Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 77.

More News of Paul Davies.

Louisa Diaper did not appear that night, nor next morning. She had been spirited away like the rest. Sir Richard had told her that his sister desired that she should go into town, and stay till next day, under the care of the housekeeper in town, and that he would bring her a list of commissions which she was to do for her mistress preparatory to starting for Yorkshire. I daresay this young lady liked her excursion to town well enough. It was not till the night after that she started for the North.

Alice Arden, for a time, lost heart altogether. It was no wonder she should.

That her only brother should be an accomplice against her, in a plot so appalling, was enough to overpower her; her horror of Longcluse, the effectual nature of her imprisonment, and the strange and, as she feared, unscrupulous people by whom she had been so artfully surrounded, heightened her terrors to the pitch of distraction.

At times she was almost wild; at others stupefied in despair; at others, again, soothed by the kindly intrepidity of Phoebe, she became more collected. Sometimes she would throw herself on her bed, and sob for an hour in helpless agony; and then, exhausted and overpowered, she would fall for a time into a deep sleep, from which she would start, for several minutes, without the power of collecting her thoughts, and with only the stifled cry, “What is it? — Where am I?” and a terrified look round.

One day, in a calmer mood, as she sat in her room after a long talk with Phoebe, the girl came beside her chair with an oddly made key, with a little strap of white leather to the handle, in her hands.

“Here’s a latch-key, Miss; maybe you know what it opens?”

“Where did you find it?”

“In the old china vase over the chimney, please ‘m.”

“Let me see — oh! dear, yes, this opens the door in the wall of the grounds, in that direction,” and she pointed. “Poor papa lent it to my drawing-master. He lived somewhere beyond that, and used to let himself in by it when he came to give me my lessons.”

“I remember that door well, Miss,” said Phoebe, looking earnestly on the key —“Mr. Crozier let me out that way, one day. Mr. Longcluse has put strangers, you know, in the gatehouse. That’s shut against us. I’ll tell you what, Miss — wait — well, I’ll think. I’ll keep this key safe, anyhow; and — the more the merrier,” she added with a sudden alacrity, and lifting her finger, by way of signal, for everything now was done with caution here, she left the room, and passed through the suite to the landing, and quietly took out the door-keys, one by one, and returned with her spoil to Alice’s room.

“You thought they might lock us up?” whispered Alice.

The girl nodded. “No harm to have ’em, Miss — it won’t hurt us.” She folded them tightly in a handkerchief, and thrust the parcel as far as her arm could reach between the mattress and the bed. “I’ll rip the ticken a bit just now, and stitch them in,” whispered the girl.

“Didn’t I hear another key clink as you put your hand in?” asked Alice.

The girl smiled, and drew out a large key, and nodded, still smiling as she replaced it.

“What does that open?” whispered Alice eagerly.

Nothing, Miss,” said the girl gravely —“it’s the key of the old back-door lock; but there’s a new one there now, and this won’t open nothing. But I have a use for it. I’ll tell you all in time, Miss; and, please, you must keep up your heart, mind.”

Sir Richard Arden was not the cold villain you may suppose. He was resolved to make an effort of some kind for the extrication of his sister. He could not bear to open his dreadful situation to his Uncle David, nor to kill himself, nor to defy the vengeance of Longcluse. He would effect her escape and his own simultaneously. In the meantime he must acquiesce, ostensibly at least, in every step determined on by Longcluse.

It was a bright autumnal day as Sir Richard and Mr. Longcluse took the rail to Southampton. Longcluse had his reasons for taking the young baronet with him.

It was near the hour, by the time they got there, when David Arden would arrive from his northern point of departure. Longcluse looked animated — smiling; but a stupendous load lay on his heart. A single clumsy phrase in the letter of that detective scoundrel might be enough to direct the formidable suspicions of that energetic old gentleman upon him. The next hour might throw him altogether upon the defensive, and paralyse his schemes.

Alice Arden, you little dream of the man and the route by which, possibly, deliverance is speeding to you.

Near the steps of the large hotel that looks seaward, Longcluse and Sir Richard lounge, expecting the arrival of David Arden almost momentarily. Up drives a fly, piled with portmanteaus, hat-case, dressing-case, and all the other travelling appurtenances of a comfortable wayfarer. Beside the driver sits a servant. The fly draws up at the door near them.

Mr. Longcluse’s seasoned heart throbs once or twice oddly. Out gets Uncle David, looking brown and healthy after his northern excursion. On reaching the top of the steps, he halts, and turns round to look about him. Again Mr. Longcluse feels the same odd sensation.

Uncle David recognises Sir Richard, and smiling greets him. He runs down the steps to meet him. After they have shaken hands, and, a little more coldly, he and Mr. Longcluse, he says —

“You are not looking yourself, Dick; you ought to have run down to the moors, and got up an appetite. How is Alice?”

“Alice? Oh! Alice is very well, thanks.”

“I should like to run up to Mortlake to see her. She has been complaining, eh?”

“No, no — better,” says Sir Richard.

“And you forget to tell your uncle what you told me,” interposes Mr. Longcluse, “that Miss Arden left Mortlake for Yorkshire yesterday.”

“Oh!” said Uncle David, turning to Richard again.

“And the servants went before — two or three days ago,” said Sir Richard, looking down for a moment, and hastening, under that clear eye, to speak a little truth.

“Well, I wish she had come with us,” said David Arden; “but as she could not be persuaded, I’m glad she is making a little change of air and scene, in any direction. By-the-bye, Mr. Longcluse, you had a letter, had not you, from our friend, Paul Davies?”

“Yes; he seemed to think he had found a clue — from Paris it was — and I wrote to tell him to spare no expense in pushing his inquiries and to draw upon me.”

“Well, I have some news to tell you. His exploring voyage will come to nothing; you did not hear?”

“No.”

“Why, the poor fellow’s dead. I got a letter — it reached me, forwarded from my house in town, yesterday, from the person who hires the lodgings — to say he had died of scarlatina very suddenly, and sending an inventory of the things he left. It is a pity, for he seemed a smart fellow, and sanguine about getting to the bottom of it.”

“An awful pity!” exclaimed Longcluse, who felt as if a mountain were lifted from his heart, and the entire firmament had lighted up; “an awful pity! Are you quite sure?”

“There can’t be a doubt, I’m sorry to say. Then, as Alice has taken wing, I’ll pursue my first plan, and cross by the next mail.”

“For Paris?” inquired Mr. Longcluse, carelessly.

“Yes, Sir, for Paris,” answered Uncle David deliberately, looking at him; “yes, for Paris.”

And then followed a little chat on indifferent subjects. Then Uncle David mentioned that he had an appointment, and must dine with the dull but honest fellow who had asked him to meet him here on a matter of business, which would have done just as well next year, but he wished it now. Uncle David nodded, and waved his hand, as on entering the door he gave them a farewell smile over his shoulder.

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