CLEEK: The Man of the Forty Faces
By THOMAS W. HANSHEW
AUTHOR OF "Cleek of Scotland Yard," "The Riddle of the Night," Etc.
CLEEK: THE MAN OF THE FORTY FACES
THE AFFAIR OF THE MAN WHO CALLED HIMSELF HAMILTON CLEEK
The thing wouldn't have happened if any other constable than Collins had been put on point duty at Blackfriars Bridge that morning. For Collins was young, good-looking, and—knew it. Nature had gifted him with a susceptible heart and a fond eye for the beauties of femininity. So when he looked round and saw the woman threading her way through the maze of vehicles at "Dead Man's Corner," with her skirt held up just enough to show two twinkling little feet in French shoes, and over them a graceful, willowy figure, and over that an enchanting, if rather too highly tinted face, with almond eyes and a fluff of shining hair under the screen of a big Parisian hat—that did for him on the spot.
He saw at a glance that she was French—exceedingly French—and he preferred English beauty, as a rule. But, French or English, beauty is beauty, and here undeniably was a perfect type, so he unhesitatingly sprang to her assistance and piloted her safely to the kerb, revelling in her voluble thanks, and tingling as she clung timidly but rather firmly to him.
"Sair, I have to give you much gratitude," she said in a pretty, wistful sort of way, as they stepped on to the pavement. Then she dropped her hand from his sleeve, looked up at him, and shyly drooped her head, as if overcome with confusion and surprise at the youth and good looks of him. "Ah, it is nowhere in the world but Londres one finds these delicate attentions, these splendid sergeants de ville," she added, with a sort of sigh. "You are wonnerful—you are mos' wonnerful, you Anglais poliss. Sair, I am a stranger; I know not ze ways of this city of amazement, and if monsieur would so kindly direct me where to find the Abbey of the Ves'minster—"
Before P.C. Collins could tell her that if that were her destination, she was a good deal out of her latitude; indeed, even before she concluded what she was saying, over the rumble of the traffic there rose a thin, shrill piping sound, which to ears trained to the call of it possessed a startling significance.
It was the shrilling of a police whistle, far off down the Embankment.
"Hullo! That's a call to the man on point!" exclaimed Collins, all alert at once. "Excuse me, mum. See you presently. Something's up. One of my mates is a-signalling me."
"Mates, monsieur? Mates? Signalling? I shall not understand the vords. But yes, vat shall that mean—eh?"
"Good Lord, don't bother me now! I—I mean, wait a bit. That's the call to 'head off' someone, and—By George! There he is now, coming head on, the hound, and running like the wind!"
For of a sudden, through a break in the traffic, a scudding figure had sprung into sight—the figure of a man in a grey frock-coat and a shining "topper," a well-groomed, well-set-up man, with a small, turned-up moustache and hair of that peculiar purplish-red one sees only on the shell of a roasted chestnut. As he swung into sight, the distant whistle shrilled again; far off in the distance voices sent up cries of "Head him off!" "Stop that man!" et cetera; then those on the pavement near to the fugitive took up the cry, joined in pursuit, and in a twinkling, what with cabmen, tram-men, draymen, and pedestrians shouting, there was hubbub enough for Hades.
"A swell pickpocket, I'll lay my life," commented Collins, as he squared himself for an encounter and made ready to leap on the man when he came within gripping distance. "Here! get out of the way, madmazelly. Business before pleasure. And, besides, you're like to get bowled over in the rush. Here, chauffeur!"—this to the driver of a big, black motor-car which swept round the angle of the bridge at that moment, and made as though to scud down the Embankment into the thick of the chase—"pull that thing up sharp! Stop where you are! Dead still. At once, at once, do you hear? We don't want you getting in the way. Now, then"—nodding his head in the direction of the running man—"come on you bounder; I'm ready for you!"
And, as if he really heard that invitation, and really was eager to accept it, the red-headed man did "come on" with a vengeance. And all the time, "madmazelly," unheeding Collins's advice, stood calmly and silently waiting.
Onward came the runner, with the whole roaring pack in his wake, dodging in and out among the vehicles, "flooring" people who got in his way, scudding, dodging, leaping, like a fox hard pressed by the hounds—until, all of a moment he spied a break in the traffic, leapt through it, and—then there was mischief. For Collins sprang at him like a cat, gripped two big, strong-as-iron hands on his shoulders, and had him tight and fast.
"Got you, you ass!" snapped he, with a short, crisp, self-satisfied laugh. "None of your blessed squirming now. Keep still. You'll get out of your coffin, you bounder, as soon as out of my grip. Got you—got you! Do you understand?"
The response to this fairly took the wind out of him.
"Of course I do," said the captive, gaily; "it's part of the programme that you should get me. Only, for Heaven's sake, don't spoil the film by remaining inactive, you goat! Struggle with me—handle me roughly—throw me about. Make it look real; make it look as though I actually did get away from you, not as though you let me. You chaps behind there, don't get in the way of the camera—it's in one of those cabs. Now, then, Bobby, don't be wooden! Struggle—struggle, you goat, and save the film!"
"Save the what?" gasped Collins. "Here! Good Lord! Do you mean to say—?"
"Struggle—struggle—struggle!" cut in the man impatiently. "Can't you grasp the situation? It's a put-up thing: the taking of a kinematograph film—a living picture—for the Alhambra to-night! Heavens above, Marguerite, didn't you tell him?"
"Non, non! There was not ze time. You come so quick, I could not. And he—ah, le bon Dieu!—he gif me no chance. Officair, I beg, I entreat of you, make it real! Struggle, fight, keep on ze constant move. Zere!"—something tinkled on the pavement with the unmistakable sound of gold—"zere, monsieur, zere is the half-sovereign to pay you for ze trouble, only, for ze lof of goodness, do not pick it up while the instrument—ze camera—he is going. It is ze kinematograph, and you would spoil everything!"
The chop-fallen cry that Collins gave was lost in a roar of laughter from the pursuing crowd.
"Struggle—struggle! Don't you hear, you idiot?" broke in the red-headed man irritably. "You are being devilishly well paid for it, so for goodness' sake make it look real. That's it! Bully boy! Now, once more to the right, then loosen your grip so that I can push you away and make a feint of punching you off. All ready there, Marguerite? Keep a clear space about her, gentlemen. Ready with the motor, chauffeur? All right. Now, then, Bobby, fall back, and mind your eye when I hit out, old chap. One, two, three—here goes!"
With that he pushed the chop-fallen Collins from him, made a feint of punching his head as he reeled back, then sprang toward the spot where the Frenchwoman stood, and gave a finish to the adventure that was highly dramatic and decidedly theatrical. For "mademoiselle," seeing him approach her, struck a pose, threw out her arms, gathered him into them—to the exceeding enjoyment of the laughing throng—then both looked back and behaved as people do on the stage when "pursued," gesticulated extravagantly, and, rushing to the waiting motor, jumped into it.
"Many thanks, Bobby; many thanks, everybody!" sang out the red-headed man. "Let her go, chauffeur. The camera men will pick us up again at Whitehall, in a few minutes' time."
"Right you are, sir," responded the chauffeur gaily. Then "toot-toot" went the motor-horn as the gentleman in grey closed the door upon himself and his companion, and the vehicle, darting forward, sped down the Embankment in the exact direction whence the man himself had originally come, and, passing directly through that belated portion of the hurrying crowd to whom the end of the adventure was not yet known, flew on and—vanished.
And Collins, stooping to pick up the half-sovereign that had been thrown him, felt that after all it was a poor price to receive for all the jeers and gibes of the assembled onlookers.
"Smart capture, Bobby, wasn't it?" sang out a deriding voice that set the crowd jeering anew. "You'll git promoted, you will! See it in all the evenin' papers—oh, yus! ''Orrible hand-to-hand struggle with a desperado. Brave constable has 'arf a quid's worth out of an infuriated ruffin!' My hat! won't your missis be proud when you take her to see that bloomin' film?"
"Move on, now, move on!" said Collins, recovering his dignity, and asserting it with a vim. "Look here, cabby, I don't take it kind of you to laugh like that; they had you just as bad as they had me. Blow that Frenchy! She might have tipped me off before I made such an ass of myself. I don't say that I'd have done it so natural if I had known, but—Hullo! What's that? Blowed if it ain't that blessed whistle again, and another crowd a-pelting this way; and—no!—yes, by Jupiter!—a couple of Scotland Yard chaps with 'em. My hat! what do you suppose that means?"
He knew in the next moment. Panting and puffing, a crowd at their heels, and people from all sides stringing out from the pavement and trooping after them, the two "plain-clothes" men came racing through the grinning gathering and bore down on P.C. Collins.
"Hullo, Smathers, you in this, too?" began he, his feelings softened by the knowledge that other arms of the law would figure on that film with him at the Alhambra to-night. "Now, what are you after, you goat? That French lady, or the red-headed party in the grey suit?"
"Yes, yes, of course I am. You heard me signal you to head him off, didn't you?" replied Smathers, looking round and growing suddenly excited when he realized that Collins was empty-handed, and that the red-headed man was not there. "Heavens! you never let him get away, did you? You grabbed him, didn't you—eh?"
"Of course I grabbed him. Come out of it. What are you giving me, you josser?" said Collins with a wink and a grin. "Ain't you found out even yet, you silly? Why, it was only a faked-up thing—the taking of a kinematograph picture for the Alhambra. You and Petrie ought to have been here sooner and got your wages, you goats. I got half a quid for my share when I let him go."
Smathers and Petrie lifted up their voices in one despairing howl.
"When you what?" fairly yelled Smathers. "You fool! You don't mean to tell me that you let them take you in like that—those two? You don't mean to tell me that you had him—had him in your hands—and then let him go? You did? Oh! you seventy-seven kinds of a double-barrelled ass! Had him—think of it!—had him, and let him go! Did yourself out of a share in a reward of two hundred quid when you'd only to shut your hands and hold on to it!"
"Two hundred quid? Two hun—W-what are you talking about? Wasn't it true? Wasn't it a kinematograph picture, after all?"
"No, you fool, no!" howled Smathers, fairly dancing with despair. "Oh, you blithering idiot! You ninety-seven varieties of a fool! Do you know who you had in your hands? Do you know who you let go? It was that devil 'Forty Faces'—'The Vanishing Cracksman'—the man who calls himself 'Hamilton Cleek'; and the woman was his pal, his confederate, his blessed stool-pigeon—'Margot, the Queen of the Apache'; and she came over from Paris to help him in that clean scoop of Lady Dresmer's jewels last week!"
"Heavens!" gulped Collins, too far gone to say anything else, too deeply dejected to think of anything but that he had had the man for whom Scotland Yard had been groping for a year—the man over whom all England, all France, all Germany wondered—close shut in the grip of his hands and then had let him go. The biggest and boldest criminal the police had ever had to cope with, the almost supernatural genius of crime, who defied all systems, laughed at all laws, mocked at all the Vidocqs, and Dupins, and Sherlock Holmeses, whether amateur or professional, French or English, German or American, that ever had been or ever could be pitted against him, and who, for sheer devilry, for diabolical ingenuity and for colossal impudence, as well as for a nature-bestowed power that was simply amazing, had not his match in all the universe.
Who or what he really was, whence he came, whether he was English, Irish, French, German, Yankee, Canadian, Italian or Dutchman, no man knew and no man might ever hope to know unless he himself chose to reveal it. In his many encounters with the police he had assumed the speech, the characteristics, and, indeed, the facial attributes of each in turn, and assumed them with an ease and a perfection that were simply marvellous, and had gained for him the sobriquet of "Forty Faces" among the police, and of "The Vanishing Cracksman" among the scribes and reporters of newspaperdom. That he came, in time, to possess another name than these was due to his own whim and caprice, his own bald, unblushing impudence; for, of a sudden, whilst London was in a fever of excitement and all the newspapers up in arms over one of the most daring and successful coups, he chose to write boldly to both editors and police complaining that the title given him by each was both vulgar and cheap.
"You would not think of calling Paganini a 'fiddler,'" he wrote; "why, then, should you degrade me with the coarse term of 'cracksman'? I claim to be as much an artist in my profession as Paganini was in his, and I claim also a like courtesy from you. So, then, if in the future it becomes necessary to allude to me—and I fear it often will—I shall be obliged if you do so as 'The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek.' In return for that courtesy, gentlemen, I promise to alter my mode of procedure, to turn over a new leaf, as it were, to give you at all times hereafter distinct information, in advance, of such places as I elect for the field of my operations, and of the time when I shall pay my respects to them, and, on the morning after each such visit, to bestow some small portion of the loot upon Scotland Yard as a souvenir of the event."
And to that remarkable programme he rigidly adhered from that time forth—always giving the police twelve hours' notice, always evading their traps and snares, always carrying out his plans in spite of them, and always, on the morning after, sending some trinket or trifle to Superintendent Narkom at Scotland Yard, in a little pink cardboard box, tied up with rose-coloured ribbon, and marked "With the compliments of The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek."
The detectives of the United Kingdom, the detectives of the Continent, the detectives of America—each and all had measured swords with him, tried wits with him, spread snares and laid traps for him, and each and all had retired from the field vanquished.
And this was the man that he—Police Constable Samuel James Collins—had actually had in his hands; nay, in his very arms, and then had given up for half a sovereign and let go!
"Oh, so help me! You make my head swim, Smathers, that you do!" he managed to say at last. "I had him—I had the Vanishing Cracksman—in my blessed paws—and then went and let that French hussy—But look here; I say, now, how do you know it was him? Nobody can go by his looks; so how do you know?"
"Know, you footler!" growled Smathers, disgustedly. "Why shouldn't I know when I've been after him ever since he left Scotland Yard half an hour ago?"
"Left what? My hat! You ain't a-going to tell me that he's been there? When? Why? What for?"
"To leave one of his blessed notices, the dare-devil. What a detective he'd a made, wouldn't he, if he'd only a-turned his attention that way, and been on the side of the law instead of against it? He walked in bold as brass, sat down, and talked with the superintendent over some cock-and-bull yarn about a 'Black Hand' letter that he said had been sent to him, and asked if he couldn't have police protection whilst he was in town. It wasn't until after he'd left that the super he sees a note on the chair where the blighter had been sitting, and when he opened it, there it was in black and white, something like this:
"'The list of presents that have been sent for the wedding to-morrow of Sir Horace Wyvern's eldest daughter make interesting reading, particularly that part which describes the jewels sent—no doubt as a tribute to her father's position as the greatest brain specialist in the world—from the Austrian Court and the Continental principalities. The care of such gems is too great a responsibility for the bride. I propose, therefore, to relieve her of it to-night, and to send you the customary souvenir of the event to-morrow morning. Yours faithfully,
"'The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek.
"That's how I know, dash you! Superintendent sent me out after him, hot foot; and after a bit I picked him up in the Strand, toddling along with that French hussy as cool as you please. But, blow him! he must have eyes all round his head, for he saw me just as soon as I saw him, and he and Frenchy separated like a shot. She hopped into a taxi and flew off in one direction; he dived into a crowd and bolted in another, and before you could say Jack Robinson he was doubling and twisting, jumping into cabs and jumping out again—all to gain time, of course, for the woman to do what he'd put her up to doing—and leading me the devil's own chase through the devil's own tangle till he was ready to bunk for the Embankment. And you let him go, you blooming footler! Had him and let him go, and chucked away a third of L200 for the price of half a quid!"
And long after Smathers and Petrie had left him, and the wondering crowd had dispersed, and point duty at "Dead Man's Corner" was just point duty again and nothing more, P.C. Collins stood there, chewing the cud of bitter reflection over those words, and trying to reckon up just how many pounds and how much glory had been lost to him.
"But, damme, sir, the thing's an outrage! I don't mince my words, Mr. Narkom—I say plump and plain the thing's an outrage, a disgrace to the police, an indignity upon the community at large; and for Scotland Yard to permit itself to be defied, bamboozled, mocked at in this appalling fashion by a paltry burglar—"
"Uncle, dear, pray don't excite yourself in this manner. I am quite sure that if Mr. Narkom could prevent the things—"
"Hold your tongue, Ailsa—I will not be interfered with! It's time that somebody spoke out plainly and let this establishment know what the public has a right to expect of it. What do I pay my rates and taxes for—and devilish high ones they are, too, b'gad—if it's not to maintain law and order and the proper protection of property? And to have the whole blessed country terrorised, the police defied, and people's houses invaded with impunity by a gutter-bred brute of a cracksman is nothing short of a scandal and a shame! Call this sort of tomfoolery being protected by the police? God bless my soul! one might as well be in charge of a parcel of doddering old women and be done with it!"
It was an hour and a half after that exciting affair at "Dead Man's Corner." The scene was Superintendent Narkom's private room at headquarters, the dramatis personae, Mr. Maverick Narkom himself, Sir Horace Wyvern, and Miss Ailsa Lome, his niece, a slight, fair-haired, extremely attractive girl of twenty, the only and orphaned daughter of a much-loved sister, who, up till a year ago, had known nothing more exciting in the way of "life" than that which is to be found in a small village in Suffolk, and falls to the lot of an underpaid vicar's only child. A railway accident had suddenly deprived her of both parents, throwing her wholly upon her own resources, without a penny in the world. Sir Horace had gracefully come to the rescue and given her a home and a refuge, being doubly repaid for it by the affection and care she gave him and the manner in which she assumed control of a household which hitherto had been left wholly to the attention of servants, Lady Wyvern having long been dead, and her two daughters of that type which devotes itself entirely to the pleasures of society and the demands of the world. A regular pepper-box of a man—testy, short-tempered, exacting—Sir Horace had flown headlong to Superintendent Narkom's office as soon as that gentleman's note, telling him of the Vanishing Cracksman's latest threat, had been delivered, and, on Miss Lorne's advice, had withheld all news of it from the members of his household and brought her with him.
"I tell you that Scotland Yard must do something—must! must! must!" stormed he as Narkom, resenting that stigma upon the institution, puckered up his lips and looked savage. "That fellow has always kept his word—always, in spite of your precious band of muffs—and if you let him keep it this time, when there's upwards of L40,000 worth of jewels in the house, it will be nothing less than a national disgrace, and you and your wretched collection of bunglers will be covered with deserved ridicule."
Narkom swung round, smarting under these continued taunts, these "flings" at the efficiency of his prided department, his nostrils dilated, his temper strained to the breaking-point.
"Well, he won't keep it this time—I promise you that!" he rapped out sharply. "Sooner or later every criminal, no matter how clever, meets his Waterloo—and this shall be his! I'll take this affair in hand myself, Sir Horace. I'll not only send the pick of my men to guard the jewels, but I'll go with them; and if that fellow crosses the threshold of Wyvern House to-night, by the Lord, I'll have him. He will have to be the devil himself to get away from me! Miss Lorne"—recollecting himself and bowing apologetically—"I ask your pardon for this strong language—my temper got the better of my manners."
"It does not matter, Mr. Narkom, so that you preserve my cousin's wedding-gifts from that appalling man," she answered with a gentle inclination of the head and with a smile that made the superintendent think she must certainly be the most beautiful creature in all the world, it so irradiated her face and added to the magic of her glorious eyes. "It does not matter what you say, what you do, so long as you accomplish that."
"And I will accomplish it—as I'm a living man, I will! You may go home feeling assured of that. Look for my men some time before dusk, Sir Horace—I will arrive later. They will come in one at a time. See that they are admitted by the area door, and that, once in, not one of them leaves the house again before I put in an appearance. I'll look them over when I arrive to be sure that there's no wolf in sheep's clothing amongst them. With a fellow like that—a diabolical rascal with a diabolical gift for impersonation—one can't be too careful. Meantime, it is just as well not to have confided this news to your daughters, who, naturally, would be nervous and upset; but I assume that you have taken some one of the servants into your confidence in order that nobody may pass them and enter the house under any pretext whatsoever?"
"No, I have not. Miss Lorne advised against it, and, as I am always guided by her, I said nothing of the matter to anybody."
"Was that wrong, do you think, Mr. Narkom?" queried Ailsa anxiously. "I feared that if they knew they might lose their heads, and that my cousins, who are intensely nervous and highly emotional, might hear of it, and add to our difficulties by becoming hysterical and demanding our attention at a time when we ought to be giving every moment to watching for the possible arrival of that man. And as he has always lived up to the strict letter of his dreadful promises heretofore, I knew that he was not to be expected before nightfall. Besides, the jewels are locked up in the safe in Sir Horace's consulting-room, and his assistant, Mr. Merfroy, has promised not to leave it for one instant before we return."
"Oh, well, that's all right, then. I dare say there is very little likelihood of our man getting in whilst you and Sir Horace are here, and taking such a risk as stopping in the house until nightfall to begin his operations. Still, it was hardly wise, and I should advise hurrying back as fast as possible and taking at least one servant—the one you feel least likely to lose his head—into your confidence, Sir Horace, and putting him on the watch for my men. Otherwise, keep the matter as quiet as you have done, and look for me about nine o'clock. And rely upon this as a certainty: the Vanishing Cracksman will never get away with even one of those jewels if he enters that house to-night, and never get out of it unshackled!"
With that, he suavely bowed his visitors out and rang up the pick of his men without an instant's delay.
Promptly at nine o'clock he arrived, as he had promised, at Wyvern House, and was shown into Sir Horace's consulting-room, where Sir Horace himself and Miss Lorne were awaiting him, and keeping close watch before the locked door of a communicating apartment in which sat the six men who had preceded him. He went in and put them all and severally through a rigid examination—pulling their hair and beards, rubbing their faces with a clean handkerchief in quest of any trace of "make-up" or disguise of any sort, examining their badges and the marks on the handcuffs they carried with them to make sure that they bore the sign which he himself had scratched upon them in the privacy of his own room a couple of hours ago.
"No mistake about this lot," he announced, with a smile. "Has anybody else entered or attempted to enter the house?"
"Not a soul," replied Miss Lorne. "I didn't trust anybody to do the watching, Mr. Narkom—I watched myself."
"Good. Where are the jewels? In that safe?"
"No," replied Sir Horace. "They are to be exhibited in the picture-gallery for the benefit of the guests at the wedding breakfast to-morrow, and as Miss Wyvern wished to superintend the arrangement of them herself, and there would be no time for that in the morning, she and her sister are in there laying them out at this moment. As I could not prevent that without telling them what we have to dread, I did not protest against it; but if you think it will be safer to return them to the safe after my daughters have gone to bed, Mr. Narkom—"
"Not at all necessary. If our man gets in, their lying there in full view like that will prove a tempting bait, and—well, he'll find there's a hook behind it. I shall be there waiting for him. Now go and join the ladies, you and Miss Lorne, and act as though nothing out of the common was in the wind. My men and I will stop here, and you had better put out the light and lock us in, so that there may be no danger of anybody finding out that we are here. No doubt Miss Wyvern and her sister will go to bed earlier than usual on this particular occasion. Let them do so. Send the servants to bed, too. You and Miss Lorne go to your beds at the same time as the others—or, at least, let them think that you have done so; then come down and let us out."
To this Sir Horace assented, and, taking Miss Lorne with him, went at once to the picture-gallery and joined his daughters, with whom they remained until eleven o'clock. Promptly at that hour, however, the house was locked up, the bride-elect and her sister went to bed—the servants having already gone to theirs—and stillness settled down over the darkened house. At the end of a dozen minutes, however, it was faintly disturbed by the sound of slippered feet coming along the passage outside the consulting-room, then a key slipped into the lock, the door was opened, the light switched on, and Sir Horace and Miss Lorne appeared before the eager watchers.
"Now, then, lively, my men—look sharp!" whispered Narkom. "A man to each window and each staircase, so that nobody may go up or down or in or out without dropping into the arms of one of you. Confine your attention to this particular floor, and if you hear anybody coming, lay low until he's within reach, and you can drop on him before he bolts. Is this the door of the picture-gallery, Sir Horace?"
"Yes," answered Sir Horace, as he fitted a key to the lock. "But surely you will need more men than you have brought, Mr. Narkom, if it is your intention to guard every window individually, for there are four to this room—see!"
With that he swung open the door, switched on the electric light, and Narkom fairly blinked at the dazzling sight that confronted him. Three long tables, laden with crystal and silver, cut glass and jewels, and running the full length of the room, flashed and scintillated under the glare of the electric bulbs which encircled the cornice of the gallery, and clustered in luminous splendour in the crystal and frosted silver of a huge central chandelier, and spread out on the middle one of these—a dazzle of splintered rainbows, a very plain of living light—lay caskets and cases, boxes and trays, containing those royal gifts of which the newspapers had made so much and the Vanishing Cracksman had sworn to make so few.
Mr. Narkom went over and stood beside the glittering mass, resting his hand against the table and feasting his eyes upon all that opulent splendour.
"God bless my soul! it's superb, it's amazing," he commented. "No wonder the fellow is willing to take risks for a prize like this. You are a splendid temptation; a gorgeous bait, you beauties; but the fish that snaps at you will find that there's a nasty hook underneath in the shape of Maverick Narkom. Never mind the many windows, Sir Horace. Let him come in by them, if that's his plan. I'll never leave these things for one instant between now and the morning. Good night, Miss Lorne. Go to bed and to sleep—you do the same, Sir Horace. My lay is here!"
With that he stooped and, lifting the long drapery which covered the table and swept down in heavy folds to the floor, crept out of sight under it, and let it drop back into place again.
"Switch off the light and go," he called to them in a low-sunk voice. "Don't worry yourselves, either of you. Go to bed, and to sleep if you can."
"As if we could," answered Miss Lorne agitatedly. "I shan't be able to close an eyelid. I'll try, of course, but I know I shall not succeed. Come, uncle, come! Oh, do be careful, Mr. Narkom; and if that horrible man does come—"
"I'll have him, so help me God!" he vowed. "Switch off the light, and shut the door as you go out. This is 'Forty Faces'' Waterloo at last."
And in another moment the light snicked out, the door closed, and he was alone in the silent room.
For ten or a dozen minutes not even the bare suggestion of a noise disturbed the absolute stillness; then of a sudden, his trained ear caught a faint sound that made him suck in his breath and rise on his elbow, the better to listen—a sound which came, not without the house, but from within, from the dark hall where he had stationed his men, to be exact. As he listened he was conscious that some living creature had approached the door, touched the handle, and by the swift, low rustle and the sound of hard breathing, that it had been pounced upon and seized. He scrambled out from beneath the table, snicked on the light, whirled open the door, and was in time to hear the irritable voice of Sir Horace say, testily: "Don't make an ass of yourself by your over-zealousness. I've only come down to have a word with Mr. Narkom," and to see him standing on the threshold, grotesque in a baggy suit of striped pyjamas, with one wrist enclosed as in a steel band by the gripped fingers of Petrie.
"Why didn't you say it was you, sir?" exclaimed that crestfallen individual, as the flashing light made manifest his mistake. "When I heard you first, and see you come up out of that back passage, I made sure it was him; and if you'd a struggled, I'd have bashed your head as sure as eggs."
"Thank you for nothing," he responded testily. "You might have remembered, however, that the man's first got to get into the place before he can come downstairs. Mr. Narkom," turning to the superintendent, "I was just getting into bed when I thought of something I'd neglected to tell you; and as my niece is sitting in her room with the door open, and I wasn't anxious to parade myself before her in my night clothes, I came down by the back staircase. I don't know how in the world I came to overlook it, but I think you ought to know that there's a way of getting into the picture gallery without using either the windows or the stairs, and that way ought to be both searched and guarded."
"Where is it? What is it? Why in the world didn't you tell me in the first place?" exclaimed Narkom irritably, as he glanced round the place searchingly. "Is it a panel? a secret door? or what? This is an old house, and old houses are sometimes a very nest of such things."
"Happily, this one isn't. It's a modern innovation, not an ancient relic, that offers the means of entrance in this case. A Yankee occupied this house before I bought it from him—one of those blessed shivery individuals his country breeds, who can't stand a breath of cold air indoors after the passing of the autumn. The wretched man put one of those wretched American inflictions, a hot-air furnace, in the cellar, with huge pipes running to every room in the house—great tin monstrosities bigger round than a man's body, ending in openings in the wall, with what they call 'registers,' to let the heat in, or shut it out as they please. I didn't have the wretched contrivance removed or those blessed 'registers' plastered up. I simply had them papered over when the rooms were done up (there's one over there near that settee), and if a man got into this house, he could get into that furnace thing and hide in one of those flues until he got ready to crawl up it as easily as not. It struck me that perhaps it would be as well for you to examine that furnace and those flues before matters go any further."
"Of course it would. Great Scott! Sir Horace, why didn't you think to tell me of this thing before?" said Narkom, excitedly. "The fellow may be in it at this minute. Come, show me the wretched thing."
"It's below—in the cellar. We shall have to go down the kitchen stairs, and I haven't a light."
"Here's one," said Petrie, unhitching a bull's-eye from his belt and putting it into Narkom's hand. "Better go with Sir Horace at once, sir. Leave the door of the gallery open and the light on. Fish and me will stand guard over the stuff till you come back, so in case the man is in one of them flues and tries to bolt out at this end, we can nab him before he can get to the windows."
"A good idea," commented Narkom. "Come on, Sir Horace. Is this the way?"
"Yes, but you'll have to tread carefully, and mind you don't fall over anything. A good deal of my paraphernalia—bottles, retorts and the like—is stored in the little recess at the foot of the staircase, and my assistant is careless and leaves things lying about."
Evidently the caution was necessary, for a minute or so after they had passed on and disappeared behind the door leading to the kitchen stairway, Petrie and his colleagues heard a sound as of something being overturned and smashed, and laughed softly to themselves. Evidently, too, the danger of the furnace had been grossly exaggerated by Sir Horace, for when, a few minutes later, the door opened and closed, and Narkom's men, glancing toward it, saw the figure of their chief reappear, it was plain that he was in no good temper, since his features were knotted up into a scowl, and he swore audibly as he snapped the shutter over the bull's-eye and handed it back to Petrie.
"Nothing worth looking into, superintendent?"
"No—not a thing!" he replied. "The silly old josser! pulling me down there amongst the coals and rubbish for an insane idea like that! Why, the flues wouldn't admit the passage of a child; and even then, there's a bend—an abrupt 'elbow'—that nothing but a cat could crawl up. And that's a man who's an authority on the human brain! I sent the old silly back to bed by the way he came, and if—"
There he stopped, stopped short, and sucked in his breath with a sharp, wheezing sound. For, of a sudden, a swift pattering footfall and a glimmer of moving light had sprung into being and drawn his eyes upward; and there, overhead, was Miss Lome coming down the stairs from the upper floor in a state of nervous excitement, and with a bedroom candle in her shaking hand, a loose gown flung on over her nightdress, and her hair streaming over her shoulders in glorious disarray.
He stood and looked at her, with ever-quickening breath, with ever-widening eyes, as though the beauty of her had wakened some dormant sense whose existence he had never suspected; as though, until now, he had never known how fair it was possible for a woman to be, how fair, how lovable, how much to be desired; and whilst he was so looking she reached the foot of the staircase and came pantingly toward him.
"Oh, Mr. Narkom, what was it—that noise I heard?" she said in a tone of deepest agitation. "It sounded like a struggle—like the noise of something breaking—and I dressed as hastily as I could and came down. Did he come? Has he been here? Have you caught him? Oh! why don't you answer me, instead of staring at me like this? Can't you see how nervous, how frightened, I am? Dear Heaven! will no one tell me what has happened?"
"Nothing has happened, miss," answered Petrie, catching her eye as she flashed round on him. "You'd better go back to bed. Nobody's been here but Sir Horace. The noise you heard was me a-grabbing of him, and he and Mr. Narkom a-tumbling over something as they went down to look at the furnace."
"Furnace? What furnace? What are you talking about?" she cried agitatedly. "What do you mean by saying that Sir Horace came down?"
"Only what the superintendent himself will tell you, miss, if you ask him. Sir Horace came downstairs in his pyjamas a few minutes ago to say as he'd recollected about the flues of the furnace in the cellar being big enough to hold a man, and then him and Mr. Narkom went below to have a look at it."
She gave a sharp and sudden cry, and her face went as pale as a dead face.
"Sir Horace came down?" she repeated, moving back a step and leaning heavily against the bannister. "Sir Horace came down to look at the furnace? We have no furnace!"
"We have no furnace, I tell you, and Sir Horace did not come down. He is up there still. I know—I know, I tell you—because I feared for his safety, and when he went to his room I locked him in!"
"Superintendent!" The word was voiced by every man present, and six pairs of eyes turned toward Narkom with a look of despairing comprehension.
"Get to the cellar. Head the man off! It's he—the Cracksman!" he shouted out. "Find him! Get him! Nab him, if you have to turn the house upside down!"
They needed no second bidding, for each man grasped the situation instantly, and in a twinkling there was a veritable pandemonium. Shouting and scrambling like a band of madmen, they lurched to the door, whirled it open, and went flying down the staircase to the kitchen and so to a discovery which none might have foreseen. For, almost as they entered they saw lying on the floor a suit of striped pyjamas, and close to it, gagged, bound, helpless, trussed up like a goose that was ready for the oven, gyves on his wrists, gyves on his ankles, their chief, their superintendent, Mr. Maverick Narkom, in a state of collapse, and with all his outer clothing gone!
"After him! After that devil, and a thousand pounds to the man that gets him!" he managed to gasp as they rushed to him and ripped loose the gag. "He was here when we came! He has been in the house for hours. Get him! get him! get him!"
They surged from the room and up the stairs like a pack of stampeded animals; they raced through the hall and bore down on the picture-gallery in a body, and, whirling open the now closed door, went tumbling headlong in.
The light was still burning. At the far end of the room a window was wide open, and the curtains of it fluttered in the wind. A collection of empty cases and caskets lay on the middle table, but man and jewels were alike gone! Once again the Vanishing Cracksman had lived up to his promise, up to his reputation, up to the very letter of his name, and for all Mr. Maverick Narkom's care and shrewdness, "Forty Faces" had "turned the trick" and Scotland Yard was "done!"
Through all the night its best men sought him, its dragnets fished for him, its tentacles groped into every hole and corner of London in quest of him, but sought and fished and groped in vain. They might as well have hoped to find last summer's partridges or last winter's snow as any trace of him. He had vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared, and no royal jewels graced the display of Miss Wyvern's wedding gifts on the morrow.
But it was fruitful of other "gifts," fruitful of an even greater surprise, that "morrow." For the first time since the day he had given his promise, no "souvenir" from "The Man Who Called Himself Hamilton Cleek," no part of last night's loot came to Scotland Yard; and it was while the evening papers were making screaming "copy" and glaring headlines out of this that the surprise in question came to pass.
Miss Wyvern's wedding was over, the day and the bride had gone, and it was half-past ten at night, when Sir Horace, answering a hurry call from headquarters, drove post haste to Superintendent Narkom's private room, and passing in under a red and green lamp which burned over the doorway, entered and met that "surprise."
Maverick Narkom was there alone, standing beside his desk, with the curtains of his window drawn and pinned together, and at his elbow an unlighted lamp of violet-coloured glass, standing and looking thoughtfully down at something which lay before him. He turned as his visitor entered and made an open-handed gesture toward it.
"Look here," he said laconically, "what do you think of this?"
Sir Horace moved forward and looked; then stopped and gave a sort of wondering cry. The electric bulbs overhead struck a glare of light down on the surface of the desk, and there, spread out on the shining oak, lay a part of the royal jewels that had been stolen from Wyvern House last night.
"Narkom! You got him, then—got him after all?"
"No, I did not get him. I doubt if any man could, if he chose not to be found," said Narkom bitterly. "I did not recover these jewels by any act of my own. He sent them to me; gave them up voluntarily."
"Gave them up? After he had risked so much to get them? God bless my soul, what a man! Why, there must be quite half here of what he took."
"There is half—an even half. He sent them to-night, and with them this letter. Look at it, and you will understand why I sent for you and asked you to come alone."
"There's some good in even the devil, I suppose, if one but knows how to reach it and stir it up," Sir Horace read. "I have lived a life of crime from my very boyhood because I couldn't help it, because it appealed to me, because I glory in risks and revel in dangers. I never knew where it would lead me—I never thought, never cared—but I looked into the gateway of heaven last night, and I can't go down the path to hell any longer. Here is an even half of Miss Wyvern's jewels. If you and her father would have me hand over the other half to you, and would have 'The Vanishing Cracksman' disappear forever, and a useless life converted into a useful one, you have only to say so to make it an accomplished thing. All I ask in return is your word of honour (to be given to me by signal) that you will send for Sir Horace Wyvern to be at your office at eleven o'clock to-night, and that you and he will grant me a private interview unknown to any other living being. A red and green lantern hung over the doorway leading to your office will be the signal that you agree, and a violet light in your window will be the pledge of Sir Horace Wyvern. When these two signals, these two pledges, are given, I shall come in and hand over the remainder of the jewels, and you will have looked for the first time in your life upon the real face of 'The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek.'"
"God bless my soul! What an amazing creature—what an astounding request!" exclaimed Sir Horace, as he laid the letter down. "Willing to give up L20,000 worth of jewels for the mere sake of a private interview! What on earth can be his object? And why should he include me?"
"I don't know," said Narkom in reply. "It's worth something, at all events, to be rid of 'The Vanishing Cracksman' for good and all; and he says that it rests with us to do that. It's close to eleven now. Shall we give him the pledge he asks, Sir Horace? My signal is already hung out; shall we agree to the conditions and give him yours?"
"Yes, yes, by all means," Sir Horace made answer. And lighting the violet lamp, Narkom flicked open the pinned curtains and set it in the window.
For ten minutes nothing came of it, and the two men, talking in whispers while they waited, began to grow nervous. Then somewhere in the distance a clock started striking eleven, and without so much as a warning sound, the door flashed open, flashed shut again, a voice that was undeniably the voice of breeding and refinement said quietly: "Gentlemen, my compliments. Here are the diamonds and here am I!" and the figure of a man, faultlessly dressed, faultlessly mannered, with the slim-loined form, the slim-walled nose, and the clear-cut features of the born aristocrat, stood in the room.
His age might lie anywhere between twenty-five and thirty-five, his eyes were straight-looking and clear, his fresh, clean-shaven face was undeniably handsome, and, whatever his origin, whatever his history, there was something about him, in look, in speech, in bearing, that mutely stood sponsor for the thing called "birth."
"God bless my soul!" exclaimed Sir Horace, amazed and appalled to find the reality so widely different from the image he had drawn. "What monstrous juggle is this? Why, man alive, you're a gentleman! Who are you? What's driven you to a dog's life like this?"
"A natural bent, perhaps; a supernatural gift, certainly, Sir Horace," he made reply. "Look here! Could any man resist the temptation to use it when he was endowed by Nature with the power to do this?" His features seemed to writhe and knot and assume in as many moments a dozen different aspects. "I've had the knack of doing that since the hour I could breathe. Could any man 'go straight' with a fateful gift like that if the laws of Nature said that he should not?"
"And do they say that?"
"That's what I want you to tell me—that's why I have requested this interview. I want you to examine me, Sir Horace, to put me through those tests you use to determine the state of mind of the mentally fit and mentally unfit; I want to know if it is my fault that I am what I am, and if it is myself I have to fight in future, or the devil that lives within me. I'm tired of wallowing in the mire. A woman's eyes have lit the way to heaven for me. I want to climb up to her, to win her, to be worthy of her, and to stand beside her in the light."
"Her? What 'her'?"
"That's my business, Mr. Narkom, and I'll take no man into my confidence regarding that."
"Yes, my friend, but 'Margot'—how about her?"
"I'm done with her! We broke last night, when I returned and she learned—never mind what she learned! I'm done with her—done with the lot of them. My life is changed forever."
"In the name of Heaven, man, who and what are you?"
"Cleek—just Cleek; let it go at that," he made reply. "Whether it's my name or not is no man's business; who I am, what I am, whence I came, is no man's business either. Cleek will do—Cleek of the Forty Faces. Never mind the past; my fight is with the future, and so—examine me, Sir Horace, and let me know if I or Fate's to blame for what I am."
Sir Horace did.
"Absolutely Fate," he said, when, after a long examination, the man put the question to him again. "It is the criminal brain fully developed, horribly pronounced. God help you, my poor fellow; but a man simply could not be other than a thief and a criminal with an organ like that. There's no hope for you to escape your natural bent except by death. You can't be honest. You can't rise—you never will rise; it's useless to fight against it!"
"I will fight against it! I will rise! I will! I will! I will!" he cried out vehemently. "There is a way to put such craft and cunning to account; a way to fight the devil with his own weapons and crush him under the weight of his own gifts, and that way I'll take!"
"Mr. Narkom"—he whirled and walked toward the superintendent, his hand outstretched, his eager face aglow—"Mr. Narkom, help me! Take me under your wing. Give me a start—give me a chance—give me a lift on the way up!"
"Good heaven, man, you—you don't mean—?"
"I do—I do! So help me heaven, I do. All my life I've fought against the law—now let me switch over and fight with it. I'm tired of being Cleek, the thief; Cleek, the burglar. Make me Cleek, the detective, and let us work together, hand in hand, for a common cause and for the public good. Will you, Mr. Narkom? Will you?"
"Will I? Won't I!" said Narkom, springing forward and gripping his hand. "Jove! what a detective you will make. Bully boy! Bully boy!"
"It's a compact, then?"
"It's a compact—Cleek."
"Thank you," he said in a choked voice. "You've given me my chance; now watch me live up to it. The Vanishing Cracksman has vanished forever, Mr. Narkom, and it's Cleek, the detective—Cleek of the Forty Faces from this time on. Now, give me your riddles—I'll solve them one by one."
The sound came again—so unmistakably, this time, the sound of a footstep in the soft, squashy ooze on the Heath, there could be no question regarding the nature of it. Miss Lorne came to an instant standstill and clutched her belongings closer to her with a shake and a quiver; and a swift prickle of goose-flesh ran round her shoulders and up and down the backs of her hands. There was good, brave blood in her, it is true; but good, brave blood isn't much to fall back upon if you happen to be a girl without escort, carrying a hand-bag containing twenty-odd pounds in money, several bits of valuable jewellery—your whole earthly possessions, in fact—and have lost your way on Hampstead Heath at half-past eight o'clock at night, with a spring fog shutting you in like a wall and shutting out everything else but a "mackerel" collection of clouds that looked like grey smudges on the greasy-silver of a twilit sky.
She looked round, but she could see nothing and nobody. The Heath was a white waste that might have been part of the scenery in Lapland for all there was to tell that it lay within reach of the heart and pulse of the sluggish leviathan London. Over it the vapours of night crowded, an almost palpable wall of thick, wet mist, stirred now and again by some atmospheric movement which could scarcely be called a wind, although, at times, it drew long, lacey filaments above the level of the denser mass of fog and melted away with them into the calm, still upper air.
Miss Lorne hesitated between two very natural impulses—to gather up her skirts and run, or to stand her ground and demand an explanation from the person who was undoubtedly following her. She chose the latter.
"Who is there? Why are you following me? What do you want?" she flung out, keeping her voice as steady as the hard, sharp hammering of her heart would permit.
The question was answered at once—rather startlingly, since the footsteps which caused her alarm, had all the while proceeded from behind, and slightly to the left of her. Now there came a hurried rush and scramble on the right; there was the sound of a match being scratched, a blob of light in the grey of the mist, and she saw standing in front of her, a ragged, weedy, red-headed youth, with the blazing match in his scooped hands.
He was thin to the point of ghastliness. Hunger was in his pinched face, his high cheekbones, his gouged jaws; staring like a starved wolf, through the unnatural brightness of his pale eyes, from every gaunt feature of him.
"'Ullo!" he said with a strong Cockney accent, as he came up out of the fog, and the flare of the match gave him a full view of her, standing there with her lips shut hard, and, the hand-bag clutched up close to her with both hands. "You wot called, was it? Wot price me for arnswerin' of you, eh?"
"Yes, it was I that called," she replied, making a brave front of it. "But I do not think it was you that I called to. Keep away, please. Don't come any nearer. What do you want?" "Well, I'll take that blessed 'and-bag to go on with; and if there aren't no money in it—tumble it out—let's see—lively now! I'll feed for the rest of this week—Gawd, yuss!"
She made no reply, no attempt to obey him, no movement of any sort. Fear had absolutely stricken every atom of strength from her. She could do nothing but look at him with big, frightened eyes, and shake.
"Look 'ere, aren't you a-goin' to do it quiet, or are you a-goin' to mike me tike the blessed thing from you?" he asked.
"I'll do it if you put me to it—my hat! yuss! It aren't my gime—I'm wot you might call a hammer-chewer at it, but when there's summink inside you, wot tears and tears and tears, any gime's worth tryin' that pulls out the claws of it."
She did not move even yet. He flung the spent match from him, and made a sharp step toward her, and he had just reached out his hand to lay hold of her, when another hand—strong, sinewy, hard-shutting as an iron clamp—reached out from the mist, and laid hold of him; plucking him by the neckband and intruding a bunch of knuckles and shut fingers between that and his up-slanted chin.
"Now, then, drop that little game at once, you young monkey!" struck in the sharp staccato of a semi-excited voice. "Interfering with young ladies, eh? Let's have a look at you. Don't be afraid, Miss Lorne—nobody's going to hurt you."
Then a pocket torch spat out a sudden ray of light; and by it both the half-throttled boy and the wholly frightened girl could see the man who had thus intruded himself upon their notice.
"Oh, it is you—it is you again, Mr. Cleek?" said Ailsa with something between a laugh and a sigh of relief as she recognized him.
"Yes, it is I. I have been behind you ever since you left the house in Bardon Road. It was rash of you to cross the heath at this time and in this weather. I rather fancied that something of this kind would be likely to happen, and so took the liberty of following you."
"Then it was you I heard behind me?"
"It was I—yes. I shouldn't have intruded myself upon your notice if you hadn't called out. A moment, please. Let's have a look at this young highwayman, who so freely advertises himself as an amateur."
The light spat full into the gaunt, starved face of the young man and made it stare forth doubly ghastly. He had made no effort to get away from the very first. Perhaps he understood the uselessness of it, with that strong hand gripped on his ragged neckband. Perhaps he was, in his way, something of a fatalist—London breeds so many among such as he: starved things that find every boat chained, every effort thrust back upon them unrewarded. At any rate, from the moment he had heard the girl give to this man a name which every soul in England had heard at one time or another during the past two years, he had gone into a sort of mild collapse, as though realising the utter uselessness of battling against fate, and had given himself up to what was to be.
"Hello," said Cleek, as he looked the youth over. "Yours is a face I don't remember running foul of before, my young beauty. Where did you come from?"
"Where I seem like to be goin' now you've got your currant-pickers on me—Hell," answered the boy, with something like a sigh of despair. "Leastways, I been in Hell ever since I can remember anyfink, so I reckon I must have come from there."
"What's your name?"
"Dollops. S'pose I must a had another sometime, but I never heard of it. Wot's that? Yuss—most nineteen. Wot? Oh, go throw summink at yourself! I aren't too young to be 'ungry, am I? And where's a cove goin' to find this 'ere 'honest work' you're a-talkin' of? I'm fair sick of the gime of lookin' for it. Besides, you don't see parties as goes in for the other thing walkin' round with ribs on 'em like bed-slats, and not even the price of a cup of corfy in their pockets, do you? No fear! I wouldn't've 'urt the young lydie; but I tell you strite, I'd a took every blessed farthin' she 'ad on her if you 'adn't've dropped on me like this."
"Got down to the last ditch—down to the point of desperation, eh?"
"Yuss. So would you if you 'ad a fing inside you tearin' and tearin' like I 'ave. Aren't et a bloomin' crumb since the day before yusterday at four in the mawnin' when a gent in an 'ansom—drunk as a lord, he was—treated me and a parcel of others to a bun and a cup of corfy at a corfy stall over 'Ighgate way. Stood out agin bein' a crook as long as ever I could—as long as ever I'm goin' to, I reckon, now you've got your maulers on me. I'll be on the list after this. The cops 'ull know me; and when you've got the nime—well, wot's the odds? You might as well 'ave the gime as well, and git over goin' empty. All right, run me in, sir. Any'ow, I'll 'ave a bit to eat and a bed to sleep in to-night, and that's one comfort—"
Cleek had been watching the boy closely, narrowly, with an ever-deepening interest; now he loosened the grip of his fingers and let his hand drop to his side.
"Suppose I don't 'run you in,' as you put it? Suppose I take a chance and lend you five shillings, will you do some work and pay it back to me in time?" he asked.
The boy looked up at him and laughed in his face.
"Look 'ere, Gov'nor, it's playin' it low down to lark wiv a chap jist before you're goin' to 'ang 'im," he said. "You come off your blessed perch."
"Right," said Cleek. "And now you get up on yours and let us see what you're made of." Then he put his hand into his trousers pocket; there was a chink of coins and two half-crowns lay on his outstretched palm. "There you are—off with you now, and if you are any good, turn up some time to-night at No. 204, Clarges Street, and ask for Captain Horatio Burbage. He'll see that there's work for you. Toddle along now and get a meal and a bed. And mind you keep a close mouth about this."
The boy neither moved nor spoke nor made any sound. For a moment or two he stood looking from the man to the coins and from the coins back to the man; then, gradually, the truth of the thing seemed to trickle into his mind and, as a hungry fox might pounce upon a stray fowl, he grabbed the money and—bolted.
"Remember the name and remember the street," Cleek called after him.
"You take your bloomin' oath I will!" came back through the enfolding mist; "Gawd, yuss!"—Just that; and the youth was gone.
"I wonder what you will think of me, Miss Lorne," said Cleek, turning to her; "taking a chance like this; and, above all, with a fellow who would have stripped you of every jewel and every penny you have with you if things hadn't happened as they have?"
"And I can very ill afford to lose anything now—as I suppose you know, Mr. Cleek. Things have changed sadly for me since that day Mr. Narkom introduced us at Ascot," she said, with just a shadow of seriousness in her eyes. "But as to what I think regarding your action toward that dreadful boy.... Oh, of course, if there is a chance of saving him from a career of crime, I think one owes him that as a duty. In the circumstances, the temptation was very great. It must be a horrible thing to be so hungry that one is driven to robbery to satisfy the longing for food."
"Yes, very horrible—very, very indeed. I once knew a boy who stood as that boy stands—at the parting of the ways; when the good that was in him fought the last great fight with the Devil of Circumstances. If a hand had been stretched forth to help that boy at that time ... Ah, well! it wasn't. The Devil took the reins and the game went his way. If five shillings will put the reins into that boy's hands to-night and steer him back to the right path, so much the better for him and—for me. I'll know if he's worth the chance I took to-morrow. Now let us talk about something else. Will you allow me to escort you across the heath and see you safely on your way home? Or would you prefer that I should remain in the background as before?"
"How ungrateful you must think me, to suggest such a thing as that," she said with a reproachful smile. "Walk with me if you will be so kind. I hope you know that this is the third time you have rendered me a service since I had the pleasure of meeting you. It is very nice of you; and I am extremely grateful. I wonder you find the time or—well, take the trouble," rather archly; "a great man like you."
"Shall I take off my hat and say 'thank you, ma'am'; or just the hackneyed 'Praise from Sir Hubert is praise indeed'?" he said with a laugh as he fell into step with her and they faced the mist and the distance together. "I suppose you are alluding to my success in the famous Stanhope Case—the newspapers made a great fuss over that, Mr. Narkom tells me. But—please. One big success doesn't make a 'great man' any more than one rosebush makes a garden."
"Are you fishing for a compliment? Or is that really natural modesty? I had heard of your exploits and seen your name in the papers, oh, dozens of times before I first had the pleasure of meeting you; and since then ... No, I shan't flatter you by saying how many successes I have seen recorded to your credit in the past two years. Do you know that I have a natural predilection for such things? It may be morbid of me—is it?—but I have the strongest kind of a leaning toward the tales of Gaboriau; and I have always wanted to know a really great detective—like Lecocq, or Dupin. And that day at Ascot when Mr. Narkom told me that he would introduce me to the famous 'Man of the Forty Faces'... Mr. Cleek, why do they call you 'the Man of the Forty Faces'? You always look the same to me."
"Perhaps I shan't, when we come to the end of the heath and get into the public street, where there are lights and people," he said. "That I always look the same in your eyes, Miss Lorne, is because I have but one face for you, and that is my real one. Not many people see it, even among the men of The Yard whom I occasionally work with. You do, however; so does Mr. Narkom, occasionally. So did that boy, unfortunately. I had to show it when I came to your assistance, if only to assure you that you were in friendly hands and to prevent you taking fright and running off into the mist in a panic and losing yourself where even I might not be able to find you. That is why I told the boy to apply for work to 'Captain Burbage of Clarges Street.' I am Captain Burbage, Miss Lome. Nobody knows that but my good friend Mr. Narkom and, now, you."
"I shall respect it, of course," she said. "I hope I need not assure you of that, Mr. Cleek."
"You need assure me of nothing, Miss Lome," he made reply. "I owe so much more to you than you are aware, that—Oh, well, it doesn't matter. You asked me a question a moment ago. If you want the answer to it—look here."
He stopped short as he spoke; the pocket-torch clicked faintly and from the shelter of a curved hand, the glow of it struck upward to his face. It was not the same face for ten seconds at a time. What Sir Horace Wyvern had seen in Mr. Narkom's private office at Scotland Yard on that night of nights more than two years ago, Sir Horace Wyvern's niece saw now.
"Oh!" she said, with a sharp intaking of the breath as she saw the writhing features knot and twist and blend. "Oh, don't! It is uncanny! It is amazing. It is awful!" And, after a moment, when the light had been shut off and the man beside her was only a shape in the mist: "I hope I may never see you do it again," she merely more than whispered. "It is the most appalling thing. I can't think how you do it—how you came by the power to do such a thing."
"Perhaps by inheritance," said Cleek, as they walked on again. "Once upon a time, Miss Lorne, there was a—er—lady of extremely high position who, at a time when she should have been giving her thoughts to—well, more serious things, used to play with one of those curious little rubber faces which you can pinch up into all sorts of distorted countenances—you have seen the things, no doubt. She would sit for hours screaming with laughter over the droll shapes into which she squeezed the thing. Afterward, when her little son was born, he inherited the trick of that rubber face as a birthright. It may have been the same case with me. Let us say it was, and drop the subject, since you have not found the sight a pleasing one. Now tell me something, please, that I want to know about you."
"About me, Mr. Cleek?"
"Yes. You spoke about there being a change in your circumstances—spoke as though you thought I knew. I do not; but I should like to if I may. It will perhaps explain why you are out alone and in this neighbourhood at this time of night."
"It will," she said, with just a shadow of deeper colour coming into her cheeks. "The house you saw me coming out of is the residence of a friend and former schoolmate. I went there to inquire if she could help me in any way to secure a position; and stopped later than I realised."
"Procure you a position, Miss Lorne? A position as what?"
"Companion, amanuensis, governess—anything that," with a laugh and a blush, "'respectable young females' may do to earn a living when they come down in the world. You may possibly have heard that my uncle, Sir Horace, has married again. I think you must have done so, for the papers were full of it at the time. But I forget"—quizzically—"you don't read newspapers, do you, even when they contain accounts of your own greatness."
"I wonder if I deserve that? At any rate, I got it," said Cleek with a laugh. "Yes, I heard all about Sir Horace's wedding. Some four or five months ago, wasn't it?"
"No, three—three, last Thursday, the fourteenth. A woman doesn't forget the date of her enforced abdication. The new Lady Wyvern soon let me know that I was a superfluous person in the household. To-day, I came to the conclusion to leave it; and have taken the first actual step toward doing so. A lucky step, too, I fancy; or, at least, it promises to be."
"My friend knows of two people who would be likely to need me: one, a titled lady here in England, who might be 'very glad to have me'—I am quoting that, please—as governess to her little boy. The other, a young French girl who is returning shortly to Paris, who also might be 'glad to have me' as companion. Of course, I would sooner remain in England, but—well, it is nicer to be a companion than a governess; and the young lady is very nearly my own age. Indeed, we were actually at the same school together when we were very little girls."
"I see," said Cleek, a trifle gloomily. "So then it is possible that it will, eventually, be the young French lady and—Paris, in future. When, do you fancy? Soon?"
"Oh, I don't know about that. I haven't quite made up my mind as yet which of the two it will be. And then there's the application to be sent afterwards."
"Still, it will be one of the two certainly?"
"Oh, yes. I shall have to earn my living in future, you know; so, naturally, of course—" She gave her shoulder an eloquent upward movement, and let the rest go by default.
Cleek did not speak for a moment: merely walked on beside her—a ridge between his eyebrows and his lower lip sucked in; as if he were mentally debating upon something and was afraid he might speak incautiously. But of a sudden:
"Miss Lorne," he said, in a curiously tense voice, "may I ask you something? Let us say that you had set your heart upon obtaining one or the other of these two positions—set it so entirely that life wouldn't be worth a straw to you if you didn't get it. Let us say, too, that there was something you had done, something in your past which, if known, might utterly preclude the possibility of your obtaining what you wanted—it is an absurd hypothesis, of course: but let us use it for the sake of argument. We will say you had done your best to live down that offensive 'something' done, and were still doing all that lay in your power to atone for it; that nobody but one person shared the knowledge of that 'something' with you, and upon his silence you could rely. Now tell me: would you feel justified in accepting the position upon which you had set your heart without confessing the thing; or would you feel in duty bound to speak, well knowing that it would in all human probability be the end of all your hopes? I should like to have your opinion upon that point, please."
"I can't see that I or anybody else could have other than the one," she replied. "It is an age-old maxim, is it not, Mr. Cleek, that two wrongs cannot by any possibility constitute a right? I should feel in duty bound, in honour bound, to speak, of course. To do the other would be to obtain the position by fraud—to steal it, as a thief steals things that he wants. No sort of atonement is possible, is even worth the name, if it is backed up by deceit, Mr. Cleek."
"Even though that deceit is the only thing that could give you your heart's desire? The only thing that could open the Gates of Heaven for you?"
"The 'Gates of Heaven,' as you put it, can never be opened with a lie, Mr. Cleek. They might be opened by the very thing of which you speak—confession. I think I should take my chances upon that. At any rate, if I failed, I should at least have preserved my self-respect and done more to merit what I wanted than if I had secured it by treachery. Think of the boy you helped a little while ago. How much respect will you have for him if he never lives up to his promise; never goes to Clarges Street at all? Yet if he does live up to it, will he not be doubly worth the saving? But please!" with a sudden change from seriousness to gaiety, "if I am to be led into sermonizing, might I not know what it is all about? I shall be right, shall I not, in supposing that all this is merely the preface to something else?"
"Either the Preface or—the Finis," said Cleek, with a deeply drawn breath. "Still, as you say, no atonement is worth calling an atonement if it is based upon fraud; and so—Miss Lorne, I am going to ask you to indulge in yet another little flight of fancy. Carry your mind back, will you, to the night when your cousin—to the night two years ago when Sir Horace Wyvern's daughter had her wedding presents stolen and you, I believe, had rather a trying moment with that fellow who was known as 'The Vanishing Cracksman.' You can remember it, can you not?"
"Remember it? I shall never forget it. I thought, when the police ran down stairs and left me with him, that I was talking to Mr. Narkom. I think I nearly went daft with terror when I found out that it was he."
"And you found it out only through his telling you, did you not? Afterward, I am told, the police found you lying fainting at the foot of the stairs. The man had touched you, spoken to you, even caught up your hand and put it to his lips? Can you remember what he said when he did that? Can you?"
"Yes," she answered, with a little shudder of recollection. "For weeks afterward I used to wake up in the middle of the night thinking of it and going cold all over. He said, 'You have come down into Hell and lifted me out. Under God, you shall lift me into Heaven as well!'"
"And perhaps you shall," said Cleek, stopping short and uncovering his head. "At any rate, I'll not attempt to win it by fraud. Miss Lorne, I am that man. I am the 'Vanishing Cracksman' of those other days. I've walked the 'straight path' since the moment I kissed your hand."
She said nothing, made no faintest sound. She couldn't—all the strength, all the power to do anything but simply stand and look at him had gone out of her. But even so, she was conscious—dimly but yet conscious—of a feeling of relief that they had come at last close to the end of the heath, that there was the faint glow of lights dimly observable through the enfolding mist, and that there was the rumble of wheels, the pulse of life, the law-guarded paths of the city's streets beyond.
She could not herself have been more conscious of that feeling of relief than he was of its coming. It spoke to him in the swift glance she gave toward those distant, fog-blurred lights, in the white, drained face of her, in the shrinking backward movement of her body when he spoke again; and something within him voiced "the exceeding bitter cry."
"I am not sure that I even hoped you would take the revelation in any other way than this," he said. "A hawk—even a tamed one—must be a thing of terror in the eyes of a dove. Still, I am not sorry that I have made the confession, Miss Lorne. When the worst has been told, a burden rolls away."
"Yes," she acquiesced faintly, finding her voice; but finding it only to lose it again. "But that you—that you...." And was faint and very still again.
"Shall we go on? It isn't more than fifty paces to the road; and you may rely upon finding a taxicab there. Would you like me to show you the way?"
"Yes, please. I—oh, don't think me unsympathetic, unkind, severe. It is such a shock; it is all so horrible—I mean—that is.... Let me get used to it. I shall never tell, of course—no, never! Now, please, may we not walk faster? I am very, very late as it is; and they will be worrying at home."
They did walk faster, and in a minute more were at the common's end. Cleek stopped and again lifted his hat.
"We will part here, Miss Lorne," he said. "I won't force my company on you any further. From here, you are quite beyond all danger, and I am sure you would rather I left you to find a taxi for yourself. Good night." He did not even offer to put out his hand. "May I say again, that I am not sorry I told you? Nor did I ever expect you would, take it other than like this. It is only natural. Try to forgive me; or, at the least, believe that I have not tried to keep your friendship by a lie, or to atone in seeming only. Good night."
He gave her no chance to reply, no time to say one single word. Deep wounds require time in which to heal. He knew that he had wounded the white soul of her so that it was sick with uncertainty, faint with dread; and, putting on his hat, stepped sharply back and let the mist take him and hide him from her sight.
But, though she did not see, he was near her even then.
He knew when she walked out into the light-filled street; he knew when she found a taxicab; and he did not make an effort to go his way until he was sure that she was safely started upon hers. Then he screwed round on his heel and went back into the mist and loneliness of the heath, and walked, and walked, and walked. Afterward—long afterward: when the night was getting old and the town was going to sleep, he, too, fared forth in quest of a taxi, and finding one went his way as she had gone hers.
In the neighbourhood of Bond Street—now a place of darkness and slow-tramping policemen—he dismissed the taxi and continued the journey along Piccadilly afoot. It was close to one o'clock when he came at length to Clarges Street and swung into it from the Piccadilly end, and moved on in the direction of the house which sheltered him and his secrets together. But, though he walked with apparent indifference, his eye was ever on the lookout for some chance watcher in the windows of the other houses; for "Captain Horatio Burbage" was supposed, in the neighbourhood, to be a superannuated seaman who maintained a bachelor establishment with the aid of an elderly housekeeper and a deaf-and-dumb maid of all work.
But no one was on the watch to-night; and it was only when he came at last to the pillared portico of his own residence that he found any sign of life from one end of the street to the other. He did find it then, however; for the boy, Dollops, was sitting huddled up on the top step with the thick shadow of the portico making a safe screen for him.
He had made good use of the two half-crowns, for he had not only feasted—and was feasting still: on a bag of winkles and a saveloy—but was washed and brushed and had gone to the length of a shoe-shine and a collar.
"Been waitin' since eleven o'clock, sir," he said, getting up and pulling his forelock as Cleek appeared. "Didn't knock and arsk for no one, though—not me. Twigged as it would be you, sir, on account of your sayin' to-night. I've read summink of the ways of 'tecs. Wot ho!"
"You seem a sharp little customer, at all events," said Cleek with a curious one-sided smile—a smile that was peculiar to him. "I somehow fancy that I've made a good investment, Dollops. Filled up, eh?"
"No, sir—never filled. Born 'ungry, I reckon. But filled as much as you could fill me, bless your 'eart. I aren't never goin' to forget that, Gov'nor—no fear. An eater and a scrapper I am, sir; and I'll scrap for you, sir, while there's a bloomin' breff left in my blessed body! Gimme the tip wot kind of work I can do for you, Gov'nor, will you? I want to get them two 'arf-crowns off my conscience as quick as I can."
Cleek looked at him and smiled again.
"Yes, I'm sure I made a good bargain, Dollops," he said. "Come in." And in this way the attachment which existed between them ever afterward had its beginning.
He took the boy in and up to the little room on the second floor which he called his den; and, turning on the light, motioned him to a chair, laid aside his hat and gloves, and was just about to pull up a chair for himself when he caught sight of an unstamped letter lying upon his writing-table.
"Sit down there and wait a moment until I read this, my lad," he said; and forthwith tore the letter open.
It was from Superintendent Narkom. He had known that from the first, however. No one but Narkom ever wrote him letters. This one was exceedingly brief. It simply contained these two lines:
"My dear Cleek. The Three Jolly Fishermen, Richmond, at tea-time to-morrow. An astonishing affair. Yours, M. N."
"Dollops, my lad, I think I'm going to make a man of you," he said as he tore the letter into a dozen pieces and tossed the fragments into a waste-basket. "At any rate, I'm going to have a try. Know anything about Richmond?"
"Good. Well, we'll have a half-hour's talk and then I'll find a temporary bed for you for the night, and to-morrow we'll take a pull on the river at Richmond and see what we shall see."
The half-hour, however, developed into a full one; for it was after two o'clock when the talk was finished and a bed improvised for the boy; but Cleek, saying good night to him at last and going to his own bedroom, felt that it was a long, long way from being time wasted.
What Dollops thought is, perhaps, best told by the fact that he burst out crying when Cleek came in in the morning to ask how he had slept.
"Slept, Gov'nor!" he said. "Why, bless your 'eart, sir, I couldn't a slept better on a bed of roses, nor 'ad 'arf such comfort. Feel like I needed someone to lend me a biff on the coco, sir, to make sure as I aren't a dreamin'—it's so wot a cove fancies 'Eaven to be like, sir."
And afterward, when the day was older, and they had gone to Richmond, and Cleek—in his boating flannels—was pulling him up the shining river and talking to him again as he had talked last night, he felt that it was even more like Heaven than ever.
It was after four—long after—when they finally separated and Cleek, leaving the boy in charge of the boat, stepped ashore in the neighbourhood of the inn of the Three Jolly Fishermen and went to keep his appointment with Narkom.
He found him enjoying tea at a little round table in the niche of a big bay window in the small private parlour which lay immediately behind the bar-room.
"My dear chap, do forgive me for not waiting," said the superintendent contritely, as Cleek came in, looking like a college-bred athlete in his boating-flannels and his brim-tilted panama. "But the fact is you are a little later than I anticipated; and I was simply famishing."
"Share the blame of my lateness with me, Mr. Narkom," said Cleek as he tossed aside his hat and threw the fag-end of his cigarette through the open window. "You merely said 'tea-time,' not any particular hour; and I improved the opportunity to take another spin up the river and to talk like a Dutch uncle to a certain young man whom I shall introduce to your notice in due time. It isn't often that duty calls me to a little Eden like this. The air is like balm to-day; and the river—oh, the river is a sheer delight."
Narkom rang for a fresh pot of tea and a further supply of buttered toast, and, when these were served, Cleek sat down and joined him.
"I dare say," said the superintendent, opening fire at once, "that you wonder what in the world induced me to bring you out here to meet me, my dear fellow, instead of following the usual course and calling at Clarges Street? Well, the fact is, Cleek, that the gentleman with whom I am now about to put you in touch lives in this vicinity, and is so placed that he cannot get away without running the risk of having the step he is taking discovered."
"Humph! He is closely spied upon, then?" commented Cleek. "The trouble arises from someone or something in his own household?"
"No—in his father's. The 'trouble,' so far as I can gather, seems to emanate from his stepmother, a young and very beautiful woman, who was born on the island of Java, where the father of our client met and married her some two years ago, whither he had gone to probe into the truth of the amazing statement that a runic stone had been unearthed in that part of the globe."
"Ah, then you need not tell me the gentleman's name, Mr. Narkom," interposed Cleek. "I remember perfectly well the stir which that ridiculous and unfounded statement created at the time. Despite the fact that scholars of all nations scoffed at the thing, and pointed out that the very term 'rune' is of Teutonic origin, one enthusiastic old gentleman—Mr. Michael Bawdrey, a retired brewer, thirsting for something more enduring than malt to carry his name down the ages—became fired with enthusiasm upon the subject, and set forth for Java 'hot foot,' as one might say. I remember that the papers made great game of him; but I heard, I fancy, that, in spite of all, he was a dear, lovable old chap, and not at all like the creature the cartoonists portrayed him."
"What a memory you have, my dear Cleek. Yes, that is the party; and he is a dear, lovable old chap at bottom. Collects old china, old weapons, old armour, curiosities of all sorts—lots of 'em bogus, no doubt; catch the charlatans among the dealers letting a chance like that slip them—and is never so happy as when showing his 'collection' to his friends and being mistaken by the ignorant for a man of deep learning."