The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 11

Mine and Countermine

DREAMING or not, they all slept late the following morning, and would probably have slept much later had not Trenmore been roused shortly after nine by the house phone. After answering it, he awakened first Viola, then Drayton and Bertram.

“The foxy-faced gentleman — the one they name the Cleverest — he’ll be calling on us it seems. Will you dress yourselves? This is a business that no doubt concerns us all.”

Five minutes later, Terence emerged to find their tight-mouthed, cunning-eyed acquaintance awaiting him in their private parlor.

“’Tis a fine morning,” greeted the Irishman cheerfully. After the few hours’ rest, he had risen his usual optimistic, easy-going self, sure that A.D. 2118 was as good as any other year to live in. “Will you be seated, sir,” he suggested, “and maybe have a bit of breakfast with the four of us?”

“Thank you, no. I have already eaten and shall only detain you a few minutes. Did I understand you to say there are four of you? I was informed of only three.”

Trenmore’s bushy brows rose in childlike surprise.

“Four,” he corrected simply. “Myself and my sister, my friend Bobby Drayton and Mr. Arnold Bertram. Here they are all joining us now. Viola, my dear, this gentleman is Mr. Cleverest, and —”

The man checked him with upraised, deprecating hand.

“Not Mr. Cleverest I am only a Superlative as yet. But I am charmed to meet you-er-Viola. What a delightful title! May I ask what it signifies in your own city?”

Trenmore frowned and scratched his head.

“We shall never get anywhere at this rate!” he complained.

Drayton came to the rescue. “It might be better, sir, if we begin by making allowances for entirely different customs, here and where we came from. ‘Viola’ is a given name; it is proper to address the lady as Miss Trenmore. My own name is Robert Drayton; that gentleman is Mr. Terence Trenmore, and this is Mr. Arnold Bertram.”

Cleverest bowed, though still with a puzzled expression.

“I admit that to me your titles appear to have no meaning, and seem rather long for convenience. As you say, however, it may be best to leave explanations till later. Time presses. Forgive me for dragging you out of bed so early, but there is something you should know before Her Loveliness plunges you into difficulties. She is likely to be here at any moment. May I ask your attention?”

The man was making a patent effort to appear friendly, though after a somewhat condescending manner.

“You are very kind,” said Viola, speaking for the first time, “to put yourself out for us, Mr. — How would you wish us to call you, sir?”

“Just Cleverest — or Clever, to my friends,” he added with a smirk of his traplike mouth. “I believe my presence and errand are sufficient proof that I wish you for friends. It is well enough for you, Mr.-er-Trenmore, to enter the contest for Strongest. Lovely knows her own hand in that respect. There will be no question of failure. But for you, Miss Trenmore, it is a different pair of shoes. Have you any idea of the duties connected with the position of Superlatively Domestic?”

“We know nothing,” interpolated Trenmore, “about your system of government or your customs at all. ’Tis ignorant children we are, sir, in respect of all those matters.”

The man regarded him with narrow, doubting eyes.

“It seems incredible,” he murmured. “But your being here at all is incredible. However, I shall take you at your word. You must at least have observed that all our citizens wear a numbered mark of identification?”

“We have that,” conceded Trenmore grimly. “I also observe that you yourself wear a red one, that is blank of any number.”

“Oh, I am a Superlative.” The man smiled tolerantly. “We officials, like the Servants themselves, have our own distinctive insignia. But the commonalty, who have no titles and are known only as numbers, must conform to the law. Otherwise we should have anarchy, instead of ordered government. From what Mr. Mercy has told me, I gather that you considered the penalty for dereliction in this respect too severe. But our people need to be kept under with a strong hand, or they would turn on us like wolves. They have their opportunity to be of those who make the laws. Most of them, however, are far too lazy or vicious to compete.

“Now these competitions — the Civic Service Examinations, as they are properly named — are conducted on a perfectly fair basis. It is a system as democratic as it is natural and logical. The Superlatives are chosen from the people according to fitness and supreme merit. Thus, our legal fraternity is ruled by the Cleverest — my unworthy self. The Quickest has command of the police force. The Sweetest Singer conducts the civic music. So on through all the offices. Above all, under Penn Service, the Loveliest Woman rules, with a consort who may be at her option either the Cleverest or Strongest of men. The system is really ideal, and whoever originated it deserves the congratulations of all good Philadelphians. You, sir,” turning to Drayton, “if you pass as Swiftest, will have control of the City Messenger Service.”

“And the Most Domestic?” queried Viola, smiling in spite of herself at this odd distribution of offices.

“Ah, there we come to the rub. The Superlatively Domestic is nominally Superintendent of Scrubwomen and City Scavengers. In practice, she is expected to take a very active and personal part in the Temple housekeeping, while the administrative work really falls to the department of police. When I tell you that the office is at present unfilled, and that the latest incumbent died some time ago from overwork, you will agree with me that you, Miss Trenmore, are unfitted for such a post. Your social position would be intolerable. The other Superlatives would ignore you, while as for the common Numbers, I, for one, would never dream of permitting you to associate with that ill-bred herd!”

“And yet,” thought Drayton, “by his own account he must once have been only a Number himself!”

“Now, I,” continued the Superlative, “have a very different and more attractive proposal to submit.”

“And that is?”

Leaning forward, Cleverest’s eyes became more cunningly eager.

“I propose that you, Miss Trenmore, supplant the Loveliest herself! It is perfectly feasible. She only holds the position — I mean, there is no chance of your being defeated. Let the woman go to the pit! Her beauty is a thing outworn years ago. But you — Listen: she threw me over for you, Mr. Trenmore, because she is so sure of herself that she believes she cannot be supplanted. But she is like every other woman; her skill at politics is limited by her own self-esteem and vanity. She has dallied along for years, putting off her choice of a male consort for one excuse or another, but really because she likes her selfish independence and prefers to keep her very considerable power to herself.

“At one time she was a great favorite with His Supremity, and in consequence more or less deferred to by even the Service. At present, however, Mr. Virtue is the only real friend she has among the Servants, and he is growing rather tired of it. Without realizing it, she has for three years been walking on the very thin ice of His Supremity’s tolerance. It is true that six months ago she pledged herself to me, which shows that even she is not quite blind. But that was a contract which I, for my part, have never intended to fulfill. I had almost despaired, however, of discovering any really desirable candidate to take her place. Last night when I looked across the Pit I could hardly trust my eyes, Miss Trenmore. You seemed too good to be true. No, really you did! If she had thought about it at all, Lovely would have guessed then that her day was over. Your friends, Miss Trenmore, are my friends, and if you will follow my advice, you and I will end by having this city under our thumbs — like that!”

He made a crushing gesture, which somehow suggested an ultimate cruelty and tyranny beyond anything which Drayton, even, had encountered in his own proper century.

“The Penn Service will give you a free hand,” continued the man. “I can promise that as no other living man save one could do. I am — But never mind that now. Will you take me on as a friend?”

Viola was eying him curiously.

“And this Loveliest — you say she must take her choice in marriage of just those two, Strongest or Cleverest? But Terry will be one of those, and he is my brother!”

“I am not your brother,” said Cleverest insinuatingly.

Drayton sprang to his feet, and Trenmore, already standing, made a sudden forward motion. But to their surprise Viola herself waved them to be quiet and smiled very sweetly upon this foxy-faced and cold-blooded suitor.

“I think I may thank you, sir, and accept your alternative. If you are sure that I shall win in this strange competition. And now I am thinking, what do you do with the people who lose their high office? I suppose they go back among the Numbers again?

The man laughed. “That would never do. Penn Service could never allow that. Any one who fails at a competition, whether he is a candidate or an actual incumbent of office, goes into the pit!”

“Gee!” muttered Bertram succinctly. Then aloud, “Say, Mister, I shouldn’t think these here Super-what-you-may-call-’em jobs would ever get to be real popular!”

“We are not exactly crowded with applicants,” acknowledged the Superlative. “But do not allow yourselves to be troubled on that score. I have excellent reasons for prophesying your success. And now I had best leave you, before her worn-out Loveliness catches me here. She might just possibly upset the apple cart yet! May I rely on you?”

He looked from one to the other with a shifty, yet piercing gaze.

“I think you may.” Again Viola smiled upon him in a way that made Drayton writhe inwardly. What hidden side of this beautiful, innocent, girl-child’s nature was now being brought to the surface? Did she realize the implications of this thing to which she was so sweetly agreeing? Her brother stood glum and silent, eyes fixed on the floor. Cleverest, however, his ax having been produced and successfully ground, extended a thin, cold hand to Viola.

“It is refreshing,” he declared, “to find brains and the faculty of decision in conjunction with such beauty!”

Viola accepted the hand and the crude compliment with equal cordiality. “May we hope to see you soon again?”

“As early as circumstances allow. Don’t let Lovely suspect what’s in the wind. Just let her imagine that everything is drifting her way. I’ll look after you. Be sure of that!”

And the Superlative departed, leaving behind him a brewing storm which broke almost as quickly as the door closed on his retreating back.

“Viola,” growled her brother, and it said much for his anger that there was no endearment in his tone, “is it crazy you have gone? Or is it your intention to offer me that for a brother-in-law? Can you not see —”

“Now, just a minute, Terry. What is the title and position of the pleasant-faced gentleman who was here?”

“Cleverest, of course, the cunning-eyed rat! And he said he was at the head of the lawyers, bad luck to the lot of them — begging your sole pardon, Bobby, my boy!”

“Exactly. And is there no one of us who is better fitted for that same office than he that was just now here? Who is it that you’ve told me was the cleverest lad you ever met, Terry, and the prince of all lawyers?” She smiled mischievously at Drayton. “And why,” she continued, “should Loveliest be the only one to receive a surprise on Wednesday? Let Mr. Drayton try for the office he’s best trained for. I have faith that this Cleverest of theirs is not the man to win against him.”

“I might try-” began Drayton. Then as the full inference struck him he started, staring with incredulous eyes at Trenmore’s sister.

Though a slow flush mounted in her delicate cheeks, she returned his gaze unwaveringly.

“And why not, Mr. Drayton? Would you have me give myself to the present incumbent of that office? And I am asking of you only the protection betrothal would offer me until we may escape from these unkindly folk. Are you not my brother’s trusted friend, and may I not trust you also?”

“Before Heaven, you may, Miss Viola,” said Drayton simply, but with all the intensity of one taking a holy vow. “Terry, are you willing that I should attempt this thing?”

Trenmore nodded. “As a possible brother-in-law, Bobby, I do certainly prefer you to the other candidate. And by the powers, ’twill be worth all the troubles we’ve had to see that sly rat’s face when you oust him from his precious job!”

“If I oust him,” corrected Drayton.

“You’ll do it. You’ve the brains of three of him packed in that handsome skull of yours. But Bertram, man, wherever did you get that watch? ’Tis a beautiful timepiece and all, but never the one you had last night!”

“It is, though.” The most recent addition to their party turned away, at the same time sliding the watch in his pocket.

“It is not! Let me see it.” The Irishman held out his hand with a peremptory gesture.

Somewhat sullenly the little round man obeyed the command. It was, as Trenmore had said, a beautiful watch; a thin hunting-case model and engraved “J. S. to C. June 16, 2114.” The watch was attached to a plain fob of black silk, terminating in a ruby of remarkable size and brilliance, set in platinum. Trenmore looked up from his examination sternly.

“Who is ‘C’? Never mind. I can guess! I remember how you brushed against the man as you went to open the door for him to go out.”

“Well, and what if I did?” grumbled Bertram. “That Cleverest guy ain’t no real friend of yours, is he?”

To Drayton’s surprise, Viola laughed outright. “Mr. Burglar, you should change your habits once in two thousand years at least! Had you looked into that pit of theirs, as we did, you’d not be lifting things from a man who can send you there. Terry, how would it do to let Mr. Bertram try for the office of Quickest? He is that, by this piece of work, and on the police force he’d be —”

Her brother drowned the sentence in a great shout of mirth.

“You’ve the right of it, little sister! ’Tis the very post for him. Bertram, my round little lad, would that keep you out of mischief, do you think?”

Bertram grinned sheepishly. “It ain’t such a bad idea,” he conceded. “They tell me there’s lots of graft to be picked up on the force. And say, it would be some fun to be ordering a bunch of cops around! I’m on, Mr. Trenmore!”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00