The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 6

A Matter of Buttons

WHEN Drayton and his friends walked through the Ulithian “moon,” none of them were either quite unconscious nor entirely devoid of sense. Drayton for instance, knew that Viola extended her hand to him; that he took it and that her other hand was held by some one else, an indistinct personality whose identity was of not the slightest interest or importance.

They all knew that with the dizzying fragrance of a million blossoms in their nostrils; with blinding radiance before them; with behind them only silence and the silver plain, they three joined hands and so passed beneath the black arch which had seemed a moon.

This dim apprehension, however, was wholly dreamlike, and unmingled with thought or foreboding. They possessed no faint curiosity, even, as to what might lie beyond that incredible archway.

Active consciousness returned like the shock of a thunderbolt.

They had emerged upon the sidewalk of a wide, paved street. They were but three of a jostling, hurrying throng of very ordinary and solid-looking mortals.

For several moments they experienced a bewilderment even greater than had come upon them in passing from a prosaic house on Walnut Street into the uncanny romance land which they knew as “Ulithia.” The roar and rattle which now assailed their ears deafened and dazed them. Ulithia had been so silent, so unhuman and divorced from all familiar associations, that in this abrupt escape from it they felt helpless; unpoised as countryfolk who have never seen a city, and to whom its crowds are confusing and vaguely hostile.

In this new place there was none of that bright, dazzling mist which had filled the archway. Instead, it was well and more satisfactorily illuminated by numerous arc lamps. With a thundering clatter an electric train rushed past almost directly overhead.

Before them, the street was a tangle of dodging pedestrians, heavy motor trucks loaded with freight and baggage, arriving and departing autos, and desperately clanging street cars. Above, iron pillars and girders supported an elevated railway system. Close to where they stood a narrow moving stairway carried upward its perpetual stream of passengers, bound for that upper level of traffic where the electric train had passed.

Turning, the dazed wanderers saw behind them, not any vast expanse of silver light, but the wall of a long, low building, pierced with many windows and several doors. From one of those doors, apparently, they had just emerged.

With some difficulty the three extricated themselves from the throng. Finding a comparatively quiet spot by the wall of the building they stood there, very close together.

Suddenly Viola gave a sharp exclamation.

“But this-this is Philadelphia! This is the entrance to the Market Street Ferry in Philadelphia!”

Her brother slapped his thigh.

“And to think I did not recognize a place I’ve been at myself at least three times! But who would have thought we’d get home so easy — or at the other end of the city from where we started?”

Suddenly the melancholy ex-lawyer chuckled aloud.

“I never thought,” he said, “that Philadelphia, city of homes or not, would seem homelike to me. By George, I realize now what a charming old place it is! Terry, couldn’t you resign wandering and settle down here for the rest of your life — right on this spot, if necessary?”

The Irishman grinned cheerfully.

“I could that, so be there were not a few better spots to be got at. Viola, I’m fair dead of hunger and so must you both be. Is there a cafe in this elegant station building? Or shall we go home and trust Martin? Heaven bless the boy! I never thought to see him again — trust Martin to throw us together some sort of sustaining meal?”

“I’m hungry,” confessed Viola frankly, “but it seems to me we should go straight to Cousin Jim’s house, rather than to a restaurant. You know that gray powder was left there —”

Trenmore gave a great start and his smile faded.

“That devil dust!” he burst forth. “And all this time it’s been laying open and unguarded! Faith, after all we may not find poor Martin to welcome us home!”

“My fault again,” said Drayton grimly. “If anything has happened to Martin, I am entirely to blame. In common justice I shall have to follow him —”

Trenmore turned with a growl. “You will not follow him! Is it an endless chain you would establish between this world and that heathenish outland we’ve escaped from? You after Martin, and myself after you, and Viola after me, I suppose — and there we’ll all be again, with nothing to eat and no one but spooks to converse with! No; if Martin is in Ulithia this minute, may his wits and his luck bring him out of it. At least, he’s the same chance we had.”

“Call a taxi,” suggested Viola practically. “It’s just possible that Martin hasn’t yet fallen into the trap.”

“A very sensible suggestion, my dear,” commended her brother.

By the curb stood an empty taxicab, its driver loafing near by. The latter was a thin, underfed-looking fellow, clad in a rather startlingly brilliant livery of pale blue and lemon yellow, with a small gilt insignia on the sleeve. A languid cigarette drooped from his lips. Beside his gaudy attire he wore that air of infinite leisure, combined with an eye scornfully alert, with which all true taxi drivers are born.

“Seventeen hundred Walnut Street, my man,” directed Trenmore, “and get up what speed you’re able.”

Drayton had started to open the cab door, since the chauffeur made no move to do so. To his surprise, however, the latter sprang forward and pushed his hand aside.

“You wait a minute, gentlemen!”

“Is this cab engaged? You have the ‘Empty’ sign out.”

“No, we ain’t engaged; but wait a minute!”

The fellow was eying them with a curiosity oddly like suspicion. Surely there was little out of the way in their appearance. Viola’s attire was the picture of modern propriety. In crossing that ghostly plain nothing had occurred to destroy the respectable appearance with which they had all begun the journey.

“Wait!” ejaculated Trenmore. “And what for? Isn’t this a public cab?”

“Yes; it’s a public cab, right enough. There ain’t nothing the matter with me nor my cab either. The trouble’s with you. Why ain’t you wearin’ your buttons?”

“Wearing our buttons?”

Terence glanced frantically down over himself. Had the rapid transition from one world to another actually removed those necessary adornments from his garments? Everything looked in order. He glanced up angrily.

“Not wearing our buttons, is it? And what in the devil do you mean by that, you fool? Is it fuddled with drink you are?”

The chauffeur’s alert eye measured the Irishman. It’s owner shrank back against the cab.

“Don’t you!” he cried. “Don’t you hit me! I don’t care who you are, you haven’t any right to go about that way. You hit me, and you’ll go to the pit for it! I’ve drove more than one of the Service itself, and they won’t stand fer nobody beatin’ me up!”

Drayton caught the half-raised arm of his friend.

“Don’t, Terry,” he cautioned softly. “Why start a row with a lunatic?”

Trenmore shook him off. He was doubly annoyed by Drayton’s assumption that he would attack a man of less than half his weight. For an instant he felt inclined to quarrel with his friend on the spot. Then the petty childishness of his irritation struck him, and catching Viola’s appealing and astonished glance, he laughed shamefacedly.

“I left my temper behind the moon, Bobby,” he grinned, as the three started off down the sidewalk in search of another vehicle. “Somewhere along here there’s a bit of an office booth of the taxicab company’s. Isn’t that it, beyond the escalator?”

“Yes,” contributed Viola. “I remember there’s a sign over it. ‘Quaker City’— Why, but they’ve changed it to ‘Penn Service!’ Last week it was the Quaker City Company.”

Whether “Penn Service,” however, meant taxi service or something different they were not to learn just then. Before they reached the wooden booth beneath that white-lettered signboard, a heavy hand had grasped Drayton’s arm from behind, whirling him about. The two others also turned and found themselves confronted by a police officer. At a safe distance in the rear their eccentric acquaintance, the chauffeur, looked on with a satisfied grin.

“And what is this?” demanded Trenmore sternly.

Drayton said nothing at all. With the policeman’s hand clutching his arm, fear had him in a yet firmer grip. Was this another phase of the persecution to which he had been recently subjected? Was he about to suffer arrest, here in the presence of Viola Trenmore, upon some such trumped-up charge as had sent his partner to prison and death?

In the bitter grasp of this thought, it was a moment before he comprehended what the officer was replying to Trenmore’s question.

“-and if you’ve lost your buttons, for why have you not reported yourselves at the proper quarters? Sure, ’tis me duty to run ye in without further argument; but ’tis a fair-spoken, soft-hearted man I am. If you’ve a reason, give it me quick, now!”

Drayton grasped the fact that it was not himself alone who was involved. Equally, it seemed, Trenmore and his sister were objects of the man’s absurd though apparently official attention. The lawyer in him leaped to the fore. Here might be some curious local civic ruling of which he, a stranger to the city, had heard nothing.

“What about the buttons, officer?” he queried. “Do you mean that we should be wearing some sort of button as an insignia?”

“Is it crazy ye are all after being? What buttons, d’ye say? Why, what should I be meaning, savin’ yer identification buttons? What are yer numbers now? At least ye can tell me that! Or are ye the connections of a family?”

There was a moment’s silence. Then Trenmore said heavily, as if in some deep discouragement. “Faith, I myself was born in County Kerry, but till this living minute I never knew the meaning of the words ‘a crazy Irishman!’ Micky, or Pat, or whatever your name may be, we are connected with families so good that your ignorance never heard tell of them!

“And as for numbers, I do not doubt that you yourself have a number! I do not doubt that the driver of the poor little jitney bus yonder has a number! In jails men have numbers, and perhaps in the lunatic asylum you both came from they have numbers and wear buttons with those same numbers on them; but myself and my friend here and my sister, we have no numbers!

“We have names, my lad, names. And ’tis my own name I’ll send in to the poor, unfortunate chief that has charge of you, and you’ll find that it is not needful for Terence Trenmore to be given a number in order to have such as you discharged from the force your low intelligence is now disgracing!”

As Trenmore delivered this harangue his voice gradually grew in volume as his sentences grew longer, until it boomed out like the blast of a foghorn. The two or three idlers who had already gathered were reinforced by a rapidly increasing crowd. His last words were delivered to an exceedingly curious and numerous audience.

The policeman, a man of no very powerful physique, quailed before Trenmore’s just wrath much as had the taxi driver. He, too, however, had another resource than his unaided strength. His only reply to the threat was a sharp blast on his whistle.

“You’ve done it now, Terry,” groaned Drayton. “Never mind me. Get your sister away from here, if you can — quick!”

The young lady mentioned set her lips.

“Terry shall do not such thing, Mr. Drayton. Officer, surely you won’t arrest three harmless people because of some foolish little misunderstanding that could be set right in the twinkle of an eye?”

The policeman eyed her admiringly — too admiringly, in Drayton’s estimation.

“Sure, miss,” he declared, “’tis myself is most reluctant to place inconvenience on so pretty a lass; but what can I do? Ye know the regulations.”

“But indeed we do not,” protested the girl truthfully.

Before more could be said on either side, there came an eddy and swirl in the crowd, and two more policemen burst into view. One of them, a sergeant by the stripes on his sleeve, came bustling forward with an air of petty arrogance which Drayton prayed might not collide with his huge friend’s rising temper.

“What’s this? What’s all this, Forty-seven? What have these people been up to? What? No buttons? What do you mean by going about without your buttons? This is a very serious and peculiar offense, Forty-seven! The first I’ve ever met in this ward, I am glad to say. Under arrest? Certainly you are under arrest! The wagon will be here directly. What did you expect? What are your numbers? What have you done with your buttons, anyway?”

How long the sergeant could have continued this interlocutory monologue, which he delivered at extraordinary speed and without pause for answer or comment, it is impossible to say. He was interrupted by a clanging gong and again the crowd swirled and broke. A motor patrol drew up. Three more officers leaped down and stood at attention.

The accession of numbers drove from Drayton’s brain any lingering hope that Trenmore might pick his sister up under his arm and bear her bodily from the shadow of this open disgrace.

That the exasperated Irishman had not acted was due partly to reluctance to leave his friend in the clutches of the law; partly to a rapidly increasing bewilderment. He could now observe that every person in the front ranks of the staring crowd did indeed wear a large yellow button, pinned below the left shoulder, and each bearing a perfectly legible number in black.

He could also see that these numbers ran mostly into five, six and even seven figures; but what those figures represented, or why the wearers should be so adorned, or what bearing the ornamentation might have upon their own liberty, was a puzzle before which the recent mysteries of Ulithia faded.

“Button, button, who’s got the button?” he muttered. “Faith, ’tis a wild and barbarous land, this Philadelphia! Sergeant, are you really going to run us in, just for not knowing what you and the rest are talking of?”

The sergeant looked him up and down appreciatively.

“You know very well that I must. But Lord, man, you’ve nothing to worry over with the contests coming off in a couple of days. Or haven’t you any muscle back of that size of yours?”

Distractedly, Trenmore clutched at his black, wild hair.

“Take us to the station, man!” he snarled. “And be quick, as you value your poor, worthless life! Muscle? I’ve the muscle to pull you to bits, and by all the powers I’ll be driven to that act if you do not take me to speak with some sane man this living minute!”

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