The scene was a street in the West End of London, a little south of Eaton Square: the hour just twenty-five minutes short of midnight.
A wind from the North Sea had been blowing all day across the Thames marshes, and collecting what it could carry; and the shop-keepers had scarcely drawn their iron shutters before a thin fog drifted up from lamp-post to lamp-post and filled the intervals with total darkness–all but one, where, half-way down the street on the left-hand side, an enterprising florist had set up an electric lamp at his private cost, to shine upon his window and attract the attention of rich people as they drove by on their way to the theatres. At nine o’clock he closed his business: but the lamp shone on until midnight, to give the rich people another chance, on their way home, of reading that F. Stillman was prepared to decorate dinner-tables and ball-rooms, and to supply bridal bouquets or mourning wreaths at short notice.
The stream of homeward-bound carriages had come to a sudden lull. The red eyes of a belated four-wheeler vanished in the fog, and the florist’s lamp flung down its ugly incandescent stare on an empty pavement. Himself in darkness, a policeman on the other side of the street flashed his lantern twice, closed the slide and halted for a moment to listen by an area railing.
Halting so, he heard a rapid footfall at the upper corner of the street. It drew nearer. A man suddenly stepped into the circle of light on the pavement, as if upon a miniature stage; and as suddenly paused to gaze upward at the big white globe.
He was a middle-aged man, dressed in an ill-fitting suit of broad-cloth, with a shabby silk hat and country-made boots. He stared up at the globe, as if to take his bearings in the fog; then pulled out a watch.
As the light streamed down upon its dial, a woman sidled out from the hollow of a shop-door behind him, and touched his elbow.
“Deary!” she began. “Going home, deary?”
“Heh? Let me alone, please,” said the man roughly. “I am not that sort.” She had almost slipped her arm in his before he turned to speak; but now she caught it away, gasping. Mock globes danced before his eyes and for the moment he saw nothing but these: did not see that first she would have run, then moved her hands up to cover her face. Before they could do so he saw it, all white and damned.
“Oh, Willy . . .” She put out a hand as if to ward him off, but dropped both arms before her and stood, swaying them ever so slightly.
“So this . . . So this. . .” He choked upon the words.
She nodded, hardening her eyes to meet his. “He left me. He sent no money–“
“I was afraid.”
“Afraid to do it . . . suddenly . . . to put an end. . . . It’s not so easy to starve, really. Oh, Willy, can’t you hit me?”
He seemed to be reflecting. “I–I say,” he said abruptly, “can’t we talk? Can’t we get away somewhere and talk?”
Her limp arms seemed to answer: they asked, as plainly as words, “What is there to say?”
“I don’t know. . . . Somewhere out of this infernal light. I want to think. There must be somewhere, away from this light . . .” He broke off. “At home, now, I can think. I am always thinking at home.”
“At home . . .” the woman echoed.
“And you must think too?”
“Ah!” he ran on, as one talking against time: “but what do you suppose I think about, nine times out of ten? Why”–and he uttered it with an air of foolish triumph–“of the chances that we might meet . . . and what would happen. Have you ever thought of that?”