The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXIX. The Wild Ride
There had been a fierce thunder-storm in the valley of the Chaudiere. It had come suddenly from the east, had shrieked over the village, levelling fences, carrying away small bridges, and ending in a pelting hail, which whitened the ground with pebbles of ice. It had swept up to Vadrome Mountain, and had marched furiously through the forest, carrying down hundreds of trees, drowning the roars of wild animals and the crying and fluttering of birds. One hour of ravage and rage, and then, spent and bodiless, the storm crept down the other side of the mountain and into the next parish, whither the affrighted quack-doctor had betaken himself. After, a perfect calm, a shining sun, and a sweet smell over all the land, which had thirstily drunk the battering showers.
In the house on Vadrome Mountain the tailor of Chaudiere had watched the storm with sympathetic interest. It was in accord with his own feelings. He had had a hard fight for months past, and had gone down in the storm of his emotions one night when a song called Champagne Charlie had had a weird and thrilling antiphonal. There had been a subsequent debacle for himself, and then a revelation concerning Jo Portugais. Ensued hours and days, wherein he had fought a desperate fight with the present--with himself and the reaction from his dangerous debauch.
The battle for his life had been fought for him by this gloomy woodsman who henceforth represented his past, was bound to him by a measureless gratitude, almost a sacrament--of the damned. Of himself he had played no conscious part in it till the worst was over. On the one side was the Cure, patient, gentle, friendly, never pushing forward the Faith which the good man dreamed should give him refuge and peace; on the other side was the murderer, who typified unrest, secretiveness, an awful isolation, and a remorse which had never been put into words or acts of restitution. For six days the tailor-shop and the life at Chaudiere had been things almost apart from his consciousness. Ever-recurring memories of Rosalie Evanturel were driven from his mind with a painful persistence. In the shadows where his nature dwelt now he would not allow her good innocence and truth to enter. His self-reproach was the more poignant because it was silent.
Watching the tempest-swept valley, the tortured forest, where wild life was in panic, there came upon him the old impulse to put his thoughts into words, "and so be rid of them," as he was wont to say in other days. Taking from his pocket some slips of paper, he laid them on the table before him. Three or four times he leaned over the paper to write, but the noise of the storm again and again drew his look to the window. The tempest ceased almost as suddenly as it had come, and, as the first sunlight broke through the flying clouds, he mechanically lifted a sheet of the paper and held it up to the light. It brought to his eyes the large water-mark, Kathleen!
A sombre look passed over his face, he shifted in his chair, then bent over the paper and began to write. Words flowed from his pen. The lines of his face relaxed, his eyes lightened; he was lost in a dream. He thought of the present, and he wrote:
"Wave walls to seaward, Storm-clouds to leeward, Beaten and blown by the winds of the West; Sail we encumbered Past isles unnumbered, But never to greet the green island of Rest."
He thought of Father Loisel. He had seen the good man's lips tremble at some materialistic words he had once used in their many talks, and he wrote:
"Lips that now tremble, Do you dissemble When you deny that the human is best?-- Love, the evangel, Finds the Archangel? Is that a truth when this may be a jest? "Star-drifts that glimmer Dimmer and dimmer, What do ye know of my weal or my woe? Was I born under The sun or the thunder? What do I come from? and where do I go? "Rest, shall it ever Come? Is endeavour But a vain twining and twisting of cords? Is faith but treason; Reason, unreason, But a mechanical weaving of words?"
He thought of Louis Trudel, in his grave, and his own questioning: "Show me a sign from Heaven, tailorman!" and he wrote:
"What is the token, Ever unbroken, Swept down the spaces of querulous years, Weeping or singing That the Beginning Of all things is with us, and sees us, and hears?"
He made an involuntary motion of his hand to his breast, where old Louis Trudel had set a sign. So long as he lived, it must be there to read: a shining smooth scar of excoriation, a sacred sign of the faith he had never been able to accept; of which he had never, indeed, been able to think, so distant had been his soul, until, against his will, his heart had answered to the revealing call in a woman's eyes. He felt her fingers touch his breast as they did that night the iron seared him; and out of this first intimacy of his soul he wrote:
"What is the token? Bruised and broken, Bend I my life to a blossoming rod? Shall then the worst things Come to the first things, Finding the best of all, last of all, God?"
Like the cry of his "Aphrodite," written that last afternoon of the old life, this plaint ended with the same restless, unceasing question. But there was a difference. There was no longer the material, distant note of a pagan mind; there was the intimate, spiritual note of a mind finding a foothold on the submerged causeway of life and time.
As he folded up the paper to put it into his pocket, Jo Portugais entered the room. He threw in a corner the wet bag which had protected his shoulders from the rain, hung his hat on a peg of the chimney-piece, nodded to Charley, and put a kettle on the little fire.
"A big storm, M'sieu'," Jo said presently as he put some tea into a pot.
"I have never seen a great storm in a forest before," answered Charley, and came nearer to the window through which the bright sun streamed.
"It always does me good," said Jo. "Every bird and beast is awake and afraid and trying to hide, and the trees fall, and the roar of it like the roar of the chasse-galerie on the Kimash River."
"The Kimash River--where is it?"
Jo shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows!"
"Is it a legend, then?"
"It is a river."
"And the chasse-galerie?"
"That is true, M'sieu', no matter what any one thinks. I know; I have seen--I have seen with my own eyes." Jo was excited now.
"I am listening." He took a cup of tea from Portugais and drank eagerly.
"The Kimash River, M'sieu', that is the river in the air. On it is the chasse-galerie. You sell your soul to the devil; you ask him to help you; you deny God. You get into a canoe and call on the devil. You are lifted up, canoe and all, and you rush on down rapids, over falls, on the Kimash River in the air. The devil stands behind you and shouts, and you sing, 'V'la! l'bon vent! V'la l'joli vent!' On and on you go, faster and faster, and you forget the world, and you forget yourself, and the devil is with you in the air--in the chasse-galerie on the Kimash River."
"Jo," said Charley Steele, "do you honestly think there's a river like that?"
'M'sieu', I know it. I saw Ignace Latoile, who robbed a priest and got drunk on the communion wine--I saw him with the devil in the Black Canoe at the Saguenay. I could see Ignace; I could see the devil; I could see the Kimash River. I shall ride myself some day.
"What does it matter where?"
"Why should you ride?"
"Because you ride fast with the devil."
"What is the good of riding fast?"
"In the rush a man forget."
"What does he forget, my friend?"
There was a pause, in which a man with a load of crime upon his soul dwelt upon the words my friend, coming from the lips of one who knew the fulness of his iniquity. Then he answered:
"In the noise he forget that a voice is calling in his ear, 'You did It!' He forget what he see in his dreams. He forget the hand that touch him on the arm when he walk in the woods alone, or lie down to sleep at night, no one near. He forget that some one wait--wait--wait, till he has suffer long enough, or till, one day, he think he is happy again, and the Thing he did is far off like a dream--to drag him out to the death he did not die. He forget that he is alone--all alone in the world, for ever and ever and ever."
He suddenly sank upon the floor beside Charley, and a groan burst from his lips. "To have no friend--ah, it is so awful!" he said. "Never to see a face that look into yours, and know how bad are you, and doesn't mind. For five years I have live like that. I cannot let any one be my friend because I was that! They seem to know--everything, everybody-- what I am. The little children when I pass them run away to hide. I have wake in the night and cry out in fear, it is so lonely. I have hear voices round me in the woods, and I run and run and run from them, and not leave them behind. Three times I go to the jails in Quebec to see the prisoners behind the bars, and watch the pains on their faces, to understand what I escape. Five times have I go to the courts to listen to murderers tried, and watch them when the Jury say Guilty! and the Judge send them to death--that I might know. Twice have I go to see murderers hung. Once I was helper to the hangman, that I might hear and know what the man said, what he felt. When the arms were bound, I felt the straps on my own; when the cap come down, I gasp for breath; when the bolt is shot, I feel the wrench and the choke, and shudder go through myself--feel the world jerk out in the dark. When the body is bundled in the pit, I see myself lie still under the quick-lime with the red mark round my throat."
Charley touched him on the shoulder. "Jo--poor Jo, my friend!" he said. Jo raised his eyes, red with an unnatural fire, deep with gratitude.
"As I sit at my dinner, with the sun shining and the woods green and glad, and all the world gay, I have see what happened all over again. I have see his strong hands; his bad face laugh at my words; I have see him raise his riding-whip and cut me across the head. I have see him stagger and fall from the blows I give him with the knife--the knife which never was found--why, I not know, for I throw it on the ground beside him! There, as I sit in the open day, a thousand times I have see him shiver and fall, staring, staring at me as if he see a dreadful thing. Then I stand up again and strike at him--at his ghost!--as I did that day in the woods. Again I see him lie in his blood, straight and white--so large, so handsome, so still! I have shed tears--but what are tears! Blind with tears I have call out for the devils of hell to take me with them. I have call on God to give me death. I have prayed, and I have cursed. Twice I have travelled to the grave where he lies. I have knelt there and have beg him to tell the truth to God, and say that he torture me till I kill him. I have beg him to forgive me and to haunt me no more with his bad face. But never--never--never--have I one quiet hour until you come, M'sieu'; nor any joy in my heart till I tell you the black truth--M'sieu'! M'sieu!"
He buried his face between Charley's feet, and held them with his hands.
Charley laid a hand on the shaggy head as though it were that of a child. "Be still--be still, Jo," he said gently.
Since that night of St. Jean Baptiste's festival, no word of the past, of the time when Charley turned aside the revanche of justice from a man called Joseph Nadeau, had been spoken between them. Out of the delirium of his drunken trance had come Charley's recognition of the man he knew now as Jo Portugais. But the recognition had been sent again into the obscurity whence it came, and had not been mentioned since. To outward seeming they had gone on as before. As Charley saw the knotted brows, the staring eyes, the clinched hands, the figure of the woodsman rigid in its agony of remorse, he said to himself: "What right had I to save this man's life? To have paid for his crime would have been easier for him. I knew he was guilty. Perhaps it was my duty to see that every condition, to the last shade of the law, was satisfied, but was it justice to the poor devil himself? There he sits with a load on him that weighs him down every hour of his life. I called him back; I gave him life; but I gave him memory and remorse, and the ghosts that haunt him: the voice in his ear, the touch on his arm, the some one that is 'waiting--waiting--waiting!' That is what I did, and that is what the brother of the Cure did for me. He drew me back. He knew I was a drunkard, but he drew me back. I might have been a murderer like Portugais. The world says I was a thief, and a thief I am until I prove to the world I am innocent--and wreck three lives! How much of Jo's guilt is guilt? How much remorse should a man suffer to pay the debt of a life? If the law is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, how much hourly remorse and torture, such as Jo's, should balance the eye or the tooth or the life? I wonder, now!"
He leaned over, and, helping Jo to his feet, gently forced him down upon a bench near. "All right, Jo, my friend," he said. "I understand. We'll drink the gall together."
They sat and looked at each other in silence.
At length Charley leaned over and touched Jo on the shoulder.
"Why did you want to save yourself?" he said.
At that instant there was a knock at the door, and a voice said: "Monsieur!--Monsieur!"
Jo sprang to his feet with a sharp exclamation, then went heavily to the door and threw it open.