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- The Weavers, Volume 1. - 4/8 -


the arrow slowly from the wound. But, in truth, ye had good right to wound. Naught but kindness have I had among you all; and I will answer. Straightly have I lived since my birth. Yet betimes a torturing unrest of mind was used to come upon me as I watched the world around us. I saw men generous to their kind, industrious and brave, beloved by their fellows; and I have seen these same men drink and dance and give themselves to coarse, rough play like young dogs in a kennel. Yet, too, I have seen dark things done in drink--the cheerful made morose, the gentle violent. What was the temptation? What the secret? Was it but the low craving of the flesh, or was it some primitive unrest, or craving of the soul, which, clouded and baffled by time and labour and the wear of life, by this means was given the witched medicament--a false freedom, a thrilling forgetfulness? In ancient days the high, the humane, in search of cure for poison, poisoned themselves, and then applied the antidote. He hath little knowledge and less pity for sin who has never sinned. The day came when all these things which other men did in my sight I did--openly. I drank with them in the taverns--twice I drank. I met a lass in the way. I kissed her. I sat beside her at the roadside and she told me her brief, sad, evil story. One she had loved had left her. She was going to London. I gave her what money I had--"

"And thy watch," said a whispering voice from the Elders' bench.

"Even so. And at the cross-roads I bade her goodbye with sorrow."

"There were those who saw," said the shrill voice from the bench.

"They saw what I have said--no more. I had never tasted spirits in my life. I had never kissed a woman's lips. Till then I had never struck my fellow-man; but before the sun went down I fought the man who drove the lass in sorrow into the homeless world. I did not choose to fight; but when I begged the man Jasper Kimber for the girl's sake to follow and bring her back, and he railed at me and made to fight me, I took off my hat, and there I laid him in the dust."

"No thanks to thee that he did not lie in his grave," observed the shrill Elder.

"In truth I hit hard," was the quiet reply.

"How came thee expert with thy fists?" asked Elder Fairley, with the shadow of a smile.

"A book I bought from London, a sack of corn, a hollow leather ball, and an hour betimes with the drunken chair-maker in the hut by the lime-kiln on the hill. He was once a sailor and a fighting man."

A look of blank surprise ran slowly along the faces of the Elders. They were in a fog of misunderstanding and reprobation.

"While yet my father"--he looked at Luke Claridge, whom he had ever been taught to call his father--"shared the great business at Heddington, and the ships came from Smyrna and Alexandria, I had some small duties, as is well known. But that ceased, and there was little to do. Sports are forbidden among us here, and my body grew sick, because the mind had no labour. The world of work has thickened round us beyond the hills. The great chimneys rise in a circle as far as eye can see on yonder crests; but we slumber and sleep."

"Enough, enough," said a voice from among the women. "Thee has a friend gone to London--thee knows the way. It leads from the cross-roads!"

Faith Claridge, who had listened to David's speech, her heart panting, her clear grey eyes--she had her mother's eyes--fixed benignly on him, turned to the quarter whence the voice came. Seeing who it was--a widow who, with no demureness, had tried without avail to bring Luke Claridge to her--her lips pressed together in a bitter smile, and she said to her nephew clearly:

"Patience Spielman hath little hope of thee, David. Hope hath died in her."

A faint, prim smile passed across the faces of all present, for all knew Faith's allusion, and it relieved the tension of the past half-hour. From the first moment David began to speak he had commanded his hearers. His voice was low and even; but it had also a power which, when put to sudden quiet use, compelled the hearer to an almost breathless silence, not so much to the meaning of the words, but to the tone itself, to the man behind it. His personal force was remarkable. Quiet and pale ordinarily, his clear russet-brown hair falling in a wave over his forehead, when roused, he seemed like some delicate engine made to do great labours. As Faith said to him once, "David, thee looks as though thee could lift great weights lightly." When roused, his eyes lighted like a lamp, the whole man seemed to pulsate. He had shocked, awed, and troubled his listeners. Yet he had held them in his power, and was master of their minds. The interjections had but given him new means to defend himself. After Faith had spoken he looked slowly round.

"I am charged with being profane," he said. "I do not remember. But is there none among you who has not secretly used profane words and, neither in secret nor openly, has repented? I am charged with drinking. On one day of my life I drank openly. I did it because something in me kept crying out, 'Taste and see!' I tasted and saw, and know; and I know that oblivion, that brief pitiful respite from trouble, which this evil tincture gives. I drank to know; and I found it lure me into a new careless joy. The sun seemed brighter, men's faces seemed happier, the world sang about me, the blood ran swiftly, thoughts swarmed in my brain. My feet were on the mountains, my hands were on the sails of great ships; I was a conqueror. I understood the drunkard in the first withdrawal begotten of this false stimulant. I drank to know. Is there none among you who has, though it be but once, drunk secretly as I drank openly? If there be none, then I am condemned."

"Amen," said Elder Fairley's voice from the bench. "In the open way by the cross-roads I saw a woman. I saw she was in sorrow. I spoke to her. Tears came to her eyes. I took her hand, and we sat down together. Of the rest I have told you. I kissed her--a stranger. She was comely. And this I know, that the matter ended by the cross-roads, and that by and forbidden paths have easy travel. I kissed the woman openly--is there none among you who has kissed secretly, and has kept the matter hidden? For him I struck and injured, it was fair. Shall a man be beaten like a dog? Kimber would have beaten me."

"Wherein has it all profited?" asked the shrill Elder querulously.

"I have knowledge. None shall do these things hereafter but I shall understand. None shall go venturing, exploring, but I shall pray for him."

"Thee will break thy heart and thy life exploring," said Luke Claridge bitterly. Experiment in life he did not understand, and even Benn Claridge's emigration to far lands had ever seemed to him a monstrous and amazing thing, though it ended in the making of a great business in which he himself had prospered, and from which he had now retired. He suddenly realized that a day of trouble was at hand with this youth on whom his heart doted, and it tortured him that he could not understand.

"By none of these things shall I break my life," was David's answer now.

For a moment he stood still and silent, then all at once he stretched out his hands to them. "All these things I did were against our faith. I desire forgiveness. I did them out of my own will; I will take up your judgment. If there be no more to say, I will make ready to go to old Soolsby's hut on the hill till the set time be passed."

There was a long silence. Even the shrill Elder's head was buried in his breast. They were little likely to forego his penalty. There was a gentle inflexibility in their natures born of long restraint and practised determination. He must go out into blank silence and banishment until the first day of winter. Yet, recalcitrant as they held him, their secret hearts were with him, for there was none of them but had had happy commerce with him; and they could think of no more bitter punishment than to be cut off from their own society for three months. They were satisfied he was being trained back to happiness and honour.

A new turn was given to events, however. The little wizened Elder Meacham said: "The flute, friend--is it here?"

"I have it here," David answered.

"Let us have music, then."

"To what end?" interjected the shrill Elder.

"He hath averred he can play," drily replied the other. "Let us judge whether vanity breeds untruth in him."

The furtive brightening of the eyes in the women was represented in the men by an assumed look of abstraction in most; in others by a bland assumption of judicial calm. A few, however, frowned, and would have opposed the suggestion, but that curiosity mastered them. These watched with darkening interest the flute, in three pieces, drawn from an inner pocket and put together swiftly.

David raised the instrument to his lips, blew one low note, and then a little run of notes, all smooth and soft. Mellowness and a sober sweetness were in the tone. He paused a moment after this, and seemed questioning what to play. And as he stood, the flute in his hands, his thoughts took flight to his Uncle Benn, whose kindly, shrewd face and sharp brown eyes were as present to him, and more real, than those of Luke Claridge, whom he saw every day. Of late when he had thought of his uncle, however, alternate depression and lightness of spirit had possessed him. Night after night he had troubled sleep, and he had dreamed again and again that his uncle knocked at his door, or came and stood beside his bed and spoke to him. He had wakened suddenly and said "Yes" to a voice which seemed to call to him.

Always his dreams and imaginings settled round his Uncle Benn, until he had found himself trying to speak to the little brown man across the thousand leagues of land and sea. He had found, too, in the past that when he seemed to be really speaking to his uncle, when it seemed as though the distance between them had been annihilated, that soon afterwards there came a letter from him. Yet there had not been more than two or three a year. They had been, however, like books of many pages, closely written, in Arabic, in a crabbed characteristic hand, and full of the sorrow and grandeur and misery of the East. How many books on the East David had read he would hardly have been able to say; but something of the East had entered into him, something of the philosophy of Mahomet and Buddha, and the beauty of Omar Khayyam had given a touch of colour and intellect to the narrow faith in which he had been schooled. He had found himself replying to a question asked of him in Heddington, as to how he knew that there was a God, in the words of a Muslim quoted by his uncle: "As I know by the tracks in the sand whether a Man or Beast has passed there, so the heaven with its stars, the earth with its fruits, show me that God has passed." Again, in reply to the same question, the reply of the same Arab sprang to his lips--"Does the Morning want a Light to see it by?"

As he stood with his flute--his fingers now and then caressingly rising and falling upon its little caverns, his mind travelled far to those


The Weavers, Volume 1. - 4/8

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