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

Through the ever-deepening dusk Cleek and Arjeeb Noosrut moved onward together; and onward behind them moved, too, the same dilatory messenger boy who had loitered about in the neighbourhood of the park, squandering his halfpence now as then, leaving a small trail of winkle shells and trotter bones to mark the record of his passage, and never seeming to lose one iota of his appetite, eat as much and as often as he would.

The walk led down into the depths of Soho, that refuge of the foreign element in London; but long before they halted at the narrow doorway of a narrow house in a narrow side street a street that seemed to have gone to sleep in an atmosphere of gloom and smells Cleek had adroitly “pumped” Arjeeb Noosrut dry, and the riddle of the sacred son was a riddle to him no longer. He was now only anxious to part from the man and return with the news to Lady Chepstow, and was casting round in his mind for some excuse to avoid going indoors with him and wasting precious time in breaking bread and eating salt, when there lurched out of an adjoining doorway an ungainly figure in turban and sandals and the full flower of that grotesque regalia which passes muster at cheap theatres and masquerade balls for the costume of a Cingalese. The fellow had bent forward out of the deeper darkness of the house-passage into the murk and gloom of the ill-lit street, and was straining his eyes as if in search for someone long expected.

“Dog of an infidel!” exclaimed Arjeeb Noosrut, speaking in Hindustani, and spitting on the pavement as he caught sight of the man. “See, well-beloved, he is of those ‘others’ of which I spoke when I first met thee. There are many of them, but true believers none. They dwell in a room huddled up as unclean things in the house there; they drink and make merry far into the night, and a woman veiled and in European garb comes to them and drinks with them sometimes and sometimes a man of her kind with her; and they speak a tongue that is not the tongue of our people; yet have I seen them go forth into the city and do homage as we to the sacred son.”

Cleek sucked in his breath and, twitching round, stared at the dim figure leaning forward in the dim light.

“By George!” he said to himself; “if I know anything, I ought to know the slouch and the low-sunk head of the Apache! And the woman comes! And a man comes! And there are five lacs of rupees! I wonder! I wonder! But no she wouldn’t come here, to a place like this, if she had ventured back into England and had called some of the band over to help. She’d go to the old spot to the old haunt where she and I used to lie low and laugh whilst the police were hunting for me. She’d go there, I’m sure, to the old Burnt Acre Mill, where, if you were ‘stalked,’ you could open the sluice gates and let the Thames and the mill stream rush in and meet, and make a hell of whirling waters that would drown a fish. She would go there if it were she. And yet it is an Apache: I swear it is an Apache!”

He turned and looked back at Arjeeb Noosrut, then raised his hand and brushed it down the back of his head, which was always the sign “Wait!” to Dollops and then spoke as calmly as he could.

“Brother, I will go in and break bread and eat salt with thee,” he said. “But I may do no more, for to-night I am in haste.”

“Come then,” the man answered; and taking him by the hand, led him in and up to a room at the back of the second storey, where, hot as the night was, the windows were closed and a woman squatted before a lighted brasier, was dripping the contents of an oil cruse over the roasting carcass of a young kid.

“It is to shut out the sounds of the vile infidel orgies from the house adjoining,” explained Arjeeb Noosrut, as Cleek walked to the tightly closed window and leant his forehead against it. “Yet, if the heat oppresses thee ”

“It does,” interposed Cleek, and leant far out into the darkness as though sucking in the air when the sash was raised and the thing which had been only a dim babel of wordless sounds a moment before, became now the riotous laughter and the ribald comments of men upon the verses of a comic song which one of their number was joyously singing.

“French!” said Cleek under his breath, as he caught the notes of the singer and the words of his audience “French I knew it!”

Then he drew in his head, and having broken of the bread and eaten of the salt which, at a word from Arjeeb Noosrut, the woman brought on a wicker tray and laid before them, he moved hastily to the door.

“Brother and son of the faithful, peace be with thee I must go,” he said. “But I come again; and it is written that thou shalt be honoured above all men when I return to thee, and that the true believers the true sons of Holy Buddha shall have cause to set thy name at the head of the records of those who are most blest of him!”

Then he salaamed and passed out; and, closing the door behind him, ran like a hare down the narrow stairs. At the door Dollops rose up like the imp in a pantomime and jumped toward him.

“Law, Gov’nor, I’m nigh starved a-waitin’ for yer!” he said in a whisper. “Wot’s the lay now? A double-quick change? I’ve got the stuff here, look!” holding up the package he was carrying “or a chance for me to do some fly catchin’ with me bloomin’ tickle tootsies?”

The man in the Cingalese costume had vanished from the doorway of the adjoining house, and, catching the boy by the arm, Cleek hurried him to it and drew him into the dark passage.

“I’m going to the back; I’m going to climb up to the windows of the second storey and see who’s there and what’s going on,” he whispered. “Lie low and watch. I think it’s Margot’s gang.”

“Oh, colour me blue! Them beauties? And in London? I’d give a tanner for a strong cup o’ tea!”

“Sh-h-h! Be quiet speak low. Don’t be seen, but keep a close watch; and if anybody comes downstairs ”

“He’s mine!” interjected Dollops, stripping up his sleeves. “Glue to the eyebrows and warranted to stick! Nip away, Gov’nor, and leave it to the tickle tootsies and me!” Then, as Cleek moved swiftly and silently down the passage and slipped out into a sort of yard at the back of the house, he pulled out his roll of brown paper squares and his tube of adhesive, and crawling upstairs on his hands and knees, began operations at the top step. But he had barely got the first “plaster” fairly made and ready to apply when there came a rush of footsteps behind him and he was obliged to duck down and flatten himself against the floor of the landing to escape being run down by a man who dashed in through the lower floor, flew at top speed up the stairs, and, with a sort of blended cheer and yell, whirled open a door on the landing above and vanished. In a twinkling other cheers rang out, there was the sound of hastily moving feet and the uproar of general excitement.

“Oh, well, if you won’t stop to be waited on, gents, help yourselves!” said Dollops with a chuckle. Then he began backing hastily down the stairs, squirting the contents of the tube all over the steps, and concluded the operation by scattering all the loose sheets of paper on the floor at the foot of them before slipping out into the street and composedly waiting.

Meantime Cleek, sneaking out through the rear door, found himself in a small, brick-paved yard hemmed in by a high wall thickly fringed on the top with a hedge of broken bottles. At one time in its history the house had been occupied by a catgut maker, and the rickety shed in which he had carried on his calling still clung, sagging and broken-roofed, to the building itself, its rotten slates all but vanished, and its interior piled high with mildewed bedding, mouldy old carpet, broken furniture, and refuse of every sort.

A foot or two above the roof-level of this glowed two luminous rectangles in the blackness of darkness the windows of the back room on the second storey; and out of these came floating still the song, the laughter, and the jabbered French he had heard in the house next door. It did not take him long to make up his mind. Gripping the swaying supports of the sagging shed, he went up it with the agility of a monkey, crawled to the nearer of the two windows, and, cautiously raising himself, peeped in. What he saw made him suck in his breath sharply and sent his heart hammering hard and fast.

A dozen men were in the room men whose faces, despite an inartistic attempt to appear Oriental, he recognized at a glance and knew better than he knew his own. About them lay discarded portions of Cingalese attire, thrown off because of the heat, and waiting to be resumed at any moment. The air was thick with tobacco smoke and rank with spirituous odours. Sprawled figures were everywhere, and on a sort of couch against the opposite wall, a cigarette between her fingers, a glass of absinthe at her elbow, her laughter and badinage ringing out as loudly as any, lay the lissom figure of Margot!

But even as Cleek looked in upon it the picture changed. Swift, sharp, and sudden came the rattle of flying feet on the outer stairs. Margot flung aside her cigarette and jumped up, the song and the laughter came to an abrupt end, the door flew open, and with a shout and a cheer a man bounced into the room.

“Serpice! Ah, lé bon Dieu! it is Serpice at last!” cried out Margot in joyous excitement, as she and the others crowded round him. “Soul of a sluggard, don’t waste time in laughing and capering like this! Speak up, speak up, you hear? Are we to fly at once to the mill and join him? Has he succeeded? Is it done?”

“Yes, yes, yes!” shouted back Serpice, throwing up his cap and capering. “It is done! It is done! Under the very nose of the cracksman, too! Merode’s got them got them both! The little lordship and the Mademoiselle Lorne, too! They took the bait like gudgeons; they stepped into the automobile without a fear, and whizz! it was off to the mill like that! La, la, la! We win, we win, we win!”

The shock of the thing was too much for Cleek. Carried out of himself by the knowledge that the woman he loved was now in peril of her life, discretion forsook him, blind rage mastered him, and he did one of the few foolish things of his life.

“You lie, you brute you lie!” he shouted, jumping up into full view. “God help the man who lays a hand on her! Let him keep his life from me if he can!”

“The cracksman!” yelled out Serpice. “The cracksman! The cracksman!” echoed Margot and the rest. Then a pistol barked and spat, the light was swept out, a bullet sang past Cleek’s ear, and he realised how foolish he had been. For part of the crowd came surging to the window, part went in one blind rush for the door to head him off and hem him in, and, through the din and hubbub rang viciously the voice of Margot shrilling out: “Kill him! Kill him!” as though nothing but the sight of his blood would glut the malice of her.

It was neck or nothing now, and the race was to the swift. He dropped through a gap in the ragged roof sheer down, like a shot into the rubble and refuse below; he lurched through the shed to the door, and through that to the black passage leading to the street the clatter on the higher staircase giving warning of the crowd coming after him and flew like a hare hard pressed toward the outer door, and then just then, when every little moment counted there was a scrambling sound, a chorus of oaths, a slipping, a sliding, a bang on one step and a bump on another; and, as he darted by, and sprang out into the street, the hall was filled with a writhing, scuffling, swearing mass of glue-covered men struggling in a whirling waste of loose brown paper.

“This way! come quickly, for your life!” he shouted to Dollops, as he came plunging out into the street. “They’ve got them got his little lordship! Got Miss Lorne in spite of me. Come on! come on! come on!” and flew like an arrow from crossing to crossing and street to street with Dollops, like a shadow, at his heels.

A sudden swerve to the right brought them into a lighted and populous thoroughfare. Italian restaurants, German delicatessen shops, eating places of a dozen other nationalities lined the pavements on both sides of the street, and, in front of these a high-power motor stood, protected by the watchful eye of an accommodating policeman while the chauffeur sampled Chianti in a wine-shop close by. With a rush and a leap Cleek was upon it, and with another rush and a leap the constable was upon him, only to be greeted with the swift flicking open of a coat and the gleam of a badge that every man in the force knew.

“Cleek?”

“Yes! In the name of The Yard; in the name of the king! get out of the way! In with you, Dollops! We’ll get the brutes yet!”

Then he bent over, threw in the clutch, and discarding all speed laws, sent the car humming and tearing away.

“Hold tight!” he said, through his teeth. “Whatever comes, we’ve got to get to Burnt Acre Mill inside of an hour. If you know any prayers, Dollops, say them.”

“The Lord fetch us home in time for supper!” gulped the boy obediently. “S’help me, Gov’nor, the wind’s goin’ through my teeth like I was a mouth organ and I’m hollow enough for a flute!”