The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XVII. The Tailor Makes a Midnight Foray
Since the day Charley had brought home the paper bought at the post- office, and water-marked Kathleen, he had, at odd times, written down his thoughts, and promptly torn the paper up again or put it in the fire. In the repression of the new life, in which he must live wholly alone, so far as all past habits of mind were concerned, it was a relief to record his passing reflections, as he had been wont to do when the necessity for it was less. Writing them here was like the bursting of an imprisoned stream; it was relaxing the ceaseless eye of vigilance; freeing an imprisoned personality. This personality was not yet merged into that which must take its place, must express itself in the involuntary acts which tell of a habit of mind and body--no longer the imitative and the histrionic, but the inherent and the real.
On the afternoon of the day that old Louis agreed to give him wages, and went to smoke a pipe with the Notary, Charley scribbled down his thoughts on this matter of personality and habit.
"Who knows," he wrote, "which is the real self? A child comes into the world gin-begotten, with the instinct for liquor in his brain, like the scent of the fox in the nostrils of the hound. And that seems the real. But the same child caught up on the hands of chance is carried into another atmosphere, is cared for by ginhating minds and hearts: habit fastens on him--fair, decent, and temperate habit--and he grows up like the Cure yonder, a brother of Aaron. Which is the real? Is the instinct for the gin killed, or covered? Is the habit of good living mere habit and mere acting, in which the real man never lives his real life, or is it the real life?
"Who knows! Here am I, born with a question in my mouth, with the ever- present 'non possumus' in me. Here am I, to whom life was one poor futility; to whom brain was but animal intelligence abnormally developed; to whom speechless sensibility and intelligence was the only reality; to whom nothing from beyond ever sent a flash of conviction, an intimation, into my soul--not one. To me God always seemed a being of dreams, the creation of a personal need and helplessness, the despairing cry of the victims of futility--And here am I flung like a stone from a sling into this field where men believe in God as a present and tangible being; who reply to all life's agonies and joys and exultations with the words 'C'est le bon Dieu.' And what shall I become? Will habit do its work, and shall I cease to be me? Shall I, in the permanency of habit, become like unto this tailor here, whose life narrows into one sole cause; whose only wish is to have the Church draw the coverlet of forgiveness and safety over him; who has solved all questions in a blind belief or an inherited predisposition--which? This stingy, hard, unhappy man--how should he know what I am denied! Or does he know? Is it all illusion? If there is a God who receives such devotion, to the exclusion of natural demand and spiritual anxieties, why does not this tailor 'let his light so shine before men that they may see his good works, and glorify his Father which is in heaven?' That is it. Therefore, wherefore, tailor- man? Therefore, wherefore, God? Show me a sign from Heaven, tailor- man!"
Seated on his bench in the shop, with his eyes ever and anon raised towards the little post-office opposite, he wrote these words. Afterwards he sat and thought till the shadows deepened, and the tailor came in to supper. Then he took up the pieces of paper, and, going to the fire, which was still lighted of an evening, thrust them inside.
Louis Trudel saw the paper burning, and, glancing down, he noticed that one piece--the last--had slipped to the floor and was lying under the table. He saw the pencil still in Charley's hand. Forthwith his natural suspicion leaped up, and the cunning of the monomaniac was upon him. With all his belief in le bon Dieu and the Church, Louis Trudel trusted no one. One eye was ever open to distrust man, while the other was ever closed with blind belief in Heaven.
As Charley stooped to put wood in the fire, the tailor thrust a foot forward and pushed the piece of paper further under the table.
That night the tailor crept down into the shop, felt for the paper in the dark, found it, and carried it away to his room. All kinds of thoughts had raged through his diseased mind. It was a letter, perhaps, and if a letter, then he would gain some facts about the man's life. But if it was a letter, why did he burn it? It was said that he never received a letter and never sent one, therefore it was little likely to be a letter. if not a letter, then what could it be? Perhaps the man was English and a spy of the English government, for was there not disaffection in some of the parishes? Perhaps it was a plan of robbery. To such a state of hallucination did his weakened mind come, that he forgot the kindly feeling he had had for this stranger who had worked for him without pay. Suspicion, the bane of sick old age, was hot on him. He remembered that M'sieu' had put an arm through his when they went upstairs, and that now increased suspicion. Why should the man have been so friendly? To lull him into confidence, perhaps, and then to rob and murder him in his sleep. Thank God, his ready money was well hid, and the rest was safe in the bank far away! He crept back to his room with the paper in his hand. It was the last sheet of what Charley had written, and had been accidentally brushed off on the floor. It was in French, and, holding the candle close, he slowly deciphered the crabbed, characteristic handwriting.
His eyes dilated, his yellow cheeks took on spots of unhealthy red, his hand trembled. Anger seized him, and he mumbled the words over and over again to himself. Twice or thrice, as the paper lay in one hand, he struck it with the clinched fist of the other, muttering and distraught.
"This tailor here. . . . This stingy, hard, unhappy man. . . . If there is a God! . . . Therefore, wherefore, tailor-man? . . . Therefore, wherefore, God? . . . Show me a sign from Heaven, tailor- man!"
Hatred of himself, blasphemy, the profane and hellish humour of--of the infidel! A Protestant heretic--he was already damned; a robber--you could put him in jail; a spy--you could shoot him or tar and feather him; a murderer--you could hang him. But an infide--this was a deadly poison, a black danger, a being capable of all crimes. An infidel--"Therefore, wherefore, tailor-man? . . . Therefore, wherefore, God? . . . Show me a sign from Heaven, tailor-man!"
The devil laughing--the devil incarnate come to mock a poor tailor, to sow plague through a parish where all were at peace in the bosom of the Church. The tailor had three ruling passions--cupidity, vanity, and religion. Charley had now touched the three, and the whole man was alive. His cupidity had been flattered by the unpaid service of a capable assistant, but now he saw that he was paying the devil a wage. His vanity was overwhelmed by a satanic ridicule. His religion and his God had been assaulted in so shameful a way that no punishment could be great enough for the man of hell. In religion he was a fanatic; he was a demented fanatic now.
He thrust the paper into his pocket, then crept out into the hall and to the door of Charley's bedroom. He put his ear to the door. After a moment he softly raised the latch, and opened the door and listened again. 'M'sieu' was in a deep sleep.
Louis Trudel scarcely knew why he had listened, why he had opened the door and stood looking at the figure in the bed, barely definable in the semi-darkness of the room. If he had meant harm to the helpless man, he had brought no weapon; if he had been curious, there the man was peacefully sleeping!
His sick, morbid imagination was so alive, that he scarcely knew what he did. As he stood there listening, hatred and horror in his heart, a voice said to him: "Thou shalt do no murder." The words kept ringing in his ears. Yet he had not thought of murder. The fancied command itself was his first temptation towards such a deed. He had thought of raising the parish, of condign punishment of many sorts, but not this. As he closed the door softly, killing entered his mind and stayed there. "Thou shalt not" had been the first instigation to "Thou shalt."
It haunted him as he returned to his room, undressed himself, and went to bed. He could not sleep. "Show me a sign from Heaven, tailor-man!" The challenge had been to himself. He must respond to it. The duty lay with him; he must answer this black infidel for the Church, for faith, for God.
The more he thought of it, the more Charley's face came before him, with the monocle shining and hard in the eye. The monocle haunted him. That was the infidel's sign. "Show me a sign from Heaven, tailor-man!" What sign should he show?
Presently he sat up straight in bed. In another minute he was out and dressing. Five minutes later he was on his way to the parish church. When he reached it he took a tool from his pocket and unscrewed a small iron cross from the front door. It was a cross which had been blessed by the Pope, and had been brought to Chaudiere by the beloved mother of the Cure, now dead.
"When I have done with it I will put it back," he said, as he thrust it inside his shirt, and hurried stealthily back to his house. As he got into bed he gave a noiseless, mirthless laugh. All night he lay with his yellow eyes wide open, gazing at the ceiling. He was up at dawn, hovering about the fire in the shop.