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

Promptly, at the hour appointed, “Mr. Jim Rickaby” and his black servant arrived at Laburnam Villa; and certainly the former had no cause to complain of the welcome he received at the hands of his beautiful young hostess.

He found her not only an extremely lovely woman to the eye, but one whose gentle, caressing ways, whose soft voice and simple girlish charm were altogether fascinating, and, judging from outward appearances, from the tender solicitude for her elderly husband’s comfort and well-being, from the look in her eyes when she spoke to him, the gentleness of her hand when she touched him, one would have said that she really and truly loved him, and that it needed no lure of gold to draw this particular May to the arms of this one December.

He found Captain Travers a laughing, rollicking, fun-loving type of man at least, to all outward appearances who seemed to delight in sports and games and to have an almost childish love of card tricks and that species of entertainment which is known as parlour magic. He found the three other members of the little house-party to wit: Mrs. Somerby-Miles, Lieutenant Forshay, and Mr. Robert Murdock respectively, a silly, flirtatious, little gadfly of a widow; a callow, love-struck, lap-dog, young army officer, with a budding moustache and a full-blown idea of his own importance; and a dour Scotchman of middle age, with a passion for chess, a glowering scorn of frivolities, and a deep and abiding conviction that Scotland was the only country in the world for a self-respecting human being to dwell in, and that everything outside of the Established Church was foredoomed to flames and sulphur and the perpetual prodding of red-hot pitchforks. And last, but not least by any means, he found Mr. Michael Bawdrey just what he had been told he would find him, namely, a dear, lovable, sunny-tempered old man, who fairly idolised his young wife and absolutely adored his frank-faced, affectionate, big boy of a son, and who ought not, in the common course of things, to have an enemy or an evil wisher in all the world.

The news, which, of course, had preceded Cleek’s arrival, that this whilom college chum of his son’s was as great an enthusiast as he himself on the subject of old china, old porcelain, bric-a-brac and curios of every sort, filled him with the utmost delight, and he could scarcely refrain from rushing him off at once to view his famous collection.

“Michael, dear, you mustn’t overdo yourself just because you happen to have been a little stronger these past two days,” said his wife, laying a gentle hand upon his arm. “Besides, we must give Mr. Rickaby time to breathe. He has had a long journey, and I am sure he will want to rest. You can take him in to see that wonderful collection after dinner, dear.”

“Humph! Full of fakes, as I supposed and she knows it,” was Cleek’s mental comment upon this. And he was not surprised when, finding herself alone with him a few minutes later, she said, in her pretty, pleading way:

“Mr. Rickaby, if you are an expert, don’t undeceive him. I could not let you go to see the collection without first telling you. It is full of bogus things, full of frauds and shams that unscrupulous dealers have palmed off on him. But don’t let him know. He takes such pride in them, and and he’s breaking down God pity me, his health is breaking down every day, Mr. Rickaby, and I want to spare him every pang, if I can, even so little a pang as the discovery that the things he prizes are not real.”

“Set your mind at rest, Mrs. Bawdrey,” promised Cleek. “He will not find it out from me. He will not find anything out from me. He is just the kind of man to break his heart, to crumple up like a burnt glove, and come to the end of all things, even life, if he were to discover that any of his treasures, anything that he loved and trusted in, is a sham and a fraud.”

His eyes looked straight into hers as he spoke, his hand rested lightly on her sleeve. She sucked in her breath suddenly, a brief pallor chased the roses from her cheeks, a brief confusion sat momentarily upon her. She appeared to hesitate, then looked away and laughed uneasily.

“I don’t think I quite grasp what you mean, Mr. Rickaby,” she said.

“Don’t you?” he made answer. “Then I will tell you some time to-morrow, perhaps. But if I were you, Mrs. Bawdrey well, no matter. This I promise you: that dear old man shall have no ideal shattered by me.”

And, living up to that promise, he enthused over everything the old man had in his collection when, after dinner that night, they went, in company with Philip, to view it. But bogus things were on every hand. Spurious porcelains, fraudulent armour, faked china were everywhere. The loaded cabinets and the glazed cases were one long procession of faked Dresden and bogus faience, of Egyptian enamels that had been manufactured in Birmingham, and of sixth-century “treasures” whose makers were still plying their trade and battening upon the ignorance of such collectors as he.

“Now, here’s a thing I am particularly proud of,” said the gulled old man, reaching into one of the cases and holding out for Cleek’s admiration an irregular disc of dull, hammered gold that had an iridescent beetle embedded in the flat face of it. “This scarab, Mr. Rickaby, has helped to make history, as one might say. It was once the property of Cleopatra. I was obliged to make two trips to Egypt before I could persuade the owner to part with it. I am always conscious of a certain sense of awe, Mr. Rickaby, when I touch this wonderful thing. To think, sir, to think! that this bauble once rested on the bosom of that marvellous woman; that Mark Antony must have seen it, may have touched it; that Ptolemy Auletes knew all about it, and that it is older, sir, than the Christian religion itself!”

He held it out upon the flat of his palm, the better for Cleek to see and to admire it, and signed to his son to hand the visitor a magnifying glass.

“Wonderful, most wonderful!” observed Cleek, bending over the spurious gem and focussing the glass upon it; not, however, for the purpose of studying the fraud, but to examine something just noticed something round and red and angry-looking which marked the palm itself, at the base of the middle finger.

“No wonder you are proud of such a prize. I think I should go off my head with rapture if I owned an antique like that. But, pardon me, have you met with an accident, Mr. Bawdrey? That’s an ugly place you have on your palm.”

“That? Oh, that’s nothing,” he answered, gaily. “It itches a great deal at times, but otherwise it isn’t troublesome. I can’t think how in the world I got it, to tell the truth. It came out as a sort of red blister in the beginning, and since it broke it has been spreading a great deal. But, really, it doesn’t amount to anything at all.”

“Oh, that’s just like you, dad,” put in Philip, “always making light of the wretched thing. I notice one thing, however, Rickaby, it seems to grow worse instead of better. And dad knows as well as I do when it began. It came out suddenly about a fortnight ago, after he had been holding some green worsted for my stepmother to wind into balls. Just look at it, will you, old chap?”

“Nonsense, nonsense!” chimed in the old man, laughingly. “Don’t mind the silly boy, Mr. Rickaby. He will have it that that green worsted is to blame, just because he happened to spy the thing the morning after.”

“Let’s have a look at it,” said Cleek, moving nearer the light. Then, after a close examination, “I don’t think it amounts to anything, after all,” he added, as he laid aside the glass. “I shouldn’t worry myself about it if I were you, Phil. It’s just an ordinary blister, nothing more. Let’s go on with the collection, Mr. Bawdrey; I’m deeply interested in it, I assure you. Never saw such a marvellous lot. Got any more amazing things gems, I mean like that wonderful scarab? I say!” halting suddenly before a long, narrow case, with a glass front, which stood on end in a far corner, and, being lined with black velvet, brought into ghastly prominence the suspended shape of a human skeleton contained within “I say! What the dickens is this? Looks like a doctor’s specimen, b’gad. You haven’t let anybody I mean, you haven’t been buying any prehistoric bones, have you, Mr. Bawdrey?”

“Oh, that?” laughed the old man, turning round and seeing to what he was alluding. “Oh, that’s a curiosity of quite a different sort, Mr. Rickaby. You are right in saying it looks like a doctor’s specimen. It is or, rather, it was. Mrs. Bawdrey’s father was a doctor, and it once belonged to him. Properly, it ought to have no place in a collection of this sort, but well, it’s such an amazing thing I couldn’t quite refuse it a place, sir. It’s a freak of nature. The skeleton of a nine-fingered man.”

“Of a what?”

“A nine-fingered man.”

“Well, I can’t say that I see anything remarkable in that. I’ve got nine fingers myself, nine and one over, when it comes to that.”

“No, you haven’t, you duffer!” put in young Bawdrey, with a laugh. “You’ve got eight fingers eight fingers and two thumbs. This bony johnny has nine fingers and two thumbs. That’s what makes him a freak. I say, dad, open the beggar’s box, and let Rickaby see.”

His father obeyed the request. Lifting the tiny brass latch which alone secured it, he swung open the glazed door of the case, and, reaching in, drew forward the flexible left arm of the skeleton.

“There you are,” he said, supporting the bony hand upon his palm, so that all its fingers were spread out and Cleek might get a clear view of the monstrosity. “What a trial he must have been to the glove trade, mustn’t he?” laughing gaily. “Fancy the confusion and dismay, Mr. Rickaby, if a fellow like this walked into a Bond Street shop in a hurry and asked for a pair of gloves.”

Cleek bent over and examined the thing with interest. At first glance, the hand was no different from any other skeleton hand one might see any day in any place where they sold anatomical specimens for the use of members of the medical profession; but as Mr. Bawdrey, holding it on the palm of his right hand, flattened it out with the fingers of his left, the abnormality at once became apparent. Springing from the base of the fourth finger, a perfectly developed fifth appeared, curling inward toward what had once been the palm of the hand, as though, in life, it had been the owner’s habit of screening it from observation by holding it in that position. It was, however, perfectly flexible, and Mr. Bawdrey had no difficulty in making it lie out flat after the manner of its mates.

The sight was not inspiring the freaks of mother Nature rarely are. No one but a doctor would have cared to accept the thing as a gift, and no one but a man as mad on the subject of curiosities and with as little sense of discrimination as Mr. Bawdrey would have dreamt for a moment of adding it to a collection.

“It’s rather uncanny,” said Cleek, who had no palate for the abnormal in Nature. “For myself, I may frankly admit that I don’t like things of that sort about me.”

“You are very much like my wife in that,” responded the old man. “She was of the opinion that the skeleton ought to have been destroyed or else handed over to some anatomical museum. But well, it is a curiosity, you know, Mr. Rickaby. Besides, as I have said, it was once the property of her late father, a most learned man, sir, most learned, and as it was of sufficient interest for him to retain it oh, well, we collectors are faddists, you know, so I easily persuaded Mrs. Bawdrey to allow me to bring it over to England with me when we took our leave of Java. And now that you have seen it, suppose we have a look at more artistic things. I have some very fine specimens of neolithic implements and weapons which I am most anxious to show you. Just step this way, please.”

He let the skeleton’s hand slip from his own, swing back into the case, and forthwith closed the glass door upon it; then, leading the way to the cabinet containing the specimens referred to, he unlocked it, and invited Cleek’s opinion of the flint arrow-heads, stone hatchets, and granite utensils within.

For a minute they lingered thus, the old man talking, laughing, exulting in his possessions, the detective examining and pretending to be deeply impressed. Then, of a sudden, without hint or warning to lessen the shock of it, the uplifted lid of the cabinet fell with a crash from the hand that upheld it, shivering the glass into fifty pieces, and Cleek, screwing round on his heel with a “jump” of all his nerves, was in time to see the figure of his host crumple up, collapse, drop like a thing shot dead, and lie foaming and writhing on the polished floor.

“Dad! Oh, heavens! Dad!” The cry was young Bawdrey’s. He seemed fairly to throw himself across the intervening space and to reach his father in the instant he fell. “Now you know! Now you know!” he went on wildly, as Cleek dropped down beside him and began to loosen the old man’s collar. “It’s like this always; not a hint, not a sign, but just this utter collapse. My God, what are they doing it with? How are they managing it, those two? They’re coming, Headland. Listen! Don’t you hear them?”

The crash of the broken glass and the jar of the old man’s fall had swept through all the house, and a moment later, headed by Mrs. Bawdrey herself, all the members of the little house-party came piling excitedly into the room.

The fright and suffering of the young wife seemed very real as she threw herself down beside her husband and caught him to her with a little shuddering cry. Then her voice, uplifting in a panic, shrilled out a wild appeal for doctor, servants help of any kind. And, almost as she spoke, Travers was beside her, Travers and Forshay and Robert Murdock yes, and silly little Mrs. Somerby-Miles, too, forgetting in the face of such a time as this to be anything but helpful and womanly and all of these gave such assistance as was in their power.

“Help me get him up to his own room, somebody, and send a servant post-haste for the doctor,” said Captain Travers, taking the lead after the fashion of a man who is used to command. “Calm yourself as much as possible, Mrs. Bawdrey. Here, Murdock, lend a hand and help him.”

“Eh, mon, there is nae help but Heaven’s in sic a case as this,” dolefully responded Murdock, as he came forward and solemnly stooped to obey. “The puir auld laddie! The Laird giveth and the Laird taketh awa’, and the weel o’ mon is as naething.”

“Oh, stow your croaking, you blundering old fool!” snapped Travers, as Mrs. Bawdrey gave a heart-wrung cry and hid her face in her hands. “You and your eternal doldrums! Here, Bawdrey, lend a hand, old chap. We can get him upstairs without the assistance of this human trombone, I know.”

But “this human trombone” was not minded that they should; and so it fell out that, when Lieutenant Forshay led Mrs. Somerby-Miles from the room, and young Bawdrey and Captain Travers carried the stricken man up the stairs to his own bed-chamber, his wife flying in advance to see that everything was prepared for him, Cleek, standing all alone beside the shattered cabinet, could hear Mr. Robert Murdock’s dismal croakings rumbling steadily out as he mounted the staircase with the others.

For a moment after the closing door of a room overhead had shut them from his ears, he stood there, with puckered brows and pursed-up lips, drumming with his finger-tips a faint tattoo upon the framework of the shattered lid; then he walked over to the skeleton case, and silently regarded the gruesome thing within.

“Nine fingers,” he muttered sententiously, “and the ninth curves inward to the palm!” He stepped round and viewed the case from all points both sides, the front, and even the narrow space made at the back by the angle of the corner where it stood. And after this he walked to the other end of the room, took the key from the lock, slipped it in his pocket, and went out, closing the door behind him, that none might remember it had not been locked when the master of the place was carried above.

It was, perhaps, twenty minutes later that young Bawdrey came down and found him all alone in the smoking-room, bending over the table whereon the butler had set the salver containing the whiskey decanter, the soda siphon, and the glasses that were always laid out there, that the gentlemen might help themselves to the regulation “night-cap” before going to bed.

“I’ve slipped away to have a word in private with you, Headland,” he said, in an agitated voice, as he came in. “Oh, what consummate actors they are, those two. You’d think her heart was breaking, wouldn’t you? You’d think Hullo! I say! What on earth are you doing?” For, as he came nearer, he could see that Cleek had removed the glass stopper of the decanter, and was tapping with his finger-tips a little funnel of white paper, the narrow end of which he had thrust into the neck of the bottle.

“Just adding a harmless little sleeping-draught to the nightly beverage,” said Cleek, in reply, as he screwed up the paper funnel and put it in his pocket. “A good sound sleep is an excellent thing, my dear fellow, and I mean to make sure that the gentlemen of this house-party have it one gentleman in particular: Captain Travers.”

“Yes; but I say! What about me, old chap? I don’t want to be drugged, and you know I have to show them the courtesy of taking a ‘night-cap’ with them.”

“Precisely. That’s where you can help me out. If any of them remark anything about the whiskey having a peculiar taste, you must stoutly assert that you don’t notice; and, as they’ve seen you drinking from the same decanter why, there you are. Don’t worry over it. It’s a very, very harmless draught; you won’t even have a headache from it. Listen here, Bawdrey. Somebody is poisoning your father.”

“I know it. I told you so from the beginning, Headland,” he answered, with a sort of wail. “But what’s that got to do with drugging the whiskey?”

“Everything. I’m going to find out to-night whether Captain Travers is that somebody or not. Sh-h-h! Don’t get excited. Yes, that’s my game. I want to get into his rooms whilst he is sleeping, and be free to search his effects. I want to get into every man’s room here, and wherever I find poison well, you understand?”

“Yes,” he replied, brightening as he grasped the import of the matter. “What a ripping idea! And so simple.”

“I think so. Once let me find the poison, and I’ll know my man. Now one other thing: the housekeeper must have a master-key that opens all the bedrooms in the place. Get it for me. It will be easier and swifter than picking the locks.”

“Right you are, old chap. I’ll slip up to Mrs. Jarret’s room and fetch it to you at once.”

“No; tuck it under the mat just outside my door. As it won’t do for me to be drugged as well as the rest of you. I shan’t put in an appearance when the rest come down. Say I’ve got a headache, and have gone to bed. As for my own ’night-cap’ well, I can send Dollops down to get the butler to pour me one out of another decanter, so that will be all right. Now, toddle off and get the key, there’s a good chap. And, I say, Bawdrey, as I shan’t see you again until morning good-night.”

“Good-night, old chap!” he answered in his impulsive, boyish way. “You are a friend, Headland. And you’ll save my dad, God bless you! A true, true friend that’s what you are. Thank God I ran across you.”

Cleek smiled and nodded to him as he passed out and hurried away; then, hearing the other gentlemen coming down the stairs, he, too, made haste to get out of the room and to creep up to his own after they had assembled, and the cigar cabinet and the whiskey were being passed round, and the doctor was busy above with the man who was somebody’s victim.

The big old grandfather clock at the top of the stairs pointed ten minutes past two, and the house was hushed of every sound save that which is the evidence of deep sleep, when the door of Cleek’s room swung quietly open, and Cleek himself, in dressing-gown and wadded bedroom slippers, stepped out into the dark hall, and, leaving Dollops on guard, passed like a shadow over the thick, unsounding carpet.

The rooms of all the male occupants of the house, including that of Philip Bawdrey himself, opened upon this. He went to each in turn, unlocked it, stepped in, closed it after him, and lit the bedroom candle.

The sleeping-draught had accomplished all that was required of it; and in each and every room he entered Captain Travers’s, Lieutenant Forshay’s, Mr. Robert Murdock’s there lay the occupant thereof stretched out at full length in the grip of that deep and heavy sleep which comes of drugs.

Cleek made the round of the rooms as quietly as any shadow, even stopping as he passed young Bawdrey’s on his way back to his own to peep in there. Yes; he, too, had got his share of the effective draught, for there he lay snarled up in the bed-clothes, with his arms over his head and his knees drawn up until they were on a level with his waist, and his handsome, boyish face a little paler than usual.

Cleek didn’t go into the room, simply looked at him from the threshold, then shut the door, and went back to Dollops.

“All serene, Gov’nor?” questioned that young man, in an eager whisper.

“Yes, quite,” his master replied, as he turned to a writing-table whereon there lay a sealed note, and, pulling out the chair, sat down before it and took up a pen. “Wait a bit, and then you can go to bed. I’ll give you still another note to deliver. While I’m writing it you may lay out my clothes.”

“Slipping off, sir?”

“Yes. You will stop here, however. Now, then, hold your tongue; I’m busy.”

Then he pulled a sheet of paper to him and wrote rapidly:

“DEAR MR. BAWDREY:

“I’ve got my man, and am off to consult with Mr. Narkom and to have what I’ve found analysed. I don’t know when I shall be back probably not until the day after to-morrow. You are right. It is murder, and Java is at the bottom of it. Dollops will hand you this. Say nothing just wait till I get back.”

This he slipped, unsigned in his haste, into an envelope, handed it to Dollops, and then fairly jumped into his clothes. Ten minutes later, he was out of the house, and the end of the riddle was in sight.