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- The Right of Way, Volume 2. - 1/13 -


THE RIGHT OF WAY

By Gilbert Parker

Volume 2.

IX. OLD DEBTS FOR NEW X. THE WAY IN AND THE WAY OUT XI. THE RAISING OF THE CURTAIN XII. THE COMING OF ROSALIE XIII. HOW CHARLEY WENT ADVENTURING, AND WHAT HE FOUND XIV. ROSALIE, CHARLEY, AND THE MAN THE WIDOW PLOMONDON JILTED XV. THE MARK IN THE PAPER XVI. MADAME DAUPHIN HAS A MISSION XVII. THE TAILOR MAKES A MIDNIGHT FORAY XVIII. THE STEALING OF THE CROSS

CHAPTER IX

OLD DEBTS FOR NEW

Jo Portugtais was breaking the law of the river--he was running a little raft down the stream at night, instead of tying up at sundown and camping on the shore, or sitting snugly over cooking-pot by the little wooden caboose on his raft. But defiance of custom and tradition was a habit with Jo Portugais. He had lived in his own way many a year, and he was likely to do so till the end, though he was a young man yet. He had many professions, or rather many gifts, which he practised as it pleased him. He was river-driver, woodsman, hunter, carpenter, guide, as whim or opportunity came to him. On the evening when Charley Steele met with his mishap he was a river-driver--or so it seemed. He had been up nor'west a hundred and fifty miles, and he had come down-stream alone with his raft- which in the usual course should take two men to guide it--through slides, over rapids, and in strong currents. Defying the code of the river, with only one small light at the rear of his raft, he voyaged the swift current towards his home, which, when he arrived opposite the Cote Dorion, was still a hundred miles below. He had watched the lights in the river-drivers' camps, had seen the men beside the fires, and had drifted on, with no temptation to join in the songs floating out over the dark water, to share the contents of the jugs raised to boisterous lips, or to thrust his hand into the greasy cooking-pot for a succulent bone.

He drifted on until he came opposite Charlemagne's tavern. Here the current carried him inshore. He saw the dim light, he saw dark figures in the bar-room, he even got a glimpse of Suzon Charlemagne. He dropped the house behind quickly, but looked back, leaning on the oar and thinking how swift was the rush of the current past the tavern. His eyes were on the tavern door and the light shining through it. Suddenly the light disappeared, and the door vanished into darkness. He heard a scuffle, and then a heavy splash.

"There's trouble there," said Jo Portugais, straining his eyes through the night, for a kind of low roar, dwindling to a loud whispering, and then a noise of hurrying feet, came down the stream, and he could dimly see dark figures running away into the night by different paths.

"Some dirty work, very sure," said Jo Portugais, and his eyes travelled back over the dark water like a lynx's, for the splash was in his ear, and a sort of prescience possessed him. He could not stop his raft. It must go on down the current, or be swerved to the shore, to be fastened.

"God knows, it had an ugly sound," said Jo Portugais, and again strained his eyes and ears. He shifted his position and took another oar, where the raft-lantern might not throw a reflection upon the water. He saw a light shine again through the tavern doorway, then a dark object block the light, and a head thrust forward towards the river as though listening.

At this moment he fancied he saw something in the water nearing him. He stretched his neck. Yes, there was something.

"It's a man. God save us--was it murder?" said Jo Portugais, and shuddered. "Was it murder?"

The body moved more swiftly than the raft. There was a hand thrust up-- two hands.

"He's alive!" said Jo Portugais, and, hurriedly pulling round his waist a rope tied to a timber, jumped into the water.

Three minutes later, on the raft, he was examining a wound in the head of an insensible man.

As his hand wandered over the body towards the heart, it touched something that rattled against a button. He picked it up mechanically and held it to the light. It was an eye-glass.

"My God!" said Jo Portugais, and peered into the man's face. "It's him." Then he remembered the last words the man had spoken to him-- "Get out of my sight. You're as guilty as hell!" But his heart yearned towards the man nevertheless.

CHAPTER X

THE WAY IN AND THE WAY OUT

In his own world of the parish of Chaudiere Jo Portugais was counted a widely travelled man. He had adventured freely on the great rivers and in the forests, and had journeyed up towards Hudson's Bay farther than any man in seven parishes.

Jo's father and mother had both died in one year--when he was twenty- five. That year had turned him from a clean-shaven cheerful boy into a morose bearded man who looked forty, for it had been marked by his disappearance from Chaudiere and his return at the end of it, to find his mother dead and his father dying broken-hearted. What had driven Jo from home only his father knew; what had happened to him during that year only Jo himself knew, and he told no one, not even his dying father.

A mystery surrounded him, and no one pierced it. He was a figure apart in Chaudiere parish. A dreadful memory that haunted him, carried him out of the village, which clustered round the parish church, into Vadrome Mountain, three miles away, where he lived apart from all his kind. It was here he brought the man with the eye-glass one early dawn, after two nights and two days on the river, pulling him up the long hill in a low cart with his strong faithful dogs, hitching himself with them and toiling upwards through the dark. In his three-roomed hut he laid his charge down upon a pile of bear-skins, and tended him with a strange gentleness, bathing the wound in the head and binding it again and again.

The next morning the sick man opened his eyes heavily. He then began fumbling mechanically on his breast. At last his fingers found his monocle. He feebly put it to his eye, and looked at Jo in a strange, questioning, uncomprehending way.

"I beg--your pardon," he said haltingly, "have I ever--been intro--" Suddenly his eyes closed, a frown gathered on his forehead. After a minute his eyes opened again, and he gazed with painful, pathetic seriousness at Jo. This grew to a kind of childish terror; then slowly, as a shadow passes, the perplexity, anxiety and terror cleared away, and left his forehead calm, his eyes unvexed and peaceful. The monocle dropped, and he did not heed it. At length he said wearily, and with an incredibly simple dependence:

"I am thirsty now."

Jo lifted a wooden bowl to his lips, and he drank, drank, drank to repletion. When he had finished he patted Jo's shoulder.

"I am always thirsty," he said. "I shall be hungry too. I always am."

Jo brought him some milk and bread in a bowl. When the sick man had eaten and drunk the bowlful to the last drop and crumb, he lay back with a sigh of content, but trembling from weakness and the strain, though Jo's hand had been under his head, and he had been fed like a little child.

All day he lay and watched Jo as he worked, as he came and went. Sometimes he put his hand to his head and said to Jo: "It hurts." Then Jo would cool the wound with fresh water from the mountain spring, and he would drag down the bowl to drink from it greedily.

It was as though he could never get enough water to drink. So the first day in the hut at Vadrome Mountain passed without questioning on the part of either Charley Steele or his host.

With good reason. Jo Portugais saw that memory was gone; that the past was blotted out. He had watched that first terrible struggle of memory to reassert itself, as the eyes mechanically looked out upon new and strange surroundings, but it was only the automatic habit of the sight, the fumbling of the blind soul in its cell-fumbling for the latch which it could not find, for the door which would not open. The first day on the raft, as Charley had opened his eyes upon the world again after that awful night at the Cote Dorion, Jo. had seen that same blank uncomprehending look--as it were, the first look of a mind upon the world. This time he saw, and understood what he saw, and spoke as men speak, but with no knowledge or memory behind it--only the involuntary action of muscle and mind repeated from the vanished past.

Charley Steele was as a little child, and having no past, and comprehending in the present only its limited physical needs and motions, he had no hope, no future, no understanding. In three days he was upon his feet, and in four he walked out of doors and followed Jo into the woods, and watched him fell a tree and do a woodsman's work. Indoors he regarded all Jo did with eager interest and a pleased, complacent look, and readily did as he was told. He seldom spoke--not above three or four times a day, and then simply and directly, and only concerning his wants. From first to last he never asked a question, and there was never any inquiry by look or word. A hundred and twenty miles lay between him and his old home, between him and Kathleen and Billy and Jean Jolicoeur's saloon, but between him and his past life the unending miles of eternity intervened. He was removed from it as completely as though he were dead and buried.

A month went by. Sometimes Jo went down to the village below, and then, at first, he locked the door of the house behind him upon Charley. Against this Charley made no motion and said no word, but patiently awaited Jo's return. So it was that, at last, Jo made no attempt to lock the door, but with a nod or a good-bye left him alone. When Charley saw him returning he would go to meet him, and shake hands with him, and say


The Right of Way, Volume 2. - 1/13

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