The Four Just Men (1920)/PART 1/Chapter 5
When an advertisement appeared in the Newspaper Proprietor announcing that there was—
For Sale: An old-established zinco-engraver’s business with a splendid new plant and a stock of chemicals.
Everybody in the printing world said “That’s Etherington’s.” To the uninitiated a photo-engraver’s is a place of buzzing saws, and lead shavings, and noisy lathes, and big bright arc lamps.
To the initiated a photo-engraver’s is a place where works of art are reproduced by photography on zinc plates, and consequently used for printing purposes. To the very knowing people of the printing world, Etherington’s was the worst of its kind, producing the least presentable of pictures at a price slightly above the average. Etherington’s had been in the market (by order of the trustees) for three months, but partly owing to its remoteness from Fleet Street (it was in Carnaby Street), and partly to the dilapidated condition of the machinery (which shows that even an official receiver has no moral sense when he starts advertising), there had been no bids.
Manfred, who interviewed the trustee in Carey Street, learnt that the business could be either leased or purchased; that immediate possession in either circumstances was to be had; that there were premises at the top of the house which had served as a dwelling-place to generations of caretakers, and that a banker’s reference was all that was necessary in the way of guarantee.
“Rather a crank,” said the trustee at a meeting of creditors, “thinks that he is going to make a fortune turning out photogravures of Murillo at a price within reach of the inartistic. He tells me that he is forming a small company to carry on the business, and that so soon as it is formed he will buy the plant outright.”
And sure enough that very day Thomas Brown, merchant; Arthur W. Knight, gentleman; James Selkirk, artist; Andrew Cohen, financial agent; and James Leech, artist, wrote to the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies, asking to be formed into a company, limited by shares, with the object of carrying on business as photo-engravers, with which object they had severally subscribed for the shares set against their names.
(In parenthesis, Manfred was a great artist.)
And five days before the second reading of the Aliens Extradition Act, the company had entered into occupation of their new premises in preparation to starting business.
“Years ago, when I first came to London,” said Manfred, “I learned the easiest way to conceal one’s identity was to disguise oneself as a public enemy. There’s a wealth of respectability behind the word ‘limited’, and the pomp and circumstance of a company directorship diverts suspicion, even as it attracts attention.”
Gonsalez printed a neat notice to the effect that the Fine Arts Reproduction Syndicate would commence business on October 1, and a further neat label that ‘no hands were wanted’, and a further terse announcement that travellers and others could only be seen by appointment, and that all letters must be addressed to the Manager.
It was a plain-fronted shop, with a deep basement crowded with the dilapidated plant left by the liquidated engraver. The ground floor had been used as offices, and neglected furniture and grimy files predominated. There were pigeon-holes filled with old plates, pigeon-holes filled with dusty invoices, pigeon-holes in which all the débris that is accumulated in an office by a clerk with salary in arrear was deposited.
The first floor had been a workshop, the second had been a store, and the third and most interesting floor of all was that on which were the huge cameras and the powerful arc lamps that were so necessary an adjunct to the business. In the rear of the house on this floor were the three small rooms that had served the purpose of the bygone caretaker.
In one of these, two days after the occupation, sat the four men of Cadiz.
Autumn had come early in the year, a cold driving rain was falling outside, and the fire that burnt in the Georgian grate gave the chamber an air of comfort. This room alone had been cleared of litter, the best furniture of the establishment had been introduced, and on the ink-stained writing-table that filled the centre of the apartment stood the remains of a fairly luxurious lunch.
Gonsalez was reading a small red book, and it may be remarked that he wore gold-rimmed spectacles; Poiccart was sketching at a corner of the table, and Manfred was smoking a long thin cigar and studying a manufacturing chemist’s price list. Thery (or as some prefer to call him Saimont) alone did nothing, sitting a brooding heap before the fire, twiddling his fingers, and staring absently at the leaping little flames in the grate.
Conversation was carried on spasmodically, as between men whose minds were occupied by different thoughts. Thery concentrated the attentions of the three by speaking to the point. Turning from his study of the fire with a sudden impulse he asked:
“How much longer am I to be kept here?”
Poiccart looked up from his drawing and remarked:
“That is the third time he has asked today.”
“Speak Spanish!” cried Thery passionately. “I am tired of this new language. I cannot understand it, any more than I can understand you.”
“You will wait till it is finished,” said Manfred, in the staccato patois of Andalusia; “we have told you that.”
Thery growled and turned his face to the grate.
“I am tired of this life,” he said sullenly. “I want to walk about without a guard—I want to go back to Jerez, where I was a free man. I am sorry I came away.”
“So am I,” said Manfred quietly; “not very sorry though—I hope for your sake I shall not be.”
“Who are you?” burst forth Thery, after a momentary silence. “What are you? Why do you wish to kill? Are you anarchists? What money do you make out of this? I want to know.”
Neither Poiccart nor Gonsalez nor Manfred showed any resentment at the peremptory demand of their recruit. Gonsalez’s clean-shaven, sharp-pointed face twitched with pleasurable excitement, and his cold blue eyes narrowed.
“Perfect! perfect!” he murmured, watching the other man’s face: “pointed nose, small forehead and—articulorum se ipsos torquentium sonus; gemitus, mugitusque parum explanatis——” The physiognomist might have continued Seneca’s picture of the Angry Man, but Thery sprang to his feet and glowered at the three.
“Who are you?” he asked slowly. “How do I know that you are not to get money for this? I want to know why you keep me a prisoner, why you will not let me see the newspapers, why you never allow me to walk alone in the street, or speak to somebody who knows my language? You are not from Spain, nor you, nor you—your Spanish is, yes— but you are not of the country I know. You want me to kill—but you will not say how——”
Manfred rose and laid his hand on the other’s shoulder.
“Senõr,” he said—and there was nothing but kindness in his eyes—“restrain your impatience, I beg of you. I again assure you that we do not kill for gain. These two gentlemen whom you see have each fortunes exceeding six million pesetas, and I am even richer; we kill and we will kill because we are each sufferers through acts of injustice, for which the law gave us no remedy. If—if—” he hesitated, still keeping his grey eyes fixed unflinchingly on the Spaniard. Then he resumed gently: “If we kill you it will be the first act of the kind.”
Thery was on his feet, white and snarling, with his back to the wall; a wolf at bay, looking from one to the other with fierce suspicion.
“Me—me!” he breathed, “kill me?”
Neither of the three men moved save Manfred, who dropped his outstretched hand to his side.
“Yes, you.” He nodded as he spoke. “It would be new work for us, for we have never slain except for justice—and to kill you would be an unjust thing.”
Poiccart looked at Thery pityingly.
“That is why we chose you,” said Poiccart, “because there was always a fear of betrayal, and we thought—it had better be you.”
“Understand,” resumed Manfred calmly, “that not a hair of your head will be harmed if you are faithful—that you will receive a reward that will enable you to live—remember the girl at Jerez.”
Thery sat down again with a shrug of indifference but his hands were trembling as he struck a match to light his cigarette.
“We will give you more freedom—you shall go out every day. In a few days we shall all return to Spain. They called you the silent man in the prison at Granada—we shall believe that you will remain so.”
After this the conversation became Greek to the Spaniard, for the men spoke in English.
“He gives very little trouble,” said Gonsalez. “Now that we have dressed him like an Englishman, he does not attract attention. He doesn’t like shaving every day; but it is necessary, and luckily he is fair. I do not allow him to speak in the street, and this tries his temper somewhat.”
Manfred turned the talk into a more serious channel.
“I shall send two more warnings, and one of those must be delivered in his very stronghold. He is a brave man.”
“What of Garcia?” asked Poiccart.
“I saw him on Sunday night—a fine old man, fiery, and oratorical. I sat at the back of a little hall whilst he pleaded eloquently in French for the rights of man. He was a Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Mirabeau, a broad- viewed Bright, and the audience was mostly composed of Cockney youths, who had come that they might boast they had stood in the temple of Anarchism.”
Poiccart tapped the table impatiently.
“Why is it, George, that an element of bathos comes into all these things?”
“You remember Anderson? When we had gagged him and bound him to the chair, and had told him why he had to die—when there were only the pleading eyes of the condemned, and the half-dark room with a flickering lamp, and you and Leon and poor Clarice masked and silent, and I had just sentenced him to death—you remember how there crept into the room the scent of frying onions from the kitchen below.”
“I, too, remember,” said Leon, “the case of the regicide.” Poiccart made a motion of agreement.
“You mean the corsets,” he said, and the two nodded and laughed.
“There will always be bathos,” said Manfred; “poor Garcia with a nation’s destinies in his hand, an amusement for shop-girls—tragedy and the scent of onions—a rapier thrust and the whalebone of corsets—it is inseparable.”
And all the time Thery smoked cigarettes, looking into the fire with his head on his hands.
“Going back to this matter we have on our hands,” said Gonsalez. “I suppose that there is nothing more to be done till—the day?”
“There are our fine art reproductions.”
“And after,” persisted Poiccart.
“There is a case in Holland, Hermannus van der Byl, to wit; but it will be simple, and there will be no necessity to warn.”
Poiccart’s face was grave.
“I am glad you have suggested van der Byl, he should have been dealt with before—Hook of Holland or Flushing?”
“If we have time, the Hook by all means.”
“I will see to him,” said Gonsalez easily; “we will go overland to Jerez —where the girl is,” he added laughingly.
The object of their discussion finished his tenth cigarette and sat up in his chair with a grunt.
“I forgot to tell you,” Leon went on, “that to-day, when we were taking our exercise walk, Thery was considerably interested in the posters he saw everywhere, and was particularly curious to know why so many people were reading them. I had to find a lie on the spur of the minute, and I hate lying”—Gonsalez was perfectly sincere. “I invented a story about racing or lotteries or something of the sort, and he was satisfied.”
Thery had caught his name in spite of its anglicised pronunciation, and looked inquiry.
“We will leave you to amuse our friend,” said Manfred, rising. “Poiccart and I have a few experiments to make.”
The two left the room, traversed the narrow passage, and paused before a small door at the end. A larger door on the right, padlocked and barred, led to the studio. Drawing a small key from his pocket, Manfred opened the door, and, stepping into the room, switched on a light that shone dimly through a dust-covered bulb. There had been some attempt at restoring order from the chaos. Two shelves had been cleared of rubbish, and on these stood rows of bright little phials, each bearing a number. A rough table had been pushed against the wall beneath the shelves, and on the green baize with which the table was covered was a litter of graduated measures, test tubes, condensers, delicate scales, and two queer-shaped glass machines, not unlike gas generators. Poiccart pulled a chair to the table, and gingerly lifted a metal cup that stood in a dish of water. Manfred, looking over his shoulder, remarked on the consistency of the liquid that half filled the vessel, and Poiccart bent his head, acknowledging the remark as though it were a compliment.
“Yes,” he said, satisfied, “it is a complete success, the formula is quite right. Some day we may want to use this.”
He replaced the cup in its bath, and reaching beneath the table, produced from a pail a handful of ice-dust, with which he carefully surrounded the receptacle.
“I regard that as theof explosives,” he said, and took down a small phial from the shelf, lifted the stopper with the crook of his little finger, and poured a few drops of a whitish liquid into the metal cup.
“That neutralises the elements,” said Poiccart, and gave a sigh of relief. “I am not a nervous man, but the present is the first comfortable moment I have had for two days.”
“It makes an abominable smell,” said Manfred, with his handkerchief to his nose.
A thin smoke was rising from the cup.
“I never notice those things,” Poiccart replied, dipping a thin glass rod into the mess. He lifted the rod, and watched reddish drops dripping from the end.
“That’s all right,” he said.
“And it is an explosive no more?” asked Manfred.
“It is as harmless as a cup of chocolate.”
Poiccart wiped the rod on a rag, replaced the phial, and turned to his companion.
“And now?” he asked.
Manfred made no answer, but unlocked an old-fashioned safe that stood in the corner of the room. From this he removed a box of polished wood. He opened the box and disclosed the contents.
“If Thery is the good workman he says he is, here is the bait that shall lure Sir Philip Ramon to his death,” he said.
Poiccart looked. “Very ingenious,” was his only comment; then—“Does Thery know, quite know, the stir it has created?”
Manfred closed the lid and replaced the box before he replied.
“Does Thery know that he is the fourth Just Man?” he asked; then slowly, “I think not—and it is as well as he does not know; a thousand pounds is roughly thirty-three thousand pesetas, and there is the free pardon—and the girl at Jerez,” he added thoughtfully.
A brilliant idea came to Smith, the reporter, and he carried it to the chief.
“Not bad,” said the editor, which meant that the idea was really very good—”not bad at all.”
“It occurred to me,” said the gratified reporter, “that one or two of the four might be foreigners who don’t understand a word of English.”
“Quite so,” said the chief; “thank you for the suggestion. I’ll have it done tonight.”
Which dialogue accounts for the fact that the next morning the Megaphone appeared with the police notice in French, Italian, German—and Spanish.