The Kingom of the Blind

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 6


The room was a study in masculine luxury. The brown walls were hung with a choice selection of sporting prints, varied here and there with silverpoint etchings of beautiful women in various poses. There were a good many photographs, mostly signed, above the mantelpiece; a cigar cabinet, a case of sporting-rifles and shot guns, some fishing tackle, a case of books, distributed appropriately about the apartment. There were some warlike trophies displayed without ostentation, a handsome writing-table on which stood a telephone. On a thick green rug stretched in front of the fireplace, a fox terrier lay blinking at the wood fire. The room was empty and silent except for the slow ticking of an ancient clock which stood underneath an emblazoned coat of arms in the far corner. The end of a log broke off and fell hissing into the hearth. The fox terrier rose reluctantly to his feet, shook himself and stood looking at the smoking fragment in an aggrieved manner. Satisfied that no personal harm was intended to him, however, he presently curled himself up once more. Again the apartment seemed to become the embodiment of repose. The clock, after a hoarse wheezing warning, struck seven. The dog opened one eye and looked up at it. A few minutes later, the peace of the place was broken in a different fashion. There was the sound of a key being hastily fitted into the lock of the outside door. The dog rose to his feet expectantly. The door which led into the apartment was thrown open and hastily slammed to. A man, breathing heavily, stood for a moment upon the threshold, his head stooped a little as though listening. Then, without a glance, even, at the dog who jumped to greet him, he crossed the room with swift, stealthy footsteps. Before he could reach the other side, however, the door which faced him was opened. A man-servant looked inquiringly out.

"My bath and clothes, Jarvis, like hell!"

The man gilded away, his master following close behind. From somewhere further inside the flat, the sound of water running into a bath was heard. The door was closed, again there was silence. The fox terrier, after a few moments' scratching at the door, resumed his place upon the rug and curled himself up to renewed slumber.

The next interruption was of a different nature. The sharp, insistent summons of an electric bell from outside rang through the room. In a moment or two the man-servant appeared from the inner apartment, crossed the floor and presently reappeared, ushering in a visitor.

"Captain Granet is changing for dinner at present, sir," he explained. "If you will take a seat, however, he will be out presently. What name shall I say?"

"Surgeon-Major Thomson."

The servant wheeled an easy-chair up towards the fire and placed by its side a small table on which were some illustrated papers. Then, with a little bow, he disappeared through the inner door. Major Thomson, who had been fingering the Sketch, laid it down the moment the door was closed. He leaned forward, his face a little strained. He had the air of listening intently. After a brief absence the man returned.

"Captain Granet will be with you in a few moments, sir," he announced.

"Please ask him not to hurry," Major Thomson begged.

"Certainly, sir."

The man withdrew and once more Thomson and the dog were alone. The latter, having made a few overtures of friendship which passed unnoticed, resumed his slumbers. Major Thomson sat upright in his easy-chair, an illustrated paper in his hand. All the time, however, his eyes seemed to be searching the room. His sense of listening was obviously quickened; he had the air, even, of thinking rapidly. Five--ten minutes passed. Then voices were heard from within and the door was suddenly opened. Captain Granet emerged and crossed the room, hobbling slightly towards his visitor.

"Awfully sorry to keep you like this," he remarked pleasantly. "The fact is I'd just got into my bath."

"I ought to apologise," his visitor replied, "for calling at such a time."

"Glad to see you, anyway," the other declared, pausing at his smoking-cabinet and bringing out some cigarettes. "Try one of these, won't you?"

"Not just now, thanks."

There was a moment's pause. Major Thomson seemed in no hurry to explain himself.

"Jolly luncheon party, wasn't it?" Granet remarked, lighting a cigarette for himself with some difficulty. "What an idiot it makes a fellow feel to be strapped up like this!"

"From what one reads of the fighting around Ypres," the other replied, "you were lucky to get out of it so well. Let me explain, if I may, why I have paid you this rather untimely call."

Captain Granet nodded amiably. He had made himself comfortable in an easy-chair and was playing with the dog, who had jumped on to his knee.

"I had some conversation on Thursday last," Major Thomson began, "with the Provost-Marshal of Boulogne. As you, of course, know, we have suffered a great deal, especially around Ypres, from the marvellous success of the German Intelligence Department. The Provost-Marshal, who is a friend of mine, told me that there was a special warning out against a person purporting to be an American chaplain who had escaped from Belgium. You don't happen to have heard of him, I suppose, do you?"

Captain Granet looked doubtful.

"Can't remember that I have," he replied. "They've been awfully clever, those fellows, though. The last few nights before our little scrap they knew exactly what time our relief parties came along. Several times we changed the hour. No use! They were on to us just the same.

Major Thompson nodded.

"Well," he continued, "I happened to catch sight of a man who exactly resembled the photograph which my friend the Provost-Marshal showed me, only a few minutes ago, and although I could not be sure of it, I fancied that he entered this building. It occurred to me that he might be paying a call upon you."

"Upon me?" he repeated.

"He is an exceedingly plausible fellow," Thomson explained, "and as you are just back from the Front, and brought dispatches, he might very possibly regard you as a likely victim."

"Can't make bricks without straw," Granet laughed, "and I know no more about the campaign than my two eyes have seen. I was saying only yesterday that, unless you have a staff billet, it's wonderful how little the ordinary soldier picks up as to what is going on. As a matter of fact, though," he went on, twisting the fox terrier's ear a little, "no one has called here at all except yourself, during the last hour or two. There aren't many of my pals know I'm back yet."

"Are there many other people living in the building?" Major Thomson asked.

"The ground-floor here," the other replied, "belongs to a prosperous cigarette manufacturer who lives himself upon the first floor. This is the second and above us are nothing but the servants' quarters. I should think," he concluded thoughtfully, "that you must have been mistaken about the fellow turning in here at all."

Thomson nodded.

"Very likely," he admitted. "It was just a chance, any way."

"By-the-bye," Granet inquired curiously, looking up from the dog, "how did you know that I roomed here?"

"I happened to see you come in, or was it go out, the other day--I can't remember which," Major Thomson replied.

The telephone upon the table tinkled out a summons. Granet crossed the room and held the receiver to his ear.

"This is Captain Granet speaking," he said. "Who are you, please?"

The reply seemed to surprise him. He glanced across at his visitor.

"I shall be delighted," he answered into the instrument. "It is really very kind of you. . . .About a quarter past eight? . . . Certainly! You'll excuse my not being able to get into mufti, won't you? . . . Ever so many thanks. . . . Good-bye!"

He laid down the receiver and turned to Thomson.

"Rather a coincidence," he observed. "Seems I am going to see you to-night at dinner. That was Miss Geraldine Conyers who just rang up--asked me if I'd like to meet her brother again before he goes off. He is spending the afternoon at the Admiralty and she thought I might be interested."

Major Thomson's face was expressionless and his murmured word non-committal. Granet had approached the dark mahogany sideboard and was fingering some bottles.

"Let me mix you a cocktail," he suggested. "By Jove! That fellow Conyers would be the fellow for your American chaplain to get hold of. If he is spending the afternoon down at the Admiralty, he'll have all the latest tips about how they mean to deal with the submarines. I hear there are at least three or four new inventions which they are keeping dark. You like yours dry, I suppose?"

Thomson had risen to his feet and leaned forward towards the mirror for a moment to straighten his tie. When he turned around, he glanced at the collection of bottles Granet had been handling.

"I am really very sorry," he said. "I did not mean to put you to this trouble. I never drink cocktails."

Granet paused in shaking the silver receptacle, and laid it down.

"Have a whisky and soda instead?"

Thomson shook his head.

"If you will excuse me," he said, "I will drink your health at dinner-time. I have no doubt that your cocktails are excellent but I never seem to have acquired the habit. What do you put in them?"

"Oh! just both sorts of vermouth and gin, and a dash of something to give it a flavour," Granet explained carelessly.

Thomson touched a small black bottle, smelt it and put it down.

"What's that?" he asked.

"A mixture of absinth and some West Indian bitters," Granet replied. "A chap who often goes to the States brought it back for me. Gives a cocktail the real Yankee twang, he says."

Thomson nodded slowly.

"Rather a curious odour," he remarked. "We shall meet again, then, Captain Granet."

They walked towards the door. Granet held it open, leaning upon his stick.

"Many times, I trust," he observed politely.

There was a second's pause. His right hand was half extended but his departing guest seemed not to notice the fact. He merely nodded and put on his hat.

"It is a small world," he said, "especially, although it sounds paradoxical, in the big places."

He passed out. Granet listened to the sound of his retreating footsteps with a frown upon his forehead. Then he came back and stood for a moment upon the rug in front of the fire, deep in thought. The fox terrier played unnoticed about his feet. His face seemed suddenly to have become older and more thoughtful. He glanced at the card which Thomson had left upon the sideboard.

"Surgeon-Major Thomson," he repeated quietly to himself. "I wonder!"

Thomson walked slowly to the end of Sackville Street, crossed the road and made his way to the Ritz Hotel. He addressed himself to the head clerk of the reception counter.

"I am Surgeon-Major Thomson," he announced.

"I was lunching here to-day and attended one of the waiters who was taken ill afterwards. I should be very glad to know if I can see him for a few moments."

The man bowed politely.

"I remember you quite well, sir," he said. "A Belgian waiter, was it not? He has been taken away by a lady this afternoon."

"Taken away?" Thomson repeated, puzzled.

"The lady who was giving the luncheon--Lady Anselman--called and saw the manager about an hour ago," the man explained. "She has interested herself very much in the matter of Belgian refugees and is entertaining a great many of them at a house of hers near the seaside. The man is really not fit to work, so we were very glad indeed to pass him on to her."

"He recovered consciousness before he was removed, I suppose?" Thomson inquired.

"I believe so, sir. He seemed very weak and ill, though. In fact he had to be carried to the automobile."

"I suppose he didn't give any reason for his sudden attack?"

"None that I am aware of, sir."

Thomson stood for a moment deep in thought, then he turned away from the desk.

"Thank you very much indeed," he said to the clerk. "The man's case rather interested me. I think I shall ask Lady Anselman to allow me to visit him. Where did you say the house was?"

"Her ladyship did not mention the exact locality," the man replied. "I believe, however, that it is near the Isle of Wight."

"A most suitable neighbourhood," Major Thomson murmured, as he turned away from the hotel.