It might have been somewhere near the anniversary of my first meeting with the Baron when I came upon him again--in London this time. I had been lunch-, ing at Simpson's in the Strand, and, my meal finished, had gone up into the smoking-room for a coffee and liqueur. This is a famous corner of a famous caravansary, being dedicate, like no other smoking-room I know, to the service of the most ancient and most royal gape of chess, many of whose leading professors forgather therein, as it were, in an informal club, for the mixed purposes of sociability and play. There one may watch astounding mental conflicts which leave one's brain in a whirl; or, if one prefers it, may oneself join issue in a duel, whether for glory or profit; or, better still, like Gargantua, having a friend for adversary, for the mere serious diversion of the game, and for its capacity for giving a rare meditative flavour to one's tobacco. The room, too, for such a haunt of gravity, is a cheerful room, with its large window overlooking the Strand, and one may spend a postprandial hour there very agreeably, and eke very gainfully if one takes an idler's interest in other people's problems. That I may confess I do, wherefore Simpson's is, or was, a fairly frequent resort of mine.
Now, on this occasion I had hardly entered the room when my eyes fell on the figure of M. le Baron sitting profoundly absorbed over a game with one in whom I recognised a leading master in the craft. I knew my friend at once, as how could I fail to, for he sat before me in every detail the stranger of the Cafe l'Univers-bland, roomy, self-possessed, and unchanged as to his garb. I would not venture to break into his preoccupation, but passed him by and took a convenient seat in the window.
' Stothard has found his match,' remarked a casual acquaintance who lounged near me, nodding his head towards the pair.
' Who is it?' I asked. 'Do you know?
'I know his name,' was the answer, 'Le Sage, an out-of-pocket French Baron; but that's all'.
' O! out of pocket, is he?'
'I've no right to say it, perhaps, but I only surmise-he'll play you for a half-crown at any time, if you're rash enough to venture. He plays a wonderful game'.
' Is he new to the place?'
O, no! I've seen him here frequently, though at long intervals'.
'Well, I think I'll go and watch them'.
Their table was against the wall, opposite the window. One or two devotees were already established behind the players, mutely following the moves. I took up a position near Le Sage, but out of his range of vision. He had never, to my knowledge, so much as raised his face since I entered the room; intent on his game, he appeared oblivious to all about him. Yet the moment I came to a stand, his voice, and only his voice, accosted me,-
'Mr Bickerdike? How do you do, sir?'
I confess I was startled. After all, there was something disconcerting about this surprise trick of his. It was just a practised pose, of course; still, one could not help feeling, and resenting in it, that impression of the preternatural it was no doubt his desire to convey. I responded, with some commonplace acknowledgment, to the back of his head, and no more was spoken for the moment. Almost immediately the game came to an end. M. le Baron sat back in his chair with a ' My mate, I think ? '-a claim in which his opponent acquiesced. Half the pieces were still on the board, but that made no difference. Your supreme chess expert will foresee, at a certain point in the contest, all the possible moves to come or to be countered, and will accept without dispute the inevitable issue. The great man Stothard was beaten, and acknowledged it.
M. le Baron rose from his seat, and turned on me with a beaming face.
'Happy to renew your acquaintance, Mr Bickerdike,' he said. 'You are a student of the game?'
'Not much better, I think,' I answered. 'I am still in my novitiate'.
'You would not care--?'
' O, no, I thank you ! I'm not gull enough to invite my own plucking'.
It was a verbal stumble rather than a designed impertinence on my part, and I winced over my own rudeness the moment it was uttered, the more so for the composure with which it was received.
'No, that would be foolish, indeed,' said M. le Baron.
I floundered in a silly attempt to right myself.
' I mean-I only meant I'm just a rotten muff at the game, while you-' I stuck, at a loss.
'While I,' he said with a smile, 'have just, like David, brought down the giant Stothard with a lucky shot'.
He touched my arm in token of the larger tolerance; and, in some confusion, I made a movement as of invitation, towards the table in the window.
'I am obliged,' he said, 'but I have this moment recalled an appointment.' 'So,' I thought, 'in inventing a pretext for declining, he administers a gentle rebuke to my cubbishness.' ' You found your friend, I hope,' he asked, 'when you left the Montesquieu on that occasion ?'
'Kennett? Yes,' I answered; and added, moved to some expiatory frankness; ' it is odd, by the bye, M. le Baron, that our second meeting should associate itself with the same friend. I am going down to-morrow, as it happens, on a visit to his people'.
'No,' he said: 'really? That is odd, indeed'.
He shook hands with me, and left the room. Standing at the window a moment after, I saw him going Citywards along the Strand, looking, with his short thick legs and tailed morning coat, for all the world like a fat jaunty turtle on its way to Birch's.
Now I fancied I had seen the last of the man; but I was curiously mistaken. When I arrived at Waterloo Station the next day, there, rather to my stupefaction, he stood as if awaiting me, and at the barrier--my barrier--leading to the platform for my train, the two o'clock Bournemouth express. We passed through almost together.
' Hullo !' I said. ' Going south ?'
He nodded genially. ' I thought, with your permission, we might be travelling companions'.
'With pleasure, of course. But I go no further than the first stop-Winton'.
'O, indeed? A delectable old city. You are putting up there?'
' No, O no ! My destination, like yours, is Wild-shott'.
' Wildshott! You know the Kennetts then ?'
' I know Sir Calvin. His son, your friend, I have never met. It is odd, as you said, that our visits should coincide'.
' But you must have known yesterday-if you did not know in Paris. Why in the name of goodness did you not---' I began; and came to a rather petulant stop. This secrecy was simply intolerable. One was pulled up by it at every turn.
* Did I not?' he said blandly. 'No, now I come to think of it--- O, Louis, is that an empty compartment? Put the rugs in, then, and the papers.'
He addressed a little vivid-eyed French valet, who stood awaiting his coming at an opened door of a carriage. Le Sage climbed in with a breathing effort, and I followed sulkily. Who on earth, or what on earth, was the man? Nothing more nor less than what he appeared to be, he might have protested. After all, not himself, but common gossip, had charged him with necessitousness. He might be as rich as Croesus, for all I knew or he was likely to say. Neediness was not wont to valet it, though insolvency very well might. But he was a friend of Sir Calvin, a most exclusive old Bashaw; and, again, he was said to play chess for half-crowns. O ! it was no good worrying: I should find out all about him at Wildshott. With a grunt of resignation I sank into the cushions, and resolutely put the problem from me.
^But the fellow was an engaging comrade for a journey-I will admit so much. He was observant, amusing, he had a fund of good tales at his command, and his voice, without unpleasant stress; was softly penetrative. Adapted to anecdote, moreover, his habit of secrecy, of non-committal, made for a sort of ghostly humour which was as titillating as it was elusive; and the faint aroma of snuff, which was never absent from him, seemed somehow the appropriate atmosphere for such airy quibbles. It surrounded him like an aura-not disagreeably; was associated with him at all times-as one associates certain perfumes with certain women-a particular snuff, Macuba I think it is called, a very delicate brand. So he is always recalled to me, himself and his rappee inseparable.