He swung round on his heel and walked away. Tommy knew that he had gone for his nightly game of chess with Major Burton and would not exchange so much as another half-dozen words with any one during the rest of the evening.
He himself remained for a while where he was, recovering his balance; then at length donned his mackintosh, and tramped forth into the night. Ralston was right. Doubtless there was a reason. He would stake his life on Everard’s honour whatever the odds.
In a quiet corner of the ante-room sat Everard Monck, deeply immersed in a paper. Near him a group of bridge-players played an almost silent game. Sir Reginald and his brother had followed the youngsters to the billiard-room, the Colonel had accompanied them, but after a decent interval he left the guests to themselves and returned to the ante-room.
He passed the bridge-players by and came to Monck. The latter glanced up at his approach.
“Are you looking for me, sir?”
“If you can spare me a moment, I shall be glad,” the Colonel said formally.
Monck rose instantly. His dark face had a granite-like look as he followed his superior officer from the room. The bridge-players watched him with furtive attention, and resumed their game in silence.
The Colonel led the way back to the mess-room, now deserted. “I shall not keep you long,” he said, as Monck shut the door and moved forward. “But I must ask of you an explanation of the fact which came to light this evening.” He paused a moment, but Monck spoke no word, and he continued with growing coldness. “Rather more than a year ago you refused a Government mission, for which your services were urgently required, on the plea of pressing business at Home. You had Home leave—at a time when we were under-officered—to carry this business through. Now, Captain Monck, will you be good enough to tell me how and where you spent that leave? Whatever you say I shall treat as confidential.”
He still spoke formally, but the usual rather pompous kindliness of his face had given place to a look of acute anxiety.
Monck stood at the table, gazing straight before him. “You have a perfect right to ask, sir,” he said, after a moment. “But I am not in a position to answer.”
“In other words, you refuse to answer?” The Colonel’s voice had a rasp in it, but that also held more of anxiety than anger.
Monck turned and directly faced him. “I am compelled to refuse,” he said.
There was a brief silence. Colonel Mansfield was looking at him as if he would read him through and through. But no stone mask could have been more impenetrable than Monck’s face as he stood stiffly waiting.
When the Colonel spoke again it was wholly without emotion. His tones fell cold and measured. “You obtained that leave upon false pretences? You had no urgent business?”
Monck answered him with machine-like accuracy. “Yes, sir, I deceived you. But my business was urgent nevertheless. That is my only excuse.”