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This collection of Hamilton Cleek Mysteries has been formatted to the highest digital standards and adjusted for readability on all devices. Hamilton Cleek is a consulting detective and also known as "the man of the forty faces" for his incredible skill at disguise. Cleek is himself a reformed criminal and now helps Inspector Narkom of Scotland Yard in solving crimes in Clarges Street, London. The Cleek mysteries were originally published as individual short stories but were later compiled into separate books. Thomas W. Hanshew (1857-1914) was an American author best known for his Hamilton Cleek Detective Series.
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IT WAS June — June with the world abloom, rioting with colour, fragrant as a lady's linen-chest, exquisite, golden. And of all spots most conducive to the full enjoyment of the month, a kindly Providence has created for that purpose the pleasant Thames Valley, where the river winds its idle way like a thread of silver, through golden pasture land and shady forest, and the sky above lies like a sapphire canopy over the sun-drenched splendour of hill and dale.
And it was upon just such an afternoon as this that Cleek, clad in the immaculate flannels that good taste, and better judgment, dictate for such weather, lay stretched upon a particularly green, particularly well-cared-for piece of lawn, shelving down to the river's edge, and breaking there into a riot of rose-foam that wound downward to the tiny landing stage. Beside him in a deck chair was Ailsa Lorne; and, some distance away, Dollops, engaged in polishing his latest acquisition, a huge brass telescope, which Mr. Maverick Narkom had given him, fortified his labours at very frequent intervals by the consumption of green gooseberries.
"A long job, eh, Dollops?" said Cleek, with a twitch of the head in his direction, and a healthy, happy laugh. For he was happy, was this man, happier than he had ever thought it possible to be. From now on, he need no longer adopt the disguise that had hidden him from a curious world, for with the renunciation of the throne of Maurevania for the sake of the one dear woman who sat beside him, had come simultaneously a slackening of the search parties of Apaches who had hitherto made his life an exciting and somewhat perilous game.
Lor' lumme, sir," returned Dollops briskly, she's a fair old turkey gobbler for polish, but she's a rare beauty, and it beats me why you can see every blessed object, large as life and twice as natural, as you might say."
Speaking, he put the instrument to his eye, and then gave out a little cry of dismay.
"It's a motor, Mr. Cleek," he broke out anxiously, jumping to his feet. "Don't go for to say it's Mr. Narkom a-coming to spoil the first blessed holiday we've had."
"I shouldn't be surprised," responded Cleek, with a rueful little laugh. "Eh, sweetheart? 'When you come to the end of a perfect day,' as the song say, you've got to face what the evening must bring forth That's so, Ailsa, isn't it?"
For answer she looked up at him suddenly, a gleam of anxiety in her deep hazel eyes, for she feared to have the man she loved out of her sight for a moment, lest the Fates be tempted once more to snatch her happiness from her.
Presently the unmistakable hum of a swiftly driven motor fell only too plainly on their ears strained to catch the familiar sound, and Dollops sat holding his beloved telescope almost like a gun, as though he fain would repel the invader by main force.
Nearer and nearer drew the panting car, until they were able to distinguish its occupants.
A reassuring glance told Dollops that it was not the much-dreaded limousine of the Yard. Assured of this fact, he gave vent to a little sigh of ineffable relief, and snuggling down into the long, dry grass, returned to his labour of love.
But the car stopped short in the lane that led down to the private landing stage, and from it leaped a gentleman, tall and upright, with the mien and bearing of a soldier, and clad in the conventional afternoon dress of the well-born Englishman.
Cleek twitched his head round as the wicket gate groaned on its rusty hinges, and catching sight of the intruder, he jumped hastily to his feet.
"Count Irma!" he ejaculated in the sharp staccato of excitement. "This is an unexpected pleasure. I thought you had returned to — that is — left England. " He stretched out a swift hand of welcome, and gave vent to a little sharp sigh.
The Count took that hand, bent over it, then drawing himself up, said sombrely: "No, Sire! I come to make a last appeal to your conscience and your manhood. Maurevania calls to you, Sire; must she call in vain?"
The smile had vanished from Cleek's lips at the sound of the first words, and simultaneously he linked his arm within that of Ailsa Lorne, who had also risen from her low chair, and now stood by his side, as if to ward off a hidden danger.
"I spoke my last word on that subject, Count, months ago," he responded smoothly yet with a latent sternness that brooked no questioning beneath. "Do not let us quarrel, my friend. Maurevania must do without me, as she has done, contented, all these long years."
"She has not! She has suffered, and suffered in silence!" retorted the Count with a sudden tinge of passion in his low voice. "Sire, I risk your displeasure. Kings are but slaves in another form; slaves to their duty, slaves to God himself, and I beseech you, do not fail us now in our hour of need. Maurevania looks to you for salvation from the yoke of the foreigner. Will you fail her?" The words came imploringly, in a swift rush of appeal, but Cleek raised a silencing hand.
"Yes," he said quietly. "Yes, Count, if it means the loss of this dear woman by my side, who has rescued my very soul, drawn me up from the depths of hell itself. That resolution you cannot shake. A kingdom without this lady as rightful, recognized Queen, is out of the question. But a few short days now, and she will become my wife, beyond all thrones, beyond all earthly kingdoms save that which lies within the shelter of her own home. And there she will be queen indeed! I have no other answer to give you."
His hand fell, he drew back his head with something akin to kingliness in the gesture.
For a moment Count Irma looked at him, reproachfully, sadly, then with a suddenly acquired defiance, and bent his head. He knew the sentence had been passed.
"So be it," he said simply, in a bitter voice. "For the sake of a passing passion you have given over a nation to the horrors of civil war. Ruin, moral and financial, stares Maurevania in the face, and I must return to say that its rightful deliverer cares for naught but the love of a foreign woman!"
Then he turned upon Ailsa furiously, his face white with a passion of hatred that seared it as a branding-iron sears the horses' skin, leaving its ineffaceable mark.
"Mark my words, both of you, on my sword I will swear it — the sword with which I would have fought to the last drop of my blood for you — henceforth I will devote my life to the vengeance of that ill-fated people. You shall never marry this woman who has so blinded your eyes, and if your conscience will not aid you, then perhaps Maurevania herself shall speak to you."
He swung round suddenly, giving out a low, peculiar whistle. At its sound, from the body of the waiting car there leapt some half a dozen men, whose presence there had been hitherto unknown and undiscovered — Maurevanians, every man Jack of them, by the swarthy skin and deep-set eyes — who, at a signal from the Count, threw themselves on Cleek, and before Ailsa could utter so much as a sound or make so much as a single movement from the restraining hands of one, Cleek was bound hand and foot and bundled into the car.
So sudden had been the attack that apparently not even Dollops had realized the danger that his beloved master had encountered, for he had not made his presence known until Cleek's helpless body was lying prostrate in the car. Then he approached the Count, and pulling his forelock, said humbly:
"Beg your pardon, sir — Yer 'Ighness I means — but I could 'elp yer along of that party there if yer paid me for it."
"Dollops!" The cry came like a moan from the lips of Ailsa as she stood helpless in the grasp of a huge soldier.
"Money is money, miss," responded the youth sullenly, "an' as I 'appen to know which road Mr. Narkom an' 'is men are likely to be taking"
The Count wheeled round on him.
"The police!" he cried. "Ah! yes, good lad! How much? Tell me the road and you shall be well rewarded."
"A couple of quid 'll do me," was the surprising answer.
Then, almost before the words were out of his mouth, the coins were pressed into the grimy hand outstretched to grab them, and swinging round so as to avoid the scorn on Ailsa Lorne's face, the lad gazed thoughtfully up the distant road.
"Mr. Narkom (the old blighter) 'e's supposed to be in London, but between you an' me, sir, Yer 'Ighness, beggin' yer pardon, 'e's at Oxford, on a special job, and we expects him every hour. Starting now, as yer might say. I could take yer some short cuts, and you'd show a clean pair of 'ells."
Count Irma nodded sharply and motioned him to a front seat in the big car, well satisfied with the deal. Then he turned to Ailsa, who stood sobbing some distance away, her face covered with her two hands, and the whole heart of her tortured and broken.
"Mademoiselle," he said suavely, "the move is mine. His life depends entirely upon his consent. Escape is impossible, and were it otherwise, your own life would pay the penalty. I do not war on women if I can avoid it. So, mademoiselle, I bid you adieu."
With a gallant bow he swung upon his heel, replaced his hat, strode quickly over to the waiting motor, and stepped into it. Then, in the semi-silence of that perfect afternoon, the car slid out noiselessly into the road leading toward London and the things that lay ahead, leaving behind it a weeping woman, and a desolation that was as deep as it was absolute.
II Mr. Maverick Narkom sat in his private office at Scotland Yard, intent on reading the reports of the afternoon, with a cigar stuck between the fingers of his left hand and the open window sending a little breeze fluttering across the untidy desk. He looked up suddenly, as the sound of hurried footsteps without struck in upon the lazy silence of the afternoon, and wheeled round in his seat.
But if he had expected to see Lennard, or any of the staff of Scotland Yard, he was doomed to disappointment. The door opened and closed gustily, there came a swirl of woman's skirts, and the astonished eyes of the Superintendent fell on the last person he expected to see. It was Ailsa Lorne, white and shaking, the unrestrained tears coursing down her anguished face, as her trembling lips struggled to frame the words to tell her plight.
"Miss Lorne; why, God bless me . . . what is wrong?" gasped the Superintendent. "Come, come; tell me — it is not —"
"Yes, yes, he's gone — gone!"
"Gone! Good God! do you mean Cleek? Not dead!"
She gave out a little sob at that, then strove pitifully to regain composure, finally getting out some of the facts, and as the Superintendent realized what the danger meant to his beloved ally and invaluable detective, he collapsed into a chair, with his face hidden in the palm of an upthrown hand, and his eyes wet with tears.
"Cleek! My God! and we thought. . . . But who was to think of Count Irma?" he muttered at last, in a heart-wrung voice. "They'll never dare to touch a hair of his head! They can't! And after all the precautions, to be taken like a first offence safe-robber! Gad! but he shall be found, Miss Lorne. I swear it! I swear it! The whole kingdom shall be searched, house to house, so that he shall return to us at last!"
His eye fell on the telephone and, fairly flinging himself upon it, he seized the receiver in one shaking hand and let a stream of words issue from his pale lips, his face white now as Ailsa's own.
In precisely ten minutes' time there wasn't a railway station, port, or terminus but was on the lookout for all suspicious characters. Then a red and perspiring Mr. Narkom turned to Ailsa and put out a shaking hand.
"It is Dollops I can't understand," he broke out bitterly, replacing the receiver. "If only I could get an explanation of him; it seems so impossible, so unlike the lad."
Even as he spoke, there came a tap at the door, it opened inward, and Hammond stepped into the room, removing his hat and standing at attention.
"Well?" rapped out the Superintendent, in the sharp staccato of anxiety. "What is it? What do you want?"
"Beg yer pardon, sir, for disturbing you, but I thought you ought to know; it's something to do with Mr. Cleek."
"Cleek!" flung out the Superintendent sharply. "Speak up, man! If it's a clue, speak up!"
Hammond "spoke up" forthwith. "I was on point duty, just off Kensington High Street, sir," he began, "when a motor-car passed, exceeding the speed limit something awful. I tried to stop it, but to my surprise young Dollops was on the front seat, and when 'e sees me, 'e puts his 'and in his pocket, says something to a foreign-looking chap on the seat beside him, throws me this, and they drives on quicker than ever."
Mr. Narkom snatched "this" from the outstretched hand. It proved to be a scrap of paper twisted round a sovereign. The coin fell unheeded from Mr. Narkom's shaking fingers, however, for it was the grimy scrap of paper that he clutched. On it were the scrawled words: "God's sake and Cleek's, take this to Mr. Narkom, Scot. Yd. Car L 404. Dollops. Safe."
"What does it mean?" cried Ailsa, her hands clinging to Mr. Narkom's arm. "Tell me, Mr. Narkom! For God's sake, what does it mean?"
Mr. Narkom's eyes fairly gleamed.
"The bully boy! The splendid lad! Got him as safe as houses!" he retorted with half a laugh and half a sob. "Thought it was a funny thing if that young shaver turned out a crook. That's the number of the car, Miss Lorne, so don't you worry. We'll have Cleek back again safe and sound before you can turn round."
He said no more, simply turned back to the telephone, stopping only to toss the sovereign over to Hammond as he told him that Cleek was in danger, and instructed him to find the car of that number.
It did not take long to ascertain that L 404 belonged to the Ritz Hotel, and even as the news was borne to Narkom the clanging of his bell brought not only the porter, but Lennard himself, who had just heard the news.
"The limousine, as quick as you can. What's that? Ready? Good man! To the Ritz, then." He dashed to a hook on which hung his hat and coat; grabbing them, he beckoned to Miss Lorne, and flung open the door. "If only we're in time! If only it's possible to save him! Come on, Miss Lorne; come on, my dear, to Cleek's victory!"
Miss Lorne "came on" with such a surprising suddenness that three minutes later the blue limousine shot out of the precincts of the Yard, and took the distance between it and Piccadilly at a mile a minute clip.
The arrival of the well-known car and its still more familiar Superintendent brought the manager on the scene, only too willing to answer such inquiries as the English law, embodied in the portly person of Superintendent Narkom, should demand of him. "Count Irma of Maurevania? Of a surety, yes, he was staying here, occupying one of the finest suites the hotel offered. Yes, he would send up and ask for an interview. . . ."
Mr. Narkom, his cheeks pink with suppressed excitement, mopped his forehead briskly. His foe could not escape him, for all round the Ritz was drawn a cordon of plain-clothes men, on the alert for all out-goers, and the Count himself should be held hostage for the man he had kidnapped.
The few minutes which elapsed seemed like hours to Ailsa, her fears yet unallayed, despite her companion's optimism. The return of the manager brought with it therefore no disappointment to her.
"But an hour ago, monsieur," he said with many bows of solicitude, "I find that one of his equerries was taken ill while out driving, and the Count himself, like the kind master he is, drove him away to a hospital. He will return later."
Mr. Narkom's banished fears arose in all intensity. Only too well did he know how many chances there were of Count Irma's return. Money would be sent, but Irma himself would not come; he was already making his way out of the country with all expeditiousness, and, with him, Cleek. To search the hospitals was, of course, futile; they had come up against a blank wall, and the Superintendent met Ailsa's agonized gaze with a mute appeal for a renewal of her faith in his resources.
Without further delay they passed out into the courtyard, and were back on the pavement beside the limousine, when a paper-boy, to all intents and purposes bent on selling them the latest edition of the evening paper, sidled up closer and whispered to Mr. Narkom:
"A chap said 'e was Dollops, sir, if you're Mr. Narkom — paper, sir?" he broke off; "paper, sir? Buy a paper?"
"Yes, yes!" gasped the Superintendent, feeling for a coin.
"If you come 'ere, I was to give you this and get a shillin'."
The shilling appeared forthwith, and with the copy of the paper Mr. Narkom clutched another and still grimier scrap than that other one he had received.
Instantly his eyes were on the alert. He glanced down at it, without seeming to do so, and read these words: "Tower House at London Bridge Docks, sailing to-night. 6. Dollops. He's awl rite."
With one excited nod, Mr. Narkom fairly wrenched open the door of the limousine, and waving Miss Lorne inside, leaned over to Lennard.
The docks at London Bridge," he said excitedly. As fast as you can streak it, Lennard, my boy! For Mr. Cleek, for me! We've got to get there before six, or it's all up."
"Right you are, sir!" responded Lennard heartily.
Then, with a glance at the little clock before him: "Half an hour! Crumbs! but it's a close shave." Then they were off and away at a pace that ate up the distance like a cat lapping cream.
But the age for miracles is over, and no motor can beat time for speed. Try as he might, it was just ten minutes after the hour had struck when Lennard brought the car up to a somewhat deserted-looking house at the rear of a disused landing stage to which they had been directed. Evidently Count Irma had had his plans all cut and dried before taking the final motor ride into the pleasant Thames Valley. It was not yet dusk, and even as they gazed up the expanse of the river they could distinguish a long electric launch making its way to the sea, and carrying with it the man they both loved, beyond hope, beyond redemption, beyond everything that made life worth living.
Mr. Narkom sucked in his breath helplessly, then switched round on his heel.
"The police launch, quick! Follow me, Miss Lorne. You stay here, Lennard, with the car. You may be needed. Come!" The Superintendent panted off, and a few minutes later he was telling as much as was necessary to the head of the River Police.
In the swiftest launch obtainable they took their places. There was a whirr, a shaking of the whole boat, then it swept out, on the race against time, as though it were a living thing, cognizant of the reason for its mad haste.
Mr. Narkom sat with clenched hands, breathing with great effort, until they again saw the trail of the escaping boat, when he gave a little shout.
"Faster, man! Faster! Don't let it escape! For God's sake overtake it!"
And overtake it they did. Heading the launch round so as to get directly in the way of the boat, the police officers hailed it, bidding it stop, in the name of the law. But there came no slackening of speed. The hunted boat was simply swerved aside, and sped on its course apparently undaunted.
"No use, Mr. Narkom, sir," said the police officer in charge. "There's only one thing — wireless. Stop her at the mouth of the Thames."
Darting down into a cabin, he closed the door, and a few minutes later Mr. Narkom knew that the chase was practically over. The launch would be overhauled by the police boats at the mouth of the river.
Summoning as much patience as it was possible, Mr. Narkom prepared for the wait, with Miss Lorne at his side.
The launch was still in sight when they came up at Gravesend, and from both sides of the shore there came a little fleet of boats. Seeing that escape was impossible, the boat slackened her speed, then came to a dead stop and Mr. Narkom, with the officer, made his way on board.
To his keen delight, he was greeted by Count Irma himself, who was highly indignant and demanded explanations for the chase and the outrage of being overhauled.
To Mr. Narkom's supreme dismay, a systematic search revealed not the slightest trace of the two they sought. From deck to cabin, from end to end, every corner of the boat was subjected to closest scrutiny, but in vain; there was no sign of Cleek or of Dollops, nor was there any suspicious sight or sound. Indeed, it began to look as if they had been led on a wild-goose chase. The Count, who accompanied them, his dark face now darker still with anger, looked triumphant as they once more entered the gloomy little cabin, while the perspiration stood out in great beads on Mr. Narkom's forehead. Ailsa Lorne's face was tense with disappointment as they turned to go up once more to the deck.
His eyes gleaming, Count Irma raised a lantern, and proceeded to show his unwelcome guests up the companion-way. As its light flashed round, it lit on a familiar object, the very sight of which sent the blood coursing back to Ailsa's heart, and caused her fingers to grip feverishly on Mr. Narkom's arm.
The sight was no less than Dollops's precious telescope. With superhuman self-control she succeeded in drawing the attention of the Superintendent to it, at the same time motioning him to be silent. The effect on Mr. Narkom was instantaneous. He stopped short, and sucked in his breath, for he, too, realized what its presence meant. But it took all his caution to prevent him crying aloud in his relief and jubilation.
As it was, he strode up the narrow steps with jaunty mien, and rejoining the River Police on deck, delivered his ultimatum to the Count, who awaited him impatiently.
"Well, Count, we've made our search," he said in imperturbable tones, "and everything is quite all right. Still, my orders are very strict, and since you are merely in a hurry to catch up with the packet boat, you will have no objection, I feel assured, to taking our police launch, which is able, as you are now aware, to go even faster than this. I will return in this one to London Bridge."
Count Irma's face grew livid with rage, and he resented this fresh proposal with all the language at his command.
But Mr. Narkom remained obdurate. The launch and its owner were subject to the commands of the English law. His own boat was at the Count's command; a hasty signal from one of the officers brought the launch alongside again.
The Count was evidently nonplussed, to say the least of it, but seeing no chance of escape, he finally accompanied the River Police into their launch, leaving the beaming Superintendent and Ailsa Lorne to make the return journey alone.
The other boat had been barely set in motion when Mr. Narkom turned and plunged down the stairs again. Once more with Ailsa they made a detour of the boat, calling aloud the names of both Dollops and Cleek. It was Ailsa again who came to the rescue. Pulling aside a tarpaulin thrown carelessly down at the extreme end of the boat, she saw a series of newly drilled holes, and it did not need the sight of the boards, barely joined together, to tell her what they concealed.
She gave a little cry which brought Mr. Narkom to her side at one swift jump, and the two proceeded to tear up the boards. A few seconds, and the fast-fading light in the summer sky revealed the bound and gagged figures of the two they had sought so arduously.
The journey back was one in which very little was spoken, after the few words of praise for Dollops, whose quick-wittedness and apparent defection had been so successful.
"I reckon we're quits, you young monkey," said Cleek, stretching out a hand to his young henchman.
"Not in this life, Guv'nor, Gawd bless yer for all yer've done for me," was the fervent reply, and, at the pressure of Cleek's hand on his, he grew very, very still.
It was quite dark when they disembarked at London Bridge, and having seen the launch in the care of the River Police, made their way to the limousine, where Lennard waited. He gave a little whoop of delight as his eyes fell on Cleek and Dollops.
But it was not until after Cleek had seen Ailsa safe at an hotel, and he himself was on his way with Mr. Narkom to the riverside cottage that he referred to the subject which lay uppermost in their minds.
Then with a curious smile looping up one side of his face, he said quietly:
"This is but the first throw of the dice, old friend. Do not mistake. I am at the Yard's service now and henceforth, but our journeyings together will be accompanied by the hate of Irma, as well as the vengeance of Margot. This is but the beginning; the end, who shall say?"
A silent grip of the hand was all that Mr. Narkom gave in answer, for he, too, was alive to the danger which must now dog their footsteps. He did not rest content, therefore, until he had seen Cleek and Dollops safe in the cottage which served them for a temporary home. Then he returned to town through the soft coolness of the summer night, but though Cleek was once more within the reach of the protecting arm of the law, the Superintendent's heart was heavy within him.
AFTER due reflection over the question of disguise, Cleek determined for the present to revive that of Lieutenant Deland, and it was as that smart young officer that he once more took up his quarters in Clarges Street, in a house not very far from that which had been wrecked by Margot and her gang of Apaches. That they, too, were on his track was ascertained by Dollops, who traced them down to their lairs of Soho like a bloodhound scenting his quarry.
Despite the danger which surrounded him, Cleek insisted on having the rest of their riverside holiday with Ailsa Lorne and Mrs. Hawkesley, who had returned from India on a short visit, in the interests of her little son, Lord Chepstow. Mrs. Hawkesley had been spending her summer on a houseboat with Ailsa Lorne, that friend who by enlisting the aid of Cleek had saved her son's life and given her her newly found married happiness by the sale of the sacred tooth.
Dollops then was the happiest of mortals when, having polished and repolished his beloved telescope, on their return from the riverside retreat, he was given the morning to polishing the mirrors in the great dining-room of Clarges Street. Now, if there was one thing he loved more than another, it was a liberal use of "elbow grease," next, of course, to that everpresent delight of satisfying his appetite, and it was with much relish that he set out to undertake the task. So it may be readily understood that his sensations were not those of unmixed delight when, just as he had got the mirrors thoroughly moist, an imperative postman's knock brought him to earth, literally as well as metaphorically. Tumbling down the high wooden step ladder, he flew to answer the door.
"Orl right, orl right!" he ejaculated, as a still more violent assault took place. "I'm not a blooming caterpillar; only got two legs, you know, like the rest of us."
"Bit of a hurry — I don't think," answered the postman sarcastically, as he handed in a brown cardboard box similar to those sent out by most florists, and marked with all the usual precautionary labels.
"Don't let the lieutenant's buttonhole fade before you take it to him, will you?" And with this parting shot the man departed, leaving Dollops for once too busy reading the half-obliterated stamp to give full rein to his usual gift of repartee.
"Lor' lumme!" he soliloquized, as he ascended the staircase, three steps at a time, and rapped at the study door. "Another flower from Miss Ailsa, bless er! An' won't 'e just jump at it ! "
And jump at it Cleek did. He was writing his usual morning letter to her, but at sight of Dollops's smiling countenance his face lit up, and he fairly snatched the box from him in his hurry.
Meanwhile Dollops, with commendable tact, turned to flick away a particle of imaginary dust on one of the picture frames, and smiled knowingly.
But only for a moment. Came suddenly the sound of a cry, half curse, half snarl, which sent the lad spinning round like a top, and the sight of Cleek's distorted face froze his very marrow.
"Gawd's trufe, guv'nor, but what is it?" he gulped breathlessly, running over to his master and peering anxiously down into the agonized face.
The beads of perspiration stood out upon Cleek's forehead, his fists clenched at his sides.
"The devils! The infernal devils !" he cried fiercely, shaken out of himself by the awfulness of the thing that lay before him. "By Heaven! but they shall suffer for this! Ailsa, my dear, my dear!"
He lifted the little cardboard box from the table, and held it toward Dollops with a look of almost petrified agony. The boy gave vent to a hysterical scream, for, even as he looked, he saw that it contained a finger — a woman's finger — slender and exquisite, encircled with the Maurevanian ring which Cleek had replaced upon Ailsa Lorne's hand such a few short months ago at the Embassy. The box was lined and padded with snowy cotton wool, a fit resting place for so precious though grim a treasure.
"Miss Lorne!" he gulped, passing a hand across his eyes in terrified amazement. "O, Lor' lumme, sir, don't go to say it's 'er! Oh, don't say it, guv'nor, for Gawd's sake, don't!" He snatched up the piece of crested paper which had fallen from it, and scanned it eagerly, feeling at such a time as this that he was one with his master. It bore these words: "With Count Irma's compliments. Miss Lorne releases the King from his engagement, and he will do well to take up his duties immediately, lest worse befall her."
A chalky pallor overspread Cleek's face. His eyes narrowed. "Never!" he rapped out furiously, hitting his hands together and breathing hard, like a spent runner. "From this day I live to avenge myself! Dollops, the 'phone, quick! Ring up Mr. Narkom, and get him to speak to me. Quick as you can, for God's sake!"
It was barely half an hour later when the limousine, travelling at a mile-a-minute clip that sent the police of the neighbourhood blinking and winking like a cat in the sun, dashed up Clarges Street, and drew up before the particular house in that particular row that was owned and lived in by Lieutenant Deland. A somewhat perturbed and crimson-countenanced Superintendent sprang out upon the pavement, flinging a few hurried words over his shoulder to Lennard.
"Leave both doors open, Lennard," he said hastily, grudging the time it took to give instructions. "Don't know which side he'll come in, but don't take any notice. I'm doubtful these days. Then make for the Thames cottage, and drive like the wind. Miss Ailsa is in danger."
Lennard gasped, and then nodded.
"Leave it to me, sir."
Then Mr. Narkom sprang up the stone steps, to find Lieutenant Deland waiting for him, and Cleek's agonized eyes looking out of the frame of his face.
He made no effort to speak, merely beckoned the Superintendent and disappeared, and a second later appeared again, and followed Mr. Narkom down the steps to the limousine, handing him the little cardboard box, with its horrible treasure, as he entered the car.
The Superintendent opened it, then groaned aloud.
"Curse them!" he broke forth excitedly, as the car leaped forward and went thundering off into the distance ahead. "I'll hang 'em, every one, if my life goes for it. The beasts! The devils!" His voice broke, and trailed off into silence; he put a hand out, and touched upon the shoulder the crouching figure in the corner. But Cleek never stirred, never moved, merely sat there with bowed head, while both hands covered his face, and his shoulders drawn up like a whipped thing.
Then the Superintendent leaned forward, and picked up the speaking-tube.
"Streak it," he instructed Lennard; and "streak it" Lennard did, for the car went scudding through the traffic at as mad a pace as the law would dare to wink at.
Soon they were passing down a narrow hawthornhedged lane, field-edged with waving grasses that swayed idly to and fro, and, half way down this, came in sight of another car, standing empty and disabled. The feet of the chauffeur showed grotesquely from beneath it, and the sound of hammering punctured the silence that lay about them.
Lennard flashed a look of mute apology over his shoulder, as he was perforce obliged to slow down; and Mr. Narkom, feverish with anxiety, unlatched the door, and stood ready to descend. It was impossible to pass the disabled car, unless it were pushed right into the hedge.
"Curse the thing !" muttered Mr. Narkom, furious at the unnecessary delay. "Just one minute, my dear chap, and I'll settle it." He did not wait for Cleek to answer, but jumped from the limousine, and went stamping off in the direction of the other car.
Finally, in answer to Lennard's angry demands, the chauffeur decided to come out, and out, too, came something else, for with a paralyzing suddenness, breaking on the calm of the summer morning, shots rang out from behind the flowering hedges, burying themselves in the limousine's front tire with remarkably good aim. And before so much as a word of warning could be uttered, the car itself was surrounded by a crowd of dark, swarthy men, muttering and talking among themselves in some strange, outlandish language which Mr. Narkom rightly assumed to be the Maurevanian native tongue. Hearing this, he spun upon his heel, and with a great fear in his heart went pelting back to the limousine, and thrust his head inside the open window.
"Cleek," he said swiftly, with a little tremor in his tones. "Save yourself, for God's sake!"
But too late. For even as he spoke a couple of men bore down upon him, seized him ruthlessly about his ample waist line, and slung ropes around him, binding him close.
He cursed, he spluttered, he fought bravely and well, hitting out with his fists as they swarmed about him. But the numbers were too unequal. He succumbed, and even as he fell his eyes saw Lennard bound and gagged also, and his heart went out to Cleek in an agony of misgiving.
Yes, there he was! Cleek! Cleek, his pal, his friend, the person he loved best in all the world. They had thrown a cloth over his head, and were bearing him toward the other car, which, for some reason, seemed now to be in perfect working order. The whole miserable plot lay bared before the Superintendent's eyes. He twisted over on his side, and choked uncomfortably. There were tears in his eyes, so that he could barely distinguish the figures that kept passing to and fro in front of him.
At last they were all gone, babbling and laughing triumphantly as the car sped off in the direction of London.
"God!" cried the Superintendent mentally, in a very anguish of soul. "Take care of him! Take care of Cleek, for if he is hurt, I swear he shall be avenged!"
The purr of the car dropped off into the distance, and a silence followed. The sun was scorchingly hot; the Superintendent's forehead streamed with perspiration; every second seemed an hour. Then, as if from some spot quite near him, came a sound that nearly caused his heart to stop beating. It was impossible! Incredible! Just the murmur of a soft laugh, and before he could so much as lurch his heavy weight over in the direction from which it had come, Cleek, Cleek himself, by the powers! stepped out from the limousine, and came toward him, smiling.
"Well played, well played!" said he softly, as he whipped out a pocket-knife, and cut the Superintendent's bonds. "It was a close enough shave, though! I suspected as much. It was a shame to give you such a bad quarter of an hour, dear friend, but there was no other way."
"Cleek, you're safe! Oh, thank God, thank God!"
The Superintendent's voice broke and was silent; he staggered to his feet, and clutched Cleek's hand as a drowning man might clutch at a floating spar; his heart was in his eyes. He drew a shaking hand across them.
"Come," said he, "let's get Lennard free, too. It's too hot a day to enjoy such close captivity. Then we must get on as quickly as possible. There's none hurt, thank fortune!"
"No, none hurt, as you say, and that's something to be thankful for, in all conscience," said Cleek, as having freed Lennard, he drew Narkom's hand in his arm and walked over to the limousine. "But I think I've done for 'em this time, anyway. They were as much taken in with Master Dollops as you were. But the boy's safe enough. He'll take care of himself. When those devils find oat who it is, they'll start hot-foot on my trail again, and run straight into Hammond and Petrie and a posse of others. I rang up the Yard, dear friend, after I had rung up you. I suspected a trick, and I knew the kind I was dealing with. But it was warm under that seat, I can tell you! What's that, Lennard? Got the tires on already? Bully boy! Bully boy!" He sprang into the limousine, followed by a puffing, breathless, somewhat incoherent Mr. Narkom. Then, with a bound like a mad thing, the car plunged forward, and proceeded upon its journey without further mishap.
But there was no sign of Ailsa Lorne when they reached the cottage, and Cleek's heart sank within him when Mrs. Condiment related how her young mistress had gone off "in a grand motor, with a splendid gentleman, with medals all over him, sir, just like my friend, the sergeant."
"Count Irma himself!" rapped out Cleek in answer to this. "He's tricked her somehow. I might have guessed they would hit at me through her." He turned on his heel, and crossed over to the latticed window, looking out with anguished eyes. A minute passed in silence, then a tapping sound attracted his attention. There was a pigeon outside the casement window. He threw open the window with a cry of delight.
"It's a message, a message from her dear self!" he cried, as he pounced upon the bird and whipped a tiny fold of paper tied with yellow silk from its leg. "It's from Ailsa, Mr. Narkom, from Ailsa! Listen!" The words "imprisoned — Sir Lionel Calmount — safe," he read; then looked up into the Superintendent's face with thankful eyes.
But the Superintendent was not so grateful. "Yes, but where is that?" he bleated despairingly, scanning the paper eagerly.
"Wait!" rapped out Cleek. "Calmount, Calmount," he gave a little yap of pleasure, like a terrier that has just seen a rat — "Calmount! Lionel Calmount, Irma's English chum! I've heard of him often; one of the old school — noblesse oblige, and all that sort of thing. And as for letting a poor devil of a monarch marry anything but a princess of the Royal blood — oh, dear, no! Yes, our friend Count Irma knew his man when he sought Calmount's help. But we'll be even with the lot yet. He's got a place in Hampshire, Calmount Castle, I think; that will be it, or else the pigeon couldn't have done the journey." He rushed over to the bookcase. "Here's a road map. Come, let's see! I don't doubt that Lennard will do it all right."
And Lennard did "do it," for in a few minutes the limousine was once more upon its way, with Cleek and Mr. Narkom seated inside it, and the road map in Cleek's hands. Now and again he gave hasty instructions to Lennard through the tube, watching with eager eyes how the distances fell away.
The Superintendent laid a hand upon his arm. "I say, dear chap," said he doubtfully, "but isn't it a bit risky putting your head into the lion's mouth like this, eh?"
"I'd risk fifty lives for her dear sake!" snapped out Cleek sharply, his eyes upon the fleeting vista of fields that swept by the window, "but it's all right, Mr. Narkom. Down with the blinds, and switch on the electrics, and we'll see what Lieutenant Arthur Deland from the Embassy can do with the matter. That'll be best, I think."
Mr. Narkom thought so, too, and said so. For the next half hour the two men worked feverishly, and so it was that Lieutenant Arthur Deland stepped out upon the stage, and found himself playing as strange a part in the drama of existence as had ever fallen to his lot.
IT WAS exactly five o'clock in the afternoon, and the sun was beginning to think of retiring from business, when a dusty, travel-stained limousine drew up at the lodge gates of Calmount Castle like a snorting, puffing horse, and demanded entrance.
"Who are you and what do you want?" demanded the shambling old gatekeeper, in a cracked voice.
"We want Sir Lionel Calmount," threw in Mr. Narkom excitedly. "Open the gates, my good fellow, as quickly as you can. The matter is urgent, cannot be delayed." But the "good fellow" was in no great hurry to accede to this demand. He hemmed and hawed for some moments, scratching his thatch of white hair with a horny hand, so that Cleek felt, in the unnecessary delay, a strong desire to leap out and shake the sense into him. But at sight of the flash of gold in Mr. Narkom's palm his actions quickened. The transferring of that same gold piece to his hand caused immediate obedience, and the limousine was soon gliding comfortably up the long drive toward Calmount Castle, and the fulfilment of at least one part of the quest that had brought them here.
The great front door stood wide open, and in the frame of it was a tall, erect, white-haired gentleman staring down at them blankly from beneath shaggy eyebrows. Cleek stepped forward, and removed his hat.
"Sir Lionel Calmount?" he said politely. "We come on account of Maurevania. Will you give us a hearing?" He thrust out the Maurevanian ring, and at sight of it the old man changed colour.
"If you have much to say," said he, leading the way to a small drawing-room at the rear of the building. "What do you want with me, sir? And what is the business you have come upon?"
"I want the release of your prisoner, Miss Ailsa Lorne," rapped out Cleek sharply, meeting the keen eyes with his own. "She is under the protection of the British Government, and Scotland Yard has come to take possession of her and bring her safely back home."
Sir Lionel clicked his teeth together.
"Impossible! Miss Lorne is . . . well, to speak perfectly plainly, she is not in possession of her senses, sir. She is mad."
"Mad! Not unless you have driven her insane with your atrocities. For God's sake, let us see her, lest I do you an unjust injury, Sir Lionel. I beg of you to take me to her at once!"
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