The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXIII. The Edge of Life
Meantime Charley was alone with his problem. The net of circumstances seemed to have coiled inextricably round him. Once, at a trial in court in other days, he had said in his ironical way: "One hasn't to fear the penalties of one's sins, but the damnable accident of discovery."
To try to escape now, or, with the assistance of Jo Portugais, when en route to Quebec in charge of the constables, and find refuge and seclusion elsewhere? There was nothing he might ask of Portugais which he would not do. To escape--and so acknowledge a guilt not his own! Well, what did it matter! Who mattered? He knew only too well. The Cure mattered--that good man who had never intruded his piety on him; who had been from the first a discreet friend, a gentleman,--a Christian gentleman, if there was such a sort of gentleman apart from all others. Who mattered? The Seigneur, whom he had never seen before, yet who had showed that day a brusque sympathy, a gruff belief in him? Who mattered?
Above all, Rosalie mattered. To escape, to go from Rosalie's presence by a dark way, as it were, like a thief in the night--was that possible? His escape would work upon her mind. She would first wonder, then doubt, and then believe at last that he was a common criminal. She was the one who mattered in that thought of escape escape to some other parish, to some other province, to some other country--to some other world!
To some other world? He looked at a little bottle he held in the palm of his hand.
A hand held aside the curtain of the door entering on the next room, and a girl's troubled face looked in, but he did not see.
Escape to some other world? And why not, after all? On the day his memory came back he had resisted the idea in this very room. As the fatalist he had resisted it then. Now how poor seemed the reasons for not having ended it all that day! If his appointed time had been come, the river would have ended him then--that had been his argument. Was that argument not belief in Somebody or Something which governed his going or staying? Was it not preordination? Was not fatalism, then, the cheapest sort of belief in an unchangeable Somebody or Something, representing purpose and law and will? Attribute to anything power, and there was God, whatever His qualities, personality, or being.
The little phial of laudanum was in his hand to loosen life into knowledge. Was it not his duty to eliminate himself, rather than be an unsolvable quantity in the problem of many lives? It was neither vulgar nor cowardly to pass quietly from forces making for ruin, and so avert ruin and secure happiness. To go while yet there was time, and smooth for ever the way for others by an eternal silence--that seemed well. Punishment thereafter, the Cure would say. But was it not worth while being punished, even should the Cure's fond belief in the noble fable be true, if one saved others here? Who--God or man--had the right to take from him the right to destroy himself, not for fear, not through despair, but for others' sake? Had he not the right to make restitution to Kathleen for having given her nothing but himself, whom she had learned to despise? If he were God, he would say, Do justice and fear not. And this was justice. Suppose he were in a battle, with all these things behind him, and put himself, with daring and great results, in some forlorn hope--to die; and he died, ostensibly a hero for his country, but, in his heart of hearts, to throw his life away to save some one he loved, not his country, which profited by his sacrifice--suppose that were the case, what would the world say?
"He saved others, himself he could not save"--flashed through his mind, possessed him. He could save others; but it was clear he could not save himself. It was so simple, so kind, and so decent. And he would be buried here in quiet, unconsecrated ground, a mystery, a tailor who, finding he could not mend the garment of life, cast it away, and took on himself the mantle of eternal obscurity. No reproaches would follow him; and he would not reproach himself, for Kathleen and Billy and another would be safe and free to live their lives.
Far, far better for Rosalie! She too would be saved--free from the peril of his presence. For where could happiness come to her from him? He might not love her; he might not marry her; and it were well to go now, while yet love was not a habit, but an awakening, a realisation of life. His death would settle this sad question for ever. To her he would be a softening memory as time went on.
The girl who had watched by the curtain stepped softly inside the room . . . . she divined his purpose. He was so intent he did not hear.
"I will do it," he said to himself. "It is better to go than to stay. I have never done a good thing for love of any human being. I will do one now."
He turned towards the window through which the sunlight streamed. Stepping forward into the sun, he uncorked the bottle.
There was a quick step behind him, and the girl's voice said clearly:
"If you go, I go also."
He turned swiftly, cold with amazement, the blood emptied from his heart.
Rosalie stood a little distance from him, her face pale, her hands held hard to her side.
"I understand all. I could not go outside, I stayed there"--she pointed to the other room--"and I know why you would die. You would die to save others."
"Rosalie!" he protested in a hoarse voice, and could say nothing more.
"You think that I will stay, if you go! No, no, no--I will not. You taught me how to live, and I will follow you now."
He saw the strange determination of her look. It startled him; he knew not what to say. "Your father, Rosalie--"
"My father will be cared for. But who will care for you in the place where you are going? You will have no friends there. You shall not go alone. You will need me--in the dark."
"It is good that I go," he said. "It would be wicked, it would be dreadful, for you to go."
"I go if you go," she urged. "I will lose my soul to be with you; you will want me--there!"
There was no mistaking her intention. Footsteps sounded outside. The others were coming back. To die here before her face? To bring her to death with him? He was sick with despair.
"Go into the next room quickly," he said. "No matter what comes, I will not--on my honour!"
She threw him a look of gratitude, and, as the bearskin curtain dropped behind her, he put the phial of laudanum in his pocket.
The door opened, and the Abbe Rossignol entered, followed by the Seigneur, the Cure, and Jo Portugais. Charley faced them calmly, and waited.
The Abbe's face was still cold and severe, but his voice was human as he said quickly: "Monsieur, I have decided to take you at your word. I am assured you are not the man who committed the crime. You probably have reasons for not establishing your identity."
Had Charley been a prisoner in the dock, he could not have had a moment of deeper amazement--even if after the jury had said Guilty, a piece of evidence had been handed in, proving innocence, averting the death sentence. A wave of excitement passed over him, leaving him cold and still. In the other room a girl put her hand to her mouth to stifle a cry of joy.
Charley bowed. "You made a mistake, Monsieur--pray do not apologise," he said.