The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter III. After Five Years
"You have forgotten me?"
Charley Steele's glance was serenely non-committal as he answered drily:
"I cannot remember doing so."
The other man's eyelids drew down with a look of anger, then the humour of the impertinence worked upon him, and he gave a nervous little laugh and said: "I am John Brown."
"Then I'm sure my memory is not at fault," remarked Charley, with an outstretched hand. "My dear Brown! Still preaching little sermons?"
"Do I look it?" There was a curious glitter in John Brown's eyes. "I'm not preaching little sermons, and you know it well enough." He laughed, but it was a hard sort of mirth. "Perhaps you forgot to remember that, though," he sneeringly added. "It was the work of your hands."
"That's why I should remember to forget it--I am the child of modesty." Charley touched the corners of his mouth with his tongue, as though his lips were dry, and his eyes wandered to a saloon a little farther down the street.
"Modesty is your curse," rejoined Brown mockingly.
"Once when you preached at me you said that beauty was my curse." Charley laughed a curt, distant little laugh which was no more the spontaneous humour lying for ever behind his thoughts than his eye-glass was the real sight of his eyes, though since childhood this laugh and his eye-glass were as natural to all expression of himself as John Brown's outward and showy frankness did not come from the real John Brown.
John Brown looked him up and down quickly, then fastened his eyes on the ruddy cheeks of his old friend. "Do they call you Beauty now as they used to?" he asked, rather insolently.
"No. They only say, 'There goes Charley Steele!'" The tongue again touched the corners of the mouth, and the eyes wandered to the doorway down the street, over which was written in French: "Jean Jolicoeur, Licensed to sell wine, beer, and other spirituous and fermented liquors."
Just then an archdeacon of the cathedral passed them, bowed gravely to Charley, glanced at John Brown, turned colour slightly, and then with a cold stare passed on too quickly for dignity.
"I'm thinking of Bunyan," said the aforetime friend of Charley Steele. "I'll paraphrase him and say: 'There, but for beauty and a monocle, walks John Brown.'"
Under the bitter sarcasm of the man, who, five years ago, had gone down at last beneath his agnostic raillery, Charley's blue eye did not waver, not a nerve stirred in his face, as he replied: "Who knows!"
"That was what you always said--who knows! That did for John Brown."
Charley seemed not to hear the remark. "What are you doing now?" he asked, looking steadily at the face whence had gone all the warmth of manhood, all that courage of life which keeps men young. The lean parchment visage had the hunted look of the incorrigible failure, had written on it self-indulgence, cunning, and uncertainty.
"Nothing much," John Brown replied.
"Floated an arsenic-mine on Lake Superior."
"More or less. There are hopes yet. I've kept the wolf from the door."
"What are you going to do?"
"Don't know--nothing, perhaps; I've not the courage I had."
"I'd have thought you might find arsenic a good thing," said Charley, holding out a silver cigarette-case, his eyes turning slowly from the startled, gloomy face of the man before him, to the cool darkness beyond the open doorway of that saloon on the other side of the street.
John Brown shivered--there was something so cold-blooded in the suggestion that he might have found arsenic a good thing. The metallic glare of Charley's eye-glass seemed to give an added cruelty to the words. Charley's monocle was the token of what was behind his blue eye- one ceaseless interrogation. It was that everlasting questioning, the ceaseless who knows! which had in the end unsettled John Brown's mind, and driven him at last from the church and the possible gaiters of a dean into the rough business of life, where he had been a failure. Yet as Brown looked at Charley the old fascination came on him with a rush. His hand suddenly caught Charley's as he took a cigarette, and he said: "Perhaps I'll find arsenic a good thing yet."
For reply Charley laid a hand on his arm-turned him towards the shade of the houses opposite. Without a word they crossed the street, entered the saloon, and passed to a little back room, Charley giving an unsympathetic stare to some men at the bar who seemed inclined to speak to him.
As the two passed into the small back room with the frosted door, one of the strangers said to the other: "What does he come here for, if he's too proud to speak! What's a saloon for! I'd like to smash that eye-glass for him!"
"He's going down-hill fast," said the other. "He drinks steady--steady."
"Tiens--tiens!" interposed Jean Jolicoeur, the landlord. "It is not harm to him. He drink all day, an' he walk a crack like a bee-line."
"He's got the handsomest wife in this city. If I was him, I'd think more of myself," answered the Englishman.
"How you think more--hein? You not come down more to my saloon?"
"No, I wouldn't come to your saloon, and I wouldn't go to Theophile Charlemagne's shebang at the Cote Dorion."
"You not like Charlemagne's hotel?" said a huge black-bearded pilot, standing beside the landlord. "Oh, I like Charlemagne's hotel, and I like to talk to Suzon Charlemagne, but I'm not married, Rouge Gosselin--"
"If he go to Charlemagne's hotel, and talk some more too mooch to dat Suzon Charlemagne, he will lose dat glass out of his eye," interrupted Rouge Gosselin.
"Who say he been at dat place?" said Jean Jolicoeur. "He bin dere four times las' month, and dat Suzon Charlemagne talk'bout him ever since. When dat Narcisse Bovin and Jacques Gravel come down de river, he better keep away from dat Cote Dorion," sputtered Rouge Gosselin. "Dat's a long story short, all de same for you--bagosh!"
Rouge Gosselin flung off his glass of white whiskey, and threw after it a glass of cold water.
"Tiens! you know not M'sieu' Charley Steele," said Jean Jolicoeur, and turned on his heel, nodding his head sagely.