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

If punctuality is a virtue, then Mr. Maurice Van Nant deserved to go on record as one of the most virtuous men in existence. For the little Dutch clock in Captain Morrison’s drawing-room had barely begun to strike seven on the following Thursday evening when he put in an appearance there, and found the Captain and his daughter anxiously awaiting him. But, as virtue is, on most excellent authority, its own reward, he had to be satisfied with the possession of it, since neither Narkom nor Cleek was there to meet him.

But the reason for this defection was made manifest when Miss Morrison placed before him a telegram which had arrived some ten minutes earlier and read as follows: “Unavoidably delayed. Be with you at nine-thirty. Ask Mr. Van Nant to wait. Great and welcome piece of news for him. NARKOM.”

Van Nant smiled.

“Great and welcome news,” he repeated. “Then Mr. Headland must have found something in the nature of a clue in Ireland, captain, though what he could find there I can’t imagine. Frankly, I thought him a stupid sort of fellow, but if he has managed to find a clue to poor George’s whereabouts over in Ireland, he must be sharper than I believed. Well, we shall know about that at half-past nine, when Mr. Narkom comes. I hope nothing will happen to make him disappoint us again.”

Nothing did. Promptly at the hour appointed, the red limousine whizzed up to the door, and Mr. Narkom made his appearance. But, contrary to the expectations of the three occupants of the little drawing-room, he was quite alone.

“So sorry I couldn’t come earlier,” he said, as he came in, looking and acting like the bearer of great good news; “but you will appreciate the delay when I tell you what caused it. What’s that, Mr. Van Nant? Headland? No, he’s not with me. As a matter of fact, I’ve dispensed with his services in this particular case. Fancy, Miss Morrison, the muff came back from Ireland this evening, said the clairvoyante he consulted went into a trance, and told him that the key to the mystery could only be discovered in Germany, and he wanted me to sanction his going over there on no better evidence than that. Of course, I wouldn’t; so I took him off the case forthwith, and set out to get another and a better man to handle it. That’s what delayed me. And now, Mr. Van Nant” fairly beaming, and rubbing his palms together delightedly “here’s where the great and welcome news I spoke of comes in. I remembered what you said the other day I remembered how your heart is wrapped up in the solving of this great puzzle what you said about it being a question of money alone; and so, what do you think I did? I went to that great man, Cleek. I laid the matter before him, told him there was no reward, that it was just a matter of sheer humanity the consciousness of doing his duty and helping another fellow in distress and, throw up your hat and cheer, my dear fellow, for you’ve got your heart’s desire: Cleek’s consented to take the case!”

A little flurry of excitement greeted this announcement. Miss Morrison grabbed his hand and burst into tears of gratitude; the Captain, forgetting in his delight the state of his injured foot, rose from his chair, only to remember suddenly and sit down again, his half-uttered cheer dying on his lips; and Van Nant, as if overcome by this unexpected boon, this granting of a wish he had never dared to hope would be fulfilled, could only clap both hands over his face and sob hysterically.

“Cleek!” he said, in a voice that shook with nervous catches and the emotion of a soul deeply stirred, “Cleek to take the case? The great, the amazing, the undeceivable Cleek! Oh, Mr. Narkom, can this be true?”

“As true as that you are standing here this minute, my dear sir. Not so much of a money grabber as that muff Headland? wanted you to believe, is he eh? Waived every hope of a reward, and took the case on the spot. He’ll get at the root of it Lord, yes! Lay you a sovereign to a sixpence, Mr. Van Nant, he gets to the bottom of it and finds out what became of George Carboys in forty-eight hours after he begins on the case.”

“And when will he begin, Mr. Narkom? To-morrow? The next day? Or not this week at all? When, sir when?”

“When? Why, bless your heart, man, he’s begun already or, at least, will do so in another hour and a half. He’s promised to meet us at your house at eleven o’clock to-night. Chose that place because he lives at Putney, and it’s nearer. Eleven was the hour he set, though, of course, he may arrive sooner; there’s no counting on an erratic fellow like that chap. So we’ll make it eleven, and possess our souls in patience until it’s time to start.”

“But, my dear Mr. Narkom, wouldn’t it be better, or, at least, more hospitable if I went over to meet him, in case he does come earlier? There’s no one in the house, remember, and it’s locked up.”

“Lord bless you, that won’t bother him! Never travels without his tools, you know skeleton keys, and all that and he’ll be in the house before you can wink an eye. Still, of course, if you’d rather be there to admit him in the regulation way ”

“It would at least be more courteous, Mr. Narkom,” Miss Morrison interposed. “So great a man doing so great a favour Oh, yes, I really think that Mr. Van Nant should.”

“Oh, well, let him then, by all means,” said Narkom. “Go, if you choose, Mr. Van Nant. I’d let you have my motor, only I must get over to the station and ’phone up headquarters on another affair in five minutes.”

“It doesn’t matter, thank you all the same. I can get a taxi at the top of the road,” said Van Nant; and then, making his excuses to Miss Morrison and her father, he took up his hat and left the house. As a matter of fact, it was only courtesy that made him say that about the taxi, for there is rarely one to be found waiting about in the neighbourhood of Wandsworth Common after half-past nine o’clock at night, and nobody could have been more surprised than he when he actually did come across one, loitering about aimlessly and quite empty, before he had gone two dozen yards.

He engaged it on the spot, jumped into it, gave the chauffeur his directions, and a minute later was whizzing away to the isolated house. It was eight minutes past ten when he reached it, standing as black and lightless as when he left it four hours ago, and, after paying off the chauffeur and dismissing the vehicle, he fumbled nervously for his latchkey, found it, unlocked the door, and went hurriedly in.

“Have you come yet, Mr. Cleek?” he called out, as he shut the door and stood in the pitch-black hall. “Mr. Cleek! Mr. Cleek, are you here? It is I Maurice Van Nant. Mr. Narkom has sent me on ahead.”

Not a sound answered him, not even an echo. He sucked in his breath with a sort of wheezing sound, then groped round the hall table till he found his bedroom candle, and, striking a match, lit it. The staircase leading to the upper floors gaped at him out of the partial gloom, and he fairly sprang at it indeed, was halfway up it when some other idea possessed him, brought him to a sudden standstill, and, facing round abruptly, he went back to the lower hall again, glimmering along it like a shadow, with the inadequate light held above him, and moving fleetly to the studio in the rear.

The door stood partly open, just as he had left it. He pushed it inward and stepped over the threshold.

“Mr. Cleek!” he called again. “Mr. Cleek! Are you here?”

And again the silence alone answered him. The studio was as he had seen it last, save for those fantastic shadows which the candle’s wavering flame wreathed in the dim corners and along the pictured walls. There, on its half-draped pedestal, the Roman senator stood dead white against the purple background and there, close to the foot of it, the great bulk of the disproportionate nymph still sprawled, finished and whitewashed now, and looking even more of a monstrosity than ever in that waving light.

He gave one deep gulping sigh of relief, flashed across the room on tiptoe, and went down on his knees beside the monstrous thing, moving the candle this way and that along the length of it, as if searching for something, and laughing in little jerky gasps of relief when he found nothing that was not as it had been as it should be as he wanted it to be. And then, as he rose and patted the clay, and laughed aloud as he realised how hard it had set, then, at that instant, a white shape lurched forward and swooped downward, carrying him down with it. The candle slipped from his fingers and clattered on the floor, a pair of steel handcuffs clicked as they closed round his wrists, a voice above him said sharply: “You wanted Cleek I believe? Well, Cleek’s got you, you sneaking murderer. Gentlemen, come in! Allow me to turn over to you the murderer of George Carboys! You’ll find the body inside that slumbering nymph!”

And the last thing that Mr. Maurice Van Nant saw, as he shrieked and fainted, the last thing he realised, was that lights were flashing up and men tumbling in through the opening windows; that the Roman senator’s pedestal was empty, and the figure which once had stood upon it was bending over him alive!

And just at that moment the red limousine flashed up out of the darkness, the outer door whirled open and Narkom came pelting up.

“He took the bait, then, Cleek?” he cried, as he saw the manacled figure on the floor, with the “Roman senator” bending over and the policemen crowding in about it. “I guessed it when I saw the lights flash up. I’ve been on his heels ever since he snapped at that conveniently placed taxi after he left Miss Morrison and her father.”

“You haven’t brought them with you, I hope, Mr. Narkom? I wouldn’t have that poor girl face the ordeal of what’s to be revealed here to-night for worlds.”

“No, I’ve not. I made a pretext of having to ’phone through to headquarters, and slipped out a moment after him. But, I say, my dear chap” as Cleek’s hands made a rapid search of the pockets of the unconscious man, and finally brought to light a folded paper “what’s that thing? What are you doing?”

“Compounding a felony in the interest of humanity,” he made reply as he put the end of the paper into the flame of the candle and held it there until it was consumed. “We all do foolish things sometimes when we are young, Mr. Narkom, and well, George Carboys was no exception when he wrote the little thing I have just burned. Let us forget all about it Captain Morrison is heir-at-law, and that poor girl will benefit.”

“There was an estate, then?”

“Yes. My cable yesterday to the head of the Persian police set all doubt upon that point at rest. Abdul ben Meerza, parting with nothing while he lived, after the manner of misers in general, left a will bequeathing something like L12,000 to George Carboys, and his executor communicated that fact to the supposed friend of both parties Mr. Maurice Van Nant; and exactly ten days ago, so his former solicitor informed me, Mr. Maurice Van Nant visited him unexpectedly, and withdrew from his keeping a sealed packet which had been in the firm’s custody for eight years. If you want to know why he withdrew it Dollops!”

“Right you are, Gov’nor.”

“Give me the sledge-hammer. Thanks! Now, Mr. Narkom, look!” And, swinging the hammer, he struck at the nymph with a force that shattered the monstrous thing to atoms; and Narkom, coming forward to look when Cleek bent over the ruin he had wrought, saw in the midst of the dust and rubbish the body of a dead man, fully clothed, and with the gap of a bullet-hole in the left temple.

Again Cleek’s hands began a rapid search, and again, as before, they brought to light a paper, a little crumpled ball of paper that had been thrust into the right-hand pocket of the dead man’s waistcoat, as though jammed there under the stress of strong excitement and the pressure of great haste. He smoothed it out and read it carefully, then passed it over to Mr. Narkom.

“There!” he said, “that’s how he lured him over to his death. That’s the message the pigeon brought. Would any man have failed to fly to face the author of a foul lie like that?”

“Beloved Mary,” the message ran, “come to me again to-night. How sweet of you to think of such a thing as the belt to get him over and to make him stop until morning! Steal out after he goes to bed, darling. I’ll leave the studio window unlocked, as usual. With a thousand kisses.

“Your own devoted,

“MAURICE.”

“The dog!” said Narkom fiercely. “And against a pure creature like Mary Morrison! Here, Smathers, Petrie, Hammond, take him away. Hanging’s too good for a beastly cur like that!”

“How did I know that the body was inside the statue?” said Cleek, answering Narkom’s query, as they drove back in the red limousine toward London and Clarges Street. “Well, as a matter of fact, I never did know for certain until he began to examine the thing to-night. From the first I felt sure he was at the bottom of the affair, that he had lured Carboys back to the house, and murdered him; but it puzzled me to think what could possibly have been done with the body. I felt pretty certain, however, when I saw that monstrous statue.”

“Yes, but why?”

“My dear Mr. Narkom, you ought not to ask that question. Did it not strike you as odd that a man who was torn with grief over the disappearance of a loved friend should think of modelling any sort of a statue on that very first day, much less such an inartistic one as that? Consider: the man has never been a first-class sculptor, it is true, but he knew the rudiments of his art, he had turned out some fairly presentable work; and that nymph was as abominably conceived and as abominably executed as if it had been the work of a raw beginner. Then there was another suspicious circumstance. Modelling clay is not exactly as cheap as dirt, Mr. Narkom. Why, then, should this man, who was confessedly as poor as the proverbial church mouse, plunge into the wild extravagance of buying half a ton of it and at such a time? Those are the things that brought the suspicion into my mind; the certainty, however, had to be brought about beyond dispute before I could act.

“I knew that George Carboys had returned to that studio by the dry marks of muddy footprints, that were nothing like the shape of Van Nant’s, which I found on the boards of the verandah and on the carpet under one of the windows; I knew, too, that it was Van Nant who had sent that pigeon. You remember when I excused myself and went back on the pretext of having forgotten my magnifying glass the other day? I did so for the purpose of looking at that fifth pigeon. I had observed something on its breast feathers which I thought, at first glance, was dry mud, as though it had fallen or brushed against something muddy in its flight. As we descended the stairs I observed that there was a similar mark on Van Nant’s sleeve. I brushed against him and scraped off a fleck with my finger-nails. It was the dust of dried modelling clay. That on the pigeon’s breast proved to be the same substance. I knew then that the hands of the person who liberated that pigeon were the hands of someone who was engaged in modelling something or handling the clay of the modeller, and the inference was clear.

“As for the rest; when Van Nant entered that studio to-night, frightened half out of his wits at the knowledge that he would have to deal with the one detective he feared, I knew that if he approached that statue and made any attempts to examine it I should have my man, and that the hiding-place of his victim’s body would be proved beyond question. When he did go to it, and did examine it Clarges Street at last, thank fortune; for I am tired and sleepy. Stop here, Lennard; I’m getting out. Come along, Dollops. Good-night, Mr. Narkom! ‘And so, to bed,’ as good old Pepys says.”

And passed on, up the street, with his hand on the boy’s shoulder and the stillness and the darkness enfolding them.