Where to?' said Lowndes wearily. 'We shall have to go away at eight, and there'll be riding enough for us then. I hate a horse when I have to use him as a necessity. Oh, heavens! what is there to do?'
'Begin whist again, at chick points ['a chick' is supposed to be eight shillings] and a gold mohur on the rub,' said Spurstow promptly.
'Poker. A month's pay all round for the pool - no limit - and fifty-rupee raises. Somebody would be broken before we got up,' said Lowndes.
'Can't say that it would give me any pleasure to break any man in this company,' said Mottram. 'There isn't enough excitement in it, and it's foolish.' He crossed over to the worn and battered little camp-piano - wreckage of a married household that had once held the bungalow - and opened the case.
'It's used up long ago,' said Hummil. 'The servants have picked it to pieces.'
The piano was indeed hopelessly out of order, but Mottram managed to bring the rebellious notes into a sort of agreement, and there rose from the ragged keyboard something that might once have been the ghost of a popular music-hall song. The men in the long chairs turned with evident interest as Mottram banged the more lustily.
'That's good!' said Lowndes. 'By Jove! the last time I heard that song was in '79, or thereabouts, just before I came out.'
'Ah!' said Spurstow with pride, 'I was home in '8o.' And he mentioned a song of the streets popular at that date.
Mottram executed it roughly. Lowndes criticized and volunteered emendations. Mottram dashed into another ditty, not of the music-hall character, and made as if to rise.
'Sit down,' said Hummil. 'I didn't know that you had any music in your composition. Go on playing until you can't think of anything more. I'll have that piano tuned up before you come again. Play something festive.'
Very simple indeed were the tunes to which Mottram's art and the limitations of the piano could give effect, but the men listened with pleasure, and in the pauses talked all together of what they had seen or heard when they were last at home. A dense dust-storm sprung up outside, and swept roaring over the house, enveloping it in the choking darkness of midnight, but Mottram continued unheeding, and the crazy tinkle reached the ears of the listeners above the flapping of the tattered ceiling-cloth.
In the silence after the storm he glided from the more directly personal songs of Scotland, half humming them as he played, into the Evening Hymn.
'Sunday,' said he, nodding his head.
'Go on. Don't apologize for it,' said Spurstow.
Hummil laughed long and riotously. 'Play it, by all means. You're full of surprises today. I didn't know you had such a gift of finished sarcasm. How does that thing go?'
Mottram took up the tune.
'Too slow by half. You miss the note of gratitude,' said Hummil. 'It ought to go to the 'Grasshopper's Polka' - this way.' And he chanted, prestissimo,
'Glory to thee, my God, this night,
For all the blessings of the light.
That shows we really feel our blessings. How does it go on? -
If in the night I sleepless lie,
My soul with sacred thoughts supply;
May no ill dreams disturb my rest, -
Quicker, Mottram! -
Or powers of darkness me molest!'
'Bah! what an old hypocrite you are!'
'Don't be an ass,' said Lowndes. 'You are at full liberty to make fun of anything else you like, but leave that hymn alone. It's associated in my mind with the most sacred recollections----'
'Summer evenings in the country, stained-glass window, light going out, and you and she jamming your heads together over one hymnbook,' said Mottram.
'Yes, and a fat old cockchafer hitting you in the eye when you walked home. Smell of hay, and a moon as big as a bandbox sitting on the top of a haycock; bats, roses, milk and midges,' said Lowndes.
'Also mothers. I can just recollect my mother singing me to sleep with that when I was a little chap,' said Spurstow.
The darkness had fallen on the room. They could hear Hummil squirming in his chair.