Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 14.

Mr. Longcluse’s Boot Finds a Temporary Asylum.

In the papers of that morning had appeared a voluminous report of the proceedings of the coroner’s inquest which sat upon the body of the deceased Pierre Lebas. I shall notice but one passage referring to the evidence which, it seems, Mr. Longcluse volunteered. It was given in these terms:—

“At this point of the proceedings, Mr. R. D. Longcluse, who had arrived about half an hour before, expressed a wish to be examined. Mr. Longcluse was accordingly sworn, and deposed that he had known the deceased, Pierre Lebas, when he (Mr. Longcluse) was little more than a boy, in Paris. Lebas at that time let lodgings, which were neat and comfortable, in the Rue Victoire. He was a respectable and obliging man. He had some other occupation besides that of letting lodgings, but he (Mr. Longcluse) could not say what it might be.” Then followed particulars with which we are already acquainted; and the report went on to say: “He seemed surprised when witness told him that there might be in the room persons of the worst character; and he then, in considerable alarm, pointed out to him (witness) a man who was and had been following him from place to place, he fancied with a purpose. Witness observed the man and saw him watch deceased, turning his eyes repeatedly upon him. The man had no companions, so far as he could see, and affected to be looking in a different direction. It was sideways and stealthily that he was watching deceased, who had incautiously taken out and counted some of his money in the room. Deceased did not conceal from the witness his apprehensions from this man, and witness advised him again to place his money in the hands of some friend who had a secure pocket, and recommended, in case his friend should object to take so much money into his care — Lebas having said he had a large sum about him — under the gaze of the public, that he should make the transfer in the smoking-room, the situation of which he described to him. Mr. Longcluse then proceeded to give an exact description of the man who had been dogging the deceased; the particulars were as follows:—”

Here I arrest my quotation, for I need not recapitulate the details of the tall man’s features, dress, and figure, which are already familiar to the reader.

In a court off High Holborn there was, and perhaps is, a sort of coffee-shop, in the small drawing-rooms of which, thrown into one room, are many small and homely tables, with penny and halfpenny papers, and literature with startling woodcuts. Here working mechanics and others snatch a very early breakfast, and take their dinners, and such as can afford time loiter their half-hour or so over this agreeable literature. One penny morning paper visited that place of refection, for three hours daily, and then flitted away to keep an appointment elsewhere. It was this dull time in that peculiar establishment — namely, about nine o’clock in the morning — and there was but one listless guest in the room. It was the identical tall man in question. His flat feet were planted on the bare floor, and he leaned a shoulder against the window-case, with a plug of tobacco in his jaw, as, at his leisure, he was getting through the coroner’s inquest on Pierre Lebas. He was smiling with half-closed eyes and considerable enjoyment, up to the point where Mr. Longcluse’s evidence was suddenly directed upon him. There was a twitching scowl, as if from a sudden pain; but his smile continued from habit, although his face grew paler. This man, whose name was Paul Davies, winked hard with his left eye, as he got on, and read fiercely with his right. His face was whiter now, and his smile less easy. It was a queerish situation, he thought, and might lead to consequences.

There was a little bit of a looking-glass, picked up at some rubbishy auction, as old as the hills, with some tarnished gilding about it, in the narrow bit of wall between the windows. Paul Davies could look at nothing quite straight. He looked now at himself in this glass, but it was from the corners of his eyes, askance, and with his sly, sleepy depression of the eye-lids, as if he had not overmuch confidence even in his own shadow. He folded the morning paper, and laid it, with formal precision, on the table, as if no one had disturbed it; and taking up the Halfpenny Illustrated Broadsheet of Fiction, and with it flourishing in his hand by the corner, he called the waiter over the bannister, and paid his reckoning, and went off swiftly to his garret in another court, a quarter of a mile nearer to Saint Paul’s — taking an obscure and devious course through back-lanes and sequestered courts.

When he got up to his garret, Mr. Davies locked his door and sat down on the side of his creaking settle-bed, and, in his playful phrase, “put on his considering cap.”

“That’s a dangerous cove, that Mr. Longcluse. He’s done a bold stroke. And now it’s him or me, I do suppose — him or me; me or him. Come, Paul, shake up your knowledge-box; I’ll not lose this cast simple. He’s gave a description of me. The force will know it. And them feet o’ mine, they are a bit flat: but any chap can make a pair of insteps with a penn’orth o’ rags. I wouldn’t care tuppence if it wasn’t for them pock-marks. There’s no managing them. A scar or a wart you may touch over with paint and sollible gutta-percha, or pink wafers and gelatine, but pock-marks is too many for any man.”

He was looking with some anxiety in the triangular fragment of looking-glass — balanced on a nail in the window-case — at his features.

“I can take off them whiskers; and the long neck he makes so much of, if it was as long as an oystrich, with fourpenn’orth of cotton waste and a cabbage-net, I’d make a bull of it, and run my shoulders up to my ears. I’ll take the whiskers off, anyhow. That’s no treason; and he mayn’t identify me. If I’m not had up for a fortnight my hair would be grew a bit, and that would be a lift. But a fellow must think twice before he begins disguisin’. Juries smells a rat. Howsomever, a cove may shave, and no harm done; or his hair may grow a bit, and how can he help it? Longcluse knows what he’s about. He’s a sharp lad, but for all that Paul Davies ‘ill sweat him yet.”

Mr. Davies turned the button of his old-fashioned window, and let it down. He shut out his two scarlet geraniums, which accompanied him in all his changes from one lodging to another.

“Suppose he tries the larceny — that’s another thing he may do, seeing what my lay is. It wouldn’t do to lose that thing; no more would it answer to let them find it.”

This last idea seemed to cause Paul Davies a good deal of serious uneasiness. He began looking about at the walls, low down near the skirting, and up near the ceiling, tapping now and then with his knuckles, and sounding the plaster as a doctor would the chest of a wheezy patient. He was not satisfied. He scratched his head, and fiddled with his ear, and plucked his short nose dubiously, and winked hard at his geraniums through the window.

Paul Davies knew that the front garret was not let. He opened his door and listened. Then he entered that room. I think he had a notion of changing his lodgings, if only he could find what he wanted. That was such a hiding-place as professional seekers were not likely to discover. But he could not satisfy himself.

A thought struck him, however, and he went into the lobby again; he got on a chair and pushed open the skylight, and out went Mr. Davies on the roof. He looked and poked about here. He looked to the neighbouring roofs, lest any eye should be upon him; but there was no one. A maid hanging clothes upon a line, on a sort of balcony, midway down the next house, was singing, “The Ratcatcher’s Daughter,” he thought rather sweetly — so well, indeed, that he listened for two whole verses — but that did not signify.

Paul Davies kneeled down, and loosed and removed, one after the other, several slates near the lead gutter, between the gables; and, having made a sufficient opening in the roof for his purpose, he returned, let himself down lightly through the skylight, entered his room, and locked himself up. He then unlocked his trunk and took from under his clothes, where it lay, a French boot — the veritable boot of Mr. Longcluse — which, for greater security, he popped under the coarse coverlet of his bed. He next took from his trunk a large piece of paper which, being unfolded at the window, disclosed a rude drawing with a sentence or two underneath, and three signatures, with a date preceding.

Having read this document over twice or thrice, with a rather menacing smile, he rolled it up in brown paper and thrust it into the foot of the boot, which he popped under the coverlet and bolster. He then opened his door wide. Too long a silence might possibly have seemed mysterious, and called up prying eyes, so, while he filled his pipe with tobacco, he whistled, “Villikins and his Dinah” lustily. He was very cautious about this boot and paper. He got on his great-coat and felt hat, and took his pipe and some matches — the enjoying a quiet smoke without troubling others with the perfume was a natural way of accounting for his visit to the roof. He listened. He slipped his boot and its contents into his capacious great-coat pocket, with a rag of old carpet tied round it; and then, whistling still cheerily, he mounted the roof again, and placed the precious parcel within the roof, which he, having some skill as a slater, proceeded carefully and quickly to restore.

Down came Mr. Davies now, and shaved off his whiskers. Then he walked out, with a bundle consisting of the coat, waistcoat, and blue necktie he had worn on the evening of Lebas’s murder. He was going to pay a visit to his mother, a venerable greengrocer, who lived near the Tower of London; and on his way he pledged these articles at two distinct and very remote pawnbrokers’, intending on his return to release, with the proceeds, certain corresponding articles of his wardrobe, now in ward in another establishment. These measures of obliteration he was taking quietly. His visit to his mother, a very honest old woman, who believed him to be the most virtuous, agreeable, and beautiful young man extant, was made with a very particular purpose.

“Well, Ma’am,” he said, in reply to the old lady’s hospitable greeting, “I won’t refuse a pot of half-and-half and a couple of eggs, and I’ll go so far as a cut or two of bacon, bein’ ‘ungry; and I’m a-goin’ to write a paper of some consequence, if you’ll obleege me with a sheet of foolscap and a pen and ink; and I may as well write it while the things is a-gettin’ ready, accordin’ to your kind intentions.”

And accordingly Mr. Paul Davies sat in silence, looking very important — as he always did when stationery was before him — at a small table, in a dark back room, and slowly penned a couple of pages of foolscap.

“And now,” said he, producing the document after his repast, “will you be so good, Ma’am, as to ask Mr. Sildyke and Mrs. Rumble to come down and witness my signing of this, which I mean to leave it in your hands and safe keepin’, under lock and key, until I take it away, or otherwise tells you what you must do with it. It is a police paper, Ma’am, and may be wanted any time. But you keep it dark till I tells you.”

This settled, Mr. Sildyke and Mrs. Rumble arrived obligingly; and Paul Davies, with an adroit wink at his mother — who was a little shocked and much embarrassed by the ruse, being a truth-loving woman — told them that here was his last will and testament, and he wanted only that they should witness his signature; which, with the date, was duly accomplished. Paul Davies was, indeed, a man of that genius which requires to proceed by stratagem, cherishing an abhorrence of straight lines, and a picturesque love of the curved and angular. So, if Mr. Longcluse was doing his duty at one end of the town, Mr. Davies, at the other, was by no means wanting in activity, or, according to the level of his intellect and experience, in wisdom.

We have recurred to these scenes in which Mr. Paul Davies figures, because it was indispensable to the reader’s right understanding of some events that follow. Be so good, then, as to find Sir Reginald exactly where I left him, standing on the steps of Mortlake Hall. His daughter would have stayed, but he would not hear of it. He stood on the steps, and smirked a yellow and hollow farewell, waving his hand as the carriage drove away. Then he turned and entered the lofty hall, in which the light was already failing.

Sir Reginald did not like the trouble of mounting the stairs. His bed-room and sitting-room were on a level with the hall. As soon as he came in, the gloom of his old prison-house began to overshadow him, and his momentary cheer and good-humour disappeared.

“Where is Tansey? I suppose she’s in her bed, or grumbling in toothache,” he snarled to the footman. “And where the devil’s Crozier? I have the fewest and the worst servants, I believe, of any man in England.”

He poked open the door of his sitting-room with the point of his walking-stick.

“Nothing ready, I dare swear,” he quavered, and shot a peevish and fiery glance round it.

Things were not looking quite so badly as he expected. There was just the little bit of expiring fire in the grate which he liked, even in summer. His sealskin slippers were on the hearth-rug, and his easy-chair was pushed into its proper place.

“Ha! Crozier, at last! Here, get off this coat, and these mufflers, and —— I was d —— d near dying in that vile chaise. I don’t remember how they got me into the inn. There, don’t mind condoling. You’re privileged, but don’t do that. As near dying as possible — rather an awkward business for useless old servants here, if I had. I’ll dress in the next room. My son’s coming this evening. Admit him, mind. I’ll see him. How long is it since we met last? Two years, egad! And Lord Wynderbroke has his dinner here — I don’t know what day, but some day very soon — Friday, I think; and don’t let the people here go to sleep. Remember!”

And so on, with his old servant, he talked, and sneered, and snarled, and established himself in his sitting-room, with his reviews, and his wine, and his newspapers.

Night fell over dark Mortlake Hall, and over the blazing city of London. Sir Reginald listened, every now and then, for the approach of his son. Talk as he might, he did expect something — and a great deal — from the coming interview. Two years without a home, without an allowance, with no provision except a hundred and fifty pounds a year, might well have tamed that wilful beast!

With the tremor of acute suspense, the old man watched and listened. Was it a good or an ill sign, his being so late?

The city of London, with its still roaring traffic and blaze of gas-lamps, did not contrast more powerfully with the silent shadows of the forest-grounds of Mortlake, than did the drawing-room of Lady May Penrose, brilliant with a profusion of light, and resonant with the gay conversation of inmates, all disposed to enjoy themselves, with the dim and vast room in which Sir Reginald sat silently communing with his own dismal thoughts.

Nothing so contagious as gaiety. Alice Arden, laughingly, was “making her book” rather prematurely in dozens of pairs of gloves, for the Derby. Lord Wynderbroke was deep in it. So was Vivian Darnley.

“Your brother and I are to take the reins, turn about, Lady May says. He’s a crack whip. He’s better than I, I think,” said Vivian to Alice Arden.

“You mustn’t upset us, though. I am so afraid of you crack whips!” said Alice. “Nor let your horses run away with us; I’ve been twice run away with already.”

“I don’t the least wonder at Miss Arden’s being run away with very often,” said Lord Wynderbroke, with all the archness of a polite man of fifty.

“Very prettily said, Wynderbroke,” smiled Lady May. “And where is your brother? I thought he’d have turned up to-night,” asked she of Alice.

“I quite forgot. He was to see papa this evening. They wanted to talk over something together.”

“Oh, I see!” said Lady May, and she became thoughtful.

What was the exact nature of the interest which good Lady May undoubtedly took in Richard Arden? Was it quite so motherly as years might warrant? At that time people laughed over it, and were curious to see the progress of the comedy. Here was light and gaiety — light within, lamps without; spirited talk in young anticipation of coming days of pleasure; and outside the roll of carriage-wheels making a humming bass to this merry treble.

Over the melancholy precincts of Mortlake the voiceless darkness of night descends with unmitigated gloom. The centre — the brain of this dark place — is the house: and in a large dim room, near the smouldering fire, sits the image that haunts rather than inhabits it.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57