The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXVIII. The Seigneur Gives a Warning
Rosalie had watched a shut door for five days--a door from which, for months past, had come all the light and glow of her life. It framed a figure which had come to represent to her all that meant hope and soul and conscience-and love. The morning after St. Jean Baptiste's day she had awaited the opening door, but it had remained closed. Ensued watchful hours, and then from Jo Portugais she had learned that M'sieu' had been ill and near to death. She had been told the weird story of the medicine-man and the ghostly voice, and, without reason, she took the incident as a warning, and associated it with the man across the way. She was come of a superstitious race, and she herself had heard and seen things of which she never had been able to speak--the footsteps in the church the night she had screwed the little cross to the door again; the tiny round white light by the door of the church; the hood which had vanished into the unknown. One mystery fed another. It seemed to her as if some dreadful event were forward; and all day she kept her eyes fixed on the tailor's door.
Dead--if M'sieu' should die! If M'sieu' should die--it needed all her will to prevent herself from going over and taking things in her own hands, being his nurse, his handmaid, his slave. Duty--to the government, to her father? Her heart cried out that her duty lay where all her life was eddying to one centre. What would the world say? She was not concerned for that, save for him. What, then, would M'sieu' say? That gave her pause. The Seigneur's words the day before had driven her back upon a tide of emotions which carried her far out upon that sea where reason and life's conventions are derelicts, where Love sails with reckless courage down the shoreless main.
"If I could only be near him!" she kept saying to herself. "It is my right. I would give my life, my soul for his. I was with him before when his life was in danger. It was my hand that saved him. It was my love that tended him. It was my soul that kept his secret. It was my faith that spoke for him. It was my heart that ached for him. It is my heart that aches for him now as none other in all the world can. No one on earth could care as I care. Who could there be?" Something whispered in her ear, "Kathleen!" The name haunted her, as the little cross had done. Misery and anger possessed her, and she fought on with herself through dark hours.
Thus five days had gone, until at last a wagon was brought to the door of the tailor-shop, and M'sieu' came out, leaning on the arm of Jo Portugais. There were several people in the street at the time, and they kept whispering that M'sieu' had been at death's door. He was pale and haggard, with dark hollows under the eyes. Just as he got into the wagon the Cure came up. They shook hands. The Cure looked him earnestly in the face, his lips moved, but no one could have told what he said. As the wagon started, Charley looked across to the post-office. Rosalie was standing a little back from the door, but she stepped forward now. Their eyes met. Her heart beat faster, for there was a look in his eyes she had never seen before--a look of human helplessness, of deep anxiety. It was meant for her--for herself alone. She could not trust herself to go and speak to him. She felt that she must burst into tears. So, with a look of pity and pain, she watched the wagon go down the street.
Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat!--the Seigneur's gold-headed cane rattled on the front door of the tailor-shop. It was plain to be seen his business was urgent.
Madame Dauphin came hurrying from the postoffice, followed by Maximilian Cour and Filion Lacasse. "Ah, M'sieu', the tailor will not answer. There's no use knocking--not a bit, M'sieu' Rossignol," said Madame.
The Seigneur turned querulously upon the Notary's wife, yet with a glint of hard humour in his eye. He had no love for Madame Dauphin. He thought she took unfair advantages of M. Dauphin, whom also he did not love, but whose temperament did him credit.
"How should Madame know whether or no the gentleman will answer? Does Madame share the gentleman's confidence, perhaps?" he remarked.
Madame did not reply at once. She turned on the saddler and the baker. "I hope you'll learn a lesson," she cried triumphantly. "I've always said the tailor was quite the gentleman; and now you see how your betters call him. No, M'sieu', the gentleman will not answer," she added to the Seigneur.
"He is in bed yet, Madame?"
"His bed is empty there, M'sieu'," she said, impressively, and pointing.
"I suppose I should trust you in this matter; I suppose you should know. But, Dauphin--what does Dauphin say?"
The saddler laughed outright. Maximilian Cour suddenly blushed in sympathy with Madame Dauphin, who now saw the drift of the Seigneur's remarks, and was sensibly agitated, as the Seigneur had meant her to be. Had she not turned Dauphin's human sympathies into a crime? Had not the Notary supported the Seigneur in his friendly offices to Paulette Dubois; and had not Madame troubled her husband's life because of it? Madame bridled up now--with discretion, for it was not her cue to offend the Seigneur.
"All the village knows his bed's empty there, M'sieu'," she said, with tightening lips.
"I am subtracted from the total, then?" he asked drily.
"You have been away for the last five days--"
"Come, now, how did you know that?"
"Everybody knows it. You went away with the Colonel and the soldiers on St. Jean Baptiste's day. Since then M'sieu' the tailor has been ill. I should think Mrs. Flynn would have told you that, M'sieu'."
"H'm! Would you? Well, Mrs. Flynn has been away too--and you didn't know that! What is the matter with Monsieur Mallard?"
"Some kind of fever. On St. Jean Baptiste's day he was taken ill, and that animal Portugais took care of him all night--I wonder how M'sieu' can have the creature about! That St. Jean Baptiste's night was an awful night. Have you heard of what happened, M'sieu'? Ghost or no ghost--"
"Come, come, I want to know about the tailor, not of ghosts," impatiently interrupted the Seigneur. "Tiens! M'sieu', the tailor was ill for three days here, and he would let no one except the Cure and Jo Portugais near him. I went myself to clean up and make some broth, but that toad of a Portugais shut the door in my face. The Cure told us to go home and leave M'sieu' with Portugais. He must be very sick to have that black sheep about him--and no doctor either."
The saddler spoke up now. "I took him a bottle of good brandy and some buttermilk-pop and seed cake--I would give him a saddle if he had a horse--he got my thousand dollars for me! Well, he took them, but what do you think? He sent them right off to the shantyman, Gugon, who has a broken leg. Infidel or no, I'm on his side for sure. And God blesses a cheerful giver, I'm told."
It was the baker's chance, and he took it. "I played 'The Heart Bowed Down'-it is English-under his window, two nights ago, and he sent word for me to come and play it again in the kitchen. Ah, that is a good song, 'The Heart Bowed Down.'"
"You'd be a better baker if you fiddled less," said Madame Dauphin, annoyed at being dropped out of the conversation.
"The soul must be fed, Madame," rejoined the baker, with asperity.
"Where is the tailor now?" said the Seigneur shortly. "At Portugais's on Vadrome Mountain. They say he looked like a ghost when he went. Rosalie Evanturel saw him, but she has no tongue in her head this morning," added Madame.
The Seigneur moved away. "Good-bye to you--I am obliged to you, Madame. Good-bye, Lacasse. Come and fiddle to me some night, Cour."
He bowed to the obsequious three, and then bent his steps towards the post-office. They seemed about to follow him, but he stopped them with a look. The men raised their bonnets-rouges, the woman bowed low, and the Seigneur entered the post-office door.
From the shadows of the office Rosalie had watched the little group before the door of the tailor-shop. She saw the Seigneur coming across the street. Suddenly she flushed deeply, for there came to her mind the song the quack-doctor sang:
"Voila, 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."
As M. Rossignol's figure darkened the doorway, she pretended to be busy behind the wicket, and not to see him. He was not sure, but he thought it quite possible that she had seen him coming, and he put her embarrassment down to shyness. Naturally the poor child was not given the chance every day to receive an offer of marriage from a seigneur. He had made up his mind that she would be sure to accept him if he asked her a second time.
"Ah, Ma'm'selle Rosalie," he said gaily, "what have you to say that you should not come before a magistrate at once?"
"Nothing, if Monsieur Rossignol is to be the magistrate," she replied, with forced lightness.
"Good!" He looked at her quizzically through his gold-handled glass. "I can't frighten you, I see. Well, you must wait a little; you shall be sworn in postmistress in three days." His voice lowered, became more serious. "Tell me," he said, "do you know what is the matter with the gentleman across the way?" Turning, he looked across to the tailor-shop, as though he expected "the gentleman" to appear, and he did not see her turn pale. When his look fell on her again, she was self-controlled.
"I do not know, Monsieur."
"You have been opposite him here these months past--did you ever see anything not--not as it should be?"
"With him, Monsieur? Never."
"It is as though the infidel behaved like a good Catholic and a Christian?"
"There are good Catholics in Chaudiere who do not behave like Christians."
"What would you say, for instance, about his past?"
"What should I say about his past, Monsieur? What should I know?"
"You should know more than any one else in Chaudiere. The secrets of his breast might well be bared to you."
She started and crimsoned. Before her eyes there came a mist obscuring the Seigneur, and for an instant shutting out the world. The secrets of his breast--what did he mean? Did he know that on Monsieur's breast was the red scar which . . .
M. Rossignol's voice seemed coming from an infinite distance, and as it came, the mist slowly passed from her eyes.
"You will know, Mademoiselle Rosalie," he was saying, "that while I suggested that the secrets of his breast might well be bared to you, I meant that as an honest lady and faithful postmistress they were not. It was my awkward joke--a stupid gambolling by an old man who ought to know better."
She did not answer, and he continued:
"You know that you are trusted. Pray accept my apologies."
She was herself again. "Monsieur," she said quietly; "I know nothing of his past. I want to know nothing. It does not seem to me that it is my business. The world is free for a man to come and go in, if he keeps the law and does no ill--is it not? But, in any case, I know nothing. Since you have said so much, I shall say this, and betray no 'secrets of his breast'--that he has received no letter through this office since the day he first came from Vadrome Mountain."
The Seigneur smiled. "A wonderful tailor! How does he carry on business without writing letters?"
"There was a large stock of everything left by Louis Trudel, and not long ago a commercial traveller was here with everything."
"You think he has nothing to hide, then?"
"Have not we all something to hide--with or without shame?" she asked simply.
"You have more sense than any woman in Chaudiere, Mademoiselle."
She shook her head, yet she raised her eyes gratefully to him.
"I put faith in what you say," he continued. "Now listen. My brother, the Abbe, chaplain to the Archbishop, is coming here. He has heard of 'the infidel' of our parish. He is narrow and intolerant--the Abbe. He is going to stir up trouble against the tailor. We are a peaceful people here, and like to be left alone. We are going on very well as we are. So I wanted to talk to Monsieur to-day. I must make up my own mind how to act. The tailor-shop is the property of the Church. An infidel occupies it, so it is said; the Abbe does not like that. I believe there are other curious suspicions about Monsieur: that he is a robber, or incendiary, or something of the sort. The Abbe may take a stand, and the Cure's position will be difficult. What is more, my brother has friends here, fanatics like himself. He has been writing to them. They are men capable of doing unpleasant things--the Abbe certainly is. It is fair to warn the tailor. Shall I leave it to you? Do not frighten him. But there is no doubt he should be warned--fair play, fair play! I hear nothing but good of him from those whose opinions I value. But, you see, every man's history in this parish and in every parish of the province is known. This man, for us, has no history. The Cure even admits there are some grounds for calling him an infidel, but, as you know, he would keep the man here, not drive him out from among us. I have not told the Cure about the Abbe yet. I wished first to talk with you. The Abbe may come at any moment. I have been away, and only find his letters to-day."
"You wish me to tell Monsieur?" interrupted Rosalie, unable to hold silence any longer. More than once during the Seigneur's disclosure she had felt that she must cry out and fiercely repel the base insinuations against the man she loved.
"You would do it with discretion. You are friendly with him, are you not?--you talk with him now and then?"
She inclined her head. "Very well, Monsieur. I will go to Vadrome Mountain to-morrow," she said quietly. Anger, apprehension, indignation, possessed her, but she held herself firmly. The Seigneur was doing a friendly thing; and, in any case, she could have no quarrel with him. There was danger to the man she loved, however, and every faculty was alive.
"That's right. He shall have his chance to evade the Abbe if he wishes," answered M. Rossignol.
There was silence for a moment, in which she was scarcely conscious of his presence; then he leaned over the counter towards her, and spoke in a low voice.
"What I said the other day I meant. I do not change my mind--I am too old for that. Yet I'm young enough to know that you may change yours."
"I cannot change, Monsieur," she said tremblingly.
"But you will change. I knew your mother well, I know how anxious she was for your future. I told her once that I should keep an eye on you always. Her father was my father's good friend. I knew you when you were in the cradle--a little brown-haired babe. I watched you till you went to the convent. I saw you come back to take up the duties which your mother laid down, alas!--"
"Monsieur--!" she said choking, and with a troubled little gesture.
"You must let me speak, Rosalie. We got your father this post-office. It is a poor living, but it keeps a roof over your head. You have never failed us you have always fulfilled our hopes. But the best years of your life are going, and your education and your nature have not their chance. Oh, I've not watched you all these years for nothing. I never meant to ask you to marry me. It came to me, though, all at once, and I know that it has been in my mind all these years--far back in my mind. I don't ask you for my own sake alone. Your father may grow very ill-- who can tell what may happen!"
"I should be postmistress still," she said sadly.
"As a young girl you could not have the responsibility here alone. And you should not waste your life it is a fine, full spirit; let the lean, the poor-spirited, go singly. You should be mated. You can't marry any of the young farmers of Chaudiere. 'Tis impossible. I can give you enough for any woman's needs--the world may be yours to see and use to your heart's content. I can give, too"--he drew himself up proudly--" the unused emotions of a lifetime." This struck him as a very fine and important thing to say.
"Ah, Monsieur, that is not enough," she responded. "What more can you want?"
She looked up with a tearful smile. "I will tell you one day, Monsieur."
"I have not picked it out in the calendar."
"Fix the day, and I will wait till then. I will not open my mouth again till then."
"Michaelmas day, then, Monsieur," she answered mechanically and at haphazard, but with an urged gaiety, for a great depression was on her.
"Good. Till Michaelmas day, then!" He pulled his long nose, laughing silently. . . . "I leave the tailor in your hands. Give every man his chance, I say. The Abbe is a hard man, but our hearts are soft--eh, eh, very soft!" He raised his hat and turned to the door.