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Yes, it had begun within him over a year ago, with a queer unhappy restlessness, a feeling that life was slipping, ebbing away within reach of him, and his arms never stretched out to arrest it. It had begun with a sort of long craving, stilled only when he was working hard--a craving for he knew not what, an ache which was worst whenever the wind was soft.
They said that about forty-five was a perilous age for a man-- especially for an artist. All the autumn of last year he had felt this vague misery rather badly. It had left him alone most of December and January, while he was working so hard at his group of lions; but the moment that was finished it had gripped him hard again. In those last days of January he well remembered wandering about in the parks day after day, trying to get away from it. Mild weather, with a scent in the wind! With what avidity he had watched children playing, the premature buds on the bushes, anything, everything young--with what an ache, too, he had been conscious of innumerable lives being lived round him, and loves loved, and he outside, unable to know, to grasp, to gather them; and all the time the sands of his hourglass running out! A most absurd and unreasonable feeling for a man with everything he wanted, with work that he loved, quite enough money, and a wife so good as Sylvia--a feeling that no Englishman of forty-six, in excellent health, ought for a moment to have been troubled with. A feeling such as, indeed, no Englishman ever admitted having--so that there was not even, as yet, a Society for its suppression. For what was this disquiet feeling, but the sense that he had had his day, would never again know the stir and fearful joy of falling in love, but only just hanker after what was past and gone! Could anything be more reprehensible in a married man?
It was--yes--the last day of January, when, returning from one of those restless rambles in Hyde Park, he met Dromore. Queer to recognize a man hardly seen since school-days. Yet unmistakably, Johnny Dromore, sauntering along the rails of Piccadilly on the Green Park side, with that slightly rolling gait of his thin, horseman's legs, his dandified hat a little to one side, those strange, chaffing, goggling eyes, that look, as if making a perpetual bet. Yes--the very same teasing, now moody, now reckless, always astute Johnny Dromore, with a good heart beneath an outside that seemed ashamed of it. Truly to have shared a room at school--to have been at College together, were links mysteriously indestructible.
"Mark Lennan! By gum! haven't seen you for ages. Not since you turned out a full-blown--what d'you call it? Awfully glad to meet you, old chap!" Here was the past indeed, long vanished in feeling and thought and all; and Lennan's head buzzed, trying to find some common interest with this hunting, racing man-about-town.
Johnny Dromore come to life again--he whom the Machine had stamped with astute simplicity by the time he was twenty-two, and for ever after left untouched in thought and feeling--Johnny Dromore, who would never pass beyond the philosophy that all was queer and freakish which had not to do with horses, women, wine, cigars, jokes, good-heartedness, and that perpetual bet; Johnny Dromore, who, somewhere in him, had a pocket of depth, a streak of hunger, that was not just Johnny Dromore.
How queer was the sound of that jerky talk!
"You ever see old Fookes now? Been racin' at all? You live in Town? Remember good old Blenker?" And then silence, and then another spurt: "Ever go down to 'Bambury's?' Ever go racin'? . . . Come on up to my 'digs.' You've got nothin' to do." No persuading Johnny Dromore that a 'what d'you call it' could have anything to do. "Come on, old chap. I've got the hump. It's this damned east wind."
Well he remembered it, when they shared a room at 'Bambury's'--that hump of Johnny Dromore's, after some reckless spree or bout of teasing.
And down that narrow bye-street of Piccadilly he had gone, and up into those 'digs' on the first floor, with their little dark hall, their Van Beers' drawing and Vanity Fair cartoons, and prints of racehorses, and of the old Nightgown Steeplechase; with the big chairs, and all the paraphernalia of Race Guides and race-glasses, fox-masks and stags'-horns, and hunting-whips. And yet, something that from the first moment struck him as not quite in keeping, foreign to the picture--a little jumble of books, a vase of flowers, a grey kitten.
"Sit down, old chap. What'll you drink?"
Sunk into the recesses of a marvellous chair, with huge arms of tawny leather, he listened and spoke drowsily. 'Bambury's,' Oxford, Gordy's clubs--dear old Gordy, gone now!--things long passed by; they seemed all round him once again. And yet, always that vague sense, threading this resurrection, threading the smoke of their cigars, and Johnny Dromore's clipped talk--of something that did not quite belong. Might it be, perhaps, that sepia drawing--above the 'Tantalus' on the oak sideboard at the far end-- of a woman's face gazing out into the room? Mysteriously unlike everything else, except the flowers, and this kitten that was pushing its furry little head against his hand. Odd how a single thing sometimes took possession of a room, however remote in spirit! It seemed to reach like a shadow over Dromore's outstretched limbs, and weathered, long-nosed face, behind his huge cigar; over the queer, solemn, chaffing eyes, with something brooding in the depths of them.
"Ever get the hump? Bally awful, isn't it? It's getting old. We're bally old, you know, Lenny!" Ah! No one had called him 'Lenny' for twenty years. And it was true; they were unmentionably old.
"When a fellow begins to feel old, you know, it's time he went broke--or something; doesn't bear sittin' down and lookin' at. Come out to 'Monte' with me!"
'Monte!' That old wound, never quite healed, started throbbing at the word, so that he could hardly speak his: "No, I don't care for 'Monte.'"
And, at once, he saw Dromore's eyes probing, questioning:
"Never thought of you as married!"
So Dromore did think of him. Queer! He never thought of Johnny Dromore.
"Winter's bally awful, when you're not huntin'. You've changed a lot; should hardly have known you. Last time I saw you, you'd just come back from Rome or somewhere. What's it like bein' a--a sculptor? Saw something of yours once. Ever do things of horses?"
Yes; he had done a 'relief' of ponies only last year.
"You do women, too, I s'pose?"
The eyes goggled slightly. Quaint, that unholy interest! Just like boys, the Johnny Dromores--would never grow up, no matter how life treated them. If Dromore spoke out his soul, as he used to speak it out at 'Bambury's,' he would say: 'You get a pull there; you have a bally good time, I expect.' That was the way it took them; just a converse manifestation of the very same feeling towards Art that the pious Philistines had, with their deploring eyebrows and their 'peril to the soul.' Babes all! Not a glimmering of what Art meant--of its effort, and its yearnings!
"You make money at it?"
Again that appreciative goggle, as who should say: 'Ho! there's more in this than I thought!'
A long silence, then, in the dusk with the violet glimmer from outside the windows, the fire flickering in front of them, the grey kitten purring against his neck, the smoke of their cigars going up, and such a strange, dozing sense of rest, as he had not known for many days. And then--something, someone at the door, over by the sideboard! And Dromore speaking in a queer voice:
"Come in, Nell! D'you know my daughter?"
A hand took Lennan's, a hand that seemed to waver between the aplomb of a woman of the world, and a child's impulsive warmth. And a voice, young, clipped, clear, said:
"How d'you do? She's rather sweet, isn't she--my kitten?"
Then Dromore turned the light up. A figure fairly tall, in a grey riding-habit, stupendously well cut; a face not quite so round as a child's nor so shaped as a woman's, blushing slightly, very calm; crinkly light-brown hair tied back with a black ribbon under a neat hat; and eyes like those eyes of Gainsborough's 'Perdita'--slow, grey, mesmeric, with long lashes curling up, eyes that draw things to them, still innocent.
And just on the point of saying: "I thought you'd stepped out of that picture"--he saw Dromore's face, and mumbled instead:
"So it's your kitten?"
"Yes; she goes to everybody. Do you like Persians? She's all fur really. Feel!"
Entering with his fingers the recesses of the kitten, he said:
"Cats without fur are queer."
"Have you seen one without fur?"
"Oh, yes! In my profession we have to go below fur--I'm a sculptor."
"That must be awfully interesting."
What a woman of the world! But what a child, too! And now he could see that the face in the sepia drawing was older altogether-- lips not so full, look not so innocent, cheeks not so round, and something sad and desperate about it--a face that life had rudely touched. But the same eyes it had--and what charm, for all its disillusionment, its air of a history! Then he noticed, fastened to the frame, on a thin rod, a dust-coloured curtain, drawn to one side. The self-possessed young voice was saying:
"Would you mind if I showed you my drawings? It would be awfully good of you. You could tell me about them." And with dismay he saw her open a portfolio. While he scrutinized those schoolgirl drawings, he could feel her looking at him, as animals do when they are making up their minds whether or no to like you; then she came and stood so close that her arm pressed his. He redoubled his efforts to find something good about the drawings. But in truth there was nothing good. And if, in other matters, he could lie well enough to save people's feelings, where Art was concerned he never could; so he merely said:
"You haven't been taught, you see."
"Will you teach me?"
But before he could answer, she was already effacing that naive question in her most grown-up manner.
"Of course I oughtn't to ask. It would bore you awfully."
After that he vaguely remembered Dromore's asking if he ever rode in the Row; and those eyes of hers following him about; and her hand giving his another childish squeeze. Then he was on his way again down the dimly-lighted stairs, past an interminable array of Vanity Fair cartoons, out into the east wind.
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