The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XVI. The Debt and the Accounting
His forehead frowning, but his eyes full of friendliness, Soolsby watched Faith go down the hillside and until she reached the main road. Here, instead of going to the Red Mansion, she hesitated a moment, and then passed along a wooded path leading to the Meetinghouse, and the graveyard. It was a perfect day of early summer, the gorse was in full bloom, and the may and the hawthorn were alive with colour. The path she had taken led through a narrow lane, overhung with blossoms and greenery. By bearing away to the left into another path, and making a detour, she could reach the Meeting-house through a narrow lane leading past a now disused mill and a small, strong stream flowing from the hill above.
As she came down the hill, other eyes than Soolsby's watched her. From his laboratory--the laboratory in which his father had worked, in which he had lost his life--Eglington had seen the trim, graceful figure. He watched it till it moved into the wooded path. Then he left his garden, and, moving across a field, came into the path ahead of her. Walking swiftly, he reached the old mill, and waited.
She came slowly, now and again stooping to pick a flower and place it in her belt. Her bonnet was slung on her arm, her hair had broken a little loose and made a sort of hood round the face, so still, so composed, into which the light of steady, soft, apprehending eyes threw a gentle radiance. It was a face to haunt a man when the storm of life was round him. It had, too, a courage which might easily become a delicate stubbornness, a sense of duty which might become sternness, if roused by a sense of wrong to herself or others.
She reached the mill and stood and listened towards the stream and the waterfall. She came here often. The scene quieted her in moods of restlessness which came from a feeling that her mission was interrupted, that half her life's work had been suddenly taken from her. When David went, her life had seemed to shrivel; for with him she had developed as he had developed; and when her busy care of him was withdrawn, she had felt a sort of paralysis which, in a sense, had never left her. Then suitors had come--the soldier from Shipley Wood, the lord of Axwood Manor, and others, and, in a way, a new sense was born in her, though she was alive to the fact that the fifteen thousand pounds inherited from her Uncle Benn had served to warm the air about her into a wider circle. Yet it was neither to soldier, nor squire, nor civil engineer, nor surgeon that the new sense stirring in her was due. The spring was too far beneath to be found by them.
When, at last, she raised her head, Lord Eglington was in the path, looking at her with a half-smile. She did not start, but her face turned white, and a mist came before her eyes.
Quickly, however, as though fearful lest he should think he could trouble her composure, she laid a hand upon herself.
He came near to her and held out his hand. "It has been a long six months since we met here," he said.
She made no motion to take his hand. "I find days grow shorter as I grow older," she rejoined steadily, and smoothed her hair with her hand, making ready to put on her bonnet.
"Ah, do not put it on," he urged quickly, with a gesture. "It becomes you so--on your arm."
She had regained her self-possession. Pride, the best weapon of a woman, the best tonic, came to her resource. "Thee loves to please thee at any cost," she replied. She fastened the grey strings beneath her chin.
"Would it be costly to keep the bonnet on your arm?"
"It is my pleasure to have it on my head, and my pleasure has some value to myself."
"A moment ago," he rejoined laughing, "it was your pleasure to have it on your arm."
"Are all to be monotonous except Lord Eglington? Is he to have the only patent of change?"
"Do I change?" He smiled at her with a sense of inquisition, with an air that seemed to say, "I have lifted the veil of this woman's heart; I am the master of the situation."
She did not answer to the obvious meaning of his words, but said:
"Thee has done little else but change, so far as eye can see. Thee and thy family were once of Quaker faith, but thee is a High Churchman now. Yet they said a year ago thee was a sceptic or an infidel."
"There is force in what you say," he replied. "I have an inquiring mind; I am ever open to reason. Confucius said: 'It is only the supremely wise or the deeply ignorant who never alter.'"
"Thee has changed politics. Thee made a 'sensation, but that was not enough. Thee that was a rebel became a deserter."
He laughed. "Ah, I was open to conviction! I took my life in my hands, defied consequences." He laughed again.
"It brought office."
"I am Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs," he murmured complacently.
"Change is a policy with thee, I think. It has paid thee well, so it would seem."
"Only a fair rate of interest for the capital invested and the risks I've taken," he answered with an amused look.
"I do not think that interest will increase. Thee has climbed quickly, but fast climbing is not always safe climbing."
His mood changed. His voice quickened, his face lowered. "You think I will fail? You wish me to fail?"
"In so far as thee acts uprightly, I wish thee well. But if, out of office, thee disregards justice and conscience and the rights of others, can thee be just and faithful in office? Subtlety will not always avail. The strong man takes the straight course. Subtlety is not intellect."
He flushed. She had gone to the weakest point in his defences. His vanity was being hurt. She had an advantage now.
"You are wrong," he protested. "You do not understand public life, here in a silly Quaker village."
"Does thee think that all that happens in 'public life' is of consequence? That is not sensible. Thee is in the midst of a thousand immaterial things, though they have importance for the moment. But the chief things that matter to all, does thee not know that a 'silly Quaker village' may realise them to the full--more fully because we see them apart from the thousand little things that do not matter? I remember a thing in political life that mattered. It was at Heddington after the massacre at Damascus. Does thee think that we did not know thee spoke without principle then, and only to draw notice?"
"You would make me into a demagogue," he said irritably.
"Thee is a demagogue," she answered candidly.
"Why did you never say all this to me long ago? Years have passed since then, and since then you and I have--have been friends. You have--"
He paused, for she made a protesting motion, and a fire sprang into her eyes. Her voice got colder. "Thee made me believe--ah, how many times did we speak together? Six times it was, not more. Thee made me believe that what I thought or said helped thee to see things better. Thee said I saw things truly like a child, with the wisdom of a woman. Thee remembers that?"
"It was so," he put in hastily.
"No, not for a moment so, though I was blinded to think for an instant that it was. Thee subtly took the one way which could have made me listen to thee. Thee wanted help, thee said; and if a word of mine could help thee now and then, should I withhold it, so long as I thought thee honest?"
"Do you think I was not honest in wanting your friendship?"
"Nay, it was not friendship thee wanted, for friendship means a giving and a getting. Thee was bent on getting what was, indeed, of but little value save to the giver; but thee gave nothing; thee remembered nothing of what was given thee."
"It is not so, it is not so," he urged eagerly, nervously. "I gave, and I still give."
"In those old days, I did not understand," she went on, "what it was thee wanted. I know now. It was to know the heart and mind of a woman--of a woman older than thee. So that thee should have such sort of experience, though I was but a foolish choice of the experiment. They say thee has a gift for chemistry like thy father; but if thee experiments no more wisely in the laboratory than with me, thee will not reach distinction."
"Your father hated my father and did not believe in him, I know not why, and you are now hating and disbelieving me."
"I do not know why my father held the late Earl in abhorrence; I know he has no faith in thee; and I did ill in listening to thee, in believing for one moment there was truth in thee. But no, no, I think I never believed it. I think that even when thee said most, at heart I believed least."
"You doubt that? You doubt all I said to you?" he urged softly, coming close to her.
She drew aside slightly. She had steeled herself for this inevitable interview, and there was no weakening of her defences; but a great sadness came into her eyes, and spread over her face, and to this was added, after a moment, a pity which showed the distance she was from him, the safety in which she stood.
"I remember that the garden was beautiful, and that thee spoke as though thee was part of the garden. Thee remembers that, at our meeting in the Cloistered House, when the woman was ill, I had no faith in thee; but thee spoke with grace, and turned common things round about, so that they seemed different to the ear from any past hearing; and I listened. I did not know, and I do not know now, why it is my duty to shun any of thy name, and above all thyself; but it has been so commanded by my father all my life; and though what he says may be in a little wrong, in much it must ever be right."
"And so, from a hatred handed down, your mind has been tuned to shun even when your heart was learning to give me a home--Faith?"
She straightened herself. "Friend, thee will do me the courtesy to forget to use my Christian name. I am not a child-indeed, I am well on in years"--he smiled--"and thee has no friendship or kinship for warrant. If my mind was tuned to shun thee, I gave proof that it was willing to take thee at thine own worth, even against the will of my father, against the desire of David, who knew thee better than I--he gauged thee at first glance."
"You have become a philosopher and a statesman," he said ironically. "Has your nephew, the new Joseph in Egypt, been giving you instructions in high politics? Has he been writing the Epistles of David to the Quakers?"
"Thee will leave his name apart," she answered with dignity. "I have studied neither high politics nor statesmanship, though in the days when thee did flatter me thee said I had a gift for such things. Thee did not speak the truth. And now I will say that I do not respect thee. No matter how high thee may climb, still I shall not respect thee; for thee will ever gain ends by flattery, by subtlety, and by using every man and every woman for selfish ends. Thee cannot be true-not even to that which by nature is greatest in thee.".
He withered under her words.
"And what is greatest in me?" he asked abruptly, his coolness and self- possession striving to hold their own.
"That which will ruin thee in the end." Her eyes looked beyond his into the distance, rapt and shining; she seemed scarcely aware of his presence. "That which will bring thee down--thy hungry spirit of discovery. It will serve thee no better than it served the late Earl. But thee it will lead into paths ending in a gulf of darkness."
"Deborah!" he answered, with a rasping laugh. "Continuez! Forewarned is forearmed."
"No, do not think I shall be glad," she answered, still like one in a dream. "I shall lament it as I lament--as I lament now. All else fades away into the end which I see for thee. Thee will live alone without a near and true friend, and thee will die alone, never having had a true friend. Thee will never be a true friend, thee will never love truly man or woman, and thee will never find man or woman who will love thee truly, or will be with thee to aid thee in the dark and falling days."
"Then," he broke in sharply, querulously, "then, I will stand alone. I shall never come whining that I have been ill-used, to fate or fortune, to men or to the Almighty."
"That I believe. Pride will build up in thee a strength which will be like water in the end. Oh, my lord," she added, with a sudden change in her voice and manner, "if thee could only be true--thee who never has been true to any one!"
"Why does a woman always judge a man after her own personal experience with him, or what she thinks is her own personal experience?"
A robin hopped upon the path before her. She watched it for a moment intently, then lifted her head as the sound of a bell came through the wood to her. She looked up at the sun, which was slanting towards evening. She seemed about to speak, but with second thought, moved on slowly past the mill and towards the Meeting-house. He stepped on beside her. She kept her eyes fixed in front of her, as though oblivious of his presence.
"You shall hear me speak. You shall listen to what I have to say, though it is for the last time," he urged stubbornly. "You think ill of me. Are you sure you are not pharisaical?"
"I am honest enough to say that which hurts me in the saying. I do not forget that to believe thee what I think is to take all truth from what thee said to me last year, and again this spring when the tulips first came and there was good news from Egypt."
"I said," he rejoined boldly, "that I was happier with you than with any one else alive. I said that what you thought of me meant more to me than what any one else in the world thought; and that I say now, and will always say it."
The old look of pity came into her face. "I am older than thee by two years," she answered quaintly, "and I know more of real life, though I have lived always here. I have made the most of the little I have seen; thee has made little of the much that thee has seen. Thee does not know the truth concerning thee. Is it not, in truth, vanity which would have me believe in thee? If thee was happier with me than with any one alive, why then did thee make choice of a wife even in the days thee was speaking to me as no man shall ever speak again? Nothing can explain so base a fact. No, no, no, thee said to me what thee said to others, and will say again without shame. But--but see, I will forgive; yes, I will follow thee with good wishes, if thee will promise to help David, whom thee has ever disliked, as, in the place held by thee, thee can do now. Will thee offer this one proof, in spite of all else that disproves, that thee spoke any words of truth to me in the Cloistered House, in the garden by my father's house, by yonder mill, and hard by the Meeting-house yonder-near to my sister's grave by the willow-tree? Will thee do that for me?"
He was about to reply, when there appeared in the path before them Luke Claridge. His back was upon them, but he heard their footsteps and swung round. As though turned to stone, he waited for them. As they approached, his lips, dry and pale, essayed to speak, but no sound came. A fire was in his eyes which boded no good. Amazement, horror, deadly anger, were all there, but, after a moment, the will behind the tumult commanded it, the wild light died away, and he stood calm and still awaiting them. Faith was as pale as when she had met Eglington. As she came nearer, Luke Claridge said, in a low voice:
"How do I find thee in this company, Faith?" There was reproach unutterable in his voice, in his face. He seemed humiliated and shamed, though all the while a violent spirit in him was struggling for the mastery.
"As I came this way to visit my sister's grave I met my lord by the mill. He spoke to me, and, as I wished a favour of him, I walked with him thither--but a little way. I was going to visit my sister's grave."
"Thy sister's grave!" The fire flamed up again, but the masterful will chilled it down, and he answered: "What secret business can thee have with any of that name which I have cast out of knowledge or notice?"
Ignorant as he was of the old man's cause for quarrel or dislike, Eglington felt himself aggrieved, and, therefore, with an advantage.
"You had differences with my father, sir," he said. "I do not know what they were, but they lasted his lifetime, and all my life you have treated me with aversion. I am not a pestilence. I have never wronged you. I have lived your peaceful neighbour under great provocation, for your treatment would have done me harm if my place were less secure. I think I have cause for complaint."
"I have never acted in haste concerning thee, or those who went before thee. What business had thee with him, Faith?" he asked again. His voice was dry and hard.
Her impulse was to tell the truth, and so for ever have her conscience clear, for there would never be any more need for secrecy. The wheel of understanding between Eglington and herself had come full circle, and there was an end. But to tell the truth would be to wound her father, to vex him against Eglington even as he had never yet been vexed. Besides, it was hard, while Eglington was there, to tell what, after all, was the sole affair of her own life. In one literal sense, Eglington was not guilty of deceit. Never in so many words had he said to her: "I love you;" never had he made any promise to her or exacted one; he had done no more than lure her to feel one thing, and then to call it another thing. Also there was no direct and vital injury, for she had never loved him; though how far she had travelled towards that land of light and trial she could never now declare. These thoughts flashed through her mind as she stood looking at her father. Her tongue seemed imprisoned, yet her soft and candid eyes conquered the austerity in the old man's gaze.
Eglington spoke for her.
"Permit me to answer, neighbour," he said. "I wished to speak with your daughter, because I am to be married soon, and my wife will, at intervals, come here to live. I wished that she should not be shunned by you and yours as I have been. She would not understand, as I do not. Yours is a constant call to war, while all your religion is an appeal for peace. I wished to ask your daughter to influence you to make it possible for me and mine to live in friendship among you. My wife will have some claims upon you. Her mother was an American, of a Quaker family from Derbyshire. She has done nothing to merit your aversion."
Faith listened astonished and baffled. Nothing of this had he said to her. Had he meant to say it to her? Had it been in his mind? Or was it only a swift adaptation to circumstances, an adroit means of working upon the sympathies of her father, who, she could see, was in a quandary? Eglington had indeed touched the old man as he had not been touched in thirty years and more by one of his name. For a moment the insinuating quality of the appeal submerged the fixed idea in a mind to which the name of Eglington was anathema.
Eglington saw his advantage. He had felt his way carefully, and he pursued it quickly. "For the rest, your daughter asked what I was ready to offer--such help as, in my new official position, I can give to Claridge Pasha in Egypt. As a neighbour, as Minister in the Government, I will do what I can to aid him."
Silent and embarrassed, the old man tried to find his way. Presently he said tentatively: "David Claridge has a title to the esteem of all civilised people." Eglington was quick with his reply. "If he succeeds, his title will become a concrete fact. There is no honour the Crown would not confer for such remarkable service."
The other's face darkened. "I did not speak, I did not think, of handles to his name. I find no good in them, but only means for deceiving and deluding the world. Such honours as might make him baronet, or duke, would add not a cubit to his stature. If he had such a thing by right" --his voice hardened, his eyes grew angry once again--"I would wish it sunk into the sea."
"You are hard on us, sir, who did not give ourselves our titles, but took them with our birth as a matter of course. There was nothing inspiring in them. We became at once distinguished and respectable by patent."
He laughed good-humouredly. Then suddenly he changed, and his eyes took on a far-off look which Faith had seen so often in the eyes of David, but in David's more intense and meaning, and so different. With what deftness and diplomacy had he worked upon her father! He had crossed a stream which seemed impassable by adroit, insincere diplomacy.
She saw that it was time to go, while yet Eglington's disparagement of rank and aristocracy was ringing in the old man's ears; though she knew there was nothing in Eglington's equipment he valued more than his title and the place it gave him. Grateful, however, for his successful intervention, Faith now held out her hand.
"I must take my father away, or it will be sunset before we reach the Meeting-house," she said. "Goodbye-friend," she added gently.
For an instant Luke Claridge stared at her, scarce comprehending that his movements were being directed by any one save himself. Truth was, Faith had come to her cross-roads in life. For the first time in her memory she had seen her father speak to an Eglington without harshness; and, as he weakened for a moment, she moved to take command of that weakness, though she meant it to seem like leading. While loving her and David profoundly, her father had ever been quietly imperious. If she could but gain ascendency even in a little, it might lead to a more open book of life for them both.
Eglington held out his hand to the old man. "I have kept you too long, sir. Good-bye--if you will."
The offered hand was not taken, but Faith slid hers into the old man's palm, and pressed it, and he said quietly to Eglington:
"Good evening, friend."
"And when I bring my wife, sir?" Eglington added, with a smile.
"When thee brings the lady, there will be occasion to consider--there will be occasion then."
Eglington raised his hat, and turned back upon the path he and Faith had travelled.
The old man stood watching him until he was out of view. Then he seemed more himself. Still holding Faith's hand, he walked with her on the gorse-covered hill towards the graveyard.
"Was it his heart spoke or his tongue--is there any truth in him?" he asked at last.
Faith pressed his hand. "If he help Davy, father--"
"If he help Davy; ay, if he help Davy! Nay, I cannot go to the graveyard, Faith. Take me home," he said with emotion.
His hand remained in hers. She had conquered. She was set upon a new path of influence. Her hand was upon the door of his heart.
"Thee is good to me, Faith," he said, as they entered the door of the Red Mansion.
She glanced over towards the Cloistered House. Smoke was coming from the little chimney of the laboratory.