Twenty minutes’ walk took Arnold and Colston to the door of the tenement-house in which the former had lived since his fast-dwindling store of money had convinced him of the necessity of bringing his expenses down to the lowest possible limit if he wished to keep up the struggle with fate very much longer.
As they mounted the dirty, evil-smelling staircase, Colston said —
“Phew! Verily you are a hero of science if you have brought yourself to live in a hole like this for a couple of years rather than give up your dream, and grow fat on the loaves and fishes of conventionality.”
“This is a palace compared with some of the rookeries about here,” replied Arnold, with a laugh. “The march of progress seems to have left this half of London behind as hopeless. Ten years ago there were a good many thousands of highly respectable mediocrities living on this side of the river, but now I am told that the glory has departed from the very best of its localities, and given them up to various degrees of squalor. Vice, poverty, and misery seem to gravitate naturally southward in London. I don’t know why, but they do. Well, here is the door of my humble den.”
As he spoke he put the key in the lock, and opened the door, bidding his companion enter as he did so.
Arnold’s anxiety was soon relieved by finding the precious model untouched in its resting-place, and it was at once brought out. Colston was delighted beyond his powers of expression with the marvellous ingenuity with which the miracle of mechanical skill was contrived and put together; and when Arnold, after showing and explaining to him all the various parts of the mechanism and the external structure, at length set the engine working, and the air-ship rose gracefully from the floor and began to sail round the room in the wide circle to which it was confined by its mooring-line, he stared at it for several minutes in wondering silence, following it round and round with his eyes, and then he said in a voice from which he vainly strove to banish the signs of the emotion that possessed him —
“It is the last miracle of science! With a few such ships as that one could conquer the world in a month!”
“Yes, that would not be a very difficult task, seeing that neither an army nor a fleet could exist for twelve hours with two or three of them hovering above it,” replied Arnold.
The trial over, Arnold set to work and took the model partly to pieces for packing up; and while he was putting it away in the old sea-chest, Colston counted out ten sovereigns and laid them on the table. Hearing the clink of the gold, Arnold looked up and said —
“What is that for? A sovereign will be quite enough to get me out of my present scrape, and then if we come to any terms to-night it will be time enough to talk about payment.”
“The Brotherhood does not do business in that way,” was the reply. “At present your only connection with it is a commercial one, and ten pounds is a very moderate fee for the privilege of inspecting such an invention as this. Anyhow, that is what I am ordered to hand over to you in payment for your trouble now and to-night, so you must accept it as it is given — as a matter of business.”
“Very well,” said Arnold, closing and locking the chest as he spoke, “if you think it worth ten pounds, the money will not come amiss to me. Now, if you will remain and guard the household gods for a minute, I will go and pay my rent and get a cab.”
Half an hour later his few but priceless possessions were loaded on a four-wheeler and Arnold had bidden farewell for ever to the dingy room in which he had passed so many hours of toil and dreaming, suffering and disappointment. Before lunch time they were safely bestowed in a couple of rooms which Colston had engaged for him in the same building in which his own rooms were.
In the afternoon, among other purchases, a more convenient case was bought for the model, and in this it was packed with the plans and papers which explained its construction, ready for the evening journey.
The two friends dined together at six in Colston’s rooms, and at seven sharp his servant announced that the cab was at the door. Within ten minutes they were bowling along the Embankment towards Westminster Bridge in a luxuriously appointed hansom of the newest type, with the precious case lying across their knees.
“This is a comfortable cab,” said Arnold, when they had gone a hundred yards or so. “By the way, how does the man know where to go? I didn’t hear you give him any directions.”
“None were necessary,” was the reply. “This cab, like a good many others in London, belongs to the Brotherhood, and the man who is driving is one of the Outer Circle. Our Jehus are the most useful spies that we have. Many is the secret of the enemy that we have learnt from, and many is the secret police agent who has been driven to his rendezvous by a Terrorist who has heard every word that has been spoken on the journey.”
“How on earth is that managed?”
“Every one of the cabs is fitted with a telephonic arrangement communicating with the roof. The driver has only to button the wire of the transmitter up inside his coat so that the transmitter itself lies near to his ear, and he can hear even a whisper inside the cab.
“The man who is driving us, for instance, has a sort of retainer from the Russian Embassy to be on hand at certain hours on certain nights in the week. Our cabs are all better horsed, better appointed, and better driven than any others in London, and, consequently, they are favourites, especially among the young attachés, and are nearly always employed by them on their secret missions or love affairs, which, by the way, are very often the same thing. Our own Jehu has a job on to-night, from which we expect some results that will mystify the enemy not a little. We got our first suspicions of Ainsworth from a few incautious words that he spoke in one of our cabs.”
“It’s a splendid system, I should think, for discovering the movements of your enemies,” said Arnold, not without an uncomfortable reflection on the fact that he was himself now completely in the power of this terrible organisation, which had keen eyes and ready hands in every capital of the civilised world. “But how do you guard against treachery? It is well known that all the Governments of Europe are spending money like water to unearth this mystery of the Terror. Surely all your men cannot be incorruptible.”
“Practically they are so. The very mystery which enshrouds all our actions makes them so. We have had a few traitors, of course; but as none of them has ever survived his treachery by twenty-four hours, a bribe has lost its attraction for the rest.”
In such conversation as this the time was passed, while the cab crossed the river and made its way rapidly and easily along Kennington Road and Clapham Road to Clapham Common. At length it turned into the drive of one of those solid abodes of pretentious respectability which front the Common, and pulled up before a big stucco portico.
“Here we are!” exclaimed Colston, as the doors of the cab automatically opened. He got out first, and Arnold handed the case to him, and then followed him.
Without a word the driver turned his horse into the road again and drove off towards town, and as they ascended the steps the front door opened, and they went in, Colston saying as they did so —
“Is Mr. Smith at home?”
“Yes, sir; you are expected, I believe. Will you step into the drawing-room?” replied the clean-shaven and immaculately respectable man-servant, in evening dress, who had opened the door for them.
They were shown into a handsomely furnished room lit with electric light. As soon as the footman had closed the door behind him, Colston said —
“Well, now, here you are in the conspirators’ den, in the very headquarters of those Terrorists for whom Europe is being ransacked constantly without the slightest success. I have often wondered what the rigid respectability of Clapham Common would think if it knew the true character of this harmless-looking house. I hardly think an earthquake in Clapham Road would produce much more sensation than such a discovery would.
“And now,” he continued, his tone becoming suddenly much more serious, “in a few minutes you will be in the presence of the Inner Circle of the Terrorists, that is to say, of those who practically hold the fate of Europe in their hands. You know pretty clearly what they want with you. If you have thought better of the business that we have discussed you are still at perfect liberty to retire from it, on giving your word of honour not to disclose anything that I have said to you.”
“I have not the slightest intention of doing anything of the sort,” replied Arnold. “You know the conditions on which I came here. I shall put them before your Council, and if they are accepted your Brotherhood will, within their limits, have no more faithful adherent than I. If not, the business will simply come to an end as far as I am concerned, and your secret will be as safe with me as though I had taken the oath of membership.”
“Well said!” replied Colston, “and just what I expected you to say. Now listen to me for a minute. Whatever you may see or hear for the next few minutes say nothing till you are asked to speak. I will say all that is necessary at first. Ask no questions, but trust to anything that may seem strange being explained in due course — as it will be. A single indiscretion on your part might raise suspicions which would be as dangerous as they would be unfounded. When you are asked to speak do so without the slightest fear, and speak your mind as openly as you have done to me.”
“You need have no fear for me,” replied Arnold. “I think I am sensible enough to be prudent, and I am quite sure that I am desperate enough to be fearless. Little worse can happen to me than the fate that I was contemplating last night.”
As he ceased speaking there was a knock at the door. It opened and the footman reappeared, saying in the most commonplace fashion —
“Mr. Smith will be happy to see you now, gentlemen. “Will you kindly walk this way?”
They followed him out into the hall, and then, somewhat to Arnold’s surprise, down the stairs at the back, which apparently led to the basement of the house.
The footman preceded them to the basement floor and halted before a door in a little passage that looked like the entrance to a coal cellar. On this he knocked in peculiar fashion with the knuckles of one hand, while with the other he pressed the button of an electric bell concealed under the paper on the wall. The bell sounded faintly as though some distance off, and as it rang the footman said abruptly to Colston —
“Das Wort ist Freiheit.”
Arnold knew German enough to know that this meant “The word is ‘Freedom,’” but why it should have been spoken in a foreign language mystified him not a little.
While he was thinking about this the door opened, as if by a released spring, and he saw before him a long, narrow passage, lit by four electric arcs, and closed at the other end by a door, guarded by a sentry armed with a magazine rifle.
He followed Colston down the passage, and when within a dozen feet of the sentry, he brought his rifle to the “ready,” and the following strange dialogue ensued between him and Colston —
“Zwei Freunde der Bruderschaft.”
“Por la libertad?”
“Für Freiheit über alles!”
The rifle grounded as the words were spoken, and the sentry stepped back to the wall of the passage.
At the same moment another bell rang beyond the door, and then the door itself opened as the other had done.
They passed through, and it closed instantly behind them, leaving them in total darkness.
Colston caught Arnold by the arm, and drew him towards him, saying as he did so —
“What do you think of our system of passwords?”
“Pretty hard to get through unless one knew them, I should think. Why the different languages?”
“To make assurance doubly sure every member of the Inner Circle must be conversant with four European languages. On these the changes are rung, and even I did not know what the two languages were to be to-night before I entered the house, and if I had asked for ‘Mr. Brown’ instead of ‘Mr. Smith,’ we should never have got beyond the drawing-room.
“When the footman told me in German that the word was ‘Freedom,’ I knew that I should have to answer the challenge of the sentry in German. I did not know that he would challenge in Spanish, and if I had not understood him, or had replied in any other language but German, he would have shot us both down without saying another word, and no one would ever have known what had become of us. You will be exempt from this condition, because you will always come with me. I am, in fact, responsible for you.”
“H’m, there doesn’t seem much chance of any one getting through on false pretences,” replied Arnold, with an irrepressible shudder. “Has any one ever tried?”
“Yes, once. The two gentlemen whose disappearance made the famous ‘Clapham Mystery’ of about twelve months ago. They were two of the smartest detectives in the French service, and the only two men who ever guessed the true nature of this house. They are buried under the floor on which you are standing at this moment.”
The words were spoken with a cruel inflexible coldness, which struck Arnold like a blast of frozen air. He shivered, and was about to reply when Colston caught him by the arm again, and said hurriedly —
“H’st! We are going in. Remember what I said, and don’t speak again till some one asks you to do so.”
As he spoke a door opened in the wall of the dark chamber in which they had been standing for the last few minutes, and a flood of soft light flowed in upon their dazzled eyes. At the same moment a man’s voice said from the room beyond in Russian —
“Who stands there?”
“Maurice Colston and the Master of the Air,” replied Colston in the same language.
“You are welcome,” was the reply, and then Colston, taking Arnold by the arm, led him into the room.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08