Mr. Gordon Jones, who had moved his chair a little closer to his host's side, looked reflectively around the dining-room as he sipped his port. The butler remained on sufferance because of his grey hairs, but the footmen, who had been rather a feature of the Anselman establishment, had departed, and their places had been filled by half a dozen of the smartest of parlourmaids, one or two of whom were still in evidence.
"Yours is certainly one of the most patriotic households, Sir Alfred, which I have entered," he declared. "Tell me again, how many servants have you sent to the war?"
Sir Alfred smiled with the air of one a little proud of his record.
"Four footmen and two chauffeurs from here, eleven gardeners and three indoor servants from the country," he replied. "That is to say nothing about the farms, where I have left matters in the hands of my agents. I am paying the full wages to every one of them."
"And thank heavens you'll still have to pay us a little super-tax," the Cabinet Minister remarked, smiling.
Sir Alfred found nothing to dismay him in the prospect.
"You shall have every penny of it, my friend," he promised. "I have taken a quart of a million of your war loan and I shall take the sam amount of your next one. I spend all my time upon your committees, my own affairs scarcely interest me, and yet I thought to-day, when my car was stopped to let a company of the London Regiment march down to Charing-Cross, that there wasn't one of those khaki-clad young men who wasn't offering more than I."
The Bishop leaned forward from his place.
"Those are noteworthy words of yours, Sir Alfred," he said. "There is nothing in the whole world so utterly ineffective as our own passionate gratitude must seem to ourselves when we think of all those young fellows--not soldiers, you know, but young men of peace, fond of their pleasures, their games, their sweethearts, their work--throwing it all on one side, passing into another life, passing into the valley of shadows. I, too, have seen those young men, Sir Alfred."
The conversation became general. The host of this little dinner-party leaned back in his place for a moment, engrossed in thought. It was a very distinguished, if not a large company. There were three Cabinet Ministers, a high official in the War Office, a bishop, a soldier of royal blood back for a few days from the Front, and his own nephew--Granet. He sat and looked round at them and a queer little smile played upon his lips. If only the truth were known, the world had never seen a stranger gathering. It was a company which the King himself might have been proud to gather around him; serious, representative Englishmen--Englishmen, too, of great position. There was not one of them who had not readily accepted his invitation, there was not one of them who was not proud to sit at his table, there was not one of them who did not look upon him as one of the props of the Empire.
There was a little rustle as one of the new parlourmaids walked smoothly to his side and presented a silver salver. He took the single letter from her, glanced at it for a moment carelessly and then felt as though the fingers which held it had been pierced by red-hot wires. The brilliant little company seemed suddenly to dissolve before his eyes. He saw nothing but the marking upon that letter, growing larger and larger as he gazed, the veritable writing of fate pressed upon the envelope by a rubber stamp--by the hand, perchance, of a clerk--"Opened by Censor."
There was a momentary singing in his ears. He looked at his glass, found it full, raised it to his lips and drained it. The ghastly moment of suspended animation passed. He felt no longer that he was in a room from which all the air had been drawn. He was himself again but the letter was there. Mr. Gordon Jones, who had been talking to the bishop, leaned towards him and pointed to the envelope.
"Is that yours, Sir Alfred?" he asked.
Sir Alfred nodded.
"Becoming a little more stringent, I see," he observed, holding it up.
"I thought I recognised the mark," the other replied. "A most outrageous mistake! I am very glad that it came under my notice. You are absolutely free from the censor, Sir Alfred."
"I thought so myself," Sir Alfred remarked. "However, I suppose an occasional mistake can scarcely be wondered at. Don't worry them about it, please. My Dutch letters are simply records of the balances at my different banks, mere financial details."
"All the same," Mr. Gordon Jones insisted, "there has been gross neglect somewhere. I will see that it is inquired into to-morrow morning."
"Very kind of you," Sir Alfred declared. "As you know, I have been able to give you fragments of information now and then which would cease at once, of course, if my correspondence as a whole were subject to censorship. An occasional mistake like this is nothing."
There was another interruption. This time a message had come from the house--Ministers would be required within the next twenty minutes. The little party--it was a men's dinner-party only--broke up. Very soon Sir Alfred and his nephew were left alone. Sir Alfred's fingers shook for a moment as he tore open the seal of his letter. He glanced through the few lines it contained and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Come this way, Ronnie," he invited.
They left the dining-room and, eschewing the inviting luxuries of the billiard room and library, passed into a small room behind, plainly furnished as a business man's study. Granet seized his uncle by the arm.
"It's coded, I suppose?"
Sir Alfred nodded.
"It's coded, Ronnie, and between you and me I don't believe they'll be able to read it, but whose doing is that?" he added, pointing with his finger to the envelope.
"It must have been a mistake," Granet muttered.
Sir Alfred glanced toward the closed door. Without a doubt they were alone.
"I don't know," he said. "Mistakes of this sort don't often occur. As I Looked around to-night, Ronnie, I thought--I couldn't help thinking that our position was somewhat wonderful. Does it mean that this is the first breath of suspicion, I wonder? Was it really only my fancy, or did I hear to-night the first mutterings of the storm?"
"No one can possibly suspect," Granet declared, "no one who could have influence enough to override your immunity from censorship. It must have been an accident."
"I wonder!" Sir Alfred muttered.
"Can't you decode it?" Granet asked eagerly. "There may be news."
Sir Alfred re-entered the larger library and was absent for several minutes. When he returned, the message was written out in lead pencil:--
Leave London June 4th. Have flares midnight Buckingham Palace, St. Paul's steps, gardens in front of Savoy. Your last report received.
Granet glanced eagerly back at the original message. It consisted of a few perfectly harmless sentences concerning various rates of exchange. He gave it to his uncle with a smile.
"I shouldn't worry about that, sir," he advised.
"It isn't the thing itself I worry about," Sir Alfred said thoughtfully,--"they'll never decode that message. It's the something that lies behind it. It's the pointing finger, Ronnie. I thought we'd last it out, at any rate. Things look different now. You're serious, I suppose? You don't want to go to America?"
"I don't," Granet replied grimly. "That's all finished, for the present. You know very well what it is I do want."
Sir Alfred frowned.
"There are plenty of wild enterprises afoot," he admitted, "but I don't know, after all, that I wish you particularly to be mixed up in them."
"I can't hang about here much longer," his nephew grumbled. "I get the fever in my blood to be doing something. I had a try this morning."
His uncle looked at him for a moment.
"This morning," he repeated. "Well?"
Granet thrust his hands into his trousers pockets. There was a frown upon his fine forehead.
"It's that man I told you about," he said bitterly,--"the man I hate. He's nobody of any account but he always seems to be mixed up in any little trouble I find myself in. I got out of that affair down at Market Burnham without the least trouble, and then, as you know, the War Office sent him down, of all the people on earth, to hold an inquiry. Sometimes I think that he suspects me. I met him at a critical moment on the battlefield near Niemen. I always believed that he heard me speaking German--it was just after I had come back across the lines. The other day--well, I told you about that. Isabel Worth saved me or I don't know where I should have been. I think I shall kill that man!"
"What did you say his name was?" Sir Alfred asked, with sudden eagerness.
There was a moment's silence. Sir Alfred's expression was curiously tense. He leaned across the table towards his nephew.
"Thomson?" he repeated. "My God! I knew there was something I meant to tell you. Don't you know, Ronnie?--but of course you don't. You're sure it's Thomson--Surgeon-Major Thomson?"
"That's the man."
"He is the man with the new post," Sir Alfred declared hoarsely. "He is the head of the whole Military Intelligence Department! They've set him up at the War Office. They've practically given him unlimited powers."
"Why, I thought he was inspector of Field Hospitals!" Granet gasped.
"A blind!" his uncle groaned. "He is nothing of the sort. He's Kitchener's own man, and this," he added, looking at the letter, "must be his work!"