The Right of Way
CHARLEY MAKES A DISCOVERY
A hot day a month later Charley Steele sat in his office staring before him
into space, and negligently smoking a cigarette. Outside there was a slow
clacking of wheels, and a newsboy was crying "La Patrie! La Patrie! All about
the War in France! All about the massacree!" Bells—wedding-bells—were ringing
also, and the jubilant sounds, like the call of the newsboy, were out of accord
with the slumberous feeling of the afternoon. Charley Steele turned his head
slowly towards the window. The branches of a maple-tree half crossed it, and the
leaves moved softly in the shadow they made. His eye went past the tree and swam
into the tremulous white heat of the square, and beyond to where in the
church-tower the bells were ringing-to the church doors, from which gaily
dressed folk were issuing to the carriages, or thronged the pavement, waiting
for the bride and groom to come forth into a new-created world—for them.
Charley looked through his monocle at the crowd reflectively, his head held a
little to one side in a questioning sort of way, on his lips the ghost of a
smile—not a reassuring smile. Presently he leaned forward slightly and the
monocle dropped from his eye. He fumbled for it, raised it, blew on it, rubbed
it with his handkerchief, and screwed it carefully into his eye again, his
rather bushy brow gathering over it strongly, his look sharpened to more active
thought. He stared straight across the square at a figure in heliotrope, whose
face was turned to a man in scarlet uniform taller than herself two glowing
figures towards whom many other eyes than his own were directed, some curiously,
some disdain fully, some sadly. But Charley did not see the faces of those who
looked on; he only saw two people—one in heliotrope, one in scarlet.
Presently his white firm hand went up and ran through his hair nervously, his
comely figure settled down in the chair, his tongue touched the corners of his
red lips, and his eyes withdrew from the woman in heliotrope and the man in
scarlet, and loitered among the leaves of the tree at the window. The softness
of the green, the cool health of the foliage, changed the look of his eye from
something cold and curious to something companionable, and scarcely above a
whisper two words came from his lips:
By the mere sound of the voice it would have been hard to tell what the words
meant, for it had an inquiring cadence and yet a kind of distant doubt, a vague
anxiety. The face conveyed nothing—it was smooth, fresh, and immobile. The only
point where the mind and meaning of the man worked according to the law of his
life was at the eye, where the monocle was caught now as in a vise. Behind this
glass there was a troubled depth which belied the self-indulgent mouth, the
egotism speaking loudly in the red tie, the jewelled finger, the ostentatiously
simple yet sumptuous clothes.
At last he drew in a sharp, sibilant breath, clicked his tongue—a sound of
devil-may-care and hopelessness at once—and turned to a little cupboard behind
him. The chair squeaked on the floor as he turned, and he frowned, shivered a
little, and kicked it irritably with his heel.
From the cupboard he took a bottle of liqueur, and, pouring out a small
glassful, drank it off eagerly. As he put the bottle away, he said again, in an
abstracted fashion, "Kathleen!"
Then, seating himself at the table, as if with an effort towards energy, he
rang a bell. A clerk entered. "Ask Mr. Wantage to come for a moment," he said.
"Mr. Wantage has gone to the church—to the wedding," was the reply.
"Oh, very well. He will be in again this afternoon?"
"Sure to, sir."
"Just so. That will do."
The clerk retired, and Charley, rising, unlocked a drawer, and taking out
some books and papers, laid them on the table. Intently, carefully, he began to
examine them, referring at the same time to a letter which had lain open at his
hand while he had been sitting there. For a quarter of an hour he studied the
books and papers, then, all at once, his fingers fastened on a point and stayed.
Again he read the letter lying beside him. A flush crimsoned his face to his
hair—a singular flush of shame, of embarrassment, of guilt—a guilt not his own.
His breath caught in his throat.
"Billy!" he gasped. "Billy, by God!"