Standing at the foot of the staircase in Strafford House, Sir John Soane sighed involuntarily, though his eyes were smiling under their shaggy white brows. It was forty-five years since he had first mounted that magnificent stairway to be received by a hostess who did not know him from Adam. In a flash the years rolled back, and he saw himself as an obscure young barrister, bowing over a white-gloved hand. Lady Armitage it was who had received him—a woman famous for her beauty and wit, one of the great ladies of those later days of Victorian prosperity and intolerance. Soane remembered the superb sweep of her satin gown, the train which she managed so adroitly, the diamonds in her hair and around her throat, the whiteness of her shoulders and bosom . . . Women had figures in those days, he reflected, none of this cult of bones and slenderness; there was a statuesque quality about their beauty, a grandeur which was lacking in the hostesses of to-day.
“Sir John Soane.”
The sonorous voice announcing him brought the old man back to the present moment, and to the necessity of climbing that deuced stairway. Stairs were an effort to Sir John nowadays. His bout of pneumonia a year ago had left him with a pain in his side and a shortness of breath which attacked him whenever he braced himself for a physical effort. Forty-five years ago he had run up those stairs, too swiftly, perhaps, for the decorum of the period, unknown, unrecognised, a promising youngster whose laundry bill was a matter of some moment to him. To-day every one knew him. Heads were turned, whispers followed him, all eyes sought him—and he saw stars across his vision as he squared his heavy shoulders and plodded up the grand staircase.
“Uncle John! How terribly sweet of you! I hardly dared hope you’d come!”
Patricia Marsham, exquisite in supple gold lame, stepped forward impetuously, with both hands stretched out, to greet the famous old man. She made a lovely picture as she stood with both hands clasping her uncle’s; tall, almost incredibly slender, she still had to tilt back her head to meet the kindly blue eyes which smiled down at her. Sir John’s shoulders were bent now, but his great height still enabled him to look down on his fellow beings.
“My dear, I had to come to wish you good luck in your new house. I’ve known this place since the nineties and I’ve seen all the beauties of the century on these stairs—and you’re as lovely as any of them, my child! Blessings on you both!”
“She’s lucky, isn’t she?” murmured a tall woman who was watching the reception with that expression of cool curiosity which needs no masking to-day. “He hardly ever goes anywhere nowadays. Such a touching picture—the lovely young hostess and her famous uncle. There will be a few lines to that effect in the gossip columns to-morrow. A pity she dared not have a camera man . . .”
“Cat!” laughed another. “Of course half these men want to have a word with Sir John. That’s why they’re here. He’s almost more powerful since he retired from active politics than he was before. Unofficial adviser, you know. A word from Sir John can be the making of any one.”
“Why not try, darling? He’s said to have a weakness for red hair. If your Charles doesn’t get moved soon, he’ll be pigeon-holed for keeps.”
“My poor Charles! Maluchistan’s the diplomat’s grave, and by God! what a hole it is! I wonder . . .”
A lot of people “wondered” as they maneuvered for a chance of a word with Sir John Soane in the crowded rooms which opened from the vast landing. Strafford House had been built before the decline in English domestic architecture. Its great panelled rooms had been designed for entertainment on the grand scale, and young Lady Marsham had revelled in the opportunity of filling them to capacity. All the world and his wife were here that evening—Army, Navy, Medicine, Law, Church, State—and even a few unknown “hopefuls”—men and women who might be counted upon to “arrive.”
Sir John Soane moved slowly forward, his shrewd old eyes smiling, his memory labouring to place all those he knew. This sort of thing was the devil as you grew older, he reflected. That fellow now—he knew his face . . . “Very kind of you! As fit as anno domini allows, thanks. It’s a pleasure to see so many old friends. Ah, Mantland, glad to see you’ve taken an evening off. You’re looking a bit fagged. A stiff job you’ve had up north. I’m glad you pulled it off. Arbitrating in industrial disputes is the hardest job this world holds.”
“It’s good to have a word of sympathy from one who knows the game as you do, sir.”
Gilbert Mantland had a rare charm when he smiled, and his lean, long-jawed face lost the hardness which threatened to become habitual. A strong face, almost classic in its clean-cut severity, meditated Soane, a man with no capacity for sparing himself.
“May I introduce my wife? Diana, this is Sir John Soane.”
“Delighted,” murmured the old man. “I think I knew your father, and I met you when you were a tiny tot—up at Strathlaing. Too long ago for you to remember.”
Sir John smiled at Diana Mantland with that kindliness which won so many hearts. As he bent over her hand, it seemed that the courtly old man had eyes for no one else in the room. She was a lovely creature, her golden hair, warm-tinted yet very fair, gleaming as the grain whitening to the harvest, slender throat milk-white, eyes dark grey under naturally arched brows.
Sir John appreciated beauty when he saw it, and his homage was whole-hearted, but he had seen something else before he bent over Diana Mantland’s hand—something which went straight to his kindly old heart. Gilbert Mantland’s face as he drew his wife forward had changed from the hard, competent, unmoved mask with which he faced the world, and was lighted by such an intensity of delight and adoration that Soane was moved, and his heart warmed. “A cold fish,” so had he summed up Mantland until that revealing moment. The cold fish adored his young wife, and that with a rare passion. Sir John Soane liked him the better for that momentary dropping of his saturnine mask.
“I heard of your wedding, but I was laid up at the time,” said Soane. “You must bring your husband to dine with me some time, and tell me if the Strathlaing waters are as good as ever.”
A few minutes after he had left Mrs. Mantland, Soane heard a deep voice behind him say, “This sort of thing’s hard work for fellows of our age, John,” and turned with an exclamation of pleasure.
“By gad, it’s good to see you again, Richard. Don’t you talk to me about age, you look as fit as a man can. I thought your job was keeping you in the States for a while yet.”
“It looked like it at one time, but we hit on a basis of agreement—the elusive formula, you know. My spot of bother’s over for the moment. Come along over here, we can find a couple of seats in the Romney room. Like old times, coming to a crush here. Ah, me. We’ve had some good times, John.”
Richard Caird linked his arm with that of his old friend and drew him across the vast floor to a small room which opened from the main drawing-room.
It was less crowded here; a small group stood around Bohn’s portrait of Patricia Marsham which hung where Lady Armitage’s “blue Romney” had once held pride of place, but there were a couple of vacant chairs by the brocaded curtains, and Sir John let himself down thankfully into one of them.
“It’s too hot in there,” he sighed. “This central heating’s the devil.”
“Overdone, like most of our blessed inventions,” agreed Caird, as he pulled back the heavy curtains and opened a French window a mere crack. “Our civilisation’s poisoning itself by its own completeness, too much heat, too much food, too much refrigeration, too much speed—it’ll all go back into savagery with the aid of poison gas if we’re not careful. That niece of yours is putting the clock back half a century by holding a reception here, John. The sort of thing we used to come to in our salad days. Clever of her, you know, and bless you, people still like talking as much as ever they did. Human nature doesn’t change much.”
Sir John Soane chuckled. “Patricia’s a clever girl. I could laugh to see the crowd she’s collected. There’s more competition these days than there was in the nineties. Half the fellows in there want something the other half’s got.”
“Ah! I saw Mantland and Revian having a joke together, on the best of terms with one another,” chuckled Caird, dropping his voice a little. “Able fellows, John. Not much to choose between them.”
The group round the picture was breaking up, the individuals sauntering back into the drawing-room, lured by the Viennese band whose tones floated delicately above the confusion of voices.
“Strings,” murmured Soane. “The last touch of illusion. Patricia’s doing the thing properly. Saxophones in this place would be intolerable. Takes one back . . .”
A butler had appeared in the archway, a fine, stout, pompous old figure, bald and rosy. He carried a tray with two balloon glasses upon it and bowed sedately to Sir John.
“Her ladyship’s order, sir, if you would wish it.”
Sir John Soane chuckled.
“Cognac, Richard, just as old as it should be and no older. No cocktails for me.” He took the glass and savoured its bouquet. “You can’t beat it. The best years produce something like a miracle.” He nodded to the hairless butler. “Thank her ladyship. Just what I wanted.”
The butler bowed, perfect, pontificial, a gleam of homely pleasure on his well-drilled countenance. When he withdrew the room was empty, and neither Caird nor Soane noticed the tremor of the brocade curtains falling into place at the farther window. A man had slipped through them unseen, and was now standing on the balcony which ran the length of the room, not a yard from where the two men sat with their glasses.
“Ah, that’s good. A few minutes peace before we smile our way home again,” said John Soane. “Not much pleasure left in pleasure—for me, Richard.”
“But you’re still sticking to toil as though you were wooing a mistress. I know you, John. Helping the other fellows not to make more of a mess than they’re in already. They don’t know their own minds. Every man jack in the House is frightened of something; frightened of Fascism or Communism, of state interference or lack of it, of militarism or pacifism—and fear’s no good counsellor.”
“There you’re right. Talk to half the able young men of to-day, it’s ‘I’m frightened of Communism, I tell you I loathe Bolshevism like the very devil.’ They preach peace and prepare for war, deprecate the ways of dictators in public and believe in their own minds that a dictatorship’s the one thing to save the country. We’ve gone such a long way along the road to sane co-operation in our own body politic that it’s intolerable to think that fear may undermine our whole basis of security. If the leaders of different schools of thought could only learn to trust one another—”
Sir John Soane sighed, the sigh of a tired man, and Caird replied, “That’s what you’ve been working towards, John. This Commission you’re proposing—”
“Not a commission, old man. The very word’s got itself into disrepute. I’ve seen the results of too many commissions in my time. A report and a minority report, shelved, pigeon-holed as soon as the signatures are dried almost. We’re calling our advisory body a Board. It’s to be fluid in composition, with a personnel drawn from every quarter, electing fresh members as need arises. A Board of Industrial Relations, where employers can meet employed before their differences reach extremes. We’re getting all sorts and conditions to sit together—the bankers, the directors of the big industrial concerns, the working managers, the unions, the employees themselves in some cases. It’s not to be a short-lived commission, it’s to be a permanent body of advisers. Not a ministry—both sides jib at the thought of more government interference.”
“And well they may,” chuckled Caird. “But you’ve got your job cut out to give direction and precision to such a body. Your chairman’s going to have a big job, John.”
“Yes, and the devil of a lot depends on appointing the right man,” replied Soane. “Most of the men who come to mind as likely for the appointment are too old. We don’t want a man who is tired before he takes the job on, we don’t want one who is too old to adapt himself to new conditions. Neither do we want a man who has stood for any political party and got himself labelled. It’s a tough job.”
“And you’ve boiled it down to those two in there,” said Caird, with a gesture towards the room beyond. “Able fellows, as I said. It’s a big chance for one of them—it’ll make him or break him.”
Caird knew (as the man on the balcony knew) that the two men who were the likely candidates for the immensely important new chairmanship were Gilbert Mantland and Barry Revian. He knew that they must be aware of their possible appointment, and had been interested to see them chatting together.
Soane leant forward, after a glance around the room to ascertain that it was empty, and continued, “They have both the right qualifications in the way of personality and experience. Mantland practised at the bar before he took his father’s place in Hydraulic Engineers. He entered the industrial world as an ignoramus and he’s taught himself the ropes, working through the shops for experience. He’s one of the most successful arbitrators in the country, and he knows conditions from both sides. A man of great intelligence, encyclopaedic information and a fine physique.”
Caird nodded. “You know him. I don’t. I only know his record. Revian would probably be the more popular appointment. He has the traditions of race behind him, and while he has as good qualifications as Mantland, he strikes me as having more imagination.”
“And you don’t like him?” Old Soane’s shrewd eyes met those of his friend, and Caird laughed.
“I wouldn’t say that. He’s a very attractive personality. Difficult not to like him, but—wasn’t there some story—?”
“Was there?” Sir John Soane’s eyes grew suddenly wary, and Caird realised that someone else had entered the room behind him. He put down his glass.
“Let me drive you back home, and come in and yarn for a bit,” he said. “We’ve done our duty here, and you’ve had a bit of a rest now.”
“Yes, and by gad, I was glad of it. I remember, forty years ago, I’d dance the night through here, after working fourteen hours at my briefs. Now it’s all I can do to stagger across that room without disgracing myself. I often think that it’s time I packed up and spent my days in an easy-chair—all action past, all desires gone, all passion spent . . . The hard part of letting go is that one’s mind doesn’t feel old as one’s body does. I’ve learnt a lot by experience, and I want to hand on the fruits of that experience to the young men who’re fighting their way along. I know humanity as they can’t know it. I want to counsel them—while they’re still young. No use talking to the old men . . .” The deep voice, pitched so low that it was hardly more than a bass murmur, was moving, both for its own beauty, and for the wistful sadness in it. For a moment the old man passed into a reverie and murmured to himself. “. . . Or ever the evil days come not nor the years draw nigh when thou shalt say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” Then he laughed and squared his big shoulders. “Time I went home, Richard, I’m babbling . . . second childhood at hand.”
As Sir John put his hand on the arms of his chair to lever himself up, a man came in through the archway and hastened across to him.
“Can I help you, sir? These modern chairs weren’t built to get out of.”
He put a hand beneath the old man’s arm and helped him up, almost lifting the ponderous body with the ease of powerful muscles. Of middle height, fair, trim, immaculate, Barry Revian looked a trained athlete, but no one would have realised the great muscular strength in his compact body.
“Thanks. Very good of you.” Sir John smiled down at Revian when he was on his feet again. “You young fellows have to help the old ’uns through. You can lend me your arm across that slippery floor, lad. I’ll be glad of it.”
They went out through the archway, followed by Caird and the woman to whom Revian had been talking, a charming, friendly, distinguished quartet, smiling and talking.
The man on the balcony saw them go. There was no smile on his face, and in the cold darkness he was aware of tears pricking his eyeballs.
“Oh, God, why can’t they see?” he asked himself.
Mark Garlandt was a man of fifty, a financier who was famous in the City of London for his ability, his integrity, and his utter immutability in the face of argument or special pleading. Those who associated with him, or fought him, over financial transactions had never seen a glimmer of human weakness in his steady, expressionless eyes, had never seen the tight-lipped mouth relax in pity or sorrow. Garlandt faced the world behind an armour plating of deliberate remorseless purpose, but in the darkness on the balcony his sanguine face was furrowed by passion. He was by race a Jew, having a German grandmother and an Austrian grandfather. Garlandt had been born in England, and educated in Heidelburg. He had lived in the States, in France, in Germany, in Poland, and in Austria; he was a cosmopolitan with the speech, the manner, the reserve of an Englishman, but behind all his acquired characteristics was the core of a German Jew. He saw his friends and kin in Germany and Austria under the plough of Nazi oppression. Some committed suicide, some died in concentration camps, some escaped, broken, ruined men, to tell Garlandt what Judaism was suffering in the persecution of to-day. To such a man, politics were no game. With every hidden, sensitive fibre of his essential self he anguished over the pro-Fascist trend which he believed he sensed among the English governing classes. Brought up by parents who were staunch Liberals, he had assimilated their creed in his youth, little dreaming of the collapse of the party which claimed his political adherence. Now there was no longer room for the slow, sober humanitarianism of Liberal philosophy. Garlandt saw the world as divided into two sets of incompatibles—the Communist and the Fascist. Communism made no appeal to Garlandt, but because of the things his kindred had suffered, he hated Fascism with a passion of which the average Englishman was incapable. Hidden from all who knew him, seething in the very depths of his nature, that hatred was beginning to colour and warp the man’s judgment.
To him, every political appointment was a token far or against the advancement of Fascist ideology. He searched the records of Cabinet Ministers, of Secretaries of State, of Army officials, of Department Administrators, to see if he could perceive in their utterances which side they favoured in the world schism which he apprehended. Secretly he used his influence to help those whom he believed would stand up against the tyranny of Fascism, secretly he fought against those who were in favour of the thing he hated. It was this fanaticism which had prompted him to slip behind the curtain and eavesdrop like a spy in the hope of learning what was in Sir John Soane’s mind concerning the appointment of the chairman of the new Board. Garlandt had plenty of opportunities of getting information. He knew that Soane, old as he was, and retired from active politics, was the man whose advice would be taken eventually. From Sir John’s long experience and rich humanity would come the verdict for which Garlandt waited impatiently. The latter knew, too, that either Mantland or Revian would almost certainly be chosen for the post, and that the chairman would have immense influence.
Mantland was derived from an industrial family, brought up to the same tenets of Liberalism which Garlandt had held before his mind became distorted by fear and loathing. Revian was only grafted upon the industrial world. He came of a family whose sons had generally entered the services, which had looked askance when a younger son had married the daughter of a mill owner, and entered upon a career in his father-in-law’s business in the industrial midlands. Barry Revian had brains; he had determination and an insatiable appetite for work, with an inquiring mind which grappled with a problem for the sheer love of it. Above all, Revian had a genius for managing men and for leading them. At the age of forty he was famous in the industrial world for a shrewdness which had kept his own firm afloat when others were sinking; for a capacity to gain the confidence of his workers when other owners were engaged in bitter industrial warfare, and for the wisdom which recognised that good conditions for employees were of more value than quick dividends for shareholders. Garlandt admitted all this, but it counted for nothing in his eyes. Revian came of the caste which would back Fascism from sheer fear of its opposite. Garlandt knew. He had talked to him, sounded him cunningly in his detached, passionless way. Revian was a Tory at heart, a reactionary, for all his apparent enlightenment on matters of social reform. Garlandt had sat beside him at a city banquet and heard him drop an unguarded aside to another man concerning a certain speaker.
“A Jew, isn’t he?” Garlandt knew what the tone implied.
When he had seen Revian walking across the room with his arm under Soane’s, Garlandt had felt bitterness welling up in his heart. The cold wind blew on his hot face in the darkness. Politics were a game to some, a bore to some, a career to some. To Garlandt, politics stood for the very existence of his own kind, their homes, their culture, their very lives.
Wiping his brow, he stood still to recover his own poise and detachment before he rejoined his fellows. Looking down into the street he saw the line of cars parked against the pavement, the chauffeurs chatting in small groups. He saw one figure which caught his attention. A short, stout little man, in a bowler hat and a good dark overcoat was idling down below. Garlandt remembered having seen him there for some minutes while he had been straining his ears to hear what Soane and Caird had been saying. A notion flashed across his mind.
“He’s watching for somebody. Who?”
Suspicion came quickly to the surface of Garlandt’s mind nowadays. He remembered Caird’s voice. “Wasn’t there a story? . . .” Garlandt wondered. If there were a damaging story about Revian to be disinterred, so much the better.Waiting for his chance to slip in again unobserved, Garlandt managed to rejoin the party without any member of it being aware that he had been out on the balcony.