The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 17

Their Last Chance

WHEN Justice Supreme commanded that the former candidates for Superlativism be “all locked up together,” the police evidently construed the command as including Bertram. It was into the bare, steel-walled room where that rotund gentleman awaited his fate that Trenmore, his sister, and Robert Drayton were presently escorted. They were little surprised at this. What did amaze them was to find their fellow victim not alone. Seated on the floor with his back to the wall, he was engaged in earnest conversation with a small female person, enthroned upon the only chair in the room. Moreover, the latter was wagging an admonitory finger at Bertram as if delivering a “curtain lecture” of the most approved domestic type.

The chair comprised the entire furnishing of the cell. There was not even the moldy straw, without which no medieval dungeon was complete. It might be merely a detention cell; or perhaps prisoners of the Temple passed to their doom too swiftly to require sleeping accommodations.

In costume Bertram’s companion emulated the rainbow for color. Her large hat was bright green, lined with pink. She wore an old rose silk sweater over a soiled lace blouse, and crumpled blue linen skirt; her hosiery was golden yellow, and her down-at-heel pumps had once been very elegant green buckskins. As the door clanged shut behind the newcomers, she turned upon them large inquiring eyes, whose size was accentuated by the thinness of her face. Her complexion, however, was as fine as Viola’s own. The yellow button displayed upon her old-rose lapel bore the number 23000.

Bertram’s first expression of surprise changed to one of genuine concern.

“Say, boss,” he questioned Trenmore. “What’s up? Did they frame you, too? Or have you come to kiss your old college chump good-by?”

“We’ll be saying good-by this day the way we’ll be troubled with no more farewells at all,” retorted Trenmore grimly.

“Are you really in bad, all of you?”

“We are that. And who’s the lady, Bertram?”

“A pal of mine,” replied the burglar. Taking the small person’s hand, he forthwith presented her. “Skidoo, these here are the three friends of mine I was telling you about. Miss Trenmore and Mr. Trenmore and Mr. Drayton. Gents and lady, let me make you acquainted with the brightest, best-hearted, prettiest kid in this bughouse burg. Her Number is 23000, but that ain’t no handle for a lady. I call her Miss Skidoo.”

His round face shone with such whole-hearted pride in the human rainbow; he was so clearly assured of her cordial reception by any one possessing brains and eyes that Viola, who had at first hung back a trifle, extended her hand.

“We are very glad to meet you, Miss Skidoo,” she said gravely, “but sorry it has to be in such a place.”

Terry’s eyes were twinkling. He followed his sister’s lead, however, as did Drayton. “Any friend of Mr. Bertram’s,” Terry contributed, “is bound to be most interesting. ’Tis charmed we all are, Miss Skidoo!”

“Same here,” responded No. 23000, eying them with a sort of childlike solemnity. “Bert’s been talking about you folks ever since I met him. But, gee! The lookout’s bad for this bunch, ain’t it?”

“I fear it is about as bad as possible,” sighed Viola. “At least for four of us here.”

“Count me in,” announced the girl. “They drug me in, just for comin’ to the Temple with Bert. I ain’t done nothin’.”

“I couldn’t help it,” Bertram defended himself. “I wasn’t going to fall for the game, but Mr. Trenmore here, he says I must. Say, won’t you tell the kid that I didn’t want to go in the game? She won’t believe anything I say.”

The Irishman, somewhat conscience-stricken, hastened to assure No. 23000 that the blame for Bertram’s downfall lay entirely on his shoulders. “He appeared to have no desire at all for it, but I did not and do not yet understand what happened.”

“Aw, I didn’t do anything to get sent up for,” said the burglar disgustedly. “I did cop a medal thing one of them guys was wearing on his watch chain, but I was going to give it right back to him. That weighing machine of theirs was a crazy way to test speed. I wanted to show ’em what quick really meant. So I copped this medal thing off the one they call Mr. Virtue. Then I flashed it, and was going to explain. They didn’t give me no chance. They just jumped on me and said I’d been and done sacri-sacri-something or other, and that was all.”

“They was just waitin’ for a chance to land you,” commented Miss Skidoo wisely. “They didn’t mean you should have that job really. Sooner or later they’d have framed you. Say, folks, let’s set on the floor and fight this thing out right.”

Acquiescing willingly enough, Terence and Viola between them related the various events occurring between Drayton’s departure from the Green Room and his return in the custody of Mercy. The story of cold-blooded cruelty, the hints of internecine warfare among the Servants and Superlatives — united only against their common enemy, the Numbers — was interesting and startling enough to call forth many exclamations from Drayton and Bertram. Miss Skidoo, however, listened with the bored look of one who hears an oft-told and wearisome tale.

“Say,” she commented at the end, “a ordinary person like you or us”— indicating herself and Bertram —“got no business mixing in with that gang of highbinders. They’re always layin’ for each other an’ scrapping among themselves; but say, a snowball’s got a better chance in a bucket of hot water than a straight guy or a plain Number around this joint. As I’ve been telling Bert here —”

“Pardon me,” interrupted Drayton curiously, “but where did you happen to meet Mr. Bertram?”

She flushed so red that Drayton wished he had not asked the question. Catching the look in the lawyer’s eye, Bertram bristled instantly.

“Say,” he blurted, “I want you to know that Miss Skidoo here is a straight, nice kid. I was in a movie last night, and she was there with her dad. I got talking to the old man. He says, come along and get some home cooking; them hotels ain’t no good. I stayed so late — talkin’ and playin’ seven-up — that they let me bunk out in the spare room. That’s all. Straight, decent folks, just like there used to be, even if they are tagged with numbers instead of proper monikers. Get me?”

They got him. Drayton apologized silently with his eyes for the equally unvoiced suspicion.

It seemed that Bertram had bragged to these chance acquaintances of his pull with the Superlative, Cleverest. Miss Skidoo had warned him earnestly against any attempt to supersede the chief of police, no matter what his pull might be. The present Quickest, it seemed, like the musical director and most of the other Superlatives, was a distant connection of “Penn Service.” She revealed to him many facts regarding that “democratic institution,” Superlativism — how every man of the Superlatives, save Cleverest, held his job by pure favor, aided by the pull he could exercise through family connections.

“Cleverest, he’s a Servant by birth,” the girl explained. “He only took on that Superlative job because the next Justice Supreme can’t be chose from the Servants in office. He’s the old man’s nephew. When the old man dies Cleverest will chuck the law and run this city. He was aimin’ to marry Loveliest because he wants to be high man anywhere he is, and the Loveliest’s husband, when she has one, is supposed to run this town, outside of the Service. But I guess he meant to chuck her as soon as the old man passes over.

“Them Servants, they keep the Service itself right in their own families, father to son like. Only Mr. J. S. as is, he ain’t got no son. Say, me sister’s a scrublady an’ she’s got a swell job scrubbin’ floors right here in the temple. Course, she don’t get paid nothing, but she’s fed good, and as for clothes, the ladies round here gives her a lot. That’s how I get these glad rags I’m wearin’— from sis. But I tell you a job like hers is great for gettin’ wiser. Folks don’t take much more notice of a scrublady than if she was a chair or sump’n. She’s told me a lot o’ things.

“Servants of Penn! Say, I reckon if that big image o’ Penn could get a peep at what goes on under his feet he’d jump right down on top of the dome and smash the bell and everything else!”

The flow of her eloquence was interrupted by Drayton, who had been listening with even greater interest than the others. “Tell me, Miss Skidoo, have you or any of your friends an idea of who William Penn really is, or rather was?”

“I don’t know nothin’ about that Will-thing. Penn is the All-Father. He runs heaven and hell just like the Servants run us. I don’t believe in him no more. I think there ain’t nothing but Philadelphia, and when you die you stay dead?”

“Well, religion aside,” said Drayton, “I myself have learned a great deal since this morning. The Penn Service library was really most informing. If its doors could be thrown open to the Numbers, I believe they are men enough yet to overthrow this government of false priests and their sycophants and come into their own. It would be worth living, just to see it done.” He sighed. “However, that is not to be. We can help the sorrow of this age no more than we could cure the grief of our own.”

“Get on with it, Bobby,” said Trenmore. “Sure, I’ve a load of curiosity I’d hate to die burdened with!”

“I’ll tell it as briefly as I can. There are big gaps in the story as I collated it, but the general run is clear enough. I became so absorbed that I forgot the time and the competitions and everything else. Remember, this is their history.

“It seems that after the close of the World Wars there followed a few years of respite. Then Communism had its way of Europe. Class war, which spells social chaos, ensued.

“The U.S.A. very sensibly and hastily declined to be further involved, but unfortunately did not stop there. The country had been largely militarized; but this new European outbreak swung the pacifists back into the saddle. You know the delirious possibilities which may spring from the brain of a full-fledged pacifist. The president then in office was a weakling, a dreamer, and completely under the influence of a man named Andrew Power. I’ll tell you more of that later. Congress — I don’t know what they were thinking of, but they backed this sawdust president, or rather the man behind his chair. According to the records, it appeared to all these wise rulers that the only safety lay in complete severance of relations with mad-dog Europe. So they severed them. They deliberately stopped all traffic and communication between the United States and Europe. Later, in logical sequence, they dropped communication with our nearest neighbors, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America.”

“Why, Mr. Drayton!” exclaimed Viola incredulously. “How could they?”

“They did. I am telling you what I read in books and old newspapers of those times. Now this man I spoke of, this Andrew Power, who stood behind the presidential chair, seems to have been a sort of sublimified madman. His personality was of the Napoleonic order raised to the nth power. He was a madman, but he was a reasoning madman. Taking the theories and work of the pacifists, he carried them to a logical conclusion.

“The trouble with the world, he said, was that its communities, its nations, had grown too bulky and unwieldy. He pointed to the case of Switzerland, a small, therefore manageable, republic, with its efficient, well-equipped army, its contented people and high rate of wealth per capita. The United States was a republic, but it could never be like that. It was too big. All the really big countries, he said, were ill-balanced, ill-governed, and with a high percentage of poor and unemployed. The ideal nation would consist of not over three or four million souls, with a democratic government. It should be completely isolated from the world in a space compelling it to keep the population within that limit of three or four million. Each State in the Union, he argued, was a potential ideal republic, given the isolation which was apparently — but only apparently — impossible.”

“But,” cried Viola, her eyes wide and incredulous, “that was a hundred times worse than the secession of the South from the North!”

“I have told you,” replied Drayton wearily, “that this man was mad. The whole world, I think, was mad. In this country, too, Communism had been lifting its disorganizing clamor. The madman carried the mad people with him. State by State, it seemed, they might handle what was daily becoming more ungovernable. If some States were rotten, let them rot alone; not infect the others. It was necessary to redistribute the population, but that does not appear to have troubled their maniacal energy. There were riots and battles. What sane people remained objected strenuously to the whole scheme. But Power — this Andrew Power, who stood behind the president — had the majority with him. I think that many clever, wealthy men foresaw opportunities for absolute despotism under open colors. At any rate, the scheme was carried out, each State accepting a population within its powers to feed.”

“But that meant the end of civilization, the end of exchange!” “Oh, they arranged for exchange of products in a limited degree, but all other intercommunication, all exchange of ideas or moving about of people from one State to another, was cut off under heavy penalty.”

“Their coast line, man — their coast line?” broke in Trenmore. “What was Europe doing then?”

“I don’t know. The history of the world ends in that library with the isolation of Pennsylvania. For all I know, the nations of Europe may have emulated the Kilkenny cats and devoured one another, or perhaps they are still fighting. Anyway, what these people call ‘Philadelphia and its environing suburbs’ really includes the whole of Pennsylvania.

“They began here under a sort of commission government, but the ‘contractor gang’— Philadelphia was always you know, peculiarly —”

He never told them, however, what it was that Philadelphia was peculiar in. There came a sound at the door. The heavy bolts slid back, and a man entered, partly closing the door behind him. The man was Cleverest. For an instant he stood, arms folded, glaring majestically upon them.

The captives rose and faced him with more or less composure. Had the high priest’s nephew come to announce an advance of execution or to offer them further terms?

“You’ve stared long enough,” said Trenmore brusquely. “What is it you want with us?”

“A little fair and decent treatment perhaps,” snapped Cleverest. “Do you realize what a very unpleasant position you have placed me in? Every man in the Temple is laughing at me behind his hand for standing by a gang of beggars and getting insulted for my pains!”

Viola interposed quietly. “You are mistaken, sir. None of us has ever said a word to or about you that could be construed as an insult.”

“Your brother meant to include me in his tirade addressed to my uncle,” the man retorted gloomily.

Terry eyed him in obstinate dislike. “You led me to forget my honor, sir, and conspire against a woman. I’m not blaming you so much as myself; but ’twas a dirty deal, and well you know it!”

“You were ready enough at the time,” sneered Cleverest with more truth than was pleasant. “However, matters are not yet too late to mend. Your death won’t help Loveliest now. My uncle has settled that once for all. You’ve blundered and blundered until the best I can do is to save you and your sister. Miss Trenmore”— he eyed the girl with a coldly calculating eye —“I love you. I am offering you more than any other man in this city could offer. I desire a beautiful and accomplished wife, and you are better qualified than any one I have met. If you marry me you will be not merely Loveliest, which is in one sense an empty title, but the future Mrs. Justice Supreme!”

“Unless,” replied Viola very coolly and not at all impressed, “you should see fit to depose me before your uncle’s death. You could do that, couldn’t you?”

His face expressed surprise, mingled with a kind of vulpine admiration. “You knew all the time,” he exclaimed with a laugh, “and hid it from me! No danger, my dear. You play fair with me and I’ll stick to you. I’ve never seen a woman yet that could touch you for looks, brains, or manner. As an added inducement, remember that I offer your brother’s life!”

Viola looked from Drayton to Terry and back again at Drayton.

“Terry!” she whispered at last. “I-I can’t. Oh, forgive me, Terry! Yes, I’ll do it for you. But he must save Mr. Drayton, too!”

“You’ll do no such thing!” stormed the Irishman. “I’d rather see you dead, Viola, than wedded to that fox!”

“Don’t consider me, Miss Viola,” put in Drayton. “Save yourself if you wish and can. But not — for Heaven’s sake, not in that way — not for my sake!”

The girl and the lawyer were looking into each other’s eyes. The faint rose of Viola’s cheeks brightened to a livelier hue. Cleverest saw, and jumped at the conclusion most natural to a born Servant of Penn.

“Oh, is that it?” he demanded angrily. “Is this man your reason for declining my offers? Perhaps I have been a bit hasty, after all. The wife of Justice Supreme can have had no former lovers, dead or living!”

Viola uttered a little, horrified cry. The pink flush became a burning flood of color. Drayton sprang, but Terry was before him. One second later the Superlative’s body crashed against the steel wall of the cell and dropped in a limp heap to the floor.

At the sound of his fall, the door was again flung open. The occupants of the cell found themselves covered by four leveled rifle barrels. Cleverest had not come here alone, and it looked as if the guards were in a mood to fire upon them and clear the cell of life forthwith. But finding, upon examination, that their superior was merely stunned and had suffered no broken bones, they decided to leave punishment to their masters. With many threats they retired, bearing the insensible Cleverest with them.

“That settles it!” said Drayton. “Nobody can ever mistake your feelings toward them, Terry!”

“I only wish that I’d killed him,” growled the Irishman.

It was seven p.m., and they were beginning to wonder if Penn Service wasted not even bread and water on condemned prisoners, when the door bolts again clicked smoothly.

“Our supper at last!” commented Terry with satisfaction.

He was mistaken. No food-bearing jailer appeared, but the chief of police himself, alert and smiling. Behind him the light glinted on a dozen rifle barrels. They were taking no further chances, it appeared, with the Trenmore temper.

“I have come to make a rather unpleasant announcement,” began Quickest. He spoke with quiet courtesy, but firmly and as one prepared for an outbreak. “You were to have been passed to the All-Father in the morning, I believe. His Supremity has instructed that the time be advanced. Will you accompany me without resistance? If so, you may go unfettered.”

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