The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XLIII. Jo Portugais Tells a Story
Walking slowly, head bent, eyes unseeing, Charley was on his way to Vadrome Mountain, with the knowledge that Jo Portugais had returned.
The hunger for companionship was on him: to touch some mind that could understand the deep loneliness which had settled on him since that scene in the postoffice. It was the loneliness of a new and great separation. He had wakened to it to-day.
Once before, in the hut on Vadrome Mountain, he had wakened from a grave, had been born again. Last night had come still another birth, had come, as with Rosalie herself, knowledge, revelation, understanding. To Rosalie the new vision had come with a vague pain of heart, without shame, and with a wonderful happiness. Pain, shame, knowledge, and a happiness that passed suddenly into a despairing sorrow, had come to him.
In finding love he had found conscience, and in finding conscience he was on his way to another great discovery.
Looking to where Jo Portugais' house was set among the pines, Charley remembered the day--he saw the scene in his mind's eye--when Rosalie entered with the letter addressed "To the sick man at the house of Jo Portugais, at Vadrome Mountain," and he saw again her clear, unsoiled soul in the deep inquiring eyes.
"If you but knew"--he turned and looked down at the village below-- "if you but knew!" he said, as though to all the world. "I have the sign from heaven--I know it now. To-day I wake to know what life means, and I see--Rosalie! I know now--but how? In taking all she had to give. What does she get in return? Nothing--nothing. Because I love her, because the whole world is nothing beside her, nor life, nor twenty lives, if I had them to give, I must say to her now: 'Rosalie, it was love that brought you to my arms, it is love that says, Thus far and no farther. Never again--never--never--never!' Yesterday I could have left her--died or vanished, without real hurt to her. She would have mourned and broken her heart and mended it again; and I should have been only a memory--of mystery, of tenderness. Then, one day she would have married, and no sting from my going would have remained. She would have had happiness, and I neither shame nor despair. . . . To-day it is all too late. We have drunk too deep-alas! too deep. She cannot marry another man, for ghosts will not lie for asking, and what is mine may not be another's. She cannot marry me, for what once was mine is mine still by ring and by book, and I should always be haunted by a torturing shadow. Kathleen has the right of way, not Rosalie. Ah, Rosalie, I dare not wrong you further. Yet to marry you, even as things are, if that might be! To live on here unrecognised? I am little like my old self, and year after year I should grow less and less like Charley Steele. . . . But, no, it is not possible!"
He stopped short in his thoughts, and his lips tightened in bitterness.
"God in heaven, what an impasse!" he said aloud.
There was a sudden crackling of twigs as a man rose up from a log by the wayside ahead of him. It was Jo Portugais, who had seen him coming, and had waited for him. He had heard Charley's words.
"Do you call me an impasse, M'sieu'?" Charley grasped Portugais' hand.
"What has happened, M'sieu'?" Jo asked anxiously. There was a brief silence, and then Charley told him of the events of the morning.
"You know of the mark-here?" he asked, touching his breast.
Jo nodded. "I saw, when you were ill."
"Yet you never asked!"
"I studied it out--I knew old Louis Trudel. Also, I saw ma'm'selle nail the cross to the church door. Two and two together in my mind did it. I didn't think Paulette Dubois would tell. I warned her."
"She quarrelled with mademoiselle. It was revenge.
"She might have been less vindictive. She had had good luck herself lately."
"What good luck had she, M'sieu'?"
Charley told Jo the story of the Notary, the woman, and the child.
Jo made no comment. They relapsed into silence. Arriving at the house, they entered. Jo lighted his pipe, and smoked steadily for a time without speaking. Buried in thought, Charley stood in the doorway looking down at the village. At last he turned.
"Where have you been these weeks past, Jo?"
"To Quebec first, M'sieu'."
Charley looked curiously at Jo, for there was meaning in his tone. "And where last?"
Charley's face became paler, his hands suddenly clinched, for he read the look in Jo's eyes. He knew that Jo had been looking at people and places once so familiar; that he had seen--Kathleen.
"Go on. Tell me all," he said heavily.
Portugais spoke in English. The foreign language seemed to make the truth less naked and staring to himself. He had a hard story to tell.
"It is not to say why I go to Montreal," he began. "But I go. I have my ears open; my eyes, she is not close. No one knows me--I am no account of. Every one is forgot the man, Joseph Nadeau, who was try for his life. Perhaps it is every one is forget the lawyer who save his neck-- perhaps? So I stand by the streetside. I say to a man as I look up at sign-boards,' 'Where is that writing "M'sieu' Charles Steele," and all the res'?' 'He is dead long ago,' say the man to me. 'A good thing too, for he was the very devil.' 'I not understan',' I say. 'I tink that M'sieu' Steele is a dam smart man back time.' 'He was the smartes' man in the country, that Beauty Steele,' the man say. 'He bamboozle the jury hevery time. He cut up bad though.'"
Charley raised his hand with a nervous gesture of misery and impatience.
"'Where have you been,' that man say--'where have you been all these times not to know 'bout Charley Steele, hein?' 'In the backwoods,' I say. 'What bring you here now?' he ask. 'I have a case,' I say. 'What is it?' he ask. 'It is a case of a man who is punish for another man,' I say. 'That's the thing for Charley Steele,' he laugh. 'He was great man to root things out. Can't fool Charley Steele, we use to say here. But he die a bad death.' 'What was the matter with him?' I say. 'He drink too much, he spend too much, he run after a girl at Cote Dorion, and the river-drivers do for him one night. They say it was acciden', but is there any green on my eye? But he die trump--jus' like him. He have no fear of devil or man,' so the man say. 'But fear of God?' I ask. 'He was hinfidel,' he say. 'That was behin' all. He was crooked all roun'. He rob the widow and horphan?' 'I think he too smart for that,' I speak quick. 'I suppose it was the drink,' he say. 'He loose his grip.' 'He was a smart man, an' he would make you all sit up, if he come back,' I hanswer. 'If he come back!' The man laugh queer at that. 'If he comeback, there would be hell.' 'How is that?' I say. 'Look across the street,' he whisper. 'That was his wife.'"
Charley choked back a cry in his throat. Jo had no intention of cutting his story short. He had an end in view.
"I look across the street. There she is--' Ah, that is a fine woman to see! I have never seen but one more finer to look at--here in Chaudiere.' The man say: 'She marry first for money, and break her heart; now she marry for love. If Beauty Steele come back-eh! sacra! that would be a mess. But he is at the bottom of the St Lawrence--the courts say so, and the Church say so--and ghosts don't walk here.' 'But if that Beauty Steele come back alive, what would happen it?' I speak. 'His wife is marry, blockhead!' he say.
"'But the woman is his,' I hanswer. 'Do you think she would go back to a thief she never love from the man she love?' he speak back. 'She is not marry to the other man,' I say, 'if Beauty Steele is . . .' 'He is dead as a door,' he swear. 'You see that?' he go on, nodding down the street. 'Well, that is Billy.' 'Who is Billy?' I ask. 'The brother of her,' he say. 'Charley, he spoil Billy. Billy, he has not been the same since Charley's death-he is so ashame of Charley. When he get drunk he talk of nothing else. We all remember that Charley spoil him, and that make us sorry for him.' 'Excuse me,' I say. 'I think that Billy is a dam smart man. He is smart as Charley Steele.' 'Charley was the smartes' man in the country,' he say again. 'I've got his practice now, but this town will never be the same without him. Thief or no thief, I wish he is alive here. By the Lord, I'd get drunk with him!' He was all right, that man," Jo added finally.
Charley's agitation was hidden. His eyes were fixed on Jo intently. "That was Larry Rockwell. Go on," he said, in a hard metallic voice.
"I see--her, the next night again. It is in the white stone house on the hill. All the windows are open, an' I can hear her to sing. I not know that song. It begin, 'Oft in the stilly night'--like that."
Charley stiffened. It was the song Kathleen sang for him the night they became engaged.
"It is a good voice-that. I see her face, for there is a candle on the piano. I come close and closter to the house. There is big maple-trees --I am well hid. A man is beside her. He lean hover her an' put his hand on her shoulder. 'Sing it again, Kat'leen,' he say. 'I cannot to get enough.'"
"Stop!" said Charley, in a strained, harsh voice. "Not yet, M'sieu'," said Portugais. "It is good for you to hear what I say."
"'Come, Kat'leen!' the man say, an' he blow hout the candle. I hear them walk away, an' the door shut behin' them. Then I hear anudder voice--ah, that is a baby--very young baby!"
Charley quickly got to his feet. "Not another word!" he said.
"Yes, yes, but there is one word more, M'sieu'," said Jo, standing up and facing him firmly. "You must go back. You are not a thief. The woman is yours. You throw your life away. What is the man to you--or the man's brat of a child? It is all waiting for you. You mus' go back. You not steal the money, but that Billy--it is that Billy, I know. You can forgive your wife, and take her back, or you can say to both, Go! You can put heverything right and begin again."
Anger, wild words, seemed about to break from Charley's lips, but he conquered himself.
The old life had been brought back to him with painful acuteness and vividness. The streets of the town, the people in the street, Billy, the mean scoundrel, who could not leave him alone in the grave of obscurity, Kathleen--Fairing. The voice of the child--with her voice--was in his ears. A child! If he had had a child, perhaps----He stopped short in his thinking, his face all at once flooding with colour. For a moment he stood looking out of the window down towards the village. He could see the post-office like a toy house among toy houses. At last he turned to Jo.
"Never again while I live, speak of this to me: of the past, of going back, or of--of anything else," he said. "I cannot go back. I am dead and shamed. Let the dust of forgetfulness come and cover the past. I've begun life again here, and here I stay, and see it out. I shall work out the problem here." He dropped a hand on the other's shoulder. "Jo," said he, "we are both shipwrecks. Let us see how long we can float."
"M'sieu', is it worth it?" said Portugais, remembering his confession to the Abbe, and seeing the end of it all to himself.
"I don't know, Jo. Let us wait and see how Fate will play us."
"Or God, M'sieu'?"
"God or Fate--who knows"