Read CHAPTER I of Cleek: the Man of the Forty Faces, free online book, by Thomas W. Hanshew, on ReadCentral.com.

The sound came again so unmistakably, this time, the sound of a footstep in the soft, squashy ooze on the Heath, there could be no question regarding the nature of it. Miss Lorne came to an instant standstill and clutched her belongings closer to her with a shake and a quiver; and a swift prickle of goose-flesh ran round her shoulders and up and down the backs of her hands. There was good, brave blood in her, it is true; but good, brave blood isn’t much to fall back upon if you happen to be a girl without escort, carrying a hand-bag containing twenty-odd pounds in money, several bits of valuable jewellery your whole earthly possessions, in fact and have lost your way on Hampstead Heath at half-past eight o’clock at night, with a spring fog shutting you in like a wall and shutting out everything else but a “mackerel” collection of clouds that looked like grey smudges on the greasy-silver of a twilit sky.

She looked round, but she could see nothing and nobody. The Heath was a white waste that might have been part of the scenery in Lapland for all there was to tell that it lay within reach of the heart and pulse of the sluggish leviathan London. Over it the vapours of night crowded, an almost palpable wall of thick, wet mist, stirred now and again by some atmospheric movement which could scarcely be called a wind, although, at times, it drew long, lacey filaments above the level of the denser mass of fog and melted away with them into the calm, still upper air.

Miss Lorne hesitated between two very natural impulses to gather up her skirts and run, or to stand her ground and demand an explanation from the person who was undoubtedly following her. She chose the latter.

“Who is there? Why are you following me? What do you want?” she flung out, keeping her voice as steady as the hard, sharp hammering of her heart would permit.

The question was answered at once rather startlingly, since the footsteps which caused her alarm, had all the while proceeded from behind, and slightly to the left of her. Now there came a hurried rush and scramble on the right; there was the sound of a match being scratched, a blob of light in the grey of the mist, and she saw standing in front of her, a ragged, weedy, red-headed youth, with the blazing match in his scooped hands.

He was thin to the point of ghastliness. Hunger was in his pinched face, his high cheekbones, his gouged jaws; staring like a starved wolf, through the unnatural brightness of his pale eyes, from every gaunt feature of him.

“’Ullo!” he said with a strong Cockney accent, as he came up out of the fog, and the flare of the match gave him a full view of her, standing there with her lips shut hard, and, the hand-bag clutched up close to her with both hands. “You wot called, was it? Wot price me for arnswerin’ of you, eh?”

“Yes, it was I that called,” she replied, making a brave front of it. “But I do not think it was you that I called to. Keep away, please. Don’t come any nearer. What do you want?” “Well, I’ll take that blessed ’and-bag to go on with; and if there aren’t no money in it tumble it out let’s see lively now! I’ll feed for the rest of this week Gawd, yuss!”

She made no reply, no attempt to obey him, no movement of any sort. Fear had absolutely stricken every atom of strength from her. She could do nothing but look at him with big, frightened eyes, and shake.

“Look ‘ere, aren’t you a-goin’ to do it quiet, or are you a-goin’ to mike me tike the blessed thing from you?” he asked.

“I’ll do it if you put me to it my hat! yuss! It aren’t my gime I’m wot you might call a hammer-chewer at it, but when there’s summink inside you, wot tears and tears and tears, any gime’s worth tryin’ that pulls out the claws of it.”

She did not move even yet. He flung the spent match from him, and made a sharp step toward her, and he had just reached out his hand to lay hold of her, when another hand strong, sinewy, hard-shutting as an iron clamp reached out from the mist, and laid hold of him; plucking him by the neckband and intruding a bunch of knuckles and shut fingers between that and his up-slanted chin.

“Now, then, drop that little game at once, you young monkey!” struck in the sharp staccato of a semi-excited voice. “Interfering with young ladies, eh? Let’s have a look at you. Don’t be afraid, Miss Lorne nobody’s going to hurt you.”

Then a pocket torch spat out a sudden ray of light; and by it both the half-throttled boy and the wholly frightened girl could see the man who had thus intruded himself upon their notice.

“Oh, it is you it is you again, Mr. Cleek?” said Ailsa with something between a laugh and a sigh of relief as she recognized him.

“Yes, it is I. I have been behind you ever since you left the house in Bardon Road. It was rash of you to cross the heath at this time and in this weather. I rather fancied that something of this kind would be likely to happen, and so took the liberty of following you.”

“Then it was you I heard behind me?”

“It was I yes. I shouldn’t have intruded myself upon your notice if you hadn’t called out. A moment, please. Let’s have a look at this young highwayman, who so freely advertises himself as an amateur.”

The light spat full into the gaunt, starved face of the young man and made it stare forth doubly ghastly. He had made no effort to get away from the very first. Perhaps he understood the uselessness of it, with that strong hand gripped on his ragged neckband. Perhaps he was, in his way, something of a fatalist London breeds so many among such as he: starved things that find every boat chained, every effort thrust back upon them unrewarded. At any rate, from the moment he had heard the girl give to this man a name which every soul in England had heard at one time or another during the past two years, he had gone into a sort of mild collapse, as though realising the utter uselessness of battling against fate, and had given himself up to what was to be.

“Hello,” said Cleek, as he looked the youth over. “Yours is a face I don’t remember running foul of before, my young beauty. Where did you come from?”

“Where I seem like to be goin’ now you’ve got your currant-pickers on me Hell,” answered the boy, with something like a sigh of despair. “Leastways, I been in Hell ever since I can remember anyfink, so I reckon I must have come from there.”

“What’s your name?”

“Dollops. S’pose I must a had another sometime, but I never heard of it. Wot’s that? Yuss most nineteen. Wot? Oh, go throw summink at yourself! I aren’t too young to be ’ungry, am I? And where’s a cove goin’ to find this ’ere ‘honest work’ you’re a-talkin’ of? I’m fair sick of the gime of lookin’ for it. Besides, you don’t see parties as goes in for the other thing walkin’ round with ribs on ’em like bed-slats, and not even the price of a cup of corfy in their pockets, do you? No fear! I wouldn’t’ve ’urt the young lydie; but I tell you strite, I’d a took every blessed farthin’ she ’ad on her if you ’adn’t’ve dropped on me like this.”

“Got down to the last ditch down to the point of desperation, eh?”

“Yuss. So would you if you ‘ad a fing inside you tearin’ and tearin’ like I ‘ave. Aren’t et a bloomin’ crumb since the day before yusterday at four in the mawnin’ when a gent in an ’ansom drunk as a lord, he was treated me and a parcel of others to a bun and a cup of corfy at a corfy stall over ‘Ighgate way. Stood out agin bein’ a crook as long as ever I could as long as ever I’m goin’ to, I reckon, now you’ve got your maulers on me. I’ll be on the list after this. The cops ’ull know me; and when you’ve got the nime well, wot’s the odds? You might as well ‘ave the gime as well, and git over goin’ empty. All right, run me in, sir. Any’ow, I’ll ’ave a bit to eat and a bed to sleep in to-night, and that’s one comfort ”

Cleek had been watching the boy closely, narrowly, with an ever-deepening interest; now he loosened the grip of his fingers and let his hand drop to his side.

“Suppose I don’t ‘run you in,’ as you put it? Suppose I take a chance and lend you five shillings, will you do some work and pay it back to me in time?” he asked.

The boy looked up at him and laughed in his face.

“Look ‘ere, Gov’nor, it’s playin’ it low down to lark wiv a chap jist before you’re goin’ to ’ang ’im,” he said. “You come off your blessed perch.”

“Right,” said Cleek. “And now you get up on yours and let us see what you’re made of.” Then he put his hand into his trousers pocket; there was a chink of coins and two half-crowns lay on his outstretched palm. “There you are off with you now, and if you are any good, turn up some time to-night at N, Clarges Street, and ask for Captain Horatio Burbage. He’ll see that there’s work for you. Toddle along now and get a meal and a bed. And mind you keep a close mouth about this.”

The boy neither moved nor spoke nor made any sound. For a moment or two he stood looking from the man to the coins and from the coins back to the man; then, gradually, the truth of the thing seemed to trickle into his mind and, as a hungry fox might pounce upon a stray fowl, he grabbed the money and bolted.

“Remember the name and remember the street,” Cleek called after him.

“You take your bloomin’ oath I will!” came back through the enfolding mist; “Gawd, yuss!” Just that; and the youth was gone.

“I wonder what you will think of me, Miss Lorne,” said Cleek, turning to her; “taking a chance like this; and, above all, with a fellow who would have stripped you of every jewel and every penny you have with you if things hadn’t happened as they have?”

“And I can very ill afford to lose anything now as I suppose you know, Mr. Cleek. Things have changed sadly for me since that day Mr. Narkom introduced us at Ascot,” she said, with just a shadow of seriousness in her eyes. “But as to what I think regarding your action toward that dreadful boy.... Oh, of course, if there is a chance of saving him from a career of crime, I think one owes him that as a duty. In the circumstances, the temptation was very great. It must be a horrible thing to be so hungry that one is driven to robbery to satisfy the longing for food.”

“Yes, very horrible very, very indeed. I once knew a boy who stood as that boy stands at the parting of the ways; when the good that was in him fought the last great fight with the Devil of Circumstances. If a hand had been stretched forth to help that boy at that time ... Ah, well! it wasn’t. The Devil took the reins and the game went his way. If five shillings will put the reins into that boy’s hands to-night and steer him back to the right path, so much the better for him and for me. I’ll know if he’s worth the chance I took to-morrow. Now let us talk about something else. Will you allow me to escort you across the heath and see you safely on your way home? Or would you prefer that I should remain in the background as before?”

“How ungrateful you must think me, to suggest such a thing as that,” she said with a reproachful smile. “Walk with me if you will be so kind. I hope you know that this is the third time you have rendered me a service since I had the pleasure of meeting you. It is very nice of you; and I am extremely grateful. I wonder you find the time or well, take the trouble,” rather archly; “a great man like you.”

“Shall I take off my hat and say ‘thank you, ma’am’; or just the hackneyed ’Praise from Sir Hubert is praise indeed’?” he said with a laugh as he fell into step with her and they faced the mist and the distance together. “I suppose you are alluding to my success in the famous Stanhope Case the newspapers made a great fuss over that, Mr. Narkom tells me. But please. One big success doesn’t make a ‘great man’ any more than one rosebush makes a garden.”

“Are you fishing for a compliment? Or is that really natural modesty? I had heard of your exploits and seen your name in the papers, oh, dozens of times before I first had the pleasure of meeting you; and since then ... No, I shan’t flatter you by saying how many successes I have seen recorded to your credit in the past two years. Do you know that I have a natural predilection for such things? It may be morbid of me is it? but I have the strongest kind of a leaning toward the tales of Gaboriau; and I have always wanted to know a really great detective like Lecocq, or Dupin. And that day at Ascot when Mr. Narkom told me that he would introduce me to the famous ’Man of the Forty Faces’... Mr. Cleek, why do they call you ‘the Man of the Forty Faces’? You always look the same to me.”

“Perhaps I shan’t, when we come to the end of the heath and get into the public street, where there are lights and people,” he said. “That I always look the same in your eyes, Miss Lorne, is because I have but one face for you, and that is my real one. Not many people see it, even among the men of The Yard whom I occasionally work with. You do, however; so does Mr. Narkom, occasionally. So did that boy, unfortunately. I had to show it when I came to your assistance, if only to assure you that you were in friendly hands and to prevent you taking fright and running off into the mist in a panic and losing yourself where even I might not be able to find you. That is why I told the boy to apply for work to ‘Captain Burbage of Clarges Street.’ I am Captain Burbage, Miss Lomé. Nobody knows that but my good friend Mr. Narkom and, now, you.”

“I shall respect it, of course,” she said. “I hope I need not assure you of that, Mr. Cleek.”

“You need assure me of nothing, Miss Lomé,” he made reply. “I owe so much more to you than you are aware, that Oh, well, it doesn’t matter. You asked me a question a moment ago. If you want the answer to it look here.”

He stopped short as he spoke; the pocket-torch clicked faintly and from the shelter of a curved hand, the glow of it struck upward to his face. It was not the same face for ten seconds at a time. What Sir Horace Wyvern had seen in Mr. Narkom’s private office at Scotland Yard on that night of nights more than two years ago, Sir Horace Wyvern’s niece saw now.

“Oh!” she said, with a sharp intaking of the breath as she saw the writhing features knot and twist and blend. “Oh, don’t! It is uncanny! It is amazing. It is awful!” And, after a moment, when the light had been shut off and the man beside her was only a shape in the mist: “I hope I may never see you do it again,” she merely more than whispered. “It is the most appalling thing. I can’t think how you do it how you came by the power to do such a thing.”

“Perhaps by inheritance,” said Cleek, as they walked on again. “Once upon a time, Miss Lorne, there was a er lady of extremely high position who, at a time when she should have been giving her thoughts to well, more serious things, used to play with one of those curious little rubber faces which you can pinch up into all sorts of distorted countenances you have seen the things, no doubt. She would sit for hours screaming with laughter over the droll shapes into which she squeezed the thing. Afterward, when her little son was born, he inherited the trick of that rubber face as a birthright. It may have been the same case with me. Let us say it was, and drop the subject, since you have not found the sight a pleasing one. Now tell me something, please, that I want to know about you.”