As soon as Arnold’s eyes got accustomed to the light, he saw that he was in a large, lofty room with panelled walls adorned with a number of fine paintings. As he looked at these his gaze was fascinated by them, even more than by the strange company which was assembled round the long table that occupied the middle of the room.
Though they were all manifestly the products of the highest form of art, their subjects were dreary and repulsive beyond description. There was a horrible realism about them which reminded him irresistibly of the awful collection of pictorial horrors in the Musée Wiertz, in Brussels — those works of the brilliant but unhappy genius who was driven into insanity by the sheer exuberance of his own morbid imagination.
Here was a long line of men and women in chains staggering across a wilderness of snow that melted away into the horizon without a break. Beside them rode Cossacks armed with long whips that they used on men and women alike when their fainting limbs gave way beneath them, and they were like to fall by the wayside to seek the welcome rest that only death could give them.
There was a picture of a woman naked to the waist, and tied up to a triangle in a prison yard, being flogged by a soldier with willow wands, while a group of officers stood by, apparently greatly interested in the performance. Another painting showed a poor wretch being knouted to death in the market-place of a Russian town, and yet another showed a young and beautiful woman in a prison cell with her face distorted by the horrible leer of madness, and her little white hands clawing nervously at her long dishevelled hair.
Arnold stood for several minutes fascinated by the hideous realism of the pictures, and burning with rage and shame at the thought that they were all too terribly true to life, when he was startled out of his reverie by the same voice that had called them from the dark room saying to him in English —
“Well, Richard Arnold, what do you think of our little picture gallery? The paintings are good in themselves, but it may make them more interesting to you if you know that they are all faithful reproductions of scenes that have really taken place within the limits of the so-called civilised and Christian world. There are some here in this room now who have suffered the torments depicted on those canvases, and who could tell of worse horrors than even they portray. We should like to know what you think of our paintings?”
Arnold glanced towards the table in search of Colston, but he had vanished. Around the long table sat fourteen masked and shrouded forms that were absolutely indistinguishable one from the other. He could not even tell whether they were men or women, so closely were their forms and faces concealed. Seeing that he was left to his own discretion, he laid the case containing the model, which he had so far kept under his arm, down on the floor, and, facing the strange assembly, said as steadily as he could —
“My own reading tells me that they are only too true to the dreadful reality. I think that the civilised and Christian Society which permits such crimes to be committed against humanity, when it has the power to stop them by force of arms, is neither truly civilised nor truly Christian.”
“And would you stop them if you could?”
“Yes, if it cost the lives of millions to do it! They would be better spent than the thirty million lives that were lost last century over a few bits of territory.”
“That is true, and augurs well for our future agreement. Be kind enough to come to the table and take a seat.”
The masked man who spoke was sitting in the chair at the foot of the table, and as he said this one of those sitting at the side got up and motioned to Arnold to take his place. As soon as he had done so the speaker continued —
“We are glad to see that your sentiments are so far in accord with our own, for that fact will make our negotiations all the easier.
“As you are aware, you are now in the Inner Circle of the Terrorists. Yonder empty chair at the head of the table is that of our Chief, who, though not with us in person, is ever present as a guiding influence in our councils. We act as he directs, and it was from him that we received news of you and your marvellous invention. It is also by his direction that you have been invited here to-night with an object that you are already aware of.
“I see from your face that you are about to ask how this can be, seeing that you have never confided your secret to any one until last night. It will be useless to ask me, for I myself do not know. We who sit here simply execute the Master’s will. We ask no questions, and therefore we can answer none concerning him.”
“I have none to ask,” said Arnold, seeing that the speaker paused as though expecting him to say something. “I came at the invitation of one of your Brotherhood to lay certain terms before you, for you to accept or reject as seems good to you. How you got to know of me and my invention is, after all, a matter of indifference to me. With your perfect system of espionage you might well find out more secret things than that.”
“Quite so,” was the reply. “And the question that we have to settle with you is how far you will consent to assist the work of the Brotherhood with this invention of yours, and on what conditions you will do so.”
“I must first know as exactly as possible what the work of the Brotherhood is.”
“Under the circumstances there is no objection to your knowing that. In the first place, that which is known to the outside world as the Terror is an international secret society underlying and directing the operations of the various bodies known as Nihilists, Anarchists, Socialists — in fact, all those organisations which have for their object the reform or destruction, by peaceful or violent means, of Society as it is at present constituted.
“Its influence reaches beyond these into the various trade unions and political clubs, the moving spirits of which are all members of our Outer Circle. On the other side of Society we have agents and adherents in all the Courts of Europe, all the diplomatic bodies, and all the parliamentary assemblies throughout the world.
“We believe that Society as at present constituted is hopeless for any good thing. All kinds of nameless brutalities are practised without reproof in the names of law and order, and commercial economics. On one side human life is a splendid fabric of cloth of gold embroidered with priceless gems, and on the other it is a mass of filthy, festering rags, swarming with vermin.
“We think that such a Society — a Society which permits considerably more than the half of humanity to be sunk in poverty and misery while a very small portion of it fools away its life in perfectly ridiculous luxury — does not deserve to exist, and ought to be destroyed.
“We also know that sooner or later it will destroy itself, as every similar Society has done before it. For nearly forty years there has now been almost perfect peace in Europe. At the same time, over twenty millions of men are standing ready to take the field in a week.
“War — universal war that will shake the world to its foundations — is only a matter of a little more delay and a few diplomatic hitches. Russia and England are within rifleshot of each other in Afghanistan, and France and Germany are flinging defiances at each other across the Rhine.
“Some one must soon fire the shot that will set the world in a blaze, and meanwhile the toilers of the earth are weary of these dreadful military and naval burdens, and would care very little if the inevitable happened tomorrow.
“It is in the power of the Terrorists to delay or precipitate that war to a certain extent. Hitherto all our efforts have been devoted to the preservation of peace, and many of the so-called outrages which have taken place in different parts of Europe, and especially in Russia, during the last few years, have been accomplished simply for the purpose of forcing the attention of the administrations to internal affairs for the time, and so putting off what would have led to a declaration of war.
“This policy has not been dictated by any hope of avoiding war altogether, for that would have been sheer insanity. We have simply delayed war as long as possible, because we have not felt that we have been strong enough to turn the tide of battle at the right moment in favour of the oppressed ones of the earth and against their oppressors.
“But this invention of yours puts a completely different aspect on the European situation. Armed with such a tremendous engine of destruction as a navigable air-ship must necessarily be, when used in conjunction with the explosives already at our disposal, we could make war impossible to our enemies by bringing into the field a force with which no army or fleet could contend without the certainty of destruction. By these means we should ultimately compel peace and enforce a general disarmament on land and sea.
“The vast majority of those who make the wealth of the world are sick of seeing that wealth wasted in the destruction of human life, and the ruin of peaceful industries. As soon, therefore, as we are in a position to dictate terms under such tremendous penalties, all the innumerable organisations with which we are in touch all over the world will rise in arms and enforce them at all costs.
“Of course, it goes without saying that the powers that are now enthroned in the high places of the world will fight bitterly and desperately to retain the rule that they have held for so long, but in the end we shall be victorious, and then on the ruins of this civilisation a new and a better shall arise.
“That is a rough, brief outline of the policy of the Brotherhood, which we are going to ask you to-night to join. Of course, in the eyes of the world we are only a set of fiends, whose sole object is the destruction of Society, and the inauguration of a state of universal anarchy. That, however, has no concern for us. What is called popular opinion is merely manufactured by the Press according to order, and does not count in serious concerns. What I have described to you are the true objects of the Brotherhood; and now it remains for you to say, yes or no, whether you will devote yourself and your invention to carrying them out or not.”
For two or three minutes after the masked spokesman of the Inner Circle had ceased speaking, there was absolute silence in the room. The calmly spoken words which deliberately sketched out the ruin of a civilisation and the establishment of a new order of things made a deep impression on Arnold’s mind. He saw clearly that he was standing at the parting of the ways, and facing the most tremendous crisis that could occur in the life of a human being.
It was only natural that he should look back, as he did, to the life from which a single step would now part him for ever, without the possibility of going back. He knew that if he once put his hands to the plough, and looked back, death, swift and inevitable, would be the penalty of his wavering. This, however, he had already weighed and decided.
Most of what he had heard had found an echo in his own convictions. Moreover, the life that he had left had no charms for him, while to be one of the chief factors in a world-revolution was a destiny worthy both of himself and his invention. So the fatal resolution was taken, and he spoke the words that bound him for ever to the Brotherhood.
“As I have already told Mr. Colston,” he began by saying, “I will join and faithfully serve the Brotherhood if the conditions that I feel compelled to make are granted”—
“We know them already,” interrupted the spokesman, “and they are freely granted. Indeed, you can hardly fail to see that we are trusting you to a far greater extent than it is possible for us to make you trust us, unless you choose to do so. The air-ship once built and afloat under your command, the game of war would to a great extent be in your own hands. True, you would not survive treachery very long; but, on the other hand, if it became necessary to kill you, the air-ship would be useless, that is, if you took your secret of the motive power with you into the next world.”
“As I undoubtedly should,” added Arnold quietly.
“We have no doubt that you would,” was the equally quiet rejoinder. “And now I will read to you the oath of membership that you will be required to sign. Even when you have heard it, if you feel any hesitation in subscribing to it, there will still be time to withdraw, for we tolerate no unwilling or half-hearted recruits.”
Arnold bowed his acquiescence, and the spokesman took a piece of paper from the table and read aloud —
“I, Richard Arnold, sign this paper in the full knowledge that in doing so I devote myself absolutely for the rest of my life to the service of the Brotherhood of Freedom, known to the world as the Terrorists. As long as I live its ends shall be my ends, and no human considerations shall weigh with me where those ends are concerned. I will take life without mercy, and yield my own without hesitation at its bidding. I will break all other laws to obey those which it obeys, and if I disobey these I shall expect death as the just penalty of my perjury.”
As he finished reading the oath, he handed the paper to Arnold, saying as he did so —
“There are no theatrical formalities to be gone through. Simply sign the paper and give it back to me, or else tear it up and go in peace.”
Arnold read it through slowly, and then glanced round the table. He saw the eyes of the silent figures sitting about him shining at him through the holes in their masks. He laid the paper down on the table in front of him, dipped a pen in an inkstand that stood near, and signed the oath in a firm, unfaltering hand. Then — committed for ever, for good or evil, to the new life that he had adopted — he gave the paper back again.
The President took it and read it, and then passed it to the mask on his right hand. It went from one to the other round the table, each one reading it before passing it on, until it got back to the President. When it reached him he rose from his seat, and, going to the fireplace, dropped it into the flames, and watched it until it was consumed to ashes. Then, crossing the room to where Arnold was sitting, he removed his mask with one hand, and held the other out to him in greeting, saying as he did so —
“Welcome to the Brotherhood! Thrice welcome! for your coming has brought the day of redemption nearer!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08