The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXVI. A Song, a Bottle, and a Ghost
All day John Brown, ex-clergyman and quack-doctor, harangued the people of Chaudiere from his gaily-painted wagon. He had the perfect gift of the charlatan, and he had discovered his metier. Inclined to the picturesque by nature, melodramatic and empirical, his earlier career had been the due fruit of habit and education. As a dabbler in mines he had been out of his element. He lacked the necessary reticence, and arsenic had not availed him, though it had tempted Billy Wantage to forgery; and because Billy hid himself behind the dismal opportunity of silence, had ruined the name of a dead man called Charley Steele. Since Charley's death John Brown had never seen Billy: he had left the town one woful day an hour after Billy had told him of the discovery Charley had made. From a far corner of the country he had read the story of Charley's death; of the futile trial of the river-drivers afterwards, ending in acquittal, and the subsequent discovery of the theft of the widows' and orphans' trust-moneys.
On this St. Jean Baptiste's day he was thinking of anything and everything else but Charley Steele. Nothing could have been a better advertisement for him than the perilous incident at the Red Ravine. Falling backwards when the horse suddenly bolted, his head had struck the medicine-chest, and he had lain insensible till brought back to consciousness by the good offices of the voluble Colonel. He had not, therefore, seen Charley. It was like him that his sense of gratitude to the unknown tailor should be presently lost in exploiting the interest he created in the parish. His piebald horse, his white "plug" hat, his gaily painted wagon, his flamboyant manner, and, above all, the marvellous tale of his escape from death, were more exciting to the people of Chaudiere than the militia, the dancing-bears, the shooting- galleries, or the boat-races. He could sing extremely well--had he not trained his own choir when he was a parson? had not Billy approved his comic songs?--and these comic songs, now sandwiched between his cures and his sales, created much laughter. He cured headaches, toothaches, rheumatism, and all sorts of local ailments "with despatch." He miraculously juggled away pains by what he called his Pain Paint, and he stopped a cough by a laugh and a dose of his Golden Pectoral. In the exuberance of trade, which steadily increased till sundown, he gave no thought to the tailor, to whom, however, he had sent by a messenger a two-dollar bill and two bottles of Pain Paint, with the lordly announcement that he would call in the evening and "present his compliments and his thanks." The messenger left the Pain Paint on the door-step of the tailor-shop, and the two dollars he promptly spent at the Trois Couronnes.
Rosalie Evanturel rescued the bottles from the doorstep and awaited Charley's return to his shop, that she might take them over to him, and so have an excuse to speak with him; for to-day her heart and mind were full of him. He had done a brave thing for the medicine-man, and had then fled from public gaze as a brave man should. There was no one to compare with him. Not even the Cure was his superior in ability, and certainly he was a greater man--though seemingly only a tailor--than M. Rossignol. M. Rossignol--she flushed. Who could have believed that the Seigneur would say those words to her this morning--to her, Rosalie Evanturel, who hadn't five hundred dollars to her name? That she should be asked to be Madame Rossignol! Confusion mingled with her simple pride, and she ran out into the street, to where her father sat listening to the medicine-man singing, in doubtful French:
"I am a waterman bold, Oh, I'm a waterman bold: But for my lass I have great fear, Yes, in the isles I have great fear, For she is young, and I am old, And she is bien gentille!"
It was night now. The militia had departed, their Colonel roaring commands at them out of a little red drill-book; the older people had gone to their homes, but festive youth hovered round the booths and sideshows, the majority enjoying themselves at some expense in the medicine-man's encampment.
As Rosalie ran towards the crowd she turned a wistful glance to the tailor-shop. Not a sign of life there! She imagined M'sieu' to be at Vadrome Mountain, until, glancing round the crowd at the quack-doctor's wagon, she saw Jo Portugais gloomily watching the travelling tinker of human bodies. Evidently M'sieu' was not at Vadrome Mountain.
He was not far from her. At the side of the road, under a huge maple- tree with wide-spreading branches, Charley stood and watched John Brown performing behind the flaring oil-lights stuck on poles round his wagon, his hat now on, now off; now singing a comic song in English---'I found Y' in de Honeysuckle Paitch;' now a French chanson--'En Revenant de St. Alban;' now treating a stiff neck or a bent back, or giving momentary help to the palsy of an old man, or again making a speech.
Charley was in touch again with the old life, but in a kind of fantasy only--a staring, high-coloured dream. This man--John Brown--had gone down before his old ironical questioning, had been, indirectly, the means of disgracing his name. A step forward to that wagon, a word uttered, a look, and he would have to face again the life he had put by for ever, would have to meet a hard problem and settle it--to what misery and tragedy, who might say? Under this tree he was M. Mallard, the infidel tailor, whose life was slowly entering into the life of this place called Chaudiere, slowly being acted upon by habit, which, automatically repeated, at length becomes character. Out in that red light, before that garish wagon, he would be Charley Steele, barrister, 'flaneur', and fop, who, according to the world, had misused a wife, misled her brother, robbed widows and orphans, squandered a fortune, become drunkard and wastrel, and at last had lost his life in a disorderly tavern at the Cote Dorion. This man before him had contributed to his disgrace; but once he had contributed to John Brown's disgrace; and to-day he had saved John Brown's life. They were even.
All the night before, all this morning, he had fought a fierce battle with his past--with a raging thirst. The old appetite had swept over him fiercely. All day he had moved in a fevered conflict, which had lifted him away from the small movements of everyday life into a region where only were himself and one strong foe, who tirelessly strove with him. In his old life he had never had a struggle of any sort. His emotions had been cloaked, his soul masked, there had been a film before his eyes, he had worn an armour of selfishness on a life which had no deep problems, because it had no deep feelings--a life never rising to the intellectual prowess for which it was fitted, save when under the stimulus of liquor.
From the moment he had waked from a long seven months' sleep in the hut on Vadrome Mountain, new deep feelings had come to him as he faced problems of life. Fighting had begun from that hour--a fighting which was putting his nature through bitter mortal exercises, yet, too, giving him a sense of being he had never known. He had now the sweetness of earning daily bread by the work of his hands; of giving to the poor, the needy, and the afflicted; of knowing for the first time in his life that he was not alone in the world. Out of the grey dawn of life a woman's voice had called to him; the look of her face had said to him: "Viens ici! Viens ici!"--"Come to me! Come to me!"
But with that call there was the answer of his soul, the desolating cry of the dispossessed Lear-" Never--never--never--never--never!"
He had not questioned himself concerning Rosalie--had dared not to do so. But now, as he stood under the great tree, within hand-touch of the old life, in imminent danger of being thrust back into it, the question of Rosalie came upon him with all the force of months of feeling behind it. Thus did he argue with himself:
"Do I love her? And if I love her, what is to be done? Marry her, with a wife living? Marry her while charged with a wretched crime? Would that be love? But suppose I never were discovered, and we might live here for ever, I as 'Monsieur Mallard,' in peace and quiet all the days of our life? Would that be love? . . . Could there be love with a vital secret, like, a cloud between, out of which, at any hour, might spring discovery? Could I build our life upon a silence which must be a lie? Would I not have to face the question, Does any one know cause or just impediment why this woman should not be married to this man? Tell Rosalie all, and let the law separate myself and Kathleen? That would mean Billy's ruin and imprisonment, and Kathleen's shame, and it might not bring Rosalir. She is a Catholic, and her Church would not listen to it. Would I have the right to bring trouble into her life? To wrong one woman should seem enough for one lifetime!"
At that instant Rosalie, who had been on the outskirts of the crowd, moved into his line of vision. The glare from the lights fell on her face as she stood by her father's chair, looking curiously at the quack- doctor who, having sold many bottles of his medicines, noy picked up a guitar and began singing an old dialect chanson of Saintonge:
"Voici, the day has come When Rosette leaves her home! With fear she walks in the sun, For Raoul is ninety year, And she not twenty-one. La petit' Rosette, She is not twenty-one. "He takes her by the hand, And to the church they go; By parents 'twas well meant, But is Rosette content? 'Tis gold and ninety year She walks in the sun with fear, La petit' Rosette, Not twenty-one as yet!"
Charley's eyes, which had watched her these months past, noted the deepening colour of the face, the glow in the eyes, the glances of keen but agitated interest towards the singer. He could not translate her looks; and she, on her part, had she been compelled to do so, could only have set down a confusion of sensations.
In Rosette she saw herself, Rosalie Evanturel; in the man "de quatre- vingt-dix ans," who was to marry this Rosette of Saintonge, she saw M. Rossignol. Disconcerting pictures of a possible life with the Seigneur flitted before her mind. She beheld herself, young, fresh-cheeked, with life beating high and all the impulses of youth panting to use, sitting at the head of the seigneury table. She saw herself in the great pew at Mass, stiff with dignity, old in the way of manorial pride--all laughter dead in her, all spring-time joy overshadowed by the grave decorum of the Manor, all the imagination of her dreaming spirit chilled by the presence of age, however kindly and quaint and cheerful.
She shuddered, and dropped her eyes upon the ground, as, to the laughter and giggling of old and young gathered round the wagon, the medicine-man sang:
"He takes her by the hand, And to her chamber fair--"
Then, suddenly turning, she vanished into the night, followed by the feeble inquiry of her father's eyes, the anxious look in Charley's.
Charley could not read her tale. He had, however, a hot impulse to follow and ask her if she would vanish from the scene if the medicine-man should sing of Rosette and a man of thirty, not ninety, years. The fight he had had all day with his craving for drink had made him feverish, and all his emotions--unregulated, under the command of his will only--were in high temperature. A reckless feeling seized him. He would go to Rosalie, look into her eyes, and tell her that he loved her, no matter what the penalty of fate. He had never loved a human being, and the sudden impulse to cry out in the new language was driving him to follow the girl whose spirit for ever called to him.
He made a step forward to follow her, but stopped short, recalled to caution and his danger by the voice of the medicine-man:
"I had a friend once--good fellow, bad fellow, cleverest chap I ever knew. Tremendous fop--ladies loved him--cheeks like roses--tongue like sulphuric acid. Beautiful to look at. Clothes like a fashion-plate--got any fashion-plates in Chaudiere? 'who's your tailor?'" he added, in the slang of the hour, with a loud laugh, then stopped suddenly and took off his hat. "I forgot," he added, with upturned eyes and a dramatic seriousness, "your tailor saved my life to-day-henceforth I am the friend of all tailors. Well, to continue. My friend that was--I call him my friend, though he ruined me and ruined others,--didn't mean to, but he did just the same,--he came to a bad end. But he was a great man while he lived. And what I'm coming to is this, the song he used to sing when, in youthful exuberance, we went on the war-path like our young friend over there"--he pointed to a young habitant farmer, who was trying hard to preserve equilibrium--"Brown's Golden Pectoral will cure that cough, my friend!" he added, as the young man, gloomily ashamed of the laughter of the crowd, hiccoughed and turned away to the tree under which Charley Steele stood. "Well," he went on, "I was going to say that my friend's name was Charley, and the song he used to sing when the roosters waked the morn was called 'Champagne Charlie.' He was called 'Champagne Charlie'--till he came to a bad end."
He twanged his guitar, cleared his throat, winked at Maximilian Cour the baker, and began:
"The way I gained my title's by a hobby which I've got Of never letting others pay, however long the shot; Whoever drinks at my expense is treated all the same; Whoever calls himself my friend, I make him drink champagne. Some epicures like Burgundy, Hock, Claret, and Moselle, But Moet's vintage only satisfies this champagne swell. What matter if I go to bed and head is muddled thick, A bottle in the morning sets me right then very quick. Champagne Charlie is my name; Champagne Charlie is my name. Who's the man with the heart so young, Who's the man with the ginger tongue? Champagne Charlie is his name!"
Under the tree, Charley Steele listened to this jaunty epitaph on his old self. At the first words of the coarse song there rushed on him the dreaded thirst. He felt his veins beating with desire, with anger, disgust, and shame; for there was John Brown, to the applause of the crowd, imitating his old manner, his voice, his very look. He started forward, but the drunken young habitant lurched sideways under the tree and collapsed upon the ground, a bottle of whiskey falling out of his pocket and rolling almost to his own feet.
"Champagne Charlie is my name,"
sang the medicine-man. All Charley's old life surged up in him as dyked water suddenly bursts bounds and spreads destruction. He had an uncontrollable impulse. As a starving animal snatches at the first food offered it, he stooped, with a rattle in his throat, seized the bottle, uncorked it, put it to his lips, and drank--drank--drank.
Then he turned and plunged away into the trees. The sound of the song followed him. It came to him, the last refrain, sung loudly to the laughter of the crowd, in imitation of his own voice as it used to be --it had been a different voice during this past year. He turned with headlong intention, and, as the last notes of the song and the applause that followed it, died away, threw back his head and sang out of the darkness:
"Champagne Charlie is my name--"
With a shrill laugh, like the half-mad cry of an outcast soul, he flung away farther into the trees.
There was a sudden silence. The crowd turned with half-apprehensive laughter to the trees. Upon John Brown the effect was startling. His face blanched, his eyes grew large with terror, his mouth opened in helpless agitation. Charley Steele was lying under the waters of the great river, his bones rotting there for a year, yet here was his voice coming out of the night, in response to his own grotesque imitation of the dead man. Seeing his agitation, women turned pale, men felt their flesh creep, imagination gave a thrilling coldness to the air. For a moment the silence was unbroken. Then John Brown stretched out his hand and said, in a hoarse whisper:
"It was his voice--Charley's voice, and he's been dead a year!"
Within half-an-hour, in utter collapse and fright, he was being driven to the next parish by two young habitants whom he paid to accompany him.