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

It lacked but a minute of the stroke of twelve, and the revels at “The Twisted Arm” wild at all times, but wilder to-night than ever were at their noisiest and most exciting pitch. And why not? It was not often that Margot could spend a whole night with her rapscallion crew, and she had been here since early evening was to remain here until the dawn broke grey over the house-tops and the murmurs of the workaday world awoke anew in the streets of the populous city. It was not often that each man and each abandoned woman present knew to a certainty that he or she would go home through the mists of the grey morning with a fistful of gold that had been won without labor or the taking of any personal risk; and to-night the half of four hundred thousand francs was to be divided among them.

No wonder they had made a carnival of it, and tricked themselves out in gala attire; no wonder they had brought a paste tiara and crowned Margot Margot, who was in flaming red to-night, and looked a devil’s daughter indeed, with her fire-like sequins and her red ankles twinkling as she threw herself into the thick of the dance and kicked, and whirled, and flung her bare arms about to the lilt of the music and the fluting of her own happy laughter.

“Per Bacco! The devil’s in her to-night!” grinned old Marise, the innkeeper, from her place behind the bar, where the lid of the sewer-trap opened. “She has not been like it since the cracksman broke with her, Toinette. But that was before your time, ma fille. Mother of the heavens! but there was a man for you! There was a king that was worthy of such a queen. Name of disaster! that she could not hold him, that the curse of virtue sapped such a splendid tree, and that she could take up with another after him!”

“Why not?” cried Toinette, as she tossed down the last half of her absinthe and twitched her flower-crowned head. “A kingdom must have a king, ma mere; and Dieu: but he is handsome, this Monsieur Gaston Merode! And if he carries out his part of the work to-night he will be worthy of the homage of all.”

“‘If’ he carries it out ’if’!” exclaimed Marise, with a lurch of the shoulders and a flirt of her pudgy hand. “Soul of me! that’s where the difference lies. Had it been the cracksman, there would have been no ’if’ it were done as surely as he attempted it. Name of misfortune! I had gone into a nunnery had I lost such a man. But she ”

The voice of Margot shrilled out and cut into her words. “Absinthe, Marise, absinthe for them all and set the score down to me!” she cried. “Drink up, my bonny boys; drink up, my loyal maids. Drink drink till your skins will hold no more. No one pays to-night but me!”

They broke into a cheer, and bearing down in a body upon Marise, threw her into a fever of haste to serve them.

“To Margot!” they shouted, catching up the glasses and lifting them high. “Vive la Reine des Apaches! Vive la compagnie! To Margot! To Margot!”

She swept them a merry bow, threw them a laughing salute, and drank the toast with them.

“Messieurs, my love mesdames et mademoiselles, my admiration,” she cried, with a ripple of joy-mad laughter. “To the success of the Apaches, to the glory of four hundred thousand francs, and to the quick arrival of Serpice and Gaston!” Then, her upward glance catching sight of the musicians sipping their absinthe in the little gallery above, she flung her empty glass against the wall behind them, and shook with laughter as they started in alarm and spilled the green poison when they dodged aside. “Another dance, you dawdlers!” she cried. “Does Marise pay you to sit there like mourners? Strike up, you mummies, or you pay yourselves for what you drink to-night. Soul of desires!” as the musicians grabbed up their instruments, and a leaping, lilting, quick-beating air went rollicking out over the hubbub “a quadrille, you angels of inspiration! Partners, gentlemen! Partners, ladies! A quadrille! A quadrille!”

They set up a many-throated cheer and flocked out with her upon the floor; and in one instant feet were flying, skirts were whirling, laughter and jest mingling with waving arms and kicking toes, and the whole place was in one mad riot of delirious joy.

And in the midst of this there rolled up suddenly a voice crying, as from the bowels of the earth, “Holà! Holà! La la! loi!” the cry of the Apache to his kind.

“Mother of delights! It is one of us, and it comes from the sewer passage from the sewer!” shrilled out Marise, as the dancers halted and Margot ran, with fleet steps, towards the bar. “Listen! listen! They come to you, Margot Serpice and Gaston. The work is done.”

“And before even Clodoche or von Hetzler have arrived!” she replied excitedly. “Give them light, give them welcome. Be quick!”

Marise ducked down, loosened the fastenings of the trap-door, flung it back, and, leaning over the gap with a light in her hand, called down into the darkness, “Holà! Holà! La! la! loi! Come on, comrades, come on!”

The caller obeyed instantly. A hand reached up and gripped the edge of the flooring, and out of the darkness into the light emerged the figure of a man in a leather cap and the blue blouse of a mechanic a pale, fox-faced, fox-eyed fellow, with lank, fair hair, a brush of ragged, yellow beard, and with the look and air of the sneak and spy indelibly branded upon him.

It was Cleek.

“Clodoche!” exclaimed Marise, falling back in surprise.

“Clodoche!” echoed Margot. “Clodoche and from the sewers?”

“Yes why not?” he answered, his tongue thick-burred with the accent of Alsace, his shifting eyes flashing toward the huge window behind the bar, where, in the moonlight, the narrow passage leading down to the door of “The Twisted Arm” gaped evilly between double rows of scowling, thief-sheltering houses. “Name of the fiend! Is this the welcome you give the bringer of fortune, Margot?”

“But from the sewer?” she repeated. “It is incomprehensible, cher ami. You were to pilot von Hetzler over from the Cafe Dupin to the square beyond there” pointing to the window “to leave him waiting a moment while you came on to see if it were safe for him to enter; and now you come from the sewer from the opposite direction entirely!”

“Mother of misfortunes! You had done the same yourself you, Lantier; you, Clopin; you, Cadarousse; any of you had you been in my boots,” he made answer. “I stole a leaf from your own book, earlier in the evening. Garotted a fellow with jewels on him in the Rue Noir, near the Market Place and nearly got into ‘the stone bottle’ for doing it. He was a decoy, set there by the police for some of you fellows, and there was a sergeant de ville after me like a whirlwind. I was not fool enough to turn the chase in this direction, so I doubled and twisted until it was safe to dive into the tavern of Fouchard, and lay in hiding there. Fouchard let his son carry a message to the count for me, and will guide him to the square. When it grew near the time to come, Fouchard let me down into the sewer passage from there. Get on with your dance silence is always suspicious. An absinthe, Marise! Have Gaston and Serpice arrived yet with the rest of the document, Margot la reine?”

“Not yet,” she answered. “But one may expect them at any minute.”

“Where is the fragment we already possess?”

“Here,” tapping her bodice and laughing, “tenderly shielded, mon ami, and why not? Who would not mother a thing that is to bring one four hundred thousand francs?”

“Let me see it. It must be shown to the count, remember. He will take no risks, come not one step beyond the square, until he is certain that it is the paper his Government requires. Let me have it let me take it to him quick!”

She waved aside airily the hand he stretched toward her, and danced into the thick of the resumed quadrille.

“Ah, non! non! non!” she laughed, as he came after her. “The conditions were of your own making, cher ami; we break no rules even among ourselves.”

“Soul of a fool! But if the count comes to the square he is due there now, mignonne and I am not there to show him the thing Margot, for the love of God, let me have the paper!”

“Let me have the sign, the password!”

Cleek snapped at a desperate chance because there was nothing else to do, because he knew that at any moment now the end might come.

“‘When the purse will not open, slit it!’” he hazarded, desperately choosing, on the off-chance of its correctness, the password of the Apache.

“It is not the right one! It is by no means the right one!” she made reply, backing away from him suddenly, her absinthe-brightened eyes deriding him, her absinthe-sharpened laughter mocking him. “Your thoughts are in the Bois, cher ami. What is the password of the brotherhood to the cause of Germany, stupid? It is not right, non! non! It is not right!”

The cause of Germany! At the words the truth rushed like a flash of inspiration across Cleek’s mind. The cause of Germany! What a dolt he was not to have thought of that before! There was but one phrase ever used for that among the Kaiser’s people, and that phrase

“‘To the day!’” he said, with a burst of sudden laughter. “My wits are in the moon to-night, la reine. ‘To the day,’ of course ’To the day!’” And even before she replied to him, he knew that he had guessed aright.

“Bravo!” she said, with a little hiccough for the absinthe, of which she had imbibed so freely to-night, was beginning to take hold of her. “A pretty conspirator to forget how to open the door he himself locked! It is well I know thee it is well it was the word of les Apaches in the beginning, or I had been suspicious, silly! Wait but a moment!” putting her hand to her breast and beginning to unfasten her bodice “wait but a moment, Monsieur Twitching-Fingers, and the thing shall be in your hand.”

The strain, the relief, were all too great for even such nerves as Cleek’s, and if he had not laughed aloud, he knew that he must have cheered.

“Oho! you grin because one’s fingers blunder with eagerness,” hiccoughed Margot, thinking his laughter was for the trouble she had in getting the fastenings of her bodice undone. “Peste, monsieur! may not a lady well be modestly careful, when Name of the devil! what’s that?”

It was the note of a whistle shrilling down the narrow passage without the passage where Dollops, in Apache garb, had been set on watch; and, hearing it, Cleek clamped his jaws together and breathed hard. A single whistle short and sharp, such as this one was was the signal agreed upon that the real Clodoche was coming, and that he and Count von Hetzler had already appeared in the square beyond.

“Soul of a sloth! Will not that hurry you, la reine?” he said excitedly, in reply to Margot’s startled question. “It is the signal Fouchard’s son was to give when he and von Hetzler arrived at the place where I am to meet them. Give me the paper quick! quick! Tear the fastenings, if they will not come undone else. One cannot keep a von Hetzler waiting like a lackey for a scrap of ribbon and a bit of lace.”

“Pardieu! they have kept better men than he waiting many an hour before this,” she made reply. “But you shall have the thing in a twinkling now. There! but one more knot, and then it is in your hands.”

And, had the fates not decreed otherwise, so, indeed, it would have been. But then, just then, when another second would have brought the paper into view, another moment seen it shut tight in the grip of his itching fingers, disaster came and blotted out his hopes!

Without hint or warning, without sign or sound to lessen the shock of it, the trap-door behind the bar flew up and backward with a crash that sent Marise and her assistants darting away from it in shrieking alarm; a babel of excited voices sounded, a scurry of rushing feet scuffled and flashed along the shaking floor, and Merode and his followers tumbled helter-skelter into the room.

Cleek, counting on the bolt which kept them from entering the passage from the corridor of the Chateau Larouge forcing them to take a long, roundabout journey to “The Twisted Arm” had not counted on their shortening that journey by entering the passage from Fouchard’s tavern, doing, in fact, the very thing which he had declared to Margot he himself had done. And lo! here they were, howling and crowding about him dirks in their hands and devils in their eyes and hearts and the paper not his yet!

A clamour rose as they poured in; the dancers ceased to dance; the music ceased to play; and Margot, shutting a tight clutch on the loosened part of her half-unfastened bodice, swung away from Cleek’s side, and flew in a panic to Merode.

“Gaston!” she cried, knowing from his wild look and the string of oaths and curses his followers were blurting out that something had gone amiss. “Gaston, mon coeur! Name of disaster! what is wrong?”

“Everything is wrong!” he flung back excitedly. “That devil that renegade that fury, Cleek, the cracksman, is here. He came to the rescue came out of the very skies and all but killed Serpice!”

“Cleek!” Fifty shrill voices joined Margot’s in that screaming cry; fifty more dirks flashed into view. “Cleek in France? Cleek? Where is he? Which way did he go? Where’s the narker where where?”

“Here, if anywhere!”

“Here?”

“Yes unless you’ve been fooled, and let him get away. He knows about the paper, and is after it, Margot; and if anyone has come up from the sewers within the past twenty minutes ”

They knew they grasped the situation instantly and a roar of excited voices yelled out: “Clodoche! Clodoche! Clodoche!” as, snarling and howling like a pack of wolves, they bore down with a rush on the blue-bloused figure that was creeping towards the door.

But as they sprang it sprang also! It was neck or nothing now. Cleek realised it, and, throwing himself headlong over the bar, clutched frantically at the lever which he knew controlled the flow of gas, jammed it down with all his strength, shut off the light, and, grabbing up a chair, sent it crashing through the window.

The crowd surged on towards the wrecked bar with a yell, surged from all directions, and then abruptly stopped and huddled together in one. For the sudden flashing down of the darkness within, had made more prominent, the moon-lighted passage without; and there, scuttling away in alarm from this sudden uproar, and the outward flying of that hurled chair, a figure which but a moment before had come skulking to the window, could now be seen.

“There he goes there! there!” shrilled out a chorus of excited voices, as the yellow-bearded, blue-bloused figure came into view. “After him! Catch him! Knife him!”

In an instant they were at the door, tumbling out into the darkness, pouring up the passage in hot pursuit. And it was at that moment the balance changed again. Those who were in the front rank of the pursuers were in time to see a lithe, thin figure dressed as one of their own kind spring up in the path of that other figure, jump on it, grip it, clap a huge square of sticky brown paper over the howling mouth of it, and bear it, struggling and kicking, to the ground.

In another second they, too, were upon it swarming over it like rats, and digging and hacking at it with their dirks. And so they were still hacking at it although it had long since ceased to move, or to make any sound when Merode came up and called them to a halt.

“Drag it inside; let Margot have a thrust at it it is her right. Pull off the dog’s disguise, and bring me the plucky one that captured him. He shall have absinthe enough to swim in, the little king! Off with it all, Lanchere. First, the plaster that’s right. Now, the wig and beard, and after that What’s that you say? The beard is real? The hair is real? They will not come off? Name of the devil! what are you saying?”

“The truth, mon roi, the truth! Mother of disasters! It is not the cracksman it is the real Clodoche we have killed!”

For one moment a sort of panic held them, swayed them, befogged the brains of them; then, of a sudden, Merode howled out, “Get back! Get back! The fellow’s in there still!” and led a blind race down the passage to the bar, where they had seen Cleek last. It was still in darkness; but an eager hand gripping the lever, turned on the gas again, and matches everywhere were lifted to the jets.

And when the light flamed out and the room was again ablaze they knew that they might as well hope to call back yesterday as dream of finding Cleek again. For there on the floor, her limp hands turned palms upward, a chloroformed cloth folded over her mouth and nose, lay, in a deep stupor, the figure of Margot, her bodice torn wide open and the paper forever gone!

It was five minutes later when the Count von Hetzler, crouching back in the shadow of the square and waiting for the return of Clodoche, heard a dull, whirring sound that was unmistakably the purr of a motor throb through the stillness; and, leaning forward, saw an automobile whirl up out of the darkness, cut across the square, and dash off westward like a flash. Yet in the brief instant it took to go past the place where he waited there was time for him to catch the sharp click of a lowered window, see the clear outlines of a man’s face looking out, and to hear a voice from within the vehicle speak.

“Herr Count,” it said in clear, incisive tones. “A positively infallible recipe for the invasion of England: Wait until the Channel freezes and then skate over. Good night!”

“One for his nob that, Gov’nor my hat, yuss!” said Dollops, with a shrill laugh, as he stuck a red head and a face all shiny with cocoa butter and half-removed grease-paint out of the window, and, despite the fact that the swift pace of the automobile had already carried it far past the place where the count had been in hiding, made a fan of his five fingers and his snub nose. “Oh, Mother ’Ubbard! Did you see him, sir? Bunked back in his ’olé like somebody had ‘give him the hook,’ and cleared the blessed stage before the eggs began to fly. I don’t think them Germans ‘ull be sittin’ on the steps of St. Paul’s this year, sir not them!”

Cleek laughed; and, ordering the boy to shut down the window and get on with the work of changing his clothes, set about doing the same thing himself.

“I suppose you know, you clever little monkey, that I should have been floating down the Seine with a slit throat and enough lead in me to sink a barrel by this time, if it hadn’t been for you,” he said, as he pushed the outward semblance of Clodoche into the kit-bag, and began to get into ordinary civilian’s dress as expeditiously as possible. “If you had slipped up if you had been one-half minute late or if that fellow had had a chance to make one cry before you covered his mouth ”

“Please, sir don’t!” interposed Dollops, with a sort of shiver. “If anythink had’ve happened to you, Gov’nor...” Then stopped short and made a sound as if he were swallowing something, and then grew very, very still.

Cleek looked at him out of the corner of his eye moved in spite of himself hesitated a moment and then, obeying an impulse, leaned over and gently tapped him on the shoulder.

“Dollops, shake hands,” he said.

“Sir!”

“Shake hands.”

“Gawd, Gov’nor! You don’t never mean that, sir?”

“Shake hands,” said Cleek for the third time. “Do you know, you little monkey, that you’re the only soul in all God’s world that could ever muster up a tear for me? Thank you, my lad you’re a brick!” then gripped the grimy hand that was reached out with a sort of awe, wrung it heartily, patted the astonished boy on the shoulder; and fell to whistling merrily as he went on with his dressing.

“Sir, you do lick me, you fair do,” said Dollops, laughing unsteadily, and drawing his sleeve across his eyes. “Arfter wot you’ve been and went through, a-sittin’ there and whistlin’ as merry as can be like as if life was all beer and skittles, and you hadn’t a care in the world.”

“I haven’t for the minute, my lad,” said Cleek with a laugh of utter happiness. “Beer and skittles? Lord, it’s all roses my boy, roses! I’ve had the good luck to accomplish a thing that’s going to give me well, at least one moment in Paradise and when a man has a prospect like that in view...” His voice trailed off; he laughed again; then fell to whistling once more noisily, joyously, as if some schoolboy sort of madness was in his blood to-night and was still whistling when the automobile pulled up sharply in front of the Hotel du Louvre.