Book III
Chapter XXIV. The Questioner
 

"What has thee come to say?"

Sitting in his high-backed chair, Luke Claridge seemed a part of its dignified severity. In the sparsely furnished room with its uncarpeted floor, its plain teak table, its high wainscoting and undecorated walls, the old man had the look of one who belonged to some ancient consistory, a judge whose piety would march with an austerity that would save a human soul by destroying the body, if need be.

A crisis had come, vaguely foreseen, sombrely eluded. A questioner was before him who, poor, unheeded, an ancient victim of vice, could yet wield a weapon whose sweep of wounds would be wide. Stern and masterful as he looked in his arid isolation, beneath all was a shaking anxiety.

He knew well what the old chair-maker had come to say, but, in the prologue of the struggle before him, he was unwittingly manoeuvring for position.

"Speak," he added presently, as Soolsby fumbled in his great loose pockets, and drew forth a paper. "What has thee to say?"

Without a word, Soolsby handed over the paper, but the other would not take it.

"What is it?" he asked, his lips growing pale. "Read--if thee can read."

The gibe in the last words made the colour leap into Soolsby's face, and a fighting look came. He too had staved off this inevitable hour, had dreaded it, but now his courage shot up high.

"Doost think I have forgotten how to read since the day I put my hand to a writing you've hid so long from them it most concerns? Ay, I can read, and I can write, and I will prove that I can speak too before I've done."

"Read--read," rejoined the old man hoarsely, his hands tightly gripping the chair-arm.

"The fever caught him at Shendy--that is the place--"

"He is not dead--David is not dead?" came the sharp, pained interruption. The old man's head strained forward, his eyes were misty and dazed.

Soolsby's face showed no pity for the other's anxiety; it had a kind of triumph in it. "Nay, he is living," he answered. "He got well of the fever, and came to Cairo, but he's off again into the desert. It's the third time. You can't be tempting Providence for ever. This paper here says it's too big a job for one man--like throwing a good life away. Here in England is his place, it says. And so say I; and so I have come to say, and to hear you say so, too. What is he there? One man against a million. What put it in his head that he thinks he can do it?"

His voice became lower; he fixed his eyes meaningly on the other. "When a man's life got a twist at the start, no wonder it flies off madlike to do the thing that isn't to be done, and leave undone the thing that's here for it to do. Doost think a straight line could come from the crooked line you drew for him?"

"He is safe--he is well and strong again?" asked the old man painfully. Suddenly he reached out a hand for the paper. "Let me read," he said, in a voice scarce above a whisper.

He essayed to take the paper calmly, but it trembled in his hands. He spread it out and fumbled for his glasses, but could not find them, and he gazed helplessly at the page before him. Soolsby took the paper from him and read slowly:

". . . Claridge Pasha has done good work in Egypt, but he is a generation too soon, it may be two or three too soon. We can but regard this fresh enterprise as a temptation to Fate to take from our race one of the most promising spirits and vital personalities which this generation has produced. It is a forlorn hope. Most Englishmen familiar with Claridge Pasha's life and aims will ask--"

An exclamation broke from the old man. In the pause which followed he said: "It was none of my doing. He went to Egypt against my will."

"Ay, so many a man's said that's not wanted to look his own acts straight in the face. If Our Man had been started different, if he'd started in the path where God A'mighty dropped him, and not in the path Luke Claridge chose, would he have been in Egypt to-day wearing out his life? He's not making carpets there, he's only beating them."

The homely illustration drawn from the business in which he had been interested so many years went home to Claridge's mind. He shrank back, and sat rigid, his brows drawing over the eyes, till they seemed sunk in caverns of the head. Suddenly Soolsby's voice rose angrily. Luke Claridge seemed so remorseless and unyielding, so set in his vanity and self-will! Soolsby misread the rigid look in the face, the pale sternness. He did not know that there had suddenly come upon Luke Claridge the full consciousness of an agonising truth--that all he had done where David was concerned had been a mistake. The hard look, the sternness, were the signals of a soul challenging itself.

"Ay, you've had your own will," cried Soolsby mercilessly. "You've said to God A'mighty that He wasn't able to work out to a good end what He'd let happen; and so you'd do His work for Him. You kept the lad hid away from the people that belonged to him, you kept him out of his own, and let others take his birthright. You put a shame upon him, hiding who his father and his father's people were, and you put a shame upon her that lies in the graveyard--as sweet a lass, as good, as ever lived on earth. Ay, a shame and a scandal! For your eyes were shut always to the sidelong looks, your ears never heard the things people said--'A good- for-nothing ship-captain, a scamp and a ne'er-do-weel, one that had a lass at every port, and, maybe, wives too; one that none knew or ever had seen--a pirate maybe, or a slave-dealer, or a jail-bird, for all they knew! Married--oh yes, married right enough, but nothing else--not even a home. Just a ring on the finger, and then, beyond and away!' Around her life that brought into the world our lad yonder you let a cloud draw down; and you let it draw round his, too, for he didn't even bear his father's name--much less knew who his father was--or live in his father's home, or come by his own in the end. You gave the lad shame and scandal. Do you think, he didn't feel it, was it much or little? He wasn't walking in the sun, but--"

"Mercy! Mercy!" broke in the old man, his hand before his eyes. He was thinking of Mercy, his daughter, of the words she had said to him when she died, "Set him in the sun, father, where God can find him," and her name now broke from his lips.

Soolsby misunderstood. "Ay, there'll be mercy when right's been done Our Man, and not till then. I've held my tongue for half a lifetime, but I'll speak now and bring him back. Ay, he shall come back and take the place that is his, and all that belongs to him. That lordship yonder-- let him go out into the world and make his place as the Egyptian did. He's had his chance to help Our Man, and he has only hurt, not helped him. We've had enough of his second-best lordship and his ways."

The old man's face was painful in its stricken stillness now. He had regained control of himself, his brain had recovered greatly from its first suffusion of excitement.

"How does thee know my lord yonder has hurt and not helped him?" he asked in an even voice, his lips tightening, however. "How does thee know it surely?"

"From Kate Heaver, my lady's maid. My lady's illness--what was it? Because she would help Our Man, and, out of his hatred, yonder second son said that to her which no woman can bear that's a true woman; and then, what with a chill and fever, she's been yonder ailing these weeks past. She did what she could for him, and her husband did what he could against him."

The old man settled back in his chair again. "Thee has kept silent all these years? Thee has never told any that lives?"

"I gave my word to her that died--to our Egyptian's mother--that I would never speak unless you gave me leave to speak, or if you should die before me. It was but a day before the lad was born. So have I kept my word. But now you shall speak. Ay, then, but you shall speak, or I'll break my word to her, to do right by her son. She herself would speak if she was here, and I'll answer her, if ever I see her after Purgatory, for speaking now."

The old man drew himself up in his chair as though in pain, and said very slowly, almost thickly: "I shall answer also for all I did. The spirit moved me. He is of my blood--his mother was dead--in his veins is the blood that runs in mine. His father--aristocrat, spendthrift, adventurer, renegade, who married her in secret, and left her, bidding her return to me, until he came again, and she to bear him a child--was he fit to bring up the boy?"

He breathed heavily, his face became wan and haggard, as he continued: "Restless on land or sea, for ever seeking some new thing, and when he found it, and saw what was therein, he turned away forgetful. God put it into my heart to abjure him and the life around him. The Voice made me rescue the child from a life empty and bare and heartless and proud. When he returned, and my child was in her grave, he came to me in secret; he claimed the child of that honest lass whom he had married under a false name. I held my hand lest I should kill him, man of peace as I am. Even his father--Quaker though he once became--did we not know ere the end that he had no part or lot with us, that he but experimented with his soul, as with all else? Experiment--experiment--experiment, until at last an Eglington went exploring in my child's heart, and sent her to her grave--the God of Israel be her rest and refuge! What should such high- placed folk do stooping out of their sphere to us who walk in plain paths? What have we in common with them? My soul would have none of them--masks of men, the slaves of riches and titles, and tyrants over the poor."

His voice grew hoarse and high, and his head bent forward. He spoke as though forgetful of Soolsby's presence: "As the East is from the West, so were we separate from these lovers of this world, the self-indulgent, the hard-hearted, the proud. I chose for the child that he should stay with me and not go to him, to remain among his own people and his own class. He was a sinister, an evil man. Was the child to be trusted with him?"

"The child was his own child," broke in Soolsby. "Your daughter was his lady--the Countess of Eglington! Not all the Quakers in heaven or earth could alter that. His first-born son is Earl of Eglington, and has been so these years past; and you, nor his second-best lordship there, nor all the courts in England can alter that. . . . Ay, I've kept my peace, but I will speak out now. I was with the Earl--James Fetherdon he called himself--when he married her that's gone to heaven, if any ever went to heaven; and I can prove all. There's proof aplenty, and 'tis a pity, ay, God's pity! that 'twas not used long ago. Well I knew, as the years passed, that the Earl's heart was with David, but he had not the courage to face it all, so worn away was the man in him. Ah, if the lad had always been with him--who can tell?--he might have been different! Whether so or not, it was the lad's right to take his place his mother gave him, let be whatever his father was. 'Twas a cruel thing done to him. His own was his own, to run his race as God A'mighty had laid the hurdles, not as Luke Claridge willed. I'm sick of seeing yonder fellow in Our Man's place, he that will not give him help, when he may; he that would see him die like a dog in the desert, brother or no brother--"

"He does not know--Lord Eglington does not know the truth?" interposed the old man in a heavy whisper. "He does not know, but, if he knew, would it matter to him! So much the more would he see Our Man die yonder in the sands. I know the breed. I know him yonder, the skim-milk lord. There is no blood of justice, no milk of kindness in him. Do you think his father that I friended in this thing--did he ever give me a penny, or aught save that hut on the hill that was not worth a pound a year? Did he ever do aught to show that he remembered?--Like father like son. I wanted naught. I held my peace, not for him, but for her--for the promise I made her when she smiled at me and said: 'If I shouldn't be seeing thee again, Soolsby, remember; and if thee can ever prove a friend to the child that is to be, prove it.' And I will prove it now. He must come back to his own. Right's right, and I will have it so. More brains you may have, and wealth you have, but not more common sense than any common man like me. If the spirit moved you to hold your peace, it moves me to make you speak. With all your meek face you've been a hard, stiff- necked man, a tyrant too, and as much an aristocrat to such as me as any lord in the land. But I've drunk the mug of silence to the bottom. I've--" He stopped short, seeing a strange look come over the other's face, then stepped forward quickly as the old man half rose from his chair, murmuring thickly:

"Mercy--David, my lord, come--!" he muttered, and staggered, and fell into Soolsby's arms.

His head dropped forward on his breast, and with a great sigh he sank into unconsciousness. Soolsby laid him on a couch, and ran to the door and called aloud for help.

                    ..........................

The man of silence was silent indeed now. In the room where paralysis had fallen on him a bed was brought, and he lay nerveless on the verge of a still deeper silence. The hours went by. His eyes opened, he saw and recognised them all, but his look rested only on Faith and Soolsby; and, as time went on, these were the only faces to which he gave an answering look of understanding. Days wore away, but he neither spoke nor moved.

People came and went softly, and he gave no heed. There was ever a trouble in his eyes when they were open. Only when Soolsby came did it seem to lessen. Faith saw this, and urged Soolsby to sit by him. She had questioned much concerning what had happened before the stroke fell, but Soolsby said only that the old man had been greatly troubled about David. Once Lady Eglington, frail and gentle and sympathetic, came, but the trouble deepened in his eyes, and the lids closed over them, so that he might not see her face.

When she had gone, Soolsby, who had been present and had interpreted the old man's look according to a knowledge all his own, came over to the bed, leaned down and whispered: "I will speak now."

Then the eyes opened, and a smile faintly flickered at the mouth.

"I will speak now," Soolsby said again into the old man's ear.