The Right of Way
OUT ON THE OLD TRAIL
There was one person in the crowd surrounding the medicine-man's wagon who
had none of that superstitious thrill which had scattered the habitants into
little awe-stricken groups, and then by twos and threes to their homes; none of
that fear which had reduced the quack-doctor to such nervous collapse that he
would not spend the night in the village. Jo Portugais had recognised the
voice—that of Charley Steele the lawyer who had saved him from hanging years
ago. It was little like the voice of M'sieu'! There was that in it which
frightened him. He waited until he had seen the quackdoctor start for the next
parish, then he went slowly down the street. There were people still about, so
he walked on towards the river. When he returned, the street was empty. Keeping
in the shadow of the trees, he went to Charley's house. There was a light in a
window. He went to the back door and tried it. It was not locked, and, without
knocking, he stepped inside the kitchen. Here was no light, and he passed into
the hallway and on to a little room opening from the tailorshop. He knocked;
then, not waiting for response, opened the door and entered.
Charley was standing before a mirror, holding a pair of scissors. He turned
abruptly, and said forbiddingly: "I am at my toilet!"
Then, turning again to the mirror, with a shrug of the shoulders, he raised
the shears to his beard. Before he could use them, Jo's hand was on his arm.
"Stop that, M'sieu'!" he said huskily.
Charley had drunk nearly a whole bottle of cheap whiskey within an hour. He
was intoxicated, but, as had ever been the case with him, his brain was working
clearly, his hand was steady; he was in that wide dream of clear-seeing and
clear-knowing which, in old days, had given him glimpses of the real life from
which, in the egotism of the non-intime, he had been shut out. Looking at Jo
now, he was possessed by a composed intoxication like that in which he had moved
during that last night at the Cote Dorion.
But now, with the baleful crust of egotism gone, with every nerve of life
exposed, with conscience struggling to its feet from the torpor of thirty-odd
vacant years, he was as two men in one, with different lives and different
souls, yet as inseparable in their misery as those poor victims of Gallic
tyranny, chained back to back and thrown into the Seine.
Jo's words, insistent and eager, suddenly roused in him some old memory,
which stayed his hand.
"Why should I stop?" he asked quietly, and smiling that smile which had
infuriated the river-drivers at the Cote Dorion.
"Are you going back, M'sieu?"
"Back where?" Charley's eyes were fixed on Jo with a penetrating intensity,
heightened to a strange abstraction, as though he saw not Jo alone, but
something great distances beyond.
Jo did not answer this question directly. "Some one came to-day—he is gone;
some one may come to-morrow—and stay," he said meaningly.
Charley went over to the fire and sat down on a bench, opening and shutting
the scissors mechanically. Jo was in the light, and Charley's eyes again studied
His memory was industriously feeling its way into the baffling distance.
"What if some one did come-and stay?" he urged quietly.
"You might be recognised without the beard."
"What difference would it make?" Charley's memory was creeping close to the
hidden door. It was feeling-feeling for the latch.
"You know best, M'sieu'."
"But what do you know?" Charley's face now had a strained look, and he
touched his lips with his tongue. "What John Brown knows, M'sieu'."
There flashed across Charley's mind the fatal newspaper he had read on the
day he awakened to memory again in the but on Vadrome Mountain. He remembered
that he had put it in the fire. But Jo might have read it before it was spread
upon the bench-put it there of purpose for him to read. Yet what reason could Jo
have for being silent, for hiding his secret?
There was silence for a space, in which Charley's eyes were like unmoving
sparks of steel. He did not see Jo's face—it was in a mist—he was searching,
searching, searching. All at once he felt the latch of the hidden door under his
finger; he saw a court-room, a judge and jury, and hundreds of excited faces,
himself standing in the midst. He saw twelve men file slowly into the room and
take their seats-all save one, who stood still in his place and said: "Not
guilty, your Honour!" He saw the prisoner leave the box and step down a free
man. He saw himself coming out into the staring summer day. He watched the
prisoner come to him and touch his arm, and say: "Thank you, M'sieu'. You have
saved my life." He saw himself turn to this man:
He roused from his trance, he staggered to his feet, the shears rattled to
the floor. Lurching forward, he caught Jo Portugais by the throat, and said, as
he had said outside the court-room years ago:
"Get out of my sight. You're as guilty as hell!"
His grip tightened—tightened on Jo's throat. Jo did not move, though his face
grew black. Then, suddenly, the hands relaxed, a bluish paleness swept over the
face, and Charley fell sidewise to the floor before Jo could catch him.
All night, alone, the murderer struggled with death over the body of the
lawyer who had saved his life.