Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 76.

Phoebe Chiffinch.

Mr. Longcluse passed into the inner room, as he heard a step approaching from the hall. It was Louisa Diaper, in whose care, with the simple remedy of cold water, the young lady recovered. She was conveyed to her room, and Richard Arden followed, at Longcluse’s command, to “keep things quiet.”

In an agony of remorse, he remained with his sister’s hand in his, sitting by the bed on which she lay. Longcluse had spoken with the resolution that a few sharp and short words should accomplish the crisis, and show her plainly that her brother was, in the most literal and terrible sense, in his power, and thus, indirectly, she also. Perhaps, if she must know the fact, it was as well she should know it now.

Longcluse, I suppose, had reckoned upon Richard’s throwing himself upon his sister’s mercy. He thought he had done so before, and moved her as he would have wished. Longcluse, no doubt, had spoken to her, expecting to find her in a different mood. Had she yielded, what sort of husband would he have made her? Not cruel, I daresay. Proud of her, he would have been. She should have had the best diamonds in England. Jealous, violent when crossed, but with all his malice and severity, easily by Alice to have been won, had she cared to win him, to tenderness.

Was Sir Richard now seconding his scheme?

Sir Richard had no plan — none for escape, none for a catastrophe, none for acting upon Alice’s feelings.

“I am so agitated — in such despair, so stunned! If I had but one clear hour! Oh, God! if I had but one clear hour to think in!”

He was now trying to persuade Alice that Longcluse had, in his rage, used exaggerated language — that it was true he was in his power, but it was for a large sum of money, for which he was his debtor.

“Yes, darling,” he whispered, “only be firm. I shall get away, and take you with me — only be secret, and don’t mind one word he says when he is angry — he is literally a madman; there is no limit to the violence and absurdity of what he says.”

“Is he still in the house?” she whispered.

“Not he.”

“Are you certain?”

“Perfectly; with all his rant, he dares not stay: it would be a police-office affair. He’s gone long ago.”

“Thank God!” she said, with a shudder.

Their agitated talk continued for some time longer. At last, darkly and suddenly, as usual, he took his leave.

When her brother had gone, she touched the bell for Louisa Diaper. A stranger appeared.

The stranger had a great deal of pink ribbon in her cap, she looked shrewd enough, and with a pair of rather good eyes; she looked curiously and steadily on the young lady.

“Who are you?” said Alice, sitting up. “I rang for my maid, Louisa Diaper.”

“Please, my lady,” she answers, with a short curtsey, “she went into town to fetch some things here from Sir Richard’s house.”

“How long ago?”

“Just when you was getting better, please, my lady.”

“When she returns send her to me. What is your name?”

“Phoebe Chiffinch, please ‘m.”

“And you are here ——”

“In her place, please my lady.”

“Well, when she comes back you can assist. We shall have a great deal to do, and I like your face, Phoebe, and I’m so lonely, I think I’ll get you to sit here in the window near me.”

And on a sudden the young lady burst into tears, and sobbed and wept bitterly.

The new maid was at her side, pouring all sorts of consolation into her ear, with odd phrases — quite intelligible, I daresay, over the bar of the “Guy of Warwick”— dropping h’s in all directions, and bowling down grammatic rules like nine-pins.

She was wonderfully taken by the kind looks and tones of the pretty lady whom she saw in this distress, and with the silk curtains drawn back in the fading flush of evening.

Hard work, hard fare, and harder words had been her portion from her orphaned childhood upward, at the old “Guy of Warwick,” with its dubious customers, failing business, and bitter and grumbling old hostess. Shrewd, hard, and not over-nice had Miss Phoebe grown up in that godless school.

But she had taken a fancy, as the phrase is, to the looks of the young lady, and still more to her voice and words, that in her ears sounded so new and strange. There was not an unpleasant sense, too, of the superiority of rank and refinement which inspires an admiring awe in her kind; and so, in a voice that was rather sweet and very cheery, she offered, when the young lady was better, to sit by the bed and tell her a story, or sing her a song.

Everyone knows how his view of his own case may vary within an hour. Alice was now of opinion that there was no reason to reject her brother’s version of the terrifying situation. A man who could act like Mr. Longcluse, could, of course, say anything. She had begun to grow more cheerful, and in a little while she accepted the offer of her companion, and heard, first a story, and then a song; and, after all, she talked with her for some time.

“Tell me, now, what servants there are in the house,” asked Alice.

“Only two women and myself, please, Miss.”

“Is there anyone else in the house, besides ourselves?”

The girl looked down, and up again, in Alice’s eyes, and then away to the floor at the other end of the room.

“I was told, Ma’am, not to talk of nothing here, Miss, except my own business, please, my lady.”

“My God! This girl mayn’t speak truth to me,” exclaimed Alice, clasping her hands aghast.

The girl looked up uneasily.

“I should be sent away, Ma’am, if I do.”

“Look — listen: in this strait you must be for or against me; you can’t be divided. For God’s sake be a friend to me now. I may yet be the best friend you ever had. Come, Phoebe, trust me, and I’ll never betray you.”

She took the girl’s hand. Phoebe did not speak. She looked in her face earnestly for some moments, and then down, and up again.

“I don’t mind. I’ll do what I can for you, Ma’am; I’ll tell you what I know. But if you tell them, Ma’am, it will be awful bad for me, my lady.”

She looked again, very much frightened, in her face, and was silent.

“No one shall ever know but I. Trust me entirely, and I’ll never forget it to you.”

“Well, Ma’am, there is two men.”

“Who are they?”

“Two men, please ‘m. I knows one on ’em-he was keeper on the ‘Guy o’ Warwick,’ please, my lady, when there was a hexecution in the ’ouse. They’re both sheriff’s men.”

“And what are they doing here?”

“A hexecution, my lady.”

“That is, to sell the furniture and everything for a debt, isn’t that it?” inquired the lady, bewildered.

“Well, that was it below at the ‘Guy o’ Warwick,’ Miss; but Mr. Vargers, he was courting me down there at the ‘Guy o’ Warwick,’ and offered marriage if I would ‘av ‘ad him, and he tells me heverything, and he says that there’s a paper to take you, please, my lady.”

“Take me?”

“Yes, my lady; he read it to me in the room by the hall-door. Halice Harden, spinster, and something about the old guv’nor’s will, please; and his horder is to take you, please, Miss, if you should offer to go out of the door; and there’s two on ’em, and they watches turn about, so you can’t leave the ’ouse, please, my lady; and if you try they’ll only lock you up a prisoner in one room a-top o’ the ’ouse; and, for your life, my lady, don’t tell no one I said a word.”

“Oh! Phoebe. What can they mean? What’s to become of me? Somehow or other you must get me out of this house. Help me, for God’s sake! I’ll throw myself from the window — I’ll kill myself rather than remain in their power.”

“Hush! My lady, please, I may think of something yet. But don’t you do nothing ‘and hover ‘ead. You must have patience. They won’t be so sharp, maybe, in a day or two. I’ll get you out if I can; and, if I can’t, then God’s will be done. And I’ll make out what I can from Mr. Vargers; and don’t you let no one think you likes me, and I’ll be sly enough, you may count on me, my lady.”

Trembling all over, Alice kissed her.

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