John Dene of Toronto: A Comedy of Whitehall
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The quality about John Dene that had most impressed Dorothy was his power of concentration. He would become so absorbed in his work that nothing else seemed to have the power of penetrating to his brain. A question addressed to him that was unrelated to what was in hand he would ignore, appearing not to have heard it; on the other hand a remark germane to the trend of his thoughts would produce an instant reply. It appeared as if his mind were so attuned as to throw off all extraneous matter.
His quickness of decision and amazing vitality Dorothy found bewildering, accustomed as she was to the more methodical procedure of a Government department. "When you know all you're likely to know about a thing, then make up your mind," he had said on one occasion. He had "no use for" a man who would wait until to-morrow afternoon to see how things looked then. "I sleep on a bed, not on an idea," was another of his remarks that she remembered, and once when commenting upon the cautiousness of Sir Lyster Grayne he had said, "The man who takes risks makes dollars."
Gradually Dorothy had fallen under the spell of John Dene's masterful personality. She found herself becoming critical of others by the simple process of comparing them with the self-centred John Dene.
She would smile at his eccentricities, his intolerance, his supreme belief in himself, and his almost fanatical determination to "ginger-up" any and every one in the British Empire whose misfortune it was to exist outside the Dominion of Canada.
At odd moments he told her much about Canada, and how little that country was understood in England. How blind British statesmen were to the fact that the eyes of many Canadians were turned anxiously towards the great republic upon their borders; how in the rapid growth of the U.S.A. they saw a convincing argument in favour of a tightening of the bonds that bound the Dominion to the Old Country.
When on the subject he would stride restlessly up and down the room, snapping out short, sharp sentences of protest and criticism. His Imperialism was that of the enthusiast. To him a Canada lost to the British Empire meant a British Empire lost to itself. His great idea was to see the Old Country control the world by virtue of its power, its brain and its justice.
His memory was amazing. If Dorothy found her notes obscure, and to complete a sentence happened to insert a word that was not the one he had dictated, John Dene would note it as he read the letter with a little grunt, sometimes of approval, sometimes of doubt or correction.
There were times when she felt, as she expressed it to her mother, as if she had been dining off beef essence and oxygen. Sometimes she wondered where John Dene obtained all his amazing vitality. He was a small eater, seeming to regard meals as a waste of time, and he seldom drank anything but water.
At the end of the day Dorothy would feel more tired than she had ever felt before; but she had caught something of John Dene's enthusiasm, which seemed to carry her along and defy the fatigues of the body.Had it not been for the Saturday afternoons, and the whole day's rest on Sunday, she felt that she would not have been able to continue.
In his intolerance John Dene was sometimes amusing, sometimes monotonous; but always uncompromising. One day Dorothy ventured a word of expostulation. He had just been expressing his unmeasured contempt for Mr. Blair.
"You mustn't judge the whole British Navy by Mr. Blair," she said, looking up from her note-book with a smile.
"One fool makes many," he had snapped decisively.
"So that if I prove a fool," continued Dorothy quietly, "it convicts you of being a fool also."
"But that's another transaction," he objected.
"Is it?" she asked, and became absorbed in her notes.
For some time John Dene had continued to dictate. Presently he stopped in the middle of a letter. "I hadn't figured it out that way," he said.
Dorothy looked up at him in surprise, then she realised that he was referring to her previous remark, and that he was making the amende honorable.
His manner frequently puzzled Dorothy. At times he seemed unaware of her existence; at others she would, on looking up from her work, find him regarding her intently. He showed entire confidence in her discretion, allowing her access to documents of a most private and confidential nature.
For week after week they worked incessantly. Dorothy was astonished at the mass of detail requisite for the commissioning of a ship. Indents for stores and equipment had to be prepared for the Admiralty, reports from Blake read and replied to, requisitions for materials required had to be confirmed, samples obtained, examined, and finally passed, and instructions sent to Blake. Strange documents they seemed to Dorothy, rendered bewildering by their technicalities, and flung at her in short, jerky sentences as John Dene strode up and down the room.
"If you could only see John Dene prancing, mother mine," said Dorothy one day to Mrs. West, "and the demure Dorothy taking down whole dictionaries of funny words she never even knew existed, you'd be a proud woman."
Mrs. West had smiled at her daughter, as she sat at her favourite place on a stool at her feet.
"You see, what John Dene wants is managing," continued Dorothy sagely, "and no one understands how to do it except Sir Bridgman and me. With us he'll stand without hitching."
"Stand without what, dear," asked Mrs. West.
"Without hitching," laughed Dorothy. "That's one of his phrases. It means that he's so tame that he'll eat out of your hand;" and she laughed gaily at the puzzled look on her mother's face.
"Mr. Dene has been very kind," said Mrs. West presently. "I should miss him very much if he went away." There was regret in her voice.
"Now, mother, no poaching," cried Dorothy. "John Dene is mine for keeps, and if I let you come out with us and play gooseberry, you mustn't try and cut me out, because," looking critically at her mother, "you could if you liked. Nobody could help loving my little Victorian white mouse;" and she hugged her mother's knee, missing the faint flush of pleasure that her words had aroused.
Finding his welcome assured, John Dene had taken to joining Dorothy and her mother on their Saturday and Sunday excursions. The picnic had proved a great success, and Dorothy had been surprised at the change in John Dene's manner. The hard, keen look of a man who is thinking how he can bring off some deal was entirely absent. He seemed always ready to smile and be amused. Once he had almost laughed. She was touched by the way in which he always looked after her mother, his gentleness and solicitude.
"Wessie, darling," Marjorie Rogers had said one day, "you're taming the bear. He'll dance soon; but, my dear, his boots," and the comical grimace that had accompanied the remark had caused Dorothy to laugh in spite of herself.
"If ever I marry a man," continued Marjorie, "it will be because of his boots. Let him have silk socks and beautiful shoes or boots, and I am as clay in his hands. For such a man I would sin like a 'temporary.'"
"Marjorie, you're a little idiot," cried Dorothy.
"I saw John Dene a few days ago," continued Marjorie.
"Yes, and I stopped him."
"You didn't, Marjorie." There was incredulity in Dorothy's voice.
"Didn't I, though," was the retort. "I gave him a hint, too."
"A hint." Dorothy felt uncomfortable. The downrightness of Marjorie Rogers was both notorious and embarrassing.
"Well," nonchalantly, "I just said that at the Admiralty men always kept their secretaries well-supplied with flowers and chocolates."
"You little beast!" cried Dorothy, remembering the chocolates and flowers that had recently been reaching her. "I should like to slap you."
"Why not give me one of the chocolates instead," said Marjorie imperturbably. "I saw the box directly I came in," nodding at a large white and gold box that Dorothy had unsuccessfully striven to hide beneath a filing-cabinet as Marjorie entered. "If it hadn't been for me you wouldn't have had them at all," she added. Presently she was munching chocolates contentedly, whilst Dorothy found herself hating both the chocolates and flowers.
At the end of the fifth week Blake wrote that the Destroyer would be ready for sea on the following Wednesday. The effect of the news upon John Dene was curious. Instead of appearing elated at the near approach of the fruition of his schemes, he sat at his table for fully half an hour looking straight in front of him. When at last he spoke, it was to enquire of Dorothy if she liked men in uniform.
That afternoon he worked with unflagging industry. It seemed to Dorothy that he was deliberately calling to mind every little detail that had for some reason or other temporarily been put aside. He seemed to be determined to leave no loose ends. Such matters as he was unable to clear up himself, he gave elaborate instructions to Dorothy that would enable her to act without reference to him. At half-past five, after a final glance round the room, he leaned back in his chair.
"I shall sleep some to-night," he remarked.
"Don't you always sleep?" enquired Dorothy.
"I sleep better when there are no loose ends tickling my brain," was the reply.
As Dorothy left the office a few minutes after six he called her back.
"If I've forgotten anything you'd best remind me."
"Mother," she remarked, when she got home that evening, "John Dene's the funniest man in all the world."
"Is he, dear?" said Mrs. West non-committally.
Dorothy nodded her head with decision. "He wastes an awful lot of time, and then he hustles like – like – well, you know."
"How do you mean, dear?" queried Mrs. West.
"Well, he'll sit sometimes for an hour looking at nothing. It's not complimentary when I'm there," she added.
"Perhaps he's thinking," suggested Mrs. West.
"Oh, no!" Dorothy shook her head with decision. "He thinks while he's eating. You can see him do it. That's why he thinks salmon is pink cod. No; John Dene is a very remarkable man; but he'd be very trying as a husband."
Dorothy spoke lightly; but during the last few days she had been asking herself what she would do when John Dene was gone. Sometimes she would sit and ponder over it, then with a movement of impatience she would plunge once more into her work. What was John Dene to her that she should miss him? He was just her employer, and in a few months he would go back to Canada, and she would never see him again. One morning she awakened crying from a dream in which John Dene had just said good-day to her and stepped on a large steamer labelled "To Canada." That day she was almost brusque in her manner, so much so that John Dene had asked her if she were not well.
The next morning when Dorothy arrived at the office, she found John Dene sitting at his table. As she entered, he looked round, stared at her for a moment and then nodded, and as if as an after-thought added, "Good morning."
Dorothy passed into her own room. She was a little puzzled. This was the first morning that John Dene had been there before her.
As she came out with her note-book she looked at him closely, conscious of something in his manner that was strange, something she could not altogether define. His voice seemed a little husky, and he lacked the quick bird-like movements so characteristic of him.
She made no remark, however, merely seating herself in her customary place and waited for letters.
He drew from his pocket some notes and began to dictate.
Never before had he used notes when dictating. Several times she glanced at him, and noted that he appeared to be reading from the manuscript rather than dictating; but she decided that he had probably written out rough drafts in order to assure accuracy. His voice was very strange.
"Did you sleep well last night, Mr. Dene?" she enquired during a pause in the dictation.
"Sleep well," he repeated, looking up at her, "I always sleep well."
Dorothy was startled. There was something in the glance and the brusque tone that puzzled her. Both were so unlike John Dene. She had mentally decided that he spoke to her as he spoke to no one else. She had compared his inflection when addressing her with that he adopted to others, even so important a person as Sir Bridgman North. Now he spoke gruffly, as if he were irritated at being spoken to.
Apparently he sensed what was passing through her mind, for he turned to her again and said:
"I'm not feeling very well this morning, Miss West, I – " Then he hesitated.
"Perhaps you didn't sleep very well," she suggested mischievously.
"No, I'm afraid that's what it was," he acknowledged Dorothy's eyes opened just a little in surprise. A minute ago he had stated that he always slept well. Either John Dene was mad or ill; and Dorothy continued to take down, greatly puzzled. Had he been drugged? The thought caused her to pause in her work and glance up at him. He certainly seemed vague and uncertain, and then he looked so strange.
When he had dictated for about half an hour, John Dene handed her a large number of documents to copy, telling her that there would not be any more letters that day. To her surprise he picked up his hat and announced that he would not be back until five o'clock to sign the letters. Never before had he missed lunching at his office. Dorothy was now convinced that something was wrong. Everything about him seemed strange and forced.
Once or twice she caught him looking at her furtively; but immediately she raised her eyes, he hastily shifted his, as if caught in some doubtful act.
At twelve o'clock lunch arrived, and Dorothy had to confess to herself that it was a lonely and unsatisfactory meal.
At five o'clock John Dene returned and signed the letters with a rubber stamp, which he had recently adopted.
"When are you going away, Mr. Dene?" asked Dorothy.
"I don't know," he responded gruffly.
"I merely asked because two people on the telephone enquired when you were going away."
"And what did you say?"
"Oh, I just said what you told me. A man called this afternoon also with the same question."
For a moment he looked at her, then turning on his heel said "good evening," and with a nod walked out.
Dorothy had expected him to make some remark about these enquiries. She knew that John Dene had no friends in London, and the questions as to when he was going away had struck her as strange.
The next day was a repetition of the first. A few letters were dictated, a sheaf of documents handed to her to copy, and John Dene disappeared. Again lunch was brought for her, which she ate alone, and at five o'clock he came in and signed the letters.
By this time Dorothy was convinced that he was ill. The strain of the past few weeks had evidently been telling on him. When he had signed the last letter she bluntly enquired if he felt better.
"Better?" he interrogated. "I haven't been ill."
"I thought you didn't seem quite well," said Dorothy hesitatingly; but he brushed aside the enquiry by picking up his hat and bidding her "good evening."
Dorothy was feeling annoyed and a little hurt; and preserved an attitude of businesslike brevity in all her remarks to John Dene. If he chose to adopt the attitude of the uncompromising employer, she on her part would humour him by becoming an ordinary employee. Still she had to confess to herself that the old pleasure in her work had departed. Hitherto she had looked forward to her arrival at the office, the coming of John Dene, their luncheons together and the occasional little chats that were sandwiched in between her work.
She had become deeply interested in the Destroyer and what it would achieve in the war. She had been flattered by the confidence that John Dene had shown hi her discretion, and had felt that she was "doing her bit." Again, the sense of being behind the scenes pleased her. She was conscious of knowing secrets that were denied even to Cabinet Ministers. The members of the War Cabinet knew less than she did about the Destroyer and what was expected of it.
John Dene was a man who did everything thoroughly. If he trusted anyone, he did it implicitly; if he distrusted anyone, he did it uncompromisingly. Where he liked, he liked to excess; where he disliked, he disliked to the elimination of all good qualities. Half measures did not exist for John Dene of Toronto.
When Dorothy discovered that all the old intimacy had passed away, and John Dene had become merely an employer, treating her as a secretary, she was conscious that the glamour had fallen from her work. Somehow or other the Destroyer had receded into something impersonal, whereas hitherto it had appeared to her as if she had been in some way or other intimately associated with it.
It was all very strange and very puzzling, she told herself. Sometimes she wondered if she had done anything to annoy him. Then she told herself that there was something more than personal pique in his manner. His whole bearing seemed to have changed, as if he had decided to regard her merely as a piece of mechanism, just as he did the typewriter, or his office chair.
It was at this period of her reasoning that Dorothy discovered her dignity. From that time her attitude was that of the injured woman, yet perfect secretary. Her sense of humour had deserted her, and she arrived at the office and left it very much upon her dignity. Even Mrs. West noticed the difference in her manner, and at last enquired if anything were wrong, or if she were unwell; but Dorothy reassured her with a hug and a kiss, and for the rest of that evening had been particularly bright and vivacious.
When Mrs. West mentioned the name of John Dene, Dorothy did not pursue the topic, although Mrs. West failed to notice that she was switched off to other subjects.
At the end of the week she noticed that John Dene handed her the week's salary in notes. Hitherto it had been his custom to place the money in an envelope and put it on her table. She concluded that this new method was to impress upon her that she was a dependent, and that the old relationship between them had been severed. That evening, Dorothy was always paid on the Friday evening, she held her head very high when she left the office. If Mr. John Dene required decorum, then he should have it in plenty from his secretary.
The next morning and the Monday following, Dorothy was very much on her dignity. She seemed suddenly to have become imbued with all the qualities of the perfect secretary. No hint of a smile was allowed to wanton across her features, she was grave, ceremonial, efficient. She worked harder than ever and, when she had finished the tasks John Dene set her, she manufactured others so that her time should be fully occupied.
For a day and a half she laboured to show John Dene that she was offended; but apparently he was oblivious, not only of having offended her, but of the fact that she was endeavouring to convey to him the change that had come about in their relations.
On the Monday evening he did not return to sign his letters until nearly six. By that time Dorothy was almost desperate in her desire to show this obtuse man that she was annoyed with him. She felt at the point of tears when he bade her good night and left the office, just as Big Ben was booming out the hour.
She would go home and forget all about the stupid creature, Dorothy decided, as she hastily put on her coat and dug the hat-pins through her hat. On reaching the street she saw John Dene standing at the corner of Charles Street. For a moment she thrilled. Was he waiting for her? No, he was looking in the opposite direction, apparently deep in thought. She saw a taxi draw up beside him. The driver, a little man with a grey moustache, Dorothy remembered to have seen him several times "crawling" about on the look-out for fares. The taxi stopped and the man bent towards John Dene. Dorothy stood and watched. John Dene was right in her line of route to the Piccadilly Tube, and she did not wish him to see her.
For a moment John Dene seemed to hesitate, then with a word to the driver he opened the door and got in. Suddenly Dorothy remembered Colonel Walton's warning. Impulsively she started forward, just as the taxi started and a moment later whizzed swiftly past her. John Dene was evidently in a hurry. At that moment her attention was distracted by shouts and a smash. A small run-about car had suddenly dashed across Regent Street from the west side of Charles Street and crashed into the forepart of another taxi. A crowd gathered, a policeman arrived, and she had a vision of an angry taxi-driver, another man pointing to the roadway, as if the blame lay there, whilst the passenger from the taxi was running towards the Florence Nightingale statue shouting and waving his arms at the vehicles passing along Pall Mall.
Slowly Dorothy turned and pursued her way up Regent Street. She was tired and – and, oh! it was so stupid, going on living.
That night as she was undressing she remembered the passenger from the second taxi. Why had he been so interested in the taxi that was bearing John Dene away, and why had he tried to signal to other vehicles passing along Pall Mall? He had seemed greatly excited. Above all, why had John Dene taken a taxi when he had been warned against it?
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