The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XXXIX. The Scarlet Woman
Since the evening in the garden when she had been drawn into Charley's arms, and then fled from them in joyful confusion, Rosalie had been in a dream. She had not closed her eyes all night, or, if she closed them, they still saw beautiful things flashing by, to be succeeded by other beautiful things. It was a roseate world. To her simple nature it was not so important to be loved as to love. Selfishness was as yet the minor part of her. She had been giving all her life--to her mother, as a child; to sisters at the convent who had been kind to her; to the poor and the sick of the parish; to her father, who was helpless without her; to the tailor across the way. In each case she had given more than she had got. A nature overflowing with impulsive affection, it must spend itself upon others. The maternal instinct was at the very core of her nature, and care for others was as much a habit as an instinct with her. She had love to give, and it must be given. It had been poured like the rain from heaven on the just and the unjust; on animals as on human beings, and in so far as her nature, in the first spring--the very April --of its powers, could do.
Till Charley had come to Chaudiere, it had all been the undisciplined ardour of a girl's nature. A change had begun in the moment when she had tearfully thrust the oil and flour in upon his excoriated breast. Later came real awakening, and a riotous outpouring of herself in sympathy, in observation, in a reckless kindness which must have done her harm but that her clear intelligence balanced her actions, and because secrecy in one thing helped to restrain her in all. Yet with all the fresh overflow of her spirit, which, assisted by her new position as postmistress, made her a conspicuous and popular figure in the parish, where officialdom had rare honour and little labour, she had prejudices almost unworthy of her, due though they were to radical antipathy. These prejudices, one against Jo Portugais and the other against Paulette Dubois, she had never been able entirely to overcome, though she had honestly tried. On the way to the hospital at Quebec, however, Jo had been so careful of her father, so respectful when speaking of M'sieu', so regardful of her own comfort, that her antagonism to him was lulled. But the strong prejudice against Paulette Dubois remained, casting a shadow on her bright spirit.
All this day she had moved about in a mellow dream, very busy, scarcely thinking. New feelings dominated her, and she was too primitive to analyse them and too occupied with them to realise acutely the life about her. Work was an abstraction, resting rather than tiring her.
Many times she had looked across at the tailor-shop, only seeing Charley once. She did not wish to speak with him now, nor to be near him yet; she wanted this day for herself only.
So it was that, soon after the Cure and the Seigneur had bade good-bye to Charley, she left the post-office and went quickly through the village to a spot by the river, where was a place called the Rest of the Flaxbeaters. It was an overhanging rock which made a kind of canopy over a sweet spring, where, in the days when their labours sounded through the valley, the flaxbeaters from the level below came to eat their meals and to rest.
This had always been a resort for her in the months when the flax-beaters did not use it. Since a child she had made the place her own. To this day it is called Rosalie's Dell; for are not her sorrows and joys still told by those who knew and loved her? and is not the parish still fragrant with her name? Has not her history become a living legend a thousand times told?
Leaving the village behind her, Rosalie passed down the high-road till she came to a path that led off through a grove of scattered pines. There would be yet a half-hour's sun and then a short twilight, and the river and the woods and the Rest of the Flax-beaters would be her own; and she could think of the wonderful thing come upon her. She had brought with her a book of English poems, and as she went through the grove she opened it, and in her pretty English repeated over and over to herself:
"My heart is thine, and soul and body render Faith to thy faith; I give nor hold in thrall: Take all, dear love! thou art my life's defender; Speak to my soul! Take life and love; take all!"
She was lifted up by the abandonment of the verse, by the fulness of her own feelings, which had only needed a touch of beauty to give it exaltation. The touch had come.
She went on abstractedly to the place where she had trysted with her thoughts only, these many years, and, sitting down, watched the sun sink beyond the trees, the shades of evening fall. All that had happened since Charley came to the parish she went over in her mind. She remembered the day he had said this, the day he had said that; she brought back the night--it was etched upon her mind!--when he had said to her, "You have saved my life, Mademoiselle!" She recalled the time she put the little cross back on the church-door, the ghostly footsteps in the church, the light, the lost hood. A shudder ran through her now, for the mystery of that hood had never been cleared up. But the words on the page caught her eye again:
"My heart is thine, and soul and body render Faith to thy faith . . ."
It swallowed up the moment's agitation. Never till this day, never till last night, had she dared to say to herself, He loves me. He seemed so far above her--she never had thought of him as a tailor!--that she had given and never dared hope to receive, had lived without anticipation lest there should come despair. Even that day at Vadrome Mountain she had not thought he meant love, when he had said to her that he would remember to the last. When he had said that he would die for love's sake, he had not meant her, but others--some one else whom he would save by his death. Kathleen, that name which had haunted her--ah, whoever Kathleen was, or whatever Kathleen had to do with him or his life, she had no reason to fear Kathleen now. She had no reason to fear any one; for had she not heard his words of love as he clasped her in his arms last night? Had she not fled from that enfolding, because her heart was so full in the hour of her triumph that she could not bear more, could not look longer into the eyes to which she had told her love before his was spoken?
In the midst of her thoughts she heard footsteps. She started up. Paulette Dubois suddenly appeared in the path below. She had taken the river-path down from Vadrome Mountain, where she had gone to see Jo Portugais, who had not yet returned from Quebec. Paulette's face was agitated, her manner nervous. For nights she had not slept, and her approaching meeting with the tailor had made her tremble all day. Excited as she was, there was a wild sort of beauty in her face, and her figure was lithe and supple. She dressed always a little garishly, but now there was only that band of colour round the throat, worn last night in the talk with Charley.
To both women this meeting was as a personal misfortune, a mutual affront. Each had a natural antipathy. To Rosalie the invasion of her beloved retreat was as hateful as though the woman had purposely intruded.
For a moment they confronted each other without speaking, then Rosalie's natural courtesy, her instinctive good-heartedness, overcame her irritation, and she said quietly:
"I am not Madame, and you know it," answered the woman harshly.
"I am sorry. Good-evening, Mademoiselle," rejoined Rosalie evenly.
"You wanted to insult me. You knew I wasn't Madame."
Rosalie shook her head. "How should I know? You have not always lived in Chaudiere, you have lived in Montreal, and people often call you Madame."
"You know better. You know that letters come to me from Montreal addressed Mademoiselle."
Rosalie turned as if to go. "I do not recall what letters pass through the post-office. I have a good memory for forgetting. Good-evening," she added, with an excess of courtesy. Paulette read the placid scorn in the girl's face; she did not see and would not understand that Rosalie did not scorn her for what she had ever done, but for something that she was.
"You think I am the dirt under your feet," she said, now white, now red, and mad with anger. "I'm not fit to speak with you--I'm a rag for the dust pile!"
"I have never thought so," answered Rosalie. "I have not liked you, but I am sorry for you, and I never thought those things."
"You lie!" was the rejoinder; and Rosalie, turning away quickly with trouble in her face, put her hands to her ears, and, hastening down the hillside, did not hear the words the woman called after her.
"To-morrow every one shall know you are a thief. Run, run, run! You can hear what I say, white-face! They shall know about the little cross to-morrow."
She followed Rosalie at a distance, her eyes blazing. As fate would have it, she met on the highroad the least scrupulous man in the parish, an inveterate gossip, the keeper of the general store, whose only opposition in business was the post-office shop. He was the centre of the village tittle-tattle, and worse. With malicious speed Paulette told him how she had seen Rosalie Evanturel nailing the little cross on the church door of a certain night. If he wanted proof of what she said, let him ask Jo Portugais.
Having spat out her revenge, she went on to the village, and through it to her house, where she prepared to visit the shop of the tailor. Her sense of retaliation satisfied, Rosalie passed from her mind; her child only occupied it. In another hour she would know where her child was-- the tailor had promised that she should. Then perhaps she would be sorry for the accident to the Notary; for it was an accident, in spite of appearances.
It was dark when Paulette entered the door of the tailor's house. When she came out, a half-hour later, with elation in her carriage, and tears of joy running down her face, she did not look about her; she did not care whether or not any one saw her: she was possessed with only one thought--her child! She passed like a swift wind down the street, making for home and for her departure to the hiding-place of her child.
She had not seen a figure in the shadow of a tree near by as she came from the tailor's door. She had not heard a smothered cry behind her. She was not aware that in unspeakable agony another woman knocked softly at the door of the tailor's house, and, not waiting for an answer, opened it and entered. It was Rosalie Evanturel.