Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 78.

The Catacombs.

At his disappearance, for Sir Richard the air darkened as when, in the tropics, the sun sets without a twilight, and the silence of an awful night descended.

It seemed that safety had been so near. He had laid his hand upon it, and had let it glide ungrasped between his fingers; and now the sky was black above him, and an unfathomable sea beneath.

Mr. Longcluse was in great spirits. He had grown for a time like the Walter Longcluse of a year before.

They two dined together, and after dinner Mr. Longcluse grew happy, and as he sat with his glass by him, he sang, looking over the waves, a sweet little sentimental song, about ships that pass at sea, and smiles and tears, and “true, boys, true,” and “heaven shows a glimpse of its blue.” And he walks with Sir Richard to the station, and he says, low, as he leans and looks into the carriage window, of which young Arden was the only occupant —

“Be true to me now, and we may make it up yet.”

And so saying, he gives his hand a single pressure as he looks hard in his eyes.

The bell had rung. He was remaining there, he said, for another train. The clapping of the doors had ceased. He stood back. The whistle blew its long piercing yell, and as the train began to glide towards London, the young man saw the white face of Walter Longcluse in deep shadow, as he stood with his back to the lamp, still turned towards him.

The train was now thundering on its course; the solitary lamp glimmered in the roof. He threw himself back, with his foot against the opposite seat.

“Good God! what is one to resolve! All men are cruel when they are exasperated. Might not good yet be made of Longcluse? What creatures women are! — what fools! How easy all might have been made, with the least temper and reflection! What d —— d selfishness!”


Uncle David was now in Paris. The moon was shining over that beautiful city. In a lonely street, in a quarter which fashion had long forsaken — over whose pavement, as yet unconscious of the Revolution, had passed, in the glare of torchlight, the carved and emblazoned carriages of an aristocracy, as shadowy now as the courts of the Cæsars — his footsteps are echoing.

A huge house presents its front. He stops and examines it carefully for a few seconds. It is the house of which he is in search.

At one time the Baron Vanboeren had received patients from the country, to reside in this house. For the last year, during which he had been gathering together his wealth, and detaching himself from business, he had discontinued this, and had gradually got rid of his establishment.

When David Arden rang the bell at the hall-door, which he had to do repeatedly, it was answered at last by an old woman, high-shouldered, skin and bone, with a great nose, and big jaw-bones, and a high-cauled cap. This lean creature looks at him with a vexed and hollow eye. Her bony arm rests on the lock of the hall-door, and she blocks the narrow aperture between its edge and the massive door-case. She inquires in very nasal French what Monsieur desires.

“I wish to see Monsieur the Baron, if he will permit me an interview,” answered Mr. Arden in very fair French.

“Monsieur the Baron is not visible; but if Monsieur will, notwithstanding, leave any message he pleases for Monsieur the Baron, I will take care he receives it punctually.”

“But Monsieur the Baron appointed me to call to-night at ten o’clock.”

“Is Monsieur sure of that?”

“Perfectly.”

“Eh, very well; but, if he pleases, I must first learn Monsieur’s name.”

“My name is Arden.”

“I believe Monsieur is right.” She took a bit of notepaper from her capacious pocket, and peering at it, spelled aloud, “D-a-v-i-d ——”

“A-r-d-e-n,” interrupted and continued the visitor, spelling his name, with a smile.

“A-r-d-e-n,” she followed, reading slowly from her paper; “yes, Monsieur is right. You see, this paper says, ‘Admit Monsieur David Arden to an interview.’ Enter, if you please Monsieur, and follow me.”

It was a decayed house of superb proportions, but of a fashion long passed away. The gaunt old woman, with a bunch of large keys clinking at her side, stalked up the broad stairs and into a gallery, and through several rooms opening en suite. The rooms were hung with cobwebs, dusty, empty, and the shutters closed, except here and there where the moonlight gleamed through chinks and seams.

David Arden, before he had seen the Baron Vanboeren in London, had pictured him in imagination a tall old man with classic features, and manners courteous and somewhat stately.

We do not fabricate such images; they rise like exhalations from a few scattered data, and present themselves spontaneously. It is this self-creation that invests them with so much reality in our imaginations, and subjects us to so odd a surprise when the original turns out quite unlike the portrait with which we have been amusing ourselves.

She now pushed open a door, and said, “Monsieur the Baron here is arrived Monsieur David d’Ardennes.”

The room in which he now stood was spacious, but very nearly dark. The shutters were closed outside, and the moonlight that entered came through the circular hole cut in each. A large candle on a bracket burned at the further end of the room. There the baron stood. A reflector which interposed between the candle and the door at which David Arden entered directed its light strongly upon something which the baron held, and laid upon the table, in his hand; and now that he turned toward his visitor, it was concentrated upon his large face, revealing, with the force of a Rembrandt, all its furrows and finer wrinkles. He stood out against a background of darkness with remarkable force.

The baron stood before him — a short man in a red waistcoat. He looked more broad-shouldered and short-necked than ever in his shirt-sleeves. He had an instrument in his hand resembling a small bit and brace, and some chips and sawdust on his flannel waistcoat, which he brushed off with two or three sweeps of his short fat fingers. He looked now like a grim old mechanic. There was no vivacity in his putty-coloured features, but there were promptitude and decision in every abrupt gesture. It was his towering, bald forehead, and something of command and savage energy in his lowering face, that redeemed the tout ensemble from an almost brutal vulgarity.

The baron was not in the slightest degree “put out,” as the phrase is, at being detected in his present occupation and deshabille.

He bowed twice to David Arden, and said, in English, with a little foreign accent —

“Here is a chair, Monsieur Arden; but you can hardly see it until your eyes have grown a little accustomed to our crépuscula.”

This was true enough, for David Arden, though he saw him advance a step or two, could not have known what he held in the hand that was in shadow. The sound, indeed, of the legs of the chair, as he set it down upon the floor, he heard.

“I should make you an apology, Mr. Arden, if I were any longer in my own home, which I am not, although this is still my house; for I have dismissed my servants, sold my furniture, and sent what things I cared to retain over the frontier to my new habitation, whither I shall soon follow; and this house too, I shall sell. I have already two or three gudgeons nibbling, Monsieur.”

“This house must have been the hotel of some distinguished family, Baron; it is nobly proportioned,” said David Arden.

As his eye became accustomed to the gloom, David Arden saw traces of gilding on the walls. The shattered frames on which the tapestry was stretched in old times remained in the panels, with crops of small, rusty nails visible. The faint candle-light glimmered on a ponderous gilded cornice, which had also sustained violence. The floor was bare, with a great deal of litter, and some scanty furniture. There was a lathe near the spot where David Arden stood, and shavings and splinters under his feet. There was a great block with a vice attached. In a portion of the fire-place was built a furnace. There were pincers and other instruments lying about the room, which had more the appearance of an untidy workshop than of a study, and seemed a suitable enough abode for the uncouth figure that confronted him.

“Ha! Monsieur,” growls the baron, “stone walls have ears, you say if only they had tongues; what tales these could tell! This house was one of Madame du Barry’s, and was sacked in the great Revolution. The mirrors were let into the plaster in the walls. In some of the rooms there are large fragments still stuck in the wall so fast, you would need a hammer and chisel to dislodge and break them up. This room was an ante-room, and admitted to the lady’s bed-room by two doors, this and that. The panels of that other, by which you entered from the stair, were of mirror. They were quite smashed. The furniture, I suppose, flew out of the window; everything was broken up in small bits, and torn to rags, or carried off to the broker after the first fury, and sansculotte families came in and took possession of the wrecked apartments. You will say then, what was left? The bricks, the stones, hardly the plaster on the walls. Yet, Monsieur Arden, I have discovered some of the best treasures the house contained, and they are at present in this room. Are you a collector, Monsieur Arden?”

Uncle David disclaimed the honourable imputation. He was thinking of cutting all this short, and bringing the baron to the point. The old man was at the period when the egotism of age asserts itself, and was garrulous, and being, perhaps, despotic and fierce (he looked both), he might easily take fire and become impracticable. Therefore, on second thoughts, he was cautious.

“You can now see more plainly,” said the baron. “Will you approach? Concealed by a double covering of strong paper pasted over it, and painted and gilded, each of these two doors on its six panels contains six distinct master-pieces of Watteau’s. I have known that for ten years, and have postponed removing them. Twelve Watteaus, as fine as any in the world! I would not trust their removal to any other hand, and so, the panel comes out without a shake. Come here, Monsieur, if you please. This candle affords a light sufficient to see, at least, some of the beauties of these incomparable works.”

“Thanks, Baron, a glance will suffice, for I am nothing of an artist.”

He approached. It was true that his sight had grown accustomed to the obscurity, for he could now see the baron’s features much more distinctly. His large waxen face was shorn smooth, except on the upper lip, where a short moustache still bristled; short black eyebrows contrasted also with the bald massive forehead, and round the eyes was a complication of mean and cunning wrinkles. Some peculiar lines between these contracted brows gave a character of ferocity to this forbidding and sensual face.

“Now! See there! Those four pictures — I would not sell those four Watteaus for one hundred thousand francs. And the other door is worth the same. Ha!”

“You are lucky, Baron.”

“I think so. I do not wish to part with them: I don’t think of selling them. See the folds of that brocade! See the ease and grace of the lady in the sacque, who sits on the bank there, under the myrtles, with the guitar on her lap! and see the animation and elegance of that dancing boy with the tambourine! This is a chef-d’oeuvre. I ought not to part with that, on any terms — no, never! You no doubt know many collectors, wealthy men, in England. Look at that shot silk, green and purple; and whom do you take that to be a portrait of, that lady with the castanets?”

He was pointing out each object, on which he descanted, with his stumpy finger, his hands being, I am bound to admit, by no means clean.

“If you do happen to know such people, nevertheless, I should not object to your telling them where this treasure may be seen, I’ve no objection. I should not like to part with them, that is true. No, no, no; but every man may be tempted, it is possible — possible, just possible.”

“I shall certainly mention them to some friends.”

“Wealthy men, of course,” said the baron.

“It is an expensive taste, Baron, and none but wealthy people can indulge it.”

“True, and these would be very expensive. They are unique; that lady there is the Du Barry— a portrait worth, alone, six thousand francs. Ha! he! Yes, when I take zese out and place zem, as I mean before I go, to be seen, they will bring all Europe together. Mit speck fangt man mause— with bacon one catches mice!”

“No doubt they will excite attention, Baron. But I feel I am wasting your time and abusing your courtesy in permitting my visit, the immediate object of which was to earnestly beg from you some information which, I think, no one else can give me.”

“Information? Oh! ah! Pray resume your chair, Sir. Information? yes, it is quite possible I may have information such as you need, Heaven knows! But knowledge, they say, is power, and if I do you a service I expect as much from you. Eine hand wascht die and’re— one hand, Monsieur, washes ze ozer. No man parts wis zat which is valuable, to strangers, wisout a proper honorarium. I receive no more patients here; but you understand, I may be induced to attend a patient: I may be tempted, you understand.”

“But this is not a case of attending a patient, Baron,” said David Arden, a little haughtily.

“And what ze devil is it, then?” said the baron, turning on him suddenly. “Monsieur will pardon me, but we professional men must turn our time and knowledge to account, do you see? And we don’t give eizer wizout being paid, and well paid for them, eh?”

“Of course. I meant nothing else,” said David Arden.

“Then, Sir, we understand one another so far, and that saves time. Now, what information can the Baron Vanboeren give to Monsieur David Arden?”

“I think you would prefer my putting my questions quite straight.”

“Straight as a sword-thrust, Sir.”

“Then, Baron, I want to know whether you were acquainted with two persons, Yelland Mace and Walter Longcluse.”

“Yes, I knew zem bos, slightly and yet intimately — intimately and yet but slightly. You wish, perhaps, to learn particulars about those gentlemen?”

“I do.”

“Go on: interrogate.”

“Do you perfectly recollect the features of these persons?”

“I ought.”

“Can you give me an accurate description of Yelland Mace?”

“I can bring you face to face with both.”

“By Jove! Sir, are you serious?”

“Mr. Longcluse is in London.”

“But you talk of bringing me face to face with them; how soon?”

“In five minutes.”

“Oh, you mean a photograph, or a picture?”

“No, in the solid. Here is the key of the catacombs.” And he took a key that hung from a nail on the wall.

“Bah, ha, yah!” exploded the baron, in a ferocious sneer, rather than a laugh, and shrugging his great shoulders to his ears, he shook them in barbarous glee, crying —“What clever fellow you are, Monsieur Arden! you see so well srough ze millstone! Ich bin klug und weise— you sing zat song. I am intelligent and wise, eh, he! gra-a, ha, ha!”

He seized the candlestick in one hand, and shaking the key in the other by the side of his huge forehead, he nodded once or twice to David Arden.

“Not much life where we are going; but you shall see zem bose.”

“You speak riddles, Baron; but by all means bring me, as you say, face to face with them.”

“Very good, Monsieur; you’ll follow me,” said the baron. And he opened a door that admitted to the gallery, and, with the candle and the keys, he led the way, by this corridor, to an iron door that had a singular appearance, being sunk two feet back in a deep wooden frame, that threw it into shadow. This he unlocked, and with an exertion of his weight and strength, swung slowly open.

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