Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 60.


The day arrived on which Alice Arden had agreed to go with Lady May to Westminster Abbey, to hear the masterly performance of Saul. When it came to the point, she would have preferred staying at home; but that was out of the question. Every one has experienced that ominous forboding which overcomes us sometimes with a shapeless forecasting of evil. It was with that vague misgiving that she had all the morning looked forward to her drive to town, and the long-promised oratorio. It was a dark day, and there was a thunderous weight in the air, and the melancholy atmosphere deepened her gloom.

Her Uncle David arrived in Lady May’s carriage, to take care of her. They were to call at Lady May’s house, where its mistress and Sir Richard Arden awaited them.

A few kind words followed Uncle David’s affectionate greeting, as they drove into town. He did not observe that Alice was unusually low. He seemed to have something not very pleasant himself to think upon, and he became silent for some time.

“I want,” said he at last, looking up suddenly, “to give you a little advice, and now mind what I say. Don’t sign any legal paper without consulting me, and don’t make any promise to Richard. It is just possible — I hope he may not, but it is just possible — that he may ask you to deal in his favour with your charge on the Yorkshire estate. Do you tell him if he should, that you have promised me faithfully not to do anything in the matter, except as I shall advise. He may, as I said, never say a word on the subject, but in any case my advice will do you no harm. I have had bitter experience, my dear, of which I begin to grow rather ashamed, of the futility of trying to assist Richard. I have thrown away a great deal of money upon him, utterly thrown it away. I can afford it, but you cannot, and you shall not lose your little provision.” And here he changed the subject of his talk, I suppose to avoid the possibility of discussion. “How very early the autumn has set in this year! It is the extraordinary heat of the summer. The elms in Mortlake are quite yellow already.”

And so they talked on, and returned no more to the subject at which he had glanced. But the few words her uncle had spoken gave Alice ample matter to think on, and she concluded that Richard was in trouble again.

Lady May did not delay them a moment, and Sir Richard got into the carriage after her, with the tickets in his charge. Very devoted, Alice thought him, to Lady May, who appeared more than usually excited and happy.

We follow our party without comment into the choir, where they take possession of their seats. The chorus glide into their places like shadows, and the vast array of instrumental musicians as noiselessly occupy the seats before their desks. The great assembly is marshalled in a silence almost oppressive, but which is perhaps the finest preparation for the wondrous harmonies to come.

And now the grand and unearthly oratorio has commenced. Each person in our little group hears it with different ears. I wonder whether any two persons in that vast assembly heard it precisely alike. Sir Richard Arden, having many things to think about, hears it intermittently as he would have listened to a bore, and with a secret impatience. Lady May hears it not much better, but felt as if she could have sat there for ever. Old David Arden enjoyed music, and is profoundly delighted with this. But his thoughts also begin to wander, for as the mighty basso singing the part of Saul delivers the words,

“I would that, by thy art, thou bring me up

The man whom I shall name,”

David Arden’s eye lighted, with a little shock, upon the enormous head and repulsive features of the Baron Vanboeren. What a mask for a witch! The travesti lost its touch of the ludicrous, in Uncle David’s eye, by virtue of the awful interest he felt in the possible revelations of that ugly magician, who could, he fancied, by a word, call up the image of Yelland Mace. The baron is sitting about the steps in front of him, face to face. He wonders he has not seen him till now. His head is a little thrown back, displaying his short bull neck. His restless eyes are fixed now in a sullen reverie. His calculation as to the exact money value of the audience is over; he is polling them no longer, and his unresting brain is projecting pictures into the darkness of the future.

His face in a state of apathy was ill-favoured and wicked, and now lighted with a cadaverous effect, by the dull purplish halo which marks the blending of the feeble daylight, with the glow of the lamp that is above him.

The baron had seen and recognised David Arden, and a train of thoughts horribly incongruous with the sacred place was moving through his brain. As he looks on, impassive, the great basso rings out —

“If heaven denies thee aid, seek it from hell.”

And the soprano sends forth the answering incantation, wild and piercing —

“Infernal spirits, by whose power

Departed ghosts in living forms appear,

Add horror to the midnight hour,

And chill the boldest hearts with fear;

To this stranger’s wondering eyes

Let the man he calls for rise.”

If Mr. Longcluse had been near, he might have made his own sad application of the air so powerfully sung by the alto to whom was committed the part of David —

“Such haughty beauties rather move

Aversion, than engage our love.”

He might with an undivulged anguish have heard the adoring strain —

“O lovely maid! thy form beheld

Above all beauty charms our eyes,

Yet still within that form concealed,

Thy mind a greater beauty lies.”

In a rapture Alice listened on. The famous “Dead March” followed, interposing its melancholy instrumentation, and arresting the vocal action of the drama by the pomp of that magnificent dirge.

To her the whole thing seemed stupendous, unearthly, glorious beyond expression. She almost trembled with excitement. She was glad she had come. Tears of ecstasy were in her eyes.

And now, at length, the three parts are over, and the crowd begin to move outward. The organ peals as they shuffle slowly along, checked every minute, and then again resuming their slow progress, pushing on in those little shuffling steps of two or three inches by which well-packed crowds get along, every one wondering why they can’t all step out together, and what the people in front can be about.

In two several channels, through two distinct doors, this great human reservoir floods out. Sir Richard has undertaken the task of finding Lady May’s carriage, and bringing it to a point where they might escape the tedious waiting at the door; and David Arden, with Lady May on one arm and Alice on the other, is getting on slowly in the thick of this well-dressed and aristocratic mob.

“I think, Alice,” said Uncle David, “you would be more out of the crush, and less likely to lose me, if you were to get quite close behind us — do you see? — between Lady May and me, and hold me fast.”

The pressure of the stream was so unequal, and a front of three so wide, that Alice gladly adopted the new arrangement, and with her hand on her uncle’s arm, felt safer and more comfortable than before.

This slow march, inch by inch, is strangely interrupted. A well-known voice, close to her ear, says —

“Miss Arden, a word with you.”

A pale face, with flat nose and Mephistophelian eyebrows, was stooping near her. Mr. Longcluse’s thin lips were close to her ear. She started a little aside, and tried to stop. Recovering, she stretched her hand to reach her uncle, and found that there were strangers between them.

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