Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 16.

A Midnight Meeting.

A couple of days passed; and now I must ask you to suppose yourself placed, at night, in the centre of a vast heath, undulating here and there like a sea arrested in a ground-swell, lost in a horizon of monotonous darkness all round. Here and there rises a scrubby hillock of furze, black and rough as the head of a monster. The eye aches as it strains to discover objects or measure distances over the blurred and black expanse. Here stand two trees pretty close together — one in thick foliage, a black elm, with a funereal and plume-like stillness, and blotting out many stars with its gigantic canopy; the other, about fifty paces off, a withered and half barkless fir, with one white branch left, stretching forth like the arm of a gibbet. Nearly under this is a flat rock, with one end slanting downwards, and half buried in the ferns and the grass that grow about that spot. One other fir stands a little way off, smaller than these two trees, which in daylight are conspicuous far away as landmarks on a trackless waste. Overhead the stars are blinking, but the desolate landscape lies beneath in shapeless obscurity, like drifts of black mist melting together into one wide vague sea of darkness that forms the horizon. Over this comes, in fitful moanings, a melancholy wind. The eye stretches vainly to define the objects that fancy sometimes suggests, and the ear is strained to discriminate the sounds, real or unreal, that seem to mingle in the uncertain distance.

If you can conjure up all this, and the superstitious freaks that in such a situation imagination will play in even the hardest and coarsest natures, you have a pretty distinct idea of the feelings and surroundings of a tall man who lay that night his length under the blighted tree I have mentioned, stretched on its roots, with his chin supported on his hands, and looking vaguely into the darkness. He had been smoking, but his pipe was out now, and he had no occupation but that of forming pictures on the dark back-ground, and listening to the moan and rush of the distant wind, and imagining sometimes a voice shouting, sometimes the drumming of a horse’s hoofs approaching over the plain. There was a chill in the air that made this man now and then shiver a little, and get up and take a turn back and forward, and stamp sharply as he did so, to keep the blood stirring in his legs and feet. Then down he would lay again, with his elbows on the ground, and his hands propping his chin. Perhaps he brought his head near the ground, thinking that thus he could hear distant sounds more sharply. He was growing impatient, and well he might.

The moon now began to break through the mist in fierce red over the far horizon. A streak of crimson, that glowed without illuminating anything, showed through the distant cloud close along the level of the heath. Even this was a cheer, like a red ember or two in a pitch-dark room. Very far away he thought now he heard the tread of a horse. One can hear miles away over that level expanse of death-like silence. He pricked his ears, he raised himself on his hands, and listened with open mouth. He lost the sound, but on leaning his head again to the ground, that vast sounding-board carried its vibration once more to his ear. It was the canter of a horse upon the heath. He was doubtful whether it was approaching, for the sound subsided sometimes; but afterwards it was renewed, and gradually he became certain that it was coming nearer. And now, like a huge, red-hot dome of copper, the moon rose above the level strips of cloud that lay upon the horizon of the heath, and objects began to reveal themselves. The stunted fir, that had looked to the fancy of the solitary watcher like a ghostly policeman, with arm and truncheon raised, just starting in pursuit, now showed some lesser branches, and was more satisfactorily a tree; distances became measurable, though not yet accurately, by the eye; and ridges and hillocks caught faintly the dusky light, and threw blurred but deep shadows backward.

The tread of the horse approaching had become a gallop as the light improved, and horse and horseman were soon visible. Paul Davies stood erect, and took up a position a few steps in advance of the blighted tree at whose foot he had been stretched. The figure, seen against the dusky glare of the moon, would have answered well enough for one of those highwaymen who in old times made the heath famous. His low-crowned felt hat, his short coat with a cape to it, and the leather casings, which looked like jack-boots, gave this horseman, seen in dark outline against the glow, a character not unpicturesque. With a sudden strain of the bridle, the gaunt rider pulled up before the man who awaited him.

“What are you doing there?” said the horseman roughly.

“Counting the stars,” answered he.

Thus the signs and countersigns were exchanged, and the stranger said —

“You’re alone, Paul Davies, I take it.”

“No company but ourselves, mate,” answered Davies.

“You’re up to half a dozen dodges, Paul, and knows how to lime a twig; that’s your little game, you know. This here tree is clean enough, but that ’ere has a hatful o’ leaves on it.”

“I didn’t put them there,” said Paul, a little sulkily.

“Well, no. I do suppose a sight o’ you wouldn’t exactly put a tree in leaf, or a rose-bush in blossom; nor even make wegitables grow. More like to blast ’em, like that rum un over your head.”

“What’s up?” asked the exdetective.

“Jest this — there’s leaves enough for a bird to roost there, so this won’t do. Now, then, move on you with me.”

As the gaunt rider thus spoke, his long red beard was blowing this way and that in the breeze; and he turned his horse, and walked him towards that lonely tree in which, as he lay gazing on its black outline, Paul had fancied the shape of a phantom policeman.

“I don’t care a cuss,” said Davies. “I’m half sorry I came a leg to meet yer.”

“Growlin’, eh?” said the horseman.

“I wish you was as cold as me, and you’d growl a bit, maybe, yourself,” said Paul. “I’m jolly cold.”

“Cold, are ye?”

“Cold as a lock-up.”

“Why didn’t ye fetch a line o’ the old author with you?” asked the rider — meaning brandy.

“I had a pipe or two.”

“Who’d a-guessed we was to have a night like this in summer-time?”

“I do believe it freezes all the year round in this queer place.”

“Would ye like a drop of the South–Sea mountain (gin)?” said the stranger, producing a flask from his pocket, which Paul Davies took with a great deal of good-will, much to the donor’s content, for he wished to find that gentleman in good-humour in the conversation that was to follow.

“Drink what’s there, mate. D’ye like it?”

“It ain’t to be by no means sneezed at,” said Paul Davies.

The horseman looked back over his shoulder. Paul Davies remarked that his shoulders were round enough to amount almost to a deformity. He and his companion were now a long way from the tree whose foliage he feared might afford cover to some eavesdropper.

“This tree will answer. I suppose you like a post to clap your back to while we are palaverin’,” said the rider. “Make a finish of it, Mr. Davies,” he continued, as that person presented the half-emptied flask to his hand. “I’m as hot as steam, myself, and I’d rather have a smoke by-and-by.”

He touched the bridle here, and the horse stood still, and the rider patted his reeking neck, as he stooped with a shake of his ears and a snort, and began to sniff the scant herbage at his feet.

“I don’t mind if I have another pull,” said Paul, replenishing the goblet that fitted over the bottom of the flask.

“Fill it again, and no heel-taps,” said his companion.

Mr. Davies sat down, with his mug in his hand, on the ground, and his back against the tree. Had there been a donkey near, to personate the immortal Dapple, you might have fancied, in that uncertain gloom, the Knight and Squire of La Mancha overtaken by darkness, and making one of their adventurous bivouacs under the boughs of the tree.

“What you saw in the papers three days ago did give you a twist, I take it?” observed the gentleman on horseback, with a grin that made the red bristles on his upper lip curl upwards and twist like worms.

“I can’t tumble to a right guess what you means,” said Mr. Davies.

“Come, Paul, that won’t never do. You read every line of that there inquest on the French cove at the Saloon, and you have by rote every word Mr. Longcluse said. It must be a queer turning of the tables, for a clever chap like you to have to look slippy, for fear other dogs should lag you.”

“‘Tain’t me that ‘ill be looking slippy, as you and me well knows; and it’s jest because you knows it well you’re here. I suppose it ain’t for love of me quite?” sneered Paul Davies.

“I don’t care a rush for Mr. Longcluse, no more nor I care for you; and I see he’s goin’ where he pleases. He made a speech in yesterday’s paper, at the meetin’ at the Surrey Gardens. He was canvassin’ for Parliament down in Derbyshire a week ago; and he printed a letter to the electors only yesterday. He don’t care two pins for you.”

“A good many rows o’ pins, I’m thinkin’,” sneered Mr. Davies.

“Thinkin’ won’t make a loaf, Mr. Davies. Many a man has bin too clever, and thought himself into the block-house. You’re making too fine a game, Mr. Davies; a playin’ a bit too much with edged tools, and fiddlin’ a bit too freely with fire. You’ll burn your fingers, and cut ’em too, do ye mind? unless you be advised, and close the game where you stand to win, as I rather think you do now.”

“So do I, mate,” said Paul Davies, who could play at brag as well as his neighbour.

“I’m on another lay, a safer one by a long sight. My maxim is the same as yours, ‘Grab all you can;’ but I do it safe, d’ye see? You are in a fair way to end your days on the twister.”

“Not if I knows it,” said Paul Davies. “I’m afeared o’ no man livin’. Who can say black’s the white o’ my eye? Do ye take me for a child? What do ye take me for?”

“I take you for the man that robbed and done for the French cove in the Saloon. That’s the child I take ye for,” answered the horseman cynically.

“You lie! You don’t! You know I han’t a pig of his money, and never hurt a hair of his head. You say that to rile me, jest.”

“Why should I care a cuss whether you’re riled or no? Do you think I want to get anything out o’ yer? I knows everything as well as you do yourself. You take me for a queer gill, I’m thinking; that’s not my lay. I wouldn’t wait here while you’d walk round my hoss to have every secret you ever know’d.”

“A queer gill, mayhap. I think I know you,” said Mr. Davies, archly.

“You do, do ye? Well, come, who do you take me for?” said the stranger, turning towards him, and sitting erect in the saddle, with his hand on his thigh, to afford him the amplest view of his face and figure.

“Then I take you for Mr. Longcluse,” said Paul Davies, with a wag of his head.

“For Mr. Longcluse!” echoed the horseman, with a boisterous laugh. “Well, there’s a guess to tumble to! The worst guess I ever heer’d made. Did you ever see him? Why, there’s not two bones in our two bodies the same length, and not two inches of our two faces alike. There’s a guess for a detective! Be my soul, it’s well for you it ain’t him, for I think he’d a shot ye!”

The rider lifted his hand from his coat-pocket as he said this, but there was no weapon in it. Mistaking his intention, however, Paul Davies skipped behind the tree, and levelled a revolver at him.

“Down with that, you fool!” cried the horseman. “There’s nothing here.” And he gave his horse the spur, and made him plunge to a little distance, as he held up his right hand. “But I’m not such a fool as to meet a cove like you without the lead towels, too, in case you should try that dodge.” And dipping his hand swiftly into his pocket again, he also showed in the air the glimmering barrels of a pistol. “If you must be pullin’ out your barkers every minute, and can’t talk like a man, where’s the good of coming all this way to palaver with a cove. It ain’t not tuppence to me. Crack away if you likes it, and see who shoots best; or, if you likes it better, I don’t mind if I get down and try who can hit hardest t’other way, and you’ll find my fist tastes very strong of the hammer.”

“I thought you were up for mischief,” said Davies, “and I won’t be polished off simple, that’s all. It’s best to keep as we are, and no nearer; we can hear one another well enough where we stand.”

“It’s a bargain,” said the stranger, “and I don’t care a cuss who you take me for. I’m not Mr. Longcluse; but you’re welcome, if it pleases you, to give me his name, and I wish I could have the old bloke’s tin as easy. Now here’s my little game, and I don’t find it a bad one. When two gentlemen — we’ll say, for instance, you and Mr. Longcluse — differs in opinion (you says he did a certain thing, and he says he didn’t, or goes the whole hog and says you did it, and not him), it’s plain, if the matter is to be settled amigable, it’s best to have a man as knows what he’s about, and can find out the cove as threatens the rich fellow, and deal with him handsome, according to circumstances. My terms is moderate. I takes five shillins in the pound, and not a pig under; and that puts you and I in the same boat, d’ye see? Well, I gets all I can out of him, and no harm can happen me, for I’m but a cove a-carryin’ of messages betwixt you, and the more I gets for you the better for me. I settled many a business amigable the last five years that would never have bin settled without me. I’m well knowing to some of the swellest lawyers in town, and whenever they has a dilikite case, like a gentleman threatened with informations or the like, they sends for me, and I arranges it amigable, to the satisfacshing of both parties. It’s the only way to settle sich affairs with good profit and no risk. I have spoke to Mr. Longcluse. He was all for having your four bones in the block-house, and yourself on the twister; and he’s not a cove to be bilked out of his tin. But he would not like the bother of your cross-charge, either, and I think I could make all square between ye. What do you say?”

“How can I tell that you ever set eyes on Mr. Longcluse?” said Davies, more satisfied as the conference proceeded that he had misdirected his first guess at the identity of the horseman. “How can I tell you’re not just a-gettin’ all you can out o’ me, to make what you can of it on your own account in that market?”

“That’s true, you can’t tell, mate.”

“And what do I know about you? What’s your name?” pursued Paul Davies.

“I forgot my name, I left it at home in the cupboard; and you know nothing about me, that’s true, excepting what I told you, and you’ll hear no more.”

“I’m too old a bird for that; you’re a born genius, only spoilt in the baking. I’m thinking, mate, I may as well paddle my own canoe, and sell my own secret on my own account. What can you do for me that I can’t do as well for myself?”

“You don’t think that, Paul. You dare not show to Mr. Longcluse, and you know he’s in a wax; and who can you send to him? You’ll make nothing o’ that brag. Where’s the good of talking like a blast to a chap like me? Don’t you suppose I take all that at its vally? I tell you what, if it ain’t settled now, you’ll see me no more, for I’ll not undertake it.” He pulled up his horse’s head, preparatory to starting.

“Well, what’s up now? — what’s the hurry?” demanded Mr. Davies.

“Why, if this here meetin’ won’t lead to business, the sooner we two parts and gets home again, the less time wasted,” answered the cavalier, with his hand on the crupper of the saddle, as he turned to speak.

Each seemed to wait for the other to add something.

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49