The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXV. The Coming of Maximilian Cour and Another
"It is good to live, isn't it?" In the autumn weather when the air drank like wine, it seemed so indeed, even to Charley, who worked all day in his shop, his door wide open to the sunlight, and sat up half the night with Narcisse Dauphin, sometimes even taking a turn at the cradle of the twins, while madame sat beside her husband's bed.
To Charley the answer to Rosalie's question lay in the fact that his eyes had never been so keen, his face so alive, or his step so buoyant as in this week of double duty. His mind was more hopeful than it had ever been since the day he awoke with memory restored in the silence of a mountain hut.
He had found the antidote to his great temptation, to the lurking, relentless habit which had almost killed him the night John Brown had sung Champagne Charlie from behind the flaring lights. From a determination to fight his own fight with no material aids, he had never once used the antidote sent him by the Cure's brother.
On St. Jean Baptiste's day his proud will had failed him; intellectual force, native power of mind, had broken like reeds under the weight of a cruel temptation. But now a new force had entered into him. As his fingers were about to reach for the spirit-bottle in the house of the Notary, and he had, for the first time in his life, made an appeal for help, a woman's voice had said, "It is good to live, isn't it?" and his hand was stayed. A woman's look had stilled the strife. Never before in his life had he relied on a moral or a spiritual impulse in him. What of these existed in him were in unseen quantities--for which there was neither multiple nor measure--had been primitive and hereditary, flowing in him like a feeble tincture diluted to inefficacy.
Rosalie had resolved him back to the original elements. The quiet days he had spent in Chaudiere, the self-sacrifice he had been compelled to make, the human sins, such as those of Jo Portugais and Louis Trudel, with which he had had to do, the simplicity of the life around him--the uncomplicated lie and the unvarnished truth, the obvious sorrow and the patent joy, the childish faith, and the rude wickedness so pardonable because so frankly brutal--had worked upon him. The elemental spirit of it all had so invaded his nature, breaking through the crust of old habit to the new man, that, when he fell before his temptation, and his body became saturated with liquor, the healthy natural being and the growing natural mind were overpowered by the coarse onslaught, and death had nearly followed.
It was his first appeal to a force outside himself, to an active principle unfamiliar to the voluntary working of his nature, and the answer had been immediate and adequate. Yet what was it? He did not ask; he had not got beyond the mere experience, and the old questioning habit was in abeyance. Each new and great emotion has its dominating moment, its supreme occasion, before taking its place in the modulated moral mechanism. He was touched with helplessness.
As he sat beside Narcisse Dauphin's bedside, one evening, the sick man on his way to recovery, there came to him the text of a sermon he had once heard John Brown preach: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend." He had been thinking of Rosalie and that day at Vadrome Mountain. She would not only have died with him, but she would have died for him, if need had been. What might he give in return for what she gave?
The Notary interrupted his thoughts. He had lain watching Charley for a long time, his brow drawn down with thought. At last he said:
"Monsieur, you have been good to me." Charley laid a hand on the sick man's arm.
"I don't see that. But if you won't talk, I'll believe you think so."
The Notary shook his head. "I've not been talking for an hour, I've no fever, and I want to say some things. When I've said them, I'll feel better--voila! I want to make the amende honorable. I once thought you were this and that--I won't say what I thought you. I said you interfered--giving advice to people, as you did to Filion Lacasse, and taking the bread out of my mouth. I said that!"
He paused, raised himself on his elbow, smoothed back his grizzled hair behind his ears, looked at himself in the mirror opposite with satisfaction, and added oracularly: "But how prone is the mind of man to judge amiss! You have put bread into my mouth--no, no, Monsieur, you shall hear me! As well as doing your own work, you have done my business since my accident as well as a lawyer could do it; and you've given every penny to my wife."
"As for the work I've done," answered Charley, "it was nothing--you notaries have easy times. You may take your turn with my shears and needle one day."
With a dash of patronage true to his nature, "You are wonderful for a tailor," the Notary rejoined. Charley laughed--seldom, if ever, had he laughed since coming to Chaudiere. It was, however, a curious fact that he took a real pleasure in the work he did with his hands. In making clothes for habitant farmers, and their sons and their sons' sons, and jackets for their wives and daughters, he had had the keenest pleasure of his life.
He had taken his earnings with pride, if not with exultation. He knew the Notary did not mean that he was wonderful as a tailor, but he answered to the suggestion.
"You liked that last coat I made for you, then," he said drily; "I believe you wore it when you were shot. It was the thing for your figure, man."
The Notary looked in the large mirror opposite with sad content. "Ah, it was a good figure, the first time I went to that hut at Four Mountains!"
"We can't always be young. You have a waist yet, and your chest-barrel gives form to a waistcoat. Tut, tut! Think of the twins in the way of vainglory and hypocrisy."
"'Twins' and 'hypocrisy'; there you have struck the nail on the head, tailor. There is the thing I'm going to tell you about."
After a cautious glance at the door and the window, Dauphin continued in quick, broken sentences: "It wasn't an accident at Four Mountains--not quite. It was Paulette Dubois--you know the woman that lives at the Seigneur's gate? Twelve years ago she was a handsome girl. I fell in love with her, but she left here. There were two other men. There was a timber-merchant,--and there was a lawyer after. The timber-merchant was married; the lawyer wasn't. She lived at first with the timber-merchant. He was killed--murdered in the woods."
"What was the timber-merchant's name?" interrupted Charley in an even voice.
"Turley--but that doesn't matter!" continued the Notary. "He was murdered, and then the lawyer came on the scene. He lived with her for a year. She had a child by him. One day he sent the child away to a safe place and told her he was going to turn over a new leaf--he was going to stand for Parliament, and she must go. She wouldn't go without the child. At last he said the child was dead; and showed her the certificate of death. Then she came back here, and for a while, alas! she disgraced the parish. But all at once she changed--she got a message that her child was alive. To her it was like being born again. It was at this time they were going to drive her from the parish. But the Seigneur and then the Cure spoke for her, and so did I--at last."
He paused and plaintively admired himself in the mirror. He was grateful that he had been clean-shaved that morning, and he was content to catch the citrine odour of the bergamot upon his hair.
New phases of the most interesting case Charley had ever defended spread out before him--the case which had given him his friend Jo Portugais, which had turned his own destiny. Yet he could not quite trace in it the vital association of this vain Notary now in the confessional mood.
"You behaved very well," said Charley tentatively.
"Ah, you say that, knowing so little! What will you say when you know all--ah! That I should take a stand also was important. Neither the Seigneur nor the Cure was married; I was. I have been long-suffering for a cause. My marital felicity has been bruised--bruised--but not broken."
"There are the twins," said Charley, with a half-closed eye.
"Could woman ask greater proof?" urged the Notary seriously, for the other's voice had been so well masked that he did not catch its satire. "But see my peril, and mark the ground of my interest in this poor wanton! Yet a woman--a woman-frail creatures, as we know, and to be pitied, not made more pitiable by the stronger sex. . . . But, see now! Why should I have perilled mine own conjugal peace, given ground for suspicion even--for I am unfortunate, unfortunate in the exterior with which Dame Nature has honoured me!" Again he looked in the mirror with sad complacency.
On these words his listener offered no comment, and he continued:
"For this reason I lifted my voice for the poor wanton. It was I who wrote the letter to her that her child was alive. I did it with high purpose--I foresaw that she would change her ways if she thought her child was living. Was I mistaken? No. I am an observer of human nature. Intellect conquered. 'Io triumphe'. The poor fly-away changed, led a new life. Ever since then she has tried to get the man--the lawyer--to tell her where her child is. He has not done so. He has said the child is dead--always. When she seemed to give up belief, then would come another letter to her, telling her the child was living--but not where. So she would keep on writing to the man, and sometimes she would go away searching--searching. To what end? Nothing! She had a letter some months ago, for she had got restless, and a young kinsman of the Seigneur had come to visit at the seigneury for a week, and took much notice of her. There was danger. Voila, another letter."
"Monsieur, of course! Will you keep a secret--on your sacred honour?"
"I can keep a secret without sacred honour."
"Ah, yes, of course! You have a secret of your own--pardon me, I am only saying what every one says. Well, this is the secret of the woman Paulette Dubois. My cousin, Robespierre Dauphin, a notary in Quebec, is the agent of the lawyer, the father of the child. He pities the poor woman. But he is bound in professional honour to the lawyer fellow, not to betray. When visiting Robespierre once I found out the truth-by accident.
"I told him what I intended. He gave permission to tell the woman her child was alive; and, if need be for her good, to affirm it over and over again--no more."
"And this?" said Charley, pointing to the injured leg, for he now associated the accident with the secret just disclosed.
"Ah, you apprehend! You have an avocat's mind--almost. It was at Four Mountains. Paulette is superstitious; so not long ago she went to live there alone with an old half-breed woman who has second-sight. Monsieur, it is a gift unmistakably. For as soon as the hag clapped eyes on me in the hut, she said: 'There is the man that wrote you the letters.' Well-- what! Paulette Dubois came down on me like an avalanche--Monsieur, like an avalanche! She believed the old witch; and there was I lying with an unconvincing manner"--he sighed--"lying requires practice, alas! She saw I was lying, and in a rage snatched up my gun. It went off by accident, and brought me down. Did she relent? Not so. She helped to bind me up, and the last words she said to me were: 'You will suffer; you will have time to think. I am glad. You have kept me on the rack. I shall only be sorry if you die, for then I shall not be able to torture you till you tell me where my child is!' Monsieur, I lied to the last, lest she should come here and make a noise; but I'm not sure it wouldn't have been better to break faith with Robespierre, and tell the poor wanton where her child is. What would you do, Monsieur? I cannot ask the Cure or the Seigneur--I have reasons. But you have the head of a lawyer--almost--and you have no local feelings, no personal interest--eh?"
"I should tell the truth."
"Your reasons, Monsieur?"
"Because the lawyer is a scoundrel. Your betrayal of his secret is not a thousandth part so bad as one lie told to this woman, whose very life is her child. Is it a boy or a girl?"
"Good! What harm can be done? A left-handed boy is all right in the world. Your wife has twins--then think of the woman, the one ewe lamb of 'the poor wanton.' If you do not tell her, you will have her here making a noise, as you say. I wonder she has not been here on your door-step."
"I had a letter from her to-day. She is coming-ah, mon dieu!"
There was a tap at the window. The Notary started. "Ah, Heaven, here she is!" he gasped, and drew over to the wall.
A voice came from outside. "Shall I play for you, Dauphin? It is as good as medicine."
The Notary recovered himself at once. His volatile nature sprang back to its pose. He could forget Paulette Dubois for the moment.
"It is Maximilian Cour in the garden," he said happily. Then he raised his voice. "Play on, baker; but something for convalescence--the return of spring, the sweet assonance of memory."
"A September air, and a gush of spring," said the baker, trying to crane his long neck through the window. "Ah, there you are, Dauphin! I shall give you a sleep to-night like a balmy eve." He nodded to the tailor. "M'sieu', you shall judge if sentiment be dead.
"I have racked my heart to play this time. I have called it, 'The Baffled Quest of Love'. I have taken the music of the song of Alsace, 'Le Jardin d'Amour', and I have made variations on it, keeping the last verse of the song in my mind. You know the song, M'sieu':
"'Quand je vais au jardin, Jardin d'amour, Je crois entendu des pas, Je veux fuir, et n'ose pas. Voici la fin du jour . . . Je crains et j'hesite, Mon coeur bat plus vite En ce sejour . . . Quand je vais an jardin, jardin d'amour.'"
The baker sat down on a stool he had brought, and began to tune his fiddle. From inside came the voice of the Notary.
"Play 'The Woods are Green' first," he said. "Then the other."
The Notary possessed the one high-walled garden in the village, and though folk gathered outside and said that the baker was playing for the sick man, there was no one in the garden save the fiddler himself. Once or twice a lad appeared on the top of the wall, looking over, but vanished at once when he saw Charley's face at the window. Long ere the baker had finished, the song was caught up from outside, and before the last notes of the violin had died away, twenty voices were singing it in the street, and forty feet marched away with it into the dusk.
Darkness comes quickly in this land of brief twilight. Presently out of the soft shadowed stillness, broken by the note of a vagrant whippoorwill, crept out from Maximilian Cour's old violin the music of 'The Baffled Quest of Love'.
The baker was not a great musician, but he had a talent, a rare gift of pathos, and an imagination untrammelled by rigorous rules of harmony and construction. Whatever there was in his sentimental bosom he poured into this one achievement of his life. It brought tears to the eyes of Narcisse Dauphin. It opened a gate of the garden wall, and drew inside a girl's face, shining with feeling.
Maximilian Cour spoke for more than himself that night. His philandering spirit had, at middle age, begotten a desire to house itself in a quiet place, where the blinds could be drawn close, and the room of life made ready with all the furniture of love. So he had spoken to his violin, and it had answered as it had never done before. The soul of the lean baker touched the heart of a man whose life had been but a baffled quest, and the spirit of a girl whose love was her sun by day, her moon by night, and the starlight of her dreams.
From the shade of the window the man the girl loved watched her as she sank upon the ground and clasped her hands before her in abandonment to the music. He watched her when the baker, at last, overcome by his own feelings--and ashamed of them--got up and stole swiftly out of the garden. He watched her till he saw her drop her face in her hands; then, opening the door and stealing out, he came and laid a hand upon her shoulder, and she heard him say: