Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 84.

At Mortlake.

Events do not stand still at Mortlake. It is now about four o’clock on a fine autumnal afternoon. Since we last saw her, Alice Arden has not once sought to pass the hall-door. It would not have been possible to do so. No one passed that barrier without a scrutiny, and the aid of the key of the man who kept guard at the door, as closely as ever did the office at the hatch of the debtor’s prison. The suite of five rooms up-stairs, to which Alice is now strictly confined, is not only comfortable, but luxurious. It had been fitted up for his own use by Sir Reginald years before he exchanged it for those rooms down-stairs which, as he grew older, he preferred.

Levi every day visited the house, and took a report of all that was said and planned up-stairs, in a tête-à-tête with Phoebe Chiffinch, in the great parlour among the portraits. The girl was true to her young and helpless mistress, and was in her confidence, outwitting the rascally Jew, who every time, by Longcluse’s order, bribed her handsomely for the information that was misleading him.

From Phoebe the young lady concealed no pang of her agony. Well was it for her that in their craft they had exchanged the comparatively useless Miss Diaper for this poor girl, on whose apprenticeship to strange ways, and a not very fastidious life, they relied for a clever and unscrupulous instrument. Perhaps she had more than the cunning they reckoned upon. “But I ‘av’ took a liking to ye, Miss, and they’ll not make nothing of Phoebe Chiffinch.”

Alice was alone in her room, and Phoebe Chiffinch came running up the great staircase singing, and through the intervening suite of rooms, entered that in which her young mistress awaited her return. Her song falters, and dies into a strange ejaculation, as she passes the door.

“The Lord be thanked, that’s over and done!” she exclaims, with a face pale from excitement.

“Sit down, Phoebe; you are trembling; you must drink a little water. Are you well?”

“La! quite well, Miss,” said Phoebe, more cheerily, and then burst into tears. She gulped down some of the water which the frightened young lady held to her lips, and recovering quickly, she gets on her feet, and says impatiently —“I’m sure, Miss, I don’t know what makes me such a fool; but I’m all right now, Ma’am; and you asked me, the other day, about the big key of the old back-door lock that I showed you, and I said, though it could not open no door, I would find a use for it, yet. So I ‘av’, Miss.”

“Go on; I recollect perfectly.”

“You remember the bit of parchment I asked you to write the words on yesterday evening, Miss? They was these: ‘Passage on the left, from main passage to housekeeper’s room,’ etc. Well, I was with Mr. Vargers when he locked that passage up, and it leads to a door in the side of the ’ouse, which it opens into the grounds; and in that houter door he left a key, and only took with him the key of the door at the other end, which it opens from the ‘ousekeeper’s passage. So all seemed sure — sure it is, so long as you can’t get into that side passage, which it is locked.”

“I understand; go on, Phoebe.”

“Well, Miss, the reason I vallied that key I showed you so much, was because it’s as like the key of the side passage as one egg is to another, only it won’t turn in the lock. So, as that key I must ‘av’, I tacked the bit of parchment you wrote to the ‘andle of the other, which the two matches exactly, and I didn’t tell you, Miss, thinking what a taking you’d be in, but I went down to try if I could not take it for the right one.”

“It was kind of you not to tell me; go on,” said the young lady.

“Well, Miss, I ‘ad the key in my pocket, ready to change; and I knew well how ‘twould be, if I was found out — I’d get the sack, or be locked up ’ere myself, more likely, and no more chances for you. Mr. Vargers was in the room — the porter’s room they calls it now — and in I goes. I did not see no one there, but Vargers and he was lookin’ sly, I thought, and him and Mr. Boult has been talking me over, I fancy, and they don’t quite trust me. So I began to talk, wheedling him the best I could to let me go into town for an hour; ’twas only for talk, for well I knew I shouldn’t get to go; but nothing but chaff did he answer. And then, says I, is Mr. Levice come yet, and he said, he is, but he has a second key of the back door and he may ‘av’ let himself hout. Well, I says, thinking to make Vargers jealous, he’s a werry pleasant gentleman, a bit too pleasant for me, and I’m a-going to the kitchen, and I’d rayther he wastnt there, smoking as he often does, and talking nonsense, when I’m in it. There’s others that’s nicer, to my fancy, than him — so, jest you go and see, and I’ll take care of heverything ’ere till you come back — and don’t you be a minute. There was the keys, lying along the chimney-piece, at my left, and the big table in front, and nothing to hinder me from changing mine for his, but Vargers’ eye over me. Little I thought he’d ‘av’ bin so ready to do as I said. But he smiled to himself-like, and he said he’d go and see. So away he went; and I listens at the door till I heard his foot go on the tiles of the passage that goes down by the ‘ousekeeper’s room, and the billiard-room, to the kitchen; and then on tip-toe, as quick as light, I goes to the chimney-piece, and without a sound, I takes the very key I wanted in my fingers, and drops it into my pocket, but putting down the other in its place, I knocked down the big leaden hink-bottle, and didn’t it make a bang on the floor — and a terrible hoarse voice roars out from the tother side of the table —‘What the devil are you doing there, huzzy?’ Saving your presence, Miss; and up gets Mr. Boult, only half awake, looking as mad as Bedlam, and I thought I would have fainted away! Who’d ‘av’ fancied he was in the room? He had his ‘ead on the table, and the cloak over it, and I think, when they ‘eard me a-coming downstairs, they agreed he should ‘ide hisself so, to catch me, while Vargers would leave the room, to try if I would meddle with the keys, or the like — and while Mr. Boult was foxing, he fell asleep in right earnest. Warn’t it a joke, Miss? So I brazent it hout, Miss, the best I could, and I threatened to complain to Mr. Levi, and said I’d stay no longer, to be talked to, that way, by sich as he. And Boult could not tell Vargers he was asleep, and so I saw him count over the keys, and up I ran, singing.”

By this time the girl was on her knees, concealing the key between the beds, with the others.

“Thank God, Phoebe, you have got it! But, oh! all that is before us still!”

“Yes, there’s work enough, Miss. I’ll not be so frightened no more. Tom Chiffinch, that beat the Finchley pet, after ninety good rounds, was my brother, and I won’t show nothing but pluck, Miss, from this out — you’ll see.”

Alice had proposed writing to summon her friends to her aid. But Phoebe protested against that extremely perilous measure. Her friends were away from London; who could say where? And she believed that the attempt to post the letters would miscarry, and that they were certain to fall into the hands of their jailors. She insisted that Alice should rely on the simple plan of escape from Mortlake.

Martha Tansey, it is true, was anxious. She wondered how it was that she had not once heard from her young mistress since her journey to Yorkshire. And a passage in a letter which had reached her, from the old servant, at David Arden’s town house, who had been mystified by Sir Richard, perplexed and alarmed her further, by inquiring how Miss Alice looked, and whether she had been knocked up by the journey to Arden on Wednesday.

So matters stood.

Each evening Mr. Levi was in attendance, and this day, according to rule, she went down to the grand old dining-room.

“How’sh Miss Chiffinch?” said the little Jew, advancing to meet her; “how’sh her grashe the duchess, in the top o’ the houshe? Ish my Lady Mount-garret ash proud ash ever?”

“Well, I do think, Mr. Levice, there’s a great change; she’s bin growing better the last two days, and she’s got a letter last night that’s seemed to please her.”

“Wha’at letter?”

“The letter you gave me last night for her.”

“O-oh! Ah! I wonder — eh? Do you happen to know what wa’azh in that ere letter?” he asked, in an insinuating whisper.

“Not I, Mr. Levice. She don’t trust me not as far as you’d throw a bull by the tail. You might ‘av’ managed that better. You must ‘a frightened her some way about me. I try to be agreeable all I can, but she won’t a-look at me.”

“Well, I don’t want to know, I’m sure. Did she talk of going out of doors since?”

“No; there’s a frost in the hair still, and she says till that’s gone she won’t stir out.”

“That frost will last a bit, I guess. Any more newshe?”

“Nothing.”

“Wait a minute ’ere,” said Mr. Levi, and he went into the room beyond this, where she knew there were writing materials.

She waited some time, and at length took the liberty of sitting down. She was kept a good while longer. The sun went down; the drowsy crimson that heralds night overspread the sky. She coughed; several fits of coughing she tried at short intervals. Had Mr. Levice, as she called him, forgotten her? He came out at length in the twilight.

“Shtay you ’ere a few minutes more,” said that gentleman, as he walked thoughtfully through the room and paused. “You wazh asking yesterday where izh Sir Richard Arden. Well, hezh took hishelf off to Harden in Yorkshire, and he’ll not be ‘ome again for a week.”

Having delivered this piece of intelligence, he nodded, and slowly went to the hall, and closed the door carefully as he left the room. She followed to the door and listened. There was plainly a little fuss going on in the hall. She heard feet in motion, and low talking. She was curious and would have peeped, but the door was secured on the outside. The twilight had deepened, and for the first time she saw that a ray of candle-light came through the key-hole from the inner room. She opened the door softly, and saw a gentleman writing at the table. He was quite alone. He turned, and rose: a tall, slight gentleman, with a singular countenance that startled her.

“You are Phoebe Chiffinch,” said a deep, clear voice, sternly, as the gentleman pointed towards her with the plume end of the pen he held in his fingers. “I am Mr. Longcluse. It is I who have sent you two pounds each day by Levi. I hear you have got it all right.”

The girl curtseyed, and said “Yes, Sir,” at the second effort, for she was startled. He had taken out and opened his pocket-book.

“Here are ten pounds,” and he handed her a rustling new note by the corner. “I’ll treat you liberally, but you must speak truth, and do exactly as you are ordered by Levi.” She curtseyed again. There was something in that gentleman that frightened her awfully.

“If you do so, I mean to give you a hundred pounds when this business is over. I have paid you as my servant, and if you deceive me I’ll punish you; and there are two or three little things they complain of at the ‘Guy of Warwick,’ and” (he swore a hard oath) “you shall hear of them if you do.”

She curtseyed, and felt, not angry, as she would if any one else had said it, but frightened, for Mr. Longcluse’s was a name of power at Mortlake.

“You gave Miss Arden a letter last night. You know what was in it?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“What was it?”

“An offer of marriage from you, Sir.”

“Yes: how do you know that?”

“She told me, please, Sir.”

“How did she take it? Come, don’t be afraid.”

“I’d say it pleased her well, Sir.”

He looked at her in much surprise, and was silent for a time.

He repeated his question, and receiving a similar answer, reflected on it.

“Yes; it is the best way out of her troubles; she begins to see that,” he said, with a strange smile.

He walked to the chimney-piece, and leaned on it; and forgot the presence of Phoebe. She was too much in awe to make any sign. Turning he saw her, suddenly.

“You will receive some directions from Mr. Levi; take care you understand and execute them.”

He touched the bell, and Levi opened the door; and she and that person walked together to the foot of the stair, where in a low tone they talked.

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