The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XLV. Six Months Go By
Spring again--budding trees and flowing sap; the earth banks removed from the houses, and outside windows discarded; the ice tumbling and crunching in the river; the dormant farmer raising his head to the energy and delight of April.
The winter had been long and hard. Never had there been severer frost or deeper snow, and seldom had big game been so plentiful. In the snug warm stables the cattle munched and chewed the cud; the idle, long-haired horses grew as spirited in the keen air as in summer they were sluggish with hard work; and the farm-hands were abroad in the dark of the early mornings with lanterns, to feed the stock and take them out to water, singing cheerfully. All morning spread the clamour of the flail and the fanning-mill, the swish of the knife through the turnips and the beets, and the sound of the saw and the axe, as the youngest man of the family, muffled to the nose, sawed the wood into lengths or split the knots.
Night brought the cutting and stringing of apples, the shelling of the Indian corn, the making of rag carpets. On Saturday came the going to market with grain, or pork, or beef, or fowls frozen like stones; the gossip in the market-place. Then again sounded jingling sleigh-bells as, on the return road, the habitant made for home, a glass of white whiskey inside him, and black-eyed children in the doorway, swarming like bees at the mouth of a hive.
This particular winter in Chaudiere had been full of excitement and expectation. At Easter-time there was to be the great Passion Play, after the manner of that known as The Passion Play of Ober-Ammergau. Not one in a hundred habitants had ever heard of Ober-Ammergau, but they had all shared in picturesque processions of the Stations of the Cross to some calvaire; and many had taken part in dramatic scenes arranged from the life of Christ. Drama of a crude kind was deep in them; it showed in gesture, speech, and temperament.
In all the preparations Maximilian Cour was a conspicuous and useful official. Gifted with the dramatic temperament to a degree rare in so humble a man, he it was who really educated the people of Chaudiere in the details of the Passion Play to be produced by the good Catholics of the parish and the Indians of the reservation. He had gone to the Cure every day, and the Cure had talked with him, and then had sent him to the tailor, who had, during the past six months, withdrawn more and more from the life about him, practically living with shut door. No one ventured in unless on business, or were in need, or wished advice. These he never turned empty away.
Besides Portugais, Maximilian Cour was the one man received constantly by the tailor. With patience and insight Charley taught the baker, by drawings and careful explanations, the outlines of the representation, and the baker grew proud of the association, though Charley's face used to haunt him in his sleep. Excitable, eager, there was an elemental adaptability in the baker, as easily leading to Avernus as to Elysium. This appealed to Charley, realising, as he did, that Maximilian Cour was a reputable citizen by mere accident. The baker's life had run in a sentimental groove of religious duty; that same sentimentality would, in other circumstances, have forced him with equal ardour into the broad primrose path.
In the evening hours and on Sunday Charley had worked at his drawings for the scenery and costumes of the Play, and completed his translation of the German text, but there had been days when he could not put pen to paper. Life to him now was one aching emptiness--since that day at the Rest of the Flax-beaters Rosalie had been absent. On the very morning after their meeting by the river she had gone away with her father to the great hospital at Montreal--not Quebec this time, on the advice of the Seigneur--as the one chance of prolonging his life. There had come but one letter from her since that hour when he saw her in the Seigneur's coach with her father, moving away in the still autumn air, a piteous appeal in her eyes. The good-bye look she gave him then was with him day and night.
She had written him one letter, and he had written one in reply, and no more. Though he was wholly reckless for himself, for her he was prudent now--there was nothing else to do. To save her--if he could but save her from himself! If he might only put back the clock!
In his letter to her he had simply said that it were wiser not to write, since the acting postmistress, the Cure's sister, would note the exchange of letters, and this would arouse suspicion. He could not see what was best to do, what was right to do. To wait seemed the only thing, and his one letter ended with the words: Rosalie, my life is lived only in the thought of you. There is no hour but I think of you, no moment but you are with me. The greatest proof of love that man can give, I will give to you, in the hour fate wills--for us. But now, we must wait--we must wait, Rosalie. Do not write to me, but know that if I could go to you I would go; if I could say to you, Come, I would say it. If the giving of my life would save you any pain or sorrow, I would give it.
Sitting on his bench at work, it seemed to Charley that sometimes she was near him, and more than once he turned quickly round as though she were, in very truth, standing beside him. He thought of her continually, and often with an unbearable pain. He figured her in his mind as pale and distressed, and always her eyes had the piteous terror of that last look as she went away over the hills.
But the weeks had worn on, then the Seigneur, who had been to Montreal, came back with the news that Rosalie was looking as beautiful as a picture. "Grown a woman in beauty and in stature; comely--comely as a lady in a Watteau picture, my dear messieurs!" he had said to the Cure, standing in the tailor's shop.
Replying, the Cure had said: "She is in good hands, with good people, recommended to me by an abbe there; yet I am not wholly happy about her. When her trouble comes to her"--Charley's needle slipped and pierced his finger to the bone--"when her father goes, as he must, I fear, there will be no familiar face; she will hear no familiar voice."
"Faith, there you are wrong, my dear Cure" answered the Seigneur; "there'll be a face yonder she likes very well indeed, and a voice she's fond of too."
Charley's back was on them at that moment, of which he was glad, for his face was haggard with anxiety, and it seemed hours before the Cure said: "Whom do you mean, Maurice?" and hours before the Seigneur replied: "Mrs. Flynn, of course. I'm sending her tomorrow."
Mrs. Flynn had gone, and Charley had, in one sense, been made no happier by that, for it seemed to him that Rosalie would rather that strangers' eyes were on her than the inquisitively friendly eye of Mary Flynn.
Weeks had grown into months, and no news came--none save that which the Cure let fall, or was brought by the irresponsible Notary, who heard all gossip. Only the Cure's scant news were authentic, however, and Charley never saw the good priest but he had a secret hope of hearing him say that Rosalie was coming back. Yet when she came back, what would, or could, he do? There was always the crime for which he or Billy must be punished. Concerning this crime his heart was growing harder--for Rosalie's sake. But there was Kathleen--and Rosalie was now in the city where she lived, and they might meet! There was one solution-- if Kathleen should die! It sickened him that he could think of that with a sense of relief, almost of hope. If Kathleen should die, then he would be free to marry Rosalie--into what? He still could only marry her into the peril and menace of the law? Again, even if Kathleen did not stand in the way, neither the Cure nor any other priest would marry him to her without his antecedents being certified. A Protestant minister would, perhaps, but would Rosalie give up her faith? Following him without the blessing of the Church, she would trample under foot every dear tradition of her life, win the scorn of all of her religion, and destroy her own peace; for the faith of her fathers was as the breath of her nostrils. What cruelty to her!
But was it, after all, even true that he had but to call and she would come? In truth it well might be that she had learned to despise him; to feel how dastardly he had been to take her love, given in blind simplicity, bestowed like the song of the bird upon the listening fields --to take the plenteous fulness of her life, and give nothing in return save the empty hand, the hopeless hour, the secret sorrow.
Nothing could quench his misery. The physical part of him craved without ceasing for something to allay his distress. Again and again he fought his old enemy with desperate resolve. To fall again, to touch liquor once more, was to end all for ever. He fought on tenaciously and gloomily, with little of the pride of life, with nothing of the old stubborn self-will, but with a new-awakened sense. He had found conscience at last--and more.
The months went by and still M. Evanturel lingered on, and Rosalie did not come. The strain became too great at last. In the week preceding Easter, when all the parish was busy at Four Mountains, making costumes, rehearsing, building, putting up seats, cutting down trees, and erecting crosses and calvaries, Charley disclosed to Jo a new intention.
In the earlier part of the winter Jo and he had met two or three times a week, but now Jo had come to help him with his work in the shop--two silent, devoted companions. They understood each other, and in that understanding were life and death. For never did Jo forget that a year from the day he had confessed his sins he meant to give himself up to justice. This caused him no sleepless nights. He thought more of Charley than of himself, and every month now he went to confession, and every day he said his prayers. He was at his prayers when Charley went to tell him of his purpose. Charley had often seen Jo on his knees of late, and he had wondered, but not with the old pagan mind. "Jo," he said, "I am going away--to Montreal."
"To Montreal!" exclaimed Jo huskily. "You are going back--to stay?"
"Not that. I am going--to see--Rosalie Evanturel." Jo was troubled but not dumfounded. It had slowly crept into his mind that Charley loved the girl, though he had no real ground for suspicion. His will, however, had been so long the slave of the other man's that he had far-off reflections of his thoughts. He made no reply in words, but nodded his head.
"I want you to stay here, Jo. If I don't come back, and--and she does, stand by her, Jo. I can trust you." "You will come back, M'sieu'--but you will come back, then?" Jo asked heavily.
"If I can, Jo--if I can," he answered.
Long after he had gone, Jo wandered up and down among the trees on the river-road, up which Charley had disappeared with Jo's dogs and sled. He kept shaking his head mournfully.