The parson quivered with impatient irony.
“Old morality! new morality!” he said. “These are strange words.”
“Forgive me,” explained Shelton; “we ’re talking of working morality, I imagine. There’s not a man in a million fit to talk of true morality.”
The eyes of his host contracted.
“I think,” he said—and his voice sounded as if he had pinched it in the endeavour to impress his listener—“that any well-educated man who honestly tries to serve his God has the right humbly—I say humbly—to claim morality.”
Shelton was on the point of saying something bitter, but checked himself. “Here am I,” thought he, “trying to get the last word, like an old woman.”
At this moment there was heard a piteous mewing; the parson went towards the door.
“Excuse me a moment; I ’m afraid that’s one of my cats out in the wet.” He returned a minute later with a wet cat in his arms. “They will get out,” he said to Shelton, with a smile on his thin face, suffused by stooping. And absently he stroked the dripping cat, while a drop of wet ran off his nose. “Poor pussy, poor pussy!” The sound of that “Poor pussy!” like nothing human in its cracked superiority, the softness of that smile, like the smile of gentleness itself, haunted Shelton till he fell asleep.
The last sunlight was playing on the roofs when the travellers entered that High Street grave and holy to all Oxford men. The spirit hovering above the spires was as different from its concretions in their caps and gowns as ever the spirit of Christ was from church dogmas.
“Shall we go into Grinnings’?” asked Shelton, as they passed the club.
But each looked at his clothes, for two elegant young men in flannel suits were coming out.
“You go,” said Crocker, with a smirk.
Shelton shook his head. Never before had he felt such love for this old city. It was gone now from out his life, but everything about it seemed so good and fine; even its exclusive air was not ignoble. Clothed in the calm of history, the golden web of glorious tradition, radiant with the alchemy of memories, it bewitched him like the perfume of a woman’s dress. At the entrance of a college they glanced in at the cool grey patch of stone beyond, and the scarlet of a window flowerbox—secluded, mysteriously calm—a narrow vision of the sacred past. Pale and trencher-capped, a youth with pimply face and random nose, grabbing at his cloven gown, was gazing at the noticeboard. The college porter—large man, fresh-faced, and small-mouthed—stood at his lodge door in a frank and deferential attitude. An image of routine, he looked like one engaged to give a decorous air to multitudes of pecadilloes. His blue eyes rested on the travellers. “I don’t know you, sirs, but if you want to speak I shall be glad to hear the observations you may have to make,” they seemed to say.