Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 58.

The Baron Comes to Town.

Weeks flew by. The season was in its last throes: the session was within a day or two of its death. Lady May drove out to Mortlake with a project in her head.

Alice Arden was glad to see her.

“I’ve travelled all this way,” she said, “to make you come with me on Friday to the Abbey.”

“On Friday? Why Friday, dear?” answered Alice.

“Because there is to be a grand oratorio of Handel’s. It is for the benefit of the clergy’s sons’ school, and it is one that has not been performed in England for I forget how many years. It is Saul. You have heard the Dead March in Saul, of course; everyone has; but no one has ever heard the oratorio, and come you must. There shall be no one but ourselves — you and I, and your uncle and your brother to take care of us. They have promised to come; and Stentoroni is to take Saul, and they have the finest voices in Europe; and they say that Herr Von Waasen, the conductor, is the greatest musician in the world. There have been eight performances in that great room — oh! what do you call it? — while I was away; and now there is only to be this one, and I’m longing to hear it; but I won’t go unless you come with me — and you need not dress. It begins at three o’clock, and ends at six, and you can come just as you are now; and an oratorio is really exactly the same as going to church, so you have no earthly excuse; and I’ll send out my carriage at one for you; and you’ll see, it will do you all the good in the world.”

Alice had her difficulties, but Lady May’s vigorous onset overpowered them, and at length she consented.

“Does your uncle come out here to see you?” asks Lady May.

“Often; he’s very kind,” she replies.

“And Grace Maubray?”

“Oh, yes; I see her pretty often — that is, she has been here twice, I think — quite often enough.”

“Well, do you know, I never could admire Grace Maubray as I have heard other people do,” says Lady May. “There is something harsh and bold, don’t you think? — something a little cruel. She is a girl that I don’t think could ever be in love.”

“I don’t know that,” says Alice.

“Oh! really?” says Lady May, “and who is it?”

“It is merely a suspicion,” says Alice.

“Yes — but you think she likes some one — do, like a darling, tell me who it is,” urges Lady May, a little uneasily.

“You must not tell anyone, because they would say it was sisterly vanity, but I think she likes Dick.”

“Sir Richard?” says Lady May, with as much indifference as she could.

“Yes, I think she likes my brother.”

Lady May smiles painfully.

“I always thought so,” she says; “and he admires her, of course?”

“No, I don’t think he admires her at all. I’m certain he doesn’t,” said Alice.

“Well, certainly he always does speak of her as if she belonged to Vivian Darnley,” remarks Lady May, more happily.

“So she does, and he to her, I hope,” said Alice.

“Hope?” repeated Lady May, interrogatively.

“Yes — I think nothing could be more suitable.”

“Perhaps so; you know them better than I do.”

“Yes, and I still think Uncle David intends them for one another.”

“I would have asked Mr. Longcluse,” Lady May begins, after a little interval, “to use his influence to get us good hearing-places, but he is in such disgrace — is he still, or is there any chance of his being forgiven?”

“I told you, darling, I have really nothing to forgive — but I have a kind of fear of Mr. Longcluse — a fear I can’t account for. It began, I think, with that affair that seemed to me like a piece of insanity, and made me angry and bewildered; and then there was a dream, in which I saw such a horrible scene, and fancied he had murdered Richard, and I could not get it out of my head. I suppose I am in a nervous state — and there were other things; and, altogether, I think of him with a kind of horror — and I find that Martha Tansey has an unaccountable dread of him exactly as I have; and even Uncle David says that he has a misgiving about him that he can’t get rid of, or explain.”

“I can’t think, however, that he is a ghost or even a malefactor,” said Lady May, “or anything worse than a very agreeable, good-natured person. I never knew anything more zealous than his good-nature on the occasion I told you of; and he has always approached you with so much devotion and respect — he seemed to me so sensitive, and to watch your very looks; I really think that a frown from you would have almost killed him.”

Alice sighs, and looked wearily through the window, as if the subject bored her; and she said listlessly —

“Oh, yes, he was kind, and gentlemanlike, and sang nicely, I grant you everything; but — there is something ominous about him, and I hate to hear him mentioned, and with my consent I’ll never meet him more.”

Connected with the musical venture which the ladies were discussing, a remarkable person visited London. He had a considerable stake in its success. He was a penurious German, reputed wealthy, who ran over from Paris to complete arrangements about ticket-takers and treasurer, so as to ensure a system of check, such as would make it next to impossible for the gentlemen his partners to rob him. This person was the Baron Vanboeren.

Mr. Blount had an intimation of this visit from Paris, and Mr. David Arden invited him to dine, of which invitation he took absolutely no notice; and then Mr. Arden called upon him in his lodging in St. Martin’s Lane. There he saw him, this man, possibly the keeper of the secret which he had for twenty years of his life been seeking for. If he had a feudal ideal of this baron, he was disappointed. He beheld a short, thick man, with an enormous head and grizzled hair, coarse pug features, very grimy skin, and a pair of fierce black eyes, that never rested for a moment, and swept the room from corner to corner with a rapid and unsettled glance that was full of fierce energy.

“The Baron Vanboeren?” inquires Uncle David courteously.

The baron, who is smoking, nods gruffly.

“My name is Arden — David Arden. I left my card two days ago, and having heard that your stay was but for a few days, I ventured to send you a very hurried invitation.”

The baron grunts and nods again.

“I wrote a note to beg the pleasure of a very short interview, and you have been so good as to admit me.”

The baron smokes on.

“I am told that you possibly are possessed of information which I have long been seeking in vain.”

Another nod.

“Monsieur Lebas, the unfortunate little Frenchman who was murdered here in London, was, I believe, in your employment?”

The baron here had a little fit of coughing.

Uncle David accepted this as an admission.

“He was acquainted with Mr. Longcluse?”

“Was he?” says the baron, removing and replacing his pipe quickly.

“Will you, Baron Vanboeren, be so good as to give me any information you possess respecting Mr. Longcluse? It is not, I assure you, from mere curiosity I ask these questions, and I hope you will excuse the trouble I give you.”

The baron took his pipe from his mouth, and blew out a thin stream of smoke.

“I have heard,” said he, in short, harsh tones, “since I came to London, nosing but good of Mr. Longcluse. I have ze greadest respect for zat excellent gendleman. I will say nosing bud zat — ze greadest respect.”

“You knew him in Paris, I believe?” urges Uncle David.

“Nosing but zat — ze greadest respect,” repeats the baron. “I sink him a very worzy gendleman.”

“No doubt, but I venture to ask whether you were acquainted with Mr. Longcluse in Paris?”

“Zere are a gread many beoble in Paris. I have nosing to say of Mr. Longcluse, nosing ad all, only he is a man of high rebudation.”

And on completing this sentence the baron replaced his pipe, and delivered several rapid puffs.

“I took the liberty of enclosing a letter from a friend explaining who I am, and that the questions I should entreat you to answer are not prompted by any idle or impertinent curiosity; perhaps, then, you would be so good as to say whether you know anything of a person named Yelland Mace, who visited Paris some twenty years since?”

“I am in London, Sir, ubon my business, and no one else’s. I am sinking of myself, and not about Mace or Longcluse, and I will not speak about eizer of zem. I am well baid for my dime. I will nod waste my dime on dalking — I will nod,” he continues, warming as he proceeds; “nosing shall induce me do say one word aboud zoze gendlemen. I dake my oas I’ll not, mein Gott! What do you mean by asking me aboud zem?”

He looks positively ferocious as he delivers this expostulation.

“My request must be more unreasonable than it appeared to me.”

“Nosing can be more unreasonable!”

“And I am to understand that you positively object to giving me any information respecting the persons I have named?”

The baron appeared extremely uneasy. He trotted to the door on his short legs, and looked out. Returning, he shut the door carefully. His grimy countenance, under the action of fear, assumes an expression peculiarly forbidding; and he said, with angry volubility —

“Zis visit must end, Sir, zis moment. Donnerwesser! I will nod be combromised by you. But if you bromise as a Christian, ubon your honour, never to mention what I say ——”

“Never, upon my honour.”

“Nor to say you have talked with me here in London ——”

“Never.”

“I will tell you that I have no objection to sbeak wis you, privately in Paris, whenever you are zere — now, now! zat is all. I will not have one ozer word — you shall not stay one ozer minude.”

He opens the door and wags his head peremptorily, and points with his pipe to the lobby.

“You’ll not forget your promise, Baron, when I call? for visit you I will.”

“I never forget nosing. Monsieur Arden, will you go or nod?”

“Farewell, Sir,” says his visitor, too much excited by the promise opened to him, for the moment to apprehend what was ridiculous in the scene or in the brutality of the baron.

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