‘What about something to drink?’ broke in Dick Durwent hurriedly, his eyes narrowing.
‘Directly,’ said Smyth, beckoning to the proprietor, a small man, who, in spite of his years and an oblong head undecorated by a single hair, appeared strangely fresh and unworried, as if he had been sleeping for fifty years in a cellar, and had just come up to view the attending changes.
‘Archibald,’ said Smyth, ’these are my friends the Duke of Arkansas and Sir Plumtree Crabapple.’
The extraordinary little man smiled toothlessly and fingered his tray.
‘Gentlemen,’ said Smyth, ‘name your brands.’
‘Give me a double brandy,’ said Durwent, blowing on his chilled fingers. ‘Better make it two doubles in a large glass.’
‘Soda, sir?’ queried the proprietor in a high-pitched, tranquil voice.
‘No,’ said Durwent. ‘You can bring a little water in a separate glass.’
‘What is your pleasure, your Grace?’ said Smyth, addressing the American. ’If you will do Archibald and myself the honour of trying the Twilight Tinkle, it would be an event of importance to us both.’
‘Anything at all,’ said Selwyn, sick at heart as he saw the nervous interlocked fingers of Dick Durwent pressed together with such intensity that they were left white and bloodless.
‘This is a little slice of London’s life,’ said Smyth after he had given the order, crossing his left leg over the right, ’that you visitors would never find. You hear about the chaps who succeed and those who come a cropper, but these are the poor beggars who never had a chance to do either. There’s genius in this room, gentlemen, but it’s genius that started swimming up-stream with a millstone round its neck.’
With a profound shaking of the head, Smyth straightened his left leg, and after carefully taking in its shape with partially closed eyes, he replaced it on its fellow.
‘How do they live?’ queried Selwyn.
‘Scavengers,’ said Smyth laconically. ’Scavengers to success. Do you see that fellow there with the poached eyes and a four-days’ beard?’
Selwyn looked to the spot indicated by Smyth, and saw a heavily built man with a pale, dissipated face, who was fingering an empty glass and leering cynically with some odd trend of thought. It was a face that gripped the attention, for written on it was talent—immense talent. It was a face that openly told its tale of massive, misdirected power of mentality, fuddled but not destroyed by alcohol.
‘That’s Laurence De Foe,’ said Smyth; ’a queer case altogether. Barnardo boy—doesn’t know who his parents were, but claims direct descent from Charlemagne. He’s never really drunk, but no one ever saw him sober. If he wanted to, he could write better than any man in London. Last year, when the critics scored Welland’s play Salvage for its rotten climax, the author himself came to De Foe. All night they sat in