The Four Just Men (1920)/Part 2/Chapter 10
To fathom the mind of the Woman of Gratz is no easy task, and one not to be lightly undertaken. Remembering her obscure beginning, the bare-legged child drinking in revolutionary talk in the Transylvanian kitchen, and the development of her intellect along unconventional lines—remembering, also, that early in life she made acquaintance with the extreme problems of life and death in their least attractive forms, and that the proportion of things had been grossly distorted by her teachers, you may arrive at a point where your vacillating judgement hesitates between blame and pity.
I would believe that the power of introspection had no real place in her mental equipment, else how can we explain her attitude towards the man whom she had once defied and reconcile those outbursts of hers wherein she called for his death, for his terrible punishment, wherein, too, she allowed herself the rare luxury of unrestrained speech, how can we reconcile these tantrums with the fact that this man’s voice filled her thoughts day and night, the recollection of this man’s eyes through his mask followed her every movement, till the image of him became an obsession?
It may be that I have no knowledge of women and their ways (there is no subtle smugness in the doubt I express) and that her inconsistency was general to her sex. It must not be imagined that she had spared either trouble or money to secure the extermination of her enemies, and the enemies of the Red Hundred. She had described them, as well as she could, after her first meeting, and the sketches made under her instruction had been circulated by the officers of the Reds.
Sitting near the window of her house, she mused, lulled by the ceaseless hum of traffic in the street below, and half dozing.
The turning of the door-handle woke her from her dreams.
It was Schmidt, the unspeakable Schmidt, all perspiration and excitement. His round coarse face glowed with it, and he could scarcely bring his voice to tell the news.
“We have him! we have him!” he cried in glee, and snapped his fingers. “Oh, the good news!—I am the first! Nobody has been, Little Friend? I have run and have taken taxis——”
“You have—whom?” she asked.
“The man—one of the men” he said, “who killed Starque and Francois, and——”
“Which—which man?” she said harshly.
He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a discoloured sketch.
“Oh!” she said, it could not be the man whom she had defied, “Why, why?” she asked stormily, “Why only this man? Why not the others—why not the leader?—have they caught him and lost him?”
Chagrin and astonishment sat on Schmidt”s round face. His disappointment was almost comic.
“But, Little Mother!” he said, crestfallen and bewildered, “this is one—we did not hope even for one and——”
The storm passed over.
“Yes, yes,” she said wearily, “one—even one is good. They shall learn that the Red Hundred can still strike—this leader shall know—— This man shall have a death,” she said, looking at Schmidt “worthy of his importance. Tell me how he was captured.”
“It was the picture,” said the eager Schmidt, “the picture you had drawn. One of our comrades thought he recognized him and followed him to his house.”
“He shall be tried—to-night,” and she spent the day anticipating her triumph.
Conspirators do not always choose dark arches for their plottings. The Red Hundred especially were notorious for the likeliness of their rendezvous. They went to nature for a precedent, and as she endows the tiger with stripes that are undistinguishable from the jungle grass, so the Red Hundred would choose for their meetings such a place where meetings were usually held.
It was in the Lodge Room of the Pride of Millwall, A.O.S.A.—which may be amplified as the Associated Order of the Sons of Abstinence—that the trial took place. The financial position of the Pride of Millwall was not strong. An unusual epidemic of temperate seafaring men had called the Lodge into being, the influx of capital from eccentric bequests had built the tiny hall, and since the fiasco attending the first meeting of the League of London, much of its public business had been skilfully conducted in these riverside premises. It had been raided by the police during the days of terror, but nothing of an incriminating character had been discovered. Because of the success with which the open policy had been pursued the Woman of Gratz preferred to take the risk of an open trial in a hall liable to police raid.
The man must be so guarded that escape was impossible. Messengers sped in every direction to carry out her instruction. There was a rapid summoning of leaders of the movement, the choice of the place of trial, the preparation for a ceremony which was governed by well-established precedent, and the arrangement of the properties which played so effective a part in the trials of the Hundred.
In the black-draped chamber of trial the Woman of Gratz found a full company. Maliscrivona, Tchezki, Vellantini, De Romans, to name a few who were there sitting altogether side by side on the low forms, and they buzzed a welcome as she walked into the room and took her seat at the higher place. She glanced round the faces, bestowing a nod here and a glance of recognition there. She remembered the last time she had made an appearance before the rank and file of the movement. She missed many faces that had turned to her in those days: Starque, François, Kitsinger—dead at the hands of the Four Just Men. It fitted her mood to remember that tonight she would judge one who had at least helped in the slaying of Starque.
Abruptly she rose. Lately she had had few opportunities for the display of that oratory which was once her sole title to consideration in the councils of the Red Hundred. Her powers of organization had come to be respected later. She felt the want of practice as she began speaking. She found herself hesitating for words, and once she felt her illustrations were crude. But she gathered confidence as she proceeded and she felt the responsive thrill of a fascinated audience.
It was the story of the campaign that she told. Much of it we know; the story from the point of view of the Reds may be guessed. She finished her speech by recounting the capture of the enemy.
“Tonight we aim a blow at these enemies of progress; if they have been merciless, let us show them that the Red Hundred is not to be outdone in ferocity. As they struck, so let us strike—and, in striking, read a lesson to the men who killed our comrades, that they, nor the world, will ever forget.”
There was no cheering as she finished—that had been the order—but a hum of words as they flung their tributes of words at her feet—a ruck of incoherent phrases of praise and adoration.
Then two men led in the prisoner.
He was calm and interested, throwing out his square chin resolutely when the first words of the charge were called and twiddling the fingers of his bound hands absently.
He met the scowling faces turned to him serenely, but as they proceeded with the indictment, he grew attentive, bending his head to catch the words.
Once he interrupted.
“I cannot quite understand that,” he said in fluent Russian, “my knowledge of German is limited.”
“What is your nationality?” demanded the woman.
“English,” he replied.
“Do you speak French?” she asked.
“I am learning,” he said naively, and smiled.
“You speak Russian,” she said. Her conversation was carried on in that tongue.
“Yes,” he said simply; “I was there for many years.”
After this, the sum of his transgressions were pronounced in a language he understood. Once or twice as the reader proceeded—it was Ivan Oranvitch who read—the man smiled.
The Woman of Gratz recognized him instantly as the fourth of the party that gathered about her door the day Bartholomew was murdered. Formally she asked him what he had to say before he was condemned.
He smiled again.
“I am not one of the Four Just Men,” he said; “whoever says I am—lies.”
“And is that all you have to say?” she asked scornfully.
“That is all,” was his calm reply.
“Do you deny that you helped slay our comrade Starque?”
“I do not deny it,” he said easily, “I did not help—I killed him.”
“Ah!” the exclamation came simultaneously from every throat.
“Do you deny that you have killed many of the Red Hundred?”
He paused before he answered.
“As to the Red Hundred—I do not know; but I have killed many people.” He spoke with the grave air of a man filled with a sense of responsibility, and again the exclamatory hum ran through the hall. Yet, the Woman of Gratz had a growing sense of unrest in spite of the success of the examination.
“You have said you were in Russia—did men fall to your hand there?”
“And in England?”
“Also in England,” he said.
“What is your name?” she asked. By an oversight it was a question—she had not put before.
The man shrugged his shoulders.
“Does it matter?” he asked. A thought struck her. In the hall she had seen Magnus the Jew. He had lived for many years in England, and she beckoned him.
“Of what class is this man?” she asked in a whisper.
“Of the lower orders,” he replied; “it is astounding—did you not notice when—no, you did not see his capture. But he spoke like a man of the streets, dropping his aspirates.”
He saw she looked puzzled and explained.
“It is a trick of the order—just as the Moujik says….” he treated her to a specimen of colloquial Russian.
“What is your name?” she asked again.
He looked at her slyly.
“In Russia they called me Father Kopab….”
The majority of those who were present were Russian, and at the word they sprang to their feet, shrinking back with ashen faces, as though they feared contact with the man who stood bound and helpless in the middle of the room.
The Woman of Gratz had risen with the rest. Her lips quivered and her wide open eyes spoke her momentary terror.
“I killed Starque,” he went on, “by authority. François also. Some day” —he looked leisurely about the room—”I shall also——”
“Stop!” she cried, and then:
“Release him,” she said, and, wonderingly, Schmidt cut the bonds that bound him. He stretched himself.
“When you took me,” he said, “I had a book; you will understand that here in England I find—forgetfulness in books—and I, who have seen so much suffering and want caused through departure from the law, am striving as hard for the regeneration of mankind as you—but differently.”
Somebody handed him a book.
He looked at it, nodded, and slipped it into his pocket.
“Farewell,” he said as he turned to the open door.
“In God’s name!” said the Woman of Gratz, trembling, “go in peace, Little Father.”
And the man Jessen, sometime headsman to the Supreme Council, and latterly public executioner of England, walked out, no man barring his exit.
The power of the Red Hundred was broken. This much Falmouth knew. He kept an ever-vigilant band of men on duty at the great termini of London, and to these were attached the members of a dozen secret police forces of Europe. Day by day, there was the same report to make. Such and such a man, whose very presence in London had been unsuspected, had left viâ Harwich. So-and-so, surprisingly sprung from nowhere, had gone by the eleven o’clock train from Victoria; by the Hull and Stockholm route twenty had gone in one day, and there were others who made Liverpool, Glasgow, and Newcastle their port of embarkation.
I think that it was only then that Scotland Yard realized the strength of the force that had lain inert in the metropolis, or appreciated the possibilities for destruction that had been to hand in the days of the Terror.
Certainly every batch of names that appeared on the commissioner’s desk made him more thoughtful than ever.
“Arrest them!” he said in horror when the suggestion was made. “Arrest them! Look here, have you ever seen driver ants attack a house in Africa? Marching in, in endless battalions at midnight and clearing out everything living from chickens to beetles? Have you ever seen them re-form in the morning and go marching home again? You wouldn’t think of arresting ’em, would you? No, you’d just sit down quietly out of their reach and be happy when the last little red leg has disappeared round the corner!”
Those who knew the Red Hundred best were heartily in accord with his philosophy.
“They caught Jessen,” reported Falmouth.
“Oh!” said the commissioner.
“When he disclosed his identity, they got rid of him quick.”
“I’ve often wondered why the Four Just Men didn’t do the business of Starque themselves,” mused the Commissioner.
“It was rather rum,” admitted Falmouth, “but Starque was a man under sentence, as also was François. By some means they got hold of the original warrants, and it was on these that Jessen—did what he did.”
The commissioner nodded.
“And now,” he asked, “what about them?”
Falmouth had expected this question sooner or later. “Do you suggest that we should catch them, sir?”-he asked with thinly veiled sarcasm; “because if you do, sir, I have only to remind you that we’ve been trying to do that for some years.”
The chief commissioner frowned.
“It”s a remarkable thing,” he said, “that as soon as we get a situation such as—the Red Hundred scare and the Four Just Men scare, for instance, we’re completely at sea, and that”s what the papers will say. It doesn’t sound creditable, but it’s so.”
I place the superintendent”s defence of Scotland Yard on record in extenso.
“What the papers say,” said Falmouth, “never keeps me awake at night. Nobody’s quite got the hang of the police force in this country—certainly the writing people haven’t.
“There are two ways of writing about the police, sir. One way is to deal with them in the newspaper fashion with the headline ‘Another Police Blunder’ or ‘The Police and The Public,’ and the other way is to deal with them in the magazine style, which is to show them as softies on the wrong scent, whilst an ornamental civilian is showing them their business, or as mysterious people with false beards who pop up at the psychological moment, and say in a loud voice, “In the name of the Law, I arrest you!”
“Well, I don”t mind admitting that I know neither kind. I’ve been a police officer for twenty-three years, and the only assistance I’ve had from a civilian was from a man named Blackie, who helped me to find the body of a woman that had disappeared. I was rather prejudiced against him, but I don’t mind admitting that he was pretty smart and followed his clues with remarkable ingenuity.
“The day we found the body I said to him:
““Mr. Blackie, you have given me a great deal of information about this woman’s movements—in fact, you know a great deal more than you ought to know—so I shall take you into custody on the suspicion of having caused her death.”
“Before he died he made a full confession, and ever since then I have always been pleased to take as much advice and help from outside as I could get.
“When people sometimes ask me about the cleverness of Scotland Yard, I can’t tell ’em tales such as you read about. I’ve had murderers, anarchists, burglars, and average low-down people to deal with, but they have mostly done their work in a commonplace way and bolted. And as soon as they have bolted, we’ve employed fairly commonplace methods and brought ’em back.
“If you ask me whether I’ve been in dreadful danger, when arresting desperate murderers and criminals, I say ‘No.’
“When your average criminal finds himself cornered, he says, ‘All right, Mr. Falmouth; it’s a cop,’ and goes quietly.
“Crime and criminals run in grooves. They”re hardy annuals with perennial methods. Extraordinary circumstances baffle the police as they baffle other folks. You can’t run a business on business lines and be absolutely prepared for anything that turns up. Whiteley’s will supply you with a flea or an elephant, but if a woman asked a shopgirl to hold her baby whilst she went into the tinned meat department, the girl and the manager and the whole system would be floored, because there is no provision for holding babies. And if a Manchester goods merchant, unrolling his stuff, came upon a snake lying all snug in the bale, he’d be floored too, because natural history isn’t part of their business training, and they wouldn’t be quite sure whether it was a big worm or a boa constrictor.”
The Commissioner was amused.
“You’ve an altogether unexpected sense of humour,” he said, “and the moral is——”
“That the unexpected always floors you, whether it’s humour or crime,” said Falmouth, and went away fairly pleased with himself.
In his room he found a waiting messenger.
“A lady to see you, sir.”
“Who is it?” he asked in surprise.
The messenger handed him a slip of paper and when he read it he whistled.
“The unexpected, by ——! Show her up.”
On the paper was written—“The Woman of Gratz.”
- Literally, "Head off."