Thomas W. Hanshew.

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THE RIDDLE OF THE FROZEN FLAME

By MARY E. & THOMAS W. HANSHEW

Author of "Cleek, the Man of Forty Faces," "Cleek of Scotland
Yard," "Cleek's Government Cases," "The Riddle of the Night," "The Riddle
of the Purple Emperor."

1929





A.L. BURT COMPANY
New York
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, Page & Company




CONTENTS

CHAPTER


I. The Law

II. The Frozen Flames

III. Sunshine and Shadow

IV. An Evil Genius

V. The Spectre at the Feast

VI. A Shot in the Dark

VII. The Watcher in the Shadow

VIII. The Victim

IX. The Second Victim

X. - And the Lady

XI. The Secret of the Flames

XII. "As a Thief in the Night - "

XIII. A Gruesome Discovery

XIV. The Spin of the Wheel

XV. A Startling Disclosure

XVI. Trapped!

XVII. In the Cell

XVIII. Possible Excitement

XIX. What Took Place at "The Pig and Whistle"

XX. At the Inquest

XXI. Questions - and Answers

XXII. A New Departure

XXIII. Prisoners

XXIV. In the Dark

XXV. The Web of Circumstance

XXVI. Justice - and Justification

XXVII. The Solving of the Riddle

XXVIII. "Toward Morning ..."




The Riddle of the Frozen Flame




CHAPTER I

THE LAW


Mr. Maverick Narkom, Superintendent of Scotland Yard, sat before the
litter of papers upon his desk. His brow was puckered, his fat face red
with anxiety, and there was about him the air of one who has reached the
end of his tether.

He faced the man opposite, and fairly ground his teeth upon his lower
lip.

"Dash it, Cleek!" he said for the thirty-third time, "I don't know what
to make of it, I don't, indeed! The thing's at a deadlock. Hammond
reports to me this morning that another bank in Hendon - a little
one-horse affair - has been broken into. That makes the third this week,
and as usual every piece of gold is gone. Not a bank note touched, not
a bond even fingered. And the thief - or thieves - made as clean a get-away
as you ever laid your eyes on! I tell you, man, it's enough to send an
average person daft! The whole of Scotland Yard's been on the thing, and
we haven't traced 'em yet! What do you make of it, old chap?"

"As pretty a kettle of fish as I ever came across," responded Cleek, with
an enigmatic smile. "And I can't help having a sneaking admiration for
the person who's engineering the whole thing. How he must laugh at the
state of the old Yard, with never a clue to settle down upon, never a
thread to pick up and unravel! All of which is unbusinesslike of me, I've
no doubt. But, cheer up, man, I've a piece of news which ought to help
matters on a bit. Just came from the War Office, you know."

Mr. Narkom mopped his forehead eagerly. The action was one which Cleek
knew showed that every nerve was tense.

"Well, out with it, old chap! Anything to cast some light on the
inexplicable thing. What did you learn at the War Office?"

"A good many things - after I had unravelled several hundred yards of red
tape to get at 'em," said Cleek, still smiling. "Chief among them was
this: Much English gold has been discovered in Belgium, Mr. Narkom, in
connection with several big electrical firms engaged upon work out there.
The Secret Service wired over that fact, and I got it first hand. Now it
strikes me there must be some connection between the two things. These
bank robberies point in one direction, and that is, that the gold is not
for use in this country. Now let's hear the full account of this latest
outrage. I'm all ears, as the donkey said to the ostrich. Fire away."

Mr. Narkom "fired away" forthwith. He was a bland, round little man,
rather too fat for one's conceptions of what a policeman ought to be, yet
with that lightness of foot that so many stout people seem to possess.

Cleek presented a keen contrast to him. His broad-shouldered,
well-groomed person would have adorned any company. His head was well-set
upon his neck, and his features at this moment were small and inclined to
be aquiline. He had closely set ears that lay well back against his head,
and his hands were slim and exceedingly well-kept. Of his age - well that,
like himself, was an enigma. To-day he might have been anything between
thirty-five and forty - to-morrow probably he would be looking nineteen.
That was part of the peculiar birthright of the man, that and a mobility
of feature which enabled him to alter his face completely in the passing
of a second, a gift which at least one notorious criminal of history also
possessed.

He sat now, playing with the silver-topped cane between his knees, his
head slightly to one side, his whole manner one of polite and tolerant
interest. But Mr. Narkom knew that this same manner marked an intensity
of concentration which was positively unique. Without more ado he plunged
into the details of his story.

"It happened in this wise, Cleek," he said, tapping his fountain-pen
against his blotter until little spouts of ink fell out like jet beads.
"This is at least the ninth case of the kind we've had reported to us
within the space of the last fortnight. The first robbery was at a tiny
branch bank in Purley, and the bag amounted to a matter of a couple of
hundred or so sovereigns; the second was at Peckham - on the outskirts,
you understand; the third at Harrow; the fourth somewhere near Forest
Hill, and the fifth in Croydon. Other places on the South East side of
London have come in for their share, too, as for instance Anerley and
Sutton. This last affair took place at Hendon, during the evening of
Saturday last - the sixteenth, wasn't it? No one observed anything
untoward in the least, that is except one witness who relates how he saw
a motor car standing outside the bank's premises at half past nine at
night. He gave no thought to this, as he probably imagined, if he thought
of the coincidence at all, that the manager had called there for
something he had forgotten in his office."

"And where, then, does the manager live, if not over the bank itself?"
put in Cleek at this juncture.

"With his wife and family, in a house some distance away. A couple of old
bank people - a porter and his wife who are both thoroughly trustworthy in
every way, so Mr. Barker tells me - act as caretakers. But they positively
assert that they heard no one in the place that night, and no untoward
happening occurred to their knowledge."

"And yet the bank was broken into, and the gold taken," supplemented
Cleek quietly. "And what then, Mr. Narkom? How was the deed done?"

"Oh, the usual methods. The skeleton keys of a master crook obviously
opened the door to the premises themselves, and soup was used to crack
the safe. Everything was left perfectly neat and tidy and only the bags
of gold - amounting to seven hundred and fifty pounds - were gone. And not
a trace of a clue to give one a notion of who did the confounded thing,
or where they came from!"

"Hmm. Any finger-prints?"

Mr. Narkom shook his head.

"None. The thief or thieves used rubber gloves to handle the thing. And
that was the only leg given us to stand upon, so to speak. For rubber
gloves, when they are new, particularly, possess a very strong smell,
and this still clung to the door-knob of the safe, and to several
objects near it. That was how we deduced the rubber-glove theory of
no finger-prints at all, Cleek."

"And a very worthy deduction too, my friend," responded that gentleman,
with something of tolerance in his smile. "And so you have absolutely
nothing to go by. Poor Mr. Narkom! The path of Law and Justice is by no
means an easy one to tread, is it? Of course you can count upon me to
help you in every way. That goes without saying. But I can't help
thinking that this news from the War Office with regard to English gold
in Belgium has something to do with these bank robberies, my friend. The
two things seem to hang together in my mind, and a dollar to a ducat that
in the long run they identify themselves thus.... Hello! Who's that?" as
a tap sounded at the door. "I'll be off if you're expecting visitors. I
want to look into this thing a little closer. Some time or other the
thieves are bound to leave a clue behind. Success breeds carelessness,
you know, and if they think that Scotland Yard is giving the business
up as a bad job, they won't be so deuced particular as to clearing up
afterward. We'll unravel the thing between us, never fear."

"I wish I could think so, old chap!" said Mr. Narkom, a trifle gloomily,
as he called "Come in!" The door opened to admit Petrie, very straight
and business-like. "But you're no end of a help. It does me good just to
see you. What is it, Petrie?"

"A gentleman to see you, sir," responded the constable in crisp tones. "A
gentleman by name of Merriton, Sir Nigel Merriton he said his name was.
Bit of a toff I should say by the look of 'im. And wants to see you
partikler. He mentioned Mr. Cleek's name, sir, but I told 'im he wasn't
in at the moment. Shall I show him up?"

"Quite right, Petrie," laughed Cleek, in recognition of this act of one
of the Yard's subordinates; for everyone was to do everything in his
power to shield Cleek's identity. "I'll stay if you don't mind, Mr.
Narkom. I happen to know something of this Merriton. A fine upstanding
young man, who, once upon a time was very great friends with Miss
Lorne. That was in the old Hawksley days. Chap's lately come into his
inheritance, I believe. Uncle disappeared some five or six years ago
and legal time being up, young Merriton has come over to claim his own.
The thing made a newspaper story for a week when it happened, but they
never found any trace of the old man. And now the young one is over
here, bearing the title, and I suppose living as master of the
Towers - spooklike spot that it is! Needn't say who I am, old chap, until
I hear a bit. I'll just shift over there by the window and read the news,
if you don't mind."

"Right you are." Mr. Narkom struggled into his coat - which he generally
disposed of during private office hours. Then he gave the order for the
gentleman to be shown in and Petrie disappeared forthwith.

But during the time which intervened before Merriton's arrival, Cleek did
a little "altering" in face and general get-up, and when he _did_ appear
certainly no one would have recognized the aristocratic looking
individual of a moment or two before, in an ordinary-appearing,
stoop-shouldered, rather racy-looking tout.

"Ready," said Cleek at last, and Mr. Narkom touched the bell upon his
table. Immediately the door opened and Petrie appeared followed closely
by young Sir Nigel Merriton, whose clean-cut face was grim and whose
mouth was set forbiddingly.

And in this fashion was Cleek introduced to the chief character of a case
which was to prove one of the strangest of his whole career. There was
nothing about Sir Nigel, a well-dressed man about town, to indicate that
he was to be the centre of an extraordinary drama, yet such was to be the
case.

He was obviously perturbed, but those who sought Mr. Narkom's counsel
were frequently agitated; for no one can be even remotely connected with
crime in one form or another without showing excitement to a greater or
lesser degree. And so his manner by no means set Sir Nigel apart from
many another visitor to the Superintendent's sanctum.

Mr. Narkom's cordial nod brought from the young man a demand to see "Mr.
Cleek," of whom he had heard such wonderful tales. Mr. Narkom, with one
eye on that very gentleman's back, announced gravely that Cleek was
absent on a government case, and asked what he could do. He waved a hand
in Cleek's direction and said that here was one of his men who would
doubtless be able to help Sir Nigel in any difficulty he might happen
to be in at the moment.

Now, as Sir Nigel's story was a long one, and as the young man was
too agitated to tell it altogether coherently, we will go back for a
certain space of time, and tell the very remarkable story, the details
of which were told to Mr. Narkom and his nameless associate in the
Superintendent's office, and which was to involve Cleek of Scotland Yard
in a case which was later to receive the title of the Riddle of the
Frozen Flame.

Much that he told them of his family history was already known to Cleek,
whose uncanny knowledge of men and affairs was a by-word, but as that
part of the story itself was not without romance, it must be told too,
and to do so takes the reader back to a few months before his present
visit to the precincts of the Law, when Sir Nigel Merriton returned to
England after twelve years of army life in India. A few days he had spent
in London, renewing acquaintances, revisiting places he knew - to find
them wonderfully little changed - and then had journeyed to Merriton
Towers, the place which was to be his, due to the extraordinary
disappearance of his uncle - a disappearance which was yet to be
explained.

Ill luck had often seemed to dog the footsteps of his house and even his
journey home was not without a mishap; nothing serious, as things turned
out, but still something that might have been vastly so. His train was in
a wreck, rather a nasty one, but Nigel himself had come out unscathed,
and much to be congratulated, he thought, since through that wreck he has
become acquainted with what he firmly believed to be the most beautiful
girl in the world. Better yet, he had learned that she was a neighbour of
his at Merriton Towers. That fact helped him through what he felt was
going to be somewhat of an ordeal - his entrance into the gloomy and
ghost-ridden old house of his inheritance.




CHAPTER II

THE FROZEN FLAMES


Merriton Towers had been called the loneliest spot in England by many
of the tourists who chanced to visit the Fen district, and it was no
misnomer. Nigel, having seen it some thirteen years before, found that
his memory had dimmed the true vision of the place considerably; that
where he had builded romance, romance was not. Where he had softened
harsh outlines, and peopled dark corridors with his own fancies, those
same outlines had taken on a grimness that he could hardly believe
possible, and the long, dark corridors of his mind's vision were longer
and darker and lonelier than he had ever imagined any spot could be.

It was a handsome place, no doubt, in its gaunt, gray, prisonlike way.
And, too, it had a moat and a miniature portcullis that rather tickled
his boyish fancy. The furnishings, however, had an appalling grimness
that took the very heart out of one. Chairs which seemed to have grown in
their places for centuries crowded the corners of hallway and stairs like
gigantic nightmares of their original prototypes. Monstrous curtains of
red brocade, grown purple with the years, seemed to hang from every
window and door crowding out the light and air. The carpets were thick
and dark and had lost all sign of pattern in the dull gloom of the
centuries.

It was, in fact, a house that would create ghosts. The atmosphere was
alive with that strange sensation of disembodied spirits which some
very old houses seem to possess. Narrow, slit-like windows in perfect
keeping with the architecture and the needs of the period in which it was
built - if not with modern ideas of hygiene and health - kept the rooms
dark and musty. When Nigel first entered the place through the great
front door thrown open by the solemn-faced butler, who he learned had
been kept on from his uncle's time, he felt as though he were entering
his own tomb. When the door shut he shuddered as the light and sunshine
vanished.

The first night he hardly slept a wink. His bed was a huge four-poster,
girt about with plush hangings like over-ripe plums, that shut him in as
though he were in some monstrous Victorian trinket box. A post creaked at
every turn he made in its downy softnesses, and being used to the light,
camp-like furniture of an Indian bungalow he got up, took an eiderdown
with him, and spent the rest of the hours upon a sofa drawn up beside an
open window.

"That people could live in such places!" he told himself, over and over
again. "No wonder my poor old uncle disappeared! Any self-respecting
Christian would. There'll be some slight alterations made in Merriton
Towers before I'm many days older, you can bet your life on that. Old
great-grandmother four-poster takes her _congé_ to-morrow morning. If
I must live here I'll sleep anyhow."

He settled himself back against the hard, horsehair sofa, and pulled up
the blind. The room was instantly filled with gray and lavender shadows,
while without the Fens stretched out in unbroken lines as though all the
rest of the world were made up of nothing else. Lonely? Merriton had
known the loneliness of Indian nights, far away from any signs of
civilization: the loneliness of the jungle when the air was so still that
the least sound was like the dropping of a bomb; the strange mystical
loneliness which comes to the only white man in a town of natives. But
all these were as nothing as compared to this. He could imagine a chap
committing suicide living in such a house. Sir Joseph Merriton had
disappeared five years before - and no wonder!

Merriton lay with his eyes upon the window, smoking a cigarette, and
surveyed the outlook before him with despairing eyes. What a future for
a chap in his early thirties to face! Not a sign of habitation anywhere,
not a vestige of it, save at the far edge of the Fens where a clump of
trees and thick shrubs told him that behind lay Withersby Hall. This,
intuition told him, was the home of Antoinette Brellier, the girl of the
train, of the wreck, and now of his dreams. Then his thoughts turned to
her. Gad! to bring a frail, delicate little butterfly to a place like
this was like trying to imprison a ray of sunshine in a leaden box!...

His eyes, rivetted upon where the clump of trees stood out against the
semi-darkness of the approaching dawn, saw of a sudden a light prick out
like a tiny flame, low down upon the very edge of the Fens. One light,
two, three, and then a very host of them flashed out, as though some
unseen hand had torn the heavens down and strewn their jewels broadcast
over the marshes. Instinctively he got to his feet. What on earth - ? But
even as his lips formed the unspoken exclamation came yet another light
to join the others dancing and twinkling and flickering out there across
the gloomy marshlands.

What the dickens was it, anyhow? A sort of unearthly fireworks display,
or some new explosive experiment? The dancing flames got into his eyes
like bits of lighted thistledown blown here, there, and everywhere.

Merriton got to his feet and threw open another window bottom with a good
deal of effort, for the sashes were old and stiff. Then, clad only in his
silk pyjamas, and with the cigarette charring itself to a tiny column of
gray ash in one hand, he leaned far out over the sill and watched those
twinkling, dancing, maddening little star-flames, with the eyes of amazed
astonishment.

In a moment sleep had gone from his eyelids and he felt thoroughly awake.
Dashed if he wouldn't throw on a few clothes and investigate. The thing
was so strange, so incredible! He knew, well enough, from Borkins's (the
venerable butler) description earlier in the evening, that that part of
the marshes was uninhabited. Too low for stars the things were, for they
hung on the edges of the marsh grass like tiny lanterns swung there by
fairy hands. In such a house, in such a room, with the shadow of that
old four-poster winding its long fingers over him, Merriton began to
perspire. It was so devilish uncanny! He was a brave enough man in human
matters, but somehow these flames out there in the uninhabited stretch of
the marshes were surely caused by no human agency. Go and investigate he
would, this very minute! He drew in his head and brought the window down
with a bang that went sounding through the gaunt, deserted old house.

Hastily he began to dress, and even as he struggled into a pair of tweed
trousers came the sound of a soft knock upon his door, and he whipped
round as though he had been shot, his nerves all a-jingle from the very
atmosphere of the place.

"And who the devil are you?" he snapped out in an angry voice, all the
more angry since he was conscious of a slight trembling of the knees. The
door swung open a trifle and the pale face of Borkins appeared around it.
His eyes were wide with fright, his mouth hung open.

"Sir Nigel, sir. I 'eard a dreadful noise - like a pistol shot it was,
comin' from this room! Anythink the matter, sir?"

"Nothing, you ass!" broke out Merriton, fretfully, as the butler began
to show other parts of his anatomy round the corner of the door. "Come
in, or go out, which ever you please. But for the Lord's sake, do one
or the other! There's a beastly draught. The noise you heard was that
window which possibly hasn't been opened for a century or two, groaning
in pain at being forced into action again! Can't sleep in this beastly
room - haven't closed my eyes yet - and when I did get out of that
Victorian atrocity over there and take to the sofa by the window,
why, the first thing I saw were those flames flickering out across the
horizon like signal-fires, or _something_! I've been watching them for
the past twenty minutes and they've got on my nerves. I'm goin' out to
investigate."

Borkins gave a little exclamation of alarm and put one trembling hand
over his face. Merriton suddenly registered the fact as being a symptom
of the state of nerves which Merriton Towers was likely to reduce one.
Then Borkins shambled across the room and laid a timid hand upon
Merriton's arm.

"For Gawd's sake sir - _don't_!" he murmured in a shaken voice. "Those
lights, sir - if you knew the story! If you values your life at any price
at all don't go out, sir, and investigate them. _Don't!_ You're a dead
man in the morning if you do."

"What's that?" Merriton swung round and looked into the weak, rather
watery, blue eyes of his butler. "What the devil do you mean, Borkins,
talkin' a lot of rot? What _are_ those flames, anyway? And why in
heaven's name shouldn't I go out and investigate 'em if I want to? Who's
to stop me?"

"I, your lordship - if I ever 'as any influence with 'uman nature!"
returned Borkins, vehemently. "The story's common knowledge, Sir Nigel,
sir. Them there flames is supernatural. Frozen flames the villagers
calls 'em, because they don't seem to give out no 'eat. That part of the
Fens in unin'abited and there isn't a soul in the whole village as would
venture anywhere near it after dark."

"Why?"

"Because they never comes back, that's why, sir!" said Borkins. "'Tisn't
any old wives' tale neither. There's been cases by the score. Only a
matter of six months ago one of the boys from the mill, who was somewhat
the worse for liquor, said he was a-goin' ter see who it was wot made them
flames light up by theirselves, and - he never came back. And that same
night another flame was added to the number!"

"Whew! Bit of a tall story that, Borkins!" Nevertheless a cold chill
crept over Merriton's bones and he gave a forced, mirthless laugh.

"As true as the gospel, Sir Nigel!" said Borkins, solemnly. "That's what
always 'appens. Every time any one ventures that way - well, they're
a-soundin' their own death-knell, so to speak, and you kin see the new
light appear. But there's never no trace of the person that ventured out
across the Fens at evening time. He, or she - a girl tried it once, Lord
save 'er! - vanishes off the face of the earth as clean as though they'd
never been born. Gawd alone knows what it is that lives there, or what
them flames may be, but I tells you it's sheer death to attempt to see
for yourself, so long as night lasts. And in the morning - well, it's
gone, and there isn't a thing to be seen for the lookin'!"

"Merciful powers! What a peculiar thing!" Despite his mockery of the
supernatural, Merriton could not help but feel a sort of awe steal over
him, at the tale as told by Borkins in the eeriest hour of the whole
twenty-four - that which hangs between darkness and dawn. Should he go or
shouldn't he? He was a fool to believe the thing, and yet - He certainly
didn't want to die yet awhile, with Antoinette Brellier a mere handful of
yards away from him, and all the days his own to cultivate her


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Online LibraryThomas W. HanshewThe Riddle of the Frozen Flame → online text (page 1 of 15)