The Right of Way
"PEACE, PEACE, AND THERE IS NO PEACE"
The sun was setting by the time Charley was ready to leave his office. Never
in his life had he stayed so late in "the halls of industry," as he flippantly
called his place of business. The few cases he had won so brilliantly since the
beginning of his career, he had studied at night in his luxurious bedroom in the
white brick house among the maples on the hill. In every case, as at the trial
of Joseph Nadeau, the man who murdered the timber-merchant, the first prejudice
of judge and jury had given way slowly before the deep-seeing mind, which had as
rare a power of analysis as for generalisation, and reduced masses of evidence
to phrases; and verdicts had been given against all personal prejudice—to be
followed outside the court by the old prejudice, the old look askance at the man
called Beauty Steele.
To him it had made no difference at any time. He cared for neither praise nor
blame. In his actions a materialist, in his mind he was a watcher of life, a
baffled inquirer whose refuge was irony, and whose singular habits had in five
years become a personal insult to the standards polite society and Puritan
morality had set up. Perhaps the insult had been intended, for irregularities
were committed with an insolent disdain for appearances. He did nothing
secretly; his page of life was for him who cared to read. He played cards, he
talked agnosticism, he went on shooting expeditions which became orgies, he
drank openly in saloons, he whose forefathers had been gentlemen of King George,
and who sacrificed all in the great American revolution for honour and
loyalty—statesmen, writers, politicians, from whom he had direct inheritance,
through stirring, strengthening forces, in the building up of laws and
civilisation in a new land. Why he chose to be what he was—if he did choose—he
alone could answer. His personality had impressed itself upon his world, first
by its idiosyncrasies and afterwards by its enigmatical excesses.
What was he thinking of as he laid the papers away in the tin box in a
drawer, locked it, and put the key in his pocket? He had found to the smallest
detail Billy's iniquity, and he was now ready to shoulder the responsibility, to
save the man, who, he knew, was scarce worth the saving. But Kathleen—there was
what gave him pause. As he turned to the window and looked out over the square
he shuddered. He thought of the exchange of documents he had made with her that
day, and he had a sense of satisfaction. This defalcation of Billy's would
cripple him, for money had flown these last few years. He had had heavy losses,
and he had dug deep into his capital. Down past the square ran a cool avenue of
beeches to the water, and he could see his yacht at anchor. On the other side of
the water, far down the shore, was a house which had been begun as a summer
cottage, and had ended in being a mansion. A few Moorish pillars, brought from
Algiers for the decoration of the entrance, had necessitated the raising of the
roof, and then all had to be in proportion, and the cottage became like an
appanage to a palace. So it had gone, and he had cared so little about it all,
and for the consequences. He had this day secured Kathleen from absolute
poverty, no matter what happened, and that had its comfort. His eyes wandered
among the trees. He could see the yellow feathers of the oriole and catch the
note of the whippoorwill, and from the great church near the voices of the choir
came over. He could hear the words "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in
peace, according to thy word."
Depart in peace—how much peace was there in the world? Who had it? The
remembrance of what Kathleen said to him at the door—"I suppose I ought to kiss
you"—came to him, was like a refrain in his ears.
"Peace is the penalty of silence and inaction," he said to himself
meditatively. "Where there is action there is no peace. If the brain and body
fatten, then there is peace. Kathleen and I have lived at peace, I suppose. I
never said a word to her that mightn't be put down in large type and pasted on
my tombstone, and she never said a word to me—till to-day—that wasn't like a
water-colour picture. Not till to-day, in a moment's strife and trouble, did I
ever get near her. And we've lived in peace. Peace? Where is the right kind of
peace? Over there is old Sainton. He married a rich woman, he has had the
platter of plenty before him always, he wears ribbons and such like baubles
given by the Queen, but his son had to flee the country. There's Herring. He
doesn't sleep because his daughter is going to marry an Italian count. There's
Latouche. His place in the cabinet is begotten in corruption, in the hotbed of
faction war. There's Kenealy. His wife has led him a dance of deep damnation.
There's the lot of them—every one, not an ounce of peace among them, except with
old Casson, who weighs eighteen stone, lives like a pig, grows stuffier in mind
and body every day, and drinks half a bottle of whiskey every night. There's no
one else—yes, there is!"
He was looking at a small black-robed figure with clean-shaven face, white
hair, and shovel-hat, who passed slowly along the wooden walk beneath, with
meditative content in his face.
"There's peace," he said with a laugh. "I've known Father Hallon for
twenty-five years, and no man ever worked so hard, ever saw more trouble, ever
shared other people's bad luck mere than he; ever took the bit in his teeth,
when it was a matter of duty, stronger than he; and yet there's peace; he has
it; a peace that passes all understanding—mine anyhow. I've never had a minute's
real peace. The World, or Nature, or God, or It, whatever the name is, owes me
peace. And how is It to give it? Why, by answering my questions. Now it's a
curious thing that the only person I ever met who could answer any questions of
mine—answer them in the way that satisfies—is Suzon. She works things down to
phrases. She has wisdom in the raw, and a real grip on life, and yet all the men
she has known have been river-drivers and farmers, and a few men from town who
mistook the sort of Suzon she is. Virtuous and straight, she's a born child of
Aphrodite too—by nature. She was made for love. A thousand years ago she would
have had a thousand loves! And she thinks the world is a magnificent place, and
she loves it, and wallows—fairly wallows—in content. Now which is right: Suzon
or Father Hallon—Aphrodite or the Nazarene? Which is peace—as the bird and the
beast of the field get it—the fallow futile content, or—"
He suddenly stopped, hiccoughed, then hurriedly drawing paper before him, he
sat down. For an hour he wrote. It grew darker. He pushed the table nearer the
window, and the singing of the choir in the church came in upon him as his pen
seemed to etch words into the paper, firm, eccentric, meaning. What he wrote
that evening has been preserved, and the yellow sheets lie loosely in a black
despatch-box which contains the few records Charley Steele left behind him. What
he wrote that night was the note of his mind, the key to all those strange
events through which he began to move two hours after the lines were written:
Over thy face is a veil of white sea-mist,
Only thine eyes shine like stars; bless or blight me,
I will hold close to the leash at thy wrist,
Thou in the East and I here in the West,
Under our newer skies purple and pleasant:
Who shall decide which is better—attest,
Saga or peasant?
Thou with Serapis, Osiris, and Isis,
I with Jehovah, in vapours and shadows;
Thou with the gods' joy-enhancing devices,
What is there given us?—Food and some raiment,
Toiling to reach to some Patmian haven,
Giving up all for uncertain repayment,
Feeding the raven!
Striving to peer through the infinite azure,
Alternate turning to earthward and falling,
Measuring life with Damastian measure,
What does it matter! They passed who with Homer
Poured out the wine at the feet of their idols:
Passing, what found they? To-come a misnomer,
It and their idols?
Sacristan, acolyte, player, or preacher,
Each to his office, but who holds the key?
Death, only Death—thou, the ultimate teacher
Wilt show it to me.
And when the forts and the barriers fall,
Shall we then find One the true, the almighty,
Wisely to speak with the worst of us all—
Waiting, I turn from the futile, the human,
Gone is the life of me, laughing with youth
Steals to learn all in the face of a woman,
Rising with a bitter laugh, and murmuring the last lines, he thrust the
papers into a drawer, locked it, and going quickly from the room, he went
down-stairs. His horse and cart were waiting for him, and he got in.
The groom looked at him inquiringly. "The Cote Dorion!" he said, and they
sped away through the night.