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

As it is the custom of those connected with the world of the circus to eat, sleep, have their whole being, as it were, within the environment of the show, to the total exclusion of hotels, boarding-houses, or outside lodgings of any sort, he found on his arrival at his destination the entire company assembled in what was known as the “living-tent,” chatting, laughing, reading, playing games, and killing time generally whilst waiting for the call to the “dining-tent,” and this gave him an opportunity to meet all the persons connected with the “case,” from the “chevalier” himself to the Brazilian coffee planter who was “backing” the show.

He found this latter individual a somewhat sullen and taciturn man of middle age, who had more the appearance of an Austrian than a Brazilian, and with a swinging gait and an uprightness of bearing which were not to be misunderstood.

“Humph! Known military training,” was Cleek’s mental comment as soon as he saw the man walk. “Got it in Germany, too; I know that peculiar ‘swing.’ What’s his little game, I wonder? And what’s a Brazilian doing in the army of the Kaiser? And, having been in it, what’s he doing dropping into this line backing a circus, and travelling with it like a Bohemian?”

But although these thoughts interested him, he did not put them into words nor take anybody into his confidence regarding them.

As for the other members of the company, he found “the indifferent rider,” known as Signor Antonio Martinelli, an undoubted Irishman of about thirty years of age, extremely handsome, but with a certain “shiftiness” of the eye which was far from inspiring confidence, and with a trick of the tongue which suggested that his baptismal certificate probably bore the name of Anthony Martin. He found, too, that all he had heard regarding the youth and beauty of the chevalier’s second wife was quite correct, and although she devoted herself a great deal to the Brazilian coffee planter and the Irish-Italian “Martinelli,” she had a way of looking over at her middle-aged spouse, without his knowledge, that left no doubt in Cleek’s mind regarding the real state of her feelings towards the man. And last, but not least by any means, he found the chevalier himself a frank, open-minded, open-hearted, lovable man who ought not, in the natural order of things, to have an enemy in the world. Despite his high-falutin’ nom de theatre, he was Belgian a big, soft-hearted, easy-going, unsuspicious fellow, who worshipped his wife, adored his children, and loved every creature of the animal world.

How well that love was returned, Cleek saw when he went with him to that part of the building where his animals were kept, and watched them “nose” his hand or lick his cheek whenever the opportunity offered. But Nero, the lion, was perhaps the greatest surprise of all, for so tame, so docile, so little feared was the animal, that its cage-door was open, and they found one of the attendants squatting cross-legged inside and playing with it as though it were a kitten.

“There he is, doctor,” said the chevalier, waving his hand towards the beast. “Ah, I will not believe that it was anything but an accident, sir. He loved my boy. He would hurt no one that is kind to him. Fetch him out, Tom, and let the doctor see him at close quarters.”

Despite all these assurances of the animal’s docility, Cleek could not but remember what the creature had done, and, in consequence, did not feel quite at ease when it came lumbering out of the cage with the attendant and ranged up alongside of him, rubbing its huge head against the chevalier’s arm after the manner of an affectionate cat.

“Don’t be frightened, sir,” said Tom, noticing this. “Nothing more’n a big dog, sir. Had the care of him for eight years, I have haven’t I, chevalier? and never a growl or scratch out of him. No ‘smile’ for your old Tom, is there, Nero, boy, eh? No fear! Ain’t a thing as anybody does with him, sir, that I wouldn’t do off-hand and feel quite safe.”

“Even to putting your head in his mouth?” queried Cleek.

“Lord yes!” returned the man, with a laugh. “That’s nothing. Done it many a day. Look here!” With that he pulled the massive jaws apart, and, bending down, laid his head within them. The lion stood perfectly passive, and did not offer to close his mouth until it was again empty. It was then that Cleek remembered and glanced round at young Scarmelli.

“He never ‘smiles’ for any but the chevalier and his son, I believe you said,” he remarked. “I wonder if the chevalier himself would be as safe if he were to make a feint of doing that?” For the chevalier, like most of the other performers, had not changed his dress after the matinee, since the evening performance was soon to begin; and if, as Cleek had an idea, that the matter of costume and make-up had anything to do with the mystery of the thing, here, surely, was a chance to learn.

“Make a feint of it? Certainly I will, doctor,” the chevalier replied. “But why a feint? Why not the actual thing?”

“No, please at least, not until I have seen how the beast is likely to take it. Just put your head down close to his muzzle, chevalier. Go slow, please, and keep your head at a safe distance.”

The chevalier obeyed. Bringing his head down until it was on a level with the animal’s own, he opened the ponderous jaws. The beast was as passive as before; and, finding no trace of the coming of the mysterious and dreaded “smile,” he laid his face between the double row of gleaming teeth, held it there a moment, and then withdrew it uninjured. Cleek took his chin between his thumb and forefinger and pinched it hard. What he had just witnessed would seem to refute the idea of either costume or make-up having any bearing upon the case.

“Did you do that to-day at the matinee performance, chevalier?” he hazarded, after a moment’s thoughtfulness.

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “It was not my plan to do so, however. I alter my performance constantly to give variety. To-day I had arranged for my little son to do the trick; but somehow Ah! I am a foolish man, monsieur; I have odd fancies, odd whims, sometimes odd fears, since since that awful night. Something came over me at the last moment, just as my boy came into the cage to perform the trick I changed my mind. I would not let him do it. I thrust him aside and did the trick myself.”

“Oho!” said Cleek. “Will the boy do it to-night, then, chevalier?”

“Perhaps,” he made reply. “He is still dressed for it. Look, here he comes now, monsieur, and my wife, and some of our good friends with him. Ah, they are so interested, they are anxious to hear what report you make upon Nero’s condition.”

Cleek glanced round. Several members of the company were advancing towards them from the “living-tent.” In the lead was the boy, a little fellow of about twelve years of age, fancifully dressed in tights and tunic. By his side was his stepmother, looking pale and anxious. But although both Signor Martinelli and the Brazilian coffee planter came to the edge of the tent and looked out, it was observable that they immediately withdrew, and allowed the rest of the party to proceed without them.

“Dearest, I have just heard from Tom that you and the doctor are experimenting with Nero,” said the chevalier’s wife, as she came up with the others and joined him. “Oh, do be careful, do! Much as I like the animal, doctor, I shall never feel safe until my husband parts with it or gives up that ghastly ‘trick.’”

“My dearest, my dearest, how absurdly you talk!” interrupted her husband. “You know well that without that my act would be commonplace, that no manager would want either it or me. And how, pray, should we live if that were to happen?”

“There would always be my salary; we could make that do.”

“As if I would consent to live upon your earnings and add nothing myself! No, no! I shall never do that never. It is not as though that foolish dream of long ago had come true, and I might hope one day to retire. I am of the circus, and of it I shall always remain.”

“I wish you might not; I wish the dream might come true, even yet,” she made reply. “Why shouldn’t it? Wilder ones have come true for other people; why should they not for you?”

Before her husband could make any response to this, the whole trend of the conversation was altered by the boy.

“Father,” he said, “am I to do the trick to-night? Senor Sperati says it is silly of me to sit about all dressed and ready if I am to do nothing, like a little super, instead of a performer and an artist.”

“Oh, but that is not kind of the senor to say that,” his father replied, soothing his ruffled feelings. “You are an artist, of course; never super no, never. But if you shall do the trick or not, I cannot say. It will depend, as it did at the matinee. If I feel it is right, you shall do it; but if I feel it is wrong, then it must be no. You see, doctor,” catching Cleek’s eye, “what a little enthusiast he is, and with how little fear.”

“Yes, I do see, chevalier; but I wonder if he would be willing to humour me in something? As he is not afraid, I’ve an odd fancy to see how he’d go about the thing. Would you mind letting him make the feint you yourself made a few minutes ago? Only, I must insist that in this instance it be nothing more than a feint, chevalier. Don’t let him go too near at the time of doing it. Don’t let him open the lion’s jaws with his own hands. You do that. Do you mind?”

“Of a certainty not, monsieur. Gustave, show the good doctor how you go about it when papa lets you do the trick. But you are not really to do it just yet, only to bend the head near to Nero’s mouth. Now then, come, see.”

As he spoke he divided the lion’s jaws and signalled the child to bend. He obeyed. Very slowly the little head drooped nearer to the gaping, full-fanged mouth, very slowly and very carefully, for Cleek’s hand was on the boy’s shoulder, Cleek’s eyes were on the lion’s face. The huge brute was as meek and as undisturbed as before, and there was actual kindness in its fixed eyes. But of a sudden, when the child’s head was on a level with those gaping jaws, the lips curled backward in a ghastly parody of a smile, a weird, uncanny sound whizzed through the bared teeth, the passive body bulked as with a shock, and Cleek had just time to snatch the boy back when the great jaws struck together with a snap that would have splintered a skull of iron had they closed upon it.

The hideous and mysterious “smile” had come again, and, brief though it was, its passing found the boy’s sister lying on the ground in a dead faint, the boy’s stepmother cowering back, with covered eyes and shrill, affrighted screams, and the boy’s father leaning, shaken and white, against the empty case and nursing a bleeding hand.

In an instant the whole place was in an uproar. “It smiled again! It smiled again!” ran in broken gasps from lip to lip; but through it all Cleek stood there, clutching the frightened child close to him, but not saying one word, not making one sound. Across the dark arena came a rush of running footsteps, and presently Senor Sperati came panting up, breathless and pale with excitement.

“What’s the matter? What’s wrong?” he cried. “Is it the lion again? Is the boy killed? Speak up!”

“No,” said Cleek very quietly, “nor will he be. The father will do the trick to-night, not the son. We’ve had a fright and a lesson, that’s all.” And, putting the sobbing child from him, he caught young Scarmelli’s arm and hurried him away. “Take me somewhere that we can talk in safety,” he said. “We are on the threshold of the end, Scarmelli, and I want your help.”

“Oh, Mr. Cleek, have you any idea any clue?”

“Yes, more than a clue. I know how, but I have not yet discovered why. Now, if you know, tell me what did the chevalier mean, what did his wife mean, when they spoke of a dream that might have come true, but didn’t? Do you know? Have you any idea? Or, if you have not, do you think your fiancee has?”

“Why, yes,” he made reply. “Zelie has told me about it often. It is of a fortune that was promised and never materialized. Oh, such a long time ago, when he was quite a young man, the chevalier saved the life of a very great man, a Prussian nobleman of great wealth. He was profuse in his thanks and his promises, that nobleman; swore that he would make him independent for life, and all that sort of thing.”

“And didn’t?”

“No, he didn’t. After a dozen letters promising the chevalier things that almost turned his head, the man dropped him entirely. In the midst of his dreams of wealth a letter came from the old skinflint’s steward enclosing him the sum of six hundred marks, and telling him that as his master had come to the conclusion that wealth would be more of a curse than a blessing to a man of his class and station, he had thought better of his rash promise. He begged to tender the enclosed as a proper and sufficient reward for the service rendered, and ’should not trouble the young man any further.’ Of course, the chevalier didn’t reply. Who would, after having been promised wealth, education, everything one had confessed that one most desired? Being young, high-spirited, and bitterly, bitterly disappointed, the chevalier bundled the six hundred marks back without a single word, and that was the last he ever heard of the Baron von Steinheid from that day to this.”

“The Baron von Steinheid?” repeated Cleek, pulling himself up as though he had trodden upon something. “Do you mean to say that the man whose life he saved Scarmelli tell me something: Does it happen by any chance that the ‘Chevalier di Roma’s’ real name is Peter Janssen Pullaine?”

“Yes,” said Scarmelli, in reply. “That is his name. Why?”

“Nothing, but that it solves the riddle, and the lion has smiled for the last time! No, don’t ask me any questions; there isn’t time to explain. Get me as quickly as you can to the place where we left Mr. Narkom’s motor. Will this way lead me out? Thanks! Get back to the others, and look for me again in two hours’ time; and Scarmelli!”

“Yes, sir?”

“One last word don’t let that boy get out of your sight for one instant, and don’t, no matter at what cost, let the chevalier do his turn to-night before I get back. Good-bye for a time. I’m off.”

Then he moved like a fleetly-passing shadow round the angle of the building, and two minutes later he was with Narkom in the red limousine.

“To the German embassy as fast as we can fly,” he said as he scrambled in. “I’ve something to tell you about that lion’s smile, Mr. Narkom, and I’ll tell it while we’re on the wing.”