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The Under-Secretary by William Le Queux

Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

CHAPTER ONE.

IS MAINLY ABOUT A MAN.

Two o'clock--two o'clock in the morning.

The bells had just chimed the hour. Big Ben had boomed forth its deep and solemn note over sleeping London. The patient constable on point-duty at the foot of Westminster Bridge had stamped his feet for the last time, and had been relieved by his colleague, who gave him the usual pass-word, "All right." The tumultuous roar of traffic, surging, beating, pulsating, had long ago ceased, but the crowd of smart broughams and private hansoms still stood in New Palace Yard, while from the summit of St. Stephen's tower the long ray of electricity streamed westward, showing that the House of Commons was still sitting.

The giant Metropolis, the throbbing heart of the greatest empire the world has known, was silent. London, the city of varying moods, as easily pleased, as easily offended as a petted child; London, the dear, smoke-blackened old city, which every Englishman loves and every foreigner admires; London, that complex centre of the universe, humdrum and prosaic, yet ever mysterious, poetic and wonderful, the city full of the heart's secrets and of life's tragedies, slept calmly and in peace while her legislators discussed and decided the policy of the Empire.

The long rows of light on the deserted terrace and along the opposite shore in front of St. Thomas's Hospital threw their shimmering reflection upon the black waters of the Thames; the cold wind swept roughly up the river, causing the gas-jets to flicker, so that the few shivering outcasts who had taken refuge on the steps of the closed doorway of Westminster Station, murmured as they pulled their rags more tightly round them. Only the low rumbling of a country waggon bearing vegetables to Covent Garden, or the sharp clip-clap of a cab-horse's feet upon the asphalt, broke the quiet. Except for these occasional disturbances all else was as silent on that dark and cloudy night in late October as if the world were dead.

Over in the far corner of New Palace Yard horses were champing their bits, and coachmen and police were waiting patiently, knowing that with the Twelve o'clock Rule suspended the length of the sitting was quite uncertain. Wearied journalists from the Press Gallery, having finished their "turns," came out singly or in pairs from their own little side door in the opposite corner of the yard, wished a cheery "good-night" to the portly sergeant and the two idling detectives who acted as janitors, and then hurried on through the chill night over the bridge towards their homes in Brixton or Clapham. An autumn session is a weary one, and weighs quite as heavily upon the Parliamentary journalist as upon the Leader of the House himself.

On the floor of the House honourable members might stretch themselves and doze; they might wander about St. Stephen's Hall with prominent constituents who sought admission to the Strangers' Gallery, entertain them in the dining-room, or take their ease across the way at St. Stephen's Club, ready to return by the underground passage on the ringing of the division-bell; but that gallery above the Speaker, the eye and ear of the world, was never anything else but a hive of industry from the moment after prayers until the House rose. Ever watchful, ever scribbling its hieroglyphics and deciphering them; ever covering ream upon ream of paper with the verbose and vapid utterances of ambitious but unimportant members, its telegraphs clicked on incessantly hour after hour, transmitting reports of the business accomplished to the farthermost recesses of the King's Empire. Truly, a strange life is that of both legislator and journalist within those sombre walls at Westminster.


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