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- The Weavers, Volume 2. - 1/24 -
By Gilbert Parker
V. THE WIDER WAY VI. "HAST THOU NEVER BILLED A MANY" VII. THE COMPACT VIII. FOR HIS SOUL'S SAKE AND THE LAND'S SAKE IX. THE LETTER, THE NIGHT, AND THE WOMAN X. THE FOUR WHO KNEW XI. AGAINST THE HOUR OF MIDNIGHT XII. THE JEHAD AND THE LIONS XIII. ACHMET THE ROPEMAKER STRIKES XIV. BEYOND THE PALE
THE WIDER WAY
Some months later the following letter came to David Claridge in Cairo from Faith Claridge in Hamley:
David, I write thee from the village and the land of the people which thou didst once love so well. Does thee love them still? They gave thee sour bread to eat ere thy going, but yet thee didst grind the flour for the baking. Thee didst frighten all who knew thee with thy doings that mad midsummer time. The tavern, the theatre, the cross-roads, and the cockpit--was ever such a day!
Now, Davy, I must tell of a strange thing. But first, a moment. Thee remembers the man Kimber smitten by thee at the public-house on that day? What think thee has happened? He followed to London the lass kissed by thee, and besought her to return and marry him. This she refused at first with anger; but afterwards she said that, if in three years he was of the same mind, and stayed sober and hard- working meanwhile, she would give him an answer, she would consider. Her head was high. She has become maid to a lady of degree, who has well befriended her.
How do I know these things? Even from Jasper Kimber, who, on his return from London, was taken to his bed with fever. Because of the hard blows dealt him by thee, I went to make amends. He welcomed me, and soon opened his whole mind. That mind has generous moments, David, for he took to being thankful for thy knocks.
Now for the strange thing I hinted. After visiting Jasper Kimber at Heddington, as I came back over the hill by the path we all took that day after the Meeting--Ebn Ezra Bey, my father, Elder Fairley, and thee and me--I drew near the chairmaker's but where thee lived alone all those sad months. It was late evening; the sun had set. Yet I felt that I must needs go and lay my hand in love upon the door of the empty hut which had been ever as thee left it. So I came down the little path swiftly, and then round the great rock, and up towards the door. But, as I did so, my heart stood still, for I heard voices. The door was open, but I could see no one. Yet there the voices sounded, one sharp and peevish with anger, the other low and rough. I could not hear what was said. At last, a figure came from the door and went quickly down the hillside. Who, think thee, was it? Even "neighbour Eglington." I knew the walk and the forward thrust of the head. Inside the hut all was still. I drew near with a kind of fear, but yet I came to the door and looked in.
As I looked into the dusk, my limbs trembled under me, for who should be sitting there, a half-finished chair between his knees, but Soolsby the old chair-maker! Yes, it was he. There he sat looking at me with his staring blue eyes and shock of redgrey hair. "Soolsby! Soolsby!" said I, my heart hammering at my breast; for was not Soolsby dead and buried? His eyes stared at me in fright. "Why do you come?" he said in a hoarse whisper. "Is he dead, then? Has harm come to him?"
By now I had recovered myself, for it was no ghost I saw, but a human being more distraught than was myself. "Do you not know me, Soolsby?" I asked. "You are Mercy Claridge from beyond--beyond and away," he answered dazedly. "I am Faith Claridge, Soolsby," answered I. He started, peered forward at me, and for a moment he did not speak; then the fear went from his face. "Ay, Faith Claridge, as I said," he answered, with apparent understanding, his stark mood passing. "No, thee said Mercy Claridge, Soolsby," said I, "and she has been asleep these many years." "Ay, she has slept soundly, thanks be to God!" he replied, and crossed himself. "Why should thee call me by her name?" I inquired. "Ay, is not her tomb in the churchyard?" he answered, and added quickly, "Luke Claridge and I are of an age to a day--which, think you, will go first?"
He stopped weaving, and peered over at me with his staring blue eyes, and I felt a sudden quickening of the heart. For, at the question, curtains seemed to drop from all around me, and leave me in the midst of pains and miseries, in a chill air that froze me to the marrow. I saw myself alone--thee in Egypt and I here, and none of our blood and name beside me. For we are the last, Davy, the last of the Claridges. But I said coldly, and with what was near to anger, that he should link his name and fate with that of Luke Claridge: "Which of ye two goes first is God's will, and according to His wisdom. Which, think thee," added I--and now I cannot forgive myself for saying it--"which, think thee, would do least harm in going?" "I know which would do most good," he answered, with a harsh laugh in his throat. Yet his blue eyes looked kindly at me, and now he began to nod pleasantly. I thought him a little mad, but yet his speech had seemed not without dark meaning. "Thee has had a visitor," I said to him presently. He laughed in a snarling way that made me shrink, and answered: "He wanted this and he wanted that--his high-handed, second-best lordship. Ay, and he would have it, because it pleased him to have it--like his father before him. A poor sparrow on a tree-top, if you tell him he must not have it, he will hunt it down the world till it is his, as though it was a bird of paradise. And when he's seen it fall at last, he'll remember but the fun of the chase; and the bird may get to its tree-top again--if it can--if it can--if it can, my lord! That is what his father was, the last Earl, and that is what he is who left my door but now. He came to snatch old Soolsby's palace, his nest on the hill, to use it for a telescope, or such whimsies. He has scientific tricks like his father before him. Now is it astronomy, and now chemistry, and suchlike; and always it is the Eglington mind, which let God A'mighty make it as a favour. He would have old Soolsby's palace for his spy-glass, would he then? It scared him, as though I was the devil himself, to find me here. I had but come back in time--a day later, and he would have sat here and seen me in the Pit below before giving way. Possession's nine points were with me; and here I sat and faced him; and here he stormed, and would do this and should do that; and I went on with my work. Then he would buy my Colisyum, and I wouldn't sell it for all his puffball lordship might offer. Isn't the house of the snail as much to him as the turtle's shell to the turtle? I'll have no upstart spilling his chemicals here, or devilling the stars from a seat on my roof." "Last autumn," said I, "David Claridge was housed here. Thy palace was a prison then." "I know well of that. Haven't I found his records here? And do you think his makeshift lordship did not remind me?" "Records? What records, Soolsby?" asked I, most curious. "Writings of his thoughts which he forgot-- food for mind and body left in the cupboard." "Give them to me upon this instant, Soolsby," said I. "All but one," said he, "and that is my own, for it was his mind upon Soolsby the drunken chair-maker. God save him from the heathen sword that slew his uncle. Two better men never sat upon a chair!" He placed the papers in my hand, all save that one which spoke of him. Ah, David, what with the flute and the pen, banishment was no pain to thee! . . . He placed the papers, save that one, in my hands, and I, womanlike, asked again for all. "Some day," said he, "come, and I will read it to you. Nay, I will give you a taste of it now," he added, as he brought forth the writing. "Thus it reads."
Here are thy words, Davy. What think thee of them now?
"As I dwell in this house I know Soolsby as I never knew him when he lived, and though, up here, I spent many an hour with him. Men leave their impressions on all around them. The walls which have felt their look and their breath, the floor which has taken their footsteps, the chairs in which they have sat, have something of their presence. I feel Soolsby here at times so sharply that it would seem he came again and was in this room, though he is dead and gone. I ask him how it came he lived here alone; how it came that he made chairs, he, with brains enough to build great houses or great bridges; how it was that drink and he were such friends; and how he, a Catholic, lived here among us Quakers, so singular, uncompanionable, and severe. I think it true, and sadly true, that a man with a vice which he is able to satisfy easily and habitually, even as another satisfies a virtue, may give up the wider actions of the world and the possibilities of his life for the pleasure which his one vice gives him, and neither miss nor desire those greater chances of virtue or ambition which he has lost. The simplicity of a vice may be as real as the simplicity of a virtue."
Ah, David, David, I know not what to think of those strange words; but old Soolsby seemed well to understand thee, and he called thee "a first-best gentleman." Is my story long? Well, it was so strange, and it fixed itself upon my mind so deeply, and thy writings at the hut have been so much in my hands and in my mind, that I have put it all down here. When I asked Soolsby how it came he had been rumoured dead, he said that he himself had been the cause of it; but for what purpose he would not say, save that he was going a long voyage, and had made up his mind to return no more. "I had a friend," he said, "and I was set to go and see that friend again. . . . But the years go on, and friends have an end. Life spills faster than the years," he said. And he would say no more, but would walk with me even to my father's door. "May the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints be with you," he said at parting, "if you will have a blessing from them. And tell him who is beyond and away in Egypt that old Soolsby's busy making a chair for him to sit in when the scarlet cloth is spread, and the East and West come to salaam before him. Tell him the old man says his fluting will be heard."
And now, David, I have told thee all, nearly. Remains to say that thy one letter did our hearts good. My father reads it over and over, and shakes his head sadly, for, truth is, he has a fear that the world may lay its hand upon thee. One thing I do observe, his heart is hard set against Lord Eglington. In degree it has ever been so; but now it is like a constant frown upon his forehead. I
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