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- The Right of Way, Volume 3. - 10/12 -
crowd, imitating his old manner, his voice, his very look. He started forward, but the drunken young habitant lurched sideways under the tree and collapsed upon the ground, a bottle of whiskey falling out of his pocket and rolling almost to his own feet.
"Champagne Charlie is my name,"
sang the medicine-man. All Charley's old life surged up in him as dyked water suddenly bursts bounds and spreads destruction. He had an uncontrollable impulse. As a starving animal snatches at the first food offered it, he stooped, with a rattle in his throat, seized the bottle, uncorked it, put it to his lips, and drank--drank--drank.
Then he turned and plunged away into the trees. The sound of the song followed him. It came to him, the last refrain, sung loudly to the laughter of the crowd, in imitation of his own voice as it used to be --it had been a different voice during this past year. He turned with headlong intention, and, as the last notes of the song and the applause that followed it, died away, threw back his head and sang out of the darkness:
"Champagne Charlie is my name--"
With a shrill laugh, like the half-mad cry of an outcast soul, he flung away farther into the trees.
There was a sudden silence. The crowd turned with half-apprehensive laughter to the trees. Upon John Brown the effect was startling. His face blanched, his eyes grew large with terror, his mouth opened in helpless agitation. Charley Steele was lying under the waters of the great river, his bones rotting there for a year, yet here was his voice coming out of the night, in response to his own grotesque imitation of the dead man. Seeing his agitation, women turned pale, men felt their flesh creep, imagination gave a thrilling coldness to the air. For a moment the silence was unbroken. Then John Brown stretched out his hand and said, in a hoarse whisper:
"It was his voice--Charley's voice, and he's been dead a year!"
Within half-an-hour, in utter collapse and fright, he was being driven to the next parish by two young habitants whom he paid to accompany him.
OUT ON THE OLD TRAIL
There was one person in the crowd surrounding the medicine-man's wagon who had none of that superstitious thrill which had scattered the habitants into little awe-stricken groups, and then by twos and threes to their homes; none of that fear which had reduced the quack-doctor to such nervous collapse that he would not spend the night in the village. Jo Portugais had recognised the voice--that of Charley Steele the lawyer who had saved him from hanging years ago. It was little like the voice of M'sieu'! There was that in it which frightened him. He waited until he had seen the quackdoctor start for the next parish, then he went slowly down the street. There were people still about, so he walked on towards the river. When he returned, the street was empty. Keeping in the shadow of the trees, he went to Charley's house. There was a light in a window. He went to the back door and tried it. It was not locked, and, without knocking, he stepped inside the kitchen. Here was no light, and he passed into the hallway and on to a little room opening from the tailorshop. He knocked; then, not waiting for response, opened the door and entered.
Charley was standing before a mirror, holding a pair of scissors. He turned abruptly, and said forbiddingly: "I am at my toilet!"
Then, turning again to the mirror, with a shrug of the shoulders, he raised the shears to his beard. Before he could use them, Jo's hand was on his arm.
"Stop that, M'sieu'!" he said huskily.
Charley had drunk nearly a whole bottle of cheap whiskey within an hour. He was intoxicated, but, as had ever been the case with him, his brain was working clearly, his hand was steady; he was in that wide dream of clear-seeing and clear-knowing which, in old days, had given him glimpses of the real life from which, in the egotism of the non-intime, he had been shut out. Looking at Jo now, he was possessed by a composed intoxication like that in which he had moved during that last night at the Cote Dorion.
But now, with the baleful crust of egotism gone, with every nerve of life exposed, with conscience struggling to its feet from the torpor of thirty-odd vacant years, he was as two men in one, with different lives and different souls, yet as inseparable in their misery as those poor victims of Gallic tyranny, chained back to back and thrown into the Seine.
Jo's words, insistent and eager, suddenly roused in him some old memory, which stayed his hand.
"Why should I stop?" he asked quietly, and smiling that smile which had infuriated the river-drivers at the Cote Dorion.
"Are you going back, M'sieu?"
"Back where?" Charley's eyes were fixed on Jo with a penetrating intensity, heightened to a strange abstraction, as though he saw not Jo alone, but something great distances beyond.
Jo did not answer this question directly. "Some one came to-day--he is gone; some one may come to-morrow--and stay," he said meaningly.
Charley went over to the fire and sat down on a bench, opening and shutting the scissors mechanically. Jo was in the light, and Charley's eyes again studied him hard.
His memory was industriously feeling its way into the baffling distance.
"What if some one did come-and stay?" he urged quietly.
"You might be recognised without the beard."
"What difference would it make?" Charley's memory was creeping close to the hidden door. It was feeling-feeling for the latch.
"You know best, M'sieu'."
"But what do you know?" Charley's face now had a strained look, and he touched his lips with his tongue. "What John Brown knows, M'sieu'."
There flashed across Charley's mind the fatal newspaper he had read on the day he awakened to memory again in the but on Vadrome Mountain. He remembered that he had put it in the fire. But Jo might have read it before it was spread upon the bench-put it there of purpose for him to read. Yet what reason could Jo have for being silent, for hiding his secret?
There was silence for a space, in which Charley's eyes were like unmoving sparks of steel. He did not see Jo's face--it was in a mist--he was searching, searching, searching. All at once he felt the latch of the hidden door under his finger; he saw a court-room, a judge and jury, and hundreds of excited faces, himself standing in the midst. He saw twelve men file slowly into the room and take their seats-all save one, who stood still in his place and said: "Not guilty, your Honour!" He saw the prisoner leave the box and step down a free man. He saw himself coming out into the staring summer day. He watched the prisoner come to him and touch his arm, and say: "Thank you, M'sieu'. You have saved my life." He saw himself turn to this man:
He roused from his trance, he staggered to his feet, the shears rattled to the floor. Lurching forward, he caught Jo Portugais by the throat, and said, as he had said outside the court-room years ago:
"Get out of my sight. You're as guilty as hell!"
His grip tightened--tightened on Jo's throat. Jo did not move, though his face grew black. Then, suddenly, the hands relaxed, a bluish paleness swept over the face, and Charley fell sidewise to the floor before Jo could catch him.
All night, alone, the murderer struggled with death over the body of the lawyer who had saved his life.
THE SEIGNEUR GIVES A WARNING
Rosalie had watched a shut door for five days--a door from which, for months past, had come all the light and glow of her life. It framed a figure which had come to represent to her all that meant hope and soul and conscience-and love. The morning after St. Jean Baptiste's day she had awaited the opening door, but it had remained closed. Ensued watchful hours, and then from Jo Portugais she had learned that M'sieu' had been ill and near to death. She had been told the weird story of the medicine-man and the ghostly voice, and, without reason, she took the incident as a warning, and associated it with the man across the way. She was come of a superstitious race, and she herself had heard and seen things of which she never had been able to speak--the footsteps in the church the night she had screwed the little cross to the door again; the tiny round white light by the door of the church; the hood which had vanished into the unknown. One mystery fed another. It seemed to her as if some dreadful event were forward; and all day she kept her eyes fixed on the tailor's door.
Dead--if M'sieu' should die! If M'sieu' should die--it needed all her will to prevent herself from going over and taking things in her own hands, being his nurse, his handmaid, his slave. Duty--to the government, to her father? Her heart cried out that her duty lay where all her life was eddying to one centre. What would the world say? She was not concerned for that, save for him. What, then, would M'sieu' say? That gave her pause. The Seigneur's words the day before had driven her back upon a tide of emotions which carried her far out upon that sea where reason and life's conventions are derelicts, where Love sails with reckless courage down the shoreless main.
"If I could only be near him!" she kept saying to herself. "It is my right. I would give my life, my soul for his. I was with him before when his life was in danger. It was my hand that saved him. It was my love that tended him. It was my soul that kept his secret. It was my faith that spoke for him. It was my heart that ached for him. It is my heart that aches for him now as none other in all the world can. No one on earth could care as I care. Who could there be?" Something whispered
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