The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 16

Disaster

IN barely thirty minutes the hall was emptied, cleansed of blood and debris, and the ceremony of the “examinations” resumed.

Mr. Justice Supreme had waited, dozing, on his throne. The lesser servants perforce waited also, albeit impatiently and with much glancing at watches and sotto voce complaint about the delay.

Sad, silent, and defeated, the Numbers had retired, bearing with them their injured and their dead. When the hall was at last cleared the lovely, milk-white pavement resembled more nearly the pit of a slaughter house than the floor of a temple. It was smeared and slimy with trampled blood, fragments of clothing, and other fragments less pleasant to contemplate. The temple force of “white wings,” however, made short work of it. They dragged out a few lengths of hose, turned on a powerful water pressure and in less than five minutes the blood and debris were washed down three drains to which the pavement imperceptibly sloped. The wet floor gleamed whiter than ever, and the Red Bell and wonderful walls were reflected with redoubled glory. A corps of scrubwomen went to work on hands and knees to dry and polish the cleansed floor, while Mr. Pity, with a final glance at his watch, again rose and advanced to the platform edge.

“The next superlative quality on my list,” droned the master of ceremonies, disregarding the fact that he addressed only the bent backs of five inattentive scrubwomen, “is that of Quickest. This office entails management and control, under Penn Service, of the Department of Police, involving responsibility for the keeping of peace in Philadelphia and outlying suburbs.”

A slim, alert-looking man of about forty-five advanced to the pit.

“Is there any other candidate for this office? Any other candidate?”

Came the click of hurrying heels, and round the dais appeared a small, rotund figure, surmounted by a cherubic but troubled countenance. Trenmore growled disappointedly. He had hoped for Drayton, not Bertram. What misadventure was keeping his friend away?

Bertram came up just as the master of ceremonies commenced his stereotyped conclusion: “No other candidate for this office. Present holder may —”

“Wait a minute there!” cried Trenmore, and thrust Bertram forward. “Go on — go on in, you fat rascal!” he added in a forceful whisper. “Here’s the contest for Quickest now. You’ve not quite missed it. Go on!”

Though Bertram struggled vainly to face about, the Irishman still pushed him forward. He was not wasting such an opportunity to delay the proceedings in his absent friend’s interest.

“I-I’ve changed my mind!” the burglar protested.

“Are we to understand,” cut in Mr. Pity, “that this person does or does not wish to compete? Just a minute, chief. I don’t know whether or not you have a rival.”

“Certainly not!” spluttered Bertram.

“Certainly he does!” Trenmore’s affirmative drowned out the burglar’s plaintive negative. “If you don’t,” he added in his victim’s ear, “I’ll wring the round head off you!”

Mr. Arnold Bertram succumbed. Between two dangers, he chose the pit.

“Very well, y’r honor,” he stammered. “I-I guess I’ll have a go at it.”

“Come forward then,” snapped the master of ceremonies impatiently. “What is your number, place of residence, occupation, and age? Answer in order and speak clearly, please.”

“My-Say, I ain’t got no number.”

“What?” Pity glanced frowningly at Bertram’s lapel, and saw the green button with which Loveliest had supplied him. “With whose family are you connected?”

Just then Cleverest, who had been sitting quietly among the servants, rose and strolled to the front. He looked Bertram over; then turned to the throne.

“Your Supremity, this is one of those four strangers of whom you are already informed. Is it permitted that the usual questions be omitted?”

Both Mr. Pity and the Superlative seemed to interpret the inarticulate snarl which replied as assent. The latter gentleman, after giving Viola an encouraging smirk, sauntered back to his seat.

“Very well,” said Pity. “But I must call you something you know. Haven’t you any title?”

“Me name’s Bertram,” conceded the burglar.

“Well-er-Bertram, you now have an opportunity to prove yourself the quickest man in the city. Bring around that machine there.”

At the word a thing like a penny-in-the-slot scales were trundled over the porcelain by two pit guards. They brought it to a halt just before Mr. Pity. Following it came Mr. Virtue, who drew the chief of police aside, whispered earnestly to him, and stepped back. Suspiciously Bertram eyed the contrivance, with its platform and large dial.

“Now, Bertram, place yourself on that platform and grasp the lever at the right. That’s it. Now. Raise your left hand and snap finger and thumb nine times!”

With a dazed look the burglar obeyed. The needle on the dial jerked, swept around once, quivered, and stopped. By the servant’s instructions, Bertram performed a number of similar feats, all equally trivial. Each time the needle made its mysterious record. At last Mr. Pity seemed satisfied.

“Very good. Mr. Virtue, would you mind making a note of that percentage? You may step off, Bertram.”

Still dazed, Bertram again obeyed.

“You next, chief. Thank you.”

The mysterious rites of the grasped lever and foolish-looking calisthenics were repeated.

“What is the comparison, Mr. Virtue?”

The servant figured for a moment on the back of an envelope.

“Ninety-eight for friend Bertram; ninety-five for the chief. Congratulations to you, my man! Sorry, chief. I fear you’re getting old!”

The alert man who had been so unceremoniously superseded stepped off the little platform. He did not look particularly concerned, thought Trenmore — not at all like a man condemned to lose both means of living and life.

“It’s all in the game, Mr. Virtue,” he observed cheerfully. “Tell the boys to send lilies of the valley. When’s the funeral?”

“Some other time, chief,” retorted Virtue with equal jocosity. “The pit is not working right to-day.”

“The cheerful liar!” muttered Trenmore. “Now tell me, Viola, what’s the meaning of yonder small comedy?”

The girl, white-lipped and sick at heart, laughed mirthlessly. “What does it matter? At least, neither Bertram nor the other is to be murdered. Terry, if Mr. Drayton does not return soon, what shall we do when our time comes?”

“He will return — he must — but now what’s wrong with the little round man?”

It was evident that Bertram was in a difficulty of some sort. The displaced chief of police had him firmly by the collar. Mr. Virtue was glaring at him with an expression of incredulous wrath, while Cleverest strode toward them, anxiety in every line of his sharp features.

Terence and Viola were at that time unable to understand the disgrace of Bertram and his immediately subsequent condemnation. It appeared only that during their three minutes’ conversation with one another the burglar had committed some act so unpardonable that even the intercession of Cleverest did not avail him. Apparently the act had been witnessed by every one present save the two remaining candidates. The accusation was not even formulated in words.

“In three hours’ time let him be cast into the pit,” came the inexorable judgment from the throne. “Let him have that three hours to consider and repent of his sacrilege. Penn is just and all-merciful. Take the prisoner away! Let the former chief resume his official duties.”

The chief celebrated his rehabilitation by dragging his presumptuous successor off the scene, the latter still sputtering and expostulating, his captor wearing an expression of serene amusement.

“What next?” questioned Viola hopelessly.

The next arrived with great promptness. Mr. Pity had no more than glanced at his list, after the prisoner’s removal, when there came the tramp of feet and the sound of an excited voice.

“Bring him along, men,” it commanded. “Drag the sacrilegious beast before the throne! Let his Supremity judge the dog!”

Then appeared the triumphant Mr. Mercy, waving on a cohort of four policemen. In their midst was another and much disheveled prisoner.

“’Tis Bobby!” groaned the Irishman.

Loveliest appeared, crossed behind the guarded prisoner, and defiantly took her stand beside Trenmore. Evidently the downfall of two of her four proteges had alarmed the woman. As much occasion for formality had vanished with the Numbers’ exit, she had chanced the anger of the throne and come to her “big man’s “ assistance. Once more Mr. Justice Supreme was roused from somnolence.

“Well, well,” he demanded crossly of Mercy. “What’s all this about? Are we never to have a moment’s peace to finish these examinations? Who is that fellow you have there?”

Mr. Mercy bowed gracefully, silk hat for once removed and pressed to his triumphant bosom. He cast one glance of joyous malice at Loveliest, and addressed the throne:

“Your Supremity, I have a well-nigh unbelievable charge to lay against this prisoner. Because of the magnitude, the incredible audacity of his crime, and because one — I might say two — of our own number have actually stood his sponsor — because of these things, I say, I have presumed to interrupt the proceedings of this Board of Examiners in the full faith that —”

“Get to the point — get to the point, man,” cut in the high priest petulantly. “What has be done?”

Again Mercy bowed. “Your Supremity, to waste no words, this mad and audacious stranger, this insolent abuser of Your Supremity’s hospitality, who now faces the very throne with such brazen effrontery —”

“Well-well? Mr. Mercy, if you can’t tell it, step aside, please, and allow me to question the prisoner himself!”

“He has invaded the holy Library of Penn,” retorted Mercy, “and perused the sacred books!”

There was a general movement of interest among the bored servants. Several of the women auditors rose from their chairs and walked forward to obtain a better view of the prisoner. Even His Supremity was aroused. His face purpled with a rage greater than that awakened by the presumptuous Numbers, his mouth worked horribly, and it was some moments before he could sufficiently control his voice to speak. “How do you know this?” he at last enunciated hoarsely.

“Because I caught him at it,” replied Mercy unguardedly.

“You? You found him? What were you doing in the library?”

Mr. Mercy started and gasped at the trap in which he had caught himself. “Why-I-I was passing by and the door was open. I looked in and — and —”

“Your Supremity, have I permission to speak?”

The interrupter was one of the police officers holding Drayton. Mercy turned upon him with furious face, but Justice Supreme waved him to silence. “You may speak, Forty-five. Mr. Mercy, I am conducting this inquiry. Kindly refrain from intimidating the witness.”

“Your Supremity, two hours ago or thereabouts, Mr. Mercy come to me and says ‘Forty-five, is the door of the library locked to-day?’ I says, no, I thought not, as Your Supremity had been in there reading. On days when you cared to read, you very seldom kept it locked. No one would ever dare go in there, anyway. Then he says —”

“Wait a minute!” came a voice of repressed fury from the throne. “Mr. Pity, will you take this down, please?”

Pity drew forth his fountain pen and a small blank book. He began to scribble furiously.

“‘Your Supremity,’ he says then, ‘is the door actually open?’ I didn’t believe so, but I walked over into Corridor 27 just to have a look. Of course the door was shut. Mr. Mercy, he followed right along behind. ‘If I were you,’ he says, ‘I’d open that door and turn on the fan at the end of the corridor. His Supremity was complaining to me it was that stifling in the library it pretty near made him sick.’ Well, I thought it was a queer thing Your Supremity hadn’t spoke to me if you wished the room ventilated. But Mr. Mercy, being one of the Inner Order, and of such high authority —”

“I understand,” snapped the high priest. “Get on. You opened it?”

“I did, Your Supremity, with Mr. Mercy looking on. Then I went to turn on the fan, and Mr. Mercy strolled off. Without meaning to spy on him, I followed. My rubber soles don’t make much noise, of course, and I guess he didn’t hear me. He went around a corner. Just before I reached it myself I heard him speaking. Thinking he would blame me if he thought I was spying on him, I stopped where I was. He was talking to this prisoner here, as I found out later. First he says, ‘Were you looking for some one, Mr. Drayton?’ The prisoner, he says no; he was merely strolling around and got lost and can’t find his way back to the Green Room. ‘I’ll take you there myself,’ says Mr. Mercy. ‘But have you seen the library?’”

At this a sort of gasp came from Mercy. He staggered slightly where he stood. He dared not interrupt, however, and the policeman continued.

“This Mr. Drayton says, no, he ain’t saw it, but he’d be real glad to — in fact, there wasn’t anything much he’d rather see. So Mr. Mercy says, ‘You go on around that corner straight along the corridor and you’ll come to it. The door is open and you can go right in.’ This Mr. Drayton says he’s understood strangers was not allowed in there. Mr. Mercy says, ‘Oh, you’re as good as a Superlative already. This library is open to officials.’

“The gentleman thanked him and come on around the corner and past me, but Mr. Mercy he goes the other way.”

Mr. Justice Supreme interrupted, “Why did you not stop this man? Do you mean you allowed him to enter without any protest?”

“I did, Your Supremity. Mr. Mercy is my superior, sir, and while I intended reporting to Your Supremity — as I am doing now — it wasn’t for me to interfere with his commands or permissions. The stranger, he went in the library. I stuck around, thinking I’d keep my eye on him, at least, to see that he didn’t remove none of the books. That would be going it a little too strong. But he stayed and stayed. Once or twice I strolled by, and there he was, reading for all he was worth.

“Then, a while ago, Mr. Mercy comes hurrying along again. He stops short, like he was surprised. ‘Haven’t you got that door shut yet?’ he snaps at me. Before I could answer he runs to the door, looks in, and shouts, ‘What’s that fellow doing in there? Forty-five, go in there and get that man! Did you know he was there?’ Before I had a chance to say anything he blows his whistle. Twenty-seven and Seventy-nine comes on the run. Sixty-three got there later. We go in and grab this Mr. Drayton. He seems surprised like, and starts to say something about Mr. Mercy telling him to go right in and read. Mr. Mercy tells him to shut up, if he don’t want rough handling, and he shuts up. Then Mr. Mercy orders us to bring the man here. That’s all I have to say, Your Supremity. If I have taken a liberty in reporting just at this time —”

“Don’t be a fool,” snarled His Supremity. “You are about the only honest man on the force and the one man I have never caught in a lie. Mr. Mercy, have you any defense?”

“Simply that this is a fabrication on the part of No. 45,” drawled Mercy. Having passed through the various stages of rage, surprise, and fear, he had emerged in a mood of dangerous calm. “I had occasion to discipline the fellow recently. This, I presume, is his revenge.”

Mr. Justice Supreme glared at him. His next words showed that while the servants as a body might be “Masters of the City,” Mr. Justice Supreme was in turn their very arbitrary tyrant. Whether he held this power because of his own malignant personality, or because of hereditary authority, it was power absolute. No. 45 had made no mistake when he braved the certain wrath of Mr. Mercy and thereby gained the favor of His Supremity.

“Mr. Mercy,” said the latter with snarling bluntness, “you are a liar and No. 45 is not! Again and again you have recently overstepped the mark, thinking, perhaps, that I have no eyes and no ears but my own, and that they are growing defective with old age. We will go into your case fully at a more appropriate time and try to correct that impression. You will find that the exposing of state secrets to help along some petty intrigue of your own is not the light offense you appear to believe it.

“Let this prisoner be held as a witness — no, I do not care to have him held. One who has desecrated the realm of sacred knowledge cannot die too quickly. Cast him into the pit!”

A trifle pale, but entirely self-possessed, Drayton had stood silent. Even now, hearing that by-this-time monotonous decree, be made no attempt to defend himself. Indeed he found composure for a certain whimsical reflection. Twice before he had been condemned to the pit — once, two days ago, by Judge Virtue, in this very temple; once, in a distant place and age, before a tribunal whose proceedings, though less promptly fatal, were strangely similar in spirit. And of the two, Penn Service was the kindlier. Its condemned neither endured imprisonment nor had time to suffer the bitterness of unjust disgrace.

Breaking from her brother’s sustaining arm, Viola Trenmore pushed her way between the police and caught Drayton’s cold hand in hers.

“Mr. Justice Supreme,” she called, “may I make an appeal?”

Drayton turned with a gesture of protest. “Viola,” he said earnestly, “go back to your brother. You can do nothing for me.”

“And do you think we would let you die alone?” she whispered fiercely.

Mr. Justice Supreme gazed down upon her, and as he looked his loose old mouth spread in a ghastly smile. A gleam brightened his lecherous old eyes.

“Are you the young lady who is destined to assume the title of Loveliest? My nephew has spoken to me of you. He spoke very highly — very highly indeed. My own eyes confirm his claims for your fitness. Your examination is next on the list, I believe, and I assure you that you need fear nothing from your rival. You will make many friends, my child, and you must count me as one of the first.”

At the words, Lady Green-eyes, standing by Trenmore, gasped and turned very white beneath her rouge. Even before the high priest had finished, however, her green eyes were flashing. A surge of real color backed the artificial on her thin cheeks. With catlike quickness she had comprehended the situation. As though he had grown suddenly loathsome, she drew away from Trenmore.

“So!” she spat out. “You were planning to betray me, were you? After all I have done for you, you meant to put that sly puss of a sister of yours in my place! You were planning to have me thrown in that very pit I saved you from such a little while ago! And I thought you were honest. Because you were so big and strong I took you for a real man! Bah! You are no better than the rest of these swine — you are no better than Mercy or Clever or any of the others!”

Her voice had steadily risen until every eye in the hall was focused upon them.

Trenmore could say nothing. His face was suffused by a deep, burning flood of painful color. At this moment what had looked right and just enough when Cleverest proposed it appeared in a different light. No matter if the woman had planned a disagreeable future for Viola, she had also unquestionably saved the girl from a choice between death and dishonor; saved himself and Drayton from immediate destruction.

What miasma of treachery existed in this ancient city that he, who prided himself on his loyalty, had become so horribly infected?

Up went his head in that old gesture of defiant decision. He strode to his sister’s side, sweeping two policemen out of his way, and flung an arm about Viola and his friend together.

“Your honor,” he thundered, “that lady yonder is right! We have been in danger of making ourselves no better than the Servants of Penn, Heaven judge them for their sins and their murderings! No better than your honor’s self, and I take shame to admit it! But that is over. We three want no favors. We want nothing at all from any of you, save to go our way clean and straight. If you choose to murder us, then we will go by way of that pit you’re so infatuated with. Terence Trenmore has been mad these two days past, but he’s sane again now, thank Heaven, and can speak for himself and his own!”

Viola drew a long breath, and stood up proudly between the two men. She had meant making a desperate plea for Drayton’s life, and if that failed she had meant to die with him. But this was far better — that they three go together, not forced, but proudly and avoiding shame. From her eyes also the scales had been swept away. She knew now that this ending had been inevitable — that she could never have stood by and seen another woman, however hateful, murdered that she might go safe.

The semi-amiable expression on the High Priest’s face twisted back to its habitual snarl. Cleverest stood glowering like a thundercloud.

“Nephew,” said Mr. Justice Supreme, “your clemency and kindness have been thrown away. Do you still wish to raise this girl to your side?”

“Yes!” came the prompt reply. The trap mouth clicked shut on the bare affirmative.

“You do?”

“I do, Your Supremity. As a personal favor, I ask that Miss Trenmore be urged to speak for herself and that her brother be not yet condemned. That woman whom we have tolerated too long as one of us has insulted him so grossly that I cannot wonder at his taking umbrage. I ask that she”— he leveled a thin forefinger at the indignant Loveliest —“be removed beyond further power to poison with her venom, and that this girl and her brother be given time to consider before they hurl themselves to destruction. I even ask that you grant this other stranger — this Drayton — reprieve that he may bid his friends farewell. It cannot be that he would wish so young and lovely a girl to share his fate. If he is a man he will urge his friends to accept the life, wealth, and high honors which Penn Service can bestow. Your Supremity, may I hope that my prayer is granted?”

The high priest bowed his head. It was clear that Cleverest had a tremendous influence with his uncle and a hold on Penn Service far stronger than was indicated by his official position.

“You ask a great deal, my boy, but you always did that. After all, there can be no harm in granting your wish. The girl is too pretty to be the bride of the old war god. If, however”— and his voice rose to the shrill impatience of the aged —“if after due respite they still refuse your kindness, then I decline to be troubled any further. If they refuse they shall all die, and that green-eyed she-cat with them. I’m tired of seeing the painted fool about.”

“Take these three people away. Lock them all up together and let them make up their minds once for all. At ten to-morrow morning they may either die or accept. No great matter which. Hold that other man — Bertram — for the same hour. Take them away! And now, Mr. Pity, there are no further candidates. You may omit the rest of the proceedings. I want my luncheon. I’m an old man, Clever, and all this excitement is bad for my heart. If you ever had any consideration for anyone but yourself —”

His snarling whine was shut from their ears as the three prisoners passed into the Green Room, and the red door closed behind the last of their guards.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevens/francis/heads_of_cerberus/chapter16.html

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