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- The Right of Way, Volume 2. - 3/13 -
"Jo is something of a physician and surgeon too, Marcel. He has a gift. He has cured many in the parish with his herbs and tinctures, and he has set legs and arms successfully."
The surgeon eyed Jo humorously, but kindly. "He is probably as good a doctor as some of us. Medicine is a gift, surgery is a gift and an art. You shall hear from me, Portugais." He looked again keenly at Jo. "You have not given him 'herbs and tinctures'?"
"Very sensible. Good-day, Portugais."
"Good-day, my son," said the priest, and raised his fingers in benediction, as Jo turned and quickly retraced his steps.
"Why did you ask him if he had given the poor man any herbs or tinctures, Marcel?" said the priest.
"Because those quack tinctures have whiskey in them."
"What do you mean?"
"Whiskey in any form would be bad for him," the surgeon answered evasively.
But to himself he kept saying: "The man was a drunkard--he was a drunkard."
THE RAISING OF THE CURTAIN
M. Marcel Loisel did his work with a masterly precision, with the aid of his brother and Portugais. The man under the instruments, not wholly insensible, groaned once or twice. Once or twice, too, his eyes opened with a dumb hunted look, then closed as with an irresistible weariness. When the work was over, and every stain or sign of surgery removed, sleep came down on the bed--a deep and saturating sleep, which seemed to fill the room with peace. For hours the surgeon sat beside the couch, now and again feeling the pulse, wetting the hot lips, touching the forehead with his palm. At last, with a look of satisfaction, he came forward to where Jo and the Cure sat beside the fire.
"It is all right," he said. "Let him sleep as long as he will." He turned again to the bed. "I wish I could stay to see the end of it. Is there no chance, Prosper?" he added to the priest.
"Impossible, Marcel. You must have sleep. You have a seventy-mile drive before you to-morrow, and sixty the next day. You can only reach the port now by starting at daylight to-morrow."
So it was that Marcel Loisel, the great surgeon, was compelled to leave Chaudiere before he knew that the memory of the man who had been under his knife had actually returned to him. He had, however, no doubt in his own mind, and he was confident that there could be no physical harm from the operation. Sleep was the all-important thing. In it lay the strength for the shock of the awakening--if awakening of memory there was to be.
Before he left he stooped over Charley and said musingly: "I wonder what you will wake up to, my friend?" Then he touched the wound with a light caressing finger. "It was well done, well done," he murmured proudly.
A moment afterwards he was hurrying down the hill to the open road, where a cariole awaited the Cure and himself.
For a day and a half Charley slept, and Jo watched him with an affectionate solicitude. Once or twice, becoming anxious, because of the heavy breathing and the motionless sleep, he had forced open the teeth, and poured a little broth between.
Just before dawn on the second morning, worn out and heavy with slumber, Jo lay down by the piled-up fire and dropped into a sleep that wrapped him like a blanket, folding him away into a drenching darkness.
For a time there was a deep silence, troubled only by Jo's deep breathing, which seemed itself like the pulse of the silence. Charley appeared not to be breathing at all. He was lying on his back, seemingly lifeless. Suddenly on the snug silence there was a sharp sound. A tree outside snapped with the frost.
Charley awoke. The body seemed not to awake, for it did not stir, but the eyes opened wide and full, looking straight before them--straight up to the brown smoke-stained rafters, along which were ranged guns and fishing-tackle, axes and bear-traps. Full clear blue eyes, healthy and untired as a child's fresh from an all-night's drowse, they looked and looked. Yet, at first, the body did not stir; only the mind seemed to be awakening, the soul creeping out from slumber into the day. Presently, however, as the eyes gazed, there stole into them a wonder, a trouble, an anxiety. For a moment they strained at the rafters and the crude weapons and implements there, then the body moved, quickly, eagerly, and turned to see the flickering shadows made by the fire and the simple order of the room.
A minute more, and Charley was sitting on the side of his couch, dazed and staring. This hut, this fire, the figure by the hearth in a sound sleep-his hand went to his head: it felt the bandage there!
He remembered now! Last night at the Cote Dorion! Last night he had talked with Suzon Charlemagne at the Cote Dorion; last night he had drunk harder than he had ever drunk in his life, he had defied, chaffed, insulted the river-drivers. The whole scene came back: the faces of Suzon and her father; Suzon's fingers on his for an instant; the glass of brandy beside him; the lanterns on the walls; the hymn he sang; the sermon he preached--he shuddered a little; the rumble of angry noises round him; the tumbler thrown; the crash of the lantern, and only one light left in the place! Then Jake Hough and his heavy hand, the flying monocle, and his disdainful, insulting reply; the sight of the pistol in the hand of Suzon's father; then a rush, a darkness, and his own fierce plunge towards the door, beyond which were the stars and the cool night and the dark river. Curses, hands that battered and tore at him, the doorway reached, and then a blow on the head and--falling, falling, falling, and distant noises growing more distant, and suddenly and sweetly--absolute silence.
Again he shuddered. Why? He remembered that scene in his office yesterday with Kathleen, and the one later with Billy. A sensitive chill swept all over him, making his flesh creep, and a flush sped over his face from chin to brow. To-day he must pick up all these threads again, must make things right for Billy, must replace the money he had stolen, must face Kathleen again he shuddered. Was he at the Cote Dorion still? He looked round him. No, this was not the sort of house to be found at the Cote Dorion. Clearly this was the hut of a hunter. Probably he had been fished out of the river by this woodsman and brought here. He felt his head. The wound was fresh and very sore. He had played for death, with an insulting disdain, yet here he was alive.
Certainly he was not intended to be drowned or knifed--he remembered the knives he saw unsheathed--or kicked or pummelled into the hereafter. It was about ten o'clock when he had had his "accident"--he affected a smile, yet somehow he did not smile easily--it must be now about five, for here was the morning creeping in behind the deer-skin blind at the window.
Strange that he felt none the worse for his mishap, and his tongue was as clean and fresh as if he had been drinking milk last night, and not very doubtful brandy at the Cote Dorion. No fever in his hands, no headache, only the sore skull, so well and tightly bandaged but a wonderful thirst, and an intolerable hunger. He smiled. When had he ever been hungry for breakfast before? Here he was with a fine appetite: it was like coals of fire heaped on his head by Nature for last night's business at the Cote Dorion. How true it was that penalties did not always come with-- indiscretions. Yet, all at once, he flushed again to the forehead, for a curious sense of shame flashed through his whole being, and one Charley Steele--the Charley Steele of this morning, an unknown, unadventuring, onlooking Charley Steele--was viewing with abashed eyes the Charley Steele who had ended a doubtful career in the coarse and desperate proceedings of last night. With a nervous confusion he sought refuge in his eye-glass. His fingers fumbled over his waistcoat, but did not find it. The weapon of defence and attack, the symbol of interrogation and incomprehensibility, was gone. Beauty Steele was under the eyes of another self, and neither disdain, nor contempt, nor the passive stare, were available. He got suddenly to his feet, and started forward, as though to find refuge from himself.
The abrupt action sent the blood to his head, and feeling a blindness come over him, he put both hands up to his temples, and sank back on the couch, dizzy and faint.
His motions waked Jo Portugais, who scrambled from the floor, and came towards him.
"M'sieu'," he said, "you must not. You are faint." He dropped his hands supportingly to Charley's shoulders.
Charley nodded, but did not yet look up. His head throbbed sorely. "Water--please!" he said.
In an instant Jo was beside him again, with a bowl of fresh water at his lips. He drank, drank, drank, until the great bowl was drained to the last drop.
"Whew! That was good!" he said, and looked up at Jo with a smile. "Thank you, my friend; I haven't the honour of your acquaintance, but--"
He stopped suddenly and stared at Jo. Inquiry, mystification, were in his look.
"Have I ever seen you before?" he said. "Who knows, M'sieu'!"
Since Jo had stood before Charley in the dock near six years ago he had greatly changed. The marks of smallpox, a heavy beard, grey hair, and solitary life had altered him beyond Charley's recognition.
Jo could hardly speak. His legs were trembling under him, for now he knew that Charley Steele was himself again. He was no longer the simple, quiet man-child of three days ago, and of these months past, but the man who had saved him from hanging, to whom he owed a debt he dare not acknowledge. Jo's brain was in a muddle. Now that the great crisis was over, now that the expected thing had come, and face to face with the cure, he had neither tongue, nor strength, nor wit. His words stuck in his throat where his heart was, and for a minute his eyes had a kind of mist before them.
Meanwhile Charley's eyes were upon him, curious, fixed, abstracted.
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