Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 19.

In Mrs. Tansey’s Room.

There were sounds of music and laughter faintly audible through the drawing-room door. The music ceased as the door opened, and the gentlemen entered an atmosphere of brilliant light, and fragrant with the pleasant aroma of tea.

“Pray, Miss Arden, don’t let us interrupt you,” said Mr. Longcluse. “I thought I heard singing as we came up the stairs.” He had come to the piano, and was now at her side.

She did not sing or play, but Vivian Darnley thought that her conversation with Longcluse, as, with one knee on his chair, he leaned over the back of it and talked, seemed more interesting than usual.

“I say, Reginald,” said David Arden softly to his brother, “I must run down and pay Martha Tansey my usual visit. She’s in her room, I suppose. I’ll steal away and return quietly.”

And so he was gone. He closed the door softly behind him, and slowly descended the wide staircase, with many vague conjectures and images revolving in his mind. He paused at the great window on the landing, and looked out upon the solemn and familiar landscape. A brilliant moon was high in the sky, and the stars glimmered brightly. His hand was on the window as he looked out, thinking.

Uncle David was a man impulsive, prompt, sanguine — a temperament, in short, which, directed by an able intellect, would have made a good general. When an idea had got into his head, he could not rest until he had worked it out. On the whole, throughout his life these fits of sudden and feverish concentration had been effective, and aided his fortunes. It is, perhaps, an unbusiness-like temperament; but commercial habits and example had failed to control that natural ardour, and, when once inflamed, it governed his actions implicitly.

An idea, very vague, very little the product of reason, had now taken possession of his brain, and he relied upon it as an intuition. He had been thinking over it. It first warmed, then simmered, then, as it were, boiled. The process had been one of an hour and more, as he sat at his brother’s table and took his share in the conversation. When the steam got up and the pressure rose to the point of action, forth went Uncle David to have his talk with his early friend Tansey. He stopped, as I have said, at the great window on the staircase, and looked out and up. The moon was splendid; the stars were glimmering brightly; they looked down like a thousand eyes set upon him, to watch the prowess and perseverance of the man on whom fate had imposed a mission.

Some idea like this seized him, for, like many men of a similar temperament, he had an odd and unconfessed vein of poetry in his nature. He had looked out and up in a listless abstraction, and the dark heaven above him, brilliant with its eternal lights, had for a moment withdrawn and elevated his thoughts as if he had entered a cathedral.

“What specks and shadows we are, and how eternal is duty! And if we are in another place to last like those unfailing lights — to become happy or wretched, and, in either state, indestructible for ever — what signify the labour and troubles of life, compared with that by which our everlasting fate is fixed? God help us! Am I consulting revenge or conscience in pursuing this barren inquiry? Do I mistake for the sublime impulse of conscience a vulgar thirst for blood? I think not. I never harboured malice; I hate punishing people. But murder is a crime against God himself, respecting which he imposes duties upon man, and seconds them by all the instincts of affection. Dare I neglect them, then, in the case of poor loving Harry, my brother?”

The drawing-room door had been opened a little, the night being sultry, and through it now came the clear tones of a well-taught baritone. It was singing a slow and impassioned air, and its tones, though sweet, chilled him with a strange pain. It seemed like instinct that told him it was the stranger’s voice. One moment’s thought would have proved it equally. There was no one else present to suspect but Vivian Darnley, and he was no musician; but to David Arden it seemed that if a hundred people were there he should have felt it all the same, and intuitively recognised it as Longcluse’s voice.

“What is it in that voice which is so hateful? What is it in that passion which sounds insincere? What gives to those sweet tones a latent discord, that creeps so coldly through my nerves?”

So thought David Arden, as, with one hand still upon the window-sash, he listened and turned toward the open door, with a frown akin to one of pain.

Spell-bound, he listened till the song was over, and sighed and shook his ears with a sort of shudder when the music ceased.

“I don’t know why I stayed to listen. Face — voice — what is the agency about that fellow? I daresay I’m a fool, but I can’t help it, and I must bring the idea to the test.”

He descended the stairs slowly, crossed the hall, and walked thoughtfully down the passage leading to the housekeeper’s room. At this hour the old woman had it usually to herself. He knocked at the housekeeper’s door, and recognised the familiar voice that answered.

“How do you do, Martha?” said he, striding cheerily into the room.

“Ah! Master David? So it is, sure!”

“Ay, sure and sure, Martha,” said he, taking the old woman’s hand, with his kind smile. “And how are you, Martha? Tell me how you are.”

“I won’t say much. I’m not so canty as you’ll mind me. I’m an old wife now, Master David, and not much for this world, I’m thinking,” she answered dolorously.

“You may outlive much younger people, Martha; we are all in the hands of God,” said David, smiling. “It seems to me but yesterday that I and poor Harry used to run in here to you from our play in the grounds, and you had always a bit of something for us hungry fellows to eat, come when we might.”

“Ah, ha! Yes, ye were hungry fellows then — spirin’ up, fine tall lads. Reginald was never like ye; he was seven years older than you. And hungry? Yes! The cold turkey and ham, ye mind — by Jen! I have seen ye eat hearty; and pancakes — ye liked them best of all. And it went a’ into a good skin. I will say — you and Master Harry (God be wi’ him!) a fine, handsome pair o’ lads ye were. And you’re a handsome fellow still, Master David, and might have married well, no doubt; but man proposes and God disposes, and time and tide’ll wait for no man, and what’s one man’s meat’s another man’s poison. Who knows and all may be for the best? And that Mr. Longcluse is dining here today?” she added, not very coherently, and with a sudden gloom.

“Yes, Martha, that Mr. Longcluse is dining here today; and Master Dick tells me you did not fall in love with him at first sight, when they paid you a visit here. Is that true?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what. The sight of him — or the sound of his voice, I don’t know which — gave me a turn,” said the old woman.

“Well, Martha, I don’t like his face, either. He gave me, also, what you call a turn. He’s very pale, and I felt as if I had been frightened by him when I was a child; and yet he must be some five and twenty years younger than I am, and I’m almost certain I never saw him before. So I say it must be something that’s no’ canny as you used to say. What do you think, Martha?”

“Ye may be funnin’, Master David. Ye were always a canty lad. But it’s o’er true. I can’t bring to mind what it is — I can’t tell — but something in that man’s face gev me a sten. I conceited I was just goin’ to swound; and he looked sa straight at me, like a ghost.”

“Master Richard says you looked very hard at Mr. Longcluse; you had both a good stare at each other,” said Uncle David. “He thought there was going to be a recognition.”

“Did I? Well, no: I don’t know him, I think. ’Tis all a jummlement, like. I couldn’t bring nout to mind.”

“I know, Martha, you liked poor Harry well,” said David Arden, not with a smile, but with a very sad countenance.

“That I did,” said Mrs. Tansey.

“And I think you like me, Martha?”

“Ye’re not far wrong there, Master David.”

“And for both our sakes — for mine and his, for the dead no less than the living — I am sure you won’t allow any thought of trouble, or nervousness, or fear of lawyers’ browbeating, or that sort of thing, to deter you from saying, wherever and whenever justice may require it, everything you know or suspect respecting that dreadful occurrence.”

“The death o’ Master Harry, ye mean!” exclaimed Mrs. Tansey sternly, drawing herself up on a sudden, with a pale frown, and looking full at him. “Me to hide or hold back aught that could bring the truth to light! Oh! Master David, do you know what ye’re sayin’?”

“Perfectly,” said he, with a melancholy smile; “and I am glad it vexes you, Martha, because I need no answer on that point more than your honest voice and face.”

“Keep back aught, man!” she repeated, striking her hand on the table. “Why, lad, I’d lose that old hand under the chopper for one gliff o’ the truth into that damned story. Why, lawk! where’s yer head, boy? Wasn’t I maist killed myself, for sake o’ him that night?”

“Ay, Martha, brave girl, I’m satisfied; and I ask your pardon for the question. But years bring alteration, you know; and I’m changed in mind myself in many ways I never could have believed. And everyone doesn’t see with me that it is our duty to explore a crime like that, to track the villain, if we can, and bring him to justice. You do, Martha; but there are many in whose veins poor Harry’s blood is running, who don’t feel like you. Master Richard said that the gentleman looked as if he did not know what to make of you; ‘and, by Jove!’ said he, ‘I didn’t either — Martha stared so.’”

“I couldn’t help. ’Twas scarce civil; but truly I couldn’t, Sir,” said Martha Tansey, who had by this time recovered her equanimity. “He did remind me of summat.”

“We will talk of that by-and-by, Martha; we will try to recall it. What I want you first to tell me is exactly your recollection of the lamentable occurrence of that night. I have a full note of it at home; but I have not looked at it for years, and I want my recollection confirmed to-night, that you and I may talk over some possibilities which I should like to examine with your help.”

“I can talk of it now,” said the old woman; “but for many a year after it happened I dare not. I could not sleep for many a night after I told it to anyone. But now I can bear it. So, Master David, you may ask what you please.”

“First let me hear your recollection of what happened,” said David Arden.

“Ay, Master David, that I will. Sit ye down, for my old bones won’t carry me standing no time now, and sit I must. Right well ye’re lookin’, and right glad am I to see it, Master David; and ye were always a handsome laddie. God bless ye, and God be wi’ the old times! And poor Master Harry — poor laddie! — I liked him well. You two looked beautiful, walkin’ up to t’ house together — two conny, handsome boys ye were.”

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