Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 83.

A Short Parting.

The fluctuations of Mr. Arden’s conviction continued. His new acquaintance chatted gaily. They passed a transverse street, and he saw him glance quickly right and left, with a shrewd eye that did not quite accord with his careless demeanour.

Here for a moment the moon fell full upon them, and the effect of this new light was, once more, to impair Mr. Arden’s confidence in his last conclusions about this person. Again he was at sea as to his identity.

There were the gabble and vociferation of two women quarrelling in the street to the left, and three tipsy fellows, marching home, were singing a trio some way up the street to the right.

They had encountered but one figure — a seedy scrivener, slipshod, shuffling his way to his garret, with a baize bag of law-papers to copy in his left hand, and a sheaf of quills in his right, and a pale, careworn face turned up towards the sky. The streets were growing more silent and deserted as they proceeded.

He was sauntering onward by the side of this urbane and garrulous stranger, when, like a whisper, the thought came, “Take care!”

David Arden stopped short.

“Eh, bien?” said his polite companion, stopping simultaneously, and staring in his face a little grimly.

“On reflection, Monsieur, it is so late, that I fear I should hardly reach my hotel in time if I were to accept your agreeable invitation, and letters probably await me, which I should, at least, read to-night.”

“Surely Monsieur will not disappoint me — surely Monsieur is not going to treat me so oddly?” expostulated Monsieur St. Ange.

“Good-night, Sir. Farewell!” said David Arden, raising his hat as he turned to go.

There intervened not two yards between them, and the polite Monsieur St. Ange makes a stride after him, and extends his hand — whether there is a weapon in it, I know not; but he exclaims fiercely —

“Ha! robber! my purse!”

Fortunately, perhaps, at that moment, from a lane only a few yards away, emerge two gendarmes, and Monsieur St. Ange exclaims, “Ah, Monsieur, mille pardons! Here it is! All safe, Monsieur. Pray excuse my mistake as frankly as I have excused yours. Adieu!”

Monsieur St. Ange raises his hat, shrugs, smiles, and withdrew.

Uncle David thought, on the whole, he was well rid of his ambiguous acquaintance, and strode along beside the gendarmes, who civilly directed him upon his way, which he had lost.

So, then, upon Mr. Longcluse’s fortunes the sun shone; his star, it would seem, was in the ascendant. If the evil genius who ruled his destiny was contending, in a chess game, with the good angel of Alice Arden, her game seemed pretty well lost, and the last move near.

When David Arden reached his hotel a note awaited him, in the hand of the Baron Vanboeren. He read it under the gas in the hall. It said:—

“We must, in this world, forgive and reconsider many things. I therefore pardon you, you me. So soon as you have slept upon our conversation, you will accept an offer which I cannot modify. I always proportion the burden to the back. The rich pay me handsomely; for the poor I have prescribed and operated, sometimes, for nothing! You have the good fortune, like myself, to be childless, wifeless, and rich. When I take a fancy to a thing, nothing stops me; you, no doubt, in like manner. The trouble is something to me; the danger, which you count nothing, to me is much. The compensation I name, estimated without the circumstances, is large; compared with my wealth, trifling; compared with your wealth, nothing; as the condition of a transaction between you and me, therefore, not worth mentioning. The accident of last night I can repair. The original matrix of each mask remains safe in my hands: from this I can multiply casts ad libitum. Both these matrices I will hammer into powder at twelve o’clock tomorrow night, unless my liberal offer shall have been accepted before that hour. I write to a man of honour. We understand each other.

“EMMANUEL VANBOEREN.”

The ruin, then, was not irretrievable; and there was time to take advice, and think it over. In the baron’s brutal letter there was a coarse logic, not without its weight.

In better spirits David Arden betook himself to bed. It vexed him to think of submitting to the avarice of that wicked old extortioner; but to that submission, reluctant as he is, it seems probable he will come.

And now his thoughts turn upon the hospitable Monsieur St. Ange, and he begins, I must admit not altogether without reason, to reflect what a fool he has been. He wonders whether that hospitable and polite gentleman had intended to murder him, at the moment when the gendarmes so luckily appeared. And in the midst of his speculations, overpowered by fatigue, he fell asleep, and ate his breakfast next morning very happily.

Uncle David had none of that small diplomatic genius that helps to make a good attorney. That sort of knowledge of human nature would have prompted a careless reception of the baron’s note, and an entire absence of that promptitude which seems to imply an anxiety to seize an offer.

Accordingly, it was at about eleven o’clock in the morning that he presented himself at the house of the Baron Vanboeren.

He was not destined to conclude a reconciliation with that German noble, nor to listen to his abrupt loquacity, nor ever more to discuss or negotiate anything whatsoever with him, for the Baron Vanboeren had been found that morning close to his hall door on the floor, shot with no less than three bullets through his body, and his pipe in both hands clenched to his blood-soaked breast like a crucifix. The baron is not actually dead. He has been hours insensible. He cannot live; and the doctor says that neither speech nor recollection can return before he dies.

By whose hands, for what cause, in what manner the world had lost that excellent man, no one could say. A great variety of theories prevail on the subject. He had sent the old servant for Pierre la Roche, whom he employed as a messenger, and he had given him at about a quarter to eleven a note addressed to David Arden, Esquire, which was no doubt that which Mr. Arden had received.

Had Heaven decreed that this investigation should come to naught? This blow seemed irremediable.

David Arden, however, had, as I mentioned, official friends, and it struck him that he might through them obtain access to the rooms in which his interviews with the baron had taken place; and that an ingenious and patient artist in plaster might be found who would search out the matrices, or, at worst, piece the fragments of the mask together, and so, in part, perhaps, restore the demolished evidence. It turned out, however, that the destruction of these relics was too complete for any such experiments; and all that now remained was, upon the baron’s letter of the evening before, to move in official quarters for a search for those “matrices” from which it was alleged the masks were taken.

This subject so engrossed his mind, that it was not until after his late dinner that he began once more to think of Monsieur St. Ange, and his resemblance to Mr. Longcluse; and a new suspicion began to envelope those gentlemen in his imagination. A thought struck him, and up got Uncle David, leaving his wine unfinished, and a few minutes more saw him in the telegraph office, writing the following message:—

“From Monsieur David Arden, etc., to Monsieur Blount, 5 Manchester Buildings, Westminster, London.

“Pray telegraph immediately to say whether Mr. Longcluse is at his house, Bolton Street, Piccadilly.”

No answer reached him that night; but in the morning he found a telegram dated 11.30 of the previous night, which said —

“Mr. Longcluse is ill at his house at Richmond — better today.”

To this promptly he replied —

“See him, if possible, immediately at Richmond, and say how he looks. The surrender of the lease in Crown Alley will be an excuse. See him if there. Ascertain with certainty where. Telegraph immediately.”

No answer had reached Uncle David at three o’clock P.M.; he had despatched his message at nine. He was impatient, and walked to the telegraph office to make inquiries, and to grumble. He sent another message in querulous and peremptory laconics. But no answer came till near twelve o’clock, when the following was delivered to him:—

“Yours came while out. Received at 6 P.M. Saw Longcluse at Richmond. Looks seedy. Says he is all right now.”

He read this twice or thrice, and lowered the hand whose fingers held it by the corner, and looked up, taking a turn or two about the room; and he thought what a precious fool he must have appeared to Monsieur St. Ange, and then again, with another view of that gentleman’s character, what an escape he had possibly had.

So there was no distraction any longer; and he directed his mind now exclusively upon the distinct object of securing possession of the moulds from which the masks were taken; and for many reasons it is not likely that very much will come of his search.

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