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

Who feeds on Hope alone makes but a sorry banquet; and for the next few weeks Hope was all or nearly all that came Cleek’s way.

For some unexplained reason, Miss Lorne’s letters never very frequent, and always very brief had, of late been gradually growing briefer: as if written in haste and from a mere sense of duty and at odd moments snatched from the call of more absorbing things; and, finally, there came a dropping off altogether and a week that brought no message from her at all.

The old restlessness, the almost outlived sense of personal injury and rebellion against circumstances, took hold of Cleek again when that time came; and the soul of him drank deep of the waters of bitterness.

So, then, it was all to be in vain, was it, this long struggle with the Devil of Circumstances, this long striving for a Goal? And after all, “Thou shalt not enter” was to be written over the gateway of his ambition? He had been lifted only to be dropped again, redeemed only to let him see how vain it was for the leopard, even though he achieved the impossible and changed his spots, to be other than a leopard always; how impossible it was for a man to override the decrees of Nature or evade the edicts of Providence? That was what it meant, eh?

To a nature such as his, Life was always a picture drawn out of perspective. There was never any Middle Distance; never any proper gradation. It was always either the Highest Heights or the Lowest Depths; the glare of fierce light or the black of deepest darkness. He could not plod; he must either fly or fall; either loll at the Gates of Paradise or groan in the depths of Hell. And the failure of Ailsa Lorne’s letters sent him to the darkest and most hopeless corner of it.

Not that he blamed her wholly; but that he blamed that Fate which had so persistently dogged him from childhood on. For now that the letters had ceased altogether, he recalled things which otherwise would have been forgotten; and, his sense of proportion being distorted, made mountains out of sand dunes.

In one of those letters, he recollected, she had spoken of meeting unexpectedly an old friend whom she had not seen since the days of his boyhood; in another, she had casually remarked, “I met Captain Morford again to-day and we spent a very pleasant half hour together,” and in a third had written, “The Captain promised to call and take tea to-day but didn’t. I rather fancy he divines the fact that Lady Chepstow does not care for him. Indeed, she dislikes him immensely. Why, I wonder? Personally, I think him exceedingly pleasant, and there are things in his character for which I have the deepest respect and admiration.”

And out of these trifling circumstances lo! the darkest corner that darkest Hell contained.

So that was how it was to end, was it? That was the card which Fate had all along kept up her sleeve while she stood off laughing at his endeavours, his hopes, his struggles against the inevitable? In the end, another man was to appear, another man was to win her, and the dream was to turn out nothing more than a dream after all.

Once again the voices of the Wild called out to the Caged Wolf; once again, the old things beckoned and the new things lost their savour and the Devil said, as before, “What is the use? What is the use?” and the Savage cried out to be stripped and flung back into the wilderness as God made him, and called and called and called for an end to the things that stank in his nostrils and for the fierce companionship of his kind. And but that Time had staled these things a little and blunted the keen edge of them so that they could not endure for long, and there was Dollops and the lessons and Dollops’ future to recollect, the Wolf and the Savage and the Devil might not have hungered in vain.

Followed a period of intense depression when all things seemed to lose their savour and when Narkom, amazed, said to himself that the man had come to the end of his usefulness and had lost every attribute of the successful criminologist. For the next three cases he brought him Cleek botched in a manner that would have disgraced the merest tyro. Two, he failed utterly to solve, although the solutions were eventually worked out by the ordinary forces of the Yard; and in the third he let his man get away under his very nose and convey Government secrets to a foreign Power. It was but natural that these three dismal failures should find their way to the newspapers and that, in the hysterical condition of modern journalism, they should be flung out to the world at large with all the ostentation of leaded type and panicky scare heads, and that learned editors should discourse knowingly of “the limitations of mentality” and “the well-authenticated cases of the sudden warping of abnormal intelligences resulting in the startling termination of amazing careers,” or snivel dismally over “the complete collapse of that imaginative power which, hitherto, had been this detective’s greatest asset, and which now, on the principle that however deep a well may be if a force-pump be put into it it must some time suck gravel, seemed to have come to its end.”

These things, when Cleek heard of them, affected him not at all. He seemed not to care whether his career was ended or not, whether the world praised or censured. Neither his pride nor his vanity was stirred even to the very smallest degree.

But Narkom, loyal still, took these gloomy prophecies and editorial vapourings much to heart and strove valiantly to confound the man’s detractors and to put the spur to the man himself. He would not believe that the end had come, that his mental powers had run suddenly against a dead wall beyond which there was no possibility of proceeding. Something was weighing upon his mind and damping his spirits that was all; and it must be the business of those who were his friends to take steps to discover what that something was and, if possible, to eliminate it. He therefore sought out Dollops and held secret conclave with him; and Dollops dolefully epitomized the difficulty thus: “A skirt that’s what’s at the bottom of it, sir. No letter at all these ten days past. She’s chucked him, I’m afraid.” And with this brief preface told all that he was able to tell; which, after all, was not much.

He could only explain about the letter that used to come off and on in the other days and which brought such a flow of high spirits to the man for whom it was intended; he could only say that it was addressed in a woman’s hand and bore always the one postmark; and when Narkom heard what that postmark was and recollected where Lady Chepstow’s country seat lay, and who was with her, he puckered up his lips as if he were about to whistle and made two slim arches with his uplifted eyebrows.

“Sir, if only you could sneak off and run down there without his knowing of it it wouldn’t do to write a letter, Mr. Narkom: he’d be on to that before you could turn round, sir,” the boy ventured hopefully; “but if only you could run down there and give her a tip what she’s a doing of and what she’s a chuckin’ away, what a Man she’s a throwin’ down, maybe, sir, maybe ”

“Yes, ‘maybe,’” agreed the superintendent, after a moment’s reflection. “At any rate it’s worth a trial.” And went, forthwith.

Not that it was a prudent thing to do; not that it is wise for any man at any time to interfere, even with the best intentions, with the course of another man’s love affairs; and, finally, not that it was at all necessary or had any influence whatsoever upon the events which succeeded the step. Indeed, he might have spared himself the trouble, for he had barely covered a fifth of the distance when the country post was delivered in London, and Cleek, rocketing up in one sweep from the Pit to the Gateway, stood laughing huskily with a letter from Ailsa in his hand.

He ripped off the envelope and read it greedily.

“Dear Friend,” she wrote, “I cannot imagine what you must think of my silence; but whatsoever you do think cannot be half so terrible as the actual cause of it. I have been in close touch with misery and death, with things so appalling that heart and mind have had room to hold nothing else. Indeed, I am still so horribly nervous and upset that I scarcely know how to think coherently much less write. I can only remember that you once said that if ever I needed your help I was to ask; and oh, Mr. Cleek, I need it very very much indeed now. Not for myself let me find time to add that but for a dear, dear friend the friend I have so often written about: Captain Morford who is involved in an affair of the most distressing and mysterious character and whose only hope lies, I feel, in you. Will you come to the rescue, for my sake? That is what I am asking. Let me say, however, that there is no possibility of a reward, for the captain is in no position to offer one; but I seem to feel that that will not weigh with you. Neither can I ask you to call at the house, for, as I have already told you, Lady Chepstow does not care for the Captain and under those circumstances it would be embarrassing to ask him there to meet you. So then, if no other case intervenes, and you really can grant me this great favour, will you be in the neighbourhood of the lich-gate of Lyntonhurst Old Church at nine o’clock in the morning of Thursday, you will win the everlasting gratitude of, Your sincere friend AILSA LORNE.”

Would he be there? He laughed aloud as he put the question to himself. A Bradshaw was on his table. He caught it up, found that there was a train that could be caught in thirty-five minutes’ time, and clapped on his hat and caught it.

That night he slept at the inn of the Three Desires which, as you may possibly know, lies but a gunshot beyond the boundary wall of the glebe of Lyntonhurst Old Church slept with an alarm clock at his head and every servant at the inn from the boots to the barmaid tipped a shilling to see that he did not oversleep himself.

He was up before any of them, however up and out into the pearl-dusk of the morning before ever the alarm-clock shrilled its first note, or the sun’s sheen slid lower than the spurs of the weather-cock on the spire of Lyntonhurst Old Church and twice he had walked past the big gates and looked up the still avenue to the windows of the huge house whose roof covered her before Lyntonhurst Old Church spoke up through the dawn-hush and told the parish it was half-past four o’clock.

By five, he had found a pool cupped in the beech woods with mallows and marsh marigolds and a screen of green things all round it and a tent of blue sky over the sun-touched tree tops; and had stripped and splashed into it and set all the birds to flight with the harsher song of human things; by seven he was back at the Three Desires; by eight he had shaved and changed and breakfasted and was out again in the fields and the leafy lanes, and by nine he was at the lich-gate of the church.