Strange to say, the chill came on him as he passed under the arch of Westgate, and into view of the busy High Street, the lit shops, the passers-by jostling upon the pavements, the running newsboys, the hawkers with their barrows, the soldiers strolling five abreast down the middle of the roadway. Here was the whole city coming and going. Here, precisely as he had left it thirty-five years ago, it sprang back into life again, like an illuminated clockwork. No; he was wrong, of course. It had been working all the while, and without intermission, absorbed in its own business–buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage. He had dropped out, that was all.
The Christmas decorations, the jollity in the voices exchanging Christmas salutations, aggravated the poor colonel’s sense of homelessness, and seemed to mock it. One window displayed a huge boar’s head, grinning, with a lemon in its mouth. The proprietor of another had hung his seasonable wares on a small spruce fir, and lit it all over with coloured candles. A poulterer, three doors away, had draped his house-front, from the third story down, with what at first glance appeared to be a single heavy curtain of furs and feathers–string upon string of hares, of pheasants, of turkeys, fat geese, wild ducks.
This prevailing superabundant good cheer did not, however, extend to the visitor, as the colonel discovered, within the doorway of The Dragon. Nor was that doorway the old hospitable entrance through which the stage-coaches had rattled into a paved court lined with red-windowed offices. The new proprietor had blocked all this up with a flight of steps, and an arrangement of mahogany and plate-glass. There remained but the arch under which, these years ago, the stout coachman, as he swung his leaders sharp round to the entry, had warned passengers to duck their heads. The colonel was staring up at it when he became aware of a liveried boots holding the mahogany door open for him at the head of the steps, and with an expression that did not include ‘Welcome!’ among the many things that it said.
The boots too plainly was sullen, the young lady in the office curt and off-hand, the second and only waiter as nearly as possible mutinous. ‘All his blooming companions,’ he explained (though not precisely in these words), had departed to spend Christmas in the bosom of their families. He spoke cockney English, and, in reply to a question (for the colonel tried hard to draw him into conversation and dissipate his gloom), confessed that he came from Brixton.
Further than this he would not go. In a mortuary silence, the colonel, seated beneath a gasalier adorned (the mockery of it!) with a sprig of mistletoe, sipped his half-pint of sherry, and ate his way through three courses of a sufficiently good dinner. But better, says Solomon, is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.
Every time he raised his eyes they rested on the table at which he had dined with his father on the eve of being entered at school. The same table, the same heavy mahogany chairs–he recalled the scroll pattern on their backs. He could see himself there in the corner–a small boy, white in the face and weary with travel, divided between surmise of the morrow and tears for the home left behind. He could see his father seated there in profile, the iron-gray hair, the remembered stoop. Well, they were all gone now–all, missing whom that night he had come so near to breaking down and weeping. . . . Mother, sisters, brother, gone one by one during the years of his Indian exile, and himself now left the last of his race, unmarried, and never likely to marry. Why had he come? To revisit his old school? But the school would be closed for the Christmas holidays, the children dispersed to their homes and happy.