The Right of Way
THE OPEN GATE
It was a still night, and the moon, delicately bright, gave forth that
radiance which makes spiritual to the eye the coarsest thing. Inside the white
house on the hill all was dark. Sleep had settled on it long before midnight,
for, on the morrow, its master and mistress hoped to make a journey to the
valley of the Chaudiere, where the Passion Play was being performed by habitants
and Indians. The desire to see the play had become an infatuation in the minds
of the two, eager for some interest to relieve the monotony of a happy life.
But as all slept, a figure in the dress of a habitant moved through the
passages of the house stealthily, yet with an assurance unusual in the thief or
housebreaker. In the darkest passages his step was sure, and his hand fastened
on latch or door-knob with perfect precision. He came at last into a large
hallway flooded by the moon, pale, watchful, his beard frosted by the light. In
the stillness of his tread and the composed sorrow of his face he seemed like
one long dead who "revisits the glimpses of the moon."
At last he entered a room the door of which stood wide open. In this room had
been begotten, or had had exercise, whatever of him was worth approving in the
days before he died. It was a place of books and statues and tapestry, and the
dark oak was nobly smutched of Time. This sombre oaken wall had been handed down
through four generations from the man's great-grandfather: the breath of
generations had steeped it in human association.
Entering, he turned for an instant with clinched hands to look at another
door across the hall. Behind that door were two people who despised his memory,
who conspired to forget his very name. This house was the woman's, for he had
given it to her the day he died. But that she could live there with all the old
associations, with memories that, however bitter, however shaming, had a sort of
sacredness, struck into his soul with a harrowing pain. There she was whom he
had spared—himself; whose happiness had lain in his hands, and he had given it
to her. Yet her very existence robbed himself of happiness, and made sorrowful a
life dearer than his own.
Kathleen lay asleep in that room—he fancied he could hear her breathing; and,
by the hospital on the hill, up beyond the point of pines, in a little cottage
which he could see from the great window, lay Rosalie with sleepless eyes and
wan cheeks, longing for morning and the stir of life to help her to forget.
For Rosalie he had come to this house once more. For her sake he was
revisiting this torture-chamber, from which he knew he must go again, blanched
and shaken, as a man goes from a tomb where his dead lie unforgiving.
He shut his teeth, went swiftly across the room, and beside a great carved
oak table touched a hidden spring in the side of it. The spring snapped; the
panel creaked a little and drew back. It seemed to him that the noise he made
must be heard in every part of the house, so sensitive was his ear, so deep was
the silence on which the sounds had broken. He turned round to the doorway to
listen before he put his hand within the secret place.
There was no sound. He turned his attention to the table. Drawing forth two
packets with a gasp of relief, he put them in his pocket, and, with extreme
care, proceeded to close the panel. By rubbing the edges of the wood with grease
from a candle on the table, he was able to readjust the panel in silence. But,
as the spring came home, he became suddenly conscious of a presence in the room.
A shiver passed through him. He turned round-softly, quickly. He was in the
shadow and near great window-curtains, and his fingers instinctively clutched
them as he saw a figure in white at the door of the room. Slowly, strangely
deliberate, the figure moved further into the room.
Charley's breath stopped. He felt his face flush, and a strange weakness came
on him. There before him stood Kathleen.
She was in her night-gown, and she stood still, as though listening; yet, as
Charley looked closer, he realised that it was an unconscious, passive
listening, and that she did not know he was there.
Her mind only was listening. She was asleep. Was it possible that his very
presence in the house had touched some old note of memory, which, automatically
responding, had carried her from her bed in this somnambulistic trance? That
subtle telegraphy between our subconscious selves which we cannot reduce to a
law, yet alarming us at times, announced to Kathleen's mind, independent of the
waking senses, the presence once familiar to this house for so many years. In
her sleep she had involuntarily responded to the call of Charley's approach.
Once, in the past, the night her uncle died, she had walked in her sleep, and
the memory of this flashed upon Charley now. Silently he came closer to her. The
moonlight shone on her face. He could see plainly she was asleep. His position
was painful and perilous. If she waked, the shock to herself would be great; if
she waked and saw him, what disaster might not occur!
Yet he had no agitation now, only clearness of mind and a curious sense of
confusion that he should see her en dishabille—the old fastidious sense mingling
with the feeling that she was now a stranger to him, and that, waking, she would
fly embarrassed from his presence, as he was ready to fly from hers. He was
about to steal to the door and escape before she waked, but she turned round,
moved through the doorway, and glided down the hall. He followed silently.
She moved to the staircase, then slowly down it, and through a passage to a
morning-room, where, opening a pair of French windows, she passed out onto the
lawn. He followed, not more than a dozen paces behind her. His safety lay in
getting outside, where he could easily hide among the bushes, should someone
else appear and an alarm be raised.
She crossed the lawn swiftly, a white, ghostlike figure. In the middle of the
lawn she stopped short once as if in doubt what to do—as a thought-reader pauses
in his search for the mental scent again, ere he rushes upon the object of his
search with the certainty of instinct.
Presently she moved on, going directly towards a gate that opened out on the
cliff above the river. In Charley's day this gate had been often used, for it
gave upon four steep wooden steps leading to a narrow shelf of rock below. From
the edge of this cliff a rope-ladder dropped fifty feet to the river. For years
he had used this rope-ladder to get down to his boat, and often, when they were
first married, Kathleen used to come and watch him descend, and sometimes, just
at the very first, would descend also. As he stole into the grounds this evening
he had noticed, however, that the rope-ladder was gone, and that new steps were
being built. He had also mechanically observed that the gate was open.
For an instant he watched her slowly moving towards the gate. At first he did
not realise the situation. Suddenly her danger flashed upon him. Passing through
the gateway, she must fall over the cliff.
Her life was in his hands.
He could rush forward swiftly and close the gate, then, raising an alarm, get
away before he was seen; or—he could escape now.
What had he to do with her? A weird, painful suggestion crept into his brain:
he was not responsible for her, and he was responsible for a woman up there by
the hospital, whose home was the valley of the Chaudiere!
If Kathleen were gone, what barrier would there be between him and Rosalie?
What had he to do with this strange disposition of events? Kathleen was never
absent from her church twice on Sundays; she was devoted to work of all sorts
for the church on week-days—where was her intervening personal Providence? If
Providence permitted her to die?—well, she had had two years of happiness with
the man she loved, at some expense to himself—was it not fair that Rosalie
should have her share? Had he the right to call upon Rosalie for constant
self-sacrifice, when, by shutting his eyes now, by being dead to Kathleen and
her need, as he was dead to the world he once knew, the way would be clear to
Dead—he was dead to the world and to Kathleen! Should his ghost interpose
between her and the death now within two-score feet of her? Who could know? It
was grim, it was awful, but was it not a wild kind of justice? Who could blame?
It was the old Charley Steele, the Charley Steele of the court-room, who argued
back humanity and the inherent rightness of things.
But it was only a moment's pause. The thoughts flashed by like the lightning
impressions of a dream, and a voice said in his ear, the voice of the new
Charley with a conscience:
"Save her—save her!"
Even as he was conscious of another presence on the lawn, he rushed forward
noiselessly. Stealing between Kathleen and the gate-she was within five feet of
it he closed and locked it. Then, with a quick glance at her sleeping face-it
was engraven on his memory ever after like a dead face in a coffin—he ran along
the fence among the shrubbery. A man not fifty feet away called to him.
"Hush—she is asleep!" Charley whispered, and disappeared.
It was Fairing himself who saw this deed which saved Kathleen's life.
Awaking, and not finding her, he had glanced towards the window, and had seen
her on the lawn. He had rushed down to her, in time to see her saved by a
strange bearded man in habitant dress. His one glance at the man's face, as it
turned towards him, produced an extraordinary effect upon his mind, not soon to
be dispelled—a haunting, ghostlike apparition, which kept reminding him of
something or somebody, he could not tell what or whom. The whispering voice and
the breathless words, "Hush—she is asleep!" repeated themselves over and over
again in his brain, as, taking Kathleen's hand, he led her, unresisting, and
still sleeping, back to her room. In agitated thankfulness he resolved not to
speak of the event to Kathleen, or to any one else, lest it should come to her
ears and frighten her.
He would, however, keep a sharp lookout for the man who had saved her life,
and would reward him duly. The face of the bearded habitant came between him and
Meanwhile this disturber of a woman's dreams and a man's sleep was hurrying
to an inn in the town by the waterside, where he met another habitant with a
team of dogs—Jo Portugais. Jo had not been able to bear the misery of suspense
and anxiety, and had come seeking him. There was little speech between them.
"You have not been found out, M'sieu'?" was Jo's anxious question.
"No, no, but I have had a bad night, Jo. Get the dogs together."
A little later, as Charley made ready to go back to Chaudiere, Jo said:
"You look as if you'd had a black dream, M'sieu'." With the river rustling
by, and the trees stirring in the first breath of dawn, Charley told Jo what had
For a moment the murderer did not speak or stir, for a struggle was going on
in his breast also; then he stooped quickly, caught his companion's hand, and
"I could not have done it, M'sieu'," he said hoarsely. They parted, Jo to
remain behind as they had agreed, to be near Rosalie if needed; Charley to
return to the valley of the Chaudiere.