The Four Just Men (1920)/PART 1/Chapter 11
THREE WHO DIED
A passenger leisurely selecting his compartment during the wait at Kensington opened a carriage door and staggered back coughing. A solicitous porter and an alarmed station official ran forward and pulled open the door, and the sickly odour of almonds pervaded the station. A little knot of passengers gathered and peered over one another’s shoulders, whilst the station inspector investigated. By and by came a doctor, and a stretcher, and a policeman from the street without. Together they lifted the huddled form of a dead man from the carriage and laid it on the platform.
“Did you find anything?” asked the policeman.
“A sovereign and a broken bottle,” was the reply.
The policeman fumbled in the dead man’s pockets.
“I don’t suppose he’ll have any papers to show who he is,” he said with knowledge. “Here’s a first-class ticket—it must be a case of suicide. Here’s a card——”
He turned it over and read it, and his face underwent a change.
He gave a few hurried instructions, then made his way to the nearest telegraph office.
Superintendent Falmouth, who had snatched a few hours’ sleep at the Downing Street house, rose with a troubled mind and an uneasy feeling that in spite of all his precautions the day would end disastrously. He was hardly dressed before the arrival of the assistant-commissioner was announced.
“I have your report, Falmouth,” was the official’s greeting; “you did perfectly right to release Marks—have you had news of him this morning?”
“H’m,” said the commissioner thoughtfully. “I wonder whether——” He did not finish his sentence. “Has it occurred to you that the Four may have realised their danger?”
The detective’s face showed surprise.
“Why, of course, sir.”
“Have you considered what their probable line of action will be?”
“N—no—unless it takes the form of an attempt to get out of the country.”
“Has it struck you that whilst this man Marks is looking for them, they are probably seeking him?”
“Bill is smart,” said the detective uneasily.
“So are they,” said the commissioner with an emphatic nod. “My advice is, get in touch with Marks and put two of your best men to watch him.”
“That shall be done at once,” replied Falmouth; “I am afraid that it is a precaution that should have been taken before.”
“I am going to see Sir Philip,” the commissioner went on, and he added with a dubious smile, “I shall be obliged to frighten him a little.”
“What is the idea?”
“We wish him to drop this Bill. Have you seen the morning papers?”
“They are unanimous that the Bill should be abandoned—they say because it is not sufficiently important to warrant the risk, that the country itself is divided on its merit; but as a matter of fact they are afraid of the consequence; and upon my soul I’m a little afraid too.”
He mounted the stairs, and was challenged at the landing by one of his subordinates. This was a system introduced after the episode of the disguised “detective.” The foreign minister was now in a state of siege. Nobody had to be trusted, a password had been initiated, and every precaution taken to ensure against a repetition of the previous mistake. His hand was raised to knock upon the panel of the study, when he felt his arm gripped. He turned to see Falmouth with white face and startled eyes.
“They’ve finished Billy,” said the detective breathlessly. “He has just been found in a railway carriage at Kensington.”
The Commissioner whistled.
“How was it done?” he asked.
Falmouth was the picture of haggard despair.
“Prussic acid gas,” he said bitterly; “they are scientific. Look you, sir, persuade this man to drop his damned Bill.” He pointed to the door of Sir Philip’s room. “We shall never save him. I have got the feeling in my bones that he is a doomed man.”
“Nonsense!” the commissioner answered sharply.
“You are growing nervous—you haven’t had enough sleep, Falmouth. That isn’t spoken like your real self—we must save him.”
He turned from the study and beckoned one of the officers who guarded the landing.
“Sergeant, tell Inspector Collins to send an emergency call throughout the area for reserves to gather immediately. I will put such a cordon round Ramon to-day,” he went on addressing Falmouth, “that no man shall reach him without the fear of being crushed to death.”
And within an hour there was witnessed in London a scene that has no parallel in the history of the Metropolis. From every district there came a small army of policemen. They arrived by train, by tramway car, by motor-bus, by every vehicle and method of traction that could be requisitioned or seized. They streamed from the stations, they poured through the thoroughfares, till London stood aghast at the realisation of the strength of her civic defences.
Whitehall was soon packed from end to end; St James’s Park was black with them. Automatically Whitehall, Charles Street, Birdcage Walk, and the eastern end of the Mall were barred to all traffic by solid phalanxes of mounted constables. St George’s Street was in the hands of the force, the roof of every house was occupied by a uniformed man. Not a house or room that overlooked in the slightest degree the Foreign Secretary’s residence but was subjected to a rigorous search. It was as though martial law had been proclaimed, and indeed two regiments of Guards were under arms the whole of the day ready for any emergency. In Sir Philip’s room the commissioner, backed by Falmouth, made his last appeal to the stubborn man whose life was threatened.
“I tell you, sir,” said the Commissioner earnestly, “we can do no more than we have done, and I am still afraid. These men affect me as would something supernatural. I have a horrible dread that for all our precautions we have left something out of our reckoning; that we are leaving unguarded some avenue which by their devilish ingenuity they may utilise. The death of this man Marks has unnerved me—the Four are ubiquitous as well as omnipotent. I beg of you, sir, for God’s sake, think well before you finally reject their terms. Is the passage of this Bill so absolutely necessary?”—he paused—”is it worth your life?” he asked with blunt directness; and the crudity of the question made Sir Philip wince.
He waited some time before he replied, and when he spoke his voice was low and firm.
“I shall not withdraw,” he said slowly, with a dull, dogged evenness of tone. “I shall not withdraw in any circumstance. “I have gone too far,” he went on, raising his hand to check Falmouth’s appeal. “I have got beyond fear, I have even got beyond resentment; it is now to me a question of justice. Am I right in introducing a law that will remove from this country colonies of dangerously intelligent criminals, who, whilst enjoying immunity from arrest, urge ignorant men forward to commit acts of violence and treason? If I am right, the Four Just Men are wrong. Or are they right: is this measure an unjust thing, an act of tyranny, a piece of barbarism dropped into the very centre of twentieth-century thought, an anachronism? If these men are right, then I am wrong. So it has come to this, that I have to satisfy my mind as to the standard of right and wrong that I must accept—and I accept my own.”
He met the wondering gaze of the officers with a calm, unflinching countenance.
“You were wise to take the precautions you have,” he resumed quietly. “I have been foolish to chafe under your protective care.”
“We must take even further precautions,” the Commissioner interrupted; “between six and half-past eight o’clock tonight we wish you to remain in your study, and under no circumstance to open the door to a single person—even to myself or Mr Falmouth. During that time you must keep your door locked.” He hesitated. “If you would rather have one of us with you——”
“No, no,” was the Minister’s quick reply; “after the impersonation of yesterday I would rather be alone.”
The commissioner nodded. “This room is anarchist-proof,” he said, waving his hand round the apartment. “During the night we have made a thorough inspection, examined the floors, the wall, the ceiling, and fixed steel shields to the shutters.”
He looked round the chamber with the scrutiny of a man to whom every visible object was familiar.
Then he noticed something new had been introduced. On the table stood a blue china bowl full of roses.
“This is new,” he said, bending his head to catch the fragrance of the beautiful flowers.
“Yes,” was Ramon’s careless reply, “they were sent from my house in Hereford this morning.”
The commissioner plucked a leaf from one of the blooms and rolled it between his fingers. “They look so real,” he said paradoxically, “that they might even be artificial.”
As he spoke he was conscious that he associated the roses in some way with—what?
He passed slowly down the noble marble stairway—a policeman stood on every other step—and gave his views to Falmouth.
“You cannot blame the old man for his decision; in fact, I admire him today more than I have ever done before. But”—there was a sudden solemnity in his voice—“I am afraid—I am afraid.”
Falmouth said nothing.
“The notebook tells nothing,” the commissioner continued, “save the route that Sir Philip might have taken had he been anxious to arrive at 44 Downing Street by back streets. The futility of the plan is almost alarming, for there is so much evidence of a strong subtle mind behind the seeming innocence of this list of streets that I am confident that we have not got hold of the true inwardness of its meaning.”
He passed into the streets and threaded his way between crowds of policemen. The extraordinary character of the precautions taken by the police had the natural result of keeping the general public ignorant of all that was happening in Downing Street. Reporters were prohibited within the magic circle, and newspapers, and particularly the evening newspapers, had to depend upon such information as was grudgingly offered by Scotland Yard. This was scanty, while their clues and theories, which were many, were various and wonderful.
The Megaphone, the newspaper that regarded itself as being the most directly interested in the doings of the Four Just Men, strained every nerve to obtain news of the latest developments. With the coming of the fatal day, excitement had reached an extraordinary pitch; every fresh edition of the evening newspapers was absorbed as soon as it reached the streets. There was little material to satisfy the appetite of a sensation-loving public, but such as there was, was given. Pictures of 44 Downing Street, portraits of the Minister, plans of the vicinity of the Foreign Office, with diagrams illustrating existing police precautions, stood out from columns of letterpress dealing, not for the first but for the dozenth time, with the careers of the Four as revealed by their crimes.
And with curiosity at its height, and all London, all England, the whole of the civilised world, talking of one thing and one thing only there came like a bombshell the news of Marks’ death.
Variously described as one of the detectives engaged in the case, as a foreign police officer, as Falmouth himself, the death of Marks grew from “Suicide in a Railway Carriage” to its real importance. Within an hour the story of tragedy, inaccurate in detail, true in substance, filled the columns of the Press. Mystery on mystery! Who was this ill-dressed man, what part was he playing in the great game, how came he by his death? asked the world instantly; and little by little, pieced together by ubiquitous newsmen, the story was made known. On top of this news came the great police march on Whitehall. Here was evidence of the serious view the authorities were taking.
“From my vantage place,” wrote Smith in the Megaphone, “I could see the length of Whitehall. It was the most wonderful spectacle that London has ever witnessed. I saw nothing but a great sea of black helmets reaching from one end of the broad thoroughfare to the other. Police! the whole vicinity was black with police; they thronged side streets, they crowded into the Park, they formed not a cordon, but a mass through which it was impossible to penetrate.”
For the commissioners of Police were leaving nothing to chance. If they were satisfied that cunning could be matched by cunning, craft by craft, stealth by counter stealth, they would have been content to defend their charge on conventional lines. But they were outmanœuvred. The stake was too high to depend upon strategy—this was a case that demanded brute force. It is difficult, writing so long after the event, to realise how the terror of the Four had so firmly fastened upon the finest police organisation in the world, to appreciate the panic that had come upon a body renowned for its clear-headedness.
The crowd that blocked the approaches to Whitehall soon began to grow as the news of Billy’s death circulated, and soon after two o’clock that afternoon, by order of the commissioner, Westminster Bridge was closed to all traffic, vehicular or passenger. The section of the Embankment that runs between Westminster and Hunger-ford Bridge was next swept by the police and cleared of curious pedestrians; Northumberland Avenue was barred, and before three o’clock there was no space within five hundred yards of the official residence of Sir Philip Ramon that was not held by a representative of the law. Members of Parliament on their way to the House were escorted by mounted men, and, taking on a reflected glory, were cheered by the crowd. All that afternoon a hundred thousand people waited patiently, seeing nothing, save, towering above the heads of a host of constabulary, the spires and towers of the Mother of Parliaments, or the blank faces of the buildings. In Trafalgar Square, along the Mall as far as the police would allow them, at the lower end of Victoria Street, eight deep along the Albert Embankment, growing in volume every hour. London waited, waited in patience, orderly, content to stare steadfastly at nothing, deriving no satisfaction for their weariness but the sense of being as near as it was humanly possible to be to the scene of a tragedy. A stranger arriving in London, bewildered by this gathering, asked for the cause. A man standing on the outskirts of the Embankment throng pointed across the river with the stem of his pipe.
“We’re waiting for a man to be murdered,” he said simply, as one who describes a familiar function.
About the edge of these throngs newspaper boys drove a steady trade. From hand to hand the pink sheets were passed over the heads of the crowd. Every half-hour brought a new edition, a new theory, a new description of the scene in which they themselves were playing an ineffectual if picturesque part. The clearing of the Thames Embankment produced an edition; the closing of Westminster Bridge brought another; the arrest of a foolish Socialist who sought to harangue the crowd in Trafalgar Square was worthy of another. Every incident of the day was faithfully recorded and industriously devoured.
All that afternoon they waited, telling and retelling the story of the Four, theorising, speculating, judging. And they spoke of the culmination as one speaks of a promised spectacle, watching the slow-moving hands of Big Ben ticking off the laggard minutes. “Only two more hours to wait,” they said at six o’clock, and that sentence, or rather the tone of pleasurable anticipation in which it was said, indicated the spirit of the mob. For a mob is a cruel thing, heartless and unpitying.
Seven o’clock boomed forth, and the angry hum of talk ceased. London watched in silence, and with a quicker beating heart, the last hour crawl round the great clock’s dial.
There had been a slight alteration in the arrangements at Downing Street, and it was after seven o’clock before Sir Philip, opening the door of his study, in which he had sat alone, beckoned the commissioner and Falmouth to approach. They walked towards him, stopping a few feet from where he stood.
The minister was pale, and there were lines on his face that had not been there before. But the hand that held the printed paper was steady and his face was sphinx-like.
“I am about to lock my door,” he said calmly. “I presume that the arrangements we have agreed upon will be carried out?”
“Yes, sir,” answered the commissioner quietly.
Sir Philip was about to speak, but he checked himself.
After a moment he spoke again.
“I have been a just man according to my lights,” he said half to himself. “Whatever happens I am satisfied that I am doing the right thing.—What is that?”
Through the corridor there came a faint roar.
“The people—they are cheering you,” said Falmouth, who just before had made a tour of inspection.
The minister’s lip curled in disdain and the familiar acid crept into his voice.
“They will be terribly disappointed if nothing happens,” he said bitterly. “The people! God save me from the people, their sympathy, their applause, their insufferable pity.”
He turned and pushed open the door of his study, slowly closed the heavy portal, and the two men heard the snick of the lock as he turned the key.
Falmouth looked at his watch.
“Forty minutes,” was his laconic comment.
In the dark stood the Four Men.
“It is nearly time,” said the voice of Manfred, and Thery shuffled forward and groped on the floor for something.
“Let me strike a match,” he grumbled in Spanish.
It was Poiccart’s sharp voice that arrested him; it was Gonsalez who stooped quickly and passed sensitive fingers over the floor.
He found one wire and placed it in Thery’s hand, then he reached up and found the other, and Thery deftly tied them together.
“Is it not time?” asked Thery, short of breath from his exertions.
Manfred was examining the illuminated dial of his watch. In silence they waited.
“It is time,” said Manfred solemnly, and Thery stretched out his hand.
Stretched out his hand—and groaned and collapsed.
The three heard the groan, felt rather than saw the swaying figure of the man, and heard the thud of him as he struck the floor.
“What has happened?” whispered a tremorless voice; it was Gonsalez.
Manfred was at Thery’s side fumbling at his shirt.
“Thery has bungled and paid the consequence,” he said in a hushed voice.
“We shall see, we shall see,” said Manfred, still with his fingers over the heart of the fallen man.
That forty minutes was the longest that Falmouth ever remembered spending. He had tried to pass it pleasantly by recounting some of the famous criminal cases in which he had played a leading rôle. But he found his tongue wandering after his mind. He grew incoherent, almost hysterical. The word had been passed round that there was to be no talking in tones above a whisper, and absolute silence reigned, save an occasional sibilant murmur as a necessary question was asked or answered.
Policemen were established in every room, on the roof, in the basement, in every corridor, and each man was armed. Falmouth looked round. He sat in the secretary’s office, having arranged for Hamilton to be at the House. Every door stood wide open, wedged back, so that no group of policemen should be out of sight of another.
“I cannot think what can happen,” he whispered for the twentieth time to his superior. “It is impossible for those fellows to keep their promise—absolutely impossible.”
“The question, to my mind, is whether they will keep their other promise,” was the commissioner’s reply, “whether having found that they have failed they will give up their attempt. One thing is certain,” he proceeded, “if Ramon comes out of this alive, his rotten Bill will pass without opposition.”
He looked at his watch. To be exact, he had held his watch in his hand since Sir Philip had entered his room.
“It wants five minutes.” He sighed anxiously.
He walked softly to the door of Sir Philip’s room and listened.
“I can hear nothing,” he said.
The next five minutes passed more slowly than any of the preceding.
“It is just on the hour,” said Falmouth in a strained voice. “We have——”
The distant chime of Big Ben boomed once.
“The hour!” he whispered, and both men listened.
“Two,” muttered Falmouth, counting the strokes.
“Five—what’s that?” he muttered quickly.
“I heard nothing,—yes, I heard something.” He sprang to the door and bent his head to the level of the keyhole. “What is that? What——”
Then from the room came a quick, sharp cry of pain, a crash—and silence.
“Quick—this way, men!” shouted Falmouth, and threw his weight against the door.
It did not yield a fraction of an inch.
Three burly constables flung themselves against the panels, and the door smashed open.
Falmouth and the commissioner ran into the room.
“My God!” cried Falmouth in horror.
Sprawled across the table at which he had been sitting was the figure of the foreign secretary.
The paraphernalia that littered his table had been thrown to the floor as in a struggle.
The commissioner stepped to the fallen man and raised him. One look at the face was sufficient.
“Dead!” he whispered hoarsely. He looked around—save for the police and the dead man the room was empty.