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- The Right of Way, Volume 2. - 6/13 -
Charley did not answer for a moment. He was wondering how he should put his reply. But his look did not waver, and the Cure saw the honesty of the gaze. At length he replied: "If you mean, have I committed any crime which the law may punish?--I answer no, Monsieur. If you mean, have I robbed or killed, or forged--or wronged a woman as men wrong women? No. These, I take it, are the things that matter first. For the rest, you can think of me as badly as you will, or as well, for what I do henceforth is the only thing that really concerns the world, Monsieur le Cure."
The Cure came forward and put out his hand with a kindly gesture. "Monsieur, you have suffered," he said.
"Never, never at all, Monsieur. Never for a moment, until I was dropped down here like a stone from a sling. I had life by the throat; now it has me there--that is all."
"You are not a Catholic, Monsieur?" asked the priest, almost pleadingly, and as though the question had been much on his mind.
The Cure made no rejoinder. If he was not a Catholic, what matter what he was? If he was not a Catholic, were he Buddhist, pagan, or Protestant, the position for them personally was the same. "I am very sorry," he said gently. "I might have helped you had you been a Catholic."
The eye-glass came like lightning to the eye, and a caustic, questioning phrase was on the tongue, but Charley stopped himself in time. For, apart from all else, this priest had been his friend in calamity, had acted with a charming sensibility. The eye-glass troubled the Cure, and the look on Charley's face troubled him still more, but it passed as Charley said, in a voice as simple as the Cure's own:
"You may still help me as you have already done. I give you my word, too"--strange that he touched his lips with his tongue as he did in the old days when his mind turned to Jean Jolicoeur's saloon--"that I will do nothing to cause regret for your humanity and--and Christian kindness." Again the tongue touched the lips--a wave of the old life had swept over him, the old thirst had rushed upon him. Perhaps it was the force of this feeling which made him add, with a curious energy, "I give you my word, Monsieur le Cure." At that moment the door opened and Jo entered.
"M'sieu'," he said to Charley, "a registered parcel has come for you. It has been brought by the postmaster's daughter. She will give it to no one but yourself."
Charley's face paled, and the Cure's was scarcely less pale. In Charley's mind was the question, Who had discovered his presence here? Was he not, then, to escape? Who should send him parcels through the post?
The Cure was perturbed. Was he, then, to know who this man was--his name and history? Was the story of his life now to be told?
Charley broke the silence. "Tell the girl to come in." Instantly afterwards the postmaster's daughter entered. The look of the girl's face, at once delicate and rosy with health, almost put the question of the letter out of his mind for an instant. Her dark eyes met his as he came forward with outstretched hand.
"This is addressed, as you will see, 'To the Sick Man at the House of Jo Portugais, at Vadrome Mountain.' Are you that person, Monsieur?" she asked.
As she handed the parcel, Charley's eyes scanned her face quickly. How did this habitant girl come by this perfect French accent, this refined manner? He did not know the handwriting on the parcel; he hastily tore it open. Inside were a few dozen small packets. Here also was a sheet of paper. He opened and read it quickly. It said:
Monsieur, I am not sure that you have recovered your memory and your health, and I am also not sure that in such case you will thank me for my work. If you think I have done you an injury, pray accept my profound apologies. Monsieur, you have been a drunkard. If you would reverse the record now, these powders, taken at opportune moments, will aid you. Monsieur, with every expression of my good- will, and the hope that you will convey to me without reserve your feelings on this delicate matter, I append my address in Paris, and I have the honour to subscribe myself, with high consideration, Monsieur, yours faithfully, MARCEL LOISEL.
The others looked at him with varied feelings as he read. Curiosity, inquiry, expectation, were common to them all, but with each was a different personal feeling. The Cure's has been described. Jo Portugais' mind was asking if this meant that the man who had come into his life must now go out of it; and the girl was asking who was this mysterious man, like none she had ever seen or known.
Without hesitation Charley handed over the letter to the Cure, who took it with surprise, read it with amazement, and handed it back with a flush on his face.
"Thank you," said Charley to the girl. "It is good of you to bring it all this way. May I ask--"
"She is Mademoiselle Rosalie Evanturel," said the Cure smiling.
"I am Charles Mallard," said Charley slowly. "Thank you. I will go now, Monsieur Mallard," the girl said, lifting her eyes to his face. He bowed. As she turned and went towards the door her eyes met his. She blushed.
"Wait, Mademoiselle; I will go back with you," said the Cure kindly. He turned to Charley and held out his hand. "God be with you, Monsieur-- Charles," he said. "Come and see me soon." Remembering that his brother had written that the man was a drunkard, his eyes had a look of pity. This was the man's own secret and his. It was a way to the man's heart; he would use it.
As the two went out of the door, the girl looked back. Charley was putting the surgeon's letter into the fire, and did not see her; yet she blushed again.
HOW CHARLEY WENT ADVENTURING AND WHAT HE FOUND
A week passed. Charley's life was running in a tiny circle, but his mind was compassing large revolutions. The events of the last few days had cut deep. His life had been turned upside down. All his predispositions had been suddenly brought to check, his habits turned upon the flank and routed, his mental postures flung into confusion. He had to start life again; but it could not be in the way of any previous travel of mind or body. The line of cleavage was sharp and wide, and the only connection with the past was in the long-reaching influence of evil habits, which crept from their coverts, now and again, to mock him as his old self had mocked life--to mock him and to tempt him. Through seven months of healthy life for his body, while brain and will were sleeping, the whole man had made long strides towards recreation. But with the renewal of will and mind the old weaknesses, roused by memory, began to emerge intermittently, as water rises from a spring. There was something terrible in this repetition of sensation--the law of habit answering to the machine-like throbbing of memory, as, a kaleidoscope turning, turning, its pictures pass a certain point at fixed intervals--an automatic recurrence. He found himself at times touching his lips with his tongue, and with this act came the dry throat, the hot eye, the restless hand feeling for a glass that eluded his fingers.
Twice in one week did this fever surge up in him, and it caught him in those moments when, exhausted by the struggle of his mind to adapt itself to the new conditions, his senses were delicately susceptible. Visions of Jolicoeur's saloon came to his mind's eye. With a singular separateness, a new-developed dual sense, he saw himself standing in the summer heat, looking over to the cool dark doorway of the saloon, and he caught again the smell of the fresh-drawn beer. He was conscious of watching himself do this and that, of seeing himself move here and there. He began to look upon Charley Steele as a man he had known--he, Charles Mallard, had known--while he had to suffer for what Charley Steele had done. Then, all at once, as he was thinking and dreaming and seeing, there would seize upon him the old appetite, coincident with the seizure of his brain by the old sense of cynicism at its worst--such a worst as had made him insult Jake Hough when the rough countryman was ready to take his part that wild night at the Cote Dorion.
At such moments life became a conflict--almost a terror--for as yet he had not swung into line with the new order of things. In truth, there was no order of things; for one life was behind him and the new one was not yet decided upon, save that here he would stay--here out of the world, out of the game, far from old associations, cut off, and to be for ever cut off, from all that he had ever known or seen or felt or loved! . . . Loved! When did he ever love? If love was synonymous with unselfishness, with the desire to give greater than the desire to get, then he had never known love. He realised now that he had given Kathleen only what might be given across a dinner-table--the sensuous tribute of a temperament, passionate without true passion or faith or friendship. Kathleen had known that he gave her nothing worth the having; for in some meagre sense she knew what love was, and had given it meagrely, after her nature, to another man, preserving meanwhile the letter of the law, respecting that bond which he had shamed by his excesses.
Kathleen was now sitting at another man's table--no, probably at his own table--his, Charley Steele's own table in his own house--the house he had given her by deed of gift the day he died. Tom Fairing was sitting where he used to sit, talking across the table--not as he used to talk--looking into Kathleen's face as he had never looked. He was no more to them than a dark memory. "Well, why should I be more?" he asked himself. "I am dead, if not buried. They think me down among the fishes. My game is done; and when she gets older and understands life better, Kathleen will say, 'Poor Charley--he might have been anything!' She'll be sure to say that some day, for habit and memory go round in a circle and pass the same point again and again. For me--they take me by the throat--" He put his hand up as if to free his throat from a grip, his tongue touched his lips, his hands grew restless.
"It comes back on me like a fit of ague, this miserable thirst. If I were within sight of Jolicoeur's saloon, I should be drinking hard this minute. But I'm here, and--" His hand felt his pocket, and he took out the powders the great surgeon had sent him.
"He knew--how did he know that I was a drunkard? Does a man carry in his face the tale he would not tell? Jo says I didn't talk of the past, that I never had delirium, that I never said a word to suggest who I was, or where I came from. Then how did the doctor--man know? I suppose every particular habit carries its own signal, and the expert knows the
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