The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 7

A Few Small Changes

THE ensuing patrol ride, while commonplace and uneventful from the viewpoint of one accustomed to such jaunts, produced in the bosom of at least one of the prisoners emotions of the most painful and poignant nature. It was not for himself that Drayton suffered.

In the recent past he had been too thoroughly seared by the fires of undeserved disgrace to be hurt by so trifling a touch of flame as this. But that Viola Trenmore — Viola of the clear blue eyes and innocent white brow — that she should be forced to enter a common patrol wagon and be carried openly, like any pickpocket, through the city streets, was an intolerable agony in whose endurance he alternately flushed red with shame and paled with ineffective rage.

Trenmore the mighty also sat quiescent; but his was the quiescence of a white-hot anger, held in check for a worthy occasion and object. A pity to waste all that on mere underlings.

Having slowly ascended the short, steep incline where Market Street descended to the ferry, the patrol drove on with increased speed. A mile ahead, at the end of a long, straight, brilliantly lighted perspective, reared the huge bulk of City Hall. The immense building’s lower part was sketched in lines of light; its tower gleamed gray and pale against the black sky.

High upon that uttermost pinnacle there brooded a ghostly figure. It was the enormous statue of William Penn, set there to bless the children of his city, with outstretched, benevolent hand.

“Are you taking us to City Hall?” queried Drayton, turning to the officer on his left.

The man nodded. “Your offense is too serious, of course, for a branch temple.”

“A— what?”

“A branch,” said the man impatiently. “Headquarters will want to handle this; eh, sergeant?”

“They will, but no more conversation, please. Everything you say, my man, will be used against you.”

“One would think we were murderers,” reflected Drayton bitterly. Of what real offense could they have been guilty? Beneath surface absurdity he had begun to sense something secret and dangerous; something upon which his mind could as yet lay no hold, but which might be revealed to them at City Hall.

The night was fine; the hour eight-thirty by the clock in City Hall tower; the streets well filled. Most of the stores seemed to be open, and innumerable “movie” theaters, saloons and shooting galleries each drew in and expelled its quota of people, like so many lungs breathing prosperity for the owners.

There was a New York Bowery touch to the amusements and the crowds which Drayton did not remember as characteristic of Market Street. The thought, however, was passing and only half-formed.

The patrol clanged its way over the smooth pavement, attracting the usual number of stares and fortunately unheard comments, and presently swung off Market Street into Juniper. They had approached City Hall from the east. Since the patrol entrance was on the western side, it was necessary for them to pass half around the great building to reach it.

As they passed the Broad Street entrance, Drayton chanced to glance upward. Above the arch hung an emblem done in colored lights. It seemed to be a sword crossing a bell. Above the emblem itself glowed a number, consisting of four figures done in glowing red, white and blue — 2118.

The bell, thought Drayton, might represent the old Liberty Bell, Philadelphia’s most cherished possession; the numerals, however, conveyed to him no more significance than had those on the yellow buttons about which these police were so concerned.

Again turning, the patrol reached Market Street on the western side. Shortly afterward it rolled beneath the portico of City Hall.

The Public Buildings, to use the more ancient name for Philadelphia’s proud edifice of administration and justice, are built in the form of an irregular hollow square. The larger inner court may be entered by means of any one of four short tunnels, placed at the four cardinal points of the compass, and passing beneath the walls of the building proper.

As the three prisoners recalled it, that inner court was squarish in shape, paved with gray concrete, and of no very beautiful or imposing appearance. Several old cannon, relics of past wars, adorned the corners and stood at either side of the northward entrance. In the northeast corner there was a sort of pavilion, where various free civic exhibits were perennially on view.

As the center of the place was actually the intersection of those two main arteries of the city, Broad Street and Market, two continuous streams of pedestrians passed through there all day long.

Such was the interior of City Hall as the three prisoners remembered it and into which they now expected to be carried.

While yet in the short, dark entrance tunnel, however, the patrol halted. Rising from their seats, the officers hustled their prisoners from the wagon. A moment later and they all stood together, halted just within the rim of the inner arch.

And there the three received another of those wildly disturbing shocks, of which they had suffered so many in the past few hours.

Instead of a bare gray courtyard, open to the sky, there stood revealed an interior which might have been lifted bodily from an Arabian Nights entertainment.

Above, rounding to a level with the top of the fourth story, curved the golden hollow of a shallow but glorious dome. It seemed to have been carved from the yellow metal itself. The entire under surface was without a seam or trace of ornament, and was polished to almost blinding brilliance.

Striking upward upon it from invisible sources at the sides, light was reflected downward in a diffused glow, yellow as sunshine and giving a curious, almost shadowless appearance to the great chamber below. From the center of the dome, swung at the end of a twenty-foot chain, depended a huge bell. This bell had either been enameled smoothly, or was cast of some strange metal.

The color of it was a brilliant scarlet, so that it hung like an enormous exotic blossom. Some change or repairs to the thing seemed to be in progress for out to it from the southern wall extended narrow suspension bridge of rough planking, that terminated in a partial scaffolding about one side of the bell. No tongue or clapper was within the bell, nor was there any visible means of ringing it.

As for the floor beneath, it was of common gray concrete no longer. An exquisite pavement gleamed there, made of white porcelain or some similar substance, seamless and polished. In it the blood-red bell and certain colored panels of the golden walls were reflected as in a pool of milk. Near the northern wall a design appeared in this floor, set in as a mosaic of varicolored marbles.

Where had been the southern and eastern entrances, short flights of green marble stairs led up to carved golden doors, Gothic in style and all closed. The windowless walls, also of gold, were carved in heavy bas-relief. At regular intervals appeared panels, done in bright enamels, representing various weird figures resembling Chinese gods and heroes. The entire color scheme of red, gold, green and white had a peculiarly barbaric effect, itself entirely out of keeping with the formerly staid and dignified old Public Buildings.

Trenmore, as he gazed, forgot even his anger, and stared open-mouthed. They all had time to stare, for the sergeant, having pressed an electric buzzer near the door, stood at ease, obviously waiting for something or some one to answer the summons.

“And is this the place they have for a courthouse?” Trenmore murmured. “I’ve seen the Taj Mahal, and I’ve seen the inside of Westminster Abbey and St. Pauls, but never, never —”

“I can’t understand it!” broke in Drayton desperately. Amazement had given place to distress, as the enormity of the change came home to him. “Why, but this is incredible; it’s preposterous! I—”

“Here, here!” broke in the sergeant’s brusque voice. “None of that. What were you muttering there? Never mind. Be silent. Here comes a gentleman who will dispose of your case in quick order.”

At the south, a golden door had opened and a man was seen descending the short flight of green marble steps before it. Even at a distance, he seemed an impressive figure. Over a largely checked vest he wore an exquisitely cut frock coat. His trousers were of a delicate pearl-gray hue, and a pair of white spats surmounted immaculate patent-leather pumps. On his head gleamed a shining silk hat.

Had the gentleman but carried a flag, or Roman candle, he might creditably have adorned a political parade. A large bouquet would have completed his costume for a Bowery wedding. Amid the barbaric splendor which actually surrounded him, he seemed out of place, but happily unconscious of that fact.

Slowly and with dignity he advanced, while in the gleaming porcelain beneath an inverted, silk-hatted replica of him followed every step. At last his majestic progress ceased. He had halted some six paces from the group of prisoners and policemen. Without speaking, he surveyed them with a slow, long, insolent gaze.

He was a small man, handsome in a weak, dissipated way; old with the age of self-indulgence rather than years. His greenish-hazel eyes were close-set and cunning. He possessed a little, pointed mustache, and, in the opinion of the prisoners, an unjustifiably impertinent manner.

Out of the corner of his eye Drayton saw that his Irish friend was bristling anew. Well, if the outbreak had to come, he wished it would burst now and annihilate this silk-hatted monstrosity. No man could eye Viola in just the manner of this stranger and deserve continued life!

The high-hatted one deigned to speak.

“Well, Fifty-three,” he drawled languidly, addressing the sergeant, “and why have you brought them here? The chief is in attendance on His Supremity, and there’s no one else about who cares to be bothered. I myself came over to warn you that Penn Service is tired of having these trivial cases brought to the Temple. Lately you police chaps seem to consider the Temple a sort of petty court for pickpockets!”

Trenmore passed the sergeant in one stride.

“You miserable, insolent, little whippersnapper!” he thundered in a voice that was amazingly re-echoed from the golden dome above.

Instantly, as if sprung by a single trigger, the six policemen had hurled themselves upon him. High-hat skipped back nimbly out of the way. Drayton, seeing no alternative with honor, flung himself into the combat, and was promptly knocked out by the blow of a policeman’s club.

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