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

The chauffeur proved that he could “streak it” as close to the margin of the speed limit as the law dared wink at, even in the case of the well-known red limousine, and in a little over ten minutes pulled up before the park gates. Narkom jumped out, beckoned Sir Henry to follow him, and together they hurried into the grounds in quest of Cleek.

Where the famous tulip beds made splotches of brilliant colour against the clear emerald of the closely clipped grass they came upon him a solitary figure in the garb of the elderly seaman, “Captain Burbage, of Clarges Street” seated on one of the garden benches, his hands folded over the knob of his thick walking-stick and his chin resting upon them, staring fixedly at the gorgeous flowers and apparently deaf and blind to all else.

He was not, however; for as the superintendent approached he, without altering his gaze or his attitude in the slightest particle, said with the utmost calmness: “Superb, are they not, my friend? What a pity they should be scentless. It is as though Heaven had created a butterfly and deprived it of the secret of flight. Walk on, please, without addressing me. I am quite friendly with that policeman yonder and I do not wish him to suspect that the elderly gentleman he is so kind to is in any way connected with The Yard. Examine the tulips. That’s right. You came in your limousine, of course? Where is it?”

“Just outside the gates, at the end of the path on the right,” replied Narkom, halting with Sir Henry and appearing to be wholly absorbed in pointing out the different varieties of tulips.

“Good,” replied Cleek, apparently taking not the slightest notice. “I’ll toddle on presently, and when you return from inspecting the flowers you will find me inside the motor awaiting you.”

“Do, old chap and please hurry; time is everything in this case. Let me introduce you to your client. (Keep looking at the flowers, please, Sir Henry.) I have the honour to make you acquainted with Sir Henry Wilding, Cleek; he needs you, my dear fellow.”

“Delighted in both instances. My compliments, Sir Henry. By any chance that Sir Henry Wilding whose mare, Black Riot, is the favourite for next Wednesday’s Derby?”

“Yes that very man, Mr. Cleek; and if ”

“Don’t get excited and don’t turn, please; our friend the policeman is looking this way. What’s the case? One of ‘nobbling’? Somebody trying to get at the mare?”

“Yes. A desperate ‘somebody,’ who doesn’t stop even at murder. A very devil incarnate who seems to possess the power of invisibility, and who strikes in the dark. Save me, Mr. Cleek! All I’ve got in the world is at stake, and if anything happens to Black Riot, I’m a ruined man.”

“Yar-r-r!” yawned the elderly sea captain, rising and stretching. “I do believe, constable, I’ve been asleep. Warm weather, this, for May. A glorious week for Epsom. Shan’t see you to-morrow, I’m afraid. Perhaps shan’t see you until Thursday. Here, take that, my lad, and have half-a-crown’s worth on Black Riot for the Derby; she’ll win it, sure.”

“Thanky, sir. Good luck to you, sir.”

“Same to you, my lad. Good day.” Then the old gentleman in the top hat and white spats moved slowly away, passed down the tree-shaded walk, passed the romping children, passed the Princess Louise’s statue of Queen Victoria, and, after a moment, vanished. Ten minutes later, when Narkom and Sir Henry returned to the waiting motor, they found him seated within it awaiting them, as he had promised. Giving Lennard orders to drive about slowly in the least frequented quarters, while they talked, the superintendent got in with Sir Henry, and opened fire on the “case” without further delay.

“My dear Cleek,” he said, “as you appear to know all about Sir Henry and his famous mare, there’s no need to go into that part of the subject, so I may as well begin by telling you at once that Sir Henry has come up to town for the express purpose of getting you to go down to his place in Suffolk to-night in company with him, as his only hope of outwitting a diabolical agency which has set out to get at the horse and put it out of commission before Derby Day, and in the most mysterious, the most inscrutable manner ever heard of, my dear chap. Already one groom who sat up to watch with her has been killed, another hopelessly paralysed, and to-night Logan, the mare’s trainer, is to sit up with her in the effort to baulk the almost superhuman rascal who is at the bottom of it all. Conceive if you can, my dear fellow, a power so crafty, so diabolical, that it gets into a locked and guarded stable, gets in, my dear Cleek, despite four men constantly pacing back and forth before each and every window and door that leads into the place and with a groom on guard inside, and then gets out again in the same mysterious manner without having been seen or heard by a living soul. In addition to all the windows being small and covered with a grille of iron, a fact which would make it impossible for anyone to get in or out once the doors were closed and guarded, Sir Henry himself will tell you that the stable has been ransacked from top to bottom, every hole and every corner probed into, and not a living creature of any sort discovered. Yet only last night the groom, Tolliver, was set upon inside the place and killed outright in his efforts to protect the horse; killed, Cleek, with four men patrolling outside, and willing to swear each and every one of them that nothing and no one, either man, woman, child or beast, passed them going in or getting out from sunset until dawn.”

“Hum-m-m!” said Cleek, sucking in his lower lip. “Mysterious, to say the least. Was there no struggle? Did the men on guard hear no cry?”

“In the case of the first groom, Murple, the one that was paralysed no,” said Sir Henry, as the question was addressed to him. “But in the case of Tolliver yes. The men heard him cry out, heard him call out ‘Help!’ but by the time they could get the doors open it was all over. He was lying doubled up before the entrance to Black Riot’s stall, with his face to the floor, as dead as Julius Cæsar, poor fellow, and not a sign of anybody anywhere.”

“And the horse? Did anybody get at that?”

“No; for the best of reasons. As soon as these attacks began, Mr. Cleek, I sent up to London. A gang of twenty-four men came down, with steel plates, steel joists, steel posts, and in seven hours’ time Black Riot’s box was converted into a sort of safe, to which I alone hold the key the instant it is locked up for the night. A steel grille about half a foot deep, and so tightly meshed that nothing bigger than a mouse could pass through, runs all round the enclosure close to the top of the walls, and this supplies ventilation. When the door is closed at night, it automatically connects itself with an electric gong in my own bedroom, so that the slightest attempt to open it, or even to touch it, would hammer out an alarm close to my head.”

“Has it ever done so?”

“Yes last night, when Tolliver was killed.”

“How killed, Sir Henry? Stabbed or shot?”

“Neither. He appeared to have been strangled, poor fellow, and to have died in most awful agony.”

“Strangled? But, my dear sir, that would hardly have been possible in so short a time. You say your men heard him call out for help. Granted that it took them a full minute and it probably did not take them half one to open the doors and come to his assistance, he would not be stone dead in so short a time; and he was stone dead when they got in, I believe you said?”

“Yes. God knows what killed him the coroner will find that out, no doubt but there was no blood shed and no mark upon him that I could see.”

“Hum-m-m! Was there any mark on the door of the steel stall?”

“Yes. A long scratch, somewhat semi-circular, and sweeping downwards at the lower extremity. It began close to the lock and ended about a foot and a half lower.”

“Undoubtedly, you see, Cleek,” put in Narkom, “someone tried to force an entrance to the steel room and get at the mare, but the prompt arrival of the men on guard outside the stable prevented his doing so.”

Cleek made no response. Just at that moment the limousine was gliding past a building whose courtyard was one blaze of parrot tulips, and, his eye caught by the flaming colours, he was staring at them and reflectively rubbing his thumb and forefinger up and down his chin. After a moment, however:

“Tell me something, Sir Henry,” he said abruptly. “Is anybody interested in your not putting Black Riot into the field on Derby Day? Anybody with whom you have a personal acquaintance, I mean, for of course I know there are other owners who would be glad enough to see him scratched. But is there anybody who would have a particular interest in your failure?”

“Yes one. Major Lambson-Bowles, owner of Minnow. Minnow’s second favourite, as perhaps you know. It would delight Lambson-Bowles to see me ‘go under’; and as I’m so certain of Black Riot that I’ve mortgaged every stick and stone I have in the world to back her, I should go under if anything happened to the mare. That would suit Lambson-Bowles down to the ground.”

“Bad blood between you, then?”

“Yes very. The fellow’s a brute, and I thrashed him once, as he deserved, the bounder. It may interest you to know that my only sister was his first wife. He led her a dog’s life, poor girl, and death was a merciful release to her. Twelve months ago he married a rich American woman widow of a man who made millions in hides and leather. That’s when Lambson-Bowles took up racing, and how he got the money to keep a stud. Had the beastly bad taste, too, to come down to Suffolk within a gunshot of Wilding Hall take Elmslie Manor, the biggest and grandest place in the neighbourhood, and cut a dash under my very nose, as it were.”

“Oho!” said Cleek; “then the major is a neighbour as well as a rival for the Derby plate. I see! I see!”

“No, you don’t altogether,” said Sir Henry quickly. “Lambson-Bowles is a brute and a bounder in many ways, but well, I don’t believe he is low-down enough to do this sort of thing and with murder attached to it, too although he did try to bribe poor Tolliver to leave me. Offered my trainer double wages, too, to chuck me and take up his horses.”

“Oh, he did that, did he? Sure of it, Sir Henry?”

“Absolutely. Saw the letter he wrote to Logan.”

“Hum-m-m! Feel that you can rely on Logan, do you?”

“To the last gasp. He’s as true to me as my own shadow. If you want proof of it, Mr. Cleek, he’s going to sit in the stable and keep guard himself to-night in the face of what happened to Murple and Tolliver.”

“Murple is the groom who was paralysed, is he not?” said Cleek, after a moment. “Singular thing, that. What paralysed him, do you think?”

“Heaven knows. He might just as well have been killed as poor Tolliver was, for he’ll never be any use again, the doctors say. Some injury to the spinal column, and with it a curious affection of the throat and tongue. He can neither swallow nor speak. Nourishment has to be administered by tube, and the tongue is horribly swollen.”

“I’m of the opinion, Cleek,” put in Narkom, “that strangulation is merely part of the procedure of the rascal who makes these diabolical nocturnal visits. In other words, that he is armed with some quick-acting infernal poison, which he forces into the mouths of his victims. That paralysis of the muscles of the throat is one of the symptoms of prussic acid poisoning, you must remember.”

“I do remember, Mr. Narkom,” replied Cleek enigmatically. “My memory is much stimulated by these details, I assure you. I gather from them that, whatever is administered, Murple did not get quite so much of it as Tolliver, or he, too, would be dead. Sir Henry” he turned again to the baronet “do you trust everybody else connected with your establishment as much as you trust Logan?”

“Yes. There’s not a servant connected with the hall that hasn’t been in my service for years, and all are loyal to me.”

“May I ask who else is in the house besides the servants?”

“My wife, Lady Wilding, for one; her cousin, Mr. Sharpless, who is on a visit to us, for another; and, for a third, my uncle, the Rev. Ambrose Smeer, the famous revivalist.”

“Mr. Smeer does not approve of the race track, of course?”

“No, he does not. He is absurdly ‘narrow’ on some subjects, and ‘sport’ of all sorts is one of them. But, beyond that, he is a dear, lovable old fellow, of whom I am amazingly fond.”

“Hum-m-m! And Lady Wilding and Mr. Sharpless do they, too, disapprove of racing?”

“Quite to the contrary. Both are enthusiastic upon the subject, and both have the utmost faith in Black Riot’s certainty of winning. Lady Wilding is something more than attached to the mare; and as for Mr. Sharpless, he is so upset over these rascally attempts that every morning when the steel room is opened and the animal taken out, although nothing ever happens in the daylight, he won’t let her get out of his sight for a single instant until she is groomed and locked up for the night. He is so incensed, so worked up over this diabolical business, that I verily believe if he caught any stranger coming near the mare he’d shoot him in his tracks.”

“Hum-m-m!” said Cleek abstractedly, and then sat silent for a long time, staring at his spats and moving one thumb slowly round the breadth of the other, his fingers interlaced and his lower lip pushed upwards over the one above.

“There, that’s the case, Cleek,” said Narkom, after a time. “Do you make anything out of it?”

“Yes,” he replied; “I make a good deal out of it, Mr. Narkom, but, like the language of the man who stepped on the banana skin, it isn’t fit for publication. One question more, Sir Henry. Heaven forbid it, of course, but if anything should happen to Logan to-night, whom would you put on guard over the horse to-morrow?”

“Do you think I could persuade anybody if a third man perished?” said the baronet, answering one question with another. “I don’t believe there’s a groom in England who’d take the risk for love or money. There would be nothing for it but to do the watching myself. What’s that? Do it? Certainly, I’d do it! Everybody that knows me knows that.”

“Ah, I see!” said Cleek, and lapsed into silence again.

“But you’ll come, won’t you?” exclaimed Sir Henry agitatedly. “It won’t happen if you take up the case; Mr. Narkom tells me he is sure of that. Come with me, Mr. Cleek. My motor is waiting at the garage. Come back with me, for God’s sake for humanity’s sake and get to the bottom of the thing.”

“Yes,” said Cleek in reply. “Give Lennard the address of the garage, please; and Mr. Narkom!”

“Yes, old chap?”

“Pull up at the first grocer’s shop you see, will you, and buy me a couple of pounds of the best white flour that’s milled; and if you can’t manage to get me either a sieve or a flour dredger, a tin pepper-pot will do!”