“Can’t you understand me, Tommy? It isn’t that I’m a cad, it’s that I am a coward. I couldn’t be a cad supposing I tried. These things are a matter chiefly of blood and bone, and I am not made that way. But God help me! I am a coward. I can’t fight worth twopence. Look at my performance a fortnight ago. The ordinary gardener’s boy can beat me at making love. I am full of generous impulses and sentiments, but what’s the use of them? Everything grows cold and I am a dumb icicle when it comes to action. I knew all this before, but I thought I had kept my bodily courage. I’ve had a good enough training, and I used to have pluck.”
“But you don’t mean to tell me that it was funk that kept you out of the pool to-day?” cried the impatient Wratislaw.
“How do I know that it wasn’t?” came the wretched answer.
Wratislaw turned on his heel and made to go back.
“You’re an infernal idiot, Lewie, and an infernal child. Thank heaven! your friends know you better than you know yourself.”
The next morning it was a different man who came down to breakfast. He had lost his haggard air, and seemed to have forgotten the night’s episode.
“Was I very rude to everybody last night?” he asked. “I have a vague recollection of playing the fool.”
“You were particularly rude about yourself,” said Wratislaw.
The young man laughed. “It’s a way I have sometimes. It’s an awkward thing when a man’s foes are of his own household.”
The others seemed to see a catch in his mirth, a ring as of something hollow. He opened some letters, and looked up from one with a twitching face and a curious droop of the eyelids. “Miss Wishart is all right,” he said. “My aunt says that she is none the worse, but that Stocks has caught a tremendous cold. An unromantic ending!”
The meal ended, they wandered out to the lawn to smoke, and Wratislaw found himself standing with a hand on his host’s shoulder. He noticed something distraught in his glance and air.
“Are you fit again to-day?” he asked.
“Quite fit, thanks,” said Lewis, but his face belied him. He had forgiven himself the incident of yesterday, but no proof of a non sequitur could make him relinquish his dismal verdict. The wide morning landscape lay green and soothing at his feet. Down in the glen men were winning the bog-hay; up on the hill slopes they were driving lambs; the Avelin hurried to the Gled, and beyond was the great ocean and the infinite works of man. The whole brave bustling world was astir, little and great ships hasting out of port, the soldier scaling the breach, the adventurer travelling the deserts. And he, the fool, had no share in this braggart heritage. He could not dare to look a man straight in the face, for like the king in the old fable he had lost his soul.
A GENTLEMAN IN STRAITS