The Philanderers

Chapter IV

A.E.W. Mason

MALLINSON on reaching home unlocked a little oak cabinet which hung against the wall beside his writing-table, and searched amongst a litter of newspaper cuttings and incomplete manuscripts. He unearthed at last a copy of the Meteor, bought between the Grand Hotel and Beaufort Gardens on the night of Drake’s dinner, and, drawing up a chair to the fire, he read through the interview again. The something to be known was gradually, he felt, shaping into a definite form; it had acquired locality this very evening, as he was assured by the recollection of a certain repressed movement upon Mr. Le Mesurier’s part at the mention of Boruwimi. Could he add to the knowledge by the help of the interview? Mr. Le Mesurier had not known of its publication until to-night, and so clearly had not read it; his knowledge was antedated. But on the other hand it was immediately after the perusal of the article that Clarice had sent through him her invitation to Drake.

Mallinson studied the article line by line, but without result.

He tossed the newspaper back into the cupboard, changed his coat, and sat down to his writing-table with a feverish impulse to work. He was unable to conceive it possible that Drake should be unaffected by Miss Le Mesurier’s attractions. The man was energetic, therefore a dangerous rival. Miss Le Mesurier, besides, seemed bent upon pitting Drake and himself against each other. Why? he asked. Well, whatever the reason, he had a chance of winning—more than a chance, he reflected, remembering a passage of tenderness that evening. His future was promising, if only he worked. Perhaps Clarice only ranged the two men opposite to one another in order to stimulate one of them; he reached an answer to his question ‘Why?’

The extravagances of a lover’s thoughts have often this much value: they disclose principles of his nature working at the formation of the man, and in Mallinson’s case they betrayed his habit of drawing the energy for application from externals, and from no sacred fire within.

He shut his door and worked for a month. At the end of the month, lying in bed at night and watching a planet visible through his window, he saw the ray of light between himself and the star divide into two, and the two beams describe outwards segments of a circle. He turned his face away for a few moments and then looked at the planet again. The phenomenon was repeated. He knew it for a trick of tired eyes and a warning to slacken his labours. On the next afternoon he called at Beaufort Gardens, and was received warmly by Clarice and her aunt.

There was a suggestion of reproach for his long absence in the former’s voice, and suggestion of reproach from her kindled him. He explained his plunge under surface on the ground of work. Details were immediately demanded, the plot of the new novel discussed and praised; there was flattery too in the diffident criticism of an incident here and there, and the sweetest foretaste of happiness in the joint rearrangement of the disputed chapter. Mallinson was lifted on a billow of confidence. He was of the type which adjusts itself to the opinions his company may have of him. Praise Mallinson and he deserved praises; ignore him and he sank like a plummet to depths of insignificance, conscious of insignificance and of nothing more except a dull rancour against the person who impressed the knowledge on him. That way Drake had offended unwittingly at the Grand Hotel; he had recognised no distinction between the Mallinson of to-day and the Mallinson of ten years ago.

Mallinson was asked to dinner on Friday of the next week.

‘Really,’ said the aunt after his departure, ‘he is very clever. I didn’t understand what he said, but he is very clever.’

‘Yes,’ said Clarice reflectively, ‘I suppose—I mean of course he is.’

She spoke in a tone of hesitation which surprised her auditor, for hitherto Clarice had been very certain as to her impressions on the point.

At dinner on the following Friday Mallinson was confronted by Conway and had Mrs. Willoughby upon his right. Mallinson liked Mrs. Willoughby, the widow of the black hair and blue eyes, now in the mauve stage of widowhood. She drew him out of the secretiveness within which he habitually barred himself, and he felt thankful to her for his prisoner’s hour of mid-day airing. Mrs. Willoughby spoke to Clarice, mentioning a private view of an exhibition of pictures at which she had seen Clarice.

‘Who was the cavalier?’ she added.

‘Mr. Drake,’ Clarice replied serenely. ‘I met him there by accident.’ Mrs. Willoughby looked puzzled, and repeated the name in an undertone.

‘You don’t know him, I think,’ Clarice went on. ‘He comes here. Papa asked him to call. Captain Drake, I suppose we ought to call him, but he has dropped the Captain.’

Mrs. Willoughby started and shot a bewildered glance at Mr. Le Mesurier.

‘I like the man very much,’ said Mr. Le Mesurier, with a touch of championship in his voice. ‘You should meet him. I am sure you would like him too.’

Mrs. Willoughby made no answer to the suggestion, and resumed her dinner in silence, while Conway sang his usual paean of praise. After a little she turned to Mallinson.

‘Do you know this Mr. Drake?’

‘Yes, we were boys together in the same suburb before he went to Africa. It was unfortunately through me that he was asked to this house. I had mentioned him as a friend of mine at one time, and Miss Le Mesurier invited me to bring him on the day he reached London.’

‘So soon as that! It’s funny Clarice never mentioned him to me. You, of course, told her the date of Mr. Drake’s arrival.’

‘No, she found that out from an interview in the Meteor.’

‘I remember.’

‘You read it?’

‘Yes. So you introduced him to Clarice?’

‘No. He did not come that night. Conway brought him up to Mr. Le Mesurier’s box when Frou-Frou was being played a month ago.’

‘Never mind, we will talk of something else.’

Mrs. Willoughby had just observed Clarice. She was nodding assent to the words of her neighbour, but plainly lending an attentive ear to Mrs. Willoughby’s conversation. Mrs. Willoughby spoke of indifferent subjects until the ladies rose.

When Mallinson, however, entered the drawing-room, he perceived Mrs. Willoughby’s fan motioning him to attendance, and she took up the thread of her talk at the point where she had dropped it.

‘You said unfortunately.’

‘Well, you have read the Meteor.’

‘You endorse their view?’

‘From what I have seen of Drake since his return, yes.’

‘But if there’s anything in their charges, why doesn’t the Colonial Office move?’

‘The Colonial Office!’ Mallinson shrugged his shoulders. ‘You forget only natives and Arabs were killed in the Boruwimi expedition, and they don’t count. If he had killed a white man—What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing,’ said Mrs. Willoughby, recovering from a start; ‘an idea occurred to me, that’s all.’

‘Tell me.’

For a moment Mrs. Willoughby seemed at a loss. Then she said, with a laugh:

‘If you will know, I was wondering whether your explanation covered all you meant by “unfortunately.”’ She lowered her voice. ‘You can be frank with me.’

Mallinson was diverted by her assurance of sympathy, and launched out immediately into an elaborate history of the emotions which the friendliness of Miss Le Mesurier to Drake had set bubbling within him. Mr. Le Mesurier approached the pair before Mallinson had finished, and the latter hurriedly broke off.

‘Well,’ said Mr. Le Mesurier, ‘will you meet Mr. Drake, Constance, at lunch, say on Sunday?’

Mrs. Willoughby stared.

‘Do you mean that?’

‘Certainly.’ Mr. Le Mesurier was defiant. Mrs. Willoughby’s stare changed to a look of thoughtfulness.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t think I could.’ She moved away. Mallinson followed her.

‘You know something about Drake,’ he exclaimed, ‘something which would help me.’

‘That is hardly generous rivalry,’ she replied.

‘Does he deserve generosity?’ he asked, with a trace of cunning in his expression which Mrs. Willoughby found distasteful.

‘If I can help you,’ she answered evasively, ‘help you honourably, I will,’ and she turned away. Mallinson put out a hand to stop her.

‘I need help,’ he whispered. ‘There is a conspiracy to praise the man. You heard Conway at dinner. It’s the same with every one, from Mr. Le Mesurier to Fielding.’

‘Oh,’ she said, her voice kindling to an expression of interest, ‘does Mr. Fielding like him? He is fastidious too.’ She paused for a second in deliberation, her eyes searching the floor. Raising them, she perceived Mr. Le Mesurier coming towards her.

‘I claim our privilege,’ she said. ‘I will lunch on Sunday, and meet your paragon, after all.’

‘I am very glad,’ he said impressively. ‘Lunch at two.’

Mrs. Willoughby waited until he was out of ear-shot, and turned again to Mallinson.

‘It is best that I should see the man, and know something more of him than hearsay. Don’t you think so?’

A note of apology discounted the explanation. Mallinson understood that the reference to Fielding was the cause of her change of mind.

‘Do you value Fielding’s opinion?’ he asked.

‘Oh, I don’t know. On some subjects I think yes. Don’t you?’

Mallinson began to wonder immediately whether Fielding’s opinions might not be valuable after all, since Mrs. Willoughby valued them. If so, the man might be able to throw some light upon other points—for instance, the perplexing question of Miss Le Mesurier’s inclinations. Mallinson made up his mind to call upon Fielding. He called on the Sunday morning, and Fielding blandly related to him his history of Sark.

Having worked Mallinson to a sufficiently amusing pitch of indignation, and having hinted his moral that the subjugation of Miss Le Mesurier would be effected only by the raider, Fielding complacently dismissed him and repaired to Beaufort Gardens for lunch. He found Drake upon the doorstep with a hand upon the knocker, and the two gentlemen exchanged greetings.

‘I have just left Mallinson,’ said Fielding.

Drake’s hand fell from the knocker.

‘Tell me!’ he said. ‘Mallinson perplexes me in many ways. For instance, he shows me little good-will now—’

‘Does that surprise you?’ Fielding interjected, with a laugh.

Drake coloured and replied quickly, ‘You didn’t let me finish. If he dislikes me, what made him talk about me as his friend to—to the Le Mesuriers before I returned to England?’

‘Your name in print. You verged on—well, notoriety. You may laugh, but that’s the reason. Mallinson’s always on the rack of other people’s opinions—judges himself by what he imagines to be their standard of him. Acquaintanceship with a celebrity lifts him in their eyes, he thinks, so really in his own.’

Drake remained doubtfully pondering what credit acquaintanceship with him could confer on any one. He was led back to his old view of Mallinson as a man tottering on a rickety base.

‘Will he do something great?’ he asked, his forehead puckered in an effort to calculate the qualities which make for greatness.

Fielding chuckled quietly, and answered:

‘Unlikely, I think. Clever, of course, the man is, but it is never the work he does that pleases him, but the pose after the work’s done. That’s fatal.’

Drake looked at Fielding curiously.

‘That’s a criticism which would never have occurred to me.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘We have five minutes. Shall we walk round the Gardens?’ Fielding chuckled again and assented. He saw the curtain rising on his comedy. For five minutes they paced up and down the pavement, with an interchange of simple questions on Drake’s part, and discriminating answers on Fielding’s—answers not wholly to encourage, but rather to promote a state of doubt, so much more interesting to the spectator.

When after the five minutes had elapsed they entered the house, they found that Mrs. Willoughby had arrived.

Clarice introduced Stephen Drake to Mrs. Willoughby. He saw a woman apparently in the early twenties, tall, with a broad white forehead, under masses of unruly black hair, and black eyebrows shadowing eyes of the colour of sea-shallows on an August morning. The eyes were hard, he noticed, and the lips pressed together; she bowed to him without a word. Hostility was evidently to be expected, and Drake wondered at this, for he knew Mrs. Willoughby to be Clarice’s chief friend and confidante. Mrs. Willoughby fired the first shot of the combat as soon as they had sat down to lunch. She spoke of unscrupulous cruelty shown by African explorers, and appealed to Drake for correction, she said, but her tone implied corroboration.

‘I have known cases,’ he admitted, ‘here and there. You can’t always prevent it. The pioneer in a new country doesn’t bring testimonials with him invariably. In fact, one case of the kind happened under my own eyes, I might almost say.’

Mrs. Willoughby seemed put out of countenance by Drake’s reply. She had plainly expected a strenuous denial of her statement. Drake caught a look of reproof which Mr. Le Mesurier directed towards her, and set it down to his host’s courtesy towards his guest. Clarice, however, noticed the look too.

‘Indeed,’ she said. ‘Tell us about it, Mr. Drake. It will be a change from our usual frock-coat conversation.’

Mr. Le Mesurier imposed the interdict of paternal authority.

‘I think, my dear, stories of that class are, as a rule, a trifle crude. Eh, Drake?’

Miss Le Mesurier on the instant became personified submission.

‘Of course, papa,’ she said, ‘if you have reason for believing the story isn’t suitable, I wouldn’t think of asking Mr. Drake to tell it.’

Mr. Le Mesurier raised his hands in a gesture of despair, and looked again at Mrs. Willoughby. His glance said, unmistakably, ‘Now see what you’ve done!’ Fielding broke into an open laugh; and Clarice haughtily asked him to explain the joke, so that the others present might share in his amusement.

‘I will,’ said Fielding. ‘In fact, I meant you to ask me to. I laughed, because I notice that whenever you are particularly obedient to Papa, then you are particularly resolved to have your own way.’

Miss Le Mesurier’s foot tapped under the table.

‘Of course,’ she said, with a withering shrug of her shoulders, ‘that’s wit, Mr. Fielding.’ Repartee was not her strong point.

‘No,’ he replied, ‘merely rudeness. And what’s the use of being a privileged friend of the family if you can’t be rude?’

Drake came to the rescue. ‘Mr. Le Mesurier is quite right,’ said he. ‘Incidents of the kind I mentioned are best left untold.’

‘I don’t doubt it,’ said Fielding. ‘A man loses all sight of humanitarian principles the moment he’s beyond view of a fireside.’

‘Oh, does he?’ replied Drake. ‘The man by the fireside is apt to confuse sentiment with humanitarian principles; and sentiment, I admit, you have to get rid of when you find yourself surrounded with savages.’

‘Exactly! You become assimilated with the savages, and retain only one link between yourself and civilisation.’

‘And that link?’

‘Is a Maxim gun.’

‘My dear fellow, that’s nonsense,’ Drake answered in some heat. ‘It’s easy enough to sit here and discuss humanitarian principles, but you need a pretty accurate knowledge of what they are, and what they are not, before you begin to apply them recklessly beyond the reach of civilisation. When I went first to Africa, I stayed for a time at Pretoria, and from Pretoria I went north in a pioneer company. You want to have been engaged in an expedition of that kind to quite appreciate what it means. We were on short rations a good part of the time, with a fair prospect of absolute starvation ahead, and doing forced marches all the while. When we camped of an evening, I have seen men who had eaten nothing since breakfast, and little enough then, just slip the saddles from the horses, and go fast asleep under the nearest tree, without bothering about their supper. Then, perhaps, an officer would shake them up, and they’d have to go collecting brushwood for fires. That’s a pretty bad business in the dark, when you’re dead tired with the day’s tramp. You don’t much care whether you pick up a snake or a stick of wood. I remember, too,’ and he gave a laugh at the recollection, ‘we used to be allowed about a thimbleful of brandy a day. Well, I have noticed men walk twenty yards away from the camps to drink their tot, for fear some one might jog their elbows. And it was only one mouthful after all—you didn’t need to water it. Altogether, that kind of expedition would be something considerably more than an average strain upon a man’s endurance, if it was led through a friendly country. But add to your difficulties the continual presence of an enemy, outnumbering you incalculably, always on the alert for you to slacken discipline for a second, and remember you are not marching to safety, but from it. The odds against you are increasing all the time, and that not for one or two days, but for eighty and a hundred. I can assure you, one would hear a great deal less of the harmlessness of the black, if more people had experienced that grisly hour before daybreak, when they generally make their attacks. Your whole force—it’s a mere handful—stands under arms at attention in the dark—and it can be dark on the veld, even in the open, on a starlight night. The veld seems to drink up and absorb the light, as though it was so much water trickling on the parched ground. There you stand! You have thrown out scouts to search the country round you, but you know for certain that half of them are nodding asleep in their saddles. For all you know, you may be surrounded on all sides. The strain of that hour of waiting grows so intense that you actually long to see the flash of a scout’s rifle, and so be certain they are coming, or to feel the ground shake under you, as they stamp their war-dance half a mile away. Their battle chant, too, makes an uncanny sound, when it swells across the veld in the night, but, upon my soul, you almost hear it with relief.’

Drake stopped and looked round upon faces fixed intently on his own, faces which mirrored his own absorption in his theme. There was one exception, however; Mrs. Willoughby sat back in her chair constraining herself to an attitude of indifference, and as Drake glanced at her, her lips seemed to be moving as though with the inward repetition of some word or phrase. Even Fielding was shaken out of his supermundane quietism.

For the first time he saw revealed the real quality in Drake; he saw visibly active that force of which, although it had lain hitherto latent, he had always felt the existence and understood why he had made friends so quickly, and compelled those friends so perpetually to count with him in their thoughts. It was not so much in the mere words that Drake expressed this quality as in the spirit which informed, the voice which launched them, and the looks which gave them point. His face flashed into mobility, enthusiasm dispelling its set habit of gravity, sloughing it, Fielding thought, or better still, burning through it as through a crust of lava; his eyes—eyes which listened, Fielding had not inaptly described them—now spoke, and spoke vigorously; enthusiasm, too, rode on his voice, deepening its tones—not enthusiasm of the febrile kind which sends the speech wavering up and down the scale, but enthusiasm with sobriety as its dominant note concentrated into a level flow of sound. His description had all the freshness of an immediate occurrence. Compared with the ordinary style of reminiscence it was the rose upon the tree to the dried leaves of a potpourri.

‘But,’ said Fielding, unconsciously resisting the influence which Drake exerted, ‘I thought you took a whole army of blacks with you on these expeditions?’

‘Not on the one I speak of. In Matanga a small force of them, yes! But even they were difficult to manage, and you could not depend upon them. They would desert at the first opportunity, sell their guns, your peace-offerings of brass rods, and whatever they could lay their hands on, and straggle behind in the dusk until they got lost. It was no use sending back for them in the morning. One would only have found their bones, and their bones pretty well scoured too. I speak of them as a class, of course. There were races loyal enough no doubt, the Zanzibari, for instance. But the difficulty with them was to prevent them fighting when there was no occasion. In fact the blacks who were loyal made up for their loyalty by a lack of common-sense.’

‘Cause and effect, I should be inclined to call the combination,’ remarked Fielding, ‘with the lack of common-sense as the cause.’

Mrs. Willoughby looked her gratitude across the table, and again her lips moved. Drake chanced to catch her eye, and in spite of herself she rippled to a laugh. She had been defending herself by a repetition of the editor’s comment of “filibuster.”

But at the same moment that Drake’s glance met hers she had just waked up to the humour of her conduct, and recognised it as a veritable child’s device. She could not but laugh, and, laughing there into the eyes of the man, she lost her hostility to him. However, Mrs. Willoughby made an effort to recover it.

‘Well, I don’t see,’ she said to Drake, ‘what right you have got to marching into other people’s countries even though they are black.’

‘Ah!’ Drake answered. ‘That’s precisely what I call, if I may say so, the fireside point of view. We obey a law of nature rather than claim a right. One can discuss the merits of a law of nature comfortably by a fireside. But out there one realises how academic the discussion is, one obeys it. The white man has always spread himself over the country of the black man, and we may take it he always will. He has the pioneer’s hankering after the uttermost corners of the earth, and in addition to that the desire to prosper. He obeys both motives; they are of the essence of him. Besides, if it comes to a question of abstract right, I am not sure we couldn’t set up a pretty good case. After all, a nation holds its country primarily to benefit itself, no doubt, but also in trust for the world; and the two things hang together. It benefits itself by observing that trust. Now the black man seals his country up, he doesn’t develop it. In the first place he doesn’t know how to, and in the second, if he did, he would forget as soon as he could. I suppose that it is impossible to estimate the extent of the good which the opening of Africa has done for an overcrowded continent like Europe; and what touches Europe touches the world, no doubt of that, is there? But I’m preaching,’ and he came abruptly to an end.

‘What I don’t understand,’ said Mr. Le Mesurier, and he voiced a question the others felt an impulse to ask, ‘is, how on earth you are content to settle down as a business man in the City?’

Drake retired into himself and replied with some diffidence:

‘Oh, the change is not as great perhaps as you think, I have always looked forward to returning here. One has ambitions of a kind.’

‘You ought to go into Parliament,’ Clarice said.

Drake laughed, thanking her with the laugh. ‘It’s rather too early to speak of that.’

Mrs. Willoughby observed that he actually blushed. A blushing filibuster! There was a contradiction of terms in the phrase, and he undoubtedly blushed. A question shot through her mind. Did he blush from modesty, or because Clarice made the suggestion?

Mrs. Willoughby asked Fielding for an answer as he stood by the door of her brougham, before she drove away from Beaufort Gardens.

‘For both reasons, I should say,’ he replied.

‘You think, then, he’s attracted? He hardly showed signs of it, except that once, and modesty alone might account for that.’

Mrs. Willoughby laid some insistence upon the possibility.

‘I should have been inclined to agree with you,’ answered Fielding, ‘but Drake dragged me round the square before lunch to question me about Mallinson.’

‘That makes for your view, certainly. What did you tell him?’

‘I painted the portrait which I thought he wanted, picked out Mallinson’s vices in clear colours and added a few which occurred to me at the moment. However, Drake closed my mouth with—“He’s a hard worker, though.”’

‘I like the man for that!’ cried Mrs. Willoughby, and checked herself suddenly.

‘Yes, he’s honest certainly.’

‘But was he right?’

‘Quite! Mallinson works very hard; scents danger, I suppose.’

Mrs. Willoughby heaved a sigh of relief.

‘There’s some chance for him, then. Will he do anything great?’

Fielding laughed.

‘That’s one of the questions Drake put to me! I think never.’

Mrs. Willoughby accepted the dictum without asking for the reason. She sat for a moment disconsolately thoughtful. Then she gave a start.

‘There’s Percy Conway. I had forgotten him!’

‘And wisely, I should think. He is just making a back for Drake to jump from if he will.’

‘Yes, I noticed that,’ said Mrs. Willoughby, with a sneer at the folly of the creature. ‘He seems to look upon Mallinson and himself as the two figures which tell the weather in a Swiss clock. When one comes out of his box the other goes in. I catch your trick, you see,’ and her face relaxed to a smile.

‘Only to improve on it in the matter of truth. For you imply a comparison between Miss Le Mesurier and the weather, and the points of resemblance are strong.’

Mrs. Willoughby’s smile became a laugh. ‘I don’t hold with you about Clarice,’ she said. ‘You don’t know her as I do. She can take things seriously.’

‘Intensely so—for five minutes. I have never denied it.’

Mrs. Willoughby did not display her usual alacrity to engage in the oft-repeated combat as to Miss Le Mesurier’s merits. Her face grew serious again.

‘Does Clarice care for him, you think?’

Fielding was admiring Mrs. Willoughby’s eyes at the moment, and answered absently. ‘Conway, you mean?’

‘No, no! How wilfully irritating you are! This Mr. Drake, of course. By the way, I suppose he will get on?’ She spoke in a voice which implied regret for the supposition, and almost appealed for a denial of it.

‘I should think there’s no doubt of it. They tell me he has just sent a force up country in Matanga to locate concessions. You hit harder than you knew at lunch, for the force carries machine-guns. Oh yes, he’ll get on. He has been seen arm-in-arm with Israel Biedermann in Throgmorton Street. You must tell that to a city man to realise what it means.’

‘But do you think Clarice cares for him?’

‘Miss Le Mesurier cares for—’ he began, and broke off with a question. ‘Do you read Latin?’ He was answered with an exasperated shake of the head. ‘Because Miss Le Mesurier always reminds me of an ode of Horace, Finished, exquisite to the finger-tips, but still lacking something. Soul, is it? Perhaps that lack makes the perfection. But what’s your objection to Drake?’

Mrs. Willoughby started a little. ‘Objection?’ she laughed. ‘Why? I never told you that I had one.’

‘You told not only me, but every one at lunch—Drake himself included.’

Mrs. Willoughby looked doubtfully at Fielding. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘there is something. I feel inclined to explain it to you. You may be able to advise me. Not now!’ she went on as Fielding bent forward with a very unusual interest. ‘Let me see. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday’—she ticked off the days upon her fingers. ‘Thursday afternoon. Could you come and see me then?’


‘Thanks. Good-bye, and don’t forget; five o’clock. I shall be in to no one else.’ And Mrs. Willoughby drove off with the smile again upon her face.

The Philanderers - Contents    |     Chapter V

Back    |    Words Home    |    A.E.W. Mason Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback