"But I know that was the right thing to say. I've studied your English Laws. However, let's ask this next man that's coming. He is not guileless, and he is not a peasant--but I don't know that either point is of vital importance."
It was, in fact, the Honourable Eric Lindon, who had apparently fulfilled his task of escorting Lady Muriel home, and was now strolling leisurely up and down the road outside the house, enjoying; a solitary cigar.
"Might I trouble you, Sir, to tell us the nearest way to Outland!" Oddity as he was, in outward appearance, the Professor was, in that essential nature which no outward disguise could conceal, a thorough gentleman.
And, as such, Eric Lindon accepted him instantly. He took the cigar from his mouth, and delicately shook off the ash, while he considered. "The name sounds strange to me," he said. "I doubt if I can help you?'
"It is not very far from Fairyland," the Professor suggested.
Eric Lindon's eye-brows were slightly raised at these words, and an amused smile, which he courteously tried to repress, flitted across his handsome face: "A trifle cracked!" he muttered to himself. "But what a jolly old patriarch it is!" Then he turned to the children. "And ca'n't you help him, little folk?" he said, with a gentleness of tone that seemed to win their hearts at once. "Surely you know all about it?
'How many miles to Babylon? Three-score miles and ten. Can I get there by candlelight? Yes, and back again!'"
To my surprise, Bruno ran forwards to him, as if he were some old friend of theirs, seized the disengaged hand and hung on to it with both of his own: and there stood this tall dignified officer in the middle of the road, gravely swinging a little boy to and fro, while Sylvie stood ready to push him, exactly as if a real swing had suddenly been provided for their pastime.
"We don't want to get to Babylon, oo know!" Bruno explained as he swung.
"And it isn't candlelight: it's daylight!" Sylvie added, giving the swing a push of extra vigour, which nearly took the whole machine off its balance.
By this time it was clear to me that Eric Lindon was quite unconscious of my presence. Even the Professor and the children seemed to have lost sight of me: and I stood in the midst of the group, as unconcernedly as a ghost, seeing but unseen.
"How perfectly isochronous!" the Professor exclaimed with enthusiasm. He had his watch in his hand, and was carefully counting Bruno's oscillations. "He measures time quite as accurately as a pendulum!" [Image...'How perfectly isochronous!']
"Yet even pendulums," the good-natured young soldier observed, as he carefully released his hand from Bruno's grasp, "are not a joy for ever! Come, that's enough for one bout, little man!' Next time we meet, you shall have another. Meanwhile you'd better take this old gentleman to Queer Street, Number--"
"We'll find it!" cried Bruno eagerly, as they dragged the Professor away.
"We are much indebted to you!" the Professor said, looking over his shoulder.
"Don't mention it!" replied the officer, raising his hat as a parting salute.
"What number did you say!" the Professor called from the distance.
The officer made a trumpet of his two hands. "Forty!" he shouted in stentorian tones. "And not piano, by any means!" he added to himself. "It's a mad world, my masters, a mad world!" He lit another cigar, and strolled on towards his hotel.
"What a lovely evening!" I said, joining him as he passed me.
"Lovely indeed," he said. "Where did you come from? Dropped from the clouds?"
"I'm strolling your way," I said; and no further explanation seemed necessary.
"Have a cigar?"
"Thanks: I'm not a smoker."
"Is there a Lunatic Asylum near here?"
"Not that I know of."
"Thought there might be. Met a lunatic just now. Queer old fish as ever I saw!"
And so, in friendly chat, we took our homeward ways, and wished each other 'good-night' at the door of his hotel.
Left to myself, I felt the 'eerie' feeling rush over me again, and saw, standing at the door of Number Forty, the three figures I knew so well.