“And thank heavens you’ll still have to pay us a little super-tax,” the Cabinet Minister remarked, smiling.
Sir Alfred found nothing to dismay him in the prospect.
“You shall have every penny of it, my friend,” he promised. “I have taken a quarter of a million of your war loan and I shall take the same amount of your next one. I spend all my time upon your committees, my own affairs scarcely interest me, and yet I thought to-day, when my car was stopped to let a company of the London Regiment march down to Charing-Cross, that there wasn’t one of those khaki-clad young men who wasn’t offering more than I.”
The Bishop leaned forward from his place.
“Those are noteworthy words of yours, Sir Alfred,” he said. “There is nothing in the whole world so utterly ineffective as our own passionate gratitude must seem to ourselves when we think of all those young fellows—not soldiers, you know, but young men of peace, fond of their pleasures, their games, their sweethearts, their work—throwing it all on one side, passing into another life, passing into the valley of shadows. I, too, have seen those young men, Sir Alfred.”
The conversation became general. The host of this little dinner-party leaned back in his place for a moment, engrossed in thought. It was a very distinguished, if not a large company. There were three Cabinet Ministers, a high official in the War Office, a bishop, a soldier of royal blood back for a few days from the Front, and his own nephew—Granet. He sat and looked round at them and a queer little smile played upon his lips. If only the truth were known, the world had never seen a stranger gathering. It was a company which the King himself might have been proud to gather around him; serious, representative Englishmen—Englishmen, too, of great position. There was not one of them who had not readily accepted his invitation, there was not one of them who was not proud to sit at his table, there was not one of them who did not look upon him as one of the props of the Empire.
There was a little rustle as one of the new parlourmaids walked smoothly to his side and presented a silver salver. He took the single letter from her, glanced at it for a moment carelessly and then felt as though the fingers which held it had been pierced by red-hot wires. The brilliant little company seemed suddenly to dissolve before his eyes. He saw nothing but the marking upon that letter, growing larger and larger as he gazed, the veritable writing of fate pressed upon the envelope by a rubber stamp—by the hand, perchance, of a clerk—“Opened by Censor.”
There was a momentary singing in his ears. He looked at his glass, found it full, raised it to his lips and drained it. The ghastly moment of suspended animation passed. He felt no longer that he was in a room from which all the air had been drawn. He was himself again but the letter was there. Mr. Gordon Jones, who had been talking to the bishop, leaned towards him and pointed to the envelope.