Manfred sat alone in his Lewisham house,—he was known to the old lady who was his caretaker as “a foreign gentleman in the music line”—and in the subdued light of the shaded lamp, he looked tired. A book lay on the table near at hand, and a silver coffee-service and an empty coffee-cup stood on the stool by his side. Reaction he felt. This strange man had set himself to a task that was never ending. The destruction of the forces of the Red Hundred was the end of a fight that cleared the ground for the commencement of another—but physically he was weary.
Gonsalez had left that morning for Paris, Poiccart went by the afternoon train, and he was to join them tomorrow.
The strain of the fight had told on them, all three. Financially, the cost of the war had been heavy, but that strain they could stand better than any other, for had they not the fortune of—Courlander; in case of need they knew their man.
All the world had been searched before they—the first Four—had come together—Manfred, Gonsalez, Poiccart, and the man who slept eternally in the flower-grown grave at Bordeaux. As men taking the oaths of priesthood they lived down the passions and frets of life. Each man was an open book to the other, speaking his most secret thought in the faith of sympathy, one dominating thought controlling them all.
They had made the name of the Four Just Men famous or infamous (according to your point of reckoning) throughout the civilized world. They came as a new force into public and private life. There were men, free of the law, who worked misery on their fellows; dreadful human ghouls fattening on the bodies and souls of the innocent and helpless; great magnates calling the law to their aid, or pushing it aside as circumstances demanded. All these became amenable to a new law, a new tribunal. There had grown into being systems which defied correction; corporations beyond chastisement; individuals protected by cunningly drawn legislation, and others who knew to an inch the scope of toleration. In the name of justice, these men struck swiftly, dispassionately, mercilessly. The great swindler, the procureur, the suborner of witnesses, the briber of juries—they died.
There was no gradation of punishment: a warning, a second warning—then death.
Thus their name became a symbol, at which the evildoer went tremblingly about his work, dreading the warning and ready in most cases to heed it. Life became a sweeter, a more wholesome thing for many men who found the thin greenish-grey envelope on their breakfast-table in the morning; but others persisted on their way, loudly invoking the law, which in spirit, if not in letter, they had outraged. The end was very sure, and I do not know of one man who escaped the consequence.
Speculating on their identity, the police of the world decided unanimously upon two points. The first was that these men were enormously rich—as indeed they were, and the second that one or two of them were no mean scientists—that also was true. Of the fourth man who had joined them recently, speculation took a wider turn. Manfred smiled as he thought of this fourth member, of his honesty, his splendid qualities of heart and brain, his enthusiasm, and his proneness to “lapse from the balance”—Gonsalez coined the phrase. It was an affectionate smile. The fourth man was no longer of the brotherhood; he had gone, the work being completed, and there were other reasons.
So Manfred was musing, till the little clock on the mantelpiece chimed ten, then he lit the spirit-kettle and brewed another cup of coffee. Thus engaged, he heard the far-away tinkle of a bell and the opening of a door. Then a murmur of voices and two steps on the stairs. He did not expect visitors, but he was always prepared for them at any hour.
“Come in,” he said, in answer to the knock; he recognized the apologetic rap of his housekeeper.
“A lady—a foreign lady to see you.”
“Show her in, please,” he said courteously.
He was busy with the kettle when she came in. He did not look up, nor did he ask who it was. His housekeeper stood a moment uncertain on the threshold, then went out, leaving them together.
“You will excuse me a moment,” he said. “Please sit down.”
He poured out the coffee with a steady hand, walked to his desk, sorted a number of letters, tossed them into the grate, and stood for a moment watching them burn, then looked at her.
Taking no notice of his invitation, the girl stood waiting at ease, one hand on her hip, the other hanging loosely.
“Won’t you sit down?” he asked again.
“I prefer to stand,” she said shortly.
“Then you are not so tired as I am,” he said, and sank back into the depths of his chair.
She did not reply, and for a few seconds neither spoke.
“Has the Woman of Gratz forgotten that she is an orator?” he said banteringly. It seemed to him that there was in those eyes of hers a great yearning, and he changed his tone.
“Sit down, Maria,” he said gently. He saw the flush that rose to her cheek, and mistook its significance.
“No, no!” he hastened to rectify an impression. “I am serious now, I am not gibing—why have you not gone with the others?”
“I have work to do,” she said.
He stretched out his hands in a gesture of weariness.
“Work, work, work!” he said with a bitter smile, “isn’t the work finished? Isn’t there an end to this work of yours?”
“Then end is at hand,” she said, and looked at him strangely.
“Sit down,” he commanded, and she took the nearest chair and watched him.
Then she broke the silence.
“What are you?” she asked, with a note of irritation. “Who gave you authority?”
“What am I—just a man, Maria. Authority? As you understand it—none.”
She was thoughtful for a moment.
“You have not asked me why I have come,” she said.
“I have not asked myself—yet it seems natural that you and I should meet again—to part.”
“What do they call you—your friends?” she asked suddenly. “Do they say ‘the man with the beard,’ or ‘the tall man’—did any woman ever nurse you and call you by name?”
A shadow passed over his face for a second.
“Yes,” he said quietly; “I have told you I am human; neither devil nor demi-god, no product of sea-foam or witches’ cauldron,” he smiled, “but a son of earthly parents—and men call me George Manfred.”
“George,” she repeated as though learning a lesson. “George Manfred.” She looked at him long and earnestly, and frowned.
“What is it you see that displeases you?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said quickly, “only I am—I cannot understand —you are different——”
“From what you expected.” She bent her head. “You expected me to air a triumph. To place myself in defence?” She nodded again.
“No, no,” he went on, “that is finished. I do not pursue a victory—I am satisfied that the power of your friends is shattered. I dissociate you from the humiliation of their defeat.”
“I am no better nor worse than they,” she said defiantly.
“You will be better when the madness passes,” he said gravely, “when you realize that your young life was not meant for the dreadful sacrifice of anarchy.”
He leant over and took her listless hand and held it between his palms.
“Child, you must leave this work,” he said softly, “forget the nightmare of your past—put it out of your mind, so that you will come to believe that the Red Hundred never existed.”
She did not draw away her hand, nor did she attempt to check the tears that came to her eyes. Something had entered her soul—an influence that was beyond all description or definition. A wonderful element that had dissolved the thing of granite and steel, that she had fondly thought was her heart, and left her weak and shaking in the process.
“Maria, if you ever knew a mother’s love”—how soft his voice was—”think of that: have you ever realized what your tiny life was to her—how she planned and thought and suffered for you—and to what end? That the hands she kissed should be set against men’s lives! Did she pray to God that He might keep you strong in health and pure in soul—only that His gifts should prove a curse to His beautiful world?”
With the tenderness of a father he drew her to him, till she was on her knees before him and her weeping face was pressed closely against him.
His strong arms were about her, and his hand smoothed her hair.
“I am a wicked woman,” she sobbed, “a wicked, wicked woman.”
“Hush,” he said sadly; “do not let us take our conception of wickedness from our deeds, but from our intentions, however mistaken, however much they traverse the written law.”
But her sobbing grew wilder, and she clutched him as though in fear that he would leave her.
He talked to her as though she were a frightened child, chiding her, laughing at her in gentle raillery, and she grew calmer and presently lifted her stained face to his.
“Listen,” she said; “I—I—oh, I cannot, I cannot say it.” And she buried her face on her breast.
Then with an effort she raised her head again.
“If I asked you—if I begged you to do something for me—would you?”
He looked into her eyes, smiling.
“You have done many things—you have killed—yes—yes, let me say it—I know I am hurting you, but let me finish.”
“Yes,” he said simply; “I have killed.”
“Have you—pitied as you killed?”
He shook his head.
“Yet you would,” she went on, and her distress moved him, “you would if you thought that you could kill a body and save a soul.”
He shook his head again.
“Yes, yes,” she whispered, and tried to speak. Twice she attempted to frame the words, and twice she failed. Then she pushed herself slowly backwards with her hands at his chest, and crouched before him with parted lips and heaving bosom.
“Kill me,” she breathed, “for I have betrayed you to the police.”
Still he made no sign, sitting there all huddled in the big chair, as though every muscle of his body had relaxed.
“Do you hear?” she cried fiercely. “I have betrayed you because—I think—I love you—but I—I did not know it—I did not know it! I hated you so that I pitied you—and always I thought of you!”
She knew by the look of pain in his eyes what her words had cost him.
Somehow she divined that the betrayal hurt least.
“I have never said it to myself,” she whispered; “I have never thought it in my most secret thoughts—yet it was there, there all the time, waiting for expression—and I am happier, though you die, and though every hour of my life be a lifetime of pain, I am happier that I have said it, happier than I thought I could ever be.
“I have wondered why I remembered you, and why I thought of you, and why you came into my every dream. I thought it was because I hated you, because I wanted to kill you, and to hold you at my mercy—but I know now, I know now.”
She rocked from side to side, clasping her hands in the intensity of her passion.
“You do not speak?” she cried. “Do you not understand, beloved? I have handed you over to the police, because—O God! because I love you! It must be that I do!”
He leant forward and held out his hands and she came to him half swooning.
“Marie, child,” he murmured, and she saw how pale he was, “we are strangely placed, you and I to talk of love. You must forget this, little girl; let this be the waking point of your bad dream; go forth into the new life—into a life where flowers are, and birds sing, and where rest and peace is.”
She had no thought now save for his danger.
“They are below,” she moaned. “I brought them here—I guided them.”
He smiled into her face.
“I knew,” he said.
She looked at him incredulously.
“You knew,” she said, slowly.
“Yes—when you came”—he pointed to the heap of burnt papers in the grate—“I knew.”
He walked to the window and looked out. What he saw satisfied him.
He came back to where she still crouched on the floor and lifted her to her feet.
She stood unsteadily, but his arm supported her. He was listening, he heard the door open below.
“You must not think of me,” he said again.
She shook her head helplessly, and her lips quivered.
“God bless you and help you,” he said reverently, and kissed her.
Then he turned to meet Falmouth.
“George Manfred,” said the officer, and looked at the girl in perplexity.
“That is my name,” said Manfred quietly. “You are Inspector Falmouth.”
“Superintendent,” corrected the other.
“I’m sorry,” said Manfred.
“I shall take you into custody,” said Falmouth, “on suspicion of being a member of an organization known as the Four Just Men, and accordingly concerned in the following crimes——”
“I will excuse you the recital,” said Manfred pleasantly, and held out his hands. For the first time in his life he felt the cold contact of steel at his wrists.
The man who snapped the handcuffs on was nervous and bungled, and Manfred, after an interested glance at the gyves, lifted his hands.
“This is not quite fastened,” he said.
Then as they closed round him, he half turned toward the girl and smiled.
“Who knows how bright are the days in store for us both?” he said softly.
Then they took him away.