The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXVI. "I Owe You Nothing"
Beside the grave under the willow-tree another grave had been made. It was sprinkled with the fallen leaves of autumn. In the Red Mansion Faith's delicate figure moved forlornly among relics of an austere, beloved figure vanished from the apricot-garden and the primitive simplicity of wealth combined with narrow thought.
Since her father's death, the bereaved girl had been occupied by matters of law and business, by affairs of the estate; but the first pressure was over, long letters had been written to David which might never reach him; and now, when the strain was withdrawn, the gentle mind was lost in a grey mist of quiet suffering. In Hamley there were but two in whom she had any real comfort and help--Lady Eglington and the old chair-maker. Of an afternoon or evening one or the other was to be seen in the long high-wainscoted room, where a great fire burned, or in the fruitless garden where the breeze stirred the bare branches.
Almost as deep a quiet brooded in the Cloistered House as in the home where mourning enjoined movement in a minor key. Hylda had not recovered wholly from the illness which had stricken her down on that day in London when she had sought news of David from Eglington, at such cost to her peace and health and happiness. Then had come her slow convalescence in Hamley, and long days of loneliness, in which Eglington seemed to retreat farther and farther from her inner life. Inquiries had poured in from friends in town, many had asked to come and see her; flowers came from one or two who loved her benignly, like Lord Windlehurst; and now and then she had some cheerful friend with her who cared for music or could sing; and then the old home rang; but she was mostly alone, and Eglington was kept in town by official business the greater part of each week. She did not gain strength as quickly as she ought to have done, and this was what brought the Duchess of Snowdon down on a special mission one day of early November.
Ever since the night she had announced Luke Claridge's death to Eglington, had discovered Soolsby with him, had seen the look in her husband's face and caught the tension of the moment on which she had broken, she had been haunted by a hovering sense of trouble. What had Soolsby been doing in the laboratory at that time of night? What was the cause of this secret meeting? All Hamley knew--she had long known--how Luke Claridge had held the Cloistered House in abhorrence, and she knew also that Soolsby worshipped David and Faith, and, whatever the cause of the family antipathy, championed it. She was conscious of a shadow somewhere, and behind it all was the name of David's father, James Fetherdon. That last afternoon when she had talked with him, and he had told her of his life, she had recalled the name as one she had seen or heard, and it had floated into her mind at last that she had seen it among the papers and letters of the late Countess of Eglington.
As the look in Eglington's face the night she came upon him and Soolsby in the laboratory haunted her, so the look in her own face had haunted Soolsby. Her voice announcing Luke Claridge's death had suddenly opened up a new situation to him. It stunned him; and afterwards, as he saw Hylda with Faith in the apricot-garden, or walking in the grounds of the Cloistered House hour after hour alone or with her maid, he became vexed by a problem greater than had yet perplexed him. It was one thing to turn Eglington out of his lands and home and title; it was another thing to strike this beautiful being, whose smile had won him from the first, whose voice, had he but known, had saved his life. Perhaps the truth in some dim way was conveyed to him, for he came to think of her a little as he thought of Faith.
Since the moment when he had left the laboratory and made his way to the Red Mansion, he and Eglington had never met face to face; and he avoided a meeting. He was not a blackmailer, he had no personal wrongs to avenge, he had not sprung the bolt of secrecy for evil ends; and when he saw the possible results of his disclosure, he was unnerved. His mind had seen one thing only, the rights of "Our Man," the wrong that had been done him and his mother; but now he saw how the sword of justice, which he had kept by his hand these many years, would cut both ways. His mind was troubled, too, that he had spoken while yet Luke Claridge lived, and so broken his word to Mercy Claridge. If he had but waited till the old man died--but one brief half-hour--his pledge would have been kept. Nothing had worked out wholly as he expected. The heavens had not fallen. The "second-best lordship" still came and went, the wheels went round as usual. There was no change; yet, as he sat in his hut and looked down into the grounds of the Cloistered House, he kept saying to himself.
"It had to be told. It's for my lord now. He knows the truth. I'll wait and see. It's for him to do right by Our Man that's beyond and away."
The logic and fairness of this position, reached after much thinking, comforted him. He had done his duty so far. If, in the end, the "second-best lordship" failed to do his part, hid the truth from the world, refused to do right by his half-brother, the true Earl, then would be time to act again. Also he waited for word out of Egypt; and he had a superstitious belief that David would return, that any day might see him entering the door of the Red Mansion.
Eglington himself was haunted by a spectre which touched his elbow by day, and said: "You are not the Earl of Eglington," and at night laid a clammy finger on his forehead, waking him, and whispering in his ear: "If Soolsby had touched the wire, all would now be well!" And as deep as thought and feeling in him lay, he felt that Fate had tricked him--Fate and Hylda. If Hylda had not come at that crucial instant, the chairmaker's but on the hill would be empty. Why had not Soolsby told the world the truth since? Was the man waiting to see what course he himself would take? Had the old chair-maker perhaps written the truth to the Egyptian--to his brother David.
His brother! The thought irritated every nerve in him. No note of kindness or kinship or blood stirred in him. If, before, he had had innate antagonism and a dark, hovering jealousy, he had a black repugnance now--the antipathy of the lesser to the greater nature, of the man in the wrong to the man in the right.
And behind it all was the belief that his wife had set David above him-- by how much or in what fashion he did not stop to consider; but it made him desire that death and the desert would swallow up his father's son and leave no trace behind.
Policy? His work in the Foreign Office now had but one policy so far as Egypt was concerned. The active sophistry in him made him advocate non- intervention in Egyptian affairs as diplomatic wisdom, though it was but personal purpose; and he almost convinced himself that he was acting from a national stand-point. Kaid and Claridge Pasha pursued their course of civilisation in the Soudan, and who could tell what danger might not bring forth? If only Soolsby held his peace yet a while!
Did Faith know? Luke Claridge was gone without speaking, but had Soolsby told Faith? How closely had he watched the faces round him at Luke Claridge's funeral, to see if they betrayed any knowledge!
Anxious days had followed that night in the laboratory. His boundless egotism had widened the chasm between Hylda and himself, which had been made on the day when she fell ill in London, with Lacey's letter in her hand. It had not grown less in the weeks that followed. He nursed a grievance which had, so far as he knew, no foundation in fact; he was vaguely jealous of a man--his brother--thousands of miles away; he was not certain how far Hylda had pierced the disguise of sincerity which he himself had always worn, or how far she understood him. He thought that she shrank from what she had seen of his real self, much or little, and he was conscious of so many gifts and abilities and attractive personal qualities that he felt a sense of injury. Yet what would his position be without her? Suppose David should return and take the estates and titles, and suppose that she should close her hand upon her fortune and leave him, where would he be?
He thought of all this as he sat in his room at the Foreign Office and looked over St. James's Park, his day's work done. He was suddenly seized by a new-born anxiety, for he had been so long used to the open purse and the unchecked stream of gold, had taken it so much as a matter of course, as not to realise the possibility of its being withdrawn. He was conscious of a kind of meanness and ugly sordidness in the suggestion; but the stake--his future, his career, his position in the world--was too high to allow him to be too chivalrous. His sense of the real facts was perverted. He said to himself that he must be practical.
Moved by the new thought, he seized a time-table and looked up the trains. He had been ten days in town, receiving every morning a little note from Hylda telling of what she had done each day; a calm, dutiful note, written without pretence, and out of a womanly affection with which she surrounded the man who, it seemed once--such a little while ago--must be all in all to her. She had no element of pretence in her. What she could give she gave freely, and it was just what it appeared to be. He had taken it all as his due, with an underlying belief that, if he chose to make love to her again, he could blind her to all else in the world. Hurt vanity and egotism and jealousy had prevented him from luring her back to that fine atmosphere in which he had hypnotised her so few years ago. But suddenly, as he watched the swans swimming in the pond below, a new sense of approaching loss, all that Hylda had meant in his march and progress, came upon him; and he hastened to return to Hamley.
Getting out of the train at Heddington, he made up his mind to walk home by the road that David had taken on his return from Egypt, and he left word at the station that he would send for his luggage.
His first objective was Soolsby's hut, and, long before he reached it, darkness had fallen. From a light shining through the crack of the blind he knew that Soolsby was at home. He opened the door and entered without knocking. Soolsby was seated at a table, a map and a newspaper spread out before him. Egypt and David, always David and Egypt!
Soolsby got to his feet slowly, his eyes fixed inquiringly on his visitor.
"I didn't knock," said Eglington, taking off his greatcoat and reaching for a chair; then added, as he seated himself: "Better sit down, Soolsby."
After a moment he continued: "Do you mind my smoking?"
Soolsby did not reply, but sat down again. He watched Eglington light a cigar and stretch out his hands to the wood fire with an air of comfort.
A silence followed. Eglington appeared to forget the other's presence, and to occupy himself with thoughts that glimmered in the fire.
At last Soolsby said moodily: "What have you come for, my lord?"
"Oh, I am my lord still, am I?" Eglington returned lazily. "Is it a genealogical tree you are studying there?" He pointed to the map.
"I've studied your family tree with care, as you should know, my lord; and a map of Egypt"--he tapped the parchment before him--"goes well with it. And see, my lord, Egypt concerns you too. Lord Eglington is there, and 'tis time he was returning-ay, 'tis time."
There was a baleful look in Soolsby's eyes. Whatever he might think, whatever considerations might arise at other times, a sinister feeling came upon him when Eglington was with him.
"And, my lord," he went on, "I'd be glad to know that you've sent for him, and told him the truth."
"Have you?" Eglington flicked the ash from his cigar, speaking coolly.
Soolsby looked at him with his honest blue eyes aflame, and answered deliberately: "I was not for taking your place, my lord. 'Twas my duty to tell you, but the rest was between you and the Earl of Eglington."
"That was thoughtful of you, Soolsby. And Miss Claridge?"
"I told you that night, my lord, that only her father and myself knew; and what was then is now."
A look of relief stole across Eglington's face. "Of course--of course. These things need a lot of thought, Soolsby. One must act with care-- no haste, no flurry, no mistakes."
"I would not wait too long, my lord, or be too careful." There was menace in the tone.
"But if you go at things blind, you're likely to hurt where you don't mean to hurt. When you're mowing in a field by a school-house, you must look out for the children asleep in the grass. Sometimes the longest way round is the shortest way home."
"Do you mean to do it or not, my lord? I've left it to you as a gentleman."
"It's going to upset more than you think, Soolsby. Suppose he, out there in Egypt"--he pointed again to the map--"doesn't thank me for the information. Suppose he says no, and--"
"Right's right. Give him the chance, my lord. How can you know, unless you tell him the truth?"
"Do you like living, Soolsby?"
"Do you want to kill me, my lord?"
There was a dark look in Eglington's face. "But answer me, do you want to live?"
"I want to live long enough to see the Earl of Eglington in his own house."
"Well, I've made that possible. The other night when you were telling me your little story, you were near sending yourself into eternity--as near as I am knocking this ash off my cigar." His little finger almost touched the ash. "Your hand was as near touching a wire charged with death. I saw it. It would have been better for me if you had gone; but I shut off the electricity. Suppose I hadn't, could I have been blamed? It would have been an accident. Providence did not intervene; I did. You owe me something, Soolsby."
Soolsby stared at him almost blindly for a moment. A mist was before his eyes; but through the mist, though he saw nothing of this scene in which he now was, he saw the laboratory, and himself and Eglington, and Eglington's face as it peered at him, and, just before the voice called outside, Eglington's eyes fastened on his hand. It all flashed upon him now, and he saw himself starting back at the sound of the voice.
Slowly he got up now, went to the door, and opened it. "My lord, it is not true," he said. "You have not spoken like a gentleman. It was my lady's voice that saved me. This is my castle, my lord--you lodge yonder." He pointed down into the darkness where the lights of the village shone. "I owe you nothing. I pay my debts. Pay yours, my lord, to him that's beyond and away."
Eglington kept his countenance as he drew on his great-coat and slowly passed from the house.
"I ought to have let you die, Soolsby. Y'ou'll think better of this soon. But it's quite right to leave the matter to me. It may take a little time, but everything will come right. Justice shall be done. Well, good night, Soolsby. You live too much alone, and imagination is a bad thing for the lonely. Good night-good night."
Going down the hill quickly, he said to himself: "A sort of second sight he had about that wire. But time is on my side, time and the Soudan-- and 'The heathen in his blindness. . . .' I will keep what is mine. I will keep it!"