To say that England was stirred to its depths—to quote more than one leading article on the subject—by the extraordinary occurrence in the House of Commons, would be stating the matter exactly.
The first intimation of the existence of the Four Just Men had been received with pardonable derision, particularly by those newspapers that were behindhand with the first news. Only the Daily Megaphone had truly and earnestly recognised how real was the danger which threatened the Minister in charge of the obnoxious Act. Now, however, even the most scornful could not ignore the significance of the communication that had so mysteriously found its way into the very heart of Britain’s most jealously guarded institution. The story of the “Bomb Outrage” filled the pages of every newspaper throughout the country, and the latest daring venture of the Four was placarded the length and breadth of the Isles.
Stories, mostly apocryphal, of the men who were responsible for the newest sensation made their appearance from day to day, and there was no other topic in the mouths of men wherever they met but the strange quartet who seemed to hold the lives of the mighty in the hollows of their hands.
Never since the days of the Fenian outrages had the mind of the public been so filled with apprehension as it was during the two days following the appearance in the Commons of the “blank bomb,” as one journal felicitously described it. Perhaps in exactly the same kind of apprehension, since there was a general belief, which grew out of the trend of the letters, that the Four menaced none other than one man.
The first intimation of their intentions had excited widespread interest. But the fact that the threat had been launched from a small French town, and that in consequence the danger was very remote, had somehow robbed the threat of some of its force. Such was the vague reasoning of an ungeographical people that did not realise that Dax is no farther from London than Aberdeen.
But here was the Hidden Terror in the Metropolis itself. Why, argued London, with suspicious sidelong glances, every man we rub elbows with may be one of the Four, and we none the wiser. Heavy, black-looking posters stared down from blank walls, and filled the breadth of every police noticeboard.
Whereas, on August 18, at about 4.30 o’clock in the afternoon, an infernal machine was deposited in the Members’ Smoke-Room by some person or persons unknown.
And Whereas there is reason to believe that the person or persons implicated in the disposal of the aforesaid machine are members of an organised body of criminals known as “The Four Just Men,” against whom warrants have been issued on charges of wilful murder in London, Paris, New York, New Orleans, Sattle (USA), Barcelona, Tomsk, Belgrade, Christiania, Capetown and Caracas.
Now, Therefore, the above reward will be paid by his Majesty’s Government to any person or persons who shall lay such information as shall lead to the apprehension of any of or the whole of the persons styling themselves “The Four Just Men” and identical with the band before mentioned.
And, Furthermore, a free pardon and the reward will be paid to any member of the band for such information, providing the person laying such information has neither committed nor has been an accessory before or after the act of any of the following murders.
His Majesty’s Secretary
of State for Home Affairs.
J. B. Calfort,
Commissioner of Police.
[Here followed a list of the sixteen crimes alleged against the four men.]
God Save the King
All day long little knots of people gathered before the broadsheets, digesting the magnificent offer.
It was an unusual hue and cry, differing from those with which Londoners were best acquainted. For there was no appended description of the men wanted; no portraits by which they might be identified, no stereotyped “when last seen was wearing a dark blue serge suit, cloth cap, check tie,” on which the searcher might base his scrutiny of the passer-by. It was a search for four men whom no person had ever consciously seen, a hunt for a will-o’-the-wisp, a groping in the dark after indefinite shadows.
Detective Superintendent Falmouth, who was a very plain-spoken man (he once brusquely explained to a Royal Personage that he hadn’t got eyes in the back of his head), told the assistant commissioner exactly what he thought about it.
“You can’t catch men when you haven’t got the slightest idea who or what you’re looking for. For the sake of argument, they might be women for all we know—they might be Chinamen or niggers; they might be tall or short; they might—why, we don’t even know their nationality! They’ve committed crimes in almost every country in the world. They’re not French because they killed a man in Paris, or Yankee because they strangled Judge Anderson.”
“The writing,” said the commissioner, referring to a bunch of letters he held in his hand.
“Latin; but that may be a fake. And suppose it isn’t? There’s no difference between the handwriting of a Frenchman, Spaniard, Portuguese, Italian, South American, or Creole—and, as I say, it might be a fake, and probably is.”
“What have you done?” asked the commissioner.
“We’ve pulled in all the suspicious characters we know. We’ve cleaned out Little Italy, combed Bloomsbury, been through Soho, and searched all the colonies. We raided a place at Nunhead last night—a lot of Armenians live down there, but——”
The detective’s face bore a hopeless look.
“As likely as not,” he went on, “we should find them at one of the swagger hotels—that’s if they were fools enough to bunch together; but you may be sure they’re living apart, and meeting at some unlikely spot once or twice a day.”
He paused, and tapped his fingers absently on the big desk at which he and his superior sat.
“We’ve had de Courville over,” he resumed. “He saw the Soho crowd, and what is more important, saw his own man who lives amongst them—and it’s none of them, I’ll swear—or at least he swears, and I’m prepared to accept his word.”
The commissioner shook his head pathetically.
“They’re in an awful stew in Downing Street,” he said. “They do not know exactly what is going to happen next.”
Mr Falmouth rose to his feet with a sigh and fingered the brim of his hat.
“Nice time ahead of us——I don’t think,” he remarked paradoxically.
“What are the people thinking about it?” asked the Commissioner.
“You’ve seen the papers?”
Mr. Commissioner’s shrug was uncomplimentary to British journalism.
“The papers! Who in Heaven’s name is going to take the slightest notice of what is in the papers!” he said petulantly.
“I am, for one,” replied the calm detective; “newspapers are more often than not led by the public; and it seems to me the idea of running a newspaper in a nutshell is to write so that the public will say, ‘That’s smart—it’s what I’ve said all along.’”
“But the public themselves—have you had an opportunity of gathering their idea?”
Superintendent Falmouth nodded.
“I was talking in the Park to a man only this evening—a master-man by the look of him, and presumably intelligent. ‘What’s your idea of this Four Just Men business?’ I asked. ‘It’s very queer,’ he said: ‘do you think there’s anything in it?’—and that,” concluded the disgusted police officer, “is all the public thinks about it.”
But if there was sorrow at Scotland Yard, Fleet Street itself was all a- twitter with pleasurable excitement. Here was great news indeed: news that might be heralded across double columns, blared forth in headlines, shouted by placards, illustrated, diagramised, and illuminated by statistics.
“Is it the Mafia?” asked the Comet noisily, and went on to prove that it was.
The Evening World, with its editorial mind lingering lovingly in the ‘sixties, mildly suggested a vendetta, and instanced “The Corsican Brothers.”
The Megaphone stuck to the story of the Four Just Men, and printed pages of details concerning their nefarious acts. It disinterred from dusty files, continental and American, the full circumstances of each murder; it gave the portraits and careers of the men who were slain, and, whilst in no way palliating the offence of the Four, yet set forth justly and dispassionately the lives of the victims, showing the sort of men they were.
It accepted warily the reams of contributions that flowed into the office; for a newspaper that has received the stigma “yellow” exercises more caution than its more sober competitors. In newspaperland a dull lie is seldom detected, but an interesting exaggeration drives an unimaginative rival to hysterical denunciations.
And reams of “Four Men” anecdotes did flow in. For suddenly, as if by magic, every outside contributor, every literary gentleman who made a speciality of personal notes, every kind of man who wrote, discovered that he had known the Four intimately all his life.
‘When I was in Italy….’ wrote the author of Come Again (Hackworth Press, 6s.; “slightly soiled,” Farringdon Book Mart, 2d.) ‘I remember I heard a curious story about these Men of Blood….”
“No spot in London is more likely to prove the hiding-place of the Four Villains than Tidal Basin,” wrote another gentleman, who stuck “Collins” in the northeast corner of his manuscript. “Tidal Basin in the reign of Charles II was known as….”
“Who’s Collins?” asked the super-chief of the Megaphone of his hard-worked editor.
“A liner,” described the editor wearily, thereby revealing that even the newer journalism had not driven the promiscuous contributor from his hard-fought field; “he does police-courts, fires, inquests, and things. Lately he’; taken to literature and writes Picturesque-Bits-of-Old London and Famous Tombstones-of-Hornsey epics…”
Throughout the offices of the newspapers the same thing was happening. Every cable that arrived, every piece of information that reached the sub-editor’s basket was coloured with the impending tragedy uppermost ii men’s minds. Even the police-court reports contained some allusion to the Four. It was the overnight drunk an disorderly’s justification for his indiscretion.
“The lad has always been honest,” said the boy’s tearful mother; “it’s reading these horrible stories about the Four Foreigners that’s made him turn out like this”; and the magistrate took a lenient view o the offence.
To all outward showing, Sir Philip Ramon, the man mostly interested in the development of the plot, was the least concerned.
He refused to be interviewed any further; he declined to discuss the possibilities of assassination, even with the premier, and his answer to letters of appreciation that came to him from all parts of the country was an announcement in the Morning Post asking his correspondents to be good enough to refrain from persecuting him with picture postcards, which found no other repository than his waste-paper basket.
He had thought of adding an announcement of his intention of carrying the Bill through Parliament at whatever cost, and was only deterred by the fear of theatricality.
To Falmouth, upon whom had naturally devolved the duty of protecting the Foreign Secretary from harm, Sir Philip was unusually gracious, and incidentally permitted that astute officer to get a glimpse of the terror in which a threatened man lives.
“Do you think there’s any danger, Superintendent?” he asked, not once but a score of times; and the officer, stout defender of an infallible police force, was very reassuring.
“For,” as he argued to himself, “what is the use of frightening a man who is half scared of death already? If nothing happens, he will see I have spoken the truth, and if—if—well, he won’t be able to call me a liar.”
Sir Philip was a constant source of interest to the detective, who must have shown his thoughts once or twice. For the foreign secretary, who was a remarkably shrewd man, intercepting a curious glance of the police officer, said sharply, “You wonder why I still go on with the Bill knowing the danger? Well, it will surprise you to learn that I do not know the danger, nor can I imagine it! I have never been conscious of physical pain in my life, and in spite of the fact that I have a weak heart, I have never had so much as a single ache. What death will be, what pangs or peace it may bring, I have no conception. I argue with Epictetus that the fear of death is by way of being an impertinent assumption of a knowledge of the hereafter, and that we have no reason to believe it is any worse condition than our present. I am not afraid to die—but I am afraid of dying.”
“Quite so, sir,” murmured the sympathetic but wholly uncomprehending detective, who had no mind for nice distinctions.
“But,” resumed the Minister——he was sitting in his study in Portland Place—”if I cannot imagine the exact process of dissolution, I can imagine and have experienced the result of breaking faith with the chancellories, and I have certainly no intention of laying up a store of future embarrassments for fear of something that may after all be comparatively trifling.”
Which piece of reasoning will be sufficient to indicate what the Opposition of the hour was pleased to term “the tortuous mind of the right honourable gentleman.”
And Superintendent Falmouth, listening with every indication of attention, yawned inwardly and wondered who Epictetus was.
“I have taken all possible precautions, sir,” said the detective in the pause that followed the recital of this creed. “I hope you won’t mind for a week or two being followed about by some of my men. I want you to allow two or three officers to remain in the house whilst you are here, and of course there will be quite a number on duty at the Foreign Office.”
Sir Philip expressed his approval, and later, when he and the detective drove down to the House in a closed brougham, he understood why cyclists rode before and on either side of the carriage, and why two cabs followed the brougham into Palace Yard.
At Notice Time, with a House sparsely filled, Sir Philip rose in his place and gave notice that he would move the second reading of the Aliens Extradition (Political Offences) Bill, on Tuesday week, or, to be exact, in ten days.
That evening Manfred met Gonsalez in North Tower Gardens and remarked on the fairy-like splendour of the Crystal Palace grounds by night.
A Guards’ band was playing the overture to Tannhäuser, and the men talked music.
“What of Thery?” asked Manfred.
“Poiccart has him today; he is showing him the sights.” They both laughed.
“And you?” asked Gonsalez.
“I have had an interesting day; I met that delightfully naïve detective in Green Park, who asked me what I thought of ourselves!”
Gonsalez commented on the movement in G minor, and Manfred nodded his head, keeping time with the music.
“Are we prepared?” asked Leon quietly.
Manfred still nodded and softly whistled the number. He stopped with the final crash of the band, and joined in the applause that greeted the musicians.
“I have taken a place,” he said, clapping his hands. “We had better come together.”
“Is everything there?”
Manfred looked at his companion with a twinkle in his eye.
The band broke into the National Anthem, and the two men rose and uncovered.
The throng about the bandstand melted away in the gloom, and Manfred and his companion turned to go.
Thousands of fairy lamps gleamed in the grounds, and there was a strong smell of gas in the air.
“Not that way this time?” questioned, rather than asserted, Gonsalez.
“Most certainly not that way,” replied Manfred decidedly.