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

It was half-past eleven o’clock. Madame la Comtesse, answering a reputed call to the bedside of a dying friend, had departed early, and was not to be expected back, she said, until to-morrow noon. The servants given permission by the gentleman known in the house as Monsieur Gaston Merode, and who had graciously provided a huge char-a-banc for the purpose had gone in a body to a fair over in the neighbourhood of Sèvres, and darkness and stillness filled the long, broad corridor of the Chateau Larouge. Of a sudden, however, a mere thread of sound wavered through the silence, and from the direction of Miss Lorne’s room a figure in black, with feet muffled in thick, woollen stockings, padded to an angle of the passage, lifted a trap carefully hidden beneath a huge tiger-skin rug, and almost immediately Cleek’s head rose up out of the gap.

“Thank God you managed to do it. I was horribly afraid you would not,” said Ailsa in a palpitating whisper.

“You need not have been,” he answered. “I know a dozen places beside ‘The Inn of the Twisted Arm’ from which one can get into the sewers. I’ve screwed a bolt and socket on the inner side of this trap in case of an emergency, and I’ve carried a few things into the passage for ‘afterwards.’ I suppose that fellow Merode, as he calls himself, is in his room, waiting?”

“Yes; and, although he pretends to be alone to-night, he he has other men with him, hideous, ruffianly looking creatures, whom I saw him admit after the servants had gone. The countess has left the house and gone I don’t know where.”

“I do, then. Make certain she’s at ‘The Twisted Arm,’ waiting, first, for the coming of Clodoche, and, second, for the arrival of this precious ‘Merode’ with the remaining half of the document. I’ve sent Dollops there to carry out his part of the programme, and when once I get the password Margot requires before she will hand over the paper, the game will be in my hands entirely. They are desperate to-night, Miss Lorne, and will stop at nothing not even murder. There! the rug’s replaced. Quick! lead me to the baron’s room there’s not a minute to waste.”

She took his hand and led him tiptoe through the darkness, and in another moment he was in the Baron de Carjorac’s presence.

“Oh, monsieur, God for ever bless you!” exclaimed the broken old man, throwing himself on his knees before Cleek.

“Out with the light out with the light!” exclaimed he, ducking down suddenly. “Were you mad to keep it burning till I came, with that” pointing to a huge bay window opening upon a balcony “uncurtained and the grounds, no doubt, alive with spies?”

Miss Lorne sprang to the table where the baron’s reading-lamp stood, jerked the cord of the extinguisher, and darkness enveloped the room, darkness tempered only by the faint gleams of the moon streaming over the balcony, and through the panes of the uncurtained window.

Cleek, on his knees beside the kneeling baron, whipped a tiny electric torch from his pocket, and, shielding its flare with his scooped hands, flashed it upon the old man’s face.

“Simple as rolling off a log exactly like your pictures,” he commented. “I’ll ‘do’ you as easily as I ‘do’ Clodoche and I could ‘do’ him in the dark from memory. Quick” snicking off the light of the electric torch and rising to his feet “into your dressing-room, baron. I want that suit of clothes; I want that ribbon, that cross and I want them at once. You’re a bit thicker-set than me, but I’ve got my Clodoche rig on underneath this, and it will fill out your coat admirably and make us as like as two peas. Give me five minutes, Miss Lorne, and I promise you a surprise.”

He flashed out of sight with the baron as he ceased speaking; and Ailsa, creeping to the window and peering cautiously out, was startled presently by a voice at her elbow saying, in a tone of extreme agitation: “Oh, mademoiselle, I fear, even yet I fear, that this Anglais monsieur attempts too much, and that the papier he is gone for ever.”

“Oh, no, baron, no!” she soothed, as she laid a solicitous hand upon his arm. “Do believe in him; do have faith in him. Ah, if you only knew ”

“Thanks. I reckon I shall pass muster!” interposed Cleek’s voice; and it was only then she realised. “You’ll find the baron in the other room, Miss Lorne, looking a little grotesque in that grey suit of mine. In with you, quickly; go with him through the other door, and get below before those fellows begin to stir. Get out of the house as quietly and as expeditiously as you can. With God’s help, I’ll meet you at the Hotel du Louvre in the morning, and put the missing fragment in the baron’s hands.”

“And may God give you that help!” she answered fervently as she moved towards the dressing-room door. “Ah, what a man! what a man!”

Then, in a twinkling she was gone, and Cleek stood alone in the silent room. Giving her and the baron time to get clear of the other one, he went in on tiptoe, locked the door through which they had passed, put the key in his pocket, and returned. Going to the door which led from the main room into the corridor, he took the key from the lock of that, too, replacing it upon the outer side, and leaving the door itself slightly ajar.

“Now then for you, Mr. ‘The Red Crawl,’” he said, as he walked to the baron’s table, and, sinking down into a deep chair beside it, leaned back with his eyes closed as if in sleep, and the faint light of the moon half-revealing his face. “I want that password, and I’ll get it, if I have to choke it out of your devil’s throat! And she said that she would be grateful to me all the rest of her life! Only ‘grateful,’ I wonder? Is nothing else possible? What a good, good thing a real woman is!”

How long was it that he had been reclining there waiting before his strained ears caught the sound of something like the rustling of silk shivering through the stillness, and he knew that at last it was coming? It might have been ten minutes, it might have been twenty he had no means of determining when he caught that first movement, and, peering through the slit of a partly opened eye, saw the appalling thing drag its huge bulk along the balcony, and, with squirming tentacles writhing, slide over the low sill of the window, and settle down in a glowing red heap upon the floor; and fake though he knew it to be he could not repress a swift rush and prickle of “goose-flesh” at sight of it.

For a few seconds it lay dormant; then one red feeler shot out, then another, and another, and it began to edge its way across the carpet to the chair. Cleek lay still and waited, his heavy breathing sounding regularly, his head thrown back, his limp hands lying loosely, palms upward, beside him; and nearer and nearer crept the loathsome, red, glowing thing.

It crawled to his feet, and still he was quiet; it slid first one tentacle, and then another, over his knees and up toward his breast, and still he made no movement; then, as it rose higher rose until its hideous beaked countenance was close to his own, his hands flashed upward and clamped together like a vice clamped on a palpitating human throat and in the twinkling of an eye the tentacles were wrapped about him, and he and “The Red Crawl” were rolling over and over on the floor and battling together.

“Serpice, you low-bred hound, I know you!” he whispered, as they struggled. “You can’t utter a cry you shan’t utter a cry to bring help. I’ll throttle you, you beastly renegade, that’s willing to sell his own country throttle you, do you hear? before you shall bring any of your mates to the rescue. Oh, you’ve not got a weak old man to fight with this time! Do you know me? It’s the ’cracksman’ the ‘cracksman’ who went over to the police. If you doubt it, now that we’re in the moonlight, look up and see my face. Oho! you recognise me, I see. Well, you will die looking at me, you dog, if you deny me what I’m after. I’ll loosen my grip enough for you to whisper, and no more. Now what’s the password that Clodoche must give to Margot to-night at ’The Twisted Arm’? Tell me what it is; if you want your life, tell me what it is.”

“I’ll see you dead first!” came in a whisper from beneath the hideous mask. Then, as Cleek’s fingers clamped tight again and the battle began anew, one long, thin arm shot out from amongst the writhing tentacles, one clutching hand gripped the leg of the table, and, with a wrench and a twist, brought it crashing to the ground with a sound that a deaf man might have heard.

And in an instant there was pandemonium.

A door flung open, and clashing heavily against the wall, sent an echo reeling along the corridor; then came a clatter of rushing feet, a voice cried out excitedly: “Come on! come on! He’s had to kill the old fool to get it!” and Cleek had just time to tear loose from the shape with which he was battling, and dodge out of the way when the man Merode lurched into the room, with half a dozen Apaches tumbling in at his heels.

“Serpice!” he cried, rushing forward, as he saw the gasping red shape upon the floor; “Serpice! Mon Dieu! what is it?”

“The cracksman!” he gulped. “Cleek! the cracksman who went against us! Catch him! stop him!”

“The cracksman!” howled out Merode, twisting round in the darkness and reaching blindly for the haft of his dirk. “Nom de Dieu! Where?”

And almost before the last word was uttered a fist like a sledge-hammer shot out, caught him full in the face, and he went down with a whole smithy of sparks flashing and hissing before his eyes.

“There!” answered Cleek, as he bowled him over. “Gentlemen of the sewers, my compliments. You’ll make no short cut to ‘The Twisted Arm’ to-night!”

Then, like something shot from a catapult, he sprang to the door, whisked through it, banged it behind him, turned the key, and went racing down the corridor like a hare.

“It must be sheer luck now!” he panted, as he reached the angle and, kicking aside the rug, pulled up the trap. “They’ll have that door down in a brace of shakes, and be after me like a pack of ravening wolves. The race is to the swift this time, gentlemen, and you’ll have to take a long way round if you mean to head me off.”

Then he passed down into the darkness, closed the trap-door after him, shot into its socket the bolt he had screwed there, flashed up the light of his electric torch, and, without the password, turned toward the sewers, and ran, and ran, and ran!