The Philanderers

Chapter XVII

A.E.W. Mason

FIELDING opened his newspaper the next morning with unusual eagerness, and, turning to the Parliamentary reports, glanced down column after column in search of Drake’s speech. The absence of it threw him into some consternation. He tossed the newspaper on to the breakfast-table and rose from his seat. As he moved, however, he caught sight of Drake’s name at the beginning of a leader, and he read the leader through. It dealt with the accusation of the Meteor, and expressed considerable surprise that Drake had not seized the opportunity of denying it in the House of Commons. It was mentioned that Drake had not been seen there at any time during the course of the evening.

Fielding jumped to the conclusion that he had met with an accident, and set out for his chambers on the instant. He found Drake quietly eating his breakfast. Only half the table, however, was laid for the meal; the other half was littered with papers and correspondence, while a pile of stamped letters stood on one corner. ‘I was expecting you,’ said Drake quietly.

‘Why, what on earth has happened?’ asked Fielding. ‘Why didn’t you speak last night?’

‘I thought it would be the wisest plan to leave the matter alone.’

‘But you can’t,’ exclaimed Fielding. ‘Read this!’ and he handed to him the newspaper. ‘You can’t leave it alone.’

‘I can, and shall,’ replied Drake, and he returned to his breakfast.

‘But, my dear fellow, you can’t understand what that means! Read the leader, then.’ Drake glanced quickly down it. ‘Now, do you understand? It means utter ruin, utter disgrace, unless you answer this charge, and answer it at once. You will have created a false enough impression already.’ Drake, however, made no response beyond a shrug of his shoulders. ‘But, good Lord, man,’ continued Fielding, ‘your name’s at stake. You can’t sit quiet as if this was an irresponsible piece of paragraph-writing. You would have to resign your seat in Parliament, your connection with the Matanga Company—everything. You couldn’t possibly live in England.’

‘Do you think I haven’t counted up precisely what inaction is going to cost me?’ interrupted Drake. ‘Look here!’ and he took a couple of letters from the pile and handed them to Fielding. One was addressed to the whip of his party, and the other to the directors of the Matanga Concessions. ‘And I leave Charing Cross at ten o’clock this morning.’

Fielding looked at his watch; it was half-past nine. ‘Then you mean to run away?’ he gasped. ‘But, in Heaven’s name, why?’

‘For an obvious reason. Yesterday I believed that I could meet the charge. But something has happened since then, and I know now that I can’t.’

Fielding started back. ‘Do you mean to tell me, as man to man, that the accusation’s true.’

‘As man to man,’ repeated Drake steadily, ‘I tell you that it is true.’

Fielding stared at him for a minute. Then he said, ‘Drake, you’re a damned liar.’

‘We haven’t much time,’ said Drake, ‘and I would like to say something to you about the future of the Matanga settlement. You will take my place, I suppose. You can, and ought to’; and he entered at once into details on administration.

The advice, however, was lost upon Fielding. Once he interrupted Drake. ‘How many white men were with you on the Boruwimi expedition?’ he asked.

‘Four,’ answered Drake, and he gave the names. ‘They are dead, though. Two died of fever on the way back; one was killed in a subsequent expedition, and the fourth was drowned about eighteen months ago off Walfisch Bay.’ A noise of portmanteaux being dragged along the passage penetrated through the closed door. Drake looked at his watch, and started to his feet. ‘I must be off,’ he said; ‘I am late as it is. You might do something for me, and that is to post these letters.’

‘But, man, you are not really going?’

Drake for answer put on his hat and took up his stick. ‘Good-bye,’ he said.

‘But, look here! Do you ask me to believe that you would have been giving me all this advice, if you had really done what that infernal paper makes you out to have done?’

‘I’ll give you a final piece of advice too. Give up philandering and get married!’

With that he opened the door and went out, and a few seconds later Fielding heard the sound of his cab-wheels rattle on the pavement.

Drake, on reaching Charing Cross, found that he had more time to spare than he had reckoned. He was walking slowly along the train in search of an empty compartment when, from a window a few paces ahead of him, a face flashed out, and as suddenly withdrew. The face was Conway’s, and Drake felt that the sudden withdrawal meant a distinct desire to avoid recognition. He set the desire down to the unrepulsed attack of the Meteor, and since he had no inclination to force his company upon Conway, he turned on his heel and moved towards the other end of the train. He was just opposite the archway of the booking-office when a woman, heavily veiled and of a slight figure, came out of it. At the sight of Drake she came to a dead stop, and so attracted his attention. Then she quickly turned her back to him, walked to the bookstall, and slipped round the side of it into the waiting-room. Drake wheeled about again. Conway’s head was stretched out of the window; and he was gazing towards the bookstall.

Drake was in no doubt as to who the woman was, and he felt his heart turn to stone. He walked quickly back until he reached Conway’s compartment. It was empty save for him, but there was a reserved label in the window.

‘Holloa!’ said Conway, awkwardly enough. ‘Are you going by this train? You had better find a seat if you are.’

‘But I’m not,’ said Drake; ‘I thought of going, but I have changed my mind.’ He leaned against the door of the carriage chatting incessantly to Conway, with an eye upon the waiting-room. Once he saw the woman appear at the door, but she retired again. Meanwhile Conway’s embarrassment increased. He said ‘Good-bye’ to Drake at least half-a-dozen times, but on each occasion Drake had something new to say to him. At last the whistle sounded and the train began to move. ‘I say,’ cried Drake, running along by the carriage. ‘My luggage is in the van. You might bring it back with you from Dover, if you will,’ and he stood watching the train until it disappeared under the shed.

Then he walked into the waiting-room. He saw Clarice seated in a corner, and went straight to her. She noticed that his face was white and set, and she rose with some instinct of defiance. ‘I owe you an apology,’ he said abruptly. ‘The Meteor is untrue from the first word to the last. I mean to stay in London, and fight it; yesterday afternoon I told you lies.’

‘Why?’ she asked.

‘Sheer lunacy,’ said he; and he got into a cab and drove to the offices of his solicitor.

The Philanderers - Contents    |     Chapter XVIII

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