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

“A very real, a very moving thing, Mr. Narkom,” he replied. “The cry of a human heart in deep distress; the agonised appeal of a man so wrought up by the horrors of his position that he forgets to offer a temptation in the way of reward, and speaks of outlandish things as though they must be understood of all. As witness his allusion to something which he calls ‘The Red Crawl,’ without attempting to explain the meaningless phrase. Whatever it is, it is so real to him that it seems as if everybody must understand.”

“You think, then, that the thing is genuine?”

“So genuine that I shall answer its call, Mr. Narkom, and be alone in the dark on the top floor of N, Rue Toison d’Or, to-morrow night as surely as the clock strikes nine.”

And that was how the few persons who happened to be in the quiet upper reaches of the Rue Bienfaisance at half-past eight o’clock the next evening came to see a fat, fussing, red-faced Englishman in a grey frock-coat, white spats, and a shining topper, followed by a liveried servant with a hat-box in one hand and a portmanteau in the other so conspicuous, the pair of them, that they couldn’t have any desire to conceal themselves cross over the square before the Church of St. Augustine, fare forth into the darker side passages, and move in the direction of the street of the Golden Fleece.

They were, of course, Cleek and the boy Dollops.

“Lumme, Gov’nor,” whispered he, as they turned at last into the utter darkness and desertion of the narrow Rue Toison d’Or, “if this is wot yer calls Gay Paree this precious black slit between two rows of houses I’ll take a slice of the Old Kent Road with thanks. Not even so much as a winkle-stall in sight, and me that empty my shirt-bosom’s a-chafing my blessed shoulder-blades!”

“You’ll see plenty of life before the game’s over, I warrant you, Dollops. Now then, my lad, here’s a safe spot. Sit down on the hat-box and wait. That’s N, that empty house with the open door, just across the way. Keep your eye on it. I don’t know how long I’ll be, but if anybody comes out before I do, mind you don’t let him get away.”

“No fear!” said Dollops sententiously. “I’ll be after him as if he was a ham sandwich, sir. Look out for my patent ‘Tickle Tootsies’ when you come out, Gov’nor. I’ll sneak over and put ’em round the door as soon as you’ve gone in.” For Dollops, who was of an inventive turn of mind, had an especial “man-trap” of his own, which consisted of heavy brown paper, cut into squares, and thickly smeared over with a viscid varnish-like substance that would adhere to the feet of anybody incautiously stepping upon it, and so interfere with flight that it was an absolute necessity to stop and tear the papers away before running with any sort of ease and swiftness was possible. This was the “invention” to which Cleek had alluded. Dollops, who was rather proud of the achievement, carried with him a full supply of ready-cut papers and a big collapsible tube of the viscid, ropy, varnish-like glue.

Meantime, Cleek, having left the boy sitting on the hat-box in the darkness, crossed the narrow street to the open doorway of N, and, without hesitation, stepped in. The place was as black as a pocket, and had that peculiar smell which belongs to houses that have long stood vacant. The house, nevertheless, was a respectable one, and, like all the others, fronted on another street this dark Toison d’Or being merely a back passage used principally by the tradespeople for the delivery of supplies. Feeling his way to the first of the three flights of stairs which led upward into the stillness and gloom above, Cleek mounted steadily until he found himself at length in a sort of attic quite windowless, and lit only by a skylight through which shone the ineffectual light of the stars. It was the top at last. Bracing his back against the wall, so that nobody could get behind him, and holding himself ready for any emergency, he called out in a clear, calm voice: “Cleek!”

Almost simultaneously there was a sharp metallic “snick,” an electric bulb hanging from the ceiling flamed out luminously, a cupboard door flashed open, a voice cried out in joyous, perfect English: “Thank God for a man!” And, switching round with a cry of amazement, he found himself looking into the face and eyes of a woman.

And of all women in the world Ailsa Lorne!

He sucked in his breath and his heart began to hammer.

“Miss Lorne!” he exclaimed, so carried out of himself that he scarcely knew what he did. “It was the French position that you chose, then? It is you you that calls upon me?”

“No, it is not,” she made reply, a rush of colour reddening her cheeks, a feeling of embarrassment and of a natural restraint making her shake visibly. “I am merely the envoy of another. I should not know you, disguised as you are, but for that. Yes, I chose the French position, as you see, Mr. Cleek. I am now the companion to Mademoiselle Athalie, daughter of the Baron de Carjorac.”

“Baron de Carjorac? Do you mean the French Minister of the Interior, the President of the Board of National Defences, Miss Lorne that enthusiastic old patriot, that rabid old spitfire, whose one dream is the wresting back of Alsace-Lorraine, the driving of the hated Germans into the sea? Do you mean that ripping old firebrand?”

“Yes. But you’d not call him that if you were to see him now; if you could see the wreck, the broken and despairing wreck, that six weeks of the Chateau Larouge, six weeks of that horrible ‘Red Crawl’ have made of him.”

“‘The Red Crawl’! Good heavens! then that letter, that appeal for help ”

“Came from him!” she finished excitedly. “It was he who was to have met you here to-night, Mr. Cleek. This house is one he owns; he thought he might with safety risk coming here, but he can’t! he can’t! He knows now that there is danger for him everywhere; that his every step is tracked; that the snare which is about him has been about him, unsuspected, for almost a year; that he dare not, absolutely dare not, appeal to the French police, and that if it were known he had appealed to you, he would be a dead man inside of twenty-four hours, and not only dead, but disgraced. Oh, Mr. Cleek!” she stretched out two shaking hands and laid them on his arm, lifted a white, imploring face to his “save him! save that dear broken old man! Ah, think! think! They are our friends, our dear country’s friends, these French people. Their welfare is our welfare, ours is theirs. Oh, help him, save him, Mr. Cleek for his own sake for mine for France. Save him, and win my gratitude for ever!”

“That is a temptation that would carry me to the ends of the earth, Miss Lorne. Tell me what the work is, and I will carry it through. What is this incomprehensible thing of which both you and Baron de Carjorac have spoken this thing you allude to as ’The Red Crawl’?”

She gave a little shuddering cry and fell back a step, covering her face with both hands.

“Oh!” she said, with a shiver of repulsion. “It is loathly it is horrible it is necromancy beyond belief! Why, oh, why were we ever driven to that horrible Chateau Larouge! Why could not fate have spared the Villa de Carjorac? It could not have happened then!”

“Villa de Carjorac? That was the name of the baron’s residence, I believe. I remember reading in the newspapers some five or six weeks ago that it was destroyed by fire, which originated nobody knew how in the apartments of the late baroness in the very dead of the night. I thought at the time it read suspiciously like the work of an incendiary, although nobody hinted at such a thing. The Chateau Larouge I also have a distinct memory of, as an old historic property in the neighbourhood of St. Cloud. Speaking from past experience, I know that, although it is in such a state of decay, and supposed to be uninhabitable, it has, in fact, often been occupied at a period when the police and the public believed it to be quite empty. Gentlemen of the Apache persuasion have frequently made it a place of retreat. There is also an underground passage executed by those same individuals which connects with the Paris sewers. That, too, the police are unaware of. What can the ruined Chateau Larouge possibly have to do with the affairs of the Baron de Carjorac, Miss Lorne, that you connect them like this?”

“They have everything to do with them everything. The Chateau is no longer a ruin, however. It was purchased, rebuilt, refitted by the Comtesse Susanne de la Tour, Mr. Cleek, and she and her brother live there. So do we Athalie, Baron de Carjorac, and I. So, also, does the creature the thing the abominable horror known as ‘The Red Crawl.’”

“My dear Miss Lorne, what are you saying?”

“The truth, nothing but the truth!” she answered hysterically. “Oh, let me begin at the beginning you’ll never understand unless I do. I’ll tell you in as few words as possible as quickly as I can. It all began last winter, when Athalie and her father were at Monte Carlo. There they met Madame la Comtesse de la Tour and her brother, Monsieur Gaston Merode. The baron has position but he has not wealth, Mr. Cleek. Athalie is ambitious. She loves luxury, riches, a life of fashion all the things that boundless money can give; and when Monsieur Merode who is young, handsome, and said to be fabulously wealthy showed a distinct preference for her over all the other marriageable girls he met, she was flattered out of her silly wits. Before they left Monte Carlo for Paris everybody could see that he had only to ask her hand, to have it bestowed upon him. For although the baron never has cared for the man, Athalie rules him, and her every caprice is humoured.

“But for all he was so ardent a lover, Monsieur Merode was slow in coming to the important point. Perhaps his plans were not matured. At any rate, he did not propose to Athalie at Monte Carlo; and, although he and his sister returned to Paris at the same time as the baron and his daughter, he still deferred the proposal.”

“Has he not made it yet?”

“Yes, Mr. Cleek. He made it six weeks ago to be exact, two nights before the Villa de Carjorac was fired.”

“You think it was fired, then?”

“I do now, although I had no suspicion of it at the time. Athalie received her proposal on the Saturday, the baron gave his consent on the Sunday, and on Monday night the villa was mysteriously burnt, leaving all three of us without an immediate refuge. In the meantime, Madame la Comtesse had purchased the ruin of the Chateau Larouge, and during the period of her brother’s deferred proposal was engaged in fitting it up as an abode for herself and him. On the very day it was finished, Monsieur Merode asked for Athalie’s hand.”

“Oho!” said Cleek, with a strong rising inflection. “I think I begin to smell the toasting of the cheese. Of course, when the villa was burnt out, Madame la Comtesse insisted that, as the fiancee of her brother, Mlle. de Carjorac must make her home at the Chateau until the necessary repairs could be completed; and, of course, the baron had to go with her?”

“Yes,” admitted Ailsa. “The baron accepted Athalie would not have allowed him to decline had he wished to so we all three went there and have been residing there ever since. On the night after our arrival an alarming, a horrifying thing occurred. It was while we were at dinner that the conversation turned upon the supernatural upon houses and places that were reputed to be haunted and then Madame la Comtesse made a remarkable statement. She laughingly asserted that she had just learned that, in purchasing the Chateau Larouge, she had also become the possessor of a sort of family ghost. She said that she had only just heard from an outside source that there was a horrible legend connected with the place; in short, that for centuries it had been reputed to be under a sort of spell of evil and to be cursed by a dreadful visitant known as ’The Red Crawl’ a hideous and loathsome creature, neither spider nor octopus, but horribly resembling both which was supposed to ‘appear’ at intervals in the middle of the night, and, like the fabled giants of fairy tales, carry off ’lovely maidens and devour them.’”

“Who is responsible for that ridiculous assertion, I wonder? I think I may say that I know as much about the Chateau Larouge and its history as anybody, Miss Lorne, but I never heard of this supposed ‘legend’ before in all my life.”

“So the baron, too, declared, laughing as derisively as any of us over the story, although it is well known that he has a natural antipathy to all crawling things an abhorrence inherited from his mother and has been known to run like a frightened child from the appearance of a mere garden spider.”

“Oho!” said Cleek again. “I see! I see! The toasted cheese smells stronger, and there’s a distinct suggestion of the Rhine about it this time. There’s something decidedly German about that fabulous ‘monster’ and that haunted chateau, Miss Lorne. They are clever and careful schemers, those German Johnnies. Of course, this amazing ‘Red Crawl’ was proved to have an absolute foundation in fact, and equally, of course, it ‘appeared’ to the Baron de Carjorac?”

“Yes that very night. After we had all gone to bed, the house was roused by his screams. Everybody rushed to his chamber, only to find him lying on the floor in a state of collapse. The thing had been in his room, he said. He had seen it it had even touched him a horrible, hideous red reptile, with squirming tentacles, a huge, glowing body, and eyes like flame. It had crept upon him out of the darkness he knew not from where. It had seized him, resisted all his wild efforts to tear loose from it, and when he finally sank, overcome and fainting, upon the floor, his last conscious recollection was of the loathsome thing settling down upon his breast and running its squirming ‘feelers’ up and down his body.”

“Of course! Of course! That was part of the game. It was after something. Something of the utmost importance to German interests. That’s why the Chateau Larouge was refitted, why the Villa de Carjorac was burnt down, and why this Monsieur Gaston Merode became engaged to Mademoiselle Athalie.”

“Oh, how could you know that, Mr. Cleek? Nobody ever suspected. The baron never confessed to any living soul until he did so to me, to-day and then only because he had to tell somebody, in order that the appointment with you might be kept. How, then, could you guess?”

“By putting two and two together, Miss Lorne, and discovering that they do not make five. The inference is very clear: Baron de Carjorac is President of the Board of National Defences; Germany, in spite of its public assurances to the contrary, is known by those who are ’on the inside’ to harbour a very determined intention of making a secret attack, an unwarned invasion, upon England. France is the key to the situation. If, without the warning that must come through the delay of picking a quarrel and entering into an open war with the Republic, the German army can swoop down in the night, cross the frontier, and gain immediate possession of the ports of France, in five hours’ time it can be across the English Channel, and its hordes pouring down upon a sleeping people. To carry out this programme, the first step would, of course, be to secure knowledge of the number, location, manner of the secret defences of France the plans of fortification, the maps of the ‘danger zone,’ the documentary evidence of her strongest and weakest points and who so likely to be the guardian of these as the Baron de Carjorac? That is how I know that ‘The Red Crawl’ was after something of vital importance to German interests, Miss Lorne. That he got it, I know from the fact that the baron, while hinting at disgrace and speaking of peril to his own life, dared not confide in the French authorities and ask the assistance of the French police. Moreover, if ‘The Red Crawl’ had failed to secure anything, the baron, with his congenital loathing of all crawling things, would have left the Chateau Larouge immediately.”

“Oh, to think that you guessed it so easily and it was all such a puzzle to me. I could not think, Mr. Cleek, why he did remain why he would not be persuaded to go, although every night was adding to the horror of the thing and it seemed clear to me that he was going mad. Of course, Madame la Comtesse and her brother tried to reason him out of what he declared, tried to make him believe that it was all fancy that he did not really see the fearful thing; it was equally in vain that I myself tried to persuade him to leave the place before his reason became unsettled. Last night” she paused, shuddered, put both hands over her face, and drew in a deep breath “last night, I, too, saw ’The Red Crawl,’ Mr. Cleek I, too!”

“You, Miss Lorne?”

“Yes. I made up my mind that I would that, if it existed, I would have absolute proof of it. The countess and her brother had scoffed so frequently, had promised the baron so often that they would set a servant on guard in the corridor to watch, and then had said so often to poor, foolish, easily persuaded Athalie that it was useless doing anything so silly, as it was absolutely certain that her father only imagined the thing, that I I determined to take the step myself, unknown to any of them. After everybody had gone to bed, I threw on a loose, dark gown, crept into the corridor, and hid in a niche from which I could see the door of the baron’s room. I waited until after midnight long after and then and then ”

“Calm yourself, Miss Lorne. Then the thing appeared, I suppose?”

“Yes; but not before something equally terrible had happened. I saw the door of the countess’s room open; I saw the countess herself come out, accompanied by the man who up till then I had believed, like everybody else, was her brother.”

“And who is not her brother, after all?”

“No, he is not. Theirs is a closer tie. I saw her kiss him. I saw her go with him to an angle of the corridor, lift a rug, and raise a trap in the floor.”

“Hullo! Hullo!” ejaculated Cleek. “Then she, too; knows of the passage which leads to the sewers. Clearly, then, this Countess de la Tour is not what she seems, when she knows secrets that are known only to the followers of well, never mind. Go on, Miss Lorne, go on. You saw her lift that trap; and what then?”

“Then there came up out of it oh, the most loathsome-looking creature I ever saw; a huge, crawling, red shape that was like a blood-red spider, with the eyes, the hooked beak, and the writhing tentacles of an octopus. It made no sound, but it seemed to know her, to understand her, for when she waved her hand toward the open door of her own room it crawled away and, obeying that gesture, dragged its huge bulk over the threshold, and passed from sight. Then the man she called her brother kissed her again, and as he descended into the darkness below the trap I heard her say quite distinctly: ’Tell Marise that I will come as soon as I can; but not to delay the revel. If I am compelled to forego it to-night, there shall be a wilder one to-morrow, when Clodoche arrives.’”

“Clodoche! By Jupiter!” Cleek almost jumped as he spoke. “Now I know the ‘lay’! No; don’t ask me anything yet. Go on with the story, please. What then, Miss Lorne, what then?”

“Then the man below said something which I could not hear something to which she answered in these words: ’No, no; there is no danger. I will guard it safely, and it shall go into no hands but Clodoche’s. He and Count von Hetzler will be there about midnight to-morrow to complete the deal and pay over the money. Clodoche will want the fragment, of course, to show to the count as a proof that it is the right one, as “an earnest” of what the remainder is worth. And you must bring me that “remainder” without fail, Gaston you hear me? without fail! I shall be there, at the rendezvous, awaiting you, and the thing must be in our hands when von Hetzler comes. The thing must be finished to-morrow night, even if you and Serpice have to throw all caution to the winds and throttle the old fool.’ Then, as if answering a further question, she laughingly added: ’Oh, get that fear out of your head. I’m not a bat, to be caught napping. I’ll give it to no one but Clodoche and not even to him until he gives the secret sign.’ And then, Mr. Cleek, as she closed the trap I heard the man call back to her ‘Good night’ and give her a name I had not heard before. We had always supposed that she had been christened ‘Suzanne,’ but as that man left he called her ”

“I know before you tell me ’Margot’!” interjected Cleek. “I guessed the identity of this ‘Countess de la Tour’ from the moment you spoke of Clodoche and that secret trap. Her knowledge of those two betrayed her to me. Clodoche is a renegade Alsatian, a spy in the pay of the German Government, and an old habitue of ‘The Inn of the Twisted Arm,’ where the Queen of the Apaches and her pals hold their frequent revels. I can guess the remainder of your story now. You carried this news to the Baron de Carjorac, and he, breaking down, confessed to you that he had lost something.”

“Yes, yes a dreadful ‘something,’ Mr. Cleek: the horrible thing that has been making life an agony to him ever since. On the night when that abominable ‘Red Crawl’ first overcame him, there was upon his person a most important document a rough draft of the maps of fortification and the plan of the secret defences of France, the identical document from which was afterwards transcribed the parchment now deposited in the secret archives of the Republic. When Baron de Carjorac recovered his senses after his horrifying experience ”

“That document was gone?”

“Part of it, Mr. Cleek thank God, only a part! If it had been the parchment itself, no such merciful thing could possibly have happened. But the paper was old, much folding and handling had worn the creases through, and when, in his haste, the secret robber grabbed it, whilst that loathsome creature held the old man down, it parted directly down the middle, and he got only a vertical section of each of its many pages.”

“Victoria! ‘And the fool hath said in his heart, There is no God,’” quoted Cleek. “So, then, the hirelings of the enemy have only got half what they are after; and, as no single sentence can be complete upon a paper torn like that, nothing can be made of it until the other half is secured, and our German friends are still ‘up a gum-tree.’ I know now why the baron stayed on at the Chateau Larouge, and why ‘The Red Crawl’ is preparing to pay him another visit to-night: he hoped, poor chap, to find a clue to the whereabouts of the fragment he had lost; and that thing is after the fragment he still retains. Well, it will be a long, long day before either of those two fragments fall into German hands.”

“Oh, Mr. Cleek, you think you can get the stolen paper back? You believe you can outwit those dreadful people and save the Baron de Carjorac’s honour and his life?”

“Miss Lorne” he took her hand in his and lifted it to his lips “Miss Lorne, I thank you for giving me the chance! If you will do what I ask you, be where I ask you in two hours’ time, so surely as we two stand here this minute, I will put back the German calendar by ten years at least. They drink ‘To the day,’ those German Johnnies, but by to-morrow morning the English hand you are holding will have given them reason to groan over the night!”