He sprang towards him and forced his arm down. A gout of wine went down Gordon’s collar.
‘For God’s sake be careful! You don’t want the police to get hold of you, do you?’
‘I want a drink,’ complained Gordon.
‘But dash it! You can’t start drinking here.’
‘Take me to a pub,’ said Gordon.
Ravelston rubbed his nose helplessly. ‘Oh, God! I suppose that’s better than drinking on the pavement. Come on, we’ll go to a pub. You shall have your drink there.’
Gordon recorked his bottle carefully. Ravelston shepherded him across the circus, Gordon clinging to his arm, but not for support, for his legs were still quite steady. They halted on the island, then managed to find a gap in the traffic and went down the Haymarket.
In the pub the air seemed wet with beer. It was all a mist of beer shot through with the sickly tang of whisky. Along the bar a press of men seethed, downing with Faust-like eagerness their last drinks before eleven should sound its knell. Gordon slid easily through the crowd. He was not in a mood to worry about a few jostlings and elbowings. In a moment he had fetched up at the bar between a stout commercial traveller drinking Guinness and a tall, lean, decayed-major type of man with droopy moustaches, whose entire conversation seemed to consist of ‘What ho!’ and ‘What, what!’ Gordon threw half a crown onto the beer-wet bar.
‘A quart of bitter, please!’
‘No quart pots here!’ cried the harassed barmaid, measuring pegs of whisky with one eye on the clock.
‘Quart pots on the top shelf, Effie!’ shouted the landlord over his shoulder, from the other side of the bar.
The barmaid hauled the beer-handle three times hurriedly. The monstrous glass pot was set before him. He lifted it. What a weight! A pint of pure water weighs a pound and a quarter. Down with it! Swish—gurgle! A long, long sup of beer flowed gatefully down his gullet. He paused for breath, and felt a little sickish. Come on, now for another. Swish—gurgle! It almost choked him this time. But stick it out, stick it out! Through the cascade of beer that poured down his throat and seemed to drown his ears he heard the landlord’s shout: ‘Last orders, gentlemen, please!’ For a moment he removed his face from the pot, gasped and got his breath back. Now for the last. Swish—gurgle! A-a-ah! Gordon set down the pot. Emptied in three gulps—not bad. He clattered it on the bar.
‘Hi! Give me the other half of that—quick!’
‘What ho!’ said the major.
‘Coming it a bit, aren’t you?’ said the commercial traveller.
Ravelston, further down the bar and hemmed in by several men, saw what Gordon was doing. He called to him, ‘Hi, Gordon!’, frowned and shook his head, too shy to say in front of everybody, ‘Don’t drink any more.’ Gordon settled himself on his legs. He was still steady, but consciously steady. His head seemed to have swollen to an immense size, his whole body had the same horrible, swollen, fiery feeling as before. Languidly he lifted the refilled beer-pot. He did not want it now. Its smell nauseated him. It was just a hateful, pale yellow, sickly-tasting liquid. Like urine, almost! That bucketful of stuff to be forced down into his bursting guts—horrible! But come on, no flinching! What else are we here for? Down with it! Here she is so near my nose, So tip her up and down she goes. Swish—gurgle!
In the same moment something dreadful happened. His gullet had shut up of its own accord, or the beer had missed his mouth. It was pouring all over him, a tidal wave of beer. He was drowning in beer like lay-brother Peter in the Ingoldsby Legends. Help! He tried to shout, choked, and let fall the beer-pot. There was a flurry all round him. People were leaping aside to avoid the jet of beer. Crash! went the pot. Gordon stood rocking. Men, bottles, mirrors were going round and round. He was falling, losing consciousness. But dimly visible before him was a black upright shape, sole point of stability in a reeling world—the beer-handle. He clutched it, swung, held tight. Ravelston started towards him.
The barmaid leaned indignantly over the bar. The roundabout world slowed down and stopped. Gordon’s brain was quite clear.
‘Here! What are you hanging on to the beer-handle for?’
‘All over my bloody trousers!’ cried the commercial traveller.
‘What am I hanging on to the beer-handle for?’
‘Yes! What are you hanging on to the beer-handle for?’
Gordon swung himself sideways. The elongated face of the major peered down at him, with wet moustaches drooping.
‘She says, “What am I hanging on to the beer-handle for?’”
‘What ho! What?’
Ravelston had forced his way between several men and reached him. He put a strong arm round Gordon’s waist and hoisted him to his feet.
‘Stand up, for God’s sake! You’re drunk.’
‘Drunk?’ said Gordon.
Everyone was laughing at them. Ravelston’s pale face flushed.
‘Two and three those mugs cost,’ said the barmaid bitterly.
‘And what about my bloody trousers?’ said the commercial traveller.
‘I’ll pay for the mug,’ said Ravelston. He did so. ‘Now come on out of it. You’re drunk.’
He began to shepherd Gordon towards the door, one arm round his shoulder, the other holding the Chianti bottle, which he had taken from him earlier. Gordon freed himself. He could walk with perfect steadiness. He said in a dignified manner:
‘Drunk, did you say I was?’
Ravelston took his arm again. ‘Yes, I’m afraid you are. Decidedly.’
‘Swan swam across the sea, well swam swan,’ said Gordon.
‘Gordon, you are drunk. The sooner you’re in bed the better.’
‘First cast out the beam that is in thine own eye before thou castest out the mote that is in thy brother’s,’ said Gordon.
Ravelston had got him out onto the pavement by this time. ‘We’d better get hold of a taxi,’ he said, looking up and down the street.
There seemed to be no taxis about, however. The people were streaming noisily out of the pub, which was on the point of closing. Gordon felt better in the open air. His brain had never been clearer. The red satanic gleam of a Neon light, somewhere in the distance, put a new and brilliant idea into his head. He plucked at Ravelston’s arm.
‘Ravelston! I say, Ravelston!’
‘Let’s pick up a couple of tarts.’
In spite of Gordon’s drunken state, Ravelston was scan dalised. ‘My dear old chap! You can’t do that kind of thing.’
‘Don’t be so damned upper-class. Why not?’
‘But how could you, dash it! After you’ve just said good night to Rosemary—a really charming girl like that!’
‘At night all cats are grey,’ said Gordon, with the feeling that he voiced a profound and cynical wisdom.
Ravelston decided to ignore this remark. ‘We’d better walk up to Piccadilly Circus,’ he said. ‘There’ll be plenty of taxis there.’
The theatres were emptying. Crowds of people and streams of cars flowed to and fro in the frightful corpse-light. Gordon’s brain was marvellously clear. He knew what folly and evil he had committed and was about to commit. And yet after all it hardly seemed to matter. He saw as something far, far away, like something seen through the wrong end of the telescope, his thirty years, his wasted life, the blank future, Julia’s five pounds, Rosemary. He said with a sort of philosophic interest:
‘Look at the Neon lights! Look at those awful blue ones over the rubber shop. When I see those lights I know that I’m a damned soul.’
‘Quite,’ said Ravelston, who was not listening. ‘Ah, there’s a taxi!’ He signalled. ‘Damn! He didn’t see me. Wait here a second.’
He left Gordon by the Tube station and hurried across the street. For a little while Gordon’s mind receded into blank-ness. Then he was aware of two hard yet youthful faces, like the faces of young predatory animals, that had come close up to his own. They had blackened eyebrows and hats that were like vulgarer versions of Rosemary’s. He was exchanging badinage with them. This seemed to him to have been going on for several minutes.
‘Hullo, Dora! Hullo, Barbara! (He knew their names, it seemed.) And how are you? And how’s old England’s winding-sheet?’
‘Oo—haven’t you got a cheek, just!’
‘And what are you up to at this time of night?’
‘Oo—jes’ strolling around.’
‘Like a lion, seeking whom he may devour?’
‘Oo—you haven’t half got a cheek! Hasn’t he got a cheek, Barbara? You have got a cheek!’
Ravelston had caught the taxi and brought it round to where Gordon was standing. He stepped out, saw Gordon between the two girls, and stood aghast.
‘Gordon! Oh, my God! What the devil have you been doing?’
‘Let me introduce you. Dora and Barbara,’ said Gordon.
For a moment Ravelston looked almost angry. As a matter of fact, Ravelston was incapable of being properly angry. Upset, pained, embarrassed—yes; but not angry. He stepped forward with a miserable effort not to notice the two girls’ existence. Once he noticed them the game was up. He took Gordon by the arm and would have bundled him into the taxi.
‘Come on, Gordon, for God’s sake! Here’s the taxi. We’ll go straight home and put you to bed.’
Dora caught Gordon’s other arm and hauled him out of reach as though he had been a stolen handbag.
‘What bloody business is it of yours?’ she cried ferociously.
‘You don’t want to insult these two ladies, I hope?’ said Gordon.
Ravelston faltered, stepped back, rubbed his nose. It was a moment to be firm; but Ravelston had never in his life been firm. He looked from Dora to Gordon, from Gordon to Barbara. That was fatal. Once he had looked them in the face he was lost. Oh, God! What could he do? They were human beings—he couldn’t insult them. The same instinct that sent his hand into his pocket at the very sight of a beggar made him helpless at this moment. The poor, wretched girls! He hadn’t the heart to send them packing into the night. Suddenly he realised that he would have to go through with this abominable adventure into which Gordon had led him. For the first time in his life he was let in for going home with a tart.
‘But dash it all!’ he said feebly.
‘Allons-y,’ said Gordon.
The taximan had taken his direction at a nod from Dora. Gordon slumped into the corner seat and seemed immediately to sink into some immense abyss from which he rose again more gradually and with only partial consciousness of what he had been doing. He was gliding smoothly through darkness starred with lights. Or were the lights moving and he stationary? It was like being on the ocean bottom, among the luminous, gliding fishes. The fancy returned to him that he was a damned soul in hell. The landscape in hell would be just like this. Ravines of cold evil-coloured fire, with darkness all above. But in hell there would be torment. Was this torment? He strove to classify his sensations. The momentary lapse into unconsciousness had left him weak, sick, shaken; his forehead seemed to be splitting. He put out a hand. It encountered a knee, a garter and a small soft hand which sought mechanically for his. He became aware that Ravelston, sitting opposite, was tapping his toe urgently and nervously.