Getting in the centre and adjusting his hat at a precipitate angle on the extreme left of his head, Smyth took Dick Durwent’s arm, and extending the other to Selwyn, marched the pair across the bridge, holding the absurd umbrella over each in turn as if it offered some real resistance to the scurvy downpour.
‘This way, gentlemen,’ said Smyth, leading them up an alley, across a court, and into a lane. ‘Permit me to welcome you to Archibald’s.’
They entered a dimly lit tavern, where a dozen or so men sat about the room at little tables. Instead of the usual pictures one sees in such places, pictures of dancers with expressive legs, and race-horses with expressive faces, the walls were hung with dusty signed portraits of authors, artists, and actors, most of whom had attained distinction during the previous half-century. Sir Henry Irving as Othello held the place of honour over the bar, with Garrick as his vis-a-vis on the opposite wall. The divine Sarah cast the spell of her eternal youth on all who gathered there; and Lewis Waller, with eyes intent on his sword-handle, seemed oblivious to the close proximity of Lily Langtry and Ellen Terry, those empresses of the dual realms of Beauty and Intelligence. Without any companion portrait, the puffy sensuality of Oscar Wilde held a prominent place. And between the spectacled face of Rudyard Kipling on one side and the author of Peter Pan on the other, Forbes-Robertson in the garb of the Melancholy Dane looked out with his fine nobility of countenance. The room was heavy with tobacco-smoke, which seemed to have been accumulating for years, and to have darkened the very beams of the ceiling. Over the floor a liberal coating of sawdust was sprinkled.
‘Strange place, this,’ whispered Johnston Smyth as they took a table in an unfrequented corner. ’It’s an understood thing that the habitues of Archibald’s are trailers in the race of life. If you have a fancy for human nature, gentlemen, this is the shop to come to. We’ve got some queer goods on the shelves—newspaper men with no newspapers to write for; authors that think out new plots every night and forget ’em by morning; playwrights that couldn’t afford the pit in the Old Vic.—Do you see that old chap over there?’
‘The little man,’ said Selwyn, ‘with the strange smile?’
’That’s right. He’s been writing a play now for twenty years, but hasn’t had time to finish the last act. “There’s no hurry,” he says; “true art will not permit of haste”—and the joke of it is that he has a cough that’ll give him his own curtain long before he ever writes it on his play. There he goes now.’
The old playwright had been seized with a paroxysm of coughing that took his meagre storehouse of breath. Weakly striking at his breast, he shook and quivered in the clutch of the thing, leaning back exhausted when it had passed, but never once losing the odd, whimsical smile.