Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 75.

Blight and Change.

Danger to herself, Alice suspected none. But she was full of dreadful conjectures about her brother. There was, she was persuaded, no good any longer in remonstrance or entreaty. She could not upbraid him; but she was sure that the terrible fascination of the gaming-table had caused the sudden ruin he vaguely confessed.

“Oh,” she often repeated, “that Uncle David were in town, or that I knew where to find him!”

“But no doubt,” she thought, “Richard will hide nothing from him, and perhaps my hinting his disclosures, even to him, would aggravate poor Richard’s difficulties and misery.”

It was not until the next evening that, about the same hour, she again saw her brother. His good resolutions in the interval had waxed faint. They were not reversed, but only in the spirit of indecision, and something of the apathy of despair, postponed to a more convenient season.

To her he seemed more tranquil. He said vaguely that the reasons for flight were less urgent and that she had better continue her preparations, as before, for her journey to Yorkshire.

Even under these circumstances the journey to Yorkshire was pleasant. There was comfort in the certainty that he would there be beyond the reach of that fatal temptation which had too plainly all but ruined him. From the harrassing distractions, also, which in London had of late beset him, almost without intermission, he might find in the seclusion of Arden a temporary calm. There, with Uncle David’s help, there would be time, at least, to ascertain the extent of his losses, and what the old family of Arden might still count upon as their own, and a plan of life might be arranged for the future.

Full of these more cheery thoughts, Alice took leave of her brother.

“I am going,” he said, looking at his watch, “direct to Brighton; I have just time to get to the station nicely; business, of course — a meeting to-night with Bexley, who is staying there, and in the morning a long and, I fear, angry discussion with Charrington, who is also at Brighton.”

He kissed his sister, sighed deeply, and looking in her eyes for a little, fixedly, he said —

“Alice, darling, you must try to think what sacrifice you can make to save your wretched brother.”

Their eyes met as she looked up, her hands about his neck, his on her shoulders; he drew his sister to him quickly, and with another kiss, turned, ran down stairs, got into his cab, and drove down the avenue. She stood looking after him with a heavy heart. How happy they two might have been, if it had not been for the one incorrigible insanity!

About an hour later, as the sun was near its setting, she put on her hat and short grey cloak, and stepped out into its level beams, and looked round smiling. The golden glow and transparent shadows made that beautiful face look more than ever lovely. All around the air was ringing with the farewell songs of the small birds, and, with a heart almost rejoicing in sympathy with that beautiful hour, she walked lightly to the old garden, which in that luminous air, looked, she thought, so sad and pretty.

The well-worn aphorism of the Frenchman, “History repeats itself,” was about to assert itself. Sometimes it comes in literal sobriety, sometimes in derisive travesti, sometimes in tragic aggravation.

She is in the garden now. The associations of place recall her strange interview with Mr. Longcluse but a few months before. Since then a blight has fallen on the scenery, and what a change upon the persons! The fruit-leaves are yellow now, and drifts of them lie upon the walks. Mantling ivy, as before, canopies the door, interlaced with climbing roses; but they have long shed their honours. This thick mass of dark green foliage and thorny tendrils forms a deep arched porch, in the shadow of which, suddenly, as on her return she reached it, she sees Mr. Longcluse standing within a step or two of her.

He raises his hand, it might be in entreaty, it might be in menace; she could not, in the few alarmed moments in which she gazed at his dark eyes and pale equivocal face, determine anything.

“Miss Arden, you may hate me; you can’t despise me. You must hear me, because you are in my power. I relent, mind you, thus far, that I give you one chance more of reconciliation; don’t, for God’s sake, throw it from you!” (he was extending his open hand to receive hers). “Why should you prefer an unequal war with me? I tell you frankly you are in my power — don’t misunderstand me — in my power to this degree, that you shall voluntarily, as the more tolerable of two alternatives, submit with abject acquiescence to every one of my conditions. Here is my hand; think of the degradation I submit to in asking you to take it. You gave me no chance when I asked forgiveness. I tender you a full forgiveness; here is my hand, beware how you despise it.”

Fearful as he appeared in her sight, her fear gave way before her kindling spirit. She had stood before him pale as death — anger now fired her eye and cheek.

“How dare you, Sir, hold such language to me! Do you suppose, if I had told my brother of your cowardice and insolence as I left the abbey the other day, you would have dared to speak to him, much less to me? Let me pass, and never while you live presume to address me more.”

Mr. Longcluse, with a slow recoil, smiling fixedly, and bowing, drew back and opened the door for her to pass. He did not any longer look like a villain whose heart had failed him.

Her heart fluttered violently with fear as she saw that he stepped out after her, and walked by her side toward the house. She quickened her pace in great alarm.

“If you had liked me ever so little,” said he in that faint and horrible tone she remembered —“one, the smallest particle, of disinterested liking — the grain of mustard-seed — I would have had you fast, and made you happy, made you adore me; such adoration that you could have heard from my own lips the confession of my crimes, and loved me still — loved me more desperately. Now that you hate me, and I hate you, and have you in my power, and while I hate still admire you — still choose you for my wife — you shall hear the same story, and think me all the more dreadful. You sought to degrade me, and I’ll humble you in the dust. Suppose I tell you I’m a criminal — the kind of man you have read of in trials, and can’t understand, and can scarcely even believe in-the kind of man that seems to you as unaccountable and monstrous as a ghost — your terrors and horror will make my triumph exquisite with an immense delight. I don’t want to smooth the way for you; you do nothing for me. I disdain hypocrisy. Terror drives you on; fate coerces you; you can’t help yourself, and my delight is to make the plunge terrible. I reveal myself that you may know the sort of person you are yoked to. Your sacrifice shall be the agony of agonies, the death of deaths, and yet you’ll find yourself unable to resist. I’ll make you submissive as ever patient was to a mad doctor. If it took years to do it, you shall never stir out of this house till it is done. Every spark of insolence in your nature shall be trampled out; I’ll break you thoroughly. The sound of my step shall make your heart jump; a look from me shall make you dumb for an hour. You shall not be able to take your eyes off me while I’m in sight, or to forget me for a moment when I am gone. The smallest thing you do, the least word you speak, the very thoughts of your heart, shall all be shaped under one necessity and one fear.” (She had reached the hall door). “Up the steps! Yes; you wish to enter? Certainly.”

With flashing eyes and head erect, the beautiful girl stepped into the hall, without looking to the right or to the left, or uttering one word, and walked quickly to the foot of the great stair.

If she thought that Mr. Longcluse would respect the barrier of the threshold, she was mistaken. He entered but one step behind her, shut the heavy hall door with a crash, dropped the key into his coat pocket, and signing with his finger to the man in the room to the right, that person stood up briskly, and prepared for action. He closed the door again, saying simply, “I’ll call.”

The young lady, hearing his step, turned round and stood on the stair, confronting him fiercely.

“You must leave this house this moment,” she cried, with a stamp, with gleaming eyes and very pale.

“By-and-by,” he replied, standing before her.

Could this be the safe old house in which childish days had passed, in which all around were always friendly and familiar faces? The window stood reflected upon the wall beside her in dim sunset light, and the shadows of the flowers sharp and still that stood there.

“I have friends here who will turn you out, Sir!”

“You have no friends here,” he replied, with the same fixed smile.

She hesitated; she stepped down, but stopped in the hall. She remembered instantly that, as she turned, she had seen him take the key from the hall door.

“My brother will protect me.”

“Is he here?”

“He’ll call you to account tomorrow, when he comes.”

“Will he say so?”

“Always — brave, true Richard!” she sobbed, with a strange cry in her words.

“He’ll do as I bid him: he’s a forger, in my power.”

To her wild stare he replied with a low, faint laugh. She clasped her fingers over her temples.

“Oh! no, no, no, no, no, no!” she screamed, and suddenly she rushed into the great room at her right. Her brother — was it a phantom? — stood before her. With one long, shrill scream, she threw herself into his arms, and cried, “It’s a lie, darling, it’s a lie!” and she had fainted.

He laid her in the great chair by the fire-place. With white lips, and with one fist shaking wildly in the air, he said, with a dreadful shiver in his voice —

“You villain! you villain! you villain!”

“Don’t you be a fool,” said Longcluse. “Ring for the maid. There must have been a crisis some time. I’m giving you a fair chance — trying to save you; they all faint — it’s a trick with women.”

Longcluse looked into her lifeless face, with something of pity and horror mingling in the villany of his countenance.

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