WE were talking, one day at the Club, of golf clubs near London, when Jorkens broke in like this: —
’I think I told you once of a poets’ club that I came on, a club for the poets of all time. It was an odd experience: Pope was the hall porter.’
‘I think you told us you had a flask of whiskey with you,’ said Terbut.
‘Of course I had a flask with me,’ said Jorkens. ‘I was on a long walk.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Terbut. ‘Quite natural.’
I remembered the story, too: the club secretary had got in on the strength of a single line, a very fine one, but one line had not been enough for ordinary membership. I reminded Jorkens of the line: —
A rose-red city half as old as time.
‘Yes, that was it,’ said Jorkens. ‘And I wanted to see the place again. So I went there not long ago, to the very spot by the roadside at which I had rested the first time; and I took my flask with me, Terbut, as any sensible man does when he goes for a long walk.’
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ said Terbut.
‘Not that I walked this time,’ Jorkens continued. ‘I don’t care for walking quite so much as I used to, so I took a bus a good deal of the way. The road had altered the whole way along, altered a great deal: they had widened it, turned it into asphalt, and built queer houses along it; but I found the old spot where I had rested, and the same old hedge. So there I stopped again, and looked through the hedge to see if I could see the club over the green lawns. Not a sign of it, or of the houses, either. There were bungalows there now. And then I remembered my flask, and sat down and took a long pull at it. Or I may have taken three pulls. Do you object, Terbut?’
‘No, no, not at all,’ said Terbut.
‘Very well, then,’ said Jorkens. ‘I took a pull at my flask and had a bit of a rest, because I needed it after my journey, even though I had not walked the whole way. It was a nice place to rest, leaning against the bank, provided one got down low enough. It was a summer’s evening, and the sun was low over the opposite side of the road and the rays were in one’s eyes at first; but by shifting one’s position a little one got the shelter of the hedge and was only troubled by a few golden specks along the edges of leaves.
‘As I rested I thought; and, just as I was wondering what had become of that club, I saw a little eddy of dust in the road, dancing in a light breath of a wind that had got up cold with the sunset. I watched the eddy of dust with some interest, because it is unusual on an asphalt road. It reminded me of the old roads where wandering plumes of dust used to run up and down so merrily. But you don’t see that now. So this one seemed to have come back to me from the past; and, as I watched it, it grew longer and thicker, and still danced in the road. The drowsy chill from the sunset would have moved me on but for that.
‘Watching this stray waif, wandering, as it seemed, from old roads, I forgot everything else; and the chimes of the church clock, far away in the evening, failed to remind me that it was growing late. The small wind still blew on and the same eddy of dust danced to it, and as it danced it grew taller and more and more opaque. It puzzled me, this thickening dust at play on an asphalt road, and I took another pull at my flask to help me to understand it. Soon it began to take a definite shape, and that explained everything: it wasn’t dust, it was a ghost. I do not claim any special ability to remember faces after several years, but the surroundings helped me and I saw at once that it was the ghost of Dean Burgon — that is to say, the club secretary. I hadn’t known his name at the time, but I found it out afterwards, the man who wrote that line,
A rose-red city half as old as time.
‘“What are you doing here?” I said.
‘The dancing in the road fell to a faltering shuffle, and he muttered something that I did not hear.
‘“How is the club?” I asked.
‘And the ghost or the dust or the wind gave a little sigh.
‘“Anything the matter?” I asked.
‘And then he blurted it out.
‘“I was dismissed from the club,” he said.
‘“What? What, really?” I said. “They didn’t find any fault with you?”
‘“Theft,” he answered.
‘Not only the word, but his whole attitude was mournful. Birds were singing, the sky was glorious, and the leaves were golden. He was the only mournful thing in the evening. But a man in a position like that, as well as being a dean of the Church of England — I could not believe it.
‘“What happened?” I asked.
‘“It was a man named Rogers,” he said. “I never touched anything in the club. But there was a man named Rogers, and they said I stole from him. I am sure it was quite unconscious.”
‘“Kleptomania?” I said.
‘“Well, practically,” he replied.
‘“Then surely they needn’t —” I began.
‘“Unfortunately,” said the poor ghost, “it affected my whole qualification.”
‘One hardly expects to understand a ghost at once, and I didn’t understand this one. So I asked him to explain to me, and he went on: “It was this man Rogers. He seems to have written a line,
By many a temple half as old as time,
and left it, as it were, lying about. And I suppose I saw it, and put my hand on it without thinking what I was doing. And they said that, however I had come by it, I could not expect to be admitted to such a club as theirs, in any capacity, merely on four words, ‘a rose-red city.’ They said, kleptomania or not, the best part of the line didn’t belong to me, and there was an end of it. I couldn’t blame them. The man I blame is Rogers.”
‘“Rogers?” I exclaimed in astonishment.
‘“Well, yes,” said the disconsolate ghost. “You see, he left it lying about. He was an obscure man and should not have had such a line. I mean, nobody steals jewelry out of a jeweler’s shop. No decent man would think of it. But if one sees a fine brooch lying about on a grocer’s counter, among shavings of carrot and sticks of licorice, one is so surprised that perhaps unconsciously ...”
‘But at that moment the wind dropped and the poor ghost dropped with it, invisible, on to the asphalt.’