John Dene of Toronto: A Comedy of Whitehall
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"It was about four o'clock when Winn and I – "
"Right," said Sir Bridgman, "I'll drop in about that time to-morrow and see what's doing," and the door closed behind him.
A moment later he put his head round the door. "One of these days you'll be finding Blair with a girl on each knee," he laughed, and with that he was gone.
John Dene's reason for wishing to have offices somewhere away from the Admiralty had been twofold. For one thing he did not desire those he knew were closely watching should see him in close association with Whitehall; for another he felt that he could breathe more freely away from gold braid and those long dreary corridors, which seemed so out of keeping with the headquarters of a Navy at war. He now determined to get out at once. The constant interruptions to which he found himself subjected, rendered concentration impossible. He therefore informed Dorothy that at nine o'clock next morning they would start work in the new offices he had taken in Waterloo Place. They consisted of two rooms, one leading off the other. The larger room John Dene decided to use himself, the smaller he handed over to Dorothy.
With a celerity that had rather surprised John Dene the telephone had been connected and a private wire run through to the Admiralty.
"The thing about a Britisher," he remarked to Dorothy, "is that he can hustle, but won't."
She allowed the remark to pass unchallenged.
"Now things will begin to hum," he said, as he settled himself down to his table. Throwing aside his coat, he set to work. There was little over three weeks in which to get everything organised and planned. Long lists of stores for the Destroyer had to be prepared, the details of the structural alterations to the Toronto, the name given to the mother-ship that was to act as tender to the Destroyer, instructions to the Canadian crew that was coming over, and a thousand and one other things that kept them busily occupied. He arranged to have luncheon sent in from the Ritzton. After the first day the ordering of these meals was delegated to Dorothy. John Dene's ideas on the subject of food proved original, resulting in the ordering of about five times as much as necessary.
Dorothy came to look forward to these dainty meals, which she could order with unstinted hand, and she liked the t?te-?-t?te half-hours during their consumption. Then John Dene would unbend and tell her of Canada, about his life there and in America, how he had planned and built the Destroyer. He seemed to take it for granted that she could be trusted to keep her own counsel.
The night after John Dene's entry into his new offices the place was burgled. In the morning when he arrived he found papers tossed about in reckless disorder. The fourth set of plans of German U-boats had disappeared.
With grim humour he drew a fifth set from his pocket, and placed it in the safe, which he did not keep locked, as it contained nothing of importance.John Dene's method was to burn every paper or duplicate that was no longer required, and to have sent over to the Admiralty each day before five o'clock such documents as were of importance.
For the first time in her life Dorothy felt she was doing something of national importance. John Dene trusted her, and took her patriotism as a matter of course. Sometimes he would enquire if she were tired, and on hearing that she was not he would nod his approval.
"You're some worker," he once remarked casually, whereat Dorothy had flushed with pleasure. Later she remembered that this was the first word of praise she had heard him bestow on anything or anybody British.
At first a buttons had called from the Ritzton each morning and afternoon for orders; but after the second day he had been superseded by a waiter. One morning, after the order had been given, John Dene enquired of Dorothy if she had ever tasted lobster ? l'Americaine.
"Typists don't eat lobster ? l'Americaine in England, Mr. Dene," she had replied. "It's too expensive."
Whereupon he had told her to ring up the Ritzton and order lobster ? l'Americaine for lunch in place of the order already given. Ten minutes later a ring came through from the hotel to the effect that there must be some mistake, as there was no lunch on order for Mr. John Dene. Dorothy protested that they had been supplied with lunch each day for the last four days. The management deprecatingly suggested that there had been a mistake, as after the first two days the order had been cancelled. Dorothy repeated the information to John Dene, who then took the receiver.
"If you didn't supply lunch yesterday, who the blazes did?" he demanded, and a suave voice answered that it did not know who it was that had that honour, but certainly it was not the Ritzton.
John Dene banged back the receiver impatiently. "We'll wait and see what happens at twelve o'clock," he exclaimed, as he turned once more to the papers on his table. "Somebody's feeding us," he muttered.
"Perhaps it's the ravens," murmured Dorothy to herself.
At twelve o'clock a waiter entered with a tray. At the sound of his knock, John Dene revolved round in his chair.
"Here, where do you come from?" he demanded, glaring as if he suspected the man of being of German parentage.
The man started violently and nearly dropped the tray.
"I obey orders," he stammered.
"Yes; but whose orders?"
For a moment the man hesitated.
"Do you come from the Ritzton?" demanded John Dene aggressively.
"I obey orders," repeated the man.
John Dene looked from the tray to Dorothy, and then to the man; but said nothing, contenting himself with waving the man out with an impatient motion of his hand.
After the meal he picked up his hat, lighted a cigar and told Dorothy he would be back in a quarter of an hour. Five minutes later he burst in upon Mr. Blair.
"Here, what the hell's all this about my meals?" John Dene seemed to take a delight in descending upon Sir Lyster's secretary.
Mr. Blair turned towards him with that expression he seemed to keep expressly for John Dene. "Your meals," he stammered.
"Yes," replied John Dene, blowing volumes of acrid smoke towards the sensitive nostrils of Mr. Blair. "Why was my order to the Ritzton cancelled? That sort of thing rattles me."
"I'm afraid that I know nothing of this," said Mr. Blair, "but I will enquire."
"Well, I'd like somebody to put me wise as to why he interferes with my affairs," and John Dene stamped out of the room and back to Waterloo Place.
"Shucks!" cried John Dene irritably. "You make me tired."
"I doubt if you appreciate the seriousness of the situation," was Colonel Walton's quiet retort.
"I appreciate the seriousness of a situation that turns my 'phone into a sort of elevator-bell, and makes my office like a free-drink saloon at an election."
Colonel Walton smiled indulgently, Dorothy kept her eyes upon her note-book.
"You get your notion about spies from ten cent thrillers," continued John Dene scornfully. "Don't you worry about me. If there's a hungry dog I believe in feeding it," he added enigmatically. "I might as well be a lost baggage office. Every mutt that has ten minutes to waste seems to blow in on me. You're the tenth this a.m."
"At that rate you will soon have exhausted all the Government Departments," said Colonel Walton with a smile. "I doubt if any will venture a second visit," he added quietly.
John Dene glanced across at him quickly. "Say, I didn't mean to make you mad," he said in a conciliatory tone; "but all this rattles me. I can't get along with things while they're playing rags on my 'phone. It makes me madder'n a wet hen."
"I quite understand, Mr. Dene," said Colonel Walton, with that imperturbable good-humour that was the envy of his friends. "You are rather valuable to us, you see, and if we err on the side of over-caution – " He paused.
"Sure," cried John Dene, thawing under the influence of Colonel Walton's personality, then after a pause he added. "See here, your boys seem to have a notion that I'm particular green goods. You just let one of 'em try and corral me one of these nights, and when you've explained things to the widow, you can just blow in here and tell me how she took it."
"It's the insidious rather than the overt act," began Colonel Walton.
"The what?" John Dene looked at him with a puzzled expression.
Instead of replying Colonel Walton drew from his right-hand pocket something in a paper bag, such as is used by confectioners. This he placed upon the table. He then extracted from his other pocket a small package rolled in newspaper, which he laid beside the paper bag.
John Dene stared at him as if not quite sure of his sanity.
"Perhaps you will open those packets."
With his eyes still on his visitor John Dene picked up the paper bag and, turning it upside down, shook out upon the table a brown and white guinea-pig – dead. Dorothy drew back with a little cry.
"This some of your funny work?" demanded John Dene angrily.
"There's still the other parcel," said Colonel Walton, his eyes upon the small roll done up in newspaper.
Very gingerly John Dene unrolled the paper, Dorothy watching from a safe distance with wide-eyed curiosity.
"Gee!" he muttered, as a large dead grey rat lay exposed, its upper lip drawn back from his teeth, giving it a snarling appearance. He looked interrogatingly at Colonel Walton.
"There; but for the grace of God lies John Dene of Toronto," he remarked quietly, nodding in the direction of the two rodents.
"Here, what the hell – !" began John Dene, then catching sight of Dorothy he stopped suddenly.
"Two days ago you ordered for lunch ris de veau and apple tart – among other things. The rat is the victim of the one, the guinea-pig of the other."
Dorothy gave a little cry of horror. John Dene looked across at her quickly, then back to Colonel Walton.
"You mean – " he began.
"That a certain Department has assumed the responsibility of catering for a distinguished visitor," was the quiet reply. "It is but one of the pleasant obligations of empire."
John Dene sat gazing at the dead animals as if fascinated. With distended eyes and slightly parted lips Dorothy looked from the table to Colonel Walton, and then back to the table again, as if unable to comprehend the full significance of what was taking place.
"I would suggest," said Colonel Walton, "that you never take food regularly at any one hotel or restaurant. Avoid being out late at night, particularly raid-nights."
"You might be knocked on the head and removed as a casualty."
John Dene nodded, Dorothy gasped.
"Never take food or drink of any sort in your room at the hotel, and don't travel on the Tube or Underground, at least never stand on the edge of the platform, and don't use taxis."
"And what about a nurse?" demanded John Dene.
"If you observe these points I scarcely think one would be necessary," was the quiet rejoinder. "It would also be advisable," continued Colonel Walton, "for Miss West to be particularly careful about making chance acquaintances."
Dorothy drew herself up stiffly.
"During the last few days," continued Colonel Walton, "a number of attempts have been made by women as well as men."
"How did you know?" she cried in surprise.
"We have sources of information," smiled Colonel Walton. "For instance, the day before yesterday, at lunch, a pleasant-spoken old lady asked you to go with her to the theatre one Saturday afternoon."
"You very rightly declined. A few days ago a man ran after you just as you had left the Tube train at Piccadilly Circus, saying that you had left your umbrella."
"How funny that you should know!" cried Dorothy. "Such a number of people have spoken to me lately. First it was men, and now it's always women."
"Make no acquaintances at all, Miss West," said Colonel Walton.
"I'll remember," she said, nodding her head with decision.
"Well, Mr. Dene, I fear I mustn't take up any more of your time," said Colonel Walton, rising, with that air of indolence which with him invariably meant that something important was coming. "If you will not allow us to be responsible for your own safety, we must at least provide for that of Government servants."
"We should not like anything to happen to Miss West."
To Colonel Walton's "Good-day" John Dene made no response, he seemed unaware that he had left the room.
"Gee!" he muttered at length, then swinging round to Dorothy with a suddenness that caused her to start, "You had better vamoose," he cried.
"Vam – " she began. "How do I do it?"
"Quit, clear out of here." He sprang from his chair and proceeded to pace up and down the room.
"Does that mean that I'm discharged?" she enquired, smiling.
"You heard what he said. They're up to their funny work. They missed us this time and got the rat and guinea-pig. They're always at it. I don't make a fuss; but I know. There'll be a bomb in my bed one of these nights. You'd better call a halt right here."
"Shall we get on with the letters, Mr. Dene?" said Dorothy quietly. "Father was a soldier."
For a moment he looked at her with his keen penetrating eyes, then swinging round to his table caught sight of the two dead rodents.
"Here, what the blazes does he want to leave these things here for," he cried irritably and, seizing a ruler, he swept them into the waste-paper basket.
For the rest of the day Dorothy was conscious that John Dene's heart was not in his work. Several times, when happening to look up unexpectedly, she found his eyes on her, and there was in them an anxiety too obvious to be dissimulated. John Dene was clearly worried.
"It's an extraordinary thing," Sage remarked later that afternoon to Colonel Walton, "that apparently no one has ever thought of encouraging a taste for apple-tart in guinea-pigs."