The poor child thought her point must now be indelicately plain, but the lips of Doctor Queed merely emitted another close-clipped: “Proceed.”
At a desperate loss as she was, Fifi was suddenly visited by an idea. “Oh! I see. You’re—you’re writing against altruism, aren’t you?”
“What leads you to that conclusion, if I may ask?”
“Why—I—I suppose it’s the—way you—you do. Of course I oughtn’t to have said it—”
“Go on. What way that I do?”
Poor Fifi saw that she was floundering in ever more deeply. With the boldness of despair she blurted out: “Well—one thing—you sent me out of the room that night—when I coughed, you know. I—I don’t understand about altruism like you do, but I—should think it was—my interests to stay here—”
There followed a brief silence, which made Fifi more miserable than any open rebuke, and then Mr. Queed said in a dry tone: “I am engaged upon a work of great importance to the public, I may say to posterity. Perhaps you can appreciate that such a work is entitled to the most favorable conditions in which to pursue it.”
“Of course. Indeed I understand perfectly, Mr. Queed,” said Fifi, immediately touched by what seemed like kindness from him. And she added innocently: “All men—writing men, I mean—feel that way about their work—I suppose. I remember Mr. Sutro who used to have the very same room you’re in now. He was writing a five-act play, all in poetry, to show the horrors of war, and he used to say—”
The young man involuntarily shuddered. “I have nothing to do with other men. I am thinking,” he said with rather an unfortunate choice of words, “only of myself.”
“Oh—I see! Now I understand exactly!”
“What is it that you see and understand so exactly?”
“Why, the way you feel about altruism. You believe in it for other people, but not for yourself! Isn’t that right?”
They stared across the table at each other: innocent Fifi, who barely knew the meaning of altruism, but had practiced it from the time she could practice anything, and the little Doctor, who knew everything about altruism that social science would ever formulate, and had stopped right there. All at once, his look altered; from objective it became subjective. The question seemed suddenly to hook onto something inside, like a still street-car gripping hold of a cable and beginning to move; the mind’s eye of the young man appeared to be seized and swept inward. Presently without a word he resumed his writing.
Fifi was much disturbed at the effect of her artless question, and just when everything was beginning to go so nicely too. In about half an hour, when she got up to retire, she said timidly:—
“I’m sorry if I—I was rude just now, Mr. Queed. Indeed, I didn’t mean to be....”
“I did not say that you were rude,” he answered without looking up.