The grill-room clock struck eleven with the respectful unobtrusiveness of one whose mission in life is to be ignored. When the flight of time should really have rendered abstinence and migration imperative the lighting apparatus would signal the fact in the usual way.
Six minutes later Clovis approached the supper-table, in the blessed expectancy of one who has dined sketchily and long ago.
``I'm starving,'' he announced, making an effort to sit down gracefully and read the menu at the same time.
``So I gathered,'' said his host, ``from the fact that you were nearly punctual. I ought to have told you that I'm a Food Reformer. I've ordered two bowls of bread-and-milk and some health biscuits. I hope you don't mind.''
Clovis pretended afterwards that he didn't go white above the collar-line for the fraction of a second.
``All the same,'' he said, ``you ought not to joke about such things. There really are such people. I've known people who've met them. To think of all the adorable things there are to eat in the world, and then to go through life munching sawdust and being proud of it.''
``They're like the Flagellants of the Middle Ages, who went about mortifying themselves.''
``They had some excuse,'' said Clovis. ``They did it to save their immortal souls, didn't they? You needn't tell me that a man who doesn't love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He's simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed.''
Clovis relapsed for a few golden moments into tender intimacies with a succession of rapidly disappearing oysters.
``I think oysters are more beautiful than any religion,'' he resumed presently. ``They not only forgive our unkindness to them; they justify it, they incite us to go on being perfectly horrid to them. Once they arrive at the supper-table they seem to enter thoroughly into the spirit of the thing. There's nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster. Do you like my new waistcoat? I'm wearing it for the first time tonight.''
``It looks like a great many others you've had lately, only worse. New dinner waistcoats are becoming a habit with you.''
``They say one always pays for the excesses of one's youth; mercifully that isn't true about one's clothes. My mother is thinking of getting married.''
``It's the first time.''
``Of course, you ought to know. I was under the impression that she'd been married once or twice at least.''
``Three times, to be mathematically exact. I meant that it was the first time she'd thought about getting married; the other times she did it without thinking. As a matter of fact, it's really I who am doing the thinking for her in this case. You see, it's quite two years since her last husband died.''
``You evidently think that brevity is the soul of widowhood.''
``Well, it struck me that she was getting moped, and beginning to settle down, which wouldn't suit her a bit. The first symptom that I noticed was when she began to complain that we were living beyond our income. All decent people live beyond their incomes nowadays, and those who aren't respectable live beyond other people's. A few gifted individuals manage to do both.''
``It's hardly so much a gift as an industry.''
``The crisis came,'' returned Clovis, ``when she suddenly started the theory that late hours were bad for one, and wanted me to be in by one o'clock every night. Imagine that sort of thing for me, who was eighteen on my last birthday.''
``On your last two birthdays, to be mathematically exact.''
``Oh, well, that's not my fault. I'm not going to arrive at nineteen as long as my mother remains at thirty-seven. One must have some regard for appearances.''
``Perhaps your mother would age a little in the process of settling down.''
``That's the last thing she'd think of. Feminine reformations always start in on the failings of other people. That's why I was so keen on the husband idea.''
``Did you go as far as to select the gentleman, or did you merely throw out a general idea, and trust to the force of suggestion?''
``If one wants a thing done in a hurry one must see to it oneself. I found a military Johnny hanging round on a loose end at the club, and took him home to lunch once or twice. He'd spent most of his life on the Indian frontier, building roads, and relieving famines and minimizing earthquakes, and all that sort of thing that one does do on frontiers. He could talk sense to a peevish cobra in fifteen native languages, and probably knew what to do if you found a rogue elephant on your croquet-lawn; but he was shy and diffident with women. I told my mother privately that he was an absolute woman-hater; so, of course, she laid herself out to flirt all she knew, which isn't a little.''
``And was the gentleman responsive?''
``I hear he told some one at the club that he was looking out for a Colonial job, with plenty of hard work, for a young friend of his, so I gather that he has some idea of marrying into the family.''
``You seem destined to be the victim of the reformation, after all.''
Clovis wiped the trace of Turkish coffee and the beginnings of a smile from his lips, and slowly lowered his dexter eyelid. Which, being interpreted, probably meant, ``I don't think!''