There was yet another missive to be handed to the doomed Minister. In the last he had received there had occurred the sentence: “One more warning you shall receive, and so that we may be assured it shall not go astray, our next and last message shall be delivered into your hands by one of us in person.”
This passage afforded the police more comfort than had any episode since the beginning of the scare. They placed a curious faith in the honesty of the Four Men; they recognised that these were not ordinary criminals and that their pledge was inviolable. Indeed, had they thought otherwise the elaborate precautions that they were taking to ensure the safety of Sir Philip would not have been made. The honesty of the Four was their most terrible characteristic.
In this instance it served to raise a faint hope that the men who were setting at defiance the establishment of the law would overreach themselves. The letter conveying this message was the one to which Sir Philip had referred so airily in his conversation with his secretary. It had come by post, bearing the date mark, Balham, 12.15.
“The question is, shall we keep you absolutely surrounded, so that these men cannot by any possible chance carry out their threat?” asked Superintendent Falmouth in some perplexity, “or shall we apparently relax our vigilance in order to lure one of the Four to his destruction?”
The question was directed to Sir Philip Ramon as he sat huddled up in the capacious depths of his office chair.
“You want to use me as a bait?” he asked sharply.
The detective expostulated.
“Not exactly that, sir; we want to give these men a chance——”
“I understand perfectly,” said the Minister, with some show of irritation.
The detective resumed:
“We know now how the infernal machine was smuggled into the House; on the day on which the outrage was committed an old member, Mr. Bascoe, the member for North Torrington, was seen to enter the House.”
“Well?” asked Sir Philip in surprise.
“Mr. Bascoe was never within a hundred miles of the House of Commons on that date,” said the detective quietly. “We might never have found it out, for his name did not appear in the division list. We’ve been working quietly on that House of Commons affair ever since, and it was only a couple of days ago that we made the discovery.”
Sir Philip sprang from his chair and nervously paced the floor of his room.
“Then they are evidently well acquainted with the conditions of life in England,” he asserted rather than asked.
“Evidently; they’ve got the lay of the land, and that is one of the dangers of the situation.”
“But,” frowned the other, “you have told me there were no dangers, no real dangers.”
“There is this danger, sir,” replied the detective, eyeing the Minister steadily, and dropping his voice as he spoke, “men who are capable of making such disguise are really outside the ordinary run of criminals. I don’t know what their game is, but whatever it is, they are playing it thoroughly. One of them is evidently an artist at that sort of thing, and he’s the man I’m afraid of—to-day.”
Sir Philip’s head tossed impatiently.
“I am tired of all this, tired of it”—he thrashed the edge of his desk with an open palm—”detectives and disguises and masked murderers until the atmosphere is, for all the world, like that of a melodrama.”
“You must have patience for a day or two,” said the plain-spoken officer. The Four Just Men were on the nerves of more people than the Foreign Minister. “And we have not decided what is to be our plan for this evening,” he added.
“Do as you like,” said Sir Philip shortly, and then: “Am I to be allowed to go to the House to-night?”
“No; that is not part of the programme,” replied the detective.
Sir Philip stood for a moment in thought.
“These arrangements; they are kept secret, I suppose?”
“Who knows of them?”
“Yourself, the Commissioner, your secretary, and myself.”
“And no one else?”
“No one; there is no danger likely to arise from that source. If upon the secrecy of your movements your safety depended it would be plain sailing.”
“Have these arrangements been committed to writing?” asked Sir Philip.
“No, sir; nothing has been written; our plans have been settled upon and communicated verbally; even the prime minister does not know.”
Sir Philip breathed a sigh of relief.
“That is all to the good,” he said, as the detective rose to go.
“I must see the Commissioner. I shall be away for less than half an hour; in the meantime I suggest that you do not leave your room,” he said.
Sir Philip followed him out to the ante-room, in which sat Hamilton, the secretary.
“I have had an uncomfortable feeling,” said Falmouth, as one of his men approached with a long coat, which he proceeded to help the detective into, “a sort of instinctive feeling this last day or two, that I have been watched and followed, so that I am using a motor-car to convey me from place to place: they can’t follow that, without attracting some notice.” He dipped his hand into the pocket and brought out a pair of motor-goggles. He laughed somewhat shamefacedly as he adjusted them. “This is the only disguise I ever adopt, and I might say, Sir Philip,” he added with some regret, “that this is the first time during my twenty-five years of service that I have ever played the fool like a stage detective.”
After Falmouth’s departure the Foreign Minister returned to his desk. He hated being alone: it frightened him. That there were two score detectives within call did not dispel the feeling of loneliness. The terror of the Four was ever with him, and this had so worked upon his nerves that the slightest noise irritated him. He played with the penholder that lay on the desk. He scribbled inconsequently on the blotting-pad before him, and was annoyed to find that the scribbling had taken the form of numbers of figure 4.
Was the Bill worth it? Was the sacrifice called for? Was the measure of such importance as to justify the risk? These things he asked himself again and again, and then immediately, What sacrifice? What risk?
“I am taking the consequence too much for granted,” he muttered, throwing aside the pen, and half turning from the writing-table. “There is no certainty that they will keep their words; bah! it is impossible that they should——”
There was a knock at the door.
“Hullo, Superintendent,” said the Foreign Minister as the knocker entered. “Back again already!”
The detective, vigorously brushing the dust from his moustache with a handkerchief, drew an official-looking blue envelope from his pocket.
“I thought I had better leave this in your care,” he said, dropping his voice; “it occurred to me just after I had left; accidents happen, you know.”
The Minister took the document.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It is something which would mean absolute disaster for me if by chance it was found in my possession,” said the detective, turning to go.
“What am I to do with it?”
“You would greatly oblige me by putting it in your desk until I return”; and the detective stepped into the ante-room, closed the door behind him and, acknowledging the salute of the plain-clothes officer who guarded the outer door, passed to the motor-car that awaited him.
Sir Philip looked at the envelope with a puzzled frown.
It bore the superscription Confidential and the address, Department A, C.I.D., Scotland Yard.
“Some confidential report,” thought Sir Philip, and an angry doubt as to the possibility of it containing particulars of the police arrangements for his safety filled his mind. He had hit by accident upon the truth had he but known. The envelope contained those particulars.
He placed the letter in a drawer of his desk and drew some papers towards him. They were copies of the Bill for the passage of which he was daring so much. It was not a long document. The clauses were few in number, the objects, briefly described in the preamble, were tersely defined. There was no fear of this Bill failing to pass on the morrow. The Government’s majority was assured. Men had been brought back to town, stragglers had been whipped in, prayers and threats alike had assisted in concentrating the rapidly dwindling strength of the administration on this one effort of legislation; and what the frantic entreaties of the whips had failed to secure, curiosity had accomplished, for members of both parties were hurrying to town to be present at a scene which might perhaps be history, and, as many feared, tragedy.
As Sir Philip conned the paper he mechanically formed in his mind the line of attack—for, tragedy or no, the Bill struck at too many interests in the House to allow of its passage without a stormy debate. He was a master of dialectics, a brilliant casuist, a coiner of phrases that stuck and stung. There was nothing for him to fear in the debate. If only——. It hurt him to think of the Four Just Men, not so much because they threatened his life—he had gone past that—but the mere thought that there had come a new factor into his calculations, a new and terrifying force, that could not be argued down or brushed aside with an acid jest, nor intrigued against, nor adjusted by any parliamentary method. He did not think of compromise. The possibility of making terms with his enemy never once entered his head.
“I’ll go through with it!” he cried, not once but a score of times; “I’ll go through with it!” and now, as the moment grew nearer to hand, his determination to try conclusions with this new world-force grew stronger than ever.
The telephone at his elbow purred—he was sitting at his desk with his head on his hands—and he took the receiver. The voice of his house steward reminded him that he had arranged to give instructions for the closing of the house in Portland Place. For two or three days, or until this terror had subsided, he intended his house should be empty. He would not risk the lives of his servants. If the Four intended to carry out their plan they would run no risks of failure, and if the method they employed were a bomb, then, to make assurance doubly sure, an explosion at Downing Street might well synchronize with an outrage at Portland Place.
He had finished his talk, and was replacing the receiver when a knock at the door heralded the entry of the detective.
He looked anxiously at the Minister.
“Nobody been, sir?” he asked.
Sir Philip smiled.
“If by that you mean have the Four delivered their ultimatum in person, I can comfort your mind—they have not.”
The detective’s face was evidence of his relief.
“Thank Heaven!” he said fervently. “I had an awful dread that whilst I was away something would happen. But I have news for you, sir.”
“Yes, sir, the Commissioner has received a long cable from America. Since the two murders in that country one of Pinkerton’s men has been engaged in collecting data. For years he has been piecing together the scrappy evidence he has been able to secure, and this is his cablegram.” The detective drew a paper from his pocket and, spreading it on the desk, read:
Pinkerton, Chicago, to Commissioner of Police, Scotland yard, London.
Warn Ramon that the Four do not go outside their promise. If they have threatened to kill in a certain manner at a certain time they will be punctual. We have proof of this characteristic. After Anderson’s death small memorandum book was discovered outside window of room evidently dropped. Book was empty save for three pages, which were filled with neatly written memoranda headed “Six methods of execution.” It was initialled “C.” (third letter in alphabet). Warn Ramon against following: drinking coffee in any form, opening letters or parcels, using soap that has not been manufactured under eye of trustworthy agent, sitting in any room other than that occupied day and night by police officer. Examine his bedroom; see if there is any method by which heavy gases can be introduced. We are sending two men by Lucania to watch.
The detective finished reading. “Watch” was not the last word in the original message, as he knew. There had been an ominous postscript, “Afraid they will arrive too late.”
“Then you think?” asked the statesman.
“That your danger lies in doing one of the things that Pinkerton warns us against,” replied the detective. “There is no fear that the American police are talking idly. They have based their warning on some sure knowledge, and that is why I regard their cable as important.”
There was a sharp rap on the panel of the door, and without waiting for invitation the private secretary walked into the room, excitedly waving a newspaper.
“Look at this!” he cried, “read this! The Four have admitted their failure.”
“What!” shouted the detective, reaching for the journal.
“What does this mean?” asked Sir Philip sharply.
“Only this, sir: these beggars, it appears, have actually written an article on their ‘mission’.”
“In what newspaper?”
“The Megaphone. It seems when they recaptured Thery the editor asked the masked man to write him an article about himself, and they’ve done it; and it’s here, and they’ve admitted defeat, and—and——”
The detective had seized the paper and broke in upon the incoherent secretary’s speech.
“The Creed of the Four Just Men” he read. “Where is their confession of failure?”
“Half way down the column—I have marked the passage—here”; and the young man pointed with a trembling finger to a paragraph.
“‘We leave nothing to chance,’” read the detective, “‘if the slightest hitch occurs, if the least detail of our plan miscarries, we acknowledge defeat. So assured are we that our presence on earth is necessary for the carrying out of a great plan, so certain are we that we are the indispensable instruments of a divine providence, that we dare not, for the sake of our very cause, accept unnecessary risks. It is essential therefore that the various preliminaries to every execution should be carried out to the full. As an example, it will be necessary for us to deliver our final warning to Sir Philip Ramon; and to add point to this warning, it is, by our code, essential that that should be handed to the Minister by one of us in person. All arrangements have been made to carry this portion of our programme into effect. But such are the extraordinary exigencies of our system that unless this warning can be handed to Sir Philip in accordance with our promise, and before eight o’clock this evening, our arrangements fall to the ground, and the execution we have planned must be forgone.’”
The detective stopped reading, with disappointment visible on every line of his face.
“I thought, sir, by the way you were carrying on that you had discovered something new. I’ve read all this, a copy of the article was sent to the Yard as soon as it was received.”
The secretary thumped the desk impatiently.
“But don’t you see!” he cried, “don’t you understand that there is no longer any need to guard Sir Philip, that there is no reason to use him as a bait, or, in fact, to do anything if we are to believe these men—look at the time—”
The detective’s hand flew to his pocket; he drew out his watch, looked at the dial, and whistled.
“Half past eight, by God!” he muttered in astonishment, and the three stood in surprised silence.
Sir Philip broke the silence.
“Is it a ruse to take us off our guard?” he said hoarsely.
“I don’t think so,” replied the detective slowly, “I feel sure that it is not; nor shall I relax my watch—but I am a believer in the honesty of these men—I don’t know why I should say this, for I have been dealing with criminals for the past twenty-five years, and never once have I put an ounce of faith in the word of the best of ’em, but somehow I can’t disbelieve these men. If they have failed to deliver their message they will not trouble us again.”
Ramon paced his room with quick, nervous steps.
“I wish I could believe that,” he muttered; “I wish I had your faith.”
A tap on the door panel.
“An urgent telegram for Sir Philip,” said a grey-haired attendant.
The Minister stretched out his hand, but the detective was before him.
“Remember Pinkerton’s wire, sir,” he said, and ripped open the brown envelope.
Just received a telegram handed in at Charing Cross 7.52. Begins: We have delivered our last message to the foreign secretary, signed Four. Ends. Is this true? Editor, Megaphone.
“What does this mean?” asked Falmouth in bewilderment when he had finished reading.
“It means, my dear Mr. Falmouth,” replied Sir Philip testily, “that your noble Four are liars and braggarts as well as murderers; and it means at the same time, I hope, an end to your ridiculous faith in their honesty.”
The detective made no answer, but his face was clouded and he bit his lips in perplexity.
“Nobody came after I left?” he asked.
“You have seen no person besides your secretary and myself?”
“Absolutely nobody has spoken to me, or approached within a dozen yards of me,” Ramon answered shortly.
Falmouth shook his head despairingly.
“Well—I—where are we?” he asked, speaking more to himself than to anybody in the room, and moved towards the door.
Then it was that Sir Philip remembered the package left in his charge.
“You had better take your precious documents,” he said, opening his drawer and throwing the package left in his charge on to the table.
The detective looked puzzled.
“What is this?” he asked, picking up the envelope.
“I’m afraid the shock of finding yourself deceived in your estimate of my persecutors has dazed you,” said Sir Philip, and added pointedly, “I must ask the Commissioner to send an officer who has a better appreciation of the criminal mind, and a less childlike faith in the honour of murderers.”
“As to that, sir,” said Falmouth, unmoved by the outburst, “you must do as you think best. I have discharged my duty to my own satisfaction; and I have no more critical taskmaster than myself. But what I am more anxious to hear is exactly what you mean by saying that I handed any papers into your care.”
The Foreign Secretary glared across the table at the imperturbable police officer.
“I am referring, sir,” he said harshly, “to the packet which you returned to leave in my charge.”
The detective stared.
“I—did—not—return,” he said in a strained voice. “I have left no papers in your hands.” He picked up the package from the table, tore it open, and disclosed yet another envelope. As he caught sight of the grey-green cover he gave a sharp cry.
“This is the message of the Four,” said Falmouth.
The foreign secretary staggered back a pace, white to the lips.
“And the man who delivered it?” he gasped.
“Was one of the Four Just Men,” said the detective grimly. “They have kept their promise.”
He took a quick step to the door, passed through into the ante-room and beckoned the plain-clothes officer who stood on guard at the outer door.
“Do you remember my going out?” he asked.
“Yes, sir—both times.”
“Both times, eh!” said Falmouth bitterly, “and how did I look the second time?”
His subordinate was bewildered at the form the question took.
“As usual, sir,” he stammered.
“How was I dressed?”
The constable considered.
“In your long dust-coat.”
“I wore my goggles, I suppose?”
“I thought so,” muttered Falmouth savagely, and raced down the broad marble stairs that led to the entrance-hall. There were four men on duty who saluted him as he approached.
“Do you remember my going out?” he asked of the sergeant in charge.
“Yes, sir—both times,” the officer replied.
“Damn your ‘both times’!” snapped Falmouth. “How long had I been gone the first time before I returned?”
“Five minutes, sir,” was the astonished officer’s reply.
“They just gave themselves time to do it,” muttered Falmouth, and then aloud, “Did I return in my car?”
“Ah!” hope sprang into the detective’s breast. ”Did you notice the number?” he asked, almost fearful to hear the reply.
The detective could have hugged the stolid officer.
“Good—what was it?”
The detective made a rapid note of the number.
“Jackson,” he called, and one of the men in plain clothes stepped forward and saluted.
“Go to the Yard; find out the registered owner of this car. When you have found this go to the owner; ask him to explain his movements; if necessary, take him into custody.”
Falmouth retraced his steps to Sir Philip’s study. He found the statesman still agitatedly walking up and down the room, the secretary nervously drumming his fingers on the table, and the letter still unopened.
“As I thought,” explained Falmouth, “the man you saw was one of the Four impersonating me. He chose his time admirably; my own men were deceived. They managed to get a car exactly similar in build and colour to mine, and, watching their opportunity, they drove to Downing Street a few minutes after I had left. There is one last chance of our catching him—luckily the sergeant on duty noticed the number of the car, and we might be able to trace him through that—hullo.” An attendant stood at the door.
Would the Superintendent see Detective Jackson?
Falmouth found him waiting in the hall below.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” said Jackson, saluting, “but is there not some mistake in this number?”
“Why?” asked the detective sharply.
“Because,” said the man, “A17164 is the number of your own car.”