The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XLI. It Was Michaelmas Day
Not a cloud in the sky, and, ruling all, a sweet sun, liberal in warmth and eager in brightness as its distance from the northern world decreased. As Mrs. Flynn entered the door of the post-office she sang out to Maximilian Cour, with a buoyant lilt: "Oh, isn't it the fun o' the world to be alive!"
The tailor over the way heard it, and lifted his head with a smile; Rosalie Evanturel, behind the postal wicket, heard it, and her face swam with colour. Rosalie busied herself with the letters and papers for a moment before she answered Mrs. Flynn's greeting, for there were ringing in her ears the words she herself had said a few days before: "It is good to live, isn't it?"
To-day it was so good to live that life seemed an endless being and a tireless happy doing--a gift of labour, an inspiring daytime, and a rejoicing sleep. Exaltation, a painful joy, and a wide embarrassing wonderment possessed her. She met Mrs. Flynn's face at the wicket with shining eyes and a timid smile.
"Ah, there y'are, darlin'!" said Mrs. Flynn. "And how's the dear father to-day?"
"He seems about the same, thank you."
"Ah, that's foine. Shure, if we could always be 'about the same,' we'd do. True for you, darlin', 'tis as you say. If ould Mary Flynn could be always "bout the same,' the clods o' the valley would never cover her bones. But there 'tis--we're here to-day, and away tomorrow. Shure, though, I am not complainin'. Not I--not Mary Flynn. Teddy Flynn used to say to me, says he: 'Niver born to know distress! Happy as worms in a garden av cucumbers. Seventeen years in this country, Mary,' says he, 'an' nivir in the pinitintiary yet.' There y'are. Ah, the birds do be singin' to-day! 'Tis good! 'Tis good, darlin'! You'll not mind Mary Flynn callin' you darlin', though y'are postmistress, an' 'll be more than that--more than that wan day--or Mary Flynn's a fool. Aye, more than that y'll be, darlin', and y're eyes like purty brown topazzes and y're cheeks like roses-shure, is there anny lether for Mary Flynn, darlin'?" she hastily added as she saw the Seigneur standing in the doorway. He had evidently been listening.
"Ye didn't hear what y're ould fool of a cook was sayin'," she added to the Seigneur, as Rosalie shook her head and answered: "No letters, Madame--dear." Rosalie timidly added the dear, for there was something so great-hearted in Mrs. Flynn that she longed to clasp her round the neck, longed as she had never done in her life to lay her head upon some motherly breast and pour out her heart. But it was not to be now. Secrecy was her duty still.
"Can't ye speak to y're ould fool of a cook, sir?" Mrs. Flynn said again, as the Seigneur made way for her to leave the shop.
"How did you guess?" he said to her in a low voice, his sharp eyes peering into hers.
"By the looks in y're face these past weeks, and the look in hers," she whispered, and went on her way rejoicing.
"I'll wind thim both round me finger like a wisp o' straw," she said, going up the road with a light step, despite her weight, till she was stopped by the malicious grocer-man of the village, whose tongue had been wagging for hours upon an unwholesome theme.
Meanwhile, in the post-office, the Seigneur and Rosalie were face to face.
"It is Michaelmas day," he said. "May I speak with you, Mademoiselle?"
She looked at the clock. It was on the stroke of noon. The shop always closed from twelve till half-past twelve.
"Will you step into the parlour, Monsieur?" she said, and coming round the counter, locked the shop-door. She was trembling and confused, and entered the little parlour shyly. Yet her eyes met the Seigneur's bravely. "Your father, how is he?" he said, offering her a chair. The sunlight streaming in the window made a sort of pathway of light between them, while they were in the shade.
"He seems no worse, and to-day he is wheeling himself about."
"He is stronger, then--that's good. Is there any fear that he must go to the hospital again?"
She inclined her head. "The doctor says he may have to go any moment. It may be his one chance. The Cure is very kind, and says that, with your permission, his sister will keep the office here, if--if needed."
The Seigneur nodded briskly. "Of course, of course. But have you not thought that we might secure another postmistress?"
Her face clouded a little; her heart beat hard. She knew what was coming. She dreaded it, but it was better to have it over now.
"We could not live without it," she said helplessly.
"What we have saved is not enough. The little my mother had must pay for the visits to the hospital. I have kept it for that. You see, I need the place here."
"But you have thought, just the same. Do you not know the day?" he asked meaningly.
She was silent.
"I have come to ask you to marry me--this is Michaelmas day, Rosalie."
She did not speak. He had hopes from her silence. "If anything happened to your father, you could not live here alone--but a young girl! Your father may be in the hospital for a long time. You cannot afford that. If I were to offer you money, you would refuse. If you marry me, all that I have is yours to dispose of at your will: to make others happy, to take you now and then from this narrow place, to see what's going on in the world."
"I am happy here," she said falteringly.
"Chaudiere is the finest place in the world," he replied proudly, and as a matter of fact. "But, for the sake of knowledge, you should see what the rest of the world is. It helps you to understand Chaudiere better. I ask you to be my wife, Rosalie."
She shook her head sorrowfully.
"You said before, it was not because I am old, not because I am rich, not because I am Seigneur, not because I am I, that you refused me."
She smiled at him now. "That is true," she said.
"Then what reason can you have? None, none. 'Pon honour, I believe you are afraid of marriage because it's marriage. By my life, there's naught to dread. A little giving here and taking there, and it's easy. And when a woman is all that's good, to a man, it can be done without fear or trembling. Even the Cure would tell you that."
"Ah, I know, I know," she said, in a voice half painful, half joyous. "I know that it is so. But, oh, dear Monsieur, I cannot marry you-- never--never."
He hung on bravely. "I want to make life easy and happy for you. I want the right to do so. When trouble comes upon you--"
"When it does I will turn to you--ah, yes, I would turn to you without fear, dear Monsieur," she said, and her heart ached within her, for a premonition of sorrow came upon her and filled her eyes, and made her heart like lead within her breast. "I know how true a gentleman you are," she added. "I could give you everything but that which is life to me, which is being, and soul, and the beginning and the end."
The weight of the revealing hour of her life, its wonder, its agony, its irrevocability, was upon her. It was giving new meanings to existence- primitive woman, child of nature as she was. All morning she had longed to go out into the woods and bury herself among the ferns and bracken, and laugh and weep for very excess of feeling, downright joy and vague woe possessing her at once. She looked the Seigneur in the eyes with consuming earnestness.
"Oh, it is not because I am young," she said, in a low voice, "for I am old--indeed, I am very old. It is because I cannot love you, and never can love you in the one great way; and I will not marry without love. My heart is fixed on that. When I marry, it will be when I love a man so much that I cannot live without him. If he is so poor that each meal is a miracle, it will make no difference. Oh, can't you see, can't you feel, what I mean, Monsieur--you who are so wise and learned, and know the world so well?"
"Wise and learned!" he said, a little roughly, for his voice was husky with emotion. "'Pon honour, I think I am a fool! A bewildered fool, that knows no more of woman than my cook knows Sanscrit. Faith, a hundred times less! For Mary Flynn's got an eye to see, and, without telling, she knew I had a mind set on you. But Mary Flynn thought more than that, for she has an idea that you've a mind set on some one, Rosalie. She thought it might be me."
"A woman is not so easily read as a man," she replied, half smiling, but with her eyes turned to the street. A few people were gathering in front of the house--she wondered why.
"There is some one else--that is it, Rosalie. There is some one else. You shall tell me who it is. You shall--"
He stopped short, for there was a loud knocking at the shop-door, and the voice of M. Evanturel calling: "Rosalie! Rosalie! Rosalie! Ah, come quickly--ah, my Rosalie!"
Without a look at the Seigneur, Rosalie rushed into the shop and opened the front door. Her father was deathly pale, and was trembling violently.
"Rosalie, my bird," he cried indignantly, "they're saying you stole the cross from the church door."
He was now wheeled inside the shop, and people gathered round, looking at him and Rosalie, some covertly, some as friends, some in a half- frightened way, as though strange things were about to happen.
"Shure, 'tis a lie, or me name's not Mary Flynn--the darlin'!" said the Seigneur's cook, with blazing face. "Who makes this charge?" roared an angry voice. No one had seen the Seigneur enter from the little room beside the shop, and at the sound of the sharp voice the people fell back, for he was as free with his stick as his tongue.
"I do," said the grocer, to whom Paulette Dubois had told her story.
"Ye shall be tarred and feathered before y'are a day older," said Mary Flynn.
Rosalie was very pale.
The Seigneur was struck by this and by the strangeness of her look.
"Clear the room," he said to Filion Lacasse, who was now a constable of the parish.
"Not yet!" said a voice at the doorway. "What is the trouble?" It was the Cure, who had already heard rumours of the scandal, and had come at once to Rosalie. M. Evanturel tried to speak, and could not. But Mary Flynn did, with a face like a piece of scarlet bunting. Having finished with a flourish, she could scarce keep her hands off the cowardly grocer.
The Cure turned to Rosalie. "It is absurd," he said. "Forgive me," he added to the Seigneur. "It is better that Rosalie should answer this charge. If she gives her word of honour, I will deny communion to whoever slanders her hereafter."
"She did it," said the grocer stubbornly. "She can't deny it."
"Answer, Rosalie," said the Cure firmly.
"Excuse me; I will answer," said a voice at the door. The tailor of Chaudiere made his way into the shop, through the fast-gathering crowd.