Chapter 7The Assistant Commissioner walked along a short and narrow street like a wet, muddy trench, then crossing a very broad thoroughfare entered a public edifice, and sought speech with a young private secretary (unpaid) of a great personage.
This fair, smooth-faced young man, whose symmetrically arranged hair gave him the air of a large and neat schoolboy, met the Assistant Commissioner's request with a doubtful look, and spoke with bated breath.
`Would he see you? I don't know about that. He has walked over from the House an hour ago to talk with the Permanent Under-Secretary, and now he's ready to walk back again. He might have sent for him; but he does it for the sake of a little exercise, I suppose. It's all the exercise he can find time for while this session lasts. I don't complain; I rather enjoy these little strolls. He leans on my arm, and doesn't open his lips. But, I say, he's very tired, and - well - not in the sweetest of tempers just now.'
`It's in connection with that Greenwich affair.'
`Oh! I say! He's very bitter against you people. But I will go and see, if you insist.'
`Do. That's a good fellow,' said the Assistant Commissioner.
The unpaid secretary admired this pluck. Composing for himself an innocent face, he opened a door, and went in with the assurance of a nice and privileged child. And presently he reappeared, with a nod to the Assistant Commissioner, who passing through the same door left open for him, found himself with the great personage in a large room.
Vast in bulk and stature, with a long white face, which, broadened at the base by a big double chin, appeared egg-shaped in the fringe of greyish whisker, the great personage seemed an expanding man. Unfortunate from a tailoring point of view, the crossfolds in the middle of a buttoned black coat added to the impression, as if the fastenings of the garment were tried to the utmost. From the head, set upward on a thick neck, the eyes, with puffy lower lids, stared with a haughty droop on each side of a hooked, aggressive nose, nobly salient in the vast pale circumference of the face. A shiny silk hat and a pair of worn gloves lying ready at the end of a long table looked expanded, too, enormous.
He stood on the hearthrug in big, roomy boots, and uttered no word of greeting.
`I would like to know if this is the beginning of another dynamite campaign;' he asked at once in a deep, very smooth voice. `Don't go into details. I have no time for that.'
The Assistant Commissioner's figure before this big and rustic Presence had the frail slenderness of a reed addressing an oak. And indeed the unbroken record of that man's descent surpassed in the number of centuries the age of the oldest oak in the country.
`No. As far as one can be positive about anything I can assure you that it is not.'
`Yes. But your idea of assurances over there,' said the great man, with a contemptuous wave of his hand towards a window giving on the broad thoroughfare, `seem to consist mainly in making the Secretary of State look a fool. I have been told positively in this very room less than a month ago that nothing of the sort was even possible.'
The Assistant Commissioner glanced in the direction of the window calmly.
`You will allow me to remark, Sir Ethelred, that so far I have had no opportunity to give you assurances of any kind.'
The haughty droop of the eyes was focused now upon the Assistant Commissioner.
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