The editor of the Megaphone, returning from dinner, met the super- chief on the stairs. The super-chief, boyish of face, withdrew his mind from the mental contemplation of a new project (Megaphone House is the home of new projects) and inquired after the Four Just Men.
“The excitement is keeping up,” replied the editor. “People are talking of nothing else but the coming debate on the Extradition Bill, and the Government is taking every precaution against an attack upon Ramon.”
“What is the feeling?”
The editor shrugged his shoulders.
“Nobody really believes that anything will happen in spite of the bomb.”
The super-chief thought for a moment, and then quickly,
“What do you think?”
The editor laughed.
“I think the threat will never be fulfilled; for once the Four have struck against a snag. If they hadn’t warned Ramon they might have done something, but forewarned——”
“We shall see,” said the super-chief, and went home.
The editor wondered, as he climbed the stairs, how much longer the Four would fill the contents bill of his newspaper, and rather hoped that they would make their attempt, even though they met with a failure, which he regarded as inevitable.
His room was locked and in darkness, and he fumbled in his pocket for the key, found it, turned the lock, opened the door and entered.
“I wonder,” he mused, reaching out of his hand and pressing down the switch of the light…
There was a blinding flash, a quick splutter of flame, and the room was in darkness again.
Startled, he retreated to the corridor and called for a light.
“Send for the electrician,” he roared; “one of these damned fuses has gone!”
A lamp revealed the room to be filled with a pungent smoke; the electrician discovered that every globe had been carefully removed from its socket and placed on the table. From one of the brackets suspended a curly length of thin wire which ended in a small black box, and it was from this that thick fumes were issuing.
“Open the windows,” directed the editor; and a bucket of water having been brought, the little box was dropped carefully into it.
Then it was that the editor discovered the letter—the greenish- grey letter that lay upon his desk. He took it up, turned it over, opened it, and noticed that the gum on the flap was still wet.
Honoured Sir (ran the note), when you turned on your light this evening you probably imagined for an instant that you were a victim of one of those “outrages” to which you are fond of referring. We owe you an apology for any annoyance we may have caused you. The removal of your lamp and the substitution of a “plug” connecting a small charge of magnesium powder is the cause of your discomfiture. We ask you to believe that it would have been as simple to have connected a charge of nitro-glycerine, and thus have made you your own executioner. We have arranged this as evidence of our inflexible intention to carry out our promise in respect of the Aliens Extradition Act. There is no power on earth that can save Sir Philip Ramon from destruction, and we ask you, as the directing force of a great medium, to throw your weight into the scale in the cause of justice, to call upon your Government to withdraw an unjust measure, and save not only the lives of many inoffensive persons who have found an asylum in your country, but also the life of a Minister of the Crown whose only fault in our eyes is his zealousness in an unrighteous cause.
The Four Just Men
“Whew!” whistled the editor, wiping his forehead and eyeing the sodden box floating serenely at the top of the bucket.
“Anything wrong, sir?” asked the electrician daringly.
“Nothing,” was the sharp reply. “Finish your work, refix these globes, and go.”
The electrician, ill-satisfied and curious, looked at the floating box and the broken length of wire.
“Curious-looking thing, sir,” he said. “If you ask me——”
“I don’t ask you anything; finish your work,” the great journalist interrupted.
“Beg pardon, I’m sure,” said the apologetic artisan.
Half an hour later the editor of the Megaphone sat discussing the situation with Welby. Welby, who is the greatest foreign editor in London, grinned amiably and drawled his astonishment.
“I have always believed that these chaps meant business,” he said cheerfully, “and what is more, I feel pretty certain that they will keep their promise. When I was in Genoa”—Welby got much of his information first hand—“when I was in Genoa—or was it Sofia?—I met a man who told me about the Trelovitch affair. He was one of the men who assassinated the King of Servia, you remember. Well, one night he left his quarters to visit a theatre—the same night he was found dead in the public square with a sword thrust through his heart. There were two extraordinary things about it.” The foreign editor ticked them on off his fingers. “First, the General was a noted swordsman, and there was every evidence that he had not been killed in cold blood, but had been killed in a duel; the second was that he wore corsets, as many of these Germanised officers do, and one of his assailants had discovered this fact, probably by a sword thrust, and had made him discard them; at any rate when he was found this frippery was discovered close by his body.”
“Was it known at the time that it was the work of the Four?” asked the editor.
Welby shook his head.
“Even I had never heard of them before,” he said resentfully. Then asked, “What have you done about your little scare?”
“I’ve seen the hall porters and the messengers, and every man on duty at the time, but the coming and the going of our mysterious friend—I don’t suppose there was more than one—is unexplained. It really is a remarkable thing. Do you know, Welby, it gives me quite an uncanny feeling; the gum on the envelope was still wet; the letter must have been written on the premises and sealed down within a few seconds of my entering the room.”
“Were the windows open?”
“No; all three were shut and fastened, and it would have been impossible to enter the room that way.”
The detective who came to receive a report of the circumstances endorsed this opinion.
“The man who wrote this letter must have left your room not longer than a minute before you arrived,” he concluded, and took charge of the letter.
Being a young and enthusiastic detective, before finishing his investigations he made a most minute search of the room, turning up carpets, tapping walls, inspecting cupboards, and taking laborious and unnecessary measurements with a foot-rule.
“There are a lot of our chaps who sneer at detective stories,” he explained to the amused editor, “but I have read almost everything that has been written by Gaboriau and Conan Doyle, and I believe in taking notice of little things. There wasn’t any cigar ash or anything of that sort left behind, was there?” he asked wistfully.
“I’m afraid not,” said the editor gravely.
“Pity,” said the detective, and wrapping up the “infernal machine” and its appurtenances, he took his departure. Afterwards the editor informed Welby that the disciple of Holmes had spent half an hour with a magnifying glass examining the floor.
“He found half a sovereign that I lost weeks ago, so it’s really an ill wind——”
All that evening nobody but Welby and the chief knew what had happened in the editor’s room. There was some rumour in the sub-editor’s department that a small accident had occurred in the sanctum.
“Chief busted a fuse in his room and got a devil of a fright,” said the man who attended to the Shipping List.
“Dear me,” said the weather expert, looking up from his chart, “do you know something like that happened to me: the other night——”
The chief had directed a few firm words to the detective before his departure.
“Only you and myself know anything about this occurrence,” said the editor, “so if it gets out I shall know it comes from Scotland Yard.”
“You may be sure nothing will come from us,” was the detective’s reply: “we’ve got into too much hot water already.”
“That’s good,” said the editor, and “that’s good” sounded like a threat.
So that Welby and the chief kept the matter a secret till half an hour before the paper went to press. This may seem to the layman an extraordinary circumstance, but experience has shown most men who control newspapers that news has an unlucky knack of leaking out before it appears in type. Wicked compositors—and even compositors can be wicked—have been known to screw up copies of important and exclusive news, and throw them out of a convenient window so that they have fallen close to a patient man standing in the street below and have been immediately hurried off to the office of a rival newspaper and sold for more than their weight in gold. Such cases have been known.
But at half-past eleven the buzzing hive of Megaphone House began to hum, for then it was that the sub-editors learnt for the first time of the “outrage.”
It was a great story—yet another Megaphone scoop, headlined half down the page with “The ‘Just four’ again—Outrage at the office of the Megaphone—Devilish Ingenuity—Another Threatening Letter— The Four Will Keep Their Promise—Remarkable Document—Will the Police Save Sir Philip Ramon?
“A very good story,” said the chief complacently, reading the proofs. He was preparing to leave, and was speaking to Welby by the door.
“Not bad,” said the discriminating Welby. “What I think—hullo!”
The last was addressed to a messenger who appeared with a stranger.
“Gentleman wants to speak to somebody, sir—bit excited, so I brought him up; he’s a foreigner, and I can’t understand him, so I brought him to you”—this to Welby.
“What do you want?” asked the chief in French.
The man shook his head, and said a few words in a strange tongue.
“Ah!” said Welby, “Spanish—what do you wish?” he said in that language.
“Is this the office of that paper?” The man produced a grimy copy of the Megaphone.
“Can I speak to the editor?”
The chief looked suspicious.
“I am the editor,” he said.
The man looked over his shoulder, then leant forward.
“I am one of The Four Just Men,” he said hesitatingly. Welby took a step towards him and scrutinised him closely.
“What is your name?” he asked quickly.
“Miguel Thery of Jerez,” replied the man.
It was half-past ten when, returning from a concert, the cab that bore Poiccart and Manfred westward passed through Hanover Square and turned off to Oxford Street.
“You ask to see the editor,” Manfred was explaining; “they take you up to the offices—you explain your business to somebody; they are very sorry, but they cannot help you; they are very polite, but not to the extent of seeing you off the premises, so, wandering about seeking your way out, you come to the editor’s room and, knowing that he is out, slip in, make your arrangements, walk out, locking the door after you if nobody is about, addressing a few farewell words to an imaginary occupant, if you are seen, and voila!”
Poiccart bit the end of his cigar.
“Use for your envelope a gum that will not dry under an hour and you heighten the mystery,” he said quietly, and Manfred was amused.
“The envelope-just-fastened is an irresistible attraction to an English detective.”
The cab speeding along Oxford Street turned into Edgware Road, when Manfred put up his hand and pushed open the trap in the roof.
“We’ll get down here,” he called, and the driver pulled up to the sidewalk.
“I thought you said Pembridge Gardens?” he remarked as Manfred paid him.
“So I did,” said Manfred; “good night.”
They waited chatting on the edge of the pavement until the cab had disappeared from view, then turned back to the Marble Arch, crossed to Park Lane, walked down that plutocratic thoroughfare and round into Piccadilly. Near the Circus they found a restaurant with a long bar and many small alcoves, where men sat around marble tables, drinking, smoking, and talking. In one of these, alone, sat Gonsalez, smoking a long cigarette and wearing on his clean-shaven mobile face a look of meditative content.
Neither of the men evinced the slightest sign of surprise at meeting him—yet Manfred’s heart missed a beat, and into the pallid cheeks of Poiccart crept two bright red spots.
They seated themselves, a waiter came and they gave their orders, and when he had gone Manfred asked in a low tone, “Where is Thery?”
Leon gave the slightest shrug.
“Thery has made his escape,” he answered calmly.
For a minute neither man spoke, and Leon continued:
“This morning, before you left, you gave him a bundle of newspapers?”
“They were English newspapers,” he said. “Thery does not know a word of English. There were pictures in them—I gave them to amuse him.”
“You gave him, amongst others, the Megaphone?”
“Yes—ha!” Manfred remembered.
“The offer of a reward was in it—and the free pardon—printed in Spanish.”
Manfred was gazing into vacancy.
“I remember,” he said slowly. “I read it afterwards.”
“It was very ingenious,” remarked Poiccart commendingly.
“I noticed he was rather excited, but I accounted for this by the fact that we had told him last night of the method we intended adopting for the removal of Ramon and the part he was to play.”
Leon changed the topic to allow the waiter to serve the refreshments that had been ordered.
“It is preposterous,” he went on without changing his key, “that a horse on which so much money has been placed should not have been sent to England at least a month in advance.”
“The idea of a bad Channel-crossing leading to the scratching of the favourite of a big race is unheard of,” added Manfred severely.
The waiter left them.
“We went for a walk this afternoon,” resumed Leon, “and were passing along Regent Street, he stopping every few seconds to look in the shops, when suddenly—we had been staring at the window of a photographer’s—I missed him. There were hundreds of people in the street—but no Thery…. I have been seeking him ever since.”
Leon sipped his drink and looked at his watch.
The other two men did nothing, said nothing.
A careful observer might have noticed that both Manfred’s and Poiccart’s hands strayed to the top button of their coats.
“Perhaps not so bad as that,” smiled Gonsalez.
Manfred broke the silence of the two.
“I take all blame,” he commenced, but Poiccart stopped him with a gesture.
“If there is any blame, I alone am blameless,” he said with a short laugh. “No, George, it is too late to talk of blame. We underrated the cunning of m’sieur, the enterprise of the English newspapers and—and——”
“The girl at Jerez,” concluded Leon.
Five minutes passed in silence, each man thinking rapidly.
“I have a motor-car not far from here,” said Leon at length. “You had told me you would be at this place by eleven o’clock; we have the naphtha launch at Burnham-on-Crouch—we could be in France by daybreak.”
Manfred looked at him. “What do you think yourself?” he asked.
“I say stay and finish the work,” said Leon.
“And I,” said Poiccart quietly but decisively.
Manfred called the waiter.
“Have you the last editions of the evening papers?”
The waiter thought he could get them, and returned with two.
Manfred scanned the pages carefully, then threw them aside.
“Nothing in these,” he said. “If Thery has gone to the police we must hide and use some other method to that agreed upon, or we could strike now. After all, Thery has told us all we want to know, but——”
“That would be unfair to Ramon.” Poiccart finished the sentence in such a tone as summarily ended that possibility. “He has still two days, and must receive yet another, and last, warning.”
“Then we must find Thery.”
It was Manfred who spoke, and he rose, followed by Poiccart and Gonsalez.
“If Thery has not gone to the police—where would he go?”
The tone of Leon’s question suggested the answer.
“To the office of the newspaper that published the Spanish advertisement,” was Manfred’s reply, and instinctively the three men knew that this was the correct solution.
“Your motor-car will be useful,” said Manfred, and all three left the bar.
In the editor’s room Thery faced the two journalists. “Thery?” repeated Welby; “I do not know that name. Where do you come from? What is your address?”
“I come from Jerez in Andalusia, from the wine farm of Sienor.”
“Not that,” interrupted Welby; “where do you come from now—what part of London?”
Thery raised his hands despairingly.
“How should I know? There are houses and streets and people—and it is in London, and I was to kill a man, a Minister, because he had made a wicked law—they did not tell me——”
“They—who?” asked the editor eagerly.
“The other three.”
“But their names?”
Thery shot a suspicious glance at his questioner.
“There is a reward,” he said sullenly, “and a pardon. I want these before I tell——”
The editor stepped to his desk.
“If you are one of the Four you shall have your reward—you shall have some of it now.” He pressed a button and a messenger came to the door.
“Go to the composing room and tell the printer not to allow his men to leave until I give orders.”
Below, in the basement, the machines were thundering as they flung out the first numbers of the morning news.
“Now”—the editor turned to Thery, who had stood, uneasily shifting from foot to foot whilst the order was being given—”now, tell me all you know.”
Thery did not answer; his eyes were fixed on the floor. “There is a reward and a pardon,” he muttered doggedly.
“Hasten!” cried Welby. “You will receive your reward and the pardon also. Tell us, who are the Four Just Men? Who are the other three? Where are they to be found?”
“Here,” said a clear voice behind him; and he turned as a stranger, closing the door as he entered, stood facing the three men—a stranger in evening dress, masked from brow to chin.
There was a revolver in the hand that hung at his side.
“I am one,” repeated the stranger calmly; “there are two others waiting outside the building.”
“How did you get here—what do you want?” demanded the editor, and stretched his hand to an open drawer in his desk.
“Take your hand away”—and the thin barrel of the revolver rose with a jerk. “How I came here your doorkeeper will explain, when he recovers consciousness. Why I am here is because I wish to save my life—not an unreasonable wish. If Thery speaks I may be a dead man—I am about to prevent him speaking. I have no quarrel with either of you gentlemen, but if you hinder me I shall kill you,” he said simply. He spoke all the while in English, and Thery, with wide-stretched eyes and distended nostrils, shrank back against the wall, breathing quickly.
“You,” said the masked man, turning to the terror-stricken informer and speaking in Spanish, “would have betrayed your comrades—you would have thwarted a great purpose, therefore it is just that you should die.”
He raised the revolver to the level of Thery’s breast, and Thery fell on his knees, mouthing the prayer he could not articulate.
“By God—no!” cried the editor, and sprang forward.
The revolver turned on him.
“Sir,” said the unknown—and his voice sank almost to a whisper—”for God’s sake do not force me to kill you.”
“You shall not commit a cold-blooded murder,” cried the editor in a white heat of anger, and moved forward, but Welby held him back.
“What is the use?” said Welby in an undertone; “he means it—we can do nothing.”
“You can do something,” said the stranger, and his revolver dropped to his side.
Before the editor could answer there was a knock at the door.
“Say you are busy”; and the revolver covered Thery, who was a whimpering, huddled heap by the wall.
“Go away,” shouted the editor, “I am busy.”
“The printers are waiting,” said the voice of the messenger.
“Now,” asked the chief, as the footsteps of the boy died away; “what can we do?”
“You can save this man’s life.”
“Give me your word of honour that you will allow us both to depart, and will neither raise an alarm nor leave this room for a quarter of an hour.”
The editor hesitated.
“How do I know that the murder you contemplate will not be committed as soon as you get clear?”
The other laughed under his mask.
“How do I know that as soon as I have left the room you will not raise an alarm?”
“I should have given my word, sir,” said the editor stiffly.
“And I mine,” was the quiet response; “And my word has never been broken.”
In the editor’s mind a struggle was going on; here in his hand was the greatest story of the century; another minute and he would have extracted from Thery the secret of the Four.
Even now a bold dash might save everything—and the printers were waiting … but the hand that held the revolver was the hand of a resolute man, and the chief yielded.
“I agree, but under protest,” he said. “I warn you that your arrest and punishment is inevitable.”
“I regret,” said the masked man with a slight bow, “that I cannot agree with you—nothing is inevitable save death. Come, Thery,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “On my word as a Cabalero I will not harm you.”
Thery hesitated, then slunk forward with his head bowed and his eyes fixed on the floor.
The masked man opened the door an inch, listened, and in the moment came the inspiration of the editor’s life.
“Look here,” he said quickly, the man giving place to the journalist, “when you get home will you write us an article about yourselves? You needn’t give us any embarrassing particulars, you know—something about your aspirations, your raison d’être”
“Sir,” said the masked man—and there was a note of admiration in his voice—”I recognise in you an artist. The article will be delivered to-morrow,” and opening the door the two men stepped into the darkened corridor.