‘Mes amis,’ said De Foe—and his voice was low and sonorous—’I see before me many, like myself, who have left behind them futures where other men left only pasts. I see before me many, like myself, who had the gift of creating exquisite, soul-stirring works of art and literature. But because we were not content to be mere mouthy clowns, with pen or brush, jabbering about the play of life, we have paid the penalty for thinking we could be both subject and painter, author and actor. Because we chose to live, we have failed. The world goes on applauding its successful charlatans, its puny-visioned authors pouring their thoughts of sawdust in the reeking trough of popularity; while we, who know the taste of every bitter herb in all experience—we are thrust aside as failures. . . . But the gift of prophecy is on me to-night. There is a youth here who has a soul capable of scaling heights where none of us could follow—and a soul that could sink to depths that few of us have known. He is one of us, and he has chosen to fight for England. I can see the glory of his death written in his eyes. Gentlemen—you who are adrift with uncharted destinies—drink to the boy of the sea-blue eyes. May he die worthy of himself and of us.’
Throughout the dimly lit room every one rose to his feet, incoherently echoing the last words of the speaker. . . . Still with the filmy wistfulness about his eyes and a tired, weary smile, Dick Durwent sat in his chair beating a listless tattoo on the table with his hand.
From across the room came the sound of the old playwright’s hacking cough.
Late that night Selwyn lay in his bed and listened to the softened tones of his two guests conversing in the living-room, Johnston Smyth having conceived such an attachment to his newly found friend that it was quite impossible to persuade him to leave. At his own request, blankets had been spread for Durwent on the floor, and after a hot bath he had rolled up for the night close to the fire. Johnston Smyth had also disdained the offer of a bed and ensconced himself on the couch, where he lay on his back and uttered vagrant philosophies on a vast number of subjects.
Wishing his strangely assorted guests a good night’s repose, Selwyn had retired to his own room shortly after midnight, but, tired as he was, sleep refused to come. Like an etcher planning a series of scenes to be depicted, his mind summoned the various incidents of the night in a tedious cycle. The huddled figure at the foot of Cleopatra’s steps; the fantastic airiness of Smyth with his shredded umbrella; the smoky atmosphere of Archibald’s, with its strange gathering of derelicts; the two chance acquaintances spending the night in the adjoining room—what vivid, disjointed cameos they were! If there was such a thing as Fate, what meaning could there be in their having met? Or was their meeting as purposeless as that of which some poet had once written—two pieces of plank-wood touching in mid-ocean and drifting eternally?