The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XVIII. The Stealing of the Cross
If Charley had been less engaged with his own thoughts, he would have noticed the curious baleful look in the eyes of the tailor; but he was deeply absorbed in a struggle that had nothing to do with Louis Trudel.
The old fever of thirst and desire was upon him. All morning the door of Jolicoeur's saloon was opening and shutting before his mind's eye, and there was a smell of liquor everywhere. It was in his nostrils when the hot steam rose from the clothes he was pressing, in the thick odour of the fulled cloth, in the melting snow outside the door.
Time and again he felt that he must run out of the shop and away to the little tavern where white whiskey was sold to unwise habitants. But he fought on. Here was the heritage of his past, the lengthening chain of slavery to his old self--was it his real self? Here was what would prevent him from forgetting all that he had been and not been, all the happiness he might have had, all that he had lost--the ceaseless reminder. He was still the victim to a poison which gave not only a struggle of body, but a struggle of soul--if he had a soul.
"If he had a soul!" The phrase kept repeating itself to him even as he fought the fever in his throat, resisting the temptation to take that medicine which the Curb's brother had sent him.
"If he had a soul!" The thinking served as an antidote, for by the ceaseless iteration his mind was lulled into a kind of drowse. Again and again he went to the pail of water that stood on the window-sill, and lifting it to his lips, drank deep and full, to quench the wearing thirst.
"If he had a soul!" He looked at Louis Trudel, silent and morose, the clammy yellow of a great sickness in his face and hands, but his mind only intent on making a waistcoat--and the end of all things very near! The words he had written the night before came to him: "Therefore, wherefore, tailor-man? Therefore, wherefore, God? . . . Show me a sign from Heaven, tailor-man!" As if in reply to his thoughts there came the sound of singing, and of bells ringing in the parish church.
A procession with banners was coming near. It was a holy day, and Chaudiere was mindful of its duties. The wanderers of the parish had come home for Easter. All who belonged to Chaudiere and worked in the woods or shanties, or lived in big cities far away, were returned--those who could return--to take the holy communion in the parish church. Yesterday the parish had been alive with a pious hilarity. The great church had been crowded beyond the doors, the streets had been full of cheerily dressed habitants. There had, however, come a sudden chill to the seemly rejoicings--the little iron cross blessed by the Pope had been stolen from the door of the church!
The fact had been told to the Cure as he said the Mass, and from the altar steps, before going to the pulpit, he referred to the robbery with poignant feeling; for the relic had belonged to a martyr of the Church, who, two centuries before, had laid down his life for the Master on the coast of Africa.
Louis Trudel had heard the Cure's words, and in his place at the rear of the church he smiled sourly to himself. In due time the little cross should be returned, but it had work to do first. He did not take the holy communion this Easter day, or go to confession as was his wont. Not, however, until a certain day later did the Cure realise this, though for thirty years the tailor had never omitted his Easter-time duties.
The people guessed and guessed, but they knew not on whom to cast suspicion at first. No sane Catholic of Chaudiere could possibly have taken the holy thing. Presently a murmur crept about that M'sieu' might have been the thief. He was not a Catholic, and--who could tell? Who knew where he came from? Who knew what he had been? Perhaps a jail- bird-robber-murderer! Charley, however, stitched on, intent upon his own struggle.
The procession passed the doorway: men bearing banners with sacred texts, acolytes swinging censers, a figure of the Saviour carved in wood borne aloft, the Cure under a silk canopy, and a long line of habitants following with sacred song. People fell upon their knees in the street as the procession passed, and the Cure's face was bent here and there, his hand raised in blessing.
Old Louis got up from his bench, and, putting on a coat over his wool jacket, hastened to the doorway, knelt down, made the sign of the cross, and said a prayer. Then he turned quickly towards Charley, who, looking at the procession, then at the tailor, then back again at the procession, smiled.
Charley was hardly conscious of what he did. His mind had ranged far beyond this scene to the large issues which these symbols represented. Was it one universal self-deception? Was this "religion" the pathetic, the soul-breaking make-believe of mortality? So he smiled--at himself, at his own soul, which seemed alone in this play, the skeleton in armour, the thing that did not belong. His own words written that fateful day before he died at the Cote Dorion came to him:
"Sacristan, acolyte, player, or preacher, Each to his office, but who holds the key? Death, only Death, thou, the ultimate teacher, Wilt show it to me!"
He was suddenly startled from his reverie, through which the procession was moving--a cloud of witnesses. It was the voice of Louis Trudel, sharp and piercing:
"Don't you believe in God and the Son of God?"
"God knows!" answered Charley slowly in reply--an involuntary exclamation of helplessness, an automatic phrase deflected from its first significance to meet a casual need of the mind. Yet it seemed like satire, like a sardonic, even vulgar, humour. So it struck Louis Trudel, who snatched up a hot iron from the fire and rushed forward with a snarl. So astounded was Charley that he did not stir. He was not prepared for the sudden onslaught. He did not put up his hand even, but stared at the tailor, who, within a foot of him, stopped short with the iron poised.
Louis Trudel repented in time. With the cunning of the monomaniac he realised that an attack now might frustrate his great stroke. It would bring the village to his shop door, precipitate the crisis upon the wrong incident.
As it chanced, only one person in Chaudiere saw the act. That was Rosalie Evanturel across the way. She saw the iron raised, and looked for M'sieu' to knock the tailor down; but, instead, she beheld the tailor go back and put the iron on the fire again. She saw also that M'sieu' was speaking, though she could hear no words.
Charley's words were simple enough. "I beg your pardon, Monsieur," he said across the room to old Louis; "I meant no offence at all. I was trying to think it out in a human sort of way. I suppose I wanted a sign from Heaven--wanted too much, no doubt."
The tailor's lips twitched, and his hand convulsively clutched the shears at his side.
"It is no matter now," he answered shortly. "I have had signs from Heaven; perhaps you will have one too!"
"It would be worth while," rejoined Charley musingly. Charley wondered bitterly if he had made an irreparable error in saying those ill-chosen words. This might mean a breach between them, and so make his position in the parish untenable. He had no wish to go elsewhere--where could he go? It mattered little what he was, tinker or tailor. He had now only to work his way back to the mind of the peasant; to be an animal with intelligence; to get close to mother earth, and move down the declivity of life with what natural wisdom were possible. It was his duty to adapt himself to the mind of such as this tailor; to acquire what the tailor and his like had found--an intolerant belief and an inexpensive security, to be got through yielding his nature to the great religious dream. And what perfect tranquillity, what smooth travelling found therein.
Gazing across the street towards the little post-office, he saw Rosalie Evanturel at the window. He fell to thinking about her. Rosalie, on her part, kept wondering what old Louis' violence meant.
Presently she saw a half-dozen men come quickly down the street, and, before they reached the tailorshop, stand in a group talking excitedly. Afterwards one came forward from the others quickly--Filion Lacasse the saddler. He stopped short at the tailor's door. Looking at Charley, he exclaimed roughly:
"If you don't hand out the cross you stole from the church door, we'll tar and feather you, M'sieu'." Charley looked up, surprised. It had never occurred to him that they could associate him with the theft. "I know nothing of the cross," he said quietly. "You're the only heretic in the place. You've done it. Who are you? What are you doing here in Chaudiere?"
"Working at my trade," was Charley's quiet answer. He looked towards Louis Trudel, as though to see how he took this ugly charge.
Old Louis responded at once. "Get away with you, Filion Lacasse," he croaked. "Don't come here with your twaddle. M'sieu' hasn't stole the cross. What does he want with a cross? He's not a Catholic."
"If he didn't steal the cross, why, he didn't," answered the saddler; "but if he did, what'll you say for yourself, Louis? You call yourself a good Catholic--bah!--when you've got a heretic living with you."
"What's that to you?" growled the tailor, and reached out a nervous hand towards the iron. "I served at the altar before you were born. Sacre! I'll make your grave-clothes yet, and be a good Catholic when you're in the churchyard. Be off with you. Ach," he sharply added, when Filion did not move, "I'll cut your hair for you!" He scrambled off the bench with his shears.
Filion Lacasse disappeared with his friends, and the old man settled back on his bench.
Charley, looking up quietly from his work, said "Thank you, Monsieur."
He did not notice what an evil look was in Louis Trudel's face as it turned towards him, but Rosalie Evanturel, standing outside, saw it; and she stole back to the post-office ill at ease and wondering.
All that day she watched the tailor's shop, and even when the door was shut in the evening, her eyes were fastened on the windows.