—That question is out of order, said Stephen. Next business.
His smiling eyes were fixed on a silver-wrapped tablet of milk chocolate which peeped out of the propagandist’s breast-pocket. A little ring of listeners closed round to hear the war of wits. A lean student with olive skin and lank black hair thrust his face between the two, glancing from one to the other at each phrase and seeming to try to catch each flying phrase in his open moist mouth. Cranly took a small grey handball from his pocket and began to examine it closely, turning it over and over.
—Next business? said MacCann. Hom!
He gave a loud cough of laughter, smiled broadly and tugged twice at the straw-coloured goatee which hung from his blunt chin.
—The next business is to sign the testimonial.
—Will you pay me anything if I sign? asked Stephen.
—I thought you were an idealist, said MacCann.
The gipsy-like student looked about him and addressed the onlookers in an indistinct bleating voice.
—By hell, that’s a queer notion. I consider that notion to be a mercenary notion.
His voice faded into silence. No heed was paid to his words. He turned his olive face, equine in expression, towards Stephen, inviting him to speak again.
MacCann began to speak with fluent energy of the Tsar’s rescript, of Stead, of general disarmament arbitration in cases of international disputes, of the signs of the times, of the new humanity and the new gospel of life which would make it the business of the community to secure as cheaply as possible the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number.
The gipsy student responded to the close of the period by crying:
—Three cheers for universal brotherhood!
—Go on, Temple, said a stout ruddy student near him. I’ll stand you a pint after.
—I’m a believer in universal brotherhood, said Temple, glancing about him out of his dark oval eyes. Marx is only a bloody cod.
Cranly gripped his arm tightly to check his tongue, smiling uneasily, and repeated:
—Easy, easy, easy!
Temple struggled to free his arm but continued, his mouth flecked by a thin foam:
—Socialism was founded by an Irishman and the first man in Europe who preached the freedom of thought was Collins. Two hundred years ago. He denounced priestcraft, the philosopher of Middlesex. Three cheers for John Anthony Collins!
A thin voice from the verge of the ring replied:
Moynihan murmured beside Stephen’s ear:
—And what about John Anthony’s poor little sister:
Lottie Collins lost her drawers;
Won’t you kindly lend her yours?
Stephen laughed and Moynihan, pleased with the result, murmured again:
—We’ll have five bob each way on John Anthony Collins.
—I am waiting for your answer, said MacCann briefly.
—The affair doesn’t interest me in the least, said Stephen wearily. You know that well. Why do you make a scene about it?
—Good! said MacCann, smacking his lips. You are a reactionary, then?
—Do you think you impress me, Stephen asked, when you flourish your wooden sword?