The Right of Way


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 ciphers." He opened the paper containing the powders, and looked round for water, then paused, folded the paper up, and put it in his pocket again. He went over to the window and looked out. His shoulders set square. "No, no, no, not a speck on my tongue!" he said. "What I can't do of my own will is not worth doing. It's too foolish, to yield to the shadow of an old appetite. I play this game alone—here in Chaudiere."

He looked out and down. The sweet sun of early spring was shining hard, and the snow was beginning to pack, to hang like a blanket on the branches, to lie like a soft coverlet over all the forest and the fields. Far away on the frozen river were saplings stuck up to show where the ice was safe—a long line of poles from shore to shore—and carioles were hurrying across to the village. Being market-day, the place was alive with the cheerful commerce of the habitant. The bell of the parish church was ringing. The sound of it came up distantly and peacefully. Charley drew a long breath, turned away to a pail of water, filled a dipper half full, and drank it off gaspingly. Then he returned to the window with a look of relief.

"That does it," he said. "The horrible thing is gone again—out of my brain and out of my throat."

As he stood there, Jo came up the hill with a bundle in his arms. Charley watched him for a moment, half whimsically, half curiously. Yet he sighed once too as Portugais opened the door and came into the room. "Well done, Jo!" said he. "You have 'em?"

"Yes, M'sieu'. A good suit, and I believe they'll fit. Old Trudel says it's the best suit he's made in a year. I'm afraid he'll not make many more suits, old Trudel.

"He's very bad. When he goes there'll be no tailor—ah, old Trudel will be missed for sure, M'sieu'!"

Jo spread the clothes out on the table—a coat, waistcoat, and trousers of fulled cloth, grey and bulky, and smelling of the loom and the tailor's iron. Charley looked at them interestedly, then glanced at the clothes he had on, the suit that had belonged to him last year—grave-clothes.

He drew himself up as though rousing from a dream. "Come, Jo, clear out, and you shall have your new habitant in a minute," he said. Portugais left the room, and when he came back, Charley was dressed in the suit of grey fulled cloth. It was loose, but comfortable, and save for the refined face—on which a beard was growing now—and the eye-glass, he might easily have passed for a farmer. When he put on the dog-skin fur cap and a small muffler round his neck, it was the costume of the habitant complete.

Yet it was no disguise, for it was part of the life that Charles Mallard, once Charley Steele, should lead henceforth.

He turned to the door and opened it. "Good-bye, Portugais," he said.

Jo was startled. "Where are you going, M'sieu'?"

"To the village."

"What to do, M'sieu'?"

"Who knows?"

"You will come back?" Jo asked anxiously.

"Before sundown, Jo. Good-bye!"

This was the first long walk he had taken since he had become himself again. The sweet, cold air, with a bracing wind in his face, gave peace to the nerves but now strained and fevered in the fight with appetite. His mind cleared, and he drank in the sunny air and the pungent smell of the balsams. His feet light with moccasins, he even ran a distance, enjoying the glow from a fast-beating pulse.

As he came into the high-road, people passed him in carioles and sleighs. Some eyed him curiously. What did he mean to do? What object had he in coming to the village? What did he expect? As he entered the village his pace slackened. He had no destination, no object. He was simply aware that his new life was beginning.

He passed a little house on which was a sign, "Narcisse Dauphin, Notary." It gave him a curious feeling. It was the old life before him. "Charles Mallard, Notary?"—No, that was not for him. Everything that reminded him of the past, that brought him in touch with it, must be set aside. He moved on. Should he go to the Cure? No; one thing at a time, and today he wanted his thoughts for himself. More people passed him, and spoke of him to each other, though there was no coarse curiosity—the habitant has manners.

Presently he passed a low shop with a divided door. The lower half was closed, the upper open, and the winter sun was shining full into the room, where a bright fire burned.

Charley looked up. Over the door was painted, in straggling letters: "Louis Trudel, Tailor." He looked inside. There, on a low table, bent over his work, with a needle in his hand, sat Louis Trudel the tailor. Hearing footsteps, feeling a shadow, he looked up. Charley started at the look of the shrunken, yellow face; for if ever death had set his seal, it was on that haggard parchment. The tailor's yellow eyes ran from Charley's face to his clothes.

"I knew they'd fit," he said, with a snarl. "Drove me hard, too!"

Charley had an inspiration. He opened the halfdoor, and entered.

"Do you want help?" he said, fixing his eyes on the tailor's, steady and persistent.

"What's the good of wanting—I can't get it," was the irritable reply, as he uncrossed his legs.

Charley took the iron out of his hand. "I'll press, if you'll show me how," he said.

"I don't want a fiddling ten-minutes' help like that."

"It isn't fiddling. I'm going to stay, if you think I'll do."

"You are going to stop-every day?" The old man's voice quavered a little.

"Precisely that." Charley wetted a seam with water as he had often seen tailors do. He dropped the hot iron on the seam, and sniffed with satisfaction.

"Who are you?" said the tailor.

"A man who wants work. The Cure knows. It's all right. Shall I stay?"

The tailor nodded, and sat down with a colour in his face.

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