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

He took it with that grave courtesy, that gentle dignity of bearing which at times distinguished his deportment and was, indeed, as puzzling to her as it was to Mr. Maverick Narkom. It came but rarely, that peculiar air, but it was very noticeable when it did come, although the man himself seemed totally oblivious of it. Miss Lorne noticed it now, just as she had noticed it that day in the train when she had said banteringly: “I am not used to Court manners. Where, if you please, did you acquire yours?”

“I can’t say how deeply indebted I feel you must imagine that, Miss Lorne,” he said, bending over the hand that lay in his, with an air that made Lady Chepstow lift her eyebrows and look at him narrowly. “It is one of the kindest things you could do for the boy and for me. I thank you very, very much indeed. My thanks are due to you, too, Captain; for I feel that you will gladly do the favour I have asked.”

“Do it? Yes, like a shot, old chap. What a ripping fellow you are!”

“I’m a tired one at all events,” replied Cleek. “So, if you and the ladies” bowing to them “will kindly excuse me, I’ll be off home for a needed rest. Lady Chepstow, my very best respects. I feel sure that his little lordship will be quite all right in a day or two, although I shall, of course, be glad to learn how he progresses. May I? Perhaps Miss Lorne might be persuaded to send me a word or two through Mr. Narkom.”

Lady Chepstow was still looking at him as she had been from the moment he had taken Ailsa’s hand. Now she put out her own to him.

“Why wait for written reports, Mr. Cleek? Why not call in person and see?” she asked. “It will be more satisfactory than writing; and you will be welcome always.”

“I thank your ladyship,” he said gravely though all the soul of him rioted and laughed and longed to shout out for sheer joy. “It is a privilege I shall be happy to enjoy.”

But afterward, when he came to take his leave, a dearer one was granted him; for Ailsa herself accompanied him to the door.

“I couldn’t let the butler show you out, Mr. Cleek,” she said, as they stood together in the wide entrance hall. “I couldn’t let you go until I had said something that is on my mind something that has been pricking my conscience all evening. I want to tell you that from this night on I am going to forget those other nights: that one in the mist at Hampstead, that other on the stairway at Wyvern House forget them utterly and entirely, Mr. Cleek. Whatever you may have been once, I know that now you are indeed a man!”

Then gave him her hand again, smiled at him, and sent him home feeling that he was as near to the threshold of heaven as any mortal thing may hope to be.

Followed a time of such happiness as only they may know who having lived in darkness first know that there is such a thing as Light; followed days and weeks that went like magic things, blest to the uttermost before they go. For now he was a welcome visitor at the house that sheltered her; now the armour of reserve had dropped from her, and they were finding out between them that they had many tastes in common.

It was in August when the first interruption to this happy state of affairs occurred and they came to know that separation was to be endured again. Lady Chepstow, planning already for a wedding that was to take place in the early winter, decided to spend the last few months of her widowhood at her country house in Devonshire, and retired to it taking her servants, her little son, and her son’s governess with her.

For a day or two, Cleek “mooned” about restless, lonely despite Dollops’s presence, finding no savour in anything; and it came as a positive relief when a call from The Yard sent him to a modest little house in the neighbourhood of Wandsworth Common. The “call” in question took the shape of a letter from Mr. Narkom.

“My dear Cleek,” it ran, “a most amazing case probably the most amazing you have yet tackled has just cropped up. The client is one Captain Morrison, a retired Army officer living solely on his half pay. His daughter is involved in the astonishing affair. Indeed, it is at her earnest appeal that the matter has been brought to my notice. As the Captain is in too weak a state of health to journey any distance, I am going to ask you to meet me at N, Sunnington Crescent, Wandsworth a house kept by one Mrs. Culpin, widow of one of my Yard men, at three o’clock this afternoon. Knowing your reluctance to have your identity disclosed, I have taken the liberty of giving you the name you adopted in the Bawdrey affair, to wit: ‘George Headland.’ I have also taken the same precaution with regard to the Morrisons, leaving you to disclose your identity or not, as you see fit.”

Glad enough for anything to distract his thoughts from the brooding state of melancholy into which they had sunk, Cleek looked up a time-table, caught the 2:47 train from Victoria Station; and Narkom, walking into Mrs. Culpin’s modest little drawing-room at two minutes past three, found him standing in the window and looking thoughtfully out at the groups of children romping on the near-by common.

“Well, here I am at last, you see, my dear fellow,” he said, as he crossed the room and shook hands with him. “Ripping day, isn’t it? What are you doing? Admiring the view or taking stock of Mrs. Culpin’s roses?”

“Neither. I was speculating in futures,” replied Cleek, glancing back at the sunlit common, and then glancing away again with a faintly audible sigh. “How happy, how care-free they are, those merry little beggars, Mr. Narkom. What you said in your letter set my thoughts harking backward, and ... I was wondering what things the coming years might hold for them and for their parents. At one time, you know, Philip Bawdrey was as innocent and guileless as any of those little shavers; and yet, in after years he proved a monster of iniquity, a beast of ingratitude, and Oh, well, let it pass. He paid, as thankless children always do pay under God’s good rule. I wonder what his thoughts were when his last hour came.”

“It did come, then?”

“Yes. Got playing some of his games with those short-tempered chaps out in Buenos Ayres and got knifed a fortnight after his arrival. I had a letter from Mrs. Bawdrey yesterday. His father never knew of well, the other thing; and never will now, thank God. The longer I live, Mr. Narkom, the surer I become that straight living always pays; and that the chap who turns into the other lane gets what he deserves before the game is played out.”

“Ten years of Scotland Yard have enabled me to endorse that statement emphatically,” replied Narkom. “‘The riddle of the ninth finger’ was no different in that respect from nine hundred other riddles that have come my way since I took office. Now sit down, old chap, and let us take up the present case. But I say, Cleek; speaking of rewards reminds me of what I wrote you. There’s very little chance of one in this affair. All the parties connected with it are in very moderate circumstances. The sculptor fellow, Van Nant, who figures in it, was quite well-to-do at one time, I believe, but he ran through the greater part of his money, and a dishonest solicitor did him out of the rest. Miss Morrison herself never did have any, and, as I have told you, the Captain hasn’t anything in the world but his pension; and it takes every shilling of that to keep them. In the circumstances, I’d have made it a simple ‘Yard’ affair, chargeable to the Government, and put one of the regular staff upon it. But well, it’s such an astounding, such an unheard-of-thing, I knew you’d fairly revel in it. And besides, after all the rewards you have won you must be quite a well-to-do man by this time, and able to indulge in a little philanthropy.”

Cleek smiled.

“I will indulge in it, of course,” he said, “but not for that reason, Mr. Narkom. I wonder how much it will surprise you to learn that, at the present moment, I have just one hundred pounds in all the world?”

“My dear fellow!” Narkom exclaimed, with a sort of gasp, staring at him in round-eyed amazement. “You fairly take away my breath. Why, you must have received a fortune since you took up these special cases. Fifty or sixty thousand pounds at the smallest calculation.”

“More! To be precise, I have received exactly seventy-two thousand pounds, Mr. Narkom. But, as I tell you, I have to-day but one hundred pounds of that sum left. Lost in speculation? Oh, dear no! I’ve not invested one farthing in any scheme, company, or purchase since the night you gave me my chance and helped me to live an honest life.”

“Then in the name of Heaven, Cleek, what has become of the money?”

“It has gone in the cause of my redemption, Mr. Narkom,” he answered in a hushed voice. “My good friend for you really have been a good friend to me, the best I ever had in all the world my good friend, let us for only just this one minute speak of the times that lie behind. You know what redeemed me a woman’s eyes, a woman’s rose-white soul! I said, did I not, that I wanted to win her, wanted to be worthy of her, wanted to climb up and stand with her in the light? You remember that, do you not, Mr. Narkom?”

“Yes, I remember. But, my dear fellow, why speak of your ’vanishing cracksman’ days when you have so utterly put them behind you, and since lived a life beyond reproach? Whatever you did in those times you have amply atoned for. And what can that have to do with your impoverished state?”

“It has everything to do with it. I said I would be worthy of that one dear woman, and I can never be, Mr. Narkom, until I have made restitution; until I can offer her a clean hand as well as a clean life. I can’t restore the actual things that the ‘vanishing cracksman’ stole; for they are gone beyond recall, but I can, at least, restore the value of them, and that I have been secretly doing for a long time.”

“Man alive! God bless my soul! Cleek, my dear fellow, do you mean to tell me that all the rewards, all the money you have earned ”

“Has gone to the people from whom I stole things in the wretched old days that lie behind me,” he finished very gently. “It goes back, in secret gifts, as fast as it is earned, Mr. Narkom. Don’t you see the answers, the acknowledgments, in the ‘Personal’ columns of the papers now and again? Wheresoever I robbed in those old days, I am repaying in these. When the score is wiped off, when the last robbery is paid for, my hand will be clean, and I can offer it; never before.”

“Cleek! My dear fellow! What a man! What a man! Oh, more than ever am I certain now that old Sir Horace Wyvern was right that night when he said that you were a gentleman. Tell me I’ll respect it tell me, for God’s sake, man, who are you? What are you, dear friend?”

“Cleek,” he made reply. “Just Cleek! The rest is my secret and God’s! We’ve never spoken of the past since that night, Mr. Narkom, and, with your kind permission, we never will speak of it again. I’m Cleek, the detective at your service once more. Now, then, let’s have the new strange case on which you called me here. What’s it all about?”

“Necromancy wizardry fairy-lore all the stuff and nonsense that goes to the making of ’The Arabian Nights’!” said Narkom, waxing excited as his thoughts were thus shoved back to the amazing affair he had in hand. “All your ‘Red Crawls’ and your ‘Sacred Sons’ and your ’Nine-fingered Skeletons’ are fools to it for wonder and mystery. Talk about witchcraft! Talk about wizards and giants and enchanters and the things that witches did in the days of Macbeth! God bless my soul, they’re nothing to it. Those were the days of magic, anyhow, so you can take it or leave it, as you like; but this look here, Cleek, you’ve heard of a good many queer things and run foul of a good many mysteries, I’ll admit, but did you ever in this twentieth century, when witchcraft and black magic are supposed to be as dead as Queen Anne did you ever, my dear fellow, hear of such a marvel as a man putting on a blue leather belt that was said to have the power of rendering the wearer invisible and then forthwith melting into thin air and floating off like a cloud of pipe smoke?”

“Gammon!”

“Gammon nothing! Facts!”

“Facts? You’re off your head, man. The thing couldn’t possibly happen. Somebody’s having you!”

“Well, somebody had him, at all events. Young Carboys, I mean the chap that’s engaged, or, rather was engaged, to Captain Morrison’s daughter; and the poor girl’s half out of her mind over it. He put the belt on in the presence of her and her father in their own house, mind you walked into a bedroom, and vanished like smoke. Doors locked, windows closed, room empty, belt on the floor, and man gone. Not a trace of him from that moment to this; and yesterday was to have been his wedding-day. There’s a ‘mystery,’ if you like. What do you make of that?”

Cleek looked at him for an instant. Then:

“My dear Mr. Narkom, for the moment I thought you were fooling,” he said in a tone of deep interest. “But I see now that you are quite in earnest, although the thing sounds so preposterous, a child might be expected to scoff at it. A man to get a magic belt, to put it on, and then to melt away? Why, the ‘Seven-league Boots’ couldn’t be a greater tax on one’s credulity. Sit down and tell me all about it.”

“The dickens of it is there doesn’t seem to be much to tell,” said Narkom, accepting the invitation. “Young Carboys, who appears to have been a decent sort of chap, had neither money, position, nor enemies, so that’s an end to any idea of somebody having a reason for wishing to get rid of him; and, as he was devotedly attached to Miss Morrison, and was counting the very hours to the time of their wedding, and, in addition, had no debts, no entanglements of any sort, and no possible reason for wishing to disappear, there isn’t the slightest ground for suspecting that he did so voluntarily.”

“Suppose you tell me the story from the beginning, and leave me to draw my own conclusions regarding that,” said Cleek. “Who and what was the man? Was he living in the same house with his fiancee, then? You say the disappearance occurred there, at night, and that he went into a bedroom. Was the place his home, as well as Captain Morrison’s, then?”

“On the contrary. His home was a matter of three or four miles distant. He was merely stopping at the Morrison’s on that particular night; I’ll tell you presently why and how he came to do that. For the present, let’s take things in their proper order. Once upon a time this George Carboys occupied a fair position in the world, and his parents long since dead were well to do. The son, being an only child, was well looked after sent to Eton and then to Brasenose, and all that sort of thing and the future looked very bright for him. Before he was twenty-one, however, his father lost everything through unlucky speculations, and that forced the son to make his own living. At the ’Varsity he had fallen in with a rich young Belgian fellow named Maurice Van Nant who had a taste for sculpture and the fine arts generally, and they had become the warmest and closest of friends.”

“Maurice Van Nant? That’s the sculptor fellow you said in the beginning had gone through his money, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Well, when young Carboys was thrown on the world, so to speak, this Van Nant came to the rescue, made a place for him as private secretary and companion, and for three or four years they knocked round the world together, going to Egypt, Persia, India, et cetera, as Van Nant was mad on the subject of Oriental art, and wished to study it at the fountain-head. In the meantime both Carboys’ parents went over to the silent majority, and left him without a relative in the world, barring Captain Morrison, who is an uncle about seven times removed and would, of course, naturally be heir-at-law to anything he left if he had anything to leave, poor beggar, which he hadn’t. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

“Well, at the end of four years or so Van Nant came to the bottom of his purse hadn’t a stiver left; and from dabbling in art for pleasure, had to come down to it as a means of earning a livelihood. And he and Carboys returned to England, and, for purposes of economy, pooled their interests, took a small box of a house over Putney way, set up a regular ‘bachelor establishment,’ and started in the business of bread-winning together. Carboys succeeded in getting a clerk’s position in town; Van Nant set about modelling clay figures and painting mediocre pictures, and selling both whenever he could find purchasers.

“Naturally, these were slow in coming, few and far between; but with Carboys’ steady two pounds a week coming in, they managed to scrape along and to keep themselves going. They were very happy, too, despite the fact that Carboys had got himself engaged to Miss Morrison, and was hoarding every penny he could possibly save in order to get enough to marry on; and this did not tend to make Van Nant overjoyed, as such a marriage would, of course, mean the end of their long association and the giving up of their bachelor quarters.”

“To say nothing of leaving Van Nant to rub along as best he could without any assistance from Carboys,” commented Cleek. “I think I can guess a portion of what resulted, Mr. Narkom. Van Nant did not, of course, in these circumstances have any tender regard for Miss Morrison.”

“No, he did not. In point of fact, he disliked her very much indeed, and viewed the approaching wedding with extreme disfavour.”

“And yet you say that nobody had an interest in doing Carboys some sort of mischief in order to prevent that wedding from being consummated, Mr. Narkom,” said Cleek with a shrug of the shoulders. “Certainly, Van Nant would have been glad to see a spoke put in that particular wheel; though I freely confess I do not see what good could come of preventing it by doing away with Carboys, as he would then be in as bad a position as if the marriage had been allowed to proceed as planned. Either way he loses Carboys’ companionship and assistance; and his one wish would be to preserve both. Well, go on. What next? I’m anxious to hear about the belt. Where and how does that come in?”

“Well, it appears that Miss Morrison got hold of a humorous book called ‘The Brass Bottle,’ a fantastic, farcical thing, about a genie who had been sealed up in a bottle for a thousand years getting out and causing the poor devil of a hero no end of worry by heaping riches and honours upon him in the most embarrassing manner. It happened that on the night Miss Morrison got this book, and read it aloud for the amusement of her father and lover, Carboys had persuaded Van Nant to spend the evening with them. Apparently he enjoyed himself, too, for he laughed as boisterously as any of them over the farcical tale, and would not go home until he had heard the end of it. When it was finished Miss Morrison tells me, Carboys, after laughing fit to split his sides over the predicament of the hero of the book, cried out: ’By George! I wish some old genie would take it into his head to hunt me up, and try the same sort of a dodge with me. He wouldn’t find this chicken shying his gold and his gems back at his head, I can tell you. I’d accept all the Arab slaves and all the palaces he wanted to thrust on me; and then I’d make ’em all over to you, Mary dear, so you’d never have to do another day’s worrying or pinching in all your life. But never you nor anybody else depend upon an Arab’s gratitude or an Arab’s generosity. He’ll promise you the moon, and then wriggle out of giving you so much as a star just as Abdul ben Meerza did with me.’ And upon Miss Morrison asking what he meant by that, he replied, laughingly: ’Ask Van, he knew the old codger better than I knew his whole blessed family, blow him! and was able to talk to the old skinflint in his own outlandish tongue.’

“Upon Miss Morrison’s acting on this suggestion, Van Nant told of an adventure Carboys had had in Persia some years previously. It appears that he saved the life of a miserly old Arab called Abdul ben Meerza at the risk of his own; that the old man was profuse in his expressions of gratitude, and, on their parting, had said: ’By the Prophet, thou shalt yet find the tree of this day’s planting bear rich fruit for thee and thy feet walk upon golden stones.’ But, in spite of this promise, he had walked away, and Carboys had never heard another word from nor of him from that hour until three nights ago.”

“Oho!” said Cleek, with a strong, rising inflection. “And he did hear of him, then?”

“Yes,” replied Narkom. “Quite unexpectedly, and while he was preparing to spend a dull evening at home with Van Nant for the night was, as you must recollect, my dear fellow, a horribly wet and stormy one a message came to him from Miss Morrison asking him to come over to Wandsworth without delay, as a most amazing thing had happened. A box marked ’From Abdul ben Meerza’ had been delivered there, of all astonishing places. The message concluded by saying that as it was such a horrible night, the Captain, her father, would not hear of his returning, so begged him to bring his effects, and come prepared to remain until morning.

“He went, of course, carrying with him a small bag containing his pyjamas, his shaving tackle, and such few accessories as would be necessary, since, if he stopped, he must start from there to business in the morning; and on his arrival was handed a small leather case addressed as he had been told. Imagining all sorts of wonders, from jewels of fabulous value to documents entitling him to endless wealth, he unfastened the case, and found within it a broad belt of blue enamelled leather secured with a circular brass clasp, on which was rudely scratched in English the words, ’The wizards of the East grew rich by being unseen. Whoso clasps this belt about his waist may become invisible for the wishing. So does ben Meerza remember.’

“Of course, Carboys treated it as the veriest rubbish who wouldn’t? Indeed, suspected Van Nant of having played a joke upon him, and laughingly threw it aside; and, finding that he had taken an uncomfortable journey for nothing, got some good out of it by spending a pleasant evening with the Captain and his daughter. A room had been made ready for him in fact, although he did not know it, Miss Morrison had given him hers, and had herself gone to a less attractive one and in due time he prepared to turn in for the night. As they parted Miss Morrison rison, in a bantering spirit, picked up the belt and handed it to him, remarking that he had better keep it, as, after marriage, he might some time be glad to creep into the house unseen; and, in the same bantering spirit, he had replied that he had better begin learning how the thing worked in case of necessity, and taking the belt, clasped it round his waist, said good-night, and stepped into the room prepared for him. Miss Morrison and her father heard him close the door and pull down the blind, and that was the last that was seen or heard of him.

“In the morning the bed was found undisturbed, his locked bag on a chair, and in the middle of the floor the blue leather belt; but of the man himself there was not one trace to be found. There, that’s the story, Cleek. Now what do you make of it?”

“I shall be able to tell you better after I have seen the parties concerned,” said Cleek, after a moment’s pause. “You have brought your motor, of course? Let us step into it, then, and whizz round to Captain Morrison’s house. What’s that? Oh, undoubtedly a case of foul play, Mr. Narkom. But as to the motive and the matter of who is guilty, it is impossible to decide until I have looked further into the evidence. Do me a favour, will you? After you have left me at the Captain’s house, ’phone up The Yard, and let me have the secret cable code with the East; also, if you can, the name of the chief of the Persian police.”

“My dear chap, you can’t really place any credence in that absurd assertion regarding the blue belt? You can’t possibly think that Abdul ben Meerza really sent the thing?”

“No, I can’t,” said Cleek in reply. “Because, to the best of my belief, it is impossible for a dead man to send anything; and, if my memory doesn’t betray me, I fancy I read in the newspaper accounts of that big Tajik rising at Khotour a couple of months ago, that the leader, one Abdul ben Meerza, a rich but exceedingly miserly merchant of the province of Elburz, was, by the Shah’s command, bastinadoed within an inch of his life, and then publicly beheaded.”

“By Jove! I believe you are right, my dear fellow,” asserted Narkom. “I thought the name had a familiar sound as if I had, somewhere, heard it before. I suppose there is no likelihood, by any chance, that the old skinflint could have lived up to his promise and left poor Carboys something, after all, Cleek? Because, you know, if he did ”

“Captain Morrison would, as heir-at-law, inherit it,” supplemented Cleek, dryly. “Get out the motor, Mr. Narkom, and let’s spin round and see him. I fancy I should like a few minutes’ conversation with the Captain. And Mr. Narkom!”

“Yes.”

“We’ll stick to the name ‘George Headland,’ if you please. When you are out for birds it doesn’t do to frighten them off beforehand.”