Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 17.

Mr. Longcluse at Mortlake Hall.

“If you let me go this time, Mr. Wheeler, you’ll not catch me a-walking out here again,” said Mr. Davies sourly. “If there’s business to be done, now’s the time.”

“Well, I can’t make it no plainer —’tis as clear as mud in a wine-glass,” said the mounted man gaily, and again he shook the bridle and hitched himself in the saddle, and the horse stirred uneasily, as he added, “Have you any more to say?”

“Well, supposin’ I say ay, how soon will it be settled?” said Paul Davies, beginning to think better of it.

“These things doesn’t take long with a rich cove like Mr. Longcluse. It’s where they has to scrape it up, by beggin’ here and borrowin’ there, and sellin’ this and spoutin’ that — there’s a wait always. But a chap with no end o’ tin — that has only to wish and have — that’s your sort. He swears a bit, and threatens, and stamps, and loses his temper summat, ye see; and if I was the prencipal, like you are in this ’ere case, and the police convenient, or a poker in his fist, he might make a row. But seein’ I’m only a messenger like, it don’t come to nothin’. He claps his hand in his pocket, and outs with the rino, and there’s all; and jest a bit of paper to sign. But I won’t stay here no longer. I’m getting a bit cold myself; so it’s on or off now. Go yourself to Longcluse, if you like, and see if you don’t catch it. The least you get will be seven-penn’orth, for extortin’ money by threatenin’ a prosecution, if he don’t hang you for the murder of the Saloon cove. How would you like that?”

“It ain’t the physic that suits my complaint, guvnor. But I have him there. I have the statement wrote, in sure hands, and other hevidence, as he may suppose, and dated, and signed by respectable people; and I know his dodge. He thinks he came out first with his charge against me, but he’s out there; and if he will have it, and I split, he’d best look slippy.”

“And how much do you want? Mind, I’ll funk him all I can, though he’s a wideawake chap; for it’s my game to get every pig I can out of him.”

“I’ll take two thousand pounds, and go to Canada or to New York, my passage and expenses being paid, and sign anything in reason he wants; and that’s the shortest chalk I’ll offer.”

“Don’t you wish you may get it? I do, I know, but I’m thinking you might jest as well look for the naytional debt.”

“What’s your name?” again asked Davies, a little abruptly.

“My name fell out o’ window and was broke, last Tuesday mornin’. But call me Tom Wheeler, if you can’t talk without calling me something.”

“Well, Tom, that’s the figure,” said Davies.

“If you want to deal, speak now,” said Wheeler. “If I’m to stand between you, I must have a power to close on the best offer I’m like to get. I won’t do nothing in the matter else-ways.”

With this fresh exhortation, the conference on details proceeded; and when at last it closed, with something like a definite understanding, Tom Wheeler said — “Mind, Paul Davies, I comes from no one, and I goes to no one; and I never seed you in all my days.”

“And where are you going?”

“A bit nearer the moon,” said the mysterious Mr. Wheeler, lifting his hand and pointing towards the red disk, with one of his bearded grins. And wheeling his horse suddenly, away he rode at a canter, right toward the red moon, against which for a few moments the figure of the retreating horse and man showed black and sharp, as if cut out of cardboard.

Paul Davies looked after him with his left eye screwed close, as was his custom, in shrewd rumination. Before the horseman had got very far, the moon passed under the edge of a thick cloud, and the waste was once more enveloped in total darkness. In this absolute obscurity the retreating figure was instantaneously swallowed, so that the shrewd exdetective, who had learned by rote every article of his dress, and every button on it, and could have sworn to every mark on his horse at York Fair, had no chance of discovering in the ultimate line of his retreat, any clue to his destination. He had simply emerged from darkness, and darkness had swallowed him again.

We must now see how Sir Reginald’s little dinner-party, not a score of miles away, went off only two days later. He was fortunate, seeing he had bidden his guests upon very short notice, not one disappointed.

I daresay that Lady May — whose toilet, considering how quiet everything was, had been made elaborately — missed a face that would have brightened all the rooms for her. But the interview between Richard Arden and his father had not, as we know, ended in reconciliation, and Lady May’s hopes were disappointed, and her toilet labour in vain.

When Lady May entered the room with Alice, she saw standing on the hearth-rug, at the far end of the handsome room, a tall and very good-looking man of sixty or upwards, chatting with Sir Reginald, one of whose feet was in a slipper, and who was sitting in an easy-chair. A little bit of fire burned in the grate, for the day had been chill and showery. This tall man, with white silken hair, and a countenance kind, frank, and thoughtful, with a little sadness in it, was, she had no doubt, David Arden, whom she had last seen with silken brown locks, and the cheerful aspect of early manhood.

Sir Reginald stood up, with an uncomfortable effort, and, smiling, pointed to his slippers in excuse for his limping gait, as he shuffled forth across the carpet to meet her, with a good-humoured shrug.

“Wasn’t it good of her to come?” said Alice.

“She’s better than good,” said Sir Reginald, with his thin, yellow smile, extending his hand, and leading her to a chair; “it is visiting the sick and the halt, and doing real good, for it is a pleasure to see her — a pleasure bestowed on a miserable soul who has very few pleasures left;” and with his other thin hand he patted gently the fingers of her fat hand. “Here is my brother David,” continued the baronet. “He says you will hardly know him.”

“She’ll hardly believe it. She was very young when she last saw me, and the last ten years have made some changes,” said Uncle David, laughing gently.

At the baronet’s allusion to that most difficult subject, the lapse of time, Lady May winced and simpered uneasily; but she expanded gratefully as David Arden disposed of it so adroitly.

“We’ll not speak of years of change. I knew you instantly,” said Lady May happily. “And you have been to Vichy, Reginald. What stay do you make here?”

“None, almost; my crippled foot keeps me always on a journey. It seems a paradox, but so it is. I’m ordered to visit Buxton for a week or so, and then I go, for change of air, to Yorkshire.”

As Alice entered, she saw the pretty face, the original of the brilliant portrait which had haunted her on her night journey to Twyford, and she heard a very silvery voice chatting gaily. Mr. Longcluse was leaning on the end of the sofa on which Grace Maubray sat; and Vivian Darnley, it seemed in high spirits, was standing and laughing nearly before her. Alice Arden walked quickly over to welcome her handsome guest. With a misgiving and a strange pain at her heart, she saw how much more beautiful this young lady had grown. Smiling radiantly, with her hand extended, she greeted and kissed her fair kinswoman; and, after a few words, sat down for a little beside her; and asked Mr. Longcluse how he did; and finally spoke to Vivian Darnley, and then returned to her conventional dialogue of welcome and politeness with her cousin —how cousin, she could not easily have explained.

The young ladies seemed so completely taken up with one another that, after a little waiting, the gentlemen fell into a desultory talk, and grew gradually nearer to the window. They were talking now of dogs and horses, and Mr. Longcluse was stealing rapidly into the good graces of the young man.

“When we come up after dinner, you must tell me who these people are,” said Grace Maubray, who did not care very much what she said. “That young man is a Mr. Vivian, ain’t he?”

“No — Darnley,” whispered Alice; “Vivian is his Christian name.”

“Very romantic names; and, if he really means half he says, he is a very romantic person.” She laughed.

“What has he been saying?” Alice wondered. But, after all, it was possible to be romantic on almost any subject.

“And the other?”

“He’s a Mr. Longcluse,” answered Alice.

“He’s rather clever,” said the young lady, with a grave decision that amused Alice.

“Do you think so? Well, so do I; that is, I know he can interest one. He has been almost everywhere, and he tells things rather pleasantly.”

Before they could go any further, Vivian Darnley, turning from the window toward the two young ladies, said —“I’ve just been saying that we must try to persuade Lady May to get up that party to the Derby.”

“I can place a drag at her disposal,” said Mr. Longcluse.

“And a splendid team — I saw them,” threw in Darnley.

“There’s nothing I should like so much,” said Alice. “I’ve never been to the Derby. What do you say, Grace? Can you manage Uncle David?”

“I’ll try,” said the young lady gaily.

“We must all set upon Lady May,” said Alice. “She is so good-natured, she can’t resist us.”

“Suppose we begin now?” suggested Darnley.

“Hadn’t we better wait till we have her quite to ourselves? Who knows what your papa and your uncle might say?” said Grace Maubray, turning to Alice. “I vote for saying nothing to them until Lady May has settled, and then they must only submit.”

“I agree with you quite,” said Alice laughing.

“Sage advice!” said Mr. Longcluse, with a smile; “and there’s time enough to choose a favourable moment. It comes off exactly ten days from this.”

“Oh, anything might be done in ten days,” said Grace. “I’m sorry it is so far away.”

“Yes, a great deal might be done in ten days; and a great deal might happen in ten days,” said Longcluse, listlessly looking down at the floor —“a great deal might happen.”

He thought he saw Miss Arden’s eye turned upon him, curiously and quickly, as he uttered this common-place speech, which was yet a little odd.

“In this busy world, Miss Arden, there is no such thing as quiet, and no one acts without imposing on other people the necessity for action,” said Mr. Longcluse; “and I believe that often the greatest changes in life are the least anticipated by those who seem to bring them about spontaneously.”

At this moment, dinner being announced, the little party transferred itself to the dining-room, and Miss Arden found herself between Mr. Longcluse and Uncle David.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57