Blood-red placards, hoarse newsboys, overwhelming headlines, and column after column of leaded type told the world next day how near the Four had been to capture. Men in the train leant forward, their newspapers on their knees, and explained what they would have done had they been in the editor of the Megaphone’s position. People stopped talking about wars and famines and droughts and street accidents and parliaments and ordinary everyday murders and the German Emperor, in order to concentrate their minds upon the topic of the hour. Would the Four Just Men carry out their promise and slay the Secretary for Foreign Affairs on the morrow? Nothing else was spoken about. Here was a murder threatened a month ago, and, unless something unforeseen happened, to be committed tomorrow. No wonder that the London Press devoted the greater part of its space to discussing the coming of Thery and his recapture.
“… It is not so easy to understand,” said the Telegram, “why, having the miscreants in their hands, certain journalists connected with a sensational and halfpenny contemporary allowed them to go free to work their evil designs upon a great statesman whose unparalleled… We say ‘if,’ for unfortunately in these days of cheap journalism every story emanating from the sanctum sanctorum of sensation-loving sheets is not to be accepted on its pretensions; so if, as it stated, these desperadoes really did visit the office of a contemporary last night….’
At noonday Scotland Yard circulated broadcast a hastily printed sheet:
Wanted, on suspicion of being connected with a criminal organisation known as the Four Just Men, Miguel Thery, alias Saimont, alias Le Chico, late of Jerez, Spain, a Spaniard speaking no English. Height 5 feet 8 inches. Eyes brown, hair black, slight black moustache, face broad. Scars: white scar on cheek, old knife wound on body. Figure, thick-set.
The above reward will be paid to any person or persons who shall give such information as shall lead to the identification of the said Thery with the band known as the Four Just Men and his apprehension.
From which may be gathered that, acting on the information furnished by the editor and his assistant at two o’clock in the morning, the direct Spanish Cable had been kept busy; important personages had been roused from their beds in Madrid, and the history of Thery as recorded in the Bureau had been reconstructed from pigeon-hole records for the enlightenment of an energetic Commissioner of Police.
Sir Philip Ramon, sitting writing in his study at Portland Place, found a difficulty in keeping his mind upon the letter that lay before him. It was a letter addressed to his agent at Branfell, the huge estate over which he, in the years he was out of office, played squire. Neither wife nor chick nor child had Sir Philip. “… if by any chance these men succeed in carrying out their purpose I have made ample provision not only for yourself but for all who have rendered me faithful service,’ he wrote—from which may be gathered the tenor of his letter.
During these past few weeks, Sir Philip’s feelings towards the possible outcome of his action had undergone a change. The irritation of a constant espionage, friendly on the one hand, menacing on the other, had engendered so bitter a feeling of resentment, that in this newer emotion all personal fear had been swallowed up. His mind was filled with one unswerving determination, to carry through the measure he had in hand, to thwart the Four Just Men, and to vindicate the integrity of a Minister of the Crown. “It would be absurd,” he wrote in the course of an article entitled “Individuality in its Relation to the Public Service,” and which was published some months later in the Quarterly Review—“it would be monstrous to suppose that incidental criticism from a wholly unauthoritative source should affect or in any way influence a member of the Government in his conception of the legislation necessary for the millions of people entrusted to his care. He is the instrument, duly appointed, to put into tangible form the wishes and desires of those who naturally look to him not only to furnish means and methods for the betterment of their conditions, or the amelioration of irksome restrictions upon international commercial relations, but to find them protection from risks extraneous of purely commercial liabilities … in such a case a Minister of the Crown with a due appreciation of his responsibilities ceases to exist as a man and becomes merely an unhuman automaton.”
Sir Philip Ramon was a man with very few friends. He had none of the qualities that go to the making of a popular man. He was an honest man, a conscientious man, a strong man. He was the cold-blooded, cynical creature that a life devoid of love had left him. He had no enthusiasm—and inspired none. Satisfied that a certain procedure was less wrong than any other, he adopted it. Satisfied that a measure was for the immediate or ultimate good of his fellows, he carried that measure through to the bitter end. It may be said of him that he had no ambitions—only aims. He was the most dangerous man in the Cabinet, which he dominated in his masterful way, for he knew not the meaning of the blessed word “compromise.”
If he held views on any subject under the sun, those views were to be the views of his colleagues.
Four times in the short history of the administration had Rumoured Resignation of a Cabinet Minister filled the placards of the newspapers, and each time the Minister whose resignation was ultimately recorded was the man whose views had clashed with the foreign secretary. In small things, as in great, he had his way.
His official residence he absolutely refused to occupy, and No. 44 Downing Street was converted into half office, half palace. Portland Place was his home, and from there he drove every morning, passing the Horse Guards clock as it finished the last stroke of ten.
A private telephone wire connected his study in Portland Place with the official residence, and but for this Sir Philip had cut himself adrift from the house in Downing Street, to occupy which had been the ambition of the great men of his party. Now, however, with the approach of the day on which every effort would be taxed, the police insisted upon his taking up his quarters in Downing Street.
Here, they said, the task of protecting the Minister would be simplified. No. 44 Downing Street they knew. The approaches could be better guarded, and moreover the drive—that dangerous drive!—between Portland Place and the Foreign Office would be obviated.
It took a considerable amount of pressure and pleading to induce Sir Philip to take even this step, and it was only when it was pointed out that the surveillance to which he was being subjected would not be so apparent to himself that he yielded.
“You don’t like to find my men outside your door with your shaving water,” said Superintendent Falmouth bluntly. “You objected to one of my men being in your bath-room when you went in the other morning, and you complained about a plain-clothes officer driving on your box—well, Sir Philip, in Downing Street I promise that you shan’t even see them.”
This clinched the argument.
It was just before leaving Portland Place to take up his new quarters that he sat writing to his agent whilst the detective waited outside the door.
The telephone at Sir Philip’s elbow buzzed—he hated bells— and the voice of his private secretary asked with some anxiety how long he would be.
“We have got sixty men on duty at 44,” said the secretary, zealous and young, “and to-day and to-morrow we shall—” And Sir Philip listened with growing impatience to the recital.
“I wonder you have not got an iron safe to lock me in,” he said petulantly, and closed the conversation.
There was a knock at the door and Falmouth put his head inside.
“I don’t want to hurry you, sir,” he said, “but——”
So the foreign secretary drove off to Downing Street in something remarkably like a temper. For he was not used to being hurried, or taken charge of, or ordered hither and thither. It irritated him further to see the now familiar cyclists on either side of the carriage, to recognise at every few yards an obvious policeman in plain clothes admiring the view from the sidewalk, and when he came to Downing Street and found it barred to all carriages but his own, and an enormous crowd of morbid sightseers gathered to cheer his ingress, he felt as he had never felt before in his life—humiliated.
He found his secretary waiting in his private office with the rough draft of the speech that was to introduce the second reading of the Extradition Bill.
“We are pretty sure to meet with a great deal of opposition,” informed the secretary, “but Mainland has sent out three-line whips, and expects to get a majority of thirty-six—at the very least.”
Ramon read over the notes and found them refreshing. They brought back the old feeling of security and importance. After all, he was a great Minister of State. Of course the threats were too absurd—the police were to blame for making so much fuss; and of course the Press—yes, that was it—a newspaper sensation. There was something buoyant, something almost genial in his air, when he turned with a half smile to his secretary.
“Well, what about my unknown friends—what do the blackguards call themselves?—the Four Just Men?” Even as he spoke he was acting a part; he had not forgotten their title, it was with him day and night.
The secretary hesitated; between his chief and himself the Four Just Men had been a tabooed subject.
“They—oh, we’ve heard nothing more than you have read,” he said lamely; “we know now who Thery is, but we can’t place his three companions.”
The Minister pursed his lips.
“They give me till tomorrow night to recant,” he said.
“You have heard from them again?”
“The briefest of notes,” said Sir Philip lightly.
Sir Philip frowned. “They will keep their promise,” he said shortly, for the “otherwise” of his secretary had sent a coldness into his heart that he could not quite understand.
In the top room in the workshop at Carnaby Street, Thery, subdued, sullen, fearful, sat facing the three.
“I want you to quite understand,” said Manfred, “that we bear you no ill-will for what you have done. I think, and Señor Poiccart thinks, that Señor Gonsalez did right to spare your life and bring you back to us.”
Thery dropped his eyes before the half-quizzical smile of the speaker.
“To-morrow night you will do as you agreed to do—if the necessity still exists. Then you will go——” he paused.
“Where?” demanded Thery in sudden rage. “Where in the name of Heaven? I have told them my name, they will know who I am—they will find that by writing to the police. Where am I to go?” He sprang to his feet, glowering on the three men, his hands trembling with rage, his great frame shaking with the intensity of his anger.
“You betrayed yourself,” said Manfred quietly; “that is your punishment. But we will find a place for you, a new Spain under other skies—and the girl at Jerez shall be there waiting for you.”
Thery looked from one to the other suspiciously. Were they laughing at him? There was no smile on their faces; Gonsalez alone looked at him with keen, inquisitive eyes, as though he saw some hidden meaning in the speech.
“Will you swear that?” asked Thery hoarsely, “will you swear that by the——”
“I promise that—if you wish it I will swear it,” said Manfred. “And now,” he went on, his voice changing, “you know what is expected of you to-morrow night—what you have to do?”
“There must be no hitch—no bungling; you and I and Poiccart and Gonsalez will kill this unjust man in a way that the world will never guess—such an execution as shall appal mankind—a swift death, a sure death, a death that will creep through cracks, that will pass by the guards unnoticed. Why, there never has been such a thing done—such——” he stopped dead with flushed cheeks and kindling eyes, and met the gaze of his two companions. Poiccart impassive, sphinxlike, Leon interested and analytic. Manfred’s face went a duller red. “I am sorry,” he said almost humbly; “for the moment I had forgotten the cause, and the end, in the strangeness of the means.” He raised his hand deprecatingly.
“It is understandable,” said Poiccart gravely, and Leon pressed Manfred’s arm.
The three stood in embarrassed silence for a moment, then Manfred laughed.
“To work!” he said, and led the way to the improvised laboratory.
Inside Thery took off his coat. Here was his province, and from being the cowed dependant he took charge of the party, directing them, instructing, commanding, until he had the men of whom, a few minutes before, he had stood in terror running from studio to laboratory, from floor to floor. There was much to be done, much testing, much calculating, many little sums to be worked out on paper, for in the killing of Sir Philip Ramon all the resources of modern science were to be pressed into the service of the Four.
“I am going to survey the land,” said Manfred suddenly, and disappearing into the studio returned with a pair of stepladders. These he straddled in the dark passage, and mounting quickly pushed up a trapdoor that led to the flat roof of the building. He pulled himself up carefully, crawled along the leaden surface, and raising himself cautiously looked over the low parapet. He was in the centre of a half-mile circle of uneven roofs. Beyond the circumference of his horizon London loomed murkily through smoke and mist. Below was a busy street. He took a hasty survey of the roof with its chimney stacks, its unornamental telegraph pole, its leaden floor and rusty guttering; then, through a pair of field-glasses, made a long, careful survey southward. He crawled slowly back to the trapdoor, raised it, and let himself down very gingerly till his feet touched the top of the ladder. Then he descended rapidly, closing the door after him.
“Well?” asked Thery with something of triumph in his voice.
“I see you have labelled it,” said Manfred.
“It is better so—since we shall work in the dark,” said Thery.
“Did you see then——?” began Poiccart.
“Very indistinctly—one could just see the Houses of Parliament dimly, and Downing Street is a jumble of roofs.”
Thery had turned to the work that was engaging his attention. Whatever was his trade he was a deft workman. Somehow he felt that he must do his best for these men. He had been made forcibly aware of their superiority in the last days, he had now an ambition to assert his own skill, his individuality, and to earn commendation from these men who had made him feel his littleness.
Manfred and the others stood aside and watched him in silence. Leon, with a perplexed frown, kept his eyes fixed on the workman’s face. For Leon Gonsalez, scientist, physiognomist (his translation of the Theologi Physiognomia Humana of Lequetius is regarded today as the finest), was endeavouring to reconcile the criminal with the artisan.
After a while Thery finished.
“All is now ready,” he said with a grin of satisfaction: “let me find your Minister of State, give me a minute’s speech with him, and the next minute he dies.”
His face, repulsive in repose, was now demoniacal. He was like some great bull from his own country made more terrible with the snuffle of blood in his nostrils.
In strange contrast were the faces of his employers. Not a muscle of either face stirred. There was neither exultation nor remorse in their expressions—only a curious something that creeps into the set face of the judge as he pronounces the dread sentence of the law. Thery saw that something, and it froze him to his very marrow.
He threw up his hands as if to ward them off.
“Stop! stop!” he shouted; “don’t look like that, in the name of God —don’t, don’t!” He covered his face with shaking hands.
“Like what, Thery?” asked Leon softly.
Thery shook his head.
“I cannot say—like the judge at Granada when he says—when he says, ‘Let the thing be done!’”
“If we look so,” said Manfred harshly, “it is because we are judges—and not alone judges but executioners of our judgment.”
“I thought you would have been pleased,” whimpered Thery. “You have done well,” said Manfred gravely.
“Bueno, bueno!” echoed the others.
“Pray God that we are successful,” added Manfred solemnly, and Thery stared at this strange man in amazement.
Superintendent Falmouth reported to the Commissioner that afternoon that all arrangements were now complete for the protection of the threatened Minister.
“I’ve filled up 44 Downing Street,” he said; “there’s practically a man in every room. I’ve got four of our best men on the roof, men in the basement, men in the kitchens.”
“What about the servants?” asked the Commissioner.
“Sir Philip has brought up his own people from the country, and now there isn’t a person in the house from the private secretary to the doorkeeper whose name and history I do not know from A to Z.”
The Commissioner breathed an anxious sigh.
“I shall be very glad when to-morrow is over,” he said. “What are the final arrangements?”
“There has been no change, sir, since we fixed things up the morning Sir Philip came over. He remains at 44 all day to-morrow until half past eight, goes over to the House at nine to move the reading of the Bill, returns at eleven.”
“I have given orders for the traffic to be diverted along the Embankment between a quarter to nine and a quarter after, and the same at eleven,” said the Commissioner. “Four closed carriages will drive from Downing Street to the House, Sir Philip will drive down in a car immediately afterwards.”
There was a rap at the door—the conversation took place in the Commissioner’s office—and a police officer entered. He bore a card in his hand, which he laid upon the table.
“Señor Jose di Silva,” read the Commissioner, “the Spanish Chief of Police,” he explained to the Superintendent. “Show him in, please.”
Señor di Silva, a lithe little man, with a pronounced nose and a beard, greeted the Englishmen with the exaggerated politeness that is peculiar to Spanish official circles.
“I am sorry to bring you over,” said the Commissioner, after he had shaken hands with the visitor and had introduced him to Falmouth; “we thought you might be able to help us in our search for Thery.”
“Luckily I was in Paris,” said the Spaniard; “yes, I know Thery, and I am astounded to find him in such distinguished company. Do I know the Four?”—his shoulders went up to his ears—“who does? I know of them—there was a case at Malaga, you know? … Thery is not a good criminal. I was astonished to learn that he had joined the band.”
“By the way,” said the chief, picking up a copy of the police notice that lay on his desk, and running his eye over it, “your people omitted to say—although it really isn’t of very great importance—what is Thery’s trade?”
The Spanish policeman knitted his brow.
“Thery’s trade! Let me remember.” He thought for a moment. “Thery’s trade? I don’t think I know; yet I have an idea that it is something to do with rubber. His first crime was stealing rubber; but if you want to know for certain——”
The Commissioner laughed.
“It really isn’t at all important,” he said lightly.