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- The Right of Way, Volume 2. - 4/13 -
"Is this your house?"
"It is, M'sieu'."
"You fished me out of the river by the Cote Dorion?" He still held his head with his hands, for it throbbed so, but his eyes were intent on his companion.
Charley's hand mechanically fumbled for his monocle. Jo turned quickly to the wall, and taking it by its cord from the nail where it had been for these long months, handed it over. Charley took it and mechanically put it in his eye. "Thank you, my friend," he said. "Have I been conscious at all since you rescued me last night?" he asked.
"In a way, M'sieu'."
"Ah, well, I can't remember, but it was very kind of you--I do thank you very much. Do you think you could find me something to eat? I beg your pardon--it isn't breakfast-time, of course, but I was never so hungry in my life!"
"In a minute, M'sieu'--in one minute. But lie down, you must lie down a little. You got up too quick, and it makes your head throb. You have had nothing to eat."
"Nothing, since yesterday noon, and very little then. I didn't eat anything at the Cote Dorion, I remember." He lay back on the couch and closed his eyes. The throbbing in his head presently stopped, and he felt that if he ate something he could go to sleep again, it was so restful in this place--a whole day's sleep and rest, how good it would be after last night's racketing! Here was primitive and material comfort, the secret of content, if you liked! Here was this poor hunter-fellow, with enough to eat and to drink, earning it every day by every day's labour, and, like Robinson Crusoe no doubt, living in a serene self- sufficiency and an elysian retirement. Probably he had no responsibilities in the world, with no one to say him nay, himself only to consider in all the universe: a divine conception of adequate life. Yet himself, Charley Steele, an idler, a waster, with no purpose in life, with scarcely the necessity to earn his bread-never, at any rate, until lately--was the slave of the civilisation to which he belonged. Was civilisation worth the game?
His hand involuntarily went to his head. It changed the course of his thoughts. He must go back to-day to put Billy's crime right, to replace the trust-moneys Billy had taken by forging his brother-in-law's name. Not a moment must be lost. No doubt he was within driving distance of his office, and, bandaged head or no bandaged head, last night's disgraceful doings notwithstanding, it was his duty to face the wondering eyes--what did he care for wondering eyes? hadn't he been making eyes wonder all his life?--face the wondering eyes in the little city, and set a crooked business straight. Fool and scoundrel certainly Billy was, but there was Kathleen!
His lips tightened; he had a strange anxious flutter of the heart. When had his heart fluttered like this? When had he ever before considered Kathleen's feelings as to his personal conduct so delicately? Well, since yesterday he did feel it, and a sudden sense of pity sprang up in him--vague, shamefaced pity, which belied the sudden egotistical flourish with which he put his monocle to his eye and tried futilely to smile in the old way.
He had lain with his eyes closed. They opened now, and he saw his host spreading a newspaper as a kind of cloth on a small rough table, and putting some food upon it-bread, meat, and a bowl of soup. It was thoughtful of this man to make his soup overnight-he saw Jo lift it from beside the fire where it had been kept hot. A good fellow-an excellent fellow, this woodsman.
His head did not throb now, and he drew himself up slowly on his elbow- then, after a moment, lifted himself to a sitting posture.
"What is your name, my friend?" he said.
"Jo Portugais, M'sieu'," Jo answered, and brought a candle and put it on the table, then lifted the tin-plate from over the bowl of savoury soup.
Never before had Charley Steele sat down to such a breakfast. A roll and a cup of coffee had been enough, and often too much, for him. Yet now he could not wait to eat the soup with a spoon, but lifted the bowl and took a long draught of it, and set it down with a sigh of content. Then he broke bread into the soup--large pieces of black oat bread--until the bowl was a mass of luscious pulp. This he ate almost ravenously, his eye wandering avidly the while to the small piece of meat beside the bowl. What meat was it? It looked like venison, yet summer was not the time for venison. What did it matter! Jo sat on a bench beside the fire, his face turned towards his guest, dreading the moment when the man he had nursed and cared for, with whom he had eaten and drunk for so long, should know the truth about himself. He could not tell him all there was to tell, he was taking another means of letting him know.
Charley did not speak. Hunger was a new sensation, a delicious thing, too good to be broken by talking. He ate till he had cleared away the last crumbs of bread and meat and drunk the last drop of soup. He looked at the woodsman as though wondering if he would bring more. Jo evidently thought he had had enough, for he did not move. Charley's glance withdrew from Jo, and busied itself with the few crumbs remaining upon the table. He saw a little piece of bread on the floor. He picked it up and ate it with relish, laughing to himself.
"How long will it take us to get to town? Can we do it this morning?"
"Not this morning, M'sieu'," said Jo, in a sort of hoarse whisper.
"How many hours would it take?"
He was gathering the last crumbs of his feast with his hand, and looking casually down at the newspaper spread as a table-cloth.
All at once his hand stopped, his eyes became fixed on a spot in the paper. He gave a hoarse, guttural cry, like an animal in agony. His lips became dry, his hand wiped a blinding mist from his eyes.
Jo watched him with an intense alarm and a horrified curiosity. He felt a base coward for not having told Charley what this paper contained. Never had he seen such a look as this. He felt his beads, and told them over and over again, as Charley Steele, in a dry, croaking sort of whisper, read, in letters that seemed monstrous symbols of fire, a record of himself:
"To-day, by special license from the civil and ecclesiastical courts [the paragraph in the paper began], was married, at St. Theobald's Church, Mrs. Charles Steele, daughter of the late Hon. Julien Wantage, and niece of the late Eustace Wantage, Esq., to Captain Thomas Fairing, of the Royal Fusileers--"
Charley snatched at the top of the paper and read the date "Tenth of February, 18-!" It was August when he was at the Cote Dorion, the 5th August, 18-, and this paper was February 10th, 18-. He read on, in the month-old paper, with every nerve in his body throbbing now: a fierce beating that seemed as if it must burst the heart and the veins:
"--Captain Thomas Fairing, of the Royal Fusileers, whose career in our midst has been marked by an honourable sense of public and private duty. Our fellow-citizens will unite with us in congratulating the bride, whose previous misfortunes have only increased the respect in which she is held. If all remember the obscure death of her first husband (though the body was not found, there has never been a doubt of his death), and the subsequent discovery that he had embezzled trust-moneys to the extent of twenty-five thousand dollars, thereby setting the final seal of shame upon a misspent life, destined for brilliant and powerful uses, all have conspired to forget the association of our beautiful and admired townswoman with his career. It is painful to refer to these circumstances, but it is only within the past few days that the estate of the misguided man has been wound up, and the money he embezzled restored to its rightful owners; and it is better to make these remarks now than repeat them in the future, only to arouse painful memories in quarters where we should least desire to wound.
"In her new life, blessed by a romantic devotion known and admired by all, Mrs. Fairing and her husband will be followed by the affectionate good wishes of the whole community."
The man on the hearth-stone shrank back at the sight of the still, white face, in which the eyes were like sparks of fire. His impulse had been to go over and offer the hand of sympathy to the stricken man, but his simple mind grasped the fact that no one might, with impunity, invade this awful quiet. Charley was frozen in body, but his brain was awake with the heat of "a burning fiery furnace."
Seven months of unconscious life-seven months of silence--no sight, no seeing, no knowing; seven months of oblivion, in which the world had buried him out of ken in an unknown grave of infamy! Seven months--and Kathleen was married again to the man she had always loved. To the world he himself was a rogue and thief. Billy had remained silent--Billy, whom he had so befriended, had let decent men heap scorn and reproaches on his memory. Here was what the world thought of him--he read the lines over again, his eyes scorching, but his finger steady, as it traced the lines slowly: "the obscure death . . . . ." "embezzled trustmoneys . . . . ." "the final seal of shame upon a misspent life!"
These were the epitaphs on the tombstone of Charley Steele; dead and buried, out of sight, out of repute, soon to be out of mind and out of memory, save as a warning to others--an old example raked out of the dust-bin of time by the scavengers of morality, to toss at all who trod the paths of dalliance.
What was there to do? Go back? Go back and knock at Kathleen's door, another Enoch Arden, and say: "I have come to my own again?" Return and tell Tom Fairing to go his way and show his face no more? Break up this union, this marriage of love in which these two rejoiced? Summon Kathleen out of her illegal intercourse with the man who had been true to her all these years?
To what end? What had he ever done for her that he might destroy her now? What sort of Spartan tragedy was this, that the woman who had been the victim of circumstances, who had been the slave to a tie he never felt, yet which had been as iron-bound to her, should now be brought out to be mangled body and soul for no fault of her own? What had she done? What had she ever done to give him right to touch so much as a hair of her head?
Go back, and bring Billy to justice, and clear his own name? Go back, and send Kathleen's brother, the forger, to jail? What an achievement in justice! Would not the world have a right to say that the only decent thing he could do was to eliminate himself from the equation? What profit for him in the great summing-up, that he was technically innocent of this one thing, and that to establish his innocence he broke a woman's
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