The Four Just Men (1920)/Part 2/Chapter 4
THE RED BEAN
The Inner Council sent out an urgent call to the men who administer the affairs of the Red Hundred.
Starque came, François, the Frenchman, came, Hollom, the Italian, Paul Mirtisky, George Grabe, the American, and Lauder Bartholomew, the ex-captain of Irregular Cavalry, came also. Bartholomew was the best dressed of the men who gathered about the green table in Greek Street, for he had held the King’s commission, which is of itself a sartorial education. People who met him vaguely remembered his name and frowned. They had a dim idea that there was “something against him”, but were not quite sure what it was. It had to do with the South African War and a surrender—not an ordinary surrender, but an arrangement with the enemy on a cash basis, and the transference of stores. There was a court martial, and a cashiering, and afterwards Bartholomew came to England and bombarded first the War Office and then the press with a sheaf of type-written grievances. Afterwards he went into the theatrical line of business and appeared in music-hall sketches as “Captain Lauder Bartholomew—the Hero of Dopfontein”.
There were other chapters which made good reading, for he figured in a divorce case, ran a society newspaper, owned a few selling platers, and achieved the distinction of appearing in the Racing Calendar in a paragraph which solemnly and officially forbade his presence on Newmarket Heath.
That he should figure on the Inner Council of the Red Hundred is remarkable only in so far as it demonstrates how much out of touch with British sentiments and conditions is the average continental politician. For Bartholomew’s secret application to be enrolled a member of the Red Hundred had been received with acclamation and his promotion to the Inner Council had been rapid. Was he not an English officer—an aristocrat? A member of the most exclusive circle of English society? Thus argued the Red Hundred, to whom a subaltern in a scallywag corps did not differ perceptibly from a Commander of the Household Cavalry.
Bartholomew lied his way to the circle, because he found, as he had all along suspected, that there was a strong business end to terrorism. There were grants for secret service work, and with his fertile imagination it was not difficult to find excuses and reasons for approaching the financial executive of the Red Hundred at frequent intervals. He claimed intimacy with royal personages. He not only stated as a fact that he was in their confidence, but he suggested family ties which reflected little credit upon his progenitors.
The Red Hundred was a paying speculation; membership of the Inner Council was handsomely profitable. He had drawn a bow at a venture when under distress—literally it was a distress warrant issued at the instance of an importunate landlord—he had indited a letter to a revolutionary offering to act as London agent for an organization which was then known as The Friends of the People, but which has since been absorbed into the body corporate of the Red Hundred. It is necessary to deal fully with the antecedents of this man because he played a part in the events that are chronicled in the Council of Justice that had effects further reaching than Bartholomew, the mercenary of anarchism, could in his wildest moments have imagined.
He was one of the seven that gathered in the dingy drawing-room of a Greek Street boarding-house, and it was worthy of note that five of his fellows greeted him with a deference amounting to humility. The exception was Starque, who, arriving late, found an admiring circle hanging upon the words of this young man with the shifty eyes, and he frowned his displeasure.
Bartholomew looked up as Starque entered and nodded carelessly.
Starque took his place at the head of the table, and motioned impatiently to the others to be seated. One, whose duty it was, rose from his chair and locked the door. The windows were shuttered, but he inspected the fastenings; then, taking from his pocket two packs of cards, he scattered them in a confused heap upon the table. Every man produced a handful of money and placed it before him.
Starque was an ingenious man and had learnt many things in Russia. Men who gather round a green baize-covered table with locked doors are apt to be dealt with summarily if no adequate excuse for their presence is evident, and it is more satisfactory to be fined a hundred roubles for gambling than to be dragged off at a moment’s notice to an indefinite period of labour in the mines on suspicion of being concerned in a revolutionary plot.
Starque now initiated the business of the evening. If the truth be told, there was little in the earlier proceedings that differed from the procedure of the typical committee.
There were monies to be voted. Bartholomew needed supplies for a trip to Paris, where, as the guest of an Illustrious Personage, he hoped to secure information of vital importance to the Hundred.
“This is the fourth vote in two months, comrade,” said Starque testily, “last time it was for information from your Foreign Office, which proved to be inaccurate.”
Bartholomew shrugged his shoulders with an assumption of carelessness.
“If you doubt the wisdom of voting the money, let it pass,” he said; “my men fly high—I am not bribing policemen or sous-officiers of diplomacy.”
“It is not a question of money,” said Starque sullenly, “it is a question of results. Money we have in plenty, but the success of our glorious demonstration depends upon the reliability of our information.”
The vote was passed, and with its passing came a grim element into the council.
Starque leant forward and lowered his voice.
There are matters that need your immediate attention,” he said. He took a paper from his pocket, and smoothed it open in front of him. “We have been so long inactive that the tyrants to whom the name of Red Hundred is full of terror, have come to regard themselves as immune from danger. Yet,” his voice sank lower, “yet we are on the eve of the greatest of our achievements, when the oppressors of the people shall be moved at one blow! And we will strike a blow at kingship as shall be remembered in the history of the world aye, when the victories of Caesar and Alexander are forgotten and when the scenes of our acts are overlaid with the dust and debris of a thousand years. But that great day is not yet—first we must remove the lesser men that the blow may fall surer; first the servant, then the master.” He stabbed the list before him with a thick forefinger.
“Fritz von Hedlitz,” he read, “Chancellor to the Duchy of Hamburg-Altoona.”
He looked round the board and smiled.
“A man of some initiative, comrades—he foiled our attempt on his master with some cunning—do I interpret your desire when I say—death?”
It was a low murmured chorus.
Bartholomew, renegade and adventurer, said it mechanically. It was nothing to him a brave gentleman should die for no other reason than that he had served his master faithfully.
“Marquis de Santo-Strato, private secretary to the Prince of the Escorial,” read Starque.
“Death!” Again the murmured sentence.
One by one, Starque read the names, stopping now and again to emphasize some enormity of the man under review.
“Here is Hendrik Houssmann,” he said, tapping the paper, “of the Berlin Secret Police: an interfering man and a dangerous one. He has already secured the arrest and punishment of one of our comrades.”
“Death,” murmured the council mechanically.
The list took half an hour to dispose of.
“There is another matter,” said Starque.
The council moved uneasily, for that other matter was uppermost in every mind.
“By some means we have been betrayed,” the chairman went on, and his voice lacked that confidence which characterized his earlier speech; “there is an organization—an organization of reaction—which has set itself to thwart us. That organization has discovered our identity.” He paused a little.
“This morning I received a letter which named me president of the Inner Council and threatened me.” Again he hesitated.
“It was signed ‘The Four Just Men’.”
His statement was received in dead silence—a silence that perplexed him, for his compensation for the shock he had received had been the anticipation of the sensation his announcement would make.
He was soon enlightened as to the cause of the silence.
“I also have received a letter,” said François quietly.
Only Bartholomew did not speak, and he felt the unspoken accusation of the others.
“I have received no letter,” he said with an easy laugh—”only these.” He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and produced two beans. There was nothing peculiar in these save one was a natural black and the other had been dyed red.
“What do they mean?” demanded Starque suspiciously.
“I have not the slightest idea,” said Bartholomew with a contemptuous smile; “they came in a little box, such as jewellery is sent in, and were unaccompanied either by letter or anything of the kind. These mysterious messages do not greatly alarm me.”
“But what does it mean?” persisted Starque, and every neck was craned toward the seeds; “they must have some significance—think.”
“So far as I know, they are beyond explanation,” he said carelessly; “neither red nor black beans have played any conspicuous part in my life, so far as I——”
He stopped short and they saw a wave of colour rush to his face, then die away, leaving it deadly pale.
“Well?” demanded Starque; there was a menace in the question.
“Let me see,” faltered Bartholomew, and he took up the red bean with a hand that shook.
He turned it over and over in his hand, calling up his reserve of strength.
He could not explain, that much he realized.
The explanation might have been possible had he realized earlier the purport of the message he had received, but now with six pairs of suspicious eyes turned upon him, and with his confusion duly noted his hesitation would tell against him.
He had to invent a story that would pass muster.
“Years ago,” he began, holding his voice steady, “I was a member of such an organization as this: and—and there was a traitor.” The story was plain to him now, and he recovered his balance. “The traitor was discovered and we balloted for his life. There was an equal number for death and immunity, and I as president had to give the casting vote. A red bean was for life and a black for death—and I cast my vote for the man’s death.”
He saw the impression his invention had created and elaborated the story. Starque, holding the red bean in his hand, examined it carefully.
“I have reason to think that by my action I made many enemies, one of whom probably sent this reminder.” He breathed an inward sigh of relief as he saw the clouds of doubt lifting from the faces about him. Then——
“And the £1,000?” asked Starque quietly.
Nobody saw Bartholomew bite his lip, because his hand was caressing his soft black moustache. What they all observed was the well simulated surprise expressed in the lift of his eyebrows.
“The thousand pounds?” he said puzzled, then he laughed. “Oh, I see you, too, have heard the story—we found the traitor had accepted that sum to betray us—and this we confiscated for the benefit of the Society—and rightly so,” he added, indignantly.
The murmur of approbation relieved him of any fear as to the result of his explanation.
Even Starque smiled.
“I did not know the story,” he said, “but I did see the ‘£1,000’ which had been scratched on the side of the red bean; but this brings us no nearer to the solution of the mystery. Who has betrayed us to the Four Just Men?”
There came, as he spoke, a gentle tapping on the door of the room. François, who sat at the president’s right hand, rose stealthily and tiptoed to the door.
“Who is there?” he asked in a low voice.
Somebody spoke in German, and the voice carried so that every man knew the speaker.
“The Woman of Gratz,” said Bartholomew, and in his eagerness he rose to his feet.
If one sought for the cause of friction between Starque and the ex-captain of Irregular Cavalry, here was the end of the search. The flame that came to the eyes of these two men as she entered the room told the story.
Starque, heavily made, animal man to his fingertips, rose to greet her, his face aglow.
“Madonna,” he murmured, and kissed her hand.
She was dressed well enough, with a rich sable coat that fitted tightly to her sinuous figure, and a fur toque upon her beautiful head.
She held a gloved hand toward Bartholomew and smiled.
Bartholomew, like his rival, had a way with women; but it was a gentle way, overladen with Western conventions and hedged about with set proprieties. That he was a contemptible villain according to our conceptions is true, but he had received a rudimentary training in the world of gentlemen. He had moved amongst men who took their hats off to their womenkind, and who controlled their actions by a nebulous code. Yet he behaved with greater extravagance than did Starque, for he held her hand in his, looking into her eyes, whilst Starque fidgeted impatiently.
“Comrade,” at last he said testily, “we will postpone our talk with our little Maria. It would be bad for her to think that she is holding us from our work—and there are the Four——”
He saw her shiver.
“The Four?” she repeated. “Then they have written to you, also?”
Starque brought his fist with a crash down on the table.
“You—you! They have dared threaten you? By Heaven——”
“Yes,” she went on, and it seemed that her rich sweet voice grew a little husky; “they have threatened—me.”
She loosened the furs at her throat as though the room had suddenly become hot and the atmosphere unbreathable.
The torrent of words that came tumbling to the lips of Starque was arrested by the look in her face.
“It isn’t death that I fear,” she went on slowly; “indeed, I scarcely know what I fear.”
Bartholomew, superficial and untouched by the tragic mystery of her voice, broke in upon their silence. For silenced they were by the girl”s distress.
“With such men as we about, why need you notice the theatrical play of these Four Just Men?” he asked, with a laugh; then he remembered the two little beans and became suddenly silent with the rest.
So complete and inexplicable was the chill that had come to them with the pronouncement of the name of their enemy, and so absolutely did the spectacle of the Woman of Gratz on the verge of tears move them, that they heard then what none had heard before—the ticking of the clock.
It was the habit of many years that carried Bartholomew”s hand to his pocket, mechanically he drew out his watch, and automatically he cast his eyes about the room for the clock wherewith to check the time.
It was one of those incongruous pieces of commonplace that intrude upon tragedy, but it loosened the tongues of the council, and they all spoke together.
It was Starque who gathered the girl”s trembling hands between his plump palms.
“Maria, Maria,” he chided softly, “this is folly. What! the Woman of Gratz who defied all Russia—who stood before Mirtowsky and bade him defiance—what is it?”
The last words were sharp and angry and were directed to Bartholomew.
For the second time that night the Englishman”s face was white, and he stood clutching the edge of the table with staring eyes and with his lower jaw drooping.
“God, man!” cried Starque, seizing him by the arm, “what is it—speak—you are frightening her!”
“The clock!” gasped Bartholomew in a hollow voice, “where—where is the clock?”
His staring eyes wandered helplessly from side to side.
“Listen,” he whispered, and they held their breath. Very plainly indeed did they hear the “tick—tick—tick.”
“It is under the table,” muttered François.
Starque seized the cloth and lifted it. Underneath, in the shadow, he saw the black box and heard the ominous whir of clockwork.
“Out!” he roared and sprang to the door.
It was locked and from the outside.
Again and again he flung his huge bulk against the door, but the men who pressed round him, whimpering and slobbering in their pitiable fright, crowded about him and gave him no room.
With his strong arms he threw them aside left and right; then leapt at the door, bringing all his weight and strength to bear, and the door crashed open.
Alone of the party the Woman of Gratz preserved her calm. She stood by the table, her foot almost touching the accursed machine, and she felt the faint vibrations of its working. Then Starque caught her up in his arms and through the narrow passage he half led, half carried her, till they reached the street in safety.
The passing pedestrians saw the dishevelled group, and, scenting trouble, gathered about them.
“What was it? What was it?” whispered François, but Starque pushed him aside with a snarl.
A taxi was passing and he called it, and lifting the girl inside, he shouted directions and sprang in after her.
As the taxi whirled away, the bewildered Council looked from one to the other.
They had left the door of the house wide open and in the hall a flickering gas-jet gyrated wildly.
“Get away from here,” said Bartholomew beneath his breath.
“But the papers—the records,” said the other wringing his hands.
Bartholomew thought quickly.
The records were such as could not be left lying about with impunity. For all he knew these madmen had implicated him in their infernal writings. He was not without courage, but it needed all he possessed to re-enter the room where a little machine in a black box ticked mysteriously.
“Where are they?” he demanded.
“On the table,” almost whispered the other. “Mon Dieu! what disaster!” The Englishman made up his mind.
He sprang up the three steps into the hall. Two paces brought him to the door, another stride to the table. He heard the “tick” of the machine, he gave one glance to the table and another to the floor, and was out again in the street before he had taken two long breaths.
François stood waiting, the rest of the men had disappeared.
“The papers! the papers!” cried the Frenchman.
“Gone!” replied Bartholomew between his teeth.
Less than a hundred yards away another conference was being held.
“Manfred,” said Poiccart suddenly—there had been a lull in the talk—”shall we need our friend?”
“Meaning the admirable Mr. Jessen?”
“I think so,” said Manfred quietly; “I am not so sure that the cheap alarm-clock we put in the biscuit box will be a sufficient warning to the Inner Council—here is Leon.”
Gonsalez walked into the room and removed his overcoat deliberately.
Then they saw that the sleeve of his dress coat was torn, and Manfred remarked the stained handkerchief that was lightly bound round one hand.
“Glass,” explained Gonsalez laconically. “I had to scale a wall.”
“Well?” asked Manfred.
“Very well,” replied the other; “they bolted like sheep, and I had nothing to do but to walk in and carry away the extremely interesting record of sentences they have passed.”
“What of Bartholomew?”
Gonsalez was mildly amused.
“He was less panicky than the rest—he came back to look for the papers.”
“I think so,” said Leon. “I noticed he left the black bean behind him in his flight—so I presume we shall see the red.”
“It will simplify matters,” said Manfred gravely.