I said I should have been glad to show him any attention on our friend's introduction.
'I am sure of that,' said he, 'and am much obliged. At another time, perhaps, I may be less delicate. Only, however, if I have real business; for I know, Mr. Sampson, how precious business time is, and what a vast number of impertinent people there are in the world.'
I acknowledged his consideration with a slight bow. 'You were thinking,' said I, 'of effecting a policy on your life.'
'O dear no! I am afraid I am not so prudent as you pay me the compliment of supposing me to be, Mr. Sampson. I merely inquired for a friend. But you know what friends are in such matters. Nothing may ever come of it. I have the greatest reluctance to trouble men of business with inquiries for friends, knowing the probabilities to be a thousand to one that the friends will never follow them up. People are so fickle, so selfish, so inconsiderate. Don't you, in your business, find them so every day, Mr. Sampson?'
I was going to give a qualified answer; but he turned his smooth, white parting on me with its 'Straight up here, if you please!' and I answered 'Yes.'
'I hear, Mr. Sampson,' he resumed presently, for our friend had a new cook, and dinner was not so punctual as usual, 'that your profession has recently suffered a great loss.'
'In money?' said I.
He laughed at my ready association of loss with money, and replied, 'No, in talent and vigour.'
Not at once following out his allusion, I considered for a moment. 'HAS it sustained a loss of that kind?' said I. 'I was not aware of it.'
'Understand me, Mr. Sampson. I don't imagine that you have retired. It is not so bad as that. But Mr. Meltham - '
'O, to be sure!' said I. 'Yes! Mr. Meltham, the young actuary of the "Inestimable."'
'Just so,' he returned in a consoling way.
'He is a great loss. He was at once the most profound, the most original, and the most energetic man I have ever known connected with Life Assurance.'
I spoke strongly; for I had a high esteem and admiration for Meltham; and my gentleman had indefinitely conveyed to me some suspicion that he wanted to sneer at him. He recalled me to my guard by presenting that trim pathway up his head, with its internal 'Not on the grass, if you please - the gravel.'
'You knew him, Mr. Slinkton.'
'Only by reputation. To have known him as an acquaintance or as a friend, is an honour I should have sought if he had remained in society, though I might never have had the good fortune to attain it, being a man of far inferior mark. He was scarcely above thirty, I suppose?'
'Ah!' he sighed in his former consoling way. 'What creatures we are! To break up, Mr. Sampson, and become incapable of business at that time of life! - Any reason assigned for the melancholy fact?'
('Humph!' thought I, as I looked at him. 'But I WON'T go up the track, and I WILL go on the grass.')
'What reason have you heard assigned, Mr. Slinkton?' I asked, point-blank.
'Most likely a false one. You know what Rumour is, Mr. Sampson. I never repeat what I hear; it is the only way of paring the nails and shaving the head of Rumour. But when YOU ask me what reason I have heard assigned for Mr. Meltham's passing away from among men, it is another thing. I am not gratifying idle gossip then.