“Then what are you to do?” said Barthrop.
“Try persuasion if you like,” said Father Payne, “but you had better fall back on attractive virtue! You must ignore the nastiness, and give the pleasant qualities, if there are any, room to manoeuvre. But I admit it is a difficult job, and needs some practice.”
“But I don’t see any principle about it,” said Vincent.
“There isn’t any,” said Father Payne;—“at least there is, but you must not dig it in. You mustn’t use principles as if they were bayonets. Civility is the best medium. If you appear to be fatuously unconscious of other people’s presence, of course they want to make themselves felt. But if you are good-humoured and polite, they will try to make you think well of them. That is probably why your friend calls me a humbug—he thinks I can’t feel as polite as I seem.”
“But if you are dealing with a real egotist,” said Vincent, “what are you to do then?”
“Keep the talk firmly on himself,” said Father Payne, “and, if he ever strays from the subject, ask him a question about himself. Egotists are generally clever people, and no clever people like being drawn out, while no egotists like to be perceived to be egotists. You know the old saying that a bore is a person who wants to talk about himself when you want to talk about yourself. It is the pull against him that makes the bore want to hold his own. The first duty of the evangelist is to learn to pay compliments unobtrusively.”
“That’s rather a nauseous prescription!” said Lestrange, making a face.
“Well, you can begin with that,” said Father Payne, “and when I see you perfect in it, I will tell you something else. Let’s have some music, and let me get the taste of all this high talk out of my mouth!”
There were certain days when Father Payne would hurry in to meals late and abstracted, with, a cloudy eye, that, as he ate, was fixed on a point about a yard in front of him, or possibly about two miles away. He gave vague or foolish replies to questions, he hastened away again, having heard voices but seen no one. I doubt if he could have certainly named anyone in the room afterwards.
I had a little question of business to ask him on one such occasion after breakfast. I slipped out but two minutes after him, went to his study, and knocked. An obscure sound came from within. He was seated on his chair, bending over his writing-table.
“May I ask you something?” I said.
“Damnation!” said Father Payne.
I apologised, and tried to withdraw on tiptoe, but he said, turning half round, somewhat impatiently, “Oh, come in, come in—it’s all right. What do you want?”
“I don’t want to disturb you,” I said.
“Come in, I tell you!” he said, adding, “you may just as well, because I have nothing to do for a quarter of an hour.” He threw a pen on the table. “It’s one of my very few penances. If I swear when I am at work, I do no work for a quarter of an hour; so you can keep me company. Sit down there!” He indicated a chair with his large foot, and I sat down.