“You think I’m brutal, dear,” Conyers went on, as he patted her hand. “Remember, I’ve seen men killed—that’s what makes the difference, Olive. Yes, I am different! We are all different, we who’ve tackled the job. Thomson’s different. Your young man at luncheon, Geraldine—what’s his name?—Granet—he’s different. There’s something big and serious grown up inside us, and the brute is looking out. It has to be. I’ll come in later, Olive. Tell the mater I shall be home to dinner, Geraldine. The governor’s waiting down at the Admiralty for me. Good-bye, girls!”
He waved his hand and strode down towards the corner of the Square. Both girls watched him for a few moments. His shoulders were as square as ever but something had gone from the springiness of his gait. There was nothing left of the sailor’s jaunty swagger.
“They are all like that,” Geraldine whispered “when they’ve been face to face with the real thing. And we are only women, Olive.”
Surgeon-Major Thomson had apparently forgotten his appointment to view camp bedsteads, for, a few minutes after he had left Geraldine and her brother, his taxicab set him down before a sombre-looking house in Adelphi Terrace. He passed through the open doorway, up two flights of stairs, drew a key of somewhat peculiar shape from his pocket and opened a door in front of him. He found himself in a very small hall, from which there was no egress save through yet another door, through which he passed and stepped into a large but singularly bare-looking apartment. Three great safes were ranged along one side of the wall, piles of newspapers and maps were strewn all over a long table, and a huge Ordnance map of the French and Belgian Frontiers stood upon an easel. The only occupant of the apartment was a man who was sitting before a typewriter in front of the window. He turned his head and rose at Thomson’s entrance, a rather short, keen-looking young man, his face slightly pitted with smallpox, his mouth hard and firm, his eyes deep-set and bright.
“Anything happened, Ambrose?”
“A dispatch, sir,” was the brief reply.
“From the War Office?”
“No, sir, it came direct.”
Thomson drew the thin sheet of paper from its envelope and swept a space for himself at the corner of the table. Then he unlocked one of the safes and drew out from an inner drawer a parchment book bound in brown vellum. He spread out the dispatch and read it carefully. It had been handed in at a town near the Belgian frontier about eight hours before:—
Fifty thousand camp bedsteads are urgently required for neighbourhood of La Guir. Please do your best for us, the matter is urgent. Double mattress if possible. London.
For a matter of ten minutes Thomson was busy with his pencil and the code-book. When he had finished, he studied thoughtfully the message which he had transcribed:—