The subject, besides, had the advantage of inexhaustibility. On the one side Fielding ranged the suitors, or those whom he considered such; on the other the vagaries of the girl. Playing these forces off not merely against each other, but against themselves as well—for, as he pointed out, there was no harmony in the separate camps—he evolved an infinite number of endless complications. There was consequently no end to the discussion, not even when Clarice was argued through the marriage ceremony. For that point Fielding took to represent the one o’clock in the morning of a carnival ball; then the fun really begins, though decent people have to go away.
Mrs. Willoughby was, as ever, staunch in her defence, though a recollection of Clarice’s tearful visit with Conway’s arrival for a climax prompted her now and again to laugh in the midst of it.
‘You mistake thoughtlessness for tricks,’ she said. ‘Clarice is only a child as yet.’
‘She has a child’s capacity for emotion, I admit,’ corrected Fielding, ‘but a woman’s knowledge of its use. The combination is deplorable.’
Fielding inquired about Drake, and was told that he had not been seen lately. ‘It looks as if he was declining in favour,’ Mrs. Willoughby added.
‘Not necessarily. The man’s busy—there’s a company coming out.’
‘A solid one?’
‘Likely to be, since Drake handles it. I am thinking of taking shares.’
Mrs. Willoughby was surprised. Fielding seemed to her the last man calculated by nature for dabbling in stocks.
‘You!’ she exclaimed. Fielding nodded assent.
‘Then don’t do it,’ Mrs. Willoughby flashed out vigorously. ‘Don’t think of it. Oh, I know those men in the City! Their friends get ruined, and they—well, I mustn’t say anything against them, because my husband was one of them, poor dear,—but they move into larger offices. Mr. Drake has been asking you to join him?’
‘He hasn’t done anything of the sort. I heard of the matter through quite an independent channel. However, I am not ruined yet, and the company won’t be floated for another four months. And, after all, it’s my money.’
Mrs. Willoughby became quiet.
‘Well,’ she said, and she derived some satisfaction from the thought, ‘at all events Clarice has dropped talking about him.’
‘That means that it’s Mallinson’s turn on the roundabout and nothing more.’
‘Sidney Mallinson has been refused.’
‘On the Sunday we lunched at Beaufort Gardens.’
Fielding was silent for a moment. He was thinking that he had met Mallinson of late with unusual frequency here at Mrs. Willoughby’s house.
‘But are you sure?’ he asked.
‘Certain; he told me so himself. Clarice told me too the day after.’ Mrs. Willoughby began again to laugh. ‘She would have prevented him if she could, but apparently he tried to take her by storm.’
‘Oh!’ exclaimed Fielding. ‘On the Sunday afternoons you say? Then I was to blame, I am afraid, for I gave him precisely that advice on the Sunday morning. Of course, I never thought that he would take it.’
Fielding met Sidney Mallinson again and again at the house in Knightsbridge. He was invited to dinner, but so was Mallinson, and the latter had confidential talks with Mrs. Willoughby. He dined with some friends at the Savoy and went on in a comfortable frame of mind to a concert; there Mrs. Willoughby joined them, so did Mallinson, and the couple sat side by side and conversed through a song. ‘The height of bad taste,’ commented Fielding in an access of irritation. The fellow was spoiling his comedy by relinquishing his part. He drew Mallinson aside as they passed through the hall.
‘You seem to see a good deal of Mrs. Willoughby?’
‘Yes, we generally pair off together.’
Fielding dropped plump among the coarse sensations of the ordinary human. He wanted to kick Mallinson, and to kick him hard. He saw with an anticipatory satisfaction the glasses flying off the supercilious gentleman’s nose, and felt the jar at the end of his boot as it dashed into the coat-tails. The action would have been too noticeable, however, and he only said, ‘What a very bourgeois thing to do!’
Mallinson’s air of complacency vanished as he heard the offensive term levelled against himself. He did not, however, on that account change his attitude towards Mrs. Willoughby. Fielding found him at the house a few days later, and proceeded to sit him out. The contest drove Fielding to the last pitch of exasperation, for, apart from the inherent humiliation of the proceeding, Mrs. Willoughby was directly encouraging Mallinson to stay.
Mallinson at last was suffered to leave, and Mrs. Willoughby, instead of resuming her seat, walked across to the window and scrutinised intently the passers-by.
‘That creature visits you pretty often, it appears,’ said Fielding.
‘Does he?’ she asked. ‘He comes to me for the sake of consolation, I suppose.’
‘And makes love to you for the sake of contrast. He tells me you generally pair off together when you meet. Pair off!’ and he grimaced the phrase to show how little he minded it. ‘It’ll be “keeping company” next.’
Mrs. Willoughby gave a little quiet laugh. Her back was towards him, so that he could not catch her expression, but she seemed to him culpably indifferent to the complexion which Mallinson had given to their friendship.
‘It’s rather funny,’ she said, ‘though I can’t help feeling sorry for him.’
‘I saw that you were sorry for him,’ Fielding interrupted.
‘But he pretends,’ Mrs. Willoughby went on, ignoring the interruption with complete unconsciousness—‘he pretends to himself that I am Clarice. He talks to me as if I were. He called me “Clarice” the other day, and never noticed the mistake, and that’s not my name, is it?’ She turned to him quite seriously as she put the question.
‘No,’ replied Fielding, ‘your name’s Constance,’ and he dwelt upon the name for a second.
‘Yes—Constance,’ said Mrs. Willoughby thoughtfully. ‘It sounds rather prim, don’t you think?’
‘Constance,’ Fielding repeated, weighing it deliberately. ‘Constance—no, I rather like it.’
‘Clarice shortens it to Connie.’
‘Does she indeed? Connie—Constance.’ Fielding contrasted the two names, and again, ‘Constance—Connie.’
Mrs. Willoughby’s mouth began to dimple at the corners.
‘Although one laughs,’ she proceeded, ‘it’s really rather serious about Mr. Mallinson. He told me once the colour of my eyes was—’
‘Do you let him talk to you about the colour of your eyes?’ Fielding was really indignant at the supposition.
‘He didn’t ask my permission,’ Mrs. Willoughby said penitently. ‘But it isn’t a thing people ought to do. He said they were gray, and they aren’t, are they?’ She turned her face towards him.
‘Gray? Of course not,’ said Fielding, and starting from his chair, he approached Mrs. Willoughby at the window to make sure.
‘Clarice’s are, I know, but I am certain mine aren’t.’ She held up her face towards the light, and the remark was pitched as a question.
‘Yours,’ said Fielding, examining them, ‘Neptune dipped them in the sea at six o’clock on an August morning.’
Mrs. Willoughby moved away from the window precipitately. ‘So, if Mr. Mallinson is so fond of Clarice,’ she said, ‘that he sees her in everybody one can’t help pitying him.’
Mrs. Willoughby, however, for a short time subsequently was not seen in the company of the discarded lover, and Fielding inferred with satisfaction that her pity was taking a less active form. He was roused to a perception that his inference was false one night at the opera.
Mrs. Willoughby was present with Mr. Le Mesurier and Clarice. Percy Conway he hardly reckoned, counting him at this time, from his constant attendance, rather as an item of Clarice’s toilette; and Fielding took care to descend the staircase after the performance in close proximity to the party.
‘And how’s Mr. Mallinson?’ he asked of Mrs. Willoughby, not without a certain complacency in his voice.
‘Oh, poor boy!’ she replied with the tenderest sympathy, ‘he’s in bed, ill.’
‘Ill?’ asked Clarice quickly. ‘You don’t mean that.’
‘Yes. I’m so concerned. He wrote to tell me all about it.’
Fielding looked displeased, and much the same expression was to be seen on the face of Clarice. Mrs. Willoughby was serenely unconscious of the effect of her words.
‘I heard that he was in bed,’ interposed Conway carelessly. ‘But apparently he has got something to console himself with.’
‘Yes. He wrote to me about that too,’ said Mrs. Willoughby. ‘Fancy, Clarice! He has inherited quite a good income. An uncle or somebody left it to him.’
Clarice expressed an acid satisfaction at the news. She dropped behind with Fielding.
‘You didn’t know that Mr. Mallinson was ill?’ she asked. ‘Did none of his friends know except Connie?’ and then there was a perceptible accent of pique in her voice.
Fielding did not answer the question immediately. He had been brought of a sudden to the vexatious conclusion that Mrs. Willoughby was a coquette just like the rest of her trivial sex—no better, indeed, than the girl at his side, whose first anxiety was not as to whether Mallinson was seriously ill, but why he wrote the information to Mrs. Willoughby. He felt that Mrs. Willoughby had no right to trifle with Mallinson. The poor fellow had already suffered his full share of that kind of experience.
Miss Le Mesurier repeated her question impatiently, and Fielding suddenly realised that Miss Le Mesurier’s pique might prove useful in setting matters right. He determined to encourage it.
‘None that I’m aware of,’ he replied. ‘Mrs. Willoughby, of course, would be likely to know first.’
‘Haven’t you noticed? They have struck up a great friendship lately—always pair off together, you know.’
Miss Le Mesurier’s lips curled at the despicable phrase, but she blamed Mrs. Willoughby for the fact which it described, not Sidney Mallinson. His attitude she could understand, and make allowance for; it had been a despairing act prompted by an instinct of self-preservation to rid himself of the hopeless thought of her. An unsuccessful act too, for the poor fellow had broken down. She had no doubts as to the origin of his illness, and overflowed promptly with sympathy. Her resentment against Mrs. Willoughby none the less remained.
Driving homewards she asked her, ‘Why didn’t you tell me before that Mr. Mallinson was ill?’
‘My dear, I never gave a thought to it until I saw Mr. Fielding. The illness isn’t serious,’ and Mrs. Willoughby laughed, with peculiar heartlessness thought Clarice. They were, however, not thinking of the same individual.
Mrs. Willoughby, Clarice, and Fielding in consequence suffered some such change in their relative positions as is apt to take place amongst the European Powers. Poor Mrs. Willoughby, in the innocent pursuit of her own ideas, had suddenly roused two former friends into a common antagonism. These friends, besides, had much the same grounds for resentment as the Powers usually have, for Mrs. Willoughby’s conduct was a distinct infringement of rights which did not exist. Clarice and Fielding drew perceptibly nearer to one another; they exchanged diplomatic pourparlers. Fielding found a great deal to praise in Mallinson, and Clarice had a word or two to say upon the score of widows. She was doubtful whether they ought ever to re-marry. Fielding kept an open mind on the subject, but was willing to discuss it. On the particular point, however, whether this widow was to marry Mallinson they were both uncompromisingly agreed, and were only hindered from an armed demonstration by the suspicion that the sinner to the overawed would merely laugh at it. On the whole Fielding deemed it best to address a friendly remonstrance to Mrs. Willoughby in the interests of Clarice. He suggested that she should see less of Sidney Mallinson.
‘But I have no grounds for slamming my door in his face,’ she answered plaintively. ‘You see, Clarice has refused him, and really he’s very sweet and polite to me.’
Fielding pointed out with the elaborate calmness of intense exasperation that there could be no finality in a refusal given by Miss Le Mesurier. Mrs. Willoughby replied that they had differed before in their views of Clarice, and that the point he mentioned was one upon which Mr. Mallinson must be left to judge for himself. ‘Exactly,’ said Fielding with emphasis, ‘he should be left to judge for himself,’ and was for marching off with colours flying. But Mrs. Willoughby could not refrain from declaring that the unprecedented interest which Mr. Fielding took in his friend Mr. Mallinson had raised that friend to a very different position in her esteem from that which he had held before.
The combat was renewed more than once, but with no different result, and upon the same lines. Mrs. Willoughby received his attacks with a patient humility, and rushed out to catch him a flout as he was retiring. Finally, however, she shifted her position, and became the aggressor. She suggested that Fielding was really in love with Clarice, and trying to gain favour with her by bringing an admirer back to her feet. Fielding was furious at the suggestion, and indignantly repudiated it. She ignored the repudiation, and quietly insisted in pointing out the meanness of such a system of making love. The unfortunate gentleman’s dignity constrained him to listen in silence, for he felt that he would have spluttered had he opened his lips. The only course open to him was a retreat with a high head, and he declared that it was no longer possible for him to continue a discussion which he had begun as much in her true interests as on behalf of justice and her particular friend Miss Le Mesurier, and went home. By return of post he received a pen-and-ink drawing of himself and Clarice ‘pairing off.’ He was figured in the costermonger’s dress, with his arm tucked under the girl’s, and her hat on his head.
Meanwhile Mallinson was still in bed, completely ignorant of the battle which had been waged for the possession of him.
Fielding thought more than once of calling at his flat, since his determination had been sharpened rather than overcome by the victories of Mrs. Willoughby. He was more than ever convinced that Mallinson ought to have a fair chance with Miss Le Mesurier—an equal chance with Drake. The name of Drake made him pause. Miss Le Mesurier knew everything there was to be known about Mallinson, but there were certain facts in Drake’s history of which she was ignorant. The question sprang into his mind, ‘Could Mallinson have a fair chance unless she was made acquainted with those facts?’ Fielding knew Members of Parliament who had been returned over the heads of residents in the constituency because they entered it too late for the electors to become intimate with their defects. Drake’s career might provide an analogy unless Clarice was told. He argued to convince himself that he felt she ought to be told, but he could not bring himself to the point of telling. He decided finally upon an alternative which would, he imagined, secure his purpose, while relieving him of the responsibility. He would tell Mallinson of the Gorley episode, for the rival surely had a right to know. Whether Clarice was to be informed or not, Mallinson should be allowed to judge.
Fielding assured himself of the justice of his intention for the space of two days without putting it into execution, but on the third he chanced to meet Conway, and was given the information that Mallinson’s inherited income amounted to a thousand pounds. The news decided him. Under these circumstances Mallinson certainly ought to know. He jumped into a hansom and drove down to South Kensington.
Mallinson was still in bed, but sufficiently recovered to write up his diary. The book lay upon the counterpane open, but as Fielding was introduced into the room, its author shut it up and tucked it under his pillow. It was kept entirely for his own perusal, a voluminous record of sensations ranging from a headache to a fit of anger, without the mention of an incident from cover to cover.
‘I hear you have had a touch of bronchitis,’ said Fielding.
‘Something more than a touch, I can tell you. I have been rather ill. However, I am going to get up to-morrow.’
Fielding found it difficult to come to the point of his visit.
‘You must have found it dull.’
‘Not very. I can always interest myself. Drake came to see me yesterday.’
‘Drake! How did he know? Conway told him, I suppose.’
‘No, Miss Le Mesurier told him.’
‘Miss Le Mesurier?’ he asked.
‘Yes. Are you surprised?’ The question was put with some resentment.
‘That she told him? No, I expect she sent him.’ A smirk upon the invalid’s face showed he shared the thought.
‘By the way,’ Fielding continued, ‘talking of Miss Le Mesurier, did you ever meet a man called Gorley?’
‘No. There was a Gorley who was engaged to her. Is that the man?’
‘Yes. I heard rather a strange story about him. He went out to Africa, you know.’
Mallinson lifted himself on his elbow.
‘Africa,’ he said slowly. ‘Yes, I heard that. Why do you mention him?’
‘Oh, I thought perhaps you might have known the man, that’s all. He’s dead.’
Fielding spoke with a studied carelessness, looking anywhere except at Mallinson.
‘Dead,’ repeated Mallinson in the same tone, but his heart was beginning to race, and he lifted himself higher into a sitting position. ‘Gorley was a relation of Mrs. Willoughby, I believe.’
‘A kind of cousin.’
There was silence between the men for a second or two. Mallinson was recalling what Mrs. Willoughby had said that evening at Beaufort Gardens, when Mr. Le Mesurier pressed her to meet Stephen Drake at lunch.
‘So Gorley died in Africa,’ he remarked. ‘Where? Do you know?’
‘Yes; at Boruwimi.’
Mallinson started. Fielding glanced at him involuntarily, and their looks crossed.
‘A strange story, you said. Suppose you tell it me. It will while away some of my time.’
Fielding lit a cigarette and related the story. At the end of it Mallinson lay back on the pillows, staring at the ceiling. Once or twice Fielding spoke to him, but he did not hear. He was not thinking: the knowledge that the secret to be discovered was his to use was as a sense in him. He felt it pulsing through his veins and throbbing at his heart. Mrs. Willoughby was forgotten. It had been after all but a fictitious fancy which he had conceived for her, a fancy fostered in the main as balm for his self-respect after his refusal by Clarice.
As soon as he was sufficiently recovered he called upon Miss Le Mesurier, confident that his hour and opportunity had come. Drake, however, had reported to Clarice on the condition of Mallinson, and her sympathy had in consequence to a great extent evaporated. Bronchitis was not of the ailments which spring from a broken heart, and she was inclined to hold it as a grievance against him that she had been so wastefully touched with pity. Her sympathy disappeared altogether when with little circumlocution he broached the subject of the Boruwimi expedition, and dropped a mention of Mrs. Willoughby’s relative. There was something at the back of it, he hinted.
Clarice wondered whence he had got his information, but made no effort to check him. She stood looking out of the window while he retold her the story of Gorley’s death. It became more unreal to her than ever; for while his account was correctly given, as Mrs. Willoughby had given it to Fielding, it lacked the uncompromising details which Drake himself had furnished. Her recollection of these details made the man who had given them stand out in her thoughts.
‘It was a pitiful affair,’ Mallinson concluded, ‘but I thought you ought to know.’
Clarice drew a finger down the frame of glass in front of her.
‘Mr. Drake thought so too,’ she said quietly.
‘Drake!’ exclaimed Mallinson, utterly bewildered. ‘Drake! The man wouldn’t be such a—’
‘He was though.’
‘Do you mean that he confessed to it?’
‘Confess?’ she said, turning towards him. ‘That is hardly the word. He told me of his own accord the moment he knew I had been engaged to—to—’ She broke off at the name, and continued, ‘and he spared himself in the telling far less than you have spared him.’
She spoke with a gentle dignity which Mallinson had never known in her before, and he felt that it raised a more solid barrier between them than even her refusal had done.
Fielding, meanwhile, waited with an uneasy conscience which no casuistry would lighten. He threw himself in Mallinson’s way time after time in order to ascertain whether the latter had spoken. Mallinson let no word of the matter slip from him, and for the rest seemed utterly despondent. Fielding threw out a feeler at last.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘you would never repeat what I told you about Gorley. I forgot to mention that.’
Mallinson flushed. ‘Of course not,’ he said awkwardly.
Fielding turned on him quickly. ‘Then what made you tell Miss Le Mesurier?’
Mallinson was too taken aback to deny the accusation. ‘Oh, Miss Le Mesurier,’ he replied, ‘knew already.’
‘She knew? Who told her?’
Fielding drew in his breath and whistled. His first feeling was one of distinct relief, that after all he had not been the means by which Clarice had come to her knowledge; his second was one of indignation against Drake. He realised how a frank admission from Drake would outweigh in the girl’s susceptible nature the fact admitted. ‘What on earth induced him to reveal it?’
‘I suppose he is a little more cunning than one took him for. No doubt he saw the thing would get known sooner or later, and thought the disclosure had better come from himself.’
Fielding had been leaning to the same opinion, but the moment he heard it stated, and stated by Mallinson, he felt a certain conviction that it was wrong. ‘I don’t believe that,’ he said sharply.
He was none the less, however, indignant with Drake. To intermeddle at all in other people’s concerns was averse to his whole theory of existence. But to intermeddle, and not very creditably, and out of the most disinterested motives of benevolence and expediency, and then to fail! All this was nothing short of degrading. He dined that night at his club, to which Drake had been elected, and lay in wait for him. Drake, however, did not appear, and at ten o’clock Fielding went round to his rooms.
Drake was living in chambers on the Embankment, a little to the west of Hungerford Bridge. As he was shown into the room, Fielding could not help noticing the plainness of its furniture and adornment. The chairs were covered with a cheap red cretonne; there was an armchair or two with the high seat and long elbows, which seemed to have gone astray from a Peckham drawing-room; an ormolu clock under a glass shade ornamented the overmantel, and in the way of literature there was one book in the room—Prescott’s Conquest of Peru—and a copy of the Times.
Drake was seated at the table engaged in the study of a map of Matanga. ‘Come in!’ he said cordially. Fielding drew up a chair to the fire. ‘Have a drink? The cigars are on the mantelshelf.’
Drake fetched a syphon and a decanter of whisky and mixed two glasses. He handed one to Fielding, and brought his map to the fire.
‘Ah!’ said Fielding. ‘There’s likely to be a rising in Matanga, I see.’
‘How will that affect you?’
‘Not at all, I think. It may delay things, of course, but it won’t take long, and, besides, it won’t touch the interior of the country. There will be a certain amount of shouting in the capital and round the coast, perhaps a gun or two fired off, and then they’ll settle down under a new President.’
‘But there are a good many Germans there, aren’t there? What if they invite the German Government to interfere?’
‘I don’t fancy that’s probable. The German colonist isn’t over fond of German rule. You see the first thing a German official wants to do when he catches sight of a black, is to drill him. It’s his first and often his last idea. He wants to see him holding the palm of his hand against the stripe of an invisible trouser, and the system doesn’t work, because the black clears over the nearest border.’
Fielding laughed and turned to the object of his visit. ‘Talking of Matanga, what in the world made you tell Miss Le Mesurier about Gorley?’
Drake looked up from his map. ‘How did you know anything about Gorley?’ he asked.
‘Mrs. Willoughby told me. I thought it was decided Miss Le Mesurier should not be told.’
‘Mr. Le Mesurier left the choice to me, and it seemed to me that she had a right to know.’
Drake paused for a second in reflection. ‘It seemed to me—’ he began again.
‘Well, she hadn’t,’ snapped Fielding.
‘Well, I think she had,’ answered Drake quietly, returning to his map.
‘Then you were wrong; she hadn’t. The engagement was broken off a long while ago, and you hadn’t a right to tell her unless you want to marry her yourself.’
Drake raised his head with a jerk and stared at the wall in front of him fixedly. He made no answer, nor could Fielding distinguish upon his face any expression which gave a clue to his thoughts. He got up from his chair, and Drake turned to him. ‘I gather from your tone,’ he said in an indifferent voice, ‘that Mrs. Willoughby resents my action.’
‘My dear fellow, no,’ exclaimed Fielding energetically. ‘For Heaven’s sake, don’t take me for a reflex of Mrs. Willoughby!’
No more plotting for him, he determined. He had planned and calculated and interfered, all for other people’s good, and this was the thanks he got; to be quietly informed that he hadn’t an idea of his own.
The next afternoon Mrs. Willoughby stopped her phaeton beside him in Bond Street. She looked very well, he thought, with her clear complexion,—clear as those clear eyes of hers with just the hint of azure in the whites of them—wind-whipped now to a rosy warmth.
‘May I congratulate you yet?’ she asked pleasantly.
Fielding was not to be provoked to renew the combat, and he put the question aside. ‘You remember what you told me the other day about Gorley,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she answered, becoming serious.
‘Well, Miss Le Mesurier knows.’
‘Who told her?’ and she leaned forward.
Mrs. Willoughby thought for a moment and then shook her head. ‘I can’t. Her father?’
‘No; Drake himself.’
She started back in her seat. Then she said, ‘Of course, we might have known that he would,’ and the ‘we’ sealed their reconciliation.