Herbert Jenkins.

John Dene of Toronto: A Comedy of Whitehall



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People waited eagerly for the morrow's papers. They contained another surprise, this time in the form of a two column advertisement, offering ?20,000 for information that would lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of John Dene. Clearly somebody was determined that John Dene should be found.

When Mr. Llewellyn John opened the first morning paper he picked up from the pile awaiting him he gasped. Himself a great believer in the possibilities of the press, he felt, nevertheless, that Department Z. was overdoing things, and he telephoned for its chief and Malcolm Sage to call upon him at ten o'clock.

At two minutes to ten, the two presented themselves at No. 110, Downing Street, and were immediately shown into the presence of the Prime Minister.

"Has it struck you," asked Mr. Llewellyn John, indicating one of the advertisements, "that questions will be asked in the House as to whether or no the Government is offering these large rewards?"

"I should think it highly probable, sir," was Sage's response.

"And what are we to say?" demanded Mr. Llewellyn John. He was a keen politician, and saw that the situation might be fraught with considerable difficulties.

"Acknowledge that they are, sir," was the response.

"Acknowledge it!" cried Mr. Llewellyn John.

"Certainly, sir."

"Mr. Sage," said Mr. Llewellyn John severely, "you do not appear to appreciate that this may seriously compromise the Government." Then turning to Colonel Walton he continued: "Hitherto you have been given a free hand, now I must ask you to explain why you are offering these large rewards. You first of all suggested ?1,000, rising daily from ?1,000 to ?10,000. In two days it has amounted to ?20,000."

"It won't rise any higher, sir. It has reached the limit."

"That is not the point," said Mr. Llewellyn John. "I want to know why it is that you are advertising to Germany that we want John Dene. It is an obvious confession of weakness." He made a quick nervous movement with his right hand, he was far from easy in his mind.

Malcolm Sage continued to examine his finger-nails with great intentness.

Seeing that he made no indication of replying, Mr. Llewellyn John continued:

"I'm afraid that this cannot go on." There was a suggestion of irritability in his voice.

"Then have it stopped, sir," said Sage calmly, still intent upon the finger-nails of his right hand.

"The mischief is done," said Mr. Llewellyn John. "What is at the back of your mind, Sage?" he demanded.

"I'm working on a hypothesis, sir," was the reply. "I think I'm right, in fact I'm convinced of it; but until I know for certain, I must keep my theories to myself. If you wish it, I'll tell you what I actually know; but I make it a rule never to air theories."

Mr. Llewellyn John smiled. "Well, tell me what you actually know then," he said.

"When Mr. Dene left his office at three minutes past six on Monday evening, he stood for nearly a minute, as if making up his mind in what direction to go.

Just as he was about to turn and walk up Regent Street a taxi crawled past him. The driver spoke to him and John Dene got in and drove away."

"Kidnapped!" exclaimed Mr. Llewellyn John.

Malcolm Sage shrugged his shoulders.

"In which direction did he drive?" enquired Mr. Llewellyn John eagerly.

"Along Pall Mall, sir," was the reply. "Colonel Walton told you what happened?"

Mr. Llewellyn John nodded. "And have you informed the police?" he asked.

Malcolm Sage shook his head.

"Why?" enquired Mr. Llewellyn John eagerly.

"If my theory is right," said Sage, "it's unnecessary. If my theory's wrong, it's useless. Believe me, sir, our best course is to continue to boom John Dene's disappearance for all we are worth."

"But the Destroyer!" exclaimed Mr. Llewellyn John excitedly.

"You know the conditions, sir, that the island of Auchinlech was to be left severely alone for four months."

"Do you imagine that Dene slipped off to the north to trick the Germans?"

"That wouldn't trick them, sir," said Malcolm Sage quietly. "John Dene would never have been allowed to reach Auchinlech alive. That was settled. I may add that I have every reason to believe that the taxi and its occupant did not go fifty miles from London."

"And that he is a prisoner?" Mr. Llewellyn John jumped from his chair.

Malcolm Sage inclined his head in the affirmative.

"Good heavens!" exclaimed Mr. Llewellyn John, "we must – "

"Depend entirely upon the advertisements," said Sage, rising. "You will of course regard this as strictly confidential, and to be told to no one. I cannot tell you how important it is." There was an unaccustomed note of seriousness in Sage's voice, which did not fail to impress Mr. Llewellyn John.

"But the questions in the House as to why we are offering this reward?" persisted Mr. Llewellyn John. "What reply are we to make?"

"You might fall back on the old clich?, sir: 'Wait and see.'"

Mr. Llewellyn John smiled.

"That phrase," continued Sage, "was a great asset to one party, why should it not be to another?"

"Look at this." Mr. Llewellyn John held out a slip of paper, which Colonel Walton took and read aloud.

"Has the attention of the Home Secretary been drawn to a statement in The Tribune to the effect that it is the Government that is offering the reward of ?10,000 for information that will lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of Mr. John Dene of Toronto, and if so can it justify the offer of so large a sum of public money?"

"They haven't lost any time," remarked Sage quietly.

"They never do." There was an unaccustomed note of irascibility in Mr. Llewellyn John's voice. "These questions are a scandal."

"Except when one happens to be in opposition, sir," said Sage, apparently absorbed in examining the nails of his left hand.

Mr. Llewellyn John made no response, and Colonel Walton handed back to him the slip, which he tossed upon the table.

"Well," he demanded, looking from Colonel Walton to Sage, "what are we to reply?"

"The answer is in the affirmative, sir," said Malcolm Sage.

For a moment Mr. Llewellyn John looked at him, frowning, then he broke into a smile.

"That's all very well, Sage, but it's not sufficient."

"If I may venture a suggestion – " began Sage.

"Do – do, that's why I sent for you – both," he added, as if in deference to Colonel Walton.

"I would say that for reasons not unconnected with the prosecution of the war, the discovery of Mr. John Dene's whereabouts is imperative."

"But that would be giving us away more than ever."

"I think it would be desirable to temporise," said Sage.

Mr. Llewellyn John made a movement of impatience.

"You might reply that it is not in the public interest to answer the question," continued Sage.

"But that would be tantamount to acknowledging that we are offering the reward," said Mr. Llewellyn John with a suspicion of irritation in his voice.

Malcolm Sage looked at him steadily, but without speaking.

"There will inevitably be other questions arising out of this," continued Mr. Llewellyn John.

"I was going to suggest, sir, that if we could arrange for some newspaper to make a definite statement that the Government is offering the reward, we could prosecute it under D.O.R.A."

For fully a minute Mr. Llewellyn John gazed at Malcolm Sage, as if not quite sure of his sanity. "But," he began, and then broke off, looking helplessly across at Colonel Walton.

"Of course, sir, I'll relinquish the enquiry if you wish it."

"This is not the time to talk of relinquishing anything, Sage," said Mr. Llewellyn John with some asperity in his tone. "What I want to know is what all this means."

"That's exactly what I'm endeavouring to discover," said Sage evenly. "If I were a stage detective, I should be down on my knees smelling your carpet, or examining Pall Mall with a strong lens; but I'm not. I never carry a magnifying-glass and I know nothing about finger-prints. The solving of mysteries, like the detection of crime, is invariably due to a mistake on the part of somebody who ought not to have made a mistake."

"Then tell me how far you have got." Mr. Llewellyn John glanced across to Colonel Walton, and was conscious of a slight knitting of his brows, then he looked back again at Malcolm Sage, who for some moments remained silent.

"If you were uncertain of my sanity, sir," said Sage quietly, "would you discuss the matter with others, or would you first assure yourself of the accuracy of your suspicions?"

He looked up suddenly, straight into Mr. Llewellyn John's eyes.

"We all know you are hopelessly and irretrievably mad, Sage," said Mr. Llewellyn John with a smile.

"When I know definitely what has become of John Dene, I'll tell you, sir," said Sage. "I'm not spectacular, sir. I can't deduce bigamy from a bootlace, or murder from a meringue. I can tell you this, however" – he paused and both his listeners leaned forward eagerly – "that if my hypothesis is correct, the policy to pursue is to magnify the importance of John Dene's disappearance. Incidentally," he added, "it might result in Mr. John Dene revising his opinion of the incapacity of British officialdom."

"Then you refuse to tell me?"

"It would be highly injudicious on my part to tell you of a mere suspicion which might – " Malcolm Sage lifted his eye from the nail of his left thumb, and looked straight at Mr. Llewellyn John – "which might dictate your policy, sir."

"But the time we are wasting," protested Mr. Llewellyn John, rising and pacing up and down impatiently.

"Nothing is lost that's wrought with tears, sir," was the enigmatical response.

"Sage," said Mr. Llewellyn John, as he shook hands with Malcolm Sage, "you're the most pig-headed official in the British Empire. Chappeldale can be tiresome; but you're nothing short of an inconvenience. Mind, Walton," he continued, turning to the chief of Department Z., "I shall hold you responsible for Sage. If he lets me down over this Dene business, I shall lose faith in Department Z." The smile that accompanied his words, however, robbed them of any sting they might have contained.

"Why don't you take the Skipper into your confidence, Sage?" enquired Walton, as they walked towards the Duke of York's steps.

"Vanity, chief, sheer vanity," was the response. "We have never failed him yet, and if I started barking up the wrong tree, he'd never again have confidence in Department Z. I suppose," he added irrelevantly, "that some day we shall be taken over altogether by the colonies. It would not be a bad thing for the British Empire, either. John Dene might be our first president."

There was one man who was deeply thankful for the disappearance of John Dene. Mr. Blair went about as if he had received a new lease of life. He became almost sprightly in his demeanour, and no longer looked up apprehensively when the door of his room opened. Sir Bridgman North commented on the circumstance to Sir Lyster Grayne and, as he passed through Mr. Blair's room, openly taxed him with being responsible for the kidnapping of John Dene. Mr. Blair smiled a little wearily; for to him John Dene was no matter for joking.

When Mr. McShane's question with regard to the disappearance of John Dene came up for answer, the Home Secretary replied that for the present at least it was not in the public interest to give the information required.

"That's tantamount to an acknowledgment," cried Mr. McShane, springing to his feet. "It's a scandal that public money – "

He got no further, as at this point he was called to order by the Speaker.

It was clear that the House was not satisfied. In the lobbies Mr. McShane's question and the answer given were discussed to an extent out of all proportion to their apparent importance. The feeling seemed to be that if John Dene were of such value to the Government, he should have been guarded with a care that would have prevented the possibility of his disappearance. If on the other hand the Government had no interest in the enormous reward offered for information concerning him, then a statement to that effect should have been made. Whatever the facts, the Government was obviously in the wrong. That was the general impression.

The next day several newspapers commented very strongly upon the incident. There seemed to be a determination on the part of the press to make an "affaire John Dene" out of the Canadian's disappearance. The Government was attacked for adopting German bureaucratic methods. "A dark age of bureaucracy is settling down upon the country," said The Morning Age. "The real danger of Prussianism is not military, but bureaucratic."

The Government was called upon to lift the curtain of mystery with which it had surrounded itself. If it were responsible for the rewards offered, then let it say so. If, however, these rewards were in no way connected with the Government, then a denial should immediately be made. At the moment everybody regarded the Government as responsible for the tremendous press campaign resulting from John Dene's disappearance.

Malcolm Sage read the newspapers with obvious relish. Mr. Llewellyn John, on the other hand, frowned heavily at finding his administration attacked. The Home Secretary rang up the Deputy-Commissioner at Scotland Yard, telling him that something must be done, and the Deputy-Commissioner had replied with some heat that if the Home Secretary would step across to the Yard, he would see what actually was being done. He further intimated that the whole work of the Yard had been disorganised.

The Prime Minister sent over for Colonel Walton. "Look here, Walton," he cried as the chief of Department Z. entered the room. "This affair is getting rather out of hand, and it looks dangerous. You've seen the papers?"

Colonel Walton nodded. He was a man to whom words came with difficulty.

"Well, I don't like the look of it," continued Mr. Llewellyn John. "Sir Roger has just rung through that he's been urging Scotland Yard to greater efforts."

"They can do no harm," remarked Colonel Walton drily.

"I want Sage to go round and see the Deputy-Commissioner."

"I doubt if he'll do it," was the grim response.

"Not do it!" cried Mr. Llewellyn John, with a note of anger in his voice.

"In fact, I'm quite sure he won't."

"If you tell him that those are my instructions – " began Mr. Llewellyn John.

"It's no use, sir, he'll merely resign. He's as independent as an American boot-boy."

Mr. Llewellyn John flopped down in a chair, and sat gazing at Colonel Walton. "But he's got us into this muddle," he began.

"I've never known Sage's judgment at fault yet," replied Colonel Walton.

"Then you advise – " began Mr. Llewellyn John.

"I never venture to advise," was the reply.

"Now look here, Walton," said Mr. Llewellyn John persuasively, "this is a very serious matter. It has already been magnified out of all proportion to its actual importance. I want to know what you would do if you were in my place."

"Exactly as Sage advises," was the terse response.

"Why, you're as bad as he is," grumbled Mr. Llewellyn John. "Still, I suppose I must do as you suggest. I don't like the look of things, however. It's invariably the neglected trifle that wrecks a government."

The mysterious disappearance of John Dene was made the subject of special consideration at a meeting of the War Cabinet. It was urged that the curious nature of the circumstances exonerated the Prime Minister and the First Lord of the Admiralty from the personal pledge they had given to John Dene, and that it was a matter of vital national importance that the Destroyer should be put into commission with the least possible delay.

Mr. Llewellyn John looked interrogatingly across at Sir Lyster Grayne, who shook his head decisively.

"We have given a personal pledge," he said, "under no circumstances whatever to communicate or endeavour to communicate other than by wireless with the island of Auchinlech for the period of four months from the date of our undertaking. The words 'under no circumstances whatever' admit of only one interpretation."

"But," protested Sir Roger Flynn, the Home Secretary, "Mr. Dene could not have foreseen his own disappearance. Circumstances surely alter the aspect of the case," he urged.

"If you, Flynn, were to promise under no circumstances to move from this room, then fire or flood would not justify you in breaking that promise," said Sir Lyster with decision. He was notorious for his punctiliousness in matters of personal honour. "What was possible to the Roman sentry is imperative with responsible Ministers," he added.

Mr. Llewellyn John nodded, and made a mental note of the phrase.

"Besides," continued Sir Lyster, "Mr. Dene was particularly emphatic on this point. I recall his saying to the Prime Minister, 'When I say under no circumstances, I mean under no circumstances,' and he went on to expound his interpretation of the phrase."

"But," persisted Sir Roger, "if the majority of the War Cabinet take the opposite view, then you and the Prime Minister would be absolved from your promise."

"Nothing can absolve a man from his personal pledge," was Sir Lyster's calm retort. "He can be outvoted politically; but he has always his alternative, resignation."

Mr. Llewellyn John looked up quickly. "I think," he said, "that Grayne is right. Nothing can absolve us from our pledge."

"The point is," said Sir Roger, "what is happening at Auchinlech?" He fixed an almost accusing eye upon Sir Lyster Grayne, who merely shook his head with the air of one who has been asked an insoluble conundrum.

"Here we are," continued Sir Roger indignantly, "with a weapon that would exercise a considerable effect in bringing victory nearer, debarred from using it because —

"The Prime Minister has given his word," interpolated Sir Lyster quietly.

Sir Roger glared at him. "Death nullifies a contract of this description," retorted Sir Roger.

"But the Prime Minister is not yet dead," said Sir Lyster drily.

Mr. Llewellyn John started slightly. He did not like these references to death and resignation.

"In law – " began Sir Roger.

"This is not a matter of law, but of a private promise." Sir Lyster was insistent.

"I think, gentlemen, you are looking at it from different points of view," interrupted Mr. Llewellyn John with a tactful smile. "Let us hope that Mr. John Dene will be found. If it can be proved he is dead, then we shall be fully justified in sending to Auchinlech, acquainting his second-in-command with what has happened, and instructing him to assume command of the Destroyer in accordance with Mr. Dene's wishes."

The matter was then dropped, although it was clear that the members of the War Cabinet were not at one on the subject either of John Dene or his disappearance.

The Home Secretary promised personally to urge the police to greater efforts.

Slowly and with infinite labour Scotland Yard sifted the enormous volume of evidence that poured in upon it, proving conclusively that John Dene had been seen in every part of the United Kingdom, not to mention a number of places on the Continent. Police officers swore and perspired as they strove to grapple with this enormous problem. Night and day they worked with the frenzy of despair. They cursed the war, they cursed the colonies, they cursed John Dene. Why had he not stayed in Toronto and disappeared there, if he must disappear anywhere. Why had he come to London to drive to desperation an already over-worked department?

One thing that the police found particularly embarrassing was that constables were constantly being called upon, by enthusiastic and excited members of the public, to arrest inoffensive citizens on the suspicion of their being John Dene of Toronto. In some instances the constables would point out that no resemblance existed; but the invariable reply was that the object of suspicion was disguised.

All these false scents were duly reported to headquarters through the local police-stations, with no other result than to increase the sultriness of the atmosphere at Scotland Yard.

An elaborate description of John Dene was sent to every coroner and mortuary-attendant in the country. The river police were advised to keep a sharp look-out for floating bodies. In its heart of hearts Scotland Yard yearned to discover proof of the death of John Dene, whilst all the time it worked steadily through the deluge of correspondence, and listened patiently to the testimonies of the avaricious optimists who were convinced that they, and they alone, could supply the necessary information that would lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of John Dene, and transfer to themselves the not inconsiderable sum of ?20,000.

"If ever another blighter comes from Toronto," remarked Detective-Inspector Crabbett, as he mopped his brow, "it would be worth while for the Yard to subscribe ?20,000 for him to disappear quietly." Having thus relieved his feelings he plunged once more into the opening of letters, letters that convinced him that the whole population of Great Britain and Ireland had gone suddenly mad.

Articles appeared in many of the German newspapers upon the subject of the mysterious disappearance of John Dene. A great point was made of the fact that he was an inventor, and was known to be in close touch with the British war chiefs. Emphasis was laid upon the extraordinary efforts being made to discover his whereabouts. "It is inconceivable," said the Koelnische Zeitung, "that the anxiety of the relatives of the missing man could have prompted them to offer a reward of 400,000 marks for news of his whereabouts, and that within two days of his disappearance. Imagine a private citizen in Germany being absent from home for two days, and his friends offering this colossal reward for news of him. What would be said?" The writer went on to point out that behind this almost hysterical anxiety of the English to find John Dene lay a mystery that, whatever its solution might be, was certainly not detrimental to German interests.



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