Chapter 10THE Assistant Commissioner, driven rapidly in a hansom from the neighbourhood of Soho in the direction of Westminster, got out at the very centre of the Empire on which the sun never sets. Some stalwart constables, who did not seem particularly impressed by the duty of watching the august spot, saluted him. Penetrating through a portal by no means lofty into the precincts of the Hour which is the House, par excellence, in the minds of many millions of men, he was met at last by the volatile and revolutionary Toodles.
That neat and nice young man concealed his astonishment at the early appearance of the Assistant Commissioner, whom he had been told to look out for some time about midnight. His turning up so early he concluded to be the sign that things, whatever they were, had gone wrong. With an extremely ready sympathy, which in nice youngsters goes often with a joyous temperament, he felt sorry for the great Presence he called `The Chief, and also for the Assistant Commissioner, whose face appeared to him more ominously wooden than ever before, and quite wonderfully long. `What a queer, foreign- looking chap he is,' he thought to himself, smiling from a distance with friendly buoyancy. And directly they came together he began to talk with the kind intention of burying the awkwardness of failure under a heap of words. It looked as if the great assault threatened for that night were going to fizzle out. An inferior henchman of `that brute Cheeseman' was up boring mercilessly a very thin House with some shamelessly cooked statistics. He, Toodles, hoped he would bore them into a count out every minute. But then he might be only marking time to let that guzzling Cheeseman dine at his leisure. Anyway, the Chief could not be persuaded to go home.
`He will see you at once, I think. He's sitting all alone in his room thinking of all the fishes of the sea,' concluded Toodles, airily. `Come along.'
Notwithstanding the kindness of his disposition, the young Private Secretary (unpaid) was accessible to the common failings of humanity. He did not wish to harrow the feelings of the Assistant Commissioner, who looked to him uncommonly like a man who has made a mess of his job. But his curiosity was too strong to be restrained by mere compassion. He could not help, as they went along, to throw over his shoulder lightly:
`And your sprat?'
`Got him,' answered the Assistant Commissioner with a concision which did not mean to be repellent in the least.
`Good. You've no idea how these great men dislike to be disappointed in small things.'
After this profound observation the experienced Toodles seemed to reflect. At any rate he said nothing for quite two seconds. Then:
`I'm glad. But - I say - is it really such a very small thing as you make it out?'
`Do you know what may be done with a sprat?' the Assistant Commissioner asked in his turn.
`He's sometimes put into a sardine box,' chuckled Toodles, whose erudition on the subject of the fishing industry was fresh and, in comparison with his ignorance of all other industrial matters, immense. `There are sardine canneries on the Spanish coast which--'
The Assistant Commissioner interrupted the apprentice statesman.
`Yes. Yes. But a sprat is also thrown away sometimes in order to catch a whale.'
`A whale. Phew!' exclaimed Toodles, with bated breath. `You're after a whale, then?'
`Not exactly. What I am after is more like a dog-fish. You don't know perhaps what a dog-fish is like.'
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