Ah! no; for the friendly Cockney that once greeted me with an enfolding paternal kindness was substituted broken English of a less companionable accent. A polite young Greek it was who stood waiting respectfully for my order, knowing nothing of all it meant for me—me—to be seated at that table again—whereas, had he been one of half a dozen of the waiters of yester-year, he would have known almost as much as I of the “secret memoirs” of that historic table.
In ordering my meal I made no attempt at sentiment, for my mood went far deeper than sentiment. Indeed, though, every second of the time, I was living so vividly, so cruelly, in the past, I made one heartbroken acknowledgment of the present by beginning with the anachronism of a dry Martini cocktail, which, twelve years previous, was unknown and unattainable in that haunted gallery. That cocktail was a sort of desperate epitaph. It meant that I was alone—alone with my ghosts. Yet it had a certain resurrecting influence, and as I sat there proceeding dreamily with my meal, one face and another would flash before me, and memory after memory re-enact itself in the theatre of my fancy. So much in my actual surroundings brought back the past with an aching distinctness—particularly the entrance of two charming young people, making rainbows all about them, as, ushered by a smiling waiter, who was evidently no stranger to their felicity, they seated themselves at a neighbouring table with a happy sigh, and neglected the menu for a moment or two while they gazed, rapt and lost, into each other’s eyes. How well I knew it all; how easily I could have taken the young man’s place, and played the part for which this evening he was so fortunately cast! As I looked at them, I instinctively summoned to my side the radiant shade of Aurea, for indeed she had seemed made of gold—gold and water lilies. And, as of old, when I had called to her, she came swiftly with a luxurious rustle of fragrant skirts, like the sound of the west wind among the summer trees, or the swish and sway of the foam about the feet of Aphrodite. There she sat facing me once more, “a feasting presence made of light”—her hair like a golden wheat sheaf, her eyes like blue flowers amid the wheat, and her bosom, by no means parsimoniously concealed, literally suggesting that the loveliness of all the water lilies in the world was amassed there within her corset as in some precious casket. Ours was not one of the great tragic loves, but I know I shall think of Aurea’s bosom on my death-bed. At her coming I had ordered champagne—we always drank champagne together, because, as we said, it matched so well with her hair—champagne of a no longer fashionable brand. The waiter seemed a little surprised to hear it asked for, but it had been the only chic brand in 19—.
“Look at those two yonder,” I said presently, after we had drunk to each other, smiling long into each other’s eyes over the brims of our glasses. “You and I were once as they. It is their first wonderful dinner together. Watch them—the poor darlings; it is enough to break one’s heart.”