The Right of Way


It was St. Jean Baptiste's day, and French Canada was en fete. Every seigneur, every cure, every doctor, every notary—the chief figures in a parish—and every habitant was bent for a happy holiday, dressed in his best clothes, moved in his best spirits, in the sweet summer weather.

Bells were ringing, flags were flying, every road and lane was filled with caleches and wagons, and every dog that could draw a cart pulled big and little people, the old and the blind and the mendicant, the happy and the sour, to the village, where there were to be sports and speeches, races upon the river, and a review of the militia, arranged by the member of the Legislature for the Chaudiere-half of the county. French soldiers in English red coats and carrying British flags were straggling along the roads to join the battalion at the volunteers' camp three miles from the town, and singing:

          "Brigadier, respondez Pandore—
          Brigadier, vous avez raison."

It was not less incongruous and curious when one group presently broke out into 'God save the Queen', and another into the 'Marseillaise', and another still into 'Malbrouck s'en va t'en guerre'. At last songs and soldiers were absorbed in the battalion at the rendezvous, and the long dusty march to the village gave a disciplined note to the gaiety of the militant habitant.

At high noon Chaudiere was filled to overflowing. There were booths and tents everywhere—all sorts of cheap-jacks vaunted their wares, merry-go-rounds and swings and shooting-galleries filled the usual spaces in the perspective. The Cure, M. Rossignol the Seigneur, and the Notary stood on the church steps viewing the scene and awaiting the approach of the soldier-citizens. The Seigneur and the Cure had ceased listening to the babble of M. Dauphin, who seemed not to know that his audience closed its ears and found refuge in a "Well, well!" or "Think of that!" or an abstracted "You surprise me!"

The Notary talked on with eager gesture and wreathing smile, shaking back his oiled ringlets as though they trespassed on his smooth, somewhat jaundiced cheeks, until it began to dawn upon him that there was no coin of real applause to be got at this mint. Fortune favoured him at the critical juncture, for the tailor walked slowly past them, looking neither to right nor to left, his eyes cast upon the ground, apparently oblivious to all round him. Almost opposite the church door, however, Charley was suddenly stopped by Filion Lacasse, who ran out from a group before the tavern, and, standing in front of him with outstretched hand, said loudly:

"M'sieu', it's all right. What you said done it, sure! I'm a thousand dollars richer to-day. You may be an infidel, but you have a head, and you save me money, and you give away your own, and that's good enough for me,"—he wrung Charley's hand,—"and I don't care who knows it—sacre!"

Charley did not answer him, but calmly withdrew his hand, smiled, raised his hat at the lonely cheer the saddler raised, and passed on, scarce conscious of what had happened. Indeed he was indifferent to it, for he had a matter on his mind this day which bitterly absorbed him.

But the Notary was not indifferent. "Look there, what do you think of that?" he asked querulously. "I am glad to see that Lacasse treats Monsieur well," said the Cure.

"What do you think of that, Monsieur?" repeated the Notary excitedly to the Seigneur.

The Seigneur put his large gold-handled glass to his eye and looked interestedly after Charley for a moment, then answered: "Well, Dauphin, what?"

"He's been giving Filion Lacasse advice about the old legacy business, and Filion's taken it; and he's got a thousand dollars; and now there's all that fuss. And four months ago Filion wanted to tar and feather him for being just what he is to-day—an infidel—an infidel!"

He was going to say something else, but he did not like the look the Cure turned on him, and he broke off short.

"Do you regret that he gave Lacasse good advice?" asked the Cure.

"It's taking bread out of other men's mouths."

"It put bread into Filion's mouth. Did you ever give Lacasse advice? The truth now, Dauphin!" said the Seigneur drily.

"Yes, Monsieur, and sound advice too, within the law-precedent and code and every legal fact behind." The Seigneur was a man of laconic speech. "Tut, tut, Dauphin; precedent and code and legal fact are only good when there's brain behind 'em. The tailor yonder has brains."

"Ah, but what does he know about the law?" answered Dauphin, with acrimonious voice but insinuating manner, for he loved to stand well with the Seigneur.

"Enough for the saddler evidently," sharply rejoined the Seigneur.

Dauphin was fighting for his life, as it were. His back was to the wall. If this man was to be allowed to advise the habitants of Chaudiere on their disputes and "going to law," where would his own prestige be? His vanity had been deeply wounded.

"It's guesswork with him. Let him stick to his trade as I stick to mine. That sort of thing only does harm."

"He puts a thousand dollars into the saddler's pocket: that's a positive good. He may or may not take thereby ten dollars out of your pocket: that's a negative injury. In this case there was no injury, for you had already cost Lacasse—how much had you cost him, Dauphin?" continued the Seigneur, with a half-malicious smile. "I've been out of Chaudiere for near a year; I don't know the record—how much, eh, Dauphin?"

The Notary was too offended to answer. He shook his ringlets back angrily, and a scarlet spot showed on each straw-coloured cheek.

"Twenty dollars is what Lacasse paid our dear Dauphin," said the Cure benignly, "and a very proper charge. Lacasse probably gave Monsieur there quite as much, and Monsieur will give it to the first poor man he meets, or send it to the first sick person of whom he hears."

"My own opinion is, he's playing some game here," said the Notary.

"We all play games," said the Seigneur. "His seems to give him hard work and little luxury. Will you bring him to see me at the Manor, my dear Cure?" he added. "He will not go. I have asked him."

"Then I shall visit him at his tailor-shop," said the Seigneur. "I need a new suit."

"But you always had your clothes made in Quebec, Monsieur," said the Notary, still carping.

"We never had such a tailor," answered the Seigneur.

"We'll hear more of him before we're done with him," obstinately urged the Notary.

"It would give Dauphin the greatest pleasure if our tailor proved to be a murderer or a robber. I suppose you believe that he stole our little cross here," the Cure added, turning to the church door, where his eye lingered lovingly on the relic, hanging on a pillar just inside, whither he had had it removed.

"I'm not sure yet he hadn't something to do with it," was the stubborn response.

"If he did, may it bring him peace at last!" said the Cure piously. "I have set my heart on nailing him to our blessed faith as that cross is fixed to the pillar yonder—'I will fasten him like a nail in a sure place,' says the Book. I take it hard that my friend Dauphin will not help me on the way. Suppose the man were evil, then the Church should try to snatch him like a brand from the burning. But suppose that in his past there was no wrong necessary to be hidden in the present—and this I believe with all my heart; suppose that he was wronged, not wronging: then how much more should the Church strive to win him to the light! Why, man, have you no pride in Holy Church? I am ashamed of you, Dauphin, with your great intelligence, your wide reading. With our knowledge of the world we should be broader."

The Seigneur's eyes were turned away, for there was in them at once humour and a suspicious moisture. Of all men in the world he most admired the Cure, for his utter truth and nobility; but he could not help smiling at his enthusiasm—his dear Cure turned evangelist like any "Methody"!—and at the appeal of the Notary on the ground of knowledge of the world. He was wise enough to count himself an old fogy, a provincial, and "a simon-pure habitant," but of the three he only had any knowledge of life. As men of the world the Cure and the Notary were sad failures, though they stood for much in Chaudiere. Yet this detracted nothing from the fine gentlemanliness of the Cure or the melodramatic courtesy of the Notary.

Amused and touched as the Seigneur had been at the Cure's words, he turned now and said: "Always on the weaker side, Cure; always hoping the best from the worst of us."

"I am only following an example at my door—you taught us all charity and justice," answered M. Loisel, looking meaningly at the Seigneur. There was silence a little while, for all three were thinking of the woman of the hut, at the gate of the Seigneur's manor.

On this topic M. Dauphin was not voluble. His original kindness to the woman had given him many troubled hours at home, for Madame Dauphin had construed his human sympathy into the dark and carnal desires of the heart, and his truthful eloquence had made his case the worse. A miserable sentimentalist, the Notary was likely to be misunderstood for ever, and one or two indiscretions of his extreme youth had been a weapon against him through the long years of a blameless married life.

He heaved a sigh of sympathy with the Cure now. "She has not come back yet?" he said to the Seigneur. "No sign of her. She locked up and stepped out, so my housekeeper says, about the time—"

"The day of old Margot's funeral," interposed the Notary. "She'd had a letter that day, a letter she'd been waiting for, and abroad she went—alas! the flyaway—from bad to worse, I fear—ah me!"

The Seigneur turned sharply on him. "Who told you she had a letter that day, for which she had been waiting?" he said.

"Monsieur Evanturel."

The Seigneur's face became sterner still. "What business had he to know that she received a letter that day?"

"He is postmaster," innocently replied the Notary. "He is the devil!" said the Seigneur tartly. "I beg your pardon, Cure; but it is Evanturel's business not to know what letters go to and fro in that office. He should be blind and dumb, so far as we all are concerned."

"Remember that Evanturel is a cripple," the Cure answered gently. "I am glad, very glad it was not Rosalie."

"Rosalie has more than usual sense for her sex," gruffly but kindly answered the Seigneur, a look of friendliness in his eyes. "I shall talk to her about her father; I can't trust myself to speak to the man."

"Rosalie is down there with Madame Dauphin," said the Notary, pointing. "Shall I ask her to come?"

The Seigneur nodded. He was magistrate and magnate, and he was the guarantor of the post-office, and of Rosalie and her father. His eyes fixed in reverie on Rosalie; he and the Cure passively waited her approach.

She came over, pale and a little anxious, but with a courageous look. She had a vague sense of trouble, and she feared it might be the little cross, that haunting thing of all these months.

When she came near, the Cure greeted her courteously, and then, taking the Notary by the arm, led him away.

The Seigneur and Rosalie being left alone, the girl said: "You wish to speak with me, Monsieur?"

The Seigneur scrutinised her sharply. Though her colour came and went, her look was frank and fearless. She had had many dark hours since that fateful month of April. At night, trying to sleep, she had heard the ghostly footsteps in the church, which had sent her flying homeward. Then, there was the hood. She had waited on and on, fearing word would come that it had been found in the churchyard, and that she had been seen putting the cross back upon the church door. As day after day passed she had come at length to realise that, whatever had happened to the hood, she was not suspected. Yet the whole train of circumstances had a supernatural air, for the Cure and Jo Portugais had not made public their experience on the eventful night; she had been educated in a land of legend and superstition, and a deep impression had been made upon her mind, giving to her other new emotions a touch of pathos, of imagination, and adding character to her face. The old Seigneur stroked his chin as he looked at her. He realised that a change had come upon her, that she had developed in some surprising way.

"What has happened—who has happened, Mademoiselle Rosalie?" he asked. He had suddenly made up his mind about that look in her face—he thought it the woman in her which answers to the call of man, not perhaps any particular man, but man the attractive influence, the complement.

Her eyes dropped, then raised frankly to his. "I don't know,"—adding, with a quick humour, for he had been very friendly with her, and joked with her in his dry way all her life; "do you, Monsieur?"

He pulled his nose with a quick gesture habitual to him, and answered slowly and meaningly: "The government's a good husband and pays regular wages, Mademoiselle. I'd stick to government."

"I am not asking for a divorce, Monsieur."

He pulled his nose again delightedly—so many people were pathetically in earnest in Chaudiere—even the Cure's humour was too mediaeval and obvious. He had never before thought Rosalie so separate from them all. All at once he had a new interest in her. His cheek flushed a little, his eye kindled, humour relaxed his lips.

"No other husband would intrude so little," he rejoined.

"True, there's little love lost between us, Monsieur." She felt exhilaration in talking with him, a kind of joy in measuring word against word; yet a year ago she would have done no more than smile respectfully and give a demure reply if the Seigneur had spoken to her like this.

The Seigneur noted the mixed emotions in her face and the delicate alertness of expression. As a man of the world, he was inclined to believe that only one kind of experience can bring such looks to a woman's face. He saw in her the awakening of the deeper interests of life, the tremulous apprehension of nascent emotions and passions which, at some time or other, give beauty and importance to the nature of every human being. It did not occur to him that the tailor—the mysterious figure in the parish—might be responsible. He was observant, but not imaginative; he was moved by what he saw, in a quiet, unexplainable manner.

"The government is the best sort of husband. From the other sort you would get more kisses and less ha'pence," he continued.

"That might be a satisfactory balance-sheet, Monsieur."

"Take care, Mademoiselle Rosalie," he rejoined, half seriously, "that you don't miss the ha'pence before you get the kisses."

She turned pale in very fear. What was he going to say? Was the post-office to be taken from them? She came straight to the point.

"What have I done wrong, Monsieur? I've never kept the mail-stage waiting; I've never left the mailbag unlocked; I've never been late in opening the wicket; I've never been careless, and no one's ever complained of a lost letter."

The Seigneur saw her agitation, and was sorry for her. He came to the point as she had done:

"We will have you made postmistress—you alone, Rosalie Evanturel. I've made up my mind to that. But you'll promise not to get married—eh? Anyhow, there's no one in the parish for you to marry. You're too well-born and you've been too well educated for a habitant's wife—and the Cure or I can't marry you."

He was not taken back to see her flush deeply, and it pleased him to see this much life rising to his own touch, this much revelation to give his mind a new interest. He had come to that age when the mind is surprised to find that the things that once charmed charm less, and the things once hated are less acutely repulsive. He saw her embarrassment. He did not know that this was the first time that she had ever thought of marriage since it ceased to be a dream of girlhood, and, by reason of thinking much on a man, had become a possibility, which, however, she had never confessed to herself. Here she was faced by it now in the broad open day: a plain, hard statement, unrelieved by aught save the humour of the shrewd eyes bent upon her.

She did not answer him at once. "Do you promise not to marry so useless a thing as man, and to remain true to the government?" he continued.

"If I wished to marry a man, I should not let the government stand in my way," she said, in brave confusion.

"But do you wish to marry any man?" he asked abruptly, even petulantly.

"I have not asked myself that question, Monsieur, and—should you ask it, unless—" she said, and paused with as pretty and whimsical a glance of merriment as could well be.

He burst out laughing at the swift turn she had given her reply, and at the double suggestion. Then he suddenly changed. A curious expression filled his eyes. A smile, almost beautiful, came to his lips.

"'Pon my honour," he said, in a low tone, "you have me caught! And I beg to say—I beg to say," he added, with a flush mounting in his own face, a sudden inspiration in his look, "that if you do not think me too old and crabbed and ugly, and can endure me, I shall be profoundly happy if you will marry me, Rosalie."

He stood upright, holding himself very hard, for this idea had shot into his mind all in an instant, though, unknown to himself, it had been growing for years, cherished by many a kind act to her father and by a simple gratitude on her part. He had spoken without feeling the absurdity of the proposal. He had never married, and he was unprepared to make any statement on such a theme; but now, having made it somehow, he would stand by it, in spite of any and all criticism. He had known Rosalie since her birth, her education was as good as a convent could secure, she was the granddaughter of a notable seigneur, and here she was, as fine a type of health, beauty and character as man could wish—and he was only fifty! Life was getting lonelier for him every day, and, after all, why should he leave distant relations and the Church his worldly goods? All this flashed through his mind as he waited for her answer. Now it seemed to him that he had meant to say this thing for many years. He had seen an awakening in her—he had suddenly been awakened himself.

"Monsieur, Monsieur," she said in a bewildered way, "do not amuse yourself at my expense."

"Would it be that, then?" he said, with a smile, behind which there was determination and self-will. "I want you to marry me; I do with all my heart. You shall have those ha'pence, and the kisses too, if so be you will take them—or not, as you will, Rosalie."

"Monsieur," she gasped, for something caught her in the throat, and the tears started to her eyes, "ask me to forget that you have ever said those words. Oh, Monsieur, it is not possible, it never could be possible! I am only the postmaster's daughter."

"You are my wife, if you will but say the word," he answered, "and I as proud a husband as the land holds!"

"You were always kind to me, Monsieur," she rejoined, her lips trembling; "won't you be so still?"

"I am too old?" he asked.

"Oh no, it is not that," she replied.

"You have as good manners as my mother had. You need not fear comparison with any lady in the land. Have I not known you all your life? I know the way you have come, and your birth is as good as mine."

"Ah, it is not that, Monsieur!"

"I give you my word that I do not come to you because no one else would have me," he said with a curious simplicity. "I never asked a woman to marry me—never! You are the first. There was talk once—but it was all false. I never meant to ask any one to marry me. But I have the wish now which I never had in my youth. I thought best of myself always; now, I think—I think better of you than—"

"Oh, Monsieur, I beg of you, no more! I cannot; oh, I cannot—"

"You—but no; I will not ask you, Mademoiselle. If you have some one else in your heart, or want some one else there, that is your affair, not mine—undoubtedly. I would have tried to make you happy; you would have had peace and comfort all your life; you could have trusted me—but there it is...." He felt all at once that he was unfair to her, that he had thrust upon her too hard a problem in too troubled an hour.

"I could trust you with my life, Monsieur Rossignol," she replied. "And I love you in a way that a man may be loved to no one's harm or sorrow: it is true that!" She raised her eyes to his simply, trustingly.

He looked at her steadily for a moment. "If you change your mind—"

She shook her head sadly.

"Good, then," he went on, for he thought it wise not to press her now, though he had no intention of taking her no as final. "I'll keep an eye on you. You'll need me some day soon; I can do things that the Cure can't, perhaps." His manner changed still more. "Now to business," he continued. "Your father has been talking about letters received and sent from the post-office. That is punishable. I am responsible for you both, and if it is reported, if the woman were to report it—you know the letter I mean—there would be trouble. You do not talk. Now I am going to ask the government to make you sole postmistress, with full responsibility. Then you must govern your father—he hasn't as much sense as you."

"Monsieur, we owe you so much! I am deeply grateful, and, whatever you do for us, you may rely on me to do my duty."

They could scarcely hear each other speak now, for the soldiers were coming nearer, and the fife-and-drum bands were screeching, 'Louis the King was a Soldier'.

"Then you will keep the government as your husband?" he asked, with forced humour, as he saw the Cure and the Notary approaching.

"It is less trouble, Seigneur," she answered, with a smile of relief.

M. Rossignol turned to the Cure and the Notary. "I have just offered Mademoiselle a husband she might rule in place of a government that rules her, and she has refused," he said in the Cure's ear, with a dry laugh.

"She's a sensible girl, is Rosalie," said the Cure, not apprehending.

The soldiers were now opposite the church, and riding at their head was the battalion Colonel, also member of the Legislature.

They all moved down, and Rosalie disappeared in the crowd. As the Seigneur and the Cure greeted the Colonel, the latter said:

"At luncheon I'll tell you one of the bravest things ever seen. Happened half-hour ago at the Red Ravine. Man who did it wore an eye-glass—said he was a tailor."

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