The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXI. Charley Stands at Bay
Charley turned quickly to the woodsman. "Listen," he said, and he told Jo how things stood.
"You will not hide, M'sieu'? There is time," Jo asked.
"I will not hide, Jo."
"What will you do?"
"I'll decide when they come."
There was silence for a moment, then the sound of voices on the hill- side.
Charley's soul rose up in revolt against the danger that faced him--not against personal peril, but the danger of being dragged back again into the life he had come from, with all that it involved--the futility of this charge against him! To be the victim of an error--to go to the bar of justice with the hand of injustice on his arm!
All at once the love of this new life welled up in him, as a spring of water overflows its bounds. A voice kept ringing in his ears, "I will pray for you." Subconsciously his mind kept saying, "Rosalie--Rosalie-- Rosalie!" There was nothing now that he would not do to avert his being taken away upon this ridiculous charge. Mistaken identity? To prove that, he must at once prove himself--who he was, whence he came. Tell the Cure, and make it a point of honour for his secret to be kept? But once told, the new life would no longer stand by itself as the new life, cut off from all contact with the past. Its success, its possibility, must lie in its absolute separateness, with obscurity behind--as though he had come out of nothing into this very room, on that winter morning when memory returned.
It was clear that he must, somehow, evade the issue. He glanced at Jo, whose eyes, strained and painful, were fixed upon the door. Here was a man who suffered for his sake. . . . He took a step forward, as though with sudden resolve, but there came a knocking, and, pausing, he motioned Jo to open the door. Then, turning to a shelf, he took something from it hastily, and kept it in his hand.
Jo roused himself with an effort, and opened to the knocking.
Three people entered: the Seigneur, the Cure, and the Abbe Rossignol, an ascetic, severe man, with a face of intolerance and inflexibility. Two constables in plain clothes followed; one stolid, one alert, one English and one French, both with grim satisfaction in their faces--the successful exercise of his trade is pleasant to every craftsman. When they entered, Charley was standing with his back to the fireplace, his eye-glass adjusted, one hand stroking his beard, the other held behind his back.
The Cure came forward and shook hands in an eager friendly way.
"My dear Monsieur," said he, "I hope that you are better."
"I am quite well, thank you, Monsieur le Cure," answered Charley. "I shall get back to work on Monday, I hope."
"Yes, yes, that is good," responded the Cure, and seemed confused. He turned uneasily to the Seigneur. "You have come to see my friend Portugais," Charley remarked slowly, almost apologetically. "I will take my leave." He made a step forward. The two constables did the same, and would have laid their hands upon his shoulder but that the Seigneur said tartly:
"Stand off, Jack-in-boxes!"
The two stood aside, and looked covertly at the Seigneur, whose temper seemed unusually irascible. Charley's face showed no surprise, but he looked inquiringly at the Cure.
"If they wish to be measured for uniforms--or manners--I will see them at my shop," he said.
The Seigneur chuckled. Charley stepped again towards the door. The two constables stood before it. Again he turned inquiringly, this time towards the Cure. The Cure did not speak.
"It is you we wish to see, tailor," said the Abbe Rossignol.
Soft-tongued irony leaped to Charley's lips: "Have I, then, the honour of including Monsieur among my customers? I cannot recall Monsieur's figure. I think I should not have forgotten it."
It was now the old Charley Steele, with the new body, the new spirit, but with the old skilful mind, aggravatingly polite, non-intime--the intolerant face of this father of souls irritated him.
"I never forget a figure which has idiosyncrasy," he added, with a bland eye wandering over the priest's gaunt form. It was his old way to strike first and heal after--"a kick and a lick," as old Paddy Wier, whom he once saved from prison, said of him. It was like bygone years of another life to appear in defence when the law was tightening round a victim. The secret spring had been touched, the ancient machinery of his mind was working almost automatically.
The illusion was considerable, for the Seigneur had taken the only arm- chair in the room, a little apart, as it were, filling the place of judge. The priest-brother, cold and inveterate, was like the attorney for the crown. The Cure was the clerk of the court, who could only echo the decisions of the Judge. The constables were the machinery of the Law, and Jo Portugais was the unwilling witness, whose evidence would be the crux of the case. The prisoner--he himself was prisoner and prisoner's counsel.
A good struggle was forward.
He had enraged the Abbe as much as he had delighted the Abbe's brother; for nothing gave the Seigneur such pleasure as the discomfiture of the Abbe Rossignol, chaplain and ordinary to the Archbishop of Quebec. The genial, sympathetic nature of the Seigneur could not even be patient with the excessive piety of the churchman, who, in rigid righteousness, had thrashed him cruelly as a boy. At Charley's words upon the Abbe's figure, gaunt and precise as a swaddled ramrod, he pulled his nose with a grunt of satisfaction.
The Cure, the peace-maker, intervened. The tailor's meaning was sufficiently clear: if they had come to see him personally, then it was natural for him to wish to know the names and stations of his guests, and their business. The Seigneur was aware that the tailor did know, and he enjoyed the 'sang-froid' with which he was meeting the situation.
"Monsieur," said the Cure, in a mollifying voice, "I have ventured to bring the Seigneur of Chaudiere"--the Seigneur stood up and bowed gravely--"and his brother, the Abbe Rossignol, who would speak with you on private business"--he ignored the presence of the constables.
Charley bowed to the Seigneur and the Abbe, then turned inquiringly towards the two constables. "Friends of my brother the Abbe," said the Seigneur maliciously.
"Their names, Monsieur?" asked Charley.
"They have numbers," answered the Seigneur whimsically--to the Cure's pain, for levity seemed improper at such a time.
"Numbers of names are legally suspicious, numbers for names are suspiciously legal," rejoined Charley. "You have pierced the disguise of discourtesy," said the Seigneur, and, on the instant, he made up his mind that whatever the tailor might have been, he was deserving of respect.
"You have private business with me, Monsieur?" asked Charley of the Abbe.
The Abbe shook his head. "The business is not private, in one sense. These men have come to charge you with having broken into the cathedral at Quebec and stolen the gold vessels of the altar; also with having tried to blow up the Governor's residence."
One of the constables handed Charley the warrant. He looked at it with a curious smile. It was so natural, yet so unnatural, to be thus in touch with the habits of far-off times.
"On what information is this warrant issued?" he asked.
"That is for the law to show in due course," said the priest.
"Pardon me; it is for the law to show now. I have a right to know."
The constables shifted from one foot to the other, looked at each other meaningly, and instinctively felt their weapons.
"I believe," said the Seigneur evenly, "that--" The Abbe interrupted. "He can have information at his trial."
"Excuse me, but the warrant has my endorsement," said the Seigneur, "and, as the justice most concerned, I shall give proper information to the gentleman under suspicion." He waved a hand at the Abbe, as at a fractious child, and turned courteously to Charley.
"Monsieur," he said, "on the tenth of August last the cathedral at Quebec was broken into, and the gold altar-vessels were stolen. You are suspected. The same day an attempt was made to blow up the Governor's residence. You are suspected."
"On what ground, Monsieur?"
"You appeared in this vicinity three days afterwards with an injury to the head. Now, the incendiary received a severe blow on the head from a servant of the Governor. You see the connection, Monsieur?"
"Where is the servant of the Governor, Monsieur?"
"Dead, unfortunately. He told the story so often, to so much hospitality, that he lost his footing on Mountain Street steps--you remember Mountain Street steps possibly, Monsieur?--and cracked his head on the last stone."
There was silence for a moment. If the thing had not been so serious, Charley must have laughed outright. If he but disclosed his identity, how easy to dispose of this silly charge! He did not reply at once, but looked calmly at the Abbe. In the pause, the Seigneur added "I forgot to add that the man had a brown beard. You have a brown beard, Monsieur."
"I had not when I arrived here."
Jo Portugais spoke. "That is true, M'sieu'; and what is more, I know a newly shaved face when I see it, and M'sieu's was tanned with the sun. It is foolish, that!"
"This is not the place for evidence," said the Abbe sharply.
"Excuse me, Abbe," said his brother; "if Monsieur wishes to have a preliminary trial here, he may. He is in my seigneury; he is a tenant of the Church here--"
"It is a grave offence that an infidel, dropping down here from, who knows where--that an acknowledged infidel should be a tenant of the Church!"
"The devil is a tenant of the Almighty, if creation is the Almighty's," said Charley.
"Satan is a prisoner," snapped the Abbe.
"With large domains for exercise," retorted Charley, "and in successful opposition to the Church. If it is true that the man you charge is an infidel, how does that warrant suspicion?"
"Other thefts," answered the Abbe. "A sacred iron cross was stolen from the door of the church of Chaudiere. I have no doubt that the thief of the gold vessels of the cathedral was the thief of the iron cross."
"It is not true," sullenly broke in Jo Portugais.
"What proof have you?" said the Seigneur. Charley waved a deprecating hand towards Jo.
"I shall not call Portugais as evidence," he said.
"You are conducting your own case?" asked the Seigneur, with a grim smile.
"It is dangerous, I believe."
"I will take my chances," answered Charley. "Will you tell me what object the criminal could have in stealing the gold vessels from the cathedral?" he added, turning to the Abbe.
"They were gold!"
"And for taking the cross from the door of the church in Chaudiere?"
"It was sacred, and he was an infidel, and hated it."
"I do not see the logic of the argument. He stole the vessels because they were valuable, and the iron cross because he was an infidel! Now how do you know that the suspected criminal was an infidel, Monsieur?"
"It is well known."
"Has he ever said so?"
"He does not deny it."
"If you were charged with being an opium-eater, does it follow that you are one because you do not deny it? There was a Man who was said to blaspheme, to have all 'the crafts and assaults of the devil'--was it His duty to deny it? Suppose you were accused of being a highwayman, would you be less a highwayman if you denied it? Or would you be less guilty if you denied it?"
"That is beside the case," said the priest with acerbity.
"Faith, I think it is the case itself," said the Seigneur with a satisfied pull of his nose.
"But do you seriously suggest that only infidels rob churches?" Charley persisted.
"I am not here to be cross-examined," answered the Abbe harshly. "You are charged with robbing the cathedral and trying to blow up the Governor's residence. Arrest him!" he added, turning to the constables.
"Stand where you are, men," sharply threatened the Seigneur. "There are no lettres de cachet nowadays, Francois," he added tartly to his brother.
"If it is the exclusive temptation of an infidel to rob a church, has infidelity also an inherent penchant for arson? Is it a patent? Why did the infidel blow up the Governor's residence?" continued Charley.
"He did not blow it up, he only tried," interposed the Cure softly.
"I was not aware," said Charley. "Well, did the man who stole the patens from the altar--"
"They were chalices," again interrupted the Cure, with a faint smile.
"Ah, I was not aware!" again rejoined Charley. "I repeat, what reason had the person who stole the chalices to try to blow up the Governor's residence? Is it a sign of infidelity, or--"
"You can answer for that yourself," angrily interposed the Abbe. The strain was telling on his nerves.
"It is fair to give reasons for the suspicion," urged the Seigneur acidly.
"As I said before, Francois, this is not the fifteenth century."
"He hated the English government," said the Abbe. "I do not understand," responded Charley. "Am I then to suppose that the alleged criminal was a Frenchman as well as an infidel?"
There was silence, and Charley continued. "It is an unusual thing for a French Abbe to be so concerned for the safety of an English Protestant's life and housing . . . the Governor is a Protestant--eh? That is, indeed, a zeal almost Christian--or millennial."
The Abby turned to the Seigneur. "Are you going to interfere longer with the process of the law?"
"I think Monsieur has not quite finished his argument," said the Seigneur, with a twist of the mouth.
"If the man was a Frenchman, why do you suspect the tailor of Chaudiere?" asked Charley softly. "Of course I understand the reason behind all: you have heard that the tailor is an infidel; you have protested to the good Cure here, and the Cure is a man who has a sense of justice, and will not drive a poor man from his parish by Christian persecution--without cause. Since certain dates coincide and impulses urge, you suspect the tailor. Again, according to your mind, a man who steals holy vessels must needs be an infidel; therefore a tailor in Chaudiere, suspected of being an infidel, stole the holy chalices. It might seem a fair case for a grand jury of clericals. But it breaks down in certain places. Your criminal is a Frenchman; the tailor of Chaudiere is an Englishman."
The Abbe's face was contracted with stubborn annoyance, though he held his tongue from violence. "Do you deny that you are French?" he asked tartly.
"I could almost endure the suspicion because of the compliment to my command of your charming language."
"Prove that you are an Englishman. No one knows where you came from; no one knows what you are. You are a fair subject for suspicion, apart from the evidence shown," said the Abbe, trying now to be as polite as the tailor.
"This is a free country. So long as the law is obeyed, one can go where one wills without question, I take it."
"There is a law of vagrancy."
"I am a householder, a tenant of the Church, not a vagrant."
"Monsieur, you can have your choice of proving these things here or in Quebec," said the Abbe, with angry impatience again.
"I may not be compelled to prove anything. It is the privilege of the law to prove the crime against me."
"You are a very remarkable tailor," said the Abbe sarcastically.
"I have not had the honour of making you even a cassock, I think. Monsieur le Cure, I believe, approves of those I make for him. He has a good figure, however."
"You refuse to identify yourself?" asked the Abbe, with asperity.
"I am not aware that you possess any right to ask me to do so."
The Abbe's thin lips clipped-to like shears. He turned again towards the officers.
"It would relieve the situation," interposed the Seigneur, "if Monsieur could find it possible to grant the Abbe's demand."
Charley bowed to the Seigneur. "I do not know why I should be taken for a Frenchman or an infidel. I speak French well, I presume, but I spoke it from the cradle. I speak English with equally good accent," he added, with the glimmer of a smile; for there was a kind of exhilaration in the little contest, even with so much at stake. This miserable, silly charge had that behind it which might open up a grave, make its dead to walk, fright folk from their senses, and destroy their peace for ever. Yet he was cool and thinking clearly. He measured up the Abbe in his mind, analysed him, found the vulnerable spot in his nature, the avenue to the one place lighted by a lamp of humanity. He leaned a hand upon the ledge of the chimney where he stood, and said, in a low voice:
"Monsieur l'Abbe, it is sometimes the misfortune of just men to be terribly unjust. 'For conscience sake' is another name for prejudice-- for those antipathies which, natural to us, are, at the same time, trap- doors, for our just intentions. You, Monsieur, have a radical antipathy to those men who are unable to see or to feel what you were privileged to see and feel from the time of your birth. You know that you are right. Do you think that those who do not see as you do are wicked because they were not given what you were given? If you are right, may they, poor folk! not be the victims of their blindness of heart--of the darkness born with them, or of the evils that overtake them? For conscience sake, you would crush out evil. To you an infidel--so called--is an evil-doer, a peril to the peace of God. You drive him out from among the faithful. You heard that a tailor of Chaudiere was an infidel. You did not prove him one, but you, for conscience sake, are trying to remove him, by fixing on him a crime of which he may, with slight show of reason, be suspected. But I ask you, would you have taken the same deep interest in setting the law upon this suspected man did you not believe him to be an infidel?"
He paused. The Abbe made no reply. The Cure was bending forward eagerly; the Seigneur sat with his hands over the top of his cane, his chin on his hands, never taking his eyes from him, save to glance once or twice at his brother. Jo Portugais was crouched on the bench, watching.
"I do not know what makes an infidel," Charley went on. "Is it an honest mind, a decent life, an austerity of living as great as that of any priest, a neighbourliness that gives and takes in fairness--"
"No, no, no," interposed the Cure eagerly. "So you have lived here, Monsieur; I can vouch for that. Charity and a good heart have gone with you always."
"Do you mean that a man is an infidel because he cannot say, as Louis Trudel said to me, 'Do you believe in God?' and replies, as I replied, 'God knows!' Is that infidelity? If God is God, He alone knows when the mind or the tongue can answer in the terms of that faith which you profess. He knows the secret desires of our hearts, and what we believe, and what we do not believe; He knows better than we ourselves know--if there is a God. Does a man conjure God, if he does not believe in God? 'God knows!' is not a statement of infidelity. With me it was a phrase --no more. You ask me to bare my inmost soul. I have not learned how to confess. You ask me to lay bare my past, to prove my identity. For conscience sake you ask that, and I for conscience sake say I will not, Monsieur. You, when you enter your priestly life, put all your past behind you. It is dead for ever: all its deeds and thoughts and desires, all its errors--sins. I have entered on a life here which is to me as much a new life as your priesthood is to you. Shall I not have the right to say, that may not be disinterred? Have I not the right to say, Hands off? For the past I am responsible, and for the past I will speak from the past; but for the deeds of the present I will speak only from the present. I am not a Frenchman; I did not steal the little cross from the church door here, nor the golden chalices in Quebec; nor did I seek to injure the Governor's residence. I have not been in Quebec for three years."
He ceased speaking, and fixed his eyes on the Abbe, who now met his look fairly.
"In the way of justice, there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed, nor secret that shall not be made known," answered the Abbe. "Prove that you were not in Quebec on the day the robbery was committed." There was silence. The Abbe's pertinacity was too difficult. The Seigneur saw the grim look in Charley's face, and touched the Abbe on the arm. "Let us walk a little outside. Come, Cure" he added. "It is right that Monsieur should have a few minutes alone. It is a serious charge against him, and reflection will be good for us all."
He motioned the constables from the room. The Abby passed through the door into the open air, and the Cure and the Seigneur went arm in arm together, talking earnestly. The Cure turned in the doorway.
"Courage, Monsieur!" he said to Charley, and bowed himself out. Jo Portugais followed.
One officer took his place at the front door and the other at the back door, outside.
The Abby, by himself, took to walking backward and forward under the trees, buried in gloomy reflection. Jo Portugais caught his sleeve.
"Come with me for a moment, M'sieu'," he said. "It is important."
The Abby followed him.