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

It was nine o’clock and after. The great show at Olympia was at its height; the packed house was roaring with delight over the daring equestrianship of “Mlle. Marie de Zanoni,” and the sound of the cheers rolled in to the huge dressing-tent, where the artists awaited their several turns, and the chevalier, in spangled trunks and tights, all ready for his call, sat hugging his child and shivering like a man with the ague.

“Come, come, buck up, man, and don’t funk it like this,” said Senor Sperati, who had graciously consented to assist him with his dressing because of the injury to his hand. “The idea of you losing your nerve, you of all men, and because of a little affair like that. You know very well that Nero is as safe as a kitten to-night, that he never has two smiling turns in the same week, much less the same day. Your act’s the next on the programme. Buck up and go at it like a man.”

“I can’t, senor, I can’t!” almost wailed the chevalier. “My nerve is gone. Never, if I live to be a thousand, shall I forget that awful moment, that appalling ‘smile.’ I tell you, there is wizardry in the thing; the beast is bewitched. My work in the arena is done done for ever, senor. I shall never have courage to look into the beast’s jaws again.”

“Rot! You’re not going to ruin the show, are you, and after all the money I’ve put into it? If you have no care for yourself, it’s your duty to think about me. You can at least try. I tell you you must try! Here, take a sip of brandy, and see if that won’t put a bit of courage into you. Hello!” as a burst of applause and the thud of a horse’s hoofs down the passage to the stables came rolling in, “there’s your wife’s turn over at last; and there listen! the ringmaster is announcing yours. Get up, man; get up and go out.”

“I can’t, senor I can’t! I can’t!”

“But I tell you you must.”

And just here an interruption came.

“Bad advice, my dear captain,” said a voice Cleek’s voice from the other end of the tent; and with a twist and a snarl the “senor” screwed round on his heel in time to see that other intruders were putting in an appearance as well as this unwelcome one.

“Who the deuce asked you for your opinion?” rapped out the “senor” savagely. “And what are you doing in here, anyhow? If we want the service of a vet., we’re quite capable of getting one for ourselves without having him shove his presence upon us unasked.”

“You are quite capable of doing a great many things, my dear captain, even making lions smile!” said Cleek serenely. “It would appear that the gallant Captain von Gossler, nephew, and, in the absence of one who has a better claim, heir to the late Baron von Steinheid That’s it, nab the beggar. Played, sir, played! Hustle him out and into the cab, with his precious confederate, the Irish-Italian ‘signor,’ and make a clean sweep of the pair of them. You’ll find it a neck-stretching game, captain, I’m afraid, when the jury comes to hear of that poor boy’s death and your beastly part in it.”

By this time the tent was in an uproar, for the chevalier’s wife had come hurrying in, the chevalier’s daughter was on the verge of hysterics, and the chevalier’s prospective son-in-law was alternately hugging the great beast-tamer and then shaking his hand and generally deporting himself like a respectable young man who had suddenly gone daft.

“Governor!” he cried, half laughing, half sobbing. “Bully old governor. It’s over it’s over. Never any more danger, never any more hard times, never any more lion’s smiles.”

“No, never,” said Cleek. “Come here, Madame Pullaine, and hear the good news with the rest. You married for love, and you’ve proved a brick. The dream’s come true, and the life of ease and of luxury is yours at last, Mr. Pullaine.”

“But, sir, I I do not understand,” stammered the chevalier. “What has happened? Why have you arrested the Senor Sperati? What has he done? I cannot comprehend.”

“Can’t you? Well, it so happens, chevalier, that the Baron von Steinheid died something like two months ago, leaving the sum of sixty thousand pounds sterling to one Peter Janssen Pullaine and the heirs of his body, and that a certain Captain von Gossler, son of the baron’s only sister, meant to make sure that there was no Peter Janssen Pullaine and no heirs of his body to inherit one farthing of it.”

“Sir! Dear God, can this be true?”

“Perfectly true, chevalier. The late baron’s solicitors have been advertising for some time for news regarding the whereabouts of Peter Janssen Pullaine, and if you had not so successfully hidden your real name under that of your professional one, no doubt some of your colleagues would have put you in the way of finding it out long ago. The baron did not go back on his word and did not act ungratefully. His will, dated twenty-nine years ago, was never altered in a single particular. I rather suspect that that letter and that gift of money which came to you in the name of his steward, and was supposed to close the affair entirely, was the work of his nephew, the gentleman whose exit has just been made. A crafty individual that, chevalier, and he laid his plans cleverly and well. Who would be likely to connect him with the death of a beast-tamer in a circus, who had perished in what would appear an accident of his calling? Ah, yes, the lion’s smile was a clever idea he was a sharp rascal to think of it.”

“Sir! You you do not mean to tell me that he caused that? He never went near the beast never even once.”

“Not necessary, chevalier. He kept near you and your children; that was all that he needed to do to carry out his plan. The lion was as much his victim as anybody else you or your children. What it did it could not help doing. The very simplicity of the plan was its passport to success. All that was required was the unsuspected sifting of snuff on the hair of the person whose head was to be put in the beast’s mouth. The lion’s smile was not, properly speaking, a smile at all, chevalier; it was the torture which came of snuff getting into its nostrils, and when the beast made that uncanny noise and snapped its jaws together, it was simply the outcome of a sneeze. The thing would be farcical if it were not that tragedy hangs on the thread of it, and that a life, a useful human life, was destroyed by means of it. Yes, it was clever, it was diabolically clever; but you know what Bobby Burns says about the best laid schemes of mice and men. There’s always a Power higher up that works the ruin of them.”

With that he walked by, and, going to young Scarmelli, put out his hand.

“You’re a good chap and you’ve got a good girl, so I expect you will be happy,” he said; and then lowered his voice so that the rest might not reach the chevalier’s ears. “You were wrong to suspect the little stepmother,” he added. “She’s true blue, Scarmelli. She was only playing up to those fellows because she was afraid the ‘senor’ would drop out and close the show if she didn’t, and that she and her husband and the children would be thrown out of work. She loves her husband that’s certain and she’s a good little woman; and, Scarmelli!”

“Yes, Mr. Cleek?”

“There’s nothing better than a good woman on this earth, my lad. Always remember that. I think you, too, have found one. I hope you have. I hope you’ll be happy. What’s that? Owe me? Not a rap, my boy. Or, if you feel that you must give me something, give me your prayers for equal luck, and send me a slice of the wedding cake. Good-night!”

And twisted round on his heel and walked out; making his way out to the streets and facing the journey to Clarges Street afoot. For to be absolutely without envy of any sort is not given to anything born of woman; and the sight of this man’s happiness, the knowledge of this man’s reward, brought upon him a bitter recollection of how far he still was from his own.

Would he ever get that reward? he wondered. Would he ever be nearer to it than he was to-night? It hurt yes, it hurt horribly, sometimes, this stone-cold silence, this walking always in shadowed paths without a ray of light, without the certainty of arriving anywhere, though he plod onward for a lifetime and the old feeling of savage resentment, the old sense of self-pity the surest thing on God’s earth to blaze a trail for the oncoming of the worst that is in a man bit at the soul of him and touched him on the raw again.

He knew what that boded; and he also knew the antidote.

“Dollops, they broke into our holiday they did us out of a part of it, didn’t they, old chap?” he said, when he reached home at last and found the boy anxiously awaiting him. “Well, we’ll have a day for every hour they deprived us of, a whole day, bonny boy. Pack up again and we’ll be off to the land as God made it, and where God’s things still live; and we’ll have a fortnight of it a whole blessed fortnight, my boy, with the river and the fields and the flowers and the dreams that hide in trees.”

Dollops made no reply. He simply bolted for the kit-bag and began to pack at once. And the morrow, when it came, found these two the servant who was still a boy, and the master who had discovered the way back to boyhood’s secrets forging up the shining river and seeking the Land of Nightingales again.