No matter how exciting the day, the House of Commons loses all interest between the hours of 7 and 9 p.m. The big speeches of the day have been made. The battle of the bigwigs is resumed after nine o’clock. M.P.s must eat. They drift out of the debating-rooms, and leave the long green benches to those agonizing souls who have to work off a maiden speech or who must catch the Speaker’s eye occasionally to let an otherwise uninterested constituency know that they are alive.
Robert West, lolling on the second bench behind the Government in virtue of his high-sounding title of Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Home Affairs, divided his attention between the clock and the sufferings of one of the Opposition Members, perspiring with his efforts to raise the roof, and encouraged by the malicious shouts of “Speak up” from his tormentors.
“Too bad,” said West’s neighbour.
“We ought to film this place,” chuckled West. “Would any of us ever make a speech again if we could see how funny we look when we are doing it? Damn Murray Grey,” he continued, thinking aloud; “the rotter promised to relieve me by a quarter to eight.”
“Got a dinner-party?” queried his colleague sympathetically. “But you aren’t bound to stay, are you? This isn’t your Minister’s show.”
“No, it’s Treasury, but Murray Grey was gasping for a drink, so I promised to keep guard over his Minister while he had a couple. The blighter could have mopped up the entire bar by now.”
It is the unwritten law that a Minister must have a Parliamentary private secretary on the bench behind him during a debate in which he is leading, to get papers from the library or the answers to awkward questions from the experts’ box under the Press gallery. It is an irksome duty, and Robert West was feeling aggrieved that having volunteered to relieve a friend he should be left in the lurch like this.
“Is the lady very pretty?”
“It’s not a she, it’s a he. Fact is, my oldest friend is coming to dinner at a quarter to eight, and as we’ve all got to be back for the division at nine it doesn’t leave me much time. I haven’t seen him for five years.”
“Clear off, then,” said the older man. “I’ll keep guard on the Chancellor.”
“Bless you, will you? I hate leaving you like this, but I’ll boot Murray Grey in if I see him.”
West gathered the official papers together and dumped them on his neighbour’s knee, as though he were afraid the other would repent of his offer.
A good many eyes in the public galleries followed him as he made his bow to the Speaker and walked down the centre aisle out of the Chamber. Robert West was quite worth looking at. He hadn’t the disadvantage of those tailor’s mannequin good looks which make other men slightly contemptuous and cause women to speculate rather petulantly as to the probable queue of female admirers. But he looked interesting, with heavy black hair waving over a good head, a square jaw, a clean complexion, and a pair of large brown eyes that only partly admitted the hot temper which was his chief weakness.
At twenty-nine he was comfortably fixed in a fairly safe Parliamentary seat, and being fortunate enough to be entirely without private means he had to keep his wits alert to earn money for his luxuries. The meagre Parliamentary salary barely sufficed for the necessities of even such a comparatively frugal bachelor as he was.
Like most young politicians (male) he had given as much thought to the rôle he should assume when he entered Parliament as a newly elected woman M.P. gives to the costume to be worn on her first appearance. After considering several models he had decided that a slightly cynical air of detachment from the worries of common man, an unruffled calm amid political storms, coupled with a keen watch for the right moment to intervene, was to be his special rôle. As he kept these decisions carefully to himself no one could tell him that every young politician (male) had made a similar decision during the days between the count at his winning election and taking his oath in the House of Commons.
Actually Robert West could not maintain the slightest detachment even from a street dog-fight. It was as a dogfight that politics interested him, though he was always assuring himself that some time or other he would settle down to find out how the country ought to be run, and why politicians made such a mess of running it. But as a popular young bachelor he found life too interesting at any particular moment to acquire sufficient of that knowledge to be awkward to his party whips.
That was why, at twenty-nine, in his second year in Parliament, he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary, was known to every one as Bob, and was well inside the comfortable fairway which leads in due but long course, when the tides of youth have ebbed, to that placid company of politicians who decorate the Front Bench of any particular Government, whose names are seldom remembered during its lifetime and forgotten the day after the dissolution.
On this particular evening in June, West walked a little self-consciously down the short but important corridor that separates the selective privacy of the central lobby of the House from the Strangers’ Lobby, where constituents, lobbyists, guests, and the men who have come to borrow half-crowns are herded together indiscriminately by gigantic but amiable policemen.
West paused at the barrier while the policeman called out his name. His eyes impatiently searched the crowd. Donald Shaw, for whom he was looking, had never been easy to pick out in a mob. He had always been of the type that prefers to be part of the scenery. It was with a little twitch at his heart that West recognized in the man walking towards him the adored companion of his school and college days—still the same tall thin figure, browner in the face, but with the same humorous apology in the blue eyes for being in the picture at all.
“Why, there you are! I say, it is good to see you again after all these years. Found your way all right?” West covered the real emotion he was feeling after a separation of five years by his almost too hearty manner.
“Perfectly, thanks to your admirable instructions. I mentioned your magic name and bobbies stood stiffly to attention in rows.”
“Draw it mild, my son. I told you in my letter that a P.P.S. is the humblest of God’s creatures—but”—a little self-consciously—“it does get one through quicker to give the policeman a name they know. Now what about dinner? I’ve ordered a meal in the Harcourt room. Want to wash?”
“No, thanks. I’m in a faultless state of preparation for the great occasion. It’s my first meal in the House of Commons. I can assure you I’m feeling properly impressed.”
“You wouldn’t be impressed with this outfit long if you were in it.” Don smiled at this remark, for Bob himself was so obviously impressed with it all.
The Harcourt room to which West led his guest is the fashionable ‘Society’ part of the House of Commons. Members themselves dine in comfortable and inexpensive shabbiness in their own dining-room upstairs, and there is an equally shabby Strangers’ room for the hurried business meal. But West rather wanted to show off his new dignity to his friend, besides standing him the best possible meal the Commons cuisine could provide. He had booked a table for two which gave the best view of the lights and flowers, the celebrities and their guests, and the general atmosphere of what has become, since the War, probably the best mixed club in the world.
He had a good many friends to nod to as he piloted his guest to their table.
“It’s rather full to-night,” he said as they took their seats. “There’s another of these financial crises hovering in the wind. Important division at nine, so people are dining in. I’ll have to leave you then, just to dart up to vote.”
“Don’t let me interfere with the government of the Empire or what’s left of it,” begged Shaw. “Now tell me which are the bigwigs.”
“Ministers don’t come down here much. They have a dining-room of their own. Unless they have guests, of course. That grey-haired man with the hooked nose entertaining all those ladies—seems to have a different set here most nights and has got all the oof most mortals could do with—is Samuelson the racing man. That tall dark man with a heavy jaw is Joshua Stoneleigh. Did incredible things in the War.” West punctuated each mouthful with a catalogue of the people around.
“Who is that good-looking fellow with the Jewess in green?”
“Philip Kinnaird. Adventurous card, that. Collected a pile out of that rather unsavoury Regal Irak affair. You ought to know all about it. You were out in Irak at the time, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I know quite a lot about the Regal Irak Company,” said Shaw quietly. “It’s one of the reasons why I am in London now. So that’s Kinnaird!”
“Awfully nice fellow really,” said West.
“That’s not his usual reputation, is it?”
“People are jealous of his cash, and saddle him with the sins of old David Davies, his unspeakable chairman. But people here like him all right—at least, those who know him.”
“Does he do much in politics?”
“No, hardly ever here. Safe seat, properly bought and paid for and all that. Can’t think what he wants to muck about the place for.”
“Oil is supposed to have some occasional connexion with British foreign politics, isn’t it?” said Shaw quietly.
“Well, there’s an awful lot of rot talked about that. Britain isn’t America—and any big interest that tried to pass palm-oil along our lobbies would soon be told where it got off.”
“Yes? No doubt there is a somewhat subtler atmosphere here. Thanks, I will have a little more of that Hermitage. Pretty good, isn’t it? I hope I’m not consuming your substance in this grand meal?”
“It’s a binge to-night,” laughed West as he ordered another bottle and went on with a gossiping list of the other diners in sight.
“But the most interesting dinners, of course, are not given in here,” he said. “The private ones take place in the little dining-rooms off the corridor we came along. Some history has been made in them, I can tell you. In fact there’s probably a bit of history being made in one of them now.”
“That’s interesting! State secret, or am I allowed to know?”
“Well, to be honest, I don’t know much myself, but the Home Secretary—that’s my Chief, you know—has got Georges Oissel to dinner tête à tête, and the Prime Minister is dropping in on them for coffee after the nine o’clock division.”
Don Shaw looked humorously humble. “I know I ought to be impressed, but I’ve had my head in Irak sands for five years. Who is Georges Oissel? Don’t tell me he’s the French Premier or the President of the League of Nations or some other household word.”
“Oh, no! No one knows much about Oissel. He’s not one of those well-advertised mystery millionaires. He’s just a plain American ‘multi’—French extraction, obviously, from his name. He’s head of one of the firms that deal in big Government loans, but he’s a cripple and a recluse and mighty hard to dig out of his shell. I consider it’s one chalked up to me that he’s here at all.”
“Did you do the trick, then?”
“In a way—I had to make all the arrangements. It’s not Home Office business, of course. My Chief is in it simply because he’s a pal of the Premier’s and rather takes a hand in any confidential business that the P.M. may want to drop out of later. You see?”
“In addition, by the greatest luck, Oissel happens to have been friendly with my Chief in the long ago. Spent some holidays together in a log camp or something. So Oissel made an exception to his rule never to accept invitations. He would have been a surly dog not to, for I must say the Chief’s been awfully decent to him. Lent him Jenks, his own private detective, because the regulation Scotland Yard variety got on his nerves, and the Government would not agree to his being without some kind of protection just now. But I wish I knew what was in the wind. The Chief’s been as surly as a bear with a sore head ever since Oissel’s appearance in this happy land.”
“And don’t you know?”
“Only in a general sort of way. I know that we must get a big loan and for longer than we usually have borrowed. Oissel is here negotiating on behalf of the only group who are likely to lend us the money for the length of time we want it. I’ve rather gathered that the terms are pretty stiff, but what the Chief expects to be able to do about them I don’t know.”
“Perhaps he’s giving him a good dinner to soften his heart.”
“Wouldn’t appeal to Oissel. Lives on charcoal biscuits and fruit and that sort of stuff. And you may accept a chap’s invitation because you went logging with him as a lad, but I can’t see that being allowed to make even an eighth of one per cent. difference to a big loan, can you?”
“Can’t say. It would in all the loans I’ve ever had anything to do with, but they amount to about a couple of dollars.”
West grinned, and then said rather sheepishly: “Of course, all this is deadly confidential. I expect you think I’ve been opening my mouth pretty wide, but then I always did tell you everything that went through my head.”
“And it was all right, wasn’t it?”
“Rather, and forgive my saying that. I know you are as deep a well as your navvies ever dug. I am glad you are back in England. I’ll see a bit of you before you hop off again, won’t I?”
“Sure. Probably more than you want to. I’m one of the great unemployed now. I have to thank the Regal Irak ramp for that. I’ll tell you the story some time…”
“But look here, old chap… I mean… if I can do anything…”
“Oh, I didn’t mean I was joining a Labour Exchange queue just yet. It’s not the cash I mind, but having to give up a job that was really worth while doing. But a quiet time in your respectable London will do me a lot of good… Kinnaird is trying to catch your eye, by the way.”
While West went over to be introduced to Kinnaird’s vivacious Jewess, Shaw sat watching the scene with a wry smile behind the smoke of his cigar. This was the House of Commons. This was Home, and the centre of Home. For the dividend to be spent by these men and women dining in comfort he and his men had sweated among Irak flies and dirt. He felt no resentment against them. It was rather pleasant to sit at his ease and contemplate his share in building all this. After all, it was this Parliament and what it represented that had stretched a protecting arm over the loneliest outpost, that had given point and purpose to the hardest pioneering tussles. But at the thought of the Oissels and Kinnairds his mouth hardened. To have worth-while civilizing work held up indefinitely by irresponsible gamblers, to be a pawn in a financial coup—that made a man bitter. And there was no way of getting at these men; no revolution seemed to shake their thrones; revolutionaries had to go cap in hand to them when they had done the job of finishing off age-old dynasties.
West returned rather hurriedly, breaking into his reverie.
“Sorry, old man. Our manners here are the world’s worst. Everybody butts in on everybody else, but it’s nearly nine and I’ve got to go up for the division. If you’d care to come along I could stow you in a side gallery till it’s over and then show you round.”
The electric indicator showed that the Prime Minister had been on his feet some time, and most of the other Members had left their guests to be in at the last few minutes of what was expected to be an exciting speech and a close division. Even so it took a little time to push their way through the crowded room, and the bells of Big Ben had already begun the carillon of the hour as Robert West piloted his companion into the long Terrace corridor.
“That’s Room J, where Oissel——” But his sentence was never finished, for as they reached the door the division bell began to ring. And through the double clamour of Big Ben and the shrill sound of the bell rang a revolver shot.
“Good God!” gasped Robert West.