The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXII. The Woman Who Saw
Up to the moment of her meeting with Charley, Rosalie Evanturel's life had been governed by habit, which was lightly coloured by temperament. Since the eventful hour on Vadrome Mountain it had become a life of temperament, in which habit was involuntary and mechanical. She did her daily duties with a good heart, but also with a sense superior to the practical action. This grew from day to day, until, in the tragical days wherein she had secretly played a great part, she moved as in a dream, but a dream so formal that no one saw any change taking place in her, or associated her with the events happening across the way.
She had been compelled to answer many questions, for it was known she was in the tailor's house when Louis Trudel fell down-stairs, but what more was there to tell than that she had run for the Notary, and sent word to the Cure, and that she was present when the tailor died, charging M'sieu' with being an infidel? At first she was ill disposed to answer any questions, but she soon felt that attitude would only do harm. For the first time in her life she was face to face with moral problems--the beginning of sorrow, of knowledge, and of life.
In all secrets there is a kind of guilt, however beautiful or joyful they may be, or for what good end they may be set to serve. Secrecy means evasion, and evasion means a problem to the moral mind. To the primitive mind, with its direct yes and no, there is danger of it becoming a tragical problem ere it is realised that truth is various and diverse. Perhaps even with that Mary who hid the matter in her heart--the exquisite tragedy and glory of Christendom--there was a delicate feeling of guilt, the guilt of the hidden though lofty and beautiful thing.
If secrecy was guilt, then Charley and Rosalie were bound together by a bond as strong as death: Rosalie held the key to a series of fateful days and doings.
In ordinary course, they might have known each other for five years and not have come to this sensitive and delicate association. With one great plunge she had sprung into the river of understanding. In the moment that she had thrust her scarf into his scorched breast, in that little upper room, the work of years had been done.
As long as he lived, that mark must remain on M'sieu's breast--the red, smooth scar of a cross! She had seen the sort of shining scar a bad burn makes, and at thought of it she flushed, trembled, and turned her head away, as though some one were watching her. Even in the night she flushed and buried her face in the pillow when the thought flashed through her mind; though when she had soaked the scarf in oil and flour and laid it on the angry wound she had not flushed at all, was determined, quiet, and resourceful.
That incident had made her from a girl into a woman, from a child of the convent into a child of the world. She no longer thought and felt as she had done before. What she did think or feel could not easily have been set down, for her mind was one tremulous confusion of unusual thoughts, her heart was beset by new feelings, her imagination, suddenly finding itself, was trying its wings helplessly. The past was full of wonder and event, the present full of surprises.
There was M'sieu' established already in Louis Trudel's place, having been granted a lease of the house and shop by the Curte, on the part of the parish, to which the property had been left; receiving also a gift of the furniture and of old Margot, who remained where she had been so many years. She could easily see Charley at work--pale and suffering still --for the door was generally open in the sweet April weather, with the birds singing, and the trees bursting into blossom. Her wilful imagination traced the cross upon his breast--it almost seemed as if it were outside upon his clothes, exposed to every eye, a shining thing all fire, not a wound inside, for which old Margot prepared oiled linen now.
The parish was as perturbed as her own mind, for the mystery of the stolen cross had never been cleared up, and a few still believed that M'sieu' had taken it. They were of those who kept hinting at dark things which would yet be worked upon the infidel in the tailor's shop. These were they to whom the Curb's beautiful ambition did not appeal. He had said that if the man were an infidel, then they must pray that he be brought into the fold; but a few were still suspicious, and they said in Rosalie's presence: "Where is the little cross? M'sieu' knows."
He did know. That was the worst of it. The cross was in her possession. Was it not necessary, then, to quiet suspicion for his sake? She had locked the relic away in a cupboard in her bedroom, and she carried the key of it always in her pocket. Every day she went and looked at it, as at some ghostly token. To her it was a symbol, not of supernatural things, but of life in its new reality to her. It was M'sieu', it was herself, it was their secret--she chafed inwardly that Margot should share a part of that secret. If it were only between their two selves-- between M'sieu' and herself! If Margot--she paused suddenly, for she was going to say, If Margot would only die! She was not wicked enough to wish that; yet in the past few weeks she had found herself capable of thinking things beyond the bounds of any past experience.
She found a solution at last. She would go to-night secretly and nail the cross again on the church door, and so stop the chatter of evil tongues. The moon set very early now, and as every one in Chaudiere was supposed to be in bed by ten o'clock, the chances of not being seen were in her favour. She received the final impetus to her resolution by a quarrelsome and threatening remark of Jo Portugais to some sharp-tongued gossip in the post-office. She was glad that Jo should defend M'sieu', but she was jealous of his friendship for the tailor. Besides, did there not appear to be a secret between Jo and M'sieu'? Was it not possible that Jo knew where M'sieu' came from, and all about him? Of late Jo had come in and gone out of the shop oftener than in the past, had even brought her bunches of mosses for her flower-pots, the first budding lilacs, and some maple-sugar made from the trees on Vadrome Mountain. She remembered that when she was a girl at school, years ago--ten years ago--Jo Portugais, then scarcely out of his teens, a cheerful, pleasant, quick-tempered lad, had brought her bunches of the mountain-ash berry; that once he had mended the broken runner of her sled; and yet another time had sent her a birch-bark valentine at the convent, where it was confiscated by the Mother Superior. Since those days he had become a dark morose figure, living apart from men, never going to confession, seldom going to Mass, unloving and unlovable.
There was only one other person in the parish more unloved. That was the woman called Paulette Dubois, who lived in the little house at the outer gate of the Manor. Paulette Dubois had a bad name in the parish--so bad that all women shunned her, and few men noticed her. Yet no one could say that at the present time she did not live a careful life, justifying, so far as eye could see, the protection of the Seigneur, M. Rossignol, a man of queer habits and queerer dress, a dabbler in physical science, a devout Catholic, and a constant friend of the Cure. He it was who, when an effort was made to drive Paulette out of the parish, had said that she should not go unless she wished; that, having been born in Chaudiere, she had a right to live there and die there; and if she had sinned there, the parish was in some sense to blame. Though he had no lodge-gates, and though the seigneury was but a great wide low-roofed farmhouse, with an observatory, and a chimney-piece dating from the time of Louis the Fourteenth, the Seigneur gave Paulette Dubois a little hut at his outer gate, which had been there since the great Count Frontenac visited Chaudiere. Probably Rosalie spoke to Paulette Dubois more often than did any one else in the parish, but that was because the woman came for little things at the shop, and asked for letters, and every week sent one--to a man living in Montreal. She sent these letters, but not more than once in six months did she get a reply, and she had not had one in a whole year. Yet every week she asked, and Rosalie found it hard to answer her politely, and sometimes showed it.
So it was that the two disliked each other without good cause, save that they were separated by a chasm as wide as a sea. The one disliked the other because she must recognise her; the other chafed because she could be recognised by Rosalie officially only.
The late afternoon of the day in which Rosalie decided to nail the cross on the church door again, Paulette arrived to ask for letters at the moment that the office wicket was closed, and Rosalie had answered that it was after office hours, and had almost closed the door in her face. As she turned away Jo Portugais came out of the tailor-shop opposite. He saw Paulette, and stood still an instant. She did the same. A strange look passed across the face of each, then they turned and went in opposite directions.
Never in her life had time gone so slowly with Rosalie. She watched the clock. A dozen times she went to the front door and looked out. She tried to read--it was no use; she tried to spin-her fingers trembled; she sorted the letters in the office again, and rearranged every letter and parcel and paper in its little pigeonhole--then did it all over again. She took out again the letter Paulette had dropped in the letter-box; it was addressed in the name of the man at Montreal. She looked at it in a kind of awe, as she had ever done the letters of this woman who was without the pale. They had a sense of mystery, an air of forbidden imagination.
She put the letter back, went to the door again, and looked out. It was now time to go. Drawing a hood over her head, she stepped out into the night. There was a little frost, though spring was well forward, and the smell of the rich earth and the budding trees was sweet to the sense. The moon had just set, but the stars were shining, and here and there patches of snow on the hillside and in the fields added to the light. Yet it was not bright enough to see far, and as Rosalie moved down the street she did not notice a figure at a little distance behind, walking on the new-springing grass by the roadside. All was quiet at the tavern; there was no light in the Notary's house--as a rule, he sat up late, reading; and even the fiddle of Maximilian Cour, the baker, was silent. The Cure's windows were dark, and the church with its white tin spire stood up sentinel-like above the village.
Rosalie had the fateful cross in her hand as she softly opened the gate of the churchyard and approached the great oak doors. Taking a screw- driver and some screws from her pocket, she felt with a finger for the old screw-holes in the door. Then she began her work, looking fearfully round once or twice at first. Presently, however, because the screws were larger than the old ones, it became much harder; the task called forth more strength, and drove all thought of being seen out of her mind for a space. At last, however, she gave the final turn to the handle, and every screw was in its place, its top level and smooth with the iron of the cross. She stopped and looked round again with an uneasy feeling. She could see no one, hear no one, but she began to tremble, and, overcome, she fell on her knees before the door, and, with her fingers on the foot of the little cross, prayed passionately; for herself, for Monsieur.
Suddenly she heard footsteps inside the church. They were coming towards the doorway, nearer and nearer. At first she was so struck with terror that she could not move. Then with a little cry she sprang to her feet, rushed to the gate, threw it open, ran out into the road, ind wildly on towards home. She did not stop for at least three hundred yards. Turning and looking back she saw at the church door a pale round light. With another cry she sped on, and did not pause till she reached the house. Then, bursting in and locking the door, she hurried to her room, undressed quickly, got into bed without saying her prayers, and buried her face in the pillow, shivering and overwrought.
The footsteps she had heard were those of the Cure and Jo Portugais. The Cure had sent for Jo to do some last work upon a little altar, to be used the next day for the first time. The carpenter and the carver in wood who were responsible for the work had fallen victims to white whiskey on the very last day of their task, and had been driven from the church by the Cure, who then sent for Jo. Rosalie had not seen the light at the shrine, as it was on the side of the church farthest from the village.
Their labour finished, the two came towards the front door, the Cure's lantern in his hand. Opening the door, Jo heard the sound of footsteps and saw a figure flying down the road. As the Cure came out abstractedly, he glanced sorrowfully towards the place where the little cross was used to be. He gave a wondering cry, and almost dropped the lantern.
"See, see, Portugais," he said, "our little cross again!" Jo nodded. "So it seems, Monsieur," he said.
At that instant he saw a hood lying on the ground, and as the Cure held up the lantern, peering at the little cross, he hastily picked it up and thrust it inside his coat.
"Strange--very strange!" said the Cure. "It must have been done while we were inside. It was not there when we entered."
"We entered by the vestry door," said Jo.
"Ah, true-true," responded the Cure.
"It comes as it went," said Jo. "You can't account for some things."
The Cure turned and looked at Jo curiously. "Are you then so superstitious, Jo? Nonsense; it is the work of human hands--very human hands," he added sadly.
"There is nothing to show," said the Cure, seeing Jo's glance round.
"As you see, M'sieu' le Cure."
"Well, it is a mystery which time no doubt will clear up. Meanwhile, let us be thankful to God," said the Cure.
They parted, the Cure going through a side-gate into his own garden, Jo passing out of the churchyard-gate through which Rosalie had gone. He looked down the road towards the village.
"Well!" said a voice in his ear. Paulette Dubois stood before him.
"It was you, then," he said, with a glowering look. "What did you want with it?"
"What do you want with the hood in your coat there?" She threw her head back with a spiteful laugh. "Whose do you think it is?" he said quietly.
"You and the schoolmaster made verses about her once."
"It was Rosalie Evanturel?" he asked, with aggravating composure.
"You have the hood-look at it! You saw her running down the road; I saw her come, watched her, and saw her go. She is a thief--pretty Rosalie-- thief and postmistress! No doubt she takes letters too."
"The ones you wait for, and that never come--eh?" Her face darkened with rage and hatred. "I will tell the world she's a thief," she sneered.
"Who will believe you?"
"You will." She was hard and fierce, and looked him in the eyes squarely. "You'll give evidence quick enough, if I ask you."
"I wouldn't do anything you asked me to-nothing, if it was to save my life."
"I'll prove her a thief without you. She can't deny it."
"If you try it, I'll--" He stopped, husky and shaking.
"You'll kill me, eh? You killed him, and you didn't hang. Oh no, you wouldn't kill me, Jo," she added quickly, in a changed voice. "You've had enough of that kind of thing. If I'd been you, I'd rather have hung --ah, sure!" She suddenly came close to him. "Do you hate me so bad, Jo?" she said anxiously. "It's eight years--do you hate me so bad as then?"
"You keep your tongue off Rosalie Evanturel," he said, and turned on his heel.
She caught his arm. "We're both bad, Jo. Can't we be friends?" she said eagerly, her voice shaking.
He did not reply.
"Don't drive a woman too hard," she said between her teeth.
"Threats! Pah!" he rejoined. "What do you think I'm made of?"
"I'll find that out," she said, and, turning on her heel, ran down the road towards the Manor House. "What had Rosalie to do with the cross?" Jo said to himself. "This is her hood." He took it out and looked at it. "It's her hood--but what did she want with the cross?"
He hurried on, and as he neared the post-office he saw the figure of a woman in the road. At first he thought it might be Rosalie, but as he came nearer he saw it was not. The woman was muttering and crying. She wandered to and fro bewilderedly. He came up, caught her by the arm, and looked into her face.
It was old Margot Patry.