The tall man’s hand was in his pocket when the detective spoke.
When he had entered the hall he had thrown a swift glance round the place and taken in every detail. He had seen the beaded strip of unpainted wood which guarded the electric light cables, and had improved the opportunity whilst the prosy brother was speaking to make a further reconnaissance. There was a white porcelain switchboard with half a dozen switches at the left-hand side of the platform. He judged the distance and threw up the hand that held the pistol.
A crash of broken glass, a quick flash of blue flame from the shattered fuses—and the hall was in darkness. It happened before the detective could spring from his form into the yelling, screaming crowd—before the police officer could get a glance at the man who fired the shots.
In an instant the place was a pandemonium.
“Silence!” Falmouth roared above the din; “silence! Keep quiet, you miserable cowards—show a light here, Brown, Curtis—Inspector, where are your men’s lanterns!”
The rays of a dozen bull’s-eye lamps waved over the struggling throng.
“Open your lanterns”—and to the seething mob, “Silence!”
Then a bright young officer remembered that he had seen gas-brackets in the room, and struggled through the howling mob till he came to the wall and found the gas-fitting with his lantern. He struck a match and lit the gas, and the panic subsided as suddenly as it had begun.
Falmouth, choked with rage, threw his eye round the hall.
“Guard the door,” he said briefly; “the hall is surrounded and they cannot possibly escape.” He strode swiftly along the central aisle, followed by two of his men, and with an agile leap, sprang on to the platform and faced the audience. The Woman of Gratz, with a white set face, stood motionless, one hand resting on the little table, the other at her throat. Falmouth raised his hand to enjoin silence and the law-breakers obeyed.
“I have no quarrel with the Red Hundred,” he said. “By the law of this country it is permissible to hold opinions and propagate doctrines, however objectionable they be—I am here to arrest two men who have broken the laws of this country. Two persons who are part of the organization known as the Four Just Men.”
All the time he was speaking his eyes searched the faces before him. He knew that one-half of the audience could not understand him and that the hum of talk that arose as he finished was his speech in course of translation.
The faces he sought he could not discern. To be exact, he hoped that his scrutiny would induce two men, of whose identity he was ignorant, to betray themselves.
There are little events, unimportant in themselves, which occasionally lead to tremendous issues. A skidding motor-bus that crashed into a private car in Piccadilly had led to the discovery that there were three vociferous foreign gentlemen imprisoned in the overturned vehicle. It led to the further discovery that the chauffeur had disappeared in the confusion of the collision. In the darkness, comparing notes, the three prisoners had arrived at a conclusion—to wit, that their abduction was a sequel to a mysterious letter each had received, which bore the signature “The Four Just Men”.
So in the panic occasioned by the accident, they were sufficiently indiscreet to curse the Four Just Men by name, and, the Four Just Men being a sore topic with the police, they were questioned further, and the end of it was that Superintendent Falmouth motored eastward in great haste and was met in Middlesex Street by a reserve of police specially summoned.
He was at the same disadvantage he had always been—the Four Just Men were to him names only, symbols of a swift remorseless force that struck surely and to the minute—and nothing more.
Two or three of the leaders of the Red Hundred had singled themselves out and drew closer to the platform.
“We are not aware,” said François, the Frenchman, speaking for his companions in faultless English, “we are not aware of the identity of the men you seek, but on the understanding that they are not brethren of our Society, and moreover”—he was at a loss for words to put the fantastic situation—“and moreover since they have threatened us—threatened us,” he repeated in bewilderment, “we will afford you every assistance.”
The detective jumped at the opportunity.
“Good!” he said and formed a rapid plan.
The two men could not have escaped from the hall. There was a little door near the platform, he had seen that—as the two men he sought had seen it. Escape seemed possible through there; they had thought so, too. But Falmouth knew that the outer door leading from the little vestibule was guarded by two policemen. This was the sum of the discovery made also by the two men he sought. He spoke rapidly to François.
“I want every person in the hall to be vouched for,” he said quickly. “Somebody must identify every man, and the identifier must himself be identified.”
The arrangements were made with lightning-like rapidity. From the platform in French, German and Yiddish, the leaders of the Red Hundred explained the plan. Then the police formed a line, and one by one the people came forward, and shyly, suspiciously or self-consciously, according to their several natures, they passed the police line.
“That is Simon Czech of Buda-Pest.”
“Who identifies him?”
“I,”—a dozen voices.
“This is Michael Ranekov of Odessa.”
“Who identifies him?”
“I,” said a burly man, speaking in German.
There was a little titter, for Michael is the best-known man in the Order. Some there were who, having passed the line, waited to identify their kinsfolk and fellow-countrymen.
“It seems much simpler than I could have imagined.”
It was the tall man with the trim beard, who spoke in a guttural tone which was neither German nor Yiddish. He was watching with amused interest the examination.
“Separating the lambs from the goats with a vengeance,” he said with a faint smile, and his taciturn companion nodded. Then he asked—
“Do you think any of these people will recognize you as the man who fired?”
The tall man shook his head decisively.
“Their eyes were on the police—and besides I am too quick a shot. Nobody saw me unless——”
“The Woman of Gratz?” asked the other, without showing the slightest concern.
“The Woman of Gratz,” said George Manfred.
They formed part of a struggling line that moved slowly toward the police barrier.
“I fear,” said Manfred, “that we shall be forced to make our escape in a perfectly obvious way—the bull-at-the-gate method is one that I object to on principle, and it is one that I have never been obliged to employ.”
They were speaking all the time in the language of the harsh gutturals, and those who were in their vicinity looked at them in some perplexity, for it is a tongue unlike any that is heard in the Revolutionary Belt.
Closer and closer they grew to the inflexible inquisitor at the end of the police line. Ahead of them was a young man who turned from time to time as if seeking a friend behind. His was a face that fascinated the shorter of the two men, ever a student of faces. It was a face of deadly pallor, that the dark close-cropped hair and the thick black eyebrows accentuated. Aesthetic in outline, refined in contour, it was the face of a visionary, and in the restless, troubled eyes there lay a hint of the fanatic. He reached the barrier and a dozen eager men stepped forward for the honour of sponsorship. Then he passed and Manfred stepped calmly forward.
“Heinrich Rossenburg of Raz,” he mentioned the name of an obscure Transylvanian village.
“Who identifies this man?” asked Falmouth monotonously. Manfred held his breath and stood ready to spring.
It was the spirituel who had gone before him; the dreamer with the face of a priest.
Manfred, calm and smiling, sauntered through the police with a familiar nod to his saviour. Then he heard the challenge that met his companion.
“Rolf Woolfund,” he heard Poiccart”s clear, untroubled voice.
“Who identifies this man?”
Again he waited tensely.
“1 do,” said the young man”s voice again.
Then Poiccart joined him, and they waited a little.
Out of the corner of his eye Manfred saw the man who had vouched for him saunter toward them. He came abreast, then:
“If you would care to meet me at Reggiori’s at King”s Cross I shall be there in an hour,” he said, and Manfred noticed without emotion that this young man also spoke in Arabic.
They passed through the crowd that had gathered about the hall—for the news of the police raid had spread like wildfire through the East End—and gained Aldgate Station before they spoke.
“This is a curious beginning to our enterprise,” said Manfred. He seemed neither pleased nor sorry. “I have always thought that Arabic was the safest language in the world in which to talk secrets—one learns wisdom with the years,” he added philosophically.
Poiccart examined his well-manicured finger-nails as though the problem centred there. “There is no precedent,” he said, speaking to himself.
“And he may be an embarrassment,” added George; then, “let us wait and see what the hour brings.”
The hour brought the man who had befriended them so strangely. It brought also a little in advance of him a fourth man who limped slightly but greeted the two with a rueful smile.
“Hurt?” asked Manfred.
“Nothing worth speaking about,” said the other carelessly, “and now what is the meaning of your mysterious telephone message?”
Briefly Manfred sketched the events of the night, and the other listened gravely.
“It’s a curious situation,” he began, when a warning glance from Poiccart arrested him. The subject of their conversation had arrived.
He sat down at the table, and dismissed the fluttering waiter that hung about him.
The four sat in silence for a while and the newcomer was the first to speak.
“I call myself Bernard Courtlander,” he said simply, “and you are the organization known as the Four Just Men.”
They did not reply.
“I saw you shoot,” he went on evenly, “because I had been watching you from the moment when you entered the hall, and when the police adopted the method of identification, I resolved to risk my life and speak for you.”
“Meaning,” interposed Poiccart calmly, “you resolved to risk—our killing you?”
“Exactly,” said the young man, nodding, “a purely outside view would be that such a course would be a fiendish act of ingratitude, but I have a closer perception of principles, and I recognize that such a sequel to my interference is perfectly logical.” He singled out Manfred leaning back on the red plush cushions. “You have so often shown that human life is the least considerable factor in your plan, and have given such evidence of your singleness of purpose, that I am fully satisfied that if my life—or the life of any one of you—stood before the fulfilment of your objects, that life would go—so!” He snapped his fingers.
“Well?” said Manfred.
“I know of your exploits,” the strange young man went on, “as who does not?”
He took from his pocket a leather case, and from that he extracted a newspaper cutting. Neither of the three men evinced the slightest interest in the paper he unfolded on the white cloth. Their eyes were on his face.
“Here is a list of people slain—for justice” sake,” Courtlander said, smoothing the creases from a cutting from the Megaphone, “men whom the law of the land passed by, sweaters and debauchers, robbers of public funds, corrupters of youth—men who bought ‘justice’ as you and I buy bread.” He folded the paper again. “I have prayed God that I might one day meet you.”
“Well?” It was Manfred”s voice again.
“I want to be with you, to be one of you, to share your campaign and and——” he hesitated, then added soberly, “if need be, the death that awaits you.”
Manfred nodded slowly, then looked toward the man with the limp.
“What do you say, Gonsalez?” he asked.
This Leon Gonsalez was a famous reader of faces,—that much the young man knew,—and he turned for the test and met the other”s appraising eyes.
“Enthusiast, dreamer, and intellectual, of course,” said Gonsalez slowly; “there is reliability which is good, and balance which is better—but——”
“But—?” asked Courtlander steadily.
“There is passion, which is bad,” was the verdict.
“It is a matter of training,” answered the other quietly. “My lot has been thrown with people who think in a frenzy and act in madness; it is the fault of all the organizations that seek to right wrong by indiscriminate crime, whose sense are senses, who have debased sentiment to sentimentality, and who muddle kings with kingship.”
“You are of the Red Hundred?” asked Manfred.
“Yes,” said the other, “because the Red Hundred carries me a little way along the road I wish to travel.”
“In the direction?”
“Who knows?” replied the other. “There are no straight roads, and you cannot judge where lies your destination by the direction the first line of path takes.”
“I do not tell you how great a risk you take upon yourself,” said Manfred, “nor do I labour the extent of the responsibility you ask to undertake. You are a wealthy man?”
“Yes,” said Courtlander, “as wealth goes; I have large estates in Hungary.”
“I do not ask that question aimlessly, yet it would make no difference if you were poor,” said Manfred. “Are you prepared to sell your estates—Buda-Gratz I believe they are called—Highness?”
For the first time the young man smiled.
“I did not doubt but that you knew me,” he said; “as to my estates I will sell them without hesitation.”
“And place the money at my disposal?”
“Yes,” he replied, instantly. “Without reservation?”
“And,” said Manfred, slowly, “if we felt disposed to employ this money for what might seem our own personal benefit, would you take exception?”
“None,” said the young man, calmly.
“And as a proof?” demanded Poiccart, leaning a little forward.
“The word of a Hap——”
“Enough,” said Manfred; “we do not want your money—yet money is the supreme test.” He pondered awhile before he spoke again.
“There is the Woman of Gratz,” he said abruptly; “at the worst she must be killed.”
“It is a pity,” said Courtlander, a little sadly.
He had answered the final test did he but know it.
A too willing compliance, an over-eagerness to agree with the supreme sentence of the “Four”, any one thing that might have betrayed the lack of that exact balance of mind, which their word demanded, would have irretrievably condemned him.
“Let us drink an arrogant toast,” said Manfred, beckoning a waiter. The wine was opened and the glasses filled, and Manfred muttered the toast.
“The Four who were three, to the Fourth who died and the Fourth who is born.”
Once upon a time there was a fourth who fell riddled with bullets in a Bordeaux café, and him they pledged.
In Middlesex Street, in the almost emptied hall, Falmouth stood at bay before an army of reporters.
“Were they the Four Just Men, Mr. Falmouth?”
“Did you see them?”
“Have you any clue?”
Every second brought a fresh batch of newspaper men, taxi after taxi came into the dingy street, and the string of vehicles lined up outside the hall was suggestive of a fashionable gathering. The Telephone Tragedy was still fresh in the public mind, and it needed no more than the utterance of the magical words “Four Just Men” to fan the spark of interest to flame again. The delegates of the Red Hundred formed a privileged throng in the little wilderness of a forecourt, and through these the journalists circulated industriously.
Smith of the Megaphone and his youthful assistant, Maynard, slipped through the crowd and found their taxi.
Smith shouted a direction to the driver and sank back in the seat with a whistle of weariness.
“Did you hear those chaps talking about police protection?” he asked; “all the blessed anarchists from all over the world—and talking like a mothers’ meeting! To hear ’em you would think they were the most respectable members of society that the world had ever seen. Our civilization is a wonderful thing,” he added, cryptically.
“One man,” said Maynard, “asked me in very bad French if the conduct of the Four Just Men was actionable!”
At that moment, another question was being put to Falmouth by a leader of the Red Hundred, and Falmouth, a little ruffled in his temper, replied with all the urbanity that he could summon.
“You may have your meetings,” he said with some asperity, “so long as you do not utter anything calculated to bring about a breach of the peace, you may talk sedition and anarchy till you’re blue in the face. Your English friends will tell you how far you can go—and I might say you can go pretty far—you can advocate the assassination of kings, so long as you don’t specify which king; you can plot against governments and denounce armies and grand dukes; in fact, you can do as you please—because that’s the law.”
“What is—a breach of the peace?” asked his interrogator, repeating the words with difficulty.
Another detective explained.
François and one Rudulph Starque escorted the Woman of Gratz to her Bloomsbury lodgings that night, and they discussed the detective’s answer.
This Starque was a big man, strongly built, with a fleshy face and little pouches under his eyes. He was reputed to be well off, and to have a way with women.
“So it would appear,” he said, “that we may say ‘Let the kings be slain,’ but not ‘Let the king be slain;’ also that we may preach the downfall of governments, but if we say ‘Let us go into this café’—how do you call it?—‘public-house, and be rude to the ‘proprietaire’ we commit a—er—breach of the peace—ne c’est pas?”
“It is so,” said Francois, “that is the English way.”
“It is a mad way,” said the other.
They reached the door of the girl’s pension. She had been very quiet during the walk, answering questions that were put to her in monosyllables. She had ample food for thought in the events of the night.
François bade her a curt good night and walked a little distance.
It had come to be regarded as Starque’s privilege to stand nearest the girl. Now he took her slim hands in his and looked down at her.
Some one has said the East begins at Bukarest, but there is a touch of the Eastern in every Hungarian, and there is a crudeness in their whole attitude to womankind that shocks the more tender susceptibilities of the Western.
“Good night, little Maria,” he said in a low voice. “Some day you will be kinder, and you will not leave me at the door.”
She looked at him steadfastly.
“That will never be,” she replied, without a tremor.