The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XVI. Madame Dauphin Has a Mission
One day Charley began to know the gossip of the village about him from a source less friendly than Jo Portugais. The Notary's wife, bringing her boy to be measured for a suit of broadcloth, asked Charley if the things Jo had told about him were true, and if it was also true that he was a Protestant, and perhaps an Englishman. As yet, Charley had been asked no direct questions, for the people of Chaudiere had the consideration of their temperament; but the Notary's wife was half English, and being a figure in the place, she took to herself more privileges than did old Madame Dugal, the Cure's sister.
To her ill-disguised impertinence in English, as bad as her French and as fluent, Charley listened with quiet interest. When she had finished her voluble statement she said, with a simper and a sneer-for, after all, a Notary's wife must keep her position--"And now, what is the truth about it? And are you a Protestant?"
There was a sinister look in old Trudel's eyes as, cross-legged on his table, he listened to Madame Dauphin. He remembered the time, twenty- five years ago, when he had proposed to this babbling woman, and had been rejected with scorn--to his subsequent satisfaction; for there was no visible reason why any one should envy the Notary, in his house or out of it. Already Trudel had a respect for the tongue of M'sieu'. He had not talked much the few days he had been in the shop, but, as the old man had said to Filion Lacasse the saddler, his brain was like a pair of shears-- it went clip, clip, clip right through everything. He now hoped that his new apprentice, with the hand of a master-workman, would go clip, clip through madame's inquisitiveness. He was not disappointed, for he heard Charley say:
"One person in the witness-box at a time, Madame. Till Jo Portugais is cross-examined and steps down, I don't see what I can do!"
"But you are a Protestant!" said the woman snappishly. This man was only a tailor, dressed in fulled cloth, and no doubt his past life would not bear inspection; and she was the Notary's wife, and had said to people in the village that she would find out the man's history from himself.
"That is one good reason why I should not go to confession," he replied casually, and turned to a table where he had been cutting a waistcoat-- for the first time in his life.
"Do you think I'm going to stand your impertinence? Do you know who I am?"
Charley calmly put up his monocle. He looked at the foolish little woman with so cruel a flash of the eye that she shrank back.
"I should know you anywhere," he said.
"Come, Stephan," she said nervously to her boy, and pulled him towards the door.
On the instant Charley's feeling changed. Was he then going to carry the old life into the new, and rebuke a silly garish woman whose faults were generic more than personal? He hurried forward to the door and courteously opened it for her.
"Permit me, Madame," he said.
She saw that there was nothing ironical in this politeness. She had a sudden apprehension of an unusual quality called "the genteel," for no storekeeper in Chaudiere ever opened or shut a shop-door for anybody. She smiled a vacuous smile; she played "the lady" terribly, as, with a curious conception of dignity, she held her body stiff as a ramrod, and with a prim merci sailed into the street.
This gorgeous exit changed her opinion of the man she had been unable to catechise. Undoubtedly he had snubbed her--that was the word she used in her mind--but his last act had enabled her, in the sight of several habitants and even of Madame Dugal, "to put on airs," as the charming Madame Dugal said afterwards.
Thinking it better to give the impression that she had had a successful interview, she shook her head mysteriously when asked about M'sieu', and murmured, "He is quite the gentleman!" which she thought a socially distinguished remark.
When she had gone, Charley turned to old Louis.
"I don't want to turn your customers away," he said quietly, "but there it is! I don't need to answer questions as a part of the business, do I?"
There was a sour grin on the face of old Trudel. He grunted some inaudible answer, then, after a pause, added: "I'd have been hung for murder, if she'd answered the question I asked her once as I wanted her to."
He opened and shut his shears with a sardonic gesture.
Charley smiled, and went to the window. For a minute he stood watching Madame Dauphin and Rosalie at the post-office door. The memory of his talk with Rosalie was vivid to him at the moment. He was thinking also that he had not a penny in the world to pay for the rest of the paper he had bought. He turned round and put on his coat slowly.
"What are you doing that for?" asked the old man, with a kind of snarl, yet with trepidation.
"I don't think I'll work any more to-day."
"Not work! Smoke of the devil, isn't Sunday enough to play in? You're not put out by that fool wife of Dauphin's?"
"Oh no--not that! I want an understanding about wages."
To Louis the dread crisis had come. He turned a little green, for he was very miserly-for the love of God.
He had scarcely realised what was happening when Charley first sat down on the bench beside him. He had been taken by surprise. Apart from the excitement of the new experience, he had profited by the curiosity of the public, for he had orders enough to keep him busy until summer, and he had had to give out work to two extra women in the parish, though he had never before had more than one working for him. But his ruling passion was strong in him. He always remembered with satisfaction that once when the Cure was absent and he was supposed to be dying, a priest from another parish came, and, the ministrations over, he had made an offering of a gold piece. When the young priest hesitated, his fingers had crept back to the gold piece, closed on it, and drawn it back beneath the coverlet again. He had then peacefully fallen asleep. It was a gracious memory.
"I don't need much, I don't want a great deal," continued Charley when the tailor did not answer, "but I have to pay for my bed and board, and I can't do it on nothing."
"How have you done it so far?" peevishly replied the tailor.
"By working after hours at carpentering up there"--he made a gesture towards Vadrome Mountain. "But I can't go on doing that all the time, or I'll be like you too soon."
"Be like me!" The voice of the tailor rose shrilly.
"Be like me! What's the matter with me?"
"Only that you're in a bad way before your time, and that you mayn't get out of this hole without stepping into another. You work too hard, Monsieur Trudel."
"What do you want--wages?"
Charley inclined his head. "If you think I'm worth them."
The tailor viciously snipped a piece of cloth. "How can I pay you wages, if you stand there doing nothing?" "This is my day for doing nothing," Charley answered pleasantly, for the tailor-man amused him, and the whimsical mental attitude of his past life was being brought to the surface by this odd figure, with big spectacles pushed up on a yellow forehead, and shrunken hands viciously clutching the shears.
"You don't mean to say you're not going to work to-day, and this suit of clothes promised for to-morrow night--for the Manor House too!"
With a piece of chalk Charley idly made heads on brown paper. "After all, why should clothes be the first thing in one's mind--when they are some one else's! It's a beautiful day outside. I've never felt the sun so warm and the air so crisp and sweet--never in all my life."
"Then where have you lived?" snapped out the tailor with a sneer. "You must be a Yankee--they have only what we leave over down there!" --he jerked his head southward. "We don't stop to look at weather here. I suppose you did where you come from?"
Charley smiled in a distant sort of way. "Where I came from, when we weren't paid for our work we always stopped to consider our health--and the weather. I don't want a great deal. I put it to you honestly. Do you want me? If you do, will you give me enough to live on--enough to buy a suit of clothes a year, to pay for food and a room? If I work for you for nothing, I have to live on others for nothing, or kill myself as you're doing."
There was no answer at once, and Charley went on: "I came to you because I saw you wanted help badly. I saw that you were hard-pushed and sick--"
"I wasn't sick," interrupted the tailor with a snarl.
"Well, overworked, which is the same thing in the end. I did the best I could: I gave you my hands--awkward enough they were at first, I know, but--"
"It's a lie. They weren't awkward," churlishly cut in the tailor.
"Well, perhaps they weren't so awkward, but they didn't know quite what to do--"
"You knew as well as if you'd been taught," came back in a growl.
"Well, then, I wasn't awkward, and I had a knack for the work. What was more, I wanted work. I wanted to work at the first thing that appealed to me. I had no particular fancy for tailoring--you get bowlegged in time!"--the old spirit was fighting with the new--"but here you were at work, and there I was idle, and I had been ill, and some one who wasn't responsible for me--a stranger-worked for me and cared for me. Wasn't it natural, when you were playing the devil with yourself, that I should step in and give you a hand? You've been better since--isn't that so?" The tailor did not answer.
"But I can't go on as we are, though I want only enough to keep me going," Charley continued.
"And if I don't give you what you want, you'll leave?"
"No. I'm never going to leave you. I'm going to stay here, for you'll never get another man so cheap; and it suits me to stay--you need some one to look after you."
A curious soft look suddenly flashed into the tailor's eyes.
"Will you take on the business after I'm gone?" he asked at last. "It's along time to look ahead, I know," he added quickly, for not in words would he acknowledge the possibility of the end.
"I should think so," Charley answered, his eyes on the bright sun and the soft snow on the trees beyond the window.
The tailor snatched up a pattern and figured on it for a moment. Then he handed it to Charley. "Will that do?" he asked with anxious, acquisitive look, his yellow eyes blinking hard.
Charley looked at it musingly, then said "Yes, if you give me a room here."
"I meant board and lodging too," said Louis Trudel with an outburst of eager generosity, for, as it was, he had offered about one-half of what Charley was worth to him.
Charley nodded. "Very well, that will do," he said, and took off his coat and went to work. For a long time they worked silently. The tailor was in great good-humour; for the terrible trial was over, and he now had an assistant who would be a better tailor than himself. There would be more profit, more silver nails for the church door, and more masses for his soul.
"The Cure says you are all right. . . . When will you come here?" he said at last.
"To-morrow night I shall sleep here," answered Charley.
So it was arranged that Charley should come to live in the tailor's house, to sleep in the room which the tailor had provided for a wife twenty-five years before--even for her that was now known as Madame Dauphin.
All morning the tailor chuckled to himself. When they sat down at noon to a piece of venison which Charley had prepared himself--taking the frying-pan out of the hands of Margot Patry, the old servant, and cooking it to a turn--Louis Trudel saw his years lengthen to an indefinite period. He even allowed himself to nervously stand up, bow, shake Charley's hand jerkingly, and say:
"M'sieu', I care not what you are or where you come from, or even if you're a Protestant, perhaps an Englishman. You're a gentleman and a tailor, and old Louis Trudel will not forget you. It shall be as you said this morning--it is no day for work. We will play, and the clothes for the Manor can go to the devil. Smoke of hell-fire, I will go and have a pipe with that, poor wretch the Notary!"
So, a wonderful thing happened. Louis Trudel, on a week-day and a market-day, went to smoke a pipe with Narcisse Dauphin, and to tell him that M. Mallard was going to stay with him for ever, at fine wages. He also announced that he had paid this whole week's wages in advance; but he did not tell what he did not know--that half the money had already been given to old Margot, whose son lay ill at home with a broken leg, and whose children were living on bread and water. Charley had slowly drawn from the woman the story of her life as he sat by the kitchen fire and talked to her, while her master was talking to the Notary.