She took to reading the Morte d’Arthur. Fielding found her with the book in her hand when he called, and commented on her choice.
‘There’s no romance in the world nowadays,’ she replied.
‘But there has been,’ he replied cheerfully; ‘lots.’
Clarice professed not to understand his meaning. He proceeded to tick off upon his ringers those particular instances in which he knew her to have had a share, and mentioned the names of the gentlemen. He omitted Drake’s, however, and Clarice noticed the omission. For the rest she listened quite patiently until he came to an end. Then she asked gravely, ‘Do you think that is quite a nice way to talk to a married woman?’
‘No,’ he admitted frankly, ‘I don’t.’ For a few minutes the conversation lagged.
This was, however, Fielding’s first visit since his home-coming, and Clarice yielded to certain promptings of curiosity.
‘I hardly expected you would be persuaded to go out to Africa, even by—any one,’ she concluded lamely.
‘Neither did I,’ he replied.
‘Did you enjoy it?’ she asked.
‘I went out a Remus, I return a Romulus.’
There were points in Clarice’s behaviour which never failed to excite Fielding’s admiration. Amongst these was a habit she possessed of staring steadily into the speaker’s face with all the appearance of complete absence of mind whenever an allusion was made which she did not understand, and then continuing the conversation as though the allusion had never been made. ‘Of course you had a companion,’ she said.
Fielding agreed that he had.
‘I have not seen him,’ she added.
‘No.’ Clarice was driven to name the companion. ‘You seem to have struck up a great friendship with Mr. Drake. I should hardly have thought that you would have found much in common.’
‘Arcades ambo, don’t you know?’
Clarice did not know, and being by this time exasperated, she showed that she did not. Fielding explained blandly, ‘We both drive the same pigs to the same market.’
Clarice laughed shortly, and stroked the cover of her Morte d’Arthur. ‘I suppose that’s just what friendship means nowadays?’
‘Between man and man—yes. Between woman and woman it’s different, and it’s, of course, different too between man and woman. But perhaps that’s best to be understood by means of its symbol,’ and he worked up to his climax of cold boiled mutton with complete satisfaction.
‘I gather, then, that you see nothing of Mrs. Willoughby now,’ said Clarice quietly as soon as he had stopped. Fielding was for the moment taken aback. It seemed to him that the point of view was unfair. ‘Widows,’ he replied with great sententiousness,—‘widows are different,’ and he took his leave without explaining wherein the difference lay. He wondered, however, if Clarice’s point of view had occurred to Mrs. Willoughby.
Fielding’s visit, and in particular his teasing reticence as to his stay in Matanga, had the effect of recalling Clarice’s thoughts to the subject of Stephen Drake. She recalled her old impression of him as one self-centred and self-sufficing, a man to whom nothing outside himself would make any tangible difference; but she recalled it without a trace of the apprehension with which it had been previously coupled. She began indeed to dwell upon that idea of him as upon something restful, and the idea was still prominent in her mind when, a little more than a week afterwards, Drake galloped up to her one morning as she was crossing the Park.
‘I have been meaning to call, Mrs. Mallinson,’ he said, ‘but the fact is, I have had no time. I only got back from Bentbridge last night.’
Clarice received a sudden and yet expected impression of freshness from him. ‘Papa told me you were going to stand,’ she replied. ‘You stayed with my uncle, Captain Le Mesurier, didn’t you?’
‘Yes. Funnily enough, I have met him before, although I didn’t know his name. He travelled in the carriage with me from Plymouth to London when I first landed in England.’
Clarice wondered what made him pause for a moment in the middle of the sentence. ‘Your chances are promising?’ she asked.
‘I can’t say yet. I have a Radical lord against me. Burl says there’s no opponent more dangerous. It will be a close fight, I think.’ He threw back his head and opened his chest. His voice rang with a vigorous enjoyment in the anticipation of a strenuous contest.
‘So you are glad to get back to London,’ she said.
‘Rather. I feel at home here, and only here—even in January.’ He looked across the Park with a laugh. It stretched away vacant and dull in the gray cheerlessness of a winter’s morning. ‘The place fascinates me; it turns me into a child, especially at night. I like the glitter of shops and gas-lamps, and the throng of people in the light of them. One understands what the Roman citizen felt. I like driving about the streets in a hansom. There are some one never gets tired of Oxford Street, for instance, and the turn out of Leicester Square into Coventry Street, with the blaze of Piccadilly Circus ahead. One hears that poets starve in London, and are happy; I can believe it. Well, I am keeping you from the shops, and myself from business.’
He shook hands with her and mounted his horse.
‘You have not yet seen my husband,’ she said, and she felt that she forced herself to speak the word.
‘Not yet. I must look him up. You live in Regent’s Park, don’t you?’
‘Close by. Will you come some evening and dine?’
The invitation was accepted, and Drake rode off. He rode well, Clarice noticed, and his horse was finely limbed and perfectly groomed. The perception of these details had its effect. She stood looking after him, then she turned slowly and made her way homewards across the Park. Two of her acquaintances passed her and lifted their hats, but she took no notice of them; she did not see them. A picture was fixed in her mind—a picture of a rolling plain, black as midnight, exhaling blackness, so that the air itself was black for some feet above the ground; and into this cool and quiet darkness the moonbeams plunged out of a fiery sky and were lost. They dropped, she fancied, after their long flight, to their appointed haven of repose.
The street door of her house gave on to a garden. Clarice walked along the pathway in front of the house towards the door of the hall. As she passed her husband’s study windows she glanced in. He was standing in front of the fireplace, tearing across some sheets of manuscript. Clarice hurried forwards. He was always tearing up manuscript. While she was upstairs taking off her hat she heard his door open and his voice complaining to the servants about some papers which had been mislaid. She felt inclined to take the servants’ part. After all, what was a man doing in the house all day? There was a dragging shuffle of his slippers upon the floor of the hall. The sound jarred on her. She pinned on her hat again, ran downstairs, gave orders that she would not be in for lunch, and drove at once to Mrs. Willoughby’s. She arrived in a state little short of hysterical.
‘Connie,’ she cried, almost before the servant who announced her was out of the room, ‘I know you don’t like me, but oh, I’m so unhappy!’
Mrs. Willoughby softened at sight of her evident distress. ‘Why, what’s the matter?’ she asked, and made her sit down beside her on the sofa.
‘It’s awful,’ she said, and repeated, ‘it’s awful.’
‘Yes, child, but what is?’ asked Mrs. Willoughby.
‘All is—I mean everything is,’ sobbed Clarice.
Mrs. Willoughby recognised that though the correction amended the grammar, it did not simplify the meaning. She pressed for something more precise.
‘Don’t be irritable, Connie,’ quavered Clarice, ‘because that’s just what Sidney is—and always. It’s so difficult to make you understand. But he’s just a lot of wires, and they keep twanging all day. He nags—there’s no other word for it—he nags about everything—the servants, his publishers, the dinner, and—oh!—oh!—why can’t he wear boots in the morning?’
The point of the question was lost on Mrs. Willoughby. She began to expostulate with Clarice for magnifying trifles.
‘Of course,’ replied Clarice, sitting up suddenly—she had been half lying on the sofa in Mrs. Willoughby’s arms—‘I know they are trifles; I know that. But make every day full of them, every day repeat them! Oh, it’s awful! I wonder I don’t break down!’ She turned again to Mrs. Willoughby, lapsing from vehemence to melancholy as the notion occurred to her. ‘Connie, I believe I shall—break down altogether. You know I’m not very strong.’ She put her arms about Mrs. Willoughby, and clung to her in the intensity of her self-compassion. ‘You can’t imagine the strain it is. And if that wasn’t enough, his mother comes up from Clapham and lectures me. I wouldn’t mind that, only she’s not very safe about her h’s, and she stops to dinner and talks about the nobility she’s had cooks from, to impress the servants. It’s so humiliating, to be lectured by any one like that.’
Mrs. Willoughby scented a fact. ‘But what does she lecture you about? The dinner?’ she asked, with an irrelevant recollection of Drake’s impression of Clarice as one little adapted for housewifely duties, and not rightly to be troubled by them.
‘Oh no. She says I don’t give Sidney the help he expected from me. But what more can I do? He has got me. Sidney says the same, too. He told me that he had never had so much difficulty to work properly as since we were married. And when his work doesn’t succeed I know he blames me for it. Oh, Connie! is it my fault? I think we had better get divorced—and I—I—c-c-can go into a convent, and never do anybody any more harm.’
Clarice glanced as she spoke down the neatest of morning frocks, and the mental picture which she straightway had of herself in a white-washed cell with iron bars, clad in shapeless black, her chin swathed, her face under eaves of starched linen, induced an excess of weeping.
For all her sympathy Mrs. Willoughby was forced to bite her lips. Clarice, however, was not in the mood to observe the effect which her words produced on others. She continued: ‘It’s much the best thing to do, because whatever I did it would always be the same. I could never make him content. Connie, if you only knew the strain of it all! He’s always wanting to be something different. One day a clerk, with a nice quiet routine, another a soldier, another a——’ she hesitated, and gave Constance an extra squeeze—‘a colonist, and fire off Maxim guns. If you could only see him! He sits in front of the fire, with his glasses on, and talks about the roaring world of things.’
This time Mrs. Willoughby really laughed. She turned the laugh into a cough, and cleared her throat emphatically once or twice. Clarice sat up and looked at her reproachfully, then she said, ‘I know it’s absurd. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself, b-b-but I usually cry. And then in his books he’s—he’s always his own hero.’ With that Clarice reached at once the climax of her distress and the supreme charge of her indictment. The rest was but sighs and sobs and disconnected phrases. Finally she fell asleep; later she was caressed into eating lunch, taken for a drive, and sent home subsequently greatly mollified and relieved.
Mrs. Willoughby refrained from tendering advice that afternoon. There was nothing sufficiently tangible in the story which she had heard. In fact the only thing really tangible was the girl’s distress in telling it, and that Mrs. Willoughby attributed to some dispute between her and Sidney that morning. She could not know that Clarice’s outburst had been preceded by that chance meeting in the Park with Stephen Drake, for Clarice had made no allusion to it of any kind. She felt, besides, that advice in any case would be of little use. The couple had to work out their own salvation, and time and experience alone could help them. Events seemed to justify Mrs. Willoughby’s reticence, for the winter blossomed into spring, the spring flowered into summer, and the Mallinson household remained to the external view unshaken.
Drake’s visits to Bentbridge increased in frequency as the prospect of the general election became more real. A snap vote in the House of Commons on a minor question of administrative expenditure decided the matter suddenly towards the end of June. The Government determined on a dissolution. Fielding took Clarice Mallinson into dinner at Mr. Le Mesurier’s house on the day after the date of the dissolution was fixed. He noticed that she looked worn. There were shadows about her eyes, her colour had lost its freshness, and there was a melancholy droop about the corners of her mouth. Fielding suggested the advisability of a change.
‘I’m to have one,’ said she. ‘I’m going down to stay with my uncle at Bentbridge in a week’s time.’
‘At Bentbridge?’ asked Fielding sharply. ‘For the election.’
She saw his lips tighten. ‘My husband goes with me,’ she replied quickly and stopped, flushing as she realised that she had meant and conveyed an apology.
‘I should have thought that the Continent would have been more advisable as a change.’
‘The Continent! I don’t want to travel far. I am so tired.’ She spoke in a tone of weariness which touched Fielding in spite of himself. He looked at her more closely. ‘Yes,’ he said gently, ‘you look very tired. You have been doing too much.’
‘No, it isn’t that,’ she replied. ‘One thinks of things, that’s all.’ She bent her head and was silent for a little, tracing a pattern on the table-cloth with a finger absently. Then she added in a low voice, ‘I suppose few women ever think at all until after they are married.’
The voice was low, and Fielding was conscious of something new in the tone of it, a deeper vibration, a sincerity different in kind from that surface frankness which he had always known in her. He wondered whether she had struck down from her pinchbeck sentimentality into something that rang solid in the depths of her nature. He looked at her again, her eyes were turned to his. With the shadows about them, they looked bigger, darker, more piteously appealing. She was no less a child to him, the child looked out of her eyes, sounded in the commonplace sentiment she had spoken, and the air of originality with which she had spoken it. But the child seemed beginning to learn the lesson of womanhood, and from the one mistress which could teach it her.
‘But why think then?’ he asked lightly. ‘It ruins a complexion no less than before. Or does a complexion cease to count? Look!’ He leaned forward. A pink carnation was in a glass in front of him, already withering from the heat. He touched the faded tips of the petals. ‘That is the colour which comes from thinking.’
Clarice lifted her shoulders with more of sadness than impatience in the gesture. ‘You believe,’ she said, ‘no woman at all has a right to dare to think.’
‘I notice,’ he answered with the same levity, ‘that the woman who thinks generally thinks of what she ought not to.’
Later, in the drawing-room, he looked for her again, and looked unsuccessfully. The window, however, was open, and he advanced to it. Clarice was on the balcony alone, her elbows on the rail, a hand on either side of her cheek. Something in her attitude made him almost pity her.
‘Mrs. Mallinson,’ he said, ‘you will probably think me intrusive, but do you think your visit really wise?’ Clarice turned towards him quickly with something of defiance in her manner. ‘You are tired,’ he went on, ‘you want rest. Well, an election isn’t a very restful time, even for the onlooker.’
Clarice did not reply for a moment, and when she did she replied with an impulsive frankness, to which his friendly tone had prompted her. ‘To tell you the truth, I am not anxious to go. I don’t want to, but Sidney wants to.’
‘You don’t believe me.’
‘Of course I do.’ He left her on the balcony, and went in search of Mallinson. ‘So you go to Bentbridge for the election,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ replied the other, lighting up. ‘I am looking forward to it like a schoolboy to a football match. The prospect of activity exhilarates me—bodily activity, don’t you know—a town humming with excitement.’
Fielding cut him short. ‘My dear fellow, you’re a damned fool,’ he said.