The Right of Way


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 came 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."

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.

"No, Monsieur."

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,

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.

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