For the next month, occupied with my own affairs, I saw no one connected with this lamentable business, and my mind ceased to be occupied with it. But one day, when I was walking along, bent on some errand, I passed Charles Strickland. The sight of him brought back to me all the horror which I was not unwilling to forget, and I felt in me a sudden repulsion for the cause of it. Nodding, for it would have been childish to cut him, I walked on quickly; but in a minute I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“You’re in a great hurry,” he said cordially.
It was characteristic of him to display geniality with anyone who showed a disinclination to meet him, and the coolness of my greeting can have left him in little doubt of that.
“I am,” I answered briefly.
“I’ll walk along with you,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“For the pleasure of your society.”
I did not answer, and he walked by my side silently. We continued thus for perhaps a quarter of a mile. I began to feel a little ridiculous. At last we passed a stationer’s, and it occurred to me that I might as well buy some paper. It would be an excuse to be rid of him.
“I’m going in here,” I said. “Good-bye.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
I shrugged my shoulders, and went into the shop. I reflected that French paper was bad, and that, foiled of my purpose, I need not burden myself with a purchase that I did not need. I asked for something I knew could not be provided, and in a minute came out into the street.
“Did you get what you wanted?” he asked.
We walked on in silence, and then came to a place where several streets met. I stopped at the curb.
“Which way do you go?” I enquired.
“Your way,” he smiled.
“I’m going home.”
“I’ll come along with you and smoke a pipe.”
“You might wait for an invitation,” I retorted frigidly.
“I would if I thought there was any chance of getting one.”
“Do you see that wall in front of you?” I said, pointing.
“In that case I should have thought you could see also that I don’t want your company.”
“I vaguely suspected it, I confess.”
I could not help a chuckle. It is one of the defects of my character that I cannot altogether dislike anyone who makes me laugh. But I pulled myself together.
“I think you’re detestable. You’re the most loathsome beast that it’s ever been my misfortune to meet. Why do you seek the society of someone who hates and despises you?”
“My dear fellow, what the hell do you suppose I care what you think of me?”
“Damn it all,” I said, more violently because I had an inkling my motive was none too creditable, “I don’t want to know you.”
“Are you afraid I shall corrupt you?”
His tone made me feel not a little ridiculous. I knew that he was looking at me sideways, with a sardonic smile.
“I suppose you are hard up,” I remarked insolently.
“I should be a damned fool if I thought I had any chance of borrowing money from you.”
“You’ve come down in the world if you can bring yourself to flatter.”
“You’ll never really dislike me so long as I give you the opportunity to get off a good thing now and then.”
I had to bite my lip to prevent myself from laughing. What he said had a hateful truth in it, and another defect of my character is that I enjoy the company of those, however depraved, who can give me a Roland for my Oliver. I began to feel that my abhorrence for Strickland could only be sustained by an effort on my part. I recognised my moral weakness, but saw that my disapprobation had in it already something of a pose; and I knew that if I felt it, his own keen instinct had discovered it, too. He was certainly laughing at me up his sleeve. I left him the last word, and sought refuge in a shrug of the shoulders and taciturnity.