The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter LV. Rosalie Plays a Part
From a tree upon a little hill rang out a bell--a deep-toned bell, bought by the parish years before for the missions held at this very spot. Every day it rang for an instant at the beginning of each of the five acts. It also tolled slowly when the curtain rose upon the scene of the Crucifixion. In this act no one spoke save the abased Magdalene, who knelt at the foot of the cross, and on whose hair red drops fell when the Roman soldier pierced the side of the figure on the cross. This had been the Cure's idea. The Magdalene should speak for mankind, for the continuing world. She should speak for the broken and contrite heart in all ages, should be the first-fruits of the sacrifice, a flower of the desert earth, bedewed by the blood of the Prince of Peace.
So, in the long nights of the late winter and early spring, the Cure had thought and thought upon what the woman should say from the foot of the cross. At last he put into her mouth that which told the whole story of redemption and deliverance, so far as his heart could conceive it--the prayer for all sorts and conditions of men and the general thanksgiving of humanity.
During the last three days Paulette Dubois had taken the part of Mary Magdalene. As Jo Portugais had confessed to the Abbe that notable day in the woods at Vadrome Mountain, so she had confessed to the Cure after so many years of agony--and the one confession fitted into the other: Jo had once loved her, she had treated him vilely, then a man had wronged her, and Jo had avenged her--this was the tale in brief. She it was who laughed in the gallery of the court-room the day that Joseph Nadeau was acquitted.
It had pained and shocked the Cure more than any he had ever heard, but he urged for her no penalty as Portugais had set for himself with the austere approval of the Abbe. Paulette's presence as the Magdalene had had a deep effect upon the people, so that she shared with Mary the Mother the painfully real interest of the vast audience.
Five times had the bell rung out in the perfect spring air, upon which the balm of the forest and the refreshment of the ardent sun were poured. The quick anger of M. Rossignol had passed away long before the Cure, the Abbe, and himself had reached the lake and the great plateau. Between the acts the two brothers walked up and down together, at peace once more, and there was a suspicious moisture in the Seigneur's eyes. The demeanour of the people had been so humble and rapt that the place and the plateau and the valley seemed alone in creation with the lofty drama of the ages.
The Cure's eyes shone when he saw on a little knoll in the trees, apart from the worshippers and spectators, Charley and Jo Portugais. His cup of content was now full. He had felt convinced that if the tailor had but been within these bounds during the past three days, a work were begun which should end only at the altar of their parish church. To-day the play became to him the engine of God for the saving of a man's soul. Not long before the last great tableau was to appear he went to his own little tent near the hut where the actors prepared to go upon the stage. As he entered, some one came quickly forward from the shadow of the trees and touched him on the arm.
"Rosalie!" he cried in amazement, for she wore the costume of Mary Magdalene.
"It is I, not Paulette, who will appear," she said, a deep light in her eyes.
"You, Rosalie?" he asked dumfounded. "You are distrait. Trouble and sorrow have put this in your mind. You must not do it."
"Yes, I am going there," she said, pointing towards the great stage. "Paulette has given me these to wear"--she touched the robe--"and I only ask your blessing now. Oh, believe, believe me, I can speak for those who are innocent and those who are guilty; for those who pray and those who cannot pray; for those who confess and those who dare not! I can speak the words out of my heart with gladness and agony, Monsieur," she urged, in a voice vibrating with feeling.
A luminous look came into the Cure's face. A thought leapt up in his heart. Who could tell!--this pure girl, speaking for the whole sinful, unbelieving, and believing world, might be the one last conquering argument to the man.
He could not read the agony of spirit which had driven Rosalie to this --to confess through the words of Mary Magdalene her own woe, to say it out to all the world, and to receive, as did Paulette Dubois, every day after the curtain came down, absolution and blessing. She longed for the old remembered peace.
The Cure could not read the struggle between her love for a man and the ineradicable habit of her soul; but he raised his hand, made the sacred gesture over leer, and said: "Go, my child, and God be with you."
He could not see her for tears as she hurried away to where Paulette Dubois awaited her--the two at peace now. At the hands of the lately despised and injurious woman Rosalie was made ready to play the part in the last act, none knowing save the few who appeared in the final tableau, and they at the last moment only.
The bell began to toll.
A thousand people fell upon their knees, and with fascinated yet abashed and awe-struck eyes saw the great tableau of Christendom: the three crosses against the evening sky, the Figure in the centre, the Roman populace, the trembling Jews, the pathetic groups of disciples. A cloud passed across the sky, the illusion grew, and hearts quivered in piteous sympathy. There was no music now--not a sound save the sob of some overwrought woman. The woe of an oppressed world absorbed them. Even the stolid Indians, as Roman soldiers, shrank awe-stricken from the sacred tragedy. Now the eyes of all were upon the central Figure, then they shifted for a moment to John the Beloved, standing with the Mother.
"Pauvre Mere! Pauvre Christ!" said a weeping woman aloud.
A Roman soldier raised a spear and pierced the side of the Hero of the World. Blood flowed, and hundreds gasped. Then there was silence--a strange hush as of a prelude to some great event.
"It is finished. Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit," said the Figure.
The hush was broken by such a sound as one hears in a forest when a wind quivers over the earth, flutters the leaves, and then sinks away--neither having come nor gone, but only lived and died.
Again there was silence, and then all eyes were fixed upon the figure at the foot of the cross-Mary the Magdalene.
Day after day they had seen this figure rise, come forward a step, and speak the epilogue to this moving miracle-drama. For the last three days Paulette Dubois had turned a sorrowful face upon them, and with one hand upraised had spoken the prayer, the prophecy, the thanksgiving, the appeal of humanity and the ages. They looked to see the same figure now, and waited. But as the Magdalene turned, there was a great stir in the multitude, for the face bent upon them was that of Rosalie Evanturel. Awe and wonder moved the people.
Apart from the crowd, under a clump of trees, knelt a woodsman from Vadrome Mountain, and the tailor of Chaudiere stood beside him.
When Charley, touched by the heavy scene, saw the figure of the Magdalene rise, he felt a curious thrill of fascination. When she turned, and he saw the face of Rosalie, the blood rushed to his face; then his heart seemed to stand still. Pain and shame travelled to the farthest recesses of his nature. Jo Portugais rose to his feet with a startled exclamation.
Rosalie began to speak. "This is the day of which the hours shall never cease--in it there shall be no night. He whom ye have crucified hath saved you from the wrath to come. He hath saved others, Himself He would not save. Even for such as I, who have secretly opened, who have secretly entered, the doors of sin--"
With a gasp of horror and a mad desire to take her away from the sight of this gaping, fascinated crowd, Charley made to rush forward, but Jo Portugais held him back.
"Be still. You will ruin her, M'sieu'!" said Jo.
"--even for such as I am," the beautiful voice went on, "hath He died. And in the ages to come, women such as I, and all women who sorrow, and all men who err and are deceived, and all the helpless world, will know that this was the Friend of the human soul." Not a gesture, not a movement, only that slight, pathetic figure, with pale, agonised face, and eyes that looked--looked--looked beyond them, over their heads to the darkening east, the clouded light of evening behind her. Her voice rang out now valiant and clear, now searching and piteous, yet reaching to where the farthermost person knelt, and was lost upon the lake and in the spreading trees.
"What ye have done may never be undone; what He hath said shall never be unsaid. His is the Word which shall unite all languages, when ye that are Romans shall be no more Romans, and ye that are Jews shall still be Jews, reproached and alone. No longer shall men faint in the glare--the shadow of the Cross shall screen them. No more shall woman bear her black sorrows, alone; the Light of the World shall cheer her."
As she spoke, the cloud drew back from the sunset, and the saffron glow behind lighted the cross, and shone upon her hair, casting her face in a gracious shadow. Her voice rose higher. "I, the Magdalene, am the first-fruits of this sacrifice: from the foot of the cross I come. I have sinned more than all. I have shamed all women. But I have confessed my sin, and He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Her voice now became lower, but clear and even, pathetically exulting:
"O world, forgive, as He hath forgiven you! Fall, dark curtain, and hide this pain, and rise again upon forgiven sin and a redeemed people!"
She stood still, with her eyes upraised, and the curtain came slowly down.
For a long time no one in all the gathered multitude stirred. Far over under the trees a man sat upon the ground, his head upon his arms, and his arms upon his knees, in a misery unmeasurable. Beside him stood a woodsman, who knew of no word to say that might comfort him.
A girl, in the garb of the Magdalene, entered the tent of the Cure, and, speaking no word, knelt and received absolution of her sins.