The Four Just Men (1920)/Part 2/Chapter 1
THE COUNCIL OF JUSTICE
THE RED HUNDRED
It is not for you or me to judge Manfred and his works. I say “Manfred,” though I might as well have said “Gonsalez,” or for the matter of that “Poiccart,” since they are equally guilty or great according to the light in which you view their acts. The most lawless of us would hesitate to defend them, but the greater humanitarian could scarcely condemn them.
From the standpoint of us, who live within the law, going about our business in conformity with the code, and unquestioningly keeping to the left or to the right as the police direct, their methods were terrible, indefensible, revolting.
It does not greatly affect the issue that, for want of a better word, we call them criminals. Such would be mankind’s unanimous designation, but I think—indeed, I know—that they were indifferent to the opinions of the human race. I doubt very much whether they expected posterity to honour them.
Their action towards the cabinet minister was murder, pure and simple. Yet, in view of the large humanitarian problems involved, who would describe it as pernicious?
Frankly I say of the three men who killed Sir Philip Ramon, and who slew ruthlessly in the name of Justice, that my sympathies are with them. There are crimes for which there is no adequate punishment, and offences that the machinery of the written law cannot efface. Therein lies the justification for the Four Just Men,—the Council of Justice as they presently came to call themselves a council of great intellects, passionless.
And not long after the death of Sir Philip and while England still rang with that exploit, they performed an act or a series of acts that won not alone from the Government of Great Britain, but from the Governments of Europe, a sort of unofficial approval and Falmouth had his wish. For here they waged war against great world-criminals-they pitted their strength, their cunning, and their wonderful intellects against the most powerful organization of the underworld—against past masters of villainous arts, and brains equally agile.
It was the day of days for the Red Hundred. The wonderful international congress was meeting in London, the first great congress of recognized Anarchism. This was no hole-and-corner gathering of hurried men speaking furtively, but one open and unafraid with three policemen specially retained for duty outside the hall, a commissionaire to take tickets at the outer lobby, and a shorthand writer with a knowledge of French and Yiddish to make notes of remarkable utterances.
The wonderful congress was a fact. When it had been broached there were people who laughed at the idea; Niloff of Vitebsk was one because he did not think such openness possible. But little Peter (his preposterous name was Konoplanikova, and he was a reporter on the staff of the foolish Russkoye Znamza), this little Peter who had thought out the whole thing, whose idea it was to gather a conference of the Red Hundred in London, who hired the hall and issued the bills (bearing in the top left-hand corner the inverted triangle of the Hundred) asking those Russians in London interested in the building of a Russian Sailors’ Home to apply for tickets, who, too, secured a hall where interruption was impossible, was happy—yea, little brothers, it was a great day for Peter.
‘You can always deceive the police,’ said little Peter enthusiastically; ‘call a meeting with a philanthropic object and—voila!’
Wrote Inspector Falmouth to the assistant commissioner of police:—
“Your respected communication to hand. The meeting to be held to-night at the Phoenix Hall, Middlesex Street, E., with the object of raising funds for a Russian Sailors’ Home is, of course, the first international congress of the Red Hundred. Shall not be able to get a man inside, but do not think that matters much, as meeting will be engaged throwing flowers at one another and serious business will not commence till the meeting of the inner committee.
“I inclose a list of men already arrived in London, and have the honour to request that you will send me portraits of under-mentioned men.”
There were three delegates from Baden, Herr Schmidt from Frieburg, Herr Bleaumeau from Karlsruhe, and Herr Von Dunop from Mannheim. They were not considerable persons, even in the eyes of the world of Anarchism; they called for no particular notice, and therefore the strange thing that happened to them on the night of the congress is all the more remarkable.
Herr Schmidt had left his pension in Bloomsbury and was hurrying eastward. It was a late autumn evening and a chilly rain fell, and Herr Schmidt was debating in his mind whether he should go direct to the rendezvous where he had promised to meet his two compatriots, or whether he should call a taxi and drive direct to the hall, when a hand grasped his arm.
He turned quickly and reached for his hip-pocket. Two men stood behind him and but for themselves the square through which he was passing was deserted.
Before he could grasp the Browning pistol, his other arm was seized and the taller of the two men spoke.
“You are Augustus Schmidt?” he asked.
“That is my name.”
‘You are an Anarchist?’
“That is my affair.”
“You are at present on your way to a meeting of the Red Hundred?”
Herr Schmidt opened his eyes in genuine astonishment.
“How did you know that?” he asked.
“I am Detective Simpson from Scotland Yard, and I shall take you into custody,” was the quiet reply.
“On what charge?” demanded the German.
“As to that I shall tell you later.”
The man from Baden shrugged his shoulders.
“I have yet to learn that it is an offence in England to hold opinions.”
A closed motor-car entered the square, and the shorter of the two whistled and the chauffeur drew up near the group.
The anarchist turned to the man who had arrested him.
“I warn you that you shall answer for this,” he said wrathfully. “I have an important engagement that you have made me miss through your foolery and——”
“Get in!” interrupted the tall man tersely.
Schmidt stepped into the car and the door snapped behind him.
He was alone and in darkness. The car moved on and then Schmidt discovered that there were no windows to the vehicle. A wild idea came to him that he might escape. He tried the door of the car; it was immovable. He cautiously tapped it. It was lined with thin sheets of steel.
“A prison on wheels,” he muttered with a curse, and sank back into the corner of the car.
He did not know London; he had not the slightest idea where he was going. For ten minutes the car moved along. He was puzzled. These policemen had taken nothing from him, he still retained his pistol. They had not even attempted to search him for compromising documents. Not that he had any except the pass for the conference and—the Inner Code!
Heavens! He must destroy that. He thrust his hand into the inner pocket of his coat. It was empty. The thin leather case was gone! His face went grey, for the Red Hundred is no fanciful secret society but a bloody-minded organization with less mercy for bungling brethren than for its sworn enemies. In the thick darkness of the car his nervous fingers groped through all his pockets. There was no doubt at all—the papers had gone.
In the midst of his search the car stopped. He slipped the flat pistol from his pocket. His position was desperate and he was not the kind of man to shirk a risk.
Once there was a brother of the Red Hundred who sold a password to the Secret Police. And the brother escaped from Russia. There was a woman in it, and the story is a mean little story that is hardly worth the telling. Only, the man and the woman escaped, and went to Baden, and Schmidt recognized them from the portraits he had received from headquarters, and one night…. You understand that there was nothing clever or neat about it. English newspapers would have described it as a “revolting murder,” because the details of the crime were rather shocking. The thing that stood to Schmidt’s credit in the books of the Society was that the murderer was undiscovered.
The memory of this episode came back to the anarchist as the car stopped—perhaps this was the thing the police had discovered? Out of the dark corners of his mind came the scene again, and the voice of the man…. “Don’t! don’t! O Christ! don’t!” and Schmidt sweated….
The door of the car opened and he slipped back the cover of his pistol.
“Don’t shoot,” said a quiet voice in the gloom outside, “here are some friends of yours.”
He lowered his pistol, for his quick ears detected a wheezing cough.
“Von Dunop!” he cried in astonishment.
“And Herr Bleaumeau,” said the same voice. “Get in, you two.”
Two men stumbled into the car, one dumbfounded and silent—save for the wheezing cough—the other blasphemous and voluble.
“Wait, my friend!” raved the bulk of Bleaumeau; “wait! I will make you sorry….”
The door shut and the car moved on.
The two men outside watched the vehicle with its unhappy passengers disappear round a corner and then walked slowly away.
“Extraordinary men,” said the taller.
“Most,” replied the other, and then, “Von Dunop—isn’t he——?”
“The man who threw the bomb at the Swiss President—yes.″
The shorter man smiled in the darkness.
“Given a conscience, he is enduring his hour,” he said.
The pair walked on in silence and turned into Oxford Street as the clock of a church struck eight.
The tall man lifted his walking-stick and a sauntering taxi pulled up at the curb.
“Aldgate,” he said, and the two men took their seats.
Not until the taxi was spinning along Newgate Street did either of the men speak, and then the shorter asked:
“You are thinking about the woman?”
The other nodded and his companion relapsed into silence; then he spoke again:
“She is a problem and a difficulty, in a way—yet she is the most dangerous of the lot. And the curious thing about it is that if she were not beautiful and young she would not be a problem at all. We’re very human, George. God made us illogical that the minor businesses of life should not interfere with the great scheme. And the great scheme is that animal men should select animal women for the mothers of their children.”
“,” the other quoted, which shows that he was an extraordinary detective, ‘and so far as I am concerned it matters little to me whether an irresponsible homicide is a beautiful woman or a misshapen negro.’
They dismissed the taxi at Aldgate Station and turned into Middlesex Street.
The meeting-place of the great congress was a hall which was originally erected by an enthusiastic Christian gentleman with a weakness for the conversion of Jews to the New Presbyterian Church, With this laudable object it had been opened with great pomp and the singing of anthems and the enthusiastic proselytizer had spoken on that occasion two hours and forty minutes by the clock.
After twelve months’ labour the Christian gentleman discovered that the advantages of Christianity only appeal to very rich Jews indeed, to the Cohens who become Cowans, to the Isaacs who become Grahames, and to the curious low- down Jews who stand in the same relation to their brethren as White Kaffirs to a European community.
So the hall passed from hand to hand, and, failing to obtain a music and dancing licence, went back to the mission-hall stage.
Successive generations of small boys had destroyed its windows and beplastered its walls. Successive fly-posters had touched its blank face with colour. To-night there was nothing to suggest that there was any business of extraordinary importance being transacted within its walls. A Russian or a Yiddish or any kind of reunion does not greatly excite Middlesex Street, and had little Peter boldly announced that the congress of the Red Hundred were to meet in full session there would have been no local excitement and—if the truth be told—he might still have secured the services of his three policemen and commissionaire.
To this worthy, a neat, cleanly gentleman in uniform, wearing on his breast the medals for the relief of Chitral and the Soudan Campaigns, the two men delivered the perforated halves of their tickets and passed through the outer lobby into a small room. By a door at the other end stood a thin man with a straggling beard. His eyes were red-rimmed and weak, he wore long narrow buttoned boots, and he had a trick of pecking his head forwards and sideways like an inquisitive hen.
“You have the word, brothers?” he asked, speaking German like one unaccustomed to the language.
The taller of the two strangers shot a swift glance at the sentinel that absorbed the questioner from his cracked patent leather boots to his flamboyant watch-chain. Then he answered in Italian:
The face of the guardian flushed with pleasure at the familiar tongue.
“Pass, brother; it is very good to hear that language.”
The air of the crowded hall struck the two men in the face like the blast from a destructor. It was unclean; unhealthy—the scent of an early-morning doss-house.
The hall was packed, the windows were closed and curtained, and as a precautionary measure, little Peter had placed thick blankets before the ventilators.
At one end of the hall was a platform on which stood a semicircle of chairs and in the centre was a table draped with red. On the wall behind the chairs—every one of which was occupied—was a huge red flag bearing in the centre a great white “C.” It had been tacked to the wall, but one corner had broken away revealing a part of the painted scroll of the mission workers:
“… are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
The two intruders pushed their way through a group that were gathered at the door. Three aisles ran the length of the building, and they made their way along the central gangway and found seats near the platform.
A brother was speaking. He was a good and zealous worker but a bad orator. He spoke in German and enunciated commonplaces with hoarse emphasis. He said all the things that other men had said and forgotten. “This is the time to strike” was his most notable sentence, and notable only because it evoked a faint buzz of applause.
The audience stirred impatiently. The good Bentvitch had spoken beyond his allotted time; and there were other people to speak—and prosy at that. And it would be ten o’clock before the Woman of Gratz would rise.
The babble was greatest in the corner of the hall, where little Peter, all eyes and startled eyebrows, was talking to an audience of his own.
“It is impossible, it is absurd, it is most foolish!” his thin voice rose almost to a scream. “I should laugh at it—we should all laugh, but the Woman of Gratz has taken the matter seriously, and she is afraid!”
“Oh, Peter, the fool!”
There were other things said because everybody in the vicinity expressed an opinion. Peter was distressed, but not by the epithets. He was crushed, humiliated, beaten by his tremendous tidings. He was nearly crying at the horrible thought. The Woman of Gratz was afraid! The Woman of Gratz who… It was unthinkable.
He turned his eyes toward the platform, but she was not there.
“Tell us about it, Peter,” pleaded a dozen voices; but the little man with the tears twinkling on his fair eyelashes waved them off.
So far from his incoherent outburst they had learnt only this—that the Woman of Gratz was afraid.
And that was bad enough.
For this woman—she was a girl really, a slip of a child who should have been finishing her education somewhere in Germany—this same woman had once risen and electrified the world.
There had been a meeting in a small Hungarian town to discuss ways and means. And when the men had finished their denunciation of Austria, she rose and talked. A short-skirted little girl with two long flaxen braids of hair, thin- legged, flat-chested, angular, hipless,—that is what the men of Gratz noticed as they smiled behind their hands and wondered why her father had brought her to the meeting.
But her speech … two hours she spoke and no man stirred. A little flat-chested girl full of sonorous phrases—mostly she had collected them from the talk in Old Joseph’s kitchen. But with some power of her own, she had spun them together, these inconsiderable truisms, and had endowed them with a wondrous vitality.
They were old, old platitudes, if the truth be told, but at some time in the history of revolution, some long dead genius had coined them, and newly fashioned in the furnace of his soul they had shaped men’s minds and directed their great and dreadful deeds.
So the Woman of Gratz arrived, and they talked about her and circulated her speeches in every language. And she grew. The hollow face of this lank girl filled, and the flat bosom rounded and there came softer lines and curves to her angular figure, and, almost before they realized the fact, she was beautiful.
So her fame had grown until her father died and she went to Russia. Then came a series of outrages which may be categorically and briefly set forth:—
- 1: General Maloff shot dead by an unknown woman in his private room at the Police Bureau, Moscow.
- 2: Prince Hazallarkoff shot dead by an unknown woman in the streets of Petrograd.
- 3: Colonel Kaverdavskov killed by a bomb thrown by a woman who made her escape.
And the Woman of Gratz leapt to a greater fame. She had been arrested half a dozen times, and whipped twice, but they could prove nothing against her and elicit nothing from her—and she was very beautiful.
Now to the thundering applause of the waiting delegates, she stepped upon the platform and took the last speaker’s place by the side of the red-covered table.
She raised her hand and absolute and complete silence fell on the hall, so much so that her first words sounded strident and shrill, for she had attuned her voice to the din. She recovered her pitch and dropped her voice to a conversational tone.
She stood easily with her hands clasped behind her and made no gesture. The emotion that was within her she conveyed through her wonderful voice. Indeed, the power of the speech lay rather in its delivery than in its substance, for only now and then did she depart from the unwritten text of Anarchism: the right of the oppressed to overthrow the oppressor; the divinity of violence; the sacredness of sacrifice and martyrdom in the cause of enlightenment. One phrase alone stood apart from the commonplace of her oratory. She was speaking of the Theorists who counsel reform and condemn violence, “These Christs who deputize their Calvaries,” she called them with fine scorn, and the hall roared its approval of the imagery.
It was the fury of the applause that disconcerted her; the taller of the two men who sat watching her realized that much. For when the shouting had died down and she strove to resume, she faltered and stammered and then was silent. Then abruptly and with surprising vehemence she began again. But she had changed the direction of her oratory, and it was upon another subject that she now spoke. A subject nearer to her at that moment than any other, for her pale cheeks flushed and a feverish light came to her eyes as she spoke.
“… and now, with all our perfect organization, with the world almost within our grasp—there comes somebody who says ‘Stop!’—and we who by our acts have terrorized kings and dominated the councils of empires, are ourselves threatened!”
The audience grew deadly silent. They were silent before, but now the silence was painful.
The two men who watched her stirred a little uneasily, as though something in her speech had jarred. Indeed, the suggestion of braggadocio in her assertion of the Red Hundred’s power had struck a discordant note.
The girl continued speaking rapidly.
“We have heard—you have heard—we know of these men who have written to us. They say”—her voice rose—“that we shall not do what we do. They threaten us—they threaten me—that we must change our methods, or they will punish as—as we—punish; kill as we kill——”
There was a murmuring in the audience and men looked at one another in amazement. For terror unmistakable and undisguised was written on her pale face and shone from those wondrous eyes of hers.
“But we will defy——”
Loud voices and the sound of scuffling in the little anteroom interrupted her, and a warning word shouted brought the audience to its feet.
A hundred stealthy hands reached for cunning pockets, but somebody leapt upon a bench, near the entrance, and held up an authoritative hand.
‘Gentlemen, there is no occasion for alarm—I am Detective- Superintendent Falmouth from Scotland Yard, and I have no quarrel with the Red Hundred.’
Little Peter, transfixed for the moment, pushed his way towards the detective.
“Who do you want—what do you want?” he asked.
The detective stood with his back to the door and answered.
“I want two men who were seen to enter this hall: two members of an organization that is outside the Red Hundred. They——”
“Ha!” The woman who still stood upon the platform leant forward with blazing eyes.
“I know—I know!” she cried breathlessly; “the men who threatened us—who threatened me—The Four Just Men!”