Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 4.

Monsieur Lebas.

Mr. Longcluse leaned still with folded arms, and his shoulder to the wall. The stranger, smiling and fussy, was making his way to him. There is nothing in this man’s appearance to associate him with tragic incident or emotion of any kind. He is plainly a foreigner. He is short, fat, middle-aged, with a round fat face, radiant with good humour and good-natured enjoyment. His dress is cut in the somewhat grotesque style of a low French tailor. It is not very new, and has some spots of grease upon it. Mr. Longcluse perceives that he is now making his way towards him. Longcluse for a moment thought of making his escape by the door, which was close to him; but he reflected, “He is about the most innocent and good-natured soul on earth, and why should I seem to avoid him? Better, if he’s looking for me, to let him find me, and say his say.” So Longcluse looked another way, his arms still folded, and his shoulders against the wall as before.

“Ah, ha! Monsieur is thinking profoundly,” said a gay voice in French. “Ah, ha, ha, ha! you are surprised, Sir, to see me here. So am I, my faith! I saw you. I never forget a face.”

“Nor a friend, Lebas. Who could have imagined anything to bring you to London?” answered Longcluse, in the same language, shaking him warmly by the hand, and smiling down on the little man. “I shall never forget your kindness. I think I should have died in that illness but for you. How can I ever thank you half enough?”

“And the grand secret — the political difficulty — Monsieur found it well evaded,” he said, mysteriously touching his upper lip with two fingers.

“Not all quiet yet. I suppose you thought I was in Vienna?”

“Eh? well, yes — so I did,” answered Lebas, with a shrug. “But perhaps you think this place safer.”

“Hush! You’ll come to me tomorrow. I’ll tell you where to find me before we part, and you’ll bring your portmanteau and stay with me while you remain in London, and the longer the better.”

“Monsieur is too kind, a great deal; but I am staying for my visit to London with my brother-inlaw, Gabriel Laroque, the watchmaker. He lives on the Hill of Ludgate, and he would be offended if I were to reside anywhere but in his house while I stay. But if Monsieur would be so good as to permit me to call ——”

“You must come and dine with me tomorrow; I have a box for the opera. You love music, or you are not the Pierre Lebas whom I remember sitting with his violin at an open window. So come early, come before six; I have ever so much to ask you. And what has brought you to London?”

“A very little business and a great deal of pleasure; but all in a week,” said the little man, with a shrug and a hearty laugh. “I have come over here about some little things like that.” He smiled archly as he produced from his waistcoat pocket a little flat box with a glass top, and shook something in it. “Commerce, you see. I have to see two or three more of the London people, and then my business will have terminated, and nothing remain for the rest of the week but pleasure — ha, ha!”

“You left all at home well, I hope — children?” He was going to say “Madame,” but a good many years had passed.

“I have seven children. Monsieur will remember two. Three are by my first marriage, four by my second, and all enjoy the very best health. Three are very young — three, two, one year old; and they say a fourth is not impossible very soon,” he added archly.

Longcluse laughed kindly, and laid his hand upon his shoulder.

“You must take charge of a little present for each from me, and one for Madame. And the old business still flourishes?”

“A thousand thanks! yes, the business is the same — the file, the chisel, and knife.” And he made a corresponding movement of his hand as he mentioned each instrument.

Hush!” said Longcluse, smiling, so that no one who did not hear him would have supposed there was so much cautious emphasis in the word. “My good friend, remember there are details we talk of, you and I together, that are not to be mentioned so suitably in a place like this,” and he pressed his hand on his wrist, and shook it gently.

“A thousand pardons! I am, I know, too careless, and let my tongue too often run before my caution. My wife, she says, ‘You can’t wash your shirt but you must tell the world.’ It is my weakness truly. She is a woman of extraordinary penetration.”

Mr. Longcluse glanced from the corners of his eyes about the room. Perhaps he wished to ascertain whether his talk with this man, whom you would have taken to be little above the level of a French mechanic, had excited anyone’s attention. But there was nothing to make him think so.

“Now, Pierre, my friend, you must win some money upon this match — do you see? And you won’t deny me the pleasure of putting down your stake for you; and, if you win, you shall buy something pretty for Madame — and, win or lose, I shall think it friendly of you after so many years, and like you the better.”

“Monsieur is too good,” he said with effusion.

“Now look. Do you see that fat Jew over there on the front bench — you can’t mistake him — with the velvet waistcoat all in wrinkles, and the enormous lips, who talks to every second person who passes?”

“I see perfectly, Monsieur.”

“He is betting three to one upon Markham. You must take his offer, and back Hood. I’m told he’ll win. Here are ten pounds, you may as well make them thirty. Don’t say a word. Our English custom is to tip, as we say, our friend’s sons at school, and to make presents to everybody, as often as we like. Now there — not a word.” He quietly slipped into his hand a little rouleau of ten pounds in gold. “If you say one word you wound me,” he continued. “But, good Heaven! my dear friend, haven’t you a breast-pocket?”

“No, Monsieur; but this is quite safe. I was paid, only five minutes before I came here, fifteen pounds in gold, a cheque of forty-four pounds, and ——”

“Be silent. You may be overheard. Speak here in a very low tone, as I do. And do you mean to tell me that you carry all that money in your coat pocket?”

“But in a pocket-book, Monsieur.”

“All the more convenient for the chevalier d’industrie,” said Longcluse. “Stop. Pray don’t produce it; your fate is, perhaps, sealed if you do. There are gentlemen in this room who would hustle and rob you in the crowd as you get out; or, failing that, who, seeing that you are a stranger, would follow and murder you in the streets, for the sake of a twentieth part of that sum.”

“Gabriel thought there would be none here but men distinguished,” said Lebas, in some consternation.

“Distinguished by the special attention of the police, some of them,” said Longcluse.

“Hé! that is very true,” said Monsieur Lebas —“very true, I am sure of it. See you that man there, Monsieur? Regard him for a moment. The tall man, who leans with his shoulder to the metal pillar of the gallery. My faith! he has observed my steps and followed me. I thought he was a spy. But my friend he says ‘No, that is a man of bad character, dismissed for bad practices from the police.’ Aha! he has watched me sideways, with the corner of his eye. I will watch him with the corner of mine — ha, ha!”

“It proves, at all events, Lebas, that there are people here other than gentlemen and men of honest lives,” said Longcluse.

“But,” said Lebas, brightening a little, “I have this weapon,” producing a dagger from the same pocket.

“Put it back this instant. Worse and worse, my good friend. Don’t you know that just now there is a police activity respecting foreigners, and that two have been arrested only yesterday on no charge but that of having weapons about their persons? I don’t know what the devil you had best do.”

“I can return to the Hill of Ludgate — eh?”

“Pity to lose the game; they won’t let you back again,” said Longcluse.

“What shall I do?” said Lebas, keeping his hand now in his pocket on his treasure.

Longcluse rubbed the tip of his finger a little over his eyebrow, thinking.

“Listen to me,” said Longcluse, suddenly. “Is your brother-inlaw here?”

“No, Monsieur.”

“Well, you have some London friend in the room, haven’t you?”

“One — yes.”

“Only be sure he is one whom you can trust, and who has a safe pocket.”

“Oh, yes, Monsieur, entirely! and I saw him place his purse so,” he said, touching his coat, over his heart, with his fingers.

“Well, now, you can’t manage it here, under the gaze of the people; but —where is best? Yes — you see those two doors at opposite sides in the wall, at the far end of the room? They open into two parallel corridors leading to the hall, and a little way down there is a cross passage, in the middle of which is a door opening into a smoking-room. That room will be deserted now, and there, unseen, you can place your money and dagger in his charge.”

“Ah, thank you a hundred thousand times, Monsieur!” answered Lebas. “I shall be writing to the Baron van Boeren tomorrow, and I will tell him I have met Monsieur.”

“Don’t mind; how is the baron?” asked Longcluse.

“Very well. Beginning to be not so young, you know, and thinking of retiring. I will tell him his work has succeeded. If he demolishes, he also secures. If he sometimes sheds blood ——”

Hush!” whispered Longcluse, sternly.

“There is no one,” murmured little Lebas, looking round, but dropping his voice to a whisper. “He also saves a neck sometimes from the blade of the guillotine.”

Longcluse frowned, a little embarrassed. Lebas smiled archly. In a moment Longcluse’s impatient frown broke into a mysterious smile that responded.

“May I say one word more, and make one request of Monsieur, which I hope he will not think very impertinent?” asked Monsieur Lebas, who had just been on the point of taking his leave.

“It mayn’t be in my power to grant it; but you can’t be what you say — I am too much obliged to you — so speak quite freely,” said Longcluse.

So they talked a little more and parted, and Monsieur Lebas went on his way.

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