I WAS elected a member of the club to which Jorkens belongs. The Billiards Club it is called, though they don't play much billiards there. I went there many days before I met Jorkens again; and heard many tales after lunch, when we sat round the fire; but somehow there seemed something missing in all of them, to one who was waiting for one of Jorkens's. One heard tales of many lands and of many people, some of them strange enough; and yet, just when the story promised to grip one, there was something that was not there. Or perhaps there was too much; too many facts,too impartial a love of truth, that led so many of them to throw everything into their tales, apart from its interests,merely because it was true. I do not mean that Jorkens's tales were not true, as to some extent his biographer I should be the last to suggest that; it would be unfair to a man from whom I have had so much entertainment. I give the words as they fell from his lips, so far as I can remember them, and leave the reader to judge.
Well, about the fifth time I came in, to my great delight there was Jorkens. He was not very talkative at lunch, nor for some time after; and it was not till he had been awhile in his usual arm-chair, with his whisky and soda at hand on a little table, that he began to mutter. I, who had made a point of sitting beside him, was one of the few that heard him. "There's a lot of loose talk," he was saying, "goes on in clubs. People say things. They don't mean them. But they say things. A lot of loose talk."
"Yes," I said, "I suppose there is rather. There oughtn't to be."
"Of course there oughtn't," said Jorkens. "Now I'll give you an instance. Only to-day; before you came in; but only to-day I heard a man saying to another (they've both gone out now, so never mind who they were), I heard him saying, 'There's no one tells taller tales than Jorkens.' Merely because he hasn't traveled, or, if he has, has kept all the time to roads and paths and railways, merely because he has never been off a good wide path he thinks that things that I may have seen hundreds of times merely weren't there."
"Oh, he can't really have meant it," I said.
"No," said Jorkens, "but he shouldn't have said it. Now, just to prove to you, as I happen to be able to do, that his remark is definitely inaccurate, I can show you a man not a mile from here who tells very much taller stories than I do; and they happen to be perfectly true."
"Oh, I'm sure they are," I said, for Jorkens was distinctly annoyed.
"Care to come and see him?" said Jorkens.
"Well, I'd just as soon hear one of your own stories of things you've seen," I said, "if you'd care to tell me
"Not till I've cleared myself," said Jorkens, "of that loose assertion."
"Yes, I'll come," I said.
So we left the club together.
"I'd take a taxi," said Jorkens, "only I happen to have run out of change."
Though Jorkens was once a great traveler I was not sure what training he was in to walk a mile just then. So I hailed a taxi, Jorkens insisting that he must owe me the money, as it was he who was taking me. We went eastwards, and soon arrived at our destination, Jorkens generously placing himself in debt to me for the fare.
It was a small lodging house beyond Charing Cross Road, and we were shown upstairs by a maid to a carpetless room; and there was Jorkens's friend Terner, a man probably still in the thirties, though he obviously smoked too much, and that made him look a bit older; and besides that he had pure-white hair, which gave a queer venerable appearance to a face that seemed somehow unsuited to it.
They greeted each other, and I was introduced.
"He has come to hear your story," said Jorkens.
"You know I never tell it," answered Terner.
"I know," said Jorkens; "not to sneering fools. But he's not one of those. He can tell when a man's speaking the truth."
They looked at each other, but Terner still seemed uncertain, still seemed to cling to the reticence of a man that has often been doubted.
"It's all right," said Jorkens. "I've told him lots of my tales. He's not one of those sneering fools."
"Told him about the Abu Laheeb?" asked Terner suddenly.
"Oh, yes," said Jorkens.
Terner looked at me.
"A very interesting experience," I said.
"Well," said Terner, taking another cigarette in his stained fingers, "I don't mind telling you. Take a chair."
He lit his cigarette and began.
"It was in 1924; when Mars was about its nearest to the earth. I took off from Ketling aërodrome, and was away two months. Where did they think I was? I certainly hadn't enough petrol to fly about in our atmosphere for two months. If I came down, where did I come down? It was their business to find out and to prove it; and, if not, to believe my story."
1924, and Ketling aërodrome. I did remember now. Yes, a man had claimed to have flown to Mars; had been reluctant to say much at first, because of some horror that he had seen, would not give cheery interviews, was too grimly solemn about it, and so encouraged doubts that might otherwise not have been, and was soured by them, and overwhelmed by a rush of them.
"Why, yes, I remember, of course," I said. "You flew to..."
"A thousand letters by one post, calling me a liar," said Terner. "So after that I refused to tell my story. They wouldn't have believed it in any case. Mars isn't quite what we think it.