They played bridge immediately afterwards.
Mrs. Crowley looked upon conversation as a fine art,
which could not be pursued while the body was engaged
in the process of digestion; and she was of opinion
that a game of cards agreeably diverted the mind and
prepared the intellect for the quips and cranks which
might follow when the claims of the body were satisfied.
Lucy drew Alec MacKenzie as her partner, and so was
able to watch his play when her cards were on the
table. He did not play lightly as did Dick, who
kept up a running commentary the whole time, but threw
his whole soul into the game and never for a moment
relaxed his attention. He took no notice of Dick’s
facetious observations. Presently Lucy grew more
interested in his playing than in the game; she was
struck, not only by his great gift of concentration,
but by his boldness. He had a curious faculty
for knowing almost from the beginning of a hand where
each card lay. She saw, also, that he was plainly
most absorbed when he was playing both hands himself;
he was a man who liked to take everything on his own
shoulders, and the division of responsibility irritated
At the end of the rubber Dick flung
himself back in his chair irritably.
‘I can’t make it out,’
he cried. ’I play much better than you,
and I hold better hands, and yet you get the tricks.’
Dick was known to be an excellent
player, and his annoyance was excusable.
‘We didn’t make a single
mistake,’ he assured his partner, ’and
we actually had the odd in our hands, but not one
of our finesses came off, and all his
did.’ He turned to Alec. ’How
the dickens did you guess I had those two queens?’
‘Because I’ve known you
for twenty years,’ answered Alec, smiling.
’I know that, though you’re impulsive
and emotional, you’re not without shrewdness;
I know that your brain acts very quickly and sees all
kinds of remote contingencies; then you’re so
pleased at having noticed them that you act as if
they were certain to occur. Given these data,
I can tell pretty well what cards you have, after
they’ve gone round two or three times.’
‘The knowledge you have of your
opponents’ cards is too uncanny,’ said
’I can tell a good deal from
people’s faces. You see, in Africa I have
had a lot of experience; it’s apparently so much
easier for the native to lie than to tell the truth
that you get into the habit of paying no attention
to what he says, and a great deal to the way he looks.’
While Mrs. Crowley made herself comfortable
in the chair, which she had already chosen as her
favourite, Dick went over to the fire and stood in
front of it in such a way as effectually to prevent
the others from getting any of its heat.
‘What made you first take to
exploration?’ asked Mrs. Crowley suddenly.
Alec gave her that slow, scrutinising
look of his, and answered, with a smile:
‘I don’t know. I had nothing to do
and plenty of money.’
‘Not a bit of it,’ interrupted
Dick. ’A lunatic wanted to find out about
some district that people had never been to, and it
wouldn’t have been any use to them if they had,
because, if the natives didn’t kill you, the
climate made no bones about it. He came back crippled
with fever, having failed in his attempt, and, after
asserting that no one could get into the heart of
Rofa’s country and return alive, promptly gave
up the ghost. So Alec immediately packed up his
traps and made for the place.’
‘I proved the man was wrong,’
said Alec quietly. ’I became great friends
with Rofa, and he wanted to marry my sister, only I
’And if anyone said it was impossible
to hop through Asia on one foot, you’d go and
do it just to show it could be done,’ retorted
Dick ’You have a passion for doing things because
they’re difficult or dangerous, and, if they’re
downright impossible, you chortle with joy.’
‘You make me really too melodramatic,’
’But that’s just what
you are. You’re the most transpontine person
I ever saw in my life.’ Dick turned to
Lucy and Mrs. Crowley with a wave of the hand.
’I call you to witness. When he was at Oxford,
Alec was a regular dab at classics; he had a gift
for writing verses in languages that no one except
dons wanted to read, and everyone thought that he was
going to be the most brilliant scholar of his day.’
‘This is one of Dick’s
favourite stories,’ said Alec. ’It
would be quite amusing if there were any truth in
But Dick would not allow himself to be interrupted.
’At mathematics, on the other
hand, he was a perfect ass. You know, some people
seem to have that part of their brains wanting that
deals with figures, and Alec couldn’t add two
and two together without making a hexameter out of
it. One day his tutor got in a passion with him
and said he’d rather teach arithmetic to a brick
wall. I happened to be present, and he was certainly
very rude. He was a man who had a precious gift
for making people feel thoroughly uncomfortable.
Alec didn’t say anything, but he looked at him;
and, when he flies into a temper, he doesn’t
get red and throw things about like a pleasant, normal
person he merely becomes a little paler
and stares at you.’
‘I beg you not to believe a
single word he says,’ remonstrated Alec.
’Well, Alec threw over his classics.
Everyone concerned reasoned with him; they appealed
to his common sense; they were appealing to the most
obstinate fool in Christendom. Alec had made up
his mind to be a mathematician. For more than
two years he worked ten hours a day at a subject he
loathed; he threw his whole might into it and forced
out of nature the gifts she had denied him, with the
result that he got a first class. And much good
it’s done him.’
Alec shrugged his shoulders.
’It wasn’t that I cared
for mathematics, but it taught me to conquer the one
inconvenient word in the English language.’
‘And what the deuce is that?’
‘I’m afraid it sounds
very priggish,’ laughed Alec. ’The
Dick gave a little snort of comic rage.
’And it also gave you a ghastly
pleasure in doing things that hurt you. Oh, if
you’d only been born in the Middle Ages, what
a fiendish joy you would have taken in mortifying
your flesh, and in denying yourself everything that
makes life so good to live! You’re never
thoroughly happy unless you’re making yourself
’Each time I come back to England
I find that you talk more and greater nonsense, Dick,’
returned Alec drily.
‘I’m one of the few persons
now alive who can talk nonsense,’ answered his
friend, laughing. ’That’s why I’m
so charming. Everyone else is so deadly earnest.’
He settled himself down to make a deliberate speech.
’I deplore the strenuousness
of the world in general. There is an idea abroad
that it is praiseworthy to do things, and what they
are is of no consequence so long as you do them.
I hate the mad hurry of the present day to occupy
itself. I wish I could persuade people of the
excellence of leisure.’
‘One could scarcely accuse you
of cultivating it yourself,’ said Lucy, smiling.
Dick looked at her for a moment thoughtfully.
‘Do you know that I’m hard upon forty?’
‘With the light behind, you
might still pass for thirty-two,’ interrupted
He turned to her seriously.
‘I haven’t a grey hair on my head.’
‘I suppose your servant plucks them out every
‘Oh, no, very rarely; one a month at the outside.’
‘I think I see one just beside the left temple.’
He turned quickly to the glass.
’Dear me, how careless of Charles!
I shall have to give him a piece of my mind.’
‘Come here, and let me take it out,’ said
’I will let you do nothing of
the sort I should consider it most familiar.’
’You were giving us the gratuitous
piece of information that you were nearly forty,’
’The thought came to me the
other day with something of a shock, and I set about
a scrutiny of the life I was leading. I’ve
worked at the bar pretty hard for fifteen years now,
and I’ve been in the House since the general
election. I’ve been earning two thousand
a year, I’ve got nearly four thousand of my
own, and I’ve never spent much more than half
my income. I wondered if it was worth while to
spend eight hours a day settling the sordid quarrels
of foolish people, and another eight hours in the
farce of governing the nation.’
‘Why do you call it that?’
Dick Lomas shrugged his shoulders scornfully.
’Because it is. A few big-wigs
rule the roost, and the rest of us are only there
to delude the British people into the idea that they’re
a self-governing community.’
‘What is wrong with you is that
you have no absorbing aim in politics,’ said
‘Pardon me, I am a suffragist
of the most vehement type,’ answered Dick, with
a thin smile.
‘That’s the last thing
I should have expected you to be,’ said Mrs.
Crowley, who dressed with admirable taste. ’Why
on earth have you taken to that?’
Dick shrugged his shoulders.
’No one can have been through
a parliamentary election without discovering how unworthy,
sordid, and narrow are the reasons for which men vote.
There are very few who are alive to the responsibilities
that have been thrust upon them. They are indifferent
to the importance of the stakes at issue, but make
their vote a matter of ignoble barter. The parliamentary
candidate is at the mercy of faddists and cranks.
Now, I think that women, when they have votes, will
be a trifle more narrow, and they will give them for
motives that are a little more sordid and a little
more unworthy. It will reduce universal suffrage
to the absurd, and then it may be possible to try
Dick had spoken with a vehemence that
was unusual to him. Alec watched him with a certain
‘And what conclusions have you come to?’
For a moment he did not answer, then he gave a deprecating
’I feel that the step I want
to take is momentous for me, though I am conscious
that it can matter to nobody else whatever. There
will be a general election in a few months, and I
have made up my mind to inform the whips that I shall
not stand again. I shall give up my chambers in
Lincoln’s Inn, put up the shutters, so to speak,
and Mr. Richard Lomas will retire from active life.’
‘You wouldn’t really do that?’ cried
‘In a month complete idleness will simply bore
you to death.’
’I doubt it. Do you know,
it seems to me that a great deal of nonsense is talked
about the dignity of work. Work is a drug that
dull people take to avoid the pangs of unmitigated
boredom. It has been adorned with fine phrases,
because it is a necessity to most men, and men always
gild the pill they’re obliged to swallow.
Work is a sedative. It keeps people quiet and
contented. It makes them good material for their
leaders. I think the greatest imposture of Christian
times is the sanctification of labour. You see,
the early Christians were slaves, and it was necessary
to show them that their obligatory toil was noble and
virtuous. But when all is said and done, a man
works to earn his bread and to keep his wife and children;
it is a painful necessity, but there is nothing heroic
in it. If people choose to put a higher value
on the means than on the end, I can only pass with
a shrug of the shoulders, and regret the paucity of
‘It’s really unfair to
talk so much all at once,’ said Mrs. Crowley,
throwing up her pretty hands.
But Dick would not be stopped.
’For my part I have neither
wife nor child, and I have an income that is more
than adequate. Why should I take the bread out
of somebody else’s mouth? And it’s
not on my own merit that I get briefs men
seldom do I only get them because I happen
to have at the back of me a very large firm of solicitors.
And I can find nothing worthy in attending to these
foolish disputes. In most cases it’s six
of one and half a dozen of the other, and each side
is very unjust and pig-headed. No, the bar is
a fair way of earning your living like another, but
it’s no more than that; and, if you can exist
without, I see no reason why Quixotic motives of the
dignity of human toil should keep you to it. I’ve
already told you why I mean to give up my seat in
’Have you realised that you
are throwing over a career that may be very brilliant?
You should get an under-secretaryship in the next
’That would only mean licking
the boots of a few more men whom I despise.’
‘It’s a very dangerous experiment that
Dick looked straight into Alec MacKenzie’s eyes.
‘And is it you who counsel me
not to make it on that account?’ he said, smiling.
‘Surely experiments are only amusing if they’re
‘And to what is it precisely
that you mean to devote your time?’ asked Mrs.
‘I should like to make idleness
a fine art,’ he laughed. ’People,
now-a-days, turn up their noses at the dilettante.
Well, I mean to be a dilettante. I want to devote
myself to the graces of life. I’m forty,
and for all I know I haven’t so very many years
before me: in the time that remains, I want to
become acquainted with the world and all the graceful,
charming things it contains.’
Alec, fallen into deep thought, stared
into the fire. Presently he took a long breath,
rose from his chair, and drew himself to his full height.
’I suppose it’s a life
like another, and there is no one to say which is
better and which is worse. But, for my part, I
would rather go on till I dropped. There are
ten thousand things I want to do. If I had ten
lives I couldn’t get through a tithe of what,
to my mind, so urgently needs doing.’
‘And what do you suppose will
be the end of it?’ asked Dick.
Dick nodded, but did not otherwise reply. Alec
’Well, I suppose the end of
it will be death in some swamp, obscurely, worn out
with disease and exposure; and my bearers will make
off with my guns and my stores, and the jackals will
do the rest.’
‘I think it’s horrible,’ said Mrs.
Crowley, with a shudder.
’I’m a fatalist.
I’ve lived too long among people with whom it
is the deepest rooted article of their faith, to be
anything else. When my time comes, I cannot escape
it.’ He smiled whimsically. ’But
I believe in quinine, too, and I think that the daily
use of that admirable drug will make the thread harder
To Lucy it was an admirable study,
the contrast between the man who threw his whole soul
into a certain aim, which he pursued with a savage
intensity, knowing that the end was a dreadful, lonely
death; and the man who was making up his mind deliberately
to gather what was beautiful in life, and to cultivate
its graces as though it were a flower garden.
’And the worst of it is that
it will all be the same in a hundred years,’
said Dick. ’We shall both be forgotten long
before then, you with your strenuousness, and I with
‘And what conclusion do you
draw from that?’ asked Mrs. Crowley.
‘Only that the psychological
moment has arrived for a whisky and soda.’