‘Unless you want to marry her yourself’; the words were stamped upon his mind in capitals. They formulated to him for the first time the cause of that unreasoned conviction of his, and formulated it too, as he realised, with absolute truth. Yes, it was just his desire for Clarice to which he owed his belief that she had an unquestionable right to know his responsibility for Gorley’s death.
He wanted her, and wanting her, was committed to scrupulous frankness.
Drake looked out across the city. At his feet lay the quiet strip of garden, lawn and bush; beyond, the lamps burning on the parapets of the Embankment, and beyond them, the river shining in the starlight, polished and lucent like a slab of black marble, with broad regular rays upon it of a still deeper blackness, where the massive columns of Hungerford Bridge cast shadows on the water. An engine puffed and snorted into the station, leaving its pennant of white smoke in the air. Through the glass walls of the signal-box above the bridge Drake could see the men in a blaze of light working at the levers, and from the Surrey end there came to him a clink, and at that distance a quite musical clink, of truck against truck as some freight-train was shunted across the rails. Away to his right the light was burning on Westminster clock-tower; on Westminster Bridge the lamps of cabs and carriages darted to and fro like fire-flies. Drake watched two of them start across in the same direction a few yards apart, saw the one behind close up, the one in front spirt forward as though each was straining for the lead. They drew level, then flashed apart, then again drew level, and so passing and repassing raced into the myriad lights upon the opposite bank. That bank was visible to him through a tracery of leafless twigs, for a tree grew in front of his window on the farther edge of the gardens, and he could see the lights upon its roadway dancing, twirling, clashing in the clear night, just as they clashed and twirled and danced in the roadway beneath him, sparks from a forge, and that forge, London. In their ceaseless motion they seemed rivulets of fire, and the black sheet of water between them the solid highway. But even while he looked, a ruby light moved on that highway out from the pillars of the bridge, and then another and another. Everywhere was the glitter of lights; fixed, flashing like a star on the curve, or again growing slowly from a pin’s point to an orb, and then dwindling to a point and vanishing. And on every side, too, Drake heard the quick beat of horses, and the rattle of wheels struck out not from silence, but from a dull eternal hum like the hum of a mill, sharp particular notes emerging incessantly from a monotonous volume of sound.
It was just this aspect and this noise of restless activity which had always appealed to Drake, and had satisfied him with an assurance that he was on the road to the fulfilment of his aims. He had achieved something of his desires, however small. He was in London working at certain schemes of which he did not doubt the ultimate success. They were built upon a foundation of knowledge arduously gained and tested. The rising in Matanga, if it took place, might delay success, but success would surely come. He might then look forward with confidence to a seat in that Parliament on which the light was burning, to a share perhaps finally in its executive.
But to-night he found that there was something wanting in the contemplation of these aims, something wanting in the very outlook from his window. He needed Clarice here in his balcony by his side, and he pictured the shine of her eyes bent towards him in the dark. And the perception of that need held him in check, gave him a hint of warning that the thought of her might become as a wedge driven into the framework of his purposes and splitting them.
He could still draw back, he assured himself. But if he went on and won! He felt the blood surging through his veins. He might win; there was just a chance. The Gorley incident had made no real difference in Clarice’s friendliness. When once, indeed, she had grown used to it, she had seemed almost to express some queer sort of sympathy with him.
Drake closed the window and sat down to calculate the time at which he would be sufficiently established to make known his suit. He fixed that time definitely in July. July! The name sounded pleasantly with its ripple of liquid syllables. Drake found himself repeating it when he should have been at work. It began to rise to his lips the moment a date was asked of him, as the only date at all worth mentioning. Fielding came down to Drake’s office in Old Broad Street, in order to apply for shares in ‘Matanga Concessions.’
‘You had better wait,’ said Drake. ‘I will let you know before they are offered to the public.’
‘That will be soon?’
‘Not for the moment. There’s the possibility of this rising. Let the country quiet down first!’
‘But when do you propose?’
‘July? That’s a long time to come.’
Drake coloured to the roots of his hair. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he said with evident embarrassment; ‘much sooner than that of course. I was thinking of some one else.’ He made matters worse by a hurried correction of ‘some one’ to ‘something.’
Fielding noticed the embarrassment and the correction, and drew conclusions. They were conclusions, he thought, of which Mrs. Willoughby should be advised, and he drove to her house accordingly. He had ceased to feel displeasure at Mrs. Willoughby’s conduct, for since he had studiously refrained from betraying the slightest irritation at Mallinson’s visits, those visits had amazingly diminished.
‘Did he happen to mention the date of the month and the time of the day?’ was Mrs. Willoughby’s comment.
‘It sounds cold-blooded? Hardly, if you knew the man. He looks on life as a sort of draughtboard. So many definite moves to be made forward upon definite lines. Then you’re crowned king and can move as you please, backwards if you like, till the end of the game.’
‘He will be crowned king in July?’
‘So I imagine.’
Meanwhile Drake worked on through March and April, outwardly untroubled, but inwardly asking himself ever: ‘Shall I win? Shall I win?’ The question besieged him. Patient he could be, none more so, when the end in view was to be gained by present even though gradual endeavour; but this passive waiting was a lid shut down on him, forcing his energies inwards to prey upon himself. His impatience, moreover, was increased by the increasing prospects of his undertaking. Additional reports had been received from his engineer appraising at a still higher value the quality of the land. He spoke too of a tract of country bordering Drake’s concession on the north, and advised application for it. Biedermann, besides, had taken up the project warmly. The company was to come out early in May; there would be few shares open to the public, and the revolution had not taken place.
Why should he wait till July after all? Drake felt inclined to argue the question one Sunday afternoon in London’s lilac time, as he walked across the green park towards Beaufort Gardens. He found Miss Le Mesurier alone and in a melancholy mood. She was singing weariful ballads in an undertone as he entered the room, and she rose dispiritedly to welcome him.
‘It’s seldom one finds you alone,’ he said, and his face showed his satisfaction.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘It seems to me sometimes that I am always alone, even when people are by,’ and her eyelids drooped.
Clarice’s sincerity was of the artist’s sort implying a sub-consciousness of an audience. She recognised from the accent upon the you, that her little speech had not failed of its effect. She continued more cheerfully: ‘Aunt has gone up to Highgate to see some relations, and papa’s asleep in the library.’
‘You were singing. I hope you won’t stop.’
‘I was only passing the time.’
‘You will make me think I intrude.’
‘I’ll prove to you that you don’t,’ and she went back to the piano. Drake seated himself at the side of it, facing her and facing the open window. The window-ledges were ablaze with flowers, and the scent of them poured into the room on a flood of sunshine.
Clarice was moved by a sudden whim to a change of humour. She sprang from her dejection to the extreme of good spirits. Her singing proved it, for she chose a couple of light-hearted French ballads, and sang them with a dainty humour which matched the daintiness of the words and music. Her shrugs and pouts, the pretty arching of her eyebrows, the whimsical note of mockery in her voice, represented her to Drake under a new aspect, helped to complete her in his thoughts much as her voice, very sweet and clear for all its small compass, completed in some queer way the flowers and sunshine. Her manner, however, did more than that; it gave to him, conscious of a certain stiffness and inflexibility of temperament, an inner sense of completion anticipated from his hope of a time when their lives would join. He leaned forward in his chair, watching the play of her face, the lights and shadows in the curls of her hair, the nimble touch of her fingers on the keys. Clarice stopped suddenly. ‘You don’t sing?’
‘I have no accomplishments at all.’
She laughed and began to play one of Chopin’s nocturnes. Her fingers rattled against the ivory on a run up the piano. She stopped and took a ring from her right hand; Drake noticed that it was the emerald ring which he had seen winking in the firelight on that evening when she had covered her face from him. She dropped the ring on the top of the piano at Drake’s side. It spun round once or twice, and then settled down with a little tinkling whirr upon the rim of its hoop Drake fancied that the removal of this particular ring was in some inexplicable way of hopeful augury to him.
Clarice resumed her playing, but as she neared the end of the nocturne, Drake perceived that there was a growing change, a declension, in her style. She seemed to lose the spirit of the nocturne and even her command on the instrument; the firm touch faltered into indecision, from indecision to absolute unsteadiness; the notes, before clear and distinct, now slurred into one another with a tremulous wavering.
‘You are fond of music?’ she asked at length, with something of an effort.
‘Very,’ he replied, ‘though it puzzles me. It’s like opening a book written in a language you don’t understand. You get a glimpse of a meaning here and there, but no meaning really. I can’t explain what I feel,’ he added, with a laugh. ‘I want Mallinson to help me.’
‘You admire Mr. Mallinson?’ asked Clarice, stopping suddenly.
‘Well, one always admires the class of work one can’t do oneself, eh?’
‘That’s very generous of you.’
‘Why generous?’ Drake leaned suddenly forward. His habit of putting questions abrupt and straight to the point had discomposed Miss Le Mesurier upon an occasion before. She answered hurriedly. ‘I mean—you spoke as if you meant that class of work was above your own.’
‘Oh, there’s no basis of comparison.’
Clarice seized the opportunity, and inquired after the prospects of his work in Matanga.
‘The place should do,’ said Drake. ‘The land’s good, there’s a river running through, and I have got picked men to settle on it; all English, that’s the point. But you said generous. I don’t see.’
Clarice switched him on the subject of English colonisation. ‘It’s necessary to have Englishmen to start it? Why?’
‘Oh, well,’ said Drake. ‘It’s easy enough to see, if you can compare English with the foreign colonies.’ He rose from his chair and launched forth, walking about the room. ‘Look at the Germans! There are seven hundred German colonists, all told, in the German colonies, and each of them costs the German tax-payer little short of eight hundred a year. How many of them are in the English colonies? And what’s the reason? Why, they want to have the institutions of the Fatherland ready-made in five minutes. They need the colonies made before they can prosper in it. The French are better, but they are spoilt by officialdom. The Englishman just adapts himself to the conditions, and sets to work to adapt the conditions to himself too. He strikes a sort of mean, and the Home Government leaves him alone—leaves him too much alone some say, and rightly, in cases. There’s a distinction to be drawn, and it’s difficult to draw it so far away. It’s this, when the colony’s made, then it isn’t a bad thing for the Government to keep a fairly tight hold on it. But in the making it’s best left to itself; you can lay a cable between London and a colony too soon for the good of that colony. There’s no fear of the colonist forgetting the mother country—he may forget the Home Government, does at times, and then there’s a mistake or two. But that’s the defect of the quality.’ He checked himself abruptly. ‘But I’m running away from what we were talking about. Yes; I think we shall do all right in Matanga.’
‘You don’t mean to go back there yourself?’
‘Not to live there. To tell the truth, I think there’s a man or two wanted in England just now, who has had a practical experience of our colonies.’ Drake spoke without the least trace of boastfulness, but in a tone of quiet self-reliance, and Clarice had a thrill of intuition that he would not have said so much as that to any one but herself.
Clarice began to play again, this time a waltz tune. Drake came over to the piano, and stood leaning upon the lid of it; he took up the ring and turned it over in his fingers. She said thoughtfully:
‘I suppose that’s true of men as well’; and then, with a hesitating correction, ‘I mean of men like you.’
‘Well, that they are best without—help from any one—that they stand in no need of it.’ She spoke quite seriously, with a note almost of regret.
‘Oh, I don’t know that,’ he answered, with a laugh. ‘It would be a rash thing to say. Of course a man ought to depend upon himself.’
‘Oh, of course,’ she agreed, and went on playing.
Drake was still holding the ring, and he said slowly:
‘You remember that afternoon I told you about’—he hesitated for a second—‘Gorley?’ Clarice looked up in surprise.
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘You were wearing this ring. You hid your face in your hands. It was the last thing I saw of you.’
She lowered her eyes from his face, and said, with a certain timidity, ‘He gave it to me.’
Drake started and leaned on the piano.
‘And you still wear it?’ he asked sharply.
She nodded, but without looking at him. Drake rose upright, straightening himself; for a moment or two he stood looking at her, and then he walked away towards the window. His hat was lying on a table close by it.
‘But I don’t think that I shall again,’ she murmured. She heard him turn quickly round and come back. He stood behind her; she could see his shadow thrown across the bar of sunlight on the carpet; but he did not speak. Clarice became anxious that he should, and yet afraid too. The music began to falter again; once she stopped completely, and let her fingers rest upon the keys, as though she had no power to lift them and continue. Then she struck a chord with a loud defiance. If only he would move, she thought—if only he would come round and stand in front of her! It would be so much easier to speak, to divert him. So long as he stood silent and motionless behind her, she felt, in a strange manner, at his mercy.
She rose from her seat suddenly, and confronted him. There was challenge in the movement, but none the less her eyes sought the ground, and, once face to face with him, she stood in an attitude of submission.
‘What does that mean?’ she heard him ask in a low voice. ‘You won’t wear it again.’
She did not answer, but in spite of herself, against her will, she raised her eyes until they met his. She heard a cry, hoarse and passionate; she felt herself lifted, caught, and held against him. She saw his eyes above hers, burning into hers; she felt the pressure of two lips upon hers, and her own respond obediently.
‘Is it true?’ The words were whispered into her ear with an accent of wonder, almost of awe.
‘Yes,’ she whispered back, compelled to the answer, subservient to his touch, to his words, and, to the full, conscious of her subservience. She felt the big breath he drew in answering her monosyllable. He held her unresisting, passive in his arms, watching her cheeks fire. She realised, in a kind of detached way, that he was holding her so that the tips of her toes only touched the floor, and somehow that seemed of a piece with the rest. Then he set her down, and stood apart, keeping her hands. ‘It’s funny,’ he said, ‘how one goes on year after year, quite satisfied, knowing nothing of this, meaning not to know.’
She caught at the phrase and stammered, ‘Perhaps that was wise.’
‘It was. For so I met you.’
He released her hands, and she sank into the nearest chair. Drake walked to the window and stood facing the sunlight, breathing it in. ‘Clarice,’ she heard him murmur, with a shake of his shoulders like a great Newfoundland dog; and then the cry of a newspaper boy shouting the headlines of a special edition rasped into the room.
Drake leaned out of the window. ‘Hi!’ he called, and tossed a penny into the street.
‘Threepence,’ shouted the boy from below.
‘It’s a penny paper,’ cried Drake.
‘Threepence. There’s a corner in ’em.’
Clarice listened to the argument. Most men, she thought helplessly, don’t buy newspapers the moment they have been accepted, and, at all events, it is an occasion when they are disposed to throw their money about. It made no difference of any kind to him.
Drake finally got the better of the bargain, and the paper was brought up to the room. Clarice saw Drake open it hurriedly, and his face cloud and harden as he glanced down the column.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked in a rising voice.
‘A rebellion in Matanga,’ he said slowly. ‘I thought that danger was averted,’ and there was a distinct note of self-reproach in his tone.
Clarice felt her heart beat quicker. She rose from her chair. ‘What does that mean to you?’ she asked.
‘Delay,’ he replied, with the self-reproach yet more accentuated. ‘Nothing more, I am sure; but it does mean that.’
He noticed an expression of disappointment upon the girl’s face, and, mistaking it, repeated, ‘Nothing more than that, Clarice.’ He took a step towards her. ‘Of course I ought not to have spoken to you yet,—not until everything was settled. I am sorry—of course it will come out all right, only till then it wasn’t fair. I didn’t mean to,—not even when I came this afternoon. But seeing you,—I wasn’t strong enough,—I gave in.’
Clarice felt a pulse of satisfaction, and her lips shaped to a smile.
‘Ah, you don’t regret it,’ he exclaimed, and the look of humiliation passed from his face. ‘Your father’s in the library,’ he went on; ‘I had better go and tell him. Shall I go alone, or will you come with me?’
‘No, you go; I will wait here.’
She stood alone in the centre of the room while Drake went downstairs, staring fixedly in front of her. Once or twice she set her hands to her forehead and drew them down her flushed cheeks. Then she walked to the window. There was something floating on the edge of her mind, just eluding her. A thought was it, or a phrase? If a phrase, who had spoken it? She began to remember; it was something Stephen Drake had said, but about what? And then, in a flash, her recollection defined it for her. It was about moonlight being absorbed into the darkness of an African veld, just soaking into it like water into dry ground. She had a vision of the wide rolling plain, black from sky’s rim to sky’s rim, and the moonlight pouring a futile splendour into its lap. She moved with a quick and almost desperate run to the door, opened it, and leaned over the balustrade of the staircase. The hall was empty and no sound of voices came from the library. She stepped cautiously down the stairs; as she reached the last step the door of the library opened and Drake appeared on the threshold.
Clarice leaned against the wall, holding her hand to her heart.
‘Why, Clarice!’ he cried, and started towards her.
‘Hush!’ She tried to whisper the word, but her voice rose. She thrust out a hand between herself and Drake, and cast a startled glance across his shoulder, expecting to see her father come forward smiling congratulations at her. Drake caught the outstretched hand, and, setting an arm about her waist, drew her into the library.
‘I have not seen Mr. Le Mesurier,’ he said; ‘he’s out, I am afraid.’
The room was empty. Clarice looked round it, doubting her eyes, and with a sudden revulsion of feeling dropped into a chair by the table and sat with her face buried in her arms in a flood of tears.