The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 9

The Pit of the Past

BENEATH the golden Dome of Justice, directly under the blood-red bell, where looking downward they saw the latter’s crimson reflection as in a pool of milk, stood the three prisoners. That Viola was there had been the result of pleadings so passionate that even Mercy the pitiless and Virtue the gross were moved to grant them.

As to why any of them were there, however, or what the queer sentence of that still queerer judge might actually imply, they were yet ignorant.

This was their own world to which the white moon gate of Ulithia had returned them; and yet in some dreadful manner they had been betrayed. Some mighty change had taken place during their brief absence. How brief had that absence been?

Beneath the bell, Drayton and his companions had at least a few moments alone together. Their isolation offered no chance of escape. The three doors of the great chamber were shut and locked, while across the old patrol entrance at the west a grate of heavy golden bars had been lowered.

“Viola, my dear,” said Trenmore, “my heart aches for you! Whatever this ‘Pit’ of theirs may be, they’ve not condemned you to it along with us. I fear ’tis for an ill reason that they have spared you. My own folly and violence have brought me where I can no longer protect you, little sister; but for all you’re so young and — and little — you’re a Trenmore, Viola. You know what to do when I’m gone? Oh, must I tear out my very heart to be telling you?”

Viola shook her head, smiling bravely.

“I’ll never shame you, Terry. When you go, dear, life will be a small thing that I’ll not mind to be losing. And, Terry, I’ve a thought that this world we’ve come back to is our world no longer. We’ve no more place here than we had in Ulithia.”

Drayton started slightly.

“Then you believe —”

“You must end this now,” broke in a languid voice. Mr. Mercy had come up behind them unawares. Back of him appeared the figures of four other men, apparently convicts. They were dressed in loose, ill-fitting costumes, yellow in color and barred with broad black stripes. Their ugly heads were close cropped; their faces stupid and bestially cruel.

“Awfully sorry to interrupt,” continued Mercy, fanning himself lazily with a folded newspaper he carried. “But we can’t keep the Pit Guard waiting forever, you know. Don’t cry, little one! I’ll look after you.”

Viola turned upon him with flashing, tearless eyes. When roused her temper was as tempestuous as her brother’s .

“You insignificant rat of a man!” she stormed fiercely. “Do you believe I would have endured the sight of you even this long, were it not for my brother here, and Mr. Drayton? Do you believe I’ll remain alive one hour after they are gone?”

Mercy looked a trifle surprised.

“Do you know, my dear,” he drawled, “I think you’re devilish ungrateful! If Virtue and I were not so soft-hearted you wouldn’t be here now. Oh, well, I like a girl with a spark of temper about her. You’ll get over it. If you really wish to see the last of your heavyweight brother and his pal, come along.”

Turning, he strolled off toward that mosaic emblem, set in the northward pavement. The four convicts closed about the prisoners. A moment later, having escorted them a short distance in Mercy’s wake, the guard drew aside. The handcuffed prisoners now found themselves standing at the very edge of the mosaic.

The colored marbles, beautifully inlaid, represented a huge chained eagle, pierced with arrows, and reaching vainly with open beak after a flying dove in whose bill appeared the conventional olive branch. On a scroll beneath three words were inscribed in scarlet letters:

“Sic semper tyrannis.”

They were the words of Booth, when he bestowed the martyr’s crown upon Lincoln. “Thus ever to tyrants!” Incidentally, they were also the motto of a State; but the State was Virginia, not Pennsylvania. What could be their meaning here? And where was this “Pit of the Past” into which the prisoners were to be thrown?

The last question was immediately answered. On the far side of the emblem, Virtue, Mercy and their attendant bluecoats had grouped themselves. Now Virtue stooped, clumsily because of his fat, and pressed a spatulate thumb upon the round eye of the mosaic dove.

Instantly the whole emblem began to sink. It seemed hinged on the base of the scroll. A moment later and there was just a hole in the pavement, shaped like the emblem, and up from which struck a strange, reddish glare.

Edging cautiously closer, Drayton peered downward. Viola and her brother joined him. They stood motionless, the ruddy light striking upward upon their shocked, fascinated faces.

What they saw was a straight-sided pit, some thirty-five feet in depth. From top to bottom the walls were lined with tiny, ruby-colored electric bulbs. At the very bottom sat a squat gigantic thing.

With shoulders and head thrown back, the face of it glared up at them. The mouth distended to an opening of some six feet across, was lined with sharp steel spikes, slanting upward. The tongue was a keen, curved edge of steel. In its taloned hands the monster held two spears upright. A tail, also spiked, reared itself at one side, and the narrow forehead bore two needle-pointed horns of steel.

So the space at the bottom of the Pit was filled. Anything falling there must of necessity be impaled — if not fatally, so much the worse for the thing.

Trenmore growled in his throat.

“For sure,” said he at last, “you murderers have gone to needless trouble! Why do you not cut our throats with your own hands? The deed would fit your natures!”

Virtue and Mercy only smiled complacently.

“Sorry you aren’t amused,” drawled the latter gentleman. “This little joke was not invented for your special benefit. Do you know who that is down there?”

“The statue of the devil you worship!” hazarded Trenmore viciously.

“Oh, no indeed! Quite the contrary. The statue of the devil you worship, my bellicose friend. That is the God of War, and as he can no longer stride loose about the world, we have made it convenient for his devotees to drop in on him. In other words, break the Peace of Penn, and you’ll get more of war than you like. ‘Sic semper tyrannis!’ Any man who assaults another is a tyrant by intent, at least, so down you go.”

“It was your police who attacked me!” accused Trenmore hotly.

Mercy’s brows lifted.

“Was it? I had rather forgotten. That does spoil my parable, eh? But we shan’t let it interfere with your invaluable opportunity to worship the God of War.”

“Do you actually throw people — living people — into that vile trap?” Drayton’s voice was incredulous. So theatrical, so tawdry seemed this Pit of theirs: like a stage dragon at which one may shudder, but not sincerely.

“We most assuredly do,” smiled Virtue. He continued speaking, but his words were drowned and rendered indistinguishable by a great rattling roar, which seemed to rise from the open Pit itself. The prisoners instinctively sprang back from the edge.

There was nothing vocal in the noise, but if a bronze demon like that below should start into hungry life, just such a mechanical, reverberating roar might issue from its resounding throat.

The sound died away. “What was that?” demanded Trenmore sharply.

Mercy laughed.

“The subway, of course. The trains pass under the Temple foundations. You are the most curiously ignorant crooks that were ever brought in here. Where have you been living?”

Virtue glanced at his watch. “Mercy, if you are interested in their histories, would you mind obtaining them from the young lady later on? I’m due at a banquet in half an hour and I’m not dressed.”

“Go ahead,” shrugged Mercy. “We can finish without you.”

Frowning, the judge shook his head. “His Supremity demands regularity in these affairs, and you know very well that the presence of the condemning judge is required here.” Then he added in a lower tone, which nevertheless carried across the Pit, “I tell you frankly, Mercy, that he didn’t like that business last week. You are growing too careless of his opinion, my dear fellow.”

“Oh, he’s an old — Hello; there comes Lovely. Now we shall have to hold the execution till she has looked the prisoners over. If we don’t, she’ll be deeply offended.”

“A lot I care,” muttered Virtue. Nevertheless, he lowered his hand, raised as if in direction to the guard.

A woman was approaching from the doorway beyond the open Pit. Tall, slender, a striking blonde in hair and complexion, she was dressed in an evening gown of soft, droopy lines, sea-green and deeply slitted to show slender limbs clad in pale gold.

At first glance and at a distance, Drayton fancied that “Lovely” well deserved her name. But as she drew near two facts became painfully apparent. The color in her cheeks was not the kind limited by nature, and her golden hair, waved back under a jade-green net, was of that suspicious straw gold, easily bought but very seldom grown. Her features, however, were regular and clean-cut, and her eyes really beautiful. They were large, well-shaped, and almost the very green of her gown.

Smiling sweetly upon Mr. Virtue, the lady extended her hand to Mr. Mercy, and afterward swept the prisoners across the Pit with a cold, indifferent gaze. When it rested upon Trenmore, however, her expression changed. A sudden light leaped into the sea-green eyes. The pupils expanded darkly.

“What a perfectly gorgeous giant, Virty!” she exclaimed, turning to the judge. “Where on earth did you get him? Surely, you were not about to waste that on the Pit?”

“Why not?” His Honor bestowed another covert, annoyed glance upon his watch.

“He has already beaten up four of our blue boys,” laughed Mercy.

“Indeed? How so?”

Mercy related the incident briefly, giving Trenmore full credit and even exaggerating his feats for narrative effect. The lady laughed, a silvery peal of light-hearted merriment.

“And you meant to throw all that away in the Pit! How extravagant you boys are. It’s fortunate I came out here. Now, what I should like to know is this. Why hasn’t at least that one,” she pointed at Trenmore, “taken condemned right and entered for the contests day after to-morrow? Why didn’t you, Number-Number, whatever your number may be?”

Trenmore eyed her, frowning.

“Madam, I can’t so much as guess at your meaning. If there’s some way out of this murderous business for my sister, my friend and myself, we’d take it more than kindly if you’ll explain.”

“Lovely,” Virtue protested, snapping shut his watch, “I really must leave here immediately.”

“Just a minute,” she flung him, and called across to Trenmore. “You must know the laws!”

Believing that their fate hung in a delicate balance, Drayton intervened.

“We are strangers here. They haven’t allowed us to speak or defend ourselves, but we certainly do not understand the laws, and we have not offended intentionally.”

“Strangers! Strangers in Philadelphia?”

“Certainly. This gentleman only recently arrived from Ireland; his sister has spent the last few years in the West, and I myself am from Cincinnati.”

The woman shook her head, looking more puzzled than before.

“Those names mean nothing. If you are really from outside the boundaries, how did you get in?”

Drayton hesitated. A diplomatic answer to that was, under the circumstances, difficult. Before he could frame a sentence sufficiently noncommittal, a new figure had thrust its way through the police guard and walked to the woman’s side.

He was a man of about thirty-five, sharp-featured, cunning-eyed, and with a thin-lipped mouth which closed tight as a trap. Unlike Virtue and Mercy, the newcomer was attired in full evening dress. A light cloak, black and lined with flame-colored silk, was flung across one arm.

Without troubling to salute her companions, and without the slightest evidence of interest in the meaning of the scene in general, he addressed the green-clad woman.

“Lovely,” he demanded in barely repressed impatience, “are you intending to go out this evening or not? If you don’t wish to dance, for heaven’s sake, say so! I can take some one else.”

She turned upon him a glance of indolent scorn.

“Do that, if you think best. All my life I’ve been looking for a full-grown man to share my responsibility under Penn Service. Now that I have found one, do you think I will let him be lost in the Pit?”

At this speech Mr. Virtue gave a sharp exclamation, and Mercy laughed outright.

“So that’s what you’re up to, Lovely! Cleverest, I’m sorry for you! Goodnight!”

The thin lips of “Cleverest” parted in an unpleasant smile.

“I always knew you’d throw me over if you found a chance, Lovely. You mean to enter your protege for Strongest, I suppose?”

“Certainly.”

“And you believe he will be able to supplant the present incumbent?”

“I know he will!”

“Ah, well, I shan’t despair. You may close the Pit now, but it can also be opened again after the contests. And what of these other prisoners?”

The woman laughed defiantly.

“They shall have their chance, too! Virty, I don’t often question your decisions, do I? But this time I wish you to close your ugly old Pit and,” with a glance of disdain, “not oblige Clever by reopening it.”

Mr. Virtue glanced very dubiously toward the thin-lipped man. He appeared not at all enthusiastic. Mercy scowled.

“Don’t forget me, please, Virty! I’ve a very personal interest in this execution, and even Lovely shan’t do me out of it!”

“Oh, shut up, Mercy,” broke in the woman impatiently. “I can imagine what your interest is. You’re afraid this girl’s brother won’t let you have her. But the law is the law and they have their contest right. You never think of any one but yourself Virty, turn these people loose and I’ll be responsible for their appearance Wednesday.”

“Cleverest, are you going to stand for this?” demanded Mercy angrily.

But Cleverest, who had himself been eying Viola, now smiled a strange, fox-like, tight-lipped smile.

“Why not?” he asked simply. “If Lovely prefers the fellow’s strength to my brains, what can I do but gracefully withdraw?”

The woman looked at him with a trace of suspicion.

“Such amiability is really touching, Clever. But I’ll take you up on it. That thin chap can go in for Swiftest, I think, and as for the girl-” She frowned at Viola with a look of mingled dislike and reluctant admiration. “Oh, well,” she finished, “the girl can enter the contest for Domestic Excellence.”

Slapping his fat thigh, Virtue burst into a sudden roar of laughter.

“Splendid, Lovely! You have it all arranged, eh? Mercy, you and Cleverest are down and out! Take ’em — take your charming proteges, Lovely, my child; and shut up the Pit. Old War must go hungry to-night. And now you’ll excuse me, Lovely. You’ve already made me miss at least one full course!”

“It would do you no harm to miss more than that,” she retorted with a disparaging glance at his waist-line; but Virtue only chuckled without taking offense and hurried away.

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