Checkmate, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 82.


It was late, he did not know or care how late. He was by no means familiar with this quarter of the city. He was agitated and angry, and did not wish to return to his hotel till he had a little walked off his excitement. Slowly he sauntered along, from street to street. These were old-fashioned, such as were in vogue in the days of the Regency. Tall houses, with gables facing the street; few of them showing any light from their windows, and their dark outlines discernible on high against the midnight sky. Now he heard the voices of people near, emerging from a low theatre in a street at the right. A number of men come along the trottoir, toward Uncle David. They were going to a gaming-house and restaurant at the end of the street, which he had nearly reached. This troop of idlers he accompanies. They turn into an open door, and enter a passage not very brilliantly lighted. At the left was the open door of a restaurant. The greater number of those who enter follow the passage, however, which leads to the roulette-room.

As Uncle David, with a caprice of curiosity, follows slowly in the wake of this accession to the company, a figure passes and goes before him into the room.

With a strange thrill he takes or mistakes this figure for Mr. Longcluse. He pauses, and sees the tall figure enter the roulette-room. He follows it as soon as he recollects himself a little, and goes into the room. The players are, as usual, engrossed by the game. But at the far side beyond these busy people, he sees this person, whom he recognises by a light great-coat, stooping with his lips pretty near the ear of a man who was sitting at the table. He raises himself in a moment more, and stands before Uncle David, and at the first glance he is quite certain that Mr. Longcluse is before him. The tall man stands with folded arms, and looks carelessly round the room, and at Uncle David among the rest.

“Here,” he thought, “is the man; and the evidence, clear and conclusive, and so near this very spot, now scattered in dust and fragments, and the witness who might have clenched the case impracticable!”

This tall man, however, he begins to perceive, has points, and strong ones, of dissimilarity, notwithstanding his general resemblance to Mr. Longcluse. His beard and hair are red; his shoulders are broader, and very round; much clumsier and more powerful he looks; and there is an air of vulgarity and swagger and boisterous good spirits about him, certainly in marked contrast with Mr. Longcluse’s very quiet demeanour.

Uncle David now finds himself in that uncomfortable state of oscillation between two opposite convictions which, in a matter of supreme importance, amounts very nearly to torture.

This man does not appear at all put out by Mr. Arden’s observant presence, nor even conscious of it. A place becomes vacant at the table, and he takes it, and stakes some money, and goes on, and wins and loses, and at last yawns and turns away, and walks slowly round to the door near which David Arden is standing. Is not this the very man whom he saw for a moment on board the steamer, as he crossed? As he passes a jet of gas, the light falls upon his face at an angle that brings out lines that seem familiar to the Englishman, and for the moment determines his doubts. David Arden, with his eyes fixed upon him, says, as he was about to pass him —

“How d’ye do, Mr. Longcluse?”

The gentleman stops, smiles, and shrugs.

“Pardon, Monsieur,” he says in French, “I do not speak English or German.”

The quality of the voice that spoke these words was, he thought, different from Mr. Longcluse’s — less tone, less depth, and more nasal.

The gentleman pauses and smiles with his head inclined, evidently expecting to be addressed in French.

“I believe I have made a mistake, Sir,” hesitates Mr. Arden.

The gentleman inclines his head lower, smiles, and waits patiently for a second or two. Mr. Arden, a little embarrassed, says —

“I thought, Monsieur, I had met you before in England.”

“I have never been in England, Monsieur,” says the patient and polite Frenchman, in his own language. “I cannot have had the honour, therefore, of meeting Monsieur there.”

He pauses politely.

“Then I have only to make an apology. I beg your — I beg — but surely — I think — by Jove!” he breaks into English, “I can’t be mistaken — you are Mr. Longcluse.”

The tall gentleman looks so unaffectedly puzzled, and so politely good-natured, as he resumes, in the tones which seem perfectly natural, and yet one note in which David Arden fails to recognise, and says —

“Monsieur must not trouble himself of having made a mistake: my name is St. Ange.”

“I believe I have made a mistake, Monsieur — pray excuse me.”

The gentleman bows very ceremoniously, and Monsieur St. Ange walks slowly out, and takes a glass of curaçoa in the outer room. As he is paying the garçon, Mr. Arden again appears, once more in a state of uncertainty, and again leaning to the belief that this person is indeed the Mr. Longcluse who at present entirely possesses his imagination.

The tall stranger with the round shoulders in truth resembled the person who, in a midnight interview on Hampstead Heath, had discussed some momentous questions with Paul Davies, as we remember; but that person spoke in the peculiar accent of the northern border. His beard, too, was exorbitant in length, and flickered wide and red, in the wind. This beard, on the contrary, was short and trim, and hardly so red, I think, as that moss-trooper’s. On the whole, the likeness in both cases was somewhat rude and general. Still the resemblance to Longcluse again struck Mr. Arden so powerfully, that he actually followed him into the street and overtook him only a dozen steps away from the door, on the now silent pavement.

Hearing his hurried step behind him, the object of his pursuit turns about and confronts him for the first time with an offended and haughty look.

“Monsieur!” says he a little grimly, drawing himself up as he comes to a sudden halt.

“The impression has forced itself upon me again that you are no other than Mr. Walter Longcluse,” says Uncle David.

The tall gentleman recovered his good-humour, and smiled as before, with a shrug.

“I have not the honour of that gentleman’s acquaintance, Monsieur, and cannot tell, therefore, whether he in the least resembles me. But as this kind of thing is unusual, and grows wearisome, and may end in putting me out of temper — which is not easy, although quite possible — and as my assurance that I am really myself seems insufficient to convince Monsieur, I shall be happy to offer other evidence of the most unexceptionable kind. My house is only two streets distant. There my wife and daughter await me, and our curé partakes of our little supper at twelve. I am a little late,” says he, listening, for the clocks are tolling twelve; “however, it is a little more than two hundred metres, if you will accept my invitation, and I shall be very happy to introduce you to my wife, to my daughter Clotilde, and to our good curé, who is a most agreeable man. Pray come, share our little supper, see what sort of people we are, and in this way — more agreeable, I hope, than any other, and certainly less fallacious — you can ascertain whether I am Monsieur St. Ange, or that other gentleman with whom you are so obliging as to confound me. Pray come; it is not much — a fricasée, a few cutlets, an omelette, and a glass of wine. Madame St. Ange will be charmed to make your acquaintance, my daughter will sing us a song, and you will say that Monsieur le Curé is really a most entertaining companion.”

There was something so simple and thoroughly good-natured in this invitation, under all the circumstances, that Mr. Arden felt a little ashamed of his persistent annoyance of so hospitable a fellow, and for the moment he was convinced that he must have been in error.

“Sir,” says David Arden, “I am now convinced that I must have been mistaken; but I cannot deny myself the honour of being presented to Madame St. Ange, and I assure you I am quite ashamed of the annoyance I must have caused you, and I offer a thousand apologies.”

“Not one, pray,” replies the Frenchman, with great good-humour and gaiety. “I felicitate myself on a mistake which promises to result so happily.”

So side by side, at a leisurely pace, they pursued their way through these silent streets, and unaccountably the conviction again gradually stole over Uncle David that he was actually walking by the side of Mr. Longcluse.

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