Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 43.

A Letter and a Summons.

Paris? Yes, he knew the hand well. His face darkened a little with a peculiar anxiety. This he will read first. He draws the candles all together, near the corner of the table at which he sits. He can’t have too much light on these formal lines, legible and tall as the letters are. He opens the thin envelope, and reads what follows:—

“DEAR AND HONOURED SIR,

“I am in receipt of yours of the 13th instant. You judge me rightly in supposing that I have entered on my mission with a willing mind, and no thought of sparing myself. On the 11th instant I presented the letter you were so good as to provide me with to M. de la Perriere. He received me with much consideration in consequence. You have not been misinformed with regard to his position. His influence is, and so long as the present Cabinet remain in power will continue to be, more than sufficient to procure for me the information and opportunities you so much desire. He explained to me very fully the limits of that assistance which official people here have it in their power to afford. Their prerogative is more extensive than with us, but at the same time it has its points of circumscription. Every private citizen has his well-defined rights, which they can in no case invade. He says that had I come armed with affidavits criminating any individual, or even justifying a strong and distinct suspicion, their powers would be much larger. As it is, he cautions me against taking any steps that might alarm Vanboeren. The baron is a suspicious man, it seems, and has, moreover, once or twice been under official surveillance, which has made him crafty. He is not likely to be caught napping. He ostensibly practises the professions of a surgeon and dentist. In the latter capacity he has a very considerable business. But his principal income is derived, I am informed, from sources of a different kind.”

“H’m! what can he mean? I suppose he explains a little further on,” mused Mr. Arden.

“He is, in short, a practitioner about whom suspicions of an infamous kind have prevailed. One branch of his business, a rather strange one, has connected him with persons, more considerable in number than you would readily believe, who were, or are, political refugees.”

“Can this noble baron be a distiller of poisons?” David Arden ruminated.

“In all his other equivocal doings, he found, on the few occasions that seemed to threaten danger, mysterious protectors, sufficiently powerful to bring him off scot-free. His relations of a political character were those which chiefly brought him under the secret notice of the police. It is believed that he has amassed a fortune, and it is certain that he is about to retire from business. I can much better explain to you, when I see you, the remarkable circumstances to which I have but alluded. I hope to be in town again, and to have the honour of waiting upon you, on Thursday, the 29th instant.”

“Ay, that’s the day he named at parting. What a punctual fellow that is!”

“They appear to me to have a very distinct bearing upon some possible views of the case in which you are so justly interested. The Baron Vanboeren is reputed very wealthy, but he is by no means liberal in his dealings, and is said to be insatiably avaricious. This last quality may make him practicable ——”

“Yes, so it may,” acquiesced Uncle David.

“so that disclosures of importance may be obtained, if he be approached in the proper manner. Lebas was connected, as a mechanic, with the dentistry department of his business. Mr. L—— has been extremely kind to Lebas’ widow and children, and has settled a small annuity upon her, and fifteen hundred francs each upon his children.”

“Eh? Upon my life, that is very handsome — extremely handsome. It gives me rather new ideas of this man — that is, if there’s nothing odd in it,” said Mr. Arden.

“The deed by which he has done all this is, in its reciting part, an eccentric one. I waited, as I advised you in mine of the 12th, upon M. Arnaud, who is the legal man employed by Madame Lebas, for the purpose of handing him the ten napoleons which you were so good as to transmit for the use of his family; which sum he has, with many thanks on the part of Madame Lebas, declined, and which, therefore, I hold still to your credit. When explaining to me that lady’s reasons for declining your remittance, he requested me to read a deed of gift from Mr. Longcluse, making the provisions I have before referred to, and reciting, as nearly in these words as I can remember:—‘Whereas I entertained for the deceased Pierre Lebas, in whose house in Paris I lodged when very young, for more than a year and a half, a very great respect and regard: and whereas I hold myself to have been the innocent cause of his having gone to the room, as appears from my evidence, in which, unhappily, he lost his life: and whereas I look upon it as a disgrace to our City of London that such a crime could have been committed in a place of public resort, frequented as that was at the time, without either interruption or detection; and whereas, so regarding it, I think that such citizens as could well afford to subscribe money, adequately to compensate the family of the deceased for the pecuniary loss which both his widow and children have sustained by reason of his death, were bound to do so; his visit to London having been strictly a commercial one; and all persons connected with the trade of London being more or less interested in the safety of the commercial intercourse between the two countries: and whereas the citizens of London have failed, although applied to for the purpose, to make any such compensation; now this deed witnesseth,’ etc.”

“Well, in all that, I certainly go with him. We Londoners ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”

“The widow has taken her children to Avranches, her native place, where she means to live. Please direct me whether I shall proceed thither, and also upon what particular points you would wish me to interrogate her. I have learned, this moment, that the Baron Vanboeren retires in October next. It is thought that he will fix his residence after that at Berlin. My informant undertakes to advise me of his address, whenever it is absolutely settled. In approaching this baron, it is thought you will have to exercise caution and dexterity, as he has the reputation of being cunning and unscrupulous.”

“I’m not good at dealing with such people — I never was. I must engage some long-headed fellow who understands them,” said he.

“I debit myself with two thousand five hundred francs, the amount of your remittance on the 15th inst., for which I will account at sight. — I remain, dear and honoured Sir, your attached and most obedient servant,

“CHRISTOPHER BLOUNT.”

“I shall learn all he knows in a few days. What is it that deprives me of quiet till a clue be found to the discovery of Yelland Mace? And why is it that the fancy has seized me that Mr. Longcluse knows where that villain may be found? He admitted, in talking to Alice, she says, that he had seen him in his young days. I will pick up all the facts, and then consider well all that they may point to. Let us but get the letters together, and in time we may find out what they spell. Here am I, a rich but sad old bachelor, having missed for ever the best hope of my life. Poor Harry long dead, and but one branch of the old tree with fruit upon it — Reginald, with his two children: Richard, my nephew — Richard Arden, in a few years the sole representative of the whole family of Arden, and he such a scamp and fool! If a childless old fellow could care for such things, it would be enough to break my heart. And poor little Alice! So affectionate and so beautiful, left, as she will be, alone, with such a protector as that fellow! I pity her.”

At that moment her unopened note caught his eye, as it lay on the table. He opened it, and read these words:—

“MY DEAREST UNCLE DAVID,

“I am so miserable and perplexed, and so utterly without any one to befriend or advise me in my present unexpected trouble, that I must implore of you to come to Mortlake, if you can, the moment this note reaches you. I know how unreasonable and selfish this urgent request will appear. But when I shall have told you all that has happened, you will say, I know, that I could not have avoided imploring your aid. Therefore, I entreat, distracted creature as I am, that you, my beloved uncle, will come to aid and counsel me; and believe me when I assure you that I am in extreme distress, and without, at this moment, any other friend to help me. — Your very unhappy niece,

“ALICE.”

He read this short note over again.

“No; it is not a sick lap-dog, or a saucy maid: there is some real trouble. Alice has, I think, more sense — I’ll go at once. Reginald is always late, and I shall find them” (he looked at his watch)—“yes, I shall find them still up at Mortlake.”

So instantly he sent for a cab, and pulled on again a pair of boots, instead of the slippers he had donned, and before five minutes was driving at a rapid pace towards Mortlake.

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