Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 44.

The Reason of Alice’s Note.

The long drive to Mortlake was expedited by promises to the cabman; for, in this acquisitive world, nothing for nothing is the ruling law of reciprocity. It was about half-past eleven o’clock when they reached the gate of the avenue; it was a still night, and a segment of the moon was high in the sky, faintly silvering the old fluted piers and urns, and the edges of the gigantic trees that overhung them. They were now driving up the avenue. How odd was the transition from the glare and hurly-burly of the town to the shadowy and silent woodlands on which this imperfect light fell so picturesquely.

There were associations enough to induce melancholy as he drove through those neglected scenes, his playground in boyish days, where he, and Harry whom he loved, had passed so many of the happy days that precede school. He could hear his laugh floating still among the boughs of the familiar trees, he could see his handsome face smiling down through the leaves of the lordly chestnut that stood, at that moment, by the point of the avenue they were passing, like a forsaken old friend overlooking the way without a stir.

“I’ll follow this clue to the end,” said David Arden. “I sha’n’t make much of it, I fear; but if it ends, as others in the same inquiry have, in smoke, I shall, at least, have done my utmost, and may abandon the task with a good grace, and conclude that Heaven declines to favour the pursuit. Taken for all-inall, he was the best of his generation, and the fittest to head the house. Something, I thought, was due, in mere respect to his memory. The coldness of Reginald insulted me. If a favourite dog had been poisoned, he would have made more exertion to commit the culprit. And once in pursuit of this dark shadow, how intense and direful grew the interest of the chase, and —— Here we are at the hall-door. Don’t mind knocking, ring the bell,” he said to the driver.

He was himself at the threshold before the door was opened.

“Can I see my brother?” he asked.

“Sir Reginald is in the drawing-room — a small dinner-party today, Sir — Lady May Penrose, and Lady Mary Maypol, they returned to town in Lady May Penrose’s carriage, Lord Wynderbroke remains, Sir, and two gentlemen; they are at present with Sir Reginald in the smoking-room.”

He learned that Miss Arden was alone in the small sitting-room, called the card-room. David Arden had walked through the vestibule, and into the capacious hall. The lights were all out, but one.

“Well, I sha’n’t disturb him. Is Miss Alice ——”

“Yes, Alice is here. It is so kind of you to come!” said a voice he well knew. “Here I am! Won’t you come up to the drawing-room, Uncle David?”

“So you want to consult Uncle David,” he said, entering the room, and looking round. “In my father’s time the other drawing-rooms used to be open; it is a handsome suite — very pretty rooms. But I think you have been crying, my poor little Alice. What on earth is all this about, my dear! Here I am, and it is past eleven; so we must come to the point, if I am to hear it to-night. What is the matter?”

“My dear uncle, I have been so miserable!”

“Well, what is it?” he said, taking a chair; “you have refused some fellow you like, or accepted some fellow you don’t like. I am sure you are at the bottom of your own misery, foolish little creature! Girls generally are, I think, the architects of their own penitentiaries. Sit there, my dear, and if it is anything I can be of the least use in, you may count on my doing my utmost. Only you must tell me the whole case, and you mustn’t colour it a bit.”

So they sat down on a sofa, and Miss Alice told him in her own way that, to her amazement, that day Lord Wynderbroke had made something very like a confession of his passion, and an offer of his hand, which this unsophisticated young lady was on the point of repelling, when Lady May entered the room, accompanied by her friend, Lady Mary Maypol; and, of course, the interesting situation, for that time, dissolved. About an hour after, Alice, who was shocked at the sudden distinction of which she had become the object, and extremely vexed at the interruption which had compelled her to suspend her reply, and very anxious for an opportunity to answer with decision, found that opportunity in a little saunter which she and the two ladies took in the grounds, accompanied by Lord Wynderbroke and Sir Reginald.

When the opportunity came, with a common inconsistency, she rather shrank from the crisis; and a slight uncertainty as to the actual meaning of the noble lord, rendered her perplexity still more disagreeable. It occurred thus: the party had walked some little distance, and when Alice was addressed by her father —

“Here is Wynderbroke, who says he has never seen my Roman inscription! You, Alice, must do the honours, for I daren’t yet venture on the grass,”— he shrugged and shook his head over his foot —“and I will take charge of Lady Mary and Lady May, who want to see the Derbyshire thistles — they have grown so enormous under my gardener’s care. You said, May, the other evening, that you would like to see them.”

Lady May acquiesced with true feminine sympathy with the baronet’s stratagem, notwithstanding an imploring glance from Alice! and Lady Mary Maypol, exchanging a glance with Lady May, expressed equal interest in the Derbyshire thistles.

“You will find the inscription at the door of the grotto, only twenty steps from this; it was dug up when my grandfather made the round pond, with the fountain in it. You’ll find us in the garden.”

Lord Wynderbroke beamed an insufferable smile on Alice, and said something pretty that she did not hear. She knew perfectly what was coming, and although resolved, she was yet in a state of extreme confusion.

Lord Wynderbroke was talking all the way as they approached the grotto; but not one word of his harmonious periods did she clearly hear. By the time they reached the little rocky arch under the evergreens, through the leaves of which the marble tablet and Roman inscription were visible, they had each totally forgotten the antiquarian object with which they had set out.

Lord Wynderbroke came to a standstill, and then with a smiling precision and distinctness, and in accents that seemed, somehow, to ring through her head, he made a very explicit declaration and proposal; and during the entire delivery of this performance, which was neat and lucid rather than impassioned, she remained tongue-tied, listening as if to a tale told in a dream.

She withdrew her hand hastily from Lord Wynderbroke’s tender pressure, and the young lady with a sudden effort, replied collectedly enough, in a way greatly to amaze Lord Wynderbroke.

When she had done, that nobleman was silent for some time, and stood in the same attitude of attention with which he had heard her. With a heightened colour he cleared his voice, and his answer, when it came, was dry and pettish. He thought with great deference, that he was, perhaps entitled to a little consideration, and it appeared to him that he had quite unaccountably misunderstood what had seemed the very distinct language of Sir Reginald. For the present he had no more to say. He hoped to explain more satisfactorily to Miss Arden, after he had himself had a few words of explanation, to which he thought he had a claim, from Sir Reginald; and he must confess that, after the lengths to which he had been induced to proceed, he was quite taken by surprise, and inexpressibly wounded by the tone which Miss Arden had adopted.

Side by side, at a somewhat quick pace, Miss Arden with a heightened colour, and Lord Wynderbroke with his ears tingling, rejoined their friends.

“Well, my dear child,” said Uncle David, with a laugh, “if you have nothing worse to complain of, though I am very glad to see you, I think we might have put off our meeting till daylight.”

“Oh! but you have not heard half what has happened. He has behaved in the most cowardly, treacherous, ungentlemanlike way,” she continued vehemently. “Papa sent for me, and I never saw him so angry in my life. Lord Wynderbroke has been making his unmanly complaints to him, and papa spoke so violently. And he, instead of going away, having had from me the answer which nothing on earth shall ever induce me to change, he remains here; and actually had the audacity to tell me, very nearly in so many words, that my decision went for nothing. I spoke to him quite frankly, but said nothing that was at all rude — nothing that could have made him the least angry. I implored of him to believe me that I never could change my mind; and I could not help crying, I was so agitated and wretched. But he seemed very much vexed, and simply said that he placed himself entirely in papa’s hands. In fact, I’ve been utterly miserable and terrified, and I do not know how I can endure those terrible scenes with papa. The whole thing has come upon me so suddenly. Could you have imagined any gentleman capable of acting like Lord Wynderbroke — so selfish, cruel, and dastardly?” and with these words she burst into tears.

“Do you mean to say that he won’t take your refusal?” said her uncle, looking very angry.

“That is what he says,” she sobbed. “He had an opportunity only for a few words, and that was the purport of them; and I was so astounded, I could not reply; and, instead of going away, he remains here. Papa and he have arranged to prolong his visit; so I shall be teased and frightened, and I am so nervous and agitated; and it is such an outrage!”

“Now, we must not lose our heads, my dear child; we must consult calmly. It seems you don’t think it possible that you may come to like Lord Wynderbroke sufficiently to marry him.”

“I would rather die! If this goes on, I sha’n’t stay here. I’d go and be a governess rather.”

“I think you might give my house a trial first,” said Uncle David merrily; “but it is time to talk about that by-and-by. What does May Penrose think of it? She sometimes, I believe, on an emergency, lights on a sensible suggestion.”

“She had to return to town with Lady Mary, who dined here also; I did not know she was going until a few minutes before they left. I’ve been so miserably unlucky! and I could not make an opportunity without its seeming so rude to Lady Mary, and I don’t know her well enough to tell her; and, you have no idea, papa is so incensed, and so peremptory; and what am I to do? Oh! dear uncle, think of something. I know you’ll help me.”

“That I will,” said the old gentleman. “But allowances are to be made for a poor old devil so much in love as Lord Wynderbroke.”

“I don’t think he likes me now — he can’t like me,” said Alice. “But he is angry. It is simply pride and vanity. From something papa said, I am sure of it, Lord Wynderbroke has been telling his friends, and speaking, I fancy, as if everything was arranged, and he never anticipated that I could have any mind of my own; and I suppose he thinks he would be laughed at, and so I am to undergo a persecution, and he won’t hear of anything but what he pleases; and papa is determined to accomplish it. And, oh! what am I to do?”

“I’ll tell you, but you must do exactly as I bid you. Who’s there?” he said suddenly, as Alice’s maid opened the door.

“Oh! I beg pardon — Miss Alice, please,” she said, dropping a curtsey and drawing back.

“Don’t go,” said Uncle David, “we shall want you. What’s the matter?”

“Sir Reginald has been took bad with his foot again, please, Miss.”

“Nothing serious?” said Uncle David.

“Only pain, please, Sir, in the same place.”

“All the better it should fix itself well in his foot. You need not be uneasy about it, Alice. You and your maid must be in my cab, which is at the hall door, in five minutes. Take leave of no one, and don’t waste time over finery; just put a few things up, and take your dressing-case; and you and your maid are coming to town with me. Is my brother in the drawing-room?”

“No, Sir, please; he is in his own room.”

“Are the gentlemen who dined still here?”

“Two left, Sir, when Sir Reginald took ill; but Lord Wynderbroke remains.”

“Oh! and where is he?”

“Sir Reginald sent for him, please, Sir — just as I came up — to his room.”

“Very good, then I shall find them both together. Now, Alice, I must find you and your maid in the cab in five minutes. I shall get your leave from Reginald, and you order the fellow to drive down to the little church gate in the village close by, and I’ll walk after and join you there in a few minutes. Lose no time.”

With this parting charge, Uncle David ran down the stairs, and met Lord Wynderbroke at the foot of them, returning from his visit of charity to Sir Reginald’s room.

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