The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XVIII. Time, the Idol-Breaker
Lord Windlehurst looked meditatively round the crowded and brilliant salon. His host, the Foreign Minister, had gathered in the vast golden chamber the most notable people of a most notable season, and in as critical a period of the world's politics as had been known for a quarter of a century. After a moment's survey, the ex-Prime-Minister turned to answer the frank and caustic words addressed to him by the Duchess of Snowdon concerning the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Presently he said:
"But there is method in his haste, dear lady. He is good at his dangerous game. He plays high, he plunges; but, somehow, he makes it do. I've been in Parliament a generation or so, and I've never known an amateur more daring and skilful. I should have given him office had I remained in power. Look at him, and tell me if he wouldn't have been worth the backing."
As Lord Windlehurst uttered the last word with an arid smile, he looked quizzically at the central figure of a group of people gaily talking.
The Duchess impatiently tapped her knee with a fan. "Be thankful you haven't got him on your conscience," she rejoined. "I call Eglington unscrupulous and unreliable. He has but one god--getting on; and he has got on, with a vengeance. Whenever I look at that dear thing he's married, I feel there's no trusting Providence, who seems to make the deserving a footstool for the undeserving. I've known Hylda since she was ten, and I've known him since the minute he came into the world, and I've got the measure of both. She is the finest essence the middle class can distil, and he, oh, he's paraffin-vin ordinaire, if you like it better, a selfish, calculating adventurer!"
Lord Windlehurst chuckled mordantly. "Adventurer! That's what they called me--with more reason. I spotted him as soon as he spoke in the House. There was devilry in him, and unscrupulousness, as you say; but, I confess, I thought it would give way to the more profitable habit of integrity, and that some cause would seize him, make him sincere and mistaken, and give him a few falls. But in that he was more original than I thought. He is superior to convictions. You don't think he married yonder Queen of Hearts from conviction, do you?"
He nodded towards a corner where Hylda, under a great palm, and backed by a bank of flowers, stood surrounded by a group of people palpably amused and interested; for she had a reputation for wit--a wit that never hurt, and irony that was only whimsical.
"No, there you are wrong," the Duchess answered. "He married from conviction, if ever a man did. Look at her beauty, look at her fortune, listen to her tongue. Don't you think conviction was easy?"
Lord Windlehurst looked at Hylda approvingly. She has the real gift-- little information, but much knowledge, the primary gift of public life. Information is full of traps; knowledge avoids them, it reads men; and politics is men--and foreign affairs, perhaps! She is remarkable. I've made some hay in the political world, not so much as the babblers think, but I hadn't her ability at twenty-five."
"Why didn't she see through Eglington?"
"My dear Betty, he didn't give her time. He carried her off her feet. You know how he can talk."
"That's the trouble. She was clever, and liked a clever man, and he--!"
"Quite so. He'd disprove his own honest parentage, if it would help him on--as you say."
"I didn't say it. Now don't repeat that as from me. I'm not clever enough to think of such things. But that Eglington lot--I knew his father and his grandfather. Old Broadbrim they called his grandfather after he turned Quaker, and he didn't do that till he had had his fling, so my father used to say. And Old Broadbrim's father was called I-want- to-know. He was always poking his nose into things, and playing at being a chemist-like this one and the one before. They all fly off. This one's father used to disappear for two or three years at a time. This one will fly off, too. You'll see!
"He is too keen on Number One for that, I fancy. He calculates like a mathematician. As cool as a cracksman of fame and fancy."
The Duchess dropped the fan in her lap. "My dear, I've said nothing as bad as that about him. And there he is at the Foreign Office!"
"Yet, what has he done, Betty, after all? He has never cheated at cards, or forged a cheque, or run away with his neighbour's wife."
"There's no credit in not doing what you don't want to do. There's no virtue in not falling, when you're not tempted. Neighbour's wife! He hasn't enough feeling to face it. Oh no, he'll not break the heart of his neighbour's wife. That's melodrama, and he's a cold-blooded artist. He will torture that sweet child over there until she poisons him, or runs away."
"Isn't he too clever for that? She has a million!"
"He'll not realise it till it's all over. He's too selfish to see--how I hate him!"
Lord Windlehurst smiled indulgently at her. "Ah, you never hated any one--not even the Duke."
"I will not have you take away my character. Of course I've hated, or I wouldn't be worth a button. I'm not the silly thing you've always thought me."
His face became gentler. "I've always thought you one of the wisest women of this world--adventurous, but wise. If it weren't too late, if my day weren't over, I'd ask the one great favour, Betty, and--"
She tapped his arm sharply with her fan. "What a humbug you are--the Great Pretender! But tell me, am I not right about Eglington?"
Windlehurst became grave. "Yes, you are right--but I admire him, too. He is determined to test himself to the full. His ambition is boundless and ruthless, but his mind has a scientific turn--the obligation of energy to apply itself, of intelligence to engage itself to the farthest limit. But service to humanity--"
"Service to humanity!" she sniffed.
"Of course he would think it 'flap-doodle'--except in a speech; but I repeat, I admire him. Think of it all. He was a poor Irish peer, with no wide circle of acquaintance, come of a family none too popular. He strikes out a course for himself--a course which had its dangers, because it was original. He determines to become celebrated--by becoming notorious first. He uses his title as a weapon for advancement as though he were a butter merchant. He plans carefully and adroitly. He writes a book of travel. It is impudent, and it traverses the observations of authorities, and the scientific geographers prance with rage. That was what he wished. He writes a novel. It sets London laughing at me, his political chief. He knew me well enough to be sure I would not resent it. He would have lampooned his grandmother, if he was sure she would not, or could not, hurt him. Then he becomes more audacious. He publishes a monograph on the painters of Spain, artificial, confident, rhetorical, acute: as fascinating as a hide-and-seek drawing-room play-- he is so cleverly escaping from his ignorance and indiscretions all the while. Connoisseurs laugh, students of art shriek a little, and Ruskin writes a scathing letter, which was what he had played for. He had got something for nothing cheaply. The few who knew and despised him did not matter, for they were able and learned and obscure, and, in the world where he moves, most people are superficial, mediocre, and 'tuppence coloured.' It was all very brilliant. He pursued his notoriety, and got it."
"But, yes, he is industrious. It is all business. It was an enormous risk, rebelling against his party, and leaving me, and going over; but his temerity justified itself, and it didn't matter to him that people said he went over to get office as we were going out. He got the office- and people forget so soon. Then, what does he do--"
"He brings out another book, and marries a wife, and abuses his old friends--and you."
"Abuse? With his tongue in his cheek, hoping that I should reply. Dev'lishly ingenious! But on that book of Electricity and Disease he scored. In most other things he's a barber-shop philosopher, but in science he has got a flare, a real talent. So he moves modestly in this thing, for which he had a fine natural gift and more knowledge than he ever had before in any department, whose boundaries his impertinent and ignorant mind had invaded. That book gave him a place. It wasn't full of new things, but it crystallised the discoveries, suggestions, and expectations of others; and, meanwhile, he had got a name at no cost. He is so various. Look at it dispassionately, and you will see much to admire in his skill. He pleases, he amuses, he startles, he baffles, he mystifies."
The Duchess made an impatient exclamation. "The silly newspapers call him a 'remarkable man, a personality.' Now, believe me, Windlehurst, he will overreach himself one of these days, and he'll come down like a stick."
"There you are on solid ground. He thinks that Fate is with him, and that, in taking risks, he is infallible. But the best system breaks at political roulette sooner or later. You have got to work for something outside yourself, something that is bigger than the game, or the end is sickening."
"Eglington hasn't far to go, if that's the truth."
"Well, well, when it comes, we must help him--we must help him up again."
The Duchess nervously adjusted her wig, with ludicrously tiny fingers for one so ample, and said petulantly: "You are incomprehensible. He has been a traitor to you and to your party, he has thrown mud at you, he has played with principles as my terrier plays with his rubber ball, and yet you'll run and pick him up when he falls, and--"
"'And kiss the spot to make it well,'" he laughed softly, then added with a sigh: "Able men in public life are few; 'far too few, for half our tasks; we can spare not one.' Besides, my dear Betty, there is his pretty lass o' London."
The Duchess was mollified at once. "I wish she had been my girl," she said, in a voice a little tremulous. "She never needed looking after. Look at the position she has made for herself. Her father wouldn't go into society, her mother knew a mere handful of people, and--"
"She knew you, Betty."
"Well, suppose I did help her a little--I was only a kind of reference. She did the rest. She's set a half-dozen fashions herself--pure genius. She was born to lead. Her turnouts were always a little smarter, her horses travelled a little faster, than other people's. She took risks, too, but she didn't play a game; she only wanted to do things well. We all gasped when she brought Adelaide to recite from 'Romeo and Juliet' at an evening party, but all London did the same the week after."
"She discovered, and the Duchess of Snowdon applied the science. Ah, Betty, don't think I don't agree. She has the gift. She has temperament. No woman should have temperament. She hasn't scope enough to wear it out in some passion for a cause. Men are saved in spite of themselves by the law of work. Forty comes to a man of temperament, and then a passion for a cause seizes him, and he is safe. A woman of temperament at forty is apt to cut across the bows of iron-clad convention and go down. She has temperament, has my lady yonder, and I don't like the look of her eyes sometimes. There's dark fire smouldering in them. She should have a cause; but a cause to a woman now-a-days means 'too little of pleasure, too much of pain,' for others."
"What was your real cause, Windlehurst? You had one, I suppose, for you've never had a fall."
"My cause? You ask that? Behold the barren figtree! A lifetime in my country's service, and you who have driven me home from the House in your own brougham, and told me that you understood--oh, Betty!"
She laughed. "You'll say something funny as you're dying, Windlehurst."
"Perhaps. But it will be funny to know that presently I'll have a secret that none of you know, who watch me 'launch my pinnace into the dark.' But causes? There are hundreds, and all worth while. I've come here to-night for a cause--no, don't start, it's not you, Betty, though you are worth any sacrifice. I've come here to-night to see a modern Paladin, a real crusader:
"'Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, When a new planet swims into his ken.'"
"Yes, that's poetry, Windlehurst, and you know I love it-I've always kept yours. But who's the man--the planet?"
"Ah, he is in England?"
"He will be here to-night; you shall see him."
"Really! What is his origin?"
He told her briefly, adding: "I've watched the rise of Claridge Pasha. I've watched his cause grow, and now I shall see the man--ah, but here comes our lass o' London!"
The eyes of both brightened, and a whimsical pleasure came to the mask- like face of Lord Windlehurst. There was an eager and delighted look in Hylda's face also as she quickly came to them, her cavaliers following.
The five years that had passed since that tragic night in Cairo had been more than kind to her. She was lissome, radiant, and dignified, her face was alive with expression, and a delicate grace was in every movement. The dark lashes seemed to have grown longer, the brown hair fuller, the smile softer and more alluring.
"She is an invaluable asset to the Government," Lord Windlehurst murmured as she came. "No wonder the party helped the marriage on. London conspired for it, her feet got tangled in the web--and he gave her no time to think. Thinking had saved her till he came."
By instinct Lord Windlehurst knew. During the first year after the catastrophe at Kaid's Palace Hylda could scarcely endure the advances made by her many admirers, the greatly eligible and the eager ineligible, all with as real an appreciation of her wealth as of her personal attributes. But she took her place in London life with more than the old will to make for herself, with the help of her aunt Conyngham, an individual position.
The second year after her visit to Egypt she was less haunted by the dark episode of the Palace, memory tortured her less; she came to think of David and the part he had played with less agitation. At first the thought of him had moved her alternately to sympathy and to revolt. His chivalry had filled her with admiration, with a sense of confidence, of dependence, of touching and vital obligation; but there was, too, another overmastering feeling. He had seen her life naked, as it were, stripped of all independence, with the knowledge of a dangerous indiscretion which, to say the least, was a deformity; and she inwardly resented it, as one would resent the exposure of a long-hidden physical deformity, even by the surgeon who saved one's life. It was not a very lofty attitude of mind, but it was human--and feminine.
These moods had been always dissipated, however, when she recalled, as she did so often, David as he stood before Nahoum Pasha, his soul fighting in him to make of his enemy--of the man whose brother he had killed--a fellow-worker in the path of altruism he had mapped out for himself. David's name had been continually mentioned in telegraphic reports and journalistic correspondence from Egypt; and from this source she had learned that Nahoum Pasha was again high in the service of Prince Kaid. When the news of David's southern expedition to the revolting slave-dealing tribes began to appear, she was deeply roused. Her agitation was the more intense because she never permitted herself to talk of him to others, even when his name was discussed at dinner-tables, accompanied by strange legends of his origin and stranger romances regarding his call to power by Kaid.
She had surrounded him with romance; he seemed more a hero of history than of her own real and living world, a being apart. Even when there came rumblings of disaster, dark dangers to be conquered by the Quaker crusader, it all was still as of another life. True it was, that when his safe return to Cairo was announced she had cried with joy and relief; but there was nothing emotional or passionate in her feeling; it was the love of the lower for the higher, the hero-worship of an idealist in passionate gratitude.
And, amid it all, her mind scarcely realised that they would surely meet again. At the end of the second year the thought had receded into an almost indefinite past. She was beginning to feel that she had lived two lives, and that this life had no direct or vital bearing upon her previous existence, in which David had moved. Yet now and then the perfume of the Egyptian garden, through which she had fled to escape from tragedy, swept over her senses, clouded her eyes in the daytime, made them burn at night.
At last she had come to meet and know Eglington. From the first moment they met he had directed his course towards marriage. He was the man of the moment. His ambition seemed but patriotism, his ardent and overwhelming courtship the impulse of a powerful nature. As Lord Windlehurst had said, he carried her off her feet, and, on a wave of devotion and popular encouragement, he had swept her to the altar,
The Duchess held both her hands for a moment, admiring her, and, presently, with a playful remark upon her unselfishness, left her alone with Lord Windlehurst.
As they talked, his mask-like face became lighted from the brilliant fire in the inquisitorial eyes, his lips played with topics of the moment in a mordant fashion, which drew from her flashing replies. Looking at her, he was conscious of the mingled qualities of three races in her--English, Welsh, and American-Dutch of the Knickerbocker strain; and he contrasted her keen perception and her exquisite sensitiveness with the purebred Englishwomen round him, stately, kindly, handsome, and monotonously intelligent.
"Now I often wonder," he said, conscious of, but indifferent to, the knowledge that he and the brilliant person beside him were objects of general attention--"I often wonder, when I look at a gathering like this, how many undiscovered crimes there are playing about among us. They never do tell--or shall I say, we never do tell?"
All day, she knew not why, Hylda had been nervous and excited. Without reason his words startled her. Now there flashed before her eyes a room in a Palace at Cairo, and a man lying dead before her. The light slowly faded out of her eyes, leaving them almost lustreless, but her face was calm, and the smile on her lips stayed. She fanned herself slowly, and answered nonchalantly: "Crime is a word of many meanings. I read in the papers of political crimes--it is a common phrase; yet the criminals appear to go unpunished."
"There you are wrong," he answered cynically. "The punishment is, that political virtue goes unrewarded, and in due course crime is the only refuge to most. Yet in politics the temptation to be virtuous is great."
She laughed now with a sense of relief. The intellectual stimulant had brought back the light to her face. "How is it, then, with you-- inveterate habit or the strain of the ages? For they say you have not had your due reward."
He smiled grimly. "Ah, no, with me virtue is the act of an inquiring mind--to discover where it will lead me. I began with political crime-- I was understood! I practise political virtue: it embarrasses the world, it fogs them, it seems original, because so unnecessary. Mine is the scientific life. Experiment in old substances gives new--well, say, new precipitations. But you are scientific, too. You have a laboratory, and have much to do--with retorts."
"No, you are thinking of my husband. The laboratory is his."
"But the retorts are yours."
"The precipitations are his."
"Ah, well, at least you help him to fuse the constituents! . . . But now, be quite confidential to an old man who has experimented too. Is your husband really an amateur scientist, or is he a scientific amateur? Is it a pose or a taste? I fiddled once--and wrote sonnets; one was a pose, the other a taste."
It was mere persiflage, but it was a jest which made an unintended wound. Hylda became conscious of a sudden sharp inquiry going on in her mind. There flashed into it the question, Does Eglington's heart ever really throb for love of any object or any cause? Even in moments of greatest intimacy, soon after marriage, when he was most demonstrative towards her, he had seemed preoccupied, except when speaking about himself and what he meant to do. Then he made her heart throb in response to his confident, ardent words--concerning himself. But his own heart, did it throb? Or was it only his brain that throbbed?
Suddenly, with an exclamation, she involuntarily laid a hand upon Windlehurst's arm. She was looking down the room straight before her to a group of people towards which other groups were now converging, attracted by one who seemed to be a centre of interest.
Presently the eager onlookers drew aside, and Lord Windlehurst observed moving up the room a figure he had never seen before. The new-comer was dressed in a grey and blue official dress, unrelieved save by silver braid at the collar and at the wrists. There was no decoration, but on the head was a red fez, which gave prominence to the white, broad forehead, with the dark hair waving away behind the ears. Lord Windlehurst held his eye-glass to his eye in interested scrutiny. "H'm," he said, with lips pursed out, "a most notable figure, a most remarkable face! My dear, there's a fortune in that face. It's a national asset."
He saw the flush, the dumb amazement, the poignant look in Lady Eglington's face, and registered it in his mind. "Poor thing," he said to himself, "I wonder what it is all about--I wonder. I thought she had no unregulated moments. She gave promise of better things." The Foreign Minister was bringing his guest towards them. The new-comer did not look at them till within a few steps of where they stood. Then his eyes met those of Lady Eglington. For an instant his steps were arrested. A swift light came into his face, softening its quiet austerity and strength.
It was David.