“Good God!” said Lilly. “Why the dickens doesn’t he walk by himself, without wanting a woman always there, to hold his hand.”
“Don’t be so spiteful,” said Tanny. “YOU see that you have a woman always there, to hold YOUR hand.”
“My hand doesn’t need holding,” snapped Lilly.
“Doesn’t it! More than most men’s! But you’re so beastly ungrateful and mannish. Because I hold you safe enough all the time you like to pretend you’re doing it all yourself.”
“All right. Don’t drag yourself in,” said Lilly, detesting his wife at that moment. “Anyhow,” and he turned to Jim, “it’s time you’d done slobbering yourself over a lot of little women, one after the other.”
“Why shouldn’t I, if I like it?” said Jim.
“Yes, why not?” said Tanny.
“Because it makes a fool of you. Look at you, stumbling and staggering with no use in your legs. I’d be ashamed if I were you.”
“Would you?” said Jim.
“I would. And it’s nothing but your wanting to be loved which does it. A maudlin crying to be loved, which makes your knees all go rickety.”
“Think that’s it?” said Jim.
“What else is it. You haven’t been here a day, but you must telegraph for some female to be ready to hold your hand the moment you go away. And before she lets go, you’ll be wiring for another. YOU WANT TO BE LOVED, you want to be loved—a man of your years. It’s disgusting—”
“I don’t see it. I believe in love—” said Jim, watching and grinning oddly.
“Bah, love! Messing, that’s what it is. It wouldn’t matter if it did you no harm. But when you stagger and stumble down a road, out of sheer sloppy relaxation of your will—–”
At this point Jim suddenly sprang from his chair at Lilly, and gave him two or three hard blows with his fists, upon the front of the body. Then he sat down in his own chair again, saying sheepishly:
“I knew I should have to do it, if he said any more.”
Lilly sat motionless as a statue, his face like paper. One of the blows had caught him rather low, so that he was almost winded and could not breathe. He sat rigid, paralysed as a winded man is. But he wouldn’t let it be seen. With all his will he prevented himself from gasping. Only through his parted lips he drew tiny gasps, controlled, nothing revealed to the other two. He hated them both far too much.
For some minutes there was dead silence, whilst Lilly silently and viciously fought for his breath. Tanny opened her eyes wide in a sort of pleased bewilderment, and Jim turned his face aside, and hung his clasped hands between his knees.
“There’s a great silence, suddenly!” said Tanny.
“What is there to say?” ejaculated Lilly rapidly, with a spoonful of breath which he managed to compress and control into speech. Then he sat motionless again, concerned with the business of getting back his wind, and not letting the other two see.