The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter LVII. A Burning Fiery Furnace
Every man within the limits of the parish was in his bed, save one. He was a stranger who, once before, had visited Chaudiere for one brief day, when he had been saved from death at the Red Ravine, and had fled the village that night because, as he thought, he had heard the voice of his old friend's ghost in the trees. Since that time he had travelled in many parishes, healing where he could, entertaining where he might, earning money as the charlatan. He was now on his way back through the parishes to Montreal, and his route lay through Chaudiere. He had hoped to reach Chaudiere before nightfall--he remembered with fear the incident from which he had fled many months before; but his horse had broken its leg on a corduroy bridge, a few miles out from the parish in the hills, and darkness came upon him before he could hide his wagon in the woods and proceed afoot to Chaudiere. He had shot his horse, and rolled it into the swift torrent beneath the bridge.
Travelling the lonely road, he drank freely from the whiskey-horn he carried, to keep his spirits up, so that by the time he came to the outskirts of Chaudiere he was in a state of intoxication, and reeled impudently along with the "Dutch courage" the liquor had given him. Arrived at the first cluster of houses in the place, he paused uncertain. Should he knock here or go on to the tavern? He shivered at thought of the tavern, for it was near it he had heard Charley Steele's voice calling to him out of the trees. If he knocked here, would the people admit him in his present state?--he had sense enough to know that he was very drunk. As he shook his head in owlish gravity, he saw the church on the hill not far away. He chuckled to himself. The carpet in the chancel and the hassocks at the altar would make a good bed. No fear of Charley's ghost coming inside the church--it wouldn't be that kind of a ghost. As he travelled the intervening space, shrugging his shoulders, staggering serenely, he told himself in confidence that he would leave the church at dawn, go to the tavern, purchase a horse as soon as might be, and get back to his wagon.
The church door was unlocked, and he entered and made his way to the chancel, found surplices in the vestry and put a hassock inside one for a pillow. Then he sat down and drew the loose rug of the chancel-floor over him, and took another drink from the whiskey horn. Lighting his pipe, he smoked for a while, but grew drowsy, and his pipe fell into his lap. With eyes nearly shut he struck another match, made to light his pipe again, but threw the match away, still burning. As he did so the pipe dropped again from his mouth, and he fell back on the hassock-pillow he had made.
The lighted match fell on a surplice which had dropped from his arms as he came from the vestry, and set it afire. In five minutes the whole chancel was burning, and the sleeping man waked in the midst of smoke and flame. He staggered to his feet with a terror-stricken cry, stumbled down the aisle, through the front door, and out into the night. Reaching the road, he turned his face again to the hill where his wagon lay hid. If he could reach that, he would be safe; nobody would suspect him. He clutched the whiskey-horn tight and broke into a run. As he passed beyond the village his excited imagination heard Charley Steele's ghost calling after him. He ran harder. The voice kept calling from Chaudiere.
Not Charley's voice, but the voices of many people in Chaudiere were calling. Some wakeful person had seen the glare in the church windows and had given the alarm, and now there rang through the streets the call- "Fire! Fire! Fire!"
Charley and Jo were among the last to wake, for both had slept soundly, but Jo was roused by a handful of gravel thrown at his window and a warning cry, and a few moments later he and Charley were in the street with a hurrying crowd. Over all the village was a red glare, lighting up the sky, burnishing the trees. The church was a mass of flames.
Charley was as pale as the rest of the crowd; for he thought of the Cure, he thought of this people to whom their church meant more than home and vastly more than friend and fortune. His heart was with them all: not because it was their church that was burning, but because it was something dear to them.
Reaching the hill, he saw the Cure coming from the vestry of the burning church, bearing some vessels of the altar. Depositing them in the arms of his weeping sister, he turned again towards the door. People clung to him, and would not let him go.
"See, it is all inflames," they cried. "Your cassock is singed. You shall not go."
At that moment Charley and Portugais came up. A hurried question to the Cure from Charley, a key handed over, a nod from Jo, and before the Cure could prevent them the two men had rushed through the smoke and flame into the vestry, Portugais holding Charley's hand.
The crowd outside waited in a terrible anxiety. The timbers of the chancel portion of the building seemed about to fall, and still the two men did not appear. The people called; the Cure clinched his hands at his side--he was too fearful even to pray.
But now the two men appeared, loaded with the few treasures of the church. They were scorched and singed, and the beards of both were burned, but, stumbling and exhausted, they brought their loads to the eager arms of the waiting habitants.
Then from the other end of the church came a cry: "The little cross--the little iron cross!" Then another cry: "Rosalie Evanturel! Rosalie Evanturel!" Some one came running to the Cure.
"Rosalie Evanturel has gone inside for the little cross on the pillar. She is in the flames; the door has fallen in. She can't get out again."
With a hoarse cry, Charley darted back inside the vestry door. A cry of horror went up.
It was only a minute and a half, but it seemed like years, and then a man in flames appeared in the fiery porch--and not alone. He carried a girl in his arms. He wavered even at the threshold with the timbers swaying overhead, but, with a last effort, he plunged forward through the furnace, and was caught by eager hands on the margin of endurable heat. The two were smothered in quilts brought from the Cure's house, and carried swiftly to the cool safety of the grass and trees beyond. The woman had fainted in the flame of the church; the man dropped insensible as they caught her from his arms.
As they tore away Charley's coat muffling his face, and opened his shirt, they stared in awe. The cross which Rosalie had torn from the pillar, Charley had thrust into his bosom, and there it now lay on the red scar made by itself in the hands of Louis Trudel.
M. Loisel waved the people back. He raised Charley's head. The Abbe Rossignol, who had just arrived with the Seigneur, lifted the cross from the insensible man's breast.
He started when he saw the scar. Then he remembered the tale he had heard. He turned away gravely to his brother. "Was it the cross or the woman he went for?" he asked.
"Great God--do you ask!" the Seigneur said indignantly. "And he deserves her," he muttered under his breath.
Charley opened his eyes. "Is she safe?" he asked, starting up.
"Unscathed, my son," the Cure said.
Was this tailor-man not his son? Had he not thirsted for his soul as a hart for the water-brooks?
"I am very sorry for you, Monsieur," said Charley.
"It is God's will," was the reply, in a choking voice. "It will be years before we have another church--many, many years."
The roof gave way with a crash, and the spire shot down into the flaming debris.
The people groaned.
"It will cost sixty thousand dollars to build it up again," said Filion Lacasse.
"We have three thousand dollars from the Passion Play," said the Notary. "That could go towards it."
"We have another two thousand in the bank," said Maximilian Cour.
"But it will take years," said the saddler disconsolately.
Charley looked at the Cure, mournful and broken but calm. He saw the Seigneur, gloomy and silent, standing apart. He saw the people in scattered groups, looking more homeless than if they had no homes. Some groups were silent; others discussed angrily the question, who was the incendiary--that it had been set on fire seemed certain.
"I said no good would come of the play-acting," said the Seigneur's groom, and was flung into the ditch by Filion Lacasse.
Presently Charley staggered to his feet, purpose in his face. These people, from the Cure and Seigneur to the most ignorant habitant, were hopeless and inert. The pride of their lives was gone.
"Gather the people together," he said to the Notary and Filion Lacasse. Then he turned to the Cure and the Seigneur.
"With your permission, messieurs," he said, "I will do a harder thing than I have ever done. I will speak to them all."
Wondering, M. Loisel added his voice to the Notary's, and the word went round. Slowly they all made their way to a spot the Cure indicated.
Charley stood on the embankment above the road, the notables of the parish round him.
Rosalie had been taken to the Cure's house. In that wild moment in the church when she had fallen insensible in Charley's arms, a new feeling had sprung up in her. She loved him in every fibre, but she had a strange instinct, a prescience, that she was lying on his breast for the last time. She had wound her arms round his neck, and, as his lips closed on hers, she had cried: "We shall die together--together."
As she lay in the Cure's house, she thought only of that moment.
"What are they cheering for?" she asked, as a great noise came to her through the window.
"Run and see," said the Cure's sister to Mrs. Flynn, and the fat woman hurried away.
Rosalie raised herself so that she could look out of the window. "I can see him," she cried.
"See whom?" asked the Cure's sister.
"Monsieur," she answered, with a changed voice. "He is speaking. They are cheering him."
Ten minutes later, the Cure and the Notary entered the room. M. Loisel came forward to Rosalie, and took her hands in his.
"You should not have done it," he said.
"I wanted to do something," she replied. "To get the cross for you seemed the only payment I could make for all your goodness to me."
"It nearly cost you your life--and the life of another," he said, shaking his head reproachfully.
Cheering came again from the burning church. "Why do they cheer?" she asked.
"Why do they cheer? Because the man we have feared, Monsieur Mallard--"
"I never feared him," said Rosalie, scarcely above her breath.
"Because he has taught them the way to a new church again--and at once, at once, my child."
"A remarkable man!" said Narcisse Dauphin. "There never was such a speech. Never in any courtroom was there such an appeal."
"What did he do?" asked Mademoiselle Loisel, her hand in Rosalie's.
"Everything," answered the Cure. "There he stood in his tattered clothes, the beard burnt to his chin, his hands scorched, his eyes bloodshot, and he spoke--"
"'With the tongues of men and of angels,'" said M. Dauphin enthusiastically.
The Cure frowned and continued: "'You look on yonder burning walls,' he said, 'and wonder when they will rise again on this hill made sacred by the burial of your beloved, by the christening of your children, the marriages which have given you happy homes, and the sacraments which are to you the laws of your lives. You give one-twentieth of your income yearly towards your church--then give one-fortieth of all you possess today, and your church will be begun in a month. Before a year goes round you will come again to this venerable spot and enter another church here. Your vows, your memories, and your hopes will be purged by fire. All that you possess will be consecrated by your free-will offerings.' --Ah, if I could but remember what came afterwards! It was all eloquence, and generous and noble thought."
"He spoke of you," said the Notary--"he spoke the truth; and the people cheered. He said that the man outside the walls could sometimes tell the besieged the way relief would come. Never again shall I hear such a speech."
"What are they going to do?" asked Rosalie, and withdrew her trembling hand from that of Madame Dugal.
"This very day, at my office, they will bring their offerings, and we will begin at once," answered M. Dauphin. "There is no man in Chaudiere but will take the stocking from the hole, the bag from the chest, the credit from the bank, the grain from the barn for the market, or make the note of hand to contribute one-fortieth of all he is worth for the rebuilding of the church."
"Notes of hand are not money," said the Cure's sister, the practical sense ever uppermost.
"They shall all be money--hard cash," said the Notary. "The Seigneur is going to open a sort of bank, and take up the notes of hand, and give bank-bills in return. To-day I go with his steward to Quebec to get the money."
"What does the Abbe Rossignol say?" said the Cure's sister.
"Our church and parish are our own," interposed the Cure proudly. "We do our duty and fear no abbe."
"Voila!" said M. Dauphin, "he never can keep hands off. I saw him go to Jo Portugais a little while ago. 'Remember!' he said--I can't make out what he was after. We have enough to remember to-day, for sure."
"Good may come of it, perhaps," said M. Loisel, looking sadly out upon the ruins of his church.
"See, 'tis the sunrise!" said Mrs. Flynn's voice from the corner, her face towards the eastern window.