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

The spring had blossomed itself out and the summer had bloomed itself in. The holiday up the river was a thing of the past; the dreams of the Dreamer had given place to those sterner phases of life which must be coped with by the Realist; and Cleek was “back in harness” again.

A half-dozen more or less important cases had occupied his time since his return; but, although he had carried these to a successful issue and had again been lauded to the skies by the daily papers, the one word of praise from the one quarter whence he so earnestly desired to hear was never forthcoming.

Of Ailsa Lorne he had heard not a solitary thing, either directly or indirectly, since that day when he had put her into the taxicab at Charing Cross Station and saw her safely on her way to Hampstead before he went his own.

True, her silence was, as he had agreed, an admission that all was well with her and that she had secured the position in question; true it was also that it was not for her to take the initiative and break that silence; that he fully realised how impossible, for a girl born and bred as she had been, to voluntarily open up a correspondence with a man who was as yet little more than a mere acquaintance; but, all the same, he chafed under that silence and spent many a wakeful hour at night brooding on it.

In his heart he knew that if any advance was to be made, that advance was the man’s duty, not the woman’s; but the fear that she would think he was thrusting himself upon her, the dread that even yet the white soul of her could not but shrink from a closer association with him, kept him from taking one step towards breaking the silence he deplored.

The French have a proverb which says: “It is always the unexpected that happens.” And it was the unexpected that happened in this case.

In the midst of his dejection, in the very depths of returning despair, there came to him this note from Mr. Narkom:

“My Dear Cleek,

“Kindly refrain from going out this evening. I shall call about nine o’clock, bringing with me Miss Ailsa Lorne, whom you doubtless remember, and her present patron, Angela, Countess Chepstow, the young widow of that ripping old warhorse, who, as you may recall, quelled that dangerous and fanatical rising of the Cingalese at Trincomalee. These ladies wish to see you with reference to a most extraordinary case, an inexplicable mystery, which both they and I believe no man but yourself can satisfactorily probe.

“Yours in haste,

“Maverick Narkom.”

So, then, he was to see her again, to touch her hand, hear her voice, look into the eyes that had lighted him back from the path to destruction! Cleek’s heart began to hammer and his pulses to drum. Needless to say, he took extraordinary care with his toilet that evening, with the result that when the ladies arrived there was nothing even vaguely suggestive of the detective about him.

“Oh, Mr. Cleek, do help us please do,” implored Ailsa, after the first greetings were over. “Lady Chepstow is almost beside herself with dread and anxiety over the inexplicable thing, and I have persuaded her that if anybody on earth can solve the mystery of it, avert the new and appalling danger of it, it is you! Oh, say that you will take the case, say that you will save little Lord Chepstow and put an end to this maddening mystery!”

“Little Lord Chepstow?” repeated Cleek, glancing over at the countess, who stood, a very Niobe in her grief and despair, holding out two imploring hands in silent supplication. “That is your ladyship’s son, is it not?”

“Yes,” she answered, with a sort of wail; “my only son my only child. All that I have to love all that I have to live for in this world.”

“And you think the little fellow is in peril?”

“Yes in deadly peril.”

“From what source? From whose hand?”

“I don’t know I don’t know!” she answered, distractedly. “Sometimes I am wild enough to suspect even Captain Hawksley, unjust and unkind as it seems.”

“Captain Hawksley? Who is he?”

“My late husband’s cousin; heir, after my little son, to the title and estates. He is very poor, deeply in debt, and the inheritance would put an end to all his difficulties. But he is fond of my son; they seem almost to worship each other. I, too, am fond of him. But, for all that, I have to remember that he and he alone would benefit by Cedric’s death, and and wicked as it seems Oh, Mr. Cleek, help me! Direct me! Sometimes I doubt him. Sometimes I doubt everybody. Sometimes I think of those other days, that other mystery, that land which reeks of them; and then and then Oh, that horrible Ceylon! I wish I had never set foot in it in all my life!”

Her agitation and distress were so great as to make her utterances only half coherent; and Ailsa, realising that this sort of thing must only perplex Cleek, and leave him in the dark regarding the matter upon which they had come to consult him, gently interposed.

“Do try to calm yourself and to tell the story as briefly as possible, dear Lady Chepstow,” she advised. Then, taking the initiative, added quietly, “It begins, Mr. Cleek, at a period when his little lordship, whose governess I have the honour to be, was but two years old, and at Trincomalee, where his late father was stationed with his regiment four years ago. Somebody, for some absurd reason, had set afoot a ridiculous rumour that the English had received orders from the Throne to stamp out every religion but their own in short, if the British were not exterminated, dreadful desecrations would occur, as they were determined ”

“To loot all the temples erected to Buddha, destroy the images, and make a bonfire of all the sacred relics,” finished Cleek himself. “I rarely forget history, Miss Lorne, especially when it is such recent history as that memorable Buddhist rising at Trincomalee. It began upon an utterly unfounded, ridiculous rumour; it terminated, if my memory serves me correctly, in something akin to the very thing it was supposed to avert. That is to say, during the outburst of fanaticism, that most sacred of all relics the holy tooth of Buddha disappeared mysteriously from the temple of Dambool, and in spite of the fact that many lacs of rupees were offered for its recovery, it has never, I believe, been found, or even traced, to this day, although a huge fortune awaits the restorer, and, with it, overpowering honours from the native princes. Those must have been trying times, Lady Chepstow, for the commandant’s wife, the mother of the commandant’s only child?”

“Horrible! horrible!” she answered, with a shudder, forgetting for an instant the dangers of the present in the recollection of the tragical past. “For a period, our lives were not safe; murder hid behind every bush, skulked in the shadow of every rock and tree, and we knew not at what minute the little garrison might be rushed under cover of the darkness and every soul slaughtered before the relief force could come to our assistance. I died a hundred deaths in a day in my anxiety for husband and child. And once the very zealousness of our comrades almost brought about the horror I feared. Oh!” with a shudder of horrified recollection and a covering of the eyes, as if to shut out the memory of it “Oh! that night that horrible night! Unknown to any of us, my baby, rising from the bed where I had left him sleeping, whilst I went outside to stand by Lord Chepstow, wandered beyond the line of defence, and, before anybody realised it, was out in the open, alone and unprotected.

“Ferralt, the cook, saw him first; saw, too, the crouching figure of a native, armed with a gun, in the shadow of the undergrowth. Without hesitation the brave fellow rushed out, fell upon the native before he could dart away, wrenched the gun from him, and brained him with the butt. A cry of the utmost horror rang out upon the air, and, uttering it, another native bounded out from a hiding-place close to where the first had been killed, and flew zigzagging across the open, where Cedric was. Evidently he had no intention of molesting the little fellow, for he fled straight on past him, still shrieking after the accident occurred; but to Ferralt it seemed as if his intention were to murder the boy, and, clapping the gun to his shoulder, in a panic of excitement, he fired. If it had been one of the soldiers, someone anyone who understood marksmanship and was not likely to be in a nervous quake over the circumstances, the thing could not have happened, although the fugitive was careering along in a direct line with my precious little one. But, with Ferralt Oh, Mr. Cleek, can you imagine my horror when I saw the flash of that shot, heard a shrill cry of pain, and saw my child drop to the ground?”

“Good heaven!” exclaimed Cleek, agitated in spite of himself. “Then the blunderer shot the child instead of the native?”

“Yes; and was so horrified by the mishap that, without waiting to learn the result, he rushed blindly to the brink of a deep ravine, and threw himself headlong to death. But the injury to Cedric was only a trifling one after all. The bullet seemed merely to have grazed him in passing, and, beyond a ragged gash in the fleshy part of the thigh, he was not harmed at all. That I myself dressed and bandaged, and in a couple of weeks it was quite healed. But it taught me a lesson, that night of horror, and I never let my baby out of my sight for one instant from that time until the rising was entirely quelled.

“As suddenly as it had started, the trouble subsided. Native priests came under a flag of truce to Lord Chepstow, and confessed their error, acknowledged that they had never any right to suspect the British of any design upon their gods, for the loot of the temple had actually taken place in the midst of the rising, and they knew that it could not have come from the hands of the soldiers, for they had had them under surveillance all the time, and not one person of the race had ventured within a mile of the temple.

“Yet the tooth of Buddha had been taken, the sacred tooth which is more holy to Buddhists than the statue of Gautama Buddha itself. Their remorse was very real, and after that, to the day of his death from fever, eighteen months afterward, they could never show enough honour to Lord Chepstow. And even then their favour continued. They transferred to the little son the homage they had done the father, but in a far, far greater degree. If he had been a king’s son they could have shown him no greater honour. Native princes showered him with rich gifts; if he walked out, his path was strewn with flowers by bowing maidens; if he went into the market-place, the people prostrated themselves before him.

“When I questioned Buddhist women of this amazing homage to Cedric, they gave me a full explanation. My son was sacred, they said. Buddha had withdrawn his favour from his people because of the evil they had done in suspecting the father and of the innocent life Ferralt’s which had been sacrificed, and they had been commanded of the priests to do homage to the child and thereby appease the offended god, who, doubtless, had himself spirited away the holy tooth, and would not restore it until full recompense was made to the sacred son of the sacred dead.

“When it became known that I had decided to return to England with my boy, native princes offered me fabulous sums to remain, and when they found that I could not be tempted to stay, the populace turned out in every town and village through which we passed on our way to the ship, and bowing multitudes followed us to the very last. Nor did it cease with that, for in all the years that have followed, even here in London, the homage and worship have continued. My son can go nowhere but that he is followed by Cingalese; can see no man or woman of the race, but he or she prostrates herself before him and murmurs, ‘Holy, most holy!’ And daily, almost hourly, rich gifts are showered upon him from unknown hands, and he is watched over and guarded constantly. I tell you all this, Mr. Cleek, that you may the better understand how appalling is the horror which now assails us, how frightful is the knowledge that someone now seeks his life, and is using every means to take it.”

“In other words, my dear Cleek,” put in Narkom, as her ladyship, overcome with emotion, broke down suddenly, “there appears to be a sudden and inexplicable change of front on the part of these fanatics, and they now seem as anxious to bring evil to his little lordship as they formerly were to protect and cherish him. At any rate, someone of their order has, upon three separate occasions within the last month, endeavoured to kidnap him, and, in one instance, even attempted to murder him.”

“Is that a fact?” queried Cleek sharply, glancing over at Miss Lorne. “You are certain it is not a fancy, but an absolute fact?”

“Yes; oh, yes!” she made answer, agitatedly. “Twice when I have gone into the Park with him, attempts have been made to separate us, to get him away from me; and once they did get him away so swiftly, so adroitly, that he had vanished before I could turn round. But, although a bag had been thrown over his head to stifle his cries, he managed to make a very little one. I plunged screaming into the undergrowth from which that cry had come, and was just in time to save him. He was lying on the ground all bundled up in a bag, and his assailant, who must have heard me coming, had gone as if by magic. His little lordship, however, was able to tell me that the man was a Cingalese, and that he had ’tried to cut him with a knife.’”

“Cut him with a knife?” repeated Cleek in a reflective tone, and blew out a long, low whistle.

“Oh! but that is not the worst, Mr. Cleek,” went on Ailsa. “Three days ago a woman a very beautiful and distinguished-looking woman called to see Lady Chepstow regarding the reference of a former servant, one Jane Catherboys, who used to be her ladyship’s maid. After the caller left, a box of sugared violets was found lying temptingly open on a table in the main hall. Little Cedric is passionately fond of sugared violets, and, had he happened to pass that way before the box was discovered, he surely would have yielded to the temptation and eaten some. In removing the box the parlour-maid accidentally upset it, and before she could gather all the violets up her ladyship’s little Pomeranian dog snapped up one and ate it. It was dead in six minutes’ time! The sweets were simply loaded with prussic acid. When we came to inquire into the matter in the hope of tracing the mysterious caller, we found that Jane Catherboys was no longer in need of a position; that she had been married for eight months; that she knew nothing whatever of the woman, and had sent no one to inquire into her references.”

“All of which shows, my dear Cleek,” put in Narkom significantly, “that, whatever hand is directing these attempts, it belongs to one who knows more than a mere outsider possibly could: in short, to one who is aware of his little lordship’s excessive fondness for sugared violets, and is aware that Lady Chepstow once did have a maid named Jane Catherboys.”

“If,” said Cleek, “you mean to suggest by that that this points suspiciously in Captain Hawksley’s direction, Mr. Narkom, permit me to say that it does not necessarily follow. The clever people of the under-world do nothing by halves nor without careful inquiry beforehand; that is what makes the difference between the common pickpocket and the brilliant swindler.” He turned to Ailsa. “Is that all, Miss Lorne, or am I right in supposing that there is even worse to come?”

“Oh, much worse much, Mr. Cleek! The knowledge that these would-be murderers, whoever they are, whatever may be their mysterious motive, have grown desperate enough to invade the house itself has driven Lady Chepstow well-nigh frantic. Of course, orders were immediately given to the servants that no stranger, no matter how well dressed, how well seeming, nor what the plea, was, from that moment, to be allowed past the threshold. We felt secure in that, knowing that no servant of the household would betray his or her trust, and that all would be on the constant watch for any further attempt. The unknown enemy must have found out about these precautions, for no stranger came again to the door. But last night a thing we had never counted upon happened. In the dead of the night the unknown broke into the house into the very nursery itself and but that Lady Chepstow, impelled she does not know by what, only that she was nervous and wakeful, and felt the need of some companionship, rose and carried the sleeping child into her own bed, he would assuredly have been murdered. The nurse, awakened by a horrible suffocating sensation, opened her eyes to find a man bending over her with a chloroform-soaked cloth, which he was about to lay over her face. She shrieked and fainted, but not before she saw the man spring to the little bed on the other side of her own, hack furiously at it with a long, murderous knife, then dart to the window and vanish. In the darkness he had not, of course, been able to see that that little bed was empty, for its position kept it in deep shadow, and hearing the household stir at the sound of the nurse’s shriek, he struck out blindly and flew to save himself from detection. The nurse states that he was undoubtedly a foreigner a dark-skinned Asiatic and her description of him tallies with that his little lordship gave of the man who attempted to kill him that day in the Park. There, Mr. Cleek,” she concluded, “that’s the whole story. Can’t you do something to help us something to lift this constant state of dread and to remove this terrible danger from little Lord Chepstow’s life?”

“I’ll try, Miss Lorne; but it is a most extraordinary case. Where is the boy, now?”

“At home, closely guarded. We appealed to Mr. Narkom, and he generously appointed two detective officers to sit with his little lordship and keep constant watch over him whilst we are away.”

“And in the meantime,” added Mr. Narkom, “I’ve issued orders for a general rounding-up of all the Cingalese who can be traced or are known to be in town. Petrie and Hammond have that part of the job in hand, and if they hit upon any Asiatic who answers to the description of this murderous rascal ”

“I don’t believe they will,” interposed Cleek; “or, if they do, I don’t for a moment believe he will turn out to be the guilty party. In other words, I have an idea that the fellow will prove to be a European.”

“But, my dear fellow, both his little lordship and the nurse saw the man, and, as you have heard, they both agree that he was dark-skinned and quite Oriental in appearance.”

“One of the easiest possible disguises, Mr. Narkom. A wig, a stick of grease-paint, a threepenny twist of crepe hair, and there you are! No, I do not believe that the man is a Cingalese at all; and, far from his having any connection with what you were pleased to term just now a change of front on the part of the Buddhists who have so long held the little chap as something sacred, I don’t believe that they know anything about him. I base that upon the fact that the child is still treated with homage whenever he goes out, according to what Miss Lorne says, and that, with the single exception of that one woman who tried to poison him, nobody but just one man this particular one man has ever made any attempt to harm the boy. Fanatics, like those Cingalese, cleave to an idea to the end, Mr. Narkom; they don’t cast it aside and go off at another tangent. You have heard what Lady Chepstow says the native women told her; the boy was sacred; their priests had commanded them to appease Buddha by doing homage to him until the tooth was found, and the tooth has not been found up to the present day! That means that nothing on earth could change their attitude toward him, that not one of the Buddhist sect would harm a solitary hair of his head for a king’s ransom; so you may eliminate the Cingalese from the case entirely so far as the attempts upon the child’s life are concerned. Whoever is making the attempts is doing so without their knowledge and for a purely personal reason.”

“Then, in that case, this Captain Hawksley ”

“I’ll have a look at that gentleman before I tumble into bed to-night, and you shall have my views upon that point to-morrow morning, Mr. Narkom. Frankly, things point rather suspiciously in the captain’s direction, since he is apparently the only person likely to be benefited by the boy’s death, and if a motive cannot be traced to some other person ” He stopped abruptly and held up his hand. Outside in the dim halls of the house a sudden noise had sprung into being, the noise of someone running upstairs in great haste, and, stepping quickly to the door, Cleek drew it sharply open. As he did so, Dollops came puffing up out of the lower gloom, a sheep’s trotter in one hand, and a letter in the other.

“Law, Gov’nor!” groaned he, from midway on the staircase, “I don’t believe as I’m ever goin’ to be let get a square tuck-in this side of the buryin’ ground! Jist finished wot was left of that there steak and kidney puddin’, sir, and started on my seckint trotter, when I sees a pair o’ legs nip parst the area railin’s to the front door, and then nip off again like greased lightnin’, and when I ups and does a flyin’ leap up the kitchen stairs, there was this here envellup in the letter-box, and them there blessed legs nowheres in sight. I say, sir,” agitatedly, “look wot’s wrote on the envellup, will yer? And us always keepin’ of it so dark.”

Cleek plucked the letter from his extended hand, glanced at it, and puckered up his lips; then, with a gesture, he sent Dollops back below stairs, and, returning to the room, closed the door behind him.

“The enemy evidently knows all Lady Chepstow’s movements, Mr. Narkom,” he said. “I expect she and Miss Lorne have been under surveillance all day and have been followed here. Look at that!” He flung the letter down on a table as he spoke, and Narkom, glancing at it, saw printed in rude, illiterate letters upon the envelope the one word “Cleek.” The identity of “Captain Burbage” was known to someone, and the secret of the house in Clarges Street was a secret no longer!

“Purposely disguised, you see. No one, not even a little child, would make such a botch of copying the alphabet as that,” Cleek said, as he took the letter up and opened it. The sheet it contained was lettered in the same uncouth manner, and bore these words:

“Cleek, take a fool’s advice and don’t accept the Chepstow case. Be warned. If you interfere, somebody you care about will pay the price. You’ll find it more satisfactory to buy a wedding bouquet than a funeral wreath!”

“Oh!” shuddered the two ladies in one breath. “How horrible! How cowardly!” And then, feeling that her last hope had gone, Lady Chepstow broke into a fit of violent weeping and laid her head on Ailsa’s shoulder.

“Oh, my baby! My darling baby boy!” she sobbed. “And now they are threatening somebody that you, too, love. Of course, Mr. Cleek, I can’t expect you to risk the sacrifice of your own dear ones for the sake of me and mine, and so and so Oh, take me away, Miss Lorne! Let me go back to my baby and have him while I may.”

“Good-night, Mr. Cleek!” said Ailsa, stretching out a shaking hand to him. “Thank you so much for for what you would have done but for this. And you were our last hope, too!”

“Why give it up then, Miss Lorne?” he said, holding her hand and looking into her eyes. “Why not go on letting me be your last hope your only hope?”

“Yes, but they they spoke of a funeral wreath.”

“And they also spoke of a wedding bouquet! I am going to take the case, Miss Lorne take it, and solve it, as I’m a living man. Thank you!” as her brimming eyes uplifted in deep thankfulness and her shaking hand returned the pressure of his. “Now, just give me five minutes’ time in the next room it’s my laboratory, Lady Chepstow and I’ll tell you whether I shall begin with Captain Hawksley or eliminate him from the case entirely. You might go in ahead, Mr. Narkom, and get the acid bath and the powder ready for me. We’ll see what the finger-prints of our gentle correspondent have to tell, and, if they are not in the records of Scotland Yard or down in my own private little book, we’ll get a sample of Captain Hawksley’s in the morning.”

Then, excusing himself to the ladies, he passed into the inner room in company with Narkom, and carried the letter with him. When he returned it was still in his hand, but there were greyish smudges all over it.

“There’s not a finger-print in the lot that is worth anything as a means of identification, Miss Lorne,” he said. “But you and Lady Chepstow may accept my assurance that Captain Hawksley is not the man. The writer of this letter belongs to the criminal classes; he is on his guard against the danger of finger-prints, and he wore rubber gloves when he penned this message. When I find him, rest assured I shall find a man who has had dealings with the police before and whose finger-prints are on their records. I don’t know what his game is nor what he’s after yet, but I will inside of a week. I’ve an idea; but it’s so wild a thing I’m almost afraid to trust myself to believe it possible until I stumble over something that points the same way. Now, go home with Lady Chepstow, and begin the work of helping me.”

“Helping you? Oh, Mr. Cleek, can we? Is there anything we can do to help?”

“Yes. When you leave the house, act as though you are in the utmost state of dejection and keep that up indefinitely. Make it appear, for I am certain you will be followed and spied upon, as if I had declined the case. But don’t have any fear about the boy. The two constables will sleep in the room with him to-night and every night until the thing is cleared up and the danger past. To-morrow about dusk, however, you, personally, take him for a walk near the Park, and if, among the other Cingalese you may meet, you should see one dressed as an Englishman, and wearing a scarlet flower in his buttonhole, take no notice of how often you see him nor of what he may do.”

“It will be you, Mr. Cleek?”

“Yes. Now go, please; and don’t forget to act as if you and her ladyship were utterly broken-hearted. Also” his voice dropped lower, his hand met her hand, and in the darkness of the hall a little silver-plated revolver was slipped into her palm “also, take this. Keep it always with you, never be without it night or day, and if any living creature offers you violence, shoot him down as you would a mad dog. Good-night, and remember!”

And long after she and Lady Chepstow had gone down and passed out into the night he stood there, looking the situation straight in the face and thinking his own troubled thoughts.

“A wedding bouquet! A threat against her, and the mention of a wedding bouquet!” he said, as he went back into the room and sat down to figure the puzzle out. “Only one creature in the world knows of my feelings in that direction, and only one creature in the world would be capable of that threat Margot! But what interest could she or any of her tribe have in the death of Lady Chepstow’s little son? Her game is always money. If she were after a ransom she would try to abduct the child, not to kill him, and if” A sudden thought came and wrenched away his voice. He sat a moment twisting his fingers one through the other and frowning at the floor; then, of a sudden, he gave a cry and jumped to his feet. “Five lacs of rupees a fortune! By George, I’ve got it!” he fairly shouted. “The wild guess was a correct one, I’ll stake my life. Let’s put it to the test.”