Mr. Ernest Clifton had a good deal to think about; but, as he was usually in this condition, he did not feel greatly inconvenienced. He was well aware of the fact that when one man insists on doing all the thinking for a large and important organisation, he cannot expect to have a vacant mind for many hours together. He had, however, so managed matters in connection with the great political machine of which he was secretary that he had become the sole Intelligence of the organisation. He was not only the man who controlled the driving power of the engine, he also had command of the brakes; and every one is aware of the fact that to know when to slacken speed and when to stop is a most important part of the duties of the man who is running any machine. Any inferior person can pitch the coal into the furnace to keep up the steam, but it requires an Intelligence to know when to shut it off.

He had determined from the outset that he would not allow himself to be hampered by the presence of another thinking man on the foot plate of his engine; it is the easiest thing in the world to obtain for any political organisation a president and a committee utterly devoid of intelligence, and Ernest Clifton resolved that though he might be forced to make seek for such a committee among the most notable men in the Party, he would secure it somehow.

He found it the easiest thing in the world to get an ideal President, Vice-President, Honorary Secretary and Committee. They were all men whom he could implicitly trust to abstain from thought on any vexed question, but he took care that no question of this type remained in a condition of suspense: he himself supplied the thinking power necessary for its solution.

The result of several years’ adherence to this system was that Ernest Clifton, without a seat in Parliament, without a name that carried weight with it outside his own Party, had become a Power in the political world.

It was rumoured that upon one occasion he had been consulted by the Prime Minister in regard to a matter involving a considerable change in the domestic policy of the Government, and that his counsel had been accepted although it differed materially from the view of some important members of the Cabinet.

It was this Ernest Clifton who, after dictating to his private secretary half a dozen letters of a more or less ambiguous phraseology, sat with a letter of his own in front of him—a letter which he had received that morning—a letter which added in no inconsiderable degree to his burden of thought. The letter was from Josephine West and it notified to him the fact that the writer found it impossible any longer to maintain the policy of secrecy which he had imposed upon her.

“When I agreed for your sake to keep our engagement a secret,” Josephine wrote, “I did not foresee the difficulties in the situation which that secrecy has already created. Daily I feel myself to be in a false position, and hourly I feel humiliated by the consciousness of being concerned in an underhand act. I know that I was wrong in giving you my promise at first; there was really no reason why you should not have gone to my father and if he refused his consent we should be placed in no worse position than that of numbers of other men and women who are separated by cruel circumstances, but are still happy relying on each other’s fidelity. Surely we could bear up by the same means, against a much greater adversity than the refusal of my father to give his consent to our engagement being made public. I must therefore ask of you, my dear Ernest, to release me from the promise which I made to you—to release me nominally is all that I beg of you—until my father has given his consent to our engagement. Of course I need hardly say to you who know me so well, that your releasing me would not interfere with my present affection which is quite unchanged and not likely to change. But I must be released.”

This was the part of the letter which added so materially to his burden of thought, though the letter really could not be said to go more than a little step in advance of the situation created by the writer by her interview with him at Ranelagh, a fortnight ago.

The question which he had then formulated to himself was one that could not by any possibility be regarded as flattering to that assumption of constancy upon which she now laid some stress.

“Who is the man?” was, it may be remembered the question to the solution of which he had addressed himself, and now he was not deterred by the paragraph in the letter just received from her—the paragraph which was meant to give him assurance of the immobility of her affections—from once again asking himself that question:

Who is the man?

He had been unable to find any plausible answer to that question during the weeks that had elapsed since Mr. Shirley’s dinner, though in the meantime he had met Josephine twice and upon each occasion had shown the utmost adroitness in the enquiries he put to her quite casually, and without premeditation, with a view to approaching a step nearer to the solution of the question.

He could not hear that she had met any man whom he could feel justified in regarding as a possible rival; but in spite of this fact he could not bring himself to believe that her sudden appreciation of the falseness of her position was due to a sudden access of sensitiveness. His long and close connection with a political association had made him take a cynical view of the motives of men. When he heard at any time of the conscience of a politician being greatly perturbed in regard to any question, he had never any difficulty in finding out exactly what that particular gentleman wanted—whether it was a Knighthood, a recognition of his wife at a Foreign office reception, or a chat for five minutes with a Cabinet Minister on the Terrace on a day when the Terrace is crowded. He flattered himself that he could within twenty-four hours diagnose the most obstinate case of that insidious malady Politician’s Conscience, and prescribe for it a specific that never failed if applied according to his instructions.

Thus it was that he was led to take what he called a practical view of any psychological incident that came under his notice. He regarded psychology as rather more of an exact science than meteorology. It was altogether a question of so many atmospheric pressures, he thought; even the force of spiritual cataclysms could be calculated, if one only took the trouble to use one’s experience as a scisometer.

Thus it was that although he had not yet discovered the identity of the man who, in his opinion, had caused that excess of sensitiveness on the part of Josephine, he was as certain of his existence as the astronomer was of the planet known as Uranus, through observing certain aberrations on the part of the planet Saturn, due to attraction.

He hoped one day before long to be able to calculate the position of the attractive but unknown man and to be able to see him without the aid of a telescope.

Meantime, however, he knew that he would have to answer that letter which lay before him, and for the moment he scarcely knew how it should be replied to.

While he was giving all his consideration to this question, a clerk knocked at the door of his room and entered with a card, bearing the name of Sir Harcourt Mortimer, the Minister for the Arbitration Department.

He directed the visitor to be shown upstairs: it was no new thing for a Cabinet Minister to pay a visit to the Central Offices of the Great Organisation, and while Sir Harcourt was coming up crimson-carpeted stairs, the Secretary slipped the letter which he had been reading into the breast pocket of his coat, and wondered if he could by any possibility bring the presence of the Chief to his Department to bear upon the Under-Secretary, Mr. Philip West, to induce him to consent to his daughter marrying so obscure, but powerful a man as the Secretary of the Argus Organisation.

The smile that came over his face as the fantastic idea occurred to him had not passed away before the Minister was shaking hands with him, discussing the possibility of a thunderstorm occurring within the next twenty-four hours.

Mr. Clifton knew perfectly well that his visitor had not come to him solely for the purpose of discussing electrical phenomena; so he broke off suddenly waiting for—was it a bolt out of the blue that was coming?

“I want to get your opinion on a few matters of importance to us, Clifton,” said the Minister the moment this pause was made.

Clifton bowed.

“My opinion,” said he, “my opinion—well, as you know, Sir Harcourt, it amounts to nothing more than a simple equation. If a+b=c, it follows that c-b=a.”

“That is just what makes your opinion of such practical value,” said the Minister. “We wish to know from you in this case the value of x-x represents the unknown quantity to us—that is to say, the whim of a constituency. The fact is that Holford is anxious for me to take his place at the Annexation Department while he goes to the Exchequer—you know, of course, that Saxeby is resigning on account of his deafness.”

“Yes, on account of his deafness,” said Mr. Clifton smiling the strictly political smile of Sir Harcourt.

“Yes; deafness is a great infirmity,” sighed the Minister—his sigh was strictly ministerial, “and his resignation cannot be delayed much longer. Now we think that if Eardley is returned for the Arbroath Burghs he will expect a place in the Cabinet.”

“He did very well, in the last, and of course he would be in the present Cabinet if he had not lost his seat at the General Election,” remarked Clifton.

“That is just the point. Now, do you think you could find a safe seat for him if the Arbroath Burghs will have nothing to say to him?”

“You would have to give a Baronetcy—perhaps a Barony to the man who resigns in his favour.”

“Of course. What is a Baronetcy—or a Barony for that matter?”

“I think it might be managed,” said Clifton, but not without a pause—a thoughtful pause. An inspiration came to him immediately after his visitor had said:

“Ah, you think so? That is just the point.”

“There is another way out of the difficulty, though it may not have occurred to you,” continued Clifton slowly.

“What is that?”

“I don’t know whether I should suggest it or not, Sir Harcourt—but it may have occurred to you. Mr. Philip West is your Under Secretary. He has always been a useful man. I know that in the country the opinion is very general that he has done very well.”

“For himself?” asked the Minister with a certain amount of dryness.

The Argus Secretary gave a very fair imitation of an Englishman’s imitation of a Frenchman’s shrug.

“He won his seat for us and I doubt if there’s another man in England who could have won it. I’m certain there’s not another who could hold it,” remarked Clifton.

“He is not very popular with the Cabinet,” said Sir Harcourt, after another interval of thought.

“It might be a case of the Cabinet against the Country, in which case we all know which would have to give in,” said Clifton. “I don’t say that it is so, mind, only—I shall have to think the whole thing over, Sir Harcourt. I can do nothing without facts and figures. There are the Arbroath Burghs to take into account. I shall have to hunt up the results of the last revision. Eardley might be able to pull through after all.”

“What, do you mean to suggest that his return is as doubtful as all that? We took it for granted that it was a pretty safe thing,” said the Minister, and there was a note of alarm in his voice.

If Clifton had not recognised this note he would have been greatly disappointed.

He shook his head.

“Just at the present moment,” said he, “it is difficult to feel absolute confidence in any seat. It would be unsafe to predict the return of Mr. Girdlestone himself were he to hold on to the General Election, and he is a local man. Oh, the Arbroath Burghs have always been a bit skittish.”

“Then perhaps after all it might be as well to face the possibility of West’s promotion to the Cabinet,” remarked the Minister. “After all he stands very close to it at present. In all probability we couldn’t keep him out very much longer.”

“Of course Eardley would be the better man,” said the Secretary, “and it is quite likely that when I get more information regarding Arbroath I shall be able to make your mind easy about him. Still I don’t think that West’s promotion would be a case of the worst coming to the worst.”

“Oh, no, no; of course not,” acquiesced Sir Harcourt. “Oh, not by any means. He has put himself into the front rank by his treatment of the Gaspard Mine affair, and, as you say, the county——”

“Quite so. He is not altogether an outsider,” said Clifton. “At the same time...”

“I agree with you—yes, I fully appreciate the force of what you say, Clifton,” cried Sir Harcourt. “You will be adding to your innumerable services to the party if you collect the figures bearing upon this little matter and let me know the result. Of course, if Eardley’s seat were sure... but in any case we have an excellent man to fall back on.”

“I think I understand how the matter rests, and I will lose no time in collecting my figures,” said the Secretary; while the Minister straightened out his gloves and got upon his feet.

“I am sure you have a complete grasp of the business,” said Sir Harcourt. “Perhaps in a week—there is no immediate hurry.”

“Possibly in a week I shall have enough to go upon.”

He opened the door for his visitor and Sir Harcourt thanked him, and departed.

“It was an inspiration,” said Clifton below his breath when he was alone. He walked across the thick Turkey carpet—offices furnished at the expense of an organisation invariably have thick Turkey carpets—and stood with his back to the empty grate. “An inspiration,” he murmured once more.

He smiled rather grimly, took the letter out of his breast pocket, read it thoughtfully and smiled again. Then he went to a window and looked out.

The day was gloomy but the rain was still keeping off. He tapped the barometer that hung at one side of the window. He felt certain that there would be thunder before night.

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