‘Oh don’t, child!’ he entreated. ‘It’s my fault for speaking so soon. But really there’s nothing to fear—nothing. It’ll all come out right—not a doubt of that. You’ll see.’
Consolation of this kind did but make the tears flow yet more freely. Drake perceived the fact and stood aside, wondering perplexedly at the reason. The sound of each sob jerked at his heart; he began to walk restlessly about the room. The storm, from its very violence, however, wore itself quickly out; the sobs became less convulsive, less frequent. Clarice raised her head from her arms and stared out of the window opposite, with just now and then a little shiver and heave of her back.
Drake stopped his walk and advanced to her. She anticipated his speech, turning with a start to face him.
‘You haven’t seen my father?’
‘No; the servant told me he had gone out. But I wrote a note saying I would call again this evening. It is under your elbow.’
Clarice picked up the crumpled envelope and looked at it absently.
‘Stephen,’ she said, and she tripped upon the name, ‘there’s something I ought to tell you—now. But it’s rather difficult.’
Drake walked to the window and stood with his back towards her. She felt grateful to him for the action, and was a little surprised at the tact which had prompted it.
‘Yes?’ he said.
‘We are not very well off,’ she continued; ‘perhaps you know that.’
‘Yes,’ he interrupted.
‘But the position’s more complicated than you can know’; she was speaking carefully, weighing her words. ‘Of course you know that I have a sister younger than myself. She’s at school in Brussels. Well, by the Sark laws, the Seigneurie can’t be split up between the members of a family. I think it’s the same with all land there. It must go—what’s the word?—unencumbered to the eldest child. So it must come to me—all of it. That leaves my sister still to be provided for. Father explained the whole thing to me. As it is, he has as much as he can do to keep the Seigneurie up. This house we can’t really afford, but father thought he ought to take it,—well, for my sake, I suppose. So, you see, whatever money he has he must leave to my sister, and there’s still the Seigneurie for me to keep up.’
‘Yes, I understand. You are bound by duty, if you marry, to marry some one with means. But, Clarice, it won’t be long to wait,’ and he turned back from the window into the room.
‘But till then—don’t you see? Of course I know you will be successful,’ and she laid considerable emphasis on the I.
Drake reflected for a moment. ‘You mean there would be trouble between your father and you. The weight of it would fall on you. He might distrust me. Yes; after all, why should he not? But still the thing’s done, isn’t it?’
Clarice rose from her chair and walked to the grate. A fire was burning, and she still held Drake’s letter in her hand. ‘We might keep it to ourselves,’ she said diffidently. She saw Drake’s forehead contract. ‘For my sake,’ she said softly, laying a hand upon his sleeve. She lifted a tear-stained face up to his with the prettiest appeal. ‘I know you hate it, but it will spare me so much.’
He said nothing, and she dropped the letter into the fire.
As Drake was leaving the house she heard, through the closed door, the sound of her father’s voice in the hall speaking to him, and felt a momentary pang of alarm. The next instant, however, she laughed. He might have broken his word to himself; he would not break it to her.
Drake went home, reckoning up the harm he had done with a feeling of degradation quite new to him. Not the least part of that harm was the compromise finally agreed upon. But for the traces of tears upon the girl’s cheeks, he would hardly have agreed to it even in the face of her appeal. Once alone, however, he saw clearly all—the deception that it implied—deception which involved the girl, too, as well as himself. He rose the next day in no more equable frame of mind, and leaving his office at three o’clock in the afternoon, walked along Cheapside, Holborn, and Oxford Street, and turned down Bond Street, meaning to pass an hour in the fencing-rooms half-way down St. James Street. At the corner of Bruton Street he came face to face with Miss Le Mesurier. She coloured for an instant, and then came frankly forward and held out her hand.
‘It’s funny meeting you here,’ she said, and laughed without the least embarrassment.
Drake turned and walked by her side with a puzzled conjecture at the reason of woman’s recuperative powers. Clarice’s eyes were as clear, her forehead as sunny, as though she had clean wiped yesterday from her consciousness. The conjecture, however, brought the reality of yesterday only yet more home to him. He stopped in the street and said abruptly, ‘Clarice, I can’t.’
She stopped in her turn and drew a little pattern on the pavement with the point of her umbrella. ‘Why?’
A passer-by jostled Drake in the back. Standing there they were blocking the way. ‘Isn’t there anywhere we could go? Tea? One drinks tea at this hour, eh?’
Clarice felt more mistress of herself in the open street, more able to cope with Drake while they walked in a throng. She remembered enough of yesterday to avoid even the makeshift solitude of a tea-table in a public room. ‘Let us walk on,’ she said. ‘Can’t you explain as we go? I am late.’
She moved forward as she spoke, and Drake kept pace with her, shortening his strides. The need of doing that, trifle though it was, increased his sense of responsibility towards her. ‘It’s so abominably deceitful, and it’s my doing. I should involve you in the deceit.’
Clarice glanced at him sharply. The distress of his voice was repeated in the expression of her face. There was no doubting that he spoke sincerely.
‘I had better see your father to-day,’ he added.
‘No,’ she replied energetically; and, after a moment’s pause, ‘There’s another way.’
‘Let everything be as it was before yesterday. I shall not change. It will be better for you to be free. Come to me when you are ready.’
She signed to a passing hansom, and it drew up by the curb. She got into it while Drake stood with brows knitted, revolving the proposal in his mind. ‘But you see it can’t be the same,’ he said; ‘because I kissed you, didn’t I?’
‘Yes, you did,’ she replied.
The tremble of laughter in her voice made him look up to her face. The rose deepened in her cheeks, and the laughter rippled out. ‘You are quaint,’ she said. ‘I will forget—well—what you said, until you are ready. Till then it’s to be just as it was before—only not less. You are not to stay away’; and without waiting for an answer she lifted the trap, gave the cabman his order, and drove off. Drake watched the hansom disappear, and absently retraced his steps down the street. He stopped once or twice and stared vaguely into the shop-windows. One of these was a jeweller’s, and he turned sharply away from it and quickened his pace towards the fencing-rooms. How could it be the same, he asked himself, when the mere sparkle of an emerald ring in a jeweller’s shop-window aroused in him a feeling of distaste?
Towards the end of this week Clarice called upon Mrs. Willoughby, and seemed for the moment put out on finding that Mallinson and Fielding were present. Mrs. Willoughby welcomed her all the more warmly because she was finding it difficult to keep the peace between her two visitors. She understood Clarice’s embarrassment when Percy Conway arrived close upon her heels. Clarice, however, quietly handed him over to Mrs. Willoughby, and seated herself beside Mallinson in one of the windows. ‘I see nothing of you now,’ she said, and she looked the reproach of the hardly-used. ‘I thought we had agreed to be friends?’
Mallinson sighed wearily. ‘I will come and call—some day,’ he said dejectedly.
‘I have not so many friends that I can afford a loss,’ she answered pathetically; and then, ‘Tell me about yourself. What are you doing?’
‘No.’ Mallinson shook his head.
‘I have no incentive—nothing to work for.’
They played out their farce of sham sentiment with a luxurious earnestness for a little while longer, and then Mallinson went away.
‘So he’s doing no work?’ said Fielding maliciously to Miss Le Mesurier. He leaned forward as he spoke from the embrasure of the second window, which was in a line with, and but a few feet apart from, that at which she was sitting.
Miss Le Mesurier flushed, and asked, ‘How did you hear?’
‘Both windows are open. Mallinson was leaning out.’
The girl’s confusion increased, and with it Fielding’s enjoyment. He repeated, ‘So he’s doing no work?’
‘A thousand a year, don’t you know?’ said Conway, with a sneer. ‘It would make a man like that lazy.’
‘It’s not laziness,’ exclaimed Clarice indignantly. She was filled with pity for Mallinson, and experienced, too, a sort of reflex pity for herself as the inappropriate instrument of his suffering. She was consequently altogether tuned to tenderness for him. ‘It’s not laziness at all. It’s—it’s—’ She cast about for a laudatory explanation.
‘Well, what?’ Fielding pressed genially.
‘It’s the artistic temperament,’ she exclaimed triumphantly.
Fielding laughed at her vindication, and Miss Le Mesurier walked across the room and said good-bye to Mrs. Willoughby. Conway rose at the same time, and the pair left the house together.
‘What a liar that man is!’ said Fielding.
‘What man?’ asked Mrs. Willoughby.
‘Why, Mallinson. He said he was doing no work because he had no incentive. As a matter of fact, I happen to know that he is working rather hard.’
‘What did Clarice say?’
‘What you might expect. She melted into sympathy.’
Mrs. Willoughby looked puzzled. ‘Yet she went off with Percy Conway immediately afterwards,’ she said, and then laughed at her recollections of a previous visit from that gentleman.
‘Yes; and absolutely unconscious of the humour of her behaviour,’ said Fielding. ‘That’s so delightful about her.’ He paused for a second and asked, ‘Have you ever been inside a camera obscura? You get a picture, an impression, very vivid, very accurate, of something that is actually happening. Then some one pulls a string and you get a totally different picture, equally vivid, equally accurate, of something else which is actually happening. There is no trace of the first picture in the second. Then they open a shutter and you see nothing but a plain white slab. Somehow I always think of Miss Le Mesurier’s mind.’
After leaving Mrs. Willoughby’s, Conway and Miss Le Mesurier walked together in the direction of Beaufort Gardens.
‘Do you see much of Mr. Drake?’ she asked, after a considerable silence.
‘Not as much as one would wish to. He’s generally busy.’
‘You like him, then?’ she asked curiously. ‘Why?’
‘Don’t you? There’s an absence of pretension about him. Nothing of the born-to-command air, but insensibly you find yourself believing in him, following him. I believe even Fielding finds that as well. When Drake first came back I used to stand up for him—well, because, perhaps, I had a reason of my own. I am not sure that I believed all I said, but I am sure now I should say exactly the same and believe every word of it.’
He spoke with a quiet conviction which gave solid weight to his words, owing to its contrast with the flighty enthusiasm which was the usual characteristic of his eulogies.
‘You mentioned Mr. Fielding,’ she said.
‘Yes; haven’t you heard? He’s investing in Matanga Concessions, and largely for him. He’s often seen in Drake’s office.’
Clarice walked along in silence for some way further. Then she said, with a distinct irritation in her voice, ‘I suppose it all comes from the fact that Mr. Drake doesn’t seem to need any one to rely upon, or—well—any particular incentive to work.’
Conway glanced at Miss Le Mesurier with a slight surprise. She was generally given to accept facts without inquiry into their causes. ‘I shouldn’t wonder if you are right. Drake, I should think, would find his incentive in the work itself. Yes; I believe you are right. It’s just his single-mindedness which influences one. There are certain ideas fixed in his mind, combined into one aim, and he lets nothing interfere to obscure that aim.’
So he spoke; so, too, Clarice believed, and that picture of moonlight on the veld became yet more vivid, yet more frequent in her thoughts. Pondering upon it, her fancy led her to exaggerate Drake into the likeness of some Egyptian god, that sits with huge hands resting upon massive knees, and works out its own schemes behind indifferent eyes. The sight of him, and the sound of commonplace words from his mouth, would at times make her laugh at the conception and restore her to her former familiarity with him. But the fancy returned to her, and, each time, added a fresh layer to the colour of her thoughts. She came now and again to betray a positive shrinking from him. Drake noticed it; he noticed something else as well: in the first week of July the emerald ring reappeared upon her finger.
In the second week Mr. Le Mesurier removed his household gods to Sark. It was his habit to spend the summer months upon the island, and to entertain there his friends in succession. He invited both Mrs. Willoughby and Stephen Drake. The former accepted, the latter, being on the eve of floating the Matanga Concessions, declined for the present to Clarice’s great relief, but promised to come later. The company was floated towards the end of the month, and with immediate success. Mr. Le Mesurier read out at breakfast a letter which he had received from Drake, announcing that every share had been taken up on the very day of flotation.
‘Then he is coming,’ said Clarice. ‘When?’
Mr. Le Mesurier mistook his daughter’s anxiety, and smiled satisfaction at her. ‘To-morrow,’ he replied; ‘but only for three days at first. There’s some new development he speaks of. He will have to leave again on Saturday for a fortnight.’
Clarice sat thoughtfully for a minute or two. Then she asked: ‘Did you invite Mr. Mallinson this summer?’
Mr. Le Mesurier shuffled his feet under the table. ‘No, my dear,’ he said. ‘I forgot all about it; and now I don’t see that we shall have room.’
‘Oh yes,’ replied Clarice quickly. ‘He might have Mr. Drake’s room during that fortnight. I think we ought to ask him. We always have, and it will look rather strange if we leave him out this summer. I will get aunt to write after breakfast.’
Mr. Le Mesurier glanced at Mrs. Willoughby, but made no active resistance, and Clarice took care that the letter was despatched by that day’s post. On the next day she organised a picnic in Little Sark, and returned to the Seigneurie at an hour which gave her sufficient time to dress for dinner, but no margin for welcoming visitors. In consequence she only saw Drake at the dinner-table. She saw little of him afterwards, for Mr. Le Mesurier pounced upon him after dinner. ‘I want to introduce you to Burl,’ he said. ‘He’s Parliamentary agent for the Northern Counties. There’s a constituency in Yorkshire where my brother lives, and I rather think Burl wants a candidate.’
Drake was presented to a gentleman six feet three in his socks, deep-chested, broad-shouldered, with a square rugged face on the slant from the forehead to the chin. Mrs. Willoughby said he looked like a pirate, and rumour made of her simile a fact. It was known that, late one night in the smoking-room of the Seigneurie, he had owned to silver-running on the coast of Mexico. Mr. Burl and Drake passed most of that evening smoking together in the garden. Similarly on the next day Clarice avoided a private interview with Drake. On the other hand, however, he made no visible effort to secure one. Mrs. Willoughby wondered at his reticence, and did more than wonder. She had by this time espoused his cause, and knowing no half-measures in her enthusiasms, saw his chances slipping from him, with considerable irritation. She was consequently provoked to hint her advice to him on the evening before he was to leave.
Drake shook his head and replied frankly: ‘One can be too previous. I made that mistake once before, and I don’t mean to repeat it.’
He remained silent for a moment or two, and added: ‘I think I’ll tell you about it, Mrs. Willoughby. You have guessed some part of the story, and you are Clarice’s friend, and mine too, I believe.’
With an impulsiveness rare in him, which however served to rivet him yet more firmly in Mrs. Willoughby’s esteem, he confided to her the history of his proposal and its lame result. ‘So you see,’ he concluded, ‘I am not likely to risk a repetition of the incident.’
‘But,’ said she, ‘surely there’s no risk now?’
‘Very likely, but there is just a little. This next fortnight will, I think, make everything secure, but I must wait that fortnight.’
‘Well, I believe you are unwise.’ Drake turned to her quickly. ‘Why?’
‘Mr. Mallinson takes your place for the fortnight. Of course I don’t know. Clarice has given up confiding in me. But I really think you are unwise.’
Drake sat staring in front of him. He was considering Mallinson’s visit in conjunction with the reappearance of the emerald ring upon Miss Le Mesurier’s finger. ‘All the same,’ he said at length, ‘I shall wait.’
The reason for this hesitation he explained more fully to Clarice herself some half an hour afterwards. He found her standing by herself upon the terrace. She started nervously as he approached, and it seemed to him that her whole figure stiffened to a posture of defence. She said nothing, however, and for a while they stood side by side looking seawards across the breadth of the island. The ground stretched away broken into little hollows and little hills,—downs in vignette. A cheery yellow light streamed from the windows of a cottage in a dip of the grass; the slates of a roof glistened from a group of sycamores like a mirror in a dark frame; the whole island lay bared to the moonlight. Towards the edge of it the land rose upwards to a ridge, but there was a cleft in the ridge opposite to where they stood, and through the cleft they looked downwards to the sea.
Clarice spoke of the moonbeams broken into sparkles by the ripple of the water.
‘Like a shoal of silver coins,’ said Drake.
‘Wouldn’t you like to hear them clink?’ she asked petulantly.
Then he said: ‘Miss Le Mesurier’—and the change in his voice made the girl turn swiftly to face him—‘I leave Sark to-morrow morning by the early boat, so I thought I would say good-bye to you to-night.’
‘But you are coming back,’ she said quickly; ‘I shall see you, of course, when you come back. What takes you away?’
‘There’s some land in Matanga which bounds my concession on the north, and I want to get hold of it. It’s, I believe, quite as good, and may be better, than mine, and I know that some people are after it. It wouldn’t help me if another company was to be started; and as the President of the Matanga Republic is on his way to England, I thought that I had better go out to Madeira, catch his steamer there, and secure a concession of it before he reaches England.’
Clarice gave a laugh. ‘Then we are to expect you in a fortnight?’
‘Yes, in a fortnight,’ and he laid a significance upon the word which Clarice did not mistake. It was spoken with an accent of entreaty.
But indeed she needed no emphasis to fix it in her mind. The word besieged her; she caught herself uttering it, and while she uttered it the time itself seemed to have slipped by. She had but to say ‘No’ at the end of the fortnight, she assured herself, and she knew that she would only have to say it once. But the memory of that Sunday afternoon in Beaufort Gardens lay upon her like a load crushing all the comfort out of her knowledge.
Drake caught his steamer at Southampton, and the President at Madeira. He was received warmly as an old acquaintance, warily as a negotiator. However, he extracted the concession as the boat passed up Southampton Water, and disembarked with a signed memorandum in his pocket. At Southampton post-office he received a bundle of letters which had been forwarded to him from his chambers in London. He slipped them into his coat, and went at once on board the Guernsey steamer. At Guernsey, the next morning, he embarked on the little boat which runs between Guernsey and Sark. The sun was a golden fire upon the water; the race of the tides no more than a ripple. The island stuck out its great knees into the sea and lolled in the heat. Half-way across Drake bethought him of the letters. He took them out and glanced over the envelopes. One was in Clarice’s handwriting. It announced to him her engagement with Sidney Mallinson.