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Title: Secret Service
Author: Arthur Gask
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 2000911h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  September 2020
Most recent update: September 2020

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By Arthur Gask

Published in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 1954), Thursday 27 March 1941.

It was in the old untroubled days before Dictators walked the earth and the scene was the lounge of a luxurious hotel upon the Cornish Riviera. The hour was after dinner, and a number of the guests had been discussing the case of a well-known public man who mysteriously disappeared from his home a few weeks previously, after it had been found out he had for many years been leading a double life.

"And, of course, there would be a woman in it!" drawled a cynical-looking man about thirty. There's a woman in everything when there's any trouble. They cause it all."

"Nonsense!" snapped an aristocratic blonde who always had a little cluster of admirers round her. "It's you horrid men who make all the trouble. You never leave us poor women alone." She turned to a distinguished looking old man who was regarding them all with an amused smile upon his clever, intellectual face. "Isn't that so, Dr. Smith? We are quite harmless if left to ourselves, aren't we?"

"Quite harmless!" nodded the old doctor emphatically. He fibbed with great gallantry. "I've never yet known a woman do anything wrong." He shook his head. "But about this particular man we've been talking of; a great deal too much fuss is being made about his disappearance, simply because he happens to be well in the public eye. Why, if we only knew it, a hundred and one such mysteries are taking place every day under our very eyes!"

"And I expect you, as a doctor, could tell us some very interesting stories of double lives, if you only would," nodded the blonde.

"Certainly, I could," agreed Dr. Smith readily. His old eyes twinkled. "Only they mightn't be all true. You've heard just now what a dreadful fibber I can be."

The blonde looked pleadingly at him. "But do tell us a story, doctor. There's nearly always something a little bit improper about doctors' stories, and it will give some of us girls a chance to lower our eyes and show off what nice long lashes we've got. Yes, tell us a story, whether it's true or not."

The others joining with her request, the old doctor said at last, "Well, I'll tell you one, and the great merit of it will be that it's quite true. It points out in what mystery we can be living for years and years and yet—be quite unaware of it." He settled himself back comfortably in his chair. "Now it's about a young fellow whom we'll call Jack Robinson. He was the only son of well-to-do parents and had been living the usual life of most young men of his class, good public school, then on to a university, plenty of money for sport, cars, travelling about, and all that. It had been intended he should become a medical man, but he wouldn't settle down to anything and idled about for so long that at last his father got sick of him and all his ways. There was a quarrel and he left the house with only a few pounds in his pocket and with no prospects at all.

"I knew the family well, and about three months later ran up against the boy in the Strand. He looked shabby and down at heel, and there was no doubt things were not going too well with him. He was annoyed with meeting me, and curtly refused the offer of a couple of pounds, getting away as quickly as possible to escape any questioning. I saw no more of him until some months later we chanced to meet again, one evening in the West End. To my astonishment, he was looking quite his old self again, smartly dressed and with all signs of prosperity about him. Standing well over six feet, I thought what a good-looking young fellow he was. I asked what he was doing, but he shook his head and declined to say.

"I suggested our dining together at the 'Rialto'—you know, one of the best and most expensive restaurants in London—and after a little hesitation he agreed, but only on the condition that I came as his guest. I was a little bit disturbed because I knew, as well as he would know, that the dinner and the wine there would cost him at least fifty shillings.

"Into the Rialto we went, and one thing struck me at once. He was most anxious not to be noticed and tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible by humping his shoulders and keeping his head down as we made our way to the table he had selected at the far end of the restaurant. All the meal time, too, when he was taking stock of the other diners, it was his eyes only and not his head which he moved. Yes, for some reason, he was undoubtedly most uneasy.

"Regardless of the price, he ordered a bottle of vintage champagne, with the evident intention of impressing upon me that he had plenty of money. I asked him again how he was making his living, but he only smiled and, upon my saying that at all events I hoped he was doing it honestly, he replied evasively. "Oh, yes, as things go nowadays!" We had a pleasant meal together and then, upon parting, with some hesitation, he asked me as a favor that if I should happen to come across him again, unexpectedly, wherever he was, unless he spoke to me first would I please take no notice and appear not to recognise him. He wouldn't explain any more, but, of course, I promised.

"I didn't see him again for a very long while, but some two years later got news of him through a mutual friend who had happened to come across him in one of those many new garden cities which have sprung up recently just outside the metropolitan area. He was married to a very pretty girl and they were occupying one of the largest and best houses on the estate. They had a good car, kept two maids and were about the most well-to-do among the little community in which they lived.

The old doctor paused here and beamed round upon his audience with twinkling eyes as he asked, "Now, what do you think his occupation was supposed to be?"

"I know," answered the blonde. "He'd become a bookmaker, of course!"

"Certainly not," reproved Dr. Smith indignantly. "His work was much more romantic than that."

"He was a dress-designer," suggested the cynical-looking man, "and and had all the lovely women in London buzzing round him like flies."

"He told fortunes," said a second man, "and the police were after him."

Dr. Smith nodded solemnly. "He was in the Secret Service and told off to watch all the most dangerous spies coming to London. That's what my friend had found out."

"Oh, how thrilling," exclaimed the blonde, "but did everybody know it?"

"Of course, they didn't! Only a very few, just his wife's parents and her relations. He was the mystery man of that little garden city. Later I met his wife and heard all the story of his coming there and the sensation he had made. It was most interesting for, although so well-off, he'd had a lot of difficulty in getting the girl. Her father was a middle-aged clerk, upon a small salary, in a tea broker's in the city and, sensible and well-balanced, he had a great objection to giving his daughter to anyone who was so evasive about his occupation that he would not disclose where he went to work every day.

"I must tell you here that there were lots of boys after Margaret, that was the girl's name, and she had no end of chances of making a good marriage for one in her position. Her parents may have been commonplace and not much to look at, but she herself was a real little beauty and with her lovely profile, perfect features and aristocratic bearing it might easily have been imagined she came of a long line of noble ancestors.

"Well, just when it seemed the young couple would have to elope to get married, the whole difficulty was smoothed out in a most unexpected manner and, all in a few moments, Margaret's father was completely satisfied as to young Jack Robinson's fitness to become his son-in-law.

"It happened, Jack had had tickets given him for a swell flower show in Chelsea, organised by society people in aid of some charity, and he took Margaret and her parents with him. The latter would not have gone or indeed, have allowed him to take Margaret if they had not heard a certain Royal Duke might be coming. Sure enough the old Duke and his Duchess put in an appearance and proceeded to mingle unobtrusively with the other visitors. Then, to the parents' stupendous amazement, His Royal Highness, happening to catch sight of Jack Robinson, gave him a most friendly nod, actually exclaiming, 'Hope you're enjoying yourself, Robinson?' Then apparently taking in that Jack was in the company of a remarkably pretty-looking girl, he added smilingly, 'And I see flowers are not the only beautiful things here this afternoon.'

"Margaret's parents were almost overwhelmed with pride, but Jack appeared to think little of it, just explaining modestly that his work often brought him in contact with most important people.

"Jack and the pretty Margaret were married shortly afterwards and, later, Jack became reconciled to his father, driving down unexpectedly to the latter's place in Hampshire one Sunday afternoon. Margaret had by then grown into a very beautiful woman and had presented her husband with a lovely little boy. Apparently, Jack was in better circumstances than ever, but he declined to give his father any further information as to his occupation except to tell him, exactly as he had told Margaret's parents, that he was in the Secret Service.

"More than ten years passed by and then, quite by accident I found out what he was actually doing. One night I was visiting one of London's most luxurious hotels, we'll call it the 'Great Babel,' and suddenly I came upon Jack in what I thought must be a disguise. He was dressed as the commissionaire of the hotel. I can't say I was very surprised, for if he were in the Secret Service the 'Great Babel' would be a most natural place for him to be watching, frequented as it is by foreigners from all parts of the world. I very seldom dined out, but that night had come as the guest of an old friend. During the course of the meal I made some discreet enquiries of our waiter as to the very handsome commissionaire I had seen at the door when I came in, and learnt to my astonishment that he was there under his own name of Jack Robinson.

"'How long has he been here?' I asked, and I could have dropped through the floor when I received the reply, 'Oh, I should think it must be getting on for 15 years.'"

The old doctor paused impressively. "So, that was his Secret Service, bowing visitors into the hotel, bowing them out again and calling taxis for them! Gad, but wasn't I amazed!

"I didn't see him again when I went out and supposed, and quite rightly, too, that he must have gone off duty. Still, I wasn't going to let the matter end there and, as a friend of the family, was intending to find out in what other way he was making his money. I was minded to go down to where I knew he was now living, upon the following Sunday, but he forestalled me by calling at my professional rooms in town the very next afternoon. He had seen me in the hotel, right enough, and came to shut my mouth before I had had much opportunity to tell anybody.

"He came into my consulting-room with a grin and frankly told me everything. He had obtained employment at the Great Babel within a few days of my having met him looking so shabby, that first time in the street, to begin with as under porter, but rising to be their head commissioner within a few months. He said he owed his rapid promotion to being able to speak French and German, and a smattering of Italian as well. Not even his wife knew he was there, for he had still kept up the fiction of the Secret Service with her, and the strange thing was that none of the people about his home life seemed to have recognised him.

"But then came his most astounding statement and it will make some of your mouths water. His weekly wage was 3, but he assured me, and produced his bank passbook to prove it, that his tips during that same time often amounted to upwards of 50."

"50 from tips!" exclaimed the cynical-looking man angrily. "Why it's the salary of a Cabinet Minister!"

"Yes," smiled Dr. Smith, "and most probably more than the manager of the hotel himself earned." He was drawing near the end of his story. "You see only wealthy people would be coming to the Great Babel and Jack Robinson, being of such a good appearance and looking so distinguished, none of them would care to give him a really small tip. Besides, with his knowledge of the continent and the best places where one could spend a lot of money, he was most useful to many visitors, particularly so to Americans.

"Well, for ten more years after he came to see me that afternoon he remained on at the Great Babel, and during all that time managed to keep from his wife and family what his occupation really was. They never found him out. Just think of it! For five and twenty years he lived that double life, giving his children the best surroundings possible. He sent his boys to the best public schools and then on to the university. One qualified brilliantly as a medical man and the other got high into the Indian Civil Service, and they never learnt what their father was. I say 'was,' because he left the Great Babel nearly a couple of years back.

"But why did he leave there if he was doing so well?" asked the good-looking blonde. "Had he got enough money to retire?"

"Partly that," replied Dr. Smith, "and partly for family reasons. One of his daughters, who is as beautiful as her mother was, was making an excellent marriage and, with her moving in such good society circles, it would have been a dreadful thing if the father's occupation had become known. Besides, his own father is quite a wealthy man and, the only child, there was no necessity for him to keep on where he was. So Jack Robinson retired and, having grown a beard, no one would recognise him now." The old man rose to his feet. "Well, goodnight all, and I hope you liked my little story, although, as I say, it has the merit of being strictly true," and, with a smiling bow all round, he left the room.

"Interesting old chap!" remarked a man thoughtfully. He shook his head. "But I'm sure I've seen him before. His face seems familiar, somehow."

The following day some passing motorists, calling in at the hotel for lunch, happened to meet there a man they knew. Looking round at those gathered together for the meal, one of the newcomers remarked: "Ah, I see you got old Sir Michael staying here. He won't remember me, although I was introduced to him some little time ago. I know his son pretty well."

His friend followed the direction he indicated. "But that's a Dr. Smith!" he exclaimed. "He's no Sir Michael Somebody!"

"Oh, isn't he?" laughed the other. "He's Sir Michael Barrow, right enough. He got his baronetcy when he was made Physician to the King. He's an eccentric old chap, and often goes about under an assumed name. He thinks people always want to ask him a lot of questions if they know who he really is."

The friend expressed his astonishment. "Is he married?" he asked.

"He was, but he's been a widower now for many years. His granddaughter was the beautiful Mary Barrow, who's portrait was in the Academy last year. You remember she married young Lord Thurlow."

A suspicion stirred in the other's mind. "Who's her father?" he asked sharply.

"John Barrow, the heir to the baronetcy. He runs a model farm near Haslemere. Used to be something in the Secret Service up to a couple of years ago. Very decent chap!"

His friend gave a low whistle, but made no comment.


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