Mr. Hebblethwaite was a strong man. He was a man of immense self-control. Yet in that moment the arteries of life seemed as though they had ceased to flow. He sat at the head of his table, and his eyes never left those pencilled words. His mind fought with them, discarded them, only to find them still there hammering at his brain, traced in letters of scarlet upon the distant walls. War! The great, unbelievable tragedy, the one thousand-to-one chance in life which he had ever taken! His hand almost fell to his side. There was a queer little silence. No one liked to ask him a question; no one liked to speak. It was the Duchess at last who murmured a few words, when the silence had become intolerable.
“It is bad news?” she whispered.
“It is very bad news indeed,” Mr. Hebblethwaite answered, raising his voice a little, so that every one at the table might hear him. “I have just heard from the War Office that Germany has declared war against Russia. You will perhaps, under the circumstances, excuse me.”
He rose to his feet. There was a queer singing in his ears. The feast seemed to have turned to a sickly debauch. All that pinnacle of success seemed to have fallen away. The faces of his guests, even, as they looked at him, seemed to his conscience to be expressing one thing, and one thing only—that same horrible conviction which was deadening his own senses. He and the others—could it be true?—had they taken up lightly the charge and care of a mighty empire and dared to gamble upon, instead of providing for, its security? He thrust the thought away; and the natural strength of the man began to reassert itself. If they had done ill, they had done it for the people’s sake. The people must rally to them now. He held his head high as he left the room.
Norgate found himself in an atmosphere of strange excitement during his two hours’ waiting at the House of Commons on the following day. He was ushered at last into Mr. Hebblethwaite’s private room. Hebblethwaite had just come in from the House and was leaning a little back in his chair, in an attitude of repose. He glanced at Norgate with a faint smile.
“Well, young fellow,” he remarked, “come to do the usual ‘I told you so’ business, I suppose?”
“Don’t be an ass!” Norgate most irreverently replied. “There are one or two things I must tell you and tell you at once. I may have hinted at them before, but you weren’t taking things seriously then. First of all, is Mr. Bullen in the House?”
“Could you send for him here just for a minute?” Norgate pleaded. “I am sure it would make what I am going to say sound more convincing to you.”
Hebblethwaite struck a bell by his side and despatched a messenger.
“How are things going?” Norgate asked.