Book III
Chapter XV. Soolsby's Hand Upon the Curtain
 

Faith raised her eyes from the paper before her and poised her head meditatively.

"How long is it, friend, since--"

"Since he went to Egypt?"

"Nay, since thee--"

"Since I went to Mass?" he grumbled humorously.

She laughed whimsically. "Nay, then, since thee made the promise--"

"That I would drink no more till his return--ay, that was my bargain; till then and no longer! I am not to be held back then, unless I change my mind when I see him. Well, 'tis three years since--"

"Three years! Time hasn't flown. Is it not like an old memory, his living here in this house, Soolsby, and all that happened then?"

Soolsby looked at her over his glasses, resting his chin on the back of the chair he was caning, and his lips worked in and out with a suppressed smile.

"Time's got naught to do with you. He's afeard of you," he continued. "He lets you be."

"Friend, thee knows I am almost an old woman now." She made marks abstractedly upon the corner of a piece of paper. "Unless my hair turns grey presently I must bleach it, for 'twill seem improper it should remain so brown."

She smoothed it back with her hand. Try as she would to keep it trim after the manner of her people, it still waved loosely on her forehead and over her ears. And the grey bonnet she wore but added piquancy to its luxuriance, gave a sweet gravity to the demure beauty of the face it sheltered.

"I am thirty now," she murmured, with a sigh, and went on writing.

The old man's fingers moved quickly among the strips of cane, and, after a silence, without raising his head, he said: "Thirty, it means naught."

"To those without understanding," she rejoined drily.

"'Tis tough understanding why there's no wedding-ring on yonder finger. There's been many a man that's wanted it, that's true--the Squire's son from Bridgley, the lord of Axwood Manor, the long soldier from Shipley Wood, and doctors, and such folk aplenty. There's where understanding fails."

Faith's face flushed, then it became pale, and her eyes, suffused, dropped upon the paper before her. At first it seemed as though she must resent his boldness; but she had made a friend of him these years past, and she knew he meant no rudeness. In the past they had talked of things deeper and more intimate still. Yet there was that in his words which touched a sensitive corner of her nature.

"Why should I be marrying?" she asked presently. "There was my sister's son all those years. I had to care for him."

"Ay, older than him by a thimbleful!" he rejoined.

"Nay, till he came to live in this hut alone older by many a year. Since then he is older than me by fifty. I had not thought of marriage before he went away. Squire's son, soldier, or pillman, what were they to me! He needed me. They came, did they? Well, and if they came?"

"And since the Egyptian went?"

A sort of sob came into her throat. "He does not need me, but he may--he will one day; and then I shall be ready. But now--"

Old Soolsby's face turned away. His house overlooked every house in the valley beneath: he could see nearly every garden; he could even recognise many in the far streets. Besides, there hung along two nails on the wall a telescope, relic of days when he sailed the main. The grounds of the Cloistered House and the fruit-decked garden-wall of the Red Mansion were ever within his vision. Once, twice, thrice, he had seen what he had seen, and dark feelings, harsh emotions, had been roused in him.

"He will need us both--the Egyptian will need us both one day," he answered now; "you more than any, me because I can help him, too--ay, I can help him. But married or single you could help him; so why waste your days here?"

"Is it wasting my days to stay with my father? He is lonely, most lonely since our Davy went away; and troubled, too, for the dangers of that life yonder. His voice used to shake when he prayed, in those days when Davy was away in the desert, down at Darfur and elsewhere among the rebel tribes. He frightened me then, he was so stern and still. Ah, but that day when we knew he was safe, I was eighteen, and no more!" she added, smiling. "But, think you, I could marry while my life is so tied to him and to our Egyptian?"

No one looking at her limpid, shining blue eyes but would have set her down for twenty-three or twenty-four, for not a line showed on her smooth face; she was exquisite of limb and feature, and had the lissomeness of a girl of fifteen. There was in her eyes, however, an unquiet sadness; she had abstracted moments when her mind seemed fixed on some vexing problem. Such a mood suddenly came upon her now. The pen lay by the paper untouched, her hands folded in her lap, and a long silence fell upon them, broken only by the twanging of the strips of cane in Soolsby's hands. At last, however, even this sound ceased; and the two scarce moved as the sun drew towards the middle afternoon. At last they were roused by the sound of a horn, and, looking down, they saw a four-in-hand drawing smartly down the road to the village over the gorse-spread common, till it stopped at the Cloistered House. As Faith looked, her face slightly flushed. She bent forward till she saw one figure get down and, waving a hand to the party on the coach as it moved on, disappear into the gateway of the Cloistered House.

"What is the office they have given him?" asked Soolsby, disapproval in his tone, his eyes fixed on the disappearing figure.

"They have made Lord Eglington Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs," she answered.

"And what means that to a common mind?"

"That what his Government does in Egypt will mean good or bad to our Egyptian," she returned.

"That he can do our man good or ill?" Soolsby asked sharply--"that he, yonder, can do that?"

She inclined her head.

"When I see him doing ill--well, when I see him doing that"--he snatched up a piece of wood from the floor--"then I will break him, so!"

He snapped the stick across his knee, and threw the pieces on the ground. He was excited. He got to his feet and walked up and down the little room, his lips shut tight, his round eyes flaring.

Faith watched him in astonishment. In the past she had seen his face cloud over, his eyes grow sulky, at the mention of Lord Eglington's name; she knew that Soolsby hated him; but his aversion now was more definite and violent than he had before shown, save on that night long ago when David went first to Egypt, and she had heard hard words between them in this same hut. She supposed it one of those antipathies which often grow in inverse ratio to the social position of those concerned. She replied in a soothing voice:

"Then we shall hope that he will do our Davy only good."

"You would not wish me to break his lordship? You would not wish it?" He came over to her, and looked sharply at her. "You would not wish it?" he repeated meaningly.

She evaded his question. "Lord Eglington will be a great man one day perhaps," she answered. "He has made his way quickly. How high he has climbed in three years--how high!"

Soolsby's anger was not lessened. "Pooh! Pooh! He is an Earl. An Earl has all with him at the start--name, place, and all. But look at our Egyptian! Look at Egyptian David--what had he but his head and an honest mind? What is he? He is the great man of Egypt. Tell me, who helped Egyptian David? That second-best lordship yonder, he crept about coaxing this one and wheedling that. I know him--I know him. He wheedles and wheedles. No matter whether 'tis a babe or an old woman, he'll talk, and talk, and talk, till they believe in him, poor folks! No one's too small for his net. There's Martha Higham yonder. She's forty five. If he sees her, as sure as eggs he'll make love to her, and fill her ears with words she'd never heard before, and 'd never hear at all if not from him. Ay, there's no man too sour and no woman too old that he'll not blandish, if he gets the chance."

As he spoke Faith shut her eyes, and her fingers clasped tightly together--beautiful long, tapering fingers, like those in Romney's pictures. When he stopped, her eyes opened slowly, and she gazed before her down towards that garden by the Red Mansion where her lifetime had been spent.

"Thee says hard words, Soolsby," she rejoined gently. "But maybe thee is right." Then a flash of humour passed over her face. "Suppose we ask Martha Higham if the Earl has 'blandished' her. If the Earl has blandished Martha, he is the very captain of deceit. Why, he has himself but twenty-eight years. Will a man speak so to one older than himself, save in mockery? So, if thee is right in this, then--then if he speak well to deceive and to serve his turn, he will also speak ill; and he will do ill when it may serve his turn; and so he may do our Davy ill, as thee says, Soolsby."

She rose to her feet and made as if to go, but she kept her face from him. Presently, however, she turned and looked at him. "If he does ill to Davy, there will be those like thee, Soolsby, who will not spare him."

His fingers opened and shut maliciously, he nodded dour assent. After an instant, while he watched her, she added: "Thee has not heard my lord is to marry?"

"Marry--who is the blind lass?"

"Her name is Maryon, Miss Hylda Maryon: and she has a great fortune. But within a month it is to be."

"Thee remembers the woman of the cross-roads, her that our Davy--"

"Her the Egyptian kissed, and put his watch in her belt--ay, Kate Heaver!"

"She is now maid to her Lord Eglington will wed. She is to spend to-night with us."

"Where is her lad that was, that the Egyptian rolled like dough in a trough?"

"Jasper Kimber? He is at Sheffield. He has been up and down, now sober for a year, now drunken for a month, now in, now out of a place, until this past year. But for this whole year he has been sober, and he may keep his pledge. He is working in the trades-unions. Among his fellow- workers he is called a politician--if loud speaking and boasting can make one. Yet if these doings give him stimulant instead of drink, who shall complain?"

Soolsby's head was down. He was looking out over the far hills, while the strips of cane were idle in his hands. "Ay, 'tis true--'tis true," he nodded. "Give a man an idee which keeps him cogitating, makes him think he's greater than he is, and sets his pulses beating, why, that's the cure to drink. Drink is friendship and good company and big thoughts while it lasts; and it's lonely without it, if you've been used to it. Ay, but Kimber's way is best. Get an idee in your noddle, to do a thing that's more to you than work or food or bed, and 'twill be more than drink, too."

He nodded to himself, then began weaving the strips of cane furiously. Presently he stopped again, and threw his head back with a chuckle. "Now, wouldn't it be a joke, a reg'lar first-class joke, if Kimber and me both had the same idee, if we was both workin' for the same thing-- an' didn't know it? I reckon it might be so."

"What end is thee working for, friend? If the public prints speak true, Kimber is working to stand for Parliament against Lord Eglington."

Soolsby grunted and laughed in his throat. "Now, is that the game of Mister Kimber? Against my Lord Eglington! Hey, but that's a joke, my lord!"

"And what is thee working for, Soolsby?"

"What do I be working for? To get the Egyptian back to England--what else?"

"That is no joke."

"Ay, but 'tis a joke." The old man chuckled. "'Tis the best joke in the boilin'." He shook his head and moved his body backwards and forwards with glee. "Me and Kimber! Me and Kimber!" he roared, "and neither of us drunk for a year--not drunk for a whole year. Me and Kimber--and him!"

Faith put her hand on his shoulder. "Indeed, I see no joke, but only that which makes my heart thankful, Soolsby."

"Ay, you will be thankful, you will be thankful, by-and-by," he said, still chuckling, and stood up respectfully to show her out.