“Would you go?” came the question.
“No,” said Wratislaw, “I shouldn’t.”
“But if you were in my place?”
“I should hope that I would, but then I might not have the courage. I am giving you the brave man’s choice, Lewie. You will be going out to uncertainty and difficulty and extreme danger. On the other hand, I believe in my soul it will harden you into the man you ought to be. Lord knows I would rather have you stay at home!”
The younger man looked up for a second and saw something in Wratislaw’s face which made him turn away his eyes. The look of honest regret cut him to the heart. Those friends of his, of whom he was in nowise worthy, made the burden of his self-distrust doubly heavy.
“I will tell you within three days,” he said hoarsely. “God bless you, Tommy. I don’t deserve to have a man like you troubling himself about me.”
It was his one spoken tribute to their friendship; and both, with the nervousness of honest men in the presence of emotion, hastened to change the subject.
THE FURTHER BRINK
Wratislaw left betimes the next morning, and a long day faced Lewis with every hour clamouring for a decision. George would be back by noon, and before his return he must seek quiet and the chances of reflection. He was happy with a miserable fluctuating happiness. Of a sudden his horizon was enlarged, but as he gazed it seemed to narrow again. His mind was still unplumbed; somewhere in its depths might lie the shrinking and unwillingness which would bind him to the dreary present.
He went out to the autumn hills and sought the ridge which runs for miles on the lip of the glen. It was a grey day, with snow waiting in cloud-banks in the north sky and a thin wind whistling through the pines. The scene matched his humour. He was in love for the moment with the stony and stormy in life. He hungered morbidly for ill-fortune, something to stamp out the ease in his soul, and weld him into the form of a man.
He had got his chance and the rest lay with himself. It was a chance of high adventure, a great mission, a limitless future. At the thought the old fever began to rise in his blood. The hot, clear smell of rock and sand, the brown depths of the waters, the far white peaks running up among the stars, all spoke to him with the long-remembered call. Once more he should taste life, and, alert in mind and body, hold up his chin among his fellows. It would be a contest of wits, and for all his cowardice this was not the contest he shrank from.
And then there came back on him, like a flood, the dumb misery of incompetence which had weighed on heart and brain. The hatred of the whole struggling, sordid crew, all the cant and ugliness and ignorance of a mad world, his weakness in the face of it, his fall from common virtue, his nerveless indolence—all stung him like needle points, till he cried out in agony. Anything to deliver his soul from such a bondage, and in his extreme bitterness his mind closed with Wratislaw’s offer.