The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XI. The Raising of the Curtain
M. Marcel Loisel did his work with a masterly precision, with the aid of his brother and Portugais. The man under the instruments, not wholly insensible, groaned once or twice. Once or twice, too, his eyes opened with a dumb hunted look, then closed as with an irresistible weariness. When the work was over, and every stain or sign of surgery removed, sleep came down on the bed--a deep and saturating sleep, which seemed to fill the room with peace. For hours the surgeon sat beside the couch, now and again feeling the pulse, wetting the hot lips, touching the forehead with his palm. At last, with a look of satisfaction, he came forward to where Jo and the Cure sat beside the fire.
"It is all right," he said. "Let him sleep as long as he will." He turned again to the bed. "I wish I could stay to see the end of it. Is there no chance, Prosper?" he added to the priest.
"Impossible, Marcel. You must have sleep. You have a seventy-mile drive before you to-morrow, and sixty the next day. You can only reach the port now by starting at daylight to-morrow."
So it was that Marcel Loisel, the great surgeon, was compelled to leave Chaudiere before he knew that the memory of the man who had been under his knife had actually returned to him. He had, however, no doubt in his own mind, and he was confident that there could be no physical harm from the operation. Sleep was the all-important thing. In it lay the strength for the shock of the awakening--if awakening of memory there was to be.
Before he left he stooped over Charley and said musingly: "I wonder what you will wake up to, my friend?" Then he touched the wound with a light caressing finger. "It was well done, well done," he murmured proudly.
A moment afterwards he was hurrying down the hill to the open road, where a cariole awaited the Cure and himself.
For a day and a half Charley slept, and Jo watched him with an affectionate solicitude. Once or twice, becoming anxious, because of the heavy breathing and the motionless sleep, he had forced open the teeth, and poured a little broth between.
Just before dawn on the second morning, worn out and heavy with slumber, Jo lay down by the piled-up fire and dropped into a sleep that wrapped him like a blanket, folding him away into a drenching darkness.
For a time there was a deep silence, troubled only by Jo's deep breathing, which seemed itself like the pulse of the silence. Charley appeared not to be breathing at all. He was lying on his back, seemingly lifeless. Suddenly on the snug silence there was a sharp sound. A tree outside snapped with the frost.
Charley awoke. The body seemed not to awake, for it did not stir, but the eyes opened wide and full, looking straight before them--straight up to the brown smoke-stained rafters, along which were ranged guns and fishing-tackle, axes and bear-traps. Full clear blue eyes, healthy and untired as a child's fresh from an all-night's drowse, they looked and looked. Yet, at first, the body did not stir; only the mind seemed to be awakening, the soul creeping out from slumber into the day. Presently, however, as the eyes gazed, there stole into them a wonder, a trouble, an anxiety. For a moment they strained at the rafters and the crude weapons and implements there, then the body moved, quickly, eagerly, and turned to see the flickering shadows made by the fire and the simple order of the room.
A minute more, and Charley was sitting on the side of his couch, dazed and staring. This hut, this fire, the figure by the hearth in a sound sleep-his hand went to his head: it felt the bandage there!
He remembered now! Last night at the Cote Dorion! Last night he had talked with Suzon Charlemagne at the Cote Dorion; last night he had drunk harder than he had ever drunk in his life, he had defied, chaffed, insulted the river-drivers. The whole scene came back: the faces of Suzon and her father; Suzon's fingers on his for an instant; the glass of brandy beside him; the lanterns on the walls; the hymn he sang; the sermon he preached--he shuddered a little; the rumble of angry noises round him; the tumbler thrown; the crash of the lantern, and only one light left in the place! Then Jake Hough and his heavy hand, the flying monocle, and his disdainful, insulting reply; the sight of the pistol in the hand of Suzon's father; then a rush, a darkness, and his own fierce plunge towards the door, beyond which were the stars and the cool night and the dark river. Curses, hands that battered and tore at him, the doorway reached, and then a blow on the head and--falling, falling, falling, and distant noises growing more distant, and suddenly and sweetly--absolute silence.
Again he shuddered. Why? He remembered that scene in his office yesterday with Kathleen, and the one later with Billy. A sensitive chill swept all over him, making his flesh creep, and a flush sped over his face from chin to brow. To-day he must pick up all these threads again, must make things right for Billy, must replace the money he had stolen, must face Kathleen again he shuddered. Was he at the Cote Dorion still? He looked round him. No, this was not the sort of house to be found at the Cote Dorion. Clearly this was the hut of a hunter. Probably he had been fished out of the river by this woodsman and brought here. He felt his head. The wound was fresh and very sore. He had played for death, with an insulting disdain, yet here he was alive.
Certainly he was not intended to be drowned or knifed--he remembered the knives he saw unsheathed--or kicked or pummelled into the hereafter. It was about ten o'clock when he had had his "accident"--he affected a smile, yet somehow he did not smile easily--it must be now about five, for here was the morning creeping in behind the deer-skin blind at the window.
Strange that he felt none the worse for his mishap, and his tongue was as clean and fresh as if he had been drinking milk last night, and not very doubtful brandy at the Cote Dorion. No fever in his hands, no headache, only the sore skull, so well and tightly bandaged but a wonderful thirst, and an intolerable hunger. He smiled. When had he ever been hungry for breakfast before? Here he was with a fine appetite: it was like coals of fire heaped on his head by Nature for last night's business at the Cote Dorion. How true it was that penalties did not always come with-- indiscretions. Yet, all at once, he flushed again to the forehead, for a curious sense of shame flashed through his whole being, and one Charley Steele--the Charley Steele of this morning, an unknown, unadventuring, onlooking Charley Steele--was viewing with abashed eyes the Charley Steele who had ended a doubtful career in the coarse and desperate proceedings of last night. With a nervous confusion he sought refuge in his eye-glass. His fingers fumbled over his waistcoat, but did not find it. The weapon of defence and attack, the symbol of interrogation and incomprehensibility, was gone. Beauty Steele was under the eyes of another self, and neither disdain, nor contempt, nor the passive stare, were available. He got suddenly to his feet, and started forward, as though to find refuge from himself.
The abrupt action sent the blood to his head, and feeling a blindness come over him, he put both hands up to his temples, and sank back on the couch, dizzy and faint.
His motions waked Jo Portugais, who scrambled from the floor, and came towards him.
"M'sieu'," he said, "you must not. You are faint." He dropped his hands supportingly to Charley's shoulders.
Charley nodded, but did not yet look up. His head throbbed sorely. "Water--please!" he said.
In an instant Jo was beside him again, with a bowl of fresh water at his lips. He drank, drank, drank, until the great bowl was drained to the last drop.
"Whew! That was good!" he said, and looked up at Jo with a smile. "Thank you, my friend; I haven't the honour of your acquaintance, but--"
He stopped suddenly and stared at Jo. Inquiry, mystification, were in his look.
"Have I ever seen you before?" he said. "Who knows, M'sieu'!"
Since Jo had stood before Charley in the dock near six years ago he had greatly changed. The marks of smallpox, a heavy beard, grey hair, and solitary life had altered him beyond Charley's recognition.
Jo could hardly speak. His legs were trembling under him, for now he knew that Charley Steele was himself again. He was no longer the simple, quiet man-child of three days ago, and of these months past, but the man who had saved him from hanging, to whom he owed a debt he dare not acknowledge. Jo's brain was in a muddle. Now that the great crisis was over, now that the expected thing had come, and face to face with the cure, he had neither tongue, nor strength, nor wit. His words stuck in his throat where his heart was, and for a minute his eyes had a kind of mist before them.
Meanwhile Charley's eyes were upon him, curious, fixed, abstracted.
"Is this your house?"
"It is, M'sieu'."
"You fished me out of the river by the Cote Dorion?" He still held his head with his hands, for it throbbed so, but his eyes were intent on his companion.
Charley's hand mechanically fumbled for his monocle. Jo turned quickly to the wall, and taking it by its cord from the nail where it had been for these long months, handed it over. Charley took it and mechanically put it in his eye. "Thank you, my friend," he said. "Have I been conscious at all since you rescued me last night?" he asked.
"In a way, M'sieu'."
"Ah, well, I can't remember, but it was very kind of you--I do thank you very much. Do you think you could find me something to eat? I beg your pardon--it isn't breakfast-time, of course, but I was never so hungry in my life!"
"In a minute, M'sieu'--in one minute. But lie down, you must lie down a little. You got up too quick, and it makes your head throb. You have had nothing to eat."
"Nothing, since yesterday noon, and very little then. I didn't eat anything at the Cote Dorion, I remember." He lay back on the couch and closed his eyes. The throbbing in his head presently stopped, and he felt that if he ate something he could go to sleep again, it was so restful in this place--a whole day's sleep and rest, how good it would be after last night's racketing! Here was primitive and material comfort, the secret of content, if you liked! Here was this poor hunter-fellow, with enough to eat and to drink, earning it every day by every day's labour, and, like Robinson Crusoe no doubt, living in a serene self- sufficiency and an elysian retirement. Probably he had no responsibilities in the world, with no one to say him nay, himself only to consider in all the universe: a divine conception of adequate life. Yet himself, Charley Steele, an idler, a waster, with no purpose in life, with scarcely the necessity to earn his bread-never, at any rate, until lately--was the slave of the civilisation to which he belonged. Was civilisation worth the game?
His hand involuntarily went to his head. It changed the course of his thoughts. He must go back to-day to put Billy's crime right, to replace the trust-moneys Billy had taken by forging his brother-in-law's name. Not a moment must be lost. No doubt he was within driving distance of his office, and, bandaged head or no bandaged head, last night's disgraceful doings notwithstanding, it was his duty to face the wondering eyes--what did he care for wondering eyes? hadn't he been making eyes wonder all his life?--face the wondering eyes in the little city, and set a crooked business straight. Fool and scoundrel certainly Billy was, but there was Kathleen!
His lips tightened; he had a strange anxious flutter of the heart. When had his heart fluttered like this? When had he ever before considered Kathleen's feelings as to his personal conduct so delicately? Well, since yesterday he did feel it, and a sudden sense of pity sprang up in him--vague, shamefaced pity, which belied the sudden egotistical flourish with which he put his monocle to his eye and tried futilely to smile in the old way.
He had lain with his eyes closed. They opened now, and he saw his host spreading a newspaper as a kind of cloth on a small rough table, and putting some food upon it-bread, meat, and a bowl of soup. It was thoughtful of this man to make his soup overnight-he saw Jo lift it from beside the fire where it had been kept hot. A good fellow-an excellent fellow, this woodsman.
His head did not throb now, and he drew himself up slowly on his elbow- then, after a moment, lifted himself to a sitting posture.
"What is your name, my friend?" he said.
"Jo Portugais, M'sieu'," Jo answered, and brought a candle and put it on the table, then lifted the tin-plate from over the bowl of savoury soup.
Never before had Charley Steele sat down to such a breakfast. A roll and a cup of coffee had been enough, and often too much, for him. Yet now he could not wait to eat the soup with a spoon, but lifted the bowl and took a long draught of it, and set it down with a sigh of content. Then he broke bread into the soup--large pieces of black oat bread--until the bowl was a mass of luscious pulp. This he ate almost ravenously, his eye wandering avidly the while to the small piece of meat beside the bowl. What meat was it? It looked like venison, yet summer was not the time for venison. What did it matter! Jo sat on a bench beside the fire, his face turned towards his guest, dreading the moment when the man he had nursed and cared for, with whom he had eaten and drunk for so long, should know the truth about himself. He could not tell him all there was to tell, he was taking another means of letting him know.
Charley did not speak. Hunger was a new sensation, a delicious thing, too good to be broken by talking. He ate till he had cleared away the last crumbs of bread and meat and drunk the last drop of soup. He looked at the woodsman as though wondering if he would bring more. Jo evidently thought he had had enough, for he did not move. Charley's glance withdrew from Jo, and busied itself with the few crumbs remaining upon the table. He saw a little piece of bread on the floor. He picked it up and ate it with relish, laughing to himself.
"How long will it take us to get to town? Can we do it this morning?"
"Not this morning, M'sieu'," said Jo, in a sort of hoarse whisper.
"How many hours would it take?"
He was gathering the last crumbs of his feast with his hand, and looking casually down at the newspaper spread as a table-cloth.
All at once his hand stopped, his eyes became fixed on a spot in the paper. He gave a hoarse, guttural cry, like an animal in agony. His lips became dry, his hand wiped a blinding mist from his eyes.
Jo watched him with an intense alarm and a horrified curiosity. He felt a base coward for not having told Charley what this paper contained. Never had he seen such a look as this. He felt his beads, and told them over and over again, as Charley Steele, in a dry, croaking sort of whisper, read, in letters that seemed monstrous symbols of fire, a record of himself:
"To-day, by special license from the civil and ecclesiastical courts [the paragraph in the paper began], was married, at St. Theobald's Church, Mrs. Charles Steele, daughter of the late Hon. Julien Wantage, and niece of the late Eustace Wantage, Esq., to Captain Thomas Fairing, of the Royal Fusileers--"
Charley snatched at the top of the paper and read the date "Tenth of February, 18-!" It was August when he was at the Cote Dorion, the 5th August, 18-, and this paper was February 10th, 18-. He read on, in the month-old paper, with every nerve in his body throbbing now: a fierce beating that seemed as if it must burst the heart and the veins:
"--Captain Thomas Fairing, of the Royal Fusileers, whose career in our midst has been marked by an honourable sense of public and private duty. Our fellow-citizens will unite with us in congratulating the bride, whose previous misfortunes have only increased the respect in which she is held. If all remember the obscure death of her first husband (though the body was not found, there has never been a doubt of his death), and the subsequent discovery that he had embezzled trust-moneys to the extent of twenty-five thousand dollars, thereby setting the final seal of shame upon a misspent life, destined for brilliant and powerful uses, all have conspired to forget the association of our beautiful and admired townswoman with his career. It is painful to refer to these circumstances, but it is only within the past few days that the estate of the misguided man has been wound up, and the money he embezzled restored to its rightful owners; and it is better to make these remarks now than repeat them in the future, only to arouse painful memories in quarters where we should least desire to wound.
"In her new life, blessed by a romantic devotion known and admired by all, Mrs. Fairing and her husband will be followed by the affectionate good wishes of the whole community."
The man on the hearth-stone shrank back at the sight of the still, white face, in which the eyes were like sparks of fire. His impulse had been to go over and offer the hand of sympathy to the stricken man, but his simple mind grasped the fact that no one might, with impunity, invade this awful quiet. Charley was frozen in body, but his brain was awake with the heat of "a burning fiery furnace."
Seven months of unconscious life-seven months of silence--no sight, no seeing, no knowing; seven months of oblivion, in which the world had buried him out of ken in an unknown grave of infamy! Seven months--and Kathleen was married again to the man she had always loved. To the world he himself was a rogue and thief. Billy had remained silent--Billy, whom he had so befriended, had let decent men heap scorn and reproaches on his memory. Here was what the world thought of him--he read the lines over again, his eyes scorching, but his finger steady, as it traced the lines slowly: "the obscure death . . . . ." "embezzled trustmoneys . . . . ." "the final seal of shame upon a misspent life!"
These were the epitaphs on the tombstone of Charley Steele; dead and buried, out of sight, out of repute, soon to be out of mind and out of memory, save as a warning to others--an old example raked out of the dust-bin of time by the scavengers of morality, to toss at all who trod the paths of dalliance.
What was there to do? Go back? Go back and knock at Kathleen's door, another Enoch Arden, and say: "I have come to my own again?" Return and tell Tom Fairing to go his way and show his face no more? Break up this union, this marriage of love in which these two rejoiced? Summon Kathleen out of her illegal intercourse with the man who had been true to her all these years?
To what end? What had he ever done for her that he might destroy her now? What sort of Spartan tragedy was this, that the woman who had been the victim of circumstances, who had been the slave to a tie he never felt, yet which had been as iron-bound to her, should now be brought out to be mangled body and soul for no fault of her own? What had she done? What had she ever done to give him right to touch so much as a hair of her head?
Go back, and bring Billy to justice, and clear his own name? Go back, and send Kathleen's brother, the forger, to jail? What an achievement in justice! Would not the world have a right to say that the only decent thing he could do was to eliminate himself from the equation? What profit for him in the great summing-up, that he was technically innocent of this one thing, and that to establish his innocence he broke a woman's heart and destroyed a boy's life? To what end! It was the murderer coming back as a ghost to avenge himself for being hanged. Suppose he went back--the death's-head at the feast--what would there be for himself afterwards; for any one for whom he was responsible? Living at that price?
To die and end it all, to disappear from this petty life where he had done so little, and that little ill? To die?
No. There was in him some deep, if obscure, fatalism after all. If he had been meant to die now, why had he not gone to the bottom of the river that yesterday at the Cote Dorion? Why had he been saved by this yokel at the fire, and brought here to lie in oblivion in this mountain hut, wrapped in silence and lost to the world? Why had his brain and senses lain fallow all these months, a vacuous vegetation, an empty consciousness? Was it fate? Did it not seem probable that the Great Machine had, in its automatic movement, tossed him up again on the shores of Time because he had not fallen on the trap-door predestined for his eternal exit?
It was clear to him that death by his own hand was futile, and that if there were trap-doors set for him alone, it were well to wait until he trod upon them and fell through in his appointed hour in the movement of the Great Machine.
What to do--where to live--how to live?
He got slowly to his feet and took a step forward half blindly. The man on the bench stirred. Crossing the room he dropped a hand on the man's shoulder. "Open the blind, my friend."
Jo Portugais got to his feet quickly, eyes averted--he did not dare look into Charley's face--and went over and drew back the deer-skin blind. The clear, crisp sunlight of a frosty morning broke gladly into the room. Charley turned and blew out the candle on the table where he had eaten, then walked feebly to the window. Standing on the crest of the mountain the hut looked down through a clearing, flanked by forest trees.
It was a goodly scene. The green and frosted foliage of the pines and cedars; the flowery tracery of frost hanging like cobwebs everywhere; the poudre sparkle in the air; the hills of silver and emerald sloping down to the valley miles away, where the village clustered about the great old parish church; the smoke from a hundred chimneys, in purple spirals, rising straight up in the windless air; over all peace and a perfect silence.
Charley mechanically fixed his eye-glass and stood with hands resting on the window-sill, looking, looking out upon a new world.
At length he turned.
"Is there anything I can do for you, M'sieu'?" said Jo huskily.
Charley held out his hand and clasped Jo's. "Tell me about all these months," he said.