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- The Weavers, Volume 1. - 3/8 -
the man was English."
"Thee was that day a son of Belial," rejoined the shrill Elder. "Thee did use thy hands like any heathen sailor--is it not the truth?"
"I struck the man. I punished him--why enlarge?"
"Thee is guilty?"
"I did the thing."
"That is one charge against thee. There are others. Thee was seen to drink of spirits in a public-house at Heddington that day. Twice-- thrice, like any drunken collier."
"Twice," was the prompt correction.
There was a moment's pause, in which some women sighed and others folded and unfolded their hands on their laps; the men frowned.
"Thee has been a dark deceiver," said the shrill Elder again, and with a ring of acrid triumph; "thee has hid these things from our eyes many years, but in one day thee has uncovered all. Thee--"
"Thee is charged," interposed Elder Fairley, "with visiting a play this same day, and with seeing a dance of Spain following upon it."
"I did not disdain the music," said the young man drily; "the flute, of all instruments, has a mellow sound." Suddenly his eyes darkened, he became abstracted, and gazed at the window where the twig flicked softly against the pane, and the heat of summer palpitated in the air. "It has good grace to my ear," he added slowly.
Luke Claridge looked at him intently. He began to realize that there were forces stirring in his grandson which had no beginning in Claridge blood, and were not nurtured in the garden with the fruited wall. He was not used to problems; he had only a code, which he had rigidly kept. He had now a glimmer of something beyond code or creed.
He saw that the shrill Elder was going to speak. He intervened. "Thee is charged, David," he said coldly, "with kissing a woman--a stranger and a wanton--where the four roads meet 'twixt here and yonder town." He motioned towards the hills.
"In the open day," added the shrill Elder, a red spot burning on each withered cheek.
"The woman was comely," said the young man, with a tone of irony, recovering an impassive look.
A strange silence fell, the women looked down; yet they seemed not so confounded as the men. After a moment they watched the young man with quicker flashes of the eye.
"The answer is shameless," said the shrill Elder. "Thy life is that of a carnal hypocrite."
The young man said nothing. His face had become very pale, his lips were set, and presently he sat down and folded his arms.
"Thee is guilty of all?" asked John Fairley.
His kindly eye was troubled, for he had spent numberless hours in this young man's company, and together they had read books of travel and history, and even the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe, though drama was anathema to the Society of Friends--they did not realize it in the life around them. That which was drama was either the visitation of God or the dark deeds of man, from which they must avert their eyes. Their own tragedies they hid beneath their grey coats and bodices; their dirty linen they never washed in public, save in the scandal such as this where the Society must intervene. Then the linen was not only washed, but duly starched, sprinkled, and ironed.
"I have answered all. Judge by my words," said David gravely.
"Has repentance come to thee? Is it thy will to suffer that which we may decide for thy correction?" It was Elder Fairley who spoke. He was determined to control the meeting and to influence its judgment. He loved the young man.
David made no reply; he seemed lost in thought. "Let the discipline proceed--he hath an evil spirit," said the shrill Elder.
"His childhood lacked in much," said Elder Fairley patiently.
To most minds present the words carried home--to every woman who had a child, to every man who had lost a wife and had a motherless son. This much they knew of David's real history, that Mercy Claridge, his mother, on a visit to the house of an uncle at Portsmouth, her mother's brother, had eloped with and was duly married to the captain of a merchant ship. They also knew that, after some months, Luke Claridge had brought her home; and that before her child was born news came that the ship her husband sailed had gone down with all on board. They knew likewise that she had died soon after David came, and that her father, Luke Claridge, buried her in her maiden name, and brought the boy up as his son, not with his father's name but bearing that name so long honoured in England, and even in the far places of the earth--for had not Benn Claridge, Luke's brother, been a great carpet-merchant, traveller, and explorer in Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Soudan--Benn Claridge of the whimsical speech, the pious life? All this they knew; but none of them, to his or her knowledge, had ever seen David's father. He was legendary; though there was full proof that the girl had been duly married. That had been laid before the Elders by Luke Claridge on an occasion when Benn Claridge, his brother was come among them again from the East.
At this moment of trial David was thinking of his uncle, Benn Claridge, and of his last words fifteen years before when going once again to the East, accompanied by the Muslim chief Ebn Ezra, who had come with him to England on the business of his country. These were Benn Claridge's words: "Love God before all, love thy fellow-man, and thy conscience will bring thee safe home, lad."
"If he will not repent, there is but one way," said the shrill Elder.
"Let there be no haste," said Luke Claridge, in a voice that shook a little in his struggle for self-control.
Another heretofore silent Elder, sitting beside John Fairley, exchanged words in a whisper with him, and then addressed them. He was a very small man with a very high stock and spreading collar, a thin face, and large wide eyes. He kept his chin down in his collar, but spoke at the ceiling like one blind, though his eyes were sharp enough on occasion. His name was Meacham.
"It is meet there shall be time for sorrow and repentance," he said. "This, I pray you all, be our will: that for three months David live apart, even in the hut where lived the drunken chair-maker ere he disappeared and died, as rumour saith--it hath no tenant. Let it be that after to-morrow night at sunset none shall speak to him till that time be come, the first day of winter. Till that day he shall speak to no man, and shall be despised of the world, and--pray God--of himself. Upon the first day of winter let it be that he come hither again and speak with us."
On the long stillness of assent that followed there came a voice across the room, from within a grey-and-white bonnet, which shadowed a delicate face shining with the flame of the spirit within. It was the face of Faith Claridge, the sister of the woman in the graveyard, whose soul was "with the Lord," though she was but one year older and looked much younger than her nephew, David.
"Speak, David," she said softly. "Speak now. Doth not the spirit move thee?"
She gave him his cue, for he had of purpose held his peace till all had been said; and he had come to say some things which had been churning in his mind too long. He caught the faint cool sarcasm in her tone, and smiled unconsciously at her last words. She, at least, must have reasons for her faith in him, must have grounds for his defence in painful days to come; for painful they must be, whether he stayed to do their will, or went into the fighting world where Quakers were few and life composite of things they never knew in Hamley.
He got to his feet and clasped his hands behind his back. After an instant he broke silence.
"All those things of which I am accused, I did; and for them is asked repentance. Before that day on which I did these things was there complaint, or cause for it? Was my life evil? Did I think in secret that which might not be done openly? Well, some things I did secretly. Ye shall hear of them. I read where I might, and after my taste, many plays, and found in them beauty and the soul of deep things. Tales I have read, but a few, and John Milton, and Chaucer, and Bacon, and Montaigne, and Arab poets also, whose books my uncle sent me. Was this sin in me?"
"It drove to a day of shame for thee," said the shrill Elder.
He took no heed, but continued: "When I was a child I listened to the lark as it rose from the meadow; and I hid myself in the hedge that, unseen, I might hear it sing; and at night I waited till I could hear the nightingale. I have heard the river singing, and the music of the trees. At first I thought that this must be sin, since ye condemn the human voice that sings, but I could feel no guilt. I heard men and women sing upon the village green, and I sang also. I heard bands of music. One instrument seemed to me more than all the rest. I bought one like it, and learned to play. It was the flute--its note so soft and pleasant. I learned to play it--years ago--in the woods of Beedon beyond the hill, and I have felt no guilt from then till now. For these things I have no repentance."
"Thee has had good practice in deceit," said the shrill Elder.
Suddenly David's manner changed. His voice became deeper; his eyes took on that look of brilliance and heat which had given Luke Claridge anxious thoughts.
"I did, indeed, as the spirit moved me, even as ye have done."
"Blasphemer, did the spirit move thee to brawl and fight, to drink and curse, to kiss a wanton in the open road? What hath come upon thee?" Again it was the voice of the shrill Elder.
"Judge me by the truth I speak," he answered. "Save in these things my life has been an unclasped book for all to read."
"Speak to the charge of brawling and drink, David," rejoined the little Elder Meacham with the high collar and gaze upon the ceiling.
"Shall I not speak when I am moved? Ye have struck swiftly; I will draw
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