“I’m afraid this is a pretty rotten business,” he said with what was for him an unusual cordiality.
* * * * *
Although I had never before that afternoon seen Jervaise’s home nor any of his people with the exception of the brother now in India, I had known Frank Jervaise for fifteen years. We had been at Oakstone together, and had gone up the school form by form in each other’s company. After we left Oakstone we were on the same landing at Jesus, and he rowed “two” and I rowed “bow” in the college boat. And since we had come down I had met him constantly in London, often as it seemed by accident. Yet we had never been friends. I had never really liked him.
Even at school he had had the beginning of the artificially bullying manner which now seemed natural to him. He had been unconvincingly blunt and insolent. His dominant chin, Roman nose, and black eyebrows were chiefly responsible, I think, for his assumption of arrogance. He must have been newly invigorated to carry on the part every time he scowled at himself in the glass. He could not conceivably have been anything but a barrister.
But, to-night, in the darkness, he seemed to have forgotten for once the perpetual mandate of his facial angle. He was suddenly intimate, almost humble.
“Of course, you don’t realise how cursedly awkward it all is,” he said with the evident desire of opening a confidence.
“Tell me as little or as much as you like,” I responded. “You know that I...”
“Yes, rather,” he agreed warmly, and added, “I’d sooner Hughes didn’t know.”
“He guesses a lot, though,” I put in. “I suppose they all do.”
“Oh! well, they’re bound to guess something,” he said, “but I’m hoping we’ll be able to put that right, now.”
“Who are we going to see?” I asked.
He did not reply at once, and then snapped out, “Anne Banks; friend er Brenda’s.”
My foolishly whimsical imagination translated that queer medley of sounds into the thought of a stable-pump. I heard the clank of the handle and then the musical rush of water into the pail.
“Sounds just like a pump,” I said thoughtlessly.
He half withdrew his arm from mine with an abrupt twitch that indicated temper.
“Oh! don’t for God’s sake play the fool,” he said brutally.
A spasm of resentment shook me for a moment. I felt annoyed, remembering how at school he would await his opportunity and then score off me with some insulting criticism. He had never had any kind of sympathy for the whimsical, and it is a manner that is apt to look inane and ridiculous under certain kinds of censure. I swallowed my annoyance, on this occasion. I remembered that Jervaise had a reasonable excuse, for once.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to play the fool. But you must admit that it had a queer sound.” I repeated the adjectival sentence under my breath. It really was a rather remarkable piece of onomatopoeia. And then I reflected on the absurdity of our conversation. How could we achieve all this ordinary trivial talk of everyday in the gloom of this romantic adventure?