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   Chapter 22 No.22

The Double Traitor By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 15324

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Mr. Hebblethwaite was undoubtedly annoyed. He found himself regretting more than ever the good nature which had prompted him to give this visitor an audience at a most unusual hour. He had been forced into the uncomfortable position of listening to statements the knowledge of which was a serious embarrassment to him.

"Whatever made you come to me, Mr. Harrison?" he exclaimed, when at last his caller's disclosures had been made. "It isn't my department."

"I came to you, sir," the official replied, "because I have the privilege of knowing you personally, and because I was quite sure that in your hands the matter would be treated wisely."

"You are sure of your facts, I suppose?"

"Absolutely, sir."

"I do not know much about navy procedure," Mr. Hebblethwaite said thoughtfully, "but it scarcely seems to me possible for what you tell me to have been kept secret."

"It is not only possible, sir," the man assured him, "but it has been done before in Lord Charles Beresford's time. You will find, if you make enquiries, that not only are the Press excluded to-day from the shipbuilding yards in question, but the work-people are living almost in barracks. There are double sentries at every gate, and no one is permitted under any circumstances to pass the outer line of offices."

Mr. Hebblethwaite sat, for a few moments, deep in thought.

"Well, Mr. Harrison," he said at last, "there is no doubt that you have done what you conceived to be your duty, although I must tell you frankly that I wish you had either kept what you know to yourself or taken the information somewhere else. Since you have brought it to me, let me ask you this question. Are you taking any further steps in the matter at all?"

"Certainly not, sir," was the quiet reply. "I consider that I have done my duty and finished with it, when I leave this room."

"You are content, then," Mr. Hebblethwaite observed, "to leave this matter entirely in my hands?"

"Entirely, sir," the official assented. "I am perfectly content, from this moment, to forget all that I know. Whatever your judgment prompts you to do, will, I feel sure, be satisfactory."

Mr. Hebblethwaite rose to his feet and held out his hand.

"Well, Mr. Harrison," he concluded, "you have performed a disagreeable duty in a tactful manner. Personally, I am not in the least grateful to you, for, as I dare say you know, Mr. Spencer Wyatt is a great friend of mine. As a member of the Government, however, I think I can promise you that your services shall not be forgotten. Good evening!"

The official departed. Mr. Hebblethwaite thrust his hands into his pockets, glanced at the clock impatiently, and made use of an expression which seldom passed his lips. He was in evening dress, and due to dine with his wife on the other side of the Park. Furthermore, he was very hungry. The whole affair was most annoying. He rang the bell.

"Ask Mr. Bedells to come here at once," he told the servant, "and tell your mistress I am exceedingly sorry, but I shall be detained here for some time. She had better go on without me and send the car back. I will come as soon as I can. Explain that it is a matter of official business. When you have seen Mrs. Hebblethwaite, you can bring me a glass of sherry and a biscuit."

The man withdrew, and Mr. Hebblethwaite opened a telephone directory. In a few moments Mr. Bedells, who was his private secretary, appeared.

"Richard," his chief directed, "ring up Mr. Spencer Wyatt. Tell him that whatever his engagements may be, I wish to see him here for five minutes. If he is out, you must find out where he is. You can begin by ringing up at his house."

Bedells devoted himself to the telephone. Mr. Hebblethwaite munched a biscuit and sipped his sherry. Presently the latter laid down the telephone and reported success.

"Mr. Spencer Wyatt was on his way to a city dinner, sir," he announced.

"They caught him in the hall and he will call here."

Mr. Hebblethwaite nodded. "See that he is sent up directly he comes."

In less than five minutes Mr. Spencer Wyatt was ushered in. He was wearing the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet-a tall, broad-shouldered man, fair complexioned, and with the bearing of a sailor.

"Hullo, Hebblethwaite, what's wrong?" he asked. "Your message just caught me. I am dining with the worshipful tanners-turtle soup and all the rest of it. Don't let me miss more than I can help."

Mr. Hebblethwaite walked to the door to be sure that it was closed and came back again.

"Look here, Wyatt," he exclaimed, "what the devil have you been up to?"

Wyatt whistled softly. A light broke across his face.

"What do you mean?" he demanded.

"You know perfectly well what I mean," Hebblethwaite continued. "Five weeks ago we had it all out at a Cabinet meeting. You asked Parliament to lay down six battleships, four cruisers, thirty-five submarines, and twelve torpedo boats. You remember what a devil of a row there was. Eventually we compromised for half the number of battleships, two cruisers, and the full amount of small craft."

"Well?"

"I am given to understand," Hebblethwaite said slowly, "that you have absolutely disregarded the vote-that the whole number of battleships are practically commenced, and the whole number of cruisers, and rather more than the number of smaller craft."

Wyatt threw his cocked hat upon the table.

"Well, I am up against it a bit sooner than I expected," he remarked.

"Who's been peaching?"

"Never mind," Hebblethwaite replied. "I am not telling you that. You've managed the whole thing very cleverly, and you know very well, Wyatt, that I am on your side. I was on your side in pressing the whole of your proposals upon the Cabinet, although honestly I think they were far larger than necessary. However, we took a fair vote, and we compromised. You had no more right to do what you have done-"

"I admit it, Hebblethwaite," Wyatt interrupted quickly. "Of course, if this comes out, my resignation's ready for you, but I tell you frankly, as man to man, I can't go on with my job, and I won't, unless I get the ships voted that I need. We are behind our standard now. I spent twenty-four hours making up my mind whether I should resign or take this risk. I came to the conclusion that I should serve my country better by taking the risk. So there you are. What are you going to do about it?"

"What the mischief can I do about it?" Hebblethwaite demanded irritably.

"You are putting me in an impossible position. Let me ask you this,

Wyatt. Is there anything at the back of your head that the man in the

street doesn't know about?"

"Yes!"

"What is it, then?"

"I have reasons to believe," Wyatt announced deliberately, "reasons which are quite sufficient for me, although it was impossible for me to get up in Parliament and state them, that Germany is secretly making preparations for war either before the end of this year or the beginning of next."

Hebblethwaite threw himself into an easy-chair.

"Sit down, Wyatt," he said. "Your dinner can wait for a few minutes. I have had another man-only a youngster, and he doesn't know anything-talking to me like that. We are fully acquainted with everything that is going on behind the scenes. All our negotiations with Germany are at this moment upon the most friendly footing. We haven't a single matter in dispute. Old Busby, as you know, has been over in Berlin himself and has come back a confirmed pacifist. If he had his way, our army would practically cease to exist. He has been on the spot. He ought to know, and the army's his job."

"Busby," Wyatt d

eclared, "is the silliest old ass who ever escaped petticoats by the mere accident of sex. I tell you he is just the sort of idiot the Germans have been longing to get hold of and twist round their fingers. Before twelve months or two years have passed, you'll curse the name of that man, when you look at the mess he has made of the army. Peace is all very well-universal peace. The only way we can secure it is by being a good deal stronger than we are at present."

"That is your point of view," Hebblethwaite reminded him. "I tell you frankly that I incline towards Busby's."

"Then you'll eat your words," Wyatt asserted, "before many months are out. I, too, have been in Germany lately, although I was careful to go as a tourist, and I have picked up a little information. I tell you it isn't for nothing that Germany has a complete list of the whole of her rolling stock, the actual numbers in each compartment registered and reserved for the use of certain units of her troops. I tell you that from one end of the country to the other her state of military preparedness is amazing. She has but to press a button, and a million men have their rifles in their hands, their knapsacks on their backs, and each regiment knows exactly at which station and by what train to embark. She is making Zeppelins night and day, training her men till they drop with exhaustion. Krupp's works are guarded by double lines of sentries. There are secrets there which no one can penetrate. And all the time she is building ships feverishly. Look here-you know my cousin, Lady Emily Fakenham?"

"Of course!"

"Only yesterday," Wyatt continued impressively, "she showed me a letter-I read it, mind-from a cousin of Prince Hohenlowe. She met him at Monte Carlo this year, and they had a sort of flirtation. In the postscript he says: 'If you take my advice, don't go to Dinard this August. Don't be further away from home than you can help at all this summer.' What do you think that meant?"

"It sounds queer," Hebblethwaite admitted.

"Germany is bound to have a knock at us," Spencer Wyatt went on. "We've talked of it so long that the words pass over our heads, as it were, but she means it. And I tell you another thing. She means to do it while there's a Radical Government in power here, and before Russia finishes her reorganisation scheme. I am not a soldier, Hebblethwaite, but the fellows we've got up at the top-not the soldiers themselves but the chaps like old Busby and Simons-are simply out and out rotters. That's plain speaking, isn't it, but you and I are the two men concerned in the government of this country who do talk common sense to one another. We've fine soldiers and fine organisers, but they've been given the go-by simply because they know their job and would insist upon doing it thoroughly, if at all. Russia will have another four million men ready to be called up by the end of 1915, and not only that, but what is more important, is that she'll have the arms and the uniforms for them. Germany isn't going to wait for that. I've thought it all out. We are going to get it in the neck before seven or eight months have passed, and if you want to know the truth, Hebblethwaite, that's why I have taken a risk and ordered these ships. The navy is my care, and it's my job to see that we keep it up to the proper standard. Whose votes rob me of my extra battleships? Why, just a handful of Labour men and Irishmen and cocoa Liberals, who haven't an Imperial idea in their brains, who think war belongs to the horrors of the past, and think they're doing their duty by what they call 'keeping down expenses.' Hang it, Hebblethwaite, it's worse than a man who won't pay fire insurance for his house in a dangerous neighbourhood, so as to save a bit of money! What I've done I stick to. Split on me, if you want to."

"I don't think I shall do that," Hebblethwaite said, "but honestly, Wyatt, I can't follow you in your war talk. We got over the Agadir trouble. We've got over a much worse one-the Balkan crisis. There isn't a single contentious question before us just now. The sky is almost clear."

"Believe me," Wyatt insisted earnestly, "that's just the time to look for the thunderbolt. Can't you see that when Germany goes to war, it will be a war of conquest, the war which she has planned for all these years? She'll choose her own time, and she'll make a casus belli, right enough, when the time comes. Of course, she'd have taken advantage of the position last year, but she simply wasn't ready. If you ask me, I believe she thinks herself now able to lick the whole of Europe. I am not at all sure, thanks to Busby and our last fifteen years' military administration, that she wouldn't have a good chance of doing it. Any way, I am not going to have my fleet cut down."

"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.

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