‘Why don’t you ask Mallinson?’ said Fielding. ‘He knows her better than I do.’
Conway contested the assertion with some heat.
‘Besides,’ added Drake, ‘his imagination may have been at work. About women, I prefer the estimate of a man of the world.’
The phrase was distasteful to a gentleman whose ambition it was to live and to be recognised as living within view of, but outside the world, say just above it in a placid atmosphere of his own creation. Fielding leaned back in his chair to mete out punishment, joining the finger-tips with an air of ordering a detailed statement.
‘The inhabitants of Sark,’ he began, ‘were from immemorial times notable not merely for their predatory instincts, but for the stay-at-home fashion in which they gave those instincts play. They did not scour the seas for their victims, neither did they till their island. There was no need for so much exertion. They lay supine upon their rocks and waited until a sail appeared above the horizon. Even then they did not stir till nightfall. But after it was dark, they lighted bonfires upon suitable promontories, especially towards Brecqhou and the Gouliot channel, where snags are numerous, and gathered in their harvest in the morning.
‘But,’ Drake interrupted, ‘what on earth has that to do with—’
‘Miss Le Mesurier? A great deal, as you will see if you listen patiently. Lloyd’s at that time had not been invented, and the Sarkese were consequently unpopular with the trading community, and in the reign of Henry the—well, the particular Henry is immaterial—an irate band of merchants sailed from Winchelsea on a trip. They depopulated Sark in a single night, as they thought. But they were mistaken. One family escaped their attention,—the Le Mesuriers, who were the custodians of the silver mines—’ At this point Conway broke in with an impatient laugh. Fielding turned a quiet eye upon him and repeated in an even voice, ‘Who were the custodians of the silver mines, and lived under the shelter of a little cliff close by the main shaft. When Helier de Carteret, who, you know,’ and he inclined suavely towards Conway, ‘was Seigneur of somewhere or other in Jersey, came a few years later to colonise Sark, he found the Le Mesuriers in possession, and while he confiscated the mines, he allowed them to retain their ancient dignity of custodians.’
‘Fudge!’ said Conway rudely. Fielding waved a deprecating hand and continued:
‘Living where they did, it is not to be wondered at that the Le Mesuriers became gradually rich, and the De Carterets gradually poor, so that when the latter family was compelled to place the Seigneurie of Sark upon the market, the Le Mesuriers were the highest bidders. The Le Mesuriers thus became Seigneurs of Sark. But with their position they reversed their conduct, and, instead of taking other people’s money out of mines, they put their own in, with the result that they sustained embarrassing losses. I mention these details incidentally to show that Miss Le Mesurier of to-day is directly descended from ancestors of predatory instincts, who did not go a-hunting for victims, but unobtrusively attracted them in a passive, lazy way which was none the less effectual.’
Conway’s patience was exhausted at this period of the disquisition.
‘I never heard such a hotch-potch of nonsense in my life,’ he said.
‘I admit,’ returned Fielding with unruffled complacency, ‘that I aimed at an allegory rather than a pedantic narrative of facts. I was endeavouring to explain Clarice Le Mesurier on the fashionable principle of heredity.’
It flashed across Drake that if Fielding had described, though with some exaggeration, an actual phase of Miss Le Mesurier’s character, she must have been driven to make the first advance towards his acquaintance by a motive of unusual urgency. The notion, however, did but flash and flicker out. He had no mental picture of the girl to fix her within his view; he knew not, in fact, whether she was girl or woman. She was to him just an abstraction, and Drake was seldom inclined for the study of abstractions. His curiosity might, perhaps, have been stronger had Mallinson related to him the way in which he had been received at the house of the Le Mesuriers after his dinner with Drake. When he arrived he found the guests staring hard at each other silently, with the vacant expression which comes of an effort to understand a recitation in a homely dialect from the north of the Tweed. He waited in the doorway and suddenly saw Miss Le Mesurier rise from an embrasure in the window and take half a step towards him. Then she paused and resumed her seat.
‘That’s because I come alone,’ he thought, and something more than his vanity was hurt.
The recitation reached its climax. Darby and Joan, quarrelling through nineteen stanzas as to whether they had been disturbed by a rat or a mouse, discovered in the twentieth that the animal was a ball of wool. The company sighed their relief in a murmur of thanks, and Mallinson crossed the room to the window.
‘And Captain Drake?’ Clarice asked as she gave him her hand. The disappointment in her voice irritated him, and he answered with a sharp petulance.
‘He’s not a captain really, you know.’
The girl glanced at him in surprise.
‘I mean,’ he went on, answering the glance, ‘Of course he held the rank over there. But a captain in Matanga!’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘There are more honourable titles.’
‘Still I asked you to bring him. You got my note, I suppose?’ Her manner signified a cold request for an explanation.
‘I couldn’t,’ he replied shortly.
‘You mean you did not think it worth while to take enough trouble to find him.’
‘No; that’s not the reason. In fact I dined with him to-night, but I saw that I couldn’t bring him here.’
‘Well, he’s changed.’
‘In what way?’
‘He has grown so hopelessly bourgeois.’
The epithet was a light to Clarice. She knew it for the superlative in Mallinson’s grammar of abuse. Bourgeois! The term was the palm of a hand squashed upon a lighted candle; it snuffed you out. Convicted of bourgeoisie, you ought to tinkle a bell for the rest of your life, or at the easiest be confined east of Temple Bar. Applied to Drake the word connoted animosity pure and simple, animosity suddenly conceived too, for it was not a week since Mallinson had been boasting of his friendship with the man. What was the reason of that animosity? Clarice lowered her eyelashes demurely and smiled.
‘I fancied he was your friend,’ she said with inquiring innocence.
‘I believe I remarked that he was changed.’ Mallinson looked up at a corner of the ceiling as he spoke, and the exasperation was more than ever pronounced in his voice.
‘Mr. Drake,’ she went on, and she laid the slightest possible emphasis on the prefix, ‘Mr. Drake has travelled among the natives a good deal, I think you told me?’
‘It’s funny that that should make a man bourgeois.’
Mallinson became flippant.
‘I am not so sure,’ he said. ‘The natives, I should think, are essentially bourgeois. They love beads, and that’s typical of the class. Evil communications, you know,’ and he laughed, but awkwardly and without merriment.
‘Really?’ asked Clarice, looking straight at him with grave eyes. She seemed to be seriously deliberating the truth of his remark. Mallinson’s laughter stopped short. ‘There’s my aunt beckoning to you,’ she said.
Later in the evening she relented towards him, salving her disappointment with the flattery of his jealousy. She did not, however, relinquish on that account her intention to make Stephen Drake’s acquaintance. She merely postponed it, trusting that the tides of accident would drift them together, as indeed they did, though after a longer delay than she had anticipated.
The occasion of their meeting was provided by the visit of a French actress to one of the London theatres. Drake and Conway edged into their stalls just before the curtain rose on a performance of Frou-Frou. During the first act the theatre gradually filled, and when the lights were turned up at its close only one box was empty. It was upon the first tier next to the stage. A few minutes after the second act had begun Conway nudged Drake and nodded towards the box.
‘You asked what Miss Le Mesurier was like. There’s your answer.’
Drake glanced in that direction. He saw a girl in a dress of pink silk, standing in the front of the box, with her hands upon the ledge and leaning her head a little forwards beyond it. The glare striking up from the stage beneath her gave a burnish of copper to her hair and a warm light to her face. She seemed of a fragile figure and with features regular and delicate. Drake received a notion of unimpressive prettiness and turned his attention to the stage. When the lights were raised again in the auditorium, he noticed that Fielding was in the box talking to a gentleman with white hair, and that Mallinson was seated by the side of Miss Le Mesurier. The latter couple were gazing about the house and apparently discussing the audience,—at all events conversing with considerable animation. Drake commented upon their manner and drew the conventional inference.
‘Oh dear, no!’ answered Conway energetically. ‘Of course Mallinson’s aim is apparent enough, poor fellow.’ A touch of scorn in the voice, which rang false, negatived the pity of the phrase. ‘But I don’t suppose for an instant that she has realised it. She would be the last to do so. No, she has a fad in her head about authors just for the moment.’
‘Oh!’ said Drake, turning with some interest to his companion. ‘Does that account for A Man of Influence?’
‘Yes,’ replied Conway reluctantly, ‘I fancy it does.’
‘I wondered what set him to writing.’
‘He was at the Bar when he met her. I believe she persuaded him to write the book and give up the Law.’
‘She is undertaking a pretty heavy responsibility.’
Conway looked at his friend and laughed.
‘I’m afraid you won’t find that she takes that view, nor indeed do I see why she should. Mallinson was doing no good—well, not much anyway—at the Bar. He has scored by following her advice. So if she ever had any responsibility, which I don’t admit, for there was no compulsion on him to obey, his luck has already wiped it out.’
‘I suppose the white-haired man’s her father,’ said Drake.
‘Yes. There’s another sister, but she’s at school in Brussels.’
‘How did you come across them?’
‘Mallinson and I met them one summer when we were taking a holiday at Sark.’
Drake caught the eye of a man who was passing the end of his row of stalls towards the saloon, and was beckoned out.
‘I will join you after the interval,’ he said, turning to Conway, and he saw that his companion was bowing to Miss Le Mesurier.
Miss Le Mesurier in her box noticed Drake’s movement, and she asked Mallinson, ‘Who is that speaking to Mr. Conway?’
Mallinson put up his glasses and looked. Clarice read recognition in a lift of eyebrows, and guessed from his hesitation to answer who it was that he recognised.
‘Well, who is it?’
‘Where?’ asked Mallinson, assuming an air of perplexity.
‘Where you were looking,’ said she quietly.
‘It’s Stephen Drake,’ interposed Fielding, and ‘Hulloa!’ he added in a voice of surprise as he observed the man whom Drake joined.
‘Drake! Stephen Drake!’ exclaimed Mr. Le Mesurier, leaning forward hurriedly. ‘Point him out to me, Fielding.’
The latter obeyed, and Mr. Le Mesurier watched Drake until he disappeared through the doorway, with what seemed to Mallinson a singular intentness. The father’s manner waked him to a suspicion that he might possibly have mistaken the daughter’s motive in seeking Drake’s acquaintance. Was it merely a whim, a fancy, strengthened to the point of activity by the sight of his name in print? Or was it something more? Was there some personal connection between Drake and the Le Mesuriers of which the former was in some way ignorant? He was still pondering the question when Clarice spoke to him.
‘So that was the bourgeois, was it?’ she said, bending forwards and almost whispering the words. Mallinson flushed.
‘Was it?’ he asked. ‘I can’t see. I am rather short-sighted.’
‘I begin to think you are.’
The sentence was spoken with an ironic sympathy which deepened the flush upon Mallinson’s cheek. A knock at the door offered him escape; he rose and admitted Conway. Conway was received with politeness by Mr. Le Mesurier, with cordiality by his daughter.
‘I have Drake with me,’ said Conway. ‘I came to ask permission, since you invited him to Beaufort Gardens, to introduce him after the next act.’
Mr. Le Mesurier started up in his chair.
‘Did you ask him to the house?’ he asked Clarice abruptly.
‘I asked Mr. Mallinson to bring him,’ she replied; and then, with all the appearance of a penitent anxiety, ‘Why? Oughtn’t I to have done so?’ she asked.
Mr. Le Mesurier cast a suspicious glance at his daughter.
‘I am so sorry,’ she said; ‘I didn’t know that—’
‘Oh well,’ interrupted Mr. Le Mesurier hurriedly, ‘there’s no reason that I know of why you shouldn’t have asked him, except that it’s surely a trifle unusual, isn’t it? You don’t know him from Adam.’
‘But I assure you, Mr. Le Mesurier,’ interposed Conway, ‘there’s nothing to be said against Drake.’
‘Of course!’ replied Mr. Le Mesurier, with a testy laugh at the other’s warmth. ‘We know the length of your enthusiasms, my dear Conway. But I’ll grant all you like about Drake. I only say that my daughter isn’t even acquainted with the fellow.’
‘It is just that drawback which Mr. Conway proposes to remove,’ said Clarice demurely. ‘Of course,’ she went on, ‘I should never have thought of inviting him if Mr. Mallinson had not spoken of him so often as his friend.’ She directed her sweetest smile to Mallinson. ‘You did, didn’t you? Yes! Mr. Drake had been away from England for so long that I thought it would be only kind to ask you to bring him. But if I had known that papa had any objection, I should naturally never have done it. I am very sorry. Perhaps I am not careful enough.’ She ended her speech in a tone of self-reproach, which had its effect; for her father was roused by it to expostulate.
‘My dear,’ he said, ‘I never hinted that I had an objection to him. You are always twisting people’s words and imputing wrong meanings to them.’
Mallinson fancied that he detected a note of something more than mere remonstrance in Mr. Le Mesurier’s voice, a consciousness of some thought in his daughter’s mind which he would not openly acknowledge her to possess. The perception quickened Mallinson’s conjecture into a positive conviction. There was evidently some fact about Drake, some incident perhaps in his life which brought him into relations with the Le Mesuriers,—relations ignored by Drake, but known by Mr. Le Mesurier and suspected by Clarice. Was this fact to Drake’s advantage or discredit? The father’s manner indicated rather the latter; but Mallinson put that aside. It was more than overbalanced by the daughter’s—he sought for a word and chanced on ‘forwardness.’ His irritation against her prompted him to hug it, to stamp it on his thoughts of her with a jeer of ‘I have found you out.’ On the other hand, all his knowledge of her cried out against the word. He looked into the girl’s face to resolve his doubts upon the point and found that she was watching him with some perplexity. A question to Conway explained the reason why she was puzzled.
‘How did you know that I asked Mr. Drake to Beaufort Gardens?’ she asked.
‘I was present when Mallinson asked him to go.’
‘Mr. Mallinson asked him!’ she exclaimed, dropping her fan in her surprise. ‘Why, I thought—’ She saw the confusion in Mallinson’s face and checked herself suddenly with a little laugh of pure enjoyment. Her companion’s jealousy was more heroical than she had given him credit for; it had induced him to lie.
To cover his discomfiture Mallinson dived for the fan.
‘Oh, don’t trouble,’ she said, sympathy shaping the words into a positive entreaty. ‘You are so short-sighted, you know. Then you will bring Mr. Drake,’ she turned to Conway as he rose and moved towards the door. Mr. Le Mesurier had resumed his conversation with Fielding, and beyond a slight movement of impatience, he gave no sign that he had heard the words.
‘After the next act,’ said Conway, and he went out.
Mallinson picked up the fan and laid it upon the ledge of the box.
‘I lied to you that evening,’ he whispered in a low faltering tone. ‘I have no excuse—Can’t you guess why I lied?’
There was a feeling behind the words, genuine by the ring of it, and to feeling Clarice was by nature responsive. Mallinson saw the mischief die out of her face, the eyelids droop until the lashes touched the cheek. Then she raised them again, tenderness flowered in her eyes.
‘Perhaps,’ she said.
She turned from him and watched Conway making his way along the row of stalls. Drake was already in his seat.
‘Then why didn’t Mr. Drake come if you asked him?’ she said with a quick change of tone.
‘He gave no reason beyond that it was his first night in London.’
Miss Le Mesurier looked again at Drake. His indifference irritated her and in a measure interested her in spite of herself. She was not used to indifference, and felt a need to apologise for it to herself. ‘Of course,’ she reflected, ‘he had not seen me then,’ and so was reinstated in her self-esteem. The explanation, however, failed her the next moment. For Drake, at all events, had seen her now; she had caught him looking up into the box before Conway left. Yet when Conway communicated his news, Drake never so much as moved his head in her direction. The three blows of the mallet had just sounded from behind the curtain and he sat upright in his seat, his face fixed towards the stage. Clarice bit her lips and frowned.
‘Don’t be alarmed. He is really quite interested in you.’ She looked up. Fielding was standing just behind her shoulder. ‘He asked me quite often what you were like.’
‘I don’t understand you,’ said she loftily; and then, ‘He might be a schoolboy at his first pantomime.’
‘He gives that kind of impression, I believe, in everything he does.’
Miss Le Mesurier had not made the remark in order to elicit eulogy.
‘He looks old, though,’ she said, and her voice defied Fielding to contradict her.
‘Responsibility writes with the cyphers of age,’ he quoted solemnly. It was his habit to recite sentences from A Man of Influence when Mallinson was present, in a tone which never burlesqued but somehow belittled the work. Mallinson was never able to take definite offence, but he was none the less invariably galled by it.
‘As a matter of fact there is hardly a year to choose between the ages of Drake, Conway, and you, Mallinson, is there?’ asked Fielding.
Mallinson admitted that the statement was correct.
‘He has lived a hard life, has anxieties enough now, I don’t doubt. You will find the explanation in that. The only people who remain young nowadays are actors. They keep the child in them.’
The curtain went up as he spoke. As soon as it was lowered again Conway hurried Drake out of the stalls and up the staircase to the box. Clarice welcomed Drake quietly. Mr. Le Mesurier vouchsafed him the curtest of nods.
‘Didn’t I see you join Israel Biedermann?’ asked Fielding. The name belonged to a speculator who had lately been raised into prominence by the clink of his millions.
‘Yes,’ replied Drake, with a laugh. ‘The city makes one acquainted with strange financiers. I have business with him.’
Mr. Le Mesurier showed symptoms of interest.
‘Really?’ he said. ‘You mean to return to Africa, I suppose.’
‘If I can help it, no.’
‘You intend to stay in England?’ asked Mallinson sharply.
‘Yes,’ replied Drake. He addressed himself to Miss Le Mesurier. ‘You were kind enough to invite me to your house on the evening I arrived.’
Mr. Le Mesurier’s eyebrows went up at the mention of the day.
‘Mr. Mallinson had talked of you,’ she explained. ‘We seemed to know you already. I saw that you had landed from an interview in the Meteor, and thought you might have liked to come with your friend.’
The words were spoken indifferently.
‘The Meteor?’ inquired Mr. Le Mesurier. ‘Isn’t that the paper which attacked you, Mr. Drake? You let yourself be interviewed by it? I didn’t know that.’
He glanced keenly at his daughter, and Mallinson intercepted the look. His conviction was proved certain. There was something concealed, something maybe worth his knowing.
‘The attack was of no importance,’ replied Drake, ‘but I wanted it to be known in some quarters that I had landed without losing time.’
‘You replied to the attack?’
‘Not so much that. I gave the itinerary of the march to Boruwimi.’
Mr. Le Mesurier perceived his daughter’s eyes quietly resting upon him, and checked a movement of impatience, less at the answer than at his own folly in provoking it. Drake turned to Clarice and was offered a seat by her side. He realised, now that she was near, talking to him, that his impression of her, gained from the distance between the box and the stalls, did her injustice. She seemed now the vignette of a beautiful woman, missing the stateliness, perhaps, too, the distinction, but obtaining by very reason of what she missed a counterbalancing charm, to be appreciated only at close quarters, a charm of the quiet kind, diffused about her like a light; winsome—that was the epithet he applied to her, and remained doubtfully content with it, for there was a gravity too.
Clarice invited him to speak of Matanga, but Drake was reticent on the subject, through sheer disinclination to talk about himself, a disinclination which the girl recognised, and gave him credit for, shooting a comparing glance at Mallinson.
Mr. Le Mesurier, it should be said, remarked this reticence as well, and it gave him an idea. From Matanga Drake led the conversation back to London, and they fell to discussing the play.
‘You are very interested in it,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ said he, ‘I have never seen the play before.’
‘I should hardly have thought it would have suited your taste,’ Conway observed.
‘Why? It’s French of course, but you can discount the sentiment. There is a stratum of truth left, don’t you think?’
Mallinson raised pitying shoulders. ‘Of the ABC order perhaps,’ he allowed.
‘I am afraid it appeals to me all the more on that account,’ Drake answered, with a genial laugh. ‘But what I meant really was truth to those people—truth to the characters presumed. Consistency is perhaps the better word. I like to see a play run on simple lines to an end you can’t but foresee. The taste’s barbarian, I don’t doubt.’
Miss Le Mesurier’s lips instinctively pouted a mischievous ‘bourgeois’ towards Mallinson. He remarked hastily that he thought the curtain was on the point of rising, and Miss Le Mesurier pushed her opera-glasses towards him with a serene ‘Not yet, I think.’ Mallinson understood the suggestion of her movement and relapsed into a sullen silence.
By the time that Conway and Drake rose to leave the box Mr. Le Mesurier had thought out his idea. His manner changed of a sudden to one of great cordiality; he expressed his pleasure at meeting Drake, and shook him by the hand, but destroyed the effect of his action through weakly revealing his diplomacy to his daughter by a triumphant glance at her.
At the close of the performance he met Drake in the vestibule of the theatre and lingered behind his party. Fielding, Mallinson, and Conway meanwhile saw Miss Le Mesurier into her carriage.
‘What in the world is papa doing?’ asked Clarice.
‘Exchanging cards with Drake,’ replied Fielding. Mallinson turned his head round quickly and beheld the two gentlemen affably shaking hands again. Conway bent into the carriage.
‘Do you like him?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes,’ she replied indifferently.
‘Then I am glad I introduced him to you,’ and some emphasis was laid upon the ‘I.’
Mr. Le Mesurier came out to the brougham and the coachman drove off.
‘I like that young fellow, Drake,’ he said, with a wave of the hand. ‘I have asked him to call.’
Clarice did not inform her diplomatic father that unless she had foreseen his intention she would have undertaken the discharge of that act of courtesy herself.
Mallinson took a hansom and drove straight from the theatre to his chambers in South Kensington, Conway walked off in the opposite direction, so that Drake and Fielding were left to stroll away together. They walked across Leicester Square towards St. James’s Street, each occupied with his own thoughts. Fielding’s were of an unusually stimulating kind; he foresaw the possibility of a very diverting comedy, to be played chiefly for his amusement and partly for Miss Le Mesurier’s, by Clarice herself, Drake, and Mallinson. From the clash of two natures so thoroughly different as those of the two men, played off against one another with all the delicate manipulation of Miss Le Mesurier’s experienced hand, there was much enjoyment to be anticipated for the purely disinterested spectator which he intended to be. Of the probable denouement he formed no conception, and in fact avoided purposely any temptation to do so. He preferred that the play should unroll itself in a series of delightful surprises. The one question which he asked himself at this time was whether Drake might not decline to act his proper and assigned part. He glanced at him as they walked along. Drake looked thoughtful, and was certainly silent; both thought and silence were propitious signs. On the other hand, Drake had interests in the City, had them at heart too, and, worse still, had the City itself at heart.
Fielding recollected an answer he had made to Mallinson. The word ‘heart’ brought it to his mind. Mallinson was jeering at the journalist’s metaphor of the ‘throbbing heart’ as applied to London. ‘The phrase,’ Drake had said, ‘to me is significant of something more than cheap phraseology. I know that half a throb could create an earthquake in Matanga.’ What if the man’s established interest in this direction were to suppress his nascent interest in Clarice! Fielding immediately asked Drake what he thought of Miss Le Mesurier.
‘Oh!’ said the latter, palpably waking from reflections of quite another order, ‘I liked her,’ and he spoke of her looks.
‘She has the art of dressing well,’ corrected Fielding, disappointment spurring him to provoke advocacy of the lady. Drake, however, was indifferent to the correction.
‘I like her eyes,’ he said.
‘She is skilled in the use of them.’
‘I didn’t notice that. They seemed of the quiet kind.’
‘At need she can swing a wrecker’s light behind them.’
‘I like her hand too. It has the grip of a friend.’
‘A friend! Yes. There’s the pitfall.’
Drake only laughed. He was not to be persuaded to any strenuous defence, and Fielding felt inclined to harbour a grudge against him as needlessly a spoil-sport. Later on, however, when he was in bed it occurred to him that the play might still be performed, though upon different lines, and with a plot rather different from what he had imagined—his plot inverted, in fact. Clarice Le Mesurier, he remembered, had made the first advance to Drake. What if she for once in a while were to figure as the pursuer! That alternative would, perhaps, be the more diverting of the two. He must consult Mrs. Willoughby as to the effect which Drake’s bearing would produce on women—consult her cautiously, prudence warned him. Mrs. Willoughby, a cousin and friend of Miss Le Mesurier’s, was not of the sort to lend a helping hand in the game if the girl was to provide the sport—or indeed in the other event. The one essential thing, however, was that there should be a comedy, and he must see to it that there was one, with which reflection he drew the bed-clothes comfortably about him and went to sleep.
There was, however, one other condition equally essential to his enjoyment, but so apparently inevitable that he did not stop to consider it, namely, that Hugh Fielding should be a mere spectator. It did not occur to him at all that he might be drawn into an unwilling assumption of a part in his own play.