Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
VIII. Council of the Godless
Someone exclaimed in an accent of alarm: "Number One!"
With a concerted turning of startled heads, a hasty thrusting back of chairs, the gathering rose in involuntary deference. That is, five rose as one; and, after a moment during which his spirit of insubordination faltered and failed, the Englishman got awkwardly to his feet and stood abashed and sullen.
The one to remain seated was the Irishman so well turned out by Conduit Street; who made no move more than slightly to elevate supercilious brows and slouch a little lower in his chair, glancing from face to face of the circle, then back to the cold countenance presented by the author of the abrupt interruption.
This last stood quietly beside the eighth chair, a hand on its carved arm, one foot on the edge of the dais. A long robe of black silk enveloped him; on its bosom a Chinese unicorn was embroidered. His girdle clasp was of Imperial jade set with rubies. The girdle itself was yellow. A great ruby button, nearly an inch in diameter, set in a mounting of worked gold, crowned a hat like an inverted round bowl. His black silk shoes were heavy with golden embroidery, and had white soles an inch thick. Authority lent inches to his stature, so that he seemed to dominate his company physically as well as spiritually.
A pace or two in the rear Shaik Tsin, with impassive face and arms folded in voluminous sleeves, waited as might a bodyguard.
A sardonic glimmer in eyes half visible under heavy lids alone betrayed relish of the situation, the homage commanded and the sensation created by this inopportune and unheralded arrival: deliberately Number One mounted the dais and posed himself in the throne-like chair. Then, as his look read face after face, he smiled with twitching and disdainful nostrils.
"Gentlemen of the Council," he said, slowly, "I bow to you all. Pray be seated."
In confounded silence the six resumed their seats, while the seventh--who had not moved--lighted a cigarette, inhaled deeply, and through a veil of smoke continued to regard Number One with insolent eyes.
"I fear my arrival was ill-timed, gentlemen. Seven had the floor, and I confess to finding what I happened to overhear extremely interesting. If he will be good enough to continue ..."
The Irishman gave a light, derisive laugh. Shifting uneasily in his chair, the man in the checked suit flushed darkly, then stiffened his spine, hardened his eyes, set his jaw, and faced Number One defiantly.
"You 'eard ... I 'olds by w'at I said."
"I am to understand, then, you think it time for me to abdicate and let another lead you in my stead?"
The Englishman assented with an inarticulate monosyllable and a surly nod.
"And may one ask why?"
"Blue's plice in Pekin Street was r'ided this afternoon," Seven announced truculently. "But per'aps you didn't know--"
"Not until some time before the news reached you," One replied, pleasantly. "And what of it?"
"Three fycers in a week, Gov'ner--anybody'll tell you that's comin' it a bit thick."
"Granted. What then?"
"That's only part of it. Tike last week: Eighteen pinched, the queer plant in 'Igh Street pulled by the coppers--"
"I know, I know. To your point!"
Seven hesitated under that steely stare. "I leave it to you, Gov'ner," he continued to stammer at length. "S'y you was me and I was Number One--w'at would you think?"
"Why, quite naturally, that some superior intelligence has latterly been collaborating with Scotland Yard."
"Aren't you a bit behindhand in arriving at that conclusion?" the Irishman suggested with an ill-dissembled sneer.
"No, Eleven," Number One replied, mildly, "since I arrived at it some time since."
"But took no measures--"
"You are in a position to state that as a fact?"
Eleven shrugged lightly. "Need I be? Does not our situation speak for itself?"
"Since you cannot be as thoroughly acquainted as I am with the situation, and since it seems I am required to account for my leadership or surrender it to you, Eleven ... I believe you have selected yourself to replace me as Number One, have you not?--that is to say, in the improbable event of my abdication."
"Improbable?" repeated the Irishman. "I wouldn't call it that."
"You are right," Number One assented, gravely: "unthinkable is the word. But you haven't answered my question."
"Oh, as for that, if the Council should see fit to appoint me Number One, I'd naturally do my best."
"And most noble of you, I'm sure. But rather than bring down any such disaster upon this organization, I will say now that measures have already been taken, and I am to-night in a position to promise you that the new spirit in Scotland Yard will no longer be a factor in our calculations."
"That wants proving," Eleven contended.
A spasm of anger shook the figure in the throne-like chair, but only for an instant; immediately the iron will of the man imposed rigid self-control; almost without pause he proceeded in level and civil accents:
"I think I can satisfy you and--this once--I consent to do so. But first, a question: Have you yourself formed any theory as to the identity of this hostile intelligence which has so hindered us of late?"
"I'd be a raw fool if I hadn't," the Irishman retorted. "We know the Lone Wolf has been hand-in-glove with the authorities ever since the British Secret Service used him during the war."
"You think, then, it is Lanyard--?"
"It's a wise saying: 'Set a thief to catch a thief.' I believe there's no man in England but Lanyard who has the wit and vision and audacity to fight us on our ground and win."
"I agree entirely. Therefore, I have this day tied the hands of the Lone Wolf; he will not again dare to contend against us."
Eleven sat up with a startled gesture.
"Are you meaning you've got the girl?"
Number One indulged a remote and chilly smile.
"Then you, too, noticed the advertisement? Accept my compliments, Eleven. Decidedly you might prove a dangerous rival--were I in a temper to countenance competition.... But it is true: I have the girl Sofia--the Lone Wolf's daughter."
The smile faded; the man on the dais looked down loftily.
"It is enough for you to know I have proved far-sighted and unfailing in my fidelity to our common cause."
"So you say ..."
Though the Irishman winced and fell silent under the cold glare of the other's eyes, the voice that answered him was level and passionless.
"I am not here to have my word challenged--or my authority. If any one of you imagines I am even thinking of surrendering the latter, under any conceivable circumstances, he is mad. And if any one of you doubts my power to enforce my will, I promise him ample proof of it before the night is ended.... Let us now proceed to business, the question held over from our last meeting. If Comrade Four will consult his minutes"--a nod singled out the babu, who, beaming with importance, produced a note-book--"they will show we adjourned to consider overtures made by the Smolny Institute of Petrograd, seeking our cooeperation toward accelerating the social revolution in England."
"Thatt," the Bengali affirmed, "is true bill of factt."
"If the temper in which you received those proposals is fair criterion," Number One resumed, "there can be little doubt as to our decision. Speaking for myself, I think it would be suicidal to reject the overtures of the Soviet Government in Russia. Let me state why."
He bowed his forehead upon a hand and continued with thoughtful gaze downcast:
"England is ripe for revolution. The social discontent resulting from the war has reached an acute stage. Only a spark is needed. It remains for us to decide whether to permit Russia to bring about the explosion or--bring it about ourselves. The soviet movement is irresistible, it will sweep England eventually as it has swept Russia, as it is now sweeping Germany, Hungary, Austria, Italy, as it must soon sweep France and Spain. Our power in England is great; even so, we could hope to do no more than delay the soviet movement were we to set ourselves against it--we could never hope to stop it. It would seem, then, self-preservation to set ourselves at the head of it, seize with our own hands--in the name of the British Soviet--the symbols of power now held by an antiquated and doddering Government. So shall we become to England what the Smolny Institute is to Russia. Otherwise, in the end, we must be crushed."
"If we adopt the indicated course, there will be an end forever to this hole-and-corner business which so hampers us, we will be able to work in the open, the police will become our tools rather than weapons in the hands of our enemies; our power will be without limits, Soviet Russia itself must bow to our dictation."
He paused and lifted his head, looking round the circle of intent faces.
"If I am wrong or too sanguine, I am ready to be corrected."
He heard only a murmur of admiration, never a note of dissent; and a smile of gratification, yet half satiric, curved his thin lips.
"I take it, then, the Council endorses my decision to proceed with the negotiations instituted by Soviet Russia; to accept its proposals and pledge our cooperation in every way?"
This time there was no mistaking the accuracy with which he had gauged the minds of his associates.
"One thing remains to be decided: a plan of action, something which will demand all that we have of imagination, ingenuity, common sense, and far prevision. We can afford to waste not a single ounce of strength: the blow, when we strike, must be sudden, sharp, merciless--irresistible. But if Thirteen is not over-confident of the discovery which he says he has to-day perfected, the means to deal just such a blow is ready to our hands.... Thirteen?"
A nod and gracious smile invited that one to speak. He rose, trembling a little with excitement, bowed to Number One and, delving into capacious pockets, produced a number of small tin canisters together with three sealed bottles of brown glass. Surveying these, as he arranged them on the teakwood table before him, he smiled a little to himself: the stars, it seemed to him, were warring in their courses in his behalf; this was to prove his hour of hours.
He began to speak in a quivering voice which soon grew more steady.
"It is true, Excellency--it is true, comrades--I have perfected a discovery which I offer as a free gift to the cause, and by means of which, intelligently employed, we can, if we will, make all London a graveyard. Put the resources of this organization at my command, give me a week to make the essential preparations, select a time of national crisis when the Houses of Parliament are sitting and the Cabinet meets in Downing Street with the King attending or in Buckingham Palace ..."
He paused and held the pause with a keen feeling for dramatic effect, his eyes seeking in turn the faces of his fellow conspirators, an insuppressible grin of malicious exultation twisting his scornful and mutinous mouth.
"Let this be done," he concluded, "and by means of these few tins and bottles which you see before you, in one brief hour the ruling classes will have perished almost to a man, there will be no more government of a tyrannical bourgeoisie to grind down the proletariat, a bloodless revolution will have made England the cradle of the new liberty!"
"Bloodless?" the man on the dais repeated; and even he was seen perceptibly to shudder at the prospect unfolded to the vision of his mind. "Yes--but more terrible than the massacre of the Huguenots, more savage than the French Revolution!"
"But I believe," the inventor commented, "your Excellency said we required the means to deal a 'blow sudden, sharp, merciless--irresistible'."
"Surely now," the Irishman suggested, mockingly--where a wiser man would have held his tongue--"you'll not be sticking at a small matter like wholesale murder if it's to make us masters of England?"
"Of England?" the German echoed. "Herr Gott! Of the world!"
"And you, Excellency, our master," the inventor added, shrewdly.
A sign at once impatient and imperative demanded silence, and for a few minutes it obtained unbroken, while the gathering, keyed to high tension, studied closely the face of their leader and found it altogether illegible.
On his part he seemed forgetful of the existence of anybody but himself, forgetful almost of himself as well: sitting low in his great chair, his body as stirless as it were bound by some spell of black magic, his far gaze probing unfathomable remotenesses of thought.
Slowly he recalled himself to his surroundings; with a suggestion of weariness he sat up and reviewed the little company that hung so breathlessly upon the issue of his judgment. The shadow of that satiric smile returned.
"If the thing be feasible," he promised, "it shall be done. It remains for Thirteen to be more explicit."
With an extravagant flourish the inventor whipped from his breastpocket a folded paper, and spread it out face uppermost on the table.
"A map of London," he announced, "based on the latest Ordnance Survey and coloured to show the districts supplied by the mains of each individual gas depot. Thus you will observe"--what his long, bony finger indicated--"the district supplied by the mains of the Westminster gas works, comprising Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, the War Office, and the Admiralty, Downing Street, the homes of hundreds of the aristocracy. All these we can at will turn into the deadliest of death traps."
A tense voice interrupted with the demand: "How?"
"Quite easily, comrade: with the ramifications of our power throughout London, all under the control of his Excellency"--the inventor bowed to Number One--"it should be an easy matter to place a few trustworthy men with the Westminster gas works."
"It can readily be done," Number One affirmed. "And then--?"
"While this is being done means must be found to smuggle other men, in the guise of servants, into the various buildings selected, or to corrupt those already so employed therein. At the designated hour--"
The words dried upon his lips as somewhere a hidden bell stabbed the quiet with short, sharp thrills of sound, a code that spelled a message of terrifying significance. The inventor started violently, but no more so than every man about the table. Even Number One, shocked out of his lounging pose, grasped the arms of his throne with convulsive hands.
Quietly and without a hint of hurry, the Chinese, Shaik Tsin, moved back into the shadows and, unnoticed, disappeared behind a screen.
For a moment, when the bell had ceased, nobody spoke; but pallid face consulted face and eyes grown wide with dread sought eyes that winced in terror.
Then the Bengali leaped from his chair, jabbering with bloodless lips.
"Police! Raid! We are betrayed!"
He made an uncertain turn, as if thinking to seek safety in flight but doubting which way to choose; and the movement struck panic into the minds and hearts of his fellows. In a twinkling all were on their feet. But before one could move a step the lamp in the ceiling winked out, the room was left in darkness unrelieved, and the accents of Number One were heard, coldly imperative.
"Gentlemen! be good enough to resume your places--let no one move before there is light again. We are in no immediate danger: Shaik Tsin will show you out by a secret way long before the police can hope to find and break into this chamber. In the meantime--"
The infuriated voice of the Englishman interrupted:
"And 'oo're you to give us orders?--you 'oo talked so big about 'avin' tied the 'ands of the Lone Wolf and Scotland Yard! You blarsted blow'ard! Bli'me if I don't believe it's you 'oo--"
"Quietly, Seven! Have you forgotten you have a bad heart?--that excitement may mean your sudden death?"
The rage of the Englishman ran out in a gasp and a whisper.
"In the meantime," Number One resumed as if there had been no break, "I promised that, before the night was out, you should have proof of my ability to enforce my will."
A groan of agony answered him, followed by an oath of witless fear. From a distance the voice, now thin but still sonorous, added:
"Thirteen will hold himself ready to wait on me when I send for him to-morrow. Gentlemen of the Council, I bow to you all."
Again silence held for a long minute during which no man stirred or spoke. Then overhead the lamp burned bright again, discovering six frightened men upon their feet and one who, still seated, did not stir, and never would again.
His head fallen forward, chin resting on his chest, mouth ajar, inert arms dangling over the arms of the chair, heavy legs lax, the Englishman sat quite dead, dead without a sign to show how death had come to him.
Number One had disappeared.
There was a remote rumour of cries and shouts, the muffled sound of axes crashing into woodwork....