Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 37.

What Alice Could Say.

The letter which Mr. Longcluse held before his eyes was destined to throw a strong light upon the character of Alice Arden’s feelings respecting himself. After a few lines, it went on to say:—“And, darling, about going to you this evening, I hardly know what to say, or, I mean, I hardly know how to say it. Mr. Longcluse, you know, may come in at any moment, and I have quite made up my mind that I cannot know him. I told you all about the incredible scene in the garden at Mortlake, and I showed you the very cool letter with which he saw fit to follow it — and yesterday the scene at the races, by which he contrived to make everything so uncomfortable — so, my dear creature, I mean to be cruel, and cut him. I am quite serious. He has not an idea how to behave himself; and the only way to repair the folly of having made the acquaintance of such an ill-bred person is, as I said, to cut him — you must not be angry — and Richard thinks exactly as I do. So, as I long to see you, and, in fact, can’t live away from you very long, we must contrive some way of meeting now and then, without the risk of being disturbed by him. In the meantime, you must come more to Mortlake. It is too bad that an impertinent, conceited man should have caused me all this very real vexation.”

There was but little more, and it did not refer to the only subject that interested Longcluse just then. He would have liked to read it through once more, but he thought he heard a step. He let it fall where he had found it, and walked to the window. Perhaps, if he had read it again, it would have lost some of the force which a first impression gives to sentences so terrible; as it was, they glared upon his retina, through the same exaggerating medium through which his excited imagination and feelings had scanned them at first.

Lady May entered, and Mr. Longcluse paid his respects, just as usual. You would not have supposed that anything had occurred to ruffle him. Lady May was just as affable as usual, but very much graver. She seemed to have something on her mind, and not to know how to begin.

At length, after some little conversation, which flagged once or twice —

“I have been thinking, Mr. Longcluse, I must have appeared very stupid,” says Lady May. “I did not ask you to be one of our party to the Derby: and I think it is always best to be quite frank, and I know you like it best. I’m afraid there has been some little misunderstanding. I hope in a short time it will be all got over, and everything quite pleasant again. But some of our friends — you, no doubt, know more about it than I do, for I must confess, I don’t very well understand it — are vexed at something that has occurred, and ——”

Poor Lady May was obviously struggling with the difficulties of her explanation, and Mr. Longcluse relieved her.

“Pray, dear Lady May, not a word more; you have always been so kind to me. Miss Arden and her brother choose to visit me with displeasure. I have nothing to reproach myself with, except with having misapprehended the terms on which Miss Arden is pleased to place me. She may however, be very sure that I sha’n’t disturb her happy evenings here, or anywhere assume my former friendly privileges.”

“But Mr. Longcluse, I’m not to lose your acquaintance,” said kindly Lady May, who was disposed to take an indulgent and even a romantic view of Mr. Longcluse’s extravagances. “Perhaps it may be better to avoid a risk of meeting, under present circumstances; and, therefore, when I’m quite sure that no such awkwardness can occur, I can easily send you a line, and you will come if you can. You will do just as it happens to answer you best at the time.”

“It is extremely kind of you, Lady May. My evenings here have been so very happy that the idea of losing them altogether would make me more melancholy than I can tell.”

“Oh, no, I could not consent to lose you, Mr. Longcluse, and I’m sure this little quarrel can’t last very long. Where people are amiable and friendly, there may be a misunderstanding, but there can’t be a real quarrel, I maintain.”

With this little speech the interview closed, and the gentleman took a very friendly leave.

Mr. Longcluse was in trouble. Blows had fallen rapidly upon him of late. But, as light is polarised by encountering certain incidents of reflection and refraction, grief entering his mind changed its character.

The only articles of expense in which Mr. Longcluse indulged — and even in those his indulgence was very moderate — were horses. He was something of a judge of horses, and had that tendency to form friendships and intimacies with them which is proper to some minds. One of these he mounted, and rode away into the country, unattended. He took a long ride, at first at a tolerably hard pace. He chose the loneliest roads he could find. His exercise brought him no appetite; the interesting hour of dinner passed unimproved. The horse was tired now. Longcluse was slowly returning, and looking listlessly to his right, he thus soliloquised:—

“Alone again. Not a soul in human shape to disclose my wounds to, not a soul. This is the way men go mad. He knows too well the torture he consigns me to. How often has my hand helped him out of the penalties of the dice-box and betting-book! How wildly have I committed myself to him! — how madly have I trusted him! How plausibly has he promised. The confounded miscreant! Has he good-nature, gratitude, justice, honour? Not a particle. He has betrayed me, slandered me fatally, where only on earth I dreaded slander, and he knew it; and he has ruined the only good hope I had on earth. He has launched it: sharp and heavy is the curse. Wait: it shall find him out. And she! I did not think Alice Arden could have written that letter. My eyes are opened. Well, she has refused to hear my good angel; the other may speak differently.”

He was riding along a narrow old road, with palings, and quaint old hedgerows, and now and then an old-fashioned brick house, staid and comfortable, with a cluster of lofty timber embowering it, and chimney smoke curling cosily over the foliage; and as he rode along, sometimes a window, with very thick white sashes, and a multitude of very small panes, sometimes the summit of a gable appeared. The lowing of unseen cows was heard over the fields, and the whistle of the birds in the hedges; and behind spread the cloudy sky of sunset, showing a peaceful old-world scene, in which Izaak Walton’s milkmaid might have set down her pail, and sung her pretty song.

Not another footfall was heard but the clink of his own horse’s hoofs along the narrow road; and, as he looked westward, the flush of the sky threw an odd sort of fire-light over his death-pale features.

“Time will unroll his book,” said Longcluse, dreamily, as he rode onward, with a loose bridle on his horse’s neck, “and my fingers will trace a name or two on the pages that are passing. That sunset, that sky — how grand, and glorious, and serene — the same always. Charlemagne saw it, and the Cæsars saw it, and the Pharaohs saw it, and we see it today. Is it worth while troubling ourselves here? How grand and quiet nature is, and how beautifully imperturbable! Why not we, who last so short a time — why not drift on with it, and take the blows that come, and suffer and enjoy the facts of life, and leave its dreadful dreams untried? Of all the follies we engage in, what more hollow than revenge — vainer than wealth?”

Mr. Longcluse was preaching to himself, with the usual success of preachers. He knew himself what his harangue was driving at, although it borrowed the vagueness of the sky he was looking on. He fancied that he was discussing something with himself, which, nevertheless, was settled — so fixed, indeed, that nothing had power to alter it.

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