remain there, the rest of the house, except the kitchen and a servant’s room or two down-stairs, being locked up.

By the time Mr. Levi had got the keys together, and all safe in Mortlake, the sun had set, and in the red twilight that followed he set off in his cab towards town. At the “Guy of Warwick”— from the bar of which already was flaring a good broad gas-light — he stopped and got out. There was a full view of the bar from where he stood; and, pretending to rummage his pockets for something, he was looking in to see whether “the coast was clear.”

“She’s just your sort — not too bad and not too good — not too nashty, and not too nishe; a good-humoured lash, rough and ready, and knowsh a thing or two.”

“Ye’re there, are ye?” inquired Mr. Levi, playfully, as he crossed the door-stone, and placed his fists on the bar grinning.

“What will you take, Sir, please?” inquired the young woman, at one side of whom was the usual row of taps and pump-handles.

“Now, Miss Phoebe, give me a brandy and shoda, pleashe. When I talked to you in thish ’ere place ‘tother night, you wished to engage for a lady’s maid. What would you shay to me, if I was to get you a firsht-chop tip-top pla-ashe of the kind? Well, don’t you shay a word — that brandy ain’t fair measure — and I’ll tell you. It’sh a la-ady of ra-ank! where wagesh ish no-o object; and two years’ savings, and a good match with a well-to-do ‘andsome young fellow, will set you hup in a better place than this ’ere.”

“It comes very timely, Sir, for I’m to leave tomorrow, and I was thinking of going home to my uncle in a day or two, in Chester.”

“Well it’s all settled. Come you down to my offishe, you know where it is, tomorrow, at three, and I’ll ‘av all partickulars for you, and a note to the lady from her brother, the baronet; and if you be a good girl, and do as you’re bid, you’ll make a little fortune of it.”

She curtsied, with her eyes very round, as he, with a wag of his head drank down what remained of his brandy and soda, and wiping his mouth with his glove, he said, “Three o’clock sha-arp, mind; good-bye, Phoebe, lass, and don’t you forget all I said.”

He stood ungallantly with his back towards her on the threshold lighting a cigar, and so soon as he had it in his own phrase, “working at high blast,” he got into his cab, and jingled towards his office, with all his keys about him.

While Miss Arden remained all unconscious, and even a little amused at the strange shifts to which her brief stay and extemporised household at Mortlake exposed her, a wily and determined strategist was drawing his toils around her.

The process of isolation was nearly completed, without having once excited her suspicions; and, with the same perfidious skill, the house itself was virtually undergoing those modifications which best suited his designs.

Sir Richard appeared at his club as usual. He was compelled to do so. The all-seeing eye of his pale tyrant pursued him everywhere; he lived under terror. A dreadful agony all this time convulsed the man, within whose heart Longcluse suspected nothing but the serenity of death.

“What easier than to tell the story to the police. Meditated duresse. Compulsion. Infernal villain! And then: what then? A pistol to his head, a flash, and — darkness!”

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