The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter LVIII. With His Back to the Wall
In four days ten thousand dollars in notes and gold had been brought to the office of the Notary by the faithful people of Chaudiere. All day in turn M. Loisel and M. Rossignol sat in the office and received that which represented one-fortieth of the value of each man's goods, estate, and wealth--the fortieth value of a woodsawyer's cottage, or a widow's garden. They did it impartially for all, as the Cure and three of the best-to-do habitants had done for the Seigneur, whose four thousand dollars had been paid in first of all.
Charley had been confined to his room for three days, because of his injuries and a feverish cold he had caught, and the habitants did not disturb his quiet. But Mrs. Flynn took him broth made by Rosalie's hands, and Rosalie fought with her desire to go to him and nurse him. She was not, however, the Rosalie of the old impulse and impetuous resolve--the arrow had gone too deep; she waited till she could see his face again and look into his eyes. Not apathy, but a sense of the inevitable was upon her, and pale and fragile, but with a calm spirit, she waited for she knew not what.
She felt that the day of fate was closing down. She must hold herself ready for the hour when he would need her most. At first, when the conviction had come to her that the end of all was near, she had revolted. She had had impulse to go to him at all hazards, to say to him: "Come away--anywhere, anywhere!" But that had given place to the deeper thing in her, and something of Charley's spirit of stoic waiting had come upon her.
She watched the people going to the Notary's office with their tributes and free-will offerings, and they seemed like people in a play--these days she lived no life which was theirs. It was a dream, unimportant and temporary. She was feeling what was behind all life, and permanent. It could not last, but there it was; and she could not return to the transitory till this cloud of fate was lifted. She was much too young to suffer so, but the young ever suffer most.
On the fourth day she saw Charley. He came from his shop and went to the Notary's office. At first she was startled, for he was clean-shaven--the fire had burned his beard to the skin. She saw a different man, far removed from this life about them both--individual, singular. He was pale, and his eye-glass, with the cleanshaven face, gave an impression of refined separateness. She did not know that the same look was in both their faces. She watched him till he entered the Notary's shop, then she was called away to her duties.
Charley had come to give his one-fortieth with the rest. When he entered the Notary's office, the Seigneur and M. Dauphin stood up to greet him. They congratulated him on his recovery, while feeling also that the change in his personal appearance somehow affected their relations. A crowd gathered round the door of the shop. When Charley made his offering, with a statement of his goods and income, the Seigneur and Notary did not know what to do. They were disposed to decline it, for since Monsieur was no Catholic, it was not his duty to help. At this moment of delicate anxiety M. Loisel entered. With a swift bright flush to his cheek he saw the difficulty, and at once accepted freely.
"God bless you," he said, as he took the money, and Charley left. "It shall build the doorway of my church."
Later in the day the Cure sent for Charley. There were grave matters to consider, and his counsel was greatly needed. They had all come to depend on the soundness of his judgment. It had never gone astray in Chaudiere, they said. They owed to him this extraordinary scheme, which would be an example to all modern Christianity. They told him so. He said nothing in reply.
In an hour he had planned for them a scheme for the consideration of contractors; had drawn, with the help of M. Loisel, an architect's rough plan of the new church, and, his old professional instincts keenly alive, had lucidly suggested the terms and safeguards of the contracts.
Then came the question of the money contributed. The day before, M. Dauphin and the Seigneur's steward had arrived in safety from Quebec with twenty thousand dollars in bank-bills. These M. Rossignol had exchanged for the notes of hand of such of the habitants as had not ready cash to give. All of this twenty thousand dollars had been paid over. They had now thirty thousand dollars in cash, besides three thousand which the Cure had at his house, the proceeds of the Passion Play. It was proposed to send this large sum to the bank in Quebec in another two days, when the whole contributions should be complete.
As to the safety of the money, the timid M. Dauphin did not care to take responsibility. Strangers were still arriving, ignorant of the fact that the Passion Play had ceased, and some of them must be aware that this large sum of money was in the parish--no doubt also knew that it was in his house. It was therefore better, he urged, that M. Rossignol or the Cure should take charge of it. M. Loisel urged that secrecy as to the resting-place of the money was important. It was better that it should be deposited in the most unlikely place, and with some unofficial person who might not be supposed to have it in charge.
"I have it!" said the Seigneur. "The money shall be placed in old Louis Trudel's safe in the wall of the tailor-shop."
It was so arranged, after Charley's protests of unwillingness, and counter-appeals from the others. That evening at sundown thirty-three thousand dollars was deposited in the safe in the old stone wall of the tailorshop, and the lock was sealed with the parish seal.
But the Notary's wife had wormed the secret from her husband, and she found it hard to keep. She told it to Maximilian Cour, and he kept it. She told it to her cousin, the wife of Filion Lacasse, and she did not keep it. Before twenty-four hours went round, a dozen people knew it.
The evening of the second day, another two thousand dollars was added to the treasure, and the lock was again sealed--with the utmost secrecy. Charley and Jo Portugais, the infidel and the murderer, were thus the sentries to the peace of a parish, the bankers of its gifts, the security for the future of the church of Chaudiere. Their weapons of defence were two old pistols belonging to the Seigneur.
"Money is the master of the unexpected," the Seigneur had said as he handed them over. He chuckled for hours afterwards as he thought of his epigram. That night, as he turned over in bed for the third time, as was his custom before going to sleep, another epigram came to him--"Money is the only fox hunted night and day." He kept repeating it over and over again with vain pride.
The truth of M. Rossignol's aphorisms had been demonstrated several days before. On his return from Quebec with the twenty thousand dollars of the Seigneur's money, M. Dauphin had dwelt with great pride on the discretion and energy he and the steward had shown; had told dramatically of the skill which had enabled them to make a journey of such importance so secretly and safely; had covered himself with blushes for his own coolness and intrepidity. Fortune had, however, favoured his reputation and his intrepidity, for he had been pursued from the hour he and his companion left Quebec. A taste for the picturesque had impelled him to arrange for two relays of horses, and this fact saved him and the twenty thousand dollars he carried. Two hours after he had left Quebec, four determined men had got upon his trail, and had only been prevented from overtaking him by the freshness of the horses which his dramatic foresight had provided.
The leader of these four pursuers was Billy Wantage, who had come to know of the curious action of the Seigneur of Chaudiere from an intimate friend, a clerk in the bank. Billy's fortunes were now in a bad way, and, in desperate straits for money, he had planned this bold attempt at the highwayman's art with two gamblers, to whom he owed money, and a certain notorious horse-trader of whom he had made a companion of late. Having escaped punishment for a crime once before, through Charley's supposed death, the immunity nerved him to this later and more dangerous enterprise. The four rode as hard as their horses would permit, but M. Dauphin and his companion kept always an hour or more ahead, and, from the high hills overlooking the village, Billy and his friends saw the two enter it safely in the light of evening.
His three friends urged Billy to turn back, since they were out of provisions and had no shelter. It was unwise to go to a tavern or a farmer's house, where they must certainly be suspected. Billy, however, determined to make an effort to find the banking-place of the money, and refused to turn back without a trial. He therefore proposed that they should separate, going different directions, secure accommodation for the night, rest the following day, and meet the next night at a point indicated. This was agreed upon, and they separated.
When the four met again, Billy had nothing to communicate, as he had been taken ill during the night before, and had been unable to go secretly into Chaudiere village. They separated once more. When they met the next night Billy was accompanied by an old confederate. As he was entering Chaudiere the previous evening, he had met John Brown, with his painted wagon and a new mottled horse. John Brown had news of importance to give; for, in the stable-yard of the village tavern, he had heard one habitant confide to another that the money for the new church was kept in the safe of the tailor-shop. John Brown was as ready to share in Billy's second enterprise as he had been to incite him to his first crime.
So it was that as the Seigneur made his epigram and gloated over it, the five men, with horses at a convenient distance, armed to the teeth, broke stealthily into Charley's house.
They entered silently through the kitchen window, and made their way into the little hall. Two stood guard at the foot of the stairs, and three crept into the shop.
This night Jo Portugais was sleeping up-stairs, while Charley lay upon the bench in the tailor-shop. Charley heard the door open, heard unfamiliar steps, seized his pistol, and, springing up, with his back to the safe, called out loudly to Jo. As he dimly saw men rush at him, he fired. The bullet reached its mark, and one man fell dead. At that moment a dark-lantern was turned full on Charley, and a pistol was fired pointblank at him.
As he fell, shot through the breast, the man who had fired dropped the lantern with a shriek of terror. He had seen the ghost of his brother- in-law-Charley Steele.
With a quaking cry of warning to the others, Billy bolted from the house, followed by his companions, two of whom were struggling with Jo Portugais on the stairway. These now also broke and ran.
Jo rushed into the shop, and saw, as he thought, Charley lying dead-- saw the robber dead upon the floor. His master and friend gone, the conviction seized him that his own time had come. He would give himself to justice now--but to God's justice, not to man's. The robbers were four to one, and he would avenge his master's death and give his own life to do it! It was all the thought of a second. He rushed out after the robbers, shouting as he ran, to awake the villagers. He heard the marauders ahead of him, and, fleet of foot, rushed on. Reaching them as they mounted, he fired, and brought down his man--a shivering quack- doctor, who, like his leader, had seen a sight in the tailor-shop that struck terror to his soul. Two of the others then fired at Jo, who had caught a horse by the head. He fell without a sound, and lay upon his face--he did not hear the hoofs of the escaping horses nor any other sound. He had fallen without a pang beside the quackdoctor, whose medicines would never again quicken a pulse in his own body or any other.
Behind, in the village, frightened people flocked about the tailor-shop. Within, Mrs. Flynn and the Notary crudely but tenderly bound up the dreadful wound in Charley's side, while Rosalie pillowed his head on her bosom.
With a strange quietness Rosalie gave orders to the Notary and Mrs. Flynn. There was a light in her eyes--an unnatural light--of strength and presence of mind. Her hand was steady, and as gently as a mother with a child she wiped the moist forehead, and poured a little brandy between the set teeth.
"Stand back--give him air," she said, in a voice of authority to those who crowded round.
People fell back in awe, for, amid tears and excitement and fear, this girl had a strange convincing calm. By the time Charley's wound was stopped, messengers were on the way to the Cure and the Seigneur. By Rosalie's instructions the dead body of the robber was removed, Charley's bed up-stairs was prepared for him, a fire was lighted, and twenty hands were ready to do accurately her will. Now and again she felt his pulse, and she watched his face intently. In her bitter sorrow her heart had a sort of thankfulness, for his head was on her breast, he was in her arms. It had been given her once more to come first to his rescue, and with one wild cry, unheard by any one, to call out his beloved name.
The world of Chaudiere, roused by the shooting, had then burst in upon them; but that one moment had been hers, no matter what came after. She had no illusions--she knew that the end was near: the end of all for him and for them both.
The Cure entered and hurried forward. There was the seal of the parish intact on the door of the safe, but at what cost!
"He has given his life for the church," he said, then commanded all to leave, save those needed to carry the wounded man up-stairs.
Still it was Rosalie that directed the removal. She held his hand; she saw that he was carefully laid down; she raised his head to a proper height; she moistened his lips and fanned him. Meanwhile the Cure fell upon his knees, and the noise of talk and whispering ceased in the house.
But presently there was loud murmuring and shuffling of feet outside again, and Rosalie left the room hurriedly and went below to stop it. She met the men who were bringing the body of Jo Portugais into the shop.
Up-stairs the Cure's voice prayed: "Of Thy mercy, O Lord, hear our prayer. Grant that he be brought into Thy Church ere his last hour come. Forgive, O Lord--"
Charley stirred and opened his eyes. He saw the Cure bowed in prayer; he heard the trembling voice. He touched the white head with his hand.