The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 15

The Justice of Penn Service

THE Supreme Servant had already seated himself on his throne of gold. His virtuous subordinates occupied lesser seats to his right and left, while the chairs on the pavement, at either side of the dais, were by now pretty well filled, mostly by the womenfolk of the Superlatives. The Numbers still waited in their silent, terrible patience. When Mr. Justice Supreme took his seat they had knelt and again risen, a feat only possible because it was done as one surging motion. Here and there a cry or groan, quickly stifled, gave testimony that, even so, the weaker folk must have suffered.

Between the candidates and the front ranks of the crowd ran the enclosing plush rope. Against it, on the outside, the police guard had now faced about toward the dais. None of the Numbers, save those immediately behind the police, could hope to see what went on before the dais. They could hear, however, and for that privilege they had stood five hours, silent.

Trenmore glanced at his watch. It pointed to eleven fifty-nine.

And now Courage, whom the Loveliest had designated as Mr. Justice Supreme’s right-hand man, arose and walked to the front of the platform. In his hands he held a document from which depended the red ribbons of an official seal. Without a preliminary word the Servant began reading:

“To all whom it may concern: Be it known by these presents that I, Justice Supreme and Spiritual Director of the City of Philadelphia under our dread lord, Penn, do hereby decree that upon the twenty-third day of September, in the year twenty-one hundred and eighteen, there shall be held in the sacred temple of Penn, beneath the Golden Dome of Justice, a series of examinations by which —”

The document proceeded to enumerate the various offices for which candidates might contest, related in detail the ghastly penalty of failure, and concluded abruptly with the signature and seal of Mr. Justice Supreme.

Mr. Courage — and Trenmore thought it must have required considerable courage to read a document of that nature, with its numerous references to “this democratic and blessed institution, the bulwark of your liberties!"— finished and resumed his seat. There was a moment’s pause. Then Pity took the place of Courage on the platform.

“The first examination will be held in the superlative quality of Kindness.”

A short, stocky, heavily built man emerged from behind the dais and took his place, standing fairly upon the eagle and dove symbol that covered the pit. Either his features or his title, in Trenmore’s opinion, must be misleading. Those thin, cruel lips, narrow-set eyes, and low, slightly protruding forehead indicated several possible qualities; but benevolence was hardly of the number. As agreeably as his facial limitations would permit, the gentleman smiled up toward Mr. Pity.

“Is there any other candidate for this office?” droned the latter in his high, singsong voice. “It entails the management and control, under Penn Service, of the Bureau of Penn Charities for Philadelphia and environing suburbs. Any candidate? There is no other candidate for Kindest! Present incumbent of the office may retire.”

Having reached this foregone conclusion, Pity returned Kindness’ smile, and the latter did retire, as far as the chairs at one side, where he sat down beside a very fleshy, be-diamonded and prosperous looking lady whom Viola remembered to be his wife.

Three other offices followed: the Wisest, appropriately superintendent of the Board of Education; the Bravest, chief of the Electrical Bureau; and Most Ingenious, this latter holding the curious office of providing entertainment for the Servants of Penn themselves. The holders of these positions came out one by one, stood upon the fatal symbol, and retired, their right to superlativism unquestioned.

“The fifth quality upon my list is Sweetness of Voice. This office carries with it the honor, duties, and emoluments of Director of Civic Music.”

Out to the eagle with assured tread waddled a mountain of flesh, crowned by a head of flowing black hair which Svengali might have envied, with a beard of astounding proportions, and somewhere between hair and beard a pair of small, piglike eyes.

“Is there any candidate for this office?” droned the bored voice of Mr. Pity. “Is there any other candidate for this —”

“Go on out there, boy,” muttered Trenmore, giving the Numbers’ candidate a friendly push. As they waited, he, like Viola, had conceived a strong sympathy for this solitary, youthful champion of the despised Numbers.

“Go on out, boy! Go out and give ’em hell!” was the Irishman’s ambiguous encouragement.

The candidate, however, cast him a grateful glance, sensing the spirit behind the words. As Mr. Pity uttered the third and last call for candidates, the young man advanced boldly into the arena. He was greeted by a low, thunderous mutter of applause, starting at the front ranks of the crowd and spreading backward in a resonant wave. Mr. Justice Supreme grasped the arms of his throne-like chair and half arose.

“Silence!” he snarled. “Silence, my children! You are committing sacrilege! Do you know the penalty?”

His answer was the silence he had commanded, and the faces in the front rows went very white. Their vantage point was uncomfortably close to the pit.

“Mr. Pity,” muttered the old man, sinking back, “will you kindly proceed?”

Bowing, the master of ceremonies turned once more to the contestants.

“Candidate, what is your number, place of residence, employment, and age? Answer in order, please, and speak clearly.” He held a fountain pen poised over the list in his hand.

“My number is 57403. My-my-I live at 709 Race Street.” The boy’s clear tenor, faltering at first, grew firmer. “I am a carpenter’s apprentice. I was nineteen years old in June.”

“Nineteen years and four months, odd.” Mr. Pity wrote it down forthwith. He capped his pen, replaced it in his vest pocket, and smiled down upon the young carpenter with such a friendly look that Viola’s heart gave a leap. Perhaps, after all, the boy was to have a fair chance.

“Very well, young man.” In Mr. Pity’s tone was a distinct note of encouragement and approval. “If you have the best voice in Philadelphia, now is the time to prove it. Sing your best. Don’t be afraid of hurting any one’s feelings.”

He smiled wickedly upon the fat man, who suddenly lost his composure and glanced downward rather anxiously at the deadly trap under his feet.

“As you know,” continued Pity, “you must sing without notes or accompaniment, as must your opponent. His Supremity is waiting. Penn, the august, will decide through him this free and democratic contest! Sing!”

There was a second’s pause. Then the boy, standing above Death and before the Throne of Justice, raised his clear young voice and sang. His was a ballad of the people, unwritten, passed from mouth to mouth. It redounded in rhymes of “love” and “dove,” “thee,” and “me.” It was sentiment — crass, vulgar, common sentiment — but the air had a certain redeeming birdlike lilt.

The tenor rose to its final high note, held it, and died away. No. 57403 bowed, stepped back one pace, and folded his arms. His face was flushed, alight, and his clear eyes looked fearlessly upward to his judge. No cheering followed, but a great sigh rose from the Numbers — a long, simultaneous exhalation, as if each man and woman had been holding breath throughout that last high, sweet note.

“Very good!” exclaimed Mr. Pity, again smiling. “There might be some criticism of your selection, but to give it is not in my province. And now, having heard this high-voiced young candidate, let us listen to his rival, our present esteemed musical director.” He bowed to the hairy mountain. “His Supremity is waiting. Penn, the benevolent All-Father, will through him decide this contest. Sing!”

Straightway an aperture appeared in the black beard. White teeth flashed. A burst of sound ascended to the golden dome and rebounded therefrom, assaulting the ears of the multitude beneath. It was a cannonade in bass; the roar of awakened hungry lions; the commingled tumult of a hundred phonographs all playing bass records with rasping needles — a song intensified past endurance by a gigantic sounding board, and also — alas! — hopelessly off key. With an inaudible cry Viola clapped her small hands over her music-loving ears. She saw Sergeant 53 grinning at her, saw his lips move, but he might as well have talked in a Kansas cyclone.

The roar crescendoed to a terrible disharmonic laugh. At last Viola recognized the music he was murdering. Of all selections he had chosen the “Serenade of Mephistopheles,” from Counoud’s “Faust,” a number demanding the most refined, sardonic, and genuinely superlative of voices for an endurable rendering.

Before he ended, Viola was sure she must fall upon the porcelain floor and writhe in anguish. Fortunately her powers of endurance were greater than she believed possible. The final burst of demoniac mirth died an awful death, and Viola’s endurance received its reward. Henceforth she could appreciate the bliss of silence.

Looking around, the girl half expected to see the audience flat, like a field of wheat after a wind storm; but though even the policemen wore a somewhat chastened appearance, they still stood. She glanced toward the dais. Mr. Pity, with a pained, faraway expression, was scribbling at his list. Mr. Justice Supreme opened his eyes with a start, like a man unexpectedly relieved from torment. He snarled incoherently and flapped a yellow hand at Mr. Pity. The bull of Basban stood his ground, his eyes blinking, his beard once more a dark, unbroken jungle. As the two Trenmores learned later, his complacence was not without foundation. His wife was a third cousin of Mr. Justice Supreme, and he himself was distantly connected with the family of Mr. Purity, of the dragging leg.

The master of ceremonies lifted up his own thin, piercing voice, like the piping of a reed after the bellow of thunders.

“Sir, His Supremity thanks you for your wonderful rendering of-er-sound.” He turned to the throne. “Mr. Justice Supreme, the contestants in all humility submit their respective merits to the high decision of our lord and father, Penn!”

The old dandy dragged himself to his feet. The audience was more than hushed; it wasn’t even breathing now. No. 57403 cast a pitying glance at the bearded mountain and fearlessly eyed his judge.

“Children of Penn,” began that snarling, senile voice, “in due legal and sacred form two contestants have striven before the father and protector of us all. One is young. He should have further perfected his attainments before presuming to air them in this sacred Hall. Yet his very youth excuses him, and Penn the All-Father is merciful. He can forgive even presumption. For the magnificent bass voice which we have just been privileged to — hm! — enjoy, in a rendering of the work of a great composer, so exalted above the paltry, sentimental balderdash of the other contestant — I-I— words fail me!”

Mr. Justice Supreme glared down at the contestant he was praising with eyes so malevolent that the mountain actually cringed — if a mountain can be said to cringe.

“The decision of Penn,” snarled Mr. Justice Supreme, “is that No. 57403 be dropped into the Pit of the Past. Mercy may extend to his immortal soul, but not to his presumptuous body! And the present musical director will continue in office.”

Dropping back on his throne with a gasp of exhaustion, he recovered sufficiently to rasp out: “Go! And Penn bless you!” to the victorious contestant.

Then, with the air of one who has got through a tedious but necessary duty, he let his ancient, villainous body relax and his bleared eyes close.

The mountain removed itself with suspicious alacrity. If the look in its porcine eyes went for anything, that musical director valued the “blessing of Penn” less than the permission to vacate an unexpectedly dangerous neighborhood.

But for poor No. 57403 no such retreat was possible. For an instant he seemed unable to believe his ears. He reddened and glanced uneasily about, as if to question others of this injustice, this incredible decision. Then the color faded, he drew himself to his slender height and bowed to the condemning judge with a dignity worthy of some classic young Greek.

Viola clutched at Terry’s arm in frantic appeal, but one mightier even than Terence Trenmore was present there — a giant crushed, betrayed, bound down in fetters of ignorance; but a giant none the less. A low growl was the first intimation that he had awakened. It was the voice of the Numbers; a warning protest against this blackest wrong. They surged forward. It was a little motion — half a step — but before it the police were crushed irresistibly back against the plush rope. Alarmed, they faced about with threatening clubs. The eyes of the enthroned figure on the dais snapped open.

“Silence!” he snarled. “Guard, open the pit!”

A crouching, striped form stole forth, leaned over the Dove, and the symbol dropped. But the young man did not drop with it as ordained. He had, quite instinctively and naturally, stepped backward from the danger.

“In with him!”

“No-no-no!” This time it was a roaring negative from hundreds of throats. Heedless now of sacrilege, the Numbers again surged. The plush rope stretched and broke. In an instant clubs were rising and falling desperately. The police might as well have attempted to dam Niagara with a toothpick. A few Numbers in the front ranks went down, it is true, but over their bodies came their fellows, pushed irresistibly by the mass behind.

The former enclosure disappeared. A series of piercing shrieks cut the uproar like knife stabs. They came from below, and Viola, shuddering in her brother’s arm, knew that some unfortunate had been pushed into the Pit of the Past.

Mr. Pity, finding himself confronted by a myriad of upturned, glaring eyes, retreated precipitately. But the dais was not stormed — not yet. Too many years of ground-in teaching, too thorough a dread of the awful power of Penn Service held them back.

“Go to it — go to it, boys!” yelled Trenmore, holding Viola in one arm and shaking his other fist excitedly. “Down with the murdering hounds! Scrape the platform like a dirty dish!”

His great voice merged indistinguishably with the swelling roar beneath the echoing dome. The police were down, or helplessly packed in. One more surge and the wave would have broken over the platform, performing the very feat suggested by Trenmore. But in that fatal instant of superstitious hesitance the blare of a bugle rang high above the din. It was followed by a rattling, crashing sound, mingled with shrieks, screams, and horrible, echoing sounds of pain and fear unutterable.

Turning its eyes from the dais, the mob knew that its moment of power was past. Each one of those colored panels in the walls, enameled with the figures of strange gods or demons, had slid to one side. Each had hidden the muzzle of a machine gun. Three of them were already in action, spitting curses that killed. There were women and even babies there, but what cared Penn Service for that? They were merely Numbers. And Numbers in revolt must be crushed — massacred if need be.

The growl of the giant was transmuted into frantic prayer. Those close to the dais flung themselves on their knees and stretched supplicating hands toward the throne they had all but overturned.

A moment Mr. Justice Supreme waited, while the guns still spat and swore. Then both his hands went up, palms outward. The crashing rattle ceased. Only the prayers and shrieks continued, increased, and echoed from the Dome of Justice to the wail of a great city, sacked and full of bloody wrongs.

Again the old man raised his yellow, skinny hands, this time with a silencing, pacifying gesture, and silence followed, spreading from before the dais as the first growl had spread. Even the wounded, so great is the power of life-long submission, ceased presently to shriek. Only the occasional wail of some infant, too young to recognize the supremacy of ruthless force, broke the ghastly quiet.

“My children,” began the High Priest of Evil, “you have sinned grievously.” The excitement had invigorated and ennobled his voice, so that it was no longer a snarl, but a dreadful threat. “You have been punished a little,” he cried. “Beware lest the great and tender patience of Penn be strained to breaking and you be punished past any power to remedy!”

He pointed solemnly upward at the Red Bell. A shivering groan swept the hall.

“You have broken the sacred silence. Beware that it be not broken by a voice more awful! Beware that it be not broken by a tongue at whose speaking you and your sons and your daughters, your women and your men, shall fall into the ignoble dust from which you sprang! Ungrateful Children of Penn, gather up your wounded and your dead. Depart from this temple which you have desecrated. Go home, and on your knees thank the old and faithful servant who intercedes for you — even you, the graceless children of a kind and merciful father! But first yield up the body of that young man whose vanity and presumption have caused your sorrow and his. Yield him, I say! Where is he?”

Mr. Justice Supreme actually tottered forward to the platform edge. Like a bloodthirsty old ferret, questing some particular tender rabbit, he scanned the faces nearest him. The crowd gave back. Here and there the head and blue shoulders of a policeman bobbed into view. But No. 57403 was not produced.

“Give him up!” yelled the old man. Dignity forgotten, he brandished his ebony cane like a sword. “Yield him up, you — whoever is concealing him! Or the guns shall talk to you!”

He was answered by a low mutter, then silence. The Numbers stood with set, dogged faces, staring back at their oppressor.

Trenmore gave Viola a sudden squeeze. “Powers o’ darkness!” he whispered exultantly. “The pups have the makings of men in them, after all! They’ll not give him up, their sweet-voiced lad. They’ll die by the guns, men, women, and babes, but —”

“Surrender him!” The high priest’s voice crackled ominously. “I’ll give you while I count three. One-two-th-ree! Oh, very well there!”

His right hand started slowly up, palm out. A second more and the guns would resume their devilish chatter. There came a swirl in the crowd, a struggle, and out into the little open area by the pit sprang the singer, disheveled but triumphant.

“Don’t shoot!” he cried. “Don’t shoot! Friends, I thank you for everything — what you wished for me, what you have given, and what you would give if I would let you! But you,” he turned upon Justice Supreme with the look and face of a deathless young god, unfearing and scornful, “you I do not even hate! You poor wreck of what was one time a man, you are already dead and damned in the rottenness of your vile body and viler spirit! If you are the servant of Penn, then I am his enemy. I go to tell him so!”

And before any man could stir a hand the boy had dived, head foremost, into the pit.

A moaning sigh rose, echoed, and fell. Those nearest the pit turned aside and covered their ears with their hands; but the shriek they dreaded never came. Presently one of the pit guard, lurking out of sight behind the dais, sneaked cautiously around, crept to the pit, and looked down. Then he raised his eyes to the purple, raging face of Mr. Justice Supreme. The high priest made a gesture with his cane. A moment later and the eagle and dove symbol swung into place again.

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