Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 59.

Two Old Friends Meet and Part.

When he was gone the Baron Vanboeren sat down and panted; his pipe had gone out, and he clutched it in his hand like a weapon and continued for some minutes, in the good old phrase, very much disordered.

“That old fool,” he mutters, in his native German, “won’t come near me again while I remain in London.”

This assurance was, I suppose, consolatory, for the baron repeated it several times; and then bounced to his feet, and made a few hurried preparations for an appearance in the streets. He put on a short cloak which had served him for the last thirty years, and a preposterous hat; and with a thick stick in his hand, and a cigar lighted, sallied forth, square and short, to make Mr. Longcluse a visit by appointment.

By this time the lamps were lighted. There had been a performance of Saul, a very brilliant success, although it pleased the baron to grumble over it that day. He had not returned from the great room where it had taken place more than an hour, when David Arden had paid his brief visit. He was now hastening to an interview which he thought much more momentous. Few persons who looked at that vulgar seedy figure, strutting through the mud, would have thought that the thread-bare black cloak, over which a brown autumnal tint had spread, and the monstrous battered felt hat, in which a costermonger would scarcely have gone abroad, covered a man worth a hundred and fifty thousand pounds.

Man is mysteriously so constructed that he cannot abandon himself to selfishness, which is the very reverse of heavenly love, without in the end contracting some incurable insanity; and that insanity of the higher man constitutes, to a great extent, his mental death. The Baron Vanboeren’s insanity was avarice; and his solitary expenses caused him all the sordid anxieties which haunt the unfortunate gentleman who must make both ends meet on five-and-thirty pounds a year.

Though not sui profusus, he was alieni appetens in a very high degree; and his visit to Mr. Longcluse was not one of mere affection.

Mr. Longcluse was at home in his study. The baron was instantly shown in. Mr. Longcluse, smiling, with both hands extended to grasp his, advances to meet him.

“My dear Baron, what an unexpected pleasure! I could scarcely believe my eyes when I read your note. So you have a stake in this musical speculation, and though it is very late, and, of course, everything at a disadvantage, I have to congratulate you on an immense success.”

The baron shrugs, shakes his head, and rolls his eyes dismally.

“Ah, my friend, ze exbenses are enormous.”

“And the receipts still more so,” says Longcluse cheerfully; “you must be making, among you, a mint of money.”

“Ah! Monsieur Longcluse, id is nod what it should be! zay are all such sieves and robbers! I will never escape under a loss of a sousand bounds.”

“You must be cheerful, my dear Baron. You shall dine with me today. I’ll take you with me to half a dozen places of amusement worth seeing after dinner. To-morrow morning you shall run down with me to Brighton — my yacht is there — and when you have had enough of that, we shall run up again and have a whitebait dinner at Greenwich; and come into town and see those fellows, Markham and the other, that poor little Lebas saw play, the night he was murdered. You must see them play the return match, so long postponed. Next day we shall ——”

“Bardon, Monsieur, bardon! I am doo old. I have no spirits.”

“What, not enough to see a game of billiards between Markham and Hood! Why, Lebas was charmed so far as he saw it, poor fellow, with their play.”

“No, no, no, no, Monsieur; a sousand sanks, no, bardon, I cannod,” says the baron. “I do not like billiards, and your friends have not found it a lucky game.”

“Well, if you don’t care for billiards, we’ll find something else,” replies hospitable Mr. Longcluse.

“Nosing else, nosing else,” answers the baron hastily. “I hade all zese sings, ze seatres, ze bubbedshows, and all ze ozer amusements, I give you my oas. Did you read my liddle node?”

“I did indeed, and it amused me beyond measure,” says Longcluse joyously.

“Amuse!” repeats the baron, “how so?”

“Because it is so diverting; one might almost fancy it was meant to ask me for fifteen hundred pounds.”

“I have lost, by zis sing, a vast deal more zan zat.”

“And, my dear Baron, what on earth have I to do with that?”

“I am an old friend, a good friend, a true friend,” says the baron, while his fierce little eyes sweep the walls, from corner to corner, with quivering rapidity. “You would not like to see me quide in a corner. You’re the richest man in England, almost; what’s one sousand five hundred to you? I have not wridden to you, or come to England, dill now. You have done nosing for your old friend yet: what are you going to give him?”

“Not as much as I gave Lebas,” said Longcluse, eyeing him askance, with a smile.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Not a napoleon, not a franc, not a sou.”

“You are jesding; sink, sink, sink, Monsieur, what a friend I have been and am to you.”

“So I do, my dear Baron, and consider how I show my gratitude. Have I ever given a hint to the French police about the identity of the clever gentleman who managed the little tunnel through which a river of champagne flowed into Paris, under the barrier, duty free? Have I ever said a word about the confiscated jewels of the Marchioness de la Sarnierre? Have I ever asked how the Comte de Loubourg’s little boy is, or directed an unfriendly eye upon the conscientious physician who extricates ladies and gentlemen from the consequences of late hours, nervous depression, and fifty other things that war against good digestion and sound sleep? Come, come, my good Baron, whenever we come to square accounts, the balance will stand very heavily in my favour. I don’t want to press for a settlement, but if you urge it, by Heaven, I’ll make you pay the uttermost farthing!”

Longcluse laughs cynically. The baron looks very angry. His face darkens to a leaden hue. The fingers which he plunged into his snuff-box are trembling. He takes two or three great pinches of snuff before speaking.

Mr. Longcluse watches all these symptoms of his state of mind with a sardonic enjoyment, beneath which, perhaps, is the sort of suspense with which a beast-tamer watches the eye of the animal whose fury he excites only to exhibit the coercion which he exercises through its fears, and who is for a moment doubtful whether its terrors or its fury may prevail.

The baron’s restless eyes roll wickedly. He puts his hand into his pocket irresolutely, and crumbles some papers there. There was no knowing, for some seconds, what turn things might take. But if he had for a moment meditated a crisis, he thought better of it. He breaks into a fierce laugh, and extends his hand to Mr. Longcluse, who as frankly places his own in it, and the baron shakes it vehemently. And Mr. Longcluse and he laugh boisterously and oddly together. The baron takes another great pinch of snuff, and then he says, sponging out as it were, as an ignored parenthesis, the critical part of their conversation —

“No, no, I sink not; no, no, surely not. I am not fit for all zose amusements. I cannot knog aboud as I used; an old fellow, you know: beace and tranquilidy. No, I cannot dine with you. I dine with Stentoroni tomorrow; today I have dined with our tenore. How well you look! What nose, what tees, what chin! I am proud of you. We bart good friends, bon soir, Monsieur Longcluse, farewell. I am already a liddle lade.”

“Farewell, dear Baron. How can I thank you enough for this kind meeting? Try one of my cigars as you go home.”

The baron, not being a proud man, took half-a-dozen, and with a final shaking of hands these merry gentlemen parted, and Longcluse’s door closed for ever on the Baron Vanboeren.

“That bloated spider?” mused Mr. Longcluse. “How many flies has he sucked! It is another matter when spiders take to catching wasps.”

Every man of energetic passions has within him a principle of self-destruction. Longcluse had his. It had expressed itself in his passion for Alice Arden. That passion had undergone a wondrous change, but it was imperishable in its new as in its pristine state.

This gentleman was in the dumps so soon as he was left alone. Always uncertainty; always the sword of Damocles; always the little reminders of perdition, each one contemptible, but each one in succession touching the same set of nerves, and like the fall of the drop of water in the inquisition, non vi, sed sæpe cadendo, gradually heightening monotony into excitement, and excitement into frenzy. Living always with a sense of the unreality of life and the vicinity of death, with a certain stern tremor of the heart, like that of a man going into action, no wonder if he sometimes sickened of his bargain with Fate, and thought life purchased too dear on the terms of such a lease.

Longcluse bolted his door, unlocked his desk, and there what do we see? Six or seven miniatures — two enamels, the rest on ivory — all by different hands; some English, some Parisian; very exquisite, some of them. Every one was Alice Arden. Little did she dream that such a gallery existed. How were they taken? Photographs are the colourless phantoms from which these glowing life-like beauties start. Tender-hearted Lady May has in confidence given him, from time to time, several of these from her album; he has induced foreign artists to visit London, and managed opportunities by which, at parties, in theatres, and I am sorry to say even in church, these clever persons succeeded in studying from the life, and learning all the tints which now glow before him. If I had mentioned what this little collection cost him, you would have opened your eyes. The Baron Vanboeren would have laughed and cursed him with hilarious derision, and a money-getting Christian would have been quite horror-struck, on reading the scandalous row of figures.

Each miniature he takes in turn, and looks at for a long time, holding it in both hands, his hands resting on the desk, his face inclined and sad, as if looking down into the coffin of his darling. One after the other he puts them by, and returns to his favourite one; and at last he shuts it up also, with a snap, and places it with the rest in the dark, under lock and key.

He leaned back and laid his thin hand across his eyes. Was he looking at an image that came out in the dark on the retina of memory? Or was he shedding tears?

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