The Assistant Commissioner walked along a short and narrow street like a wet, muddy trench, then crossing a very broad thoroughfare entered a public edifice, and sought speech with a young private secretary (unpaid)of a great personage.
This fair, smooth-faced young man, whose symmetrically arranged hair gave him the air of a large and neat schoolboy, met the Assistant Commissioner's request with a doubtful look, and spoke with bated breath.
`Would he see you? I don't know about that.He has walked over from the House an hour ago to talk with the Permanent Under-Secretary, and now he's ready to walk back again.He might have sent for him; but he does it for the sake of a little exercise, I suppose.It's all the exercise he can find time for while this session lasts.I don't complain; I rather enjoy these little strolls.He leans on my arm, and doesn't open his lips.
But, I say, he's very tired, and - well - not in the sweetest of tempers just now.'
`It's in connection with that Greenwich affair.'
`Oh! I say! He's very bitter against you people.But I will go and see, if you insist.'
`Do.That's a good fellow,' said the Assistant Commissioner.
The unpaid secretary admired this pluck.Composing for himself an innocent face, he opened a door, and went in with the assurance of a nice and privileged child.And presently he reappeared, with a nod to the Assistant Commissioner, who passing through the same door left open for him, found himself with the great personage in a large room.
Vast in bulk and stature, with a long white face, which, broadened at the base by a big double chin, appeared egg-shaped in the fringe of greyish whisker, the great personage seemed an expanding man.Unfortunate from a tailoring point of view, the crossfolds in the middle of a buttoned black coat added to the impression, as if the fastenings of the garment were tried to the utmost.From the head, set upward on a thick neck, the eyes, with puffy lower lids, stared with a haughty droop on each side of a hooked, aggressive nose, nobly salient in the vast pale circumference of the face.
A shiny silk hat and a pair of worn gloves lying ready at the end of a long table looked expanded, too, enormous.
He stood on the hearthrug in big, roomy boots, and uttered no word of greeting.
`I would like to know if this is the beginning of another dynamite campaign;'
he asked at once in a deep, very smooth voice.`Don't go into details.
I have no time for that.'
The Assistant Commissioner's figure before this big and rustic Presence had the frail slenderness of a reed addressing an oak.And indeed the unbroken record of that man's descent surpassed in the number of centuries the age of the oldest oak in the country.
`No.As far as one can be positive about anything I can assure you that it is not.'
`Yes.But your idea of assurances over there,' said the great man, with a contemptuous wave of his hand towards a window giving on the broad thoroughfare, `seem to consist mainly in making the Secretary of State look a fool.Ihave been told positively in this very room less than a month ago that nothing of the sort was even possible.'
The Assistant Commissioner glanced in the direction of the window calmly.
`You will allow me to remark, Sir Ethelred, that so far I have had no opportunity to give you assurances of any kind.'
The haughty droop of the eyes was focused now upon the Assistant Commissioner.
`True,' confessed the deep, smooth voice.`I sent for Heat.You are still rather a novice in your new berth.And how are you getting on over there?'
`I believe I am learning something every day.'
`Of course, of course.I hope you will get on.'
`Thank you, Sir Ethelred.I've learned something today, and even within the last hour or so.There is much in this affair of a kind that does not meet the eye in a usual anarchist outrage, even if one looked into it as deep as can be.That's why I am here.'
The great man put his arms akimbo, the backs of his big hands resting on his hips.
`Very well.Go on.Only no details, pray.Spare me the details.'
`You shall not be troubled with them, Sir Ethelred,' the Assistant Commissioner began, with a calm and untroubled assurance.While he was speaking the hands on the face of the clock behind the great man 5 back - a heavy, glistening affair of massive scrolls in the same dark marble as the mantelpiece, and with a ghostly, evanescent tick - had moved through the space of seven minutes.He spoke with a studious fidelity to a parenthetical manner, into which every little fact - that is, every detail - fitted with delightful ease.Not a murmur nor even a movement hinted at interruption.
The great Personage might have been the statue of one of his own princely ancestors stripped of a Crusader's war harness, and put into an ill-fitting frockcoat.The Assistant Commissioner felt as though he were at liberty to talk for an hour.But he kept his head, and at the end of the time mentioned above he broke off with a sudden conclusion, which, reproducing the opening statement, pleasantly surprised Sir Ethelred by its apparent swiftness and force.
`The kind of thing which meets us under the surface of this affair, otherwise without gravity, is unusual - in this precise form at least -and requires special treatment.'
The tone of Sir Ethelred was deepened, full of conviction.`I should think so - involving the Ambassador of a foreign power!' `Oh! The Ambassador!'
protested the other, erect and slender, allowing himself a mere half smile, `It would be stupid of me to advance anything of the kind.And it is absolutely unnecessary, because if I am right in my surmises, whether ambassador or hall porter it's a mere detail.'
Sir Ethelred opened a wide mouth, like a cavern, into which the hooked nose seemed anxious to peer; there came from it a subdued rolling sound, as from a distant organ with the scornful indignation stop.
`No! These people are too impossible.What do they mean by importing their methods of Crim-Tartary here? A Turk would have more decency.'