John Dene of Toronto: A Comedy of Whitehall
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"A man doesn't get lost like a pawn-ticket," announced Marjorie.
"What do you know about pawn-tickets, Rojjie?"
"Oh, I often pop things when I'm hard up," she announced nonchalantly.
"You don't!" cried Dorothy incredulously.
"Of course. What should I do when I'm stoney if it wasn't for uncle."
"You outrageous little creature!" cried Dorothy. "I should like to shake you."
"He's quite a nice youth, with black hair greased into what I think he would call a 'quiff.'"
"What on earth are you talking about?"
"Uncle, of course. He always gives me more than anyone else," she announced with the air of one conscious of a triumph.
"Where will you end, Rojjie?" cried Dorothy.
"Suburbs probably," she replied practically. "These old wasters take you out to dinner; but marry you – not much." She shook her wise little head so vigorously that her bobbed hair shook like a fringe. "I wish I had a John Dene," she said after a pause.
"A John Dene!"
"Ummm!" nodded Marjorie.
"Marry him, of course."
"Don't be absurd."
Suddenly Marjorie slipped off the table and, going over to Dorothy, threw her arms round her impulsively.
"I'm so sorry, Dollikins," she cried, snuggling up against her.
"Sorry for what?" asked Dorothy in a weak voice.
"That he got lost. I – I know," she added.
"Know what?" asked Dorothy, her voice still weaker.
"That you're keen on him."
"I'm not," Dorothy sniffed. "I'm not, so there." Again she sniffed, and Marjorie with the wisdom of her sex was silent, wondering how long she would be able to stand the tickling of Dorothy's tears as they coursed down her cheeks.
At the end of a fortnight Sir Lyster Grayne decided to close John Dene's offices, and Dorothy returned to the Admiralty, resuming her former position; but, thanks to Sir Bridgman North's intervention, her salary remained the same as before John Dene's disappearance.
All the girls were greatly interested in what they called "John Dene's vanishing trick." Dorothy became weary of answering their questions and parrying their not ill-natured impertinences. Sometimes she felt she must scream.
Everybody she encountered seemed to think it necessary to refer to the very subject she would have wished left unmentioned.
One day she had encountered Sir Bridgman North in one of the corridors. Recognising her, he had stopped to enquire if she were still receiving her full salary. Then with a cheery "I don't want to be gingered-up when the good John Dene returns," he had passed on with a smile and a salute.
At home it was the same. A pall of depression seemed to have descended upon the little flat. Mrs. West tactfully refrained from asking questions; but Dorothy was conscious that John Dene was never very far from her thoughts.
Their week-end excursions had lost their savour, and they both recognised how much John Dene had become part of their lives.
Sometimes when Dorothy was in bed, tears would refuse to be forced back, however hard she strove against them.Then she would become angry with herself, jump out of bed, dab her eyes with a wet towel, and return to bed and start counting sheep, until the very thought of mutton seemed to drive her mad.
Mr. Blair she hated the sight of, he was so obviously satisfied with the course of events. Sometimes she found herself longing for the return of John Dene, merely that he might "ginger-up" Sir Lyster's private secretary.
Week after week passed and no news. The volume of questions in the House died down and finally disappeared altogether. The state of affairs at Scotland Yard returned to the normal. Newspapers ceased to refer either to John Dene, or to his disappearance, and the tide of war flowed on.
Marshal Foch had struck his great blow, and had followed it up with others. The stream of Hun invasion had been stemmed, and slowly France and Belgium were being cleared.
Mr. Montagu Naylor's comings and goings continued to interest Department Z., and Apthorpe Road was still in the grip of the workman.
Day by day Dorothy seemed to grow more listless. It was the heat, she explained to Mrs. West, whilst Marjorie nodded her wise little head, but said nothing. Whenever she saw Dorothy she always "talked John Dene," as she expressed it to herself. She could see that it was a relief.
"You see, Rojjie darling, I should always be a little afraid of him," said Dorothy one day as they sat in John Dene's room. "I suppose that is why I – " She paused.
Marjorie nodded understandingly, and continued to swing a dainty, grey-stockinged leg.
"You – you see," continued Dorothy a little wistfully, "I've always had to do the taking care of, and he – " Again she broke off. Then suddenly jumping up she cried, "Let's go to the pictures. Bother John Dene!" and Marjorie smiled a little smile that was really her own.
Finally there came the time when for a fortnight Dorothy would have no one to say to her either "come" or "go," and she and Mrs. West went to Bournemouth, Dorothy inwardly dreading two weeks with nothing to do.
Whilst the John Dene sensation was slowly fading from the public mind, Malcolm Sage was continuing with unabated energy the task he had set himself. He was aware that Finlay was being watched even more closely than John Dene had been watched, and Sage realised that it was, in all probability, impossible for him to communicate with headquarters.
By an ingenious device, however, Finlay had at length succeeded in establishing contact with Department Z. It had been reported to Sage that on two occasions Finlay had been seen to leave behind him at restaurants a silver-mounted ebony walking stick. He had, however, always returned for it a few minutes later, as if having discovered his loss.
Learning that the stick was of an ordinary stock pattern, Malcolm Sage gave instructions for one exactly like it to be purchased. An endeavour was then to be made to effect an exchange with that carried by Finlay. It was not until a week later that this was effected, and the stick handed to Thompson.
A careful examination disclosed nothing. The silver nob and ferrule were removed; but without bringing to light anything in the nature of a communication.
"It's a wash-out, sir," said Thompson, as he entered Malcolm Sage's room, the stick in one hand and the knob and ferrule in the other.
Sage glanced up from his desk. Holding out his hand he took the stick and proceeded to examine it with elaborate care. The wood at the top, just beneath the knob, had been hollowed out. Sage glanced up at Thompson interrogatingly.
"Nothing in it, sir," he said, interpreting the question.
"There will be when you next make the exchange," was the dry retort and, with a motion of dismissal, Malcolm Sage returned to the papers before him.
"What's the matter, Tommy?" enquired Gladys Norman a few minutes later, as she came across Thompson gazing at the hollowed-out end of a stick, and murmuring to himself with suppressed passion.
"I'm the biggest fool in London," said Thompson without looking up.
"Only just discovered it?" she asked casually. "Poor old Tommikins," she added, prepared to dodge at the least sign of an offensive movement on the part of her colleague; but Thompson was too engrossed in introspective analysis to be conscious of what was taking place about him.
"We're on the eve of developments," said Malcolm Sage one afternoon some weeks later, as Colonel Walton entered his room, closing the door behind him.
"Anything new?" he enquired, dropping into a chair beside Sage's table.
"I'm afraid there's going to be trouble."
"Not resigning?" there was a twinkle in Colonel Walton's eye. In their infinite variety the resignations of Malcolm Sage would have filled a Blue Book.
"I don't like the look of things," continued Sage, pulling steadily at his pipe and ignoring the remark. "Naylor's playing his own game, I'm sure and," he added, looking up suddenly, "it's an ugly game."
"Bluff, that accusing Finlay of acting on his own about John Dene."
Malcolm Sage nodded his head slowly several times. For some minutes he continued to smoke with a mechanical precision that with him always betokened anxiety.
"It's the dug-out business, I don't like," he said at length.
Colonel Walton nodded. "You think?" he queried.
Sage nodded, his face was unusually grave.
During the previous week it had been discovered that Mr. Naylor was having constructed in his back-garden a dug-out, to which to retire in case of air-raids, and he was himself assisting with the work of excavation.
Finlay had confirmed Malcolm Sage's suggestion that Naylor was suspicious. There had been a quarrel between the two, which had taken place through intermediaries. Naylor had accused Finlay of being responsible for the disappearance of John Dene. Finlay had responded by a like accusation, and the threat of serious consequences to Naylor when the facts were known in a certain quarter.
"We've got to speed up." Malcolm Sage addressed the remark apparently to the thumbnail of his left hand.
Colonel Walton nodded.
"I don't like that dug-out business at all," continued Sage. "The changing of the site too," he added.
"Had they got far with the first one?" enquired Colonel Walton
"About five feet down; but they haven't filled it in yet."
Colonel Walton looked up quickly. His face was grave.
"Naylor says they must get the dug-out finished first in case of a raid. He can fill in the old hole at any time."
"A dug-out after nearly four years of raids?"
"Exactly," said Sage, "that and the unfilled hole and Naylor's own activities – " He broke off significantly.
"About the reward? It would be awkward if – Come in."
Colonel Walton broke off at the sound of a knock at the door.
Thompson entered with an ebony walking stick in one hand, a silver knob and a small piece of paper in the other. He held out the paper to Malcolm Sage, who, with a motion of his head, indicated Colonel Walton. He was very punctilious in such matters. Colonel Walton took the slip of paper and read aloud.
"Arrest me late to-night and have me taken to Tower. Slip the dogs to-morrow certain, delay dangerous.
For fully a minute the three men were silent. Colonel Walton began to draw diagrams upon his blotting pad Malcolm Sage gazed at his finger-nails, whilst Thompson stood stiffly erect, his face pale and his mouth rigid. Presently Sage looked up.
"I'm afraid there'll be no spring-mattress for you to-night, Thompson," he said. "I'll ring in a few minutes," and Thompson drew a sigh of relief as he turned towards the door, which a moment afterwards closed behind him.
"We can't do it to-night," announced Sage with decision.
Colonel Walton shook his head.
"He must take the risk until the morning," continued Sage. "You'll be here until it's all through?" he interrogated.
Colonel Walton nodded. When thoughtful he was more than usually sparing of words.
"About the reward?" he interrogated, as Sage rose and moved towards the door.
"We'll withdraw it in to-morrow evening's papers," was the response, "if you agree."
Again Colonel Walton nodded, and Malcolm Sage went out, bent on reminding Scotland Yard of his existence.