Although Van Derwater encouraged his guest, after the exchange of greetings, to talk of his voyage and its attendant experiences, Selwyn was aware that he was placing a cold impersonal wall between them. His old friend was interested, courteous, intellectually even cordial, but Selwyn knew he was being kept at a distance. He forced the talk to old intimacies—recalled the game when, together, they had crossed Yale’s line in the closing moments of the great Rugby match—brought back a host of joint experiences, trivial in themselves, but hallowed by time.
Van Derwater remembered them all. For each one he had the slight smile of his mouth and the quizzical weariness of his eyes; but when the conversation would droop after each outburst of reminiscence, he would not make the least attempt to lift it up again. Finally, being convinced that nothing could come of so bloodless a meeting, Selwyn dropped the impersonal mask.
‘I was mighty sorry,’ he said, ’to hear that you and Marjory have broken off your engagement.’
‘It was her wish: not mine.’ Van Derwater’s voice was deep and rich, but almost monotonous in its lack of inflection.
‘I was talking to Forbes to-day,’ went on Selwyn tenaciously. ’He had been to see Marjory.’
’Marjory told him that you didn’t care enough for her to go overseas. I should think she would realise that such a matter concerns you only.’
‘Not a bit of it.’ For the first time the other’s manner showed signs of vitality. ’It means everything to her. She wants to feel that the man she marries is big enough to go and help France. I admire her for it. I wish there were more women with her character.’
Selwyn shifted his chair uneasily. ‘But—I don’t understand,’ he stammered. ‘You told her you wouldn’t go.’
‘Well, what of it?’
‘Look here, Van,’ said Selwyn vehemently; ’we have been friends for many years. I came to you to-night because my whole career is at a standstill. I want to tell you everything—I must do it—but I can’t as long as you withhold your confidence. It isn’t curiosity on my part—you know that. I want to bring back the old sense of understanding we once had.’
‘You haven’t changed,’ said Van Derwater, an inscrutable smile playing about his mouth. ’You always had a habit of piercing people’s moods, no matter what defence they put up. But if you want candour, I’ll tell you frankly I am sorry you came here this evening. I knew that it would be difficult to keep from hurting you, and for old-times’ sake I didn’t want to do that. As you know, I have never made friends. You and Forbes were the nearest thing to it, and I suppose you two meant more than I would ever care to admit. You might ring the bell over your head. The fire needs more coal.’
As the negro obeyed his master’s instructions and stoked the fire into vigour, the two friends sat without speaking. Selwyn was mute with apprehension of what he was to hear; the older man was dreading the words he had to utter. To certain strong natures it is more painful to inflict than to receive a wound.