Stonehouse, his chin resting in his hand, studied the menu from which they had already chosen.
“When the last Honours List came out, he was quite serious and pathetic about it,” he said. “Things move either too slowly or too quickly for old people. He does realize that I make quite a good story as I stand, but he wants the finishing touches—the King clasping me by the hand, or kissing me on both cheeks, or whatever he thinks happens on those occasions—and wedding bells as a grand finale.”
“The place seems to have grown shabby,” Cosgrave said. “Or perhaps it’s only me.”
“Oh, no. It is shabby. And perhaps you’ve noticed, they don’t wait here as they used to.”
Cosgrave looked directly at his companion, almost for the first time, and caught a spark in the eyes that stared into his—a rather dangerous spark, which cleverer people than himself had found difficult to make sure of. Then he laughed flatly.
“You can see how funny it is now——”
“I always did.”
“—because you were so sure it would pan out—like this. How long is it?”
“About eight years.”
“My word! Let’s—let’s look at one another and take stock.”
Stonehouse sat back and bore the inspection with a faint smile. He knew himself, and how he impressed others. The eight years had done a great deal for him. His strength had cast its crudeness and had attained a certain grace—the ease of absolute control and tried confidence in itself. He still dressed badly—indifferently, rather—but his body had toned down to the level of the fine hands, which he held loosely clasped upon the table.
He looked at once very young and very fine drawn and, as Cosgrave thought, a little cruel.
“You seem—awfully well and prosperous, Robert. And a sight better looking.”
Stonehouse laughed. All he said in reply was:
“And you look prosperous and ill. What was it? Enteric?”
Cosgrave shrugged his thin shoulders. He was still flamboyantly red-headed and generously freckled, but now that the first flush of excitement had ebbed, his face showed a parchment yellow. His eyes, wistful in their setting, were faded, as though a relentless tropical sun had drunk up their once vivid, boyish colouring.
“Oh yes, that and a few other trifles. I think I’ve housed most West African bugs in my time. Everyone had them, but I was such poor pasture that I got off better than most. Three of my superiors died of ’em, and I stepped right into their shoes. It pays, you see, if you can hold out. People like a fellow who isn’t always clamouring to come home—and you bet I never did. But, finally, I took an overdue leave and a hunk of savings and trekked back. I’d always planned it—a good time, you know—but somehow it hasn’t come off. I expect I left it too long. In the end I didn’t really want to come at all—wanted to lie down and die, but hadn’t the strength of mind to insist. I’d been in London a week before I wrote you—just drifting round—too weak-kneed to take the first step. I tore up that idiotic note three times.”