The Kingom of the Blind

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 3


A few rays of fugitive sunshine were brightening Piccadilly when Geraldine and her escort left the Ritz. The momentary depression occasioned by the dramatic little episode of a few minutes ago, seemed already to have passed from the girl's manner. She walked on, humming to herself. As they paused to cross the road, she glanced as though involuntarily at her companion. His dark morning clothes and rather abstracted air created an atmosphere of sombreness about him of which she was suddenly conscious.

"Hugh, why don't you wear uniform in town?" she asked.

"Why should I?" he replied. "After all, I am not really a fighting man, you see."

"It's so becoming," she sighed.

He seemed to catch the reminiscent flash in her eyes as she looked down the street, and a shadow of foreboding clouded his mind.

"You found Captain Granet interesting?"

"Very," she assented heartily. "I think he is delightful, don't you?"

"He certainly seems to be a most attractive type of young man," Thomson admitted.

"And how wonderful to have had such adventures!" she continued. "Life has become so strange, though, during the last few months. To think that the only time I ever saw him before was at a polo match, and to-day we sit side by side in a restaurant, and, although he won't speak of them, one knows that he has had all manner of marvellous adventures. He was one of those who went straight from the playing fields to look for glory, wasn't he, Hugh? He made a hundred and thirty-two for Middlesex the day before the war was declared."

"That's the type of young soldier who's going to carry us through, if any one can," Major Thomson agreed cheerfully.

She suddenly clutched at his arm.

"Hugh," she exclaimed, pointing to a placard which a newsboy was carrying, "that is the one thing I cannot bear, the one thing which I think if I were a man would turn me into a savage!"

They both paused and read the headlines--

PASSENGER STEAMER TORPEDOED WITHOUT WARNING IN THE IRISH SEA. TWENTY-TWO LIVES LOST.

"That is the sort of thing," she groaned, "which makes one long to be not a man but a god, to be able to wield thunderbolts and to deal out hell!"

"Good for you, Gerry," a strong, fresh voice behind them declared. "That's my job now. Didn't you hear us shouting after you, Olive and I? Look!"

Her brother waved a telegram.

"You've got your ship?" Thomson inquired.

"I've got what I wanted," the young man answered enthusiastically. "I've got a destroyer, one of the new type--forty knots an hour, a dear little row of four-inch guns, and, my God! something else, I hope, that'll teach those murderers a lesson," he added, shaking his fist towards the placard.

Geraldine laid her hand upon her brother's arm.

"When do you join, Ralph?"

"To-morrow night at Portsmouth," he replied. "I'm afraid we shall be several days before we are at work. It's the Scorpion' they're giving me, Gerald--or the mystery ship, as they call it in the navy."

"Why?" she asked.

His rather boyish face, curiously like his sister's, was suddenly transformed.

"Because we've got a rod in pickle for those cursed pirates--"

"Conyers!" Thomson interrupted.

The young man paused in his sentence. Thomson was looking towards him with a slight frown upon his forehead.

"Don't think I'm a fearful old woman," he said. "I know we are all rather fed up with these tales of spies and that sort of thing, but do you think it's wise to even open your lips about a certain matter?"

"What the dickens do you know about it?" Conyers demanded.

"Nothing," Thomson assured him hastily, "nothing at all. I am only going by what you said yourself. If there is any device on the Scorpion for dealing with these infernal craft, I'd never breathe a word about it, if I were you. I'd put out to sea with a seal upon my lips, even before Geraldine here and Miss Moreton."

The young man's cheeks were a little flushed.

"Perhaps you're right," he admitted. "I was a little over-excited. To get the Scorpion was more, even, than I had dared to hope fore. Still, before the girls it didn't seem to matter very much. There are no spies, anyhow, hiding in the tress of Berkeley Street," he added, glancing about them.

Thomson held up his finger and stopped a taxicab.

"You won't be annoyed with me, will you?" he said to Conyers. "If you'd heard half the stories I had of the things we have given away quite innocently--"

"That's all right," the young man interrupted, "only you mustn't think I'm a gas-bag just because I said a word or two here before Gerry and Olive and you, old fellow."

"Must you go, Hugh?" Geraldine asked.

"I am so sorry," he replied, "but I must. I really have rather an important appointment this afternoon."

"An appointment!" she grumbled. "You are in London for so short a time and you seem to be keeping appointments all the while. I sha'nt let you go unless you tell me what it's about."

"I have to inspect a new pattern of camp beadstead," he explained calmly. "If I may, I will telephone directly I am free and see if you are at liberty."

She shrugged her shoulders but gave him a pleasant little nod as he stepped into the taxi.

"Sober old stick, Thomson," her brother observed, as they started off. "I didn't like his pulling me up like that but I expect he was right."

"I don't see what business it was of his and I think it was rather horrid of him," Olive declared. "As though Gerry or I mattered!"

"A chap like Thomson hasn't very much discretion, you see," Ralph Conyers remarked. "You'll have to wake him up a bit, Gerry, if you mean to get any fun out of life."

There was just the faintest look of trouble in Geraldine's face. She remained perfectly loyal, however.

"Some of us take life more seriously than others," she sighed. "Hugh is one of them. When one remembers all the terrible things he must have seen, though, it is very hard to find fault with him."

They turned into the Square and paused before Olive's turning.

"You're coming down with me, Ralph, and you too, Geraldine?" she invited.

Conyers shook his head regretfully.

"I'm due at the Admiralty at four to receive my final instructions," he said. "I must move along at once."

The smile suddenly faded from his lips. He seemed to be listening to the calling of the newsboys down the street. I don't know what my instructions are going to be," he continued, dropping his voice a little, "but I'm sick of making war the way our chaps are doing it. If ever I'm lucky enough to get one of those murderous submarines, I can promise you one thing--there'll be no survivors."

For a moment or two they neither of them spoke. From out of the windows of the house before which they were standing came the music of a popular waltz. Olive turned a way with a little shiver.

"You think I'm brutal, dear," Conyers went on, as he patted her hand. "Remember, I've seen men killed--that's what makes the difference, Olive. Yes, I am different! We are all different, we who've tackled the job. Thomson's different. You young man at luncheon, Geraldine--what's his name?--Granet--he's different. There's something big and serious grown up inside us, and the brute is looking out. It has to be. I'll come in later, Olive. Tell the mater I shall be home to dinner, Geraldine. The governor's waiting down at the Admiralty for me. Good-bye, girls!"

He waved his hand and strode down towards the corner of the Square. Both girls watched him for a few moments. His shoulders were as square as ever but something had gone from the springiness of his gait. There was nothing left of the sailor's jaunty swagger.

"They are all like that," Geraldine whispered "when they've been face to face with the real thing. And we are only women, Olive."