The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XX. Each After His Own Order
With the passing years new feelings had grown up in the heart of Luke Claridge. Once David's destiny and career were his own peculiar and self-assumed responsibility. "Inwardly convicted," he had wrenched the lad away from the natural circumstances of his life, and created a scheme of existence for him out of his own conscience--a pious egoist.
After David went to Egypt, however, his mind involuntarily formed the resolution that "Davy and God should work it out together."
He had grown very old in appearance, and his quiet face was almost painfully white; but the eyes burned with more fire than in the past. As the day approached when David should arrive in England, he walked by himself continuously, oblivious of the world round him. He spoke to no one, save the wizened Elder Meacham, and to John Fairley, who rightly felt that he had a share in the making of Claridge Pasha.
With head perched in the air, and face half hidden in his great white collar, the wizened Elder, stopping Luke Claridge in the street one day, said:
"Does thee think the lad will ride in Pharaoh's chariot here?"
There were sly lines of humour about the mouth of the wizened Elder as he spoke, but Luke Claridge did not see.
"Pride is far from his heart," he answered portentously. "He will ride in no chariot. He has written that he will walk here from Heddington, and none is to meet him."
"He will come by the cross-roads, perhaps," rejoined the other piously. "Well, well, memory is a flower or a rod, as John Fox said, and the cross-roads have memories for him."
Again flashes of humour crossed his face, for he had a wide humanity, of insufficient exercise.
"He has made full atonement, and thee does ill to recall the past, Reuben," rejoined the other sternly.
"If he has done no more that needs atonement than he did that day at the cross-roads, then has his history been worthy of Hamley," rejoined the wizened Elder, eyes shut and head buried in his collar. "Hamley made him--Hamley made him. We did not spare advice, or example, or any correction that came to our minds--indeed, it was almost a luxury. Think you, does he still play the flute--an instrument none too grave, Luke?"
But, to this, Luke Claridge exclaimed impatiently and hastened on; and the little wizened Elder chuckled to himself all the way to the house of John Fairley. None in Hamley took such pride in David as did these two old men, who had loved him from a child, but had discreetly hidden their favour, save to each other. Many times they had met and prayed together in the weeks when his life was in notorious danger in the Soudan.
As David walked through the streets of Heddington making for the open country, he was conscious of a new feeling regarding the place. It was familiar, but in a new sense. Its grimy, narrow streets, unlovely houses, with shut windows, summer though it was, and no softening influences anywhere, save here and there a box of sickly geraniums in the windows, all struck his mind in a way they had never done before. A mile away were the green fields, the woods, the roadsides gay with flowers and shrubs-loveliness was but over the wall, as it were; yet here the barrack-like houses, the grey, harsh streets, seemed like prison walls, and the people in them prisoners who, with every legal right to call themselves free, were as much captives as the criminal on some small island in a dangerous sea. Escape--where? Into the gulf of no work and degradation?
They never lifted their eyes above the day's labour. They were scarce conscious of anything beyond. What were their pleasures? They had imitations of pleasures. To them a funeral or a wedding, a riot or a vociferous band, a dog-fight or a strike, were alike in this, that they quickened feelings which carried them out of themselves, gave them a sense of intoxication.
Intoxication? David remembered the far-off day of his own wild rebellion in Hamley. From that day forward he had better realised that in the hearts of so many of the human race there was a passion to forget themselves; to blot out, if for a moment only, the troubles of life and time; or, by creating a false air of exaltation, to rise above them. Once in the desert, when men were dying round him of fever and dysentery, he had been obliged, exhausted and ill, scarce able to drag himself from his bed, to resort to an opiate to allay his own sufferings, that he might minister to others. He remembered how, in the atmosphere it had created--an intoxication, a soothing exhilaration and pervasive thrill-- he had saved so many of his followers. Since then the temptation had come upon him often when trouble weighed or difficulties surrounded him --accompanied always by recurrence of fever--to resort to the insidious medicine. Though he had fought the temptation with every inch of his strength, he could too well understand those who sought for "surcease of pain"
"Seeking for surcease of pain, Pilgrim to Lethe I came; Drank not, for pride was too keen, Stung by the sound of a name!"
As the plough of action had gone deep into his life and laid bare his nature to the light, there had been exposed things which struggled for life and power in him, with the fiery strength which only evil has.
The western heavens were aglow. On every hand the gorse and the may were in bloom, the lilacs were coming to their end, but wild rhododendrons were glowing in the bracken, as he stepped along the road towards the place where he was born. Though every tree and roadmark was familiar, yet he was conscious of a new outlook. He had left these quiet scenes inexperienced and untravelled, to be thrust suddenly into the thick of a struggle of nations over a sick land. He had worked in a vortex of debilitating local intrigue. All who had to do with Egypt gained except herself, and if she moved in revolt or agony, they threatened her. Once when resisting the pressure and the threats of war of a foreign diplomatist, he had, after a trying hour, written to Faith in a burst of passionate complaint, and his letter had ended with these words.
"In your onward march, O men, White of face, in promise whiter, You unsheath the sword, and then Blame the wronged as the fighter. "Time, ah, Time, rolls onward o'er All these foetid fields of evil, While hard at the nation's core Eats the burning rust and weevill "Nathless, out beyond the stars Reigns the Wiser and the Stronger, Seeing in all strifes and wars Who the wronged, who the wronger."
Privately he had spoken thus, but before the world he had given way to no impulse, in silence finding safety from the temptation to diplomatic evasion. Looking back over five years, he felt now that the sum of his accomplishment had been small.
He did not realise the truth. When his hand was almost upon the object for which he had toiled and striven--whether pacifying a tribe, meeting a loan by honest means, building a barrage, irrigating the land, financing a new industry, or experimenting in cotton--it suddenly eluded him. Nahoum had snatched it away by subterranean wires. On such occasions Nahoum would shrug his shoulders, and say with a sigh, "Ah, my friend, let us begin again. We are both young; time is with us; and we will flourish palms in the face of Europe yet. We have our course set by a bright star. We will continue."
Yet, withal, David was the true altruist. Even now as he walked this road which led to his old home, dear to him beyond all else, his thoughts kept flying to the Nile and to the desert.
Suddenly he stopped. He was at the cross-roads. Here he had met Kate Heaver, here he had shamed his neighbours--and begun his work in life. He stood for a moment, smiling, as he looked at the stone where he had sat those years ago, his hand feeling instinctively for his flute. Presently he turned to the dusty road again.
Walking quickly away, he swung into the path of the wood which would bring him by a short cut to Hamley, past Soolsby's cottage. Here was the old peace, the old joy of solitude among the healing trees. Experience had broadened his life, had given him a vast theatre of work; but the smell of the woods, the touch of the turf, the whispering of the trees, the song of the birds, had the ancient entry to his heart.
At last he emerged on the hill where Soolsby lived. He had not meant, if he could help it, to speak to any one until he had entered the garden of the Red Mansion, but he had inadvertently come upon this place where he had spent the most momentous days of his life, and a feeling stronger than he cared to resist drew him to the open doorway. The afternoon sun was beating in over the threshold as he reached it, and, at his footstep, a figure started forward from the shadow of a corner.
It was Kate Heaver.
Surprise, then pain showed in her face; she flushed, was agitated.
"I am sorry. It's too bad--it's hard on him you should see," she said in a breath, and turned her head away for an instant; but presently looked him in the face again, all trembling and eager. "He'll be sorry enough to-morrow," she added solicitously, and drew away from something, she had been trying to hide.
Then David saw. On a bench against a wall lay old Soolsby--drunk. A cloud passed across his face and left it pale.
"Of course," he said simply, and went over and touched the heaving shoulders reflectively. "Poor Soolsby!"
"He's been sober four years--over four," she said eagerly. "When he knew you'd come again, he got wild, and he would have the drink in spite of all. Walking from Heddington, I saw him at the tavern, and brought him home."
"At the tavern--" David said reflectively.
"The Fox and Goose, sir." She turned her face away again, and David's head came up with a quick motion. There it was, five years ago, that he had drunk at the bar, and had fought Jasper Kimber.
"Poor fellow!" he said again, and listened to Soolsby's stertorous breathing, as a physician looks at a patient whose case he cannot control, does not wholly understand.
The hand of the sleeping man was suddenly raised, his head gave a jerk, and he said mumblingly: "Claridge for ever!"
Kate nervously intervened. "It fair beat him, your coming back, sir. It's awful temptation, the drink. I lived in it for years, and it's cruel hard to fight it when you're worked up either way, sorrow or joy. There's a real pleasure in being drunk, I'm sure. While it lasts you're rich, and you're young, and you don't care what happens. It's kind of you to take it like this, sir, seeing you've never been tempted and mightn't understand." David shook his head sadly, and looked at Soolsby in silence.
"I don't suppose he took a quarter what he used to take, but it made him drunk. 'Twas but a minute of madness. You've saved him right enough."
"I was not blaming him. I understand--I understand."
He looked at her clearly. She was healthy and fine-looking, with large, eloquent eyes. Her dress was severe and quiet, as became her occupation --a plain, dark grey, but the shapely fulness of the figure gave softness to the outlines. It was no wonder Jasper Kimber wished to marry her; and, if he did, the future of the man was sure. She had a temperament which might have made her an adventuress--or an opera-singer. She had been touched in time, and she had never looked back.
"You are with Lady Eglington now, I have heard?" he asked.
"It was hard for you in London at first?"
She met his look steadily. "It was easy in a way. I could see round me what was the right thing to do. Oh, that was what was so awful in the old life over there at Heddington,"--she pointed beyond the hill, "we didn't know what was good and what was bad. The poor people in big working-places like Heddington ain't much better than heathens, leastways as to most things that matter. They haven't got a sensible religion, not one that gets down into what they do. The parson doesn't reach them--he talks about church and the sacraments, and they don't get at what good it's going to do them. And the chapel preachers ain't much better. They talk and sing and pray, when what the people want is light, and hot water, and soap, and being shown how to live, and how to bring up children healthy and strong, and decent-cooked food. I'd have food- hospitals if I could, and I'd give the children in the schools one good meal a day. I'm sure the children of the poor go wrong and bad more through the way they live than anything. If only they was taught right --not as though they was paupers! Give me enough nurses of the right sort, and enough good, plain cooks, and meat three times a week, and milk and bread and rice and porridge every day, and I'd make a new place of any town in England in a year. I'd--"
She stopped all at once, however, and flushing, said: "I didn't stop to think I was talking to you, sir."
"I am glad you speak to me so," he answered gently. "You and I are both reformers at heart."
"Me? I've done nothing, sir, not any good to anybody or anything."
"Not to Jasper Kimber?"
"You did that, sir; he says so; he says you made him."
A quick laugh passed David's lips. "Men are not made so easily. I think I know the trowel and the mortar that built that wall! Thee will marry him, friend?"
Her eyes burned as she looked at him. She had been eternally dispossessed of what every woman has the right to have--one memory possessing the elements of beauty. Even if it remain but for the moment, yet that moment is hers by right of her sex, which is denied the wider rights of those they love and serve. She had tasted the cup of bitterness and drunk of the waters of sacrifice. Married life had no lure for her. She wanted none of it. The seed of service had, however, taken root in a nature full of fire and light and power, undisciplined and undeveloped as it was. She wished to do something--the spirit of toil, the first habit of the life of the poor, the natural medium for the good that may be in them, had possession of her.
This man was to her the symbol of work. To have cared for his home, to have looked after his daily needs, to have sheltered him humbly from little things, would have been her one true happiness. And this was denied her. Had she been a man, it would have been so easy. She could have offered to be his servant; could have done those things which she could do better than any, since hers would be a heart-service.
But even as she looked at him now, she had a flash of insight and prescience. She had, from little things said or done, from newspapers marked and a hundred small indications, made up her mind that her mistress's mind dwelt much upon "the Egyptian." The thought flashed now that she might serve this man, after all; that a day might come when she could say that she had played a part in his happiness, in return for all he had done for her. Life had its chances--and strange things had happened. In her own mind she had decided that her mistress was not happy, and who could tell what might happen? Men did not live for ever! The thought came and went, but it left behind a determination to answer David as she felt.
"I will not marry Jasper," she answered slowly. "I want work, not marriage."
"There would be both," he urged.
"With women there is the one or the other, not both."
"Thee could help him. He has done credit to himself, and he can do good work for England. Thee can help him."
"I want work alone, not marriage, sir."
"He would pay thee his debt."
"He owes me nothing. What happened was no fault of his, but of the life we were born in. He tired of me, and left me. Husbands tire of their wives, but stay on and beat them."
"He drove thee mad almost, I remember."
"Wives go mad and are never cured, so many of them. I've seen them die, poor things, and leave the little ones behind. I had the luck wi' me. I took the right turning at the cross-roads yonder."
"Thee must be Jasper's wife if he asks thee again," he urged.
"He will come when I call, but I will not call," she answered.
"But still thee will marry him when the heart is ready," he persisted. "It shall be ready soon. He needs thee. Good-bye, friend. Leave Soolsby alone. He will be safe. And do not tell him that I have seen him so." He stooped over and touched the old man's shoulder gently.
He held out his hand to her. She took it, then suddenly leaned over and kissed it. She could not speak.
He stepped to the door and looked out. Behind the Red Mansion the sun was setting, and the far garden looked cool and sweet. He gave a happy sigh, and stepped out and down.
As he disappeared, the woman dropped into a chair, her arms upon a table. Her body shook with sobs. She sat there for an hour, and then, when the sun was setting, she left the drunken man sleeping, and made her way down the hill to the Cloistered House. Entering, she was summoned to her mistress's room. "I did not expect my lady so soon," she said, surprised.
"No; we came sooner than we expected. Where have you been?"
"At Soolsby's hut on the hill, my lady."
"Who is Soolsby?"
Kate told her all she knew, and of what had happened that afternoon--but not all.