Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 85.

The Crisis.

When Phoebe Chiffinch returned to Alice’s room, it was about ten o’clock; a brilliant moon was shining on the old trees, and throwing their shadows on the misty grass. The landscape from these upper windows was sad and beautiful, and above the distant trees that were softened by the haze of night rose the silvery spire of the old church, in whose vault her father sleeps with a cold brain, thinking no more of mortgages and writs.

Alice had been wondering what had detained her so long, and by the time she arrived had become very much alarmed.

Relieved when she entered, she was again struck with fear when Phoebe Chiffinch had come near enough to enable her to see her face. She was pale, and with her eyes fixed on her, raised her finger in warning, and then glanced at the door which she had just closed.

Her young mistress got up and approached her, also growing pale, for she perceived that danger was at the door.

“I wish there was bolts to these doors. They’ve got other keys. Never mind; I know it all now,” she whispered, as she walked softly up to the end of the room farthest from the door. “I said I’d stand by you, my lady; don’t you lose heart. They’re coming here in about a hour.”

“For God’s sake, what is it?” said Alice faintly, her eyes gazing wider and wider, and her very lips growing white.

“There’s work before us, my lady, and there must be no fooling,” said the girl, a little sternly. “Mr. Levi, please, has told me a deal, and all they expect from me, the villains. Are you strong enough to take your part in it, Miss? If not, best be quiet; best for both.”

“Yes; quite strong, Phoebe. Are we to leave this?”

“I hope, Miss. We can but try.”

“There’s light, Phoebe,” she said, glancing with a shiver from the window. “It’s a bright night.”

“I wish ’twas darker; but mind you what I say. Longcluse is to be here in a hour. Your brother’s coming, God help you! and that little limb o’ Satan, that black-eyed, black-nailed, dirty little Jew, Levice! They’re not in town, they’re out together near this, where a man is to meet them with writings. There’s a licence got, Christie Vargers saw Mr. Longcluse showing it to your brother, Sir Richard; and I daren’t tell Vargers that I’m for you. He’d never do nothing to vex Mr. Levice, he daren’t. There’s a parson here, a rum ’un, you may be sure. I think I know something about him; Vargers does. He’s in the room now, only one away from this, next the stair head, and Vargers is put to keep the door in the same room. All the doors along, from one room to t’other, is open, from this to the stairs, except the last, which Vargers has the key of it; and all the doors opening from the rooms to the gallery is locked, so you can’t get out o’ this ’ere without passing through the one where parson is, and Mr. Vargers, please.”

“I’ll speak to the clergyman,” whispered Alice, extending her hands towards the far door; “God be thanked, there’s one good man here, and he’ll save me!”

“La, bless you child! why that parson had his two pen’orth long ago, and spends half his nights in the lock-up.”

“I don’t understand, Phoebe.”

“He had two years. He’s bin in jail, Miss, Vargers says, as often as he has fingers and toes; and he’s at his brandy and water as I came through, with his feet on the fender, and his pipe in his mouth. He’s here to marry you, please ‘m, to Mr. Longcluse, and there’s all the good he’ll do you; and your brother will give you away, Miss, and Levice and Vargers for witnesses, and me I dessay. It’s every bit harranged, and they don’t care the rinsing of a tumbler what you say or do; for through with it, slicks, they’ll go, and say ’twas all right, in spite of all you can do; and who is there to make a row about it? Not you, after all’s done.”

“We must get away! I’ll lose my life, or I’ll escape!”

Phoebe looked at her in silence. I think she was measuring her strength, and her nerve, for the undertaking.

“Well, ‘m, it’s time it was begun. The time is come. Here’s your cloak, Miss, I’ll tie a handkerchief over my head, if we get out; and here’s the three keys, betwixt the bed and the mattress.”

After a moment’s search on her knees, she produced them.

“The big one and this I’ll keep, and you’ll manage this other, please; take it in your right hand — you must use it first. It opens the far door of the room where Vargers is, and if you get through, you’ll be at the stair-head then. Don’t you come in after me, till you see I have Vargers engaged another way. Go through as light as a bird flies, and take the key out of the door, at the other end, when you unlock it; and close it softly, else he’ll see it, and have the house about our ears; and you know the big window at the drawing-room lobby; wait in the hollow of that window till I come. Do you understand, please, Miss?”

Alice did perfectly.

“Hish-sh!” said the maid, with a prolonged caution.

A dead silence followed; for a minute — several minutes neither seemed to breathe.

Phoebe whispered at length —

Now, Miss, are you ready?”

“Yes,” she whispered, and her heart beat for a moment as if it would suffocate her, and then was still; an icy chill stole over her, and as on tip-toe she followed Phoebe, she felt as if she glided without weight or contact, like a spirit.

Through a dark room they passed, very softly, first, a little light under the door showed that there were candles in the next. They halted and listened. Phoebe opened the door and entered.

Standing back in the shadow, Alice saw the room and the people in it, distinctly. The parson was not the sort of contraband clergyman she had fancied, by any means, but a thin hectic man of some four-and-thirty years, only looking a little dazed by brandy and water, and far gone in consumption. Handsome thin features, and a suit of seedy black, and a white choker, indicated that lost gentleman, who was crying silently as he smoked his pipe, I daresay a little bit tipsy, gazing into the fire, with his fatal brandy and water at his elbow.

“Eh! Mr. Vargers, smoking after all I said to you!” murmured Miss Phoebe severely, advancing toward her round-shouldered sweetheart, with her finger raised.

Mr. Vargers replied pleasantly; and as this tender “chaff” flew lightly between the interlocutors, the parson looked still into the fire, hearing nothing of their play and banter, but sunk deep in the hell of his sorrowful memory.

As Phoebe talked on, Vargers grew agreeable and tender, and in about three minutes after her own entrance, she saw with a thrill, imperfectly, just with the “corner of her eye,” something pass behind them swiftly toward the outer door. The crisis, then, had come. For a moment there seemed a sudden light before her eyes, and then a dark mist; in another she recovered herself.

Vargers stood up suddenly.

“Hullo! what’s gone with the door there?” said he, sternly ending their banter.

If he had been looking on her with an eye of suspicion, he might have seen her colour change. But Phoebe was quick-witted and prompt, and saying, in hushed tones —

“Well, dear, ain’t I a fool, leaving the lady’s door open? Look ye, now, Mr. Vargers, she’s lying fast asleep on her bed; and that’s the reason I took courage to come here and ask a favour. But I’d rayther you’d lock her door, for if she waked and missed me she’d be out here, and all the fat in the fire.”

“I dessay you’re right, Miss,” said he, with a more business-like gallantry; and as he shut the door and fumbled in his pocket for the key, she stole a look over her shoulder.

The prisoner had got through, and the door at the other end was closed.

With a secret shudder, she thanked God in her heart, while with a laugh she slapped Mr. Vargers’ lusty shoulder, and said wheedlingly, “And now for the favour, Mr. Vargers: you must let me down to the kitchen for five minutes.”

A little more banter and sparring followed, which ended in Vargers kissing her, in spite of the usual squall and protest; and on his essaying to let her out, and finding the door unlocked, he swore that it was well she asked, as he’d ‘av’ got it hot and heavy for forgetting to lock it, when the “swells” came up. The door closed upon her: so far the enterprise was successful.

She stood at the head of the stairs; she went down a few steps, and listened; then cautiously she descended. The moon shone resplendent through the great window at the landing below the drawing-room. It was that at which Uncle David had paused to listen to the minstrelsy of Mr. Longcluse.

Here in that flood of white light stands Alice Arden, like a statue of horror. The girl, without saying a word, takes her by the cold hand, and leads her quickly down to the arch that opens on the hall.

Just as they reached this point, the door of the room, at the right of the hall door, occupied by Mr. Boult, who did duty as porter, opens, and stepping out with a candle in his hand, he calls in a savage tone —

“What’s the row?”

Phoebe pushed Alice’s hand in the direction of the passage that leads to the housekeeper’s room. For a moment the young lady stands irresolute. Her presence of mind returns. She noiselessly takes the hint, and enters the corridor; Phoebe advances to answer his challenge.

“Well, Mr. Boult, and what is the row, pray?” she pertly inquires, walking up to that gentleman, who eyes her sulkily, raising his candle, and displaying as he does so a big patch of red on each cheek-bone, indicative of the brandy, of which he smells potently.

“What’s the row? —you’re the row! What brings you down here, Miss Chivvige?”

“My legs! There’s your answer, you cross boy.” She laughed wheedlingly.

“Then walk you up again, and be d — d.”

“On! Mr. Boult.”

“P! Miss Phibbie.”

Mr. Boult was speaking thick, and plainly was in no mood to stand nonsense.

“Now Mr. Boult, where’s the good of making yourself disagreeable?”

“Look at this ’ere,” he replied, grimly holding a mighty watch, of some white metal, under her eyes —“you know your clock as well as me, Miss Chavvinge. The gentlemen will be in this ’ere awl in twenty minutes.”

“All the more need to be quick, Mr. Boult, Sir, and why will you keep me ’ere talking?” she replies.

“You’ll go up them ’ere stairs, young ‘oman; you’ll not put a foot in the kitchen to-night,” he says more doggedly.

“Well, we’ll see how it will be when they comes and I tells ’em-‘Please, gentlemen, the young lady, which you told me most particular to humour her in everything she might call for, wished a cup of tea, which I went down, having locked her door first, which here is the key of it,’” and she held it up for the admiration of Mr. Boult, “‘which I consider it the most importantest key in the ’ouse; and though the young lady, she lay on her bed a-gasping, poor thing, for her cup of tea, Mr. Boult stopt me in the awl, and swore she shouldn’t have a drop, which I could not get it, and went hup again, for he smelt all over of brandy, and spoke so wiolent, I daren’t do as you desired.’”

“I don’t smell of brandy; no, I don’t; do I?” he says, appealing to an imaginary audience. “And I don’t want to stop you, if so be the case is so. But you’ll come to this door and report yourself in five minute’s time, or I’ll tell ’em there’s no good keepin’ me ’ere no longer. I don’t want no quarrellin’ nor disputin’, only I’ll do my dooty, and I’m not afraid of man, woman, or child!”

With which magnanimous sentiment he turned on his clumsy heel, and entered his apartment again.

In a moment more Phoebe and Alice were at the door which admits to a passage leading literally to the side of the house. This door Phoebe softly unlocks, and when they had entered, locks again on the inside. They stood now on the passage leading to a side door, to which a few paces brought them. She opens it. The cold night air enters, and they step out upon the grass. She locks the door behind them, and throws the key among the nettles that grew in a thick grove at her right.

“Hold my hand, my lady; it’s near done now,” she whispers almost fiercely; and having listened for a few seconds, and looked up to see if any light appeared in the windows, she ventures, with a beating heart, from under the deep shadow of the gables, into the bright broad moonlight, and with light steps together they speed across the grass, and reach the cover of a long grove of tall trees and underwood. All is silent here.

Soon a distant shouting brings them to a terrible stand-still. Breathlessly Phoebe listens. No; it was not from the house. They resume their flight.

Now under the ivy-laden branches of a tall old tree an owl startles them with its shriek.

As Alice stares around her, when they stop in such momentary alarm, how strange the scene looks! How immense and gloomy the trees about them! How black their limbs stretch across the moon-lit sky! How chill and wild the moonlight spreads over the undulating sward! What a spectral and exaggerated shape all things take in her scared and over-excited gaze!

Now they are approaching the long row of noble beeches that line the boundary of Mortlake. The ivy-bowered wall is near them, and the screen of gigantic hollies that guard the lonely postern through which Phoebe has shrewdly chosen to direct their escape.

Thank God! they are at it. In her hand she holds the key, which shines in the moon-beams.

Hush! what is this? Voices close to the door! Step back behind the holly clump, for your lives, quickly! A key grinds in the lock; the bolt works rustily; the door opens, and tall Mr. Longcluse enters, with every sinister line and shadow of his pale face marked with a death-like sternness, in the moonlight. Mr. Levi enters almost beside him; how white his big eyeballs gleam, as he steps in under the same cold light! Who next?

Her brother! Oh, God! The mad impulse to throw her arms about his neck, and shriek her wild appeal to his manhood, courage, love, and stake all on that momentary frenzy!

As this group halts in silence, while Sir Richard locks the door, the Jew directs his big dark eyes, as she thinks, right upon Phoebe Chiffinch, who stands in the shadow, and is therefore, she faintly hopes, not visible behind the screen of glittering leaves. Her eyes, nevertheless, meet his. He advances his head a little, with more than his usual prying malignity, she thinks. Her heart flutters, and sinks. She is on the point of stepping from her shelter and surrendering. With his cane he strikes at the leaves, aiming, I daresay, at a moth, for nothing is quite below his notice, and he likes smashing even a fly. In this case, having hit or missed it, he turns his fiery eyes, to the infinite relief of the girl, another way.

The three men who have thus stept into the grounds of Mortlake don’t utter a word as they stand there. They now recommence their walk toward the house.

Phoebe Chiffinch, breathless, is holding Alice Arden’s wrist with a firm grasp. As they brush the holly-leaves, in passing, the very sprays that touch the dresses of the scared girls are stirring. The pale group drifts by in silence. They have each something to meditate on. They are not garrulous. On they walk, like three shadows. The distance widens, the shapes grow fainter.

“They’ll soon be at the house, Ma’am, and wild work then. You’ll do something for poor Vargers? Well, time enough! You must not lose heart now, my lady. You’re all right, if you keep up for ten minutes longer. You don’t feel faint-like! Good lawk, Ma’am! rouse up.”

“I’m better, Phoebe; I’m quite well again. Come on — come on!”

Carefully, to make as little noise as possible she turned the key in the lock, and they found themselves in a narrow lane running by the wall, and under the trees of Mortlake.

“Which way?”

“Not toward the ‘Guy of Warwick.’ They’ll soon be in chase of us, and that is the way they’ll take. ‘Twould never do. Come away, my lady; it won’t be long till we meet a cab or something to fetch us where you please. Lean on me. I wish we were away from this wall. What way do you mean to go?”

“To my Uncle David’s house.”

And having exchanged these words, they pursued their way side by side, for a time, in silence.

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