The Philanderers

Chapter XV

A.E.W. Mason

THE NEXT MORNING Drake’s seat at the breakfast table was empty.

‘He caught the early train from Bentbridge,’ Captain Le Mesurier explained. ‘Business, I suppose. He told me last thing yesterday night that he had to go.’

Clarice coloured and lowered her eyes to her plate. Mallinson noticed her embarrassment, and took it for evidence of some secret understanding between her and Drake. He became yet more firmly resolved to put his idea into action.

‘You are not in a hurry,’ said Captain Le Mesurier. ‘You had better stay the week out.’

Mallinson saw his wife raise her head quickly as though she was about to object, and immediately accepted the invitation. Parliament would not meet for three weeks, he reckoned, since there were still the county members to be elected.

Clarice spent the week in defining the relationship in which she and Drake were henceforth to stand towards each other. They were to be animated by a stern spirit of duty,—by the same spirit, in fact, which had compelled Drake to court-martial Gorley in Africa, and subsequently to detail the episode to her. Duty was to keep them apart. She came to think of duty as a row of footlights across which they could from time to time look into each other’s eyes.

Clarice felt that there was something very reassuring and protective in this notion of duty. It justified her in buying a copy of Frou-Frou, which lay upon the bookstall at Bentbridge railway station, and in studying it continuously all the way from Bentbridge to London. She was impelled to purchase it by a recollection that Drake had first been introduced to her at a performance of that play, and his criticisms returned to her thoughts as she read the dialogue. The play had seemed true to him, the disaster inevitable—given the particular characters, and she bore the qualification particularly in mind. There was a difference between Frou-Frou and a woman animated by a sense of duty; a difference of kind, rather than of degree. Sidney Mallinson remarked the book which she was reading, but he made no comment whatsoever.

The next morning he paid a long call upon the editor of the Meteor.

Meanwhile, Drake was devoting himself to the business of the Matanga Company, with an assiduity unusual even for him. Fielding discovered that he seldom left the city before ten at night, and felt it incumbent to expostulate with him. ‘You can’t go on like this for much longer, you know. You had better take a rest. There’s no need for all this work.’

‘There is,’ replied Drake. ‘I want to clear off arrears, because I am not sure that I oughtn’t to go out again to Matanga. You see I can do it quite easily. Parliament meets in a fortnight to vote supplies. It will adjourn, it’s thought, three weeks later. I could leave England in September, and get back easily in time for the regular sessions.’

‘But why should you go at all?’ asked Fielding. ‘You haven’t been back a year as it is.’

‘I know,’ said Drake slowly. ‘But it seems to me that it would inspire confidence, and that sort of thing, if one of us were out there as much as possible. You see, thanks to you and Burl, I can leave everything here quite safely,’ and he returned to his desk as though the discussion was ended.

A week later he received an invitation to dinner from Mr. Le Mesurier, and the invitation was so worded that he could find no becoming excuse to decline it. The dinner was given, the note stated, in order to celebrate his victory at Bentbridge. Fielding and he went together, and when they arrived, they found Mallinson taking off his coat in the hall.

‘Where have you been all this time?’ asked Fielding. ‘I haven’t seen you about.’

‘At Clapham,’ replied Mallinson.

‘I don’t know it.’

‘It’s a suburb to the south-west.’

‘That’s why.’

‘My mother lives there.’

‘I am very sorry.’

The words might have been intended to convey either an apology, or an expression of sympathy with his mother. Mallinson preferred to take them in the former sense. ‘I took my wife down there,’ he continued. ‘She wanted more quiet than one can get in London.’

Fielding noticed, however, that Clapham quiet had not materially benefited Mrs. Mallinson. He commented on her worn appearance to Mrs. Willoughby, when they were seated at the dinner-table.

‘She has been staying, she tells me, with her husband’s people,’ replied Mrs. Willoughby. ‘I fancy she finds them trying.’

Clarice was placed next to Drake, upon the opposite side to Mrs. Willoughby, and out of ear-shot, and was endeavouring to talk to him indifferently. ‘You never take a holiday, I suppose. Where are you going this year?’ she asked.

‘To Matanga,’ said Drake.

‘Matanga! Oh no.’ The words slipped from her lips before she was able to check them.

‘I think that my place is there,’ returned Drake, ‘at all events for the moment. I shall go as soon as the House rises.’

‘I thought you didn’t mean to leave London again.’

‘One gets over ideas of that kind. After all, my interests lie in Matanga, and one gets a kind of affection for the place which makes your fortune.’

The recantation was uttered with sufficient awkwardness. But Clarice was too engrossed in her own thoughts to notice his embarrassment. ‘Do you remember when I first met you?’ she asked. ‘It was at a performance of Frou-Frou.’

‘I remember quite well,’ said he. ‘I was rather struck with the play.’

‘I have been reading it lately.’

Drake started at the significant tone in which the words were spoken. ‘Really?’ he said, with an uneasy laugh. ‘What impressed me was that scene at Venice, where Gilberte and De Valreas read over the list of plays in the Paris newspapers, and realise what they have thrown away, and for how little. It seemed to me the saddest scene I had ever witnessed.’

‘Yes,’ interposed Clarice quickly. ‘But because Paris and its theatres meant so much to them. I remember what you said, that everything in the play seemed so true just to those characters, Gilberte and De Valreas.’

She glanced at him as she uttered the last name. Drake understood that she was drawing a distinction between him and the fashionable lounger of the play.

‘Besides,’ she went on, dropping her voice, ‘Gilberte left a child behind her. Her unhappiness turned on that.’

‘In a way, no doubt, but the loss of friends, station, home, counts for something—for enough to destroy her liking for De Valreas at all events.’

‘For De Valreas!’ insisted Clarice. ‘He was not worth the sacrifice.’ She paused for a moment, and then continued diffidently. ‘There’s something else; I hardly like to tell you it. You wouldn’t notice it from seeing the play. I didn’t; but it came to me when I read the book. I think the play’s absolutely untrue, yes, even to those characters, in one respect.’

‘And what’s that?’ asked Drake.

Clarice glanced round. Her neighbours, she perceived, were talking. Mrs. Willoughby was too far off to hear. She dropped her voice to a yet lower key and said, ‘They make the husband kill the lover in the duel. It’s always the end in books and plays; but really the opposite of that would happen.’

Drake leant back in his chair and stared at her. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Hush!’ she said warningly, and turning away she spoke for a little to the man on the other side of her. Then she turned back. ‘I mean,’ she said, ‘if two people really care for one another, their love would triumph over everything—everything. De Valreas would have killed the husband.’ She spoke with an intense conviction of the truth of what she said.

‘But, my dear child!’ replied Drake. ‘You—oh, you don’t really believe that.’

‘I do,’ she answered. ‘You see, there are so few people who really care for one another. If you find two who do, I am sure they would conquer, whatever stood in the way.’

The conversation was interrupted, to Drake’s relief, by Captain Le Mesurier. He rose from the corner of the table to propose the health of the guest of the evening. He said that he was proud to be represented in Parliament by a man of Stephen Drake’s calibre. If there was anything of which he was prouder, it was the way in which the election had been fought at Bentbridge. That election was the triumph not merely of a man or a cause, but of a method; and that method was honesty and fair-play. ‘We never indulged in personalities,’ he continued, with shameless sincerity. ‘I have always myself been very strong on that point. Fight of course for all you’re worth, but never indulge in personalities. It’s a good rule. It’s a rule that helped Stephen Drake to win his seat. We followed it. We left the lies for the opponent to tell, and he told them. But we never did and never will indulge in contemptible personalities.’

The Captain subsided to a gentle rapping of forks and spoons upon the table, while Fielding said pointedly, ‘Yes, Captain, you deserve your holidays,’ and he emphasised the word. The Captain caught the allusion and laughed heartily. It was evident that he saw no inconsistency between the epigram and his professed method of contesting an election.

Drake replied shortly, and the ladies retired. Mallinson moved round the table, and seated himself in the chair which Clarice had left.

‘Do you think of speaking at all during this session?’ he asked.

‘I am not quite sure,’ replied Drake; ‘but I rather think I shall on the colonial vote. You see there’s first-class wheat-growing land in Africa, quite near to the west coast. We import practically all that we use in England. Well, why shouldn’t we import it from our own dominions? Besides, the route would be so much safer in times of war, unless, of course, we were at war with France. Ships could slip up the coast of Africa, across the bay and into Plymouth with much less risk than if they have to sail from the Argentines or some place like that. I believe, if the Colonial Office could be induced to move in the matter, the idea might be carried out. What do you think?’

Mallinson carelessly assented and returned to his seat.

For the remainder of the evening Drake avoided Clarice. As he was taking his leave, however, she came up to him. He shook her by the hand and she whispered one word to him, ‘Matanga.’ Drake could not mistake the note of longing in her voice, and as he drove to his chambers the temptation with which he had wrestled at the gates of Garples assailed him again, and with double force. He had but to speak, he knew, and she would come. The loneliness of his rooms made the struggle yet harder, yet more doubtful. He pictured to himself what he had never had, a home, and he located that home in Matanga. The arid plain blossomed in his imagination, for he saw the weariness die out of Clarice’s face.

He tossed restlessly through the night, until one thought emerged from the turmoil of his ideas, fashioned itself into a fact, and stood framed there before his eyes. He held the future of Clarice in the hollow of his hand. Her fate rested upon his decision, and he must decide.

Drake rose and walked out on to the balcony, as the dawn was breaking over London. A white mist was crawling above the Thames; he could see a glimpse of the water here and there as the mist shredded. He turned to the west and looked towards Westminster, recollecting how his name and purposes had centred there as though drawn by a magnet. But in that clear morning light they seemed unreal and purposeless. One immediate responsibility invaded him, and, contrasted with that, his ambitions dwindled into vanities. He filled no place, he realised, which would be vacant unless he occupied it. He had to decide for Clarice and solely for her.

Drake took up his hat and walked out of London to Elm Tree Hill. There, gazing down upon its spires asparkle in the early sunlight, while the city gradually awoke and the hum of its stirring began to swell through the air, he came to his decision. Clarice belonged to London; he did not. In Matanga she would be content—for how long? The roughness, the absence of her kind and class, the makeshift air of transition, would soon destroy its charm of novelty. Every instinct would draw her back to London, and the way would be barred, whilst for him Matanga was a province in which every capacity he possessed could find employment and exercise. He would leave England for Matanga when this short session was over; he would resign his seat and settle there for good. For if he stayed in London, every step which he took, every advance which he made, would only add to Clarice’s miseries.

Thus he decided, and walked back with his mind at rest, without regret for the loss of his ambitions, without, indeed, any real consciousness of the sacrifice which he had it in his thoughts to make.

Thus he decided, but as he left his office on the afternoon of the day whereon he was to make his speech in the House of Commons, Fielding rushed up to him with a copy of the Meteor.

‘Look!’ he said, and pointed to an article. Drake took the paper and read the article through. His face darkened as he read. The article had a headline which puzzled Drake for a moment. It was entitled The Drabious Duke, and it proceeded to set out the episode of Gorley’s court-martial and execution. The facts, Drake recognised, were not exaggerated, but the sting lay in the suggestion with which it concluded.

‘We have no doubt,’ the leader-writer stated, ‘that both the court-martial and execution were in accordance with the letter of the law, but, since Mr. Stephen Drake is now one of the legislators of this country, we feel it our duty to submit two facts for the consideration of our readers. In the first place we would call attention to the secrecy in which the incident has been carefully shrouded. In the second, Gorley undoubtedly secured a considerable quantity of gold-dust. Now, it is perfectly well known that the Government of Matanga pays a commission on all gold-dust brought down to the coast. We have gone into the matter carefully, and we positively assert that no commission whatever was paid in any such plunder during the two months which followed Mr. Drake’s return from Boruwimi. What, then, became of it? We ask our readers to weigh these two facts dispassionately, and we feel justified in adding that Mr. Drake would have been quite within his rights in showing clemency to Gorley, or in bringing him back to undergo a regular trial. However, he preferred to execute him on the spot.’

‘He makes me out a thief and a murderer,’ said Drake. ‘I wonder where he got the story from?’

Fielding answered slowly, ‘I am afraid that I can throw some light on that. I told Mallinson some time ago, before he was married.’

‘Mallinson!’ exclaimed Drake, stopping in the street. ‘Oh, you think the article comes from him?’ Then he turned to Fielding. ‘And how did you know of it?’

‘Well,’ said Fielding with some hesitation, ‘Mrs. Willoughby told me.’


‘We neither of us, of course, knew you very well then. Mrs. Willoughby had only just met you, and she didn’t feel quite certain that Clarice ought to be kept in ignorance of the matter, so she asked my advice.’

‘Quite so,’ answered Drake. ‘I understand. You thought Clarice ought to be informed, and you were right. I told her of the matter myself.’

‘No,’ exclaimed Fielding; ‘I’ll tell you the whole truth while I am about it. I advised Mrs. Willoughby to say nothing, but I behaved like a damned cad, and told Mallinson myself afterwards. I had quite another reason for telling him.’

‘Oh, never mind!’ broke in Drake. ‘The question is, what’s to be done now?’

‘You must sue the paper!’

‘Of course. I was thinking whether I couldn’t mention the matter to-night in the House of Commons. You see it has got into the papers that I mean to speak, and perhaps I ought to make use of the opportunity.’

Fielding jumped at the idea. ‘By Jove, yes,’ he said. ‘I should think, in fact, the directors of the Company will rather expect it.’

They walked together until they reached the corner of Parliament Street; there they stopped.

‘I am awfully sorry, Drake,’ said Fielding. ‘I behaved like a blackguard.’

Drake again cut him short. ‘Oh, I don’t see that. The thing looked fishy, I don’t doubt, and you weren’t bound to me in any way. Good-bye,’ and he held out his hand with a cordial smile.

‘Good-bye,’ said Fielding, and they separated.

On reaching his flat Drake was informed that a lady was waiting to see him. He crossed the passage and opened the door of his sitting-room. Mrs. Mallinson was standing by the window.

The Philanderers - Contents    |     Chapter XVI

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