The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXII. As in a Glass Darkly
It was very quiet and cool in the Quaker Meeting-house, though outside there was the rustle of leaves, the low din of the bees, the whistle of a bird, or the even tread of horses' hoofs as they journeyed on the London road. The place was full. For a half-hour the worshippers had sat voiceless. They were waiting for the spirit to move some one to speak. As they waited, a lady entered and glided into a seat. Few saw, and these gave no indication of surprise, though they were little used to strangers, and none of the name borne by this lady had entered the building for many years. It was Hylda.
At last the silence was broken. The wizened Elder, with eyes upon the ceiling and his long white chin like ivory on his great collar, began to pray, sitting where he was, his hands upon his knees. He prayed for all who wandered "into by and forbidden paths." He prayed for one whose work was as that of Joseph, son of Jacob; whose footsteps were now upon the sea, and now upon the desert; whose way was set among strange gods and divers heresies--"'For there must also be heresies, that they which are approved may be made manifest among the weak.'" A moment more, and then he added: "He hath been tried beyond his years; do Thou uphold his hands. Once with a goad did we urge him on, when in ease and sloth he was among us, but now he spurreth on his spirit and body in too great haste. O put Thy hand upon the bridle, Lord, that He ride soberly upon Thy business."
There was a longer silence now, but at last came the voice of Luke Claridge.
"Father of the fatherless," he said, "my days are as the sands in the hour-glass hastening to their rest; and my place will soon be empty. He goeth far, and I may not go with him. He fighteth alone, like him that strove with wild beasts at Ephesus; do Thou uphold him that he may bring a nation captive. And if a viper fasten on his hand, as chanced to Paul of old, give him grace to strike it off without hurt. O Lord, he is to me, Thy servant, as the one ewe lamb; let him be Thine when Thou gatherest for Thy vineyard!"
"And if a viper fasten on his hand--" David passed his hand across his forehead and closed his eyes. The beasts at Ephesus he had fought, and he would fight them again--there was fighting enough to do in the land of Egypt. And the viper would fasten on his hand--it had fastened on his hand, and he had struck it off; but it would come again, the dark thing against which he had fought in the desert.
Their prayers had unnerved him, had got into that corner of his nature where youth and its irresponsibility loitered yet. For a moment he was shaken, and then, looking into the faces of the Elders, said: "Friends, I go again upon paths that lead into the wilderness. I know not if I ever shall return. Howsoe'er that may be, I shall walk with firmer step because of all ye do for me."
He closed his eyes and prayed: "O God, I go into the land of ancient plagues and present pestilence. If it be Thy will, bring me home to this good land, when my task is done. If not, by Thy goodness let me be as a stone set by the wayside for others who come after; and save me from the beast and from the viper. 'Thou art faithful, who wilt not suffer us to be tempted above that we are able; but wilt with the temptation also make a way of escape, that we may be able to bear it!'"
He sat down, and all grew silent again; but suddenly some one sobbed aloud-sobbed, and strove to stay the sobbing, and could not, and, getting up, hastened towards the door.
It was Faith. David heard, and came quickly after her. As he took her arm gently, his eyes met those of Hylda. She rose and came out also.
"Will thee take her home?" he said huskily. "I can bear no more."
Hylda placed her arm round Faith, and led her out under the trees and into the wood. As they went, Faith looked back.
"Oh, forgive me, forgive me, Davy," she said softly.
Three lights burned in Hamley: one in the Red Mansion, one in the Cloistered House, and one in Soolsby's hut upon the hill. In the Red Mansion old Luke Claridge, his face pale with feeling, his white hair tumbling about, his head thrust forward, his eyes shining, sat listening, as Faith read aloud letters which Benn Claridge had written from the East many years before. One letter, written from Bagdad, he made her read twice. The faded sheet had in it the glow and glamour of the East; it was like a heart beating with life; emotion rose and fell in it like the waves of the sea. Once the old man interrupted Faith.
"Davy--it is as though Davy spoke. It is like Davy--both Claridge, both Claridge," he said. "But is it not like Davy? Davy is doing what it was in Benn's heart to do. Benn showed the way; Benn called, and Davy came."
He laid both hands upon his knees and raised his eyes. "O Lord, I have sought to do according to Thy will," he whispered. He was thinking of a thing he had long hidden. Through many years he had no doubt, no qualm; but, since David had gone to Egypt, some spirit of unquiet had worked in him. He had acted against the prayer of his own wife, lying in her grave--a quiet-faced woman, who had never crossed him, who had never shown a note of passion in all her life, save in one thing concerning David. Upon it, like some prophetess, she had flamed out. With the insight which only women have where children are concerned, she had told him that he would live to repent of what he had done. She had died soon after, and was laid beside the deserted young mother, whose days had budded and blossomed, and fallen like petals to the ground, while yet it was the spring.
Luke Claridge had understood neither, not his wife when she had said: "Thee should let the Lord do His own work, Luke," nor his dying daughter Mercy, whose last words had been: "With love and sorrow I have sowed; he shall reap rejoicing--my babe. Thee will set him in the garden in the sun, where God may find him--God will not pass him by. He will take him by the hand and lead him home." The old man had thought her touched by delirium then, though her words were but the parable of a mind fed by the poetry of life, by a shy spirit, to which meditation gave fancy and farseeing. David had come by his idealism honestly. The half-mystical spirit of his Uncle Benn had flowed on to another generation through the filter of a woman's sad soul. It had come to David a pure force, a constructive and practical idealism.
Now, as Faith read, there were ringing in the old man's ears the words which David's mother had said before she closed her eyes and passed away: "Set him in the garden in the sun, where God may find him--God will not pass him by." They seemed to weave themselves into the symbolism of Benn Claridge's letter, written from the hills of Bagdad.
"But," the letter continued, "the Governor passed by with his suite, the buckles of the harness of his horses all silver, his carriage shining with inlay of gold, his turban full of precious stones. When he had passed, I said to a shepherd standing by, 'If thou hadst all his wealth, shepherd, what wouldst thou do?' and he answered, 'If I had his wealth, I would sit on the south side of my house in the sun all day and every day.' To a messenger of the Palace, who must ever be ready night and day to run at his master's order, I asked the same. He replied, 'If I had all the Effendina's wealth, I would sleep till I died.' To a blind beggar, shaking the copper in his cup in the highways, pleading dumbly to those who passed, I made similar inquisition, and he replied 'If the wealth of the exalted one were mine, I would sit on the mastaba by the bake-house, and eat three times a day, save at Ramadan, when I would bless Allah the compassionate and merciful, and breakfast at sunset with the flesh of a kid and a dish of dates.' To a woman at the door of a tomb hung with relics of hundreds of poor souls in misery, who besought the buried saint to intercede for her with Allah, I made the same catechism, and she answered, 'Oh, effendi, if his wealth were mine, I would give my son what he has lost.' 'What has he lost, woman?' said I; and she answered: 'A little house with a garden, and a flock of ten goats, a cow and a dovecote, his inheritance of which he has been despoiled by one who carried a false debt 'gainst his dead father.' And I said to her: 'But if thy wealth were as that of the ruler of the city, thy son would have no need of the little house and garden and the flock of goats, and a cow and a dovecote.' Whereupon she turned upon me in bitterness, and said: 'Were they not his own as the seed of his father? Shall not one cherish that which is his own, which cometh from seed to seed? Is it not the law?' 'But,' said I, 'if his wealth were thine, there would be herds of cattle, and flocks of sheep, and carpets spread, and the banquet-tables, and great orchards.' But she stubbornly shook her head. 'Where the eagle built shall not the young eagle nest? How should God meet me in the way and bless him who stood not by his birth right? The plot of ground was the lad's, and all that is thereon. I pray thee, mock me not.' God knows I did not mock her, for her words were wisdom. So did it work upon me that, after many days, I got for the lad his own again, and there he is happier, and his mother happier, than the Governor in his palace. Later I did learn some truths from the shepherd, the messenger, and the beggar, and the woman with the child; but chiefly from the woman and the child. The material value has no relation to the value each sets upon that which is his own. Behind this feeling lies the strength of the world. Here on this hill of Bagdad I am thinking these things. And, Luke, I would have thee also think on my story of the woman and the child. There is in it a lesson for thee."
When Luke Claridge first read this letter years before, he had put it from him sternly. Now he heard it with a soft emotion. He took the letter from Faith at last and put it in his pocket. With no apparent relevancy, and laying his hand on Faith's shoulder, he said:
"We have done according to our conscience by Davy--God is our witness, so!"
She leaned her cheek against his hand, but did not speak.
In Soolsby's hut upon the hill David sat talking to the old chair-maker. Since his return he had visited the place several times, only to find Soolsby absent. The old man, on awaking from his drunken sleep, had been visited by a terrible remorse, and, whenever he had seen David coming, had fled into the woods. This evening, however, David came in the dark, and Soolsby was caught.
When David entered first, the old man broke down. He could not speak, but leaned upon the back of a chair, and though his lips moved, no sound came forth. But David took him by the shoulders and set him down, and laughed gently in his face, and at last Soolsby got voice and said:
"Egyptian! O Egyptian!"
Then his tongue was loosened and his eye glistened, and he poured out question after question, many pertinent, some whimsical, all frankly answered by David. But suddenly he stopped short, and his eyes sank before the other, who had laid a hand upon his knee.
"But don't, Egyptian, don't! Don't have aught to do with me. I'm only a drunken swine. I kept sober four years, as she knows--as the Angel down yonder in the Red Mansion knows; but the day you came, going out to meet you, I got drunk--blind drunk. I had only been pretending all the time. I was being coaxed along--made believe I was a real man, I suppose. But I wasn't. I was a pillar of sand. When pressure came I just broke down --broke down, Egyptian. Don't be surprised if you hear me grunt. It's my natural speech. I'm a hog, a drink-swilling hog. I wasn't decent enough to stay sober till you had said 'Good day,' and 'How goes it, Soolsby?' I tried it on; it was no good. I began to live like a man, but I've slipped back into the ditch. You didn't know that, did you?"
David let him have his say, and then in a low voice said: "Yes, I knew thee had been drinking, Soolsby." He started. "She told you--Kate Heaver--"
"She did not tell me. I came and found you here with her. You were asleep."
"A drunken sweep!" He spat upon the ground in disgust at himself.
"I ought never have comeback here," he added. "It was no place for me. But it drew me. I didn't belong; but it drew me."
"Thee belongs to Hamley. Thee is an honour to Hamley, Soolsby."
Soolsby's eyes widened; the blurred look of rage and self-reproach in them began to fade away.
"Thee has made a fight, Soolsby, to conquer a thing that has had thee by the throat. There's no fighting like it. It means a watching every hour, every minute--thee can never take the eye off it. Some days it's easy, some days it's hard, but it's never so easy that you can say, 'There is no need to watch.' In sleep it whispers and wakes you; in the morning, when there are no shadows, it casts a shadow on the path. It comes between you and your work; you see it looking out of the eyes of a friend. And one day, when you think it has been conquered, that you have worn it down into oblivion and the dust, and you close your eyes and say, 'I am master,' up it springs with fury from nowhere you can see, and catches you by the throat; and the fight begins again. But you sit stronger, and the fight becomes shorter; and after many battles, and you have learned never to be off guard, to know by instinct where every ambush is, then at last the victory is yours. It is hard, it is bitter, and sometimes it seems hardly worth the struggle. But it is--it is worth the struggle, dear old man."
Soolsby dropped on his knees and caught David by the arms. "How did you know-how did you know?" he asked hoarsely. "It's been just as you say. You've watched some one fighting?"
"I have watched some one fighting--fighting," answered David clearly, but his eyes were moist.
"With drink, the same as me?"
"No, with opium--laudanum."
"Oh, I've heard that's worse, that it makes you mad, the wanting it."
"I have seen it so."
"Did the man break down like me?"
"Only once, but the fight is not yet over with him." "Was he--an Englishman?"
David inclined his head. "It's a great thing to have a temptation to fight, Soolsby. Then we can understand others."
"It's not always true, Egyptian, for you have never had temptation to fight. Yet you know it all."
"God has been good to me," David answered, putting a hand on the old man's shoulder. "And thee is a credit to Hamley, friend. Thee will never fall again."
"You know that--you say that to me! Then, by Mary the mother of God, I never will be a swine again," he said, getting to his feet.
"Well, good-bye, Soolsby. I go to-morrow," David said presently.
Soolsby frowned; his lips worked. "When will you come back?" he asked eagerly.
David smiled. "There is so much to do, they may not let me come--not soon. I am going into the desert again."
Soolsby was shaking. He spoke huskily. "Here is your place," he said. "You shall come back--Oh, but you shall come back, here, where you belong."
David shook his head and smiled, and clasped the strong hand again. A moment later he was gone. From the door of the but Soolsby muttered to himself:
"I will bring you back. If Luke Claridge doesn't, then I will bring you back. If he dies, I will bring you--no, by the love of God, I will bring you back while he lives!"
Two thousand miles away, in a Nile village, women sat wailing in dark doorways, dust on their heads, black mantles covering their faces. By the pond where all the people drank, performed their ablutions, bathed their bodies and rinsed their mouths, sat the sheikh-el-beled, the village chief, taking counsel in sorrow with the barber, the holy man, and others. Now speaking, now rocking their bodies to and fro, in the evening sunlight, they sat and watched the Nile in flood covering the wide wastes of the Fayoum, spreading over the land rich deposits of earth from the mountains of Abyssinia. When that flood subsided there would be fields to be planted with dourha and onions and sugar-cane; but they whose strong arms should plough and sow and wield the sickle, the youth, the upstanding ones, had been carried off in chains to serve in the army of Egypt, destined for the far Soudan, for hardship, misery, and death, never to see their kindred any more. Twice during three months had the dread servant of the Palace come and driven off their best like sheep to the slaughter. The brave, the stalwart, the bread-winners, were gone; and yet the tax-gatherer would come and press for every impost--on the onion-field, the date-palm, the dourha-field, and the clump of sugar- cane, as though the young men, the toilers, were still there. The old and infirm, the children, the women, must now double and treble their labour. The old men must go to the corvee, and mend the banks of the Nile for the Prince and his pashas, providing their own food, their own tools, their own housing, if housing there would be--if it was more than sleeping under a bush by the riverside, or crawling into a hole in the ground, their yeleks their clothes by day, their only covering at night.
They sat like men without hope, yet with the proud, bitter mien of those who had known good and had lost it, had seen content and now were desolate.
Presently one--a lad--the youngest of them, lifted up his voice and began to chant a recitative, while another took a small drum and beat it in unison. He was but just recovered from an illness, or he had gone also in chains to die for he knew not what, leaving behind without hope all that he loved:
"How has the cloud fallen, and the leaf withered on the tree, The lemon-tree, that standeth by the door. The melon and the date have gone bitter to the taste, The weevil, it has eaten at the core The core of my heart, the mildew findeth it. My music, it is but the drip of tears, The garner empty standeth, the oven hath no fire, Night filleth me with fears. O Nile that floweth deeply, hast thou not heard his voice? His footsteps hast thou covered with thy flood? He was as one who lifteth up the yoke, He was as one who taketh off the chain, As one who sheltereth from the rain, As one who scattereth bread to the pigeons flying. His purse was at his side, his mantle was for me, For any who passeth were his mantle and his purse, And now like a gourd is he withered from our eyes. His friendship, it was like a shady wood Whither has he gone?--Who shall speak for us? Who shall save us from the kourbash and the stripes? Who shall proclaim us in the palace? Who shall contend for us in the gate? The sakkia turneth no more; the oxen they are gone; The young go forth in chains, the old waken in the night, They waken and weep, for the wheel turns backward, And the dark days are come again upon us-- Will he return no more? His friendship was like a shady wood, O Nile that floweth deeply, hast thou not heard his voice? Hast thou covered up his footsteps with thy flood? The core of my heart, the mildew findeth it!"
Another-an old man-took up the strain, as the drum kept time to the beat of the voice with its undulating call and refrain:
"When his footsteps were among us there was peace; War entered not the village, nor the call of war. Now our homes are as those that have no roofs. As a nest decayed, as a cave forsaken, As a ship that lieth broken on the beach, Is the house where we were born. Out in the desert did we bury our gold, We buried it where no man robbed us, for his arm was strong. Now are the jars empty, gold did not avail To save our young men, to keep them from the chains. God hath swallowed his voice, or the sea hath drowned it, Or the Nile hath covered him with its flood; Else would he come when our voices call. His word was honey in the prince's ear Will he return no more?"
And now the sheikh-el-beled spoke. "It hath been so since Nahoum Pasha passed this way four months agone. He hath changed all. War will not avail. David Pasha, he will come again. His word is as the centre of the world. Ye have no hope, because ye see the hawks among the starving sheep. But the shepherd will return from behind the hill, and the hawks will flee away.
". . . Behold, once was I in the desert. Listen, for mine are the words of one who hath travelled far--was I not at Damascus and Palmyra and Bagdad, and at Medina by the tomb of Mahomet?"
Reverently he touched the green turban on his head, evidence of his journey to Mahomet's tomb. "Once in the desert I saw afar off an oasis of wood and water, and flying things, and houses where a man might rest. And I got me down from my camel, and knelt upon my sheepskin, and gave thanks in the name of Allah. Thereupon I mounted again and rode on towards that goodly place. But as I rode it vanished from my sight. Then did I mourn. Yet once again I saw the trees, and flocks of pigeons and waving fields, and I was hungry and thirsty, and longed exceedingly. Yet got I down, and, upon my sheep-skin, once more gave thanks to Allah. And I mounted thereafter in haste and rode on; but once again was I mocked. Then I cried aloud in my despair. It was in my heart to die upon the sheep-skin where I had prayed; for I was burned up within, and there seemed naught to do but say malaish, and go hence. But that goodly sight came again. My heart rebelled that I should be so mocked. I bent down my head upon my camel that I might not see, yet once more I loosed the sheep-skin. Lifting up my heart, I looked again, and again I took hope and rode on. Farther and farther I rode, and lo! I was no longer mocked; for I came to a goodly place of water and trees, and was saved. So shall it be with us. We have looked for his coming again, and our hearts have fallen and been as ashes, for that he has not come. Yet there be mirages, and one day soon David Pasha will come hither, and our pains shall be eased."
"Aiwa, aiwa--yes, yes," cried the lad who had sung to them.
"Aiwa, aiwa," rang softly over the pond, where naked children stooped to drink.
The smell of the cooking-pots floated out from the mud-houses near by.
"Malaish," said one after another, "I am hungry. He will come again- perhaps to-morrow." So they moved towards the houses over the way.
One cursed his woman for wailing in the doorway; one snatched the lid from a cooking-pot; one drew from an oven cakes of dourha, and gave them to those who had none; one knelt and bowed his forehead to the ground in prayer; one shouted the name of him whose coming they desired.
So was David missed in Egypt.