John Dene of Toronto: A Comedy of Whitehall
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At two o'clock Dorothy felt that she must either scream or faint. Her right hand seemed as if it would drop off. At last she suggested that even Admiralty typists required lunch. In a flash John Dene seemed to change into a human being, solicitous and self-reproachful.
"Too bad," he said, as he pulled out his watch. "Why, it's a quarter after two. You must be all used up. I'm sorry."
"And aren't you hungry as well, Mr. Dene?" she asked, as she closed her note-book and rose.
"Hungry!" he repeated as if she had asked him a surprising question. "I've no use for food when I'm hustling. Where do you go for lunch?"
"I go to a tea-shop," said Dorothy after a moment's hesitation.
"And what do you eat?" demanded John Dene, with the air of a cross-examining counsel.
"Oh, all sorts of things," she laughed; "buns and eggs and – and – "
"That's no good," was the uncompromising rejoinder.
"They're really quite nourishing," she said with a smile. At the Admiralty it was not customary for the chiefs to enquire what the typists ate.
"You'd better come with me and have a good meal," he said bluntly, reaching for his hat.
Dorothy flushed. The implication was too obvious to be overlooked. Drawing herself up slightly, and with her head a little thrown back, she declined.
"I'm afraid I have an engagement," she said coldly.
John Dene looked up, puzzled to account for her sudden hauteur. He watched her leave the room, and then, throwing down his hat, reseated himself at his table and once more became absorbed in his work.
Dorothy went to the Admiralty staff-restaurant and spent a week's lunch allowance upon her meal. It seemed to help her to regain her self-respect. When she returned to John Dene's room some forty minutes later, determined to get some of her notes typed before he returned, she found him still sitting at his table. As she entered he took out his watch, looked at it and then up at her. Dorothy crimsoned as if discovered in some illicit act. She was angry with herself for her weakness and with John Dene – why, she could not have said.
"You've been hustling some," he remarked, as he returned the watch to his pocket.
"We've both been quick," said Dorothy, curious to know if John Dene had been to lunch.
"Oh, I stayed right here," he said, still gazing up at her.
Dorothy felt rebuked. He had evidently felt snubbed, she told herself, and it was her fault that he had remained at work.
"See here," said John Dene, "I can't breathe in this place. It's all gold braid and brass buttons. I'm going to rent my own offices, and have lunch sent in and we'll get some work done. You can get a rest or a walk about three. I don't like breaking off in the midst of things," he added, a little lamely, Dorothy thought.
"Very well, Mr. Dene," she said, as she resumed her seat.
"Do you mind? Say right out if you'd hate it." There was a suspicion of anxiety in his tone.
"I'm here to do whatever you wish," she said with dignity.
With a sudden movement John Dene sprang up and proceeded to pace up and down the room.
From time to time he glanced at Dorothy, who sat pencil and note-book ready for the flood of staccatoed sentences that usually accompanied these pacings to and fro.At length he came to a standstill in the middle of the room, planted his feet wide apart as if to steady the resolution to which he had apparently come.
"Say, what's all this worth to you?" he blurted out.
Dorothy looked up in surprise, not grasping his meaning.
"Worth to me?" she queried, her head on one side, the tip of her pencil resting on her lower lip.
"Yes; what do they pay you?"
"Oh! I see. Thirty-five shillings a week and, if I become a permanent, a pension when I'm too old to enjoy it," she laughed. "That is if the Hun hasn't taken us over by then."
"That'll be about nine dollars a week," mumbled John Dene, twisting his cigar round between his lips. "Well, you're worth twenty dollars a week to me, so I'll make up the rest."
"I'm quite satisfied, thank you," she said, drawing herself up slightly.
"Well, I'm not," he blurted out. "You're going to work well for me, and you're going to be well paid."
"I'm afraid I cannot accept it," she said firmly, "although it's very kind of you," she added with a smile.
He regarded her in surprise. It was something new to him to find anyone refusing an increase in salary. His cigar twirled round with remarkable rapidity.
"I suppose I'm getting his goat," thought Dorothy, as she watched him from beneath lowered lashes.
"Why won't you take it?" he demanded.
"I'm afraid I cannot accept presents," she said with what she thought a disarming smile.
"Oh, shucks!" John Dene was annoyed.
"If the Admiralty thought I was worth more than thirty-five shillings a week, they would pay me more."
"Well, I'm not going to have anyone around that doesn't get a living wage," he announced explosively.
"Does that mean that I had better go?" she inquired calmly.
"No, it doesn't. You just stay right here till I get back," was the reply, and he opened the door and disappeared, leaving Dorothy with the conviction that someone was to suffer because, in John Dene's opinion, she was inadequately paid.
As she waited for John Dene's return, she could not keep her thoughts from what an extra forty-five shillings a week would mean to her. She could increase the number and quality of the little "surprises" she took home with her to the mother in whose life she bulked so largely. Peaches could be bought without the damning prefix "tinned"; salmon without the discouraging modification "Canadian"; eggs that had not long since forgotten what hen had laid them and when. She could take her more often to a theatre, or for a run in a taxi when she was tired. In short, a hundred and seventeen pounds a year would buy quite a lot of rose-leaves with which to colour her mother's life.
Whilst Dorothy was building castles in Spain upon a foundation of eleven dollars a week, John Dene walked briskly along the corridor leading to Sir Lyster's room. Mr. Blair was seated at his desk reading with calm deliberation and self-evident satisfaction a letter he had just written for Sir Lyster to one of his constituents. He had devoted much time and thought to the composition, as it was for publication, and he was determined that no one should find in it flaw or ambiguity. The morning had been one of flawless serenity, and he was looking forward to a pleasant lunch with some friends at the Berkeley.
"Here, what the hell do you mean by giving that girl only nine dollars a week?"
Suddenly the idyllic peaceful ness of his mood was shattered into a thousand fragments. John Dene had burst into the room with the force of a cyclone, and stood before him like an accusing fury.
"Nine dollars a week! What girl?" he stuttered, looking up weakly into John Dene's angry eyes. "I – I – "
"Miss West," was the retort. "She's getting nine dollars a week, less than I pay an office boy in T'ronto."
"But I – it's nothing to do with me," began Mr. Blair miserably. He had become mortally afraid of John Dene, and prayed for the time to come when the Hun submarine menace would be ended, and John Dene could return to Toronto, where no doubt he was understood and appreciated.
"Well, it ought to be," snapped John Dene, just as Sir Bridgman North came out of Sir Lyster's room.
"Good morning, Mr. Dene," he cried genially. "What are you doing to poor Blair?"
John Dene explained his grievance. "I'd pay the difference myself, just to make you all feel a bit small, only she won't take it from me."
"Well, I think I can promise that the matter shall be put right, and we'll make Blair take her out to lunch by way of apology, shall we?" he laughed.
"I'd like to see him ask her," said John Dene grimly. "That girl's a high-stepper, sir. Nine dollars a week!" he grumbled as he left the room to the manifest relief of Mr. Blair.
"You're being gingered-up, Blair," said Sir Bridgman; "in fact, we're all being gingered-up. It's a bit surprising at first; but it's a great game played slow. You'll get to like it in time, and it's all for the good of the British Empire."
Mr. Blair smiled weakly as Sir Bridgman left the room; but in his heart he wished it were possible to have a sentinel outside his door, with strict injunctions to bayonet John Dene without hesitation should he seek admittance.
"I've fixed it," announced John Dene, as he burst in upon Dorothy's day dream. "You'll get twenty dollars in future."
She looked up quickly. "You're very kind, Mr. Dene," she said, "but is it – is it – ?" she hesitated.
"It's a square deal. I told them you wouldn't take it from me, and that I wasn't going to have my secretary paid less than an office boy in T'ronto. I gingered 'em up some. Nine dollars a week for you!"
The tone in which the last sentence was uttered brought a slight flush to Dorothy's cheeks.
"Now you can get on," he announced, picking up his hat. "I'm going to find offices;" and he went out like a gust of wind.
Dorothy typed steadily on. Of one thing she had become convinced, that the position of secretary to John Dene of Toronto was not going to prove a rest-billet.
At a little after four Marjorie Rogers knocked at the door and, recognising Dorothy's "Come in," entered stealthily as if expecting someone to jump out at her.
"Where's the bear, Wessie?" she enquired, keeping a weather eye on the door in case John Dene should return.
"Gone out to buy bear-biscuits," laughed Dorothy, leaning back in her chair to get the kink out of her spine.
"Do you think he'll marry you?" enquired the little brunette romantically, as she perched herself upon John Dene's table and swung a pretty leg. "They don't usually, you know."
"He'll probably kill you if he catches you," said Dorothy.
"Oh, if he comes I'm here to ask if you would like some tea," was the airy reply.
"You angel!" cried Dorothy. "I should love it."
"Has he tried to kiss you yet?" demanded the girl, looking at Dorothy searchingly.
"Don't be ridiculous," cried Dorothy, conscious that she was flushing.
"I see he has," she said, regarding Dorothy judicially and nodding her head wisely.
Dorothy re-started typing. It was absurd, she decided, to endeavour to argue with this worldly child of Whitehall.
"They're all the same," continued Marjorie, lifting her skirt slightly and gazing with obvious approval at the symmetry of her leg. "You didn't let him, I hope," continued the girl. "You see, it makes it bad for others." Then a moment later she added, "It should be chocs. before kisses, and they've got to learn the ropes."
"And you, you little imp, have got to learn morals." Dorothy laughed in spite of herself at the quaint air of wisdom with which this girl of eighteen settled the ethics of Whitehall.
"What's the use of morals?" cried the girl. "I mean morals that get in the way of your having a good time. Of course I wouldn't – " She paused.
"Never mind what you wouldn't do, Brynhilda the Bold," said Dorothy, "but concentrate on the woulds, and bring me the tea you promised."
The girl slipped off the table and darted across the room, returning a few minutes later with a cup of tea and a few biscuits.
"I can't stop," she panted. "Old Goggles has been giving me the bird;" and with that she was gone.
It was a quarter to seven before John Dene returned. Without a word he threw his hat on the bookcase and seated himself at his table. For the next quarter of an hour he was absorbed in reading the lists and letters Dorothy had typed. At seven o'clock Dorothy placed the last list on the table before him.
"Is there anything more, Mr. Dene?" she enquired. She was conscious of feeling inexpressibly weary.
"Yes," said John Dene, without looking up. "You're coming out to have some dinner."
"I'm afraid I can't, thank you," she said. "My mother is waiting."
"Oh shucks!" he cried, looking up quickly.
"But it isn't!" she said wearily.
"Isn't what?" demanded John Dene.
"Shucks!" she said; then, seeing the absurdity of the thing, she laughed.
"We'll send your mother an express message or a wire. You look dead beat." He smiled and Dorothy capitulated. It would be nice, she told herself, not to have to go all the way to Chiswick before having anything to eat.
"But where are you taking me, Mr. Dene?" enquired Dorothy, as they turned from Waterloo Place into Pall Mall.
"To the Ritzton."
"But I'm – I'm – " she stopped dead.
"What's wrong?" he demanded, looking at her in surprise.
"I – I can't go there," she stammered. "I'm not dressed for – " She broke off lamely.
"That'll be all right," he said. "It's my hotel."
"It may be your hotel," said Dorothy, resuming the walk, "but I don't care to go there in a blouse and a skirt to be stared at."
"Who'll stare at you?"
"Not at me, at my clothes," she corrected.
"Then we'll go to the grill-room," he replied with inspiration.
"That might be – " She hesitated.
"You're not going home until you have something to eat," he announced with determination. "You look all used up," he added.
Dorothy submitted to the inevitable, conscious of a feeling of content at having someone to decide things for her. Suddenly she remembered Marjorie Rogers' remarks. What was she doing? If any of the girls saw her they would – She had done the usual thing, sent a telegram to her mother to say she should be late, and was dining out with her chief on the first day – Oh! it was horrible.
"Would you – would you?" – she turned to John Dene appealingly, – "would you mind if I went home," she faltered. "I'm not feeling – very well." She gulped out the last words conscious of the lie.
"Why sure," he said solicitously. "I'm sorry."
To her infinite relief he hailed a taxi.
"I'll come along and see you safe," he announced in a matter-of-fact tone.
"Oh, please no," she cried, "I'd much sooner – " She broke off distressed.
Without a word he handed her into the taxi.
"Where am I to tell him?" he enquired.
"Douglas Mansions, Chiswick, please," gasped Dorothy, and she sank back in the taxi with a feeling that she had behaved very ridiculously.