The Four Just Men (1920)/PART 1/Chapter 9
Final warning was brief and to the point:
“We allow you until tomorrow evening to reconsider your position in the matter of the Aliens Extradition Bill. If by six o’clock no announcement is made in the afternoon newspapers of your withdrawing this measure we shall have no other course to pursue but to fulfil our promise. You will die at eight in the evening. We append for your enlightenment a concise table of the secret police arrangements made for your safety tomorrow. Farewell.
Four Just Men
Sir Philip read this over without a tremor. He read too the slip of paper on which was written, in the strange foreign hand, the details that the police had not dared to put into writing.
“There is a leakage somewhere,” he said, and the two anxious watchers saw that the face of their charge was grey and drawn.
“These details were known only to four,” said the detective quietly, “and I’ll stake my life that it was neither the Commissioner nor myself.”
“Nor I!” said the private secretary emphatically.
Sir Philip shrugged his shoulders with a weary laugh.
“What does it matter?—they know,” he exclaimed; “by what uncanny method they learnt the secret I neither know nor care. The question is, can I be adequately protected to-morrow night at eight o’clock?”
Falmouth shut his teeth.
“Either you’ll come out of it alive or, by the Lord, they’ll kill two,” he said, and there was a gleam in his eye that spoke for his determination.
The news that yet another letter had reached the great statesman was on the streets at ten o’clock that night. It circulated through the clubs and theatres, and between the acts grave-faced men stood in the vestibules discussing Ramon’s danger. The House of Commons was seething with excitement. In the hope that the Minister would come down, a strong House had gathered, but the members were disappointed, for it was evident soon after the dinner recess that Sir Philip had no intention of showing himself that night.
“Might I ask the right honourable the prime minister whether it is the intention of His Majesty’s Government to proceed with the Aliens Extradition (Political Offences) Bill,” asked the Radical Member for West Deptford, “and whether he has not considered, in view of the extraordinary conditions that this Bill has called into life, the advisability of postponing the introduction of this measure?”
The question was greeted with a chorus of ‘hear-hears’, and the prime minister rose slowly and turned an amused glance in the direction of the questioner.
“I know of no circumstance that is likely to prevent my right honourable friend, who is unfortunately not in his place to-night, from moving the second reading of the Bill tomorrow,” he said, and sat down.
“What the devil was he grinning at?” grumbled West Deptford to a neighbour.
“He’s deuced uncomfortable, is J. K.,” said the other wisely, “deuced uncomfortable; a man in the Cabinet was telling me today that old J. K. has been feeling deuced uncomfortable. ‘You mark my words,’ he said, ‘this Four Just Men business is making the Premier deuced uncomfortable,’” and the hon. member subsided to allow West Deptford to digest his neighbour’s profundities.
“I’ve done my best to persuade Ramon to drop the Bill,” the Premier was saying, “but he is adamant, and the pitiable thing is that he believes in his heart of hearts that these fellows intend keeping faith.”
“It is monstrous,” said the colonial secretary hotly; “it is inconceivable that such a state of affairs can last. Why, it strikes at the root of everything, it unbalances every adjustment of civilisation.”
“It is a poetical idea,” said the phlegmatic Premier, “and the standpoint of the Four is quite a logical one. Think of the enormous power for good or evil often vested in one man: a capitalist controlling the markets of the world, a speculator cornering cotton or wheat whilst mills stand idle and people starve, tyrants and despots with the destinies of nations between their thumb and finger—and then think of the four men, known to none; vague, shadowy figures stalking tragically through the world, condemning and executing the capitalist, the corner maker, the tyrant—evil forces all, and all beyond reach of the law. We have said of these people, such of us as are touched with mysticism, that God would judge them. Here are men arrogating to themselves the divine right of superior judgment. If we catch them they will end their lives unpicturesquely, in a matter-of-fact, commonplace manner in a little shed in Pentonville Gaol, and the world will never realise how great are the artists who perish.”
The Premier smiled.
“Here, I think, these men have just overreached themselves. Had they been content to slay first and explain their mission afterwards I have little doubt that Ramon would have died. But they have warned and warned and exposed their hand a dozen times over. I know nothing of the arrangements that are being made by the police, but I should imagine that by to-morrow night it will be as difficult to get within a dozen yards of Ramon as it would be for a Siberian prisoner to dine with the Czar.”
“Is there no possibility of Ramon withdrawing the Bill?” asked the Colonies.
The Premier shook his head.
“Absolutely none,” he said.
The rising of a member of the Opposition front bench at that moment to move an amendment to a clause under discussion cut short the conversation.
The House rapidly emptied when it became generally known that Ramon did not intend appearing, and the members gathered in the smoking-room and lobby to speculate upon the matter which was uppermost in their minds.
In the vicinity of Palace Yard a great crowd had gathered, as in London crowds will gather, on the off-chance of catching a glimpse of the man whose name was in every mouth. Street vendors sold his portrait, frowsy men purveying the real life and adventures of the Four Just Men did a roaring trade, and itinerant street singers, introducing extemporised verses into their repertoire, declaimed the courage of that statesman bold, who dared for to resist the threats of coward alien and deadly anarchist.
There was praise in these poor lyrics for Sir Philip, who was trying to prevent the foreigner from taking the bread out of the mouths of honest working men.
The humour of which appealed greatly to Manfred, who, with Poiccart, had driven to the Westminster end of the Embankment; having dismissed their cab, they were walking to Whitehall.
“I think the verse about the ‘deadly foreign anarchist’ taking the bread out of the mouth of the home-made variety is distinctly good,” chuckled Manfred.
Both men were in evening dress, and Poiccart wore in his button-hole the silken button of a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur.
“I doubt whether London has had such a sensation since—when?”
Poiccart’s grim smile caught the other’s eye and he smiled in sympathy.
“I asked the same question of the maitre d’hôtel,” he said slowly, like a man loath to share a joke; “he compared the agitation to the atrocious East-End murders.”
Manfred stopped dead and looked with horror on his companion.
“Great heavens!” he exclaimed in distress, “it never occurred to me that we should be compared with—him!”
They resumed their walk.
“It is part of the eternal bathos,” said Poiccart serenely; “even De Quincey taught the English nothing.”
They were traversing that portion of Whitehall from which Scotland Yard runs.
A man, slouching along with bent head and his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his tattered coat, gave them a swift sidelong glance, stopped when they had passed, and looked after them. Then he turned and quickened his shuffle on their trail. A press of people and a seeming ceaseless string of traffic at the corner of Cockspur Street brought Manfred and Poiccart to a standstill, waiting for an opportunity to cross the road. They were subjected to a little jostling as the knot of waiting people thickened, but eventually they crossed and walked towards St Martin’s Lane.
The comparison which Poiccart had quoted still rankled with Manfred.
“There will be people at His Majesty’s to-night,” he said, “applauding Brutus as he asks, ‘What villain touched his body and not for justice?’ You will not find a serious student of history, or any commonplace man of intelligence, for the matter of that, who, if you asked, Would it not have been God’s blessing for the world if Bonaparte had been assassinated on his return from Egypt? would not answer without hesitation, Yes. But we—we are murderers!”
“They would not have erected a statue of Napoleon’s assassin,” said Poiccart easily, “any more than they have enshrined Felton, who slew a profligate and debauched Minister of Charles I. Posterity may do us justice,” he spoke half mockingly; “for myself I am satisfied with the approval of my conscience.”
He threw away the cigar he was smoking, and put his hand to the inside pocket of his coat to find another. He withdrew his hand without the cigar and whistled a passing cab.
Manfred looked at him in surprise.
“What is the matter? I thought you said you would walk?”
Nevertheless he entered the hansom and Poiccart followed, giving his direction through the trap, “Baker Street Station.”
The cab was rattling through Shaftesbury Avenue before Poiccart gave an explanation.
“I have been robbed,” he said, sinking his voice, “my watch has gone, but that does not matter; the pocketbook with the notes I made for the guidance of Thery has gone—and that matters a great deal.”
“It may have been a common thief,” said Manfred: “he took the watch.”
Poiccart was feeling his pockets rapidly.
“Nothing else has gone,” he said; “it may have been as you say, a pickpocket, who will be content with the watch and will drop the notebook down the nearest drain; but it may be a police agent.”
“Was there anything in it to identify you?” asked Manfred, in a troubled tone.
“Nothing,” was the prompt reply; “but unless the police are blind they would understand the calculations and the plans. It may not come to their hands at all, but if it does and the thief can recognise us we are in a fix.”
The cab drew up at the down station at Baker Street, and the two men alighted.
“I shall go east,” said Poiccart, “we will meet in the morning. By that time I shall have learnt whether the book has reached Scotland Yard. Goodnight.”
And with no other farewell than this the two men parted.
If Billy Marks had not had a drop of drink he would have been perfectly satisfied with his night’s work. Filled, however, with that false liquid confidence that leads so many good men astray, Billy thought it would be a sin to neglect the opportunities that the gods had shown him. The excitement engendered by the threats of the Four Just Men had brought all suburban London to Westminster, and on the Surrey side of the bridge Billy found hundreds of patient suburbanites waiting for conveyance to Streatham, Camberwell, Clapham, and Greenwich. So, the night being comparatively young, Billy decided to work the trams.
He touched a purse from a stout old lady in black, a Waterbury watch from a gentleman in a top hat, a small hand mirror from a dainty bag, and decided to conclude his operations with the exploration of a superior young lady’s pocket. Billy’s search was successful. A purse and a lace handkerchief rewarded him, and he made arrangements for a modest retirement. Then it was that a gentle voice breathed into his ear. “Hullo, Billy!”
He knew the voice, and felt momentarily unwell.
“Hullo, Mister Howard,” he exclaimed with feigned joy; “′ow are you, sir? Fancy meetin’ you!”
“Where are you going, Billy?” asked the welcome Mr. Howard, taking Billy’s arm affectionately.
“’Ome,” said the virtuous Billy.
“Home it is,” said Mr. Howard, leading the unwilling Billy from the crowd; “home, sweet home, it is, Billy.” He called another young man, with whom he seemed to be acquainted: “Go on that car, Porter, and see who has lost anything. If you can find anyone bring them along,” and the other young man obeyed.
“And now,” said Mr. Howard, still holding Billy’s arm affectionately, “tell me how the world has been using you.”
“Look ‘ere, Mr. Howard,” said Billy earnestly, “what’s the game? Where are you takin’ me?”
“The game is the old game,” said Mr. Howard sadly—“the same old game, Bill, and I’m taking you to the same old sweet spot.”
“You’ve made a mistake this time, guv’nor,” cried Bill fiercely, and there was a slight clink.
“Permit me, Billy,” said Mr Howard, stooping quickly and picking up the purse Billy had dropped.
At the police station the sergeant behind the charge desk pretended to be greatly overjoyed at Billy’s arrival, and the jailer, who put Billy into a steel-barred dock, and passed his hands through cunning pockets, greeted him as a friend.
“Gold watch, half a chain, gold, three purses, two handkerchiefs, and a red moroccer pocket-book,” reported the gaoler.
The sergeant nodded approvingly.
“Quite a good day’s work, William,” he said.
“What shall I get this time?” inquired the prisoner, and Mr Howard, a plain-clothes officer engaged in filling in particulars of the charge, opined nine moons.
“Go on!” exclaimed Mr Billy Marks in consternation.
“Fact,” said the sergeant; “you’re a rogue and a vagabond, Billy, you’re a petty larcenist, and you’re for the sessions this time—Number Eight.”
This latter was addressed to the jailer, who bore Billy off to the cells protesting vigorously against a police force that could only tumble to poor blokes, and couldn’t get a touch on sanguinary murderers like the Four Just Men.
“What do we pay rates and taxes for?” indignantly demanded Billy through the grating of his cell.
“Fat lot you’ll ever pay, Billy,” said the jailer, putting the double lock on the door.
In the charge office Mr Howard and the sergeant were examining the stolen property, and three owners, discovered by PC Porter, were laying claim to their own.
“That disposes of all the articles except the gold watch and the pocket-book,” said the sergeant after the claimants had gone, “gold watch, Elgin half-hunter No. 5029020, pocket-book containing no papers, no card, no address, and only three pages of writing. What this means I don’t know.” The sergeant handed the book to Howard. The page that puzzled the policeman contained simply a list of streets. Against each street was scrawled a cabalistic character.
[Illustration of street names and squiggly diagrams]
“Looks like the diary of a paper-chase,” said Mr Howard. “What is on the other pages?”
They turned the leaf. This was filled with figures.
“H’m,” said the disappointed sergeant, and again turned over-leaf. The contents of this page was understandable and readable although evidently written in a hurry as though it had been taken down at dictation.
“The chap who wrote this must have had a train to catch,” said the facetious Mr Howard, pointing to the abbreviations:
Will not leave D.S., except for Hs. Will drive to Hs in M.C. (4 dummy brghms first), 8.30. At 2 600 p arve traf divtd Embank, 80 spls. inside D.S. One each rm, three each cor, six basmt, six rf. All drs wide opn allow each off see another, all spls will carry revr. Nobody except F and H to approach R. In Hse strange gal filled with spl, all press vouched for. 200 spl. in cor. If nee battalion guards at disposal.
The policeman read this over slowly.
“Now what the devil does that mean?” asked the sergeant helplessly.
It was at that precise moment that Constable Howard earned his promotion.
“Let me have that book for ten minutes,” he said excitedly. The sergeant handed the book over with wondering stare.
“I think I can find an owner for this,” said Howard, his hand trembling as he took the book, and ramming his hat on his head he ran out into the street.
He did not stop running until he reached the main road, and finding a cab he sprang in with a hurried order to the driver.
“Whitehall, and drive like blazes,” he called, and in a few minutes he was explaining his errand to the inspector in charge of the cordon that guarded the entrance of Downing Street.
“Constable Howard, 946 L. reserve,” he introduced himself. “I’ve a very important message for Superintendent Falmouth.”
That officer, looking tired and beaten, listened to the policeman’s story.
“It looks to me,” went on Howard breathlessly, “as though this has something to do with your case, sir. D.S. is Downing Street, and——” He produced the book and Falmouth snatched at it.
He read a few words and then gave a triumphant cry.
“Our secret instructions,” he cried, and catching the constable by the arm he drew him to the entrance hall.
“Is my car outside?” he asked, and in response to a whistle a car drew up. “Jump in, Howard,” said the detective, and the car slipped into Whitehall.
“Who is the thief?” asked the senior.
“Billy Marks, sir,” replied Howard; “you may not know him, but down at Lambeth he is a well-known character.”
“Oh, yes,” Falmouth hastened to correct, “I know Billy very well indeed—we’ll see what he has to say.”
The car drew up at the police station and the two men jumped out.
The sergeant rose to his feet as he recognised the famous Falmouth, and saluted.
“I want to see the prisoner Marks,” said Falmouth shortly, and Billy, roused from his sleep, came blinking into the charge office.
“Now, Billy,” said the detective, “I’ve got a few words to say to you.”
“Why, it’s Mr Falmouth,” said the astonished Billy, and something like fear shaded his face. “I wasn’t in that ′Oxton affair, s’help me.”
“Make your mind easy, Billy; I don’t want you for anything, and if you’ll answer my questions truthfully, you may get off the present charge and get a reward into the bargain.”
Billy was suspicious.
“I’m not going to give anybody away if that’s what you mean,” he said sullenly.
“Nor that either,” said the detective impatiently. “I want to know where you found this pocket-book,” and he held it up. Billy grinned.
“Found it lyin’ on the pavement,” he lied.
“I want the truth,” thundered Falmouth.
“Well,” said Billy sulkily, “I pinched it.”
“I didn’t stop to ask him his name,” was the impudent reply.
The detective breathed deeply.
“Now, look here,” he said, lowering his voice, “you’ve heard about the Four Just Men?”
Billy nodded, opening his eyes in amazement at the question.
“Well,” exclaimed Falmouth impressively, “the man to whom this pocketbook belongs is one of them.”
“What!” cried Billy.
“For his capture there is a reward of a thousand pounds offered. If your description leads to his arrest that thousand is yours.”
Marks stood paralysed at the thought.
“A thousand—a thousand?” he muttered in a dazed fashion, “and I might just as easily have caught him.”
“Come, come!” cried the detective sharply, “you may catch him yet—tell us what he looked like.”
Billy knitted his brows in thought.
“He looked like a gentleman,” he said, trying to recall from the chaos of his mind a picture of his victim; “he had a white weskit, a white shirt, nice patent shoes——”
“But his face—his face!” demanded the detective.
“His face?” cried Billy indignantly. “How do I know what it looked like? I don’t look a chap in the face when I’m pinching his watch, do I?”