“Prosperity doesn’t come my way,” he said in a rusty voice. “I’m a failure—always been a failure. And yet you wouldn’t think it, would you?—I was a minister of religion once.”
Laurence held out a shilling. But the man shook his head.
“Keep your money,” he said. “I’ve got more than you to-day, I daresay. But thank you for taking a little interest. That’s worth more than money to a man that’s down.”
“Yes,” the rusty voice went on; “I’d as soon die as go on living as I do. And now I’ve lost my self-respect. Often wondered how long a starving man could go without losing his self-respect. Not so very long. You take my word for that.” And without the slightest change in the monotony of that creaking voice he added:
“Did you read of the murder? Just here. I’ve been looking at the place.”
The words: ‘So have I!’ leaped up to Laurence’s lips; he choked them down with a sort of terror.
“I wish you better luck,” he said. “Goodnight!” and hurried away. A sort of ghastly laughter was forcing its way up in his throat. Was everyone talking of the murder he had committed? Even the very scarecrows?
There are some natures so constituted that, due to be hung at ten o’clock, they will play chess at eight. Such men invariably rise. They make especially good bishops, editors, judges, impresarios, Prime ministers, money-lenders, and generals; in fact, fill with exceptional credit any position of power over their fellow-men. They have spiritual cold storage, in which are preserved their nervous systems. In such men there is little or none of that fluid sense and continuity of feeling known under those vague terms, speculation, poetry, philosophy. Men of facts and of decision switching imagination on and off at will, subordinating sentiment to reason... one does not think of them when watching wind ripple over cornfields, or swallows flying.
Keith Darrant had need for being of that breed during his dinner at the Tellassons. It was just eleven when he issued from the big house in Portland Place and refrained from taking a cab. He wanted to walk that he might better think. What crude and wanton irony there was in his situation! To have been made father-confessor to a murderer, he—well on towards a judgeship! With his contempt for the kind of weakness which landed men in such abysses, he felt it all so sordid, so “impossible,” that he could hardly bring his mind to bear on it at all. And yet he must, because of two powerful instincts—self-preservation and blood-loyalty.
The wind had still the sapping softness of the afternoon, but rain had held off so far. It was warm, and he unbuttoned his fur overcoat. The nature of his thoughts deepened the dark austerity of his face, whose thin, well-cut lips were always pressing together, as if, by meeting, to dispose of each thought as it came up. He moved along the crowded pavements glumly. That air of festive conspiracy which drops with the darkness on to lighted streets, galled him. He turned off on a darker route.