Surgeon-Major Thomson looked up almost eagerly as Ambrose entered his room the next morning. The young man's manner was dejected and there were black lines under his eyes. He answered his chief's unspoken question by a little shake of the head.
"No luck, sir," he announced. "I spent the whole of last night at it, too--never went to bed at all. I've tried it with thirty-one codes. Then I've taken the first line or two and tried every possible change."
"I couldn't make anything of it myself," Thomson confessed, looking at the sheet of paper which even at that moment was spread out before him. "All the same, Ambrose, I don't believe in it."
"Neither do I, sir." The other assented eagerly. "I am going to have another try this afternoon. Perhaps there'll be some more letters in then and we can tell whether there's any similarity."
"I've a sort of feeling, Ambrose," he said, "that we sha'n't have many of these letters."
"Why not, sir?"
"I heard by telephone, just before you came," Thomson announced, "that a certain very distinguished person was on his way to see me. Cabinet Ministers don't come here for nothing, and this one happens to be a friend of Sir Alfred's."
"More interference, sir," he groaned. "I don't see how they can expect us to run our department with the civilians butting in wherever they like. They want us to save the country and they're to have the credit for it."
There was a knock at the door. A boy scout entered. His eyes were a little protuberant, his manner betokened awe.
"Mr. Gordon Jones, sir!"
Mr. Gordon Jones entered without waiting for any further announcement. Thomson rose to his feet and received a genial handshake, after which the newcomer glanced at Ambrose. Thomson signed to his assistant to leave the room.
"Major Thomson," the Cabinet Minister began impressively, as he settled down in his chair, "I have come here to confer with you, to throw myself, to a certain extent, upon your understanding and your common sense," he added, speaking with the pleased air of a man sure of his ground and himself.
"You have come to protest, I suppose," Thomson said slowly, "against our having--"
"To protest against nothing, my dear sir," the other interrupted. "Simply to explain to you, as I have just explained to your Chief, that while we possess every sympathy with, and desire to give every latitude in the world to the military point of view, there are just one or two very small matters in which we must claim to have a voice. We have, as you know, a free censorship list. We have put no one upon it who is not far and away above all suspicion. I am given to understand that a letter addressed to Sir Alfred Anselman was opened yesterday. I went to see your Chief about it this morning. He has referred me to you."
"The letter," Thomson remarked, "was opened by my orders."
"I happened," Mr. Gordon Jones went on, "to be dining at Sir Alfred's house when the letter was presented. Sir Alfred, I must say, took it exceedingly well. At the same time, I have made it my business to see that this does not occur again."
Thomson made no sign. His eyebrows, however, rose a little higher.
"The country," his visitor continued, "will know some day what it owes to Sir Alfred Anselman. At present I can only express, and that poorly, my sense of personal obligation to him. He has been of the greatest assistance to the Government in the city and elsewhere. His contributions to our funds have been magnificent; his advice, his sympathy, invaluable. He is a man inspired by the highest patriotic sentiments, one of the first and most noteworthy of British citizens."
Thomson listened in silence and without interruption. He met the well-satisfied peroration of his visitor without comment.
"I am hoping to hear," the latter concluded, with some slight asperity in his manner, "that the circumstance to which I have alluded was accidental and will not be repeated."
Major Thomson glanced thoughtfully at a little pile of documents by his side. Then he looked coldly towards his visitor and provided him, perhaps, with one of the most complete surprises of his life.
"I am sorry, Mr. Gordon Jones," he said, "but this is not a matter which I can discuss with you."
The Cabinet Minister's face was a study.
"Not discuss it?" he repeated blankly.
Major Thomson shook his head.
"Certain responsibilities," he continued quietly, "with regard to the safe conduct of this country, have been handed over to the military authorities, which in this particular case I represent. We are in no position for amenities or courtesies. Our country is in the gravest danger and nothing else is of the slightest possible significance. The charge which we have accepted we shall carry out with regard to one thing only, and that is our idea of what is due to the public safety."
"You mean, in plain words," Mr. Gordon Jones exclaimed, "that no requests from me or say, for instance, the Prime Minister, would have any weight with you?"
"None whatever," Major Thomson replied coolly. "Without wishing to be in any way personal, I might say that there are statesmen in your Government, for whom you must accept a certain amount of responsibility, who have been largely instrumental in bringing this hideous danger upon the country. As a company of law-makers you may or may not be excellent people--that is, I suppose, according to one's political opinions. As a company of men competent to superintend the direction of a country at war, you must permit me to say that I consider you have done well in placing certain matters in our hands, and that you will do better still not to interfere."
Mr. Gordon Jones sat quite still for several moments.
"Major Thomson," he said at last, "I have never heard of your before, and I am not prepared for a moment to say that I sympathise with your point of view. But it is at least refreshing to hear any one speak his mind with such frankness. I must now ask you one question, whether you choose to answer it or not. The letter which you have opened, addressed to Sir Alfred--you couldn't possibly find any fault with it?"
"It was apparently a quite harmless production," Major Thomson confessed.
"Do you propose to open any more?"
Thomson shook his head.
"That is within our discretion, sir."
Mr. Gordon Jones struggled with his obvious annoyance.
"Look here," he said, with an attempt at good-humour, "you can at least abandon the official attitude for a moment with me. Tell me why, of all men in the world, you have chosen to suspect Sir Alfred Anselman?"
"I am sorry," Thomson replied stiffly, "but this is not a matter which I can discuss in any other way except officially, and I do not recognise you as having any special claims for information."
The Minister rose to his feet. Those few minutes marked to him an era in his official life.
"You are adopting an attitude, sir," he said, "which, however much I may admire it from one point of view, seems to me scarcely to take into account the facts of the situation."
Thomson made no reply. He had risen to his feet. His manner clearly indicated that he considered the interview at an end. Mr. Gordon Jones choked down his displeasure.
"When you are wanting a civil job, Major Thomson," he concluded, "come and give us a call. Good morning!"