‘Yes, hang the fellow!’ said the Captain, and under his breath he launched imprecations at all ‘those writer chaps.’
Mallinson raised himself from a bed of mould upon the opposite side of the drive and apologised. Captain Le Mesurier bluntly cut short the apology. ‘Why didn’t you say you couldn’t drive? I can’t. Who’s ashamed of it? You might have broken your wife’s neck.’
‘I might, and my own too,’ replied Mallinson in a tone not a whit less aggrieved.
Captain Le Mesurier raised his eyes to the heavens with the apoplectic look which comes of an intense desire to swear, and the repressive presence of ladies. ‘Will you kindly sit on the horse’s head until you are told to get up? I want the groom to help here,’ he said, as soon as he found words tolerable to feminine ears. A groom was already occupying the position designated, but he rose with alacrity and Mallinson silently took his place and sat there until the harness was loosed.
Fielding’s visit, however, had another consequence beyond the upsetting of a gig. A few days later an epigram was circulating through the constituency. The squires passed it on with a smack of the tongue; it had a flavour, to their thinking, which was of the town. The epigram was this: ‘Lord Cranston lives a business life of vice, with rare holidays of repentance, but being a dutiful husband he always takes his wife with him on his holidays.’ From the squires it descended through the grades of society. Lord Cranston, at the close of a speech, was invited to mention the precise date at which he intended to end his holidays. Believing that the question sprang out of an objection to a do-nothing aristocracy, he answered with emphatic earnestness, ‘The moment I am returned for Bentbridge.’ The shout of laughter which greeted the remark he attributed at first to political opposition.
Subsequently, however, a sympathiser explained to him delicately the true meaning of the question, and, as a counter-move, Lord Cranston made a violent attack upon ‘Empire building plus finance.’ He drew distinctions between governing men and making money.
Drake accepted the distinctions as obvious platitudes, but failed to see that the capacity for one could not coexist with the capacity for the other. He asserted, on the contrary, that money was not as a rule made without the exercise of tact, and some aptitude for the management of men. He was, consequently, not disinclined to believe that money-making afforded a good preliminary lesson in the art of government. Lord Cranston’s argument, in fact, did little more then alienate a few of his own supporters, who, having raised themselves to affluence, felt quite capable of doing the same for the nation.
On the night of the polling-day Captain Le Mesurier brought his house-party into Bentbridge to dine with Drake, and after dinner the ladies remained in the room overlooking the street, while the gentlemen repaired to the Town Hall, where the votes were being counted. It seemed to Clarice as she gazed down that all the seven thousand electors had gathered to hear the result announced. The street was paved with heads as with black cobble-stones. Occasionally some one would look up and direct now a cheer, now a shout of derision towards the ‘Three Nuns’ or the ‘Yellow Boar.’ But the rooms of both candidates were darkened, and the attention of the crowd was for the most part riveted upon the red blinds of the Town Hall.
For Clarice, the time limped by on crutches. She barely heard the desultory conversation about her: she felt as if her life was beating itself out against those red windows. A clock in the market-place chimed the hour of nine: she counted the strokes, with a sense of wonder when they stopped. She seemed to have been waiting for a century.
Across the street she could see the glimmer of a light summer dress in Lord Cranston’s apartment. It moved restlessly backwards and forwards from one window to the other: now it shone out in the balcony above the street: now it retired into the darkness of the room. Clarice gauged Lady Cranston’s impatience by her own, and experienced a fellow-feeling of sympathy. ‘During this suspense,’ she thought, ‘you and I ought to be together.’ As the thought flashed into her mind, her husband spoke to her. She set a hand before her eyes and did not answer him. She realised that she had been thinking of herself as Drake’s wife. On the instant every force within her seemed to concentrate and fuse into one passionate longing. ‘If only that were true!’ She felt the longing throb through every vein: she acknowledged it: she expressed it clearly to herself. If only that were true! And then in a second the longing was displaced by an equally passionate regret.
‘It might have been,’ she thought.
Again her husband spoke to her. She turned towards him almost fiercely, and saw that he was offering her a shawl. She steadied her voice to decline it, and turned back again to the window. But now as she looked across the street, she was filled with a new and very bitter envy. The woman over there had the right to suffer for her suspense.
At last the clock doled out ten strokes with a grudging deliberation, and less than five minutes later the shadow of a man was seen upon one of the red blinds. In the street below the people surged forward: there was a running flash of white as their heads were thrown back and their faces upturned to the Hall; and the shouts and cries swelled to a Babel, tearing the air. The blind was withdrawn, the window thrown open: Clarice could see people pressing forward in the room. They looked in the glare of yellow light like black ninepins. A gleam of bright scarlet shot out from amongst them, and the Mayor stepped on to the balcony above the archway. The tumult died rapidly to absolute silence, a silence deeper than the silence of desolate places, because one saw the crowd and one’s ears were still tingling with the echo of its shouts. It was as though all sound, all motion had been arrested by some enchantment, and in the midst of that silence one word was launched down the street.
The announcement of the numbers was lost in the sudden renewal of conflicting shouts. Clarice made no effort to ascertain them. That one word ‘Drake’ filled the world for her. The very noise in the street came to her ears with a dull muffled sound as though it had travelled across a wide space, and it seemed no more than an undertone to the ringing name.
She saw Stephen Drake come forward and give place to his opponent, and after a little the street began to clear. The number thirty-five, incessantly repeated by the retiring crowd, penetrated to her mind and informed her of the actual majority. In about half an hour a little stream of people trickled from the porch of the Town Hall, and, gathering in volume, flowed into a narrow passage which led to the Conservative Club, a few yards to the right of the hotel. Clarice caught a glimpse of Drake’s face at the head of the procession as he passed under a gas-lamp above the mouth of the passage, and was surprised by its expression of despondency. A fear sprang up in her mind that some mistake had been made in the announcement, but the fear was dispelled by the tone of her uncle’s voice as he shouted an invitation to some one across the street to join them at the Club. It was a tone of boisterous exultation. There could be no doubt that Drake had been elected, and she wondered at the cause of his dejection.
A few minutes later a second stream flowed along the opposite pavement towards the Liberal Club in the Market Square, and drew most of the remaining loiterers into its current. The noise and bustle grew fainter and died away: the lights were extinguished in the houses, and only one small group, clustering excitedly about the passage, relieved the quarter of its native sleepiness.
Clarice turned with a certain reluctance into the room. It was empty, and the voices of her companions rose from the hall below. She did not follow them, however. There was time enough, for the party could not leave until Captain Le Mesurier returned from the Conservative Club. She went back to her post. Through the open window opposite to her she perceived the glimmer of a light dress in the dark of the room, but it was motionless now, a fixed patch of white. Clarice experienced a revulsion of pity for Lady Cranston. ‘What must be her thoughts?’ she asked herself.
She remained at the window until the party from the Club emerged again from the passage and turned towards the hotel.
Clarice heard her husband’s voice asking where Drake was, and what in the world was the matter with him. Captain Le Mesurier replied, and the reply rang boisterously. ‘He’s behind. He’s a bit unstrung, I fancy, and reason enough too, after all his work, eh? You see, Drake’s not in the habit of taking holidays,’ and the Captain grew hilarious over his allusion.
Across the street Clarice saw the light dress flutter and move abruptly. It was evident that Lady Cranston had heard and understood the words.
Drake followed some few minutes later, and alone. He walked slowly to the hotel with an air of utter weariness, as though the springs of his activity had been broken. A moment after, he had entered it; she heard him ascending the staircase, and she drew instinctively close within the curtains. He pushed open the door, walked forward into the embrasure of the window, and stood within a foot of Clarice, apparently gazing into the street. A pale light from the gas-lamp over the front door flickered upon his face. It was haggard and drawn, the lips were pressed closely together, the eyelids shut tightly over the eyes—a white mask of pain. Or was this the real face, Clarice wondered, and that which he showed to the world the mask?
She was almost afraid to move; she even held her breath.
Suddenly the echoes of the street were reawakened. Drake roused himself and opened his eyes. A small group of people strolled out of the market-place and stopped in front of the ‘Yellow Boar.’ There was interchange of farewells, a voice said encouragingly, ‘Better luck next time,’ and one man entered the hotel.
In the room opposite a match flared up and Lady Cranston lit the gas. She stood for a moment underneath the chandelier, in the full light, listening. Then she walked quickly to the mirror above the mantelpiece and appeared to dry her eyes and cheeks with her handkerchief. She turned to the door almost guiltily, just as it opened. Lord Cranston advanced into the room, and his wife moved towards him. The whole scene, every movement, every corner of the room was visible to Clarice like a scene on the stage of a theatre; it was visible also to Drake.
Clarice could note the disconsolate attitude of Lord Cranston, the smile of tenderness upon his wife’s face. She saw Lady Cranston set her arms gently about his neck, and her lips move, and then a low hoarse cry burst from Drake at her side.
It sounded to her articulate with all the anguish and all the suffering of which she had ever heard. There was a harsh note of irony in it too, which deepened its sadness. It seemed almost an acknowledgment of defeat in the actual moment of victory—a recognition that after all his opponent had really won.
The cry was a revelation to Clarice; it struck her like a blow, and she started under it, so that the rings of the curtain rattled upon the pole.
Drake bent sharply towards her; she caught a gleam of his eyes in the darkness. Then with a catch of his breath he started back. Clarice heard the click of a match-box, the scraping of a lucifer, and Drake held the lighted match above his head.
‘You!’ he said.
Clarice moved out from the curtain and confronted him. She did not answer, and he did not speak again. Clarice was in no doubt as to the meaning of his cry. His eyes even in that unsteady light told it to her only too clearly.
And this was the man whom she had believed to stand in no need of a woman’s companionship. The thought at the actual moment of its occurrence sent a strange thrill of disappointment through her; she had built up her pride in him so confidently upon this notion of his independence. And having built up her pride, she had lived in it, using this very notion as her excuse and justification. She ran no risk, she had felt.
The name was shouted impatiently from the hall, and came to them quite audibly through the half-opened door. But neither she nor Drake seemed to hear it. They stood looking silently into each other’s eyes.
At last she began to speak, and as she spoke, her sense of disappointment diminished and died. She became conscious again of the suffering which his cry had confessed. The contrast between this one outburst and his ordinary self-control enforced its meaning upon her. It seemed still to be ringing in her ears, stretched out to a continuous note, and her voice gradually took a tone as of one pleading for forgiveness.
‘I did not know,’ she said. ‘I always thought of you as—’ and she gave a queer little laugh, ‘as driving about London in hansoms, and working quite contentedly. I never imagined that you cared at all—really, I mean, as I know now. Even right at the beginning—that afternoon in Beaufort Gardens, I never imagined that. Indeed, I was afraid of you.’
‘Afraid!’ Drake echoed the word with an accent of wonderment.
‘Yes, yes, afraid. I believed that I should mean so little to you, that I should be of no use or help to you. And that’s why—I—I—married—’
Drake straightened his shoulders with a jerk as Clarice uttered the word. He became aware of the tell-tale look in his eyes, and lowered them from the girl’s face to the ground.
‘You mustn’t fancy,’ he began in a hesitating tone. ‘You mustn’t misunderstand. I was thinking what men owe to women—that’s all—that’s all, indeed—and how vilely they repay it. That way, like Cranston’—he nodded in the direction of the house across the street—‘or worse—or worse,’ he clung to the word on a lift of his voice, as though he found some protection in it, as though he appealed to Clarice to agree with and second him, ‘or worse.’
The match burned down to his fingers, and he dropped it on the floor and set his foot on it. Once in the darkness he repeated ‘or worse,’ with a note almost of despair, and then he was silent. Clarice simply waited. She stood, feeling the darkness throb about her, listening to the sharp irregular breathing which told her where Drake stood. In a few moments he stirred, and she stretched out her hands towards him. But again she heard the click of a match-box, and again the thin flame of light flared up in the room.
Her name was shouted up a second time. There was a sound of quicker footsteps upon the stairs, the door was flung back, and Sidney Mallinson entered the room. Drake lighted the gas.
‘We have been waiting for you,’ said Mallinson to his wife. ‘I couldn’t think where you had got to,’ and he glanced from her to Drake.
‘I have been here all the time,’ she said with a certain defiance.
Mallinson turned and walked down the stairs again, without as much as a word to Drake. Clarice followed him, and after her came Drake.
‘Ah, here you are!’ said Captain Le Mesurier. ‘Now we’re ready. Drake, you are coming back with us?’
‘You said you would at the Town Hall. So I have had your bag packed, and put in the waggonette.’
‘Very well,’ he assented; and the party went outside the hotel.
‘Now, how shall we go?’ asked the Captain. ‘Mallinson, you of course in the waggonette,’ and he chuckled with a cheery maliciousness. ‘Clarice, will you get in?’
‘No!’ she said with an involuntary vehemence. The idea of driving back wedged in amongst a number of people, listening to their chatter, and forced to take her share in it, became suddenly repugnant to her. ‘I would rather drive in the trap, if I might.’
‘Very well! But who is to drive you?’ Captain Le Mesurier turned to Drake. ‘You can drive, of course.’
Drake replied absently. ‘I have driven the coach from Johannesburg to Pretoria, ten mules and a couple of ponies, and a man beside you swinging a sixty-foot lash.’
Captain Le Mesurier laughed out. ‘Then there’ll be no upset to-night. Come along.’
The guests took their seats, while Drake stood on the pavement.
‘Come along, Drake,’ shouted the Captain from the box seat of the waggonette.
Drake roused himself with a start. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he said, and he went to the side of the dog-cart. He drew back when he saw Clarice already in it, and looked from cart to waggonette. ‘I am so sorry,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I was not listening, I am afraid.’
He mounted beside her, whipped up the horse, and drove ahead of the waggonette. They passed out of the town into the open country. Behind them the sounds of wheels grew fainter and fainter and died away. In front the road gleamed through the night like a white riband; the hedgerows flung out a homely scent of honeysuckle and wild roses; above, the stars rode in a clear sky. To Clarice this was the perfect hour of her life. All her speculations had dropped from her; she had but one thought, that this man driving her cared for her, as she cared for him. It was, in truth, more than a thought; she felt it as a glory about her. Accidentally, as the trap swung round a bend of the road, she leaned her weight upon his arm and she felt the muscles brace beneath his sleeve. The sensation confirmed her thought, and she repeated her action deliberately and more than once. She had but one wish, that this drive should never end, that they should go forward always side by side through a starlit night, in a stillness unbroken by the sound of voices. And that wish was more a belief than a wish.
They ascended the slope and came out upon an open moor. It stretched around them, dark with heather as far as they could see. The night covered it like a tent. It seemed the platform of the world. Clarice suddenly recollected her old image of the veld, and she laughed at the recollection as one laughs at some queer fancy one has held in childhood.
Across the moor the wind blew freshly into their faces. Drake quickened the horse’s paces, and Clarice imagined a lyrical note in the ringing beat of its hooves. The road dipped towards a valley. A stream wound along the bed of it, and as they reached the crest of the moor they could see below them the stars mirrored in the stream. Upon one of the banks a factory was built, and its six tiers of windows were so many golden spots of light like the flames of candles. Drake stopped the trap and sat watching the factory.
‘Night and day,’ he said, ‘night and day. There is no end to it. It is the law.’
He spoke not so much dispiritedly, but rather as though he was teaching himself a lesson which he must needs surely get by heart. He lifted the reins and drove down the hill, past the factory and along the valley to the gates of Garples. There he stopped the trap again. For a moment Clarice fancied that the gates must be shut, but as she bent forward and looked across Drake, she saw that they were open. She turned her eyes to her companion. He was sitting bolt upright with an unfamiliar expression of irresolution upon his face, and he was doubtfully drawing the lash of the whip to and fro across the horse’s back.
Clarice felt that her life was in the balance. ‘Yes,’ she whispered.
‘No!’ Drake almost shouted the word. He turned the horse through the gates and drove in a gallop to the door of the house. Clarice heard him draw a deep breath of relief as he jumped to the ground. As he was pulling off his gloves in the hall, Clarice brushed past him and ran quickly up the stairs. He was roused from his reverie by the arrival of the rest of the party.
Clarice sent word downstairs that she was tired and would not appear at supper.
But an hour later Sidney Mallinson found her seated by the open window. She had not even taken off her hat or gloves. Once or twice he seemed on the point of speaking, but she faced him steadily and her manner even invited his questions. Mallinson turned away with the questions unasked. But he lay long awake that night, thinking; and his resentment against Drake gained new fuel from his thoughts. The frankness of his wife’s admiration for Drake had before this awakened his suspicions, and the suspicions had become certain knowledge. He guessed, too, that to some degree Drake returned his wife’s inclination, and he began immediately on that account to set a higher value upon the possession of her than he had lately done.
Once Clarice heard him laugh aloud harshly. He was thinking of the relationship in which he had set Drake to himself in that first novel which he had written. Actually the relationship was reversed. ‘No, not yet,’ he said to himself. But it would be, unless he could hit upon some plan. The day was breaking when his plan came to him.