Antic Hay/Chapter 5
One after another, they engaged themselves in the revolving doors of the restaurant, trotted round in the moving cage of glass and ejected themselves into the coolness and darkness of the street. Shearwater lifted up his large face and took two or three deep breaths. “Too much carbon dioxide and ammonia in there,” he said.
“It is unfortunate that when two or three are gathered together in God’s name, or even in the more civilized name of Mercaptan of the delicious middle,” Mercaptan dexterously parried the prod which Coleman aimed at him, “it is altogether deplorable that they should necessarily empest the air.”
Lypiatt had turned his eyes heavenwards. “What stars,” he said, “and what prodigious gaps between the stars!”
“A real light opera summer night.” And Mercaptan began to sing, in fragmentary German, the ‘Barcarolle’ from the . “Liebe Nacht, du schöne Nacht, oh stille mein tumpty-tum. Te, tum, Te tum.... Delicious Offenbach. Ah, if only we could have a third Empire! Another comic Napoleon! That would make Paris look like Paris again. Tiddy, tumpty-ti-tum.”
They walked along without any particular destination, but simply for the sake of walking through this soft cool night. Coleman led the way, tapping the pavement at every step with the ferrule of his stick. “The blind leading the blind,” he explained. “Ah, if only there were a ditch, a crevasse, a great hole full of stinging centipedes and dung. How gleefully I should lead you all into it!”
“I think you would do well,” said Shearwater gravely, “to go and see a doctor.”
Coleman gave vent to a howl of delight.
“Does it occur to you,” he went on, “that at this moment we are walking through the midst of seven million distinct and separate individuals, each with distinct and separate lives and all completely indifferent to our existence? Seven million people, each one of whom thinks himself quite as important as each of us does. Millions of them are now sleeping in an empested atmosphere. Hundreds of thousands of couples are at this moment engaged in mutually caressing one another in a manner too hideous to be thought of, but in no way differing from the manner in which each of us performs, delightfully, passionately and beautifully, his similar work of love. Thousands of women are now in the throes of parturition, and of both sexes thousands are dying of the most diverse and appalling diseases, or simply because they have lived too long. Thousands are drunk, thousands have over-eaten, thousands have not had enough to eat. And they are all alive, all unique and separate and sensitive, like you and me. It’s a horrible thought. Ah, if I could lead them all into that great hole of centipedes.”
He tapped and tapped on the pavement in front of him, as though searching for the crevasse. At the top of his voice he began to chant: “O all ye Beasts and Cattle, curse ye the Lord: curse him and vilify him for ever.”
“All this religion,” sighed Mercaptan. “What with Lypiatt on one side, being a muscular Christian artist, and Coleman on the other, howling the black mass.... Really!” He elaborated an Italianate gesture, and turned to Zoe. “What do you think of it all?” he asked.
Zoe jerked her head in Coleman’s direction. “I think e’s a bloody swine,” she said. They were the first words she had spoken since she had joined the party.
“Hear, hear!” cried Coleman, and he waved his stick.
In the warm yellow light of the coffee-stall at Hyde Park Corner loitered a little group of people. Among the peaked caps and the chauffeurs’ dust-coats, among the weather-stained workmen’s jackets and the knotted handkerchiefs, there emerged an alien elegance. A tall tubed hat and a silk-faced overcoat, a cloak of flame-coloured satin, and in bright, coppery hair a great Spanish comb of carved tortoiseshell.
“Well, I’m damned,” said Gumbril as they approached. “I believe it’s Myra Viveash.”
“So it is,” said Lypiatt, peering in his turn. He began suddenly to walk with an affected swagger, kicking his heels at every step. Looking at himself from outside, his divining eyes pierced through the veil of cynical je-m’en-fichisme to the bruised heart beneath. Besides, he didn’t want any one to guess.
“The Viveash is it?” Coleman quickened his rapping along the pavement. “And who is the present incumbent?” He pointed at the top hat.
“Can it be Bruin Opps?” said Gumbril dubiously.
“Opps!” Coleman yelled out the name. “Opps!”
The top hat turned, revealing a shirt front, a long grey face, a glitter of circular glass over the left eye. “Who the devil are you?” The voice was harsh and arrogantly offensive.
“I am that I am,” said Coleman. “But I have with me”—he pointed to Shearwater, to Gumbril, to Zoe—“a physiologue, a pedagogue and a priapagogue; for I leave out of account mere artists and journalists whose titles do not end with the magic syllable. And finally,” indicating himself, “plain Dog, which being interpreted kabbalistically backwards, signifies God. All at your service.” He took off his hat and bowed.
The top hat turned back towards the Spanish comb. “Who is this horrible drunk?” it inquired.
Mrs. Viveash did not answer him, but stepped forward to meet the newcomers. In one hand she held a peeled, hard-boiled egg and a thick slice of bread and butter in the other, and between her sentences she bit at them alternately.
“Coleman!” she exclaimed, and her voice, as she spoke, seemed always on the point of expiring, as though each word were the last, utterly faintly and breakingly from a death-bed—the last, with all the profound and nameless significance of the ultimate word. “It’s a very long time since I heard you raving last. And you, Theodore darling, why do I never see you now?”
Gumbril shrugged his shoulders. “Because you don’t want to, I suppose,” he said.
Myra laughed and took another bite at her bread and butter.... She laid the back of her hand—for she was still holding the butt end of her hard-boiled egg—on Lypiatt’s arm. The Titan, who had been looking at the sky, seemed to be surprised to find her standing there. “You?” he said, smiling and wrinkling up his forehead interrogatively.
“It’s to-morrow I’m sitting for you, Casimir, isn’t it?”
“Ah, you remembered.” The veil parted for a moment. Poor Lypiatt! “And happy Mercaptan? Always happy?”
Gallantly Mercaptan kissed the back of the hand which held the egg. “I might be happier,” he murmured, rolling up at her from the snouty face a pair of small brown eyes. “Puis-je espérer?”
Mrs. Viveash laughed expiringly from her inward death-bed and turned on him, without speaking, her pale unwavering glance. Her eyes had a formidable capacity for looking and expressing nothing; they were like the pale blue eyes which peer out of the Siamese cat’s black velvet mask.
“Bellissima,” murmured Mercaptan, flowering under their cool light.
Mrs. Viveash addressed herself to the company at large. “We have had the most appalling evening,” she said. “Haven’t we, Bruin?”
Bruin Opps said nothing, but only scowled. He didn’t like these damned intruders. The skin of his contracted brows oozed over the rim of his monocle, on to the shining glass.
“I thought it would be fun,” Myra went on, “to go to that place at Hampton Court, where you have dinner on an island and dance....”
“What is there about islands,” put in Mercaptan, in a deliciously whimsical parenthesis, “that makes them so peculiarly voluptuous? Cythera, Monkey Island, Capri. Je me demande.”
“Another charming middle.” Coleman pointed his stick menacingly; Mr. Mercaptan stepped quickly out of range.
“So we took a cab,” Mrs. Viveash continued, “and set out. And what a cab, my God! A cab with only one gear and that the lowest. A cab as old as the century, a museum specimen, a collector’s piece.” They had been hours and hours on the way. And when they got there, the food they were offered to eat, the wine they were expected to drink! From her eternal death-bed Mrs. Viveash cried out in unaffected horror. Everything tasted as though it has been kept soaking for a week in the river before being served up—rather weedy, with that delicious typhoid flavour of Thames water. There was Thames even in the champagne. They had not been able to eat so much as a crust of bread. Hungry and thirsty, they had re-embarked in their antique taxi, and here, at last, they were, at the first outpost of civilization, eating for dear life.
“Oh, a terrible evening,” Mrs. Viveash concluded. “The only thing which kept up my spirits was the spectacle of Bruin’s bad temper. You’ve no idea, Bruin, what an incomparable comic you can be.”
Bruin ignored the remark. With an expression of painfully repressed disgust he was eating a hard-boiled egg. Myra’s caprices were becoming more and more impossible. That Hampton Court business had been bad enough; but when it came to eating in the street, in the middle of a lot of filthy workmen—well, really, that was rather too much.
Mrs. Viveash looked about her. “Am I never to know who this mysterious person is?” She pointed to Shearwater, who was standing a little apart from the group, his back leaning against the Park railings and staring thoughtfully at the ground.
“The physiologue,” Coleman explained, “and he has the key. The key, the key!” He hammered the pavement with his stick.
Gumbril performed the introduction in more commonplace style.
“You don’t seem to take much interest in us, Mr. Shearwater,” Myra called expiringly. Shearwater looked up; Mrs. Viveash regarded him intently through pale, unwavering eyes, smiling as she looked that queer, downward-turning smile which gave to her face, through its mask of laughter, a peculiar expression of agony. “You don’t seem to take much interest in us,” she repeated.
Shearwater shook his heavy head. “No,” he said, “I don’t think I do.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Why should I? There’s not time to be interested in everything. One can only be interested in what’s worth while.”
“And we’re not worth while?”
“Not to me personally,” replied Shearwater with candour. “The Great Wall of China, the political situation in Italy, the habits of Trematodes—all these are most interesting in themselves. But they aren’t interesting to me; I don’t permit them to be. I haven’t the leisure.”
“And what do you allow yourself to be interested in?”
“Shall we go?” said Bruin impatiently; he had succeeded in swallowing the last fragment of his hard-boiled egg. Mrs. Viveash did not answer, did not even look at him.
Shearwater, who had hesitated before replying, was about to speak. But Coleman answered for him. “Be respectful,” he said to Mrs. Viveash. “This is a great man. He reads no papers, not even those in which our Mercaptan so beautifully writes. He does not know what a beaver is. And he lives for nothing but the kidneys.”
Mrs. Viveash smiled her smile of agony. “Kidneys? But what a memento mori. There are other portions of the anatomy.” She threw back her cloak revealing an arm, a bare shoulder, a slant of pectoral muscle. She was wearing a white dress that, leaving her back and shoulders bare, came up, under either arm, to a point in front and was held there by a golden thread about the neck. “For example,” she said, and twisted her hand several times over and over, making the slender arm turn at the elbow, as though to demonstrate the movement of the articulations and the muscular play.
“Memento vivere,” Mr. Mercaptan aptly commented. “Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus.”
Mrs. Viveash dropped her arm and pulled the cloak back into place. She looked at Shearwater, who had followed all her movements with conscientious attention, and who now nodded with an expression of interrogation on his face, as though to ask: what next?
“We all know that you’ve got beautiful arms,” said Bruin angrily. “There’s no need for you to make an exhibition of them in the street, at midnight. Let’s get out of this.” He laid his hand on her shoulder and made as if to draw her away. “We’d better be going. Goodness knows what’s happening behind us.” He indicated with a little movement of the head the loiterers round the coffee-stall. “Some disturbance among the canaille.”
Mrs. Viveash looked round. The cab-drivers and the other consumers of midnight coffee had gathered in an interested circle, curious and sympathetic, round the figure of a woman who was sitting, like a limp bundle tied up in black cotton and mackintosh, on the stall-keeper’s high stool, leaning wearily against the wall of the booth. A man stood beside her drinking tea out of a thick white cup. Every one was talking at once.
“Mayn’t the poor wretches talk?” asked Mrs. Viveash, turning back to Bruin. “I never knew any one who had the lower classes on the brain as much as you have.”
“I loathe them,” said Bruin. “I hate every one poor, or ill, or old. Can’t abide them; they make me positively sick.”
“Quelle âme bien-née,” piped Mr. Mercaptan. “And how well and frankly you express what we all feel and lack the courage to say.”
Lypiatt gave vent to indignant laughter.
“I remember when I was a little boy,” Bruin went on, “my old grandfather used to tell me stories about his childhood. He told me that when he was about five or six, just before the passing of the Reform Bill of ’thirty-two, there was a song which all right-thinking people used to sing, with a chorus that went like this: ‘Rot the People, blast the People, damn the Lower Classes.’ I wish I knew the rest of the words and the tune. It must have been a good song.”
Coleman was enraptured with the song. He shouldered his walking-stick and began marching round and round the nearest lamp-post chanting the words to a stirring march tune. “Rot the People, blast the People....” He marked the rhythm with heavy stamps of his feet.
“Ah, if only they’d invent servants with internal combustion engines,” said Bruin, almost pathetically. “However well trained they are, they always betray their humanity occasionally. And that is really intolerable.”
“How tedious is a guilty conscience!” Gumbril murmured the quotation.
“But Mr. Shearwater,” said Myra, bringing back the conversation to more congenial themes, “hasn’t told us yet what he thinks of arms.”
“Nothing at all,” said Shearwater. “I’m occupied with the regulation of the blood at the moment.”
“But is it true what he says, Theodore?” She appealed to Gumbril.
“I should think so.” Gumbril’s answer was rather dim and remote. He was straining to hear the talk of Bruin’s canaille, and Mrs. Viveash’s question seemed a little irrelevant.
“I used to do cartin’ jobs,” the man with the teacup was saying. “’Ad a van and a nold pony of me own. And didn’t do so badly neither. The only trouble was me lifting furniture and ’eavy weights about the place. Because I ’ad malaria out in India, in the war....”
“Nor even—you compel me to violate the laws of modesty—nor even,” Mrs. Viveash went on, smiling painfully, speaking huskily, expiringly, “of legs?”
A spring of blasphemy was touched in Coleman’s brain. “Neither delighteth He in any man’s legs,” he shouted, and with an extravagant show of affection he embraced Zoe, who caught hold of his hand and bit it.
“It comes back on you when you get tired like, malaria does.” The man’s face was sallow and there was an air of peculiar listlessness and hopelessness about his misery. “It comes back on you, and then you go down with fever and you’re as weak as a child.”
Shearwater shook his head.
“Nor even of the heart?” Mrs. Viveash lifted her eyebrows. “Ah, now the inevitable word has been pronounced, the real subject of every conversation has appeared on the scene. Love, Mr. Shearwater!”
“But as I says,” recapitulated the man with the teacup, “we didn’t do so badly after all. We ’ad nothing to complain about. ’Ad we, Florrie?”
The black bundle made an affirmative movement with its upper extremity.
“That’s one of the subjects,” said Shearwater, “like the Great Wall of China and the habits of Trematodes, I don’t allow myself to be interested in.”
Mrs. Viveash laughed, breathed out a little “Good God!” of incredulity and astonishment, and asked, “Why not?”
“No time,” he explained. “You people of leisure have nothing else to do or think about. I’m busy and so naturally less interested in the subject than you; and I take care, what’s more, to limit such interest as I have.”
“I was goin’ up Ludgate ’Ill one day with a vanload of stuff for a chap in Clerkenwell. I was leadin’ Jerry up the ’ill—Jerry’s the name of our ole pony....”
“One can’t have everything,” Shearwater was explaining, “not all at the same time, in any case. I’ve arranged my life for work now. I’m quietly married, I simmer away domestically.”
“Quelle horreur!” said Mr. Mercaptan. All the Louis Quinze Abbé in him was shocked and revolted by the thought.
“But love?” questioned Mrs. Viveash. “Love?”
“Love!” Lypiatt echoed. He was looking up at the Milky Way.
“All of a sudden out jumps a copper at me. ‘’Ow old is that ’orse?’ ’e says. ‘It ain’t fit to drawr a load, it limps in all four feet,’ ’e says. ‘No, it doesn’t,’ I says. ‘None of your answerin’ back,’ ’e says. ‘Take it outer the shafts at once.’”
“But I know all about love already. I know precious little still about kidneys.”
“But, my good Shearwater, how can you know all about love before you’ve made it with all women?”
“Off we goes, me and the cop and the ’orse, up in front of the police court magistrate....”
“Or are you one of those imbeciles,” Mrs. Viveash went on, “who speak of women with a large W and pretend we’re all the same? Poor Theodore here might possibly think so in his feebler moments.” Gumbril smiled vaguely from a distance. He was following the man with the teacup into the magistrate’s stuffy court. “And Mercaptan certainly does, because all the women who ever sat on his dix-huitième sofa certainly were exactly like one another. And perhaps Casimir does too; all women look like his absurd ideal. But you, Shearwater, you’re intelligent. Surely you don’t believe anything so stupid?”
Shearwater shook his head.
“The cop, ’e gave evidence against me. ‘Limping in all four feet,’ ’e says. ‘It wasn’t,’ I says, and the police court vet, ’e bore me out. ‘The ’orse ’as been very well treated,’ ’e says. ‘But ’e’s old, ’e’s very old.’ ‘I know ’e’s old,’ I says. ‘But where am I goin’ to find the price for a young one?’”
“x2 – y2,” Shearwater was saying, “= (x + y)(x – y). And the equation holds good whatever the values of x and y.... It’s the same with your love business, Mrs. Viveash. The relation is still fundamentally the same, whatever the value of the unknown personal quantities concerned. Little individual tics and peculiarities—after all, what do they matter?”
“What indeed!” said Coleman. “Tics, mere tics. Sheep ticks, horse ticks, bed bugs, tape worms, taint worms, guinea worms, liver flukes....”
“‘The ’orse must be destroyed,” says the beak. “’E’s too old for work.’ ‘But I’m not,’ I says. ‘I can’t get a old age pension at thirty-two, can I? ’Ow am I to earn my living if you take away what I earns my living by?’”
Mrs. Viveash smiled agonizingly. “Here’s a man who thinks personal peculiarities are trivial and unimportant,” she said. “You’re not even interested in people, then?”
“‘I don’t know what you can do,’ ’e says. ‘I’m only ’ere to administer the law.’ ‘Seems a queer sort of law,’ I says. ‘What law is it?’”
Shearwater scratched his head. Under his formidable black moustache he smiled at last his ingenuous, childish smile. “No,” he said. “No, I suppose I’m not. It hadn’t occurred to me, until you said it. But I suppose I’m not. No.” He laughed, quite delighted, it seemed, by this discovery about himself.
“‘What law is it?’ ’e says. ‘The Croolty to Animals law. That’s what it is,’ ’e says.”
The smile of mockery and suffering appeared and faded. “One of these days,” said Mrs. Viveash, “you may find them more absorbing than you do now.”
“Meanwhile,” said Shearwater....
“I couldn’t find a job ’ere, and ’aving been workin’ on my own, my own master like, couldn’t get unemployment pay. So when we ’eard of jobs at Portsmouth, we thought we’d try to get one, even if it did mean walkin’ there.”
“Meanwhile, I have my kidneys.”
“‘’Opeless,’ ’e says to me, ‘quite ’opeless. More than two hundred come for three vacancies.’ So there was nothing for it but to walk back again. Took us four days it did, this time. She was very bad on the way, very bad. Being nearly six months gone. Our first it is. Things will be ’arder still, when it comes.”
From the black bundle there issued a sound of quiet sobbing.
“Look here,” said Gumbril, making a sudden irruption into the conversation. “This is really too awful.” He was consumed with indignation and pity; he felt like a prophet in Nineveh.
“There are two wretched people here,” and Gumbril told them breathlessly, what he had overheard. It was terrible, terrible. “All the way to Portsmouth and back again; on foot; without proper food; and the woman’s with child.”
Coleman exploded with delight. “Gravid,” he kept repeating, “gravid, gravid. The laws of gravidy, first formulated by Newton, now recodified by the immortal Einstein. God said, Let Newstein be, and there was light. And God said, Let there be Light; and there was darkness o’er the face of the earth.” He roared with laughter.
Between them they raised five pounds. Mrs. Viveash undertook to give them to the black bundle. The cabmen made way for her as she advanced; there was an uncomfortable silence. The black bundle lifted a face that was old and worn, like the face of a statue in the portal of a cathedral; an old face, but one was aware somehow, that it belonged to a woman still young by the reckoning of years. Her hands trembled as she took the notes, and when she opened her mouth to speak her hardly articulate whisper of gratitude, one saw that she had lost several of her teeth.
The party disintegrated. All went their ways: Mr. Mercaptan to his rococo boudoir, his sweet barocco bedroom in Sloane Street; Coleman and Zoe towards goodness only knew what scenes of intimate life in Pimlico; Lypiatt to his studio off the Tottenham Court Road, alone, silently brooding and perhaps too consciously bowed with unhappiness. But the unhappiness, poor Titan! was real enough, for had he not seen Mrs. Viveash and the insufferable, the stupid and loutish Opps driving off in one taxi? “Must finish up with a little dancing,” Myra had huskily uttered from that death-bed on which her restless spirit for ever and wearily exerted itself. Obediently, Bruin had given an address and they had driven off. But after the dancing? Oh, was it possible that that odious, bad-blooded young cad was her lover? And that she should like him? It was no wonder that Lypiatt should have walked, bent like Atlas under the weight of a world. And when, in Piccadilly, a belated and still unsuccessful prostitute sidled out of the darkness, as he strode by unseeing in his misery when she squeaked up at him a despairing “Cheer up, duckie,” Lypiatt suddenly threw up his head and laughed titanically, with the terrible bitterness of a noble soul in pain. Even the poor drabs at the street corners were affected by the unhappiness that radiated out from him, wave after throbbing wave, like music, he liked to fancy, into the night. Even the wretched drabs. He walked on, more desperately bowed than ever; but met no further adventure on his way.
Gumbril and Shearwater both lived in Paddington; they set off in company up Park Lane, walking in silence. Gumbril gave a little skip to get himself into step with his companion. To be out of step, when steps so loudly and flat-footedly flapped on empty pavements, was disagreeable, he found, was embarrassing, was somehow dangerous. Stepping, like this, out of time, one gave oneself away, so to speak, one made the night aware of two presences, when there might, if steps sounded in unison, be only one, heavier, more formidable, more secure than either of the separate two. In unison, then, they flapped up Park Lane. A policeman and the three poets, sulking back to back on their fountain, were the only human things besides themselves under the mauve electric moons.
“It’s appalling, it’s horrible,” said Gumbril at last, after a long, long silence, during which he had, indeed, been relishing to the full the horror of it all. Life, don’t you know.
“What’s appalling?” Shearwater inquired. He walked with his big head bowed, his hands clasped behind his back and clutching his hat; walked clumsily, with sudden lurches of his whole massive anatomy. Wherever he was, Shearwater always seemed to take up the space that two or three ordinary people would normally occupy. Cool fingers of wind passed refreshingly through his hair. He was thinking of the experiment he meant to try, in the next few days, down at the physiological laboratory. You’d put a man on an ergometer in a heated chamber and set him to work—hours at a time. He’d sweat, of course, prodigiously. You’d make arrangements for collecting the sweat, weighing it, analysing it and so on. The interesting thing would be to see what happened at the end of a few days. The man would have got rid of so much of his salts, that the blood composition might be altered and all sorts of delightful consequences might follow. It ought to be a capital experiment. Gumbril’s exclamation disturbed him. “What’s appalling?” he asked rather irritably.
“Those people at the coffee-stall,” Gumbril answered. “It’s appalling that human beings should have to live like that. Worse than dogs.”
“Dogs have nothing to complain of.” Shearwater went off at a tangent. “Nor guinea-pigs, nor rats. It’s these blasted anti-vivisection maniacs who make all the fuss.”
“But think,” cried Gumbril, “what these wretched people have had to suffer! Walking all the way to Portsmouth in search of work; and the woman with child. It’s horrifying. And then, the way people of that class are habitually treated. One has no idea of it until one has actually been treated that way oneself. In the war, for example, when one went to have one’s mitral murmurs listened to by the medical board—they treated one then as though one belonged to the lower orders, like all the rest of the poor wretches. It was a real eye-opener. One felt like a cow being got into a train. And to think that the majority of one’s fellow-beings pass their whole lives being shoved about like maltreated animals!”
“H’m,” said Shearwater. If you went on sweating indefinitely, he supposed, you would end by dying.
Gumbril looked through the railings at the profound darkness of the park. Vast it was and melancholy, with a string, here and there, of receding lights. “Terrible,” he said, and repeated the word several times. “Terrible, terrible.” All the legless soldiers grinding barrel-organs, all the hawkers of toys stamping their leaky boots in the gutters of the Strand; at the corner of Cursitor Street and Chancery Lane, the old woman with matches, for ever holding to her left eye a handkerchief as yellow and dirty as the winter fog. What was wrong with the eye? He had never dared to look, but hurried past as though she were not there, or sometimes, when the fog was more than ordinarily cold and stifling, paused for an instant with averted eyes to drop a brown coin into her tray of matches. And then there were the murderers hanged at eight o’clock, while one was savouring, almost with voluptuous consciousness, the final dream-haunted doze. There was the phthisical charwoman who used to work at his father’s house, until she got too weak and died. There were the lovers who turned on the gas and the ruined shopkeepers jumping in front of trains. Had one a right to be contented and well-fed, had one a right to one’s education and good taste, a right to knowledge and conversation and the leisurely complexities of love?
He looked once more through the railings at the park’s impenetrable, rustic night, at the lines of beaded lamps. He looked, and remembered another night, years ago, during the war, when there were no lights in the park and the electric moons above the roadway were in almost total eclipse. He had walked up this street alone, full of melancholy emotions which, though the cause of them was different, were in themselves much the same as the melancholy emotions which swelled windily up within him to-night. He had been most horribly in love.
“What did you think,” he asked abruptly, “of Myra Viveash?”
“Think?” said Shearwater. “I don’t know that I thought very much about her. Not a case for ratiocination exactly, is she? She seemed to me entertaining enough, as women go. I said I’d lunch with her on Thursday.”
Gumbril felt, all of a sudden, the need to speak confidentially. “There was a time,” he said in a tone that was quite unreally airy, off-hand and disengaged, “years ago, when I totally lost my head about her. Totally.” Those tear-wet patches on his pillow, cold against his cheek in the darkness; and oh, the horrible pain of weeping, vainly, for something that was nothing, that was everything in the world! “Towards the end of the war it was. I remember walking up this dismal street one night, in the pitch darkness, writhing with jealousy.” He was silent. Spectrally, like a dim, haunting ghost, he had hung about her; dumbly, dumbly imploring, appealing. “The weak, silent man,” she used to call him. And once for two or three days, out of pity, out of affection, out of a mere desire, perhaps, to lay the tiresome ghost, she had given him what his mournful silence implored—only to take it back, almost as soon as accorded. That other night, when he had walked up this street before, desire had eaten out his vitals and his body seemed empty, sickeningly and achingly void; jealousy was busily reminding him, with an unflagging malice, of her beauty—of her beauty and the hateful, ruffian hands which now caressed, the eyes which looked on it. That was all long ago.
“She is certainly handsome,” said Shearwater, commenting, at one or two removes, on Gumbril’s last remark. “I can see that she might make any one who got involved in her decidedly uncomfortable.” After a day or two’s continuous sweating, it suddenly occurred to him, one might perhaps find sea-water more refreshing than fresh water. That would be queer.
Gumbril burst out ferociously laughing. “But there were other times,” he went on jauntily, “when other people were jealous of me.” Ah, revenge, revenge. In the better world of the imagination it was possible to get one’s own back. What fiendish vendettas were there carried to successful ends! “I remember once writing her a quatrain in French.” (He had written it years after the whole thing was over, he had never sent it to any one at all; but that was all one.) “How did it go? Ah, yes.” And he recited, with suitable gestures:
“‘Puisque nous sommes là, je dois,
Vous avertir, sans trop de honte,
Que je n’égale pas le Comte
Casanovesque de Sixfois.’
Rather prettily turned, I flatter myself. Rather elegantly gross.”
Gumbril’s laughter went hooting past the Marble Arch. It stopped rather suddenly, however, at the corner of the Edgware Road. He had suddenly remembered Mr. Mercaptan, and the thought depressed him.