The Weavers by Gilbert Parker
Chapter IV. The Call
"England is in one of those passions so creditable to her moral sense, so illustrative of her unregulated virtues. We are living in the first excitement and horror of the news of the massacre of Christians at Damascus. We are full of righteous and passionate indignation. 'Punish --restore the honour of the Christian nations' is the proud appeal of prelate, prig, and philanthropist, because some hundreds of Christians who knew their danger, yet chose to take up their abode in a fanatical Muslim city of the East, have suffered death."
The meeting had been called in answer to an appeal from Exeter Hall. Lord Eglington had been asked to speak, and these were among his closing words.
He had seen, as he thought, an opportunity for sensation. Politicians of both sides, the press on all hands, were thundering denunciations upon the city of Damascus, sitting insolent and satiated in its exquisite bloom of pear and nectarine, and the deed itself was fading into that blank past of Eastern life where there "are no birds in last year's nest." If he voyaged with the crowd, his pennant would be lost in the clustering sails! So he would move against the tide, and would startle, even if he did not convince.
"Let us not translate an inflamed religious emotion into a war," he continued. "To what good? Would it restore one single life in Damascus? Would it bind one broken heart? Would it give light to one darkened home? Let us have care lest we be called a nation of hypocrites. I will neither support nor oppose the resolution presented; I will content myself with pointing the way to a greater national self-respect."
Mechanically, a few people who had scarcely apprehended the full force of his remarks began to applaud; but there came cries of "'Sh! 'Sh!" and the clapping of hands suddenly stopped. For a moment there was absolute silence, in which the chairman adjusted his glasses and fumbled with the agenda paper in his confusion, scarcely knowing what to do. The speaker had been expected to second the resolution, and had not done so. There was an awkward silence. Then, in a loud whisper, some one said:
"David, David, do thee speak."
It was the voice of Faith Claridge. Perturbed and anxious, she had come to the meeting with her father. They had not slept for nights, for the last news they had had of Benn Claridge was from the city of Damascus, and they were full of painful apprehensions.
It was the eve of the first day of winter, and David's banishment was over. Faith had seen David often at a distance--how often had she stood in her window and looked up over the apricot-wall to the chair-maker's hut on the hill! According to his penalty David had never come to Hamley village, but had lived alone, speaking to no one, avoided by all, working out his punishment. Only the day before the meeting he had read of the massacre at Damascus from a newspaper which had been left on his doorstep overnight. Elder Fairley had so far broken the covenant of ostracism and boycott, knowing David's love for his Uncle Benn.
All that night David paced the hillside in anxiety and agitation, and saw the sun rise upon a new world--a world of freedom, of home-returning, yet a world which, during the past four months, had changed so greatly that it would never seem the same again.
The sun was scarce two hours high when Faith and her father mounted the hill to bring him home again. He had, however, gone to Heddington to learn further news of the massacre. He was thinking of his Uncle Benn- all else could wait. His anxiety was infinitely greater than that of Luke Claridge, for his mind had been disturbed by frequent premonitions; and those sudden calls in his sleep-his uncle's voice--ever seemed to be waking him at night. He had not meant to speak at the meeting, but the last words of the speaker decided him; he was in a flame of indignation. He heard the voice of Faith whisper over the heads of the people. "David, David, do thee speak." Turning, he met her eyes, then rose to his feet, came steadily to the platform, and raised a finger towards the chairman.
A great whispering ran through the audience. Very many recognised him, and all had heard of him--the history of his late banishment and self- approving punishment were familiar to them. He climbed the steps of the platform alertly, and the chairman welcomed him with nervous pleasure. Any word from a Quaker, friendly to the feeling of national indignation, would give the meeting the new direction which all desired.
Something in the face of the young man, grown thin and very pale during the period of long thought and little food in the lonely and meditative life he had led; something human and mysterious in the strange tale of his one day's mad doings, fascinated them. They had heard of the liquor he had drunk, of the woman he had kissed at the cross-roads, of the man he had fought, of his discipline and sentence. His clean, shapely figure, and the soft austerity of the neat grey suit he wore, his broad- brimmed hat pushed a little back, showing well a square white forehead-- all conspired to send a wave of feeling through the audience, which presently broke into cheering.
Beginning with the usual formality, he said: "I am obliged to differ from nearly every sentiment expressed by the Earl of Eglington, the member for Levizes, who has just taken his seat."
There was an instant's pause, the audience cheered, and cries of delight came from all parts of the house. "All good counsel has its sting," he continued, "but the good counsel of him who has just spoken is a sting in a wound deeper than the skin. The noble Earl has bidden us to be consistent and reasonable. I have risen here to speak for that to which mere consistency and reason may do cruel violence. I am a man of peace, I am the enemy of war--it is my faith and creed; yet I repudiate the principle put forward by the Earl of Eglington, that you shall not clinch your hand for the cause which is your heart's cause, because, if you smite, the smiting must be paid for."
He was interrupted by cheers and laughter, for the late event in his own life came to them to point his argument.
"The nation that declines war may be refusing to inflict that just punishment which alone can set the wrong-doers on the better course. It is not the faith of that Society to which I belong to decline correction lest it may seem like war."
The point went home significantly, and cheering followed. "The high wall of Tibet, a stark refusal to open the door to the wayfarer, I can understand; but, friend"--he turned to the young peer--"friend, I cannot understand a defence of him who opens the door upon terms of mutual hospitality, and then, in the red blood of him who has so contracted, blots out the just terms upon which they have agreed. Is that thy faith, friend?"
The repetition of the word friend was almost like a gibe, though it was not intended as such. There was none present, however, but knew of the defection of the Earl's father from the Society of Friends, and they chose to interpret the reference to a direct challenge. It was a difficult moment for the young Earl, but he only smiled, and cherished anger in his heart.
For some minutes David spoke with force and power, and he ended with passionate solemnity. His voice rang out: "The smoke of this burning rises to Heaven, the winds that wail over scattered and homeless dust bear a message of God to us. In the name of Mahomet, whose teaching condemns treachery and murder, in the name of the Prince of Peace, who taught that justice which makes for peace, I say it is England's duty to lay the iron hand of punishment upon this evil city and on the Government in whose orbit it shines with so deathly a light. I fear it is that one of my family and of my humble village lies beaten to death in Damascus. Yet not because of that do I raise my voice here to-day. These many years Benn Claridge carried his life in his hands, and in a good cause it was held like the song of a bird, to be blown from his lips in the day of the Lord. I speak only as an Englishman. I ask you to close your minds against the words of this brilliant politician, who would have you settle a bill of costs written in Christian blood, by a promise to pay, got through a mockery of armed display in those waters on which once looked the eyes of the Captain of our faith. Humanity has been put in the witness-box of the world; let humanity give evidence."
Women wept. Men waved their hats and cheered; the whole meeting rose to its feet and gave vent to its feelings.
For some moments the tumult lasted, Eglington looking on with face unmoved. As David turned to leave the table, however, he murmured, "Peacemaker! Peacemaker!" and smiled sarcastically.
As the audience resumed their seats, two people were observed making their way to the platform. One was Elder Fairley, leading the way to a tall figure in a black robe covering another coloured robe, and wearing a large white turban. Not seeing the new-comers, the chairman was about to put the resolution; but a protesting hand from John Fairley stopped him, and in a strange silence the two new-comers mounted the platform. David rose and advanced to meet them. There flashed into his mind that this stranger in Eastern garb was Ebn Ezra Bey, the old friend of Benn Claridge, of whom his uncle had spoken and written so much. The same instinct drew Ebn Ezra Bey to him--he saw the uncle's look in the nephew's face. In a breathless stillness the Oriental said in perfect English, with a voice monotonously musical:
"I came to thy house and found thee not. I have a message for thee from the land where thine uncle sojourned with me."
He took from a wallet a piece of paper and passed it to David, adding: "I was thine uncle's friend. He hath put off his sandals and walketh with bare feet!" David read eagerly.
"It is time to go, Davy," the paper said. "All that I have is thine. Go to Egypt, and thee shall find it so. Ebn Ezra Bey will bring thee. Trust him as I have done. He is a true man, though the Koran be his faith. They took me from behind, Davy, so that I was spared temptation --I die as I lived, a man of peace. It is too late to think how it might have gone had we met face to face; but the will of God worketh not according to our will. I can write no more. Luke, Faith, and Davy--dear Davy, the night has come, and all's well. Good morrow, Davy. Can you not hear me call? I have called thee so often of late! Good morrow! Good morrow! . . . I doff my hat, Davy--at last--to God!"
David's face whitened. All his visions had been true visions, his dreams true dreams. Brave Benn Claridge had called to him at his door--" Good morrow! Good morrow! Good morrow!" Had he not heard the knocking and the voice? Now all was made clear. His path lay open before him--a far land called him, his quiet past was infinite leagues away. Already the staff was in his hands and the cross-roads were sinking into the distance behind. He was dimly conscious of the wan, shocked face of Faith in the crowd beneath him, which seemed blurred and swaying, of the bowed head of Luke Claridge, who, standing up, had taken off his hat in the presence of this news of his brother's death which he saw written in David's face. David stood for a moment before the great throng, numb and speechless. "It is a message from Damascus," he said at last, and could say no more.
Ebn Ezra Bey turned a grave face upon the audience.
Will you hear me?" he said. "I am an Arab." "Speak--speak!" came from every side.
"The Turk hath done his evil work in Damascus," he said. "All the Christians are dead--save one; he hath turned Muslim, and is safe." His voice had a note of scorn. "It fell sudden and swift like a storm in summer. There were no paths to safety. Soldiers and those who led them shared in the slaying. As he and I who had travelled far together these many years sojourned there in the way of business, I felt the air grow colder, I saw the cloud gathering. I entreated, but he would not go. If trouble must come, then he would be with the Christians in their peril. At last he saw with me the truth. He had a plan of escape. There was a Christian weaver with his wife in a far quarter--against my entreaty he went to warn them. The storm broke. He was the first to fall, smitten in 'that street called Straight.' I found him soon after. Thus did he speak to me--even in these words: 'The blood of women and children shed here to-day shall cry from the ground. Unprovoked the host has turned wickedly upon his guest. The storm has been sown, and the whirlwind must be reaped. Out of this evil good shall come. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?' These were his last words to me then. As his life ebbed out, he wrote a letter which I have brought hither to one"--he turned to David--"whom he loved. At the last he took off his hat, and lay with it in his hands, and died. . . . I am a Muslim, but the God of pity, of justice, and of right is my God; and in His name be it said that was a crime of Sheitan the accursed."
In a low voice the chairman put the resolution. The Earl of Eglington voted in its favour.
Walking the hills homeward with Ebn Ezra Bey, Luke, Faith, and John Fairley, David kept saying over to himself the words of Benn Claridge: "I have called thee so often of late. Good morrow! Good morrow! Good morrow! Can you not hear me call?"