Clarice stood still; and he became possessed with a queer longing that she would move again, forwards, within the focus of the firelight. However, she spoke from where she stood.
‘You have seen my father.’
Instinctively Drake walked to the fireplace, but she did not follow.
‘I have just left him,’ he replied. ‘He told me what the question was which you wished me to answer.’
‘And forbade you to answer it, I suppose?’
‘No. He left the choice to me.’
‘Well?’ she asked.
‘I mean to answer it to the full,’ he said. ‘I was not aware till a moment ago that you had been engaged to Gorley.’ Then he hesitated. Clarice was still standing in the shadow, and his desire that she should move out of it and within the circle of light grew upon him until it seemed almost as though the sight of her face and the knowledge of how she was receiving the history of the incident were necessary conditions of its narration.
‘I suppose that is the reason,’ he went on, ‘which made you ask me here at first. Why did you never put the question before?’
‘Why?’ repeated Clarice slowly, as if she was putting the question to herself. Then she moved slowly towards the fireplace and seated herself by the side of it, bent forwards towards its glow, her elbows upon her knees, her hands propping her chin. Drake gave a sigh of relief, and Clarice glanced at him in surprise, and turned again to the fire. ‘Tell me your story,’ she said, and left his question unanswered.
Drake began; but now that his wish was accomplished, of a sudden all the reality seemed to fade out of the tragic events he was to recount. His consciousness became in some queer way centred upon the girl who was listening, to the exclusion of the subject she was listening to. He was intensely conscious of her face, of its changing expressions, of the ebb and flow of the blood from time to time flushing her cheeks and temples, and of the vivid play of lights and shadows upon them as the flames danced and sank on the hearth. He noticed, too, with an observation new to him, and quite involuntary, the details of the room in which he stood, the white panelling of the walls, the engravings in their frames, the china ranged upon a ledge near to the ceiling. Of these things his mind took impressions with the minuteness almost of a camera. They were real to him at this moment, because they formed the framework and setting of the girl’s face and figure.
But Gorley’s crime and his expiation of it became by contrast as remote to his apprehension in point of all connection with Clarice as they were in point of locality. He could not realise them to himself as events which had actually happened and in which he had played a part, and he spoke in the toneless voice of one who relates a fable of which, through frequent repetition, he is tired. Instinctively, in order to make the truth of his story palpable, he began to corroborate it with particulars which he would otherwise have spared his auditor, but with the same impersonal accent. He told Clarice of the condition of the village after Gorley’s raid, as he first came within view of it: here the body of a negro stood pinned upright against the wall of his hut by an assegai fixing his neck; there another was lying charred upon still-smouldering embers; and as he saw her turn pale and shudder he almost wondered why.
But in spite of his efforts to appreciate its actuality the incident grew more unsubstantial the further he progressed in its narration, and he ended it abruptly.
‘Gorley was properly tried,’ he said—‘his relations testified to the justice of his trial—and he was executed in accordance with the verdict.’
Clarice sat motionless after he had ended. Drake watched the flames sparkle in her gray eyes. At his elbow the clock ticked upon the mantelshelf spacing the seconds, and the fire was hot upon his limbs. That dream-world in Africa dissolved to a vapour.
Clarice recalled him to it at last.
‘I never imagined,’ she said in a low voice, ‘that the truth was anything like this. I shouldn’t have asked you if I had. A long time ago I knew that something was being concealed, but I thought it was an accident or—well, I couldn’t conceive what it was and I grew curious, I suppose. When you came back to England I thought you might be able to tell me. Lately, however, I began to fancy that you were concerned in it some way. You might have sent Mr.——’ she checked herself with the name unspoken and went on, ‘you might have sent him on some fatal mission or something of that sort. But this! Oh, why did you tell me?’
She took her hands from beneath her chin and clenched them with a convulsive movement upon her knees. Her memory had gone back to the days when she and Gorley had been engaged, to their meetings, their intimate conversations. This man, in whose hand her hands had lain, whose lips had pressed hers, been pressed by hers, this man had been convicted of a double crime—dastardly murder and dastardly theft—and punished for it! Her pride cried out against her knowledge, and cried out against the man who had vouchsafed the knowledge.
‘Why did you tell me?’ she repeated, and the words were an accusation.
‘You wished to know,’ he replied doggedly, ’and it seemed to me that you had the right to know.’
‘Right!’ she exclaimed, ‘right! What right had I to know? What right had you to tell me?’
She rose to her feet suddenly as she spoke and confronted Drake. He looked into her eyes steadily, but with a certain perplexity.
‘I felt bound to tell you,’ he said simply, and his simplicity appealed to her by its frank recognition of an obligation to her.
‘Why,’ she asked herself, ‘why did he feel bound? Merely because I wished to know the truth of the matter, or because he himself was implicated in it as the instrument of Gorley’s punishment?’ Either reason was sufficient to appease her. She inclined to the latter; there were conclusions to be inferred from it which staunched her wounded pride.
Clarice turned away. Drake watched her set a foot upon the rail of the fender, lay her hand upon the mantelshelf and support her forehead upon it. After a little she raised her head and spoke with an air of apologising for him.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘You could not know that there was anything between myself and—and him.’
‘No; I could not know that. How should I, for I did not know you? And I am glad that I didn’t know.’
Drake spoke with some earnestness, and Clarice looked at him in surprise.
‘It would have made my duty so much harder to do,’ he explained.
With a little cry of irritation Clarice slipped her foot from the fender and moved from him back to the couch. She had given him the opportunity to escape from his position and he refused to make use of it; he seemed indeed unable to perceive it. However, she clung to it obstinately and repeated it.
‘You could not know there was anything between us’; she emphasised the words deliberately. Drake mistook the intention of the emphasis.
‘But was there,’ he exclaimed, ‘at the time? I didn’t think of that, Miss Le Mesurier—’
‘Oh no, no!’ she interrupted. ‘Not at the time.’ The man was impracticable, and yet his very impracticability aroused in a measure her admiration. ‘So you would have shot him just the same, had you known?’
‘Shot him?’ asked Drake almost absently.
‘Didn’t I tell you? I beg your pardon. I didn’t shoot him at all. I hanged him.’
Clarice was stunned by the words, and the more because of the dull, seemingly callous accent with which they were spoken.
‘You hanged him!’ she whispered, dropping the words one by one, as though she was striving to weigh them.
‘Yes. I have been blamed for it,’ he replied with no change of voice. ‘People said I was damaging the prestige of the white man. The argument bothered me, I confess, but I think they were wrong. I should have damaged that prestige infinitely more if I had punished him secretly or—’
‘Oh, don’t!’ she cried, with a sharp interruption, and she stared at him with eyes dilating in horror, almost in fear. ‘You can discuss it like that,—the man I had been engaged to,—you hanged him!’
She ended with a moan of actual pain and covered her face with her hands. On the instant Drake woke to a full comprehension of all that he had said, and understood something of the humiliation which it meant to her.
Clarice was sitting huddled in her chair, her fingers pressed lightly on her eyes, while now and again a shiver shot through her frame.
‘Still I was bound to tell her,’ Drake thought. He waited for a little, wondering whether she would look up, but she made no movement. An emerald ring upon her finger caught the light and winked at him maliciously, leering at him, he fancied. There was nothing more for him to say, and he quietly went out of the room.
The click of the door-handle roused Clarice. She saw that the room was empty, and, drawing a breath of relief, started out of her chair. Standing thus she heard Drake’s footsteps descending the stairs, and after a pause the slamming of the hall-door. Then she went to the fireplace and knelt down close to it, warming her hands at the blaze.
‘The degradation of it!’ she whispered.