In the midst of the rattling of plates, the coming and going, the buzz of conversation, these two men chatted good-naturedly over their meal. At its conclusion, they ordered coffee, cigars and liqueurs, and leant back comfortably in their chairs. Hundreds of others there, were doing precisely the same as they—thousands of others in all the restaurants in London. There was nothing remarkable about their faces, their dress or their manner until one of them suddenly leant forward across the table, and his expression, from genial amusement, leapt in sudden changes from the amazement of surprise to the fierceness of contempt and anger. Some exclamation in the force of the moment probably left his lips, for a woman at a table near by turned in her chair and gazed at them with unconcealed curiosity. She kept strained in that position as he brought down his fist on the table. She could see his fingers gripping the cloth. Then the other man put out his hand with a gesture of restraint.
From that they talked on excitedly—one or them driving his questions to the tardy replies of the other. Here and there in their speech the name of God ripped out, and the waiter, placing the card back on one of the empty tables, stood more alert, listening.
Their cigars burnt low, their coffee was drained; yet still they continued, voices pitched now on a lower key, but none the less intense, none the less spurred with vital interest. The man apparently most concerned had ceased from the urging of his questions. His elbows were resting on the table, his face was in his hands. Now and again he nodded in understanding, now and again he ejaculated some remark, pressing his companion to the full measure of what he had to say. Obviously it was a story—the relation of some incident, reluctantly dragged from the one by the persistent, unyielding demands of the other.
The woman at the near table put up her hand to her ear, shutting off the conversation of those with her, striving to catch a word here and there in the endeavour to piece it together. It was about some woman. She—was continually being alluded to. She—had done this—at a later date she had done that. Gathering as little as she did, the woman who listened was still strangely fascinated to curiosity.
Then at last a whole sentence reached her ears in a sudden hush of sound.
The man took his elbows from the table, as if the climax of the story had been reached.
“I know!” he said excitedly; “I know—the type of woman who never breaks a commandment because she daren’t, yet never earns a beatitude because she can’t; but, my God, if this isn’t true—”
Then the other began his reply—
“My dear fellow—should I come and—”
She heard no more. A renewed deafening clatter of plates from the grill drowned the remainder of his sentence.
“There’s a little tragedy behind us,” said the woman, leaning forward, speaking under her breath to one of her companions. They all turned and gazed in the direction of the table. Then the two men stood up. One of them picked up the bill.