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CHAPTER XIII

THE “RATIONAL FAITHERS”


In the handsomely furnished sitting-room of a West Kensington flat, Gonsalez and Poiccart sat over their post-prandial cigars, each busy with his own thoughts. Poiccart tossed his cigar into the fireplace and pulled out his polished briar and slowly charged it from a gigantic pouch. Leon watched him under half-closed lids, piecing together the scraps of information he had collected from his persistent observation.

“You are getting sentimental, my friend,” he said.

Poiccart looked up inquiringly.

“You were smoking one of George”s cigars without realizing it. Halfway through the smoke you noticed the band had not been removed, so you go to tear it off. By the band you are informed that it is one of George’s favourite cigars, and that starts a train of thought that makes the cigar distasteful to you, and you toss it away.”

Poiccart lit his pipe before replying.

“Spoken like a cheap little magazine detective,” he said frankly. “If you would know I was aware that it was George’s, and from excess of loyalty I was trying to smoke it; halfway through I reluctantly concluded that friendship had its limits; it is you who are sentimental.”

Gonsalez closed his eyes and smiled. “There”s another review of your book in the Evening Mirror tonight,” Poiccart went on maliciously; “have you seen it?”

The recumbent figure shook its head.

“It says,” the merciless Poiccart continued, “that an author who can make Morocco as dull as you have done, would make——”

“Spare me,” murmured Gonsalez half asleep.

They sat for ten minutes, the tick-tick of the little clock on the mantelpiece and the regular puffs from Poiccart”s pipe breaking the silence.

“It would seem to me,” said Gonsalez, speaking with closed eyes, “that George is in the position of a master who has set his two pupils a difficult problem to solve, quite confident that, difficult as it is, they will surmount all obstacles and supply the solution.”

“I thought you were asleep,” said Poiccart.

“I was never more awake,” said Gonsalez calmly. “I am only marshalling details. Do you know Mr. Peter Sweeney?”

“No,” said Poiccart.

“He”s a member of the Borough Council of Chelmsford. A great and a good man.”

Poiccart made no response.

“He is also the head and front of the “Rational Faith” movement, of which you may have heard.”

“I haven’t,” admitted Poiccart, stolid but interested.

“The ‘Rational Faithers,’” Gonsalez explained sleepily, “are an off shoot of the New Unitarians, and the New Unitarians are a hotch-potch people with grievances.”

Poiccart yawned.

“The ‘Rational Faithers,’” Gonsalez went on, “have a mission in life, they have also a brass band, and a collection of drivelling songs, composed, printed and gratuitously distributed by Mr. Peter Sweeney, who is a man of substance.”

He was silent after this for quite a minute.

“A mission in life, and a nice loud brassy band—the members of which are paid monthly salaries—by Peter.”

Poiccart turned his head and regarded his friend curiously.

“What is all this about?” he asked.

“The ‘Rational Faithers,’” the monotonous Gonsalez continued, “are the sort of people who for all time have been in the eternal minority. They are against things, against public-houses, against music-halls, against meat eating, and vaccination—and capital punishment,” he repeated softly.

Poiccart waited.

Years ago they were regarded as a nuisance—rowdies broke up their meetings; the police prosecuted them for obstruction, and some of them were sent to prison and came out again, being presented with newly furbished haloes at meat breakfasts—Peter presiding.

“Now they have lived down their persecutions—martyrdom is not to be so cheaply bought—they are an institution like the mechanical spinning jenny and fashionable socialism—which proves that if you go on doing things often enough and persistently, saying with a loud voice, ‘pro bono publico,’ people will take you at your own valuation, and will tolerate you.”

Poiccart was listening intently now.

“These people demonstrate—Peter is really well off, with heaps of slum property, and he has lured other wealthy ladies and gentlemen into the movement. They demonstrate on all occasions. They have chants—Peter calls them ‘chants,’ and it is a nice distinction, stamping them as it does with the stamp of semi-secularity—for these festive moments, chants for the confusion of vaccinators, and eaters of beasts, and such. But of all their ‘Services of Protest’ none is more thorough, more beautifully complete, than that which is specially arranged to express their horror and abhorrence of capital punishment.”

His pause was so long that Poiccart interjected an impatient—

“Well?”

“I was trying to think of the chant,” said Leon thoughtfully. “If I remember right one verse goes—


Come fight the gallant fight,
This horror to undo;
Two blacks will never make a white,
Nor legal murder too.


“The last line,” said Gonsalez tolerantly, “is a trifle vague, but it conveys with delicate suggestion the underlying moral of the poem. There is another verse which has for the moment eluded me, but perhaps I shall think of it later.”

He sat up suddenly and leant over, dropping his hand on Poiccart’s arm.

“When we were talking of—our plan the other day you spoke of our greatest danger, the one thing we could not avoid. Does it not seem to you that the ‘Rational Faithers’ offer a solution with their querulous campaigns, their demonstrations, their brassy brass band, and their preposterous chants?”

Poiccart pulled steadily at his pipe.

“You’re a wonderful man, Leon,” he said.

Leon walked over to the cupboard, unlocked it, and drew out a big portfolio such as artists use to carry their drawings in. He untied the strings and turned over the loose pages. It was a collection that had cost the Four Just Men much time and a great deal of money.

“What are you going to do?” asked Poiccart, as the other, slipping off his coat and fixing his pince-nez, sat down before a big plan he had extracted from the portfolio. Leon took up a fine drawing-pen from the table, examined the nib with the eye of a skilled craftsman, and carefully uncorked a bottle of architect’s ink.

“Have you ever felt a desire to draw imaginary islands?” he asked, “naming your own bays, christening your capes, creating towns with a scratch of your pen, and raising up great mountains with herringbone strokes? Because I’m going to do something like that—I feel in that mood which in little boys is eloquently described as ‘trying,’ and I have the inclination to annoy Scotland Yard.”

It was the day before the trial that Falmouth made the discovery. To be exact it was made for him. The keeper of a Gower Street boarding house reported that two mysterious men had engaged rooms. They came late at night with one portmanteau bearing divers foreign labels; they studiously kept their faces in the shadow, and the beard of one was obviously false. In addition to which they paid for their lodgings in advance, and that was the most damning circumstance of all. Imagine mine host, showing them to their rooms, palpitating with his tremendous suspicion, calling to the full upon his powers of simulation, ostentatiously nonchalant, and impatient to convey the news to the police- station round the corner. For one called the other Leon, and they spoke despairingly in stage whispers of “poor Manfred”.

They went out together, saying they would return soon after midnight, ordering a fire for their bedroom, for the night was wet and chilly.

Half an hour later the full story was being told to Falmouth over the telephone.

“It’s too good to be true,” was his comment, but gave orders. The hotel was well surrounded by midnight, but so skilfully that the casual passer-by would never have suspected it. At three in the morning, Falmouth decided that the men had been warned, and broke open their doors to search the rooms. The portmanteau was their sole find. A few articles of clothing, bearing the “tab” of a Parisian tailor, was all they found till Falmouth, examining the bottom of the portmanteau, found that it was false.

“Hullo!” he said, and in the light of his discovery the exclamation was modest in its strength, for, neatly folded, and cunningly hidden, he came upon the plans. He gave them a rapid survey and whistled. Then he folded them up and put them carefully in his pocket.

“Keep the house under observation,” he ordered. “I don’t expect they’ll return, but if they do, take ’em.”

Then he flew through the deserted streets as fast as a motor-car could carry him, and woke the chief commissioner from a sound sleep.

“What is it?” he asked as he led the detective to his study.

Falmouth showed him the plans.

The commissioner raised his eyebrows, and whistled.

“That’s what I said,” confessed Falmouth.

The chief spread the plans upon the big table.

“Wandsworth, Pentonville and Reading,” said the commissioner, “Plans, and remarkably good plans, of all three prisons.”

Falmouth indicated the writing in the cramped hand and the carefully ruled lines that had been drawn in red ink.

“Yes, I see them,” said the commissioner, and read “‘Wall 3 feet thick—dynamite here, warder on duty here—can be shot from wall, distance to entrance to prison hall 25 feet; condemned cell here, walls 3 feet, one window, barred 10 feet 3 inches from ground.”

“They”ve got the thing down very fine—what is this—Wandsworth?”

“It’s the same with the others, sir,” said Falmouth. “They’ve got distances, heights and posts worked out; they must have taken years to get this information.”

“One thing is evident,” said the commissioner; “they’ll do nothing until after the trial—all these plans have been drawn with the condemned cell as the point of objective.”

Next morning Manfred received a visit from Falmouth.

“I have to tell you, Mr. Manfred,” he said, “that we have in our possession full details of your contemplated rescue.”

Manfred looked puzzled.

“Last night your two friends escaped by the skin of their teeth, leaving behind them elaborate plans——”

“In writing?” asked Manfred, with his quick smile.

“In writing,” said Falmouth solemnly. “I think it is my duty to tell you this, because it seems that you are building too much upon what is practically an impossibility, an escape from gaol.”

“Yes,” answered Manfred absently, “perhaps so—in writing I think you said.”

“Yes, the whole thing was worked out”—he thought he had said quite enough, and turned the subject. “Don’t you think you ought to change your mind and retain a lawyer?”

“I think you’re right,” said Manfred slowly. “Will you arrange for a member of some respectable firm of solicitors to see me?”

“Certainly,” said Falmouth, “though you’ve left your defence——”

“Oh, it isn’t my defence,” said Manfred cheerfully; “only I think I ought to make a will.”