“But, confound it, man, it may have been mere absence of mind. You were always an extraordinarily plucky chap.” Wratislaw spoke irritably, for it seemed to him sheer folly.
Lewis looked at him imploringly. “Can you not understand?” he cried.
Wratislaw did understand, and suddenly. The problem was subtler than he had thought. Weakness was at the core of it, weakness revealed in self-deception and self-accusation alike, the weakness of the finical dreamer, the man with the unrobust conscience. But the weakness which Lewis arraigned himself on was the very obvious failing of the diffident and the irresolute. Wratislaw tried the path of boisterous encouragement.
“Get up, you old fool, and come down to the house. You a coward! You are simply a romancer with an unfortunate knack of tragedy.” The man must be laughed out of this folly. If he were not he would show the self-accusing front to the world, and the Manorwaters, Alice, Stocks—all save his chosen intimates—would credit him with a cowardice of which he had no taint.
Arthur and George, resigned now to the inevitable lady, had seen in the incident only the anxiety of a man for his beloved, and just a hint of the ungenerous in his treatment of Mr. Stocks. They were not prepared for the silent tragic figure which Wratislaw brought with him.
Arthur had a glint of the truth, but the obtuse George saw nothing. “Do you know that you are going to have the Wisharts for neighbours for a couple of months yet? Old Wishart has taken Glenavelin from the end of August.”
This would have been pleasant hearing at another time, but now it simply drove home the nail of his bitter reflections. Alice would be near him, a terrible reproach-she, the devotee of strength and competence. He could not win her, and it is characteristic of the man that he had ceased to think of Mr. Stocks as his rival. He would lose her to no rival; to his ragged incapacity alone would his ill fortune be due.
He struggled to act the part of the cheerful host, and Wratislaw watched his efforts grimly. He ate little at dinner, showed no desire to smoke, and played billiards so badly that Wratislaw, an execrable player, won the first and last game of his life. The victor took him out of doors thereafter to walk on the moonlit, fragrant lawn.
“You are taking things to heart,” said he.
“And I’m blessed if I can understand you. To me it’s sheer mania.”
“And to me it’s the last link in a chain. I have suspected myself for long, now I know myself and-ugh! the knowledge is a hideous thing.”
Wratislaw stood regarding his companion seriously. “I wonder what will happen to you, Lewie. Life is serious enough without inventing a crotchety virtue to make it miserable.”