Mrs. Willoughby was moving restlessly about the drawing-room as he was shown in. She turned impulsively towards him, holding out both hands. ‘I so hoped you would come,’ she said. ‘Well? You have seen him?’
‘What does he mean to do?’ she asked anxiously, taking from a chair a copy of the Meteor.
‘Nothing,’ replied Fielding. ‘He resigns his seat; he gives up his directorship; he is leaving England.’
Mrs. Willoughby’s first look was of sheer incredulity. ‘It’s impossible!’ she exclaimed.
‘I have just returned from his chambers. He has started from Charing Cross already.’
Mrs. Willoughby sat down in the window-seat, and her look of incredulity gradually changed to one of comprehension. ‘And he took such delight in London,’ she said, with a break in her voice; ‘just like a schoolboy.’
Fielding nodded gloomily. ‘I did my best to dissuade him,’ he said. ‘I practically told him he was a coward to run away. But you know the man. He had made up his mind not to face the charge. And yet I can’t believe it’s true.’
‘Believe it!’ exclaimed Mrs. Willoughby, with a hint of something dangerously near to scorn in her voice.
‘I know, I know,’ answered Fielding. ‘Still Drake pleads guilty. He sacrifices everything, an established position, unusual prospects—everything, by pleading guilty. You see, that’s the point. He has every imaginable inducement to make him face the accusation, even if he has only the merest chance of winning, and yet he runs away. He runs away—Drake does. There’s only one inference—’
‘For the world to draw,’ interrupted Mrs. Willoughby; ‘and doubtless he meant the world to draw it. But you and I should know him better.’
‘Yes,’ Fielding admitted. ‘Yes.’ He began to walk about the room. ‘But what’s the reason? Drake’s action, if this statement is a libel, is the action of a madman.’
‘A madman? Yes! Don Quixote was mad even in his century,’ replied Mrs. Willoughby. ‘I can give you the reason. Clarice was with him yesterday afternoon.’
‘Yesterday?’ said Fielding. ‘Why, I walked home with Drake from the City myself.’
‘But you didn’t go in with him.’
‘No; I left him alone to arrange his speech. He meant to mention this very charge.’
Mrs. Willoughby started to her feet. ‘Then that settles it,’ she said. ‘Clarice was waiting for him in his rooms. Oh, if you had only gone in with him! You remember what I wrote to you, that he would lie in the mud if he thought it would save her. Well, that is what he has done. Clarice came here this very morning and told me what had happened. She went to his chambers, determined never to return to her husband, prepared to sacrifice—I give you her words, not mine—to sacrifice herself, her name, and for his sake. But when she showed him the Meteor her suspicions were aroused by his manner, and she forced the truth out of him.’
Fielding gave a short, contemptuous laugh. ‘Forced the truth out of him! She actually told you that?’
‘And what’s more, she believes it. Oh the waste, the waste of a man like that upon a doll like her. I suppose there’s nothing to be done?’
‘Nothing; if he won’t defend himself, our defence won’t carry any weight,’ he went on, with a change of tone. ‘But I don’t see what real good he does, even to her. She goes back to her husband now, but next month or next year there’ll be somebody else.’
‘Yes,’ replied Mrs. Willoughby; ‘but I hardly fancy Stephen Drake would consider that. I believe he would feel that he had no right to speculate on what may not happen. He would just see this one clear, definite, immediate thing to do, and simply do it.’ She spoke the sentence with a slow emphasis upon each word, and Fielding moved uneasily. It seemed to strike an accusation at him. He braced himself to make the same confession to Mrs. Willoughby which he had made that afternoon before to Drake. But, before he could speak it, Mrs. Willoughby put to him a question. ‘Tell me, did he seem to mind much?’
‘No,’ Fielding answered with an air of relief. His confession was deferred, if only for a minute. ‘He seemed cheerful enough. The last thing he did,’ and he paused for a second, ‘was to give me advice about the management of the Matanga Company.’
‘That’s so like him,’ she said gently. Then she looked up with a start of interest. ‘You are going to take his place?’ she asked.
‘He said I ought to. I know more about it than the other directors. Of course they mayn’t appoint me, but I expect they will.’ Mrs. Willoughby was silent. She moved away from the window and stood by the fireplace. Fielding crossed to her. ‘Drake gave me one other piece of advice,’ he said hesitatingly,—‘not about business. It concerned me and just one other person.’ He pitched the remark in an interrogative key.
Mrs. Willoughby glanced quickly towards him with just the hint of a smile dimpling about the corners of her lips. Fielding found it very difficult to go on, but there was one clear, definite, immediate thing for him to do as well, he said. ‘Before I act on it there is something I ought to tell you.’ He paused for a second, and the trouble in his voice perplexed Mrs. Willoughby. ‘Whom do you think Mallinson got his knowledge about Gorley from?’
Mrs. Willoughby took a step forward. ‘Whom? Why,’ and she gave a little anxious laugh, ‘from Clarice, of course.’
Mrs. Willoughby looked at him for a moment in silence. Then she drew back again. ‘You told him?’ she asked with a quiet wonder. ‘Yes,’ Fielding nodded. ‘But I only told you,’ she said, ‘because I wanted your advice. What made you tell him? There must have been some reason, some good reason, some necessity.’
‘No; there was no necessity, no good reason, no reason at all,’ Fielding replied doggedly. ‘I told him because—’ he stopped abruptly; the reason seemed too pitiful for him even to relate.
‘Well, because?’ asked Mrs. Willoughby. There was a note of hardness in the utterance. Fielding raised his eyes and glanced at her face. ‘It comes too late,’ he said unconsciously, and he was thinking of Drake’s advice.
‘The reason!’ she insisted, taking no notice of the sentence. ‘The reason!’
‘I told Mallinson at the time when I was always meeting him here.’
Mrs. Willoughby gave a start. ‘And because of that?’ she cried.
‘Yes,’ said he. ‘I thought the knowledge might give him a fairer,’ he changed the word, ‘a better, chance with Clarice.’
‘Oh, how mean!’ exclaimed Mrs. Willoughby, not so much in anger as in absolute disappointment. She turned away from him, and stood for a little looking out of the window. Then she said, ‘Good-bye.’
And Fielding took his hat and left the house. He went down to the office, and was told that Drake wanted to see him.
‘Drake!’ he exclaimed. He pushed open the door of Drake’s private office, and the latter looked up from his papers.
‘You called me a damned liar this morning,’ he said, ‘and you were right.’
Fielding dropped into a chair. ‘What do you mean?’
‘That there’s not a word of truth in the Meteor’s charges, and I am prosecuting the editor. Did you post those letters?’
Fielding pulled them out of his pocket and threw them on to the table. ‘Thanks,’ said Drake, ‘that’s fortunate.’
Fielding did not inquire into the cause of Drake’s change of purpose, and it was some while before he understood it. For Mrs. Willoughby held no further discussions with him in the drawing-room at Knightsbridge.