The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter X. The Way in and the Way Out
In his own world of the parish of Chaudiere Jo Portugais was counted a widely travelled man. He had adventured freely on the great rivers and in the forests, and had journeyed up towards Hudson's Bay farther than any man in seven parishes.
Jo's father and mother had both died in one year--when he was twenty- five. That year had turned him from a clean-shaven cheerful boy into a morose bearded man who looked forty, for it had been marked by his disappearance from Chaudiere and his return at the end of it, to find his mother dead and his father dying broken-hearted. What had driven Jo from home only his father knew; what had happened to him during that year only Jo himself knew, and he told no one, not even his dying father.
A mystery surrounded him, and no one pierced it. He was a figure apart in Chaudiere parish. A dreadful memory that haunted him, carried him out of the village, which clustered round the parish church, into Vadrome Mountain, three miles away, where he lived apart from all his kind. It was here he brought the man with the eye-glass one early dawn, after two nights and two days on the river, pulling him up the long hill in a low cart with his strong faithful dogs, hitching himself with them and toiling upwards through the dark. In his three-roomed hut he laid his charge down upon a pile of bear-skins, and tended him with a strange gentleness, bathing the wound in the head and binding it again and again.
The next morning the sick man opened his eyes heavily. He then began fumbling mechanically on his breast. At last his fingers found his monocle. He feebly put it to his eye, and looked at Jo in a strange, questioning, uncomprehending way.
"I beg--your pardon," he said haltingly, "have I ever--been intro--" Suddenly his eyes closed, a frown gathered on his forehead. After a minute his eyes opened again, and he gazed with painful, pathetic seriousness at Jo. This grew to a kind of childish terror; then slowly, as a shadow passes, the perplexity, anxiety and terror cleared away, and left his forehead calm, his eyes unvexed and peaceful. The monocle dropped, and he did not heed it. At length he said wearily, and with an incredibly simple dependence:
"I am thirsty now."
Jo lifted a wooden bowl to his lips, and he drank, drank, drank to repletion. When he had finished he patted Jo's shoulder.
"I am always thirsty," he said. "I shall be hungry too. I always am."
Jo brought him some milk and bread in a bowl. When the sick man had eaten and drunk the bowlful to the last drop and crumb, he lay back with a sigh of content, but trembling from weakness and the strain, though Jo's hand had been under his head, and he had been fed like a little child.
All day he lay and watched Jo as he worked, as he came and went. Sometimes he put his hand to his head and said to Jo: "It hurts." Then Jo would cool the wound with fresh water from the mountain spring, and he would drag down the bowl to drink from it greedily.
It was as though he could never get enough water to drink. So the first day in the hut at Vadrome Mountain passed without questioning on the part of either Charley Steele or his host.
With good reason. Jo Portugais saw that memory was gone; that the past was blotted out. He had watched that first terrible struggle of memory to reassert itself, as the eyes mechanically looked out upon new and strange surroundings, but it was only the automatic habit of the sight, the fumbling of the blind soul in its cell-fumbling for the latch which it could not find, for the door which would not open. The first day on the raft, as Charley had opened his eyes upon the world again after that awful night at the Cote Dorion, Jo. had seen that same blank uncomprehending look--as it were, the first look of a mind upon the world. This time he saw, and understood what he saw, and spoke as men speak, but with no knowledge or memory behind it--only the involuntary action of muscle and mind repeated from the vanished past.
Charley Steele was as a little child, and having no past, and comprehending in the present only its limited physical needs and motions, he had no hope, no future, no understanding. In three days he was upon his feet, and in four he walked out of doors and followed Jo into the woods, and watched him fell a tree and do a woodsman's work. Indoors he regarded all Jo did with eager interest and a pleased, complacent look, and readily did as he was told. He seldom spoke--not above three or four times a day, and then simply and directly, and only concerning his wants. From first to last he never asked a question, and there was never any inquiry by look or word. A hundred and twenty miles lay between him and his old home, between him and Kathleen and Billy and Jean Jolicoeur's saloon, but between him and his past life the unending miles of eternity intervened. He was removed from it as completely as though he were dead and buried.
A month went by. Sometimes Jo went down to the village below, and then, at first, he locked the door of the house behind him upon Charley. Against this Charley made no motion and said no word, but patiently awaited Jo's return. So it was that, at last, Jo made no attempt to lock the door, but with a nod or a good-bye left him alone. When Charley saw him returning he would go to meet him, and shake hands with him, and say "Good-day," and then would come in with him and help him get supper or do the work of the house.
Since Charley came no one had visited the house, for there were no paths beyond it, and no one came to the Vadrome Mountain, save by chance. But after two months had gone the Cure came. Twice a year the Cure made it a point to visit Jo in the interests of his soul, though the visits came to little, for Jo never went to confession, and seldom to mass. On this occasion the Cure arrived when Jo was out in the woods. He discovered Charley. Charley made no answer to his astonished and friendly greeting, but watched him with a wide-eyed anxiety till the Cure seated himself at the door to await Jo's coming. Presently, as he sat there, Charley, who had studied his face as a child studies the unfamiliar face of a stranger, brought him a bowl of bread and milk and put it in his hands. The Cure smiled and thanked him, and Charley smiled in return and said: "It is very good."
As the Cure ate, Charley watched him with satisfaction, and nodded at him kindly.
When Jo came he lied to the Cure. He said he had found Charley wandering in the woods, with a wound in his head, and had brought him home with him and cared for him. Forty miles away he had found him.
The Cure was perplexed. What was there to do? He believed what Jo said. So far as he knew, Jo had never lied to him before, and he thought he understood Jo's interest in this man with the look of a child and no memory: Jo's life was terribly lonely; he had no one to care for, and no one cared for him; here was what might comfort him! Through this helpless man might come a way to Jo's own good. So he argued with himself.
What to do? Tell the story to the world by writing to the newspaper at Quebec? Jo pooh-poohed this. Wait till the man's memory came back? Would it come back--what chance was there of its ever coming back? Jo said that they ought to wait and see--wait awhile, and then, if his memory did not return, they would try to find his friends, by publishing his story abroad.
Chaudiere was far from anywhere: it knew little of the world, and the world knew naught of it, and this was a large problem for the Cure. Perhaps Jo was right, he thought. The man was being well cared for, and what more could be wished at the moment? The Cure was a simple man, and when Jo urged that if the sick man could get well anywhere in the world it would be at Vadrome Mountain in Chaudiere, the Cure's parochial pride was roused, and he was ready to believe all Jo said. He also saw reason in Jo's request that the village should not be told of the sick man's presence. Before he left, the Cure knelt down and prayed, "for the good of this poor mortal's soul and body."
As he prayed, Charley knelt down also, and kept his eyes-calm unwondering eyes-full fixed on the good M. Loisel, whose grey hair, thin peaceful face, and dark brown eyes made a noble picture of patience and devotion.
When the Cure shook him by the hand, murmuring in good-bye, "God be gracious to thee, my son," Charley nodded in a friendly way. He watched the departing figure till it disappeared over the crest of the hill.
This day marked an epoch in the solitude of the hut on Vadrome Mountain. Jo had an inspiration. He got a second set of carpenter's tools, and straightway began to build a new room to the house. He gave the extra set of tools to Charley with an encouraging word. For the first time since he had been brought here, Charley's face took on a look of interest. In half-an-hour he was at work, smiling and perspiring, and quickly learning the craft. He seldom spoke, but he sometimes laughed a mirthful, natural boy's laugh of good spirits and contentment. From that day his interest in things increased, and before two months went round, while yet it was late autumn, he looked in perfect health. He ate moderately, drank a great deal of water, and slept half the circle of the clock each day. His skin was like silk; the colour of his face was as that of an apple; he was more than ever Beauty Steele. The Cure came two or three times, and Charley spoke to him but never held conversation, and no word concerning the past ever passed his tongue, nor did he have memory of what was said to him from one day to the next. A hundred ways Jo had tried to rouse his memory. But the words Cote Dorion had no meaning to him, and he listened blankly to all names and phrases once so familiar. Yet he spoke French and English in a slow, passive, involuntary way. All was automatic, mechanical.
The weeks again wore on, and autumn became winter, and then at last one day the Cure came, bringing his brother, a great Parisian surgeon lately arrived from France on a short visit. The Cure had told his brother the story, and had been met by a keen, astonished interest in the unknown man on Vadrome Mountain. A slight pressure on the brain from accident had before now produced loss of memory--the great man's professional curiosity was aroused: he saw a nice piece of surgical work ready to his hand; he asked to be taken to Vadrome Mountain.
Now the Cure had lived long out of the world, and was not in touch with the swift-minded action and adventuring intellects of such men as his brother, Marcel Loisel. Was it not tempting Providence, a surgical operation? He was so used to people getting ill and getting well without a doctor--the nearest was twenty miles distant--or getting ill and dying in what seemed a natural and preordained way, that to cut open a man's head and look into his brain, and do this or that to his skull, seemed almost sinful. Was it not better to wait and see if the poor man would not recover in God's appointed time?
In answer to his sensitively eager and diverse questions, Marcel Loisel replied that his dear Cure was merely mediaeval, and that he had sacrificed his mental powers on the altar of a simple faith, which might remove mountains but was of no value in a case like this, where, clearly, surgery was the only providence.
At this the Cure got to his feet, came over, laid his hand on his brother's shoulder, and said, with tears in his eyes:
"Marcel, you shock me. Indeed you shock me!"
Then he twisted a knot in his cassock cords, and added "Come then, Marcel. We will go to him. And may God guide us aright!"
That afternoon the two grey-haired men visited Vadrome Mountain, and there they found Charley at work in the little room that the two men had built. Charley nodded pleasantly when the Cure introduced his brother, but showed no further interest at first. He went on working at the cupboard under his hand. His cap was off and his hair was a little rumpled where the wound had been, for he had a habit of rubbing the place now and then--an abstracted, sensitive motion--although he seemed to suffer no pain. The surgeon's eyes fastened on the place, and as Charley worked and his brother talked, he studied the man, the scar, the contour of the head. At last he came up to Charley and softly placed his fingers on the scar, feeling the skull. Charley turned quickly.
There was something in the long, piercing look of the surgeon which seemed to come through limitless space to the sleeping and imprisoned memory of Charley's sick mind. A confused, anxious, half-fearful look crept into the wide blue eyes. It was like a troubled ghost, flitting along the boundaries of sight and sense, and leaving a chill and a horrified wonder behind. The surgeon gazed on, and the trouble in Charley's eye passed to his face, stayed an instant. Then he turned away to Jo Portugais. "I am thirsty now," he said, and he touched his lips in the way he was wont to do in those countless ages ago, when, millions upon millions of miles away, people said: "There goes Charley Steele!"
"I am thirsty now," and that touch of the lip with the tongue, were a revelation to the surgeon.
A half-hour later he was walking homeward with the Cure. Jo accompanied them for a distance. As they emerged into the wider road-paths that began half-way down the mountain, the Cure, who had watched his brother's face for a long time in silence, said:
"What is in your mind, Marcel?" The surgeon turned with a half-smile.
"He is happy now. No memory, no conscience, no pain, no responsibility, no trouble--nothing behind or before. Is it good to bring him back?"
The Cure had thought it all over, and he had wholly changed his mind since that first talk with his brother. "To save a mind, Marcel!" he said.
"Then to save a soul?" suggested the surgeon. "Would he thank me?"
"It is our duty to save him."
"Body and mind and soul, eh? And if I look after the body and the mind?"
"His soul is in God's hands, Marcel."
"But will he thank me? How can you tell what sorrows, what troubles, he has had? What struggles, temptations, sins? He has none now, of any sort; not a stain, physical or moral."
"That is not life, Marcel."
"Well, well, you have changed. This morning it was I who would, and you hesitated."
"I see differently now, Marcel."
The surgeon put a hand playfully on his brother's shoulder.
"Did you think, my dear Prosper, that I should hesitate? Am I a sentimentalist? But what will he say?
"We need not think of that, Marcel."
"But yet suppose that with memory come again sin and shame--even crime?"
"We will pray for him." "But if he isn't a Catholic?"
"One must pray for sinners," said the Curb, after a silence.
This time the surgeon laid a hand on the shoulder of his brother affectionately. "Upon my soul, dear Prosper, you almost persuade me to be reactionary and mediaeval."
The Curb turned half uneasily towards Jo, who was following at a little distance. This seemed hardly the sort of thing for him to hear.
"You had better return now, Jo," he said.
"As you wish, M'sieu'," Jo answered, then looked inquiringly at the surgeon.
"In about five days, Portugais. Have you a steady hand and a quick eye?"
Jo spread out his hands in deprecation, and turned to the Curb, as though for him to answer.
"Jo is something of a physician and surgeon too, Marcel. He has a gift. He has cured many in the parish with his herbs and tinctures, and he has set legs and arms successfully."
The surgeon eyed Jo humorously, but kindly. "He is probably as good a doctor as some of us. Medicine is a gift, surgery is a gift and an art. You shall hear from me, Portugais." He looked again keenly at Jo. "You have not given him 'herbs and tinctures'?"
"Very sensible. Good-day, Portugais."
"Good-day, my son," said the priest, and raised his fingers in benediction, as Jo turned and quickly retraced his steps.
"Why did you ask him if he had given the poor man any herbs or tinctures, Marcel?" said the priest.
"Because those quack tinctures have whiskey in them."
"What do you mean?"
"Whiskey in any form would be bad for him," the surgeon answered evasively.
But to himself he kept saying: "The man was a drunkard--he was a drunkard."