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- The Right of Way, Volume 4. - 2/14 -
"What is the good of riding fast?"
"In the rush a man forget."
"What does he forget, my friend?"
There was a pause, in which a man with a load of crime upon his soul dwelt upon the words my friend, coming from the lips of one who knew the fulness of his iniquity. Then he answered:
"In the noise he forget that a voice is calling in his ear, 'You did It!' He forget what he see in his dreams. He forget the hand that touch him on the arm when he walk in the woods alone, or lie down to sleep at night, no one near. He forget that some one wait--wait--wait, till he has suffer long enough, or till, one day, he think he is happy again, and the Thing he did is far off like a dream--to drag him out to the death he did not die. He forget that he is alone--all alone in the world, for ever and ever and ever."
He suddenly sank upon the floor beside Charley, and a groan burst from his lips. "To have no friend--ah, it is so awful!" he said. "Never to see a face that look into yours, and know how bad are you, and doesn't mind. For five years I have live like that. I cannot let any one be my friend because I was that! They seem to know--everything, everybody-- what I am. The little children when I pass them run away to hide. I have wake in the night and cry out in fear, it is so lonely. I have hear voices round me in the woods, and I run and run and run from them, and not leave them behind. Three times I go to the jails in Quebec to see the prisoners behind the bars, and watch the pains on their faces, to understand what I escape. Five times have I go to the courts to listen to murderers tried, and watch them when the Jury say Guilty! and the Judge send them to death--that I might know. Twice have I go to see murderers hung. Once I was helper to the hangman, that I might hear and know what the man said, what he felt. When the arms were bound, I felt the straps on my own; when the cap come down, I gasp for breath; when the bolt is shot, I feel the wrench and the choke, and shudder go through myself--feel the world jerk out in the dark. When the body is bundled in the pit, I see myself lie still under the quick-lime with the red mark round my throat."
Charley touched him on the shoulder. "Jo--poor Jo, my friend!" he said. Jo raised his eyes, red with an unnatural fire, deep with gratitude.
"As I sit at my dinner, with the sun shining and the woods green and glad, and all the world gay, I have see what happened all over again. I have see his strong hands; his bad face laugh at my words; I have see him raise his riding-whip and cut me across the head. I have see him stagger and fall from the blows I give him with the knife--the knife which never was found--why, I not know, for I throw it on the ground beside him! There, as I sit in the open day, a thousand times I have see him shiver and fall, staring, staring at me as if he see a dreadful thing. Then I stand up again and strike at him--at his ghost!--as I did that day in the woods. Again I see him lie in his blood, straight and white--so large, so handsome, so still! I have shed tears--but what are tears! Blind with tears I have call out for the devils of hell to take me with them. I have call on God to give me death. I have prayed, and I have cursed. Twice I have travelled to the grave where he lies. I have knelt there and have beg him to tell the truth to God, and say that he torture me till I kill him. I have beg him to forgive me and to haunt me no more with his bad face. But never--never--never--have I one quiet hour until you come, M'sieu'; nor any joy in my heart till I tell you the black truth--M'sieu'! M'sieu!"
He buried his face between Charley's feet, and held them with his hands.
Charley laid a hand on the shaggy head as though it were that of a child. "Be still--be still, Jo," he said gently.
Since that night of St. Jean Baptiste's festival, no word of the past, of the time when Charley turned aside the revanche of justice from a man called Joseph Nadeau, had been spoken between them. Out of the delirium of his drunken trance had come Charley's recognition of the man he knew now as Jo Portugais. But the recognition had been sent again into the obscurity whence it came, and had not been mentioned since. To outward seeming they had gone on as before. As Charley saw the knotted brows, the staring eyes, the clinched hands, the figure of the woodsman rigid in its agony of remorse, he said to himself: "What right had I to save this man's life? To have paid for his crime would have been easier for him. I knew he was guilty. Perhaps it was my duty to see that every condition, to the last shade of the law, was satisfied, but was it justice to the poor devil himself? There he sits with a load on him that weighs him down every hour of his life. I called him back; I gave him life; but I gave him memory and remorse, and the ghosts that haunt him: the voice in his ear, the touch on his arm, the some one that is 'waiting--waiting--waiting!' That is what I did, and that is what the brother of the Cure did for me. He drew me back. He knew I was a drunkard, but he drew me back. I might have been a murderer like Portugais. The world says I was a thief, and a thief I am until I prove to the world I am innocent--and wreck three lives! How much of Jo's guilt is guilt? How much remorse should a man suffer to pay the debt of a life? If the law is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, how much hourly remorse and torture, such as Jo's, should balance the eye or the tooth or the life? I wonder, now!"
He leaned over, and, helping Jo to his feet, gently forced him down upon a bench near. "All right, Jo, my friend," he said. "I understand. We'll drink the gall together."
They sat and looked at each other in silence.
At length Charley leaned over and touched Jo on the shoulder.
"Why did you want to save yourself?" he said.
At that instant there was a knock at the door, and a voice said: "Monsieur!--Monsieur!"
Jo sprang to his feet with a sharp exclamation, then went heavily to the door and threw it open.
ROSALIE WARNS CHARLEY
Charley's eyes met Rosalie's with a look the girl had never seen in them before. It gave a glow to his haggard face.
Rosalie turned to Jo and greeted him with a friendlier manner than was her wont towards him. The nearer she was to Charley, the farther away from him, to her mind, was Portugais, and she became magnanimous.
Jo nodded' awkwardly and left the room. Looking after the departing figure, Rosalie said: "I know he has been good to you, but--but do you trust him, Monsieur?"
"Does not everybody in Chaudiere trust him?"
"There is one who does not, though perhaps that's of no consequence."
"Why do you not trust him?"
"I don't know. I never knew him do a bad thing; I never heard of a bad thing he has done; and--he has been good to you."
She paused, flushing as she felt the significance of her words, and continued: "Yet there is--I cannot tell what. I feel something. It is not reasonable to go upon one's feelings; but there it is, and so I do not trust him."
"It is the way he lives, here in these lonely woods--the mystery around him."
A change passed over her. With the first glow of meeting the object of her visit had receded, though since her last interview with the Seigneur she had not rested a moment, in her anxiety to warn him of his danger. "Oh, no," she said, lifting her eyes frankly to his: "oh, no, Monsieur! It is not that. There is mystery about you!" She felt her heart beating hard. It almost choked her, but she kept on bravely. "People say strange and bad things about you. No one knows"--she trembled under the painful inquiry of his eyes. Then she gained courage and went on, for she must make it clear she trusted him, that she took him at his word, before she told him of the peril before him--"No one knows where you came from . . . and it is nobody's business. Some people do not believe in you. But I believe in you--I should believe in you if every one doubted; for there is no feeling in me that says, 'He has done some wicked thing that stands-between us.' It isn't the same as with Portugais, you see-- naturally, it could not be the same."
She seemed not to realise that she was telling more of her own heart than she had ever told. It was a revelation, having its origin in an honesty which impelled a pure outspokenness to himself. Reserve, of course, there had been elsewhere, for did not she hold a secret with him? Had she not hidden things, equivocated else where? Yet it had been at his wish, to protect the name of a dead man, for the repose of whose soul masses were now said, with expensive candles burning. For this she had no repentance; she was without logic where this man's good was at stake.
Charley had before him a problem, which he now knew he never could evade in the future. He could solve it by none of the old intellectual means, but by the use of new faculties, slowly emerging from the unexplored fastnesses of his nature.
"Why should you believe in me?" he asked, forcing himself to smile, yet acutely alive to the fact that a crisis was impending. "You, like all down there in Chaudiere, know nothing of my past, are not sure that I haven't been a hundred times worse than you think poor Jo there. I may have been anything. You may be harbouring a man the law is tracking down."
In all that befell Rosalie Evanturel thereafter, never could come such another great resolute moment. There was nothing to support her in the crisis but her own faith. It needed high courage to tell this man who had first given her dreams, then imagination, hope, and the beauty of doing for another's well-being rather than for her own--to tell this man that he was a suspected criminal. Would he hate her? Would his kindness turn to anger? Would he despise her for even having dared to name the suspicion which was bringing hither an austere Abbe and officers of the law?
"We are harbouring a man the law is tracking down," she said with an infinite appeal in her eyes.
He did not quite understand. He thought that perhaps she meant Jo, and he glanced towards the door; but she kept her eyes on him, and they told him that she meant himself. He chilled, as though ether were being poured through his veins.
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