“The country is prosperous,” Hebblethwaite acknowledged. “We can afford the ships.”
“Then look here, old chap,” Wyatt begged, “I am not pleading for my own sake, but the country’s. Keep your mouth shut. See what the next month or two brings. If there’s trouble—well, I don’t suppose I shall be jumped on then. If there isn’t, and you want a victim, here I am. I disobeyed orders flagrantly. My resignation is in my desk at any moment.”
Hebblethwaite glanced at the clock.
“I am very hungry,” he said, “and I have a long way to go for dinner. We’ll let it go at that, Wyatt. I’ll try and keep things quiet for you. If it comes out, well, you know the risk you run.”
“I know the bigger risk we are all running,” Wyatt declared, as he took a cigarette from an open box on the table by his side and turned towards the door. “I’ll manage the turtle soup now, with luck. You’re a good fellow, Hebblethwaite. I know it goes against the grain with you, but, by Jove, you may be thankful for this some time!”
The Right Honourable John William Hebblethwaite took the hat from his footman, stepped into his car, and was driven rapidly away. He leaned back among the cushions, more thoughtful than usual. There was a yellow moon in the sky, pale as yet. The streets were a tangled vortex of motorcars and taxies, all filled with men and women in evening dress. It was the height of a wonderful season. Everywhere was dominant the note of prosperity, gaiety, even splendour. The houses in Park Lane, flower-decked, displayed through their wide-flung windows a constant panorama of brilliantly-lit rooms. Every one was entertaining. In the Park on the other side were the usual crowd of earnest, hard-faced men and women, gathered in little groups around the orator of the moment. Hebblethwaite felt a queer premonition that evening. A man of sanguine temperament, thoroughly contented with himself and his position, he seemed almost for the first time in his life, to have doubts, to look into the future, to feel the rumblings of an earthquake, the great dramatic cry of a nation in the throes of suffering. Had they been wise, all these years, to have legislated as though the old dangers by land and sea had passed?—to have striven to make the people fat and prosperous, to have turned a deaf ear to every note of warning? Supposing the other thing were true! Supposing Norgate and Spencer Wyatt had found the truth! What would history have to say then of this Government of which he was so proud? Would it be possible that they had brought the country to a great prosperity by destroying the very bulwarks of its security?
The car drew up with a jerk, and Hebblethwaite came back to earth. Nevertheless, he promised himself, as he hastened across the pavement, that on the morrow he would pay a long-delayed visit to the War Office.