The Right of Way by Gilbert Parker
Chapter VIII. The Cost of the Ornament
One, two, three, four, five, six miles. The sharp click of the iron hoofs on the road; the strong rush of the river; the sweet smell of the maple and the pungent balsam; the dank rich odour of the cedar swamp; the cry of the loon from the water; the flaming crane in the fishing-boat; the fisherman, spear in hand, staring into the dark waters tinged with sombre red; the voice of a lonely settler keeping time to the ping of the axe as, lengthening out his day to nightly weariness, he felled a tree; river-drivers' camps spotted along the shore; huge cribs or rafts which had swung down the great stream for scores of miles, the immense oars motionless, the little houses on the timbers blinking with light; and from cheerful raftsmen coming the old familiar song of the rivers:
"En roulant, ma boule roulant, En roulant ma boule!"
Not once had Charley Steele turned his head as the horse sped on. His face was kept straight along the line of the road; he seemed not to see or to hear, to be unresponsive to sound or scene. The monocle at his eye was like a veil to hide the soul, a defence against inquiry, itself the unceasing question, a sort of battery thrown forward, a kind of field- casemate for a lonely besieged spirit.
It was full of suggestion. It might have been the glass behind which showed some mediaeval relic, the body of some ancient Egyptian king whose life had been spent in doing wonders and making signs--the primitive, anthropomorphic being. He might have been a stone man, for any motion that he made. Yet looking at him closely you would have seen discontent in the eye, a kind of glaze of the sardonic over the whole face.
What is the good! the face asked. What is there worth doing? it said. What a limitless futility! it urged, fain to be contradicted too, as the grim melancholy of the figure suggested.
"To be an animal and soak in the world," he thought to himself--" that is natural; and the unnatural is civilisation, and the cheap adventure of the mind into fields of baffling speculation, lighted by the flickering intelligences of dead speculators, whose seats we have bought in the stock-exchange of mortality, and exhaust our lives in paying for. To eat, to drink, to lie fallow, indifferent to what comes after, to roam like the deer, and to fight like the tiger--"
He came to a dead stop in his thinking. "To fight like the tiger!" He turned his head quickly now to where upon a raft some river-drivers were singing:
"And when a man in the fight goes down, Why, we will carry him home!"
"To fight like the tiger!" Ravage--the struggle to possess from all the world what one wished for one's self, and to do it without mercy and without fear-that was the clear plan in the primitive world, where action was more than speech and dominance than knowledge. Was not civilisation a mistake, and religion the insinuating delusion designed to cover it up; or, if not designed, accepted by the original few who saw that humanity could not turn back, and must even go forward with illusions, lest in mere despair all men died and the world died with them?
His eyes wandered to the raft where the men were singing, and he remembered the threat made: that if he came again to the Cote Dorion he "would get what for!" He remembered the warning of Rouge Gosselin conveyed by Jolicoeur, and a sinister smile crossed over his face. The contradictions of his own thoughts came home to him suddenly, for was it not the case that his physical strength alone, no matter what his skill, would be of small service to him in a dark corner of contest? Primitive ideas could only hold in a primitive world. His real weapon was his brain, that which civilisation had given him in lieu of primitive prowess and the giant's strength.
They had come to a long piece of corduroy-road, and the horse's hoofs struck rumbling hollow sounds from the floor of cedar logs. There was a swamp on one side where fire-flies were flickering, and there flashed into Charley Steele's mind some verses he had once learned at school:
"They made her a grave too cold and damp For a soul so warm and true--"
It kept repeating itself in his brain in a strange dreary monotone.
"Stop the horse. I'll walk the rest of the way," he said presently to the groom. "You needn't come for me, Finn; I'll walk back as far as the Marochal Tavern. At twelve sharp I'll be there. Give yourself a drink and some supper"--he put a dollar into the man's hand--"and no white whiskey, mind: a bottle of beer and a leg of mutton, that's the thing." He nodded his head, and by the light of the moon walked away smartly down the corduroy-road through the shadows of the swamp. Finn the groom looked after him.
"Well, if he ain't a queer dick! A reg'lar 'centric--but a reg'lar brick, cutting a wide swathe as he goes. He's a tip-topper; and he's a sort of tough too--a sort of a kind of a tough. Well, it's none of my business. Get up!" he added to the horse, and turning round in the road with difficulty, he drove back a mile to the Tavern Marochal for his beer and mutton--and white whiskey.
Charley stepped on briskly, his shining leather shoes, straw hat, and light cane in no good keeping with his surroundings. He was thinking that he had never been in such a mood for talk with Suzon Charlemagne. Charlemagne's tavern of the Cote Dorion was known over half a province, and its patrons carried news of it half across a continent. Suzon Charlemagne--a girl of the people, a tavern-girl, a friend of sulking, coarse river-drivers! But she had an alert precision of brain, an instinct that clove through wastes of mental underbrush to the tree of knowledge. Her mental sight was as keen and accurate as that which runs along the rifle-barrel of the great hunter with the red deer in view. Suzon Charlemagne no company for Charley Steele? What did it matter! He had entered into other people's lives to-day, had played their games with them and for them, and now he would play his own game, live his own life in his own way through the rest of this day. He thirsted for some sort of combat, for the sharp contrasts of life, for the common and the base; he thirsted even for the white whiskey against which he had warned his groom. He was reckless--not blindly, but wilfully, wildly reckless, caring not at all what fate or penalty might come his way.
"What do I care!" he said to himself. "I shall never squeal at any penalty. I shall never say in the great round-up that I was weak and I fell. I'll take my gruel expecting it, not fearing it--if there is to be any gruel anywhere, or any round-up anywhere!"
A figure suddenly appeared coming round the bend of the road before him. It was Rouge Gosselin. Rouge Gosselin was inclined to speak. Some satanic whim or malicious foppery made Charley stare him blankly in the face. The monocle and the stare stopped the bon soir and the friendly warning on Rouge Gosselin's tongue, and the pilot passed on with a muttered oath.
Gosselin had not gone far, however, before he suddenly stopped and laughed outright, for at the bottom he had great good-nature, in keeping with his "six-foot" height, and his temper was friendly if quick. It seemed so absurd, so audacious, that a man could act like Charley Steele, that he at once became interested in the phenomenon, and followed slowly after Charley, saying as he went: "Tiens, there will be things to watch to-night!"
Before Charley was within five hundred yards of the tavern he could hear the laughter and song coming from the old seigneury which Theophile Charlemagne called now the Cote Dorion Hotel, after the name given to the point on which the house stood. Low and wide-roofed, with dormer windows and a wide stoop in front, and walls three feet thick, behind, on the river side, it hung over the water, its narrow veranda supported by piles, with steps down to the water-side. Seldom was there an hour when boats were not tied to these steps. Summer and winter the tavern was a place of resort. Inside, the low ceiling, the broad rafters, the great fireplace, the well-worn floor, the deep windows, the wooden cross let into the wall, and the varied and picturesque humanity frequenting this great room, gave it an air of romance. Yet there were people who called the tavern a "shebang"--slander as it was against Suzon Charlemagne, which every river-driver and woodsman and habitant who frequented the place would have resented with violence. It was because they thought Charley Steele slandered the girl and the place in his mind, that the river-drivers had sworn they would make it hot for him if he came again. Charley was the last man in the world to undeceive them by words.
When he coolly walked into the great room, where a half-dozen of them were already assembled, drinking white "whiskey-wine," he had no intention of setting himself right. He raised his hat cavalierly to Suzon and shook hands with her.
He took no notice of the men around him. "Brandy, please!" he said. "Why do I drink, do you say?" he added, as Suzon placed the bottle and glass before him.
She was silent for an instant, then she said gravely: "Perhaps because you like it; perhaps because something was left out of you when you were made, and--"
She paused and went no further, for a red-shirted river-driver with brass rings in his ears came close to them, and called gruffly for whiskey. He glowered at Charley, who looked at him indolently, then raised his glass towards Suzon and drank the brandy.
"Pish!" said Red Shirt, and, turning round, joined his comrades. It was clear he wanted a pretext to quarrel.
"Perhaps because you like it; perhaps because something was left out of you when you were made--" Charley smiled pleasantly as Suzon came over to him again. "You've answered the question," he said, "and struck the thing at the centre. Which is it? The difficulty to decide which has divided the world. If it's only a physical craving, it means that we are materialists naturally, and that the soil from which the grape came is the soil that's in us; that it is the body feeding on itself all the time; that like returns to like, and we live a little together, and then mould together for ever and ever, amen. If it isn't a natural craving-- like to like--it's a proof of immortality, for it represents the wild wish to forget the world, to be in another medium.
"I am only myself when I am drunk. Liquor makes me human. At other times I'm merely Charley Steele! Now isn't it funny, this sort of talk here?"
"I don't know about that," she answered, "if, as you say, it's natural. This tavern's the only place I have to think in, and what seems to you funny is a sort of ordinary fact to me."
"Right again, ma belle Suzon. Nothing's incongruous. I've never felt so much like singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs as when I've been drinking. I remember the last time I was squiffy I sang all the way home that old nursery hymn:
"'On the other side of Jordan, In the sweet fields of Eden, Where the tree of life is blooming, There is rest for you. There is rest for the weary, There is rest for the weary, There is rest for the weary, There is rest for you!'"
"I should have liked to hear you sing it--sure!" said Suzon, laughing.
Charley tossed off a quarter-tumbler of brandy, which, instead of flushing the face, seemed only to deepen the whiteness of the skin, showing up more brightly the spots of colour in the cheeks, that white and red which had made him known as Beauty Steele. With a whimsical humour, behind which was the natural disposition of the man to do what he listed without thinking of the consequences, he suddenly began singing, in a voice shaken a little now by drink, but full of a curious magnetism:
"On the other side of Jordan--"
"Oh, don't; please don't!" said the girl, in fear, for she saw two river-drivers entering the door, one of whom had sworn he would do for Charley Steele if ever he crossed his path.
"Oh, don't--M'sieu' Charley!" she again urged. The "Charley" caught his ear, and the daring in his eye brightened still more. He was ready for any change or chance to-night, was standing on the verge of any adventure, the most reckless soul in Christendom.
"On the other side of Jordan, In the sweet fields of Eden, Where the tree of life is blooming, There is rest for you!"
What more incongruous thing than this flaneur in patent leathers and red tie, this "hell-of-a-fellow with a pane of glass in his eye," as Jake Hough, the horse-doctor, afterwards said, surrounded by red and blue- shirted river-men, woodsmen, loafers, and toughs, singing a sacred song with all the unction of a choir-boy; with a magnetism, too, that did its work in spite of all prejudice? It was as if he were counsel in one of those cases when, the minds and sympathies of judge and jury at first arrayed against him, he had irresistibly cloven his way to their judgment--not stealing away their hearts, but governing, dominating their intelligences. Whenever he had done this he had been drinking hard, was in a mental world created by drink, serene, clear-eyed, in which his brain worked like an invincible machine, perfect and powerful. Was it the case that, as he himself suggested, he was never so natural as when under this influence? That then and only then the real man spoke, that then and only then the primitive soul awakened, that it supplied the thing left out of him at birth?
"There is rest for the weary, There is rest for the weary, There is rest for the weary, There is rest for you!"
One, two verses he sang as the men, at first snorting and scornful, shuffled angrily; then Jake Hough, the English horse-doctor, roared in the refrain:
"There is rest for the weary, There is rest for you!"
Upon which, carried away, every one of them roared, gurgled, or shouted
"There is rest for the weary, There is rest for you!"
Rouge Gosselin, who had entered during the singing, now spoke up quickly in French:
"A sermon now, M'sieu'!"
Charley took his monocle out of his eye and put it back again. Now each man present seemed singled out for an attack by this little battery of glass. He did not reply directly to Rouge Gosselin, but standing perfectly still, with one hand resting on the counter at which Suzon stood, he prepared to speak.
Suzon did not attempt to stop him now, but gazed at him in a sort of awe. These men present were Catholics, and held religion in superstitious respect, however far from practising its precepts. Many of them had been profane and blasphemous in their time; may have sworn "sacre bapteme!" one of the worst oaths of their race; but it had been done in the wildness of anger, and they were little likely to endure from Charley Steele any word that sounded like blasphemy. Besides, the world said that he was an infidel, and that was enough for bitter prejudice.
In the pause--very short--before Charley began speaking, Suzon's fingers stole to his on the counter and pressed them quickly. He made no response; he was scarcely aware of it. He was in a kind of dream. In an even, conversational tone, in French at once idiomatic and very simple, he began:
"My dear friends, this is a world where men get tired. If they work they get tired, and if they play they get tired. If they look straight ahead of them they walk straight, but then they get blind by-and-by; if they look round them and get open-eyed, their feet stumble and they fall. It is a world of contradictions. If a man drinks much he loses his head, and if he doesn't drink at all he loses heart. If he asks questions he gets into trouble, and if he doesn't ask them he gets old before his time. Take the hymn we have just sung:
"'On the other side of Jordan, In the sweet fields of Eden, Where the tree of life is blooming, There is rest for you!'
"We all like that, because we get tired, and it isn't always summer, and nothing blooms all the year round. We get up early and we work late, and we sleep hard, and when the weather is good and wages good, and there's plenty in the house, we stay sober and we sadly sing, 'On the other side of Jordan'; but when the weather's heavy and funds scarce, and the pork and molasses and bread come hard, we get drunk, and we sing the comic chanson 'Brigadier, vows avez raison!' We've been singing a sad song to-night when we're feeling happy. We didn't think whether it was sad or not, we only knew it pleased our ears, and we wanted those sweet fields of Eden, and the blooming tree of life, and the rest under the tree. But ask a question or two. Where is the other side of Jordan? Do you go up to it, or down to it? And how do you go? And those sweet fields of Eden, what do they look like, and how many will they hold? Isn't it clear that the things that make us happiest in this world are the things we go for blind?"
He paused. Now a dozen men came a step or two nearer, and crowded close together, looking over each others' shoulders at him with sharp, wondering eyes.
"Isn't that so?" he continued. "Do you realise that no man knows where that Jordan and those fields are, and what the flower of the tree of life looks like? Let us ask a question again. Why is it that the one being in all the world who could tell us anything about it, the one being who had ever seen Jordan or Eden or that tree of life-in fact, the one of all creation who could describe heaven, never told? Isn't it queer? Here he was--that one man-standing just as I am among you, and round him were the men who followed him, all ordinary men, with ordinary curiosity. And he said he had come down from heaven, and for years they were with him, and yet they never asked him what that heaven was like: what it looked like, what it felt like, what sort of life they lived there, what manner of folk were the angels, what was the appearance of God. Why didn't they ask, and why didn't he answer? People must have kept asking that question afterwards, for a man called John answered it. He described, as only an oriental Jew would or could, a place all precious stones and gold and jewels and candles, in oriental language very splendid and auriferous. But why didn't those twelve men ask the One Man who knew, and why didn't the One answer? And why didn't the One tell without being asked?"
He paused again, and now there came a shuffling and a murmuring, a curious rumble, a hard breathing, for Charley had touched with steely finger the tender places in the natures of these Catholics, who, whatever their lives, held fast to the immemorial form, the sacredness of Mother Church. They were ever ready to step into the galley which should bear them all home, with the invisible rowers of God at the oars, down the wild rapids, to the haven of St. Peter. There was savagery in their faces now.
He saw, and he could not refrain from smiling as he stretched out his hand to them again with a little quieting gesture, and continued soothingly:
"But why should we ask? There's a thing called electricity. Well, you know that if you take a slice out of anything, less remains behind. We can take the air out of this room, and scarcely leave any in it.
"We take a drink out of a bottle, and certainly there isn't as much left in it! But the queer thing is that with this electricity you take it away and just as much remains. It goes out from your toe, rushes away to Timbuctoo, and is back in your toe before you can wink. Why? No one knows. What's the good of asking? You can't see it: you can only see what it does. What good would it do us if we knew all about it? There it is, and it's going to revolutionise the world. It's no good asking-- no one knows what it is and where it comes from, or what it looks like. It's better to go it blind, because you feel the power, though you can't see where it comes from. You can't tell where the fields of Eden are, but you believe they're somewhere, and that you'll get to them some day. So say your prayers, believe all you can, don't ask questions, and don't try to answer 'em; and remember that Charley Steele preached to you the fear of the Lord at the Cote Dorion, and wound up the service with the fine old hymn:
"'I'll away, I'll away, to the promised land--'"
A whole verse of this camp-meeting hymn he sang in an ominous silence now, for it had crept into their minds that the hymn they had previously sung so loudly was a Protestant hymn, and that this was another Protestant hymn of the rankest sort. When he stopped singing and pushed over his glass for Suzon to fill it, the crowd were noiseless and silent for a moment, for the spell was still on them. They did not recover themselves until they saw him lift his glass to Suzon, his back on them, again insolently oblivious of them all. They could not see his face, but they could see the face of Suzon Charlemagne, and they misunderstood the light in her eye, the flush on her cheek. They set it down to a personal interest in Charley Steele.
Charley had, however, thrown a spell over her in another fashion. In her eye, in her face, was admiration, the sympathy of a strong intelligence, the wonder of a mind in the presence of its master, but they thought they saw passion, love, desire, in her face--in the face of their Suzon, the pride of the river, the flower of the Cote Dorion. Not alone because Charley had blasphemed against religion did they hate him at this moment, but because every heart was scorched with envy and jealousy--the black unreasoning jealousy which the unlettered, the dull, the crude, feels for the lettered, the able and the outwardly refined.
Charley was back again in the unfriendly climate of his natural life. Suzon felt the troubled air round them, saw the dark looks on the faces of the men, and was at once afraid and elated. She loved the glow of excitement, she had a keen sense of danger, but she also felt that in any possible trouble to-night the chances of escape would be small for the man before her.
He pushed out his glass again. She mechanically poured brandy into it.
"You've had more than enough," she said, in a low voice.
"Every man knows his own capacity, Suzon. Love me little, love me long," he added, again raising his glass to her, as the men behind suddenly moved forward upon the bar.
"Don't--for God's sake!" she whispered hastily. "Do go--or there'll be trouble!"
The black face of Theophile Charlemagne was also turned anxiously in Charley's direction as he pushed out glasses for those who called for liquor.
"Oh, do, do go--like a good soul!" Suzon urged. Charley laughed disdainfully. "Like a good soul!" Had it come to this, that Suzon pleaded with him as if he were a foolish, obstreperous child!
"Faithless and unbelieving!" he said to Suzon in English. "Didn't I play my game well a minute ago--eh--eh--eh, Suzon?"
"Oh, yes, yes, M'sieu'," she replied in English; "but now you are differen' and so are they. You must goah, so, you must!"
He laughed again, a queer sardonic sort of laugh, yet he put out his hand and touched the girl's arm lightly with a forefinger. "I am a Quaker born; I never stir till the spirit moves me," he said.
He scented conflict, and his spirits rose at the thought. Some reckless demon of adventure possessed him; some fatalistic courage was upon him. So far as the eye could see, the liquor he had drunk had done no more than darken the blue of his eye, for his hand was steady, his body was well poised, his look was direct; there seemed some strange electric force in leash behind his face, a watchful yet nonchalant energy of spirit, joined to an indolent pose of body. As the girl looked at him something of his unreckoning courage passed into her. Somehow she believed in him, felt that by some wild chance he might again conquer this truculent element now almost surrounding him. She spoke quickly to her step-father. "He won't go. What can we do?"
"You go, and he'll follow," said Theophile, who didn't want a row-- a dangerous row-in his house.
"No, he won't," she said; "and I don't believe they'd let him follow me."
There was no time to say more. The crowd were insistent and restless now. They seemed to have a plan of campaign, and they began to carry it out. First one, then another, brushed roughly against Charley. Cool and collected, he refused to accept the insults.
"Pardon," he said, in each case; "I am very awkward."
He smiled all the time; he seemed waiting. The pushing and crowding became worse. "Don't mention it," he said. "You should learn how to carry your liquor in your legs."
Suddenly he changed from apology to attack. He talked at them with a cheerful scorn, a deprecating impertinence, as though they were children; he chided them with patient imprecations. This confused them for a moment and cleared a small space around him. There was no defiance in his aspect, no aggressiveness of manner; he was as quiet as though it were a drawing-room and he a master of monologues. He hurled original epithets at them in well-cadenced French, he called them what he listed, but in language which half-veiled the insults--the more infuriating to his hearers because they did not perfectly understand.
Suddenly a low-set fellow, with brass rings in his ears, pulled off his coat and threw it on the floor. "I'll eat your heart," he said, and rolled up blue sleeves along a hairy arm.
"My child," said Charley, "be careful what you eat. Take up your coat again, and learn that it is only dogs that delight to bark and bite. Our little hands were never made to tear each other's eyes."
The low-set fellow made a rush forward, but Rouge Gosselin held him back. "No, no, Jougon," he said. "I have the oldest grudge."
Jougon struggled with Rouge Gosselin. "Be good, Jougon," said Charley.
As he spoke a heavy tumbler flew from the other side of the room. Charley saw the missile thrown and dodged. It missed his temple, but caught the rim of his straw hat, carrying it off his head, and crashed into a lantern hanging against the wall, putting out the light. The room was only lighted now by another lantern on the other side of the room. Charley stooped, picked up his hat, and put it on his head again coolly.
"Stop that, or I'll clear the bar!" cried Theophile Charlemagne, taking the pistol Suzon slipped into his hand. The sight of the pistol drove the men wild, and more than one snatched at the knife in his belt.
At that instant there pushed forward into the clear space beside Charley Steele the great figure of Jake Hough, the horse-doctor, the strongest man, and the most popular Englishman on the river. He took his stand by Charley, raised his great hand, smote him in the small of his back, and said:
"By the Lord, you have sand, and I'll stand by you!" Under the friendly but heavy stroke the monocle shot from Charley's eye the length of the string. Charley lifted it again, put it up, and staring hard at Jake, coolly said:
"I beg your pardon--but have I ever--been introduced to you?"
What unbelievable indifference to danger, what disdain to friendliness, made Charley act as he did is a matter for speculation. It was throwing away his one chance; it was foppery on the scaffold--an incorrigible affectation or a relentless purpose.
Jake Hough strode forward into the crowd, rage in his eye. "Go to the devil, then, and take care of yourself!" he said roughly.
"Please," said Charley.
They were the last words he uttered that night, for suddenly the other lantern went out, there was a rush and a struggle, a muffled groan, a shrill woman's voice, a scramble and hurrying feet, a noise of a something splashing heavily in the water outside. When the lights were up again the room was empty, save for Theophile Charlemagne, Jake Hough, and Suzon, who lay in a faint on the floor with a nasty bruise on her forehead.
A score of river-drivers were scattering into the country-side, and somewhere in the black river, alive or dead, was Charley Steele.