Produced by Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
BY A.E.W. MASON
Author of ‘The Courtship of Morrice Buckler’
Five Englishmen were watching a camp fire in the centre of a forest clearing in mid-Africa. They did not speak, but sat propped against logs, smoking. One of the five knocked out the ashes of his pipe upon the ground; a second, roused by the movement, picked up a fresh billet of wood with a shiver and threw it on to the fire, and the light for a moment flung a steady glow upon faces which were set with anxiety. The man who had picked up the billet looked from one to the other of the faces, then he turned and gazed behind him into the darkness. The floor of the clearing was dotted with the embers of dying fires, but now and again he would hear the crackle of a branch and see a little flame spirt up and shine upon the barrels of rifles and the black bodies of the sleeping troops. Round the edge of the clearing the trees rose massed and dark like a cliff’s face. He turned his head upwards.
‘Look, Drake!’ he cried suddenly, and pointed an arm eastwards. The man opposite to him took his pipe from his mouth and looked in that direction. The purple was fading out of the sky, leaving it livid.
‘I see,’ said Drake shortly, and, replacing his pipe, he rose to his feet. His four companions looked quickly at each other and the eldest of them spoke.
‘Look here, Drake,’ said he, ‘I have been thinking about this business all night, and the more I think of it the less I like it. Of course, we only did what we were bound to do. We couldn’t get behind that evidence; there was no choice for us; but you’re the captain, and there is a choice for you.’
‘No,’ replied Drake quietly. ‘I too have been thinking about it all night, and there is no choice for me.’
‘But you can delay the execution until we get back.’
‘I can’t even do that. A week ago there was a village here.’
‘It’s not the man I am thinking of. I haven’t lived my years in Africa to have any feeling left for scum like that. But also I haven’t lived my years in Africa without coming to know there’s one thing above all others necessary for the white man to do, and that’s to keep up the prestige of the white man. String Gorley up if you like, but not here–not before these blacks.’
‘But that’s just what I am going to do,’ answered Drake, ‘and just for your reason, too–the prestige of the white man. Every day something is stolen by these fellows, a rifle, a bayonet, rations–something. When I find the theft out I have to punish it, haven’t I? Well, how can I punish the black when he thieves, and let the white man off when he thieves and murders? If I did–well, I don’t think I could strike a harder blow at the white man’s prestige.’
‘I don’t ask you to let him off. Only take him back to the coast. Let him be hanged there privately.’
‘And how many of these blacks would believe that he had been hanged?’ Drake turned away from the group and walked towards a hut which stood some fifty yards from the camp fire. Three sentries were guarding the door. Drake pushed the door open, entered, and closed it behind him. The hut was pitch dark since a board had been nailed across the only opening.
‘Gorley!’ he said.
There was a rustling of boughs against the opposite wall, and a voice answered from close to the ground.
‘Damn you, what do you want?’
‘Have you anything you wish to say?’
‘That depends,’ replied Gorley after a short pause, and his voice changed to an accent of cunning.
‘There’s no bargain to be made.’
The words were spoken with a sharp precision, and again there was a rustling of leaves as though Gorley had fallen back upon his bed of branches.
‘But you can undo some of the harm,’ continued Drake, and at that Gorley laughed. Drake stopped on the instant, and for a while there was silence between the pair. A gray beam of light shot through a chink between the logs, and then another and another until the darkness of the hut changed to a vaporous twilight. Then of a sudden the notes of a bugle sounded the reveille. Gorley raised himself upon his elbows and thrust forward his head. Outside he heard the rattle of arms, the chatter of voices, all the hum of a camp astir.
‘Drake,’ he whispered across to the figure standing against the door, ‘there’s enough gold dust to make two men rich, but you shall have it all if you let me go. You can–easily enough. It wouldn’t be difficult for a man to slip away into the forest on the march back if you gave the nod to the sentries guarding him. All I ask for is a rifle and a belt of cartridges. I’d shift for myself then.’
He ended abruptly and crouched, listening to the orders shouted to the troops outside. The men were being ranged in their companies. Then the companies in succession were marched, halted, wheeled, and halted again. Gorley traced a plan of their evolutions with his fingers upon the floor of the hut. The companies were formed into a square.
‘Drake,’ he began again, and he crawled a little way across the hut; ‘Drake, do you hear what I’m saying? There’s a fortune for you, mind you, all of it; and I am the only one who can tell you where it is. I didn’t trust those black fellows–no, no,’ and he wagged his head with an attempt at an insinuating laugh. ‘I had it all gathered together, and I buried it myself at night. You gave me a chance before with nothing to gain. Give me another; you have everything to gain this time. Drake, why don’t you speak?’
‘Because there’s no bargain to be made between you and me,’ replied Drake. ‘If you tell me where the gold dust’s hid, it will be given back to the people it belonged to, or rather to those of them you left alive. You can do some good that way by telling me, but you won’t save your life.’
Steps were heard to approach the hut; there was a rap on the door.
‘Well?’ asked Drake.
Gorley raised himself from the floor.
‘I am not making you rich and letting you kill me too,’ he said; and then, ‘Who cares? I’m ready.’
Drake opened the door and stepped out. Gorley swaggered after him. He stood for a moment on the threshold. Here and there a wisp of fog ringed a tree-trunk or smoked upon the ground. But for the rest, the clearing, littered with the charred debris of a native village, lay bare and desolate in a cold morning light.
‘It looks a bit untidy,’ said Gorley, with a laugh. Two of the troopers approached and laid their hands upon his shoulders. At first he made a movement to shake them off. Then he checked the impulse and stood quietly while they pinioned him. After they had finished he spat on the ground, cast a glance at the square and the rope dangling from a branch above it, and walked easily towards it. The square opened to receive him and closed up again.
On the march back two of the Englishmen sickened of ague and died. Six months later a third was killed in a punitive expedition. The fourth was drowned off Walfisch Bay before another year had elapsed.
Hugh Fielding, while speculating upon certain obscure episodes in the history of a life otherwise familiar to an applauding public, and at a loss to understand them, caught eagerly at a simile. Now Fielding came second to none in his scorn for the simile as an explanation, possibly because he was so well acquainted with its convenience. ‘A fairy lamp’ he would describe it, quite conscious of the irony in his method of description, ‘effective as an ornament upon a table-cloth, but a poor light to eat your dinner by.’
Nevertheless Fielding hugged this particular simile, applying it as a sort of skeleton key to the problem of Stephen Drake’s career.
He compared Drake’s career, or at all events that portion of it which was closed, to the writing of a book. So many years represent the accumulation of material, a deliberate accumulation; at a certain date the book is begun with a settled design, _finis_ being clearly foreseen from the first word of the preface. But once fairly started the book throws the writer on one side and takes the lead, drags him, panting and protesting, after it, flings him down by-ways out of sight of his main road, tumbles him into people he had no thought of meeting, and finally stops him dead, Heaven knows where–in front of a blank wall, most likely, at the end of a _cul de sac_. He may sit down then and cry if he likes, but to that point he has come in spite of his intentions.
The actual settling down to the work, with the material duly ticketed at his elbow, in Drake’s case Hugh Fielding dated back to a certain day towards the close of October.
Upon that afternoon the _Dunrobin Castle_ from Cape Town steamed into Plymouth Harbour, and amongst the passengers one man stepped from the tender on to the quay and stood there absolutely alone. No one had gone out to the ship to meet him; no one came forward now on the quay-side, and it was evident from his indifference to the bystanders that he expected no one. The more careless of these would have accounted him a complete stranger to the locality, the more observant an absentee who had just returned, for while his looks expressed isolation, one significant gesture proved familiarity with the environments. As his eyes travelled up the tiers of houses and glanced along towards the Hoe, they paused now and again and rested upon any prominent object as though upon a remembered landmark, and each such recognition he emphasised with a nod of the head.
He turned his back towards the town, directing his glance in a circle. The afternoon, although toning to dusk, was kept bright by the scouring of a keen wind, and he noted the guard-ship on his right at its old moorings, the funnels rising like solid yellow columns from within a stockade of masts; thence he looked across the water to the yellowing woods of Mount Edgcumbe, watched for a moment or so the brown sails of the fishing-smacks dancing a _chassez-croisez_ in the Sound, and turned back to face the hill-side. A fellow-passenger, hustled past him by half a dozen importunate children, extricated a hand to wave, and shouted a cheery ‘See you in town, Drake.’ Drake roused himself with a start and took a step in the same direction; he was confronted by a man in a Norfolk jacket and tweed knickerbockers, who, standing by, had caught the name.
‘Captain Stephen Drake?’
The man mopped a perspiring face.
‘I was afraid I had missed you. I should have gone out on the tender, only I was late. Can you spare me a moment? You have time.’
‘Certainly,’ answered Drake, with a look of inquiry.
The man in the knickerbockers led the way along the quay until he came to an angle between an unused derrick and a wall.
‘We shall not be disturbed here,’ he said, and he drew an oblong note-book and a cedar-wood pencil from his pocket.
‘I begin to understand,’ said Drake, with a laugh.
‘You can have no objection?’
There was the suavity of the dentist who holds the forceps behind his back in the tone of the speaker’s voice.
‘On the contrary, a little notoriety will be helpful to me too.’
That word ‘too’ jarred on the reporter, suggesting a flippancy which he felt to be entirely out of place. The feeling, however, was quickly swallowed up in the satisfaction which he experienced at obtaining so easily a result which had threatened the need of diplomacy.
‘_O si sic omnes!_’ he exclaimed, and made a note of the quotation upon the top of the open leaf.
‘Surely the quotation is rather hackneyed to begin with?’ suggested Drake with a perfectly serious inquisitiveness. The reporter looked at him suspiciously.
‘We have to consider our readers,’ he replied with some asperity.
‘By the way, what paper do you represent?’
The reporter hesitated a little.
‘The _Evening Meteor_,’ he admitted reluctantly, keeping a watchful eye upon his questioner. He saw the lips join in a hard line, and began to wonder whether, after all, the need for diplomacy had passed.
‘I begin to appreciate the meaning of journalistic enterprise,’ said Drake. ‘Your editor makes a violent attack upon me, and then sends a member of his staff to interview me the moment I set foot in England.’
‘You hardly take the correct view, if I may say so. Our chief when he made the attacks acted under a sense of responsibility, and he thought it only fair that you should have the earliest possible opportunity of making your defence.’
‘I beg your pardon,’ replied Drake gravely. ‘Your chief is the most considerate of men, and I trust that his equity will leave him a margin of profit, only I don’t seem to feel that I need make any defence. I have no objection to be interviewed, as I told you, but you must make it clear that I intend nothing in the way of apology. Is that understood?’
The pressman agreed, and made a note of the proviso.
‘There is another point. I have seen nothing of the paper necessarily for the last few weeks. The _Meteor_ has, I suppose, continued its–crusade, shall we call it?–but on what lines exactly I am, of course, ignorant. It will be better, consequently, that you should put questions and I answer them, upon this condition, however,–that all reference is omitted to any point on which I am unwilling to speak.’
The reporter demurred, but, seeing that Drake was obdurate, he was compelled to give way.
‘The entire responsibility of the expedition rests with me,’ Drake explained, ‘but there were others concerned in it. You might trench upon private matters which only affect them.’
He watched the questions with the vigilance of a counsel on behalf of a client undergoing cross-examination, but they were directed solely to the elucidation of the disputed point whether Drake had or had not, while a captain in the service of the Matanga Republic, attacked a settlement of Arab slave-dealers within the zone of a British Protectorate. The editor of the _Meteor_ believed that he had, and strenuously believed it–in the interests of his shareholders. Drake, on the other hand, and the Colonial Office, it should be added, were dispassionately indifferent to the question, for the very precise reason that they knew it could never be decided. There were doubts as to the exact sphere of British influence, and the doubts favoured Drake for the most part. Insular prehensiveness, at its highest flight, could do no more than claim Boruwimi as its uttermost limit, and was aware it would be hard put to it to substantiate the claim. The editor, nevertheless, persevered, bombarded its citizen readers with warnings about trade fleeing from lethargic empires, published a cartoon, and reluctantly took the blackest view of Drake’s character and aims.
Drake’s march with a handful of men six hundred miles through a tangled forest had been a handsome exploit, quickening British pride with the spectacle of an Englishman at the head of it. Civilian blood tingled in office and shop, claiming affinity with Drake’s. It needed an Englishman to bill-hook a path through that fretwork of branches, and fall upon his enemy six weeks before he was expected–the true combination of daring and endurance that stamps the race current coin across the world! Economy also pleaded for Drake. But for him the country itself must have burned out the hornets’ nest, and the tax-payer paid, and paid dearly. For there would have been talk of the expedition beforehand, the force would have found an enemy prepared and fortified. The hornets could sting too! Whereas Drake had burned them out before they had time to buzz. He need not have said one word in exculpation of himself, and that indeed he knew. But he had interests and ambitions of his own to serve; a hint of them peeped out.
‘As to your future plans?’ asked the reporter. ‘You mean to go back, I presume.’
‘No; London for me, if I can find a corner in it. I hold concessions in Matanga.’
‘The land needs development, of course.’
‘Machinery too; capital most of all.’
At the bookstall upon the platform Drake bought a copy of the _Times_, and whilst taking his change he was attracted by a grayish-green volume prominently displayed upon the white newspapers. The sobriety of the binding caught his fancy. He picked it up, and read the gold-lettered title on the back–_A Man of Influence_. The stall-keeper recommended the novel; he had read it himself; besides, it was having a sale. Drake turned to the title-page and glanced at the author’s name–Sidney Mallinson. He flashed into enthusiasm.
‘Very well indeed.’
‘Has it been published long?’
‘Less than three months.’
‘I will take it, and everything else by the same author.’
‘It is his first book.’
The stall-keeper glanced at his enthusiastic customer, and saw a sunburnt face, eager as a boy’s.
‘Oh!’ he said doubtfully, ‘I don’t know whether you will like it. It’s violently modern. Perhaps this,’ and he suggested with an outstretched forefinger a crimson volume explained by its ornamentation of a couple of assegais bound together with a necklace of teeth. Drake laughed at the application of the homoeopathic principle to the sale of books.
‘No, I will take this,’ he said, and, moving aside from the stall, stood for a little turning the book over and over in his hands, feeling its weight and looking incessantly at the title-page, wondering, you would say, that the author had accomplished so much.
He had grounds for wonder, too. His thoughts went back across the last ten years, and he remembered Mallinson’s clamouring for a reputation; a name–that had been the essential thing, no matter what the career in which it was to be won. Work he had classified according to the opportunities it afforded of public recognition; and his classification varied from day to day. A _cause celebre_ would suggest the Bar, a published sermon the Church, a flaming poster persuade to the stage. In a word, he had looked upon a profession as no more than a sounding-board.
It had always seemed to Drake that this fervid desire for fame, as a thing apart in itself, not as a symbol of success won in a cherished pursuit, argued some quality of weakness in the man, something unstable which would make for failure. His surprise was increased by an inability to recollect that Mallinson had ever considered literature as a means to his end. Long sojourning in the wilderness, moreover, had given Drake an exaggerated reverence for the printed page. He was inclined to set Mallinson on a pinnacle, and scourge himself at the foot of it for his earlier distrust of him. He opened the book again at the beginning, and let the pages slip across beneath his thumb from cover to cover; 413 was marked on the top corner of the last; 413 pages actually written and printed and published; all consecutive too; something new on each page. He turned to a porter.
‘How long have I before the train starts?’
‘Five minutes, sir.’
‘Where is the telegraph office?’
The office was pointed out to him, and he telegraphed to Mallinson at the address of his publishers. ‘Have just reached England. Dine with me at eight to-morrow at the Grand Hotel’; and he added after a moment’s pause, ‘Bring Conway, if you have not lost sight of him.–DRAKE.’
When the train started Drake settled himself to the study of _A Man of Influence_. The commentary of the salesman had prepared him for some measure of perplexity. There would be hinted references and suggestions, difficult of comprehension to the traveller out of touch with modern developments. These, however, would only be the ornaments, but the flesh and blood of the story would be perceptible enough. It was just, however, this very flesh and blood which eluded him; he could not fix it in a definite form. He did not hold the key to the author’s intention.
Drake’s _vis-a-vis_ in the carriage saw him produce the book with considerable surprise, conscious of an incongruity between the reader and what he read. His surprise changed to amusement as he noticed Drake’s face betray his perplexity and observed him turn now and again to the title upon the cover as though doubtful whether he had not misread it. He gave an audible chuckle.
Drake looked up and across the carriage at a man of about fifty years of age with a large red face and a close-cropped pointed beard. The chuckle swelled to a laugh.
‘You find that a hard nut to crack?’ Drake noticed a thickness in the articulation.
‘I have been some years abroad. I hardly catch its drift,’ explained Drake, and then with an effort at praise:
‘It seems a clever satire.’
‘Satire!’ guffawed the other. ‘Well, that’s rich! Satire? Why, it’s a manifesto. Gad, sir, it’s a creed. I believe in my duty to my senses and the effectuation of me for ever and ever, Amen. The modern jargon! Topsy Turvydom! Run the world on the comic opera principle, but be flaming serious about it. Satire, good Lord!’
He flung himself back on his cushions with a snort of contempt.
‘Look you, I’m not a pess–‘ he checked at the word and then took it at a run, ‘a pessimist, but, as things are going on–well, you have been out of the country and–and you can’t help it, I suppose. You may laugh! P’raps you haven’t got daughters–not that I have either, praise glory! But nieces, if the father’s a fool, wear you out very little less. Satire, ho! ho!’
The semi-intoxicated uncle of nieces relapsed vindictively into his corner and closed his eyes. Occasionally Drake would hear a muffled growl, and, looking in that direction, would see one inflamed eye peering from a mountain of rugs.
‘Satire!’ and a husky voice would address the passengers indiscriminately. ‘Satire! and the man’s not a day under forty either.’
Drake joined in the laugh and lit his pipe. He was not sensitive to miscomputations of his years, and felt disinclined to provoke further outbursts of family confidences.
Instead, he pursued his acquaintance with _A Man of Influence_, realising now that he must take him seriously and regard him stamped with Mallinson’s approval, a dominating being. He found the task difficult. The character insisted upon reminding him of the nursery-maid’s ideal, the dandified breaker of hearts and bender of wills; an analytical hero too, who traced the sentence through the thought to the emotion, which originally prompted it; whence his success and influence. But for his strength, plainly aimed at by the author, and to be conceded by the reader, if the book was to convince? Drake compared him to scree and shingle as against solid granite. Lean on him and you slip!
The plot was the time-worn, imperishable story of the married couple and the amorous interloper, the Influential Man, of course, figuring as the latter, and consequently glorified. The husband was pelted with ridicule from the first chapter to the last, though for what particular fault Drake could not discover, unless it were for that of being a husband at all; so that the interloper in robbing him of his wife was related to have secured not merely the _succes d’estime_ which accompanies such enviable feats, but the unqualified gratitude of all married women and most unmarried men.
There were, no doubt, redeeming qualities; Drake gave them full credit, and perhaps more than they deserved. He noticed a glitter in the dialogue, whether of foil or gold he refused to consider, and a lively imagination in the interweaving of the incidents. But altogether the book left with him a feeling of distaste, which was not allayed by the perception that he himself was caricatured in the picture of befooled husband, while Mallinson figured as the successful deceiver. After all, he thought, Mallinson and he were friends, and he disliked the mere imagining of such a relationship between them.
Drake summed up his impressions as his hansom turned into the Bayswater Road. The day was just beginning to break; the stems of the trees bordering the park were black bars against the pure, colourless light, and their mingling foliage a frayed black ribbon stretched across the sky. One might have conceived the picture the original of a black and white drawing by a pre-Raphaelite artist.
Drake drew in a long breath of the keen, clear air.
‘I am glad I asked him to bring Conway,’ he said to himself.
Waking up six hours later, Drake looked out upon a brown curtain of London fog. The lamps were lit at the crossings in Trafalgar Square–half-a-mile distant they seemed, opaque haloes about a pin’s point of flame, and people passing in the light of them loomed and vanished like the figures of a galanty-show. From beneath rose the bustle of the streets, perceptible only to Drake, upon the fourth floor, as a subterranean rumble. ‘London,’ he said to himself, ‘I live here,’ and laughed unappalled. Listening to the clamour, he remembered a map, seen somewhere in a railway guide, a map of England with the foreign cables, tiny spider-threads spun to the four quarters and thickening to a solid column at Falmouth and Cromer, the world’s arteries, he liked to think, converging to its heart.
The notion of messages flashing hourly along these wires brought to mind the existence of the _Meteor_. He sent out for a copy of each number which had appeared since he had begun his voyage, and commencing on the task whilst he was still at breakfast, read through every article written concerning the Boruwimi expedition. He finished the last in the smoking-room shortly after one o’clock, and rose from his investigation with every appearance of relief. From the first to the final paragraph, not so much as a mention of Gorley’s name!
The reason for his relief lay in a promise which he had sent to Gorley’s father, that he would suppress the trouble as far as he could; and Drake liked to keep his promises.
Gorley had come out to Matanga with a cloudy reputation winging close at his heels. There were rumours of dishonesty in the office of a private bank in Kent; his name became a sign for silence, and you were allowed to infer that Gorley’s relatives had made good the deficit and so avoided a criminal prosecution. It was not surprising, then, that Gorley, on hearing of Drake’s intended march to Boruwimi, should wish to take service under his command. He called upon Drake with that request, was confronted with the current story, and invited to disprove it. Gorley read his man shrewdly, and confessed the truth of the charge without an attempt at mitigation. He asked frankly for a place in the troop, the lowest, as his chance of redemption, or rather demanded it as a grace due from man to man. Drake was taken by his manner, noticed his build, which was tough and wiry, and conceded the request. Nor had he reason to regret his decision on the march out. Gorley showed himself alert, and vigilant, a favourite with the blacks, and obedient to his officers. He was advanced from duty to duty; a week before the force began its homeward march from Boruwimi he was sent out with a body of men to forage for provisions. Three days later a solitary negro rushed into camp, one of the few survivors of his tribe, he said. He told a story of food freely given, a village plundered and burned for thanks, of gold-dust stolen and the owners murdered that they might the better hold their tongues. He signified Gorley as the culprit. Drake, guided by the negro, marched towards the spot. He met Gorley and his company half-way between Boruwimi and the village, carried him along with him, and proved the story true. Against Gorley’s troops no charge could be sustained; they had only obeyed orders. But Gorley he court-martialled, and the result has been described.
This was the incident which Drake was unwilling to commit to the discretion of the editor of the _Meteor_. He had discovered Gorley’s relations in England, and had written to them a full account of the affair, despatching with his letter a copy of the evidence given at the court-martial. The reply came from the father, a heart-broken admission of the justice of Drake’s action, and a prayer that, for the sake of those of the family who still lived, Gorley’s crime should be as far as possible kept secret. Drake gave the promise. So far he had kept it, he realised, as he tossed aside the last copy of the _Meteor_.
At eight o’clock Sidney Mallinson arrived. He saw Drake at the top of the flight of steps in the vestibule, and hesitated, perceiving that he was alone.
‘Hasn’t Conway come?’ he asked. ‘I sent to him.’
‘Not yet. It’s barely eight.’
They shook hands limply and searched for topics of conversation.
‘You look older than you did,’ said Mallinson.
‘Ah! Ten years, you know. You haven’t changed much.’
Drake was looking at a face distinguished by considerable comeliness. The forehead, however, overhung the features beneath it and gave to a mouth and chin, which would otherwise have aroused no criticism, an appearance of irresolution. The one noticeable difference in Mallinson was the addition of an air of constraint. It was due partly to a question which had troubled him since he had received the invitation. Had Drake read _A Man of Influence_ and recognised himself?
‘I got your telegram,’ he said at length.
‘Naturally, or you wouldn’t be here.’
The answer was intended to be jocular; it sounded only _gauche_, as Drake recognised, and the laugh which accompanied it positively rude.
‘Shall I put my coat in the cloak-room?’ suggested Mallinson.
‘Oh yes, do!’ replied Drake. He was inclined to look upon the proposal as an inspiration, and his tone unfortunately betrayed his thought.
When Mallinson returned, he saw Conway entering the hotel. The latter looked younger by some years than either of his companions, so that, as the three men stood together at this moment, they might have been held to represent three separate decades.
‘Twenty minutes late, I’m afraid,’ said Conway, and he shook Drake’s hand with a genuine cordiality.
‘Five,’ said Drake, looking at his watch.
‘Twenty,’ replied Conway. ‘A quarter to, was the time Mallinson wired me.’
‘Was it?’ asked Mallinson, with a show of surprise. ‘I must have made a mistake.’
It occurred, however, to Drake that the mistake might have been purposely made from a prevision of the awkwardness of the meeting. The dinner, prefaced inauspiciously, failed to remove the awkwardness, since the reticence under which Drake and Mallinson laboured, gradually spread and enveloped Conway. A forced conversation of a curiously impersonal sort dragged from course to course. Absolute strangers would have exhibited less restraint; for the ghost of an old comradeship made the fourth at the feast and prated to them in exiguous voice of paths that had diverged. Drake noticed, besides, an undercurrent of antagonism between Conway and Mallinson. He inquired what each had been doing during his absence.
‘Mallinson,’ interposed Conway, ‘has been absorbed in the interesting study of his own personality.’
‘I am not certain that pursuit is not preferable to revolving unsuccessfully through a cycle of professions,’ said Mallinson in slow sarcasm.
The flush was upon Conway’s cheek now. He set his wine glass deliberately upon the table and leaned forward on an elbow.
‘My dear good Sidney,’ he began with elaborate affection, plainly intended as the sugar coating of an excessively unpleasant pill. Drake hastily interrupted with an anecdote of African experiences. It sounded bald and monstrously long, but it served its purpose as peace-maker. Literary acquisitiveness drew Mallinson on to ask for more of the same kind. Drake mentioned a race of pigmies and described them, speculating whether they might be considered the originals of the human race.
‘My dear fellow, don’t!’ said Mallinson; ‘I loathe hearing about them. It’s so degrading to us to think we sprang from them.’
The peculiar sensitiveness of a mind ever searching, burrowing in, and feeding upon itself struck a jarring note upon its healthier companion.
‘Why, what on earth does it matter?’ asked Drake.
‘Ah! Perhaps you wouldn’t understand.’
Conway gave a shrug of the shoulder and laughed to Drake across the table. The latter looked entreaty in reply and courageously started a different topic. He spoke of their boyhood in the suburb on the heights six miles to the south of London, and in particular of a certain hill, Elm-tree Hill they called it, a favourite goal for walks and the spot where the three had last met on the night before Drake left England. London had lain beneath it roped with lights.
‘The enchanted city,’ said Conway, catching back some flavour of those times. ‘It seemed distant as El Dorado, and as desirable.’
Mallinson responded with the gentle smile with which a man recognises and pities a childishness he has himself outgrown.
Drake ordered port, having great faith in its qualities, as inducive of a cat-like content and consequent good-fellowship. Mallinson, however, never touched port; nothing but the lightest of French burgundies after dinner for him. The party withdrew to the smoking-room.
‘By the way, Drake,’ asked Mallinson, ‘have you anything to do to-night?’
‘I was asked to take you to a sort of party.’
Conway looked up sharply in surprise.
‘You were asked to take me!’ exclaimed Drake. ‘Who asked you?’
‘Oh, nobody whom you know.’ He hesitated for a second, then added with studied carelessness, ‘A Miss Le Mesurier. Her mother’s dead,’ he explained, noticing the look of surprise on Drake’s face, ‘so she keeps house for her father. There’s an aunt to act as chaperon, but she doesn’t count. I got a note from Miss Le Mesurier just before I came here asking me to bring you.’
‘But what does she know of me?’
‘Oh, I may have mentioned your name,’ he explained indifferently, and Conway smiled.
‘Besides,’ said Conway, ‘the _Meteor_ has transformed you into a public character. One knows of your movements.’
‘What I don’t see is how Miss Le Mesurier could have known that you had landed yesterday,’ commented Mallinson.
‘I was interviewed by the _Meteor_ on Plymouth Quay. You received the note, you say, this evening. She may have seen the interview.’
Drake called to a waiter and ordered him to bring a copy of the paper. Conway took it and glanced at the first page.
‘Yes, here it is.’
He read a few lines to himself, and burst into a laugh.
‘Guess how it begins?’
‘I know,’ said Drake.
‘A sovereign you don’t.’
Drake laid a sovereign on the table. Conway followed his example.
‘It begins,’ said Drake, ‘with a Latin quotation, _O si sic omnes_!’
‘It begins,’ corrected Conway, pocketing the money, ‘with very downright English’; and he read, ‘Drake, with the casual indifference of the hardened filibuster, readily accorded an interview to our representative on landing from the _Dunrobin Castle_ yesterday afternoon!’
Drake snatched the paper out of Conway’s hand, and ran his eye down the column to see whether his words had been similarly transmuted by the editorial alchemy. They were printed, however, as they had been spoken, but interspersed with comments. The editor had contented himself with stamping his own device upon the coin; he had not tried to change its metal. Drake tossed the paper on one side. ‘The man goes vitriol-throwing with vinegar,’ he said.
Conway picked up the _Meteor_.
‘You are a captain, aren’t you?’ he asked. ‘The omission of the title presumes you a criminal.’
‘I don’t object to the omission,’ replied Drake. ‘I suppose the title belongs to me by right. But, after all, a captain in Matanga! There are more honourable titles.’
Mallinson looked at him suddenly, as though some fresh idea had shot into his brain.
‘Well, will you come?’ he asked carelessly.
‘I hardly feel inclined to move.’
‘I didn’t imagine you would.’ There was evidence of distinct relief in the brisk tone of Mallinson’s voice. He turned to Conway, ‘We ought to be starting, I fancy.’
‘I shall stay with Drake,’ Conway answered, despondently to Drake’s thinking, and he lapsed into silence after Mallinson’s departure, broken by intervals of ineffective sarcasm concerning women, ineffectively accentuated by short jerks of laughter. He roused himself in a while and carried Drake off to his club, where he found Hugh Fielding pulling his moustache over the _Meteor_. He introduced Drake, and left them together.
‘I was reading a list of your sins,’ said Fielding, and he waved the newspaper.
Drake laughed in reply.
‘The vivisectionists,’ said Fielding, ‘may cite you as proof of the painlessness of their work.’
‘It is my character that suffers the knife. I fancy the editor would prefer to call the operation a _post-mortem_.’
Fielding warmed to his new acquaintance. Whisky and potass helped them to discover common friends, about whom Fielding supplied information with a flavour of acid in his talk which commended him to Drake; it bit without malice. Mallinson’s name was mentioned.
‘You have read his autobiography?’ asked Fielding.
‘No; but I have read his novel.’
‘That’s what I mean. Most men wait till they have achieved a career before they write their autobiographies. He anticipates his. It’s rather characteristic of the man, I think.’
They drove from the club together in a hansom. Opposite to his rooms in St. James’s Street Fielding got out.
‘Good-night,’ he said, and took a step towards the door.
A lukewarm curiosity which had been stirring in Drake during the latter part of the evening prompted him to a question now that he saw the opportunity to satisfy it disappearing.
‘You know the Le Mesuriers?’ he asked.
Fielding laughed. ‘Already?’ he said.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Then you are not acquainted with the lady?’
‘No; that’s what I’m asking. What is Miss Le Mesurier like?’
‘She is more delightfully surprising than even I had imagined. Otherwise she’s difficult to describe; a bald enumeration of features would be rank injustice.’
Drake’s curiosity responded to the flick.
‘One might fit them together with a little trouble,’ he suggested.
‘The metaphor of a puzzle is not inapt,’ replied Fielding, as he opened his door. ‘Good-night!’ and he went in.
Half-way down Pall Mall Drake was smitten by a sudden impulse. The fog had cleared from the streets; he looked up at the sky. The night was moonless but starlit, and very clear. He lifted the trap, spoke to the cabman, and in a few minutes was driving southwards across Westminster Bridge.
It was the chance recollection of a phrase dropped by Conway during dinner which sent him in this untimely scurry to Elm-tree Hill. ‘As distant as El Dorado, and as desirable.’ The sentence limned with precision the impression which London used to produce upon Drake. The sight of it touched upon some single chord of fancy in a nature otherwise prosaic, of which the existence was unsuspected by his few companions and unrealised by himself.
Working in that tower which you could see from the summit of the Elm-tree Hill topping the sky-line to the west, in order to complete his education as an engineer before his meagre capital was exhausted, Drake had enjoyed little opportunity of acquiring knowledge of London; and those acquaintances of his who travelled thither with their shiny black bags every morning, seemed to him to know even less than he did. There were but two points of view from which the town was regarded in the suburb, and the inhabitants chose this view according to their sex. To the men London was a counting-house, and certainly some miles of yellow brick mansions and flashing glasshouses testified that the view was a profitable one. To the women it was the alluringly wicked abode of society, and they held their hands before their faces when they mentioned it, to hide their yearning. Occasionally they imagined they caught a glimpse into it, when a minister from one of the states in the Balkan Peninsula strayed down to shed a tallow-candle lustre over a garden party. To both these views Drake had listened with the air of a man listening to an impertinence, and his attitude towards the former view showed particularly the strength of the peculiar impression which London made on him, since he always placed the acquisition of a fortune as an aim before himself.
He thought of London, in fact, as a countryman might, with all a countryman’s sense of its mystery and romance, intensified in him by the daily sight of its domes and spires. He saw it clothed by the changing seasons, now ringed in green, now shrouded in white; on summer mornings, when it lay clearly defined like a finished model and the sun sparkled on the vanes, set the long lines of windows ablaze in the Houses of Parliament, and turned the river into a riband of polished steel; or, again, when the cupola of St. Paul’s and the Clock Tower at Westminster pierced upwards through a level of fog, as though hung in the mid-air; or when mists, shredded by a south wind, swirled and writhed about the rooftops until the city itself seemed to take fantastic shapes and melt to a substance no more solid than the mists themselves.
These pictures, deeply impressed upon him at the moment of actual vision, remained with Drake during the whole period of his absence, changing a little, no doubt, as his imagination more and more informed them, but losing nothing of vividness, rather indeed waxing in it with the gradual years. One may think of him as he marched on expeditions against hostile tribes, dwelling upon these recollections as upon the portrait of an inherited homestead. London, in fact, became to him a living motive, a determining factor in any choice of action. Whatsoever ambitions he nourished presumed London as their starting-point. It was then after all not very singular that on this first night of his return he should make a pilgrimage to the spot whence he had drawn such vital impressions. For a long time he stood looking down the grass slope ragged with brambles and stunted trees, and comprehending the whole lighted city in his glance.
On the way home his mind, which soon tired of a plunge into sentiment, reverted to the thought of Miss Le Mesurier, and he speculated unsuccessfully on the motive which had prompted her to send him so immediate an invitation. The enigmatic interest which she took in him, gave to him in fact a very definite interest in her. He wondered again what she was like. Fielding’s description helped to pique his curiosity. All that he knew of her was her surname, and he found it impossible to infer a face or even a figure from this grain of knowledge. By the time he reached the Grand Hotel, he was regretting that he had not accepted her invitation.
Drake repeated his question to Fielding two days later, after a dinner with Conway at his club, but in a tone of languid interest.
‘Why don’t you ask Mallinson?’ said Fielding. ‘He knows her better than I do.’
Conway contested the assertion with some heat.
‘Besides,’ added Drake, ‘his imagination may have been at work. About women, I prefer the estimate of a man of the world.’
The phrase was distasteful to a gentleman whose ambition it was to live and to be recognised as living within view of, but outside the world, say just above it in a placid atmosphere of his own creation. Fielding leaned back in his chair to mete out punishment, joining the finger-tips with an air of ordering a detailed statement.
‘The inhabitants of Sark,’ he began, ‘were from immemorial times notable not merely for their predatory instincts, but for the stay-at-home fashion in which they gave those instincts play. They did not scour the seas for their victims, neither did they till their island. There was no need for so much exertion. They lay supine upon their rocks and waited until a sail appeared above the horizon. Even then they did not stir till nightfall. But after it was dark, they lighted bonfires upon suitable promontories, especially towards Brecqhou and the Gouliot channel, where snags are numerous, and gathered in their harvest in the morning.
‘But,’ Drake interrupted, ‘what on earth has that to do with–‘
‘Miss Le Mesurier? A great deal, as you will see if you listen patiently. Lloyd’s at that time had not been invented, and the Sarkese were consequently unpopular with the trading community, and in the reign of Henry the–well, the particular Henry is immaterial–an irate band of merchants sailed from Winchelsea on a trip. They depopulated Sark in a single night, as they thought. But they were mistaken. One family escaped their attention,–the Le Mesuriers, who were the custodians of the silver mines–‘ At this point Conway broke in with an impatient laugh. Fielding turned a quiet eye upon him and repeated in an even voice, ‘Who were the custodians of the silver mines, and lived under the shelter of a little cliff close by the main shaft. When Helier de Carteret, who, you know,’ and he inclined suavely towards Conway, ‘was Seigneur of somewhere or other in Jersey, came a few years later to colonise Sark, he found the Le Mesuriers in possession, and while he confiscated the mines, he allowed them to retain their ancient dignity of custodians.’
‘Fudge!’ said Conway rudely. Fielding waved a deprecating hand and continued:
‘Living where they did, it is not to be wondered at that the Le Mesuriers became gradually rich, and the De Carterets gradually poor, so that when the latter family was compelled to place the Seigneurie of Sark upon the market, the Le Mesuriers were the highest bidders. The Le Mesuriers thus became Seigneurs of Sark. But with their position they reversed their conduct, and, instead of taking other people’s money out of mines, they put their own in, with the result that they sustained embarrassing losses. I mention these details incidentally to show that Miss Le Mesurier of to-day is directly descended from ancestors of predatory instincts, who did not go a-hunting for victims, but unobtrusively attracted them in a passive, lazy way which was none the less effectual.’
Conway’s patience was exhausted at this period of the disquisition.
‘I never heard such a hotch-potch of nonsense in my life,’ he said.
‘I admit,’ returned Fielding with unruffled complacency, ‘that I aimed at an allegory rather than a pedantic narrative of facts. I was endeavouring to explain Clarice Le Mesurier on the fashionable principle of heredity.’
It flashed across Drake that if Fielding had described, though with some exaggeration, an actual phase of Miss Le Mesurier’s character, she must have been driven to make the first advance towards his acquaintance by a motive of unusual urgency. The notion, however, did but flash and flicker out. He had no mental picture of the girl to fix her within his view; he knew not, in fact, whether she was girl or woman. She was to him just an abstraction, and Drake was seldom inclined for the study of abstractions. His curiosity might, perhaps, have been stronger had Mallinson related to him the way in which he had been received at the house of the Le Mesuriers after his dinner with Drake. When he arrived he found the guests staring hard at each other silently, with the vacant expression which comes of an effort to understand a recitation in a homely dialect from the north of the Tweed. He waited in the doorway and suddenly saw Miss Le Mesurier rise from an embrasure in the window and take half a step towards him. Then she paused and resumed her seat.
‘That’s because I come alone,’ he thought, and something more than his vanity was hurt.
The recitation reached its climax. Darby and Joan, quarrelling through nineteen stanzas as to whether they had been disturbed by a rat or a mouse, discovered in the twentieth that the animal was a ball of wool. The company sighed their relief in a murmur of thanks, and Mallinson crossed the room to the window.
‘And Captain Drake?’ Clarice asked as she gave him her hand. The disappointment in her voice irritated him, and he answered with a sharp petulance.
‘He’s not a captain really, you know.’
The girl glanced at him in surprise.
‘I mean,’ he went on, answering the glance, ‘Of course he held the rank over there. But a captain in Matanga!’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘There are more honourable titles.’
‘Still I asked you to bring him. You got my note, I suppose?’ Her manner signified a cold request for an explanation.
‘I couldn’t,’ he replied shortly.
‘You mean you did not think it worth while to take enough trouble to find him.’
‘No; that’s not the reason. In fact I dined with him to-night, but I saw that I couldn’t bring him here.’
‘Well, he’s changed.’
‘In what way?’
‘He has grown so hopelessly bourgeois.’
The epithet was a light to Clarice. She knew it for the superlative in Mallinson’s grammar of abuse. Bourgeois! The term was the palm of a hand squashed upon a lighted candle; it snuffed you out. Convicted of bourgeoisie, you ought to tinkle a bell for the rest of your life, or at the easiest be confined east of Temple Bar. Applied to Drake the word connoted animosity pure and simple, animosity suddenly conceived too, for it was not a week since Mallinson had been boasting of his friendship with the man. What was the reason of that animosity? Clarice lowered her eyelashes demurely and smiled.
‘I fancied he was your friend,’ she said with inquiring innocence.
‘I believe I remarked that he was changed.’ Mallinson looked up at a corner of the ceiling as he spoke, and the exasperation was more than ever pronounced in his voice.
‘Mr. Drake,’ she went on, and she laid the slightest possible emphasis on the prefix, ‘Mr. Drake has travelled among the natives a good deal, I think you told me?’
‘It’s funny that that should make a man bourgeois.’
Mallinson became flippant.
‘I am not so sure,’ he said. ‘The natives, I should think, are essentially bourgeois. They love beads, and that’s typical of the class. Evil communications, you know,’ and he laughed, but awkwardly and without merriment.
‘Really?’ asked Clarice, looking straight at him with grave eyes. She seemed to be seriously deliberating the truth of his remark. Mallinson’s laughter stopped short. ‘There’s my aunt beckoning to you,’ she said.
Later in the evening she relented towards him, salving her disappointment with the flattery of his jealousy. She did not, however, relinquish on that account her intention to make Stephen Drake’s acquaintance. She merely postponed it, trusting that the tides of accident would drift them together, as indeed they did, though after a longer delay than she had anticipated.
The occasion of their meeting was provided by the visit of a French actress to one of the London theatres. Drake and Conway edged into their stalls just before the curtain rose on a performance of _Frou-Frou_. During the first act the theatre gradually filled, and when the lights were turned up at its close only one box was empty. It was upon the first tier next to the stage. A few minutes after the second act had begun Conway nudged Drake and nodded towards the box.
‘You asked what Miss Le Mesurier was like. There’s your answer.’
Drake glanced in that direction. He saw a girl in a dress of pink silk, standing in the front of the box, with her hands upon the ledge and leaning her head a little forwards beyond it. The glare striking up from the stage beneath her gave a burnish of copper to her hair and a warm light to her face. She seemed of a fragile figure and with features regular and delicate. Drake received a notion of unimpressive prettiness and turned his attention to the stage. When the lights were raised again in the auditorium, he noticed that Fielding was in the box talking to a gentleman with white hair, and that Mallinson was seated by the side of Miss Le Mesurier. The latter couple were gazing about the house and apparently discussing the audience,–at all events conversing with considerable animation. Drake commented upon their manner and drew the conventional inference.
‘Oh dear, no!’ answered Conway energetically. ‘Of course Mallinson’s aim is apparent enough, poor fellow.’ A touch of scorn in the voice, which rang false, negatived the pity of the phrase. ‘But I don’t suppose for an instant that she has realised it. She would be the last to do so. No, she has a fad in her head about authors just for the moment.’
‘Oh!’ said Drake, turning with some interest to his companion. ‘Does that account for _A Man of Influence_?’
‘Yes,’ replied Conway reluctantly, ‘I fancy it does.’
‘I wondered what set him to writing.’
‘He was at the Bar when he met her. I believe she persuaded him to write the book and give up the Law.’
‘She is undertaking a pretty heavy responsibility.’
Conway looked at his friend and laughed.
‘I’m afraid you won’t find that she takes that view, nor indeed do I see why she should. Mallinson was doing no good–well, not much anyway–at the Bar. He has scored by following her advice. So if she ever had any responsibility, which I don’t admit, for there was no compulsion on him to obey, his luck has already wiped it out.’
‘I suppose the white-haired man’s her father,’ said Drake.
‘Yes. There’s another sister, but she’s at school in Brussels.’
‘How did you come across them?’
‘Mallinson and I met them one summer when we were taking a holiday at Sark.’
Drake caught the eye of a man who was passing the end of his row of stalls towards the saloon, and was beckoned out.
‘I will join you after the interval,’ he said, turning to Conway, and he saw that his companion was bowing to Miss Le Mesurier.
Miss Le Mesurier in her box noticed Drake’s movement, and she asked Mallinson, ‘Who is that speaking to Mr. Conway?’
Mallinson put up his glasses and looked. Clarice read recognition in a lift of eyebrows, and guessed from his hesitation to answer who it was that he recognised.
‘Well, who is it?’
‘Where?’ asked Mallinson, assuming an air of perplexity.
‘Where you were looking,’ said she quietly.
‘It’s Stephen Drake,’ interposed Fielding, and ‘Hulloa!’ he added in a voice of surprise as he observed the man whom Drake joined.
‘Drake! Stephen Drake!’ exclaimed Mr. Le Mesurier, leaning forward hurriedly. ‘Point him out to me, Fielding.’
The latter obeyed, and Mr. Le Mesurier watched Drake until he disappeared through the doorway, with what seemed to Mallinson a singular intentness. The father’s manner waked him to a suspicion that he might possibly have mistaken the daughter’s motive in seeking Drake’s acquaintance. Was it merely a whim, a fancy, strengthened to the point of activity by the sight of his name in print? Or was it something more? Was there some personal connection between Drake and the Le Mesuriers of which the former was in some way ignorant? He was still pondering the question when Clarice spoke to him.
‘So that was the bourgeois, was it?’ she said, bending forwards and almost whispering the words. Mallinson flushed.
‘Was it?’ he asked. ‘I can’t see. I am rather short-sighted.’
‘I begin to think you are.’
The sentence was spoken with an ironic sympathy which deepened the flush upon Mallinson’s cheek. A knock at the door offered him escape; he rose and admitted Conway. Conway was received with politeness by Mr. Le Mesurier, with cordiality by his daughter.
‘I have Drake with me,’ said Conway. ‘I came to ask permission, since you invited him to Beaufort Gardens, to introduce him after the next act.’
Mr. Le Mesurier started up in his chair.
‘Did you ask him to the house?’ he asked Clarice abruptly.
‘I asked Mr. Mallinson to bring him,’ she replied; and then, with all the appearance of a penitent anxiety, ‘Why? Oughtn’t I to have done so?’ she asked.
Mr. Le Mesurier cast a suspicious glance at his daughter.
‘I am so sorry,’ she said; ‘I didn’t know that–‘
‘Oh well,’ interrupted Mr. Le Mesurier hurriedly, ‘there’s no reason that I know of why you shouldn’t have asked him, except that it’s surely a trifle unusual, isn’t it? You don’t know him from Adam.’
‘But I assure you, Mr. Le Mesurier,’ interposed Conway, ‘there’s nothing to be said against Drake.’
‘Of course!’ replied Mr. Le Mesurier, with a testy laugh at the other’s warmth. ‘We know the length of your enthusiasms, my dear Conway. But I’ll grant all you like about Drake. I only say that my daughter isn’t even acquainted with the fellow.’
‘It is just that drawback which Mr. Conway proposes to remove,’ said Clarice demurely. ‘Of course,’ she went on, ‘I should never have thought of inviting him if Mr. Mallinson had not spoken of him so often as his friend.’ She directed her sweetest smile to Mallinson. ‘You did, didn’t you? Yes! Mr. Drake had been away from England for so long that I thought it would be only kind to ask you to bring him. But if I had known that papa had any objection, I should naturally never have done it. I am very sorry. Perhaps I am not careful enough.’ She ended her speech in a tone of self-reproach, which had its effect; for her father was roused by it to expostulate.
‘My dear,’ he said, ‘I never hinted that I had an objection to him. You are always twisting people’s words and imputing wrong meanings to them.’
Mallinson fancied that he detected a note of something more than mere remonstrance in Mr. Le Mesurier’s voice, a consciousness of some thought in his daughter’s mind which he would not openly acknowledge her to possess. The perception quickened Mallinson’s conjecture into a positive conviction. There was evidently some fact about Drake, some incident perhaps in his life which brought him into relations with the Le Mesuriers,–relations ignored by Drake, but known by Mr. Le Mesurier and suspected by Clarice. Was this fact to Drake’s advantage or discredit? The father’s manner indicated rather the latter; but Mallinson put that aside. It was more than overbalanced by the daughter’s–he sought for a word and chanced on ‘forwardness.’ His irritation against her prompted him to hug it, to stamp it on his thoughts of her with a jeer of ‘I have found you out.’ On the other hand, all his knowledge of her cried out against the word. He looked into the girl’s face to resolve his doubts upon the point and found that she was watching him with some perplexity. A question to Conway explained the reason why she was puzzled.
‘How did you know that I asked Mr. Drake to Beaufort Gardens?’ she asked.
‘I was present when Mallinson asked him to go.’
‘Mr. Mallinson asked him!’ she exclaimed, dropping her fan in her surprise. ‘Why, I thought–‘ She saw the confusion in Mallinson’s face and checked herself suddenly with a little laugh of pure enjoyment. Her companion’s jealousy was more heroical than she had given him credit for; it had induced him to lie.
To cover his discomfiture Mallinson dived for the fan.
‘Oh, don’t trouble,’ she said, sympathy shaping the words into a positive entreaty. ‘You are _so_ short-sighted, you know. Then you will bring Mr. Drake,’ she turned to Conway as he rose and moved towards the door. Mr. Le Mesurier had resumed his conversation with Fielding, and beyond a slight movement of impatience, he gave no sign that he had heard the words.
‘After the next act,’ said Conway, and he went out.
Mallinson picked up the fan and laid it upon the ledge of the box.
‘I lied to you that evening,’ he whispered in a low faltering tone. ‘I have no excuse–Can’t you guess why I lied?’
There was a feeling behind the words, genuine by the ring of it, and to feeling Clarice was by nature responsive. Mallinson saw the mischief die out of her face, the eyelids droop until the lashes touched the cheek. Then she raised them again, tenderness flowered in her eyes.
‘Perhaps,’ she said.
She turned from him and watched Conway making his way along the row of stalls. Drake was already in his seat.
‘Then why didn’t Mr. Drake come if you asked him?’ she said with a quick change of tone.
‘He gave no reason beyond that it was his first night in London.’
Miss Le Mesurier looked again at Drake. His indifference irritated her and in a measure interested her in spite of herself. She was not used to indifference, and felt a need to apologise for it to herself. ‘Of course,’ she reflected, ‘he had not seen me then,’ and so was reinstated in her self-esteem. The explanation, however, failed her the next moment. For Drake, at all events, had seen her now; she had caught him looking up into the box before Conway left. Yet when Conway communicated his news, Drake never so much as moved his head in her direction. The three blows of the mallet had just sounded from behind the curtain and he sat upright in his seat, his face fixed towards the stage. Clarice bit her lips and frowned.
‘Don’t be alarmed. He is really quite interested in you.’ She looked up. Fielding was standing just behind her shoulder. ‘He asked me quite often what you were like.’
‘I don’t understand you,’ said she loftily; and then, ‘He might be a schoolboy at his first pantomime.’
‘He gives that kind of impression, I believe, in everything he does.’
Miss Le Mesurier had not made the remark in order to elicit eulogy.
‘He looks old, though,’ she said, and her voice defied Fielding to contradict her.
‘Responsibility writes with the cyphers of age,’ he quoted solemnly. It was his habit to recite sentences from _A Man of Influence_ when Mallinson was present, in a tone which never burlesqued but somehow belittled the work. Mallinson was never able to take definite offence, but he was none the less invariably galled by it.
‘As a matter of fact there is hardly a year to choose between the ages of Drake, Conway, and you, Mallinson, is there?’ asked Fielding.
Mallinson admitted that the statement was correct.
‘He has lived a hard life, has anxieties enough now, I don’t doubt. You will find the explanation in that. The only people who remain young nowadays are actors. They keep the child in them.’
The curtain went up as he spoke. As soon as it was lowered again Conway hurried Drake out of the stalls and up the staircase to the box. Clarice welcomed Drake quietly. Mr. Le Mesurier vouchsafed him the curtest of nods.
‘Didn’t I see you join Israel Biedermann?’ asked Fielding. The name belonged to a speculator who had lately been raised into prominence by the clink of his millions.
‘Yes,’ replied Drake, with a laugh. ‘The city makes one acquainted with strange financiers. I have business with him.’
Mr. Le Mesurier showed symptoms of interest.
‘Really?’ he said. ‘You mean to return to Africa, I suppose.’
‘If I can help it, no.’
‘You intend to stay in England?’ asked Mallinson sharply.
‘Yes,’ replied Drake. He addressed himself to Miss Le Mesurier. ‘You were kind enough to invite me to your house on the evening I arrived.’
Mr. Le Mesurier’s eyebrows went up at the mention of the day.
‘Mr. Mallinson had talked of you,’ she explained. ‘We seemed to know you already. I saw that you had landed from an interview in the _Meteor_, and thought you might have liked to come with your friend.’
The words were spoken indifferently.
‘The _Meteor_?’ inquired Mr. Le Mesurier. ‘Isn’t that the paper which attacked you, Mr. Drake? You let yourself be interviewed by it? I didn’t know that.’
He glanced keenly at his daughter, and Mallinson intercepted the look. His conviction was proved certain. There was something concealed, something maybe worth his knowing.
‘The attack was of no importance,’ replied Drake, ‘but I wanted it to be known in some quarters that I had landed without losing time.’
‘You replied to the attack?’
‘Not so much that. I gave the itinerary of the march to Boruwimi.’
Mr. Le Mesurier perceived his daughter’s eyes quietly resting upon him, and checked a movement of impatience, less at the answer than at his own folly in provoking it. Drake turned to Clarice and was offered a seat by her side. He realised, now that she was near, talking to him, that his impression of her, gained from the distance between the box and the stalls, did her injustice. She seemed now the vignette of a beautiful woman, missing the stateliness, perhaps, too, the distinction, but obtaining by very reason of what she missed a counterbalancing charm, to be appreciated only at close quarters, a charm of the quiet kind, diffused about her like a light; winsome–that was the epithet he applied to her, and remained doubtfully content with it, for there was a gravity too.
Clarice invited him to speak of Matanga, but Drake was reticent on the subject, through sheer disinclination to talk about himself, a disinclination which the girl recognised, and gave him credit for, shooting a comparing glance at Mallinson.
Mr. Le Mesurier, it should be said, remarked this reticence as well, and it gave him an idea. From Matanga Drake led the conversation back to London, and they fell to discussing the play.
‘You are very interested in it,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ said he, ‘I have never seen the play before.’
‘I should hardly have thought it would have suited your taste,’ Conway observed.
‘Why? It’s French of course, but you can discount the sentiment. There is a stratum of truth left, don’t you think?’
Mallinson raised pitying shoulders. ‘Of the ABC order perhaps,’ he allowed.
‘I am afraid it appeals to me all the more on that account,’ Drake answered, with a genial laugh. ‘But what I meant really was truth to those people–truth to the characters presumed. Consistency is perhaps the better word. I like to see a play run on simple lines to an end you can’t but foresee. The taste’s barbarian, I don’t doubt.’
Miss Le Mesurier’s lips instinctively pouted a mischievous ‘bourgeois’ towards Mallinson. He remarked hastily that he thought the curtain was on the point of rising, and Miss Le Mesurier pushed her opera-glasses towards him with a serene ‘Not yet, I think.’ Mallinson understood the suggestion of her movement and relapsed into a sullen silence.
By the time that Conway and Drake rose to leave the box Mr. Le Mesurier had thought out his idea. His manner changed of a sudden to one of great cordiality; he expressed his pleasure at meeting Drake, and shook him by the hand, but destroyed the effect of his action through weakly revealing his diplomacy to his daughter by a triumphant glance at her.
At the close of the performance he met Drake in the vestibule of the theatre and lingered behind his party. Fielding, Mallinson, and Conway meanwhile saw Miss Le Mesurier into her carriage.
‘What in the world is papa doing?’ asked Clarice.
‘Exchanging cards with Drake,’ replied Fielding. Mallinson turned his head round quickly and beheld the two gentlemen affably shaking hands again. Conway bent into the carriage.
‘Do you like him?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes,’ she replied indifferently.
‘Then I am glad I introduced him to you,’ and some emphasis was laid upon the ‘I.’
Mr. Le Mesurier came out to the brougham and the coachman drove off.
‘I like that young fellow, Drake,’ he said, with a wave of the hand. ‘I have asked him to call.’
Clarice did not inform her diplomatic father that unless she had foreseen his intention she would have undertaken the discharge of that act of courtesy herself.
Mallinson took a hansom and drove straight from the theatre to his chambers in South Kensington, Conway walked off in the opposite direction, so that Drake and Fielding were left to stroll away together. They walked across Leicester Square towards St. James’s Street, each occupied with his own thoughts. Fielding’s were of an unusually stimulating kind; he foresaw the possibility of a very diverting comedy, to be played chiefly for his amusement and partly for Miss Le Mesurier’s, by Clarice herself, Drake, and Mallinson. From the clash of two natures so thoroughly different as those of the two men, played off against one another with all the delicate manipulation of Miss Le Mesurier’s experienced hand, there was much enjoyment to be anticipated for the purely disinterested spectator which he intended to be. Of the probable _denouement_ he formed no conception, and in fact avoided purposely any temptation to do so. He preferred that the play should unroll itself in a series of delightful surprises. The one question which he asked himself at this time was whether Drake might not decline to act his proper and assigned part. He glanced at him as they walked along. Drake looked thoughtful, and was certainly silent; both thought and silence were propitious signs. On the other hand, Drake had interests in the City, had them at heart too, and, worse still, had the City itself at heart.
Fielding recollected an answer he had made to Mallinson. The word ‘heart’ brought it to his mind. Mallinson was jeering at the journalist’s metaphor of the ‘throbbing heart’ as applied to London. ‘The phrase,’ Drake had said, ‘to me is significant of something more than cheap phraseology. I know that half a throb could create an earthquake in Matanga.’ What if the man’s established interest in this direction were to suppress his nascent interest in Clarice! Fielding immediately asked Drake what he thought of Miss Le Mesurier.
‘Oh!’ said the latter, palpably waking from reflections of quite another order, ‘I liked her,’ and he spoke of her looks.
‘She has the art of dressing well,’ corrected Fielding, disappointment spurring him to provoke advocacy of the lady. Drake, however, was indifferent to the correction.
‘I like her eyes,’ he said.
‘She is skilled in the use of them.’
‘I didn’t notice that. They seemed of the quiet kind.’
‘At need she can swing a wrecker’s light behind them.’
‘I like her hand too. It has the grip of a friend.’
‘A friend! Yes. There’s the pitfall.’
Drake only laughed. He was not to be persuaded to any strenuous defence, and Fielding felt inclined to harbour a grudge against him as needlessly a spoil-sport. Later on, however, when he was in bed it occurred to him that the play might still be performed, though upon different lines, and with a plot rather different from what he had imagined–his plot inverted, in fact. Clarice Le Mesurier, he remembered, had made the first advance to Drake. What if she for once in a while were to figure as the pursuer! That alternative would, perhaps, be the more diverting of the two. He must consult Mrs. Willoughby as to the effect which Drake’s bearing would produce on women–consult her cautiously, prudence warned him. Mrs. Willoughby, a cousin and friend of Miss Le Mesurier’s, was not of the sort to lend a helping hand in the game if the girl was to provide the sport–or indeed in the other event. The one essential thing, however, was that there should be a comedy, and he must see to it that there was one, with which reflection he drew the bed-clothes comfortably about him and went to sleep.
There was, however, one other condition equally essential to his enjoyment, but so apparently inevitable that he did not stop to consider it, namely, that Hugh Fielding should be a mere spectator. It did not occur to him at all that he might be drawn into an unwilling assumption of a part in his own play.
Mallinson on reaching home unlocked a little oak cabinet which hung against the wall beside his writing-table, and searched amongst a litter of newspaper cuttings and incomplete manuscripts. He unearthed at last a copy of the _Meteor_, bought between the Grand Hotel and Beaufort Gardens on the night of Drake’s dinner, and, drawing up a chair to the fire, he read through the interview again. The something to be known was gradually, he felt, shaping into a definite form; it had acquired locality this very evening, as he was assured by the recollection of a certain repressed movement upon Mr. Le Mesurier’s part at the mention of Boruwimi. Could he add to the knowledge by the help of the interview? Mr. Le Mesurier had not known of its publication until to-night, and so clearly had not read it; his knowledge was antedated. But on the other hand it was immediately after the perusal of the article that Clarice had sent through him her invitation to Drake.
Mallinson studied the article line by line, but without result.
He tossed the newspaper back into the cupboard, changed his coat, and sat down to his writing-table with a feverish impulse to work. He was unable to conceive it possible that Drake should be unaffected by Miss Le Mesurier’s attractions. The man was energetic, therefore a dangerous rival. Miss Le Mesurier, besides, seemed bent upon pitting Drake and himself against each other. Why? he asked. Well, whatever the reason, he had a chance of winning–more than a chance, he reflected, remembering a passage of tenderness that evening. His future was promising, if only he worked. Perhaps Clarice only ranged the two men opposite to one another in order to stimulate one of them; he reached an answer to his question ‘Why?’
The extravagances of a lover’s thoughts have often this much value: they disclose principles of his nature working at the formation of the man, and in Mallinson’s case they betrayed his habit of drawing the energy for application from externals, and from no sacred fire within.
He shut his door and worked for a month. At the end of the month, lying in bed at night and watching a planet visible through his window, he saw the ray of light between himself and the star divide into two, and the two beams describe outwards segments of a circle. He turned his face away for a few moments and then looked at the planet again. The phenomenon was repeated. He knew it for a trick of tired eyes and a warning to slacken his labours. On the next afternoon he called at Beaufort Gardens, and was received warmly by Clarice and her aunt.
There was a suggestion of reproach for his long absence in the former’s voice, and suggestion of reproach from her kindled him. He explained his plunge under surface on the ground of work. Details were immediately demanded, the plot of the new novel discussed and praised; there was flattery too in the diffident criticism of an incident here and there, and the sweetest foretaste of happiness in the joint rearrangement of the disputed chapter. Mallinson was lifted on a billow of confidence. He was of the type which adjusts itself to the opinions his company may have of him. Praise Mallinson and he deserved praises; ignore him and he sank like a plummet to depths of insignificance, conscious of insignificance and of nothing more except a dull rancour against the person who impressed the knowledge on him. That way Drake had offended unwittingly at the Grand Hotel; he had recognised no distinction between the Mallinson of to-day and the Mallinson of ten years ago.
Mallinson was asked to dinner on Friday of the next week.
‘Really,’ said the aunt after his departure, ‘he is very clever. I didn’t understand what he said, but he is very clever.’
‘Yes,’ said Clarice reflectively, ‘I suppose–I mean of course he is.’
She spoke in a tone of hesitation which surprised her auditor, for hitherto Clarice had been very certain as to her impressions on the point.
At dinner on the following Friday Mallinson was confronted by Conway and had Mrs. Willoughby upon his right. Mallinson liked Mrs. Willoughby, the widow of the black hair and blue eyes, now in the mauve stage of widowhood. She drew him out of the secretiveness within which he habitually barred himself, and he felt thankful to her for his prisoner’s hour of mid-day airing. Mrs. Willoughby spoke to Clarice, mentioning a private view of an exhibition of pictures at which she had seen Clarice.
‘Who was the cavalier?’ she added.
‘Mr. Drake,’ Clarice replied serenely. ‘I met him there by accident.’ Mrs. Willoughby looked puzzled, and repeated the name in an undertone.
‘You don’t know him, I think,’ Clarice went on. ‘He comes here. Papa asked him to call. Captain Drake, I suppose we ought to call him, but he has dropped the Captain.’
Mrs. Willoughby started and shot a bewildered glance at Mr. Le Mesurier.
‘I like the man very much,’ said Mr. Le Mesurier, with a touch of championship in his voice. ‘You should meet him. I am sure you would like him too.’
Mrs. Willoughby made no answer to the suggestion, and resumed her dinner in silence, while Conway sang his usual paean of praise. After a little she turned to Mallinson.
‘Do you know this Mr. Drake?’
‘Yes, we were boys together in the same suburb before he went to Africa. It was unfortunately through me that he was asked to this house. I had mentioned him as a friend of mine at one time, and Miss Le Mesurier invited me to bring him on the day he reached London.’
‘So soon as that! It’s funny Clarice never mentioned him to me. You, of course, told her the date of Mr. Drake’s arrival.’
‘No, she found that out from an interview in the _Meteor_.’
‘You read it?’
‘Yes. So you introduced him to Clarice?’
‘No. He did not come that night. Conway brought him up to Mr. Le Mesurier’s box when _Frou-Frou_ was being played a month ago.’
‘Never mind, we will talk of something else.’
Mrs. Willoughby had just observed Clarice. She was nodding assent to the words of her neighbour, but plainly lending an attentive ear to Mrs. Willoughby’s conversation. Mrs. Willoughby spoke of indifferent subjects until the ladies rose.
When Mallinson, however, entered the drawing-room, he perceived Mrs. Willoughby’s fan motioning him to attendance, and she took up the thread of her talk at the point where she had dropped it.
‘You said unfortunately.’
‘Well, you have read the _Meteor_.’
‘You endorse their view?’
‘From what I have seen of Drake since his return, yes.’
‘But if there’s anything in their charges, why doesn’t the Colonial Office move?’
‘The Colonial Office!’ Mallinson shrugged his shoulders. ‘You forget only natives and Arabs were killed in the Boruwimi expedition, and they don’t count. If he had killed a white man–What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing,’ said Mrs. Willoughby, recovering from a start; ‘an idea occurred to me, that’s all.’
For a moment Mrs. Willoughby seemed at a loss. Then she said, with a laugh:
‘If you will know, I was wondering whether your explanation covered all you meant by “unfortunately.”‘ She lowered her voice. ‘You can be frank with me.’
Mallinson was diverted by her assurance of sympathy, and launched out immediately into an elaborate history of the emotions which the friendliness of Miss Le Mesurier to Drake had set bubbling within him. Mr. Le Mesurier approached the pair before Mallinson had finished, and the latter hurriedly broke off.
‘Well,’ said Mr. Le Mesurier, ‘will you meet Mr. Drake, Constance, at lunch, say on Sunday?’
Mrs. Willoughby stared.
‘Do you mean that?’
‘Certainly.’ Mr. Le Mesurier was defiant. Mrs. Willoughby’s stare changed to a look of thoughtfulness.
‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t think I could.’ She moved away. Mallinson followed her.
‘You know something about Drake,’ he exclaimed, ‘something which would help me.’
‘That is hardly generous rivalry,’ she replied.
‘Does he deserve generosity?’ he asked, with a trace of cunning in his expression which Mrs. Willoughby found distasteful.
‘If I can help you,’ she answered evasively, ‘help you honourably, I will,’ and she turned away. Mallinson put out a hand to stop her.
‘I need help,’ he whispered. ‘There is a conspiracy to praise the man. You heard Conway at dinner. It’s the same with every one, from Mr. Le Mesurier to Fielding.’
‘Oh,’ she said, her voice kindling to an expression of interest, ‘does Mr. Fielding like him? He is fastidious too.’ She paused for a second in deliberation, her eyes searching the floor. Raising them, she perceived Mr. Le Mesurier coming towards her.
‘I claim our privilege,’ she said. ‘I will lunch on Sunday, and meet your paragon, after all.’
‘I am very glad,’ he said impressively. ‘Lunch at two.’
Mrs. Willoughby waited until he was out of ear-shot, and turned again to Mallinson.
‘It is best that I should see the man, and know something more of him than hearsay. Don’t you think so?’
A note of apology discounted the explanation. Mallinson understood that the reference to Fielding was the cause of her change of mind.
‘Do you value Fielding’s opinion?’ he asked.
‘Oh, I don’t know. On some subjects I think yes. Don’t you?’
Mallinson began to wonder immediately whether Fielding’s opinions might not be valuable after all, since Mrs. Willoughby valued them. If so, the man might be able to throw some light upon other points–for instance, the perplexing question of Miss Le Mesurier’s inclinations. Mallinson made up his mind to call upon Fielding. He called on the Sunday morning, and Fielding blandly related to him his history of Sark.
Having worked Mallinson to a sufficiently amusing pitch of indignation, and having hinted his moral that the subjugation of Miss Le Mesurier would be effected only by the raider, Fielding complacently dismissed him and repaired to Beaufort Gardens for lunch. He found Drake upon the doorstep with a hand upon the knocker, and the two gentlemen exchanged greetings.
‘I have just left Mallinson,’ said Fielding.
Drake’s hand fell from the knocker.
‘Tell me!’ he said. ‘Mallinson perplexes me in many ways. For instance, he shows me little good-will now–‘
‘Does that surprise you?’ Fielding interjected, with a laugh.
Drake coloured and replied quickly, ‘You didn’t let me finish. If he dislikes me, what made him talk about me as his friend to–to the Le Mesuriers before I returned to England?’
‘Your name in print. You verged on–well, notoriety. You may laugh, but that’s the reason. Mallinson’s always on the rack of other people’s opinions–judges himself by what he imagines to be their standard of him. Acquaintanceship with a celebrity lifts him in their eyes, he thinks, so really in his own.’
Drake remained doubtfully pondering what credit acquaintanceship with him could confer on any one. He was led back to his old view of Mallinson as a man tottering on a rickety base.
‘Will he do something great?’ he asked, his forehead puckered in an effort to calculate the qualities which make for greatness.
Fielding chuckled quietly, and answered:
‘Unlikely, I think. Clever, of course, the man is, but it is never the work he does that pleases him, but the pose after the work’s done. That’s fatal.’
Drake looked at Fielding curiously.
‘That’s a criticism which would never have occurred to me.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘We have five minutes. Shall we walk round the Gardens?’ Fielding chuckled again and assented. He saw the curtain rising on his comedy. For five minutes they paced up and down the pavement, with an interchange of simple questions on Drake’s part, and discriminating answers on Fielding’s–answers not wholly to encourage, but rather to promote a state of doubt, so much more interesting to the spectator.
When after the five minutes had elapsed they entered the house, they found that Mrs. Willoughby had arrived.
Clarice introduced Stephen Drake to Mrs. Willoughby. He saw a woman apparently in the early twenties, tall, with a broad white forehead, under masses of unruly black hair, and black eyebrows shadowing eyes of the colour of sea-shallows on an August morning. The eyes were hard, he noticed, and the lips pressed together; she bowed to him without a word. Hostility was evidently to be expected, and Drake wondered at this, for he knew Mrs. Willoughby to be Clarice’s chief friend and confidante. Mrs. Willoughby fired the first shot of the combat as soon as they had sat down to lunch. She spoke of unscrupulous cruelty shown by African explorers, and appealed to Drake for correction, she said, but her tone implied corroboration.
‘I have known cases,’ he admitted, ‘here and there. You can’t always prevent it. The pioneer in a new country doesn’t bring testimonials with him invariably. In fact, one case of the kind happened under my own eyes, I might almost say.’
Mrs. Willoughby seemed put out of countenance by Drake’s reply. She had plainly expected a strenuous denial of her statement. Drake caught a look of reproof which Mr. Le Mesurier directed towards her, and set it down to his host’s courtesy towards his guest. Clarice, however, noticed the look too.
‘Indeed,’ she said. ‘Tell us about it, Mr. Drake. It will be a change from our usual frock-coat conversation.’
Mr. Le Mesurier imposed the interdict of paternal authority.
‘I think, my dear, stories of that class are, as a rule, a trifle crude. Eh, Drake?’
Miss Le Mesurier on the instant became personified submission.
‘Of course, papa,’ she said, ‘if you have reason for believing the story isn’t suitable, I wouldn’t think of asking Mr. Drake to tell it.’
Mr. Le Mesurier raised his hands in a gesture of despair, and looked again at Mrs. Willoughby. His glance said, unmistakably, ‘Now see what you’ve done!’ Fielding broke into an open laugh; and Clarice haughtily asked him to explain the joke, so that the others present might share in his amusement.
‘I will,’ said Fielding. ‘In fact, I meant you to ask me to. I laughed, because I notice that whenever you are particularly obedient to Papa, then you are particularly resolved to have your own way.’
Miss Le Mesurier’s foot tapped under the table.
‘Of course,’ she said, with a withering shrug of her shoulders, ‘that’s wit, Mr. Fielding.’ Repartee was not her strong point.
‘No,’ he replied, ‘merely rudeness. And what’s the use of being a privileged friend of the family if you can’t be rude?’
Drake came to the rescue. ‘Mr. Le Mesurier is quite right,’ said he. ‘Incidents of the kind I mentioned are best left untold.’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ said Fielding. ‘A man loses all sight of humanitarian principles the moment he’s beyond view of a fireside.’
‘Oh, does he?’ replied Drake. ‘The man by the fireside is apt to confuse sentiment with humanitarian principles; and sentiment, I admit, you have to get rid of when you find yourself surrounded with savages.’
‘Exactly! You become assimilated with the savages, and retain only one link between yourself and civilisation.’
‘And that link?’
‘Is a Maxim gun.’
‘My dear fellow, that’s nonsense,’ Drake answered in some heat. ‘It’s easy enough to sit here and discuss humanitarian principles, but you need a pretty accurate knowledge of what they are, and what they are not, before you begin to apply them recklessly beyond the reach of civilisation. When I went first to Africa, I stayed for a time at Pretoria, and from Pretoria I went north in a pioneer company. You want to have been engaged in an expedition of that kind to quite appreciate what it means. We were on short rations a good part of the time, with a fair prospect of absolute starvation ahead, and doing forced marches all the while. When we camped of an evening, I have seen men who had eaten nothing since breakfast, and little enough then, just slip the saddles from the horses, and go fast asleep under the nearest tree, without bothering about their supper. Then, perhaps, an officer would shake them up, and they’d have to go collecting brushwood for fires. That’s a pretty bad business in the dark, when you’re dead tired with the day’s tramp. You don’t much care whether you pick up a snake or a stick of wood. I remember, too,’ and he gave a laugh at the recollection, ‘we used to be allowed about a thimbleful of brandy a day. Well, I have noticed men walk twenty yards away from the camps to drink their tot, for fear some one might jog their elbows. And it was only one mouthful after all–you didn’t need to water it. Altogether, that kind of expedition would be something considerably more than an average strain upon a man’s endurance, if it was led through a friendly country. But add to your difficulties the continual presence of an enemy, outnumbering you incalculably, always on the alert for you to slacken discipline for a second, and remember you are not marching to safety, but from it. The odds against you are increasing all the time, and that not for one or two days, but for eighty and a hundred. I can assure you, one would hear a great deal less of the harmlessness of the black, if more people had experienced that grisly hour before daybreak, when they generally make their attacks. Your whole force–it’s a mere handful–stands under arms at attention in the dark–and it can be dark on the veld, even in the open, on a starlight night. The veld seems to drink up and absorb the light, as though it was so much water trickling on the parched ground. There you stand! You have thrown out scouts to search the country round you, but you know for certain that half of them are nodding asleep in their saddles. For all you know, you may be surrounded on all sides. The strain of that hour of waiting grows so intense that you actually long to see the flash of a scout’s rifle, and so be certain they are coming, or to feel the ground shake under you, as they stamp their war-dance half a mile away. Their battle chant, too, makes an uncanny sound, when it swells across the veld in the night, but, upon my soul, you almost hear it with relief.’
Drake stopped and looked round upon faces fixed intently on his own, faces which mirrored his own absorption in his theme. There was one exception, however; Mrs. Willoughby sat back in her chair constraining herself to an attitude of indifference, and as Drake glanced at her, her lips seemed to be moving as though with the inward repetition of some word or phrase. Even Fielding was shaken out of his supermundane quietism.
For the first time he saw revealed the real quality in Drake; he saw visibly active that force of which, although it had lain hitherto latent, he had always felt the existence and understood why he had made friends so quickly, and compelled those friends so perpetually to count with him in their thoughts. It was not so much in the mere words that Drake expressed this quality as in the spirit which informed, the voice which launched them, and the looks which gave them point. His face flashed into mobility, enthusiasm dispelling its set habit of gravity, sloughing it, Fielding thought, or better still, burning through it as through a crust of lava; his eyes–eyes which listened, Fielding had not inaptly described them–now spoke, and spoke vigorously; enthusiasm, too, rode on his voice, deepening its tones–not enthusiasm of the febrile kind which sends the speech wavering up and down the scale, but enthusiasm with sobriety as its dominant note concentrated into a level flow of sound. His description had all the freshness of an immediate occurrence. Compared with the ordinary style of reminiscence it was the rose upon the tree to the dried leaves of a _potpourri_.
‘But,’ said Fielding, unconsciously resisting the influence which Drake exerted, ‘I thought you took a whole army of blacks with you on these expeditions?’
‘Not on the one I speak of. In Matanga a small force of them, yes! But even they were difficult to manage, and you could not depend upon them. They would desert at the first opportunity, sell their guns, your peace-offerings of brass rods, and whatever they could lay their hands on, and straggle behind in the dusk until they got lost. It was no use sending back for them in the morning. One would only have found their bones, and their bones pretty well scoured too. I speak of them as a class, of course. There were races loyal enough no doubt, the Zanzibari, for instance. But the difficulty with them was to prevent them fighting when there was no occasion. In fact the blacks who were loyal made up for their loyalty by a lack of common-sense.’
‘Cause and effect, I should be inclined to call the combination,’ remarked Fielding, ‘with the lack of common-sense as the cause.’
Mrs. Willoughby looked her gratitude across the table, and again her lips moved. Drake chanced to catch her eye, and in spite of herself she rippled to a laugh. She had been defending herself by a repetition of the editor’s comment of “filibuster.”
But at the same moment that Drake’s glance met hers she had just waked up to the humour of her conduct, and recognised it as a veritable child’s device. She could not but laugh, and, laughing there into the eyes of the man, she lost her hostility to him. However, Mrs. Willoughby made an effort to recover it.
‘Well, I don’t see,’ she said to Drake, ‘what right you have got to marching into other people’s countries even though they are black.’
‘Ah!’ Drake answered. ‘That’s precisely what I call, if I may say so, the fireside point of view. We obey a law of nature rather than claim a right. One can discuss the merits of a law of nature comfortably by a fireside. But out there one realises how academic the discussion is, one obeys it. The white man has always spread himself over the country of the black man, and we may take it he always will. He has the pioneer’s hankering after the uttermost corners of the earth, and in addition to that the desire to prosper. He obeys both motives; they are of the essence of him. Besides, if it comes to a question of abstract right, I am not sure we couldn’t set up a pretty good case. After all, a nation holds its country primarily to benefit itself, no doubt, but also in trust for the world; and the two things hang together. It benefits itself by observing that trust. Now the black man seals his country up, he doesn’t develop it. In the first place he doesn’t know how to, and in the second, if he did, he would forget as soon as he could. I suppose that it is impossible to estimate the extent of the good which the opening of Africa has done for an overcrowded continent like Europe; and what touches Europe touches the world, no doubt of that, is there? But I’m preaching,’ and he came abruptly to an end.
‘What I don’t understand,’ said Mr. Le Mesurier, and he voiced a question the others felt an impulse to ask, ‘is, how on earth you are content to settle down as a business man in the City?’
Drake retired into himself and replied with some diffidence: