The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXV. The Voice Through the Door
That night Soolsby tapped at the door of the lighted laboratory of the Cloistered House where Lord Eglington was at work; opened it, peered in, and stepped inside.
With a glass retort in his hand Eglington faced him. "What's this--what do you want?" he demanded.
"I want to try an experiment," answered Soolsby grimly.
"Ah, a scientific turn!" rejoined Eglington coolly--looking at him narrowly, however. He was conscious of danger of some kind.
Then for a minute neither spoke. Now that Soolsby had come to the moment for which he had waited for so many ,years, the situation was not what he had so often prefigured. The words he had chosen long ago were gone from his memory; in his ignorance of what had been a commonplace to Soolsby's dark reflection so long, the man he had meant to bring low stood up before him on his own ground, powerful and unabashed.
Eglington wore a blue smock, and over his eyes was a green shade to protect them from the light, but they peered sharply out at the chair- maker, and were boldly alive to the unexpected. He was no physical coward, and, in any case, what reason had he for physical fear in the presence of this man weakened by vice and age? Yet ever since he was a boy there had existed between them an antagonism which had shown itself in many ways. There had ever been something sinister in Soolsby's attitude to his father and himself.
Eglington vaguely knew that now he was to face some trial of mind and nerve, but with great deliberation he continued dropping liquid from a bottle into the glass retort he carried, his eyes, however, watchful of his visitor, who involuntarily stared around the laboratory.
It was fifteen years since Soolsby had been in this room; and then he had faced this man's father with a challenge on his tongue such as he meant to speak now. The smell of the chemicals, the carboys filled with acids, the queer, tapering glasses with engraved measurements showing against the coloured liquids, the great blue bottles, the mortars and pestles, the microscopic instruments--all brought back the far-off, acrid scene between the late Earl and himself. Nothing had changed, except that now there were wires which gave out hissing sparks, electrical instruments invented since the earlier day; except that this man, gently dropping acids into the round white bottle upon a crystal which gave off musty fumes, was bolder, stronger, had more at stake than the other.
Slowly Eglington moved back to put the retort on a long table against the wall, and Soolsby stepped forward till he stood where the electric sparks were gently hissing about him. Now Eglington leaned against the table, poured some alcohol on his fingers to cleanse the acid from them, and wiped them with a piece of linen, while he looked inquiringly at Soolsby. Still, Soolsby did not speak. Eglington lit a cigarette, and took away the shade from his eyes.
"Well, now, what is your experiment?" he asked, "and why bring it here? Didn't you know the way to the stables or the scullery?"
"I knew my way better here," answered Soolsby, steadying himself.
"Ah, you've been here often?" asked Eglington nonchalantly, yet feeling for the cause of this midnight visit.
"It is fifteen years since I was here, my lord. Then I came to see the Earl of Eglington."
"And so history repeats itself every fifteen years! You came to see the Earl of Eglington then; you come to see the Earl of Eglington again-- after fifteen years!"
"I come to speak with him that's called the Earl of Eglington."
Eglington's eyes half closed, as though the light hurt them. "That sounds communistic, or is it pure Quakerism? I believe they used to call my father Friend Robert till he backslided. But you are not a Quaker, Soolsby, so why be too familiar? Or is it merely the way of the old family friend?"
"I knew your father before you were born, my lord--he troosted me then."
"So long? And fifteen years ago--here?" He felt a menace, vague and penetrating. His eyes were hard and cruel.
"It wasn't a question of troost then; 'twas one of right or wrong--naught else."
"Ah--and who was right, and what was wrong?" At that moment there came a tap at the door leading into the living part of the house, and the butler entered. "The doctor--he has used up all his oxygen, my lord. He begs to know if you can give him some for Mr. Claridge. Mr. Claridge is bad to-night."
A sinister smile passed over Eglington's face. "Who brings the message, Garry?"
"A servant--Miss Claridge's, my lord."
An ironical look came into Eglington's eyes; then they softened a little. In a moment he placed a jar of oxygen in the butler's hands.
"My compliments to Miss Claridge, and I am happy to find my laboratory of use at last to my neighbours," he said, and the door closed upon the man.
Then he came back thoughtfully. Soolsby had not moved.
"Do you know what oxygen's for, Soolsby?" he asked quizzically.
"No, my lord, I've never heerd tell of it."
"Well, if you brought the top of Ben Lomond to the bottom of a coal-mine --breath to the breathless--that's it.
"You've been doing that to Mr. Claridge, my lord?"
"A little oxygen more or less makes all the difference to a man--it probably will to neighbour Claridge, Soolsby; and so I've done him a good turn."
A grim look passed over Soolsby's face. "It's the first, I'm thinking, my lord, and none too soon; and it'll be the last, I'm thinking, too. It's many a year since this house was neighbourly to that."
Eglington's eyes almost closed, as he studied the other's face; then he said: "I asked you a little while ago who was right and what was wrong when you came to see my father here fifteen years ago. Well?"
Suddenly a thought flashed into his eyes, and it seemed to course through his veins like some anaesthetic, for he grew very still, and a minute passed before he added quietly: "Was it a thing between my father and Luke Claridge? There was trouble--well, what was it?" All at once he seemed to rise above the vague anxiety that possessed him, and he fingered inquiringly a long tapering glass of acids on the bench beside him. "There's been so much mystery, and I suppose it was nothing, after all. What was it all about? Or do you know--eh? Fifteen years ago you came to see my father, and now you have come to see me--all in the light o' the moon, as it were; like a villain in a play. Ah, yes, you said it was to make an experiment--yet you didn't know what oxygen was! It's foolish making experiments, unless you know what you are playing with, Soolsby. See, here are two glasses." He held them up. "If I poured one into the other, we'd have an experiment--and you and I would be picked up in fragments and carried away in a basket. And that wouldn't be a successful experiment, Soolsby."
"I'm not so sure of that, my lord. Some things would be put right then."
"H'm, there would be a new Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and--"
"And Claridge Pasha would come back from Egypt, my lord," was the sharp interjection. Suddenly Soolsby's anger flared up, his hands twitched. "You had your chance to be a friend to him, my lord. You promised her yonder at the Red Mansion that you would help him--him that never wronged you, him you always wronged, and you haven't lifted hand to help him in his danger. A moment since you asked me who was right and what was wrong. You shall know. If you had treated him right, I'd have held my peace, and kept my word to her that's gone these thirty-odd years. I'll hold it no more, and so I told Luke Claridge. I've been silent, but not for your father's sake or yours, for he was as cruel as you, with no heart, and a conscience like a pin's head, not big enough for use. . . Ay, you shall know. You are no more the Earl of Eglington than me.
"The Earl of Eglington is your elder brother, called David Claridge."
As Soolsby's words poured forth passionately, weighty, Eglington listened like one in a dream. Since this man entered the laboratory fifty reasons for his coming had flashed across his mind; he had prepared himself at many corners for defence, he had rallied every mental resource, he had imagined a dozen dangerous events which his father and Luke Claridge shared--with the balance against his father; but this thing was beyond all speculation. Yet on the instant the words were said he had a conviction of their inevitable truth. Even as they were uttered, kaleidoscopic memories rushed in, and David's face, figure, personal characteristics, flashed before him. He saw, he felt, the likeness to his father and himself; a thousand things were explained that could only be explained by this fatal fact launched at him without warning. It was as though, fully armed for his battle of life, he had suddenly been stripped of armour and every weapon, and left naked on the field. But he had the mind of the gamester, and the true gamester's self-control. He had taken chances so often that the tornado of ill-luck left him standing.
"What proof have you?" he asked quietly. Soolsby's explicit answer left no ground for doubt. He had not asked the question with any idea of finding gaps in the evidence, but rather to find if there were a chance for resistance, of escape, anywhere. The marriage certificate existed; identification of James Fetherdon with his father could be established by Soolsby and Luke Claridge.
Soolsby and Luke Claridge! Luke Claridge--he could not help but smile cynically, for he was composed and calculating now. A few minutes ago he had sent a jar of oxygen to keep Luke Claridge alive! But for it one enemy to his career, to his future, would be gone. He did not shrink from the thought. Born a gentleman, there were in him some degenerate characteristics which heart could not drown or temperament refine. Selfishness was inwoven with every fibre of his nature.
Now, as he stood with eyes fixed on Soolsby, the world seemed to narrow down to this laboratory. It was a vacuum where sensation was suspended, and the million facts of ordinary existence disappeared into inactivity. There was a fine sense of proportion in it all. Only the bare essential things that concerned him remained: David Claridge was the Earl of Eglington, this man before him knew, Luke Claridge knew; and there was one thing yet to know! When he spoke his voice showed no excitement--the tones were even, colourless.
"Does he know?" In these words he acknowledged that he believed the tale told him.
Soolsby had expected a different attitude; he was not easier in mind because his story had not been challenged. He blindly felt working in the man before him a powerful mind, more powerful because it faced the truth unflinchingly; but he knew that this did not mean calm acceptance of the consequences. He, not Eglington, was dazed and embarrassed, was not equal to the situation. He moved uneasily, changed his position.
"Does he know?" Eglington questioned again quietly. There was no need for Eglington to explain who he was.
"Of course he does not know--I said so. If he knew, do you think he'd be in Egypt and you here, my lord?"
Eglington was very quiet. His intellect more than his passions were now at work.
"I am not sure. You never can tell. This might not mean much to him. He has got his work cut out; he wasn't brought up to this. What he has done is in line with the life he has lived as a pious Quaker. What good would it do to bring him back? I have been brought up to it; I am used to it; I have worked things out 'according to the state of life to which I was called.' Take what I've always had away from me, and I am crippled; give him what he never had, and it doesn't work into his scheme. It would do him no good and me harm--Where's the use? Besides, I am still my father's son. Don't you see how unreasonable you are? Luke Claridge was right. He knew that he and his belonged to a different sphere. He didn't speak. Why do you speak now after all these years when we are all set in our grooves? It's silly to disturb us, Soolsby."
The voice was low, persuasive, and searching; the mind was working as it had never worked before, to achieve an end by peaceful means, when war seemed against him. And all the time he was fascinated by the fact that Soolsby's hand was within a few inches of a live electric wire, which, if he touched, would probably complete "the experiment" he had come to make; and what had been the silence of a generation would continue indefinitely. It was as though Fate had deliberately tempted him and arranged the necessary conditions, for Soolsby's feet were in a little pool of liquid which had been spilled on the floor--the experiment was exact and real.
For minutes he had watched Soolsby's hand near the wire-had watched as he talked, and his talk was his argument for non-interference against warning the man who had come to destroy him and his career. Why had Fate placed that hand so near the wire there, and provided the other perfect conditions for tragedy? Why should he intervene? It would never have crossed his mind to do Soolsby harm, yet here, as the man's arm was stretched out to strike him, Fate offered an escape. Luke Claridge was stricken with paralysis, no doubt would die; Soolsby alone stood in his way.
"You see, Soolsby, it has gone on too long," he added, in a low, penetrating tone. "It would be a crime to alter things now. Give him the earldom and the estates, and his work in Egypt goes to pieces; he will be spoiled for all he wants to do. I've got my faults, but, on the whole, I'm useful, and I play my part here, as I was born to it, as well as most. Anyhow, it's no robbery for me to have what has been mine by every right except the accident of being born after him. I think you'll see that you will do a good thing to let it all be. Luke Claridge, if he was up and well, wouldn't thank you for it--have you got any right to give him trouble, too? Besides, I've saved his life to-night, and. . . . and perhaps I might save yours, Soolsby, if it was in danger."
Soolsby's hand had moved slightly. It was only an inch from the wire. For an instant the room was terribly still.
An instant, and it might be too late. An instant, and Soolsby would be gone. Eglington watched the hand which had been resting on the table turn slowly over to the wire. Why should he intervene? Was it his business? This thing was not his doing. Destiny had laid the train of circumstance and accident, and who was stronger than Destiny? In spite of himself his eyes fixed themselves on Soolsby's hand. It was but a hair's breadth from the wire. The end would come now. Suddenly a voice was heard outside the door. "Eglington!" it called.
Soolsby started, his hand drew spasmodically away from the wire, and he stepped back quickly.
The door opened, and Hylda entered.
"Mr. Claridge is dead, Eglington," she said. Destiny had decided.