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

She was there already; sitting far back at the end of one of the narrow wooden side benches with the shadow of the gate’s moss-grown roof and of the big cypress above it partly screening her, her shrinking position evincing a desire to escape general observation as clearly as her pale face and nervously drumming hand betrayed a state of extreme agitation.

She rose as Cleek lifted the latch and came in, and advanced to meet him with both hands outstretched in greeting and a rich colour staining all her face.

“I knew that you would come I was as certain of it as I am now this minute,” she said with a little embarrassed laugh, then dropped her eyes and said no more, for he had taken those two hands in his and was holding them tightly and looking at her with an expression that was half a reproach and half a caress.

“I am glad you did not doubt,” he said, with an odd, wistful little smile. “It is good to know one’s friends have faith in one, Miss Lorne. I had almost come to believe that you had forgotten me.”

“Because I did not write? Oh, but I could not indeed I could not. I have been spending days and nights in a house of mourning Lady Chepstow gave me leave of absence; and my heart was so full I did not write even to her. I have been trying to soothe and to comfort a distracted girl, a half-crazed old man, a bereft and horribly smitten family. I have been doing all in my power to put hope and courage into the heart of a despairing and most unhappy lover.”

“Meaning Captain Morford?”

“Yes. He has been almost beside himself. And since this last blow fell.... Oh, I had been so sure that it would not, that between us all we would manage to avert it; yet in spite of everything it did fall it did! and if I live to be a hundred I shall never forget it.”

“Calm yourself, Miss Lorne. You are shaking like a leaf. Try to tell me plainly what it is that has happened; what the danger is that threatens this er Captain Morford.”

“Oh, nothing threatens him, personally,” she replied. “He says he could stand it better if it were only that; and I believe him I truly do. The thing that nearly drives him out of his mind is the thought that one day she the girl he loves the girl he is to marry the girl for whose dear sake he stands ready to give up so much the thought that one day her turn will come, that one day she, too, will be stricken down as mother and brothers have been is almost driving him frantic.”

“Mother and brothers? brothers?” Cleek looked up sharply, and there was a curious break in his voice, a yet more curious brightening of his eyes. “Miss Lorne, am I to understand that this Captain Morford is engaged to a girl who has brothers?”

“Yes. That is no. She has ‘brothers’ no longer. There is only one left living now, Mr. Cleek, only one. Ah, think of it! of that whole family of six persons, but three are left: Miriam, Flora, and Ronald.”

“Miriam, Flora, and ... Miss Lorne, will you tell me please the name of the lady to whom Captain Morford is engaged?”

“Why Miriam Comstock, of course did I forget to mention it?”

“I think so,” said Cleek; and shook out a little jerky laugh, and stood looking at her foolishly; not quite knowing what to do with his feet and hands. But suddenly “Oh come, let’s have the case let’s have it at once,” he broke out impetuously. “Tell me what it is, what I’m to do for this Captain Morford, and I’ll do it if mortal man can.”

“And no mortal man can if you cannot I’ve faith enough in you for that,” she began, then stopped short and sucked in her breath, and crept back to the extreme end of the lich-gate and stood shaking and very pale. Someone had come suddenly round the angle of the church and was moving up the road that ran past the gate.

“Please no let me get away as quickly as possible,” she said in a swift whisper as Cleek, startled by the change in her, made an eager step forward. “It is known that I have been with them the Comstocks and it is all so mysterious and awful. ... Oh, who can tell whose hand it may be? who may be spying? or what? It is best that I should give no hint that assistance has been asked for; best that nobody should see me talking with you Mr. Narkom says that it is.”

“Mr. Narkom?”

“Yes. He was in the neighbourhood accidentally. He called last night. I told him and he was glad that I had sent for you. He is over there, on the other side of the churchyard. Oh, please will you go to him? Captain Morford is within easy call and has agreed to come when he is wanted. Do go, do go quickly, Mr. Cleek. There’s someone coming up the road and I am horribly frightened.”

“But why? It is merely a farm labourer,” said Cleek, glancing through the open side of the lich-gate and down the road. “You can see that for yourself.”

“Yes, but who knows? who can tell? There is no clue to the actual person and he is so cunning, so crafty Oh, please, will you go? Afterward, if you like, we can meet here again. To-day I am too frightened to stay.”

He saw that she was in a state of extreme nervous terror; that it would be cruel to subject her to any further suffering, and without one more word, walked past her into the Churchyard and made his way over the green ridge that rose immediately behind the building and down the slope beyond until he came to the extreme other side. And there in the shade of a thickly grown spinney, he found Mr. Marverick Narkom sitting with his back against a beech-tree smoking a nerve-soothing cigar and expectantly awaiting him.

“My dear fellow, I never was so glad,” he said, tossing away his smoke and jumping up as Cleek appeared. “Happy coincidence my motoring down here eh, what? Wife in these parts visiting. Rum, my turning up just after Miss Lorne had written you and at a time when we both are needed, wasn’t it?”

“Very,” said Cleek, pulling out a cigarette and stretching himself full length upon the ground. “Would as soon have expected to run foul of a specimen of the Great Auk endeavouring to rear a family in the neighbourhood of Trafalgar Square. Well, what’s it now, Mr. Narkom? I’m told you know the details. A match please, if you have one. Thanks very much. Now then let’s have the facts. What sort of a case is it?”

“The knottiest in all my experience, the strangest that even you have ever handled,” replied the Superintendent, impressively. “It’s a murder three murders, in fact, with a possible fourth and a fifth in the near future if the diabolical rascal who is at the bottom of it isn’t pulled up sharp and his amazing modus operandi discovered.

“The case will interest you, my dear chap; it is so startlingly original in its methods of procedure, so complex, so weird, and so appallingly mysterious. Conceive if you can, my dear fellow, an individual so supernaturally cunning that he not only kills without a trace, but kills in the presence of watchers kills whilst the victim is in the very arms of those watchers! And yet escapes, unseen, unknown, without a clue to tell when, where, or how he entered the room or left it; when, where, or how he struck the blow, or why; yet did strike it, despite the sleepless vigil of a man who not only sat up all night with the victim, but held him in his arms to be sure that nobody could get at him; nobody so much as approach him without his guardian’s knowledge!”

Cleek twitched round sharply and sat up, leaning upon his elbow and looking at Narkom as though he doubted his sanity.

“Let me have that again!” he said in sharp, crisp tones. “A man killed whilst another man held him held him in his arms and watched over him, and yet the other man saw nothing of the murderer? Is that what you said?”

“That’s it, precisely. Only I must tell you that, in the instance when the victim was held in the arms of the person watching him, it was not a man that was killed, but a boy. There had been a man killed, however, four weeks previously in the same house, in the same mysterious manner, and by the same unknown agency. A month earlier a woman, too, had been done to death there in the same way. The man was the brother of that boy, and the woman was the mother of both.”

Cleek moved so quickly that he might fairly have been said to flash from a sitting to a standing position, and then began to feel round in his pockets for his cigarette case with a nervous sort of haste, which Narkom knew and understood.

“Ah,” he said, in a tone of satisfaction, “I thought the case would interest you. You’ve been down in the dumps lately and needed something to buck you up a bit. I told Captain Morford that this would be sure to do it. Heard of him, haven’t you? Extremely nice chap. Home on leave from Bombay. Only recently got his captaincy. Grandson and heir to that fine old snob, Sir Gilbert Morford, who’s known everywhere as ’The Titled Teapot.’ You know, ‘Morford & Morford’s Unrivalled Tea.’ Knighted for something or other the Lord knows what or why and puts on more side over his tin-plate title than Royalty itself. The Captain is a decent sort, however. He’ll give you the full particulars of this astounding case. Wait a bit. I’ll call him” pausing a moment to put the first two fingers of each hand into his mouth and blow out a shrill, ear-splitting whistle. “That’ll fetch him! He’ll be here before you can say Jack Robinson!”

He wasn’t, of course; but you couldn’t have said it half a hundred times before he was; or, at least, before Cleek, startled by a rustling of the boughs, glanced round and saw a tall, fairish young man who had no more the appearance of a soldier than a currant has of a gooseberry. He looked more like a bank clerk than anything else that Cleek could think of at the minute, and a none too prepossessing bank clerk at that, for Nature had not been any too lavish of her gifts as regards personal attractiveness, seeming to prefer to make up for her miserliness in the bestowal of good looks by an absolute prodigality in the gifts of ears ears as big as an oyster-shell and so prominent that they seemed even larger than they were, and that is saying a great deal.

Still, unprepossessing as the man was, there was a certain charm of manner about him and a certain attractiveness in his voice Cleek discovered when he was introduced to him and found himself being “sized up,” so to speak, by a pair of keen grey eyes.

“Now let us have the details of the case, if you please, Captain,” said Cleek, coming to the point of the interview with as little beating about the bush as possible. “Mr. Narkom has given me a vague idea of the nature of it, but I want something more than that, of course. I am told that three persons in one family have been done to death in a most mysterious manner, and without any clue to the assassin or his motive; indeed that the hand which strikes strikes even in the presence of others, yet remains unknown and invisible. Frankly, I never heard of but one instance which at all resembles this or No, Mr. Narkom, it is nothing that ever came your way, no affair that has happened since you and I first met, sir. It was a long time ago eight or ten years, to be exact and a good many miles from England. The cases were somewhat similar, judging from the scanty outline you have given me, and What’s that? No, the criminal was never apprehended. He got away, and his methods were never generally known. Even if they had been, they were not those which any desperado might have emulated, any tyro practised. They required a certain knowledge of anatomy, chemical action even surgery. I don’t believe that ten people in the world knew about the thing at that time. I stumbled upon what I believed was the solution of the mystery whilst I was taking a course of chemistry for well, for the purpose of demonstrating the possibility of manufacturing precious stones of a size and weight to make them a profitable er speculation. The science in medicine was not so advanced in those days as it is now, and when I ventured to suggest to certain doctors what I believed to have been the cause of the mysterious deaths and the modus operandi of the murderer, I simply got laughed at for my pains. I felt pretty certain of my facts, however, and pretty certain of the man who was guilty. Pardon? No, not alive now; that fellow had his brains blown out in a bar-room brawl before I left New Zealand.”

“New Zealand?” struck in Captain Morford agitatedly. “I say, that’s a rum go, isn’t it, Mr. Narkom. New Zealand is where the Comstocks come from or, rather, the father and mother did.”

“By Jove! Cleek, that looks suspicious, old chap,” chimed in Narkom. “Don’t think, do you, that there can possibly be any connection between the two cases? In other words, that that fellow you suspected in New Zealand didn’t really die after all?”

“Shortly, the chemist? Not a doubt about his death, Mr. Narkom. I was in the bar-room when he was killed. Three bullets went through his head, and he was as dead as Napoleon Bonaparte by the time he struck the floor. The methods may be the same, but not the man there is not the ghost of possibility of there being any connection between the two. But let us give the Captain a chance to explain the case. When, where, and how did these mysterious murders begin, Captain, if you please?”

“At Lilac Lodge, over Windsor way,” replied the Captain, trying to answer all three questions at once. “They started about a week after the Comstocks went to live there. And the thing was so appalling, the place seemed so certainly under a curse, that although he had paid a good round sum for it, and had spent a pot of money having the house decorated and the garden laid out just as Miriam and her mother fancied it Miriam is Miss Comstock, my fiancee, Mr. Cleek nothing would induce Mr. Harmstead to stop in it another hour after the second murder occurred.”

“Mr. Harmstead! Who is Mr. Harmstead, Captain?”

“The late Mrs. Comstock’s bachelor uncle a very rich old chap, who was once a sheep-farmer in New Zealand, and afterwards in Australia. Mrs. Comstock hadn’t seen him since she was a very little girl until he came to England some few months ago to settle down and to take care of her children and her.”

“How did it happen that she hadn’t seen him in all that time? I take it there must have been some good reason, Captain?”

“Yes, rather. You see it was like this: The Harmsteads Mrs. Comstock was a Harmstead by birth, and Uncle Phil was her father’s only brother the Harmsteads had never been well to-do as a family: indeed none of them but dear old Uncle Phil ever had a hundred pounds they could call their own, so when Miss Harmstead’s father died, which was about eight months after his brother left New Zealand and went to Australia, she married a young joiner and cabinet-maker, George Comstock, to whom she had long been engaged, and a few weeks later, fancying there would be a better chance for advancement in his trade in England than out there, Mr. Comstock sold out what few belongings he had in the world and brought his wife over here.”

“Oh, I see. Then of course she had no opportunity of seeing her uncle until he came here?”

“No, not a ghost of one. She corresponded with him for a time, however wrote him after the first child was born and christened ‘Philip’ in honour of him. In those days it used to take six months to get a letter to Australia, and another six to get word back, so the baby was more than a year old when Uncle Phil wrote that if he didn’t marry in the meantime and have a son of his own which was very unlikely he would make young Phil his heir and come out after him, too, one of these fine days.”

“One moment. Was the person you allude to as ‘Young Phil’ one of the sons that was murdered?”

“Yes. He was the first victim, poor, chap!”

“Oh, I see!” said Cleek. “I see! So there is money in the background, eh? Well go on. What next? Hear any more from Uncle Phil after that?”

“Oh, yes for a long time. Miriam and Flora were born, and word of their arrival in the world was sent out to him before the final letter for years and years reached them. In that letter he wrote that he was doing better and better every year, and getting so rich that he didn’t have time to do anything but just stop where he was and ’gather in the shekels.’ There’d be enough for all when he did come, however, and he was altering his will so that in case anything should happen to young Phil ’which God forbid,’ he wrote the girls would come next, and so on to all the heirs of his niece. After that letter years went by, and never another one. They, thinking that he had married after all for in his last letter he had spoken of a young widow who had lately been engaged to fill the post of housekeeper at his ranch gave up all hope when after three times writing no reply came, and finally desisted entirely. He says, however, that it was just the other way about. That he did write wrote six or seven times but could get no reply; and as he afterwards found the housekeeper in question a designing and deceitful person, and shipped her off about her business, he makes no doubt that she received and destroyed Mrs. Comstock’s letter to him and burnt his to her, hoping, no doubt, to inveigle him into marrying her.”

“Quite likely, if she were a designing woman,” commented Cleek. “But go on, please. What next?”

“Oh, years of hardship, during which Mr. Comstock died and his widow had to earn their own living unaided. Young Phil got a post as bookkeeper, Flora taught music and painting, Mrs. Comstock did needlework, and Miriam became a governess in the family of a distant connection of my grandfather, Sir Gilbert Morford. That’s where and how I met her, Mr. Cleek, and Well, that’s another story!” his cheeks reddening and a flash of fire coming into his eyes. “My grandfather says he will ’chuck me out neck and crop’ if I marry her; but it does not matter I will!”

“Yes, you will if the cut of that chin stands for anything,” commented Cleek. “Well, to get on: the Comstocks were down in the deeps, and no hope of hearing any more from Australia and Uncle Phil, eh? What next?”

“Why, all of a sudden he dropped in on them, bless his bully old heart! and then good-bye to hard times and any more struggling for them. He’d been in England searching for them for seven months before he found them; but when he did find them there was a time! Inside of ten hours, the whole world was changed for them. Made the boys and the girls give up their positions and come home to live with him and their mother, poured money out by the handful, bought Lilac Lodge and fitted it up like a little palace, dressed his niece and her daughters like queens, and settled down with them to what seemed about to be a life of glorious and luxurious ease, and in the midst of all this peace and plenty, brightness and hope, the first blow fell. Mrs. Comstock, going to bed at night in perfect health, was found in the morning stone-dead! Of course, as no doctor could give a death certificate when none had been in attendance upon her, the Law stepped in, the coroner held an inquest, an autopsy was decided upon, and the result of it was a deeper and more amazing mystery than ever. She had died but from what? Every organ was found to be in a thoroughly healthy condition. The heart was sound, the lungs betrayed no sign of an anesthetic, the blood and kidneys not the faintest trace of poison everything about her was perfectly normal. She had not died through drugs, she had not died through strangulation, suffocation, electrical shock, or failure of the heart. She had not been stabbed, she had not been shot, she had not succumbed to any mortal disease yet there she was, stone-dead, slain by something which no one could trace and for which Science could find no name.”

Narkom opened his lips to speak, but Cleek signalled him to silence, and stood studying the Captain from under down-drawn brows, looking and listening and thoughtfully rubbing his thumb and forefinger up and down his chin.