The Right of Way
JO PORTUGAIS TELLS A STORY
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
"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.
"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 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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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.