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- The Right of Way, Volume 4. - 3/14 -
Did the world know, then, that Charley Steele was alive? Was the law sending its officers to seize the embezzler, the ruffian who had robbed widow and orphan?
If it were so. . . . To go back to the world whence he came, with the injury he must do to others, and the punishment also that he must suffer, if he did not tell the truth about Billy! And Chaudiere, which, in spite of all, was beginning to have a real belief in him--where was his contempt for the world now! . . . And Rosalie, who trusted him-- this new element rapidly grew dominant in his thoughts-to be the common criminal in her eyes!
His paleness gave way to a flush as like her own as could be.
"You mean me?" he asked quietly.
She had thought that his flush meant anger, and she was surprised at the quiet tone. She nodded assent. "For what crime?" he asked.
His heart seemed to stand still. Then, it had come in spite of all it had come. Here was his resurrection, and the old life to face.
"What did I steal?" he asked with dull apathy. "The gold vessels from the Catholic Cathedral of Quebec, after--after trying to blow up Government House with gunpowder."
His despair passed. His face suddenly lighted. He smiled. It was so absurd. "Really!" he said. "When was the place blown up?"
"Two days before you came here last year--it was not blown up; an attempt was made."
"Ah, I did not know. Why was the attempt made to blow it up?"
"Some Frenchman's hatred of the English, they say."
"But I am not French."
"They do not know. You speak French as perfectly as English--ah, Monsieur, Monsieur, I believe you are whatever you say." Pain and appeal rang from her lips.
"I am only an honest tailor," he answered gently. He ruled his face to calmness, for he read the agony in the girl's face, and troubled as he was, he wished to show her that he had no fear.
"It is for what you were they will arrest you," she said helplessly, and as though he needed to have all made clear to him. "Oh, Monsieur," she continued, in a broken voice, "it would shame me so to have you made a prisoner in Chaudiere--before all these silly people, who turn with the wind. I should not lift my head--but yes, I should lift my head!" she added hurriedly. "I should tell them all they lied--every one--the idiots! The Seigneur--"
"Well, what of the Seigneur-Rosalie?"
Her own name on his lips--the sound of it dimmed her eyes.
"Monsieur Rossignol does not know you. He neither believes nor disbelieves. He said to me that if you wanted consideration, to command him, for in Chaudiere he had heard nothing but good of you. If you stayed, he would see that you had justice--not persecution. I saw him two hours ago."
She said the last words shyly, for she was thinking why the Seigneur had spoken as he did--that he had taken her opinion of Monsieur as his guide, and she had not scrupled to impress him with her views. The Seigneur was in danger of becoming prejudiced by his sentiments.
A wave of feeling passed over Charley, a rushing wave of sympathy for this simple girl, who, out of a blind confidence, risked so much for him. Risk there certainly was, if she--if she cared for him. It was cruelty not to reassure her.
Touching his breast, he said gravely: "By this sign here, I am not guilty of the crime for which they come to seek me, Rosalie. Nor of any other crime for which the law might punish me--dear, noble friend."
He did so little to get such rich return. Her eyes leaped up to brighter degrees of light, her face shone with a joy it had never reflected before, her blood rushed to her finger-tips. She abruptly sat down in a chair and buried her face in her hands, trembling. Then, lifting her head slowly, after a moment she spoke in a tone that told him her faith, her gratitude--not for reassurance, but for confidence, which is as water in a thirsty land to a woman.
"Oh, Monsieur, I thank you, I thank you from the depth of my heart; and my heart is deep indeed, very, very deep--I cannot find what lies lowest in it! I thank you, because you trust me, because you make it so easy to--to be your friend; to say 'I know' when any one might doubt you. One has no right to speak for another till--till the other has given confidence, has said you may. Ah, Monsieur, I am so happy!"
In very abandonment of heart she clasped her hands and came a step nearer to him, but abruptly stopped still; for, realising her action, timidity and embarrassment rushed upon her.
Charley understood, and again his impulse was to say what was in his heart and dare all; but resolution possessed him, and he said quickly:
"Once, Rosalie, you saved me--from death perhaps. Once your hands helped my pain--here." He touched his breast. "Your words now, and what you do, they still help me--here . . . but in a different way. The trouble is in my heart, Rosalie. You are glad of my confidence? Well, I will give you more. . . . I cannot go back to my old life. To do so would injure others--some who have never injured me and some who have. That is why. That is why I do not wish to be taken to Quebec now on a false charge. That is all I can say. Is it enough?"
She was about to answer, but Jo Portugais entered, exclaiming. "M'sieu'," he cried, "men are coming with the Seigneur and Cure."
Charley nodded at Jo, then turned to Rosalie. "You need not be seen if you go out by the back way, Mademoiselle." He held aside the bear-skin curtain of the door that led into the next room.
There was a frightened look in her face. "Do not fear for me," he continued. "It will come right--somehow. You have done more for me than any one has ever done or ever will do. I will remember till the last moment of my life. Good-bye."
He laid a hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her from the room.
"God protect you! The Blessed Virgin speak for you! I will pray for you," she whispered.
CHARLEY STANDS AT BAY
Charley turned quickly to the woodsman. "Listen," he said, and he told Jo how things stood.
"You will not hide, M'sieu'? There is time," Jo asked.
"I will not hide, Jo."
"What will you do?"
"I'll decide when they come."
There was silence for a moment, then the sound of voices on the hill- side.
Charley's soul rose up in revolt against the danger that faced him--not against personal peril, but the danger of being dragged back again into the life he had come from, with all that it involved--the futility of this charge against him! To be the victim of an error--to go to the bar of justice with the hand of injustice on his arm!
All at once the love of this new life welled up in him, as a spring of water overflows its bounds. A voice kept ringing in his ears, "I will pray for you." Subconsciously his mind kept saying, "Rosalie--Rosalie-- Rosalie!" There was nothing now that he would not do to avert his being taken away upon this ridiculous charge. Mistaken identity? To prove that, he must at once prove himself--who he was, whence he came. Tell the Cure, and make it a point of honour for his secret to be kept? But once told, the new life would no longer stand by itself as the new life, cut off from all contact with the past. Its success, its possibility, must lie in its absolute separateness, with obscurity behind--as though he had come out of nothing into this very room, on that winter morning when memory returned.
It was clear that he must, somehow, evade the issue. He glanced at Jo, whose eyes, strained and painful, were fixed upon the door. Here was a man who suffered for his sake. . . . He took a step forward, as though with sudden resolve, but there came a knocking, and, pausing, he motioned Jo to open the door. Then, turning to a shelf, he took something from it hastily, and kept it in his hand.
Jo roused himself with an effort, and opened to the knocking.
Three people entered: the Seigneur, the Cure, and the Abbe Rossignol, an ascetic, severe man, with a face of intolerance and inflexibility. Two constables in plain clothes followed; one stolid, one alert, one English and one French, both with grim satisfaction in their faces--the successful exercise of his trade is pleasant to every craftsman. When they entered, Charley was standing with his back to the fireplace, his eye-glass adjusted, one hand stroking his beard, the other held behind his back.
The Cure came forward and shook hands in an eager friendly way.
"My dear Monsieur," said he, "I hope that you are better."
"I am quite well, thank you, Monsieur le Cure," answered Charley. "I shall get back to work on Monday, I hope."
"Yes, yes, that is good," responded the Cure, and seemed confused. He turned uneasily to the Seigneur. "You have come to see my friend Portugais," Charley remarked slowly, almost apologetically. "I will take my leave." He made a step forward. The two constables did the same, and would have laid their hands upon his shoulder but that the Seigneur said tartly:
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