They all began to laugh again, except Jim, who lay on his back looking up at the strange sky.
“What’re you laughing at?” repeated Aaron.
“We’re laughing at the man on the ground,” replied Josephine. “I think he’s drunk a little too much.”
“Ay,” said Aaron, standing mute and obstinate.
“Did you want anything?” Robert enquired once more.
“Eh?” Aaron looked up. “Me? No, not me.” A sort of inertia kept him rooted. The young people looked at one another and began to laugh, rather embarrassed.
“Another!” said Cyril Scott cynically.
They wished he would go away. There was a pause.
“What do you reckon stars are?” asked the sepulchral voice of Jim. He still lay flat on his back on the grass.
Josephine went to him and pulled at his coat.
“Get up,” she said. “You’ll take cold. Get up now, we’re going indoors.”
“What do you reckon stars are?” he persisted.
Aaron Sisson stood on the edge of the light, smilingly staring at the scene, like a boy out of his place, but stubbornly keeping his ground.
“Get up now,” said Josephine. “We’ve had enough.” But Jim would not move.
Robert went with the bicycle lamp and stood at Aaron’s side.
“Shall I show you a light to the road—you’re off your track,” he said. “You’re in the grounds of Shottle House.”
“I can find my road,” said Aaron. “Thank you.”
Jim suddenly got up and went to peer at the stranger, poking his face close to Aaron’s face.
“Right-o,” he replied. “You’re not half a bad sort of chap—Cheery-o! What’s your drink?”
“Mine—whiskey,” said Aaron.
“Come in and have one. We’re the only sober couple in the bunch— what?” cried Jim.
Aaron stood unmoving, static in everything. Jim took him by the arm affectionately. The stranger looked at the flickering tree, with its tiers of lights.
“A Christmas tree,” he said, jerking his head and smiling.
“That’s right, old man,” said Jim, seeming thoroughly sober now. “Come indoors and have a drink.”
Aaron Sisson negatively allowed himself to be led off. The others followed in silence, leaving the tree to flicker the night through. The stranger stumbled at the open window-door.
“Mind the step,” said Jim affectionately.
They crowded to the fire, which was still hot. The newcomer looked round vaguely. Jim took his bowler hat and gave him a chair. He sat without looking round, a remote, abstract look on his face. He was very pale, and seemed-inwardly absorbed.
The party threw off their wraps and sat around. Josephine turned to Aaron Sisson, who sat with a glass of whiskey in his hand, rather slack in his chair, in his thickish overcoat. He did not want to drink. His hair was blond, quite tidy, his mouth and chin handsome but a little obstinate, his eyes inscrutable. His pallor was not natural to him. Though he kept the appearance of a smile, underneath he was hard and opposed. He did not wish to be with these people, and yet, mechanically, he stayed.