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- The Right of Way, Volume 2. - 5/13 -
heart and destroyed a boy's life? To what end! It was the murderer coming back as a ghost to avenge himself for being hanged. Suppose he went back--the death's-head at the feast--what would there be for himself afterwards; for any one for whom he was responsible? Living at that price?
To die and end it all, to disappear from this petty life where he had done so little, and that little ill? To die?
No. There was in him some deep, if obscure, fatalism after all. If he had been meant to die now, why had he not gone to the bottom of the river that yesterday at the Cote Dorion? Why had he been saved by this yokel at the fire, and brought here to lie in oblivion in this mountain hut, wrapped in silence and lost to the world? Why had his brain and senses lain fallow all these months, a vacuous vegetation, an empty consciousness? Was it fate? Did it not seem probable that the Great Machine had, in its automatic movement, tossed him up again on the shores of Time because he had not fallen on the trap-door predestined for his eternal exit?
It was clear to him that death by his own hand was futile, and that if there were trap-doors set for him alone, it were well to wait until he trod upon them and fell through in his appointed hour in the movement of the Great Machine.
What to do--where to live--how to live?
He got slowly to his feet and took a step forward half blindly. The man on the bench stirred. Crossing the room he dropped a hand on the man's shoulder. "Open the blind, my friend."
Jo Portugais got to his feet quickly, eyes averted--he did not dare look into Charley's face--and went over and drew back the deer-skin blind. The clear, crisp sunlight of a frosty morning broke gladly into the room. Charley turned and blew out the candle on the table where he had eaten, then walked feebly to the window. Standing on the crest of the mountain the hut looked down through a clearing, flanked by forest trees.
It was a goodly scene. The green and frosted foliage of the pines and cedars; the flowery tracery of frost hanging like cobwebs everywhere; the poudre sparkle in the air; the hills of silver and emerald sloping down to the valley miles away, where the village clustered about the great old parish church; the smoke from a hundred chimneys, in purple spirals, rising straight up in the windless air; over all peace and a perfect silence.
Charley mechanically fixed his eye-glass and stood with hands resting on the window-sill, looking, looking out upon a new world.
At length he turned.
"Is there anything I can do for you, M'sieu'?" said Jo huskily.
Charley held out his hand and clasped Jo's. "Tell me about all these months," he said.
THE COMING OF ROSALIE
Charley Steele saw himself as he had been through the eyes of another. He saw the work that he had done in the carpentering shed, and had no memory of it. The real Charley Steele had been enveloped in oblivion for seven months. During that time a mild phantom of himself had wandered, as it were in a somnambulistic dream, through the purlieus of life. Open-eyed, but with the soul asleep, all idiosyncrasy laid aside, all acquired impressions and influences vanished, he had been walking in the world with no more complexity of mind than a new-born child, nothing intervening between the sight of the eyes and the original sense.
Now, when the real Charley Steele emerged again, the folds of mind and soul unrolling to the million-voiced creation and touched by the antenna of a various civilisation, the phantom Charley was gone once more into obscurity. The real Charley could remember naught of the other, could feel naught, save, as in the stirring industrious day, one remembers that he has dreamed a strange dream the night before, and cannot recall it, though the overpowering sense of it remains.
He saw the work of his hands, the things he had made with adze and plane, with chisel and hammer, but nothing seemed familiar save the smell of the glue pot, which brought back in a cloudy impression curious unfamiliar feelings. Sights, sounds, motions, passed in a confused way through his mind as the smell of the glue crept through his nostrils; and he struggled hard to remember. But no--seven months of his life were gone for ever. Yet he knew and felt that a vast change had gone over him, had passed through him. While the soul had lain fallow, while the body had been growing back to childlike health again, and Nature had been pouring into his sick senses her healing balm; while the medicaments of peace and sleep and quiet labour had been having their way with him, he had been reorganised, renewed, flushed of the turgid silt of dissipation. For his sins and weaknesses there had been no gall and vinegar to drink.
As Charley stood looking round the workshop, Jo entered, shaking the snow from his moccasined feet. "The Cure, M'sieu' Loisel, has come," he said. Charley turned, and, without a word, followed Jo into the house. There, standing at the window and looking down at the village beneath, was the Cure. As Charley entered, M. Loisel carne forward with outstretched hand.
"I am glad to see you well again, Monsieur," he said, and his cool thin hand held Charley's for a moment, as he looked him benignly in the eye.
With a kind of instinct as to the course he must henceforth pursue, Charley replied simply, dropping his eye-glass as he met that clear soluble look of the priest--such a well of simplicity he had never before seen. Only naked eye could meet that naked eye, imperfect though his own sight was.
"It is good of you to feel so, and to come and tell me so," he answered quietly. "I have been a great trouble, I know."
There was none of the old pose in his manner, none of the old cryptic quality in his words.
"We were anxious for your sake--and for the sake of your friends, Monsieur."
Charley evaded the suggestion. "I cannot easily repay your kindness and that of Jo Portugais, my good friend here," he rejoined.
"M'sieu'," replied Jo, his face turned away, and his foot pushing a log on the fire, "you have repaid it."
Charley shook his head. "I am in a conspiracy of kindness," he said. "It is all a mystery to me. For why should one expect such treatment from strangers, when, besides all, one can never make any real return, not even to pay for board and lodging!"
"'I was a stranger and ye took me in,"' said the Cure, smiling by no means sentimentally. "So said the Friend of the World."
Charley looked the Curb steadily in the eyes. He was thinking how simply this man had said these things; as if, indeed, they were part of his life; as though it were usual speech with him, a something that belonged, not an acquired language. There was the old impulse to ask a question, and he put the monocle to his eye, but his lips did not open, and the eye-glass fell again. He had seen familiarity with sacred names and things in the uneducated, in excited revivalists, worked up to a state clairvoyant and conversational with the Creator; but he had never heard an educated man speak as this man did.
At last Charley said: "Your brother--Portugais tells me that your brother, the surgeon, has gone away. I should have liked to thank him --if no more."
"I have written him of your good recovery. He will be glad, I know. But my brother, from one stand-point--a human stand-point--had scruples. These I did not share, but they were strong in him, Monsieur. Marcel asked himself--" He stopped suddenly and looked towards Jo.
Charley saw the look, and said quickly: "Speak plainly. Portugais is my friend."
Jo turned slowly towards him, and a light seemed to come to his eyes--a shining something that resolved itself into a dog-like fondness, an utter obedience, a strange intense gratitude.
"Marcel asked himself," the Cure continued, "whether you would thank him for bringing you back to--to life and memory. I fear he was trying to see what I should say--I fear so. Marcel said, 'Suppose that he should curse me for it? Who knows what he would be brought back to--to what suffering and pain, perhaps?' Marcel said that."
"And you replied, Monsieur le Cure?"
"I replied that Nature required you to answer that question for yourself, and whether bitterly or gladly, it was your duty to take up your life and live it out. Besides, it was not you alone that had to be considered. One does not live alone or die alone in this world. There were your friends to consider."
"And because I had no friends here, you were compelled to think for me!" answered Charley calmly. "Truth is, it was not a question of my friends, for what I was during those seven months, or what I am now, can make no difference to them."
He looked the Cure in the eyes steadily, and as though he would convey his intentions without words. The Curb understood. The habit of listening to the revelations of the human heart had given him something of that clairvoyance which can only be pursued by the primitive mind, unvexed by complexity.
"It is, then, as though you had not come to life again? It is as though you had no past, Monsieur?"
"It is that, Monsieur."
Jo suddenly turned and left the room, for he heard a step on the frosty snow without.
"You will remain here, Monsieur?" said the Cure. "I cannot tell."
The Cure had the bravery of simple souls with a duty to perform. He fastened his eyes on Charley. "Monsieur, is there any reason why you should not stay here? I ask it now, man to man--not as a priest of my people, but as man to man."
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