The Philanderers

Chapter II

A.E.W. Mason

WAKING UP six hours later, Drake looked out upon a brown curtain of London fog. The lamps were lit at the crossings in Trafalgar Square—half-a-mile distant they seemed, opaque haloes about a pin’s point of flame, and people passing in the light of them loomed and vanished like the figures of a galanty-show. From beneath rose the bustle of the streets, perceptible only to Drake, upon the fourth floor, as a subterranean rumble. ‘London,’ he said to himself, ‘I live here,’ and laughed unappalled. Listening to the clamour, he remembered a map, seen somewhere in a railway guide, a map of England with the foreign cables, tiny spider-threads spun to the four quarters and thickening to a solid column at Falmouth and Cromer, the world’s arteries, he liked to think, converging to its heart.

The notion of messages flashing hourly along these wires brought to mind the existence of the Meteor. He sent out for a copy of each number which had appeared since he had begun his voyage, and commencing on the task whilst he was still at breakfast, read through every article written concerning the Boruwimi expedition. He finished the last in the smoking-room shortly after one o’clock, and rose from his investigation with every appearance of relief. From the first to the final paragraph, not so much as a mention of Gorley’s name!

The reason for his relief lay in a promise which he had sent to Gorley’s father, that he would suppress the trouble as far as he could; and Drake liked to keep his promises.

Gorley had come out to Matanga with a cloudy reputation winging close at his heels. There were rumours of dishonesty in the office of a private bank in Kent; his name became a sign for silence, and you were allowed to infer that Gorley’s relatives had made good the deficit and so avoided a criminal prosecution. It was not surprising, then, that Gorley, on hearing of Drake’s intended march to Boruwimi, should wish to take service under his command. He called upon Drake with that request, was confronted with the current story, and invited to disprove it. Gorley read his man shrewdly, and confessed the truth of the charge without an attempt at mitigation. He asked frankly for a place in the troop, the lowest, as his chance of redemption, or rather demanded it as a grace due from man to man. Drake was taken by his manner, noticed his build, which was tough and wiry, and conceded the request. Nor had he reason to regret his decision on the march out. Gorley showed himself alert, and vigilant, a favourite with the blacks, and obedient to his officers. He was advanced from duty to duty; a week before the force began its homeward march from Boruwimi he was sent out with a body of men to forage for provisions. Three days later a solitary negro rushed into camp, one of the few survivors of his tribe, he said. He told a story of food freely given, a village plundered and burned for thanks, of gold-dust stolen and the owners murdered that they might the better hold their tongues. He signified Gorley as the culprit. Drake, guided by the negro, marched towards the spot. He met Gorley and his company half-way between Boruwimi and the village, carried him along with him, and proved the story true. Against Gorley’s troops no charge could be sustained; they had only obeyed orders. But Gorley he court-martialled, and the result has been described.

This was the incident which Drake was unwilling to commit to the discretion of the editor of the Meteor. He had discovered Gorley’s relations in England, and had written to them a full account of the affair, despatching with his letter a copy of the evidence given at the court-martial. The reply came from the father, a heart-broken admission of the justice of Drake’s action, and a prayer that, for the sake of those of the family who still lived, Gorley’s crime should be as far as possible kept secret. Drake gave the promise. So far he had kept it, he realised, as he tossed aside the last copy of the Meteor.

At eight o’clock Sidney Mallinson arrived. He saw Drake at the top of the flight of steps in the vestibule, and hesitated, perceiving that he was alone.

‘Hasn’t Conway come?’ he asked. ‘I sent to him.’

‘Not yet. It’s barely eight.’

They shook hands limply and searched for topics of conversation.

‘You look older than you did,’ said Mallinson.

‘Ah! Ten years, you know. You haven’t changed much.’

Drake was looking at a face distinguished by considerable comeliness. The forehead, however, overhung the features beneath it and gave to a mouth and chin, which would otherwise have aroused no criticism, an appearance of irresolution. The one noticeable difference in Mallinson was the addition of an air of constraint. It was due partly to a question which had troubled him since he had received the invitation. Had Drake read A Man of Influence and recognised himself?

‘I got your telegram,’ he said at length.

‘Naturally, or you wouldn’t be here.’

The answer was intended to be jocular; it sounded only gauche, as Drake recognised, and the laugh which accompanied it positively rude.

‘Shall I put my coat in the cloak-room?’ suggested Mallinson.

‘Oh yes, do!’ replied Drake. He was inclined to look upon the proposal as an inspiration, and his tone unfortunately betrayed his thought.

When Mallinson returned, he saw Conway entering the hotel. The latter looked younger by some years than either of his companions, so that, as the three men stood together at this moment, they might have been held to represent three separate decades.

‘Twenty minutes late, I’m afraid,’ said Conway, and he shook Drake’s hand with a genuine cordiality.

‘Five,’ said Drake, looking at his watch.

‘Twenty,’ replied Conway. ‘A quarter to, was the time Mallinson wired me.’

‘Was it?’ asked Mallinson, with a show of surprise. ‘I must have made a mistake.’

It occurred, however, to Drake that the mistake might have been purposely made from a prevision of the awkwardness of the meeting. The dinner, prefaced inauspiciously, failed to remove the awkwardness, since the reticence under which Drake and Mallinson laboured, gradually spread and enveloped Conway. A forced conversation of a curiously impersonal sort dragged from course to course. Absolute strangers would have exhibited less restraint; for the ghost of an old comradeship made the fourth at the feast and prated to them in exiguous voice of paths that had diverged. Drake noticed, besides, an undercurrent of antagonism between Conway and Mallinson. He inquired what each had been doing during his absence.

‘Mallinson,’ interposed Conway, ‘has been absorbed in the interesting study of his own personality.’

‘I am not certain that pursuit is not preferable to revolving unsuccessfully through a cycle of professions,’ said Mallinson in slow sarcasm.

The flush was upon Conway’s cheek now. He set his wine glass deliberately upon the table and leaned forward on an elbow.

‘My dear good Sidney,’ he began with elaborate affection, plainly intended as the sugar coating of an excessively unpleasant pill. Drake hastily interrupted with an anecdote of African experiences. It sounded bald and monstrously long, but it served its purpose as peace-maker. Literary acquisitiveness drew Mallinson on to ask for more of the same kind. Drake mentioned a race of pigmies and described them, speculating whether they might be considered the originals of the human race.

‘My dear fellow, don’t!’ said Mallinson; ‘I loathe hearing about them. It’s so degrading to us to think we sprang from them.’

The peculiar sensitiveness of a mind ever searching, burrowing in, and feeding upon itself struck a jarring note upon its healthier companion.

‘Why, what on earth does it matter?’ asked Drake.

‘Ah! Perhaps you wouldn’t understand.’

Conway gave a shrug of the shoulder and laughed to Drake across the table. The latter looked entreaty in reply and courageously started a different topic. He spoke of their boyhood in the suburb on the heights six miles to the south of London, and in particular of a certain hill, Elm-tree Hill they called it, a favourite goal for walks and the spot where the three had last met on the night before Drake left England. London had lain beneath it roped with lights.

‘The enchanted city,’ said Conway, catching back some flavour of those times. ‘It seemed distant as El Dorado, and as desirable.’

Mallinson responded with the gentle smile with which a man recognises and pities a childishness he has himself outgrown.

Drake ordered port, having great faith in its qualities, as inducive of a cat-like content and consequent good-fellowship. Mallinson, however, never touched port; nothing but the lightest of French burgundies after dinner for him. The party withdrew to the smoking-room.

‘By the way, Drake,’ asked Mallinson, ‘have you anything to do to-night?’

‘No, why?’

‘I was asked to take you to a sort of party.’

Conway looked up sharply in surprise.

‘You were asked to take me!’ exclaimed Drake. ‘Who asked you?’

‘Oh, nobody whom you know.’ He hesitated for a second, then added with studied carelessness, ‘A Miss Le Mesurier. Her mother’s dead,’ he explained, noticing the look of surprise on Drake’s face, ‘so she keeps house for her father. There’s an aunt to act as chaperon, but she doesn’t count. I got a note from Miss Le Mesurier just before I came here asking me to bring you.’

‘But what does she know of me?’

‘Oh, I may have mentioned your name,’ he explained indifferently, and Conway smiled.

‘Besides,’ said Conway, ‘the Meteor has transformed you into a public character. One knows of your movements.’

‘What I don’t see is how Miss Le Mesurier could have known that you had landed yesterday,’ commented Mallinson.

‘I was interviewed by the Meteor on Plymouth Quay. You received the note, you say, this evening. She may have seen the interview.’

Drake called to a waiter and ordered him to bring a copy of the paper. Conway took it and glanced at the first page.

‘Yes, here it is.’

He read a few lines to himself, and burst into a laugh.

‘Guess how it begins?’

‘I know,’ said Drake.

‘A sovereign you don’t.’

Drake laid a sovereign on the table. Conway followed his example.

‘It begins,’ said Drake, ‘with a Latin quotation, O si sic omnes!’

‘It begins,’ corrected Conway, pocketing the money, ‘with very downright English’; and he read, ‘Drake, with the casual indifference of the hardened filibuster, readily accorded an interview to our representative on landing from the Dunrobin Castle yesterday afternoon!’

Drake snatched the paper out of Conway’s hand, and ran his eye down the column to see whether his words had been similarly transmuted by the editorial alchemy. They were printed, however, as they had been spoken, but interspersed with comments. The editor had contented himself with stamping his own device upon the coin; he had not tried to change its metal. Drake tossed the paper on one side. ‘The man goes vitriol-throwing with vinegar,’ he said.

Conway picked up the Meteor.

‘You are a captain, aren’t you?’ he asked. ‘The omission of the title presumes you a criminal.’

‘I don’t object to the omission,’ replied Drake. ‘I suppose the title belongs to me by right. But, after all, a captain in Matanga! There are more honourable titles.’

Mallinson looked at him suddenly, as though some fresh idea had shot into his brain.

‘Well, will you come?’ he asked carelessly.

‘I hardly feel inclined to move.’

‘I didn’t imagine you would.’ There was evidence of distinct relief in the brisk tone of Mallinson’s voice. He turned to Conway, ‘We ought to be starting, I fancy.’

‘I shall stay with Drake,’ Conway answered, despondently to Drake’s thinking, and he lapsed into silence after Mallinson’s departure, broken by intervals of ineffective sarcasm concerning women, ineffectively accentuated by short jerks of laughter. He roused himself in a while and carried Drake off to his club, where he found Hugh Fielding pulling his moustache over the Meteor. He introduced Drake, and left them together.

‘I was reading a list of your sins,’ said Fielding, and he waved the newspaper.

Drake laughed in reply.

‘The vivisectionists,’ said Fielding, ‘may cite you as proof of the painlessness of their work.’

‘It is my character that suffers the knife. I fancy the editor would prefer to call the operation a post-mortem.’

Fielding warmed to his new acquaintance. Whisky and potass helped them to discover common friends, about whom Fielding supplied information with a flavour of acid in his talk which commended him to Drake; it bit without malice. Mallinson’s name was mentioned.

‘You have read his autobiography?’ asked Fielding.

‘No; but I have read his novel.’

‘That’s what I mean. Most men wait till they have achieved a career before they write their autobiographies. He anticipates his. It’s rather characteristic of the man, I think.’

They drove from the club together in a hansom. Opposite to his rooms in St. James’s Street Fielding got out.

‘Good-night,’ he said, and took a step towards the door.

A lukewarm curiosity which had been stirring in Drake during the latter part of the evening prompted him to a question now that he saw the opportunity to satisfy it disappearing.

‘You know the Le Mesuriers?’ he asked.

Fielding laughed. ‘Already?’ he said.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Then you are not acquainted with the lady?’

‘No; that’s what I’m asking. What is Miss Le Mesurier like?’

‘She is more delightfully surprising than even I had imagined. Otherwise she’s difficult to describe; a bald enumeration of features would be rank injustice.’

Drake’s curiosity responded to the flick.

‘One might fit them together with a little trouble,’ he suggested.

‘The metaphor of a puzzle is not inapt,’ replied Fielding, as he opened his door. ‘Good-night!’ and he went in.

Half-way down Pall Mall Drake was smitten by a sudden impulse. The fog had cleared from the streets; he looked up at the sky. The night was moonless but starlit, and very clear. He lifted the trap, spoke to the cabman, and in a few minutes was driving southwards across Westminster Bridge.

It was the chance recollection of a phrase dropped by Conway during dinner which sent him in this untimely scurry to Elm-tree Hill. ‘As distant as El Dorado, and as desirable.’ The sentence limned with precision the impression which London used to produce upon Drake. The sight of it touched upon some single chord of fancy in a nature otherwise prosaic, of which the existence was unsuspected by his few companions and unrealised by himself.

Working in that tower which you could see from the summit of the Elm-tree Hill topping the sky-line to the west, in order to complete his education as an engineer before his meagre capital was exhausted, Drake had enjoyed little opportunity of acquiring knowledge of London; and those acquaintances of his who travelled thither with their shiny black bags every morning, seemed to him to know even less than he did. There were but two points of view from which the town was regarded in the suburb, and the inhabitants chose this view according to their sex. To the men London was a counting-house, and certainly some miles of yellow brick mansions and flashing glasshouses testified that the view was a profitable one. To the women it was the alluringly wicked abode of society, and they held their hands before their faces when they mentioned it, to hide their yearning. Occasionally they imagined they caught a glimpse into it, when a minister from one of the states in the Balkan Peninsula strayed down to shed a tallow-candle lustre over a garden party. To both these views Drake had listened with the air of a man listening to an impertinence, and his attitude towards the former view showed particularly the strength of the peculiar impression which London made on him, since he always placed the acquisition of a fortune as an aim before himself.

He thought of London, in fact, as a countryman might, with all a countryman’s sense of its mystery and romance, intensified in him by the daily sight of its domes and spires. He saw it clothed by the changing seasons, now ringed in green, now shrouded in white; on summer mornings, when it lay clearly defined like a finished model and the sun sparkled on the vanes, set the long lines of windows ablaze in the Houses of Parliament, and turned the river into a riband of polished steel; or, again, when the cupola of St. Paul’s and the Clock Tower at Westminster pierced upwards through a level of fog, as though hung in the mid-air; or when mists, shredded by a south wind, swirled and writhed about the rooftops until the city itself seemed to take fantastic shapes and melt to a substance no more solid than the mists themselves.

These pictures, deeply impressed upon him at the moment of actual vision, remained with Drake during the whole period of his absence, changing a little, no doubt, as his imagination more and more informed them, but losing nothing of vividness, rather indeed waxing in it with the gradual years. One may think of him as he marched on expeditions against hostile tribes, dwelling upon these recollections as upon the portrait of an inherited homestead. London, in fact, became to him a living motive, a determining factor in any choice of action. Whatsoever ambitions he nourished presumed London as their starting-point. It was then after all not very singular that on this first night of his return he should make a pilgrimage to the spot whence he had drawn such vital impressions. For a long time he stood looking down the grass slope ragged with brambles and stunted trees, and comprehending the whole lighted city in his glance.

On the way home his mind, which soon tired of a plunge into sentiment, reverted to the thought of Miss Le Mesurier, and he speculated unsuccessfully on the motive which had prompted her to send him so immediate an invitation. The enigmatic interest which she took in him, gave to him in fact a very definite interest in her. He wondered again what she was like. Fielding’s description helped to pique his curiosity. All that he knew of her was her surname, and he found it impossible to infer a face or even a figure from this grain of knowledge. By the time he reached the Grand Hotel, he was regretting that he had not accepted her invitation.

The Philanderers - Contents    |     Chapter III

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