“You keep yourself marvellously well-informed as to most things, don’t you, Mr. Selingman?” Norgate remarked.
“Platitudes, young man, platitudes,” Selingman declared, “words of air. What purpose have they? You know who I am. I hold in my hand a thousand strings. Any one that I pull will bring an answering message to my brain. Come, what is it you wish to say to me?”
“I am doing my work for you,” Norgate remarked, “and doing it extraordinarily well. I do not object to a certain amount of surveillance, but I am getting fed up with Boko.”
“Who the hell is Boko?” Selingman demanded.
“I must apologise,” Norgate replied. “A nickname only. He is a little red-faced man who looks like a children’s toy and changes his clothes about seven times a day. He is with me from the moment I rise to the last thing at night. He is getting on my nerves. I am fast drifting into the frame of mind when one looks under the bed before one can sleep.”
“Young man,” Selingman said, “a month ago you were a person of no importance. To-day, so far as I am concerned, you are a treasure-casket. You hold secrets. You have a great value to us. Every one in your position is watched; it is part of our system. If the man for whom you have found so picturesque a nickname annoys you, he shall be changed. That is the most I can promise you.”
“You don’t trust me altogether, then?” Norgate observed coolly.
Selingman tapped on the table in front of him with his pudgy forefinger.
“Norgate,” he declared solemnly, “trust is a personal matter. I have no personal feelings. I am a machine. All the work I do is done by machinery, the machinery of thought, the machinery of action. These are the only means by which sentiment can be barred and the curious fluctuations of human temperament guarded against. If you were my son, or if you had dropped straight down from Heaven with a letter of introduction from the proper quarters, you would still be under my surveillance.”
“That seems to settle the matter,” Norgate confessed, “so I suppose I mustn’t grumble. Yours is rather a bloodless philosophy.”
“Perhaps,” Selingman assented. “You see me as I sit here, a merchant of crockery, and I am a kind person. If I saw suffering, I should pause to ease it. If a wounded insect lay in my path, I should step out of my way to avoid it. But if my dearest friend, my nearest relation, seemed likely to me to do one fraction of harm to the great cause, I should without one second’s compunction arrange for their removal as inevitably, and with as little hesitation, as I leave this place at one o’clock for my luncheon.”
Norgate shrugged his shoulders.
“One apparently runs risks in serving you,” he remarked.
“What risks?” Selingman asked keenly.
“The risk of being misunderstood, of making mistakes.”
“Pooh!” Selingman exclaimed. “I do not like the man who talks of risks. Let us dismiss this conversation. I have work for you.”