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Cleek: the Man of the Forty Faces By Thomas W. Hanshew Characters: 7556

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

"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."

"As how?"

"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 h

eart 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.

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