The Romancers

It was Atumn in London, that blessed season between the harshness of winter and the insincerities of summer; a trustful season when one buys bulbs and sees to the registration of one’s vote, believing perpetually in spring and a change of Government. Morton Crosby sat on a bench in a secluded corner of Hyde Park, lazily enjoying a cigarette and watching the slow grazing promenade of a pair of snow- geese, the male looking rather like an albino edition of the russet-hued female. Out of the corner of his eye Crosby also noted with some interest the hesitating hoverings of a human figure, which had passed and repassed his seat two or three times at shortening intervals, like a wary crow about to alight near some possibly edible morsel. Inevitably the figure came to an anchorage on the bench, within easy talking distance of its original occupant. The uncared-for clothes, the aggressive, grizzled beard, and the furtive, evasive eye of the new-comer bespoke the professional cadger, the mall who would undergo hours of humiliating tale-spinning and rebuff rather than adventure on half a day’s decent work.

For a while the new-comer fixed his eyes straight in front of him in a strenuous, unseeing gaze; then his voice broke out with the insinuating inflection of one who has a story to retail well worth any loiterer’s while to listen to.

‘It’s a strange world,’ he said.

As the statement met with no response he altered it to the form of a question.

‘I dare say you’ve found it to be a strange world, mister?’

‘As far as I am concerned,’ said Crosby, ‘the strangeness has worn off in the course of thirty-six years.’

‘Ah,’ said the greybeard, ‘I could tell you things that you’d hardly believe. Marvellous things that have really happened to me.’

‘Nowadays there is not demand for marvellous things that have really happened,’ said Crosby discouragingly; ‘the professional writers of fiction turn these things out so much better. For instance, my neighbours tell me wonderful, incredible things that their Aberdeens and chows and borzois have done; I never listen to them. On the other hand, I have read The Hound of the Baskervilles three times.’

The greybeard moved uneasily in his seat; then he opened up new country.

‘I take it that you are a professing Christian,’ he observed.

‘I am a prominent and I think I may say an influential member of the Mussulman community of Eastern Persian,’ said Crosby, making an excursion himself into the realms of fiction.

The greybeard was obviously disconcerted at this new check of introductory conversation, but the defeat was only momentary.

‘Persia. I should never have taken you for a Persian,’ he remarked, with a somewhat aggrieved air.

‘I am not,’ said Crosby; ‘my father was an Afghan.’

‘An Afghan!’ said the other, smitten into bewildered silence for a moment. Then he recovered himself and renewed his attack.

‘Afghanistan. Ah! We’ve had some wars with that country, now, I dare say, instead of fighting it we might have learned something from it. A very wealthy country, I believe. No real poverty there.’

He raised his voice on the word ‘poverty’ with a suggestion of intense feeling. Crosby saw the opening and avoided it.

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