The Philanderers

Chapter XVI

A.E.W. Mason

SHE TURNED QUICKLY as the door closed and took a step towards the centre of the room. Drake perceived that she had a copy of the Meteor in her hand. ‘You have seen this?’ she asked.

‘Yes.’ He remained by the door with his hand on the knob.

‘And you guessed who wrote it?’

‘I have been told.’ He answered her coldly and quietly.

‘I know what you think,’ she replied. ‘But it’s not true. I never told him the story. He knew it long ago—before you went back to Matanga—before I married him.’ Her voice took a pleading tone. ‘You will believe that, won’t you?’

‘It never occurred to me that you had told him. I know, in fact, who did. But even if you had—well, you had the right to tell him.’ Clarice gave a stamp of impatience. ‘He is your husband.’

‘My husband!’ she interrupted, and she tore the newspaper across and dropped it on to the floor. ‘My husband! Ah, I wouldn’t have believed that even he could have done a thing so mean. And, to add to the meanness of it, he went away yesterday, for a week. I know why, now; he dared not face me.’ Then of a sudden her voice softened. ‘But it’s my fault too, in a way,’ she went on. ‘He knew the story a long time ago, and never used it. I don’t suppose he would have used it now, if I hadn’t—since your election—let him see—’ She broke off the sentence, and took a step nearer to Drake. ‘Stephen, I meant to let him see.’

Drake drew himself up against the door. It would be no longer of any service to her, he thought, if he left England and returned to Matanga. Something more trenchant was needed.

He reflected again that he filled no place which another could not fill, and the reflection took a wider meaning than it had done before. ‘Yes,’ he said; ‘it’s very awkward that it should all come out just now.’

Clarice stared at him in perplexity. ‘Awkward that it should all come out,’ she repeated vaguely; and then, with an accent of relief, ‘You mean that it will injure the Company?’

‘Not so much that. The Company can run without me—quite well now—I am certain of it.’ He spoke as though he was endeavouring to assure himself of what he said.

‘But it won’t hurt you, really,’ she exclaimed. ‘You can disprove the charges, and of course you must, I know you hesitate—for my sake—to bring an action and expose the writer. But you must, and I don’t think,’ she lowered her eyes to the ground, ‘you would hurt me by doing that.’ For a moment she was silent. Drake made no answer, and she raised her eyes again to his face. ‘You can disprove it—oh, of course,’ she said, with a little anxious laugh.

‘That depends,’ he answered slowly, ‘upon how much the Meteor knows.’

Clarice drew back and caught at the table to steady herself. Once or twice she pressed her hand across her forehead. ‘Oh, don’t stand like that,’ she burst out, ‘as if it was all true.’

‘But they can’t prove it’s true,’ exclaimed Drake, with a trace of cunning in his voice. ‘No; they can’t prove it’s true.’

‘But is it?’ Clarice stood in front of him, her hands clenched. Drake dropped his eyes from her face, raised them again, and again lowered them. ‘Is it?’ she repeated, and her voice rose to the tone of a demand.

‘Yes,’ and he answered her in a whisper.

Clarice recoiled from him with a cry of disgust. She noticed that he drew a long breath—of relief, it seemed—like the criminal when his crime is at last brought home to him. ‘Then all that story,’ she began, ‘you told me at Beaufort Gardens about—about Boruwimi was just meant to deceive me. You talked about duty! Duty compelled you! You would have hanged Gorley just the same had you known that he had been engaged to me.’ She began to laugh hysterically. ‘It was all duty,—duty from beginning to end, and I believed you. Heaven help me, I came to honour you for it. And in reality it was a lie!’ She lashed the words at him, but he stood patiently, and made no rejoinder. ‘I always wondered why you told me the story,’ she continued. ‘You felt that I had a right to know, I remember. And you felt bound to tell me. It’s clear enough now why you felt bound. You had found out, I suppose, that my husband knew—’ She stopped suddenly, as though some new thought had flashed into her mind. ‘And I came here to give up everything—just for your sake. Oh, suppose that I hadn’t found you out!’

She stooped and picked up from the floor the torn pages of the Meteor. She folded them carefully and then moved towards the door. Drake opened it and stood aside.

Clarice went out, called a hansom and drove home. When she arrived there she ordered tea to be brought to the drawing-room and sat down and again read the article in the Meteor. When the tea was brought, she ordered it to be taken into Sidney’s study. She walked restlessly about that room, as though she was trying to habituate herself to it. A green shade lay upon the writing-table, which her husband was accustomed to wear over his eyes. She took it up, looked at it for a little, and then threw it down again with an air of weariness and distaste. A few minutes later Percy Conway called and was admitted.

The Philanderers - Contents    |     Chapter XVII

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