“Do you love playing?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he said, with that shadow of irony which seemed like a smile on his face.
“Live for it, so to speak,” she said.
“I make my living by it,” he said.
“But that’s not really how you take it?” she said. He eyed her. She watched him over her cigarette. It was a personal moment.
“I don’t think about it,” he said.
“I’m sure you don’t. You wouldn’t be so good if you did. You’re awfully lucky, you know, to be able to pour yourself down your flute.”
“You think I go down easy?” he laughed.
“Ah!” she replied, flicking her cigarette broadcast. “That’s the point. What should you say, Jimmy?” she turned to one of the men. He screwed his eyeglass nervously and stiffened himself to look at her.
“I—I shouldn’t like to say, off-hand,” came the small-voiced, self-conscious answer. And Jimmy bridled himself and glanced at Aaron.
“Do you find it a tight squeeze, then?” she said, turning to Aaron once more.
“No, I can’t say that,” he answered. “What of me goes down goes down easy enough. It’s what doesn’t go down.”
“And how much is that?” she asked, eying him.
“A good bit, maybe,” he said.
“Slops over, so to speak,” she retorted sarcastically. “And which do you enjoy more, trickling down your flute or slopping over on to the lap of Mother Earth—of Miss, more probably!”
“Depends,” he said.
Having got him a few steps too far upon the personal ground, she left him to get off by himself.
So he found London got on his nerves. He felt it rubbed him the wrong way. He was flattered, of course, by his own success—and felt at the same time irritated by it. This state of mind was by no means acceptable. Wherever he was he liked to be given, tacitly, the first place—or a place among the first. Among the musical people he frequented, he found himself on a callow kind of equality with everybody, even the stars and aristocrats, at one moment, and a backstairs outsider the next. It was all just as the moment demanded. There was a certain excitement in slithering up and down the social scale, one minute chatting in a personal tete-a-tete with the most famous, or notorious, of the society beauties: and the next walking in the rain, with his flute in a bag, to his grubby lodging in Bloomsbury. Only the excitement roused all the savage sarcasm that lay at the bottom of his soul, and which burned there like an unhealthy bile.