John Dene of Toronto: A Comedy of Whitehall
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Sir Lyster nodded his approval of her action. "You did quite right, Miss – "
"West," said Dorothy.
"Miss West," continued Sir Lyster. "There are occasions when – " He hesitated for a word.
"John Dene's methods are best," suggested Sir Bridgman.
Sir Lyster smiled; but there was no answering smile in Dorothy's eyes.
"What do you think has happened?" she asked, looking from one to the other.
"It's impossible to say," began Sir Lyster, "it's – it's – "
"Spies," she said with a catch in her voice. "I'm sure of it. They've drugged him. They tried to poison our food."
"Poison your food," repeated Sir Lyster uncomprehendingly.
"Yes," said Dorothy, and she proceeded to tell how it came about that the luncheon and dinners were supplied from an anonymous source.
"That's Walton," said Admiral Heyworth, and the other nodded.
For a few minutes they sat in silence, all waiting for the arrival of Colonel Walton. When the telephone bell rang, Sir Lyster started perceptibly. Taking up the receiver from the instrument he listened for a few seconds.
"Show him in," he said; then, turning to the others, he explained: "Walton is out; but Sage is here."
"Good," said Sir Bridgman, "sometimes Jack is better than his master."
Sir Lyster looked at him meaningly, and then at Dorothy.
With perfect self-possession Malcolm Sage entered, gave a short, jerky bow, and without invitation drew a chair up opposite to where Dorothy was sitting. For a moment he gazed at her and saw the anxiety in her eyes.
"Don't be alarmed," he said quietly, "the situation is well in hand." There was the ghost of a smile about the corners of his mouth.
"Is he safe?" enquired Dorothy, leaning forward, whilst the three men looked at Sage as if not quite sure of his sanity.
"I can only repeat what I have said," replied Sage, "the situation is well in hand."
"But how the devil – " began Sir Bridgman.
"I should like to ask Miss West a few questions," said Sage.
Sir Bridgman subsided.
"Why did you come here?" he asked, turning to Dorothy.
"Mr. Dene didn't come this morning. I waited until past two, then I rang up the Ritzton," she paused.
"Go on," said Sage.
"They told me he had not been back since yesterday morning."
"And then?" enquired Sage.
"I rang up Mr. Blair. He had heard nothing, so I thought I had better come round and – and – I'm afraid I burst in here very rudely. Mr. Blair – "
"You did quite right, Miss West," said Sir Lyster. "Why didn't you act before?"
Dorothy felt Sage's eyes were burning through her brain, so intent was his gaze. "I had forgotten about the taxi. I – I – thought he might be unwell," said Dorothy.
"Well," she began, and then paused.
"Go on," said Sage encouragingly.
"He has seemed rather strange for some days," she said, "his memory was very bad.As a rule he has a wonderful memory, and never makes a note."
"How was his memory bad?"
"He seemed to forget what he had written, and was always having letters turned up."
Sage nodded. "Go on," he said.
"Then," she continued, "he seemed to want always to put things off. He was undecided; so unlike his normal self. Most of the things he asked me to attend to."
"And that made you think he was ill," suggested Sage.
"Yes," she said, "that and other things."
"What other things?"
Dorothy screwed up her eyebrows, her head on one side, as if striving to find words to express what was in her mind. "His manner was strange," she began. "It is very difficult to give instances; but previously he had always been so pleasant and – and – "
"Unconscious of himself, shall we say?" suggested Sage.
"That's it," she said brightly. "He was just Mr. Dene. Afterwards he seemed to be always watching me, as if not quite sure who I was. It was almost uncanny. I thought perhaps – " She hesitated.
"That he was being drugged," she concluded reluctantly.
"When did you first notice this?"
"Let me see," said Dorothy. "This is Tuesday. It was on Thursday morning that I first noticed it. What struck me then was that he said, 'Good morning' when he came in."
"And what did he usually say?" enquired Sage.
"He used to say 'morning,' or what really sounded more like 'morn,'" she said with a smile.
"Thank you," said Sage. "Unless these gentlemen have any further questions to put to you, there is nothing more to be done at present."
"But is he – " she began, then she paused.
"I should not be unnecessarily alarmed, Miss West, if I were you," said Sage. "Above all, keep your own counsel. Mr. Dene disapproves of people who talk."
"I know," said Dorothy, rising and drawing herself up with dignity.
"I regard your prompt action as highly commendable, Miss West," said Sir Lyster. "You will, of course, continue in attendance at the office until you hear further. If anything unusual transpires, please get into touch with me immediately, even to the extent of – " he paused a moment.
"Bursting in as you did just now," said Sir Bridgman with a laugh. "It's the real John Dene manner."
"Exactly," said Sir Lyster.
Sir Lyster conducted Dorothy into Mr. Blair's room.
"Mr. Blair," he said, "if Miss West ever wishes to see me urgently, please tell me, no matter with whom I am engaged. If I do not happen to be in, Sir Bridgman will see her, or failing that get through to Colonel Walton, or to Mr. Sage."
Sir Lyster bowed to Dorothy and returned to his room. Mr. Blair blinked his eyes in bewilderment; the influence of John Dene upon the British Admiralty was most extraordinary.
"I don't understand the drift of all your questions, Mr. Sage," said Sir Lyster, resuming his seat.
Malcolm Sage turned his eyes upon the First Lord. "I will explain that later, sir," he said, "but for the present I must ask your indulgence."
"But – " began Sir Lyster.
"I might advance a hundred theories; but until I am sure it would be better for me to keep silence. I must confer with my chief."
Sir Bridgman nodded approval.
"Quite so," said Sir Lyster. "In the meantime what is to be done?"
"Raise the hue and cry," said Sage quietly.
"Good God, man!" exclaimed Sir Bridgman. "It would give the whole game away."
"I propose," said Sage quietly, "that photographs of John Dene be inserted in every paper in the kingdom, that every continental paper likewise has full particulars of his disappearance. That you offer a thousand pounds reward for news that will lead to his discovery, and go on increasing it by a thousand every day until it reaches ten thousand." Malcolm Sage paused; his three listeners stared at him as if he were out of his senses.
"You seriously suggest this publicity?" enquired Sir Lyster in cold and even tones.
"I do," said Sage.
"You know why Mr. Dene is here."
"And yet you still advise this course?" asked Sir Lyster.
"I do," responded Sage.
"Well, I'm damned!" said Sir Bridgman.
For a moment a flicker of a smile crossed Malcolm Sage's serious features.
"What are your reasons?" demanded Sir Lyster.
"My reasons are closely connected with my conclusions, sir, and at the present time they are too nebulous to express."
"We will consider this," said Sir Lyster with an air of concluding the interview.
Malcolm Sage rose. "The time is not one for consideration, sir," he said, "but for action. If you hesitate in this publicity, I must ask your permission to see the Prime Minister;" then with a sudden change of tone and speaking with an air of great seriousness he added, "This is a matter of vital importance. The announcement should be made in the late editions of all the evening papers, and the full story must appear in to-morrow's papers. There is not much time. Have I your permission to proceed?"
"No, sir, you have not," thundered Sir Lyster. "I shall report this matter to Colonel Walton."
"That, sir, you are quite at liberty to do," said Sage calmly. "Incidentally you might report that I have resigned from my position at Department Z. I wish you good afternoon, gentlemen," and with that Malcolm Sage left the room.
"Good Lord! Grayne, you've done it now," said Sir Bridgman. "L. J. thinks the world of that chap."
"He's a most impertinent fellow," said Sir Lyster with heat.
"Clever men frequently are," laughed Sir Bridgman. "It seems to me that everybody's getting under the influence of John Dene. I suppose it's Bolshevism," he muttered to himself.
Half an hour later Colonel Walton was seated in earnest conversation with Mr. Llewellyn John.
"It's very awkward, very awkward," said Mr. Llewellyn John; "still, you must act along your own lines. It's no good creating a department and then allowing another department to dictate to it; but it's very awkward," he added.
"It would be more awkward, sir, if Sage were allowed to go," said Colonel Walton.
"Of course, of course," said Mr. Llewellyn John, "that's unthinkable. If I were only told," he muttered, "if I were only told. They keep so much from me." Then after a pause he added, "I'm inclined to blame you, though, Walton, for not – not – " Mr. Llewellyn John hesitated.
"Keeping John Dene under proper observation," suggested Colonel Walton quietly.
"Exactly." Mr. Llewellyn John looked at him quickly.
"He was always guarded."
"Then you – " began Mr. Llewellyn John.
"Our men were tricked."
"Tricked!" Mr. Llewellyn John looked startled.
"Yes," continued Colonel Walton. "McLean was on duty that night. Immediately he saw John Dene hail a taxi, he jumped into his own taxi; but he had hardly started when he was run into by a small runabout, and the other taxi got away."
"But the number of – "
"Fictitious both, the taxi and the run-about. We thought it expedient not to detain the man who ran into McLean," Colonel Walton added.
For nearly a minute Mr. Llewellyn John sat staring at the Chief of Department Z.
"It's most unfortunate, disastrous in fact," he said at length. "We must try and get into touch with Auchinlech by wireless."
"I'm afraid it will be useless," was the response.
"There's the War Cabinet to be considered," murmured Mr. Llewellyn John to himself. "The war does not – " He hesitated.
"Make men tractable," suggested Colonel Walton helpfully.
"Exactly," agreed Mr. Llewellyn John. "They may not take the same view as Sir Lyster and myself with regard to that memorandum of ours to Dene. It's very awkward happening just now," he added, "with all this trouble about interning aliens."
"What am I to do, sir? There is very little time."
"Do," said Mr. Llewellyn John, "why run your department in your own way, Walton."
"I have an absolutely free hand?" enquired Colonel Walton.
"Absolutely," said Mr. Llewellyn John; "but I wish you could tell me more."
"To be quite frank, I'm as much in the dark as you are. Sage is as obstinate as a pack-mule and as sure-footed. He's no respecter of – "
"Prime Ministers or First Lords," suggested Mr. Llewellyn John with a smile.
"Well, go your own way," said Mr. Llewellyn John; "but I should like to know what it all means. Frankly I'm puzzled. We are cut off entirely from Auchinlech, and without John Dene the Destroyer can't sail. We're losing valuable time. It's very unfortunate; it's a disaster, in fact. But," he burst out excitedly, "why on earth does Sage want to advertise our anxiety as to Dene's whereabouts? That's what puzzles me."
"It puzzles me too, sir," said Colonel Walton quietly.
"It's such a confession of weakness," continued Mr. Llewellyn John, "such a showing of our hand. What will people think when we offer ten thousand pounds for news of John Dene of Toronto?"
"They'll probably think that he's an extremely valuable man," was the dry retort.
"That's it exactly," said Mr. Llewellyn John, "and Berlin will congratulate itself upon a master-stroke."
Colonel Walton felt inclined to suggest that was exactly what Malcolm Sage seemed most to desire; but he refrained.
"Very well, Walton, carry on," said Mr. Llewellyn John; "but frankly I don't like it," he added half to himself.
Colonel Walton left No. 110, Downing Street, and ten minutes later Malcolm Sage withdrew his resignation.
Whilst Department Z. hummed and buzzed with energy, and men and women were coming and going continuously, Dorothy sat at the window of John Dene's room gazing out at a prospect of white enamelled bricks punctuated by windows. She had nothing to do. Everything seemed so different. John Dene's impulsive energy had vitalised all about him. Now she felt as if all her faculties had suddenly wilted.
In her own mind she was convinced that he was ill. She could not blot from her mind the strangeness of his manner during the last few days. His sudden loss of memory proved that he was unwell. For a man to forget where the postage stamps are kept, or the position in the room of the letter files, was, in itself, a proof that something very strange had suddenly come over him, the more so in the case of one who was almost aggressively proud of his memory. Then there had been other little details. His movements did not seem the same, that jerkiness and sudden upward glance from his table had disappeared. It was as if he had been drugged. Dorothy wondered if that really were the explanation. Oh! but she was very miserable and horribly lonely.
That night Dorothy and her mother sat up long after midnight talking of John Dene. To both had come the realisation that he stood to them in the light of an intimate friend.
As she said "Good night," Mrs. West put her arm round Dorothy's shoulders, and in a shaky voice said:
"I don't think God would let anything happen to a good man like Mr. Dene;" and Dorothy turned and left the room abruptly.