"Now, Gabriel," said Max, "I will have to blindfold you--not that I mistrust you, but that I have to satisfy the laws of our society and the scruples of others."
This was said just before we opened the door. He folded a silk handkerchief over my face, and led me down the steps and seated me in a carriage. He gave some whispered directions to the driver, and away we rolled. It was a long drive. At last I observed that peculiar salty and limy smell in the air, which told me we were approaching the river. The place was very still and solitary. There were no sounds of vehicles or foot-passengers. The carriage slowed up, and we stopped.
"This way," said Max, opening the door of the carriage, and leading me by the hand. We walked a few steps; we paused; there were low whisperings. Then we descended a long flight of steps; the air had a heavy and subterranean smell; we hurried forward through a large chamber. I imagined it to be the cellar of some abandoned warehouse; the light came faintly through the bandage over my face, and I inferred that a guide was carrying a lantern before us. Again we stopped. There was more whispering and the rattle of paper, as if the guards were examining some document. The whispering was renewed; then we entered and descended again a flight of steps, and again went forward for a short distance. The air was very damp and the smell earthy. Again I heard the whispering and the rattling of paper. There was delay. Some one within was sent for and came out. Then the door was flung open, and we entered a room in which the air appeared to be drier than in those we had passed through, and it seemed to be lighted up. There were
little movements and stirrings of the atmosphere which indicated that there were a number of persons in the room. I stood still.
Then a stern, loud voice said:
"Gabriel Weltstein, hold up your right hand."
I did so. The voice continued:
"You do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that the statements you are about to make are just and true; that you are incited to make them neither by corruption, nor hate, nor any other unworthy motive; and that you will tell the truth and all the truth; and to this you call all the terrors of the unknown world to witness; and you willingly accept death if you utter anything that is false."
I bowed my head.
"What brother vouches for this stranger?" asked the same stern voice.
Then I heard Maximilian. He spoke as if he was standing near my side. He said:
"I do. If I had not been willing to vouch for him with my life, I should not have asked to bring him--not a member of our Brotherhood--into this presence. He saved my life; he is a noble, just and honorable man--one who loves his kind, and would bless and help them if he could. He has a story to tell which concerns us all."
"Enough," said the voice. "Were you present in the council-chamber of the Prince of Cabano last night? If so, tell us what you saw and heard?"
Just then there was a slight noise, as if some one was moving quietly toward the door behind me, by which I had just entered. Then came another voice, which I had not before heard--a thin, shrill, strident, imperious voice--a voice that it seemed to me I should recognize again among a million. It cried out:
"Back to your seat! Richard, tell the guards to permit no one to leave this chamber until the end of our meeting."
There was a shuffling of feet, and whispering, and then again profound silence.
"Proceed," said the stern voice that had first spoken.
Concealing all reference to Estella, and omitting to name Rudolph, whom I referred to simply as one of their Brotherhood known to Maximilian, I told, in the midst of a grave-like silence, how I had been hidden in the room next to the council-chamber; and then I went on to give a concise history of what I had witnessed and heard.
"Uncover his eyes!" exclaimed the stern voice.
Maximilian untied the handkerchief. For a moment or two I was blinded by the sudden glare of light. Then, as my eyes recovered their function, I could see that I stood, as I had supposed, in the middle of a large vault or cellar. Around the room, on rude benches, sat perhaps one hundred men. At the end, on a sort of dais, or raised platform, was a man of gigantic stature, masked and shrouded. Below him, upon a smaller elevation, sat another, whose head, I noticed even then, was crooked to one side. Still below him, on a level with the floor, at a table, were two men who seemed to be secretaries. Every man present wore a black mask and a long cloak of dark material. Near me stood one similarly shrouded, who, I thought, from the size and figure, must be Maximilian.
It was a solemn, silent, gloomy assemblage, and the sight of it thrilled through my very flesh and bones. I was not frightened, but appalled, as I saw all those eyes, out of those expressionless dark faces, fixed upon me. I felt as if they were phantoms, or dead men, in whom only the eyes lived.
The large man stood up. He was indeed a giant. He seemed to uncoil himself from his throne as he rose.
"Unmask," he said.
There was a rustle, and the next moment the masks were gone and the cloaks had fallen down.
It was an extraordinary assemblage that greeted my eyes;
a long array of stern faces, dark and toil-hardened, with great, broad brows and solemn or sinister eyes.
Last night I had beheld the council of the Plutocracy. Here was the council of the Proletariat. The large heads at one end of the line were matched by the large heads at the other. A great injustice, or series of wrongs, working through many generations, had wrought out results that in some sense duplicated each other. Brutality above had produced brutality below; cunning there was answered by cunning here; cruelty in the aristocrat was mirrored by cruelty in the workman. High and low were alike victims--unconscious victims--of a system. The crime was not theirs; it lay at the door of the shallow, indifferent, silly generations of the past.
My eyes sought the officers. I noticed that Maximilian was disguised--out of an excess of caution, as I supposed--with eye-glasses and a large dark mustache. His face, I knew, was really beardless.
I turned to the president. Such a man I had never seen before. He was, I should think, not less than six feet six inches high, and broad in proportion. His great arms hung down until the monstrous hands almost touched the knees. His skin was quite dark, almost negroid; and a thick, close mat of curly black hair covered his huge head like a thatch. His face was muscular, ligamentous; with great bars, ridges and whelks of flesh, especially about the jaws and on the forehead. But the eyes fascinated me. They were the eyes of a wild beast, deep-set, sullen and glaring; they seemed to shine like those of the cat-tribe, with a luminosity of their own. This, then--I said to myself--must be Cæsar, the commander of the dreaded Brotherhood.
A movement attracted me to the man who sat below him; he had spoken to the president.
He was in singular contrast with his superior. He was old and withered. One hand seemed to be shrunken, and his head was permanently crooked to one side. The face was
mean and sinister; two fangs alone remained in his mouth; his nose was hooked; the eyes were small, sharp, penetrating and restless; but the expanse of brow above them was grand and noble. It was one of those heads that look as if they had been packed full, and not an inch of space wasted. His person was unclean, however, and the hands and the long finger-nails were black with dirt. I should have picked him out anywhere as a very able and a very dangerous man. He was evidently the vice-president of whom the spy had spoken--the nameless Russian Jew who was accounted "the brains of the Brotherhood."
"Gabriel Weltstein," said the giant, in the same stern, loud voice, "each person in this room will now pass before you,--the officers last; and,--under the solemn oath you have taken,--I call upon you to say whether the spy you saw last night in the council-chamber of the Prince of Cabano is among them. But first, let me ask, did you see him clearly, and do you think you will be able to identify him?"
"Yes," I replied; "he faced me for nearly thirty minutes, and I should certainly know him if I saw him again."
"Brothers," said the president, "you will now------"
But here there was a rush behind me. I turned toward the door. Two men were scuffling with a third, who seemed to be trying to break out. There were the sounds of a struggle; then muttered curses; then the quick, sharp report of a pistol. There was an exclamation of pain and more oaths; knives flashed in the air; others rushed pell-mell into the melee; and then the force of numbers seemed to triumph, and the crowd came, dragging a man forward to where I stood. His face was pale as death; the blood, streamed from a flesh wound on his forehead; an expression of dreadful terror glared out of his eyes; he gasped and looked from right to left. The giant had descended from his dais. He strode forward. The wretch was laid at my feet.
"Speak," said Cæsar, "is that the man?"
"It is," I replied.
The giant took another step, and he towered over the prostrate wretch.
"Brothers," he asked, "what is your judgment upon the spy?"
"Death!" rang the cry from a hundred throats.
The giant put his hand in his bosom; there was a light in his terrible face as if he had long waited for such an hour.
"Lift him up," he said.
Two strong men held the spy by his arms; they lifted him to his feet; he writhed and struggled and shrieked, but the hands that held him were of iron.
"Stop!" said the thin, strident voice I had heard before, and the cripple advanced into the circle. He addressed the prisoner:
"Were you followed to this place?"
"Yes, yes," eagerly cried the spy. "Spare me, spare me, and I will tell you everything. Three members of the police force were appointed to follow, in a carriage, the vehicle that brought me here. They were to wait about until the meeting broke up and then shadow the tallest man and a crook-necked man to their lodgings and identify them. They are now waiting in the dark shadows of the warehouse."
"Did you have any signal agreed upon with them?" asked the cripple.
"Yes," the wretch replied, conscious that he was giving up his associates to certain death, but willing to sacrifice the whole world if he might save his own life. "Spare me, spare me, and I win tell you all."
"Proceed," said the cripple.
"I would not trust myself to be known by them. I agreed with Prince Cabano upon a signal between us. I am to come
to them, if I need their help, and say: 'Good evening, what time is it?' The reply is, 'It is thieves' time.' Then I am to say, 'The more the better;' and they are to follow me."
"Richard," said the cripple, "did you hear that?"
"Take six men with you; leave them in the brew-house cellar; lead the police thither; throw the bodies in the river."
The man called Richard withdrew, with his men, to his work of murder.
The prisoner rolled his eyes appealingly around that dreadful circle.
"Spare me!" he cried. "I know the secrets of the banks. I can lead you into the Prince of Cabano's house. Do not kill me.
"Is that all?" asked the giant.
"Yes," replied the cripple.
In an instant the huge man, like some beast that had been long held back from its prey, gave a leap forward, his face revealing terrible ferocity; it was a tiger that glares, plunges and devours. I saw something shining, brilliant and instantaneous as an electric flash; then there was the sound of a heavy blow. The spy sprang clean out of the hands that were holding him, high up in the air; and fell, close to me, stone dead. He had been dead, indeed, when he made that fearful leap. His heart was split in twain. His spring was not the act of the man; it was the protest of the body against the rush of the departing spirit; it was the clay striving to hold on to the soul.
The giant stooped and wiped his bloody knife upon the clothes of the dead man. The cripple laughed a crackling, hideous laugh. I hope God will never permit me to hear such a laugh again. Others took it up--it echoed all around the room. I could think of nothing but the cachinnations of the fiends as the black gates burst open and new hordes of souls are flung, startled and shrieking, into hell.
"Thus die all the enemies of the Brotherhood!" cried the thin voice of the cripple.
And long and loud they shouted.
"Remove the body through the back door," said the giant, "and throw it into the river."
"Search his clothes first," said the cripple.
They did so, and found the money which the Prince had ordered to be given him--it was the price of his life--and also a bundle of papers. The former was handed over to the treasurer of the Brotherhood; the latter were taken possession of by the vice-president.
Then, resuming his seat, the giant said:
"Gabriel Weltstein, the Brotherhood thank you for the great service you have rendered them. We regret that your scruples will not permit you to become one of us; but we regard you as a friend and we honor you as a man; and if at any time the Brotherhood can serve you, be assured its full powers shall be put forth in your behalf."
I was too much shocked by the awful scene I had just witnessed to do more than bow my head.
"There is one thing more," he continued, "we shall ask of you; and that is that you will repeat your story once again to another man, who will soon be brought here. We knew from Maximilian what you were about to tell, and we made our arrangements accordingly. Do not start," he said, "or look alarmed--there will be no more executions."
Turning to the men, he said: "Resume your masks." He covered his own face, and all the rest did likewise.