The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XLVI. The Forgotten Man
It was Easter morning, and the good sunrise of a perfect spring made radiant the high hill above the town. Rosy-fingered morn touched with magic colour the masts and scattered sails of the ships upon the great river, and spires and towers quivered with rainbow light. The city was waking cheerfully, though the only active life was in the pealing bells and on the deep flowing rivers. The streets were empty yet, save for an assiduous priest or the cart of a milkman. Here and there a window opened and a drowsy head was thrust into the eager air. These saw a bearded countryman with his team of six dogs and his little cart going slowly up the street. It was plain the man had come a long distance-- from the mountains in the east or south, no doubt, where horses were few, and dogs, canoes, and oxen the means of transportation.
As the man moved slowly through the streets, his dogs still gallantly full of life after their hard journey, he did not stare about him after the manner of countrymen. His movements had intelligence and freedom. He was an unusual figure for a woodsman or river-man--he did not wear ear-rings or a waist-sash as did the river-men, and he did not turn in his toes like a woodsman. Yet he was plainly a man from the far mountains.
The man with the dogs did not heed the few curious looks turned his way, but held his head down as though walking in familiar places. Now and then he spoke to his dogs, and once he stopped before a newspaper office, which had a placard bearing these lines:
The Coming Passion Play In the Chaudiere Valley.
He looked at it mechanically, for, though he was concerned in the Passion Play and the Chaudiere Valley, it was an abstraction to him at this moment. His mind was absorbed by other things.
Though he looked neither to right nor to left, he was deeply affected by all round him.
At last he came to a certain street, where he and his dogs travelled more quickly. It opened into a square, where bells were booming in the steeple of a church. Shops and offices in the street were shut, but a saloon-door was open, and over the doorway was the legend: Jean Jolicoeur, Licensed to sell Wine, Beer, and other Spirituous and Fermented Liquors.
Nearly opposite was a lawyer's office, with a new-painted sign. It had once read, in plain black letters, Charles Steele, Barrister, etc.; now it read, in gold letters and many flourishes of the sign-painter's art, Rockwell and Tremblay, Barristers, Attorneys, etc.
Here the man looked up with trouble in his eyes. He could see dimly the desk and the window beside which he had sat for so many years, and on the wall a map of the city glowed with the incoming sun.
He moved on, passing the saloon with the open door. The landlord, in his shirt-sleeves, was standing in the doorway. He nodded, then came out to the edge of the board-walk.
"Come a long way, M'sieu'?" he asked.
"Four days' journey," answered the man gruffly through his beard, looking the landlord in the eyes. If this landlord, who in the past had seen him so often and so closely, did not recognise him, surely no one else would. It was, however, a curious recurrence of habit that, as he looked at the landlord, he instinctively felt for his eye-glass, which he had discarded when he left Chaudiere. For an instant there was an involuntary arrest of Jean Jolicoeur's look, as though memory had been roused, but this swiftly passed, and he said:
"Fine dogs, them! We never get that kind hereabouts now, M'sieu'. Ever been to the city before?"
"I've never been far from home before," answered the Forgotten Man.
"You'd better keep your eyes open, my friend, though you've got a sharp pair in your head--sharp as Beauty Steele's almost. There's rascals in the river-side drinking-places that don't let the left hand know what the right does."
"My dogs and I never trust anybody," said the Forgotten Man, as one of the dogs snarled at the landlord's touch. "So I can take care of myself, even if I haven't eyes as sharp as Beauty Steele's, whoever he is."
The landlord laughed. "Beauty's only skin-deep, they say. Charley Steele was a lawyer; his office was over there"--he pointed across the street. "He went wrong. He come here too often--that wasn't my fault. He had an eye like a hawk, and you couldn't read it. Now I can read your eye like a book. There's a bit of spring in 'em, M'sieu'. His eyes were hard winter-ice five feet deep and no fishing under--froze to the bed. He had a tongue like a cross-cut saw. He's at the bottom of the St. Lawrence, leaving a bad job behind him.
"Have a drink--hein?" He jerked a finger backwards to the saloon door. "It's Sunday, but stolen waters are sweet, sure!"
The Forgotten Man shook his head. "I don't drink, thank you."
"It'd do you good. You're dead beat. You've been travelling hard--eh?"
"I've come a long way, and travelled all night."
"I am going back to-morrow."
Charley nodded--he glanced involuntarily at the sign across the street.
Jean Jolicoeur saw the look. "Lawyer's business, p'r'aps?"
"A lawyer's business--yes."
"Ah, if Charley Steele was here!"
"I have as good a lawyer as--"
The landlord laughed scornfully. "They're not made. He'd legislate the devil out of the Pit. Where are you going to stay, M'sieu'?"
"Somewhere cheap--along the river," answered the Forgotten Man.
Jolicoeur's good-natured face became serious. "I'll tell you a place-- it's honest. It's the next street, a few hundred yards down, on the left. There's a wooden fish over the door. It's called The Black Bass --that hotel. Say I sent you. Good luck to you, countryman! Ah, la; la, there's the second bell--I must be getting to Mass!" With a nod he turned and went into the house.
The Forgotten Man passed slowly up the street, into the side street, and followed it till he came to The Black Bass, and turned into the small stable-yard. A stable-man was stirring. He at once put his dogs into a little pen set apart for them, saw them fed from the kitchen, and, betaking himself to a little room behind the bar of the hotel, ordered breakfast. The place was empty, save for the servant--the household were at Mass. He looked round the room abstractedly. He was thinking of a crippled man in a hospital, of a girl from a village in the Chaudiere Valley. He thought with a shiver of a white house on the hill. He thought of himself as he had never done before in his life. Passing along the street, he had realised that he had no moral claim upon anything or anybody within these precincts of his past life. The place was a tomb to him.
As he sat in the little back parlour of The Black Bass, eating his frugal breakfast of eggs and bread and milk, the meaning of it all slowly dawned upon him. Through his intellect he had known something of humanity, but he had never known men. He had thought of men in the mass, and despised them because of their multitudinous duplication, and their typical weaknesses; but he had never known one man or one woman from the subtler, surer divination of the heart. His intellect had made servants and lures of his emotions and his heart, for even his every case in court had been won by easy and selfish command of all those feelings in mankind which make possible personal understanding.
In this little back parlour it came to him with sudden force how, long ago, he had cut himself off from any claim upon his fellows--not only by his conduct, but by his merciless inhuman intelligence working upon the merciful human life about him. He never remembered to have had any real feeling till on that day with Kathleen--the day he died. The bitter complaint of a woman he had wronged cruelly, by having married her, had wrung from him his own first wail of life, in the one cry "Kathleen!"
As he sat eating his simple meal his pulses were beating painfully. Every nerve in his body seemed to pluck at the angry flesh. There flashed across his mind in sympathetic sensation a picture. It was the axe-factory on the river, before which he used to stand as a boy, and watch the men naked to the waist, with huge hairy arms and streaming faces, toiling in the red glare, the trip-hammers endlessly pounding upon the glowing metal. In old days it had suggested pictures of gods and demi-gods toiling in the workshops of the primeval world. So the whole machinery of being seemed to be toiling in the light of an awakened conscience, to the making of a man. It seemed to him that all his life was being crowded into these hours. His past was here--its posing, its folly, its pitiful uselessness, and its shame. Kathleen and Billy were here, with all the problems that involved them. Rosalie was here, with the great, the last problem.
"Nothing matters but that--but Rosalie," he said to himself as he turned to look out of the window at the wrangling dogs gnawing bones. "Here she is in the midst of all I once knew, and I know that I am no more a part of it than she is. She and Kathleen may have met face to face in these streets--who can tell! The world is large, but there's a sort of whipper-in of Fate, who drives the people wearing the same livery into one corner in the end. If they met"--he rose and walked hastily up and down--"what then? I have a feeling that Rosalie would recognise her as plainly as though the word Kathleen were stitched on her breast."
There was a clock on the wall. He looked at it. "It will not be safe to go out until evening. Then I can go to the hospital, and watch her coming out." He realised with satisfaction that many people coming from Mass must pass the inn. There was a chance of his seeing Rosalie, if she had gone to early Mass. This street lay in her way from the hospital. "One look--ah, one look!" For this one look he had come. For this, and to secure that which would save Rosalie from want always, if anything should happen to him. This too had been greatly on his mind. There was a way to give her what was his very own, which would rob no one and serve her well indeed.
Looking at his face in the mirror over the mantel, he said to himself
"I might have had ten thousand friends, yet I have a thousand enemies, who grin at the memory of the drunken fop down among the eels and the cat-fish. Every chance was with me then. I come back here, and--and Jolicoeur tells me the brutal truth. But if I had had ambition"--a wave of the feeling of the old life passed over him--"if I had had ambition as I was then, I should have been a monster. It was all so paltry that, in sheer disgust, I should have kicked every ladder down that helped me up. I should have sacrificed everything to myself."
He stopped short and stared, for, in the mirror, he saw a girl passing through the stable-yard towards the quarrelling dogs in the kennel. He clapped his hand to his mouth to stop a cry. It was Rosalie.
He did not turn round but looked at her in the mirror, as though it were the last look he might give on earth.
He could hear her voice speaking to the dogs: "Ah, my friends, ah, my dears! I know you every one. Jo Portugais is here. I know your bark, you, Harpy, and you, Lazybones, and you, Cloud and London! I know you every one. I heard you as I came from Mass, beauty dears. Ah, you know me, sweethearts? Ah, God bless you for coming! You have come to bring us home; you have come to fetch us home--father and me." The paws of one of the dogs was on her shoulder, and his nose was in her hair.
Charley heard her words, for the window was open, and he listened and watched now with an infinite relief in his look. Her face was half turned towards him. It was pale-very pale and sad. It was Rosalie as of old--thank God, as of old!--but more beautiful in the touching sadness, the far-off longing, of her look.
"I must go and see your master," she said to the dogs. "Down--down, Lazybones!"
There was no time to lose--he must not meet her ere. He went into the outer hall hastily. The servant was passing through. "If any one asks for Jo Portugais," he said, "say that I'll be back to-morrow morning--I'm going across the river to-day."
"Certainly, M'sieu'," said the girl, and smiled because of the piece of silver he put in her hand.
As he heard the side door open he stepped through the front doorway into the street, and disappeared round a corner.