The Philanderers

Chapter XIII

A.E.W. Mason

STEPHEN DRAKE had decided to stay during the period of the election at a hotel in the centre of the town, rather than to accept an invitation from Captain Le Mesurier, who lived some miles beyond the outskirts. He travelled down to Bentbridge on the day that the dissolution was announced, and during the journey Mr. Burl gave him much sage advice.

‘Keep the arguments for buildings; they’re in place there. Mass-meetings in the open air want something different. Many a good man has lost his seat from not observing that rule. In the open air pitch out a fact or two—not too many—or a couple of round sums of figures first of all, just to give them confidence in you, and then go straight for your opponent. No rapier play—it’s lost then—but crack him on the top-knot with a bludgeon. They’ll want to hear his skull ring before they’ll believe that you have touched him. Phrases! Those are the things to get you in, not arguments. Pin a label on his coat-tails. You’ll see them laugh as he squirms round to pull it off. And, mind you, there’ll be no walking over, you’ll want all you know. The man’s a Radical and a Lord! The combination satisfies their democratic judgments and their snobbish instincts at the same time. People forget to count the snob in the democrat, but he’s there all the same, as in most Englishmen. A veneer of snobbishness over solid independence. That’s our characteristic. Lord Cranston! Can’t you hear their tongues licking it? Luckily, there are things against him. He’s a carpet-bagger like yourself, and he’s been more than once separated from his wife. His fault, too—once it was an opera dancer. I’ve got up the facts. He only joined his wife again a few months ago—probably for the purpose of this election.’

Mr. Burl pulled out a pocket-book, and began to turn over the leaves in search of the damning details, when Drake interrupted him. ‘You don’t expect me to discuss the man’s private life?’

‘My dear Drake, do be practical. It’s no use being finicking. The essential thing is to win the seat.’

‘Whatever the price?’

‘Look here; I am not asking you to do anything so crude as to make platform speeches about the man’s disgraceful conduct to his wife.’ Mr. Burl assumed the look of a Rhadamanthus. ‘But’—and again he relaxed into the tactician—‘you might take a strong social line on morals generally, and the domestic hearth, and that sort of thing.’ He looked critically at Drake. ‘You’re one of the few chaps I know who look as if they could do that and make people believe they really mean it.’

He finally discredited his advice by adding impressibly, ‘You needn’t go into the instance at all, you know. They’ll understand what you’re alluding to, never fear’; and Drake flatly refused to dance into Parliament to that tune, however persuasively Mr. Burl played upon the pipes.

The hotel at which Drake put up was situated in a short broad street which ran from the Market Square. From the balcony of his sitting-room on the first floor he could see the market sheds at the end of the street to his left. The opposite end was closed in by the Town Hall, which was built upon an ancient gate of the town. From Drake’s windows you got a glimpse through the archway of green fields and trees. Almost facing him was a second hotel on the opposite side of the street, the ‘Yellow Boar.’ It was tricked out, he noticed, with the colours of his opponent. While he was standing at the window an open carriage turned out of the market-place, and drove up to the ‘Yellow Boar.’ Lord Cranston got down from it, and a lady. The candidate was of a short and slight build; a pencil—line of black moustache crossed a pallid and indecisive face, and he seemed a year or two more than thirty. The lady looked the younger, and was certainly the taller of the two. Drake was impressed by her face, which bore womanly gentleness, stamped on features of a marked intellectuality. The couple disappeared into the hall, and appeared again in a large room with big windows upon the first floor. From where he stood Drake could see every corner of the room. Lord and Lady Cranston, the land-lord informed him, were staying at the ‘Yellow Boar.’ The two candidates overlooked each other.

In this street, morning and evening, they met for a moment or two, and took a breath of friendly intercourse. Drake was introduced to Lady Cranston, but she would have none of the truce. To her he was the enemy, and to be treated as such consistently, with a heart-and-soul hostility, until he confessed himself beaten. Drake liked her all the better for her attitude. Meanwhile he made headway in the constituency. He was in earnest, with a big theme to descant upon—the responsibility of the constituency to the empire. His fervour brought it home to his audiences as a fact; he set the recognition of that responsibility forwards as the prime duty of the citizen, sneering at the parochial notion of politics. Mr. Burl shook his head over Drake’s method of fighting the battle, and hinted more than once at the necessity of that lecture upon morals. Drake not only refused to reconsider it, but flatly forbade Mr. Burl to allude to the subject in any speech which he might make. Burl shrugged his shoulders and confided his doubts to Captain Le Mesurier. Said the Captain, ‘I think he’s wise; a speech might offend. What’s wanted is an epigram—a good stinging epigram. We could set it about, and, if it’s sharp enough, no need to fear it won’t travel.’ He paused dubiously. ‘After all, though, it’s a bit unfair on Cranston. Hang it, I’ve been a married man myself,’ and he chuckled in unregenerate enjoyment. ‘However, the seat’s got to be won. Let’s think of an epigram,’ and he scratched his head and slapped his thigh. It was the Captain’s way of thinking. The satisfactory epigram would not emerge. He could fashion nothing better as a description of Cranston than, ‘A refreshment-room sandwich; two great chunks of sin and a little slice of repentance between.’ Mr. Burl condemned it as crude, and for the moment the epigram was dropped.

The Mallinsons arrived a week after the contest had begun. Captain Le Mesurier welcomed Clarice with boisterous effusion, and her husband with quarter-deck dignity. ‘You look ill,’ he said to Clarice. ‘It’s your husband worrying you. Ah, I know, I know! Those writing chaps!’

To Mallinson, however, he suddenly showed excessive friendliness, and took the opportunity of saying to him loudly in a full room, ‘There’s something I must tell you. I know it’ll make you laugh. It does me whenever I think of it. You know Drake? Well, we travelled up from Plymouth together when he came back from Africa. He bought your book at the bookstall, and sat opposite me reading it. What was it called? I know, A Man of Influence. You should have seen Drake’s face. Lord, he couldn’t make head or tail of it. How should he? I asked him what he thought of it, and imagine what he answered! You can’t, though. It’s the funniest thing I ever heard. He said it was a very clever satire. Satire! Good Lord, I almost rolled off the seat. It is funny, isn’t it?’

Mallinson, with a wry face, agreed that the story was funny.

‘I knew you would think so,’ pursued the Captain relentlessly. ‘Everybody does I have told it to, and that’s everybody I know. Satire! Lord help us!’ and he shook with laughter and clapped Mallinson in the small of the back.

Mallinson felt the fool that he was intended to look, with the result that his dormant resentment against Drake sprang again into activity. That resentment became intensified, as the date of the election drew nearer, by an unconfessed jealousy. They both made speeches, but Mallinson chiefly at the smaller meetings. And when they stood upon the same platform he was continually forced to compare the difference in the acclamation with which their speeches were severally received. As a matter of fact, Drake spoke from a fire of conviction, and the conviction not merely burnt through his words, but minted them for him, gave him spontaneously the short homely phrase which sank his meaning into the minds of his hearers. Mallinson took refuge in a criticism of Drake’s speeches from the standpoint of literary polish. He recast them in his thoughts, turning this sentence more deftly, whittling that repartee to a finer point. The process consoled him for Drake’s misreckoning of his purpose in the matter of A Man of Influence, since it pointed to a certain lack of delicacy, say at once to crassness in the man’s intellect.

Mallinson began immediately to imagine himself in Drake’s position, the candidate for whom brass bands played, and hats went spinning into the air. And it needed no conscious effort for one so agile in egotistical leaps to spring thence to the fancy that Drake was a kind of vicarious substitute for himself, doing his work, too, not without blemishes.

Ten days before the polling-day Fielding ran down from town, and attended a meeting at the Town Hall, at which both Drake and Mallinson were to speak. He sat on the platform by Clarice’s side and paid some attention to her manner during the evening. He noticed the colour mount in her cheeks and her eyes kindle, as on first entering the room she looked down upon the crowded floor. The chairs had been removed, and the audience stood packed beneath the flaring gas-jets—artificers for the most part, their white faces smeared and stained with the grime of their factories. The roar of applause as Drake rose by the table swelled up to three cheers in consonance, and a subsequent singing of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ stirred even Fielding to enthusiasm. He noted that feeling of enthusiasm as strange in himself, and had a thought in consequence that such scenes were hardly of the kind to help Clarice to the rest she needed. The hall for a moment became a sea of tossing handkerchiefs. He took a glance at Clarice. She sat bent forward with parted lips and a bosom that heaved. Fielding turned on his cold-water tap of flippancy.

‘It’s a bad omen,’ said he, with a nod towards the waving handkerchiefs. ‘They hang out flags of surrender.’

‘Hardly,’ she replied, with a smile. ‘I can’t recognise that the flags are white’; and she added, ‘I should like it less if they were. These men are the workers.’

‘The workers.’ Fielding could hear Drake uttering the word in just the same tone, and his compassion for Clarice deepened. Why? he asked himself. The girl was undergoing not a jot more punishment than a not over-rigid political justice would have meted out to her. The question inexplicably raised to view a pair of the clearest blue eyes, laughing from between the blackest of eyelashes. He promptly turned his attention to the speaker at the table.

Drake commenced that night with an apology. It was necessary that he should speak about himself. An utterly baseless story had, within the last few days, and doubtless with a view to this election, been revived by the London evening paper which originally made it. He regretted also to notice that his opponent had accepted the story, and was making use of it to prejudice him in the eyes of the electors. Accordingly he felt bound to put the facts simply and briefly before his audience, although the indifference of the Colonial Office to what, if true, was a crime committed by an Englishman on English soil, and against practically English subjects, in effect acquitted him of the charge.

Drake thereupon proceeded to describe his march to Boruwimi. The story, modestly recited in simple nervous English, did more to forward his candidature than all the political speeches he could have made during a twelvemonth. It came pat at the right time, when arguments were growing stale. His listeners hung upon the words; in the intense silence Fielding could feel the sympathy between speaker and audience flowing to and fro between them like a current. Drake instinctively lowered his voice; it thrilled through the hall the more convincingly. There was a perceptible sway of heads forwards, which started at the back and ran from line to line towards the platform like a quick ripple across a smooth sea. It was as though this crowded pack of men and women was drawn to move towards the speaker, where indeed there was no room at all to move.

And in truth the subject was one to stir the blood. Drake prefaced his account by a description of the geography of Boruwimi; he instanced briefly the iniquities of the Arab slave-dealers whom he was attacking. Thereupon he contrasted the numbers of his little force with the horde of his enemies, and dwelt for a second upon their skill as marksmen; so that his auditors, following him as he hewed his path through the tangle of an untrodden forest, felt that each obstacle he stopped at might mean not merely failure to the expedition, but death to all who shared in it. Success and life were one and the same thing, and the condition of that thing was speed. He must fall upon the Arabs unawares, like a bolt from the blue. They forgot that he who led that expedition was speaking to them now; they were with him in the obscure depths of the undergrowth, surging against gigantic barriers of fallen tree-trunks, twenty, thirty feet high; they were marching behind him, like him at grips with nature in a six-weeks’ struggle of life and death; and when finally he burst into the clearing on the river’s bank the ripple went backwards across the hall, and a cheer of relief rang out, as though their lives, too, were saved.

Upon Fielding the relation produced a somewhat peculiar effect. He was fascinated, not so much by the incident described or by the earnestness of the man who described it,—for with both he was familiar,—but by the strangeness of the conditions under which it was told—this story of Africa, before these serried rows of white eager faces, in this stifling hall, where the gaslight struggled with the waning day. From the raised platform on which he sat he could see through the open windows away across green fields to where the sun was setting in a clear sky behind quiet Yorkshire wolds. The combination of circumstances made the episode bizarre to him; he was, in fact, paying an unconscious tribute to the orator’s vividness.

Clarice paid the same tribute, but she phrased it differently, and the difference was significant. She said, ‘Isn’t it strange that he should be here—in a frock-coat? I half thought the room would dissolve and we should find ourselves at Boruwimi.’ Fielding started. Coming from her lips the name sounded strange; yet she spoke it without the least hesitation. For the moment it had plainly one association in her thoughts, and only one. It sounded as though every recollection of Gorley had vanished from her mind. ‘Oh, he must get in!’ she whispered, clasping her hands upon her knees.

After Drake had concluded, Mallinson moved a resolution. He spoke fluently, Fielding remarked, and with a finished phrasing. The very finish, however, imparted an academic effect; he was, besides, hampered by the speech which had preceded his. The audience began to shuffle restlessly; they were capping a rich Burgundy with vin ordinaire, and found the liquor tasteless to the palate. Fielding perceived from certain movements at his side that Clarice shared in the general restlessness. She gave an audible sigh of relief and patted her hands with the most perfunctory applause when her husband sat down. ‘You are staying with Mr. Drake at the Three Nuns?’ she asked, turning to Fielding.

‘Only till to-morrow. I leave by the night-train.’

‘Oh, you are going back!’

‘Yes. You see Drake and Burl are both here. Somebody must keep the shop open, if it’s only to politely put the customers off.’ He interpreted the look of surprise upon Mrs. Mallinson’s face. ‘Yes, I have been gradually sucked into the whirlpool,’ and he laughed with a nod towards Drake.

She turned to him with her eyes shining. ‘And you are proud of it.’

Fielding smiled indulgently. ‘That’s a woman’s thought.’

‘But you don’t deny it’s truth.’

Clarice said nothing more until the meeting had terminated and the party was in the street. They walked from the Town Hall to Drake’s hotel, Clarice and Fielding a few paces behind the rest. The first words which she spoke showed to him that her thoughts had not altered their drift. ‘Yes, you have changed,’ she said, and implied unmistakably, ‘for the better.’

‘You only mean,’ laughed Fielding, ‘that I have given up provoking you.’

‘No, no,’ she said. ‘Besides, you evidently haven’t given that up.’

‘Then in what way?’

‘I shall offend you.’

‘I can hardly think so.’

‘Well, you were becoming a kind of—’

‘Say it.’

‘Paul Pry.’

To a gentleman whose ambition it had been to combine the hermit’s indifference to social obligations with an indulgence in social festivities, the blow was a cruel one; and the more cruel because he realised that Clarice’s criticism contained a grain of truth. He hit back cruelly. ‘Drake tells me he thinks of taking a place here. I suppose he means to marry.’

‘I believe he does,’ replied Clarice promptly. ‘Mrs. Willoughby.’

Fielding stopped and apostrophised the stars. ‘That is perfectly untrue,’ he said. He walked on again as soon as he perceived that he had stopped, adding, with a grumble, ‘I pity the woman who marries Drake.’

‘Why?’ asked Clarice in a tone of complete surprise, as though the idea was incomprehensible to her, and she repeated insistently, ‘Why?’

‘Well,’ he said, inventing a reason, ‘I think he would never stand in actual need of her.’ Clarice drew a sharp breath—a sigh of longing, it seemed to her companion, as for something desirable beyond all blessings. He continued in the tone of argument, ‘And she would come to know that. Surely she would feel it.’

‘Yes, but feel proud of it perhaps,’ replied Clarice, ‘proud of him just for that reason. All her woman’s tricks she would know useless to move him. Nothing she could do would make him swerve. Oh yes, she would feel proud—proud of him and proud of herself because he stooped to choose her.’ She corrected the ardency of her voice of a sudden; it dropped towards indifference. ‘At all events I can imagine that possible.’

They were within fifty yards of the hotel, and walked silently the rest of the way. At the door, however, she said, turning weary eyes upon Fielding, ‘And think! The repose of it for her.’

‘Ah, here you are!’ The robustious voice of Captain Le Mesurier sounded from the hall. ‘Look here,’ to Fielding, ‘we are going to take you back with us. Drake won’t come. He’s tired—so we don’t miss him.’

Fielding protested vainly that he would crowd the waggonette. Besides, he had business matters to discuss with Drake before he left for London.

‘Well, you can talk them over to-morrow. You don’t go until to-morrow night. And as to crowding the waggonette, I have ordered a trap here; so you can drive it back again to-night, if you like, from Garples. Otherwise we’ll be happy to put you up. You must come; we want to talk to you particularly. Mallinson will drive his wife in the trap, so there’ll be plenty of room.’

The party in the waggonette consisted of Captain Le Mesurier, Burl, Fielding, and five country gentlemen belonging to the district. Clarice, riding some yards behind them through the dark fragrant lanes, saw eight glowing cigars draw together in a bunch. The cigars were fixed points of red light for a little. Then they danced as though heads were wagging, retired this side and that and set to partners. A minute more and the figure was repeated: cigars to the centre, dance, retire, set to partners. A laugh from the Captain sounded as though he laughed from duty, and Mr. Burl was heard to say, ‘Not too subtle, old man, you know.’ At the third repetition the Captain bellowed satisfaction from a full heart, and Mr. Burl cried, ‘Capital!’ The country gentlemen could be understood to agree in the commendation. Whence it was to be inferred that the dance of the cigars was to have a practical result upon the election.

Clarice, however, paid no great attention to the proceedings in the waggonette. She was almost oblivious to the husband at her side. The night was about her, cool with soft odours, wrapping her in solitude. Love at last veritably possessed her, so she believed; it had invaded her last citadel to-night. That it sat throned on ruins she had no eyes to see. It sat throned in quiescence, and that was enough. Clarice, in fact, was in that compressed fever-heat of the mushroom passions which takes on the semblance of intense and penetrating calm. And her very consciousness of this calm seemed to ally her to Drake, to give to them both something in common. She was troubled by no plans for the future; she had no regret for anything which had happened in the past. The vague questions which had stirred her—why had she been afraid of him?—was the failure of her marriage her fault?—for these questions she had no room. She did not think at all, she only felt that her heart was anchored to a rock.

The Philanderers - Contents    |     Chapter XIV

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