The manservant who had been waiting in the hall opened the front door, and with a muttered word of thanks Lieu- tenant-Commander Owen Bradwell stepped out on to the sun-warmed pavement of Harley Street. Except for a slight tightening of the lips his clean-cut, deeply tanned face betrayed no sign of the desolating bitterness which was creeping through his heart. It was a moment when twelve years’ naval training were not without their spiritual advantage.
A waiting taxi pulled up in front of him, and directing the man to drive to the New Century Club, he clambered in and sank back wearily against the cushion. His hand went to his pocket, and with a purely mechanical movement he pulled out a silver case and lighted a cigarette.
On that particularly fine September morning London was at the height of its form. The stream of traffic up and down Oxford Street appeared to be even more dense than usual, while both pavements were crowded with a throng of loitering pedestrians gaping into the shop windows and resolutely obstructing each other’s progress. At frequent intervals a party of crutch-supported vocalists, shepherded by an importunate gentleman with a collecting-box, competed gallantly against the roar of the motor-buses.
Although it was over two years since he had last been in Town, Owen sat gazing out on the animated scene with a fixed, unseeing stare. He was far too occupied with his own thoughts to take in any impression from outside; and it was only when the taxi came to an abrupt halt that he suddenly realised he was already in St. James’s Square. With an impatient shrug he pulled himself together, and tossing away the stump of his cigarette, jerked open the door.
He had barely set foot inside the big, sombre hall of the Club when he caught sight of Joe Anstey emerging from the library. The next moment his fingers were being crushed in a welcoming grip, and the cheery voice of his host was pouring out a flood of greetings and questions.
“Well, well, this is grand. How are you, and where the devil have you sprung from? Nearly threw a fit when I got your wire. Hadn’t the remotest notion you were back in England, let alone up in Town. When did you get home, and why on earth didn’t you let me know you were coming?” “Give us a chance,” pleaded Owen. “I’ll answer every- thing as soon as I feel a trifle stronger. What I want at this moment is a large whisky.”
“That’s easy. Shove your hat up there and let’s go into the bar. I’ve ordered lunch for one o’clock, so we’ll just have time for a quick one.”
He led the way into a very long, narrow room, equipped with a counter and a selection of easy chairs. A small group of members who were sipping cocktails and nibbling stuffed olives glanced round with a friendly air, but, disregarding the unspoken invitation to join their company, he piloted his guest towards an empty leather settee at the farther end of the apartment. A mournful-looking waiter who was lurking in the background shuffled forward to take their order.
“Double whisky and a dry sherry,” he rapped out, and then, leaning back contentedly and crossing his legs, sub- jected Owen to a brief but critical scrutiny.
“You haven’t altered the least, except that you’re a shade thinner. I suppose that comes of living on puppy dogs and bird’s-nest soup.”
“To be quite honest, I’ve never tasted either.” Owen laughed. “The Admiralty are desperately conservative. Even out in China we still got our roast beef and treacle tart. I did try one native joint in Hong Kong just out of curiosity, and as a result I spent most of the next two days in strict retirement.” He paused as the waiter came back with the glasses. “Barbarous habit filling oneself up with whisky just before lunch, but the fact is I’m feeling a trifle dim. Just had what you might describe as ‘a kick in the pants’.”
“That so?” Joe raised his eyebrows. “Nothing really serious, I hope?”
“Tell you about it later.” Owen drained off his tumbler and set it down on the shelf beside him. “First of all, I want to hear your news. How are things generally, and what about the punting championship? Manage to pull it off again this year?”
“Didn’t even enter. Too infernally busy.”
“You don’t say so! Has there been a boom in motor tractors, or have you suddenly gone ambitious and taken to politics?”
“Neither.” Joe glanced across in the direction of the bar and lowered his voice. “Don’t want to broadcast the information, but as a matter of fact we’re working for the Government. We’ve started a new factory up in the Midlands and we’re turning out aeroplane parts. At least, we shall be in about six weeks’ time.”
“Good work. I imagine we can do with them, from what Churchill was saying in the House the other day. I heard some of his speech on the wireless.”
“Do with them!” repeated Joe. “If you want my opinion, we can do with about ten times the number we’re arranging for now. I don’t mind betting a fiver we’ll be at war with Germany inside the next eighteen months.”
“I imagine you’d win.” Owen’s lips twisted into a mirthless smile. “At least, that seems to be the general opinion amongst our people. If anything, they’re inclined to put it a shade sooner.”
“They’re probably right. Those thugs in Berlin mean business, and all the soft soap in the world isn’t going to make the slightest difference.” Joe raised his glass and gulped down the remainder of the contents. “However, we won’t discuss it now or it will spoil my appetite. How do you feel about going in and making a start? I told them to put us on a grilled sole, and if they haven’t forgotten it ought to be just about ready.”
Without waiting for a reply he hoisted himself up, and making their way across the hall into the big dining-room opposite, they headed towards an empty table in the window that looked out into the Square. Some half-dozen members had drifted in before them, and a low buzz of conversation was already in full swing.
In spite of the haunting depression at the back of his mind, Owen himself was soon talking away as vigorously as anyone. During his absence abroad he had largely dropped out of touch with what was going on in London, and the wealth of interesting gossip which his host was in a position to supply made the time slip past with an agreeable and surprising rapidity. Inquiries and news about old friends and acquaintances seemed to follow each other continuously. The same process continued cheerfully all through the meal, and it was not until they had arrived at the stage of coffee and cigars that the grim subject which he had been only too willing to postpone forced itself inevitably into the foreground.
“Now,” demanded Joe, with a sudden turn of seriousness, “what’s this trouble of yours that you were hinting at in the bar? Not been making love to the Admiral’s wife or anything stupid of that sort?”
“I haven’t even tried.” Owen paused. “No, it’s something much less romantic, but just as unpleasant in its conse- quences.” He dropped a lump of sugar into his cup and stirred it round slowly. “To put it into plain, unvarnished English, I’ve suddenly gone colour-blind.”
“Colour-blind!” Joe sat up sharply. “My dear chap, I—I’m devilish sorry. That’s a pretty rotten business for you, isn’t it?” “Not too good. Knocks out the chance of my ever becoming another Lord Nelson.”
“But when did it happen? Quite recently?”
“Coming home from China. I went up on deck one night just as we were passing a tramp steamer, and the first thing I noticed was that there was something wrong with her port light. Instead of being red it was a kind of dirty yellow. I spoke to the look-out about it, and he thought I was joking—couldn’t understand what I meant. Then—well, then I began to get the wind up. So I toddled down below again and routed out the Doc. He put me through one or two tests, and by the time he’d finished I knew what I was in for. Of course he did his best to cheer me up and tell me that I’d probably recover, but I could see by his face that it was only a lot of well-meaning bunk. He simply hadn’t the heart to dish me out the truth.”
“Are you absolutely sure? Isn’t there the slightest chance—?” “Not an earthly. As soon as we got to Plymouth I went before a Medical Board. The Head M.O. was a very decent bloke, and he said that before giving a final opinion he’d like me to run up to Town and consult a specialist called Mitchell-Carr in Harley Street. I felt at the time that he was merely letting me down as gently as possible.”
“Have you seen this chap yet?”
“Had an appointment this morning and came straight on here afterwards. He tried me out with the whole bag of tricks. I needn’t bore you with details, but I gather that unless I run into someone who can perform miracles I shall never be able to spot a red light again except when I’m practically right up against it. Won’t make any difference to my sight otherwise, but so far as going to sea’s concerned—well, it’s just a case of sweet Fanny Adams.” He shrugged. “They don’t entrust expensive battleships to wash-outs like me.”
There was a lengthy pause.
“It’s a sickening piece of bad luck, and I’m more sorry than I can say.” Joe was staring across at his companion with an obviously genuine sympathy. “Still, you mustn’t talk as though things were utterly hopeless. If that’s the only trouble, surely it doesn’t mean your having to leave the Service? Won’t they be able to find you something ashore? There must be heaps of jobs where colour-blindness doesn’t matter a curse.” “Oh, I dare say they’ll offer me a berth in what we call ‘a stone frigate.’ Sitting at a desk all day in some Godforsaken office, or piloting a party of M.P.s who’ve taken it into their heads that they want to look round a dockyard. What makes me so desperately mad is that it should have happened just now. As you said yourself, we’re obviously heading for war, and if I could only have carried on for another three or four years—” He checked himself abruptly, and with the faintest possible shrug picked up the glass of brandy in front of him. “Well, there it is, and what’s the use of talking about it? Better wait till to-morrow and see whether this bird Greystoke has anything to suggest.”
“Who’s Greystoke?” demanded Joe.
“Don’t ask me. All I know about him is that he’s a pal of my skipper, and that he used to be second in command at Portsmouth. I believe he’s something at the Admiralty now, but what his actual job is I haven’t the remotest notion.”
“How does he come into it, then?”
“I rather fancy that the old man must have written to him about me. Anyhow, I got a chit just before I left asking me to call at his place in Queen Anne’s Gate. Probably turn out to be a complete frost, but I may as well push along there and ‘mak siccar.’”
“How long are you staying in Town?”
“Haven’t decided yet. Depends upon what Greystoke has to say. I’ve booked a room at the Paddington, and if it turns out that there’s anything doing I shall probably hang around for a day or two. They’ve given me a fortnight’s leave, so there’s no particular point in bundling back to Plymouth.” “Why not come along to the flat? I’d love to put you up, and you’ll be a whole heap more comfortable.”
“That’s rather a happy notion.” Owen paused. “Quite sure I shouldn’t be a nuisance? I’m not very good company just at the moment.”
“My dear chap, if you feel that way you can lock yourself in your bedroom all day and Watkins will bring you your meals. It’s quite likely I shan’t even be there. Halsey’s in charge of the new show, but I may get a wire from him any time saying that he wants me to come up, and if I do I’ll have to paddle off at once. In any case, I shouldn’t expect you to be bright and interesting. If I’d had a knock like that I should simply loathe the sight of everyone.”
“You’re an understanding bloke, Joe.” Owen smiled grate- fully. “I think I will plant myself on you if you’re prepared to risk it. I’m certainly not looking forward to sitting in a hotel smoking-room making polite replies to some devastating bore.” He paused. “I want to be somewhere quiet where I can chew things over. After I’ve seen Greystoke I’m not sure that I won’t ask you to lend me one of your punts and have a few days on my own up the river.”
“Sound scheme, provided this weather holds. I’ve left a couple at old Martin’s boat-house at Playford, so you can toddle down there and take your pick. If I could spare the time—”
“Excuse me, sir, but you’re wanted on the phone.” A page-boy had suddenly appeared at Joe’s elbow.
“Right you are.” He pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. “I expect it’s the office,” he added, addressing Owen. “You won’t mind my deserting you for a minute? Order yourself another brandy and have some more coffee.”
There was an appreciable interval before he reappeared, and as he threaded his way back to the table it was obvious from his expression that something had occurred to upset his usual equanimity.
“Damned annoying,” he announced, “but I’m afraid I’ll have to break up the party. Those wretched Air people want me to go round there at once and hear about some new change they’re making in their plans. Don’t suppose it’s the least urgent really, but we can’t afford to be haughty with a Government Department.”
“You’re telling me.” Owen laughed and hoisted himself up. “Don’t worry, old man, just shove off and make yourself civil: I’ve tons to do this afternoon, anyhow. Got to look in at the tailor’s for one thing, and then go along to the Stores and have my hair cut.”
“Well, when you’re through, collect your traps and bring them over to the flat. I’ll give Watkins a ring and tell him to get your room ready.”
“I expect he’ll curse me for making a lot of extra work.” “Not a bit of it,” Joe grinned. “You’re a particular favourite of his, and he’ll be as pleased as Punch. Shouldn’t be surprised if he even polished up the door-knocker.”