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

It did not take more than five minutes to cover the distance between Sunnington Crescent and the modest little house where Captain Morrison and his daughter lived; so in a very brief time Cleek had the satisfaction of interviewing both.

Narkom’s assertion, that Miss Morrison was “half out of her mind over the distressing affair” had prepared him to encounter a weeping, red-eyed, heart-broken creature of the most excitable type. He found instead a pale, serious-faced, undemonstrative girl of somewhat uncertain age sweet of voice, soft of step, quiet of demeanour who was either one of those persons who repress all external evidence of internal fires, and bear their crosses in silence, or was as cold-blooded as a fish and as heartless as a statue. He found the father the exact antithesis of the daughter, a nervous, fretful, irritable individual (gout had him by the heels at the time), who was as full of “yaps” and snarls as any Irish terrier, and as peevish and fussy as a fault-finding old woman. Added to this, he had a way of glancing all round the room, and avoiding the eye of the person to whom he was talking. And if Cleek had been like the generality of people, and hadn’t known that some of the best and “straightest” men in the world have been afflicted in this manner, and some of the worst and “crookedest” could look you straight in the eyes without turning a hair, he might have taken this for a bad sign. Then, too, he seemed to have a great many more wrappings and swaddlings about his gouty foot than appeared to be necessary unless it was done to make his helpless state very apparent, and to carry out his assertion that he hadn’t been able to walk a foot unassisted for the past week, and could not, therefore, be in any way connected with young Carboys’ mysterious vanishment. Still, even that had its contra aspect. He might be one of those individuals who make a mountain out of a molehill of pain, and insist upon a dozen poultices where one would do.

But Cleek could not forget that, as Narkom had said, there was not the shadow of doubt that in the event of Carboys having died possessed of means, the Captain would be the heir-at-law by virtue of his kinship; and it is a great deal more satisfactory to be rich oneself than to be dependent upon the generosity of a rich son-in-law. So, after adroitly exercising the “pump” upon other matters:

“I suppose, Miss Morrison,” said Cleek in a casual off-hand sort of way, “you don’t happen to know if Mr. Carboys ever made a will, do you? I am aware, from what Mr. Narkom has told me of his circumstances, that he really possessed nothing that would call for the execution of such a document; but young men have odd fancies sometimes particularly when they become engaged so it is just possible that he might have done such a thing; that there was a ring or something of that sort he wanted to make sure of your getting should anything happen to him. Of course, it is an absurd suggestion, but ”

“It is not so absurd as you think, Mr. Headland,” she interrupted. “As it happens, Mr. Carboys did make a will. But that was a very long time ago in fact, before he knew me, so my name did not figure in it at all. He once told me of the circumstances connected with it. It was executed when he was about three-and-twenty. It appears that there were some personal trinkets, relics of his more prosperous days: a set of jewelled waistcoat buttons, a scarf-pin, a few choice books and things like that, which he desired Mr. Van Nant to have in the event of his death (they were then going to the Orient, and times there were troublous); so he drew up a will, leaving everything that he might die possessed of to Mr. Van Nant, and left the paper with the latter’s solicitor when they bade good-bye to England. So far as I know, that will still exists, Mr. Headland; so” here the faintest suggestion of a quiver got into her voice “if anything of a tragical nature had happened to him, and and the trinkets hadn’t disappeared with him, Mr. Van Nant could claim them all, and I should have not even one poor little token to cherish in memory of him. And I am sure I am very sure that if he had known if he had thought ”

“Mary, for goodness’ sake, don’t begin to snivel!” chimed in her father querulously. “It gets on my nerves. And you know very well how I am suffering! Of course, it was most inconsiderate of Carboys not to destroy that will as soon as you and he were engaged; but he knew that marriage invalidates any will a man may have made previously, and well, you can’t suppose that he ever expected things to turn out as they have done. Besides, Van Nant would have seen that you got something to treasure as a remembrance. He’s a very decent chap, is Van Nant, Mr. Headland, although my daughter has never appeared to think so. But there’s no arguing with a woman any way.”

Cleek glanced at Narkom. It was a significant glance, and said as plainly as so many words: “What do you think of it? You said there was no motive, and, provided Carboys fell heir to something of which we know nothing as yet, here are two! If that will was destroyed, one man would, as heir-at-law, inherit; ditto the other man if it was not destroyed and not invalidated by marriage. And here’s the ‘one’ man singing the praises of the ‘other’ one!”

“Collusion?” queried Narkom’s answering look. “Perhaps,” said Cleek’s in response, “one of these two men has made away with him. The question is, which? and, also, why? when? where?” Then he turned to the Captain’s daughter, and asked quietly: “Would you mind letting me see the room from which the young man disappeared? I confess I haven’t the ghost of an idea regarding the case, Captain; but if you don’t mind letting your daughter show me the room ”

“Mind? Good Lord, no!” responded the Captain. “All I want to know is, what became of the poor boy, and if there’s any likelihood of his ever coming back alive. I’d go up with you myself, only you see how helpless I am. Mary, take Mr. Headland to the room. And please don’t stop any longer than is necessary. I’m suffering agonies and not fit to be left alone.”

Miss Morrison promised to return as expeditiously as possible, and then forthwith led the way to the room in question.

“This is it, Mr. Headland,” she said as she opened the door and ushered Cleek in. “Everything is just exactly as it was when George left it. I couldn’t bring myself to touch a thing until after a detective had seen it. Father said it was silly and sentimental of me to go on sleeping in a little box of a hall bedroom when I could be so much more comfortable if I returned to my own. But I couldn’t! I felt that I might possibly be unconsciously destroying something in the shape of a clue if I moved a solitary object, and so Look! there is the drawn blind just as he left it; there his portmanteau on that chair by the bedside, and there ” Her voice sank to a sort of awed whisper, her shaking finger extended in the direction of a blue semi-circle in the middle of the floor. “There is the belt! He had it round his waist when he crossed this threshold that night. It was lying there just as you see it when the servant brought up his tea and his shaving-water the next morning, and found the room empty and the bed undisturbed.”

Cleek walked forward and picked up the belt.

“Humph! Unfastened!” he said as he took it up; and Miss Morrison, closing the door, went below and left them. “Our wonderful wizard does not seem to have mastered the simple matter of making a man vanish out of the thing without first unfastening the buckle, it appears. I should have thought he could have managed that, shouldn’t you, Mr. Narkom, if he could have managed the business of making him melt into thin air? Hur-r-r!” reflectively, as he turned the belt over and examined it. “Not seen much use, apparently; the leather’s quite new, and the inside quite unsoiled. British manufactured brass, too, in the buckle. Shouldn’t have expected that in a Persian-made article. Inscription scratched on with the point of a knife, or some other implement not employed in metal engraving. May I trouble you for a pin? Thank you. Hum-m-m! Thought so. Some dirty, clayey stuff rubbed in to make the letters appear old and of long standing. Look here, Mr. Narkom: metal quite bright underneath when you pick the stuff out. Inscription very recently added; leather, American tanned; brass, Birmingham; stitching, by the Blake shoe and harness machine; wizard probably born in Tottenham Court Road, and his knowledge of Persia confined to Persian powder in four-penny tins.”

He laid the belt aside, and walked slowly round the room, inspecting its contents before turning his attention to the portmanteau.

“Evidently the vanishing qualities of the belt did not assert themselves very rapidly, Mr. Narkom,” he said, “for Mr. Carboys not only prepared to go to bed, but had time to get himself ready to hurry off to business in the morning with as little delay as possible. Look here; here are his pyjamas on the top of this chest of drawers, neatly folded, just as he lifted them out of his portmanteau; and as a razor has been wiped on this towel (see this slim line of dust-like particles of hair), he shaved before going to bed in order to save himself the trouble of doing so in the morning. But as there is no shaving-mug visible, and he couldn’t get hot water at that hour of the night, we shall probably discover a spirit-lamp and its equipment when we look into the portmanteau. Now, as he had time to put these shaving articles away after using, and as no man shaves with his collar and necktie on, if we do not find those, too, in the portmanteau, we may conclude that he put them on again; and, as he wouldn’t put them on again if he were going to bed, the inference is obvious something caused him to dress and prepare to leave the house voluntarily. That ‘something’ must have manifested itself very abruptly, and demanded great haste either that, or he expected to return; for you will observe that, although he replaced his shaving tackle in the portmanteau, he did not put his sleeping-suit back with it. While I am poking about, do me the favour of looking in the bag, Mr. Narkom; and tell me if you find the collar and necktie there.”

“Not a trace of them,” announced the superintendent a moment or two later. “Here are the shaving-mug, the brush, and the spirit-lamp, however, just as you suggested; and Hallo! what have you stumbled upon now?” For Cleek, who had been “poking about,” as he termed it, had suddenly stooped, picked up something, and was regarding it fixedly as it lay in the palm of his hand.

“A somewhat remarkable thing to discover in a lady’s bed-chamber, Mr. Narkom, unless Just step downstairs, and ask Miss Morrison to come up again for a moment, will you?” And then held out his hand so that Narkom could see, in passing, that a hempseed, two grains of barley, and an oat lay upon his palm. “Miss Morrison,” he inquired as Mary returned in company with the superintendent, “Miss Morrison, do you keep pigeons?”

She gave a little cry, and clasped her hands together, as if reproaching herself for some heartless act.

“Oh!” she said, moving hastily forward toward the window. “Poor dears! How good of you to remind me. To think that I should forget to feed them for three whole days. They may be dead by now. But at such a time I could think of nothing but this hideous mystery. My pigeons my poor, pretty pigeons!”

“Oh, then you do keep them?”

“Yes; oh, yes. In a wire-enclosed cote attached to the house just outside this window. Homing pigeons, Mr. Headland. George bought them for me. We had an even half dozen each. We used to send messages to each other that way. He would bring his over to me, and take mine away with him at night when he went home, so we could correspond at any moment without waiting for the post. That’s how I sent him the message about the arrival of the belt. Oh, do unlock the window, and let me see if the pretty dears are still alive.”

“It doesn’t need to be unlocked, Miss Morrison,” he replied, as he pulled up the blind. “See, it can be opened easily the catch is not secured.”

“Not secured? Why, how strange. I myself fastened it after I despatched the bird with the message about the belt. And nobody came into the room after that until George did so that night. Oh, do look and see if the pretty creatures are dead. They generally coo so persistently; and now I don’t hear a sound from them.”

Cleek threw up the sash and looked out. A huge wistaria with tendrils as thick as a man’s wrist covered the side of the house, and made a veritable ladder down to the little garden; and, firmly secured to this, on a level with the window-sill and within easy reach therefrom, was the dovecote in question. He put in his hand, and slowly drew out four stiff, cold, feathered little bodies, and laid them on the dressing-table before her; then, while she was grieving over them, he groped round in all corners of the cote and drew forth still another.

“Five?” she exclaimed in surprise. “Five? Oh, but there should be only four, Mr. Headland. It is true that George brought over all six the day before; but I ‘flew’ one to him in the early morning, and I ‘flew’ a second at night, with the message about the belt; so there should be but four.”

“Oh, well, possibly one was ‘flown’ by him to you, and it ‘homed’ without your knowledge.”

“Yes, but it couldn’t get inside the wired enclosure unassisted, Mr. Headland. See! that spring-door has to be opened when it is returned to the cote after it has carried its message home. You see, I trained them, by feeding them in here, to come into this room when they were flown back to me. They always flew directly in if the window was opened, or gave warning of their presence by fluttering about and beating against the panes if the sash was closed. And for a fifth pigeon to be inside the enclosure I can’t understand the thing at all. Oh, Mr. Headland, do you think it is anything in the nature of a clue?”

“It may be,” he replied evasively. “Clues are funny things, Miss Morrison; you never know when you may pick one up, nor how. I shouldn’t say anything to anybody about this fifth pigeon if I were you. Let that be our secret for awhile; and if your father wants to know why I sent for you to come up here again why, just say I have discovered that your pigeons are dead for want of food.” And for a moment or two, after she had closed the door and gone below again, he stood looking at Mr. Narkom and slowly rubbing his thumb and forefinger up and down his chin. Then, of a sudden:

“I think, Mr. Narkom, we can fairly decide, on the evidence of that fifth pigeon, that George Carboys left this room voluntarily,” returned Cleek; “that the bird brought him a message of such importance it was necessary to leave this house at once, and that, not wishing to leave it unlocked while he was absent, and not because of the Captain’s inability to get back upstairs afterward having anybody to whom he could appeal to get up and lock it after him, he chose to get out of this window, and to go down by means of that wistaria. I think, too, we may decide that, as he left no note to explain his absence, he expected to return before morning, and that, as he never did return, he has met with foul play. Of course, it is no use looking for footprints in the garden in support of this hypothesis, for the storm that night was a very severe one and quite sufficient to blot out all trace of them; but Look here, Mr. Narkom, put two and two together. If a message was sent him by a carrier pigeon, where must that pigeon have come from, since it was one of Miss Morrison’s?”

“Why, from Van Nant’s place, of course. It couldn’t possibly come from any other place.”

“Exactly. And as Van Nant and Carboys lived together kept Bachelor Hall and there was never anybody but their two selves in the house at any time, why, nobody but Van Nant himself could have despatched the bird. Look at that fragment of burnt paper lying in the basin of that candlestick on the washstand. If that isn’t all that’s left of the paper that was tied under the pigeon’s wing, and if Carboys didn’t use it for the purpose of lighting the spirit-lamp by which he heated his shaving-water, depend upon it that, in his haste and excitement, he tucked it into his pocket, and if ever we find his body we shall find that paper on it.”

“His body? My dear Cleek, you don’t believe that the man has been murdered?”

“I don’t know yet. I shall, however, if this Van Nant puts anything in the way of my searching that house thoroughly or makes any pretence to follow me whilst I am doing so. I want to meet this Maurice Van Nant just as soon as I can, Mr. Narkom, just as soon as I can.”

And it was barely two minutes after he had expressed this wish that Miss Morrison reappeared upon the scene, accompanied by a pale, nervous, bovine-eyed man of about thirty-five years of age, and said in a tone of agitation: “Pardon me for interrupting, Mr. Headland, but this is Mr. Maurice Van Nant. He is most anxious to meet you, and father would have me bring him up at once.”

Narkom screwed round on his heel, looked at the Belgian, and lost faith in Miss Morrison’s powers of discrimination instantly. On the dressing-table stood Carboys’ picture heavy-jowled, sleepy-eyed, dull-looking and on the threshold stood a man with the kindest eyes, the sweetest smile, and the handsomest and most sympathetic countenance he had seen in many a day. If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, if the face is the index of the character, then here was a man weak as water, as easily led as any lamb, and as guileless.

“You are just the man I want to see, Mr. Van Nant,” said Cleek, after the first formalities were over, and assuming, as he always did at such times, the heavy, befogged expression of incompetence. “I confess this bewildering affair altogether perplexes me; but you, I understand, were Mr. Carboys’ close friend and associate, and as I can find nothing in the nature of a clue here, I should like, with your permission, to look over his home quarters and see if I can find anything there.”

If he had looked for any sign of reluctance or of embarrassment upon Van Nant’s part when such a request should be made, he was wholly disappointed, for the man, almost on the point of tears, seized his hand, pressed it warmly, and said in a voice of eager entreaty: “Oh, do, Mr. Headland, do. Search anywhere, do anything that will serve to find my friend and to clear up this dreadful affair. I can’t sleep for thinking of it; I can’t get a moment’s peace night or day. You didn’t know him or you would understand how I am tortured how I miss him. The best friend, the dearest and the lightest-hearted fellow that ever lived. If I had anything left in this world, I’d give it all all, Mr. Headland, to clear up the mystery of this thing and to get him back. One man could do that, I believe, could and would if I had the money to offer him.”

“Indeed? And who may he be, Mr. Van Nant?”

“The great, the amazing, the undeceivable man, Cleek. He’d get at the truth of it. Nothing could baffle and bewilder him. But oh, well, it’s the old, old tale of the power of money. He wouldn’t take the case a high-and-mighty ‘top-notcher’ like that unless the reward was a tempting one, I’m sure.”

“No, I’m afraid he wouldn’t,” agreed Cleek, with the utmost composure. “So you must leave him out of your calculations altogether, Mr. Van Nant. And now, if you don’t mind accompanying us and showing the chauffeur the way, perhaps Mr. Narkom will take us over to your house in his motor.”

“Mind? No, certainly I don’t mind. Anything in the world to get at a clue to this thing, Mr. Headland, anything. Do let us go at once.”

Cleek led the way from the room. Halfway down the stairs, however, he excused himself on the plea of having forgotten his magnifying glass, and ran back to get it. Two minutes later he rejoined them in the little drawing-room, where the growling Captain was still demanding the whole time and attention of his daughter, and, the motor being ready, the three men walked out, got into it, and were whisked away to the house which once had been the home of the vanished George Carboys.

It proved to be a small, isolated brick house in very bad condition, standing in an out-of-the-way road somewhere between Putney and Wimbledon. It stood somewhat back from the road, in the midst of a little patch of ground abounding in privet and laurel bushes, and it was evident that its cheapness had been its chief attraction to the two men who had rented it, although, on entering, it was found to possess at the back a sort of extension, with top and side lights, which must have appealed to Van Nant’s need of something in the nature of a studio. At all events, he had converted it into a very respectable apology for one; and Cleek was not a little surprised by what it contained.

Rich stuffs, bits of tapestry, Persian draperies, Arabian prayer-mats relics of his other and better days and of his Oriental wanderings hung on the walls and ornamented the floor; his rejected pictures and his unsold statues, many of them life-sized and all of clay, coated with a lustreless paint to make them look like marble, were disposed about the place with an eye to artistic effect, and near to an angle, where stood (on a pedestal, half concealed, half revealed by artistically arranged draperies) the life-size figure of a Roman senator, in toga and sandals, there was the one untidy spot, the one utterly inartistic thing the room contained.

It was the crude, half-finished shape of a recumbent female figure, of large proportions and abominable modelling, stretched out at full length upon a long, low, trestle-supported “sculptor’s staging,” on which also lay Van Nant’s modelling tools and his clay-stained working blouse. Cleek looked at the huge unnatural thing out of drawing, anatomically wrong in many particulars and felt like quoting Angelo’s famous remark anent his master Lorenzo’s faun: “What a pity to have spoilt so much expensive material,” and Van Nant, observing, waved his hand toward it.

“A slumbering nymph,” he explained. “Only the head and shoulders finished as yet, you see. I began it the day before, yesterday, but my hand seems somehow to have lost its cunning. Here are the keys of all the rooms, Mr. Headland. Carboys’ was the one directly at the head of the stairs, in the front. Won’t you and Mr. Narkom go up and search without me? I couldn’t bear to look into the place and see the things that belonged to him and he not there. It would cut me to the heart if I did. Or, maybe, you would sooner go alone, and leave Mr. Narkom to search round this room. We used to make a general sitting-room of it at nights when we were alone together, and some clue may have been dropped.”

“A good suggestion, Mr. Narkom,” commented Cleek, as he took the keys. “Look round and see what you can find whilst I poke about upstairs.” Then he walked out of the studio and searching every nook and corner, whilst Van Nant, for the want of something to occupy his mind and his hands, worked on the nymph, and could hear him moving about overhead in quest of possible clues.

For perhaps twenty minutes Cleek was away; then he came down and walked into the room looking the very picture of hopeless bewilderment.

“Mr. Narkom,” he said, “this case stumps me. I believe there’s magic in it, if you ask me; and as the only way to find magic is with magic, I am going to consult a clairvoyante, and if one of those parties can’t give me a clue, I don’t believe the mystery will ever be solved. I know of a ripping one, but she is over in Ireland, and as it’s a dickens of a way to go, I shan’t be able to get back before the day after to-morrow at the earliest. But look here, sir, I’ll tell you what! This is Tuesday evening, isn’t it? Now if you and Mr. Van Nant will be at Captain Morrison’s house on Thursday evening at seven o’clock, and will wait there until I come, I’ll tell you what that clairvoyante says, and whether there’s any chance of this thing being solved or not. Is that agreeable, Mr. Van Nant?”

“Quite, Mr. Headland. I’ll be there promptly.”

“And stop until you hear from me?”

“And stop until I hear from you yes.”

“Right you are, sir. Now then, Mr. Narkom, if you’ll let the chauffeur whisk me over to the station, I’ll get back to London and on to the earliest possible train for Holyhead so as to be on hand for the first Irish packet to-morrow. And while you’re looking for your hat, sir good evening, Mr. Van Nant I’ll step outside and tell Lennard to start up.”

With that, he passed out of the studio, walked down the hall, and went out of the house. And half a minute later, when the superintendent joined him, he found him sitting in the limousine and staring at his toes.

“My dear Cleek, did you find anything?” he queried, as he took a seat beside him, and the motor swung out into the road and whizzed away. “Of course, I know you’ve no more idea of going to Ireland than you have of taking a pot-shot at the moon: but there’s something on your mind. I know the signs, Cleek. What is it?”

The response to this was rather startling.

“Mr. Narkom,” said Cleek, answering one question with another, “what’s the best thing to make powdered bismuth stick lard, cold cream, or cocoa butter?”