The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXV. The Flight of the Wounded
"And Mario can soothe with a tenor note The souls in purgatory."
"Non ti scordar di mi!" The voice rang out with passionate stealthy sweetness, finding its way into far recesses of human feeling. Women of perfect poise and with the confident look of luxury and social fame dropped their eyes abstractedly on the opera-glasses lying in their laps, or the programmes they mechanically fingered, and recalled, they knew not why--for what had it to do with this musical narration of a tragic Italian tale!--the days when, in the first flush of their wedded life, they had set a seal of devotion and loyalty and love upon their arms, which, long ago, had gone to the limbo of lost jewels, with the chaste, fresh desires of worshipping hearts. Young egotists, supremely happy and defiant in the pride of the fact that they loved each other, and that it mattered little what the rest of the world enjoyed, suffered, and endured--these were suddenly arrested in their buoyant and solitary flight, and stirred restlessly in their seats. Old men whose days of work were over; who no longer marshalled their legions, or moved at a nod great ships upon the waters in masterful manoeuvres; whose voices were heard no more in chambers of legislation, lashing partisan feeling to a height of cruelty or lulling a storm among rebellious followers; whose intellects no longer devised vast schemes of finance, or applied secrets of science to transform industry--these heard the enthralling cry of a soul with the darkness of eternal loss gathering upon it, and drew back within themselves; for they too had cried like this one time or another in their lives. Stricken, they had cried out, and ambition had fled away, leaving behind only the habit of living, and of work and duty.
As Hylda, in the Duchess of Snowdon's box, listened with a face which showed nothing of what she felt, and looking straight at the stage before her, the words of a poem she had learned but yesterday came to her mind, and wove themselves into the music thrilling from the voice in the stage prison:
"And what is our failure here but a triumph's evidence For the fulness of the days? Have we withered or agonised? Why else was the pause prolonged but that singing might issue thence? Why rushed the discords in, but that harmony should be prized?"
"And what is our failure here but a triumph's evidence? Was it then so? The long weeks which had passed since that night at Hamley, when she had told Eglington the truth about so many things, had brought no peace, no understanding, no good news from anywhere. The morning after she had spoken with heart laid bare. Eglington had essayed to have a reconciliation; but he had come as the martyr, as one injured. His egotism at such a time, joined to his attempt to make light of things, of treating what had happened as a mere "moment of exasperation," as "one of those episodes inseparable from the lives of the high-spirited," only made her heart sink and grow cold, almost as insensible as the flesh under a spray of ether. He had been neither wise nor patient. She had not slept after that bitter, terrible scene, and the morning had found her like one battered by winter seas, every nerve desperately alert to pain, yet tears swimming at her heart and ready to spring to her eyes at a touch of the real thing, the true note--and she knew so well what the true thing was! Their great moment had passed, had left her withdrawn into herself, firmly, yet without heart, performing the daily duties of life, gay before the world, the delightful hostess, the necessary and graceful figure at so many functions.
Even as Soolsby had done, who went no further than to tell Eglington his dark tale, and told no one else, withholding it from "Our Man"; as Sybil Lady Eglington had shrunk when she had been faced by her obvious duty, so Hylda hesitated, but from better reason than either. To do right in the matter was to strike her husband--it must be a blow now, since her voice had failed. To do right was to put in the ancient home and house of Eglington one whom he--with anger and without any apparent desire to have her altogether for himself, all the riches of her life and love--had dared to say commanded her sympathy and interest, not because he was a man dispossessed of his rights, but because he was a man possessed of that to which he had no right. The insult had stung her, had driven her back into a reserve, out of which she seemed unable to emerge. How could she compel Eglington to do right in this thing--do right by his own father's son?
Meanwhile, that father's son was once more imperilling his life, once more putting England's prestige in the balance in the Soudan, from which he had already been delivered twice as though by miracles. Since he had gone, months before, there had been little news; but there had been much public anxiety; and she knew only too well that there had been 'pourparlers' with foreign ministers, from which no action came safe- guarding David.
Many a human being has realised the apathy, the partial paralysis of the will, succeeding a great struggle, which has exhausted the vital forces. Many a general who has fought a desperate and victorious fight after a long campaign, and amid all the anxieties and miseries of war, has failed to follow up his advantage, from a sudden lesion of the power for action in him. He has stepped from the iron routine of daily effort into a sudden freedom, and his faculties have failed him, the iron of his will has vanished. So it was with Hylda. She waited for she knew not what. Was it some dim hope that Eglington might see the right as she saw it? That he might realise how unreal was this life they were living, outwardly peaceful and understanding, deluding the world, but inwardly a place of tears. How she dreaded the night and its recurrent tears, and the hours when she could not sleep, and waited for the joyless morning, as one lost on the moor, blanched with cold, waits for the sun-rise! Night after night at a certain hour--the hour when she went to bed at last after that poignant revelation to Eglington--she wept, as she had wept then, heart-broken tears of disappointment, disillusion, loneliness; tears for the bitter pity of it all; for the wasting and wasted opportunities; for the common aim never understood or planned together; for the precious hours lived in an air of artificial happiness and social excitement; for a perfect understanding missed; for the touch which no longer thrilled.
But the end of it all must come. She was looking frail and delicate, and her beauty, newly refined, and with a fresh charm, as of mystery or pain, was touched by feverishness. An old impatience once hers was vanished, and Kate Heaver would have given a month's wages for one of those flashes of petulance of other days ever followed by a smile. Now the smile was all too often there, the patient smile which comes to those who have suffered. Hardness she felt at times, where Eglington was concerned, for he seemed to need her now not at all, to be self-contained, self- dependent--almost arrogantly so; but she did not show it, and she was outwardly patient.
In his heart of hearts Eglington believed that she loved him, that her interest in David was only part of her idealistic temperament--the admiration of a woman for a man of altruistic aims; but his hatred of David, of what David was, and of his irrefutable claims, reacted on her. Perverseness and his unhealthy belief that he would master her in the end, that she would one day break down and come to him, willing to take his view in all things, and to be his slave--all this drove him farther and farther on a fatal, ever-broadening path.
Success had spoiled him. He applied his gifts in politics, daringly unscrupulous, superficially persuasive, intellectually insinuating, to his wife; and she, who had been captured once by all these things, was not to be captured again. She knew what alone could capture her; and, as she sat and watched the singers on the stage now, the divine notes of that searching melody still lingering in her heart, there came a sudden wonder whether Eglington's heart could not be wakened. She knew that it never had been, that he had never known love, the transfiguring and reclaiming passion. No, no, surely it could not be too late--her marriage with him had only come too soon! He had ridden over her without mercy; he had robbed her of her rightful share of the beautiful and the good; he had never loved her; but if love came to him, if he could but once realise how much there was of what he had missed! If he did not save himself--and her--what would be the end? She felt the cords drawing her elsewhere; the lure of a voice she had heard in an Egyptian garden was in her ears. One night at Hamley, in an abandonment of grief-life hurt her so--she had remembered the prophecy she had once made that she would speak to David, and that he would hear; and she had risen from her seat, impelled by a strange new feeling, and had cried: "Speak! speak to me!" As plainly as she had ever heard anything in her life, she had heard his voice speak to her a message that sank into the innermost recesses of her being, and she had been more patient afterwards. She had no doubt whatever; she had spoken to him, and he had answered; but the answer was one which all the world might have heard.
Down deep in her nature was an inalienable loyalty, was a simple, old-fashioned feeling that "they two," she and Eglington, should cleave unto each other till death should part. He had done much to shatter that feeling; but now, as she listened to Mario's voice, centuries of predisposition worked in her, and a great pity awoke in her heart. Could she not save him, win him, wake him, cure him of the disease of Self?
The thought brought a light to her eyes which had not been there for many a day. Out of the deeps of her soul this mist of a pure selflessness rose, the spirit of that idealism which was the real chord of sympathy between her and Egypt.
Yes, she would, this once again, try to win the heart of this man; and so reach what was deeper than heart, and so also give him that without which his life must be a failure in the end, as Sybil Eglington had said. How often had those bitter anguished words of his mother rung in her ears-- "So brilliant and unscrupulous, like yourself; but, oh, so sure of winning a great place in the world . . . so calculating and determined and ambitious !" They came to her now, flashed between the eager solicitous eyes of her mind and the scene of a perfect and everlasting reconciliation which it conjured up--flashed and were gone; for her will rose up and blurred them into mist; and other words of that true palimpsest of Sybil Eglington's broken life came instead: "And though he loves me little, as he loves you little too, yet he is my son, and for what he is we are both responsible one way or another." As the mother, so the wife. She said to herself now in sad paraphrase, "And though he loves me little, yet he is my husband, and for what he is it may be that I am in some sense responsible." Yet he is my husband! All that it was came to her; the closed door, the drawn blinds; the intimacy which shut them away from all the world; the things said which can only be said without desecration between two honest souls who love each other; and that sweet isolation which makes marriage a separate world, with its own sacred revelation. This she had known; this had been; and though the image of the sacred thing had been defaced, yet the shrine was not destroyed.
For she believed that each had kept the letter of the law; that, whatever his faults, he had turned his face to no other woman. If she had not made his heart captive and drawn him by an ever-shortening cord of attraction, yet she was sure that none other had any influence over him, that, as he had looked at her in those short-lived days of his first devotion, he looked at no other. The way was clear yet. There was nothing irretrievable, nothing irrevocable, which would for ever stain the memory and tarnish the gold of life when the perfect love should be minted. Whatever faults of mind or disposition or character were his-- or hers--there were no sins against the pledges they had made, nor the bond into which they had entered. Life would need no sponge. Memory might still live on without a wound or a cowl of shame.
It was all part of the music to which she listened, and she was almost oblivious of the brilliant throng, the crowded boxes, or of the Duchess of Snowdon sitting near her strangely still, now and again scanning the beautiful face beside her with a reflective look. The Duchess loved the girl--she was but a girl, after all--as she had never loved any of her sex; it had come to be the last real interest of her life. To her eyes, dimmed with much seeing, blurred by a garish kaleidoscope of fashionable life, there had come a look which was like the ghost of a look she had, how many decades ago.
Presently, as she saw Hylda's eyes withdraw from the stage, and look at her with a strange, soft moisture and a new light in them, she laid her fan confidently on her friend's knee, and said in her abrupt whimsical voice: "You like it, my darling; your eyes are as big as saucers. You look as if you'd been seeing things, not things on that silly stage, but what Verdi felt when he wrote the piece, or something of more account than that."
"Yes, I've been seeing things," Hylda answered with a smile which came from a new-born purpose, the dream of an idealist. "I've been seeing things that Verdi did not see, and of more account, too. . . . Do you suppose the House is up yet?"
A strange look flashed into the Duchess's eyes, which had been watching her with as much pity as interest. Hylda had not been near the House of Commons this session, though she had read the reports with her usual care. She had shunned the place.
"Why, did you expect Eglington?" the Duchess asked idly, yet she was watchful too, alert for every movement in this life where the footsteps of happiness were falling by the edge of a precipice, over which she would not allow herself to look. She knew that Hylda did not expect Eglington, for the decision to come to the opera was taken at the last moment.
"Of course not--he doesn't know we are here. But if it wasn't too late, I thought I'd go down and drive him home."
The Duchess veiled her look. Here was some new development in the history which had been torturing her old eyes, which had given her and Lord Windlehurst as many anxious moments as they had known in many a day, and had formed them into a vigilance committee of two, who waited for the critical hour when they should be needed.
"We'll go at once if you like," she replied. "The opera will be over soon. We sent word to Windlehurst to join us, you remember, but he won't come now; it's too late. So, we'll go, if you like."
She half rose, but the door of the box opened, and Lord Windlehurst looked in quizzically. There was a smile on his face.
"I'm late, I know; but you'll forgive me--you'll forgive me, dear lady," he added to Hylda, "for I've been listening to your husband making a smashing speech for a bad cause."
Hylda smiled. "Then I must go and congratulate him," she answered, and withdrew her hand from that of Lord Windlehurst, who seemed to hold it longer than usual, and pressed it in a fatherly way.
"I'm afraid the House is up," he rejoined, as Hylda turned for her opera- cloak; "and I saw Eglington leave Palace Yard as I came away." He gave a swift, ominous glance towards the Duchess, which Hylda caught, and she looked at each keenly.
"It's seldom I sit in the Peers' Gallery," continued Windlehurst; "I don't like going back to the old place much. It seems empty and hollow. But I wouldn't have missed Eglington's fighting speech for a good deal."
"What was it about?" asked Hylda as they left the box. She had a sudden throb of the heart. Was it the one great question, that which had been like a gulf of fire between them?
"Oh, Turkey--the unpardonable Turk," answered Windlehurst. "As good a defence of a bad case as I ever heard."
"Yes, Eglington would do that well," said the Duchess enigmatically, drawing her cloak around her and adjusting her hair. Hylda looked at her sharply, and Lord Windlehurst slyly, but the Duchess seemed oblivious of having said anything out of the way, and added: "It's a gift seeing all that can be said for a bad cause, and saying it, and so making the other side make their case so strong that the verdict has to be just."
"Dear Duchess, it doesn't always work out that way," rejoined Windlehurst with a dry laugh. "Sometimes the devil's advocate wins."
"You are not very complimentary to my husband," retorted Hylda, looking him in the eyes, for she was not always sure when he was trying to baffle her.
"I'm not so sure of that. He hasn't won his case yet. He has only staved off the great attack. It's coming--soon."
"What is the great attack? What has the Government, or the Foreign Office, done or left undone?" "Well, my dear--" Suddenly Lord Windlehurst remembered himself, stopped, put up his eyeglass, and with great interest seemed to watch a gay group of people opposite; for the subject of attack was Egypt and the Government's conduct in not helping David, in view not alone of his present danger, but of the position of England in the country, on which depended the security of her highway to the East. Windlehurst was a good actor, and he had broken off his words as though the group he was now watching had suddenly claimed his attention. "Well, well, Duchess," he said reflectively, "I see a new nine days' wonder yonder." Then, in response to a reminder from Hylda, he continued: "Ah, yes, the attack! Oh, Persia--Persia, and our feeble diplomacy, my dear lady, though you mustn't take that as my opinion, opponent as I am. That's the charge, Persia--and her cats."
The Duchess breathed a sigh of relief; for she knew what Windlehurst had been going to say, and she shrank from seeing what she felt she would see, if Egypt and Claridge Pasha's name were mentioned. That night at Harnley had burnt a thought into her mind which she did not like. Not that she had any pity for Eglington; her thought was all for this girl she loved. No happiness lay in the land of Egypt for her, whatever her unhappiness here; and she knew that Hylda must be more unhappy still before she was ever happy again, if that might be. There was that concerning Eglington which Hylda did not know, yet which she must know one day--and then! But why were Hylda's eyes so much brighter and softer and deeper to-night? There was something expectant, hopeful, brooding in them. They belonged not to the life moving round her, but were shining in a land of their own, a land of promise. By an instinct in each of them they stood listening for a moment to the last strains of the opera. The light leaped higher in Hylda's eyes.
"Beautiful--oh, so beautiful!" she said, her hand touching the Duchess's arm.
The Duchess gave the slim warm fingers a spasmodic little squeeze. "Yes, darling, beautiful," she rejoined; and then the crowd began to pour out behind them.
Their carriages were at the door. Lord Windlehurst put Hylda in. "The House is up," he said. "You are going on somewhere?"
"No--home," she said, and smiled into his old, kind, questioning eyes. "Home!"
"Home!" he murmured significantly as he turned towards the Duchess and her carriage. "Home!" he repeated, and shook his head sadly.
"Shall I drive you to your house?" the Duchess asked.
"No, I'll go with you to your door, and walk back to my cell. Home!" he growled to the footman, with a sardonic note in the voice.
As they drove away, the Duchess turned to him abruptly. "What did you mean by your look when you said you had seen Eglington drive away from the House?"
"Well, my dear Betty, she--the fly-away--drives him home now. It has come to that."
"To her house--Windlehurst, oh, Windlehurst!"
She sank back in the cushions, and gave what was as near a sob as she had given in many a day. Windlehurst took her hand. "No, not so bad as that yet. She drove him to his club. Don't fret, my dear Betty."
Home! Hylda watched the shops, the houses, the squares, as she passed westward, her mind dwelling almost happily on the new determination to which she had come. It was not love that was moving her, not love for him, but a deeper thing. He had brutally killed love--the full life of it--those months ago; but there was a deep thing working in her which was as near nobility as the human mind can feel. Not in a long time had she neared her home with such expectation and longing. Often on the doorstep she had shut her eyes to the light and warmth and elegance of it, because of that which she did not see. Now, with a thrill of pleasure, she saw its doors open. It was possible Eglington might have come home already. Lord Windlehurst had said that he had left the House. She did not ask if he was in--it had not been her custom for a long time--and servants were curious people; but she looked at the hall-table. Yes, there was a hat which had evidently just been placed there, and gloves, and a stick. He was at home, then.
She hurried to her room, dropped her opera-cloak on a chair, looked at herself in the glass, a little fluttered and critical, and then crossed the hallway to Eglington's bedroom. She listened for a moment. There was no sound. She turned the handle of the door softly, and opened it. A light was burning low, but the room was empty. It was as she thought, he was in his study, where he spent hours sometimes after he came home, reading official papers. She went up the stairs, at first swiftly, then more slowly, then with almost lagging feet. Why did she hesitate? Why should a woman falter in going to her husband--to her own one man of all the world? Was it not, should it not be, ever the open door between them? Confidence--confidence--could she not have it, could she not get it now at last? She had paused; but now she moved on with quicker step, purpose in her face, her eyes softly lighted.
Suddenly she saw on the floor an opened letter. She picked it up, and, as she did so, involuntarily observed the writing. Almost mechanically she glanced at the contents. Her heart stood still. The first words scorched her eyes.
Frozen, struck as by a mortal blow, Hylda looked at the signature. She knew it--the cleverest, the most beautiful adventuress which the aristocracy and society had produced. She trembled from head to foot, and for a moment it seemed that she must fall. But she steadied herself and walked firmly to Eglington's door. Turning the handle softly, she stepped inside.
He did not hear her. He was leaning over a box of papers, and they rustled loudly under his hand. He was humming to himself that song she heard an hour ago in Il Trovatore, that song of passion and love and tragedy. It sent a wave of fresh feeling over her. She could not go on--could not face him, and say what she must say. She turned and passed swiftly from the room, leaving the door open, and hurried down the staircase. Eglington heard now, and wheeled round. He saw the open door, listened to the rustle of her skirts, knew that she had been there. He smiled, and said to himself:
"She came to me, as I said she would. I shall master her--the full surrender, and then--life will be easy then."
Hylda hurried down the staircase to her room, saw Kate Heaver waiting, beckoned to her, caught up her opera-cloak, and together they passed down the staircase to the front door. Heaver rang a bell, a footman appeared, and, at a word, called a cab. A minute later they were ready:
"Snowdon House," Hylda said; and they passed into the night.