“It’s my own fault,” he said presently. “I’ve chucked away my life to the gold-demon. And now there is nothing left to me. You were wise in your generation. You may thank your stars, Perry, that when I wanted you to join me, you had the sense to refuse. When I heard you were married I called you a fool. But—I know better now.”
He paused. He had been speaking with a force that was almost passionate. When he continued his tone had changed.
“That is why you find me a trifle less surly than I used to be,” he said. “I used to hate my fellow-creatures. And now I would give all my money in exchange for a few disinterested friends. I’m sick of my lonely life. But for all that, I shall live and die alone.”
“You make too much of it,” said Clinton.
“Perhaps. But you can’t expect a man who has been into Paradise to be exactly happy when he is thrust outside.”
Clinton took up the evening paper without comment. Merefleet had never before spoken so openly to him. He realised that the man’s loneliness must oppress him heavily indeed thus to master his reserve.
“What news?” said Merefleet, after a pause.
“Nothing,” said Clinton. “Plague on the Continent. Railway mishap on the Great Northern. Another American Disaster.”
“What’s that?” said Merefleet with a touch of interest.
“Electric car accident. Ralph Warrender among the victims.”
“Warrender! What! Is he dead?”
“Yes. Killed instantaneously. Did you know him?”
“I have met him in business. I wasn’t intimate with him.”
“Isn’t he the man whose first wife was killed in a railway accident?” said Clinton reflectively, glad to have diverted Merefleet’s thoughts. “I thought so. I met her once and was so smitten with her that I purchased her portrait forthwith. The most marvellous woman’s face I ever saw. The man I got it from spoke of her with the most appalling enthusiasm. ’Mab Warrender!’ he said. ’If she is not the loveliest woman in U.S., I guess the next one would strike us blind.’ Here! I’ll show it you. Netta wants me to frame it.”
Clinton got up and took a book from a cupboard. Merefleet was watching him with strained eyes. His heart was thumping as if it would choke him. He rose as Clinton laid the picture before him, and steadied himself unconsciously by his friend’s shoulder.
Clinton glanced at him in some surprise.
“Hullo!” he said. “A friend of yours, was she? My dear fellow, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
But Merefleet hung over the picture with fascinated eyes. And his answer came with a curiously strained laugh, that somehow rang exultant.
“Yes, a friend of mine, old chap,” he said. “It’s a wonderful face, isn’t it? But it doesn’t do her justice. I shouldn’t frame it if I were you.”