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A Conference Of The Powers
by [?]

Mr. Cleever has tasted as much praise, public and private, as one man may safely swallow; but it seemed to me that the outspoken admiration in The Infant’s eyes and the little stir in the little company came home to him very nearly indeed.

“Won’t you take the sofa?” said The Infant. “I’ll sit on Boileau’s chair, and -” here he looked at me to spur me to my duties as a host; but I was watching the novelist’s face. Cleever had not the least intention of going away, but settled himself on the sofa.

Following the first great law of the Army, which says “all property is common except money, and you’ve only got to ask the next man for that,” The Infant offered tobacco and drink. It was the least he could do; but not the most lavish praise in the world held half as much appreciation and reverence as The Infant’s simple “Say when, sir,” above the long glass.

Cleever said “when,” and more thereto, for he was a golden talker, and he sat in the midst of hero-worship devoid of all taint of self-interest. The boys asked him of the birth of his book, and whether it was hard to write, and how his notions came to him; and he answered with the same absolute simplicity as he was questioned. His big eyes twinkled, he dug his long thin hands into his gray beard and tugged it as he grew animated. He dropped little by little from the peculiar pinching of the broader vowels – the indefinable “euh,” that runs through the speech of the pundit caste – and the elaborate choice of words, to freely- mouthed “ows” and “ois,” and, for him at least, unfettered colloquialisms. He could not altogether understand the boys, who hung upon his words so reverently. The line of the chin-strap, that still showed white and untanned on cheekbone and jaw, the steadfast young eyes puckered at the corners of the lids with much staring through red- hot sunshine, the slow, untroubled breathing, and the curious, crisp, curt speech seemed to puzzle him equally. He could create men and women, and send them to the uttermost ends of the earth, to help, delight, and comfort; he knew every mood of the fields, and could interpret them to the cities, and he knew the hearts of many in city and country, but he had hardly, in forty years, come into contact with the thing which is called a Subaltern of the Line. He told the boys this in his own way.

“Well, how should you?” said The Infant. “You – you’re quite different, y’ see, sir.”

The Infant expressed his ideas in his tone rather than his words, but Cleever understood the compliment.

“We’re only Subs,” said Nevin, “and we aren’t exactly the sort of men you’d meet much in your life, I s’pose.”

“That’s true,” said Cleever. “I live chiefly among men who write, and paint, and sculp, and so forth. We have our own talk and our own interests, and the outer world doesn’t trouble us much.”

“That must be awfully jolly,” said Boileau, at a venture. “We have our own shop, too, but ’tisn’t half as interesting as yours, of course. You know all the men who’ve ever done anything; and we only knock about from place to place, and we do nothing.”

“The Army’s a very lazy profession if you choose to make it so,” said Nevin. “When there’s nothing going on, there is nothing going on, and you lie up.”

“Or try to get a billet somewhere, to be ready for the next show,” said The Infant with a chuckle.

“To me,” said Cleever softly, “the whole idea of warfare seems so foreign and unnatural, so essentially vulgar, if I may say so, that I can hardly appreciate your sensations. Of course, though, any change from idling in garrison towns must be a godsend to you.”

Like many home-staying Englishmen, Cleever believed that the newspaper phrase he quoted covered the whole duty of the Army whose toils enabled him to enjoy his many-sided life in peace. The remark was not a happy one, for Boileau had just come off the Frontier, The Infant had been on the warpath for nearly eighteen months, and the little red man Nevin two months before had been sleeping under the stars at the peril of his life. But none of them tried to explain, till I ventured to point out that they had all seen service and were not used to idling. Cleever took in the idea slowly.