The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXIII. The Tents of Cushan
"I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction, and the curtains of the Land of Midian did tremble."
A Hurdy-Gurdy was standing at the corner, playing with shrill insistence a medley of Scottish airs. Now "Loch Lomond" pleaded for pennies from the upper windows:
"For you'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road, And I'll be in Scotland before ye: But I and my true love will never meet again, On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond!"
The hurdy-gurdy was strident and insistent, but for a long time no response came. At last, however, as the strains of "Loch Lomond" ceased, a lady appeared on the balcony of a drawing-room, and, leaning over a little forest of flowers and plants, threw a half-crown to the sorry street-musician. She watched the grotesque thing trundle away, then entering the house again, took a 'cello from the corner of the room and tuned the instrument tenderly. It was Hylda.
Something of the peace of Hamley had followed her to London, but the poignant pain of it had come also. Like Melisande, she had looked into the quiet pool of life and had seen her own face, its story and its foreshadowings. Since then she had been "apart." She had watched life move on rather than shared in its movement. Things stood still for her. That apathy of soul was upon her which follows the inward struggle that exhausts the throb and fret of inward emotions, leaving the mind dominant, the will in abeyance.
She had become conscious that her fate and future were suspended over a chasm, as, on the trapeze of a balloon, an adventurous aeronaut hangs uncertain over the hungry sea, waiting for the coming wind which will either blow the hazardous vessel to its doom or to safe refuge on the land.
She had not seen David after he left Hamley. Their last words had been spoken at the Meeting-house, when he gave Faith to her care. That scene came back to her now, and a flush crept slowly over her face and faded away again. She was recalling, too, the afternoon of that day when she and David had parted in the drawing-room of the Cloistered House, and Eglington had asked her to sing. She thought of the hours with Eglington that followed, first at the piano and afterwards in the laboratory, where in his long blue smock he made experiments. Had she not been conscious of something enigmatical in his gaiety that afternoon, in his cheerful yet cheerless words, she would have been deeply impressed by his appreciation of her playing, and his keen reflections on the merits of the composers; by his still keener attention to his subsequent experiments, and his amusing comments upon them. But, somehow, that very cheerless cheerfulness seemed to proclaim him superficial. Though she had no knowledge of science, she instinctively doubted his earnestness even in this work, which certainly was not pursued for effect. She had put the feeling from her, but it kept returning. She felt that in nothing did he touch the depths. Nothing could possess him wholly; nothing inherent could make him self-effacing.
Yet she wondered, too, if she was right, when she saw his fox-terrier watching him, ever watching him with his big brown eyes as he buoyantly worked, and saw him stoop to pat its head. Or was this, after all, mere animalism, mere superficial vitality, love of health and being? She shuddered, and shut her eyes, for it came home to her that to him she was just such a being of health, vitality and comeliness, on a little higher plane. She put the thought from her, but it had had its birth, and it would not down. He had immense vitality, he was tireless, and abundant in work and industry; he went from one thing to another with ease and swiftly changing eagerness. Was it all mere force--mere man and mind? Was there no soul behind it? There in the laboratory she had laid her hand on the terrier, and prayed in her heart that she might understand him for her own good, her own happiness, and his. Above all else she wanted to love him truly, and to be loved truly, and duty was to her a daily sacrifice, a constant memorial. She realised to the full that there lay before her a long race unilluminated by the sacred lamp which, lighted at the altar, should still be burning beside the grave.
Now, as she thought of him, she kept saying to herself: "We should have worked out his life together. Work together would have brought peace. He shuts me out--he shuts me out."
At last she drew the bow across the instrument, once, twice, and then she began to play, forgetful of the world. She had a contralto voice, and she sang with a depth of feeling and a delicate form worthy of a professional; on the piano she was effective and charming, but into the 'cello she poured her soul.
For quite an hour she played with scarce an interruption. At last, with a sigh, she laid the instrument against her knee and gazed out of the window. As she sat lost in her dream--a dream of the desert--a servant entered with letters. One caught her eye. It was from Egypt--from her cousin Lacey. Her heart throbbed violently, yet she opened the official- looking envelope with steady fingers. She would not admit even to her self that news from the desert could move her so. She began to read slowly, but presently, with a little cry, she hastened through the pages. It ran:
"THE DESERT ROAD "In the sands I lived in a hut of palm, There was never a garden to see; There was never a path through the desert calm, Nor a way through its storms for me. "Tenant was I of a lone domain; The far pale caravans wound To the rim of the sky, and vanished again; My call in the waste was drowned. "The vultures came and hovered and fled; And once there stole to my door A white gazelle, but its eyes were dread With the hurt of the wounds it bore. "It passed in the dusk with a foot of fear, And the white cold mists rolled in; "And my heart was the heart of a stricken deer, Of a soul in the snare of sin. "My days they withered like rootless things, And the sands rolled on, rolled wide; Like a pelican I, with broken wings, Like a drifting barque on the tide. "But at last, in the light of a rose-red day, In the windless glow of the morn, From over the hills and from far away, You came--ah, the joy of the morn! "And wherever your footsteps fell, there crept A path--it was fair and wide: A desert road which no sands have swept, Where never a hope has died. "I followed you forth, and your beauty held My heart like an ancient song; By that desert road to the blossoming plains I came-and the way was long! "So I set my course by the light of your eyes; I care not what fate may send; On the road I tread shine the love-starred skies-- The road with never an end."
As Hylda read, she passed through phases of feeling begotten of new understanding which shook her composure. She had seen David and all that David was doing; Egypt, and all that was threatening the land through the eyes of another who told the whole truth--except about his own cowardice, which was untrue. She felt the issues at stake. While the mention of David's personal danger left her sick for a moment, she saw the wider peril also to the work he had set out to do.
What was the thing without the man? It could not exist--it had no meaning. Where was he now? What had been the end of the battle? He had saved others, had he saved himself? The most charmed life must be pierced by the shaft of doom sooner or later; but he was little more than a youth yet, he had only just begun!
"And the Saadat looks as though he was ready for his grave--but keeps going, going, going.!" The words kept ringing in her ears. Again: "And he sits there like a ghost all shrivelled up for want of sleep, and his eyes like a lime-kiln burning. . . . He hasn't had sleep for a fortnight. . . . He's killing himself for others."
Her own eyes were shining with a dry, hot light, her lips were quivering, but her hands upon the letter were steady and firm. What could she do?
She went to a table, picked up the papers, and scanned them hurriedly. Not a word about Egypt. She thought for a moment, then left the drawing- room. Passing up a flight of stairs to her husband's study, she knocked and entered. It was empty; but Eglington was in the house, for a red despatch-box lay open on his table. Instinctively she glanced at the papers exposed in the box, and at the letters beside it. The document on the top of the pile in the box related to Cyprus--the name caught her eye. Another document was half-exposed beneath it. Her hand went to her heart. She saw the words, "Soudan" and "Claridge Pasha." She reached for it, then drew back her hand, and her eyes closed as though to shut it out from her sight. Why should she not see it? They were her husband's papers, husband and wife were one. Husband and wife one! She shrank back. Were they one? An overmastering desire was on her. It seemed terrible to wait, when here before her was news of David, of life or death. Suddenly she put out her hand and drew the Cyprus paper over the Egyptian document, so that she might not see it.
As she did so the door opened on her, and Eglington entered. He had seen the swift motion of her hand, and again a look peculiar to him crossed his face, enigmatical, cynical, not pleasant to see.
She turned on him slowly, and he was aware of her inward distress to some degree, though her face was ruled to quietness.
He nodded at her and smiled. She shrank, for she saw in his nod and his smile that suggestion of knowing all about everything and everybody, and thinking the worst, which had chilled her so often. Even in their short married life it had chilled those confidences which she would gladly have poured out before him, if he had been a man with an open soul. Had there been joined to his intellect and temperament a heart capable of true convictions and abiding love, what a man he might have been! But his intellect was superficial, and his temperament was dangerous, because there were not the experiences of a soul of truth to give the deeper hold upon the meaning of life. She shrank now, as, with a little laugh and glancing suggestively at the despatch-box, he said:
"And what do you think of it all?"
She felt as though something was crushing her heart within its grasp, and her eyes took on a new look of pain. "I did not read the papers," she answered quietly.
"I saw them in your fingers. What creatures women are--so dishonourable in little things," he said ironically.
She laid a hand on his. "I did not read them, Harry," she urged.
He smiled and patted her arm. "There, there, it doesn't matter," he laughed. He watched her narrowly. "It matters greatly," she answered gently, though his words had cut her like a knife. "I did not read the papers. I only saw the word 'Cyprus' on the first paper, and I pushed it over the paper which had the word 'Egypt' on it 'Egypt' and 'Claridge,' lest I should read it. I did not wish to read it. I am not dishonourable, Harry."
He had hurt her more than he had ever done; and only the great matter at stake had prevented the lesser part of her from bursting forth in indignation, from saying things which she did not wish to say. She had given him devotion--such devotion, such self-effacement in his career as few women ever gave. Her wealth--that was so little in comparison with the richness of her nature--had been his; and yet his vast egotism took it all as his right, and she was repaid in a kind of tyranny, the more galling and cruel because it was wielded by a man of intellect and culture, and ancient name and tradition. If he had been warned that he was losing his wife's love, he would have scouted the idea, his self- assurance was so strong, his vanity complete. If, however, he had been told that another man was thinking of his wife, he would have believed it, as he believed now that David had done; and he cherished that belief, and let resentment grow. He was the Earl of Eglington, and no matter what reputation David had reached, he was still a member of a Quaker trader's family, with an origin slightly touched with scandal. Another resentment, however, was steadily rising in him. It galled him that Hylda should take so powerful an interest in David's work in Egypt; and he knew now that she had always done so. It did not ease his vexed spirit to know that thousands of others of his fellow-countrymen did the same. They might do so, but she was his wife, and his own work was the sun round which her mind and interest should revolve.
"Why should you be so keen about Egypt and Claridge Pasha?" he said to her now.
Her face hardened a little. Had he the right to torture her so? To suspect her? She could read it in his eyes. Her conscience was clear. She was no man's slave. She would not be any man's slave. She was master of her own soul. What right had he to catechise her--as though she were a servant or a criminal? But she checked the answer on her tongue, because she was hurt deeper than words could express, and she said, composedly:
"I have here a letter from my cousin Lacey, who is with Claridge Pasha. It has news of him, of events in the Soudan. He had fever, there was to be a fight, and I wished to know if you had any later news. I thought that document there might contain news, but I did not read it. I realised that it was not yours, that it belonged to the Government, that I had no right. Perhaps you will tell me if you have news. Will you?" She leaned against the table wearily, holding her letter.
"Let me read your letter first," he said wilfully.
A mist seemed to come before her eyes; but she was schooled to self- command, and he did not see he had given her a shock. Her first impulse was to hand the letter over at once; then there came the remembrance of all it contained, all it suggested. Would he see all it suggested? She recalled the words Lacey had used regarding a service which David had once done her. If Eglington asked, what could she say? It was not her secret alone, it was another's. Would she have the right, even if she wished it, to tell the truth, or part of the truth? Or, would she be entitled to relate some immaterial incident which would evade the real truth? What good could it do to tell the dark story? What could it serve? Eglington would horribly misunderstand it--that she knew. There were the verses also. They were more suggestive than anything else, though, indeed, they might have referred to another woman, or were merely impersonal; but she felt that was not so. And there was Eglington's innate unbelief in man and woman! Her first impulse held, however. She would act honestly. She would face whatever there was to face. She would not shelter herself; she would not give him the right in the future to say she had not dealt fairly by him, had evaded any inquest of her life or mind which he might make.
She gave him the letter, her heart standing still, but she was filled with a regnant determination to defend herself, to defend David against any attack, or from any consequences.
All her life and hopes seemed hanging in the balance, as he began to read the letter. With fear she saw his face cloud over, heard an impatient exclamation pass his lips. She closed her eyes to gather strength for the conflict which was upon her. He spoke, and she vaguely wondered what passage in the letter had fixed his attention. His voice seemed very far away. She scarcely understood. But presently it pierced the clouds of numbness between them, and she realised what he was saying:
"Vulgar fellow--I can't congratulate you upon your American cousin. So, the Saadat is great on moral suasion, master of it--never failed yet--not altogether--and Aunt Melissa and skim-milk and early piety!' And 'the Saadat is a wonder from Wondertown'--like a side-show to a circus, a marvel on the flying trapeze! Perhaps you can give me the sense of the letter, if there is any sense in it. I can't read his writing, and it seems interminable. Would you mind?"
A sigh of relief broke from her. A weight slipped away from her heart and brain. It was as though one in armour awaited the impact of a heavy, cruel, overwhelming foe, who suddenly disappeared, and the armour fell from the shoulders, and breath came easily once again.
"Would you mind?" he repeated drily, as he folded up the letter slowly.
He handed it back to her, the note of sarcasm in his voice pricking her like the point of a dagger. She felt angered with herself that he could rouse her temper by such small mean irony. She had a sense of bitter disappointment in him--or was it a deep hurt?--that she had not made him love her, truly love her. If he had only meant the love that he swore before they had married! Why had he deceived her? It had all been in his hands, her fate and future; but almost before the bridal flowers had faded, she had come to know two bitter things: that he had married with a sordid mind; that he was incapable of the love which transmutes the half- comprehending, half-developed affection of the maid into the absorbing, understanding, beautiful passion of the woman. She had married not knowing what love and passion were; uncomprehending, and innocent because uncomprehending; with a fine affection, but capable of loving wholly. One thing had purified her motives and her life--the desire to share with Eglington his public duty and private hopes, to be his confidante, his friend, his coadjutor, proud of him, eager for him, determined to help him. But he had blocked the path to all inner companionship. He did no more than let her share the obvious and outer responsibilities of his life. From the vital things, if there were vital things, she was shut out. What would she not give for one day of simple tenderness and quiet affection, a true day with a true love!
She was now perfectly composed. She told him the substance of the letter, of David's plight, of the fever, of the intended fight, of Nahoum Pasha, of the peril to David's work. He continued to interrogate her, while she could have shrieked out the question, "What is in yonder document? What do you know? Have you news of his safety?" Would he never stop his questioning? It was trying her strength and patience beyond endurance. At last he drew the document slowly from the despatch- box, and glanced up and down it musingly. "I fancy he won the battle," he said slowly, "for they have news of him much farther down the river. But from this letter I take it he is not yet within the zone of safety-- so Nahoum Pasha says." He flicked the document upwards with his thumb.
"What is our Government doing to help him?" she asked, checking her eagerness.
His heart had gradually hardened towards Egypt. Power had emphasised a certain smallness in him. Personal considerations informed the policy of the moment. He was not going to be dragged at the chariot-wheels of the Quaker. To be passive, when David in Egypt had asked for active interest; to delay, when urgency was important to Claridge Pasha; to speak coldly on Egyptian affairs to his chief, the weak Foreign Secretary, this was the policy he had begun.
So he answered now: "It is the duty of the Egyptian Government to help him--of Prince Kaid, of Nahoum Pasha, who is acting for him in his absence, who governs finance, and therefore the army. Egypt does not belong to England."
"Nahoum Pasha is his enemy. He will do nothing to help, unless you force him."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because I know Nahoum Pasha."
"When did you know Nahoum?"
"In Egypt, years ago."
"Your acquaintance is more varied than I thought," he said sarcastically.
"Oh, do not speak to me like that!" she returned, in a low, indignant voice.
"Do not patronise me; do not be sarcastic."
"Do not be so sensitive," he answered unemotionally.
"You surely do not mean that you--that the Government will not help him? He is doing the work of Europe, of civilisation, of Christianity there. He is sacrificing himself for the world. Do you not see it? Oh, but you do! You would realise his work if you knew Egypt as I have seen it."
"Expediency must govern the policy of nations," he answered critically.
"But, if through your expediency he is killed like a rat in a trap, and his work goes to pieces--all undone! Is there no right in the matter?"
"In affairs of state other circumstances than absolute 'right' enter. Here and there the individual is sacrificed who otherwise would be saved --if it were expedient."
"Oh, Eglington! He is of your own county, of your own village, is your neighbour, a man of whom all England should be proud. You can intervene if you will be just, and say you will. I know that intervention has been discussed in the Cabinet."
"You say he is of my county. So are many people, and yet they are not county people. A neighbour he was, but more in a Scriptural than social sense." He was hurting her purposely.
She made a protesting motion of her hand. "No, no, no, do not be so small. This is a great matter. Do a great thing now; help it to be done for your own honour, for England's honour--for a good man's sake, for your country's sake."
There came a knock at the door. An instant afterwards a secretary entered. "A message from the Prime Minister, sir." He handed over a paper.
"Will you excuse me?" he asked Hylda suavely, in his eyes the enigmatical look that had chilled her so often before. She felt that her appeal had been useless. She prepared to leave the room. He took her hand, kissed it gallantly, and showed her out. It was his way--too civil to be real.
Blindly she made her way to her room. Inside, she suddenly swayed and sank fainting to the ground, as Kate Heaver ran forward to her. Kate saw the letter in the clinched hand. Loosening it, she read two or three sentences with a gasp. They contained Tom Lacey's appeal for David. She lifted Hylda's head to her shoulder with endearing words, and chafed the cold hands, murmuring to herself the while.