The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 14

The Threat of Penn

THAT night Mr. Arnold Bertram did not return to the Hotel Belleclaire. Moreover, Trenmore discovered with some annoyance that the Cerberus was again missing. He had thrust the thing in his pocket and forgotten it. Now the vial was gone, either lost in the streets, or, more probably, again confiscated by their rotund and assimilative friend the burglar.

Morning came, but no Bertram. Drayton was first dressed, and he was waiting in the parlor when the others appeared. A moment of silence was followed by a sudden deep chuckle from Trenmore and a little shriek from Viola.

“Why, you two absurd men!” she cried. “You’re wearing exactly the same things as yesterday! You haven’t even had them pressed! Terry, your trousers look as if you’d slept in them — not a sign of a crease. What will your true love be thinking?”

Trenmore flung back his head with a comical look of defiance. “Let her think what she likes. I’ve no liking for goods no better than stole, Penn Service or no Penn Service! I pay for my clothes, or I’ll wear none. But you’ve no cause to be talking, Viola. Where’s the pretty new gown you were to be wearing? And Bobby, what about those fine ash-grays you were choosing so carefully yesterday?”

“I meant to wear them. If we intended to keep faith with the lady who provided them, I should certainly have worn them. As it is-” Drayton shrugged.

“And I,” confessed Viola, “couldn’t bring myself to touch anything that woman gave me. She must take us as we are or not at all. It’s ten o’clock — and there’s the telephone. I expect that is my Lady Green-eyes.”

It was. She looked disappointed and more than a trifle hurt when she saw their costumes and learned their intention not to change. She herself was resplendent in a gown of pale-yellow satin, under a magnificent fitted coat of Irish lace. Trenmore placated her for their shabby appearance as best he could, and dropping that subject, though with obvious annoyance, the Loveliest inquired for the missing Bertram.

“We’ve no idea at all where he is, madam. He went out last night, though I argued it with him, and we’ve seen neither hide nor hair of the lad since that time.”

She seemed little concerned. “He will probably show up at the Temple. If he has lost his green button and got himself arrested, he is sure to be there. Shall we go now?”

Descending to the lady’s car, they found Broad Street crowded with an immense and mostly stationary throng. Narrow lanes had been cleared by the police for such pedestrians and motor cars as might prefer moving along. A few cars belonging, they were informed, to various officials, were parked in the middle of the street.

“What are they all waiting for?” queried Viola.

“For the competitions. They don’t often take so much interest. This time the Numbers have a candidate for musical director, and they are waiting for blocks around until the result is announced.”

Drayton wondered why such a large percentage of the population were concerned over an apparently unimportant office; but he made no comment.

The run from the hotel to the former City Hall was a short one. As the car swung into the open traffic lane, Drayton looked ahead. There, closing the brief vista, loomed that huge gray bulk of masonry which is the heart — the center — the very soul, as one might say, of the ancient Quaker City.

From the street no sign of the golden dome was visible, nor any exterior hint of the vast innovations within. There rose the tower upon whose pinnacle, visible for many a mile around, stood the giant figure of that good old Quaker, his vast hand forever outstretched in gentle blessing. There he stood, as he had stood for troublous centuries. Below him was the familiar clock and a wraith of white mist obscured its face. Drayton remembered how, on previous visits to Philadelphia, that wraith of mist had prevented him from seeing the time. The wind was perpetually blowing it across. And Broad Street — he had once been here through a city election. All Broad Street had been crowded, just as it was crowded now, with people in fixed masses before the bulletin boards. The bulletins were missing now, but what other difference was there in appearance?

A yellow multiplicity of numbered buttons and yes, the emblem displayed above the Public Building’s southern entrance. Then it had a huge replica of the Knight Templar insignia, with “Welcome K. T.” in varicolored bulbs. Now the emblem was a sword-crossed bell. Above it gleamed four ominous figures — 2118. That was the difference.

Drayton emerged from his homesick comparisons to find that the car was drawing up at the curb. Where had once been an open archway were doors of studded iron. A traffic policeman hurried forward and hustled the crowd aside. He used his stick freely, but the crowd did not even growl. It sickened Drayton — not so much the blows, as the spirit in which they were taken. Had the backbone of this people been entirely softened in the vinegar of even two centuries of oppression? And these were his own people, or their descendants — his fellow Americans! That hurt.

Doubtless, however, as he became adjusted to new usages, the injustice and oppressions of the year A.D. 2118 would seem no more intolerable than the tyrannies and injustices of the twentieth century.

The iron doors swung wide and closed silently behind the little party. They found themselves in a long corridor, walled and floored with polished red marble, artificially lighted and lined with doors, paneled with frosted glass. “Part of the administrative section,” explained the Loveliest, as she hurried them along the passage. “These are all offices of the different departments. Would you care to see the crowd under the Dome from the balcony?”

Without waiting for assent, she led the way up a short flight of red marble stairs. Suddenly they emerged from beneath a low arch and looked out into the space beneath the Dome of Justice. They stood upon a little balcony. Out from it extended a narrow bridge of planking to the rough scaffold that hung about the Red Bell.

Beneath the Dome the milk-white floor was no longer visible. They looked down upon a sea of heads. The people were packed so closely that had there come one of those swaying motions common to crowds many must inevitably have been trampled. Only at the northern side was a space cleared and roped off. In the center of this space was the eagle and dove symbol that hid the pit. At the far side a throne of carved and jeweled gold had been set on a high dais, draped with pale blue and yellow banners. Throne and dais were empty, but close about the roped-off space was drawn a cordon of uniformed police. Save for these who wore their regulation caps, not a head in the great hall was covered. Silent, patient, bareheaded, they stood — the despised “Numbers,” packed too tightly for even the slight relief of motion, waiting.

Drayton wondered what it was about them that seemed so strange — so unearthly. Then it came to him. They were silent. Except for a faint rustling sound, like dry leaves in a breeze, the space beneath the golden dome was entirely silent. One could have closed one’s eyes and fancied oneself alone.

Said Trenmore, “Are they dumb, these people of yours?”

Low though he had spoken, his voice reverberated from the shallow Dome as from a sounding board. The dark sea of heads became flecked with white, as faces were turned toward the balcony. Leaning her gloved elbows on the golden rail, the Loveliest looked indifferently down.

“They are not permitted to speak within the sacred precincts. Most of them have stood these three hours past, and they have another two hours to wait. They are all so lazy that I don’t imagine they mind. Anything, rather than to be at work!”

“Some of those women have babies in their arms,” observed Viola pityingly.

The Loveliest shrugged. “Don’t ask me why they are here. It’s a foolish old custom, and I am glad to say this is the last of it. Mr. Justice Supreme has ordered that hereafter the competitions shall be held in private. We had best go around to the north side now. I’ll find out if Mr. J. S. is ready to receive you. I persuaded Virty to arrange for a presentation. Mr. J. S. is just a trifle difficult in his old age, but he won’t interfere.”

Interfere with what? Drayton wondered. Then the question slipped from his mind as his eye lighted on a curious thing at the back of the balcony.

It was a sword; a huge, unwieldy weapon, fully seven feet in length. The broad blade was of polished blue steel, inlaid to the hilt with gold. The grip, such of it as could be seen, was of gold studded with rough turquoise. Too large and heavy, surely, for human wielding, the sword was held upright in the grip of a great bronze hand, the wrist of which terminated in the wall at about the height of a man’s chest from the floor.

“And what weapon is that?” inquired Trenmore.

“That? Oh, that is part of the Threat. You see the hand that holds it? That is the so-called ‘Hand of Penn.’ From the tower above, his hand is extended in blessing. Down here it grasps the sword. It is attached to a sort of mechanical arm, long enough to pass halfway across the Hall of Justice. The arm runs back through the wall there, between the ceiling of the corridor and the floor above. It is controlled by a mechanism to which only the Servants hold a key.”

“And what happens when the queer machine is used?” asked Trenmore. It seemed a useless invention, on the face of it.

“It isn’t used,” she replied with an amused smile. “If it ever were, the hand would drop so that the sword was level; then shoot out and the sword’s point would strike the edge of that Red Bell and recoil. Of course, it couldn’t strike now, because of the scaffolding. Mr. J. S. has an idea that the bell will look well with a ring of red electric lamps around it. They are wiring it for that.”

“The sword is a kind of elaborate gong-striking device then,” commented Drayton. He recalled Cleverest’s description of the singular dread in which the Red Bell was held by the Numbers. “What would happen if it were used?” he queried in turn.

“Oh, the city would go up in smoke, I suppose.” The woman laughed as she said it. Clearly she herself had no great faith in the probability of such a catastrophe.

“But how do your people imagine that a miracle of that sort could be brought about?” persisted Drayton.

“You do ask such questions! By a special dispensation of our Lord Penn, I suppose. Will you come with me, please? Under no circumstances must His Supremacy be kept waiting.”

They followed her, back into the red corridor, and thence through a long series of luxurious living apartments, smoking, lounging, and drawing-rooms, each furnished in a style compatible only with great wealth or the system of “credit” peculiar to Penn Service. Crossing the old patrol entrance, they at last reached that part of the Temple which was held consecrate to the use of the highest Servant, Mr. Justice Supreme. While possessing several residences in various pleasant locations, he preferred, the lady informed them, to live almost entirely in the Temple. To the visitors, this “Temple,” with its more or less resident “Servants” bore a close resemblance to a clubhouse for luxury-loving millionaires.

They waited in an anteroom with their guide, who had given her card and a penciled message to one of the half-dozen uniformed page boys who lounged there. The lad returned with a verbal message to the effect that Mr. Justice Supreme begged to be excused.

At almost the same moment Cleverest emerged from the door leading to the inner sanctum. He came straight to them with a smile of welcome which made him look almost good humored. Close behind appeared the plethoric Mr. Virtue.

“I declare, Virty, it’s too bad!” began Loveliest indignantly. “You promised that you would arrange a presentation.”

Mr. Virtue, looking worried and more than a little annoyed, shook his head. “I can’t help it. I couldn’t see him myself, Lovely. Clever’s been with him all morning. Ask him what the trouble is!”

She turned a glance of sharp suspicion upon her fellow Superlative. “Did you have anything to do with this, Clever? If you did —”

“To do with what?” inquired Cleverest blandly. “His Supremity is somewhat indisposed, and is conserving his strength for the ceremonies. You have no cause for anxiety. I explained things to him myself. There will be no trouble. You really owe me a debt of gratitude, Lovely. The dear old gentleman has always been rather fond of the present Strongest. I had quite a little job persuading him that your candidate was in every way more deserving.”

She watched him with a puzzled frown. Then her brow cleared, her eyes opened wide with that dark distension of the pupils which was a trick of theirs.

“Why, Clever,” she beamed, “I’m tremendously obliged to you. I never thought you really cared enough to do anything like that for me. Particularly now!”

He smiled, with a barefaced assumption of hurt tenderness which would have deceived none but the most vain and assured of women.

“You’ve never done me justice Lovely. Don’t thank me until the competitions are over. When the job’s done I shall feel more worthy! Come along to the Green Room. Nearly every one else is there.”

The “Green Room” proved to be a long, wide chamber with windows on one side only, opening out upon the Hall of Justice. In the center of that side, level with the pavement, opened the northern door, which varied from the other two in being of the same scarlet hue as the Red Bell. The room itself was done entirely in green, a thick velvet carpet of that color covering the floor like moss, and the walls being decorated in a simulation of foliage. The place was well filled. By the law, it seemed, every Superlative physically able to be present must appear at the Civic Service Examinations, held once in four years. Most of them had brought members of their families.

All wore the green or red buttons of Superlativism, and all were dressed with a gayety which verged — in many cases more than verged — on distinct vulgarity. For some reason of etiquette none of the Servants’ womenfolk were present. The three visitors were therefore unable to pass judgment on those greatest of great ladies. The gathering present, however, represented if not the cream, at least the top milk of twenty-second century society. Though it was morning, the only women present whose gowns were not almost painfully decollate were Viola Trenmore, Loveliest, and two or three very young girls. Colors shrieked at one another, or were gagged to silence by an overpowering display of jewelry. Some of the older and plainer ladies were quite masked in the enamel of their complexions.

The Loveliest took her proteges about the room, presenting them to the various officials and their wives. She seemed on the most familiar terms with the men, but the women, while they addressed her with formal respect, cast glances at her back tinged with anything but affection.

The only Superlative not present was the Swiftest, Chief of the Messenger Service. “Laid up with another bad attack of rheumatism,” Mr. Virtue explained sympathetically.

“He’ll be laid up with worse than that after the contests,” grinned Cleverest, with a meaning wink at Drayton.

The latter smiled back, but the effort was mechanical. They boasted of the fair and open nature of these contests, and at the same time talked of the results as a foregone conclusion. One ex-lawyer wondered what ghost of a chance he had to supplant this man, nephew of Justice Supreme, and so sure of his ability to undermine Loveliest, herself a person of influence and evident power. He had the ghastly feeling of a man walking on a thin crust above unknown fires. There was too little that they understood; too much that hinted of subterranean movements and powers which at any moment might writhe and cast them all into that theatrical, deadly pit, beneath the Dove of Peace.

Then he heard the green-eyed lady’s voice again, speaking in the silkiest of tones. “And this, my friends, is our Chief of Contractors, the Strongest. Stringy, let me make you acquainted with Mr. Trenmore. And Miss Trenmore. This little lady is to try her hand at domesticity, Stringy. I don’t imagine there will be any competition — not for that office.”

The official whom she disrespectfully misaddressed as “Stringy” fitted his nickname better than his real title of Strongest. He was a tall, long-limbed, lean man, with a very red face and sunburned neck. He glanced pityingly at Viola. From her his gaze turned anxiously to the huge giant of a man with whom he was shortly to contend not only for continuance in office, but life itself. He started to say something, choked, and, turning abruptly, hurried off to lose himself in the crowd of his more fortunate fellows.

“Somebody has tipped Stringy off,” laughed Mr. Virtue. “Hi, there, Merry! Whither away?”

But the ineffable Mr. Mercy jerked roughly from his friend’s detaining hand and without a glance for the rest of the party passed on through the door leading to the inner sanctuary.

“He’s sore, too,” growled Virtue. “Lovely, you’re getting me in bad all around.”

“Merry will get over it,” she replied indifferently. “He never thinks of any one but himself. Outside of that he’s a good sort. I’ll square things for you, Virty, once this examination is over. What was it you said, Mr. Drayton?”

“Is there any objection,” repeated Drayton, “to my wandering about a bit? The decorative schemes of these rooms are wonderful. I used to be interested in such things, as a boy. You don’t mind?”

“Not at all. Go over toward the eastern side, though, away from Mr. J. S.’s sanctum. And be back here within the half hour.”

“I will. Terry, you don’t mind if I leave you?”

“Go ahead,” assented the Irishman, and Viola nodded abstractedly. She was staring out at that pathetically silent multitude in the Hall of Justice.

As a matter of fact, the lawyer craved solitude for thought. The more time he spent in this Temple of Justice, the more he became convinced of the puerility of their own light-hearted schemes.

Viola’s reflections, had he known it, were no shade less gloomy than his own. Quick-brained, intuitive to a degree, the psychic atmosphere of the place, combined with hints picked up here and there, had shaken her assurance to its foundations. She could think of nothing but Drayton’s well-nigh certain failure and its inevitable toll of disaster. She herself would then be the promised bride of a man she instinctively loathed, while Drayton — but there she halted, unable to contemplate the hideous fate which once more threatened.

Her reverie was interrupted by her brother. The Loveliest had deserted him temporarily and was engaged with some of her friends across the room. The two Trenmores conversed for some time undisturbed; then Terry drew out his watch.

“Viola, it’s 11:45 and Bobby is not yet back. Where can the lad be lingering, do you think?”

Before the girl could reply, Loveliest hurried over to them.

“You must go out into the hall now, big man. You, too, my dear.”

“Not without Mr. Drayton,” stipulated Viola firmly. “He has not returned!”

Loveliest frowned. “We certainly cannot wait for him! I warned him to be back here by half past eleven.”

“I’ll go look for him,” volunteered Trenmore; but Lady Green-eyes checked him.

“I can send an officer if you really can’t get along without him. He is probably lost somewhere in the corridors. Here comes Mr. Justice Supreme. I told you it was late!”

A green baize door at the end of the room had swung open. Through it filed several men, all attired in the same frock coats, light trousers, patent-leather pumps and spats which distinguished Mercy and Virtue from the common herd. They also possessed similar silk hats, and wore them, though they and the police were the only male persons within the Temple with covered heads. The hats, evidently, were further marks of distinction, like a bishop’s miter or the splendid crown of royalty.

Having passed through the door, they divided into two ranks, the last man at the end on each side holding wide the two halves of the door. There followed a pause, during which a solemn hush settled throughout the Green Room.

Through the open doorway emerged the figure of a very old man. He was bent, shaking, decrepit with a loathsome senility. His face was shaven and his clothes the apotheosis of dandyism. His coat curved in at the waist, his shoes were two mirrors, his hat another. He wore a yellow chrysanthemum as a boutonniere, and from his eyeglasses depended a broad black ribbon. His vest was of white flowered satin. His hands were ungloved yellow claws, and in one of them he carried an ivory-headed ebony cane. With the latter he felt his way like a blind man, and supported himself in his slow and tremulous progress.

His face! It was lined and scarred by every vice of which Clever’s younger countenance had hinted. His pale-blue eyes, rheumy and red-rimmed, blinked evilly above purple pouches. Over ragged yellow teeth his mouth worked and snarled, as though mumbling a continuous, silent curse against life and all mankind.

Looking neither to right nor left, he hobbled between the ranks of the lesser Servants. Promptly, as he passed, they closed in behind and followed him on and across the Green Room toward the door which led to his great golden throne, set in the Hall of Justice.

And the people in the room bowed very reverently as he passed by — bowed and looked relieved that he had gone without a word to them.

Staring fascinated, Viola and her brother were startled by a whisper at their shoulders.

“Old J. S. has had a bad night. He looks grouchier than usual!”

It was the irrepressible Loveliest. “Come over to the window,” she continued as the door closed behind the last of the Servants. “I’ll tell you exactly who’s who. You see that man helping His Supremity up the steps of the dais? That is Mr. Courage, his right-hand man. And just behind is Mr. Kindness. That short, thin one is Mr. Power; the old fellow that drags one leg is Mr. Purity. Then come Mr. Pity, Mr. Contentment, and Mr. Love. And there goes good old Virty, looking as if his last friend had died; just because Mercy cut him, I suppose, and he blames me for it. But they’re all alike — they never think of any one but themselves. I suppose Merry is sulking somewhere, too.

“Those are all the Servants who are here to-day. There are twelve altogether. And now you really must go to your places. I’ve sent a man to look for your friend and I’ll have him brought out to you as soon as he is found. I have to stay here with the other Superlatives until my place is called; but of course that is merely a formality. The only candidates up are yourselves, and that boy the Numbers are trying to wedge in as Musical Director. Here, Fifty-three,” she addressed their old acquaintance, the police sergeant, “look after my friends, will you? Well the nerve of him! Will you look at Clever? He’s gone right up on the dais with the Servants! I don’t care if Mr. J. S. is his uncle, Clever has no right to push himself forward like that — not while he’s holding a Superlative office!”

She was still talking as they left her, but so obviously to herself that they felt guilty of no discourtesy. Following Sergeant Fifty-three, they were led to a place at one side of the roped-off enclosure. No one else was there, save a slim, graceful boy of about nineteen or twenty. This was the Numbers’ candidate for Musical Director. He was plainly, though not shabbily dressed, and his face was of such unusual beauty that Viola was really startled. As she said afterward, that face was the first thing she had seen in the city which reminded her that somewhere still there really was a Heaven.

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