The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXV. The Colonel Tells His Story
The Colonel had lunched very well indeed. He had done justice to every dish set before him; he had made a little speech, congratulating himself on having such a well-trained body of men to command, and felicitating Chaudiere from many points of view. He was in great good-humour with himself, and when the Notary asked him--it was at the Manor, with the soldiers resting on the grass without--about the tale of bravery he had promised them, he brought his fist down on the table with great intensity but little noise, and said:
"Chaudiere may well be proud of it. I shall refer to it in the Legislature on the question of roads and bridges--there ought to be a stone fence on that dangerous road by the Red Ravine--Have I your attention?"
He stood up, for he was an excitable and voluble Colonel, and he loved oration as a cat does milk. With a knife he drew a picture of the locale on the table cloth. "Here I was riding on my sorrel, all my noble fellows behind, the fife and drums going as at Louisburg--that day! Martial ardour united to manliness and local pride--follow me? Here we were, Red Ravine left, stump fences and waving fields of grain right. From military point of view, bad position--ravine, stump fence, brave soldiers in the middle, food for powder--catch it?--see?"
He emptied his glass, drew a long breath, and again began, the carving- knife cutting a rhetorical path before him. "I was engaged upon the military problem--demonstration in force, no scouts ahead, no rearguard, ravine on the right, stump fence on the left, red coats, fife-and-drum band, concealed enemy--follow me? Observant mind always sees problems everywhere--unresting military genius accustoms intelligence to all possible contingencies--'stand what I mean?"
The Seigneur took a pinch of snuff, and the Cure, whose mind was benevolent, listened with the gravest interest.
"At the juncture when, in my mind's eye, I saw my gallant fellows enfiladed with a terrible fire, caught in a trap, and I, despairing, spurring on to die at their headhave I your attention?--just at that moment there appeared between the ravine and the road ahead a man. He wore an eye-glass; he seemed an unconcerned spectator of our movements --so does the untrained, unthinking eye look out upon destiny! Not far away was a wagon, in it a man. Wagon bisecting our course from a cross- road--"
He drew a line on the table-cloth with the carvingknife, and the Notary said: "Yes, yes, the concession road."
"So, Messieurs. There were we, a battalion and a fife-and-drum band; there was the man with the eyeglass, the indifferent spectator, yet the engine of fate; there was the wagon, a mottled horse, and a man driving-- catch it? The mottled horse took fright at our band, which at that instant strikes up 'The Chevalier Drew his Sabre'. He shies from the road with a leap, the man falls backwards into the wagon, and the reins drop. The horse dashes from the road into the open, and rushes on to the ravine. What good now to stop the fifes and drums-follow me? What can we, an armed force, bandoleered, knapsacked, sworded, rifled, impetuous, brave, what can we do before this tragedy? The man in the wagon senseless, the flying horse, the ravine, death! How futile the power of man--'stand what I mean?"
"Why didn't your battalion shoot the horse?" said the Seigneur drily, taking a pinch of snuff. "Monsieur," said the Colonel, "see the irony, the implacable irony of fate--we had only blank cartridge! But see you, here was this one despised man with an eye-glass, a tailor--takes nine tailors to make a man!--between the ravine and the galloping tragedy. His spirit arrayed itself like an army with banners, prepared to wrestle with death as Jacob wrestled with his shadow all the night 'sieur le Cure!"
The Cure bowed; the Notary shook back his oiled locks in excitement.
"Awoke a whole man--nine-ninths, as in Adam--in the obscure soul of the tailor, and, rushing forward, he seized the mottled horse by the bridle as he galloped upon the chasm: The horse dragged him on--dragged him on --on--on. We, an army, so to speak, stood and watched the Tailor and the Tragedy! All seemed lost, but, by the decree of fate--"
"The will of God," said the Cure softly.
"By the great decree, the man was able to stop the horse, not a half- dozen feet from the ravine. The horse and the insensible driver were spared death--death. So, Messieurs, does bravery come from unexpected places--see?"
The Seigneur, the Cure, and even the Notary clapped their hands, and murmured praises of the tailor-man. But the Colonel did not yet take his seat.
"But now, mark the sequel," he said. "As I galloped over, I saw the tailor look into the wagon, and turn away quickly. He waited by the horse till I came near, and then walked off without a word. I rode up, and tapped him with my sword upon the shoulder. 'A noble deed, my good man,' said I. 'I approve of your conduct, and I will remember it in the Legislature when I address the committee of the whole house on roads and bridges.' What do you think was his reply to my affable words? When I tapped him approvingly on the shoulder a second time, he screwed his eye- glass in his eye, and, with no emotion, though my own eyes were full of tears, he said, in a tone of affront, 'Look after the man there, constable,' and pointed to the wagon. Constable--mon Dieu! Gross manners even for a tailor!"
"I had not thought his manners bad," said the Cure, as the Colonel sat down, gulped a glass of brandy-andwater, and mopped his forehead.
"A most remarkable tailor," said the Seigneur, peering into his snuff- box.
"And the driver of the mottled horse?" asked the Notary.
"Knocked senseless. One of my captains soon restored him. He followed us into the village. He is a quack-doctor. I suppose he is now selling tinctures, pulling teeth, and driving away rheumatics. He gave me his card. I told him he should leave one on the tailor."
With a flourish he threw a professional card upon the table, before the Cure.
The Cure picked it up and read: