The Right of Way
JO PORTUGAIS TELLS A STORY
Walking slowly, head bent, eyes unseeing, Charley was on his way to Vadrome
Mountain, with the knowledge that Jo Portugais had returned.
The hunger for companionship was on him: to touch some mind that could
understand the deep loneliness which had settled on him since that scene in the
postoffice. It was the loneliness of a new and great separation. He had wakened
to it to-day.
Once before, in the hut on Vadrome Mountain, he had wakened from a grave, had
been born again. Last night had come still another birth, had come, as with
Rosalie herself, knowledge, revelation, understanding. To Rosalie the new vision
had come with a vague pain of heart, without shame, and with a wonderful
happiness. Pain, shame, knowledge, and a happiness that passed suddenly into a
despairing sorrow, had come to him.
In finding love he had found conscience, and in finding conscience he was on
his way to another great discovery.
Looking to where Jo Portugais' house was set among the pines, Charley
remembered the day—he saw the scene in his mind's eye—when Rosalie entered with
the letter addressed "To the sick man at the house of Jo Portugais, at Vadrome
Mountain," and he saw again her clear, unsoiled soul in the deep inquiring eyes.
"If you but knew"—he turned and looked down at the village below—"if you but
knew!" he said, as though to all the world. "I have the sign from heaven—I know
it now. To-day I wake to know what life means, and I see—Rosalie! I know now—but
how? In taking all she had to give. What does she get in return?
Nothing—nothing. Because I love her, because the whole world is nothing beside
her, nor life, nor twenty lives, if I had them to give, I must say to her now:
'Rosalie, it was love that brought you to my arms, it is love that says, Thus
far and no farther. Never again—never—never—never!' Yesterday I could have left
her—died or vanished, without real hurt to her. She would have mourned and
broken her heart and mended it again; and I should have been only a memory—of
mystery, of tenderness. Then, one day she would have married, and no sting from
my going would have remained. She would have had happiness, and I neither shame
nor despair.... To-day it is all too late. We have drunk too deep-alas! too
deep. She cannot marry another man, for ghosts will not lie for asking, and what
is mine may not be another's. She cannot marry me, for what once was mine is
mine still by ring and by book, and I should always be haunted by a torturing
shadow. Kathleen has the right of way, not Rosalie. Ah, Rosalie, I dare not
wrong you further. Yet to marry you, even as things are, if that might be! To
live on here unrecognised? I am little like my old self, and year after year I
should grow less and less like Charley Steele.... But, no, it is not possible!"
He stopped short in his thoughts, and his lips tightened in bitterness.
"God in heaven, what an impasse!" he said aloud.
There was a sudden crackling of twigs as a man rose up from a log by the
wayside ahead of him. It was Jo Portugais, who had seen him coming, and had
waited for him. He had heard Charley's words.
"Do you call me an impasse, M'sieu'?" Charley grasped Portugais' hand.
"What has happened, M'sieu'?" Jo asked anxiously. There was a brief silence,
and then Charley told him of the events of the morning.
"You know of the mark-here?" he asked, touching his breast.
Jo nodded. "I saw, when you were ill."
"Yet you never asked!"
"I studied it out—I knew old Louis Trudel. Also, I saw ma'm'selle nail the
cross to the church door. Two and two together in my mind did it. I didn't think
Paulette Dubois would tell. I warned her."
"She quarrelled with mademoiselle. It was revenge.
"She might have been less vindictive. She had had good luck herself lately."
"What good luck had she, M'sieu'?"
Charley told Jo the story of the Notary, the woman, and the child.
Jo made no comment. They relapsed into silence. Arriving at the house, they
entered. Jo lighted his pipe, and smoked steadily for a time without speaking.
Buried in thought, Charley stood in the doorway looking down at the village. At
last he turned.
"Where have you been these weeks past, Jo?"
"To Quebec first, M'sieu'."
Charley looked curiously at Jo, for there was meaning in his tone. "And where
Charley's face became paler, his hands suddenly clinched, for he read the
look in Jo's eyes. He knew that Jo had been looking at people and places once so
familiar; that he had seen—Kathleen.
"Go on. Tell me all," he said heavily.
Portugais spoke in English. The foreign language seemed to make the truth
less naked and staring to himself. He had a hard story to tell.
"It is not to say why I go to Montreal," he began. "But I go. I have my ears
open; my eyes, she is not close. No one knows me—I am no account of. Every one
is forgot the man, Joseph Nadeau, who was try for his life. Perhaps it is every
one is forget the lawyer who save his neck—perhaps? So I stand by the
streetside. I say to a man as I look up at sign-boards,' 'Where is that writing
"M'sieu' Charles Steele," and all the res'?' 'He is dead long ago,' say the man
to me. 'A good thing too, for he was the very devil.' 'I not understan',' I say.
'I tink that M'sieu' Steele is a dam smart man back time.' 'He was the smartes'
man in the country, that Beauty Steele,' the man say. 'He bamboozle the jury
hevery time. He cut up bad though.'"
Charley raised his hand with a nervous gesture of misery and impatience.
"'Where have you been,' that man say—'where have you been all these times not
to know 'bout Charley Steele, hein?' 'In the backwoods,' I say. 'What bring you
here now?' he ask. 'I have a case,' I say. 'What is it?' he ask. 'It is a case
of a man who is punish for another man,' I say. 'That's the thing for Charley
Steele,' he laugh. 'He was great man to root things out. Can't fool Charley
Steele, we use to say here. But he die a bad death.' 'What was the matter with
him?' I say. 'He drink too much, he spend too much, he run after a girl at Cote
Dorion, and the river-drivers do for him one night. They say it was acciden',
but is there any green on my eye? But he die trump—jus' like him. He have no
fear of devil or man,' so the man say. 'But fear of God?' I ask. 'He was
hinfidel,' he say. 'That was behin' all. He was crooked all roun'. He rob the
widow and horphan?' 'I think he too smart for that,' I speak quick. 'I suppose
it was the drink,' he say. 'He loose his grip.' 'He was a smart man, an' he
would make you all sit up, if he come back,' I hanswer. 'If he come back!' The
man laugh queer at that. 'If he comeback, there would be hell.' 'How is that?' I
say. 'Look across the street,' he whisper. 'That was his wife.'"
Charley choked back a cry in his throat. Jo had no intention of cutting his
story short. He had an end in view.
"I look across the street. There she is—' Ah, that is a fine woman to see! I
have never seen but one more finer to look at—here in Chaudiere.' The man say:
'She marry first for money, and break her heart; now she marry for love. If
Beauty Steele come back-eh! sacra! that would be a mess. But he is at the bottom
of the St Lawrence—the courts say so, and the Church say so—and ghosts don't
walk here.' 'But if that Beauty Steele come back alive, what would happen it?' I
speak. 'His wife is marry, blockhead!' he say.
"'But the woman is his,' I hanswer. 'Do you think she would go back to a
thief she never love from the man she love?' he speak back. 'She is not marry to
the other man,' I say, 'if Beauty Steele is...' 'He is dead as a door,' he
swear. 'You see that?' he go on, nodding down the street. 'Well, that is Billy.'
'Who is Billy?' I ask. 'The brother of her,' he say. 'Charley, he spoil Billy.
Billy, he has not been the same since Charley's death-he is so ashame of
Charley. When he get drunk he talk of nothing else. We all remember that Charley
spoil him, and that make us sorry for him.' 'Excuse me,' I say. 'I think that
Billy is a dam smart man. He is smart as Charley Steele.' 'Charley was the
smartes' man in the country,' he say again. 'I've got his practice now, but this
town will never be the same without him. Thief or no thief, I wish he is alive
here. By the Lord, I'd get drunk with him!' He was all right, that man," Jo
Charley's agitation was hidden. His eyes were fixed on Jo intently. "That was
Larry Rockwell. Go on," he said, in a hard metallic voice.
"I see—her, the next night again. It is in the white stone house on the hill.
All the windows are open, an' I can hear her to sing. I not know that song. It
begin, 'Oft in the stilly night'—like that."
Charley stiffened. It was the song Kathleen sang for him the night they
"It is a good voice-that. I see her face, for there is a candle on the piano.
I come close and closter to the house. There is big maple-trees—I am well hid. A
man is beside her. He lean hover her an' put his hand on her shoulder. 'Sing it
again, Kat'leen,' he say. 'I cannot to get enough.'"
"Stop!" said Charley, in a strained, harsh voice. "Not yet, M'sieu'," said
Portugais. "It is good for you to hear what I say."
"'Come, Kat'leen!' the man say, an' he blow hout the candle. I hear them walk
away, an' the door shut behin' them. Then I hear anudder voice—ah, that is a
baby—very young baby!"
Charley quickly got to his feet. "Not another word!" he said.
"Yes, yes, but there is one word more, M'sieu'," said Jo, standing up and
facing him firmly. "You must go back. You are not a thief. The woman is yours.
You throw your life away. What is the man to you—or the man's brat of a child?
It is all waiting for you. You mus' go back. You not steal the money, but that
Billy—it is that Billy, I know. You can forgive your wife, and take her back, or
you can say to both, Go! You can put heverything right and begin again."
Anger, wild words, seemed about to break from Charley's lips, but he
The old life had been brought back to him with painful acuteness and
vividness. The streets of the town, the people in the street, Billy, the mean
scoundrel, who could not leave him alone in the grave of obscurity,
Kathleen—Fairing. The voice of the child—with her voice—was in his ears. A
child! If he had had a child, perhaps——He stopped short in his thinking, his
face all at once flooding with colour. For a moment he stood looking out of the
window down towards the village. He could see the post-office like a toy house
among toy houses. At last he turned to Jo.
"Never again while I live, speak of this to me: of the past, of going back,
or of—of anything else," he said. "I cannot go back. I am dead and shamed. Let
the dust of forgetfulness come and cover the past. I've begun life again here,
and here I stay, and see it out. I shall work out the problem here." He dropped
a hand on the other's shoulder. "Jo," said he, "we are both shipwrecks. Let us
see how long we can float."
"M'sieu', is it worth it?" said Portugais, remembering his confession to the
Abbe, and seeing the end of it all to himself.
"I don't know, Jo. Let us wait and see how Fate will play us."
"Or God, M'sieu'?"
"God or Fate—who knows"