BEFORE one of the fresh faces could appear at the doorway, Gregory’s stunned surprise had fallen from him. He was beside the table with a bound, and a noise in his throat like a wild beast. He caught up the Colt’s revolver and took aim at Syme. Syme did not flinch, but he put up a pale and polite hand.
“Don’t be such a silly man,” he said, with the effeminate dignity of a curate. “Don’t you see it’s not necessary? Don’t you see that we’re both in the same boat? Yes, and jolly sea-sick.”
Gregory could not speak, but he could not fire either, and he looked his question.
“Don’t you see we’ve checkmated each other?” cried Syme. “I can’t tell the police you are an anarchist. You can’t tell the anarchists I’m a policeman. I can only watch you, knowing what you are; you can only watch me, knowing what I am. In short, it’s a lonely, intellectual duel, my head against yours. I’m a policeman deprived of the help of the police. You, my poor fellow, are an anarchist deprived of the help of that law and organisation which is so essential to anarchy. The one solitary difference is in your favour. You are not surrounded by inquisitive policemen; I am surrounded by inquisitive anarchists. I cannot betray you, but I might betray myself. Come, come! wait and see me betray myself. I shall do it so nicely.”
Gregory put the pistol slowly down, still staring at Syme as if he were a sea-monster.
“I don’t believe in immortality,” he said at last, “but if, after all this, you were to break your word, God would make a hell only for you, to howl in for ever.”
“I shall not break my word,” said Syme sternly, “nor will you break yours. Here are your friends.”
The mass of the anarchists entered the room heavily, with a slouching and somewhat weary gait; but one little man, with a black beard and glasses — a man somewhat of the type of Mr. Tim Healy — detached himself, and bustled forward with some papers in his hand.
“Comrade Gregory,” he said, “I suppose this man is a delegate?”
Gregory, taken by surprise, looked down and muttered the name of Syme; but Syme replied almost pertly —
“I am glad to see that your gate is well enough guarded to make it hard for anyone to be here who was not a delegate.”
The brow of the little man with the black beard was, however, still contracted with something like suspicion.
“What branch do you represent?” he asked sharply.
“I should hardly call it a branch,” said Syme, laughing; “I should call it at the very least a root.”
“What do you mean?”
“The fact is,” said Syme serenely, “the truth is I am a Sabbatarian. I have been specially sent here to see that you show a due observance of Sunday.”
The little man dropped one of his papers, and a flicker of fear went over all the faces of the group. Evidently the awful President, whose name was Sunday, did sometimes send down such irregular ambassadors to such branch meetings.
“Well, comrade,” said the man with the papers after a pause, “I suppose we’d better give you a seat in the meeting?”
“If you ask my advice as a friend,” said Syme with severe benevolence, “I think you’d better.”
When Gregory heard the dangerous dialogue end, with a sudden safety for his rival, he rose abruptly and paced the floor in painful thought. He was, indeed, in an agony of diplomacy. It was clear that Syme’s inspired impudence was likely to bring him out of all merely accidental dilemmas. Little was to be hoped from them. He could not himself betray Syme, partly from honour, but partly also because, if he betrayed him and for some reason failed to destroy him, the Syme who escaped would be a Syme freed from all obligation of secrecy, a Syme who would simply walk to the nearest police station. After all, it was only one night’s discussion, and only one detective who would know of it. He would let out as little as possible of their plans that night, and then let Syme go, and chance it.
He strode across to the group of anarchists, which was already distributing itself along the benches.
“I think it is time we began,” he said; “the steam-tug is waiting on the river already. I move that Comrade Buttons takes the chair.”
This being approved by a show of hands, the little man with the papers slipped into the presidential seat.
“Comrades,” he began, as sharp as a pistol-shot, “our meeting tonight is important, though it need not be long. This branch has always had the honour of electing Thursdays for the Central European Council. We have elected many and splendid Thursdays. We all lament the sad decease of the heroic worker who occupied the post until last week. As you know, his services to the cause were considerable. He organised the great dynamite coup of Brighton which, under happier circumstances, ought to have killed everybody on the pier. As you also know, his death was as self-denying as his life, for he died through his faith in a hygienic mixture of chalk and water as a substitute for milk, which beverage he regarded as barbaric, and as involving cruelty to the cow. Cruelty, or anything approaching to cruelty, revolted him always. But it is not to acclaim his virtues that we are met, but for a harder task. It is difficult properly to praise his qualities, but it is more difficult to replace them. Upon you, comrades, it devolves this evening to choose out of the company present the man who shall be Thursday. If any comrade suggests a name I will put it to the vote. If no comrade suggests a name, I can only tell myself that that dear dynamiter, who is gone from us, has carried into the unknowable abysses the last secret of his virtue and his innocence.”
There was a stir of almost inaudible applause, such as is sometimes heard in church. Then a large old man, with a long and venerable white beard, perhaps the only real working-man present, rose lumberingly and said —
“I move that Comrade Gregory be elected Thursday,” and sat lumberingly down again.
“Does anyone second?” asked the chairman.
A little man with a velvet coat and pointed beard seconded.
“Before I put the matter to the vote,” said the chairman, “I will call on Comrade Gregory to make a statement.”
Gregory rose amid a great rumble of applause. His face was deadly pale, so that by contrast his queer red hair looked almost scarlet. But he was smiling and altogether at ease. He had made up his mind, and he saw his best policy quite plain in front of him like a white road. His best chance was to make a softened and ambiguous speech, such as would leave on the detective’s mind the impression that the anarchist brotherhood was a very mild affair after all. He believed in his own literary power, his capacity for suggesting fine shades and picking perfect words. He thought that with care he could succeed, in spite of all the people around him, in conveying an impression of the institution, subtly and delicately false. Syme had once thought that anarchists, under all their bravado, were only playing the fool. Could he not now, in the hour of peril, make Syme think so again?
“Comrades,” began Gregory, in a low but penetrating voice, “it is not necessary for me to tell you what is my policy, for it is your policy also. Our belief has been slandered, it has been disfigured, it has been utterly confused and concealed, but it has never been altered. Those who talk about anarchism and its dangers go everywhere and anywhere to get their information, except to us, except to the fountain head. They learn about anarchists from sixpenny novels; they learn about anarchists from tradesmen’s newspapers; they learn about anarchists from Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and the Sporting Times. They never learn about anarchists from anarchists. We have no chance of denying the mountainous slanders which are heaped upon our heads from one end of Europe to another. The man who has always heard that we are walking plagues has never heard our reply. I know that he will not hear it tonight, though my passion were to rend the roof. For it is deep, deep under the earth that the persecuted are permitted to assemble, as the Christians assembled in the Catacombs. But if, by some incredible accident, there were here tonight a man who all his life had thus immensely misunderstood us, I would put this question to him: ‘When those Christians met in those Catacombs, what sort of moral reputation had they in the streets above? What tales were told of their atrocities by one educated Roman to another? Suppose’ (I would say to him), ‘suppose that we are only repeating that still mysterious paradox of history. Suppose we seem as shocking as the Christians because we are really as harmless as the Christians. Suppose we seem as mad as the Christians because we are really as meek.’”
The applause that had greeted the opening sentences had been gradually growing fainter, and at the last word it stopped suddenly. In the abrupt silence, the man with the velvet jacket said, in a high, squeaky voice —
“I’m not meek!”
“Comrade Witherspoon tells us,” resumed Gregory, “that he is not meek. Ah, how little he knows himself! His words are, indeed, extravagant; his appearance is ferocious, and even (to an ordinary taste) unattractive. But only the eye of a friendship as deep and delicate as mine can perceive the deep foundation of solid meekness which lies at the base of him, too deep even for himself to see. I repeat, we are the true early Christians, only that we come too late. We are simple, as they revere simple — look at Comrade Witherspoon. We are modest, as they were modest — look at me. We are merciful — ”
“No, no!” called out Mr. Witherspoon with the velvet jacket.
“I say we are merciful,” repeated Gregory furiously, “as the early Christians were merciful. Yet this did not prevent their being accused of eating human flesh. We do not eat human flesh — ”
“Shame!” cried Witherspoon. “Why not?”
“Comrade Witherspoon,” said Gregory, with a feverish gaiety, “is anxious to know why nobody eats him (laughter). In our society, at any rate, which loves him sincerely, which is founded upon love — ”
“No, no!” said Witherspoon, “down with love.”
“Which is founded upon love,” repeated Gregory, grinding his teeth, “there will be no difficulty about the aims which we shall pursue as a body, or which I should pursue were I chosen as the representative of that body. Superbly careless of the slanders that represent us as assassins and enemies of human society, we shall pursue with moral courage and quiet intellectual pressure, the permanent ideals of brotherhood and simplicity.”
Gregory resumed his seat and passed his hand across his forehead. The silence was sudden and awkward, but the chairman rose like an automaton, and said in a colourless voice —
“Does anyone oppose the election of Comrade Gregory?”
The assembly seemed vague and sub-consciously disappointed, and Comrade Witherspoon moved restlessly on his seat and muttered in his thick beard. By the sheer rush of routine, however, the motion would have been put and carried. But as the chairman was opening his mouth to put it, Syme sprang to his feet and said in a small and quiet voice —
“Yes, Mr. Chairman, I oppose.”
The most effective fact in oratory is an unexpected change in the voice. Mr. Gabriel Syme evidently understood oratory. Having said these first formal words in a moderated tone and with a brief simplicity, he made his next word ring and volley in the vault as if one of the guns had gone off.
“Comrades!” he cried, in a voice that made every man jump out of his boots, “have we come here for this? Do we live underground like rats in order to listen to talk like this? This is talk we might listen to while eating buns at a Sunday School treat. Do we line these walls with weapons and bar that door with death lest anyone should come and hear Comrade Gregory saying to us, ‘Be good, and you will be happy,’ ‘Honesty is the best policy,’ and ‘Virtue is its own reward’? There was not a word in Comrade Gregory’s address to which a curate could not have listened with pleasure (hear, hear). But I am not a curate (loud cheers), and I did not listen to it with pleasure (renewed cheers). The man who is fitted to make a good curate is not fitted to make a resolute, forcible, and efficient Thursday (hear, hear).”
“Comrade Gregory has told us, in only too apologetic a tone, that we are not the enemies of society. But I say that we are the enemies of society, and so much the worse for society. We are the enemies of society, for society is the enemy of humanity, its oldest and its most pitiless enemy (hear, hear). Comrade Gregory has told us (apologetically again) that we are not murderers. There I agree. We are not murderers, we are executioners (cheers).”
Ever since Syme had risen Gregory had sat staring at him, his face idiotic with astonishment. Now in the pause his lips of clay parted, and he said, with an automatic and lifeless distinctness —
“You damnable hypocrite!”
Syme looked straight into those frightful eyes with his own pale blue ones, and said with dignity —
“Comrade Gregory accuses me of hypocrisy. He knows as well as I do that I am keeping all my engagements and doing nothing but my duty. I do not mince words. I do not pretend to. I say that Comrade Gregory is unfit to be Thursday for all his amiable qualities. He is unfit to be Thursday because of his amiable qualities. We do not want the Supreme Council of Anarchy infected with a maudlin mercy (hear, hear). This is no time for ceremonial politeness, neither is it a time for ceremonial modesty. I set myself against Comrade Gregory as I would set myself against all the Governments of Europe, because the anarchist who has given himself to anarchy has forgotten modesty as much as he has forgotten pride (cheers). I am not a man at all. I am a cause (renewed cheers). I set myself against Comrade Gregory as impersonally and as calmly as I should choose one pistol rather than another out of that rack upon the wall; and I say that rather than have Gregory and his milk-and-water methods on the Supreme Council, I would offer myself for election — ”
His sentence was drowned in a deafening cataract of applause. The faces, that had grown fiercer and fiercer with approval as his tirade grew more and more uncompromising, were now distorted with grins of anticipation or cloven with delighted cries. At the moment when he announced himself as ready to stand for the post of Thursday, a roar of excitement and assent broke forth, and became uncontrollable, and at the same moment Gregory sprang to his feet, with foam upon his mouth, and shouted against the shouting.
“Stop, you blasted madmen!” he cried, at the top of a voice that tore his throat. “Stop, you — ”
But louder than Gregory’s shouting and louder than the roar of the room came the voice of Syme, still speaking in a peal of pitiless thunder —
“I do not go to the Council to rebut that slander that calls us murderers; I go to earn it (loud and prolonged cheering). To the priest who says these men are the enemies of religion, to the judge who says these men are the enemies of law, to the fat parliamentarian who says these men are the enemies of order and public decency, to all these I will reply, ‘You are false kings, but you are true prophets. I am come to destroy you, and to fulfil your prophecies.’”
The heavy clamour gradually died away, but before it had ceased Witherspoon had jumped to his feet, his hair and beard all on end, and had said —
“I move, as an amendment, that Comrade Syme be appointed to the post.”
“Stop all this, I tell you!” cried Gregory, with frantic face and hands. “Stop it, it is all — ”
The voice of the chairman clove his speech with a cold accent.
“Does anyone second this amendment?” he said. A tall, tired man, with melancholy eyes and an American chin beard, was observed on the back bench to be slowly rising to his feet. Gregory had been screaming for some time past; now there was a change in his accent, more shocking than any scream. “I end all this!” he said, in a voice as heavy as stone.
“This man cannot be elected. He is a — ”
“Yes,” said Syme, quite motionless, “what is he?” Gregory’s mouth worked twice without sound; then slowly the blood began to crawl back into his dead face. “He is a man quite inexperienced in our work,” he said, and sat down abruptly.
Before he had done so, the long, lean man with the American beard was again upon his feet, and was repeating in a high American monotone —
“I beg to second the election of Comrade Syme.”
“The amendment will, as usual, be put first,” said Mr. Buttons, the chairman, with mechanical rapidity.
“The question is that Comrade Syme — ”
Gregory had again sprung to his feet, panting and passionate.
“Comrades,” he cried out, “I am not a madman.”
“Oh, oh!” said Mr. Witherspoon.
“I am not a madman,” reiterated Gregory, with a frightful sincerity which for a moment staggered the room, “but I give you a counsel which you can call mad if you like. No, I will not call it a counsel, for I can give you no reason for it. I will call it a command. Call it a mad command, but act upon it. Strike, but hear me! Kill me, but obey me! Do not elect this man.” Truth is so terrible, even in fetters, that for a moment Syme’s slender and insane victory swayed like a reed. But you could not have guessed it from Syme’s bleak blue eyes. He merely began —
“Comrade Gregory commands — ”
Then the spell was snapped, and one anarchist called out to Gregory —
“Who are you? You are not Sunday”; and another anarchist added in a heavier voice, “And you are not Thursday.”
“Comrades,” cried Gregory, in a voice like that of a martyr who in an ecstacy of pain has passed beyond pain, “it is nothing to me whether you detest me as a tyrant or detest me as a slave. If you will not take my command, accept my degradation. I kneel to you. I throw myself at your feet. I implore you. Do not elect this man.”
“Comrade Gregory,” said the chairman after a painful pause, “this is really not quite dignified.”
For the first time in the proceedings there was for a few seconds a real silence. Then Gregory fell back in his seat, a pale wreck of a man, and the chairman repeated, like a piece of clock-work suddenly started again —
“The question is that Comrade Syme be elected to the post of Thursday on the General Council.”
The roar rose like the sea, the hands rose like a forest, and three minutes afterwards Mr. Gabriel Syme, of the Secret Police Service, was elected to the post of Thursday on the General Council of the Anarchists of Europe.
Everyone in the room seemed to feel the tug waiting on the river, the sword-stick and the revolver, waiting on the table. The instant the election was ended and irrevocable, and Syme had received the paper proving his election, they all sprang to their feet, and the fiery groups moved and mixed in the room. Syme found himself, somehow or other, face to face with Gregory, who still regarded him with a stare of stunned hatred. They were silent for many minutes.
“You are a devil!” said Gregory at last.
“And you are a gentleman,” said Syme with gravity.
“It was you that entrapped me,” began Gregory, shaking from head to foot, “entrapped me into — ”
“Talk sense,” said Syme shortly. “Into what sort of devils’ parliament have you entrapped me, if it comes to that? You made me swear before I made you. Perhaps we are both doing what we think right. But what we think right is so damned different that there can be nothing between us in the way of concession. There is nothing possible between us but honour and death,” and he pulled the great cloak about his shoulders and picked up the flask from the table.
“The boat is quite ready,” said Mr. Buttons, bustling up. “Be good enough to step this way.”
With a gesture that revealed the shop-walker, he led Syme down a short, iron-bound passage, the still agonised Gregory following feverishly at their heels. At the end of the passage was a door, which Buttons opened sharply, showing a sudden blue and silver picture of the moonlit river, that looked like a scene in a theatre. Close to the opening lay a dark, dwarfish steam-launch, like a baby dragon with one red eye.
Almost in the act of stepping on board, Gabriel Syme turned to the gaping Gregory.
“You have kept your word,” he said gently, with his face in shadow. “You are a man of honour, and I thank you. You have kept it even down to a small particular. There was one special thing you promised me at the beginning of the affair, and which you have certainly given me by the end of it.”
“What do you mean?” cried the chaotic Gregory. “What did I promise you?”
“A very entertaining evening,” said Syme, and he made a military salute with the sword-stick as the steamboat slid away.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52