‘Why, Clarice, what has happened?’ she exclaimed. ‘You look as if you hadn’t slept all night.’
Clarice kissed her, and for answer sighed wearifully. Mrs. Willoughby was immediately relieved. The trouble was due, she realised, to some new shuffle of Clarice’s facile emotions. She returned the kiss, and refrained from further questions; but, being a practical woman, she rang the bell and ordered the servant to lay two places for lunch.
Clarice sank despondently into the most comfortable chair in the room.
‘Not for me,’ she said. ‘I am sure I couldn’t eat anything.’
‘You may as well try, dear,’ replied Mrs. Willoughby; and she crossed to Clarice and unpinned her hat—a little straw hat, with the daintiest of pink ribbons. She held it in her hand for a moment, weighing it with a smile which had something of tenderness in it. She laid a light hand upon the brown hair, touching with a caress the curls about the forehead. A child’s face was turned up to hers with a pretty appeal of melancholy. Mrs. Willoughby was moved to kiss the girl again. In spite of a similarity of years, she had an affection almost maternal for Clarice; and, with an intuition, too, which was almost maternal, she was able to appreciate the sincerity of the girl’s distress, with a doubtful smile at the gravity of its cause.
Clarice threw her arms about Mrs. Willoughby’s neck. ‘Oh, Connie,’ she quavered, ‘you can’t guess what has happened!’ The voice threatened to break into sobs, and there were tears already brimming the eyes.
‘Never mind; you shall tell me after lunch.’
At lunch Mrs. Willoughby industriously beguiled her with anecdotes. She talked of an uncle of Clarice, a Philistine sea-captain with pronounced opinions upon the advance of woman, ludicrously mimicking his efforts to adapt a quarter-deck style of denunciation to the gentler atmosphere of a drawing-room. To sharpen his diatribes the worthy captain was in the habit of straining ineffectually after epigrams. Mrs. Willoughby quoted an unsuccessful essay concerning the novels women favoured. ‘A woman with a slice of intellect likes that sort of garbage for the same reason that a girl with a neat pair of ankles likes a little mud in the streets.’ Clarice was provoked to a reluctant smile by a mental picture of a violent rubicund face roaring the words. She was induced to play with a fragment of sole; she ended by eating the wing of a chicken.
‘Now,’ said Mrs. Willoughby when she had set Clarice upon a sofa in front of a cosy fire in her boudoir, ‘tell me what all the trouble’s about.’ She drew up a low chair and sat down with a hand upon the girl’s arm.
‘It’s about Sid—I mean Mr. Mallinson,’ she began. ‘He called yesterday afternoon after you had left. Papa had gone out for a walk, and aunt was lying down with a sick headache. So I saw him alone. He said he was glad to get the opportunity of speaking to me by myself, and he—he—well, he asked me to marry him. He was quite different from what he usually is, else I might have stopped him before. But he made a sort of rush at it. I told him that I was very sorry, but I didn’t care for him in that kind of way—at all events yet. And then it was horrible!’ The voice began to break again.
Mrs. Willoughby took hold of Clarice’s hand, and the latter nestled towards her.
‘He got angry and violent, and said that I had persuaded him to give up his profession, and must have known quite well why he did it, and that no woman had a right to interfere with a man’s life until she was prepared to accept the responsibility of her interference. I hardly understood what he said, because he frightened me; but I don’t think that was at all a nice thing to say, do you, Connie?’ and her hand tightened upon her friend’s. ‘But he said other things too, much worse than that,—I can’t tell you. And at last I felt as if I wanted to scream. I should have screamed in a minute or two, I know, so I told him to go away. Then he became silent all at once, and just stood looking at me—and—and—I think that was worse than being abused. At last he said “Good-bye,” so sorrowfully, and I knew it would be for ever, and we shook hands, and he went out into the hall and closed the door. It seemed to me that the door would never open again.’
The threatened tears began to fall; Mrs. Willoughby, however, did not interrupt, and Clarice went on.
‘So as I heard the front door unlocked to let him out, I opened the door of the room and went into the hall. Mr. Mallinson was standing on the first step. He never looked back—he was turning up his coat-collar—and somehow it all seemed so sad. I felt as if I hadn’t a friend left in the world. So—I—I—I—’
‘Well?’ asked Mrs. Willoughby quickly.
‘I called him back into the room, and asked him if we couldn’t be friends.’
‘What did he answer?’
‘That he didn’t see how that was possible since he wanted to marry me. But I said that wouldn’t matter as long as he didn’t tell me so. I think men are so inconsiderate, don’t you, Connie?’ she broke off in a tone of reproach. ‘I can’t understand what there is to laugh at. You wouldn’t either if you had seen him then, because he just sat down and cried, not as you and I do, you know, but with great tears running through his fingers and heaves of his shoulders. It was heartbreaking. Then he got up and begged my pardon for what he had said, and that was the worst of it all. He declared that if he went the rest of his way alone the journey would be all the easier for the mile I went along with him, and at that somehow I began to cry too, and—and—that’s all.’
Mrs. Willoughby sat silent for a little. ‘So you refused him,’ she said thoughtfully, and she bent towards Clarice. ‘Is it to be Stephen Drake?’
Clarice started up from the sofa, and stood looking into the fire. ‘What an extraordinary thing that you should ask me that,’ she replied slowly, ‘because Mr. Mallinson asked it too.’ She paused for a second or so and went on. ‘I have never thought of him in that way, I am sure. Oh no!’ and she roused herself from her attitude of deliberation and crossed to the window, speaking briskly as she went. ‘I had quite a different reason.’
Mrs. Willoughby looked at her sharply but said nothing, and presently Clarice turned back into the room as though moved by a sudden impulse. ‘Can I write a note here?’ she asked.
‘Certainly,’ replied Mrs. Willoughby, and she set some envelopes and paper on the table. Clarice wrote a few lines and tore them up. She repeated the process on four sheets of note-paper, and as she was beginning the fifth attempt the door was opened and the servant announced that Mr. Conway was waiting in the drawing-room. Clarice tore up the fifth sheet and rose from her chair. ‘I can write it when I get home,’ she said.
‘Percy Conway!’ said Mrs. Willoughby when the door was closed again. ‘What a funny thing! He’s not in the habit of visiting me.’
‘The fact is,’ said Clarice, without the least embarrassment, as she pinned on her hat, ‘I asked him to call for me here. You don’t mind, do you?’
‘Clarice!’ exclaimed Mrs. Willoughby. She stared at the girl, noticing the traces of tears still visible on her face, and then she began to laugh.
‘Connie!’ said Miss Le Mesurier, and her tone showed that she was hurt. ‘You are unsympathetic.’
‘I can’t help it,’ cried Mrs. Willoughby, and she laughed yet louder. ‘I can’t help it, dear!’
‘You can’t imagine how lonely I have felt since—’
‘Since yesterday,’ cried Mrs. Willoughby, and her laughter increased. ‘Clarice, you’ll be the death of me.’
Clarice stood gazing at her patiently, her face grave with reproach, until Mrs. Willoughby succeeded in composing herself to a fitting seriousness. But for all her efforts her mouth worked, and the dimples appeared and vanished in her cheeks, and a little ripple of laughter now and again escaped from her lips.
‘Really,’ said Clarice, ‘I am disappointed in you, Connie.’
‘I know it was out of place, dear,’ said Mrs. Willoughby with humility, but nevertheless her voice shook as she spoke. Fearing another access she began, as a resource, to lecture Clarice upon the impropriety of making appointments with young gentlemen at other people’s houses. The lecture, however, was received with disdain.
‘That seems to me still more out of place,’ said Clarice.
‘Well, we had better go into the drawing-room to Mr. Conway,’ said Mrs. Willoughby.
Clarice was indeed excessively indignant with Mrs. Willoughby, for she was in the habit herself of treating her feelings with a tender solicitude, and consequently disliked the want of respect shown to them by her friend. She betrayed the extent of her indignation by a proportionately excessive friendliness towards Conway that afternoon. He was allowed to conduct her to four picture galleries, and a Panopticon museum of tortures; his offer to refresh her with tea in Bond Street was shyly accepted, and at parting he was thanked with effusion, ‘for the pleasantest afternoon she had spent for some time.’
On reaching home, however, Miss Le Mesurier immediately wrote out the note which she had begun in Mrs. Willoughby’s boudoir. She wrote it now without hesitation, as though she had composed the form of its message while in the company of Conway, and addressed it to Stephen Drake. She had a question to ask him, she stated, of some importance to herself. Would he call on Thursday afternoon and answer it? Clarice read through the note before she sealed up the envelope. The word importance caught her eye, and she pondered over it for a moment. She crossed it out finally and substituted interest. Then she sent her letter to the post. At breakfast on the Thursday morning, Clarice casually informed her father of Drake’s visit. ‘I wrote to him, asking him to call,’ she added.
Mr. Le Mesurier looked up from the pages of his Times. ‘Why?’ he asked quickly.
‘I want him to tell me something.’
The Times crackled in his hands and fluttered to the floor. He opened his mouth to speak and thought better of it, and repeated the action more than once. Then he scratched his head with a helpless air, and picked up his newspaper. ‘Silly girl!’ he said at last; ‘silly girl!’ and relapsed into silence. At the close of breakfast, however, he made an effort at expostulation. ‘You will make the man believe you’re in love with him,’ he said, and in fact he could have chanced on no happier objection to present to her. Clarice flushed to the temples. Sidney Mallinson, Mrs. Willoughby, and now her father! All three had made the same suggestion, and the repetition of it vexed her pride. There were others they might have said it of with more appearance of truth, she thought: Sidney Mallinson himself, for instance, or even Percy Conway. But he, Drake! For a moment she felt inclined to telegraph to him telling him not to come. Then she thought of the motive which had induced her to send for him. No! She would ask her question that afternoon, and so have done with him for good. Aloud she answered:
‘How ridiculous! I should hardly think he has that sort of conceit. Anyhow, if he has that impression, I will take care that he does not carry it away.’
Mr. Le Mesurier did not pursue the argument, but he gave certain instructions to his butler, and when Drake arrived at the house he was shown into the library. Mr. Le Mesurier received him.
‘Pull up a chair to the fire,’ he said with an uneasy geniality. ‘I have something to say to you, Drake. It won’t take long.’
Drake laid down his hat and seated himself opposite to Mr. Le Mesurier.
‘My daughter told me this morning, quite spontaneously, of course, that she had asked you to call in order that she might get from you a certain answer to a certain question, and I thought that I had better prepare you for what that question will be.’ He hesitated in his speech, searching for the best way to begin his explanation, and he caught sight of a cigar-box on the mantelshelf above his head.
‘By the way, do you smoke?’
‘Yes, but I won’t just now, thank you.’
‘You had better. You can throw it away when I have done. These are in rather a good condition.’
Mr. Le Mesurier seemed inclined to branch off upon the quality of different brands, but Drake gave him no assistance. He lit his cigar and patiently waited, his eyes fixed upon his host. Mr. Le Mesurier felt driven back upon the actual point of his explanation, and almost compelled to fine his words down to just the needful quantity.
‘Clarice, I believe,’ he said brusquely, ‘means to ask you how Gorley died. He was engaged to her.’
Drake did not so much as stir a muscle, even his eyes maintained their steadiness, and Mr. Le Mesurier drew a breath of relief. ‘I am glad you take it like this,’ he went on. ‘I was afraid that what I had to say might have been, well, perhaps a blow to you, and if so the fault would have been mine; for I encouraged you to come here.’
Drake bent forward and knocked the ash off the end of his cigar.
‘Yes,’ he asked; ‘why did you do that?’
Mr. Le Mesurier looked uncomfortable.
‘It is only right that I should be frank with you,’ he replied. ‘The mere fact of Gorley’s death, apart from its manner, upset Clarice, more, I confess, than we expected, and made her quite ill for a time. She is not very strong, you know. So it was deemed best, not only by me, but by Gorley’s family as well, that she should be kept in ignorance of what had actually happened. We simply told her that Gorley had died near Boruwimi. But I fancy that she suspected we were concealing something. Perhaps our avoidance of the subject gave her the hint, or it may have been Mrs. Willoughby.’
‘She is related to the Gorley family as well as to us. It was through her Clarice first met Gorley,’ he explained, and went on. ‘Then you returned to England, and were interviewed in the Meteor. Clarice read the interview; you had described in it your march to Boruwimi, and she sent through Mallinson at once an invitation to you. I only found that out the night you were introduced to us at the theatre. It made me certain that she had suspicions, and I admit that I asked you to call in the hope of allaying them. I believed, foolishly as it seems, that if I was cordial, she would give up any ideas she might have, that you were connected in any way with Gorley’s death. Afterwards, Drake, I need hardly tell you, I was glad you came here upon other grounds.’ Mr. Le Mesurier leaned forward in his chair and touched Drake upon the knee. ‘It didn’t take long for me to conceive a genuine liking for you, and, of course, I knew all the time that you had only done your duty.’
Drake made no response whatever to Mr. Le Mesurier’s sentiment.
‘I understand, then,’ he said, ‘that Miss Le Mesurier was engaged to Gorley at the time of his death?’
‘Oh dear, no,’ exclaimed the other, starting up from his chair. ‘You are aware, I suppose, why Gorley left England?’
Drake nodded assent.
‘The engagement was broken off then and there. And Clarice at that time did not seem to take it much to heart. I was inclined to believe that the whole affair had been just a girl’s whim. Indeed, in spite of her illness, I am not certain now that that isn’t the truth. She may have had some notion of reforming him. I find Clarice rather difficult to understand.’
Drake stood up. ‘Where is Miss Le Mesurier?’ he asked.
‘Upstairs in the drawing-room.’
He took a step towards the door, and took the step unsteadily. He stopped for a second, bracing his shoulders; then he walked firmly across the room. While his hand was on the handle, he heard Mr. Le Mesurier speaking.
‘What do you mean to tell her?’
‘I hardly understand,’ he answered, turning round. ‘There surely is but one thing to say—the truth. She has a right to know that.’
‘Has she? The engagement was broken off finally when Gorley left England. They had nothing more to do with one another, no common interests, no common future. Has she?’
‘It seems to me, yes!’
‘We have kept the knowledge from her up till now. No one could blame you if you kept it from her a little longer.’
The argument smacked of sophistry to Drake. He had an unreasoned conviction that the girl had a right to learn the truth from him.
‘I think I ought to tell her if she asks me.’
‘I might forbid you to do it,’ grumbled Mr. Le Mesurier.
‘Do you?’ asked Drake. The question brought Mr. Le Mesurier up short. It was a direct question, inviting a responsible decision, and Mr. Le Mesurier was averse by nature to making such decisions out of hand. If Drake cared for Clarice, he reflected, it was really in Drake’s province to decide the point rather than in his own.
‘I don’t know enough of you,’ he replied, ‘to either forbid or give you permission.’
Drake wondered what the sentence meant.
‘In that case I must take my own course,’ he said, and he went out of the room and mounted the stairs.