The Right of Way


"When this is over, Kathleen, I will come to you." So Charley Steele's eyes had said to a lady in the court room on that last day of the great trial. The lady had left the court-room dazed and exalted. She, with hundreds of others, had had a revelation of Charley Steele; had had also the great emotional experience of seeing a crowd make the 'volte face' with their convictions; looking at a prisoner one moment with eyes of loathing and anticipating his gruesome end, the next moment seeing him as the possible martyr to the machinery of the law. She whose heart was used to beat so evenly had felt it leap and swell with excitement, awaiting the moment when the jury filed back into the court-room. Then it stood still, as a wave might hang for an instant at its crest ere it swept down to beat upon the shore.

With her as with most present, the deepest feeling in the agitated suspense was not so much that the prisoner should go free, as that the prisoner's counsel should win his case. It was as if Charley Steele were on trial instead of the prisoner. He was the imminent figure; it was his fate that was in the balance—such was the antic irony of suggestion. And the truth was, that the fates of both prisoner and counsel had been weighed in the balance that sweltering August day.

The prisoner was forgotten almost as soon as he had left the court-room a free man, but wherever men and women met in Montreal that day, one name was on the lips of all-Charley Steele! In his speech he had done two things: he had thrown down every barrier of reserve—or so it seemed—and had become human and intimate. "I could not have believed it of him," was the remark on every lip. Of his ability there never had been a moment's doubt, but it had ever been an uncomfortable ability, it had tortured foes and made friends anxious. No one had ever seen him show feeling. If it was a mask, he had worn it with a curious consistency: it had been with him as a child, at school, at college, and he had brought it back again to the town where he was born. It had effectually prevented his being popular, but it had made him—with his foppishness and his originality—an object of perpetual interest. Few men had ventured to cross swords with him. He left his fellow-citizens very much alone. He was uniformly if distantly courteous, and he was respected in his own profession for his uncommon powers and for an utter indifference as to whether he had cases in court or not.

Coming from the judge's chambers after the trial he went to his office, receiving as he passed congratulations more effusively offered than, as people presently found, his manner warranted.

For he was again the formal, masked Charley Steele, looking calmly through the interrogative eye-glass. By the time he reached his office, greetings became more subdued. His prestige had increased immensely in a few short hours, but he had no more friends than before. Old relations were soon re-established. The town was proud of his ability as it had always been, irritated by his manner as it had always been, more prophetic of his future than it had ever been, and unconsciously grateful for the fact that he had given them a sensation which would outlast the summer.

All these things concerned him little. Once the business of the court-room was over, a thought which had quietly lain in waiting behind the strenuous occupations of his brain leaped forward to exclude all others.

As he entered his office he was thinking of that girl's face in the court-room, with its flush of added beauty which he and his speech had brought there. "What a perfect loveliness!" he said to himself as he bathed his face and hands, and prepared to go into the street again. "She needed just such a flush to make her supreme Kathleen!" He stood, looking out into the square, out into the green of the trees where the birds twittered. "Faultless—faultless in form and feature. She was so as a child, she is so as a woman." He lighted a cigarette, and blew away little clouds of smoke. "I will do it. I will marry her. She will have me: I saw it in her eye. Fairing doesn't matter. Her uncle will never consent to that, and she doesn't care enough for him. She cares, but she doesn't care enough.... I will do it."

He turned towards a cupboard into which he had put a certain bottle before he went to the court-room two hours before. He put the key in the lock, then stopped. "No, I think not!" he said. "What I say to her shall not be said forensically. What a discovery I've made! I was dull, blank, all iron and ice; the judge, the jury, the public, even Kathleen, against me; and then that bottle in there—and I saw things like crystal! I had a glow in my brain, I had a tingle in my fingers; and I had success, and"—his face clouded—"He was as guilty as hell!" he added, almost bitterly, as he put the key of the cupboard into his pocket again.

There was a knock at the door, and a youth of about nineteen entered.

"Hello!" he said. "I say, sir, but that speech of yours struck us all where we couldn't say no. Even Kathleen got in a glow over it. Perhaps Captain Fairing didn't, for he's just left her in a huff, and she's looking—you remember those lines in the school-book:

         "'A red spot burned upon her cheek,
          Streamed her rich tresses down—'"

He laughed gaily. "I've come to ask you up to tea," he added. "The Unclekins is there. When I told him that Kathleen had sent Fairing away with a flea in his ear, he nearly fell off his chair. He lent me twenty dollars on the spot. Are you coming our way?" he continued, suddenly trying to imitate Charley's manner. Charley nodded, and they left the office together and moved away under a long avenue of maples to where, in the shade of a high hill, was the house of the uncle of Kathleen Wantage, with whom she and her brother Billy lived. They walked in silence for some time, and at last Billy said, 'a propos' of nothing:

"Fairing hasn't a red cent."

"You have a perambulating mind, Billy," said Charley, and bowed to a young clergyman approaching them from the opposite direction.

"What does that mean?" remarked Billy, and said "Hello!" to the young clergyman, and did not wait for Charley's answer.

The Rev. John Brown was by no means a conventional parson. He was smoking a cigarette, and two dogs followed at his heels. He was certainly not a fogy. He had more than a little admiration for Charley Steele, but he found it difficult to preach when Charley was in the congregation. He was always aware of a subterranean and half-pitying criticism going on in the barrister's mind. John Brown knew that he could never match his intelligence against Charley's, in spite of the theological course at Durham, so he undertook to scotch the snake by kindness. He thought that he might be able to do this, because Charley, who was known to be frankly agnostical, came to his church more or less regularly.

The Rev. John Brown was not indifferent to what men thought of him. He had a reputation for being "independent," but his chief independence consisted in dressing a little like a layman, posing as the athletic parson of the new school, consorting with ministers of the dissenting denominations when it was sufficiently effective, and being a "good fellow" with men easily bored by church and churchmen. He preached theatrical sermons to societies and benevolent associations. He wanted to be thought well of on all hands, and he was shrewd enough to know that if he trimmed between ritualism on one hand and evangelicism on the other, he was on a safe road. He might perforate old dogmatical prejudices with a good deal of freedom so long as he did not begin bringing "millinery" into the service of the church. He invested his own personal habits with the millinery. He looked a picturesque figure with his blond moustache, a little silk-lined brown cloak thrown carelessly over his shoulder, a gold-headed cane, and a brisk jacket half ecclesiastical, half military.

He had interested Charley Steele, also he had amused him, and sometimes he had surprised him into a sort of admiration; for Brown had a temperament capable of little inspirations—such a literary inspiration as might come to a second-rate actor—and Charley never belittled any man's ability, but seized upon every sign of knowledge with the appreciation of the epicure.

John Brown raised his hat to Charley, then held out a hand. "Masterly-masterly!" he said. "Permit my congratulations. It was the one thing to do. You couldn't have saved him by making him an object of pity, by appealing to our sympathies."

"What do you take to be the secret, then?" asked Charley, with a look half abstracted, half quizzical. "Terror—sheer terror. You startled the conscience. You made defects in the circumstantial evidence, the imminent problems of our own salvation. You put us all on trial. We were under the lash of fear. If we parsons could only do that from the pulpit!"

"We will discuss that on our shooting-trip next week. Duck-shooting gives plenty of time for theological asides. You are coming, eh?"

John Brown scarcely noticed the sarcasm, he was so delighted at the suggestion that he was to be included in the annual duck-shoot of the Seven, as the little yearly party of Charley and his friends to Lake Aubergine was called. He had angled for this invitation for two years.

"I must not keep you," Charley said, and dismissed him with a bow. "The sheep will stray, and the shepherd must use his crook."

Brown smiled at the badinage, and went on his way rejoicing in the fact that he was to share the amusements of the Seven at Lake Aubergine—the Lake of the Mad Apple. To get hold of these seven men of repute and position, to be admitted into this good presence!—He had a pious exaltation, but whether it was because he might gather into the fold erratic and agnostical sheep like Charley Steele, or because it pleased his social ambitions, he had occasion to answer in the future. He gaily prepared to go to the Lake of the Mad Apple, where he was fated to eat of the tree of knowledge.

Charley Steele and Billy Wantage walked on slowly to the house under the hill.

"He's the right sort," said Billy. "He's a sport. I can stand that kind. Did you ever hear him sing? No? Well, he can sing a comic song fit to make you die. I can sing a bit myself, but to hear him sing 'The Man Who Couldn't Get Warm' is a show in itself. He can play the banjo too, and the guitar—but he's best on the banjo. It's worth a dollar to listen to his Epha-haam—that's Ephraim, you know—Ephahaam Come Home,' and 'I Found Y' in de Honeysuckle Paitch.'"

"He preaches, too!" said Charley drily.

They had reached the door of the house under the hill, and Billy had no time for further remark. He ran into the drawing-room, announcing Charley with the words: "I say, Kathleen, I've brought the man that made the judge sit up."

Billy suddenly stopped, however, for there sat the judge who had tried the case, calmly munching a piece of toast. The judge did not allow himself the luxury of embarrassment, but bowed to Charley with a smile, which he presently turned on Kathleen, who came as near being disconcerted as she had ever been in her life.

Kathleen had passed through a good deal to look so unflurried. She had been on trial in the court-room as well as the prisoner. Important things had been at stake with her. She and Charley Steele had known each other since they were children. To her, even in childhood, he had been a dominant figure. He had judicially and admiringly told her she was beautiful—when he was twelve and she five. But he had said it without any of those glances which usually accompanied the same sentiments in the mouths of other lads. He had never made boy-love to her, and she had thrilled at the praise of less splendid people than Charley Steele. He had always piqued her, he was so superior to the ordinary enchantments of youth, beauty, and fine linen.

As he came and went, growing older and more characteristic, more and more "Beauty Steele," accompanied by legends of wild deeds and days at college, by tales of his fopperies and the fashions he had set, she herself had grown, as he had termed it, more "decorative." He had told her so, not in the least patronisingly, but as a simple fact in which no sentiment lurked. He thought her the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, but he had never regarded her save as a creation for the perfect pleasure of the eye; he thought her the concrete glory of sensuous purity, no more capable of sentiment than himself. He had said again and again, as he grew older and left college and began the business of life after two years in Europe, that sentiment would spoil her, would scatter the charm of her perfect beauty; it would vitalise her too much, and her nature would lose its proportion; she would be decentralised! She had been piqued at his indifference to sentiment; she could not easily be content without worship, though she felt none. This pique had grown until Captain Tom Fairing crossed her path.

Fairing was the antithesis of Charley Steele. Handsome, poor, enthusiastic, and none too able, he was simple and straightforward, and might be depended on till the end of the chapter. And the end of it was, that in so far as she had ever felt real sentiment for anybody, she felt it for Tom Fairing of the Royal Fusileers. It was not love she felt in the old, in the big, in the noble sense, but it had behind it selection and instinct and natural gravitation.

Fairing declared his love. She would give him no answer. For as soon as she was presented with the issue, the destiny, she began to look round her anxiously. The first person to fill the perspective was Charley Steele. As her mind dwelt on him, her uncle gave forth his judgment, that she should never have a penny if she married Tom Fairing. This only irritated her, it did not influence her. But there was Charley. He was a figure, was already noted in his profession because of a few masterly successes in criminal cases, and if he was not popular, he was distinguished, and the world would talk about him to the end. He was handsome, and he was well-to-do-he had a big unoccupied house on the hill among the maples. How many people had said, What a couple they would make-Charley Steele and Kathleen Wantage!

So, as Fairing presented an issue to her, she concentrated her thoughts as she had never done before on the man whom the world set apart for her, in a way the world has.

As she looked and looked, Charley began to look also. He had not been enamoured of the sordid things of the world; he had been merely curious. He thought vice was ugly; he had imagination and a sense of form. Kathleen was beautiful. Sentiment had, so he thought, never seriously disturbed her; he did not think it ever would. It had not affected him. He did not understand it. He had been born non-intime. He had had acquaintances, but never friendships, and never loves or love. But he had a fine sense of the fitting and the proportionate, and he worshipped beauty in so far as he could worship anything. The homage was cerebral, intellectual, temperamental, not of the heart. As he looked out upon the world half pityingly, half ironically, he was struck with wonder at the disproportion which was engendered by "having heart," as it was called. He did not find it necessary.

Now that he had begun to think of marriage, who so suitable as Kathleen? He knew of Fairing's adoration, but he took it as a matter of course that she had nothing to give of the same sort in return. Her beauty was still serene and unimpaired. He would not spoil it by the tortures of emotion. He would try to make Kathleen's heart beat in harmony with his own; it should not thunder out of time. He had made up his mind that he would marry her.

For Kathleen, with the great trial, the beginning of the end had come. Charley's power over her was subtle, finely sensuous, and, in deciding, there were no mere heart-impulses working for Charley. Instinct and impulse were working in another direction. She had not committed her mind to either man, though her heart, to a point, was committed to Fairing.

On the day of the trial, however, she fell wholly under that influence which had swayed judge, jury, and public. To her the verdict of the jury was not in favour of the prisoner at the bar—she did not think of him. It was in favour of Charley Steele.

And so, indifferent as to who heard, over the heads of the people in front of her, to the accused's counsel inside the railings, she had called, softly: "Charley! Charley!"

Now, in the house under the hill, they were face to face, and the end was at hand: the end of something and the beginning of something.

There was a few moments of casual conversation, in which Billy talked as much as anybody, and then Kathleen said:

"What do you suppose was the man's motive for committing the murder?"

Charley looked at Kathleen steadily, curiously, through his monocle. It was a singular compliment she paid him. Her remark took no heed of the verdict of the jury. He turned inquiringly towards the judge, who, though slightly shocked by the question, recovered himself quickly.

"What do you think it was, sir?" Charley asked quietly.

"A woman—and revenge, perhaps," answered the judge, with a matter-of-course air.

A few moments afterwards the judge was carried off by Kathleen's uncle to see some rare old books; Billy, his work being done, vanished; and Kathleen and Charley were left alone.

"You did not answer me in the court-room," Kathleen said. "I called to you."

"I wanted to hear you say them here," he rejoined. "Say what?" she asked, a little puzzled by the tone of his voice.

"Your congratulations," he answered.

She held out a hand to him. "I offer them now. It was wonderful. You were inspired. I did not think you could ever let yourself go."

He held her hand firmly. "I promise not to do it again," he said whimsically.

"Why not?"

"Have I not your congratulations?" His hand drew her slightly towards him; she rose to her feet.

"That is no reason," she answered, confused, yet feeling that there was a double meaning in his words.

"I could not allow you to be so vain," he said. "We must be companionable. Henceforth I shall congratulate myself—Kathleen."

There was no mistaking now. "Oh, what is it you are going to say to me?" she asked, yet not disengaging her hand.

"I said it all in the court-room," he rejoined; "and you heard."

"You want me to marry you—Charley?" she asked frankly.

"If you think there is no just impediment," he answered, with a smile.

She drew her hand away, and for a moment there was a struggle in her mind—or heart. He knew of what she was thinking, and he did not consider it of serious consequence. Romance was a trivial thing, and women were prone to become absorbed in trivialities. When the woman had no brains, she might break her life upon a trifle. But Kathleen had an even mind, a serene temperament. Her nerves were daily cooled in a bath of nature's perfect health. She had never had an hour's illness in her life.

"There is no just or unjust impediment, Kathleen," he added presently, and took her hand again.

She looked him in the eyes clearly. "You really think so?" she asked.

"I know so," he answered. "We shall be two perfect panels in one picture of life."

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