The Philanderers

Chapter XI

A.E.W. Mason

OF DRAKE’S ARRIVAL at the Seigneurie Mrs. Willoughby wrote some account to Hugh Fielding, who was taking the waters for no ailment whatever at Marienbad. ‘I was surprised to see him,’ she wrote, ‘because Clarice told me that she had written to him. Clarice was running down the stairs when he came into the hall. She stopped suddenly as she caught sight of him, clutched at the balustrade, slipped a heel upon the edge of the step, and with a cry pitched straight into his arms at the bottom. Mr. Mallinson came out of the library while he was holding her. Clarice was not hurt, however, and Mr. Drake set her down. “I didn’t pass through London,” he said, and he seemed to be apologising. “My letters were forwarded to Southampton, and I only opened them on the Sark steamer.” Then he congratulated them both. I spoke to Mr. Drake the same evening on the terrace here, foolishly hinting the feminine consolation that he was well free from a girl of Clarice’s fickleness. He was in arms on the instant. One gets at truth only by experiment, and through repeated mistakes. Why except women’s hearts from the same law? I give his opinion, not his words. He doesn’t talk of “women’s hearts.” You know his trick of suggesting when it comes to talk of the feelings. I slid into a worse blunder and sympathised with him. He replied that it didn’t make the difference to him which I might think. I felt as if a stream of ice-water had been turned down my back on Christmas Day. However, he went on in a sort of shame-faced style, like a schoolboy caught talking sentiment. “One owes her a debt for having cared for her, and the debt remains.” He stayed out his visit and left this morning. He goes to Switzerland, and asked for your address. His is The Bear, Grindelwald. Write to him there; better, join him. He talks of going out to Matanga later in the year for a few months. So there’s the end of the business, or rather one hopes so. I used to hope that Clarice would wake up some morning into a real woman and find herself—isn’t that the phrase? I hope the reverse now; that she and her husband will philander along to the close of the chapter. But I prefer your word,—to the close of the “comedy,” say. It implies something artificial. Mallinson and Clarice give me that impression,—as of Watteau figures mincing a gavotte, and made more unreal by the juxtaposition of a man. Let’s hope they will never perceive the flimsiness of their pretty bows and ribbons! But I think of your one o’clock in the morning of the masquerade ball, and frankly I am afraid. I look at the three without—well, with as little prejudice as weak woman may. Mallinson, you know him—always on the artist’s see-saw between exaltation and despair. Doesn’t that make for shiftiness generally? Clarice I don’t understand; but I incline to your idea of her as at the mercy of every momentary emotion, and the more for what has happened this week. Since her engagement she seems to have lost her fear of Stephen Drake. She has been all unexpressed sympathy. And Drake? There’s the danger, I am sure—a danger not of the usual kind. Had he been unscrupulous he might have ridden roughshod over Clarice long before now. But he’s too scrupulous for that. I think that he misses greatness as we understand it, through excess of scruple. But there’s that saying of his about a debt incurred to Clarice by the man caring for her. Well, convince him that he can pay it by any sacrifice; won’t he pay it? Convince him that it would benefit her if he lay in the mud; wouldn’t he do it? I don’t know. I made a little prayer yesterday night, grotesque enough, but very sincere, that there might be no fifth act of tragedy to make a discord of your comedy.’

Fielding received Mrs. Willoughby’s command to join Drake with a grin at her conception of him as fit company for a gentleman disappointed in his love-affairs. He nevertheless obeyed it, and travelling to Grindelwald found Drake waiting him on the platform with the hands of an oakum-picker, and a face toned uniformly to the colour of a ripe pippin. ‘You have been climbing mountains, I suppose?’ asked Fielding.

‘Yes,’ nodded Drake.

‘Well, don’t ask me to join you. It produces a style of conversation I don’t like.’

Drake laughed, and protested that nothing was further from his intention. Certain letters, however, which Fielding wrote to Mrs. Willoughby during this period proved that he did join him, and more than once. The two men returned to London half-way through September.

On the journey from Dover to Charing Cross Drake asked whether Mrs. Willoughby was in town. He was informed that at the moment she was visiting in Scotland, but she was expected to pass through London at the end of a fortnight. Drake wrote a note to her address asking her to spare him a few moments when she came south, and receiving a cordial assent with the statement of the most favourable hour, walked across one evening to Knightsbridge. Mrs. Willoughby remarked a certain constraint in his manner, and awaited tentacle questions concerning Sidney Mallinson and Clarice. She said: ‘You look well. You have enjoyed your holiday.’

‘I had an amusing companion.’

‘You have given him some spark of your activity,’ and the sentence was pitched to convey thanks.

‘Then you have seen him?’ Drake’s embarrassment became more pronounced. He paused for a second and then rose and walked across the room. ‘You know, I suppose,’ he resumed, ‘that I am going out to Matanga in a month.’

‘I heard something of that from Mr. Fielding,’ she said gently.

‘Yes,’ he said, with a change in his voice to brisk cheerfulness. ‘It seemed to me that I ought to go. Our interests there are rather large now. I consulted my fellow-directors, and they agreed with me.’

The sudden disappearance of the constraint which had marked him surprised Mrs. Willoughby. ‘But can you leave London?’ she asked.

‘Oh yes; I have made arrangements for that,’ he replied. ‘I have got Burl to look after things here.’

‘Mr. Burl?’

‘Yes; it’s rather funny,’ said Drake, with a laugh. ‘He came to ask me whether I was disposed to take up politics. There was a constituency in Yorkshire he could arrange for me to stand for—Bentbridge. Do you know it?’

‘I have been there. Mr. Le Mesurier has a brother just outside the town. It was there, I believe, that he became acquainted with Mr. Burl.’

‘So I gathered. Well, I wanted the question left open for a bit. Then Burl made another proposal. He said they wanted a paper in the district. There were some people ready to back the idea, but they didn’t have quite enough capital. Burl wanted me to provide the rest. He didn’t get it, but he nearly did, and it struck me that he was just the man I wanted. So after he had had his say, I had mine, and he has thrown up politics and joined me.’ Drake ended his story with a laugh, and added, ‘I think I am lucky to have got hold of him.’

‘Then you don’t mean to go away for good?’ exclaimed Mrs. Willoughby.

‘Oh dear no! What on earth made you think that? But I will be away a year, I think,—and—and, that’s just the point.’ His embarrassment returned as suddenly as it had left him.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Well, I had an idea of persuading Fielding to go with me.’ He blurted the proposal brusquely. ‘He’s interested, you see, in the success of the colony, and—well, altogether, I didn’t think it would be a bad thing.’

Mrs. Willoughby walked to the window and looked out of it for a few seconds. ‘What does Mr. Fielding say?’ she asked.

‘I haven’t broached the subject to him yet. I thought I wouldn’t before—’ He stopped and made no effort to finish the sentence.

‘It’s a year,’ she said slowly, lengthening out the word. ‘Yes, only a year,’ said he briskly, and Mrs. Willoughby smiled in spite of herself. She thought of the new air of alertness which Fielding had worn since his return from Switzerland. She came back to Drake and held out her hand to him. ‘You think very wisely for your friends,’ she said.

‘It’s an inspiriting business to see a community in the making,’ he answered; ‘especially when there’s money to help it to make itself quickly.’

He wished her good-bye and moved to the door. As he opened it he said, ‘By the way, is the date of the marriage fixed?’ but without turning towards her.

She said, ‘Yes, the 8th of December,’ and she saw his shoulders brace, and the weight of his body come backwards from the ball of the foot on to the heel.

‘Ah! I shall be in Africa by then,’ he said.

It was in fact near upon the end of February that the river-steamer plying between the settlement and the coast of Matanga brought to Drake and Fielding an announcement that the marriage had taken place. There were letters for both the men, and they carried them out to a grass knoll on the edge of the forest some quarter of a mile away from the little village of tin huts which shone in the sunshine like a tidy kitchen, as Fielding was used to say. Drake read his through, and said to Fielding, ‘You have a letter from Mrs. Willoughby?’


‘Any news?’

Fielding looked him in the face. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, and putting the letter in his pocket, buttoned it up. Drake understood alike from his tone and action what news the letter conveyed, and made no further inquiry. He fell instead to talking of some machinery which the boat had brought up along with the letters. The letter, indeed, was written in a vein which made it impossible for Fielding to follow the usual habit of reading Mrs. Willoughby’s letters aloud to his companion. ‘The wedding,’ she wrote, ‘lacked nothing but a costumier and a composer. The bride and bridegroom should have been in fancy dress, and a new Gounod was needed to compose the wedding-march of a marionette. One might have taken the ceremony seriously as an artistic whole under those circumstances.’

Mrs. Willoughby continued to keep Fielding informed of the progress or the married couple, and in May hinted at dissensions. The hint Fielding let slip one day to Drake. Drake, however, received the news with apparent indifference, and indeed returned to England in September with Fielding without having so much as referred to the subject.

During the month which followed his return, he preserved the same appearance of indifference, seeming, indeed, thoroughly engrossed in working off arrears of business. The fact, however, of this dissension was thrust before his notice one evening when he dined with Mr. Le Mesurier, and that gentleman dealt out extravagant praise to the French for recognising that the marriages of the children are matters which solely concern the parents.

‘We English,’ said he with a shrug of contempt at the fatuity of his countrymen, ‘men and women, or rather boys and girls, choose for ourselves, and what’s the result nine times out of ten? Well, it’s the custom, and it’s no use for a man by himself trying to alter it.’

Drake was familiar with Mr. Le Mesurier’s habit of shifting responsibilities, and while he said nothing at the moment, called upon Mrs. Willoughby the next day and questioned her openly. Mrs. Willoughby admitted that there were disagreements, but believed them not to be deep.

‘The first year,’ she said, ‘is as a rule a trying time. There are illusions to be sloughed. People may come out all the stronger in the end.’ Mrs. Willoughby generalised to conceal the little hopefulness she felt in regard to the particular instance.

‘I ask,’ continued Drake, ‘because I thought money might be at the bottom of it. In that case something perhaps might be done. Mrs. Mallinson would be troubled, I believe, by a need to economise.’

‘Oh no,’ she returned. ‘There’s no trouble of that kind. You see, Mr. Le Mesurier sold the Seigneurie, for one thing—’

‘Sold it!’ exclaimed Drake. ‘Why, I was told that it was strictly entailed from father to child.’

‘In one respect it is. It can’t be charged with annuities. But any one who owns it can sell it outright. Mr. Le Mesurier always intended to sell it if Clarice married a man only moderately well off.’

Drake rose from his chair and walked once or twice quickly across the room.

‘He should have told his daughter that,’ he said slowly.

Mrs. Willoughby glanced at him in surprise.

‘Well, of course he did.’

‘Oh no, he didn’t,’ said Drake quickly. ‘You remember, I told you at Sark why she wanted our engagement to be kept secret.’

‘Because your position wasn’t altogether assured. You didn’t mention the Seigneurie.’

‘No, I thought you would understand. She believed an engagement between us would cause trouble with her father, just because it was necessary for her to marry a man who could keep up the Seigneurie.’

Mrs. Willoughby started. ‘Clarice told you that!’ she said, staring at him.

‘Yes,’ he replied simply. ‘So you see she didn’t know.’

Mrs. Willoughby sank back into her chair. She had heard Mr. Le Mesurier announce his intention more than once in Clarice’s presence. However, she fancied that no particular good would be done by informing him of the girl’s deception, and she dropped the subject.

‘What about Conway?’ asked Drake.

‘He still walks up and down London. I fancy he is secretary to something.’

Drake hesitated for a second. ‘Does he go there very much?’

‘A good deal, I fancy,’ she replied. ‘But you mustn’t think the disagreement is really serious. There is no cause outside themselves. Have you called?’

‘No; I go down to Bentbridge to-morrow. I must call when I get back.’

‘Then you are going to stand for Parliament?’ she exclaimed. ‘I am so glad.’

‘Yes; they expect an election in July, I believe. You see, now that Fielding has been made a director and has settled down to work, I have got more time. In fact, one feels rather lonely at nights.’

Mrs. Willoughby was willing to hear more concerning Fielding’s merits. She promptly set herself to belittle the importance of his position and work for the sake of hearing them upheld, and she was not disappointed.

‘It’s easy enough to laugh at finance, and fashionable into the bargain,’ he said. ‘But here’s the truth of the matter. Money does to-day what was the work of the sword a century or so ago, and, as far as I can see, does it better. To my thinking, it should be held in quite as high esteem. You can put it aside and let it rust if you like, but other nations won’t follow your good example. Then the time comes when you must use it, and you find the only men you’ve got to handle it are the men you can’t trust—the bandit instead of the trained soldier. No! Put the best men you can find to finance, I say,’ and with that he said good-bye.

‘Why doesn’t he drop them altogether?’ asked Fielding with considerable irritation when Mrs. Willoughby informed him of Drake’s intention to renew his acquaintance with the Mallinsons.

‘It would only make matters worse if he did,’ replied she. ‘Clarice would be certain to count any falling off of her friends as a new grievance against her husband.’


‘He is willing to take his place as one.’

‘He will find it singularly uninteresting. Friendship between a man and a woman!’

He shrugged his shoulders; then he laughed to himself. Mrs. Willoughby got up nervously from her chair and walked to the opposite end of the room.

‘These things,’ continued Fielding in a perfectly complacent and unconscious tone, ’are best understood by their symbols.’

Mrs. Willoughby swung round. ‘Symbols?’ she asked curiously.

Fielding took a seat and leaned back comfortably. ‘The feelings and emotions,’ he began, ‘have symbols in the visible world. Of these symbols the greater number are flowers. I won’t trouble you with an enumeration of them, for in the first place I couldn’t give it, and in the second, Shakespeare has provided a fairly comprehensive list. And by nature I am averse to challenging comparisons. There are, however, feelings of which the symbols are not flowers, and amongst them we must reckon friendship between man and woman. Passion, we know, has its passion flower, but the friendship I am speaking of has its symbol too’—he paused impressively—‘and that symbol is cold boiled mutton.’

Mrs. Willoughby laughed awkwardly. ‘What nonsense!’ she said.

‘A mere jeu d’esprit, I admit,’ said he, and he waved his hand to signify that he could be equally witty every day in the week if he chose. His satisfaction, indeed, blinded him to the fact that his speech might be construed as uncommonly near to a proposal of marriage. He thought, with a cast back to his old dilettante spirit, that it would be amusing to repeat it, especially to a woman of the sentimental kind—Clarice Mallinson, for instance. He pictured the look of injury in her eyes and laughed again.

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