The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXVIII. Jasper Kimber Speaks
That day the adjournment of the House of Commons was moved "To call attention to an urgent matter of public importance"--the position of Claridge Pasha in the Soudan. Flushed with the success of last night's performance, stung by the attacks of the Opposition morning papers, confident in the big majority behind, which had cheered him a few hours before, viciously resenting the letter he had received from David that morning, Eglington returned such replies to the questions put to him that a fire of angry mutterings came from the forces against him. He might have softened the growing resentment by a change of manner, but his intellectual arrogance had control of him for the moment; and he said to himself that he had mastered the House before, and he would do so now. Apart from his deadly antipathy to his half-brother, and the gain to himself--to his credit, the latter weighed with him not so much, so set was he on a stubborn course--if David disappeared for ever, there was at bottom a spirit of anti-expansion, of reaction against England's world- wide responsibilities. He had no largeness of heart or view concerning humanity. He had no inherent greatness, no breadth of policy. With less responsibility taken, there would be less trouble, national and international--that was his point of view; that had been his view long ago at the meeting at Heddington; and his weak chief had taken it, knowing nothing of the personal elements behind.
The disconcerting factor in the present bitter questioning in the House was, that it originated on his own side. It was Jasper Kimber who had launched the questions, who moved the motion for adjournment. Jasper had had a letter from Kate Heaver that morning early, which sent him to her, and he had gone to the House to do what he thought to be his duty. He did it boldly, to the joy of the Opposition, and with a somewhat sullen support from many on his own side. Now appeared Jasper's own inner disdain of the man who had turned his coat for office. It gave a lead to a latent feeling among members of the ministerial party, of distrust, and of suspicion that they were the dupes of a mind of abnormal cleverness which, at bottom, despised them.
With flashing eyes and set lips, vigilant and resourceful, Eglington listened to Jasper Kimber's opening remarks.
By unremitting industry Jasper had made a place for himself in the House. The humour and vitality of his speeches, and his convincing advocacy of the cause of the "factory folk," had gained him a hearing. Thickset, under middle size, with an arm like a giant and a throat like a bull, he had strong common sense, and he gave the impression that he would wear his heart out for a good friend or a great cause, but that if he chose to be an enemy he would be narrow, unrelenting, and persistent. For some time the House had been aware that he had more than a gift for criticism of the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs.
His speech began almost stumblingly, his h's ran loose, and his grammar became involved, but it was seen that he meant business, that he had that to say which would give anxiety to the Government, that he had a case wherein were the elements of popular interest and appeal, and that he was thinking and speaking as thousands outside the House would think and speak.
He had waited for this hour. Indirectly he owed to Claridge Pasha all that he had become. The day in which David knocked him down saw the depths of his degradation reached, and, when he got up, it was to start on a new life uncertainly, vaguely at first, but a new life for all that. He knew, from a true source, of Eglington's personal hatred of Claridge Pasha, though he did not guess their relationship; and all his interest was enlisted for the man who had, as he knew, urged Kate Heaver to marry himself--and Kate was his great ambition now. Above and beyond these personal considerations was a real sense of England's duty to the man who was weaving the destiny of a new land.
"It isn't England's business?" he retorted, in answer to an interjection from a faithful soul behind the ministerial Front Bench. "Well, it wasn't the business of the Good Samaritan to help the man that had been robbed and left for dead by the wayside; but he did it. As to David Claridge's work, some have said that--I've no doubt it's been said in the Cabinet, and it is the thing the Under-Secretary would say as naturally as he would flick a fly from his boots--that it's a generation too soon. Who knows that? I suppose there was those that thought John the Baptist was baptising too soon, that Luther preached too soon, and Savonarola was in too great a hurry, all because he met his death and his enemies triumphed--and Galileo and Hampden and Cromwell and John Howard were all too soon. Who's to be judge of that? God Almighty puts it into some men's minds to work for a thing that's a great, and maybe an impossible, thing, so far as the success of the moment is concerned. Well, for a thing that has got to be done some time, the seed has to be sown, and it's always sown by men like Claridge Pasha, who has shown millions of people--barbarians and half-civilised alike--what a true lover of the world can do. God knows, I think he might have stayed and found a cause in England, but he elected to go to the ravaging Soudan, and he is England there, the best of it. And I know Claridge Pasha--from his youth up I have seen him, and I stand here to bear witness of what the working men of England will say to-morrow. Right well the noble lord yonder knows that what I say is true. He has known it for years. Claridge Pasha would never have been in his present position, if the noble lord had not listened to the enemies of Claridge Pasha and of this country, in preference to those who know and hold the truth as I tell it here to-day. I don't know whether the noble lord has repented or not; but I do say that his Government will rue it, if his answer is not the one word 'Intervention!' Mistaken, rash or not, dreamer if you like, Claridge Pasha should be relieved now, and his policy discussed afterwards. I don't envy the man who holds a contrary opinion; he'll be ashamed of it some day. But"--he pointed towards Eglington--"but there sits the minister in whose hands his fate has been. Let us hope that this speech of mine needn't have been made, and that I've done injustice to his patriotism and to the policy he will announce."
"A set-back, a sharp set-back," said Lord Windlehurst, in the Peers' Gallery, as the cheers of the Opposition and of a good number of ministerialists sounded through the Chamber. There were those on the Treasury Bench who saw danger ahead. There was an attempt at a conference, but Kimber's seconder only said a half-dozen words, and sat down, and Eglington had to rise before any definite confidences could be exchanged. One word only he heard behind him as he got up. It was the word, "Temporise," and it came from the Prime Minister.
Eglington was in no mood for temporising. Attack only nerved him. He was a good and ruthless fighter; and last night's intoxication of success was still in his brain. He did not temporise. He did not leave a way of retreat open for the Prime Minister, who would probably wind up the debate. He fought with skill, but he fought without gloves, and the House needed gentle handling. He had the gift of effective speech to a rare degree, and when he liked he could be insinuating and witty, but he had not genuine humour or good feeling, and the House knew it. In debate he was biting, resourceful, and unscrupulous. He made the fatal mistake of thinking that intellect and gifts of fence, followed by a brilliant peroration, in which he treated the commonplaces of experienced minds as though they were new discoveries and he was their Columbus, could accomplish anything. He had never had a political crisis, but one had come now.
In his reply he first resorted to arguments of high politics, historical, informative, and, in a sense, commanding; indeed, the House became restless under what seemed a piece of intellectual dragooning. Signs of impatience appeared on his own side, and, when he ventured on a solemn warning about hampering ministers who alone knew the difficulties of diplomacy and the danger of wounding the susceptibilities of foreign and friendly countries, the silence was broken by a voice that said sneeringly, "The kid-glove Government!"
Then he began to lose place with the Chamber. He was conscious of it, and shifted his ground, pointing out the dangers of doing what the other nations interested in Egypt were not prepared to do.
"Have you asked them? Have you pressed them?" was shouted across the House. Eglington ignored the interjections. "Answer! Answer!" was called out angrily, but he shrugged a shoulder and continued his argument. If a man insisted on using a flying-machine before the principle was fully mastered and applied--if it could be mastered and applied--it must not be surprising if he was killed. Amateurs sometimes took preposterous risks without the advice of the experts. If Claridge Pasha had asked the advice of the English Government, or of any of the Chancellories of Europe, as to his incursions into the Soudan and his premature attempts at reform, he would have received expert advice that civilisation had not advanced to that stage in this portion of the world which would warrant his experiments. It was all very well for one man to run vast risks and attempt quixotic enterprises, but neither he nor his countrymen had any right to expect Europe to embroil itself on his particular account.
At this point he was met by angry cries of dissent, which did not come from the Opposition alone. His lips set, he would not yield. The Government could not hold itself responsible for Claridge Pasha's relief, nor in any sense for his present position. However, from motives of humanity, it would make representations in the hope that the Egyptian Government would act; but it was not improbable, in view of past experiences of Claridge Pasha, that he would extricate himself from his present position, perhaps had done so already. Sympathy and sentiment were natural and proper manifestations of human society, but governments were, of necessity, ruled by sterner considerations. The House must realise that the Government could not act as though it were wholly a free agent, or as if its every move would not be matched by another move on the part of another Power or Powers.
Then followed a brilliant and effective appeal to his own party to trust the Government, to credit it with feeling and with a due regard for English prestige and the honour brought to it by Claridge Pasha's personal qualities, whatever might be thought of his crusading enterprises. The party must not fall into the trap of playing the game of the Opposition. Then, with some supercilious praise of the "worthy sentiments" of Jasper Kimber's speech and a curt depreciation of its reasoning, he declared that: "No Government can be ruled by clamour. The path to be trodden by this Government will be lighted by principles of progress and civilisation, humanity and peace, the urbane power of reason, and the persuasive influence of just consideration for the rights of others, rather than the thunder and the threat of the cannon and the sword!"
He sat down amid the cheers of a large portion of his party, for the end of his speech had been full of effective if meretricious appeal. But the debate that followed showed that the speech had been a failure. He had not uttered one warm or human word concerning Claridge Pasha, and it was felt and said, that no pledge had been given to insure the relief of the man who had caught the imagination of England.
The debate was fierce and prolonged. Eglington would not agree to any modification of his speech, to any temporising. Arrogant and insistent, he had his way, and, on a division, the Government was saved by a mere handful of votes--votes to save the party, not to indorse Eglington's speech or policy.
Exasperated and with jaw set, but with a defiant smile, Eglington drove straight home after the House rose. He found Hylda in the library with an evening paper in her hands. She had read and reread his speech, and had steeled herself for "the inevitable hour," to this talk which would decide for ever their fate and future.
Eglington entered the room smiling. He remembered the incident of the night before, when she came to his study and then hurriedly retreated. He had been defiant and proudly disdainful at the House and on the way home; but in his heart of hearts he was conscious of having failed to have his own way; and, like such men, he wanted assurance that he could not err, and he wanted sympathy. Almost any one could have given it to him, and he had a temptation to seek that society which was his the evening before; but he remembered that she was occupied where he could not reach her, and here was Hylda, from whom he had been estranged, but who must surely have seen by now that at Hamley she had been unreasonable, and that she must trust his judgment. So absorbed was he with self and the failure of his speech, that, for a moment, he forgot the subject of it, and what that subject meant to them both.
"What do you think of my speech, Hylda?" he asked, as he threw himself into a chair. "I see you have been reading it. Is it a full report?"
She handed the paper over. "Quite full," she answered evenly.
He glanced down the columns. "Sentimentalists!" he said as his eye caught an interjection. "Cant!" he added. Then he looked at Hylda, and remembered once again on whom and what his speech had been made. He saw that her face was very pale.
"What do you think of my speech?" he repeated stubbornly.
"If you think an answer necessary, I regard it as wicked and unpatriotic," she answered firmly.
"Yes, I suppose you would," he rejoined bitingly. She got to her feet slowly, a flush passing over her face. "If you think I would, did you not think that a great many other people would think so too, and for the same reason?" she asked, still evenly, but very slowly. "Not for the same reason," he rejoined in a low, savage voice.
"You do not treat me well," she said, with a voice that betrayed no hurt, no indignation. It seemed to state a fact deliberately; that was all.
"No, please," she added quickly, as she saw him rise to his feet with anger trembling at his lips. "Do not say what is on your tongue to say. Let us speak quietly to-night. It is better; and I am tired of strife, spoken and unspoken. I have got beyond that. But I want to speak of what you did to-day in Parliament."
"Well, you have said it was wicked and unpatriotic," he rejoined, sitting down again and lighting a cigar, in an attempt to be composed.
"What you said was that; but I am concerned with what you did. Did your speech mean that you would not press the Egyptian Government to relieve Claridge Pasha at once?"
"Is that the conclusion you draw from my words?" he asked.
"Yes; but I wish to know beyond doubt if that is what you mean the country to believe?"
"It is what I mean you to believe, my dear."
She shrank from the last two words, but still went on quietly, though her eyes burned and she shivered. "If you mean that you will do nothing, it will ruin you and your Government," she answered. "Kimber was right, and--"
"Kimber was inspired from here," he interjected sharply.
She put her hand upon herself. "Do you think I would intrigue against you? Do you think I would stoop to intrigue?" she asked, a hand clasping and unclasping a bracelet on her wrist, her eyes averted, for very shame that he should think the thought he had uttered.
"It came from this house--the influence," he rejoined.
"I cannot say. It is possible," she answered; "but you cannot think that I connive with my maid against you. I think Kimber has reasons of his own for acting as he did to-day. He speaks for many besides himself; and he spoke patriotically this afternoon. He did his duty."
"And I did not? Do you think I act alone?"
"You did not do your duty, and I think that you are not alone responsible. That is why I hope the Government will be influenced by public feeling." She came a step nearer to him. "I ask you to relieve Claridge Pasha at any cost. He is your father's son. If you do not, when all the truth is known, you will find no shelter from the storm that will break over you."
"You will tell--the truth?"
"I do not know yet what I shall do," she answered. "It will depend on you; but it is your duty to tell the truth, not mine. That does not concern me; but to save Claridge Pasha does concern me."
"So I have known."
Her heart panted for a moment with a wild indignation; but she quieted herself, and answered almost calmly: "If you refuse to do that which is honourable--and human, then I shall try to do it for you while yet I bear your name. If you will not care for your family honour, then I shall try to do so. If you will not do your duty, then I will try to do it for you." She looked him determinedly in the eyes. "Through you I have lost nearly all I cared to keep in the world. I should like to feel that in this one thing you acted honourably."
He sprang to his feet, bursting with anger, in spite of the inward admonition that much that he prized was in danger, that any breach with Hylda would be disastrous. But self-will and his native arrogance overruled the monitor within, and he said: "Don't preach to me, don't play the martyr. You will do this and you will do that! You will save my honour and the family name! You will relieve Claridge Pasha, you will do what Governments choose not to do; you will do what your husband chooses not to do--Well, I say that you will do what your husband chooses to do, or take the consequences."
"I think I will take the consequences," she answered. "I will save Claridge Pasha, if it is possible. It is no boast. I will do it, if it can be done at all, if it is God's will that it should be done; and in doing it I shall be conscious that you and I will do nothing together again--never! But that will not stop me; it will make me do it, the last right thing, before the end."
She was so quiet, so curiously quiet. Her words had a strange solemnity, a tragic apathy. What did it mean? He had gone too far, as he had done before. He had blundered viciously, as he had blundered before.
She spoke again before he could collect his thoughts and make reply.
"I did not ask for too much, I think, and I could have forgiven and forgotten all the hurts you have given me, if it were not for one thing. You have been unjust, hard, selfish, and suspicious. Suspicious--of me! No one else in all the world ever thought of me what you have thought. I have done all I could. I have honourably kept the faith. But you have spoiled it all. I have no memory that I care to keep. It is stained. My eyes can never bear to look upon the past again, the past with you-- never."
She turned to leave the room. He caught her arm. "You will wait till you hear what I have to say," he cried in anger. Her last words had stung him so, her manner was so pitilessly scornful. It was as though she looked down on him from a height. His old arrogance fought for mastery over his apprehension. What did she know? What did she mean? In any case he must face it out, be strong--and merciful and affectionate afterwards.
"Wait, Hylda," he said. "We must talk this out."
She freed her arm. "There is nothing to talk out," she answered. "So far as our relations are concerned, all reason for talk is gone." She drew the fatal letter from the sash at her waist. "You will think so too when you read this letter again." She laid it on the table beside him, and, as he opened and glanced at it, she left the room.
He stood with the letter in his hand, dumfounded. "Good God!" he said, and sank into a chair.