The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter LI. Face to Face
"If I could only understand!"--this was Rosalie's constant cry in these weeks wherein she lay ill and prostrate after her father's burial. Once and once only had she met Charley alone, though she knew that he was keeping watch over her. She had first seen him the day her father was buried, standing apart from the people, his face sorrowful, his eyes heavy, his figure bowed.
The occasion of their meeting alone was the first night of her return, when the Notary and Charley had kept watch beside her father's body.
She had gone into the little hallway, and had looked into the room of death. The Notary was sound asleep in his arm-chair, but Charley sat silent and moveless, his eyes gazing straight before him. She murmured his name, and though it was only to herself, not even a whisper, he got up quickly and came to the hall, where she stood grief-stricken, yet with a smile of welcome, of forgiveness, of confidence. As she put out her hand to him, and his swallowed it, she could not but say to him--so contrary is the heart of woman, so does she demand a Yes by asserting a No, and hunger for the eternal assurance--she could not but say:
"You do not love me--now."
It was but a whisper, so faint and breathless that only the heart of love could hear it. There was no answer in words, for some one was stirring beyond Rosalie in the dark, and a great figure heaved through the kitchen doorway, but his hand crushed hers in his own; his heart said to her, "My love is an undying light; it will not change for time or tears"--the words they had read together in a little snuff-coloured book on the counter in the shop one summer day a year ago. The words flashed into his mind, and they were carried to hers. Her fingers pressed his, and then Charley said, over her shoulder, to the approaching Mrs. Flynn: "Do not let her come again, Madame. She should get some sleep," and he put her hand in Mrs. Flynn's. "Be good to her, as you know how, Mrs. Flynn," he added gently.
He had won the heart of Mrs. Flynn that moment, and it may be she had a conviction or an inspiration, for she said, in a softer voice than she was wont to use to any one save Rosalie:
"I'll do by her as you'd do by your own, sir," and tenderly drew Rosalie to her own room.
Such had been their first meeting after her return. Afterwards she was taken ill, and the torture of his heart drove him out into the night, to walk the road and creep round her house like a sentinel, Mrs. Flynn's words ringing in his ears to reproach him--"I'll do by her as you would do by your own, sir." Night after night it was the same, and Rosalie heard his footsteps and listened and was less sorrowful, because she knew that she was ever in his thoughts. But one day Mrs. Flynn came to him in his shop.
"She's wantin' a word with ye on business," she said, and gestured towards the little house across the way. "'Tis few words ye do be shpakin' to annybody, but if y' have kind words to shpake and good things to say, y' naidn't be bitin' yer tongue," she added in response to his nod, and left him.
Charley looked after her with a troubled face. On the instant it seemed to him that Mrs. Flynn knew all. But his second thought told him that it was only an instinct on her part that there was something between them-- the beginning of love, maybe.
In another half-hour he was beside Rosalie's chair. "Perhaps you are angry," she said, as he came towards her where she sat in the great arm- chair. She did not give him time to answer, but hurried on. "I wanted to tell you that I have heard you every night outside, and that I have been glad, and sorry too--so sorry for us both."
"Rosalie! Rosalie" he said hoarsely, and dropped on a knee beside her chair, and took her hand and kissed it. He did not dare do more.
"I wanted to say to you," she said, dropping a hand on his shoulder, "that I do not blame you for anything--not for anything. Yet I want you to be sorry too. I want you to feel as sorry for me as I feel sorry for you."
"I am the worst man and you the best woman in the world."
She leaned over him with tears in her eyes. "Hush!" she said. "I want to help you--Charles. You are wise. You know ten thousand things more than I; but I know one thing you do not understand."
"You know and do whatever is good," he said brokenly.
"Oh, no, no, no! But I know one thing, because I have been taught, and because it was born with me. Perhaps much was habit with me in the past, but now I know that one thing is true. It is God."
She paused. "I have learned so much since--since then."
He looked up with a groan, and put a finger on her lips. "You are feeling bitterly sorry for me," she said. "But you must let me speak-- that is all I ask. It is all love asks. I cannot bear that you should not share my thoughts. That is the thing that has hurt--hurt so all these months, these long hard months, when I could not see you, and did not know why I could not. Don't shake so, please! Hear me to the end, and we shall both be the better after. I felt it all so cruelly, because I did not--and I do not--understand. I rebelled, but not against you. I rebelled against myself, against what you called Fate. Fate is one's self, what one brings on one's self. But I had faith in you--always-- always, even when I thought I hated you."
"Ah, hate me! Hate me! It is your loving that cuts me to the quick," he said. "You have the magnanimity of God."
Her eyes leapt up. "'Of God'--you believe in God!" she said eagerly. "God is God to you? He is the one thing that has come out of all this to me." She reached out her hand and took her Bible from a table. "Read that to yourself," she said, and, opening the Book, pointed to a passage. He read it:
Closing the Book, Charley said: "I understand--I see."
"Will you say a prayer with me?" she urged. "It is all I ask. It is the only--the only thing I want to hurt you, because it may make you happier in the end. What keeps us apart, I do not know. But if you will say one prayer with me, I will keep on trusting, I will never complain, and I will wait--wait."
He kissed both her hands, but the look in his eyes was that of a man being broken on the wheel. She slipped to the floor, her rosary in her fingers. "Let us pray," she said simply, and in a voice as clear as a child's, but with the anguish of a woman's struggling heart behind.
He did not move. She looked at him, caught his hands in both of hers, and cried: "But you will not deny me this! Haven't I the right to ask it? Haven't I a right to ask of you a thousand times as much?"
"You have the right to ask all that is mine to give life, honour, my body in pieces inch by inch, the last that I can call my own. But, Rosalie, this is not mine to give! How can I pray, unless I believe!"
"You do--oh, you do believe in God," she cried passionately.
"Rosalie--my life," he urged, hoarse misery in his voice, "the only thing I have to give you is the bare soul of a truthful man--I am that now at least. You have made me so. If I deceived the whole world, if I was as the thief upon the cross, I should still be truthful to you. You open your heart to me--let me open mine to you, to see it as it is. Once my soul was like a watch, cased and carried in the pocket of life, uncertain, untrue, because it was a soul made, not born. I must look at the hands to know the time, and because it varied, because the working did not answer to the absolute, I said: 'The soul is a lie.' You--you have changed all that, Rosalie. My soul now is like a dial to the sun. But the clouds are there above, and I do not know what time it is in life. When the clouds break--if they ever break--and the sun shines, the dial will speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth--"
He paused, confused, for he had repeated the words of a witness taking the oath in court.
"'So help me God!"' she finished the oath for him. Then, with a sudden change of manner, she came to her feet with a spring. She did not quite understand. She was, however, dimly conscious of the power she had over his chivalrous mind: the power of the weak over the strong--the tyranny of the defended over the defender. She was a woman tortured beyond bearing; and she was fighting for her very life, mad with anguish as she struggled.
"I do not understand you," she cried, with flashing eyes. "One minute you say you do not believe in anything, and the next you say, 'So help me God!'"
"Ah, no, you said that, Rosalie," he interposed gently.
"You said I was as magnanimous as God. You were laughing at me then, mocking me, whose only fault is that I loved and trusted you. In the wickedness of your heart you robbed me of happiness, you--"
"Don't--don't! Rosalie! Rosalie!" he exclaimed in shrinking protest.
That she had spoken to him as her deepest heart abhorred only increased her agitated denunciation. "Yes, yes, in your mad selfishness, you did not care for the poor girl who forgot all, lost all, and now--" She stopped short at the sight of his white, awe stricken face. His eye- glass seemed like a frost of death over an eye that looked upon some shocking scene of woe. Yet he appeared not to see, for his fingers fumbled on his waistcoat for the monocle--fumbled--vaguely, helplessly. It was the realisation of a soul cast into the outer darkness. Her abrupt silence came upon him like the last engulfing wave to a drowning man--the final assurance of the end, in which there is quiet and the deadly smother.
"Now--I know-the truth!" he said, in a curious even tone, different from any she had ever heard from him. It was the old Charley Steele who spoke, the Charley Steele in whom the intellect was supreme once more. The judicial spirit, the inveterate intelligence which put justice before all, was alive in him, almost rejoicing in its regained governance. The new Charley was as dead as the old had been of late, and this clarifying moment left the grim impression behind that the old law was not obsolete. He felt that in the abandonment of her indignation she had mercilessly told the truth; and the irreducible quality of mind in him which in the old days made for justice, approved. There was a new element now, however--that conscience which never possessed him fully until the day he saw Rosalie go travelling over the hills with her crippled father. That picture of the girl against the twilight, her figure silhouetted in the clear air, had come to him in sleeping and waking dreams, the type and sign of an everlasting melancholy. As he looked at her blindly now, he saw, not herself, but that melancholy figure. Out of the distance his own voice said again:
"Now--I know-the truth!"
She had struck with a violence she did not intend, which, she knew, must rend her own heart in the future, which put in the dice-box the last hopes she had. But she could not have helped it--she could not have stayed the words, though a suspended sword were to fall with the saying. It was the cry of tradition and religion, and every home-bred, convent- nurtured habit, the instinct of heredity, the wail of woman, for whom destiny, or man, or nature, has arranged the disproportionate share of life's penalties. It was the impotent rebellion against the first curse, that man in his punishment should earn his bread by the sweat of his brow--which he might do with joy--while the woman must work out her ordained sentence "in sorrow all the days of her life."
In her bitter words was the inherent revolt of the race of woman. But now she suddenly felt that she had flung him an infinite distance from her; that she had struck at the thing she most cherished--his belief that she loved him; that even if she had told the truth--and she felt she had not--it was not the truth she wished him most to feel.
For an instant she stood looking at him, shocked and confounded, then her changeless love rushed back on her, the maternal and protective spirit welled up, and with a passionate cry she threw herself in the chair again in very weakness, with outstretched hands, saying:
"Forgive me--oh, forgive me! I did not mean it--oh, forgive your Rosalie!"
Stooping over her, he answered:
"It is good for me to know the whole truth. What hurts you may give me will pass--for life must end, and my life cannot be long enough to pay the price of the hurts I have given you. I could bear a thousand--one for every hour--if they could bring back the light to your eye, the joy to your heart. Could prayer, do you think, make me sorrier than I am? I have hurt what I would have spared from hurt at the cost of my life-- and all the lives in all the world!" he added fiercely.
"Forgive me--oh, forgive your Rosalie!" she pleaded. "I did not know what I was saying--I was mad."
"It was all so sane and true," he said, like one who, on the brink of death, finds a satisfaction in speaking the perfect truth. "I am glad to hear the truth--I have been such a liar."
She looked up startled, her tears blinding her. "You have not deceived me?" she asked bitterly. "Oh, you have not deceived me--you have loved me, have you not?" It was that which mattered, that only. Moveless and eager, she looked--looked at him, waiting, as it were, for sentence.
"I never lied to you, Rosalie--never!" he answered, and he touched her hand.
She gave a moan of relief at his words. "Oh, then, oh, then . . . " she said, in a low voice, and the tears in her eyes dried away.
"I meant that until I knew you, I kept deceiving myself and others all my life--"
"But without knowing it?" she said eagerly.
"Perhaps, without quite knowing it."
"Until you knew me?" she asked, in quick, quivering tones.
"Till I knew you," he answered.
"Then I have done you good--not ill?" she asked, with painful breathlessness.
"The only good there may be in me is you, and you only," he said, and he choked something rising in his throat, seeing the greatness of her heart, her dear desire to have entered into his life to his own good. He would have said that there was no good in him at all, but that he wished to comfort her.
A little cry of joy broke from her lips. "Oh, that--that!" she cried, with happy tears. "Won't you kiss me now?" she added softly.
He clasped her in his arms, and though his eyes were dry, his heart wept tears of blood.