‘I am,’ said Selwyn calmly.
‘You are not English. You haven’t the leathery composure of our race.’
‘I am an American.’
’I thought as much. You show the smug complacency of your nation. How dare you write, sir? What do you know of life?’
‘We have learned something on that subject,’ said Selwyn with a slight smile, ’even over there. You see, we have the mistakes of your older countries by which we can profit.’
‘Bah!’ said the other contemptuously. ’Cant—platitudes—words! Since when have either nations or individuals learned from the mistakes of others? Take you three. Which of you lies closest to life? Which of you has drunk experience to the dregs? The dauber?—You, author-dreamer, fired by the passion of a robin for a cherry?—No, neither of you. . . . That boy there—that youngster with the blue eyes of a girl; he is the one to teach—not you. He has the stamp of failure on him. Welcome, sir—the Prince of Failures welcomes you to Archibald’s.’
He lurched forward and extended an unsteady hand to Dick Durwent, who rose slowly from his chair to take it. As Selwyn watched the two men standing with clasped hands over the table, he felt his heart-strings contract with pain.
Although separated by more than thirty years, there was a cruel similarity in the pair—in the half-bravado, half-timorous poise of the head; in the droop of sensuous lips; in the dark hair of each, matted over pallid foreheads. It was as if De Foe had summoned some black art to show the future held in the lap of the gods for the youngest Durwent.
‘My boy,’ said De Foe drunkenly, but with a moving tenderness, ’life has refused me much, but it has left me the power to read a man’s soul in his eyes. The world brands you as a beaten man—and by men’s standards it is right. But Laurence De Foe can read beyond those sea-blue eyes of yours; he it is who knows that behind them lies the gallant soul of a gallant gentleman. End your days in a gutter or on the gibbet—what matters it where the actor sleeps when the drama is done?—but to-night you have done great honour to the Prince of Failures by letting him grasp your hand.’
He slowly released the young man’s hand, and turned wearily away as Durwent sank into his chair, his eyes staring into filmy space. Moving clumsily across the room, De Foe reached the bar and ordered a drink. When it had been poured out for him he turned about, and, leaning back lazily, looked around the room, with his eyes almost hidden by the close contraction of thick, black eyelashes. Such was the unique power of his personality that the disjointed threads of conversation at the various tables wound to a single end as if by a signal.