The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 19

Trenmore Strikes

IT was Cleverest who replied, scornfully and with no sign of fear.

“You fool,” he cried, “strike the bell if you like. Do you think we care for that? We are waiting for you to be brought down here to die with these other vermin!”

“And is that the way you regard it?” inquired Trenmore with a laugh, but his heart sank. He was bluffing on a large and glorious scale, and if the bluff was to be called, he might as well leap from his place and be done with it. However, the Irishman was a firm believer in the motto: Fight to a finish whatever the odds! “Then I’ll strike and settle the matter,” he added defiantly.

Just beyond where he stood, the Red Bell was naked of scaffolding. He swung up the sword for a great blow. But there was at least one man in the hall whose faith was equal to that of the Numbers themselves. That man was Mr. Justice Supreme, High Servant of Penn.

As the sword flashed up, the old man leaped from his chair. With galvanic energy and upraised, clawlike hands, he stumbled to the edge of the dais. “No, no, no!” he shrieked. “Don’t strike! For mercy’s sake don’t strike the bell; don’t strike —”

The words died on his lips. The yellow claws clutched at his heart and he flung back his head, mouth open. As his knees sagged under him, Cleverest barely saved his uncle from falling to the pavement below. Holding the limp form in his arms, he felt for the old man’s heart. Then be laid him down on the dais and turned to the Servants.

“Gentlemen,” he said very solemnly. “Mr. Justice Supreme has passed to the arms of Penn!”

Every man on the platform rose and gravely removed his high hat; then, with the utmost tranquility, reseated himself. Full tribute to the dead having been rendered, business might proceed as before.

Cleverest turned again and shook his fist at Trenmore. “It is you who have done this!” he cried. “It is you who shall pay for it! Gentlemen”— he whirled to his seated fellows —“have you any objection — any fear of this world or the next — which causes you to dread the striking of that bell?”

They all smiled. One or two laughed outright. Mr. Pity arose in his place. “Mr. Justice Supreme,” he said, “Pardon me if I forestall your ordination under that title, but this is an uncommon emergency. Your Supremity, I am sure I speak for all of us when I say that the gentleman on the bell is welcome to hammer at it all night, if that will relieve his feelings. He gives us credit for an uncommonly large slice of his own superstition!”

“You hear?” yelled Cleverest at the Irishman. “Strike if you please! For every stroke you will see one of your friends here dropped screaming down the pit!”

This was checkmate with a vengeance. Trenmore hesitated, feeling suddenly rather foolish. If he struck, they would throw Viola in first. Already she had been dragged to the very edge by a burly tiger of a pit guard. A dozen men had their hands on the other prisoners. If he did not strike, they would still be thrown in. This was the end.

A sickening weariness replaced the exaltation which had upheld Trenmore till this moment. He let the sword sink slowly, until its point rested on the edge of the Red Bell.

Cleverest smiled sneeringly and half turned. He meant to seat himself on the throne and thenceforward give his orders from the place he had long coveted. Then an earnest, ringing voice arose from the group below him.

“Terry — Terry! For the love of Heaven, don’t give up! That man is wrong! They are all wrong! Only that old man knew the truth. Strike that bell and no man in all the city will be alive one moment after! Strike, I say! Kill us and avenge us with one blow!”

“Stop that man’s mouth!” cut in Cleverest savagely. “Proceed with the executions!”

But now his fellow Servants intervened. Perhaps they remembered that for all their pride they were only mortal men; or perhaps they were merely curious. At least, several of them rose in open protest.

“No! Wait a minute, Clever — beg pardon, Your Supremity, I should say. Let’s hear what the fellow has to say.”

“Wait!” This from Mr. Courage, the former High Priest’s lieutenant. He was a dignified man with cold gray eyes and features which indicated a character of considerable determination. “Remember, sir, that until the ordination, the Council of Twelve holds power. Let the man speak!”

“Let him speak!”

The chorus was too unanimous for even Cleverest to overlook. With a scowl he stalked to the throne. “Very well, gentleman,” he snapped. “Have your way, but no good will come of it. Bring that man up here!”

Leaning on the sword Trenmore looked on with renewed hope in his optimistic soul. “I wonder,” thought he, “does the boy know some real secret about this red thing here? Or is he bluffing? If he is, good luck and a power of invention to the tongue of him!”

Drayton was escorted around to the dais steps by two blue-clad policemen. When he stood before the throne, Cleverest gestured impatiently.

“I have no wish to question this man. Gentlemen, since you have taken the matter on yourselves, will you kindly conclude it?”

“We will.” The imperturbable Mr. Courage turned to Drayton. “Young man, what is it that you know about the Threat of Penn which we, the Servants of Penn, do not already know?”

“It’s history,” retorted Drayton boldly. He spoke up loudly, so that Trenmore also might hear. “To be convincing I must go back a long way in the history of Philadelphia — back to the very beginning of her isolation from the rest of the United States. You know nothing of that?”

Leaning from his throne, Cleverest whispered in the ear of Mr. Courage. The latter nodded.

“Stick to the bell itself, please,” he said sternly. “We are not interested in the history of Philadelphia.”

“I’ll try to but you won’t understand. Well, then, in that distant age there was a certain group of men practically, though not openly in control of this city. They were called ‘grafters,’ ‘the contractor gang,’ and ‘the gang.’ Those were titles of high honors then — like Servants and Superlatives, you know.”

Here, Trenmore, on the bell, almost dropped the sword for sheer delight.

“These grafters,” continued Drayton, “got hold of a man who had made a certain discovery. He was professor of physics in a university here. You know — or rather probably you don’t know — that all matter in its atomic structure vibrates, and that different sorts of energy waves can affect that vibration. I am no physicist myself, and I can’t tell you this in scientific terms. As I understood it, however, he discovered a combination of metals which, when treated in a certain way, would give off sound waves of the exact length of the vibration not of atoms, but of the electrons. That is to say —”

“This is madness,” broke in Cleverest impatiently. “It is a jargon of senseless words!”

“Tell us about the bell,” seconded Mr. Courage, and “Yes, the bell — the bell!” came from half a dozen other Servants.

“I am telling you of the bell,” protested Drayton. “But you are too ignorant to grasp even a simple idea of it. Perhaps you can understand if I put it another way. This man — this professor had discovered a secret power by which metal, reverberating to a blow, might destroy not only other metal but human flesh, clothes, wood, marble, the very air you breathe! And these grafters, of whom you yourselves are the lineal descendants, forced the man to use his discovery for their benefit.

“With refined irony they took the old Liberty Bell. They had it recast. They made this professor recast the Liberty Bell itself, with other metal and in his new secret way — recast it as a much larger bell. It came out red as blood. Then they built this dome. They said Philadelphia should have the most glorious city hall in the world. They hung the bell there and they put the sword there. And then they set guards at the doors, and guns behind those panels. They invited the leading citizens to a demonstration. They forced the professor to play showman to his discovery, but they betrayed him so that his precautions for his own safety were annulled at the critical moment. Before the citizens’ horrified eyes the professor, and the little gong he used for the experiment, and all the solid matter around it dissolved, disintegrated, vanished. He stood right there, where your pit yawns now. When he was gone there was a hole in the pavement as if made by a great explosion.

“And they — the grafters — set themselves up as masters of the city under threat of its complete destruction. They called themselves the Servants of Penn. They curtailed the education of the people as needless and too expensive. When the people complained, they placated them by abolishing all grades above the primary and turning the schools into dance halls and free moving-picture theaters. City hall they remodeled into a luxurious clubhouse where they themselves lived and reveled.

“Two generations later — generations of unschooled, iron-ruled citizens — and Penn had become a god. The poor, good old Quaker! His Servants made him the god of Lust, of Vice, of Drunkenness, of every sort of foul debauchery. The Servants were his priests and this his temple. In mockery they named themselves for the cardinal virtues — Mercy, Pity, Justice, Love. But they were tyrants without mercy, revelers in vice —”

“Stop!”

The command came from a livid, furious Cleverest, and the hand of a policeman cut off Drayton’s flow of eloquence effectively. Cleverest was not the only angry man present. Drayton faced eight Servants who would have cheerfully torn him to pieces.

“Mr. Courage,” Cleverest turned whitely to his uncle’s lieutenant, “are you satisfied now, or do you desire further insult from this — this lying dog who would blacken the name of Penn and of Penn Service?”

“You were right, sir,” conceded Courage. “I had not supposed that the brain of a human being could compass such a tissue of lies and blasphemy! We cannot be too quickly rid of the whole sacrilegious horde!”

Now was Cleverest’s hour of triumph. With sickening certainty, Drayton realized that he had carried his tirade too far. He had not convinced; only enraged. Nothing but death remained. He wrenched his face away from the officer’s hand.

“Strike, Terry!” he shouted. “I have spoken only the truth! Strike!”

Then did Terence Trenmore raise the Sword of Penn in good earnest. The fury that had been in him this hour past rose in his heart like boiling lava. Though be believed, no more than the Servants, he must strike at something. He could reach nothing human. There was the Red Bell!

As the sword swung up, even the disbelieving Servants stared fascinated. The police and pit guards dropped their prisoners and raised one beastlike wail of fear.

Up whirled the sword and descended, a yellow flash of flame. It rose again.

A strange reverberation shook the air. It was not like the note of a bell, nor of a gong, nor of any man-made thing. It was more than sound — worse than sound. It was a feeling; an emotion; the sickening pang of a spirit wrenching itself from a body racked with pain.

Every living being in that great place save one dropped where he was, and lay writhing feebly beneath the awful, echoing dome.

But Trenmore, standing against the bell itself, did not fall. Perhaps he was too close to be affected. Perhaps the scaffolding which pressed on the bell, preventing its full reverberation, broke the sound waves for him. At least he still stood; and now he seemed to be peering through a crimson haze of fury. Though after that first blow he might have brought even Penn Service to terms, he cared not to temporize. He cared only to destroy. Again he brought down the sword with all his terrible strength.

His foothold sagged beneath him. Looking upward he beheld an awe-inspiring thing. The golden Dome of Justice was sinking; crumpling inward. It was growing transparent, like a sheet of gold leaf beaten too thin. A moment later and he could see through it on upward.

He saw the high, gray-white tower, with its illuminated clock face, and still above that the circle of white lights about the feet of Penn. He saw the huge statue sway and stagger like a drunken man. Beneath it the tower began to bend like a tallow candle set in an oven thrice heated.

A warning quiver shot through the scaffold. With one yell of sheer, savage delight, Trenmore heaved up the sword. For the third and last time it smote the blood-red Threat of Penn!

Then the air was sucked out of his lungs; sight was wiped from his eyes. His muscles relaxed and he lost all power to feel; but he knew in the deathless soul of him that his body was falling and that the created world had dissolved, disintegrated into formless chaos!

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