The Four Just Men

by Edgar Wallace

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Chapter III - Jessen Alias Long

The front page of every big London daily was again black with the story of the Four Just Men.

“What I should like,” said the editor of the Megaphone, wistfully, “is a sort of official propaganda from the Four—a sort of inspired manifesto that we could spread into six columns.”

Charles Garret, the Megaphone’s “star” reporter, with his hat on the back of his head, and an apparently inattentive eye fixed on the electrolier, sniffed.

The editor looked at him reflectively.

“A smart man might get into touch with them.”

Charles said, “Yes,” but without enthusiasm.

“If it wasn’t that I knew you,” mused the editor, “I should say you were afraid.”

“I am,” said Charles shamelessly.

“I don”t want to put a younger reporter on this job,” said the editor sadly, “it would look bad for you; but I’m afraid I must.”

Presently, he found himself in Fleet Street, and standing t the edge of the curb, he answered a taxi-driver’s expectant look with a nod.

“Do,” said Charles with animation, “do, and put me down ten shillings toward the wreath.”

He left the office a few minutes later with the ghost of a smile at the corners of his mouth, and one fixed determination in the deepest and most secret recesses of his heart. It was rather like Charles that, having by an uncompromising firmness established his right to refuse work of a dangerous character, he should of his own will undertake the task against which he had officially set his face. Perhaps his chief knew him as well as he knew himself, for as Charles, with a last defiant snort, stalked from the office, the smile that came to his lips was reflected on the editor’s face.

Walking through the echoing corridors of Megaphone House, Charles whistled that popular and satirical song, the chorus of which runs—

By kind permission of the Megaphone,

By kind permission of the Megaphone.

Summer comes when Spring has gone,

And the world goes spinning on,

By permission of the Daily Megaphone.

Presently, he found himself in Fleet Street, and, standing at the edge of the curb, he answered a taxi-driver”s expectant look with a nod.

“Where to, sir?” asked the driver.

“37 Presley Street, Walworth—round by the ‘Blue Bob’ and the second turning to the left.”

Crossing Waterloo Bridge it occurred to him that the taxi might attract attention, so half-way down the Waterloo Road he gave another order, and, dismissing the vehicle, he walked the remainder of the way.

Charles knocked at 37 Presley Street, and after a little wait a firm step echoed in the passage, and the door was half opened. The passage was dark, but he could see dimly the thick-set figure of the man who stood waiting silently.

“Is that Mr. Long?” he asked.

“Yes,” said the man curtly.

Charles laughed, and the man seemed to recognize the voice and opened the door a little wider.

“Not Mr. Garrett?” he asked in surprise.

“That’s me,” said Charles, and walked into the house.

His host stopped to fasten the door, and Charles heard the snap of the well-oiled lock and the scraping of a chain. Then with an apology the man pushed past him and, opening the door, ushered him into a well-lighted room, motioned Charles to a deep-seated chair, seated himself near a small table, turned down the page of the book from which he had evidently been reading, and looked inquiringly at his visitor.

“I’ve come to consult you,” said Charles.

A lesser man than Mr. Long might have been grossly flippant, but this young man—he was thirty-five, but looked older—did not descend to such a level.

“I wanted to consult you,” he said in reply.

His language was the language of a man who addresses an equal, but there was something in his manner which suggested deference.

“You spoke to me about Milton,” he went on, “but I find I can’t read him. I think it is because he is not sufficiently material.” He paused a little. “The only poetry I can read is the poetry of the Bible, and that is because materialism and mysticism are so ingeniously blended——”

He may have seen the shadow on the journalist’s face, but he stopped abruptly.

“I can talk about books another time,” he said.

Charles did not make the conventional disclaimer, but accepted the other”s interpretation of the urgency of his business.

“You know everybody,” said Charles, “all the queer fish in the basket, and a proportion of them get to know you—in time.”

The other nodded gravely.

“When other sources of information fail,” continued the journalist, “I have never hesitated to come to you—Jessen.”

It may be observed that “Mr. Long” at the threshold of the house became “Mr. Jessen” in the intimacy of the inner room.

“I owe more to you than ever you can owe to me,” he said earnestly; “you put me on the track,” he waved his hand round the room as though the refinement of the room was the symbol of that track of which he spoke. “You remember that morning?—if you have forgotten, I haven”t—when I told you that to forget—I must drink? And you said——”

“I haven’t forgotten, Jessen,” said the correspondent quietly; “and the fact that you have accomplished all that you have is a proof that there’s good stuff in you.”

The other accepted the praise without comment.

“Now,” Charles went on, “I want to tell you what I started out to tell: I’m following a big story. It’s the Four Just Men story; you know all about it? I see that you do; well, I’ve got to get into touch with them somehow. I do not for one moment imagine that you can help me, nor do I expect that these chaps have any accomplices amongst the people you know.”

“They have not,” said Jessen; “I haven’t thought it worth while inquiring. Would you like to go to the Guild?”

Charles pursed his lips in thought.

“Yes,” he said slowly, “that’s an idea; yes, when?”

“To-night—if you wish.”

“To-night let it be,” said Charles.

His host rose and left the room.

He reappeared presently, wearing a dark overcoat and about his throat a black silk muffler that emphasized the pallor of his strong square face.

“Wait a moment,” he said, and unlocked a drawer, from which he took a revolver.

He turned the magazine carefully, and Charles smiled.

“Will that be necessary?” he asked.

Jessen shook his head.

“No,” he said with a little embarrassment, “but—I have given up all my follies and fancies, but this one sticks.”

“The fear of discovery?”

Jessen nodded.

“It”s the only folly left——this fear. It’s the fly in the ointment.”

He led the way through the narrow passage, first having extinguished the lamp.

They stood together in the dark street, whilst Jessen made sure the fastening of the house.

“Now,” he said, and in a few minutes they found themselves amidst the raucous confusion of a Walworth Road market-night.

They walked on in silence, then turning into East Street, they threaded a way between loitering shoppers, dodged between stalls overhung by flaring naphtha lamps, and turned sharply into a narrow street.

Both men seemed sure of their ground, for they walked quickly and unhesitatingly, and striking off through a tiny court that connected one malodorous thoroughfare with the other, they stopped simultaneously before the door of what appeared to be a disused factory.

A peaky-faced youth who sat by the door and acted as doorkeeper thrust his hand forward as they entered, but recognizing them drew back without a word.

They ascended the flight of ill-lighted stairs that confronted them, and pushing open a door at the head of the stairs, Jessen ushered his friend into a large hall.

It was a curious scene that met the journalist”s eye. Well acquainted with “The Guild” as he was, and with its extraordinary composition, he had never yet put his foot inside its portals. Basing his conception upon his knowledge of working-men’s clubs and philanthropic institutions for the regeneration of degraded youth, he missed the inevitable billiard-table; he missed, too, the table strewn with month-old literature, but most of all he missed the smell of free coffee.

The floor was covered with sawdust, and about the fire that crackled and blazed at one end of the room there was a semicircle of chairs occupied by men of varying ages. Old-looking young men and young-looking old men, men in rags, men well dressed, men flashily attired in loud clothing and resplendent with shoddy jewellery. And they were drinking.

Two youths at one end of the crescent shared a quart pewter pot; the flashy man whose voice dominated the conversation held a glass of whisky in one beringed hand, and the white-haired man with the scarred face who sat with bowed head listening had a spirit glass half filled with some colourless fluid.

Nobody rose to greet the newcomers.

The flashy man nodded genially, and one of the circle pushed his chair back to give place to Jessen.

“I was just a-saying——” said the flashy man, then looked at Charles.

“All right,” signalled Jessen.

“I was just a-sayin’ to these lads,” continued the flashy one, “that takin’ one thing with the other, there”s worse places than ‘{{tooltip|stir|(slang) jail)’.”

Jessen made no reply to this piece of dogmatism, and he of the rings went on.

“An’ what”s the good of a man tryin’ to go straight. The police will pull you all the same: not reportin’ change of address, loitering with intent; it don”t matter what you do if you”ve been in trouble once, you”re sure to get in again.”

There was a murmur of assent.

“Look at me,” said the speaker with pride. “I’ve never tried to go straight—been in twice an’ it took six policemen to take me last time, and they had to use the ‘stick’.”

Jessen looked at him with mild curiosity.

“What does that prove, except that the policemen were pretty soft?”

“Not a bit!” The man stood up.

Under the veneer of tawdry foppery, Charles detected the animal strength of the criminal.

“Why, when I’m fit, as I am now,” the man went on, “there ain’t two policemen, nor four neither, that could handle me.”

Jessen’s hand shot out and caught him by the forearm.

“Get away,” he suggested, and the man swung round like lightning, but Jessen had his other arm in a grip of iron.

“Get away,” he said again; but the man was helpless, and knew it, and after a pause Jessen released his hold.

“How was that?” he asked.

The amused smiles of the men did not embarrass the prisoner.

“The guv’nor’s different,” he explained easily; “he’s got a knack of his own that the police haven’t got.”

Jessen drew up a chair, and whatever there was in the action that had significance, it was sufficient to procure an immediate silence.

He looked round the attentive faces that were turned toward him. Charles, an interested spectator, saw the eager faces that bent in his friend”s direction, and marvelled not a little at the reproductive qualities of the seed he had sown.

Jessen began to speak slowly, and Charles saw that what he said was in the nature of an address. That these addresses of Jessen were nothing unusual, and that they were welcome, was evident from the attention with which they were received.

“What Falk has been telling you,” said Jessen, indicating the man with the rings, “is true—so far as it goes. There are worse places than ‘stir’, and it’s true that the police don’t give an old lag a chance, but that’s because a lag won’t change his job. And a lag won’t change his job, because he doesn’t know any other trade where he gets money so quickly. Wally”—he jerked his head toward a weedy-looking youth—“Wally there got a stretch for what? For stuff that fetched thirty pounds from a fence. Twelve months’ hard work for thirty pounds! It works out at about 10s. 6d. a week. And his lawyer and the mouthpiece cost him a fiver out of that. Old man Garth”—he pointed to the white- headed man with the gin —“did a five stretch for less than that, and he’s out on brief. His wage works out at about a shilling a week.”

He checked the impatient motion that Falk made.

“I know that Falk would say,” he went on smoothly, “that what I’m saying is outside the bargain; when I fixed up the Guild, I gave my ’davy that there wouldn’t be any parson talk or Come All-ye-Faithful singing. Everybody knows that being on the crook’s a mug’s game, and I don”t want to rub it in. What I’ve always said and done is in the direction of making you fellows earn bigger money at your own trade.

“There’s a man who writes about the army who’s been trying to induce soldiers to learn trades, and he started right by making the Tommies dissatisfied with their own trade; and that is what I am trying to do. What did I do with young Isaacs? I didn’t preach at him, and I didn’t pray over him. Ike was one of the finest snide merchants in London. He used to turn out half-crowns made from pewter pots that defied detection. They rang true and they didn’t bend. Ike got three years, and when he came out I found him a job. Did I try to make him a wood-chopper, or a Salvation Army plough-boy? No. He”d have been back on the crook in a week if I had. I got a firm of medal makers in Birmingham to take him, and when Ike found himself amongst plaster moulds and electric baths, and discovered he could work at his own trade honestly, he stuck to it.”

“We ain’t snide merchants,” growled Falk discontentedly.

“It’s the same with all branches,” Jessen went on, “only you chaps don’t know it. Take tale-pitching——”

It would not be fair to follow Jessen through the elaborate disquisition by which he proved to the satisfaction of his audience that the “confidence” man was a born commercial traveller. Many of his arguments were as unsound as they could well be; he ignored first principles, and glossed over what seemed to such a clear-headed hearer as Charles to be insuperable obstacles in the scheme of regeneration. But his audience was convinced. The fringe of men round the fire was reinforced as he continued. Men came into the room singly, and in twos and threes, and added themselves to the group at the fire. The news had spread that Jessen was talking—they called him “Mr. Long,” by the way—and some of the newcomers arrived breathlessly, as though they had run in order that no part of the address should be missed.

That the advocate of discontent had succeeded in installing into the minds of his hearers that unrest and dissatisfaction which he held to be the basis of a new moral code, was certain. For every face bore the stamp of introspective doubt.

Interesting as it all was, Charles Garrett had not lost sight of the object of his visit, and he fidgeted a little as the speaker proceeded.

Immediately on entering the room he had grasped the exact relationship in which Jessen stood to his pupils. Jessen he knew could put no direct question as to their knowledge of the Four Just Men without raising a feeling of suspicion which would have been fatal to the success of the mission, and indeed would have imperilled the very existence of the “Guild.”

It was when Jessen had finished speaking, and had answered a dozen questions fired simultaneously from a dozen quarters, and had answered the questions that had arisen out of these queries, that an opening came from an unexpected quarter.

For, with the serious business of the meeting disposed of, the questions took the inevitable facetious turn.

“What trade would you give the Four Just Men?” asked Falk flippantly, and there was a little rumble of laughter.

The journalist’s eyes met the reformer’s for one second, and through the minds of both men flashed the answer. Jessen”s mouth twitched a little, and his restless hands were even more agitated as he replied slowly:

“If anybody can tell me exactly what the Four Just Men—what their particular line of business is, I could reply to that.”

It was the old man sipping his gin in silence who spoke for the first time.

“D’ye remember Billy Marks?” he asked.

His voice was harsh, as is that of a man who uses his voice at rare intervals.

“Billy Marks is dead,” he continued, “deader than a door-nail. He knew the Four Just Men; pinched the watch an’ the notebook of one an’ nearly pinched them.”

There was a man who sat next to Falk who had been regarding Charles with furtive attention.

Now he turned to Jessen and spoke to the point.

“Don’t get any idea in your head that the likes of us will ever have anything to do with the Four,” he said. “Why, Mr. Long,” he went on, “the Four Just Men are as likely to come to you as to us; bein’ as you are a government official, it”s very likely indeed.”

Again Jessen and Charles exchanged a swift glance, and in the eyes of the journalist was a strange light.

Suppose they came to Jessen! It was not unlikely.

Once before, in pursuing their vengeance in a South American State, they had come to such a man as Jessen.

It was a thought, and one worth following.

Turning the possibilities over in his mind Charles stood deep in thought as Jessen, still speaking, was helped into his overcoat by one of the men.

Then as they left the hall together, passing the custodian of the place at the foot of the stairs, the journalist turned to his companion.

“Should they come to you——?”

Jessen shook his head.

“That is unlikely,” he said; “they hardly require outside help.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence.

Charles shook hands at the door of Jessen’s house.

“If by any chance they should come—” he said.

Jessen laughed.

“I will let you know,” he said a little ironically.

Then he entered his house, and Charles heard again the snap of the lock as the strange man closed the door behind him.

Within twenty-four hours the newspapers recorded the mysterious disappearance of a Mr. J. Long, of Presley Street. Such a disappearance would have been without interest, but for a note that was found on his table. It ran:

“Mr. Long being necessary for our purpose, we have taken him.

“The Four Just Men.”

That the affair had connection with the Four was sufficient to give it an extraordinary news value. That the press was confounded goes without saying. For Mr. Long was a fairly unimportant man with some self-education and a craze for reforming the criminal classes. But the Home Office, which knew Mr. Long as “Mr. Jessen”, was greatly perturbed, and the genius of Scotland Yard was employed to discover his whereabouts.

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