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- The Weavers, Volume 3. - 20/27 -


"I gave my word to her that died--to our Egyptian's mother--that I would never speak unless you gave me leave to speak, or if you should die before me. It was but a day before the lad was born. So have I kept my word. But now you shall speak. Ay, then, but you shall speak, or I'll break my word to her, to do right by her son. She herself would speak if she was here, and I'll answer her, if ever I see her after Purgatory, for speaking now."

The old man drew himself up in his chair as though in pain, and said very slowly, almost thickly: "I shall answer also for all I did. The spirit moved me. He is of my blood--his mother was dead--in his veins is the blood that runs in mine. His father--aristocrat, spendthrift, adventurer, renegade, who married her in secret, and left her, bidding her return to me, until he came again, and she to bear him a child--was he fit to bring up the boy?"

He breathed heavily, his face became wan and haggard, as he continued: "Restless on land or sea, for ever seeking some new thing, and when he found it, and saw what was therein, he turned away forgetful. God put it into my heart to abjure him and the life around him. The Voice made me rescue the child from a life empty and bare and heartless and proud. When he returned, and my child was in her grave, he came to me in secret; he claimed the child of that honest lass whom he had married under a false name. I held my hand lest I should kill him, man of peace as I am. Even his father--Quaker though he once became--did we not know ere the end that he had no part or lot with us, that he but experimented with his soul, as with all else? Experiment--experiment--experiment, until at last an Eglington went exploring in my child's heart, and sent her to her grave--the God of Israel be her rest and refuge! What should such high- placed folk do stooping out of their sphere to us who walk in plain paths? What have we in common with them? My soul would have none of them--masks of men, the slaves of riches and titles, and tyrants over the poor."

His voice grew hoarse and high, and his head bent forward. He spoke as though forgetful of Soolsby's presence: "As the East is from the West, so were we separate from these lovers of this world, the self-indulgent, the hard-hearted, the proud. I chose for the child that he should stay with me and not go to him, to remain among his own people and his own class. He was a sinister, an evil man. Was the child to be trusted with him?"

"The child was his own child," broke in Soolsby. "Your daughter was his lady--the Countess of Eglington! Not all the Quakers in heaven or earth could alter that. His first-born son is Earl of Eglington, and has been so these years past; and you, nor his second-best lordship there, nor all the courts in England can alter that. . . . Ay, I've kept my peace, but I will speak out now. I was with the Earl--James Fetherdon he called himself--when he married her that's gone to heaven, if any ever went to heaven; and I can prove all. There's proof aplenty, and 'tis a pity, ay, God's pity! that 'twas not used long ago. Well I knew, as the years passed, that the Earl's heart was with David, but he had not the courage to face it all, so worn away was the man in him. Ah, if the lad had always been with him--who can tell?--he might have been different! Whether so or not, it was the lad's right to take his place his mother gave him, let be whatever his father was. 'Twas a cruel thing done to him. His own was his own, to run his race as God A'mighty had laid the hurdles, not as Luke Claridge willed. I'm sick of seeing yonder fellow in Our Man's place, he that will not give him help, when he may; he that would see him die like a dog in the desert, brother or no brother--"

"He does not know--Lord Eglington does not know the truth?" interposed the old man in a heavy whisper. "He does not know, but, if he knew, would it matter to him! So much the more would he see Our Man die yonder in the sands. I know the breed. I know him yonder, the skim-milk lord. There is no blood of justice, no milk of kindness in him. Do you think his father that I friended in this thing--did he ever give me a penny, or aught save that hut on the hill that was not worth a pound a year? Did he ever do aught to show that he remembered?--Like father like son. I wanted naught. I held my peace, not for him, but for her--for the promise I made her when she smiled at me and said: 'If I shouldn't be seeing thee again, Soolsby, remember; and if thee can ever prove a friend to the child that is to be, prove it.' And I will prove it now. He must come back to his own. Right's right, and I will have it so. More brains you may have, and wealth you have, but not more common sense than any common man like me. If the spirit moved you to hold your peace, it moves me to make you speak. With all your meek face you've been a hard, stiff- necked man, a tyrant too, and as much an aristocrat to such as me as any lord in the land. But I've drunk the mug of silence to the bottom. I've--" He stopped short, seeing a strange look come over the other's face, then stepped forward quickly as the old man half rose from his chair, murmuring thickly:

"Mercy--David, my lord, come--!" he muttered, and staggered, and fell into Soolsby's arms.

His head dropped forward on his breast, and with a great sigh he sank into unconsciousness. Soolsby laid him on a couch, and ran to the door and called aloud for help.

..........................

The man of silence was silent indeed now. In the room where paralysis had fallen on him a bed was brought, and he lay nerveless on the verge of a still deeper silence. The hours went by. His eyes opened, he saw and recognised them all, but his look rested only on Faith and Soolsby; and, as time went on, these were the only faces to which he gave an answering look of understanding. Days wore away, but he neither spoke nor moved.

People came and went softly, and he gave no heed. There was ever a trouble in his eyes when they were open. Only when Soolsby came did it seem to lessen. Faith saw this, and urged Soolsby to sit by him. She had questioned much concerning what had happened before the stroke fell, but Soolsby said only that the old man had been greatly troubled about David. Once Lady Eglington, frail and gentle and sympathetic, came, but the trouble deepened in his eyes, and the lids closed over them, so that he might not see her face.

When she had gone, Soolsby, who had been present and had interpreted the old man's look according to a knowledge all his own, came over to the bed, leaned down and whispered: "I will speak now."

Then the eyes opened, and a smile faintly flickered at the mouth.

"I will speak now," Soolsby said again into the old man's ear.

CHAPTER XXV

THE VOICE THROUGH THE DOOR

That night Soolsby tapped at the door of the lighted laboratory of the Cloistered House where Lord Eglington was at work; opened it, peered in, and stepped inside.

With a glass retort in his hand Eglington faced him. "What's this--what do you want?" he demanded.

"I want to try an experiment," answered Soolsby grimly.

"Ah, a scientific turn!" rejoined Eglington coolly--looking at him narrowly, however. He was conscious of danger of some kind.

Then for a minute neither spoke. Now that Soolsby had come to the moment for which he had waited for so many ,years, the situation was not what he had so often prefigured. The words he had chosen long ago were gone from his memory; in his ignorance of what had been a commonplace to Soolsby's dark reflection so long, the man he had meant to bring low stood up before him on his own ground, powerful and unabashed.

Eglington wore a blue smock, and over his eyes was a green shade to protect them from the light, but they peered sharply out at the chair- maker, and were boldly alive to the unexpected. He was no physical coward, and, in any case, what reason had he for physical fear in the presence of this man weakened by vice and age? Yet ever since he was a boy there had existed between them an antagonism which had shown itself in many ways. There had ever been something sinister in Soolsby's attitude to his father and himself.

Eglington vaguely knew that now he was to face some trial of mind and nerve, but with great deliberation he continued dropping liquid from a bottle into the glass retort he carried, his eyes, however, watchful of his visitor, who involuntarily stared around the laboratory.

It was fifteen years since Soolsby had been in this room; and then he had faced this man's father with a challenge on his tongue such as he meant to speak now. The smell of the chemicals, the carboys filled with acids, the queer, tapering glasses with engraved measurements showing against the coloured liquids, the great blue bottles, the mortars and pestles, the microscopic instruments--all brought back the far-off, acrid scene between the late Earl and himself. Nothing had changed, except that now there were wires which gave out hissing sparks, electrical instruments invented since the earlier day; except that this man, gently dropping acids into the round white bottle upon a crystal which gave off musty fumes, was bolder, stronger, had more at stake than the other.

Slowly Eglington moved back to put the retort on a long table against the wall, and Soolsby stepped forward till he stood where the electric sparks were gently hissing about him. Now Eglington leaned against the table, poured some alcohol on his fingers to cleanse the acid from them, and wiped them with a piece of linen, while he looked inquiringly at Soolsby. Still, Soolsby did not speak. Eglington lit a cigarette, and took away the shade from his eyes.

"Well, now, what is your experiment?" he asked, "and why bring it here? Didn't you know the way to the stables or the scullery?"

"I knew my way better here," answered Soolsby, steadying himself.

"Ah, you've been here often?" asked Eglington nonchalantly, yet feeling for the cause of this midnight visit.

"It is fifteen years since I was here, my lord. Then I came to see the Earl of Eglington."

"And so history repeats itself every fifteen years! You came to see the Earl of Eglington then; you come to see the Earl of Eglington again-- after fifteen years!"

"I come to speak with him that's called the Earl of Eglington."

Eglington's eyes half closed, as though the light hurt them. "That sounds communistic, or is it pure Quakerism? I believe they used to call my father Friend Robert till he backslided. But you are not a Quaker, Soolsby, so why be too familiar? Or is it merely the way of the old family friend?"

"I knew your father before you were born, my lord--he troosted me then."


The Weavers, Volume 3. - 20/27

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