The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 12

The New City

BY the evening of that day the four castaways of Time had acquired a better knowledge of the city, its odd customs and odder laws, than had been theirs during Cleverest’s morning call. The Loveliest had kept her word and more than kept it. She had called for them in her car, amiably accepted their rather lame excuses for Bertram’s presence, and insisted on an immediate shopping expedition to supply their more pressing needs in the way of clothing and toilette necessities.

On leaving the hotel she bestowed upon each of her proteges a plain green button. These, she explained, denoted that the wearer was of the immediate family of a Superlative. She had arranged with “Virty” to stretch a point for convenience sake, and so protect her wards pro tempore. Connections of Penn Servants, it seemed, wore similar buttons, but purple in color. No wearer of a button of either hue, she assured them, would ever be troubled by the police unless at the direct command of a Servant. This seemed a sweeping assertion, but they assumed that it did not cover such a person in the commission of actual crime. Later they were not so sure.

The most curious impression which Drayton received upon this brief expedition was that of the intense, commonplace familiarity of everything he saw, complicated by a secret undercurrent of differences too deep to be more than guessed at. The stores — most of them — were the same. The streets were the same. The people were not quite the same. Not only did both men and women appear to have undergone positive physical deterioration, but the look in their eyes was different.

These nameless, yellow-tagged Numbers who thronged the streets had a hangdog, spiritless appearance, as if caring little what their labor or their goings to and fro might bring them.

Everywhere the most profound, even slavish, respect was accorded to the Loveliest and her party. Evidently she was well known throughout the city.

Before entering the stores, she took them to luncheon and played the part of munificent hostess so well that all of them, save perhaps, Mr. Bertram, were more than half ashamed of their secret alliance with her jilted betrothed, the Cleverest.

One thing she did later, however, which cleared Viola’s conscience. At one of the larger department stores, she insisted on purchasing for the girl a great supply of gingham aprons and plain, practical house dresses.

“You will need them, my dear,” she assured affectionately. “Now, don’t object! If you are to keep up your position as Superlatively Domestic you will require at least four dozen of each!”

Viola, more amused than annoyed, let the woman have her way. “Just picture me,” she murmured aside to Drayton. “Picture poor little me cleaning the whole inside of City Hall! Isn’t she the dear, though?”

Everything was to be charged, they discovered, to that benevolent institution “Penn Service.” Trenmore, who made it a practice to carry a considerable amount of money about him, wished to pay. The woman scoffed at the notion.

“You’ll soon get over the idea of paying for anything,” she declared. “But tell me; how do you come to have money? I thought you said you had just reached the city. Is it money you brought with you? May I see it?”

Trenmore handed her some silver and a ten-dollar bill.

“Why, what curious little medals — and how pretty they are! Would you mind giving me these as a keepsake?”

“Not at all, madam,” Trenmore responded gravely. Despite her obvious efforts to please, the woman’s company and her open devotion to himself were becoming increasingly distasteful. As he complained to Drayton, he did not like the green eyes of her! “I suppose your own coins are different?” he queried.

“We don’t use coins — is that what you call them? — for exchange. The common Numbers have their certificates of labor, somewhat like this piece of paper of yours. They are not green and yellow, though, but red, stamped with the number of hours in black. They are free to spend these as they please. But the Servants of Penn and we Superlatives charge everything to the Service.”

“You mean the city pays?”

“Oh, no. These stores must do their part toward the government upkeep. That is only just. We levy on all the people equally — on the merchant and property-holder for goods; on the laborer for a portion of his time, if we require it. Penn Service makes no exceptions.”

She said this with an air of great virtue, but Drayton commented, “That must be rather hard on any merchant or worker you particularly favor — especially a man of small capital or large family.”

“It keeps them in line,” she retorted, with a somewhat cruel set to her thin red lips.

“But,” objected Drayton, harking back to the matter of money, “if your currency is not based on gold or silver, how does it possess any stability?”

“I don’t know what you mean. The Service sets a valuation on the different sorts of labor. For instance, if an expert accountant and a street cleaner each work one hour, the accountant will receive credit for ten hours and the scavenger credit for half an hour. I suppose you might say the system is based on working time.”

“And the value is not set by either employer or employed?”

Her eyes widened. “Let the Numbers say how much a man’s labor is worth? Whoever heard of such a thing! Why, they would grind each other into the ground.”

“They are at least free to work for each other or not as they please, I suppose?”

“Certainly. Why, they are perfectly free in every way. They even own all the property except the Temple itself and the officials’ private residences.”

Drayton was hopelessly at sea. Was this system a tyranny, as he had indefinitely suspected, or was it the freest and most orderly of governments?

“Forgive my stupidity,” he apologized. “I don’t even yet understand. Instead of the dollar you make an hour’s labor the unit and then set a fixed schedule of labor value. But the work of two men at the same job is hardly ever of equal worth. How do you —”

“Wait,” she broke in impatiently. “When you are yourself one of us, sir, you may understand these arrangements better. Penn Service owns practically nothing; but it rules everything. It is perfectly impartial. One man’s labor is as good as another’s . Any one who refused to give or take a certificate would have the Service to deal with.”

“And yet the Service itself never pays for anything and takes what it likes of goods or labor. But according to that your whole population are mere slaves, and their ownership of property a mockery! Who are these Servants of Penn that hold such power?”

She stared at him, a hard look in her green eyes.

“The Masters of the City,” she retorted briefly. “It is not suitable that we discuss them here and now. Wait until to-morrow. Then you yourself will become, I hope, a Superlative, and as such will receive all the necessary information.”

The ex-lawyer accepted the snub meekly, but dared one further question.

“Are Mercy and Judge Virtue Servants of Penn?”

“Mr. Mercy and Mr. Virtue are both of the Inner Order. You will do very well not to cross their path-er-Drayton.”

He made no further comment, but determined to use every opportunity to get at the true inwardness of this singular system and the toleration of it by the so-called “Numbers.” Were all other cities like this? They must be, he thought, or no one would choose this one to live in.

The Loveliest herself seemed strangely devoid of curiosity regarding her proteges’ past lives and histories. Indeed, twice she checked Trenmore when he would have volunteered information along this line. “You must not tell me these things,” she declared. “Even we Superlatives are not permitted to learn of other places and customs — are not supposed to know that such exist!”

At this preposterous statement Bertram, who had been going about with an air of pained boredom, became interested.

“Say, lady, don’t you folks ever go traveling anywheres?”

Had he suggested something indelicate, she could have looked no more horrified.

“Traveling outside of Philadelphia? I should hope not! Besides, such an outrage would never be permitted, I assure you.”

“But you must have some communication with the outer world?” puzzled Viola. “We saw the trains and the passengers at the ferry. And where do all these things come from that we see in the stores?”

“My dear, we have many local trains, of course, but the interstate commerce is entirely in the hands of Penn Service. Our laborers here manufacture certain articles; our farmers raise certain produce. These things are turned over to the Service who reserve a share to themselves for expense. Then they exchange it outside the boundaries; but it is all done by the secret agents and I have never bothered my head about it. The matter is outside the province of my administration.”

“How long has this sort of thing gone on?” persisted Drayton.

“My dear sir, and all of you, why will you ask such absurd and impossible questions? Can’t you understand that we Philadelphians have no concern either with the past or with anything outside our own boundaries? The law says, let every good citizen live his own life. It is forbidden that he should do more than that.”

“Do you mean to tell us,” gasped the lawyer, “that you know nothing of this city’s history?”

“Certainly I mean that. Most of these people that you see would not understand your meaning should you ask them such a question. I was educated privately by one of the Servants of Penn.” She said it as one might boast of having been brought up by the King of England in person. “I am able to converse intelligently, I hope, on any reasonable subject. But even I never received such absurdly needless instruction as that.”

“But what are the children taught in your schools?”

“The natural, useful things. Cooking, carpentry, weaving — all the necessary trades. What use would any more be to them? It would only make them dissatisfied, and goodness knows they are already dissatisfied and ungrateful enough!”

“Well,” sighed Trenmore, “whoever has done these things to your people has certainly hit a new low in autocratic government.”

Half playfully, she shook her head at him.

“Big man,” she rebuked, “I don’t altogether understand you, but take care of your words. I like you too well to wish to see you die! Penn Service is sacred. Never speak against it, even when you believe yourself alone or in the safest company. It has a million eyes and a million ears, and they are everywhere. And now, let me take you back to the Belleclaire. After to-morrow I will see you more suitably lodged. To-night, however, you must put up as best you may with its inconvenience and bareness.”

Its “inconvenience and bareness,” however, amounted to luxury in the eyes of these benighted wanderers from another age. They were very well content to have one more evening alone together. The Loveliest, it seemed, was attending an important social function to which, until they had actually claimed their laurels in the approaching competition, she could not take them.

“Nobody is anybody here,” she said, “except the Servants themselves, the Superlatives and the family connections of each. There are only three or four hundred of us, all told, but we manage to keep the social ball rolling. I can promise you a gay winter. Now, don’t attempt to go out on the streets.”

Trenmore frowned. He had a secret desire to visit a certain house on Walnut Street and of course he wouldn’t find the place unchanged, and the dust still lying there on the library floor. But he wished to look, at least. “Why not?” he inquired.

“Because I am responsible for your appearance at the contests to-morrow. Don’t be offended. Should anything happen to you it would not only make me very unhappy, but might cause me serious trouble. The competitions are held in the Temple to-morrow at high noon. I’ll call for you early and see to it that everything goes through just right. You’ve no idea what a pleasant future lies in store for you, big man!”

“Oh, haven’t I, though?” muttered Trenmore as he stood with the others in the lobby and watched her retreating back. “Madam Green-eyes, it’s yourself has a pleasant surprise on its way to you, and I’m the sorry man to see trouble come to any woman, but it’s yourself deserves it, I’m thinking — and anyway, I couldn’t let my little sister Viola be made the slave you’d gladly see her, or I’ve misread the green eyes of you!”

“What’s that you’re saying, Terry?” queried Drayton.

“Just a benediction on the kind-hearted lady, Bobby. Bertram, where are you off to? Didn’t you hear herself saying we are all to stop inside?”

“Aw, say, boss, I’m fair smothered. That doll would talk the hind wheel off a street car. It wasn’t me she went bail for and I won’t get into trouble.”

“See that you don’t, then,” counseled Trenmore, and let him go.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30