The Right of Way


Jo Portugais had fastened down a secret with clasps heavier than iron, and had long stood guard over it. But life is a wheel, and natures move in circles, passing the same points again and again, the points being distant or near to the sense as the courses of life have influenced the nature. Confession was an old principle, a light in the way, a rest-house for Jo and all his race, by inheritance, by disposition, and by practice. Again and again Jo had come round to the rest-house since one direful day, but had not, found his way therein. There were passwords to give at the door, there was the tale of the journey to tell to the door-keeper. And this tale he had not been ready to tell. But the man who knew of the terrible thing he had done, who had saved him from the consequences of that terrible thing, was in sore trouble, and this broke down the gloomy guard he had kept over his dread secret. He fought the matter out with himself, and, the battle ended, he touched the door-keeper on the arm, beckoned him to a lonely place in the trees, and knelt down before him.

"What is it you seek?" asked the door-keeper, whose face was set and forbidding.

"To find peace," answered the man; yet he was thinking more of another's peril than of his own soul. "What have I to do with the peace of your soul? Yonder is your shepherd and keeper," said the doorkeeper, pointing to where two men walked arm in arm under the trees.

"Shall the sinner not choose the keeper of his sins?" said the man huskily.

"Who has been the keeper all these years? Who has given you peace?"

"I have had no keeper; I have had no peace these many years."

"How many years?" The Abbe's voice was low and even, and showed no feeling, but his eyes were keenly inquiring and intent.

"Seven years."

"Is the sin that held you back from the comfort of the Church a great one?"

"The greatest, save one."

"What would be the greatest?"

"To curse God."

"The next?"

"To murder."

The other's whole manner changed on the instant. He was no longer the stern Churchman, the inveterate friend of Justice, the prejudiced priest, rigid in a pious convention, who could neither bend nor break. The sin of an infidel breaker of the law, that was one thing; the crime of a son of the Church, which a human soul came to relate in its agony, that was another. He had a crass sense of justice, but there was in him a deeper thing still: the revelation of the human soul, the responsibility of speaking to the heart which has dropped the folds of secrecy, exposing the skeleton of truth, grim and staring, to the eye of a secret earthly mentor.

"If it has been hidden all these years, why do you tell it now, my son?"

"It is the only way."

"Why was it hidden?"

"I have come to confess," answered the man bitterly. The priest looked at him anxiously. "You have spoken rightly, my son. I am not here to ask, but to receive."

"Forgive me, but it is my crime I would speak of now. I choose this moment that another should not suffer for what he did not do."

The priest thought of the man they had left in the little house, and the crime with which he was charged, and wondered what the sinner before him was going to say.

"Tell your story, my son, and God give your tongue the very spirit of truth, that nothing be forgotten and nothing excused."

There was a fleeting pause, in which the colour left the priest's face, and, as he opened the door of his mind—of the Church, secret and inviolate—he had a pain at his heart; for beneath his arrogant churchmanship there was a fanatical spirituality of a mediaeval kind. His sense of responsibility was painful and intense. The same pain possessed him always, were the sin that of a child or a Borgia.

As he listened to the broken tale, the forest around was vocal, the chipmunks scampered from tree to tree, the woodpecker's tap-tap, tap-tap, went on over their heads, the leaves rustled and gave forth their divine sweetness, as though man and nature were at peace, and there were no storms in sky above or soul beneath, or in the waters of life that are deeper than "the waters under the earth."

It was only a short time, but to the door-keeper and the wayfarer it seemed hours, for the human soul travels far and hard and long in moments of pain and revelation. The priest in his anxiety suffered as much as the man who did the wicked thing. When the man had finished, the priest said:

"Is this all?"

"It is the great sin of my life." He shuddered, and continued: "I have no love of life; I have no fear of death; but there is the man who saved me years ago, who got me freedom. He has had great sorrow and trouble, and I would live for his sake—because he has no friend."

"Who is the man?"

The other pointed to where the little house was hidden among the trees. The priest almost gasped his amazement, but waited.

Thereupon the woodsman told the whole truth concerning the tailor of Chaudiere.

"To save him, I have confessed my own sin. To you I might tell all in confession, and the truth about him would be buried for ever. I might not confess at all unless I confessed my own sin. You will save him, father?" he asked anxiously.

"I will save him," was the reply of the priest.

"I want to give myself to justice; but he has been ill, and he may be ill again, and he needs me." He told of the tailor's besetting weakness, of his struggles against it, of his fall a few days before, and the cause of it... told all to the man of silence.

"You wish to give yourself to justice?"

"I shall have no peace unless."

There was something martyr-like in the man's attitude. It appealed to some stern, martyr-like quality in the priest. If the man would win eternal peace so, then so be it. His grim piety approved. He spoke now with the authority of divine justice.

"For one year longer go on as you are, then give yourself to justice—one year from to-day, my son. Is it enough?"

"It is enough."

"Absolvo te!" said the priest.

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