THE KINGDOM OF THE BLIND
by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Lady Anselman stood in the centre of the lounge at the Ritz Hotel and with a delicately-poised forefinger counted her guests. There was the great French actress who had every charm but youth, chatting vivaciously with a tall, pale-faced man whose French seemed to be as perfect as his attitude was correct. The popular wife of a great actor was discussing her husband's latest play with a Cabinet Minister who had the air of a school-boy present at an illicit feast. A very beautiful young woman, tall and fair, with grey-blue eyes and a wealth of golden, almost yellow hair, was talking to a famous musician. A little further in the background, a young man in the uniform of a naval lieutenant was exchanging what seemed to be rather impressive chaff with a petite but exceedingly good-looking girl. Lady Anselman counted them twice, glanced at the clock and frowned.
"I can't remember whom we are waiting for!" she exclaimed a little helplessly to the remaining guest, a somewhat tired-looking publisher who stood by her side. "I am one short. I dare say it will come to me in a minute. You know every one, I suppose, Mr. Daniell?"
The publisher shook his head.
"I have met Lord Romsey and also Madame Selarne," he observed. "For the rest, I was just thinking what a stranger I felt."
"The man who talks French so well," Lady Anselman told him, dropping her voice a little, "is Surgeon-Major Thomson. He is inspector of hospitals at the front, or something of the sort. The tall, fair girl—isn't she pretty!—is Geraldine Conyers, daughter of Admiral Sir Seymour Conyers. That's her brother, the sailor over there, talking to Olive Moreton; their engagement was announced last week. Lady Patrick of course you know, and Signor Scobel, and Adelaide Cunningham—you do know her, don't you, Mr. Daniell? She is my dearest friend. How many do you make that?"
The publisher counted them carefully.
"Eleven including ourselves," he announced.
"And we should be twelve," Lady Anselman sighed. "Of course!" she added, her face suddenly brightening. "What an idiot I am! It's Ronnie we are waiting for. One can't be cross with him, poor fellow. He can only just get about."
The fair girl, who had overheard, leaned across. The shade of newly awakened interest in her face, and the curve of her lips as she spoke, added to her charm. A gleam of sunlight flashed upon the yellow-gold of her plainly coiled hair.
"Is it your nephew, Captain Ronald Granet, who is coming?" she asked a little eagerly.
Lady Anselman nodded.
"He only came home last Tuesday with dispatches from the front," she said. "This is his first day out."
"Ah! but he is wounded, perhaps?" Madame Selarne inquired solicitously.
"In the left arm and the right leg," Lady Anselman assented. "I believe that he has seen some terrible fighting, and we are very proud of his D. S. O. The only trouble is that he is like all the others—he will tell us nothing."
"He shows excellent judgment," Lord Romsey observed.
Lady Anselman glanced at her august guest a little querulously.
"That is the principle you go on, nowadays, isn't it?" she remarked. "I am not sure that you are wise. When one is told nothing, one fears the worst, and when time after time the news of these small disasters reaches us piecemeal, about three weeks late, we never get rid of our forebodings, even when you tell us about victories.... Ah! Here he comes at last," she added, holding out both her hands to the young man who was making his somewhat difficult way towards them. "Ronnie, you are a few minutes late but we're not in the least cross with you. Do you know that you are looking better already? Come and tell me whom you don't know of my guests and I'll introduce you."
The young man, leaning upon his stick, greeted his aunt and murmured a word of apology. He was very fair, and with a slight, reddish moustache and the remains of freckles upon his face. His grey eyes were a little sunken, and there were lines about his mouth which one might have guessed had been brought out recently by pain or suffering of some sort. His left arm reclined uselessly in a black silk sling. He glanced around the little assembly.
"First of all," he said, bowing to the French actress and raising her fingers to his lips, "there is no one who does not know Madame Selarne. Lady Patrick, we have met before, haven't we? I am going to see your husband in his new play the first night I am allowed out. Mr. Daniell I have met, and Lord Romsey may perhaps do me the honour of remembering me," he added, shaking hands with the Cabinet Minister.
He turned to face Geraldine Conyers, who had been watching him with interest. Lady Anselman at once introduced them.
"I know that you haven't met Miss Conyers because she has been asking about you. This is my nephew Ronnie, Geraldine. I hope that you will be friends."
The girl murmured something inaudible as she shook hands. The young soldier looked at her for a moment. His manner became almost serious.
"I hope so, too," he said quietly.
"Olive, come and make friends with my nephew if you can spare a moment from your young man," Lady Anselman continued. "Captain Granet—Miss Olive Moreton. And this is Geraldine's brother—Lieutenant Conyers."
The two men shook hands pleasantly. Lady Anselman glanced at the clock and turned briskly towards the corridor.
"And now, I think," she announced, "luncheon."
As she moved forward, she was suddenly conscious of the man who had been talking to Madame Selarne. He had drawn a little on one side and he was watching the young soldier with a curious intentness. She turned back to her nephew and touched him on the arm.
"Ronnie," she said, "I don't know whether you have met Surgeon-Major Thomson in France? Major Thomson, this is my nephew, Captain Granet."
Granet turned at once and offered his hand to the other man. Only Geraldine Conyers, who was a young woman given to noticing things, and who had also reasons of her own for being interested, observed the rather peculiar scrutiny with which each regarded the other. Something which might almost have been a challenge seemed to pass from one to the other.
"I may not have met you personally," Granet admitted, "but if you are the Surgeon-Major Thomson who has been doing such great things with the Field Hospitals at the front, then like nearly every poor crock out there I owe you a peculiar debt of gratitude. You are the man I mean, aren't you?" the young soldier concluded cordially.
Major Thomson bowed, and a moment later they all made their way along the corridor, across the restaurant, searched for their names on the cards and took their places at the table which had been reserved for them. Lady Anselman glanced around with the scrutinising air of the professional hostess, to see that her guests were properly seated before she devoted herself to the Cabinet Minister. She had a word or two to say to nearly every one of them.
"I have put you next Miss Conyers, Ronnie," she remarked, "because we give all the good things to our men when they come home from the war. And I have put you next Olive, Ralph," she went on, turning to the sailor, "because I hear you are expecting to get your ship to-day or to-morrow, so you, too, have to be spoiled a little. As a general rule I don't approve of putting engaged people together, it concentrates conversation so. And, Lord Romsey," she added, turning to her neighbour, "please don't imagine for a moment that I am going to break my promise. We are going to talk about everything in the world except the war. I know quite well that if Ronnie has had any particularly thrilling experiences, he won't tell us about them, and I also know that your brain is packed full of secrets which nothing in the world would induce you to divulge. We are going to try and persuade Madame to tell us about her new play," she concluded, smiling at the French actress, "and there are so many of my friends on the French stage whom I must hear about."
Lord Romsey commenced his luncheon with an air of relief. He was a man of little more than middle-age, powerfully built, inclined to be sombre, with features of a legal type, heavily jawed. "Always tactful, dear hostess," he murmured. "As a matter of fact, nothing but the circumstance that it was your invitation and that Madame Selarne was to be present, brought me here to-day. It is so hard to avoid speaking of the great things, and for a man in my position," he added, dropping his voice a little, "so difficult to say anything worth listening to about them, without at any rate the semblance of indiscretion."
"We all appreciate that," Lady Anselman assured him sympathetically. "Madame Selarne has promised to give us an outline of the new play which she is producing in Manchester."
"If that would interest you all," Madame Selarne assented, "it commences—so!"
For a time they nearly all listened in absorbed silence. Her gestures, the tricks of her voice, the uplifting of her eyebrows and shoulders—all helped to give life and colour to the little sketch she expounded. Only those at the remote end of the table ventured upon an independent conversation. Mrs. Cunningham, the woman whom her hostess had referred to as being her particular friend, and one who shared her passion for entertaining, chatted fitfully to her neighbour, Major Thomson. It was not until luncheon was more than half-way through that she realised the one-sidedness of their conversation. She studied him for a moment curiously. There was something very still and expressionless in his face, even though the sunshine from the broad high windows which overlooked the Park, was shining full upon him.
"Tell me about yourself!" she insisted suddenly. "I have been talking rubbish quite long enough. You have been out, haven't you?"
He assented gravely.
"I went with the first division. At that time I was in charge of a field hospital."
"I am Chief Inspector of Field Hospitals," he replied.
"You are home on leave?"
"Not exactly," he told her, a shade of stiffness in his manner. "I have to come over very often on details connected with the administration of my work."
"I should have known quite well that you were a surgeon," she observed.
"You are a physiognomist, then?"
"More or less," she admitted. "You see, I love people. I love having people around me. My friends find me a perfect nuisance, for I am always wanting to give parties. You have the still, cold face of a surgeon—and the hands, too," she added, glancing at them.
"You are very observant," he remarked laconically.
"I am also curious," she laughed, "as you are about to discover. Tell me why you are so interested in Ronnie Granet? You hadn't met him before, had you?"
Almost for the first time he turned and looked directly at his neighbour. She was a woman whose fair hair was turning grey, well-dressed, sprightly, agreeable. She had a humorous mouth and an understanding face.
"Captain Granet was a stranger to me," he assented. "One is naturally interested in soldiers, however."
"You must have met thousands like him," she remarked,—"good-looking, very British, keen sportsman, lots of pluck, just a little careless, hating to talk about himself and serious things. I have known him since he was a boy."
Major Thomson continued to be gravely interested.
"Granet!" he said to himself thoughtfully, "Do I know any of his people, I wonder?"
"You know some of his connections, of course," Mrs. Cunningham replied briskly. "Sir Alfred Anselman, for instance, his uncle."
"His father and mother?"
"They are both dead. There is a large family place in Warwickshire, and a chateau, just now, I am afraid, in the hands of the Germans. It was somewhere quite close to the frontier. Lady Granet was an Alsatian. He was to have gone out with the polo team, you know, to America, but broke a rib just as they were making the selection. He played cricket for Middlesex once or twice, too and he was Captain of Oxford the year that they did so well."
"An Admirable Crichton," Major Thomson murmured.
"In sport, at any rate," his neighbour assented. "He has always been one of the most popular young men about town, but of course the women will spoil him now."
"Is it my fancy," he asked, "or was he not reported a prisoner?"
"He was missing twice, once for over a week," Mrs. Cunningham replied. "There are all sorts of stories as to how he got back to the lines. A perfect young dare-devil, I should think. I must talk to Mr. Daniell for a few minutes or he will never publish my reminiscences."
She leaned towards her neighbour on the other side and Major Thomson was able to resume the role of attentive observer, a role which seemed somehow his by destiny. He listened without apparent interest to the conversation between Geraldine Conyers and the young man whom they had been discussing.
"I think," Geraldine complained, "that you are rather overdoing your diplomatic reticence, Captain Granet. You haven't told me a single thing. Why, some of the Tommies I have been to see in the hospitals have been far more interesting than you."
"I can assure you," he protested, "it isn't my fault. You can't imagine how fed up one gets with things out there, and the newspapers can tell you ever so much more than we can. One soldier only sees a little bit of his own corner of the fight, you know."
"But can't you tell me some of your own personal experiences?" she persisted. "They are so much more interesting than what one reads in print."
"I never had any," he assured her. "Fearfully slow time we had for months."
"Of course, I don't believe a word you say," she declared, laughing.
"You're not taking me for a war correspondent, by any chance, are you?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"Your language isn't sufficiently picturesque! Tell me, when are you going back?"
"As soon as I can pass the doctors-in a few days, I hope."
"You hope?" she repeated. "Do you really mean that, or do you say it because it is the proper thing to say?"
He appeared for the moment to somewhat resent her question.
"The fact that I hope to get back," he remarked coldly, "has nothing whatever to do with my liking my job when I get there. As a matter of fact, I hate it. At the same time, you can surely understand that there isn't any other place for a man of my age and profession."
"Of course not," she agreed softly. "I really am sorry that I bothered you. There is one thing I should like to know, though and that is how you managed to escape?"
He shook his head but his amiability seemed to have wholly returned. His eyes twinkled as he looked at her.
"There we're up against a solid wall of impossibility," he replied. "You see, some of our other chaps may try the dodge. I gave them the tip and I don't want to spoil their chances. By-the-bye, do you know the man two places down on your left?" he added dropping his voice a little. "Looks almost like a waxwork figure, doesn't he?"
"You mean Major Thomson? Yes, I know him," she assented, after a moment's hesitation. "He is very quiet to-day, but he is really most interesting."
Their hostess rose and beamed on them all from her end of the table.
"We have decided," she announced, "to take our coffee out in the lounge."
The little party trooped out of the restaurant and made their way to a corner of the lounge, where tables had already been prepared with coffee and liqueurs. Geraldine Conyers and Captain Granet, who had lingered behind, found a table to themselves. Lady Anselman laid her fingers upon Major Thomson's arm.
"Please talk for a few more minutes to Selarne," she begged. "Your French is such a relief to her."
He obeyed immediately, although his eyes strayed more than once towards the table at which Captain Granet and his companion were seated. Madame Selarne was in a gossipy mood and they found many mutual acquaintances.
"To speak a foreign language as you do," she told him, "is wonderful. Is it in French alone, monsieur, that you excel, or are you, perhaps, a great linguist?"
"I can scarcely call myself that," he replied, "but I do speak several other languages. In my younger days I travelled a good deal."
"German, perhaps, too?" she inquired with a little grimace.
"I was at a hospital in Berlin," he confessed.
Lady Anselman's party was suddenly increased by the advent of some acquaintances from an adjoining table, all of whom desired to be presented to Madame Selarne. Major Thomson, set at liberty, made his way at once towards the small table at which Captain Granet and Geraldine Conyers were seated. She welcomed him with a smile.
"Are you coming to have coffee with us?" she asked?
"If I may," he answered. "I shall have to be off in a few minutes."
A waiter paused before their table and offered a salver on which were several cups of coffee and liqueur glasses. Captain Granet leaned forward in his place and stretched out his hand to serve his companion. Before he could take the cup, however, the whole tray had slipped from the waiter's fingers, caught the corner of the table, and fallen with its contents on to the carpet. The waiter himself—a small, undersized person with black, startled eyes set at that moment in a fixed and unnatural stare—made one desperate effort to save himself and then fell backwards. Every one turned around, attracted by the noise of the falling cups and the sharp, half-stifled groan which broke from the man's lips. Captain Granet sprang to his feet.
"Good heavens! The fellow's in a fit!" he exclaimed.
The maitre d'hotel and several waiters came hurrying up towards the prostrate figure, by the side of which Major Thomson was already kneeling. The manager, who appeared upon the scene as though by magic, and upon whose face was an expression of horror that his clients should have been so disturbed, quickly gave his orders. The man was picked up and carried away. Major Thomson followed behind. Two or three waiters in a few seconds succeeded in removing the debris of the accident, the orchestra commenced a favourite waltz. The maitre d'hotel apologised to the little groups of people for the commotion—they were perhaps to blame for having employed a young man so delicate—he was scarcely fit for service.
"He seemed to be a foreigner," Lady Anselman remarked, as the man addressed his explanations to her.
"He was a Belgian, madam. He was seriously wounded at the commencement of the war. We took him direct from the hospital."
"I hope the poor fellow will soon recover," Lady Anselman declared. "Please do not think anything more of the affair so far as we are concerned. You must let me know later on how he is."
The maitre d'hotel retreated with a little bow. Geraldine turned to Captain Granet.
"I think," she said, "that you must be very kind-hearted, for a soldier."
He turned and looked at her.
"You must have been so many horrible sights—so many dead people, and yet—"
"Well?" he persisted.
"There was something in your face when the man staggered back, a kind of horror almost. I am sure you felt it quite as much as any of us."
He was silent for a moment.
"In a battlefield," he observed slowly, "one naturally becomes a little callous, but here it is different. The fellow did look ghastly ill, didn't he? I wonder what was really the matter with him."
"We shall know when Major Thomson returns," she said.
Granet seemed scarcely to hear her words. A curious fit of abstraction had seized him. His head was turned towards the corridor, he seemed to be waiting.
"Queer sort of stick, Thomson," he remarked presently. "Is he a great friend of yours, Miss Conyers?"
She hesitated for a moment.
"I have known him for some time."
Something in her tone seemed to disturb him. He leaned towards her quickly. His face had lost its good-humoured indifference. He was evidently very much in earnest.
"Please don't think me impertinent," he begged, "but—is he a very great friend?"
She did not answer. She was looking over his shoulder towards where Major Thomson, who had just returned, was answering a little stream of questions.
"The man is in a shockingly weak state," he announced. "He is a Belgian, has been wounded and evidently subjected to great privations. His heart is very much weakened. He had a bad fainting fit, but with a long rest he may recover."
The little party broke up once more into groups. Granet, who had drawn for a moment apart and seemed to be adjusting the knots of his sling, turned to Thomson.
"Has he recovered consciousness yet?" he asked.
"Barely," was the terse reply.
"There was no special cause for his going off like that, I suppose?"
Surgeon-Major Thomson's silence was scarcely a hesitation. He was standing perfectly still, his eyes fixed upon the young soldier.
"At present," he said, "I am not quite clear about that. If you are ready, Geraldine?"
She nodded and they made their farewells to Lady Anselman. Granet looked after them with a slight frown. He drew his aunt on one side for a moment.
"Why is Miss Conyers here without a chaperon?" he asked. "And why did she go away with Thomson?"
Lady Anselman laughed.
"Didn't she tell you?"
"Tell me what?" he insisted eagerly.
Lady Anselman looked at her nephew curiously.
"Evidently," she remarked, "your progress with the young lady was not so rapid as it seemed, or she would have told you her secret—which, by-the-bye, isn't a secret at all. She and Major Thomson are engaged to be married."
A few rays of fugitive sunshine were brightening Piccadilly when Geraldine and her escort left the Ritz. The momentary depression occasioned by the dramatic little episode of a few minutes ago, seemed already to have passed from the girl's manner. She walked on, humming to herself. As they paused to cross the road, she glanced as though involuntarily at her companion. His dark morning clothes and rather abstracted air created an atmosphere of sombreness about him of which she was suddenly conscious.
"Hugh, why don't you wear uniform in town?" she asked.
"Why should I?" he replied. "After all, I am not really a fighting man, you see."
"It's so becoming," she sighed.
He seemed to catch the reminiscent flash in her eyes as she looked down the street, and a shadow of foreboding clouded his mind.
"You found Captain Granet interesting?"
"Very," she assented heartily. "I think he is delightful, don't you?"
"He certainly seems to be a most attractive type of young man," Thomson admitted.
"And how wonderful to have had such adventures!" she continued. "Life has become so strange, though, during the last few months. To think that the only time I ever saw him before was at a polo match, and to-day we sit side by side in a restaurant, and, although he won't speak of them, one knows that he has had all manner of marvellous adventures. He was one of those who went straight from the playing fields to look for glory, wasn't he, Hugh? He made a hundred and thirty-two for Middlesex the day before the war was declared."
"That's the type of young soldier who's going to carry us through, if any one can," Major Thomson agreed cheerfully.
She suddenly clutched at his arm.
"Hugh," she exclaimed, pointing to a placard which a newsboy was carrying, "that is the one thing I cannot bear, the one thing which I think if I were a man would turn me into a savage!"
They both paused and read the headlines—
PASSENGER STEAMER TORPEDOED WITHOUT WARNING IN THE IRISH SEA. TWENTY-TWO LIVES LOST.
"That is the sort of thing," she groaned, "which makes one long to be not a man but a god, to be able to wield thunderbolts and to deal out hell!"
"Good for you, Gerry," a strong, fresh voice behind them declared. "That's my job now. Didn't you hear us shouting after you, Olive and I? Look!"
Her brother waved a telegram.
"You've got your ship?" Thomson inquired.
"I've got what I wanted," the young man answered enthusiastically. "I've got a destroyer, one of the new type—forty knots an hour, a dear little row of four-inch guns, and, my God! something else, I hope, that'll teach those murderers a lesson," he added, shaking his fist towards the placard.
Geraldine laid her hand upon her brother's arm.
"When do you join, Ralph?"
"To-morrow night at Portsmouth," he replied. "I'm afraid we shall be several days before we are at work. It's the Scorpion they're giving me, Gerald—or the mystery ship, as they call it in the navy."
"Why?" she asked.
His rather boyish face, curiously like his sister's, was suddenly transformed.
"Because we've got a rod in pickle for those cursed pirates—"
"Conyers!" Thomson interrupted.
The young man paused in his sentence. Thomson was looking towards him with a slight frown upon his forehead.
"Don't think I'm a fearful old woman," he said. "I know we are all rather fed up with these tales of spies and that sort of thing, but do you think it's wise to even open your lips about a certain matter?"
"What the dickens do you know about it?" Conyers demanded.
"Nothing," Thomson assured him hastily, "nothing at all. I am only going by what you said yourself. If there is any device on the Scorpion for dealing with these infernal craft, I'd never breathe a word about it, if I were you. I'd put out to sea with a seal upon my lips, even before Geraldine here and Miss Moreton."
The young man's cheeks were a little flushed.
"Perhaps you're right," he admitted. "I was a little over-excited. To get the Scorpion was more, even, than I had dared to hope for. Still, before the girls it didn't seem to matter very much. There are no spies, anyhow, hiding in the trees of Berkeley Street," he added, glancing about them.
Thomson held up his finger and stopped a taxicab.
"You won't be annoyed with me, will you?" he said to Conyers. "If you'd heard half the stories I had of the things we have given away quite innocently—"
"That's all right," the young man interrupted, "only you mustn't think I'm a gas-bag just because I said a word or two here before Gerry and Olive and you, old fellow."
"Must you go, Hugh?" Geraldine asked.
"I am so sorry," he replied, "but I must. I really have rather an important appointment this afternoon."
"An appointment!" she grumbled. "You are in London for so short a time and you seem to be keeping appointments all the while. I sha'n't let you go unless you tell me what it's about."
"I have to inspect a new pattern of camp bedstead," he explained calmly. "If I may, I will telephone directly I am free and see if you are at liberty."
She shrugged her shoulders but gave him a pleasant little nod as he stepped into the taxi.
"Sober old stick, Thomson," her brother observed, as they started off. "I didn't like his pulling me up like that but I expect he was right."
"I don't see what business it was of his and I think it was rather horrid of him," Olive declared. "As though Gerry or I mattered!"
"A chap like Thomson hasn't very much discretion, you see," Ralph Conyers remarked. "You'll have to wake him up a bit, Gerry, if you mean to get any fun out of life."
There was just the faintest look of trouble in Geraldine's face. She remained perfectly loyal, however.
"Some of us take life more seriously than others," she sighed. "Hugh is one of them. When one remembers all the terrible things he must have seen, though, it is very hard to find fault with him."
They turned into the Square and paused before Olive's turning.
"You're coming down with me, Ralph, and you too, Geraldine?" she invited.
Conyers shook his head regretfully.
"I'm due at the Admiralty at four to receive my final instructions," he said. "I must move along at once."
The smile suddenly faded from his lips. He seemed to be listening to the calling of the newsboys down the street. "I don't know what my instructions are going to be," he continued, dropping his voice a little, "but I'm sick of making war the way our chaps are doing it. If ever I'm lucky enough to get one of those murderous submarines, I can promise you one thing—there'll be no survivors."
For a moment or two they neither of them spoke. From out of the windows of the house before which they were standing came the music of a popular waltz. Olive turned a way with a little shiver.
"You think I'm brutal, dear," Conyers went on, as he patted her hand. "Remember, I've seen men killed—that's what makes the difference, Olive. Yes, I am different! We are all different, we who've tackled the job. Thomson's different. Your young man at luncheon, Geraldine—what's his name?—Granet—he's different. There's something big and serious grown up inside us, and the brute is looking out. It has to be. I'll come in later, Olive. Tell the mater I shall be home to dinner, Geraldine. The governor's waiting down at the Admiralty for me. Good-bye, girls!"
He waved his hand and strode down towards the corner of the Square. Both girls watched him for a few moments. His shoulders were as square as ever but something had gone from the springiness of his gait. There was nothing left of the sailor's jaunty swagger.
"They are all like that," Geraldine whispered "when they've been face to face with the real thing. And we are only women, Olive."
Surgeon-Major Thomson had apparently forgotten his appointment to view camp bedsteads, for, a few minutes after he had left Geraldine and her brother, his taxicab set him down before a sombre-looking house in Adelphi Terrace. He passed through the open doorway, up two flights of stairs, drew a key of somewhat peculiar shape from his pocket and opened a door in front of him. He found himself in a very small hall, from which there was no egress save through yet another door, through which he passed and stepped into a large but singularly bare-looking apartment. Three great safes were ranged along one side of the wall, piles of newspapers and maps were strewn all over a long table, and a huge Ordnance map of the French and Belgian Frontiers stood upon an easel. The only occupant of the apartment was a man who was sitting before a typewriter in front of the window. He turned his head and rose at Thomson's entrance, a rather short, keen-looking young man, his face slightly pitted with smallpox, his mouth hard and firm, his eyes deep-set and bright.
"Anything happened, Ambrose?"
"A dispatch, sir," was the brief reply.
"From the War Office?"
"No, sir, it came direct."
Thomson drew the thin sheet of paper from its envelope and swept a space for himself at the corner of the table. Then he unlocked one of the safes and drew out from an inner drawer a parchment book bound in brown vellum. He spread out the dispatch and read it carefully. It had been handed in at a town near the Belgian frontier about eight hours before:—
Fifty thousand camp bedsteads are urgently required for neighbourhood of La Guir. Please do your best for us, the matter is urgent. Double mattress if possible. London.
For a matter of ten minutes Thomson was busy with his pencil and the code-book. When he had finished, he studied thoughtfully the message which he had transcribed:—
Plans for attack on La Guir communicated. Attack foiled. Believe Smith in London.
"Anything important, sir?" the young man at the typewriter asked.
Thomson nodded but made no immediate reply. He first of all carefully destroyed the message which he had received, and the transcription, and watched the fragments of paper burn into ashes. Then he replaced the code-book in the safe, which he carefully locked, and strolled towards the window. He stood for several minutes looking out towards the Thames.
"The same thing has happened again at La Guir," he said at last.
"None. They say that he is in London now."
The two men looked at one another for a moment in grave silence. Ambrose leaned back in his chair and frowned heavily.
"Through our lines, through Boulogne, across the Channel, through Dover Station, out of Charing-Cross, through our own men and the best that Scotland Yard could do for us. In London, eh?"
Thomson's face twitched convulsively. His teeth had come together with a little snap.
"You needn't play at being headquarters, Ambrose," he said hoarsely. "I know it seems like a miracle but there's a reason for that."
"What is it?" Ambrose asked.
"Only a few weeks after the war began," Thomson continued thoughtfully, "two French generals, four or five colonels, and over twenty junior and non-commissioned officers were court-martialled for espionage. The French have been on the lookout for that sort of thing. We haven't. There isn't one of these men who are sitting in judgment upon us to-day, Ambrose, who would listen to me for a single moment if I were to take the bull by the horns and say that the traitor we seek is one of ourselves."
"You're right," Ambrose murmured, "but do you believe it?"
"I do," Thomson asserted. "It isn't only the fact of the attacks themselves miscarrying, but it's the knowledge on the other side of exactly how best to meet that attack. It's the exact knowledge they have as to our dispositions, our most secret and sudden change of tactics. We've suffered enough, Ambrose, in this country from civil spies—the Government are to blame for that. But there are plenty of people who go blustering about, declaring that two of our Cabinet Ministers ought to be hung, who'd turn round and give you the life if you hinted for a moment that the same sort of thing in a far worse degree was going on amongst men who are wearing the King's uniform."
"It's ugly," Ambrose muttered, "damned ugly!"
"Look at me," Major Thomson continued thoughtfully. "Every secret connected with our present and future plans practically passes through my hands, yet no one watches me. Whisper a word at the War Office that perhaps it would be as well—just for a week, say—to test a few of my reports, and they'd laugh at you with the air of superior beings listening to the chatter of a fool. Yet what is there impossible about it? I may have some secret vice—avarice, perhaps. Germany would give me the price of a kingdom for all that I could tell them. Yet because I am an English officer I am above all suspicion. It's magnificent, Ambrose, but it's damnably foolish."
The young man watched his chief for several moments. Thomson was standing before the window, the cold spring light falling full upon his face, with its nervous lines and strongly-cut, immobile features. He felt a curious indisposition to speak, a queer sort of desire to wait on the chance of hearing more.
"A single kink in my brain," Thomson continued, "a secret weakness, perhaps even a dash of lunacy, and I might be quite reasonably the master-spy of the world. I was in Berlin six weeks ago, Ambrose. There wasn't a soul who ever knew it. I made no report, on purpose."
"Perhaps they knew and said nothing," Ambrose suggested softly.
There was a moment's silence. Thomson seemed to be considering the idea with strange intensity. Then he shook his head.
"I think not," he decided. "When the history of this war is written, Ambrose, with flamboyant phrases and copious rhetoric, there will be unwritten chapters, more dramatic, having really more direct effect upon the final issue than even the great battles which have seemed the dominant factors. Sit tight here, Ambrose, and wait. I may be going over to Boulogne at any hour."
Thomson pushed on one side the curtains which concealed an inner room, and passed through. In a quarter of an hour he reappeared, dressed in uniform. His tone, his bearing, his whole manner were changed. He walked with a springier step, he carried a little cane and he was whistling softly to himself.
"I am going to one or two places in the Tottenham Court Road, by appointment," he announced, "to inspect some new patterns of camp bedsteads. You can tell them, if they ring up from Whitehall, that I'll report myself later in the evening."
Curiously enough, the other man, too had changed as though in sympathetic deference to his superior officer. He had become simply the obedient and assiduous secretary.
"Very good, sir," he said smoothly. "I'll do my best to finish the specifications before you return."
Lord Romsey, after his luncheon-party, spent an hour at his official residence in Whitehall and made two other calls on his way home. His secretary met him in the spacious hall of his house in Portland Square, a few moments after he had resigned his coat and hat to the footman.
"There is a gentleman here to see you who says that he made an appointment by telephone, sir," he announced. "His name is Sidney—the Reverend Horatio Sidney, he calls himself."
Lord Romsey stood for a moment without reply. His lips had come together in a hard, unpleasant line. It was obvious that this was by no means a welcome visitor.
"I gave no appointment, Ainsley," he remarked. "I simply said that I would see the gentleman when he arrived in England. You had better bring him to my study," he continued, "and be careful that no one interrupts us."
The young man withdrew and the Cabinet Minister made his way to his study. A little of the elasticity, however, had gone from his footsteps and he seated himself before his desk with the air of a man who faces a disagreeable quarter of an hour. He played for a moment with a pen-holder.
"The skeleton in the cupboard," he muttered to himself gloomily. "Even the greatest of us," he added, with a momentary return of his more inflated self, "have them."
There was a knock at the door and the secretary reappeared, ushering in this undesired visitor.
"This is Mr. Sidney, sir," he announced quietly.
The Cabinet Minister rose in his place and held out his hand in his best official style, a discrete mixture of reserve and condescension. His manner changed, however, the moment the door was closed. He withdrew his hand, which the other had made no attempt to grasp.
"I am according you the interview you desire," he said, pointing to a chair, "but I shall be glad if you will explain the purport of your visit in as few words as possible. You will, I hope, appreciate the fact that your presence here is a matter of grave embarrassment to me."
Mr. Sidney bowed. He was a tall and apparently an elderly man, dressed with the utmost sobriety. He accepted the chair without undue haste, adjusted a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and took some papers from his pocket.
"Sir," he began, speaking deliberately but without any foreign accent, "I am here to make certain proposals to you on behalf of a person who at your own request shall be nameless."
Lord Romsey frowned ponderously and tapped the desk by his side with his thick forefinger.
"I cannot prevent your speaking, of course," he said, "but I wish you to understand from the first that I am not in a position to deal with any messages or communications from your master, whoever he may be, or any one else in your country."
"Nevertheless," the other remarked drily, "my message must be delivered."
An impulse of curiosity struggled through the gloom and apprehension of Lord Romsey's manner. He gazed at his visitor with knitted brows.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "An Englishman?"
"It is of no consequence," was the colourless reply.
"But it is of consequence," Lord Romsey insisted. "You have dared to proclaim yourself an ambassador to me from a country with whom England is at war. Even a discussion between us amounts almost to treason. On second thoughts I decline to receive you."
He held out his hand towards the electric bell which stood on his study table. His visitor shook his head.
"I wouldn't adopt that attitude, if I were you," he said calmly. "You know why. If you are really curious about my nationality, there is no harm in telling you that I am an American citizen, that I have held for three years the post of American chaplain at Brussels. Better let me say what I have come to say."
Lord Romsey hesitated. His natural propensity for temporising asserted itself and his finger left the bell. The other continued.
"You are in the unfortunate position, Lord Romsey, of having failed absolutely in your duty towards your own country, and having grossly and traitorously deceived a personage who has always treated you with the greatest kindness. I am here to see if it is possible for you to make some amends."
"I deny every word you say," the Minister declared passionately, "and I refuse to hear your proposition."
Mr Sidney's manner suddenly changed. He leaned forward in his chair.
"Do not be foolish," he advised. "Your last letter to a certain personage was dated June second. I have a copy of it with me. Shall I read it to you, word by word?"
"Thank you, I remember enough of it," Lord Romsey groaned.
"You will listen, then to what I have to say," the envoy proceeded, "or that letter will be published in the Times to-morrow morning. You know what that will mean—your political ruin, your everlasting disgrace. What use will this country, blinded at the present moment by prejudice, have for a statesman, who without authority, pledged his Government to an alliance with Germany, who over his own signature—"
"Stop!" Lord Romsey interrupted. "There is no purpose in this. What is it you want?"
"Your influence in the Cabinet. You are responsible for this war. It is for you to end it."
"Rubbish!" the other exclaimed hoarsely. "You are attempting to saddle me with a responsibility like this, simply because my personal sympathies have always been on the side of the country you are representing."
"It is not a question of your personal sympathies," Mr. Sidney returned swiftly. "In black and white you pledged your Government to abstain from war against Germany."
"How could I tell," the statesman protested, "that Germany was thinking of tearing up treaties, of entering into a campaign of sheer and scandalous aggression?"
"You made no stipulations or conditions in what you wrote," was the calm reply. "You pledged your word that your Government would never declare war against Germany. You alluded to the French entente as an unnatural one. You spoke eloquently of the kinship of spirit between England and Germany."
Lord Romsey moved uneasily in his chair. He had expected to find this an unpleasant interview and he was certainly not being disappointed.
"Well, I was mistaken," he admitted. "What I said was true enough. I never did believe that the Government with which I was associated would declare war against Germany. Even now, let me tell you that there isn't a soul breathing who knows how close the real issue was. If your people had only chosen any other line of advance!"
"I have not come here to recriminate," Mr. Sidney declared. "That is not my mission. I am here to state our terms for refraining from sending your letters—your personal letters to the Kaiser—to the English Press."
Lord Romsey sprang to his feet.
"Good God, man! Do you know what you are saying?" he exclaimed.
"Perfectly," the other replied. "I told you that my errand was a serious one. Shall I proceed?"
The Minister slowly resumed his seat. From behind the electric lamp his face was ghastly white. In that brief pause which followed he seemed to be looking through the walls of the room into an ugly chapter of his future. He saw the headlines in the newspapers, the leading articles, the culmination of all the gossip and mutterings of the last few months, the end of his political career—a disgraceful and ignoble end! Surely no man had ever been placed in so painful a predicament. It was treason to parley. It was disgraceful to send this man away.
"Germany wants peace," his visitor continued calmly. "She may not have accomplished all she wished to have accomplished by this war, and she is still as strong as ever from a military point of view, but she wants peace. I need say no more than that."
Lord Romsey shook his head.
"Even if I had the influence, which I haven't," he began, "it isn't a matter of the Government at all. The country would never stand it."
"Then you had better convert the country," was the prompt reply. "Look upon it as your duty. Remember this—you are the man in all this world, and not the Kaiser, who is responsible for this war. But for your solemn words pledging your country to neutrality, Germany would never have forced the issue as she has done. Now it is for you to repair the evil. I tell you that we want peace. The first overtures may come ostensibly through Washington, if you will, but they must come in reality from you."
The Minister leaned back in his chair. His was the calmness of despair.
"You might as well ask me," he said simply, "to order our Fleet out of the North Sea."
Mr. Sidney rose to his feet.
"I think," he advised, "that you had better try what you can do, Lord Romsey. We shall give you little time. We may even extend it, if we find traces of your influence. You have two colleagues, at least, who are pacifists at heart. Take them on one side, talk in a whisper at first. Plant just a little seed but be careful that it grows. We do not expect impossibilities, only—remember what failure will mean to you."
Lord Romsey looked steadfastly at his visitor. Mr. Sidney was tall and spare, and there was certainly nothing of the Teuton or the American in his appearance or accent. His voice was characterless, his restraint almost unnatural. Relieved of his more immediate fears, the Minister was conscious of a renewed instinct of strong curiosity.
"How can I communicate with you, Mr.—Sidney?" he asked.
"In no way," the other replied. "When I think it advisable I shall come to see you again."
"Are you an American or a German or an Englishman?"
"I am whichever I choose for the moment," was the cool response. "If you doubt my credentials, I can perhaps establish myself in your confidence by repeating the conversation which took place between you and the Kaiser on the terrace of the Imperial Palace at Potsdam between three and four o'clock on the afternoon of April the seventh. You gave the Kaiser a little character sketch of your colleagues in the Cabinet, and you treated with ridicule the bare idea that one or two of them, at any rate, would ever consent—"
"That will do," the Minister interrupted hoarsely.
"Just as you will," the other observed. "I wish you good-day, sir. The issue is before you now quite plainly. Let us soon be able to appreciate the effect of your changed attitude."
Lord Romsey touched his bell in silence and his visitor took a grave and decorous leave. He walked with the secretary down the hall.
"These are sad days for all of us," he said benignly. "I have been telling Lord Romsey of some of my experiences in Brussels. I was American chaplain at the new church there when the war broke out. I have seen sights which I shall never forget, horrors the memory of which will never leave me."
The secretary nodded sympathetically. He was trying to get off early, however, and he had heard a good deal already about Belgium.
"Will you let one of the servants fetch you a taxicab?" he suggested.
"I prefer to walk a little distance," Mr. Sidney replied. "I am quite at home in London. I was once, in fact, invited to take up a pastorate here. I wish you good-day, sir. I have had a most interesting conversation with your chief, a conversation which will dwell for a long time in my memory."
The secretary bowed and Mr. Sidney walked slowly to the corner of the Square. Arrived there, he hailed a passing taxicab which drew up at once by the side of the kerb. In stepping in, he brushed the shoulder of a man who had paused to light a cigarette. He lingered for a moment to apologise.
"I beg your pardon," he commenced—
For a single moment his self-possession seemed to desert him. He looked into the cold, incurious face of the man in an officer's uniform who was already moving away, as though he had seen a ghost. His hesitation was a matter of seconds only, however.
"It was very clumsy of me," he concluded.
Major Thomson touched his cap as he moved off.
"Quite all right," he said serenely.
The room was a study in masculine luxury. The brown walls were hung with a choice selection of sporting prints, varied here and there with silverpoint etchings of beautiful women in various poses. There were a good many photographs, mostly signed, above the mantelpiece; a cigar cabinet, a case of sporting-rifles and shot guns, some fishing tackle, a case of books, distributed appropriately about the apartment. There were some warlike trophies displayed without ostentation, a handsome writing-table on which stood a telephone. On a thick green rug stretched in front of the fireplace, a fox terrier lay blinking at the wood fire. The room was empty and silent except for the slow ticking of an ancient clock which stood underneath an emblazoned coat of arms in the far corner. The end of a log broke off and fell hissing into the hearth. The fox terrier rose reluctantly to his feet, shook himself and stood looking at the smoking fragment in an aggrieved manner. Satisfied that no personal harm was intended to him, however, he presently curled himself up once more. Again the apartment seemed to become the embodiment of repose. The clock, after a hoarse wheezing warning, struck seven. The dog opened one eye and looked up at it. A few minutes later, the peace of the place was broken in a different fashion. There was the sound of a key being hastily fitted into the lock of the outside door. The dog rose to his feet expectantly. The door which led into the apartment was thrown open and hastily slammed to. A man, breathing heavily, stood for a moment upon the threshold, his head stooped a little as though listening. Then, without a glance, even, at the dog who jumped to greet him, he crossed the room with swift, stealthy footsteps. Before he could reach the other side, however, the door which faced him was opened. A man-servant looked inquiringly out.
"My bath and clothes, Jarvis, like hell!"
The man gilded away, his master following close behind. From somewhere further inside the flat, the sound of water running into a bath was heard. The door was closed, again there was silence. The fox terrier, after a few moments' scratching at the door, resumed his place upon the rug and curled himself up to renewed slumber.
The next interruption was of a different nature. The sharp, insistent summons of an electric bell from outside rang through the room. In a moment or two the man-servant appeared from the inner apartment, crossed the floor and presently reappeared, ushering in a visitor.
"Captain Granet is changing for dinner at present, sir," he explained. "If you will take a seat, however, he will be out presently. What name shall I say?"
The servant wheeled an easy-chair up towards the fire and placed by its side a small table on which were some illustrated papers. Then, with a little bow, he disappeared through the inner door. Major Thomson, who had been fingering the Sketch, laid it down the moment the door was closed. He leaned forward, his face a little strained. He had the air of listening intently. After a brief absence the man returned.
"Captain Granet will be with you in a few moments, sir," he announced.
"Please ask him not to hurry," Major Thomson begged.
The man withdrew and once more Thomson and the dog were alone. The latter, having made a few overtures of friendship which passed unnoticed, resumed his slumbers. Major Thomson sat upright in his easy-chair, an illustrated paper in his hand. All the time, however, his eyes seemed to be searching the room. His sense of listening was obviously quickened; he had the air, even, of thinking rapidly. Five—ten minutes passed. Then voices were heard from within and the door was suddenly opened. Captain Granet emerged and crossed the room, hobbling slightly towards his visitor.
"Awfully sorry to keep you like this," he remarked pleasantly. "The fact is I'd just got into my bath."
"I ought to apologise," his visitor replied, "for calling at such a time."
"Glad to see you, anyway," the other declared, pausing at his smoking-cabinet and bringing out some cigarettes. "Try one of these, won't you?"
"Not just now, thanks."
There was a moment's pause. Major Thomson seemed in no hurry to explain himself.
"Jolly luncheon party, wasn't it?" Granet remarked, lighting a cigarette for himself with some difficulty. "What an idiot it makes a fellow feel to be strapped up like this!"
"From what one reads of the fighting around Ypres," the other replied, "you were lucky to get out of it so well. Let me explain, if I may, why I have paid you this rather untimely call."
Captain Granet nodded amiably. He had made himself comfortable in an easy-chair and was playing with the dog, who had jumped on to his knee.
"I had some conversation on Thursday last," Major Thomson began, "with the Provost-Marshal of Boulogne. As you, of course, know, we have suffered a great deal, especially around Ypres, from the marvellous success of the German Intelligence Department. The Provost-Marshal, who is a friend of mine, told me that there was a special warning out against a person purporting to be an American chaplain who had escaped from Belgium. You don't happen to have heard of him, I suppose, do you?"
Captain Granet looked doubtful.
"Can't remember that I have," he replied. "They've been awfully clever, those fellows, though. The last few nights before our little scrap they knew exactly what time our relief parties came along. Several times we changed the hour. No use! They were on to us just the same."
Major Thompson nodded.
"Well," he continued, "I happened to catch sight of a man who exactly resembled the photograph which my friend the Provost-Marshal showed me, only a few minutes ago, and although I could not be sure of it, I fancied that he entered this building. It occurred to me that he might be paying a call upon you."
"Upon me?" he repeated.
"He is an exceedingly plausible fellow," Thomson explained, "and as you are just back from the Front, and brought dispatches, he might very possibly regard you as a likely victim."
"Can't make bricks without straw," Granet laughed, "and I know no more about the campaign than my two eyes have seen. I was saying only yesterday that, unless you have a staff billet, it's wonderful how little the ordinary soldier picks up as to what is going on. As a matter of fact, though," he went on, twisting the fox terrier's ear a little, "no one has called here at all except yourself, during the last hour or two. There aren't many of my pals know I'm back yet."
"Are there many other people living in the building?" Major Thomson asked.
"The ground-floor here," the other replied, "belongs to a prosperous cigarette manufacturer who lives himself upon the first floor. This is the second and above us are nothing but the servants' quarters. I should think," he concluded thoughtfully, "that you must have been mistaken about the fellow turning in here at all."
"Very likely," he admitted. "It was just a chance, any way."
"By-the-bye," Granet inquired curiously, looking up from the dog, "how did you know that I roomed here?"
"I happened to see you come in, or was it go out, the other day—I can't remember which," Major Thomson replied.
The telephone upon the table tinkled out a summons. Granet crossed the room and held the receiver to his ear.
"This is Captain Granet speaking," he said. "Who are you, please?"
The reply seemed to surprise him. He glanced across at his visitor.
"I shall be delighted," he answered into the instrument. "It is really very kind of you.... About a quarter past eight?... Certainly! You'll excuse my not being able to get into mufti, won't you?... Ever so many thanks.... Good-bye!"
He laid down the receiver and turned to Thomson.
"Rather a coincidence," he observed. "Seems I am going to see you to-night at dinner. That was Miss Geraldine Conyers who just rang up—asked me if I'd like to meet her brother again before he goes off. He is spending the afternoon at the Admiralty and she thought I might be interested."
Major Thomson's face was expressionless and his murmured word non-committal. Granet had approached the dark mahogany sideboard and was fingering some bottles.
"Let me mix you a cocktail," he suggested. "By Jove! That fellow Conyers would be the fellow for your American chaplain to get hold of. If he is spending the afternoon down at the Admiralty, he'll have all the latest tips about how they mean to deal with the submarines. I hear there are at least three or four new inventions which they are keeping dark. You like yours dry, I suppose?"
Thomson had risen to his feet and leaned forward towards the mirror for a moment to straighten his tie. When he turned around, he glanced at the collection of bottles Granet had been handling.
"I am really very sorry," he said. "I did not mean to put you to this trouble. I never drink cocktails."
Granet paused in shaking the silver receptacle, and laid it down.
"Have a whisky and soda instead?"
Thomson shook his head.
"If you will excuse me," he said, "I will drink your health at dinner-time. I have no doubt that your cocktails are excellent but I never seem to have acquired the habit. What do you put in them?"
"Oh! just both sorts of vermouth and gin, and a dash of something to give it a flavour," Granet explained carelessly.
Thomson touched a small black bottle, smelt it and put it down.
"What's that?" he asked.
"A mixture of absinth and some West Indian bitters," Granet replied. "A chap who often goes to the States brought it back for me. Gives a cocktail the real Yankee twang, he says."
Thomson nodded slowly.
"Rather a curious odour," he remarked. "We shall meet again, then, Captain Granet."
They walked towards the door. Granet held it open, leaning upon his stick.
"Many times, I trust," he observed politely.
There was a second's pause. His right hand was half extended but his departing guest seemed not to notice the fact. He merely nodded and put on his hat.
"It is a small world," he said, "especially, although it sounds paradoxical, in the big places."
He passed out. Granet listened to the sound of his retreating footsteps with a frown upon his forehead. Then he came back and stood for a moment upon the rug in front of the fire, deep in thought. The fox terrier played unnoticed about his feet. His face seemed suddenly to have become older and more thoughtful. He glanced at the card which Thomson had left upon the sideboard.
"Surgeon-Major Thomson," he repeated quietly to himself. "I wonder!"
Thomson walked slowly to the end of Sackville Street, crossed the road and made his way to the Ritz Hotel. He addressed himself to the head clerk of the reception counter.
"I am Surgeon-Major Thomson," he announced.
"I was lunching here to-day and attended one of the waiters who was taken ill afterwards. I should be very glad to know if I can see him for a few moments."
The man bowed politely.
"I remember you quite well, sir," he said. "A Belgian waiter, was it not? He has been taken away by a lady this afternoon."
"Taken away?" Thomson repeated, puzzled.
"The lady who was giving the luncheon—Lady Anselman—called and saw the manager about an hour ago," the man explained. "She has interested herself very much in the matter of Belgian refugees and is entertaining a great many of them at a house of hers near the seaside. The man is really not fit to work, so we were very glad indeed to pass him on to her."
"He recovered consciousness before he was removed, I suppose?" Thomson inquired.
"I believe so, sir. He seemed very weak and ill, though. In fact he had to be carried to the automobile."
"I suppose he didn't give any reason for his sudden attack?"
"None that I am aware of, sir."
Thomson stood for a moment deep in thought, then he turned away from the desk.
"Thank you very much indeed," he said to the clerk. "The man's case rather interested me. I think I shall ask Lady Anselman to allow me to visit him. Where did you say the house was?"
"Her ladyship did not mention the exact locality," the man replied. "I believe, however, that it is near the Isle of Wight."
"A most suitable neighbourhood," Major Thomson murmured, as he turned away from the hotel.
"I wonder why you don't like Captain Granet?" Geraldine asked her fiance, as they stood in the drawing-room waiting for dinner.
"Not like him?" Thomson repeated. "Have I really given you that impression, Geraldine?"
The girl nodded.
"Perhaps I ought not to say that, though," she confessed. "You are never particularly enthusiastic about people, are you?"
One of his rare smiles transfigured his face. He leaned a little towards her.
"Not about many people, Geraldine," he whispered.
She made a charming little grimace but a moment afterwards she was serious again.
"But really," she continued, "to me Captain Granet seems just the type of young Englishman who is going to save the country. He is a keen soldier, clever, modest, and a wonderful sportsman. I can't think what there is about him for any one to dislike."
Major Thomson glanced across the room. In a way, he and the man whom he felt instinctively was in some sense of the word his rival, even though an undeclared one, were of exactly opposite types. Granet was the centre of a little group of people who all seemed to be hanging upon his conversation. He was full of high spirits and humour, debonair, with all the obvious claims to popularity. Thomson, on the other hand, although good-looking, even distinguished in his way, was almost too slim and pale. His face was more the face of a scholar than of one interested in or anxious to shine in the social side of life. His manners and his speech were alike reserved, his air of breeding was apparent, but he had not the natural ease or charm which was making Granet, even in those few minutes, persona grata with Geraldine's mother and a little circle of newly-arrived guests.
"At least I appreciate your point of view," Major Thomson admitted, with a faint sigh.
"Don't be such a dear old stick," Geraldine laughed. "I want you to like him because I find him so interesting. You see, as he gets to know one a little better he doesn't seem to mind talking about the war. You others will scarcely say a word of what you have seen or of what is being done out there. I like to be told things by people who have actually seen them. He happened to be ten minutes early this evening and he gave me a most fascinating description of some skirmishing near La Bassee."
"You must remember," Thomson told her, "that personally I do not, in an ordinary way, see a great deal of fighting until the whole show is over. It may be a fine enough panorama when an attack is actually taking place, but there is nothing very inspiring in the modern battlefield when the living have passed away from it."
Geraldine shivered for a moment.
"Really, I almost wish that you were a soldier, too," she declared. "Your work seems to me so horribly gruesome. Come along, you know you are going to take me to dinner. Think of something nice to say. I really want to be amused."
"I will make a suggestion, then," he remarked as they took their places. "I don't know whether you will find it amusing, though. Why shouldn't we do like so many of our friends, and get married?"
She stared at him for a moment. Then she laughed heartily.
"Hugh," she exclaimed, "I can see through you! You've suddenly realised that this is your chance to escape a ceremony and a reception, and all that sort of thing. I call it a most cowardly suggestion."
"It rather appeals to me," he persisted. "It may be," he added, dropping his voice a little, "because you are looking particularly charming this evening, or it may be—"
She looked at him curiously.
"Go on, please," she murmured.
"Or it may be," he repeated, "a man's desire to be absolutely sure of the thing he wants more than anything else in the world."
There was a moment's silence. As though by some curious instinct which they both shared, they glanced across the table to where Granet had become the centre of a little babble of animated conversation. Geraldine averted her eyes almost at once, and looked down at her plate. There was a shade of uneasiness in her manner.
"You sounds very serious, Hugh," she observed.
"That is rather a failing of mine, isn't it?" he replied. "At any rate, I am very much in earnest."
There was another brief silence, during which Geraldine was addressed by her neighbour on the other side. Thomson, who was watching her closely, fancied that she accepted almost eagerly the opportunity of diversion. It was not until dinner was almost over that she abandoned a conversion into which she had thrown herself with spirit.
"My little suggestion," Thomson reminded her, "remains unanswered."
She looked down at her plate.
"I don't think you are really in earnest," she said.
"Am I usually a farceur?" he replied. "I think that my tendencies are rather the other way. I really mean it, Geraldine. Shall we talk about it later on this evening?"
"If you like," she agreed simply, "but somehow I believe that I would rather wait. Look at mother's eye, roving around the table. Give me my gloves, please, Hugh. Don't be long."
Thomson moved his chair next to his host's Geraldine's father, Admiral Sir Seymour Conyers, was a very garrulous old gentleman with fixed ideas about everything, a little deaf and exceedingly fond of conversation. He proceeded to give his prospective son-in-law a detailed lecture concerning the mismanagement of the field hospitals at the front, and having disposed of that subject, he opened a broadside attack upon the Admiralty. The rest of the men showed indications of breaking into little groups. Ralph Conyers and Granet were sitting side by side, engrossed in conversation. More than once Thomson glanced towards them.
"Wish I understood more about naval affairs," Granet sighed. "I'm a perfect ass at any one's job but my own. I can't see how you can deal with submarines at all. The beggars can stay under the water as long as they like, they just pop up and show their heads, and if they don't like the look of anything near, down they go again. I don't see how you can get at them, any way."
The young sailor smiled in a somewhat superior manner.
"We've a few ideas left still which the Germans haven't mopped up," he declared.
"Personally," the Admiral observed, joining in the conversation, "I consider the submarine danger the greatest to which this country has yet been exposed. No one but a nation of pirates, of ferocious and conscienceless huns, could have inaugurated such a campaign."
"Good for you, dad!" his son exclaimed. "They're a rotten lot of beggars, of course, although some of them have behaved rather decently. There's one thing," he added, sipping his port, "there isn't a job in the world I'd sooner take on than submarine hunting."
"Every one to his taste," Granet remarked good-humouredly. "Give me my own company at my back, my artillery well posted, my reserves in position, the enemy not too strongly entrenched, and our dear old Colonel's voice shouting 'At them, boys!' That's my idea of a scrap."
There was a little murmur of sympathy. Ralph Conyers, however, his cigar in the corner of his mouth, smiled imperturbably.
"Sounds all right," he admitted, "but for sheer excitement give me a misty morning, the bows of a forty-knot destroyer cutting the sea into diamonds, decks cleared for action, and old Dick in oilskins on the salute—'Enemy's submarine, sir, on the port bow, sir.'"
"And what would you do then?" Granet asked.
"See page seven Admiralty instructions this afternoon," the other replied, smiling. "We're not taking it sitting down, I can tell you."
The Admiral rose and pushed back his chair.
"I think," he said, "if you are quite sure, all of you, that you will take no more port, we should join the ladies."
They trooped out of the room together. Thomson kept close behind Ralph Conyers and Captain Granet, who were talking no more of submarines, however, but of the last ballet at the Empire. Geraldine came towards them as they entered the drawing-room.
"Hugh," she begged, passing her arm through his, "would you mind playing bridge? The Mulliners are going on, and mother does miss her rubber so. And we can talk afterwards, if you like," she added.
Thomson glanced across the room to where Granet was chatting with some other guests. Young Conyers for the moment was nowhere to be seen.
"I'll play, with pleasure, Geraldine," he assented, "but I want to have a word with Ralph first."
"He's at the telephone," she said. "The Admiralty rang up about something and he is talking to them. I'll tell him, if you like, when he comes up."
"If you'll do that," Thomson promised, "I won't keep him a minute."
The little party settled down to their game—Lady Conyers, Sir Charles Hankins,—a celebrated lawyer,—another man and Thomson. Geraldine, with Olive Moreton and Captain Granet, found a sofa in a remote corner of the room and the trio were apparently talking nonsense with great success. Presently Ralph reappeared and joined them.
"Hugh wants to speak to you," Geraldine told him.
Ralph glanced at the little bridge-table and made a grimace.
"Hugh can wait," he declared, as he passed his arm through Olive's. "This is my last night on shore for heaven knows how long and I am going to take Olive off to see my photographs of the Scorpion. Old Wilcock handed them to me out of his drawer this afternoon."
The two young people disappeared. Captain Granet and Geraldine remained upon the couch, talking in low voices. Once Thomson, when he was dummy, crossed the room and approached them. Their conversation was suddenly suspended.
"I told Ralph," Geraldine said, looking up, "that you wanted to speak to him, but he and Olive have gone off somewhere. By-the-bye, Hugh," she went on curiously, "you didn't tell me that you'd called on Captain Granet this evening."
"Well, it wasn't a matter of vital importance, was it?" he answered, smiling. "My call, in any case, arose from an accident."
"Major Thomson," came a voice from the other side of the room, "it is your deal."
Thomson returned obediently to the bridge-table. The rubber was over a few minutes later and the little party broke up. Thomson glanced around but the room was empty.
"I think, if I may," he said, "I'll go into the morning room and have a whisky and soda. I dare say I'll find the Admiral there."
He took his leave of the others and made his way to the bachelor rooms at the back of the house. He looked first into the little apartment which Geraldine claimed for her own, but found it empty. He passed on into the smoking-room and found all four of the young people gathered around the table. They were so absorbed that they did not even notice his entrance. Ralph, with a sheet of paper stretched out before him and a pencil in his hand, was apparently sketching something. By his side was Granet. The two girls with arms interlocked, were watching intently.
"You see," Ralph Conyers explained, drawing back for a moment to look at the result of his labours, "this scheme, properly worked out, can keep a channel route such as the Folkestone to Boulogne one, for instance, perfectly safe. Those black marks are floats, and the nets—"
"One moment, Ralph," Thomson interrupted from the background.
They all started and turned their heads. Thomson drew a step nearer and his hand fell upon the paper. There was a queer look in his face which Geraldine was beginning to recognise.
"Ralph, old fellow," he said, "don't think me too much of an interfering beggar, will you? I don't think even to your dearest friend, not to the girl you are going to marry, to me, or to your own mother, would I finish that little drawing and description, if I were you."
They all stared at him. Granet's face was expressionless, the girls were bewildered, Ralph was frowning.
"Dash it all, Hugh," he expostulated, "do have a little common sense. Here's a fellow like Granet, a keen soldier and one of the best, doing all he can for us on land but a bit worried about our submarine danger. Why shouldn't I try and reassure him, eh?—let him see that we've a few little things up our sleeves?"
"That sounds all right, Ralph," Thomson agreed, "but you're departing from a principle, and I wouldn't do it. It isn't a personal risk you're running, or a personal secret you're sharing with others. It may sound absurd under the present circumstances, I know, but—"
Granet laughed lightly. His arm fell upon the young sailor's shoulder.
"Perhaps Thomson's right, Conyers," he intervened. "You keep your old scheme at the back of your head. We'll know all about it when the history of the war's written. There's always the thousand to one chance, you know. I might get brain fever in a German hospital and begin to babble. Tear it up, old fellow."
There was a moment's silence. Geraldine turned to Thomson.
"Hugh," she protested, "don't you think you're carrying principle almost too far? It's so fearfully interesting for us when Ralph's at sea, and we wait day by day for news from him, to understand a little what he's doing."
"I think you're a horrid nuisance, Major Thomson," Olive grumbled. "We'd just reached the exciting part."
"I am sorry," Thomson said, "but I think, Ralph, you had better do what Captain Granet suggested."
The young man shrugged his shoulders, his face was a little sulky. He took the plan up and tore it into pieces.
"If you weren't my prospective brother-in-law, you know, Thomson," he exclaimed, "I should call your interference damned cheek! After all, you know, you're only a civilian, and you can't be expected to understand these things."
Thomson was silent for a moment. He read in the others' faces their sympathy with the young sailor's complaint. He moved towards the door.
"I am sorry," he said simply. "Good night, everybody!"
They all wished him good-night—nobody stirred. He walked slowing into the front hall, waited for a moment and then accepted his coat and hat from a servant. Lady Conyers waved to him from the staircase.
"Where's Geraldine?" she asked.
Thomson turned away.
"They are all in the smoking-room, Lady Conyers," he said. "Good night!"
In a way, their meeting the next morning was fortuitous enough, yet it had also its significance for both of them. Geraldine's greeting was almost studiously formal.
"You are not going to scold me for my memory, are you?" Captain Granet asked, looking down at her with a faintly humorous uplifting of the eyebrows. "I must have exercise, you know."
"I don't even remember telling you that I came into the Park in the mornings," Geraldine replied.
"You didn't—that is to say you didn't mention the Park particularly," he admitted. "You told me you always took these five dogs out for a walk directly after breakfast, and for the rest I used my intelligence."
"I might have gone into Regent's Park or St. James' Park," she reminded him.
"In which case," he observed, "I should have walked up and down until I had had enough of it, and then gone away in a bad temper."
"Don't be foolish," she laughed. "I decline absolutely to believe that you had a single thought of me when you turned in here. Do you mind if I say that I prefer not to believe it?"
He accepted the reproof gracefully.
"Well, since we do happen to have met," he suggested, "might I walk with you a little way? You see," he went on, "it's rather dull hobbling along here all alone."
"Of course you may, if you like," she assented, glancing sympathetically at his stick. "How is your leg getting on?"
"It's better—getting on finely. So far as my leg is concerned, I believe I shall be fit to go out again within ten days. It's my arm that bothers me a little. One of the nerves, the doctor said, must be wrong. I can only just lift it. You've no idea," he went on, "how a game leg and a trussed-up arm interfere with the little round of one's daily life. I can't ride, can't play golf or billiards, and for an unintelligent chap like me," he wound up with a sigh, "there aren't a great many other ways of passing the time."
"Why do you call yourself unintelligent?" she protested. "You couldn't have got through your soldiering so well if you had been."
"Oh! I know all the soldier stuff," he admitted, "know my job, that is to say, all right, and of course I am moderately good at languages, but that finishes me. I haven't any brains like your friend Thomson, for instance."
"Major Thomson is very clever, I believe," she said a little coldly.
"And a little censorious, I am afraid," Granet added with a slight grimace. "I suppose he thinks I am a garrulous sort of ass but I really can't see why he needed to go for your brother last night just because he was gratifying a very reasonable curiosity on my part. It isn't as though I wasn't in the Service. The Army and the Navy are the same thing, any way, and we are always glad to give a Navy man a hint as to how we are getting on."
"I really couldn't quite understand Major Thomson myself," she agreed.
"May I ask—do you mind?" he began,—"have you been engaged to him long?"
She looked away for a moment. Her tone, when she replied, was meant to convey some slight annoyance at the question.
"About three months."
Captain Granet kicked a pebble away from the path in front of him with his sound foot.
"I should think he must be a very good surgeon," he remarked in a measured tone. "Looks as though he had lots of nerve, and that sort of thing. To tell you the truth, though, he rather frightens me. I don't think that he has much sympathy with my type."
She became a little more indulgent and smiled faintly as she looked at him.
"I wonder what your type is?" she asked reflectively.
"Fairly obvious, I am afraid," he confessed, with a sigh. "I love my soldiering, of course, and I am ashamed to think how keen I have been on games, and should be still if I had the chance. Outside that I don't read much, I am not musical, and I am very much predisposed to let the future look after itself. There are thousands just like me," he continued thoughtfully. "We don't do any particular harm in the world but I don't suppose we do much good."
"Don't be silly," she protested. "For one thing, it is splendid to be a capable soldier. You are just what the country wants to-day. But apart from that I am quite sure that you have brains."
"Have I?" he murmured. "Perhaps it's the incentive I lack."
They were silent for a few moments. Then they began to talk more lightly. They discussed dogs and horses, their mutual friends, and their engagements for the next few days. They did not once refer to Thomson. Presently Geraldine paused to speak to some friends. Granet leaned upon his stick in the background and watched her. She was wearing a plain tailor made suit and a becoming little hat, from underneath which little wisps of golden hair had somehow detached themselves in a fascinating disorder. There was a delicate pink colour in her cheeks, the movements and lines of her body were all splendidly free and graceful. As she talked to her friends her eyes for the moment seemed to have lost their seriousness. Her youth had reasserted itself—her youth and splendid physical health. He watched her eagerly, and some shadow seemed to pass from his own face—the shadow of his suffering or his pain. He, too, seemed to grow younger. The simplest and yet the most wonderful joy in life was thrilling him. At last she bade farewell to her friends and came smiling towards him.
"I am so sorry to have kept you all this time!" she exclaimed. "Lady Anne has just told me the time and I am horrified. I meant to walk here for an hour and we have been here for two. Stop that taxi for me, please. I cannot spare the time even to walk home."
He handed her into the cab and whistled for the dogs, who all scrambled in after her.
"Thanks to much for looking after a helpless cripple," he said pleasantly, as they shook hands. "You mustn't grudge the time. Doing your duty to the country, you know."
He tactfully avoided any mention of a future meeting and was rewarded with a little wave of her hand from the window of the cab. He himself left the Park at the same time, strolled along Piccadilly as far as Sackville Street and let himself into his rooms. His servant came forward to meet him from the inner room, and took his cap and stick.
"Any telephone messages, Jarvis?"
Granet moved towards the easy-chair. On the way he stopped. The door of one of the cupboards in the sideboard was half open. He frowned.
"Haven't I told you, Jarvis, that I wish those cupboards kept locked?" he asked a little curtly.
The man was staring towards the sideboard in some surprise.
"I am very sorry, sir," he said. "I certainly believed that I locked it last night."
Granet opened it wide and looked inside. His first glance was careless enough, then his expression changed. He stared incredulously at the small array of bottles and turned swiftly around.
"Have you moved anything from here?"
"Certainly not, sir," was the prompt reply.
Granet closed the cupboard slowly. Then he walked to the window for a moment, his hands behind his back.
"Any one been here this morning at all, Jarvis?" he inquired.
"A man for the laundry, sir, and a person to test the electric light."
"Left alone in the room at all?"
"The electric light man was here for a few minutes, sir."
The master and servant exchanged quick glances. The latter was looking pale and nervous.
"Is anything missing, sir?" he asked.
"Yes!" Granet replied. "Did you notice the gentleman who called last evening—Surgeon-Major Thomson?"
"You haven't seen him since? He hasn't been here?"
Granet stood, for a moment, thinking. The servant remained motionless. The silence in the room was ominous; so, also, was the strange look of disquietude in the two men's faces.
"Jarvis," his master said at last, "remember this. I am not finding fault. I know you are always careful. But from tonight be more vigilant than ever. There is a new hand in the game. He may not suspect us yet but he will. You understand, Jarvis?"
The man withdrew noiselessly. Once more Granet walked to the window. He looked down for a few minutes at the passers-by but he saw nothing. Grave thoughts were gathering together in his mind. He was travelling along the road of horrors and at the further end of it a man stood waiting. He saw himself draw nearer and nearer to the meeting his name almost frame itself upon his lips, the name of the man whom he had grown to hate.
Considering the crowded state of the waiting-room and the number of highly important people who were there for the same purpose, Surgeon-Major Thomson seemed to have remarkably little difficulty in procuring the interview he desired. He was conducted by a boy scout into a room on the second floor of the War Office, within a few minutes of his arrival. A tall, grey-haired man in the uniform of a general looked up and nodded with an air of intimacy as soon as the door had been closed.
"Sit down, Thomson. We've been expecting you. Any news?"
"I have come to you for that, sir," the other replied.
The General sighed.
"I am afraid you will be disappointed," he said. "I received your report and I went to a certain official myself—saw him in his own house before breakfast this morning. I had reports of three other men occupying responsible positions in the city, Thomson, against whom there was really tangible and serious evidence. Our friend had the effrontery almost to laugh at me."
There was a little glitter in Thomson's eyes.
"These damned civilians!" he murmured softly. "They've done their best to ruin Great Britain by crabbing every sort of national service during the last ten years. They feed and pamper the vermin who are eating away the foundations of the country, and, damn it all, when we put a clear case to them, when we show them men whom we know to be dangerous, they laugh at us and tell us that it isn't our department! They look upon us as amateurs and speak of Scotland Yard with bated breath. My God! If I had a free hand for ten minutes, there'd be two Cabinet Ministers eating bread and water instead of their dinners to-night."
The General raised his eyebrows. He knew Thomson well enough to be aware how unusual such an ebullition of feeling on his part was.
"Got you a bit worked up, Major," he remarked.
"Isn't it enough to make any man's blood boil?" the other replied. "The country to-day looks to its army and its navy to save it from the humiliation these black-coated parasites have encouraged, and yet even now we haven't a free hand. You and I, who control the secret service of the army, denounce certain men, upon no slight evidence, either, as spies, and we are laughed at! One of those very blatant idiots whose blundering is costing the country millions of money and thousands of brave men, has still enough authority to treat our reports as so much waste paper."
"I am bound to say I agree with you, Thomson," the General declared, a little hopelessly. "It's the weakest spot of our whole organisation, this depending on the civil powers. Two of my cases were absolutely flagrant. As regards yours, Thomson, I am not at all sure that we shouldn't be well-advised to get just a little more evidence before we press the matter."
"And meanwhile," Thomson retorted bitterly, "leave him a free hand to do what mischief he can. But for the merest accident in the world, the night before last he would have learnt our new scheme for keeping the Channel communication free from submarines."
The General frowned.
"Who's been talking?" he demanded.
"No one who is to be blamed," Thomson replied. "Can't you realise the position? Here's a fellow Service man, a soldier, a D. S. O., who has been specially mentioned for bravery and who very nearly got the Victoria Cross, comes here with the halo of a brilliant escape from the Germans, wounded, a young man of good family and connections, and apparently as keen as mustard to get back again in the fighting line. Good Heavens! The most careful sailor in the world might just drop a hint to that sort of man. What nearly happened last night may happen a dozen times within the next week. Even our great secret, General," Thomson continued, dropping his voice a little, "even that might come to his ears."
The General was undoubtedly disturbed. He searched amongst the papers on his desk and brought out at last a flimsy half-sheet of notepaper which he studied carefully.
"Just read this, Thomson."
Thomson rose and looked over his shoulder. The letter was an autograph one of a few lines only, and dated from a village in the North of France—
My dear Brice,
This is a special request to you. Arrange it any way you please but don't send me Captain Granet out again in any capacity. Keep him at home. Mind, I am not saying word against him as a soldier. He has done some splendid work on more than one occasion, but notwithstanding this I do not wish to see him again with any of the forces under my command.
"Did you show this to our friend?" Thomson inquired.
"I gave him a digest of its contents," the General replied. "He smiled in a supercilious manner and said I had better do as I was asked."
Thomson said nothing for a moment. His face was very set and he had the air of a man desperately but quietly angry.
"As a matter of fact," General Brice continued, glancing at the clock on his desk, "Granet is in my anteroom at the present moment, I expect. He asked for an interview this afternoon."
"Have him in, if you don't mind," the other suggested. "I can sit at the empty desk over there. I can be making some calculations with reference to the number of hospital beds for each transport. I want to hear him talk to you."
The General nodded and touched a bell.
"You can show Captain Granet in," he told the boy scout who answered it.
Thomson took his place in the far corner of the room and bent over a sheaf of papers. Presently Granet was ushered in. He was leaning a little less heavily upon his stick and he had taken his arm from the sling for a moment. He saluted the General respectfully and glanced across the room towards where Thomson was at work. If he recognised him, however, he made no sign.
"Well, Granet," the General inquired, "how are you getting on?"
"Wonderfully, sir," was the brisk reply. "I have seen my own doctor this morning and he thinks I might come up before the Board on Saturday."
"And what does that mean?"
"I want to get back again, sir," Granet replied eagerly.
The General stroked his grey moustache and looked searchingly at the young officer. He was standing full in the light of a ray of sunshine which came streaming through the high, uncurtained windows. Although he was still a little haggard, his eyes were bright, his lips were parted in an anticipatory smile, his whole expression was engaging. General Brice, studying him closely, felt compelled to admit the improbability of his vague suspicions.
"That's all very well, you know," he reminded him quietly, "but you won't be fit enough for active service for some time to come."
The young man's face fell.
"I am sure they must be wanting me back, sir," he said naively.
The General shook his head.
"I don't want to disappoint you, young fellow," he continued, "but I heard from your Brigadier only yesterday. He has been obliged to fill up your place and I don't think he has room for any one on his staff."
Granet looked a little hurt.
"I thought he might have made a temporary appointment," he said gloomily.
"This is no time to consider individuals," the General pointed out. "What about finding you a billet at home for a time, eh? You've seen a bit of the rough side of the war, you know."
"I'd sooner go out and dig trenches!"
Thomson had risen slowly from his place and, with a sheet of foolscap in his hand, closely covered with writing, crossed the room.
"You might get taken prisoner again, Captain Granet," he remarked drily.
There was a moment's rather tense silence. The young man's lips had come together, his eyes flashed.
"I did not recognise you, Major Thomson," he said calmly. "Have you found a new billet?"
"My old one is sufficiently absorbing just at present," the other replied laying his calculations on the General's desk. "Forgive my interrupting you, sir, but you told me to let you have this as soon as I had finished. That is my estimate of the number of beds we could stow away in the cubic feet you offer us."
The General glanced at the paper and nodded.
"Don't go, Thomson," he said. "I'll talk to you about this later on. Well, Captain Granet," he added, "you'd better leave things in my hands. I'll do the best I can for you."
"I shall be very disappointed if I don't get out to the Front again soon, sir," the young man declared simply.
"I'll do the best I can," the General repeated, touching his bell.
Granet was shown out and the door was closed. General Brice turned towards his companion.
"Thomson," he said, "frankly, I can't believe it. However, we'll find him a billet where he can't possibly do any mischief."
"If you found him a billet where I should like to see him," Surgeon-Major Thomson observed bitterly, "he would never do any more mischief in this world! Any dispatches from the Front, sir?"
General Brice raised his eyebrows.
"Are you off again?" he asked.
"I am going to see that young man's General," Thomson replied. "I shall cross over to-day and be back to-morrow night or Saturday morning."
General Brice nodded thoughtfully.
"Perhaps you are right," he assented. "Yes, I shall have a few reports. You'd better let them know at the Admiralty, and what time you want to go over."
Surgeon-Major Thomson shook hands with the General and turned towards the door.
"When I come back," he said, "I hope I'll be able to convince even you, sir."
Surgeon-Major Thomson awoke about twelve hours later with a start. He had been sleeping so heavily that he was at first unable to remember his whereabouts. His mind moved sluggishly across the brief panorama of his hurried journey—the special train from Victoria to Folkestone; the destroyer which had brought him and a few other soldiers across the Channel, black with darkness, at a pace which made even the promenade deck impossible; the landing at Boulogne, a hive of industry notwithstanding the darkness; the clanking of waggons, the shrieking of locomotives, the jostling of crowds, the occasional flashing of an electric torch. And then the ride in the great automobile through the misty night. He rubbed his eyes and looked around him. A grey morning was breaking. The car had come to a standstill before a white gate, in front of which was stationed a British soldier, with drawn bayonet. Surgeon-Major Thomson pulled himself together and answered the challenge.
"A friend," he answered,—"Surgeon-Major Thomson, on his Majesty's service."
He leaned from the car for a moment and held out something in the hollow of his hand. The man saluted and drew back. The car went along a rough road which led across a great stretch of pastureland. On the ridge of the hills on his right, little groups of men were at work unlimbering guns. Once or twice, with a queer, screeching sound, a shell, like a little puff of white smoke, passed high over the car and fell somewhere in the grey valley below. In the distance he could see the movements of a body of troops through the trees, soldiers on the way to relieve their comrades in the trenches. As the morning broke, the trenches themselves came into view—long, zig-zag lines, silent, and with no sign of the men who crawled about inside like ants. He passed a great brewery transformed into a canteen, from which a line of waggons, going and returning, were passing all the time backwards and forwards into the valley. Every now and then through the stillness came the sharp crack of a rifle from the snipers lying hidden in the little stretches of woodland and marshland away on the right. A motor-omnibus, with its advertisement signs still displayed but a great red cross floating above it, came rocking down the road on its way to the field hospital in the distance. As yet, however, the business of fighting seemed scarcely to have commenced.
They passed several small houses and farms, in front of each of which was stationed a sentry. Once, from the hills behind, a great white-winged aeroplane glided over his head on its way to make a reconnaissance. Queerest sight of all, here and there were peasants at work in the fields. One old man leaned upon his spade and watched as the car passed. Not a dozen yards from him was a great hole in the ground where a shell had burst, and a little further away a barn in ruins. The car was forced to stop here to let a cavalcade of ammunition waggons pass by. Surgeon-Major Thomson leaned from his seat and spoke to the old man.