Turnbull and MacIan looked at him for one moment with a sort of notion that perhaps he was not too old to be merely playing the fool. But after staring steadily for an instant Turnbull saw the hard and horrible earnestness in the man’s eyes behind all his empty animation. Then Turnbull looked very gravely at the strict gravel walls and the gay flower-beds and the long rectangular red-brick building, which the mist had left evident beyond them. Then he looked at MacIan.
Almost at the same moment another man came walking quickly round the regal clump of rhododendrons. He had the look of a prosperous banker, wore a good tall silk hat, was almost stout enough to burst the buttons of a fine frock-coat; but he was talking to himself, and one of his elbows had a singular outward jerk as he went by.
XIV. A MUSEUM OF SOULS
The man with the good hat and the jumping elbow went by very quickly; yet the man with the bad hat, who thought he was God, overtook him. He ran after him and jumped over a bed of geraniums to catch him.
“I beg your Majesty’s pardon,” he said, with mock humility, “but here is a quarrel which you ought really to judge.”
Then as he led the heavy, silk-hatted man back towards the group, he caught MacIan’s ear in order to whisper: “This poor gentleman is mad; he thinks he is Edward VII.” At this the self-appointed Creator slightly winked. “Of course you won’t trust him much; come to me for everything. But in my position one has to meet so many people. One has to be broadminded.”
The big banker in the black frock-coat and hat was standing quite grave and dignified on the lawn, save for his slight twitch of one limb, and he did not seem by any means unworthy of the part which the other promptly forced upon him.
“My dear fellow,” said the man in the straw hat, “these two gentlemen are going to fight a duel of the utmost importance. Your own royal position and my much humbler one surely indicate us as the proper seconds. Seconds—yes, seconds——” and here the speaker was once more shaken with his old malady of laughter.
“Yes, you and I are both seconds—and these two gentlemen can obviously fight in front of us. You, he-he, are the king. I am God; really, they could hardly have better supporters. They have come to the right place.”
Then Turnbull, who had been staring with a frown at the fresh turf, burst out with a rather bitter laugh and cried, throwing his red head in the air:
“Yes, by God, MacIan, I think we have come to the right place!” And MacIan answered, with an adamantine stupidity:
“Any place is the right place where they will let us do it.”
There was a long stillness, and their eyes involuntarily took in the landscape, as they had taken in all the landscapes of their everlasting combat; the bright, square garden behind the shop; the whole lift and leaning of the side of Hampstead Heath; the little garden of the decadent choked with flowers; the square of sand beside the sea at sunrise. They both felt at the same moment all the breadth and blossoming beauty of that paradise, the coloured trees, the natural and restful nooks and also the great wall of stone—more awful than the wall of China—from which no flesh could flee.