Volume 5
Chapter XLIX. The Open Gate
 

It was a still night, and the moon, delicately bright, gave forth that radiance which makes spiritual to the eye the coarsest thing. Inside the white house on the hill all was dark. Sleep had settled on it long before midnight, for, on the morrow, its master and mistress hoped to make a journey to the valley of the Chaudiere, where the Passion Play was being performed by habitants and Indians. The desire to see the play had become an infatuation in the minds of the two, eager for some interest to relieve the monotony of a happy life.

But as all slept, a figure in the dress of a habitant moved through the passages of the house stealthily, yet with an assurance unusual in the thief or housebreaker. In the darkest passages his step was sure, and his hand fastened on latch or door-knob with perfect precision. He came at last into a large hallway flooded by the moon, pale, watchful, his beard frosted by the light. In the stillness of his tread and the composed sorrow of his face he seemed like one long dead who "revisits the glimpses of the moon."

At last he entered a room the door of which stood wide open. In this room had been begotten, or had had exercise, whatever of him was worth approving in the days before he died. It was a place of books and statues and tapestry, and the dark oak was nobly smutched of Time. This sombre oaken wall had been handed down through four generations from the man's great-grandfather: the breath of generations had steeped it in human association.

Entering, he turned for an instant with clinched hands to look at another door across the hall. Behind that door were two people who despised his memory, who conspired to forget his very name. This house was the woman's, for he had given it to her the day he died. But that she could live there with all the old associations, with memories that, however bitter, however shaming, had a sort of sacredness, struck into his soul with a harrowing pain. There she was whom he had spared--himself; whose happiness had lain in his hands, and he had given it to her. Yet her very existence robbed himself of happiness, and made sorrowful a life dearer than his own.

Kathleen lay asleep in that room--he fancied he could hear her breathing; and, by the hospital on the hill, up beyond the point of pines, in a little cottage which he could see from the great window, lay Rosalie with sleepless eyes and wan cheeks, longing for morning and the stir of life to help her to forget.

For Rosalie he had come to this house once more. For her sake he was revisiting this torture-chamber, from which he knew he must go again, blanched and shaken, as a man goes from a tomb where his dead lie unforgiving.

He shut his teeth, went swiftly across the room, and beside a great carved oak table touched a hidden spring in the side of it. The spring snapped; the panel creaked a little and drew back. It seemed to him that the noise he made must be heard in every part of the house, so sensitive was his ear, so deep was the silence on which the sounds had broken. He turned round to the doorway to listen before he put his hand within the secret place.

There was no sound. He turned his attention to the table. Drawing forth two packets with a gasp of relief, he put them in his pocket, and, with extreme care, proceeded to close the panel. By rubbing the edges of the wood with grease from a candle on the table, he was able to readjust the panel in silence. But, as the spring came home, he became suddenly conscious of a presence in the room. A shiver passed through him. He turned round-softly, quickly. He was in the shadow and near great window-curtains, and his fingers instinctively clutched them as he saw a figure in white at the door of the room. Slowly, strangely deliberate, the figure moved further into the room.

Charley's breath stopped. He felt his face flush, and a strange weakness came on him. There before him stood Kathleen.

She was in her night-gown, and she stood still, as though listening; yet, as Charley looked closer, he realised that it was an unconscious, passive listening, and that she did not know he was there.

Her mind only was listening. She was asleep. Was it possible that his very presence in the house had touched some old note of memory, which, automatically responding, had carried her from her bed in this somnambulistic trance? That subtle telegraphy between our subconscious selves which we cannot reduce to a law, yet alarming us at times, announced to Kathleen's mind, independent of the waking senses, the presence once familiar to this house for so many years. In her sleep she had involuntarily responded to the call of Charley's approach.

Once, in the past, the night her uncle died, she had walked in her sleep, and the memory of this flashed upon Charley now. Silently he came closer to her. The moonlight shone on her face. He could see plainly she was asleep. His position was painful and perilous. If she waked, the shock to herself would be great; if she waked and saw him, what disaster might not occur!

Yet he had no agitation now, only clearness of mind and a curious sense of confusion that he should see her en dishabille--the old fastidious sense mingling with the feeling that she was now a stranger to him, and that, waking, she would fly embarrassed from his presence, as he was ready to fly from hers. He was about to steal to the door and escape before she waked, but she turned round, moved through the doorway, and glided down the hall. He followed silently.

She moved to the staircase, then slowly down it, and through a passage to a morning-room, where, opening a pair of French windows, she passed out onto the lawn. He followed, not more than a dozen paces behind her. His safety lay in getting outside, where he could easily hide among the bushes, should someone else appear and an alarm be raised.

She crossed the lawn swiftly, a white, ghostlike figure. In the middle of the lawn she stopped short once as if in doubt what to do--as a thought-reader pauses in his search for the mental scent again, ere he rushes upon the object of his search with the certainty of instinct.

Presently she moved on, going directly towards a gate that opened out on the cliff above the river. In Charley's day this gate had been often used, for it gave upon four steep wooden steps leading to a narrow shelf of rock below. From the edge of this cliff a rope-ladder dropped fifty feet to the river. For years he had used this rope-ladder to get down to his boat, and often, when they were first married, Kathleen used to come and watch him descend, and sometimes, just at the very first, would descend also. As he stole into the grounds this evening he had noticed, however, that the rope-ladder was gone, and that new steps were being built. He had also mechanically observed that the gate was open.

For an instant he watched her slowly moving towards the gate. At first he did not realise the situation. Suddenly her danger flashed upon him. Passing through the gateway, she must fall over the cliff.

Her life was in his hands.

He could rush forward swiftly and close the gate, then, raising an alarm, get away before he was seen; or--he could escape now.

What had he to do with her? A weird, painful suggestion crept into his brain: he was not responsible for her, and he was responsible for a woman up there by the hospital, whose home was the valley of the Chaudiere!

If Kathleen were gone, what barrier would there be between him and Rosalie? What had he to do with this strange disposition of events? Kathleen was never absent from her church twice on Sundays; she was devoted to work of all sorts for the church on week-days--where was her intervening personal Providence? If Providence permitted her to die?-- well, she had had two years of happiness with the man she loved, at some expense to himself--was it not fair that Rosalie should have her share? Had he the right to call upon Rosalie for constant self-sacrifice, when, by shutting his eyes now, by being dead to Kathleen and her need, as he was dead to the world he once knew, the way would be clear to marry Rosalie?

Dead--he was dead to the world and to Kathleen! Should his ghost interpose between her and the death now within two-score feet of her? Who could know? It was grim, it was awful, but was it not a wild kind of justice? Who could blame? It was the old Charley Steele, the Charley Steele of the court-room, who argued back humanity and the inherent rightness of things.

But it was only a moment's pause. The thoughts flashed by like the lightning impressions of a dream, and a voice said in his ear, the voice of the new Charley with a conscience:

"Save her--save her!"

Even as he was conscious of another presence on the lawn, he rushed forward noiselessly. Stealing between Kathleen and the gate-she was within five feet of it he closed and locked it. Then, with a quick glance at her sleeping face-it was engraven on his memory ever after like a dead face in a coffin--he ran along the fence among the shrubbery. A man not fifty feet away called to him.

"Hush--she is asleep!" Charley whispered, and disappeared.

It was Fairing himself who saw this deed which saved Kathleen's life. Awaking, and not finding her, he had glanced towards the window, and had seen her on the lawn. He had rushed down to her, in time to see her saved by a strange bearded man in habitant dress. His one glance at the man's face, as it turned towards him, produced an extraordinary effect upon his mind, not soon to be dispelled--a haunting, ghostlike apparition, which kept reminding him of something or somebody, he could not tell what or whom. The whispering voice and the breathless words, "Hush--she is asleep!" repeated themselves over and over again in his brain, as, taking Kathleen's hand, he led her, unresisting, and still sleeping, back to her room. In agitated thankfulness he resolved not to speak of the event to Kathleen, or to any one else, lest it should come to her ears and frighten her.

He would, however, keep a sharp lookout for the man who had saved her life, and would reward him duly. The face of the bearded habitant came between him and his sleep.

Meanwhile this disturber of a woman's dreams and a man's sleep was hurrying to an inn in the town by the waterside, where he met another habitant with a team of dogs--Jo Portugais. Jo had not been able to bear the misery of suspense and anxiety, and had come seeking him. There was little speech between them.

"You have not been found out, M'sieu'?" was Jo's anxious question.

"No, no, but I have had a bad night, Jo. Get the dogs together."

A little later, as Charley made ready to go back to Chaudiere, Jo said:

"You look as if you'd had a black dream, M'sieu'." With the river rustling by, and the trees stirring in the first breath of dawn, Charley told Jo what had happened.

For a moment the murderer did not speak or stir, for a struggle was going on in his breast also; then he stooped quickly, caught his companion's hand, and kissed it.

"I could not have done it, M'sieu'," he said hoarsely. They parted, Jo to remain behind as they had agreed, to be near Rosalie if needed; Charley to return to the valley of the Chaudiere.