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

That night Cleek met Lady Wilding for the first time. He found her what he afterwards termed “a splendid animal,” beautiful, statuesque, more of Juno than of Venus, and freely endowed with the languorous temperament and the splendid earthy loveliness which grows nowhere but under tropical skies and in the shadow of palm groves and the flame of cactus flowers. She showed him but scant courtesy, however, for she was but a poor hostess, and after dinner carried her cousin away to the billiard-room, and left her husband to entertain the Rev. Ambrose and the detective as best he could. Cleek needed but little entertaining, however, for in spite of his serenity he was full of the case on hand, and kept wandering in and out of the house and upstairs and down until eleven o’clock came and bed claimed him with the rest.

His last wakeful recollection was of the clock in the lower corridor striking the first quarter after eleven; then sleep claimed him, and he knew no more until all the stillness was suddenly shattered by a loud-voiced gong hammering out an alarm and the sound of people tumbling out of bed and scurrying about in a panic of fright. He jumped out of bed, pulled on his clothing, and rushed out into the hall, only to find it alive with people, and at their head Sir Henry, with a dressing-gown thrown on over his pyjamas and a bedroom candle in his shaking hand.

“The stable!” he cried out excitedly. “Come on, come on, for God’s sake! Someone has touched the door of the steel room; and yet the place was left empty empty!”

But it was no longer empty, as they found out when they reached it, for the doors had been flung open, the men who had been left on guard outside the stables were now inside it, the electric lights were in full blaze, the shotgun still hanging where Sharpless had left it, the impromptu bed was tumbled and tossed in a man’s death agony, and at the foot of the steel door Logan lay, curled up in a heap and stone dead!

“He would get in, Sir Henry, he’d have shot one or the other of us if we hadn’t let him,” said one of the outer guards as Sir Henry and Cleek appeared. “He would lie before the door and watch, sir he simply would; and God have mercy on him, poor chap; he was faithful to the last!”

“And the last might not have come for years, the fool, if he had only obeyed,” said Cleek; then lapsed into silence and stood staring at a dust of white flour on the red-tiled floor and at a thin wavering line that broke the even surface of it.

It was perhaps two minutes later when the entire household mistress, guests, and servants alike came trooping across the open space between the hall and the stables in a state of semi-deshabille, but in that brief space of time friendly hands had reverently lifted the body of the dead man from its place before the steel door, and Sir Henry was nervously fitting the key to the lock in a frantic effort to get in and see if Black Riot was safe.

“Dios! what is it? What has happened?” cried Lady Wilding as she came hurrying in, followed closely by Sharpless and the Rev. Ambrose Smeer. Then, catching sight of Logan’s body, she gave a little scream and covered her eyes. “The trainer, Andrew, the trainer now!” she went on half hysterically. “Another death another! Surely they have got the wretch at last?”

“The mare! The mare, Henry! Is she safe?” exclaimed Sharpless excitedly as he whirled away from his cousin’s side and bore down upon the baronet. “Give me the key you’re too nervous.” And, taking it from him, unlocked the steel room and passed swiftly into it.

In another instant Black Riot was led out uninjured, untouched, in the very pink of condition and, in spite of the tragedy and the dead man’s presence, one or two of the guards were so carried away that they essayed a cheer.

“Stop that! Stop it instantly!” rapped out Sir Henry, facing round upon them. “What’s a horse even the best beside the loss of an honest life like that?” and flung out a shaking hand in the direction of dead Logan. “It will be the story of last night over again, of course? You heard his scream, heard his fall, but he was dead when you got to him dead and you found no one here?”

“Not a soul, Sir Henry. The doors were all locked; no grille is missing from any window; no one is in the loft; no one in any of the stalls; no one in any crook or corner of the place.”

“Send for the constable the justice of the peace anybody!” chimed in the Rev. Ambrose Smeer at this. “Henry, will you never be warned, never take these awful lessons to heart? This sinful practice of racing horses for money ”

“Oh, hush, hush! Don’t preach me a sermon now, uncle,” interposed Sir Henry. “My heart’s torn, my mind crazed by this abominable thing. Poor old Logan! Poor, faithful old chap! Oh!” He whirled and looked over at Cleek, who still stood inactive, staring at the flour-dusted floor. “And they said that no mystery was too great for you to get to the bottom of it, no riddle too complex for you to find the answer! Can’t you do something? Can’t you suggest something? Can’t you see any glimmer of light at all?”

Cleek looked up, and that curious smile which Narkom knew so well and would have known had he been there was the “danger signal” looped up one corner of his mouth.

“I fancy it is all ‘light,’ Sir Henry,” he said. “I may be wrong, but I fancy it is merely a question of comparative height. Do I puzzle you by that? Well, let me explain. Lady Wilding there is one height, Mr. Sharpless is another, and I am a third; and if they two were to place themselves side by side and, say, about four inches apart, and I were to stand immediately behind them, the difference would be most apparent. There you are. Do you grasp it?”

“Not in the least.”

“Bothered if I do either,” supplemented Sharpless. “It all sounds like tommy rot to me.”

“Does it?” said Cleek. “Then let me explain it by illustration” and he walked quietly towards them. “Lady Wilding, will you oblige me by standing here? Thank you very much. Now, if you please, Mr. Sharpless, will you stand beside her ladyship while I take up my place here immediately behind you both? That’s it exactly. A little nearer, please just a little, so that your left elbow touches her ladyship’s right. Now then” his two hands moved briskly, there was a click-click, and after it: “There you are that explains it, my good Mr. and Mrs. Filippo Bucarelli; that explains it completely!”

And as he stepped aside on saying this, those who were watching, those who heard Lady Wilding’s scream and Mr. Sharpless’s snarling oath and saw them vainly try to spring apart and dart away, saw also that a steel handcuff was on the woman’s right wrist, its mate on the man’s left one, and that they were firmly chained together.

“In the name of Heaven, man,” began Sir Henry, appalled by this, and growing red and white by rapid turns.

“I fancy that Heaven has very little to do with this precious pair, Sir Henry,” interposed Cleek. “You want the two people who are accountable for these diabolical crimes, and there they stand.”

“What! Do you mean to tell me that Sharpless, that my wife ”

“Don’t give the lady a title to which she has not and never had any legal right, Sir Henry. If it had ever occurred to you to emulate my example to-night and search the lady’s effects, you would have found that she was christened Enriqua Dolores Torjado, and that she was married to Senor Filippo Bucarelli here, at Valparaiso, in Chili, three years ago, and that her marriage to you was merely a clever little scheme to get hold of a pot of money and share it with her rascally husband.”

“It’s a lie!” snarled out the male prisoner. “It’s an infernal policeman’s lie! You never found any such thing!”

“Pardon me, but I did,” replied Cleek serenely. “And what’s more, I found the little phial of coriander and oil of sassafras in your room, senor, and I shall finish off the Mynga Worm in another ten minutes!”

Bucarelli and his wife gave a mingled cry, and, chained together though they were, made a wild bolt for the door; only, however, to be met on the threshold by the local constable, to whom Cleek had dispatched a note some hours previously.

“Thank you, Mr. Philpotts; you are very prompt,” he said. “There are your prisoners nicely trussed and waiting for you. Take them away we are quite done with them here. Sir Henry” he turned to the baronet “if Black Riot is fitted to win the Derby she will win it, and you need have no more fear for her safety. No one has ever for one moment tried to get at her. You yourself were the one that precious pair were after, and the bait was your life assurance. By killing off the watchers over Black Riot one by one they knew that there would come a time when, being able to get no one else to take the risk of guarding the horse and sleeping on that bed before the steel-room door, you would do it yourself; and when that time came they would have had you.”

“But how? By what means?”

“By one of the most diabolical imaginable. Among the reptiles of Patagonia, Sir Henry, there is one a species of black adder, known in the country as the Mynga Worm whose bite is more deadly than that of the rattler or the copperhead, and as rapid in its action as prussic acid itself. It has, too, a great velocity of movement and a peculiar power of springing and hurling itself upon its prey. The Patagonians are a barbarous people in the main and, like all barbarous people, are vengeful, cunning, and subtle. A favourite revenge of theirs upon unsuspecting enemies is to get within touch of them and secretly to smear a mixture of coriander and oil of sassafras upon some part of their bodies, and then either to lure or drive them into the forest; for by a peculiar arrangement of Mother Nature this mixture has a fascination, a maddening effect upon the Mynga Worm just as a red rag has on a bull and, enraged by the scent, it finds the spot smeared with it and delivers its deadly bite.”

“Good heaven! How horrible! And you mean to tell me ”

“That they employed one of these deadly reptiles in this case? Yes, Sir Henry. I suspected it the very moment I smelt the odour of the coriander and sassafras; but I suspected that an animal or a reptile of some kind was at the bottom of the mystery at a prior period. That is why I wanted the flour. Look! Do you see where I sifted it over this spot near the Patagonian plant? And do you see those serpentine tracks through the middle of it? The Mynga Worm is there in that box, at the roots of that plant. Now see!”

He caught up a horse blanket, spread it on the floor, lifted the box and plant, set them down in the middle of it, and with a quick gathering up of the ends of the blanket converted it into a bag and tied it round with a hitching strap.

“Get spades, forks, anything, and dig a hole outside in the paddock,” he went on. “A deep hole a yard deep at the least then get some straw, some paraffin, turpentine anything that will burn furiously and quickly and we will soon finish the little beast.”

The servants flew to obey, and when the hole was dug he carried the bag out and lowered it carefully into it, covered it with straw, drenched this with a gallon or more of lamp oil, and rapidly applied a match to it and sprang back.

A moment later those who were watching saw a small black snake make an ineffectual effort to leap out of the blazing mass, fall back into the flames and disappear for ever.

“The method of procedure?” said Cleek, answering the baronet’s query as the latter was pouring out what he called “a nerve settler,” prior to following the Rev. Ambrose’s example and going to bed. “Very cunning, and yet very, very simple, Sir Henry. Bucarelli made a practice, as I saw this evening, of helping the chosen watcher to make his bed on the floor in front of the door to the steel room, but during the time he was removing the blankets from the cupboard his plan was to smear them with the coriander and sassafras and so arrange the top blanket that when the watcher lay down the stuff touched his neck or throat and made that the point of attack for the snake, whose fangs make a small round spot not bigger than a knitting needle, which is easily passed over by those not used to looking for such a thing. There was such a spot on Tolliver’s throat; such another at the base of Murple’s skull, and there is a third in poor Logan’s left temple. No, thank you no more to-night, Sir Henry. Alcohol and I are never more than speaking acquaintances at the best of times. But if you really wish to do me a kindness ”

“I don’t think there is room to doubt that, Mr. Cleek. If I am certain of anything in this world I am certain of Black Riot’s success on Wednesday; and that success I feel I shall owe to you. Money can’t offset some debts, you know; and if there is anything in the world I can do, you have only to let me know.”

“Thank you,” said Cleek. “Then invite me to spend to-morrow here, and give me the freedom of those superb gardens. My senses are drunk already with the scent of your hyacinths; and if I might have a day among them, I should be as near happy as makes no difference.”

He had his day breaking it only to ’phone up to Clarges Street and quiet any possible fears upon Dollops’s part and if ever man was satisfied, that man was he.