The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 18

The Sword and the Bell

IT was with a dull feeling of despair that Drayton, recovering from the first momentary shock, heard Trenmore accept the chief’s condition for the freedom of their limbs.

“We’ll go with you quietly, chief, to the very door of your bloody slaughter-house. You’ve the word of Terence Trenmore for every one of us.”

And then Trenmore had looked from one to the other of his friends with a fiery glance that commanded their obedience. He was first to leave the cell, not even taking Viola’s hand, which she stretched out like a small child, brave but knowing its own helplessness.

Drayton went to her, and then, in the face of such near death he did what he would not have permitted himself to do had fate been more kind. He remembered that look in her eyes, before Terry had flung Cleverest across the cell, and putting his arm about the little sister of Trenmore, he drew her to him.

“Viola,” he said, very softly and with a great, quiet tenderness, “I love you, dear, so much that death with you is mere happiness!”

And she answered, “You are my world, Bobby Drayton! If death was needed to show us this love, then death can never rob us of it!”

“Skidoo,” said Bertram the burglar to the young lady he designated by that name. “I guess our numbers are up. I meant right by you, kid, and I’m darned sorry!”

“It ain’t your fault,” retorted Miss Skidoo, of the solemn, childlike eyes. “I guess I got a right to die with a good, straight guy like you!”

With ironical politeness, the chief of police broke in. “His Supremity might be willing to wait if he knew how much sad romance is going on here, but my own time is valuable. Two abreast, please — that’s right. You can continue your farewells as you walk. I guess I can stand it! Twenty-nine, turn out that light before you close the door.”

In front, between two of the rifle-bearing guards, marched Terence Trenmore. His dark, heavy face was sullen. His lids drooped over narrowed, fire-blue eyes. When his guards brushed against him, in a narrow passage, he shuddered away from them as one in mortal fear. They laughed, and one of them murmured, “The bigger they are the harder they fall, eh, Forty-nine?”

Having passed through two steel-lined corridors, the party of guards and prisoners came presently to a stair, ascended one flight and so reached the red marble passage of the administrative offices on the southern side. Tramping along this, they passed the open door of Mr. Virtue’s darkened “courtroom,” and came to the southern entrance of the Hall of Justice.

Quickest, who was now in the lead, laid his hand on the door to push it open. As he did so Trenmore, standing between his guards, spoke for the first time since leaving the cell. “Chief, before we go in I’ve a word for your ear alone.”

The chief shook his head, smiling. “Sorry, but I have no time to listen, my man.” And he pushed at the door so that it opened a trifle.

“I’ll say it aloud, then!” snapped Trenmore. “You can listen or not as you please. I gave my promise just now that I’d come unresisting to the very door of your slaughter pen. There is the door and here am I to take my word back again!”

For all his bulk, Trenmore had the speed of a springing tiger. He was on the chief before any one realized that he had begun to move. He had swung that startled official before him with one arm about his chest. His right hand dragged from the holster at his captive’s side a revolver of pleasantly efficient caliber. He clapped the muzzle to the chief’s head, behind the ear.

“Shoot now and be damned to you, you scum of the earth!” Trenmore roared. “But the first finger that crooks at a trigger, I’ll scatter this scut’s brains the way he’ll be dead before any of us!”

Twelve astonished and dismayed guards stood agape, with rifles half raised. After a moment two of them turned their weapons on Drayton and Bertram. The other prisoners, however, as much taken by surprise as the guards, were quiet enough.

The chief was quiet, too. He was helpless as in the grip of a gorilla, and he could feel the cold nose of his own weapon nuzzling behind his ear. He was not smiling now.

“You’ve a grain of sense after all,” observed Trenmore approvingly. “And now the chief and myself will be taking a bit of a walk. Just don’t interfere. And don’t you harm the hair of a head of one of my friends there — mind that now!”

He began sidling along the wall, still holding his human shield before him. In a moment more he had regained the red corridor and begun backing down it. After him came the guards. One of them, on a sudden thought, dashed back to the golden door and through it.

“Your friend’s gone for help,” said Trenmore to the chief conversationally. “He’s a bright lad and I’d counsel you to advance him. You need help the way you’d sell your mouse of a soul to get it; don’t you, my fine policeman? Don’t you? Answer me, you scum!”

“Y-yes!” gasped the chief.

The breath was half squeezed out of him, and his feet stumbled and dragged as he backed with his relentless captor along the corridor. And still the guards followed, step for step, rifles half raised, and in their midst the prisoners.

A minute and Trenmore had reached a break in the red wall. Beyond it was a short flight of stairs. Terry backed around the corner. With a little rush, the pursuing guard came after. They found him halfway up the flight, still dragging their reluctant chief. He had reached the landing at the top. Behind it was an arched doorway, of which the heavy bronze doors stood open, fastened back flat to the wall.

Feeling with his foot for the floor catch, Trenmore found it and trod down. The door, released, swung out a trifle. Standing to one side and again feeling backward with his foot, Terry caught the edge with his toe and gave the door a pull. It moved easily on well-oiled hinges. Next instant, without once having turned his back on the guard, he was able to get his shoulder behind the door and push it to. The other door he treated in the same way, leaving an aperture between.

Then, without warning and with lightning speed, he lowered the gun, stooped, picked the chief up by the ankles and collar, gave him one mighty swing and pitched him headlong down upon his allies.

The hurtling body struck two of the foremost, knocking them backward. There were shouts, and somebody’s rifle exploded accidentally. Another guard fired intentionally toward the stair head. But the space there was empty. The bullet splashed on the innocent bronze nose of a cupid in bas-relief, flying across a door shut tight and already bolted from the inside.

Trenmore, panting on the little balcony of the Threat of Penn, congratulated himself that earlier in the day he had observed those doors and those strangely placed inner bolts. Already men were banging and shouting outside; but Trenmore only chuckled.

“They’ll need dynamite for that little job,” he murmured happily. “I’m thinking the Servants put those doors there for just the purpose they’re now serving. Sword, you were made for the hand of a man, not the grip of this cold metal thing!”

He was examining the bronze fist that held the great sword upright. Though the heavy door shook and clanged to the besiegers’ futile blows, he was cool as if alone in the Temple. He had not yet even glanced down into the Hall of Justice.

Across the knuckles of the Hand of Penn ran a tiny line, green-edged with verdigris. It was a flaw, a crack in the age-old bronze.

His inspection completed, Trenmore sprang into action with the sudden wholeheartedness which was a disconcerting factor in his make-up. Throwing off his coat he removed a large handkerchief from the pocket, wadded it in his right hand and grasped the blade high up. Seizing the pommel in his left hand, slowly but with gathering force, he twisted at the sword. It did not move. His white shirt stood out in bulging lumps over his laboring shoulders. His face went dark red. The purple veins rose and throbbed on a forehead beaded with great drops of perspiration. He did not jerk or heave at the thing. He merely twisted and the leverage was terrific.

There came a loud crack, like the report of a pistol. Within the wall something dropped clanging, and the sword gave way so suddenly that Trenmore was hurled to the floor. Picking himself up, he calmly resumed his coat and stooped for the famous weapon. Not only had the bronze hand fallen in two pieces, freeing the grip, but the whole wrist had broken loose from the wall, leaving only a blank black hole.

Trenmore was not concerned for the mechanism so ruthlessly shattered. He cared only for the shining prisoner he had released. He raised it with both hands to the roughened grip. As he did so the yellow light from the dome slid flamelike down the long blade. It was a weight for any two ordinary men to carry; but the Irishman swung it up and over his shoulder with hardly an effort.

“You’re a heavy one, my beauty, and no mistake,” he muttered. “Even Terence Trenmore would not care to swing you many times together. But that which you struck would never strike back, I’m thinking.”

And then at last, with the sword on his shoulder, he turned and looked down from the railing. The blows on the door had ceased. He now perceived the reason. Midway across the hall, with upturned faces and raised rifles, waited every man of the prison guard he had so successfully eluded. Trenmore’s appearance was greeted with shouts and a scattering volley. Unhurt but considerably startled, he skipped back.

“Powers o’ darkness!” he gasped. “I’m a fool or I’d have expected it. And now what am I to do, will you tell me that, Sword of Battle?”

But the sword was silent.

He was safe where he now stood, for the balcony was high enough and deep enough to be out of range from any place on the floor. And it was made of metal too heavy for bullets to penetrate.

“They’ll not use those machine guns,” reflected Trenmore, “for they couldn’t and not hit the bell. But if they’ve the brains of a rat — and they have just about that — they’ll send riflemen up where the guns are placed and pick me off like a cat on a wall. Before they do that, we’ll rush it, Sword o’ Beauty. And if they fire on us after — well, they’ll hit their own bell, and that’s a thing I don’t think they’ll want. Now, then!”

Balancing the sword on his shoulder, he dashed at the rail and vaulted to the narrow plank bridge left by the electricians. Though it bent and swayed sickeningly under the double weight of Trenmore and the huge sword, he ran its length as if it were a brick causeway. A moment later he brought up clinging to the scaffold about the bell. His speed had not averted another volley, but all the harm done was to the golden carvings on the wall around the balcony.

“You’re but poor marksmen,” growled Trenmore between his teeth. “You’ve a beautiful target now, though. The question is, will you dare shoot at it?”

The guard scattered and spread out. Several men aimed at Trenmore on the bell, but a sharp command caused them to lower their weapons. The word came from none other than the chief himself, who now walked to a place whence he could look up at Trenmore and Trenmore down at him. If the chief’s fall had injured him he showed no signs of it.

“Praise Heaven, your neck wasn’t broke at all, chief,” called the Irishman cheerfully. “I was afeared for you so I could scarce do my work; but I got me a pretty plaything for all that!”

That the chief might see, he raised the sword and balanced it in his hands.

“Where-How did you get that?”

“From the Hand of Penn,” came the Irishman’s gay reply. “Sure, for all he was a Quaker, Penn’s the kind-hearted old gentleman that would never withhold a weapon from a lad in a tight place!”

And he swung the sword about his head till it glittered like a wheel of fire. “’Twill make a world o’ noise when it strikes the bell. Eh, my little policeman?”

“You must not — you dare not!” shrieked Quickest. The last shred of his composure had dropped off like a torn cloak. He at least seemed to share the superstition of the Numbers with regard to the old Threat of Penn.

Trenmore, however, felt that he had given the police sufficient attention. He was casting for bigger fish than they. Why had his bait not yet been taken? The bell, scaffolding and all, swung alarmingly against the electricians’ tethering ropes; but Trenmore cautiously made his way a step or so along the planking.

There was the dais, and before it yawned the pit, open again and glaring upward like a red eye set in the milk-white floor. Close by, under guard, stood his four companions watching the bell with anxious eyes.

Drayton and Viola greeted Terry’s appearance with a cheer and waved their hands encouragingly. In response Terry raised the sword, called a hearty greeting, and looked at the dais.

On the throne sat that decrepit, hateful figure, Mr. Justice Supreme. There sat also every one of the Servants who had witnessed the examinations, earlier in the day, including Mr. Mercy, looking depressed but interested. Cleverest was there, too, standing beside his uncle.

Then Trenmore spoke, with the great voice of an Angel of Doom.

“You devils below there!” he shouted. “Take heed to my words! I’ve a warning to give you.”

There came a deafening roar behind him. Glancing over his shoulder he saw a billowing, greenish cloud issuing from the balcony. It cleared slowly, revealing a pair of explosion-shattered doors, sagging from their hinges. A crowd of his enemies poured through the aperture and on to the balcony. At the rail, however, they paused, glaring across at Trenmore.

“Sword o’ Battle,” he murmured softly, “do you not wish they may try to cross on our bridge? Do you not hope it, little sword?”

Between his men the Quickest pushed his way to the railing. He had secured another revolver and he leveled it at Trenmore. “Surrender, my man, or you’ll be shot where you stand!” came his terse command.

“Surrender is it? And why don’t you shoot me, then? Sure, am I not a condemned man, chief, darling?”

“His Supremity has instructed me to grant you a reprieve if you will surrender. There has already been damage enough done.”

Said Trenmore, “I’ll wager my life against your marksmanship, chief. Shoot now! And see if you can kill Terence Trenmore before he can strike the bell!” Once more he heaved up the sword.

The chief turned pale and lowered his own weapon. “You are a madman!” he shouted. “Strike that bell and your friends and you will perish with the rest of us!”

“A quick death and a happy one! In dying we’ll rid the earth of its worst scum, if all they say is true. No, no, little man. I’ll not come over to you. And if you shoot, you’ll strike the bell yourself in a small way — or cause me to do it in earnest. I’ve no time to be exchanging pleasantries. I’ll just guard my back and go on with my business.”

He brought the sword crashing down on the frail bridge. With a splintering sound it broke loose. Trenmore’s end fell to the floor, carrying with it some of the scaffolding. Trenmore barely saved himself from going down. Regaining his footing neatly, he waved a hand at the furious chief and climbed around the bell to a place where it partly shielded him from the balcony. Thence he could face his more important enemies on the dais.

“You’ll pardon me,” he shouted. “There was a small interruption. Now, tell me, you old scoundrel on the throne there, have I the upper hand, or have I not?”

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