The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XIX. Sharper Than a Sword
A glance of the eye was the only sign of recognition between David and Hylda; nothing that others saw could have suggested that they had ever met before. Lord Windlehurst at once engaged David in conversation.
At first when Hylda had come back from Egypt, those five years ago, she had often wondered what she would think or do if she ever were to see this man again; whether, indeed, she could bear it. Well, the moment and the man had come. Her eyes had gone blind for an instant; it had seemed for one sharp, crucial moment as though she could not bear it; then the gulf of agitation was passed, and she had herself in hand.
While her mind was engaged subconsciously with what Lord Windlehurst and David said, comprehending it all, and, when Lord Windlehurst appealed to her, offering by a word contribution to the 'pourparler', she was studying David as steadily as her heated senses would permit her.
He seemed to her to have put on twenty years in the steady force of his personality--in the composure of his bearing, in the self-reliance of his look, though his face and form were singularly youthful. The face was handsome and alight, the look was that of one who weighed things; yet she was conscious of a great change. The old delicate quality of the features was not so marked, though there was nothing material in the look, and the head had not a sordid line, while the hand that he now and again raised, brushing his forehead meditatively, had gained much in strength and force. Yet there was something--something different, that brought a slight cloud into her eyes. It came to her now, a certain melancholy in the bearing of the figure, erect and well-balanced as it was. Once the feeling came, the certainty grew. And presently she found a strange sadness in the eyes, something that lurked behind all that he did and all that he was, some shadow over the spirit. It was even more apparent when he smiled.
As she was conscious of this new reading of him, a motion arrested her glance, a quick lifting of the head to one side, as though the mind had suddenly been struck by an idea, the glance flying upward in abstracted questioning. This she had seen in her husband, too, the same brisk lifting of the head, the same quick smiling. Yet this face, unlike Eglington's, expressed a perfect single-mindedness; it wore the look of a self-effacing man of luminous force, a concentrated battery of energy. Since she had last seen him every sign of the provincial had vanished. He was now the well-modulated man of affairs, elegant in his simplicity of dress, with the dignified air of the intellectual, yet with the decision of a man who knew his mind.
Lord Windlehurst was leaving. Now David and she were alone. Without a word they moved on together through the throng, the eyes of all following them, until they reached a quiet room at one end of the salon, where were only a few people watching the crowd pass the doorway.
"You will be glad to sit," he said, motioning her to a chair beside some palms. Then, with a change of tone, he added: "Thee is not sorry I am come?"
Thee--the old-fashioned simple Quaker word! She put her fingers to her eyes. Her senses were swimming with a distant memory. The East was in her brain, the glow of the skies, the gleam of the desert, the swish of the Nile, the cry of the sweet-seller, the song of the dance-girl, the strain of the darabukkeh, the call of the skis. She saw again the ghiassas drifting down the great river, laden with dourha; she saw the mosque of the blue tiles with its placid fountain, and its handful of worshippers praying by the olive-tree. She watched the moon rise above the immobile Sphinx, she looked down on the banqueters in the Palace, David among them, and Foorgat Bey beside her. She saw Foorgat Bey again lying dead at her feet. She heard the stir of the leaves; she caught the smell of the lime-trees in the Palace garden as she fled. She recalled her reckless return to Cairo from Alexandria. She remembered the little room where she and David, Nahoum and Mizraim, crossed a bridge over a chasm, and stood upon ground which had held good till now--till this hour, when the man who had played a most vital part in her life had come again out of a land which, by some forced obliquity of mind and stubbornness of will, she had assured herself she would never see again.
She withdrew her hand from her eyes, and saw him looking at her calmly, though his face was alight. "Thee is fatigued," he said. "This is labour which wears away the strength." He made a motion towards the crowd.
She smiled a very little, and said: "You do not care for such things as this, I know. Your life has its share of it, however, I suppose."
He looked out over the throng before he answered. "It seems an eddy of purposeless waters. Yet there is great depth beneath, or there were no eddy; and where there is depth and the eddy there is danger--always." As he spoke she became almost herself again. "You think that deep natures have most perils?"
"Thee knows it is so. Human nature is like the earth: the deeper the plough goes into the soil unploughed before, the more evil substance is turned up--evil that becomes alive as soon as the sun and the air fall upon it."
"Then, women like me who pursue a flippant life, who ride in this merry- go-round"--she made a gesture towards the crowd beyond--"who have no depth, we are safest, we live upon the surface." Her gaiety was forced; her words were feigned.
"Thee has passed the point of danger, thee is safe," he answered meaningly.
"Is that because I am not deep, or because the plough has been at work?" she asked. "In neither case I am not sure you are right."
"Thee is happily married," he said reflectively; "and the prospect is fair."
"I think you know my husband," she said in answer, and yet not in answer.
"I was born in Hamley where he has a place--thee has been there?" he asked eagerly.
"Not yet. We are to go next Sunday, for the first time to the Cloistered House. I had not heard that my husband knew you, until I saw in the paper a few days ago that your home was in Hamley. Then I asked Eglington, and he told me that your family and his had been neighbours for generations."
"His father was a Quaker," David rejoined, "but he forsook the faith."
"I did not know," she answered, with some hesitation. There was no reason why, when she and Eglington had talked of Hamley, he should not have said his own father had once been a Quaker; yet she had dwelt so upon the fact that she herself had Quaker blood, and he had laughed so much over it, with the amusement of the superior person, that his silence on this one point struck her now with a sense of confusion.
"You are going to Hamley--we shall meet there?" she continued.
"To-day I should have gone, but I have business at the Foreign Office to-morrow. One needs time to learn that all 'private interests and partial affections' must be sacrificed to public duty."
"But you are going soon? You will be there on Sunday?"
"I shall be there to-morrow night, and Sunday, and for one long week at least. Hamley is the centre of the world, the axle of the universe--you shall see. You doubt it?" he added, with a whimsical smile.
"I shall dispute most of what you say, and all that you think, if you do not continue to use the Quaker 'thee' and 'thou'--ungrammatical as you are so often."
"Thee is now the only person in London, or in England, with whom I use 'thee' and 'thou.' I am no longer my own master, I am a public servant, and so I must follow custom."
"It is destructive of personality. The 'thee' and 'thou' belong to you. I wonder if the people of Hamley will say 'thee' and 'thou' to me. I hope, I do hope they will."
"Thee may be sure they will. They are no respecters of persons there. They called your husband's father Robert--his name was Robert. Friend Robert they called him, and afterwards they called him Robert Denton till he died."
"Will they call me Hylda?" she asked, with a smile. "More like they will call thee Friend Hylda; it sounds simple and strong," he replied.
"As they call Claridge Pasha Friend David," she answered, with a smile. "David is a good name for a strong man."
"That David threw a stone from a sling and smote a giant in the forehead. The stone from this David's sling falls into the ocean and is lost beneath the surface."
His voice had taken on a somewhat sombre tone, his eyes looked away into the distance; yet he smiled too, and a hand upon his knee suddenly closed in sympathy with an inward determination.
A light of understanding came into her face. They had been keeping things upon the surface, and, while it lasted, he seemed a lesser man than she had thought him these past years. But now--now there was the old unschooled simplicity, the unique and lonely personality, the homely soul and body bending to one root-idea, losing themselves in a wave of duty. Again he was to her, once more, the dreamer, the worker, the conqueror--the conqueror of her own imagination. She had in herself the soul of altruism, the heart of the crusader. Touched by the fire of a great idea, she was of those who could have gone out into the world without wallet or scrip, to work passionately for some great end.
And she had married the Earl of Eglington!
She leaned towards David, and said eagerly: "But you are satisfied--you are satisfied with your work for poor Egypt?"
"Thee says 'poor Egypt,'" he answered, "and thee says well. Even now she is not far from the day of Rameses and Joseph. Thee thinks perhaps thee knows Egypt--none knows her."
"You know her--now?"
He shook his head slowly. "It is like putting one's ear to the mouth of the Sphinx. Yet sometimes, almost in despair, when I have lain down in the desert beside my camel, set about with enemies, I have got a message from the barren desert, the wide silence, and the stars." He paused.
"What is the message that comes?" she asked softly. "It is always the same: Work on! Seek not to know too much, nor think that what you do is of vast value. Work, because it is yours to be adjusting the machinery in your own little workshop of life to the wide mechanism of the universe and time. One wheel set right, one flying belt adjusted, and there is a step forward to the final harmony--ah, but how I preach!" he added hastily.
His eyes were fixed on hers with a great sincerity, and they were clear and shining, yet his lips were smiling--what a trick they had of smiling! He looked as though he should apologise for such words in such a place.
She rose to her feet with a great suspiration, with a light in her eyes and a trembling smile.
"But no, no, no, you inspire one. Thee inspires me," she said, with a little laugh, in which there was a note of sadness. "I may use 'thee,' may I not, when I will? I am a little a Quaker also, am I not? My people came from Derbyshire, my American people, that is--and only forty years ago. Almost thee persuades me to be a Quaker now," she added. "And perhaps I shall be, too," she went on, her eyes fixed on the crowd passing by, Eglington among them.
David saw Eglington also, and moved forward with her.
"We shall meet in Hamley," she said composedly, as she saw her husband leave the crush and come towards her. As Eglington noticed David, a curious enigmatical glance flashed from his eyes. He came forward, however, with outstretched hand.
"I am sorry I was not at the Foreign Office when you called to-day. Welcome back to England, home--and beauty." He laughed in a rather mirthless way, but with a certain empressement, conscious, as he always was, of the onlookers. "You have had a busy time in Egypt?" he continued cheerfully, and laughed again.
David laughed slightly, also, and Hylda noticed that it had a certain resemblance in its quick naturalness to that of her husband.
"I am not sure that we are so busy there as we ought to be," David answered. "I have no real standards. I am but an amateur, and have known nothing of public life. But you should come and see."
"It has been in my mind. An ounce of eyesight is worth a ton of print. My lady was there once, I believe"--he turned towards her--"but before your time, I think. Or did you meet there, perhaps?" He glanced at both curiously. He scarcely knew why a thought flashed into his mind--as though by some telepathic sense; for it had never been there before, and there was no reason for its being there now.
Hylda saw what David was about to answer, and she knew instinctively that he would say they had never met. It shamed her. She intervened as she saw he was about to speak.
"We were introduced for the first time to-night," she said; "but Claridge Pasha is part of my education in the world. It is a miracle that Hamley should produce two such men," she added gaily, and laid her fan upon her husband's arm lightly. "You should have been a Quaker, Harry, and then you two would have been--"
"Two Quaker Don Quixotes," interrupted Eglington ironically.
"I should not have called you a Don Quixote," his wife lightly rejoined, relieved at the turn things had taken. "I cannot imagine you tilting at wind-mills--"
"Or saving maidens in distress? Well, perhaps not; but you do not suggest that Claridge Pasha tilts at windmills either--or saves maidens in distress. Though, now I come to think, there was an episode." He laughed maliciously. "Some time ago it was--a lass of the cross-roads. I think I heard of such an adventure, which did credit to Claridge Pasha's heart, though it shocked Hamley at the time. But I wonder, was the maiden really saved?"
Lady Eglington's face became rigid. "Well, yes," she said slowly, "the maiden was saved. She is now my maid. Hamley may have been shocked, but Claridge Pasha has every reason to be glad that he helped a fellow-being in trouble."
"Your maid--Heaver?" asked Eglington in surprise, a swift shadow crossing his face.
"Yes; she only told me this morning. Perhaps she had seen that Claridge Pasha was coming to England. I had not, however. At any rate, Quixotism saved her."
David smiled. "It is better than I dared to hope," he remarked quietly.
"But that is not all," continued Hylda. "There is more. She had been used badly by a man who now wants to marry her--has tried to do so for years. Now, be prepared for a surprise, for it concerns you rather closely, Eglington. Fate is a whimsical jade. Whom do you think it is? Well, since you could never guess, it was Jasper Kimber."
Eglington's eyes opened wide. "This is nothing but a coarse and impossible stage coincidence," he laughed. "It is one of those tricks played by Fact to discredit the imagination. Life is laughing at us again. The longer I live, the more I am conscious of being an object of derision by the scene-shifters in the wings of the stage. What a cynical comedy life is at the best!"
"It all seems natural enough," rejoined David.
"It is all paradox."
"Isn't it all inevitable law? I have no belief in 'antic Fate.'"
Hylda realised, with a new and poignant understanding, the difference of outlook on life between the two men. She suddenly remembered the words of Confucius, which she had set down in her little book of daily life: "By nature we approximate, it is only experience that drives us apart."
David would have been content to live in the desert all his life for the sake of a cause, making no calculations as to reward. Eglington must ever have the counters for the game.
"Well, if you do not believe in 'antic Fate,' you must be greatly puzzled as you go on," he rejoined, laughing; "especially in Egypt, where the East and the West collide, race against race, religion against religion, Oriental mind against Occidental intellect. You have an unusual quantity of Quaker composure, to see in it all 'inevitable law.' And it must be dull. But you always were, so they say in Hamley, a monument of seriousness."
"I believe they made one or two exceptions," answered David drily. "I had assurances."
Eglington laughed boyishly. "You are right. You achieved a name for humour in a day--'a glass, a kick, and a kiss,' it was. Do you have such days in Egypt?"
"You must come and see," David answered lightly, declining to notice the insolence. "These are critical days there. The problems are worthy of your care. Will you not come?"
Eglington was conscious of a peculiar persuasive influence over himself that he had never felt before. In proportion, however, as he felt its compelling quality, there came a jealousy of the man who was its cause. The old antagonism, which had had its sharpest expression the last time they had met on the platform at Heddington, came back. It was one strong will resenting another--as though there was not room enough in the wide world of being for these two atoms of life, sparks from the ceaseless wheel, one making a little brighter flash than the other for the moment, and then presently darkness, and the whirring wheel which threw them off, throwing off millions of others again.
On the moment Eglington had a temptation to say something with an edge, which would show David that his success in Egypt hung upon the course that he himself and the weak Foreign Minister, under whom he served, would take. And this course would be his own course largely, since he had been appointed to be a force and strength in the Foreign Office which his chief did not supply. He refrained, however, and, on the moment, remembered the promise he had given to Faith to help David.
A wave of feeling passed over him. His wife was beautiful, a creature of various charms, a centre of attraction. Yet he had never really loved her--so many sordid elements had entered into the thought of marriage with her, lowering the character of his affection. With a perversity which only such men know, such heart as he had turned to the unknown Quaker girl who had rebuked him, scathed him, laid bare his soul before himself, as no one ever had done. To Eglington it was a relief that there was one human being--he thought there was only one--who read him through and through; and that knowledge was in itself as powerful an influence as was the secret between David and Hylda. It was a kind of confessional, comforting to a nature not self-contained. Now he restrained his cynical intention to deal David a side-thrust, and quietly said:
"We shall meet at Hamley, shall we not? Let us talk there, and not at the Foreign Office. You would care to go to Egypt, Hylda?"
She forced a smile. "Let us talk it over at Hamley." With a smile to David she turned away to some friends.
Eglington offered to introduce David to some notable people, but he said that he must go--he was fatigued after his journey. He had no wish to be lionised.
As he left the salon, the band was playing a tune that made him close his eyes, as though against something he would not see. The band in Kaid's Palace had played it that night when he had killed Foorgat Bey.