When that happened she had already stopped confessing to the good Cure; so it may be guessed there were things she did not care to tell, and for which she had no repentance. But Parpon knew, and Medallion the auctioneer guessed; and the Little Chemist's wife hoped that it was not so. When Julie looked at Parpon, as he perched on a chest of drawers, with his head cocked and his eyes blinking, she knew that he read the truth. But she did not know all that was in his head; so she said sharp things to him, as she did to everybody, for she had a very poor opinion of the world, and thought all as flippant as herself. She took nothing seriously; she was too vain. Except that she was sorry Armand was gone, she rather plumed herself on having separated the Seigneur and his son— it was something to have been the pivot in a tragedy. There came others to the village, as, for instance, a series of clerks to the Avocat; but she would not decline from Armand upon them. She merely made them miserable.
But she did not grow prettier as time went on. Even Annette, the sad wife of the drunken Benoit, kept her fine looks; but then, Annette's life was a thing for a book, and she had a beautiful child. You cannot keep this from the face of a woman. Nor can you keep the other: when the heart rusts the rust shows.
After a good many years, Armand de la Riviere came back in time to see his father die. Then Julie picked out her smartest ribbons, capered at the mirror, and dusted her face with oatmeal, because she thought that he would ask her to meet him at the Bois Noir, as he had done long ago. The days passed, and he did not come. When she saw Armand at the funeral— a tall man with a dark beard and a grave face, not like the Armand she had known, he seemed a great distance from her, though she could almost have touched him once as he turned from the grave. She would have liked to throw herself into his arms, and cry before them all: "Mon Armand!" and go away with him to the House with the Tall Porch. She did not care about Farette, the mumbling old man who hungered for money, having ceased to hunger for anything else—even for Julie, who laughed and shut her door in his face, and cowed him.
After the funeral Julie had a strange feeling. She had not much brains, but she had some shrewdness, and she felt her romance askew. She stood before the mirror, rubbing her face with oatmeal and frowning hard. Presently a voice behind her said: "Madame Julie, shall I bring another bag of meal?"
She turned quickly, and saw Parpon on a table in the corner, his legs drawn up to his chin, his black eyes twinkling.
"Idiot!" she cried, and threw the meal at him. He had a very long, quick arm. He caught the basin as it came, but the meal covered him. He blew it from his beard, laughing softly, and twirled the basin on a finger-point.
"Like that, there will need two bags!" he said.
"Imbecile!" she cried, standing angry in the centre of the room.
"Ho, ho, what a big word! See what it is to have the tongue of fashion!"
She looked helplessly round the room. "I will kill you!"
"Let us die together," answered Parpon; "we are both sad."
She snatched the poker from the fire, and ran at him. He caught her wrists with his great hands, big enough for tall Medallion, and held her.
"I said 'together,"' he chuckled; "not one before the other. We might jump into the flume at the mill, or go over the dam at the Bois Noir; or, there is Farette's musket which he is cleaning—gracious, but it will kick when it fires, it is so old!"
She sank to the floor. "Why does he clean the musket?" she asked; fear, and something wicked too, in her eye. Her fingers ran forgetfully through the hair on her forehead, pushing it back, and the marks of small-pox showed. The contrast with her smooth cheeks gave her a weird look. Parpon got quickly on the table again and sat like a Turk, with a furtive eye on her. "Who can tell!" he said at last. "That musket has not been fired for years. It would not kill a bird; the shot would scatter: but it might kill a man—a man is bigger."
"Kill a man!" She showed her white teeth with a savage little smile.
"Of course it is all guess. I asked Farette what he would shoot, and he said, 'Nothing good to eat.' I said I would eat what he killed. Then he got pretty mad, and said I couldn't eat my own head. Holy! that was funny for Farette. Then I told him there was no good going to the Bois Noir, for there would be nothing to shoot. Well, did I speak true, Madame Julie?"
She was conscious of something new in Parpon. She could not define it. Presently she got to her feet and said: "I don't believe you—you're a monkey."
"A monkey can climb a tree quick; a man has to take the shot as it comes." He stretched up his powerful arms, with a swift motion as of climbing, laughed, and added: "Madame Julie, Farette has poor eyes; he could not see a hole in a ladder. But he has a kink in his head about the Bois Noir. People have talked—"
"Pshaw!" Julie said, crumpling her apron and throwing it out; "he is a child and a coward. He should not play with a gun; it might go off and hit him."
Parpon hopped down and trotted to the door. Then he turned and said, with a sly gurgle: "Farette keeps at that gun. What is the good! There will be nobody at the Bois Noir any more. I will go and tell him."
She rushed at him with fury, but seeing Annette Benoit in the road, she stood still and beat her foot angrily on the doorstep. She was ripe for a quarrel, and she would say something hateful to Annette; for she never forgot that Farette had asked Annette to be his wife before herself was considered. She smoothed out her wrinkled apron and waited.
"Good day, Annette," she said loftily.
"Good day, Julie," was the quiet reply.
"Will you come in?"
"I am going to the mill for flax-seed. Benoit has rheumatism."
"Poor Benoit!" said Julie, with a meaning toss of her head.
"Poor Benoit," responded Annette gently. Her voice was always sweet. One would never have known that Benoit was a drunken idler.
"Come in. I will give you the meal from my own. Then it will cost you nothing," said Julie, with an air.
"Thank you, Julie, but I would rather pay."
"I do not sell my meal," answered Julie. "What's a few pounds of meal to the wife of Farette? I will get it for you. Come in, Annette."
She turned towards the door, then stopped all at once. There was the oatmeal which she had thrown at Parpon, the basin, and the poker. She wished she had not asked Annette in. But in some things she had a quick wit, and she hurried to say: "It was that yellow cat of Parpon's. It spilt the meal, and I went at it with the poker."
Perhaps Annette believed her. She did not think about it one way or the other; her mind was with the sick Benoit. She nodded and said nothing, hoping that the flax-seed would be got at once. But when she saw that Julie expected an answer, she said: "Cecilia, my little girl, has a black cat-so handsome. It came from the house of the poor Seigneur de la Riviere a year ago. We took it back, but it would not stay."
Annette spoke simply and frankly, but her words cut like a knife.
Julie responded, with a click of malice: "Look out that the black cat doesn't kill the dear Cecilia." Annette started, but she did not believe that cats sucked the life from children's lungs, and she replied calmly: "I am not afraid; the good God keeps my child." She then got up and came to Julie, and said: "It is a pity, Julie, that you have not a child. A child makes all right."
Julie was wild to say a fierce thing, for it seemed that Annette was setting off Benoit against Farette; but the next moment she grew hot, her eyes smarted, and there was a hint of trouble at her throat. She had lived very fast in the last few hours, and it was telling on her. She could not rule herself—she could not play a part so well as she wished. She had not before felt the thing that gave a new pulse to her body and a joyful pain at her breasts. Her eyes got thickly blurred so that she could not see Annette, and, without a word, she hurried to get the meal. She was silent when she came back. She put the meal into Annette's hands. She felt that she would like to talk of Armand. She knew now there was no evil thought in Annette. She did not like her more for that, but she felt she must talk, and Annette was safe. So she took her arm. "Sit down, Annette," she said. "You come so seldom."
"But there is Benoit, and the child—"
"The child has the black cat from the House!" There was again a sly ring to Julie's voice, and she almost pressed Annette into a chair.
"Well, it must only be a minute."
"Were you at the funeral to-day?" Julie began.
"No; I was nursing Benoit. But the poor Seigneur! They say he died without confession. No one was there except M'sieu' Medallion, the Little Chemist, Old Sylvie, and M'sieu' Armand. But, of course, you have heard everything."
"Is that all you know?" queried Julie.
"Not much more. I go out little, and no one comes to me except the Little Chemist's wife—she is a good woman."
"What did she say?"
"Only something of the night the Seigneur died. He was sitting in his chair, not afraid, but very sad, we can guess. By-and-by he raised his head quickly. 'I hear a voice in the Tall Porch,' he said. They thought he was dreaming. But he said other things, and cried again that he heard his son's voice in the Porch. They went and found M'sieu' Armand. Then a great supper was got ready, and he sat very grand at the head of the table, but died quickly, when making a grand speech. It was strange he was so happy, for he did not confess-he hadn't absolution."
This was more than Julie had heard. She showed excitement.
"The Seigneur and M'sieu' Armand were good friends when he died?" she asked.
All at once Annette remembered the old talk about Armand and Julie. She was confused. She wished she could get up and run away; but haste would look strange.
"You were at the funeral?" she added, after a minute.
"Everybody was there."
"I suppose M'sieu' Armand looks very fine and strange after his long travel," said Annette shyly, rising to go.
"He was always the grandest gentleman in the province," answered Julie, in her old vain manner. "You should have seen the women look at him to-day! But they are nothing to him—he is not easy to please."
"Good day," said Annette, shocked and sad, moving from the door. Suddenly she turned, and laid a hand on Julie's arm. "Come and see my sweet Cecilia," she said. "She is gay; she will amuse you."
She was thinking again what a pity it was that Julie had no child.
"To see Cecilia and the black cat? Very well—some day."
You could not have told what she meant. But, as Annette turned away again, she glanced at the mill; and there, high up in the dormer window, sat Parpon, his yellow cat on his shoulder, grinning down at her. She wheeled and went into the house.
Parpon sat in the dormer window for a long time, the cat purring against his head, and not seeming the least afraid of falling, though its master was well out on the window-ledge. He kept mumbling to himself:
"Ho, ho, Farette is below there with the gun, rubbing and rubbing at the rust! Holy mother, how it will kick! But he will only meddle. If she set her eye at him and come up bold and said: 'Farette, go and have your whiskey-wine, and then to bed,' he would sneak away. But he has heard something. Some fool, perhaps that Benoit—no, he is sick—perhaps the herb-woman has been talking, and he thinks he will make a fuss. But it will be nothing. And M'sieu' Armand, will he look at her?" He chuckled at the cat, which set its head back and hissed in reply. Then he sang something to himself.
Parpon was a poor little dwarf with a big head, but he had one thing which made up for all, though no one knew it—or, at least, he thought so. The Cure himself did not know. He had a beautiful voice. Even in speaking it was pleasant to hear, though he roughened it in a way. It pleased him that he had something of which the finest man or woman would be glad. He had said to himself many times that even Armand de la Riviere would envy him.
Sometimes Parpon went off away into the Bois Noir, and, perched there in a tree, sang away—a man, shaped something like an animal, with a voice like a muffled silver bell.
Some of his songs he had made himself: wild things, broken thoughts, not altogether human; the language of a world between man and the spirits. But it was all pleasant to hear, even when, at times, there ran a weird, dark thread through the woof. No one in the valley had ever heard the thing he sang softly as he sat looking down at Julie:
"The little white smoke blows there, blows here, The little blue wolf comes down— C'est la! And the hill-dwarf laughs in the young wife's ear, When the devil comes back to town— C'est la!"
It was crooned quietly, but it was distinct and melodious, and the cat purred an accompaniment, its head thrust into his thick black hair. From where Parpon sat he could see the House with the Tall Porch, and, as he sang, his eyes ran from the miller's doorway to it.
Off in the grounds of the dead Seigneur's manor he could see a man push the pebbles with his foot, or twist the branch of a shrub thoughtfully as he walked. At last another man entered the garden. The two greeted warmly, and passed up and down together.
"My good friend," said the Cure, "it is too late to mourn for those lost years. Nothing can give them back. As Parpon the dwarf said—you remember him, a wise little man, that Parpon—as he said one day, 'For everything you lose you get something, if only how to laugh at yourself."'
Armand nodded thoughtfully and answered: "You are right—you and Parpon. But I cannot forgive myself; he was so fine a man: tall, with a grand look, and a tongue like a book. Yes, yes, I can laugh at myself—for a fool."
He thrust his hands into his pockets, and tapped the ground nervously with his foot, shrugging his shoulders a little. The priest took off his hat and made the sacred gesture, his lips moving. Armand caught off his hat also, and said: "You pray—for him?"
"For the peace of a good man's soul."
"He did not confess; he had no rites of the Church; he had refused you many years."
"My son, he had a confessor."
Armand raised his eyebrows. "They told me of no one."
"It was the Angel of Patience."
They walked on again for a time without a word. At last the Cure said: "You will remain here?"
"I cannot tell. This 'here' is a small world, and the little life may fret me. Nor do I know what I have of this,"—he waved his hands towards the house,—"or of my father's property. I may need to be a wanderer again."
"God forbid! Have you not seen the will?"
"I have got no farther than his grave," was the sombre reply.
The priest sighed. They paced the walk again in silence. At last the Cure said: "You will make the place cheerful, as it once was."
"You are persistent," replied the young man, smiling. "Whoever lives here should make it less gloomy."
"We shall soon know who is to live here. See, there is Monsieur Garon, and Monsieur Medallion also."
"The Avocat to tell secrets, the auctioneer to sell them—eh?" Armand went forward to the gate. Like most people, he found Medallion interesting, and the Avocat and he were old friends.
"You did not send for me, monsieur," said the Avocat timidly, "but I thought it well to come, that you might know how things are; and Monsieur Medallion came because he is a witness to the will, and, in a case—"here the little man coughed nervously—"joint executor with Monsieur le Cure."
They entered the house. In a business-like way Armand motioned them to chairs, opened the curtains, and rang the bell. The old housekeeper appeared, a sorrowful joy in her face, and Armand said: "Give us a bottle of the white-top, Sylvie, if there is any left."
"There is plenty, monsieur," she said; "none has been drunk these twelve years."
The Avocat coughed, and said hesitatingly to Armand: "I asked Parpon the dwarf to come, monsieur. There is a reason."
Armand raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Very good," he said. "When will he be here?"
"He is waiting at the Louis Quinze hotel."
"I will send for him," said Armand, and gave the message to Sylvie, who was entering the room.
After they had drunk the wine placed before them, there was silence for a moment, for all were wondering why Parpon should be remembered in the Seigneur's Will.
"Well," said Medallion at last, "a strange little dog is Parpon. I could surprise you about him—and there isn't any reason why I should keep the thing to myself. One day I was up among the rocks, looking for a strayed horse. I got tired, and lay down in the shade of the Rock of Red Pigeons—you know it. I fell asleep. Something waked me. I got up and heard the finest singing you can guess: not like any I ever heard; a wild, beautiful, shivery sort of thing. I listened for a long time. At last it stopped. Then something slid down the rock. I peeped out, and saw Parpon toddling away."
The Cure stared incredulously, the Avocat took off his glasses and tapped his lips musingly, Armand whistled softly.
"So," said Armand at last, "we have the jewel in the toad's head. The clever imp hid it all these years—even from you, Monsieur le Cure."
"Even from me," said the Cure, smiling. Then, gravely: "It is strange, the angel in the stunted body." "Are you sure it's an angel?" said Armand.
"Who ever knew Parpon do any harm?" queried the Cure.
"He has always been kind to the poor," put in the Avocat.
"With the miller's flour," laughed Medallion: "a pardonable sin." He sent a quizzical look at the Cure. "Do you remember the words of Parpon's song?" asked Armand.
"Only a few lines; and those not easy to understand, unless one had an inkling."
"Had you the inkling?"
"Perhaps, monsieur," replied Medallion seriously. They eyed each other.
"We will have Parpon in after the will is read," said Armand suddenly, looking at the Avocat. The Avocat drew the deed from his pocket. He looked up hesitatingly, and then said to Armand: "You insist on it being read now?"
Armand nodded coolly, after a quick glance at Medallion. Then the Avocat began, and read to that point where the Seigneur bequeathed all his property to his son, should he return—on a condition. When the Avocat came to the condition Armand stopped him.
"I do not know in the least what it may be," he said, "but there is only one by which I could feel bound. I will tell you. My father and I quarrelled"—here he paused for a moment, clinching his hands before him on the table—"about a woman; and years of misery came. I was to blame in not obeying him. I ought not to have given any cause for gossip. Whatever the condition as to that matter may be, I will fulfil it. My father is more to me than any woman in the world; his love of me was greater than that of any woman. I know the world—and women."
There was a silence. He waved his hand to the Avocat to go on, and as he did so the Cure caught his arm with a quick, affectionate gesture. Then Monsieur Garon read the conditions: "That Farette the miller should have a deed of the land on which his mill was built, with the dam of the mill —provided that Armand should never so much as by a word again address Julie, the miller's wife. If he agreed to the condition, with solemn oath before the Cure, his blessing would rest upon his dear son, whom he still hoped to see before he died."
When the reading ceased there was silence for a moment, then Armand stood up, and took the will from the Avocat; but instantly, without looking at it, handed it back. "The reading is not finished," he said. "And if I do not accept the condition, what then?"
Again Monsieur Garon read, his voice trembling a little. The words of the will ran: "But if this condition be not satisfied, I bequeath to my son Armand the house known as the House with the Tall Porch, and the land, according to the deed thereof; and the residue of my property—with the exception of two thousand dollars, which I leave to the Cure of the parish, the good Monsieur Fabre—I bequeath to Parpon the dwarf."
Then followed a clause providing that, in any case, Parpon should have in fee simple the land known as the Bois Noir, and the hut thereon.
Armand sprang to his feet in surprise, blurting out something, then sat down, quietly took the will, and read it through carefully. When he had finished he looked inquiringly, first at Monsieur Garon, then at the Cure. "Why Parpon?" he said searchingly.
The Cure, amazed, spread out his hands in a helpless way. At that moment Sylvie announced Parpon. Armand asked that he should be sent in. "We'll talk of the will afterwards," he added.
Parpon trotted in, the door closed, and he stood blinking at them. Armand put a stool on the table. "Sit here, Parpon," he said. Medallion caught the dwarf under the arms and lifted him on the table.
Parpon looked at Armand furtively. "The wild hawk comes back to its nest," he said. "Well, well, what is it you want with the poor Parpon?"
He sat down and dropped his chin in his hands, looking round keenly. Armand nodded to Medallion, and Medallion to the priest, but the priest nodded back again. Then Medallion said: "You and I know the Rock of Red Pigeons, Parpon. It is a good place to perch. One's voice is all to one's self there, as you know. Well, sing us the song of the little brown diver."
Parpon's hands twitched in his beard. He looked fixedly at Medallion. Presently he turned towards the Cure, and shrank so that he looked smaller still.
"It's all right, little son," said the Cure kindly. Turning sharply on Medallion, Parpon said: "When was it you heard?"
Medallion told him. He nodded, then sat very still. They said nothing, but watched him. They saw his eyes grow distant and absorbed, and his face took on a shining look, so that its ugliness was almost beautiful. All at once he slid from the stool and crouched on his knees. Then he sent out a low long note, like the toll of the bell-bird. From that time no one stirred as he sang, but sat and watched him. They did not even hear Sylvie steal in gently and stand in the curtains at the door.
The song was weird, with a strange thrilling charm; it had the slow dignity of a chant, the roll of an epic, the delight of wild beauty. It told of the little good Folk of the Scarlet Hills, in vague allusive phrases: their noiseless wanderings; their sojourning with the eagle, the wolf, and the deer; their triumph over the winds, the whirlpools, and the spirits of evil fame. It filled the room with the cry of the west wind; it called out of the frozen seas ghosts of forgotten worlds; it coaxed the soft breezes out of the South; it made them all to be at the whistle of the Scarlet Hunter who ruled the North.
Then, passing through veil after veil of mystery, it told of a grand Seigneur whose boat was overturned in a whirlpool, and was saved by a little brown diver. And the end of it all, and the heart of it all, was in the last few lines, clear of allegory:
"And the wheel goes round in the village mill, And the little brown diver he tells the grain. . . And the grand Seigneur he has gone to meet The little good Folk of the Scarlet Hills!"
At first, all were so impressed by the strange power of Parpon's voice, that they were hardly conscious of the story he was telling. But when he sang of the Seigneur they began to read his parable. Their hearts throbbed painfully.
As the last notes died away Armand got up, and standing by the table, said: "Parpon, you saved my father's life once?"
Parpon did not answer.
"Will you not tell him, my son?" said the Cure, rising. Still Parpon was silent.
"The son of your grand Seigneur asks you a question, Parpon," said Medallion soothingly.
"Oh, my grand Seigneur!" said Parpon, throwing up his hands. "Once he said to me, 'Come, my brown diver, and live with me.' But I said, 'No, I am not fit. I will never go to you at the House with the Tall Porch.' And I made him promise that he would never tell of it. And so I have lived sometimes with old Farette." Then he laughed strangely again, and sent a furtive look at Armand.
"Parpon," said Armand gently, "our grand Seigneur has left you the Bois Noir for your own. So the hills and the Rock of Red Pigeons are for you —and the little good people, if you like."
Parpon, with fiery eyes, gathered himself up with a quick movement, then broke out: "Oh, my grand Seigneur—my grand Seigneur!" and fell forward, his head in his arms, laughing and sobbing together.
Armand touched his shoulder. "Parpon!" But Parpon shrank away.
Armand turned to the rest. "I do not understand it, gentlemen. Parpon does not like the young Seigneur as he liked the old."
Medallion, sitting in the shadow, smiled. He understood. Armand continued: "As for this 'testament, gentlemen, I will fulfil its conditions; though I swear, were I otherwise minded regarding the woman" —here Parpon raised his head swiftly—"I would not hang my hat for an hour in the Tall Porch."
They rose and shook hands, then the wine was poured out, and they drank it off in silence. Parpon, however, sat with his head in his hands.
"Come, little comrade, drink," said Medallion, offering him a glass.
Parpon made no reply, but caught up the will, kissed it, put it into Armand's hand, and then, jumping down from the table, ran to the door and disappeared through it.
The next afternoon the Avocat visited old Farette. Farette was polishing a gun, mumbling the while. Sitting on some bags of meal was Parpon, with a fierce twinkle in his eye. Monsieur Garon told Farette briefly what the Seigneur had left him. With a quick, greedy chuckle Farette threw the gun away.
"Man alive!" said he; "tell me all about it. Ah, the good news!"
"There is nothing to tell: he left it; that is all."
"Oh, the good Seigneur," cried Farette, "the grand Seigneur!"
Some one laughed scornfully in the doorway. It was Julie.
"Look there," she cried; "he gets the land, and throws away the gun! Brag and coward, miller! It is for me to say 'the grand Seigneur!'"
She tossed her head: she thought the old Seigneur had relented towards her. She turned away to the house with a flaunting air, and got her hat. At first she thought she would go to the House with the Tall Porch, but she changed her mind, and went to the Bois Noir instead. Parpon followed her a distance off. Behind, in the mill, Farette was chuckling and rubbing his hands.
Meanwhile, Armand was making his way towards the Bois Noir. All at once, in the shade of a great pine, he stopped. He looked about him astonished.
"This is the old place. What a fool I was, then!" he said.
At that moment Julie came quickly, and lifted her hands towards him. "Armand—beloved Armand!" she said.
Armand looked at her sternly, from her feet to her pitted forehead, then wheeled, and left her without a word.
She sank in a heap on the ground. There was a sudden burst of tears, and then she clinched her hands with fury.
Some one laughed in the trees above her—a shrill, wild laugh. She looked up frightened. Parpon presently dropped down beside her.
"It was as I said," whispered the dwarf, and he touched her shoulder. This was the full cup of shame. She was silent.
"There are others," he whispered again. She could not see his strange smile; but she noticed that his voice was not as usual. "Listen," he urged, and he sang softly over her shoulder for quite a minute. She was amazed.
"Sing again," she said.
"I have wanted to sing to you like that for many years," he replied; and he sang a little more. "He cannot sing like that," he wheedled, and he stretched his arm around her shoulder.
She hung her head, then flung it back again as she thought of Armand.
"I hate him!" she cried; "I hate him!"
"You will not throw meal on me any more, or call me idiot?" he pleaded.
"No, Parpon," she said.
He kissed her on the cheek. She did not resent it. But now he drew away, smiled wickedly at her, and said: "See, we are even now, poor Julie!" Then he laughed, holding his little sides with huge hands. "Imbecile!" he added, and, turning, trotted away towards the Rock of Red Pigeons.
She threw herself, face forward, in the dusty needles of the pines.
When she rose from her humiliation, her face was as one who has seen the rags of harlequinade stripped from that mummer Life, leaving only naked being. She had touched the limits of the endurable; her sordid little hopes had split into fragments. But when a human soul faces upon its past, and sees a gargoyle at every milestone where an angel should be, and in one flash of illumination—the touch of genius to the smallest mind—understands the pitiless comedy, there comes the still stoic outlook.
Julie was transformed. All the possible years of her life were gathered into the force of one dreadful moment—dreadful and wonderful. Her mean vanity was lost behind the pale sincerity of her face—she was sincere at last. The trivial commonness was gone from her coquetting shoulders and drooping eyelids; and from her body had passed its flexuous softness. She was a woman; suffering, human, paying the price.
She walked slowly the way that Parpon had gone. Looking neither to right nor left, she climbed the long hillside, and at last reached the summit, where, bundled in a steep corner, was the Rock of Red Pigeons. As she emerged from the pines, she stood for a moment, and leaned with outstretched hand against a tree, looking into the sunlight. Slowly her eyes shifted from the Rock to the great ravine, to whose farther side the sun was giving bastions of gold. She was quiet. Presently she stepped into the light and came softly to the Rock. She walked slowly round it as though looking for some one. At the lowest side of the Rock, rude narrow hollows were cut for the feet. With a singular ease she climbed to the top of it. It had a kind of hollow, in which was a rude seat, carved out of the stone. Seeing this, a set look came to her face: she was thinking of Parpon, the master of this place. Her business was with him.
She got down slowly, and came over to the edge of the precipice. Steadying herself against a sapling, she looked over. Down below was a whirlpool, rising and falling-a hungry funnel of death. She drew back. Presently she peered again, and once more withdrew. She gazed round, and then made another tour of the hill, searching. She returned to the precipice. As she did so she heard a voice. She looked and saw Parpon seated upon a ledge of rock not far below. A mocking laugh floated up to her. But there was trouble in the laugh too—a bitter sickness. She did not notice that. She looked about her. Not far away was a stone, too heavy to carry but perhaps not too heavy to roll!
Foot by foot she rolled it over. She looked. He was still there. She stepped back. As she did so a few pebbles crumbled away from her feet and fell where Parpon perched. She did not see or hear them fall. He looked up, and saw the stone creeping upon the edge. Like a flash he was on his feet, and, springing into the air to the right, caught a tree steadfast in the rock. The stone fell upon the ledge, and bounded off again. The look of the woman did not follow the stone. She ran to the spot above the whirlpool, and sprang out and down.
From Parpon there came a wail such as the hills of the north never heard before. Dropping upon a ledge beneath, and from that to a jutting tree, which gave way, he shot down into the whirlpool. He caught Julie's body as it was churned from life to death: and then he fought. There was a demon in the whirlpool, but God and demon were working in the man. Nothing on earth could have unloosed that long, brown arm from Julie's drenched body. The sun lifted an eyelid over the yellow bastions of rock, and saw the fight. Once, twice, the shaggy head was caught beneath the surface—but at last the man conquered.
Inch by inch, foot by foot, Parpon, with the lifeless Julie clamped in one arm, climbed the rough wall, on, on, up to the Rock of Red Pigeons. He bore her to the top of it. Then he laid her down, and pillowed her head on his wet coat.
The huge hands came slowly down Julie's soaked hair, along her blanched cheek and shoulders, caught her arms and held them. He peered into her face. The eyes had the film which veils Here from Hereafter. On the lips was a mocking smile. He stooped as if to kiss her. The smile stopped him. He drew back for a time, then he leaned forward, shut his eyes, and her cold lips were his.
Twilight-dusk-night came upon Parpon and his dead—the woman whom an impish fate had put into his heart with mockery and futile pain.
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Can't get the company I want, so what I can get I have Capered at the mirror, and dusted her face with oatmeal For everything you lose you get something No trouble like that which comes between parent and child Old clock in the corner "ticking" life, and youth, and hope away She had not much brains, but she had some shrewdness Take the honeymoon himself, and leave his wife to learn cooking The laughter of a ripe summer was upon the land Thought all as flippant as herself Turned the misery of the world into a game, and grinned at it When the heart rusts the rust shows
THE LANE THAT HAD NO TURNING
By Gilbert Parker
TIMES WERE HARD IN PONTIAC MEDALLION'S WHIM THE PRISONER AN UPSET PRICE A FRAGMENT OF LIVES THE MAN THAT DIED AT ALMA THE BARON OF BEAUGARD THE TUNE McGILVERAY PLAYED
TIMES WERE HARD IN PONTIAC
It was soon after the Rebellion, and there was little food to be had and less money, and winter was at hand. Pontiac, ever most loyal to old France, though obedient to the English, had herself sent few recruits to be shot down by Colborne; but she had emptied her pockets in sending to the front the fulness of her barns and the best cattle of her fields. She gave her all; she was frank in giving, hid nothing; and when her own trouble came there was no voice calling on her behalf. And Pontiac would rather starve than beg. So, as the winter went on, she starved in silence, and no one had more than sour milk and bread and a potato now and then. The Cure, the Avocat, and the Little Chemist fared no better than the habitants; for they gave all they had right and left, and themselves often went hungry to bed. And the truth is that few outside Pontiac knew of her suffering; she kept the secret of it close.
It seemed at last, however, to the Cure that he must, after all, write to the world outside for help. That was when he saw the faces of the children get pale and drawn. There never was a time when there were so few fish in the river and so little game in the woods. At last, from the altar steps one Sunday, the Cure, with a calm, sad voice, told the people that, for "the dear children's sake," they must sink their pride and ask help from without. He would write first to the Bishop of Quebec; "for," said he, "Mother Church will help us; she will give us food, and money to buy seed in the spring; and, please God, we will pay all back in a year or two!" He paused a minute, then continued: "Some one must go, to speak plainly and wisely of our trouble, that there be no mistake—we are not beggars, we are only borrowers. Who will go? I may not myself, for who would give the Blessed Sacrament, and speak to the sick, or say Mass and comfort you?"
There was silence in the church for a moment, and many faces meanwhile turned instinctively to M. Garon the Avocat, and some to the Little Chemist.
"Who will go?" asked the Cure again. "It is a bitter journey, but our pride must not be our shame in the end. Who will go?"
Every one expected that the Avocat or the Little Chemist would rise; but while they looked at each other, waiting and sorrowful, and the Avocat's fingers fluttered to the seat in front of him, to draw himself up, a voice came from the corner opposite, saying: "M'sieu' le Cure, I will go."
A strange, painful silence fell on the people for a moment, and then went round an almost incredulous whisper: "Parpon the dwarf!"
Parpon's deep eyes were fixed on the Cure, his hunched body leaning on the railing in front of him, his long, strong arms stretched out as if he were begging for some good thing. The murmur among the people increased, but the Cure raised his hand to command silence, and his eyes gazed steadily at the dwarf. It might seem that he was noting the huge head, the shaggy hair, the overhanging brows, the weird face of this distortion of a thing made in God's own image. But he was thinking instead of how the angel and the devil may live side by side in a man, and neither be entirely driven out—and the angel conquer in great times and seasons.
He beckoned to Parpon to come over, and the dwarf trotted with a sidelong motion to the chancel steps. Every face in the congregation was eager, and some were mystified, even anxious. They all knew the singular power of the little man—his knowledge, his deep wit, his judgment, his occasional fierceness, his infrequent malice; but he was kind to children and the sick, and the Cure and the Avocat and their little coterie respected him. Once everybody had worshipped him: that was when he had sung in the Mass, the day of the funeral of the wife of Farette the miller, for whom he worked. It had been rumoured that in his hut by the Rock of Red Pigeons, up at Dalgrothe Mountain, a voice of most wonderful power and sweetness had been heard singing; but this was only rumour. Yet when the body of the miller's wife lay in the church, he had sung so that men and women wept and held each other's hands for joy. He had never sung since, however; his voice of silver was locked away in the cabinet of secret purposes which every man has somewhere in his own soul.
"What will you say to the Bishop, Parpon?" asked the Cure.
The congregation stirred in their seats, for they saw that the Cure intended Parpon to go.
Parpon went up two steps of the chancel quietly and caught the arm of the Cure, drawing him down to whisper in his ear.
A flush and then a peculiar soft light passed over the Cure's face, and he raised his hand over Parpon's head in benediction and said: "Go, my son, and the blessing of God and of His dear Son be with you."
Then suddenly he turned to the altar, and, raising his hands, he tried to speak, but only said: "O Lord, Thou knowest our pride and our vanity, hear us, and—"
Soon afterwards, with tearful eyes, he preached from the text:
"And the Light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not."
Five days later a little, uncouth man took off his hat in the chief street of Quebec, and began to sing a song of Picardy to an air which no man in French Canada had ever heard. Little farmers on their way to the market by the Place de Cathedral stopped, listening, though every moment's delay lessened their chances of getting a stand in the market- place. Butchers and milkmen loitered, regardless of waiting customers; a little company of soldiers caught up the chorus, and, to avoid involuntary revolt, their sergeant halted them, that they might listen. Gentlemen strolling by—doctor, lawyer, officer, idler—paused and forgot the raw climate, for this marvellous voice in the unshapely body warmed them, and they pushed in among the fast-gathering crowd. Ladies hurrying by in their sleighs lost their hearts to the thrilling notes of:
"Little grey fisherman, Where is your daughter? Where is your daughter so sweet? Little grey man who comes Over the water, I have knelt down at her feet, Knelt at your Gabrielle's feet—-ci ci!"
Presently the wife of the governor stepped out from her sleigh, and, coming over, quickly took Parpon's cap from his hand and went round among the crowd with it, gathering money.
"He is hungry, he is poor," she said, with tears in her eyes. She had known the song in her childhood, and he who used to sing it to her was in her sight no more. In vain the gentlemen would have taken the cap from her; she gathered the money herself, and others followed, and Parpon sang on.
A night later a crowd gathered in the great hall of the city, filling it to the doors, to hear the dwarf sing. He came on the platform dressed as he had entered the city, with heavy, home-made coat and trousers, and moccasins, and a red woollen comforter about his neck—but this comforter he took off when he began to sing. Old France and New France, and the loves and hates and joys and sorrows of all lands, met that night in the soul of this dwarf with the divine voice, who did not give them his name, so that they called him, for want of a better title, the Provencal. And again two nights afterwards it was the same, and yet again a third night and a fourth, and the simple folk, and wise folk also, went mad after Parpon the dwarf.
Then, suddenly, he disappeared from Quebec City, and the next Sunday morning, while the Cure was saying the last words of the Mass, he entered the Church of St. Saviour's at Pontiac. Going up to the chancel steps he waited. The murmuring of the people drew the Cure's attention, and then, seeing Parpon, he came forward.
Parpon drew from his breast a bag, and put it in his hands, and beckoning down the Cure's head, he whispered.
The Cure turned to the altar and raised the bag towards it in ascription and thanksgiving, then he turned to Parpon again, but the dwarf was trotting away down the aisle and from the church.
"Dear children," said the Cure, "we are saved, and we are not shamed." He held up the bag. "Parpon has brought us two thousand dollars: we shall have food to eat, and there shall be more money against seed-time. The giver of this good gift demands that his name be not known. Such is all true charity. Let us pray."
So hard times passed from Pontiac as the months went on; but none save the Cure and the Avocat knew who had helped her in her hour of need.
When the Avocat began to lose his health and spirits, and there crept through his shrewd gravity and kindliness a petulance and dejection, Medallion was the only person who had an inspiriting effect upon him. The Little Chemist had decided that the change in him was due to bad circulation and failing powers: which was only partially true.
Medallion made a deeper guess. "Want to know what's the matter with him?" he said. "Ha, I'll tell you! Woman."
"Woman—God bless me!" said the Little Chemist, in a frightened way.
"Woman, little man; I mean the want of a woman," said Medallion.
The Cure, who was present, shrugged his shoulders. "He has an excellent cook, and his bed and jackets are well aired; I see them constantly at the windows."
A laugh gurgled in Medallion's throat. He loved these innocent folk; but himself went twice a year to Quebec City and had more expanded views.
"Woman, Padre"—nodding to the priest, and rubbing his chin so that it rasped like sand-paper—"Woman, my druggist"—throwing a sly look at the Chemist——"woman, neither as cook nor bottle-washer, is what he needs. Every man-out of holy orders"—this in deference to his good friend the Cure—"arrives at the time when his youth must be renewed or he becomes as dry bones—like an empty house—furniture sold off. Can only be renewed one way—Woman. Well, here's our Avocat, and there's his remedy. He's got the cooking and the clean fresh linen; he must have a wife, the very best."
"Ah, my friend, you are droll," said the Cure, arching his long fingers at his lips and blowing gently through them, but not smiling in the least; rather serious, almost reproving.
"It is such a whim, such a whim!" said the Little Chemist, shaking his head and looking through his glasses sideways like a wise bird.
"Ha—you shall see! The man must be saved; our Cure shall have his fees; our druggist shall provide the finest essences for the feast—no more pills. And we shall dine with our Avocat once a week—with asparagus in season for the Cure, and a little good wine for all. Ha!"
His Ha! was never a laugh; it was unctuous, abrupt, an ejaculation of satisfaction, knowledge, solid enjoyment, final solution.
The Cure shook his head doubtfully; he did not see the need; he did not believe in Medallion's whim; still he knew that the man's judgment was shrewd in most things, and he would be silent and wait. But he shrank from any new phase of life likely to alter the conditions of that old companionship, which included themselves, the Avocat, and the young Doctor, who, like the Little Chemist, was married.
The Chemist sharply said: "Well, well, perhaps. I hope. There is a poetry (his English was not perfect, and at times he mixed it with French in an amusing manner), a little chanson, which runs:
"'Sorrowful is the little house, The little house by the winding stream; All the laughter has died away Out of the little house. But down there come from the lofty hills Footsteps and eyes agleam, Bringing the laughter of yesterday Into the little house, By the winding stream and the hills. Di ron, di ron, di ron, di ron-don!'"
The Little Chemist blushed faintly at the silence that followed his timid, quaint recital. The Cure looked calm and kind, and drawn away as if in thought; but Medallion presently got up, stooped, and laid his long fingers on the shoulder of the apothecary.
"Exactly, little man," he said; "we've both got the same idea in our heads. I've put it hard fact, you've put it soft sentiment; and it's God's truth either way."
Presently the Cure asked, as if from a great distance, so meditative was his voice: "Who will be the woman, Medallion?"
"I've got one in my eye—the very right one for our Avocat; not here, not out of Pontiac, but from St. Jean in the hills—fulfilling your verses, gentle apothecary. She must bring what is fresh—he must feel that the hills have come to him, she that the valley is hers for the first time. A new world for them both. Ha!"
"Regardez Ca! you are a great man," said the Little Chemist.
There was a strange, inscrutable look in the kind priest's eyes. The Avocat had confessed to him in his time.
Medallion took up his hat.
"Where are you going?" said the Little Chemist. "To our Avocat, and then to St. Jean."
He opened the door and vanished. The two that were left shook their heads and wondered.
Chuckling softly to himself, Medallion strode away through the lane of white-board houses and the smoke of strong tabac from these houses, now and then pulling suddenly up to avoid stumbling over a child, where children are numbered by the dozen to every house. He came at last to a house unlike the others, in that it was of stone and larger. He leaned for a moment over the gate, and looked through a window into a room where the Avocat sat propped up with cushions in a great chair, staring gloomily at two candles burning on the table before him. Medallion watched him for a long time. The Avocat never changed his position; he only stared at the candle, and once or twice his lips moved. A woman came in and put a steaming bowl before him, and laid a pipe and matches beside the bowl. She was a very little, thin old woman, quick and quiet and watchful—his housekeeper. The Avocat took no notice of her. She looked at him several times anxiously, and passed backwards and forwards behind him as a hen moves upon the flank of her brood. All at once she stopped. Her small, white fingers, with their large rheumatic knuckles, lay flat on her lips as she stood for an instant musing; then she trotted lightly to a bureau, got pen and paper and ink, reached down a bunch of keys from the mantel, and came and put them all beside the bowl and the pipe. Still the Avocat did not stir, or show that he recognised her. She went to the door, turned, and looked back, her fingers again at her lips, then slowly sidled out of the room. It was long before the Avocat moved. His eyes had not wavered from the space between the candles. At last, however, he glanced down. His eye caught the bowl, then the pipe. He reached out a slow hand for the pipe, and was taking it up, when his glance fell on the keys and the writing material. He put the pipe down, looked up at the door through which the little old woman had gone, gazed round the room, took up the keys, but soon put them down again with a sigh, and settled back in his chair. Now his gaze alternated between that long lane, sloping into shadow between the candles, and the keys.
Medallion threw a leg over the fence and came in a few steps to the door. He opened it quietly and entered. In the dark he felt his way along the wall to the door of the Avocat's room, opened it, and thrust in his ungainly, whimsical face.
"Ha!" he laughed with quick-winking eyes. "Evening, Garon. Live the Code Napoleon! Pipes for two." A change came slowly over the Avocat. His eyes drew away from that vista between the candles, and the strange distant look faded out of them.
"Great is the Code Napoleon!" he said mechanically. Then, presently: "Ah, my friend, Medallion!"
His first words were the answer to a formula which always passed between them on meeting. As soon as Garon had said them, Medallion's lanky body followed his face, and in a moment he had the Avocat's hand in his, swallowing it, of purpose crushing it, so that Monsieur Garon waked up smartly and gave his visitor a pensive smile. Medallion's cheerful nervous vitality seldom failed to inspire whom he chose to inspire with Something of his own life and cheerfulness. In a few moments both the Avocat and himself were smoking, and the contents of the steaming bowl were divided between them. Medallion talked on many things. The little old housekeeper came in, chirped a soft good-evening, flashed a small thankful smile at Medallion, and, after renewing the bowl and lighting two more tall candles, disappeared. Medallion began with the parish, passed to the law, from the law to Napoleon, from Napoleon to France, and from France to the world, drawing out from the Avocat something of his old vivacity and fire. At last Medallion, seeing that the time was ripe, turned his glass round musingly in his fingers before him and said:
"Benoit, Annette's husband, died to-day, Garon. You knew him. He went singing—gone in the head, but singing as he used to do before he married—or got drunk! Perhaps his youth came back to him when he was going to die, just for a minute."
The Avocat's eye gazed at Medallion earnestly now, and Medallion went on:
"As good singing as you want to hear. You've heard the words of the song—the river drivers sing it:
"'What is there like to the cry of the bird That sings in its nest in the lilac tree? A voice the sweetest you ever have heard; It is there, it is here, ci ci! It is there, it is here, it must roam and roam, And wander from shore to shore, Till I go forth and bring it home, And enter and close my door Row along, row along home, ci ci!'"
When Medallion had finished saying the first verse he waited, but the Avocat said nothing; his eyes were now fastened again on that avenue between the candles leading out into the immortal part of him—his past; he was busy with a life that had once been spent in the fields of Fontainebleau and in the shadow of the Pantheon.
Medallion went on:
"'What is there like to the laughing star, Far up from the lilac tree? A face that's brighter and finer far; It laughs and it shines, ci, ci! It laughs and it shines, it must roam and roam, And travel from shore to shore, Till I go forth and bring it home, And house it within my door Row along, row along home, ci, ci!'"
When Medallion had finished he raised his glass and said: "Garon, I drink to home and woman!"
He waited. The Avocat's eyes drew away from the candles again, and he came to his feet suddenly, swaying slightly as he did so. He caught up a glass and, lifting it, said: "I drink to home and—" a little cold burst of laughter came from him, he threw his head back with something like disdain—"and the Code Napoleon!" he added abruptly.
Then he put the glass down without drinking, wheeled back, and dropped into his chair. Presently he got up, took his keys, went over, opened the bureau, and brought back a well-worn note-book which looked like a diary. He seemed to have forgotten Medallion's presence, but it was not so; he had reached the moment of disclosure which comes to every man, no matter how secretive, when he must tell what is on his mind or die. He opened the book with trembling fingers, took a pen and wrote, at first slowly, while Medallion smoked:
"September 13th.—It is five-and-twenty years ago to-day—Mon Dieu, how we danced that night on the flags before the Sorbonne! How gay we were in the Maison Bleu! We were gay and happy—Lulie and I—two rooms and a few francs ahead every week. That night we danced and poured out the light wine, because we were to be married to-morrow. Perhaps there would be a child, if the priest blessed us, she whispered to me as we watched the soft-travelling moon in the gardens of the Luxembourg. Well, we danced. There was an artist with us. I saw him catch Lulie about the waist, and kiss her on the neck. She was angry, but I did not think of that; I was mad with wine. I quarrelled with her, and said to her a shameful thing. Then I rushed away. We were not married the next day; I could not find her. One night, soon after, there was a revolution of students at Mont Parnasse. I was hurt. I remember that she came to me then and nursed me, but when I got well she was gone. Then came the secret word from the Government that I must leave the country or go to prison. I came here. Alas! it is long since we danced before the Sorbonne, and supped at the Maison Bleu. I shall never see again the gardens of the Luxembourg. Well, that was a mad night five-and-twenty years ago!"
His pen went faster and faster. His eyes lighted up, he seemed quite forgetful of Medallion's presence. When he finished, a fresh change came over him. He gathered his thin fingers in a bunch at his lips, and made an airy salute to the warm space between the candles. He drew himself together with a youthful air, and held his grey head gallantly. Youth and age in him seemed almost grotesquely mingled. Sprightly notes from the song of a cafe chantant hovered on his thin, dry lips. Medallion, amused, yet with a hushed kind of feeling through all his nerves, pushed the Avocat's tumbler till it touched his fingers. The thin fingers twined round it, and once more he came to his feet. He raised the glass. "To—" for a minute he got no further—"To the wedding-eve!" he said, and sipped the hot wine. Presently he pushed the little well-worn book over to Medallion. "I have known you fifteen years—read!" he said. He gave Medallion a meaning look out of his now flashing eyes. Medallion's bony face responded cordially. "Of course," he answered, picked up the book, and read what the Avocat had written. It was on the last page. When he had finished reading, he held the book musingly. His whim had suddenly taken on a new colour. The Avocat, who had been walking up and down the room, with the quick step of a young man, stopped before him, took the book from him, turned to the first page, and handed it back silently. Medallion read:
Quebec, September 13th, 18-. It is one year since. I shall learn to laugh some day.
Medallion looked up at him. The old man threw back his head, spread out the last page in the book which he had just written, and said defiantly, as though expecting contradiction to his self-deception—"I have learned."
Then he laughed, but the laugh was dry and hollow and painful. It suddenly passed from his wrinkled lips, and he sat down again; but now with an air as of shy ness and shame. "Let us talk," he said, "of— of the Code Napoleon."
The next morning Medallion visited St. Jean in the hills. Five years before he had sold to a new-comer at St. Jean-Madame Lecyr—the furniture of a little house, and there had sprung up between them a quiet friendship, not the less admiring on Medallion's part because Madame Lecyr was a good friend to the poor and sick. She never tired, when they met, of hearing him talk of the Cure, the Little Chemist, and the Avocat; and in the Avocat she seemed to take the most interest, making countless inquiries—countless when spread over many conversations—upon his life during the time Medallion had known him. He knew also that she came to Pontiac, occasionally, but only in the evening; and once of a moonlight night he had seen her standing before the window of the Avocat's house. Once also he had seen her veiled in the little crowded court-room of Pontiac when an interesting case was being tried, and noticed how she watched Monsieur Garon, standing so very still that she seemed lifeless; and how she stole out as soon as he had done speaking.
Medallion had acute instincts, and was supremely a man of self-counsel. What he thought he kept to him self until there seemed necessity to speak. A few days before the momentous one herebefore described he had called at Madame Lecyr's house, and, in course of conversation, told her that the Avocat's health was breaking; that the day before he had got completely fogged in court over the simplest business, and was quite unlike his old, shrewd, kindly self. By this time he was almost prepared to see her turn pale and her fingers flutter at the knitting-needles she held. She made an excuse to leave the room for a moment. He saw a little book lying near the chair from which she had risen. Perhaps it had dropped from her pocket. He picked it up. It was a book of French songs—Beranger's and others less notable. On the fly-leaf was written: "From Victor to Lulie, September 13th, 18-." Presently she came back to him quite recovered and calm, inquired how the Avocat was cared for, and hoped he would have every comfort and care. Medallion grew on the instant bold. He was now certain that Victor was the Avocat, and Lulie was Madame Lecyr. He said abruptly to her: "Why not come and cheer him up—such old friends as you are?"
At that she rose with a little cry, and stared anxiously at him. He pointed to the book of songs. "Don't be angry—I looked," he said.
She breathed quick and hard, and said nothing, but her fingers laced and interlaced nervously in her lap. "If you were friends why don't you go to him?" he said.
She shook her head mournfully. "We were more than friends, and that is different."
"You were his wife?" said Medallion gently.
"It was different," she replied, flushing. "France is not the same as here. We were to be married, but on the eve of our wedding-day there was an end to it all. Only five years ago I found out he was here."
Then she became silent, and would, or could, speak no more; only, she said at last before he went: "You will not tell him, or any one?"
She need not have asked Medallion. He knew many secrets and kept them; which is not the usual way of good-humoured people.
But now, with the story told by the Avocat himself in his mind, he saw the end of the long romance. He came once more to the house of Madame Lecyr, and being admitted, said to her: "You must come at once with me."
She trembled towards him. "He is worse—he is dying!"
He smiled. "Not dying at all. He needs you; come along. I'll tell you as we go."
But she hung back. Then he told her all he had seen and heard the evening before. Without a word further she prepared to go. On the way he turned to her and said: "You are Madame Lecyr?"
"I am as he left me," she replied timidly, but with a kind of pride, too.
"Don't mistake me," he said. "I thought perhaps you had been married since."
The Avocat sat in his little office, feebly fumbling among his papers, as Medallion entered on him and called to him cheerily: "We are coming to see you to-night, Garon—the Cure, our Little Chemist, and the Seigneur; coming to supper."
The Avocat put out his hand courteously; but he said in a shrinking, pained voice: "No, no, not to-night, Medallion. I would wish no visitors this night—of all."
Medallion stooped over him, and caught him by both arms gently. "We shall see," he said. "It is the anniversary," he whispered.
"Ah, pardon!" said the Avocat, with a reproving pride, and shrank back as if all his nerves had been laid bare. But Medallion turned, opened the door, went out, and let in a woman, who came forward and timidly raised her veil.
"Victor!" Medallion heard, then "Lulie!" and then he shut the door, and, with supper in his mind, went into the kitchen to see the housekeeper, who, in this new joy, had her own tragedy—humming to himself:
"But down there come from the lofty hills Footsteps and eyes agleam, Bringing the laughter of yesterday Into the little house."
His chief occupation in the daytime was to stand on the bench by the small barred window and watch the pigeons on the roof and in the eaves of the house opposite. For five years he had done this. In the summer a great fire seemed to burn beneath the tin of the roof, for a quivering hot air rose from them, and the pigeons never alighted on them, save in the early morning or in the evening. Just over the peak could be seen the topmost branch of a maple, too slight to bear the weight of the pigeons, but the eaves were dark and cool, and there his eyes rested when he tired of the hard blue sky and the glare of the slates.
In winter the roof was covered for weeks and months by a blanket of snow which looked like a shawl of impacted wool, white and restful, and the windows of the house were spread with frost. But the pigeons were always gay, walking on the ledges or crowding on the shelves of the lead pipes. He studied them much, but he loved them more. His prison was less a prison because of them, and during those long five years he found himself more in touch with them than with the wardens of the prison or with any of his fellow-prisoners. To the former he was respectful, and he gave them no trouble at all; with the latter he had nothing in common, for they were criminals, and he—so wild and mad with drink and anger was he at the time, that he had no remembrance, absolutely none, of how Jean Gamache lost his life.
He remembered that they had played cards far into the night; that they had quarrelled, then made their peace; that the others had left; that they had begun gaming and drinking and quarrelling again—and then everything was blurred, save for a vague recollection that he had won all Gamache's money and had pocketed it. Afterwards came a blank.
He waked to find two officers of the law beside him, and the body of Jean Gamache, stark and dreadful, a few feet away.
When the officers put their hands upon him he shook them off; when they did it again he would have fought them to the death, had it not been for his friend, tall Medallion the auctioneer, who laid a strong hand on his arm and said, "Steady, Turgeon, steady!" and he had yielded to the firm friendly pressure.
Medallion had left no stone unturned to clear him at the trial, had himself played detective unceasingly. But the hard facts remained, and on a chain of circumstantial evidence Blaze Turgeon was convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for ten years. Blaze himself had said that he did not remember, but he could not believe that he had committed the crime. Robbery? He shrugged his shoulders at that, he insisted that his lawyer should not reply to the foolish and insulting suggestion. But the evidence went to show that Gamache had all the winnings when the other members of the party retired, and this very money had been found in Blaze's pocket. There was only Blaze's word that they had played cards again. Anger? Possibly. Blaze could not recall, though he knew they had quarrelled. The judge himself, charging the jury, said that he never before had seen a prisoner so frank, so outwardly honest, but he warned them that they must not lose sight of the crime itself, the taking of a human life, whereby a woman was made a widow and a child fatherless. The jury found him guilty.
With few remarks the judge delivered his sentence, and then himself, shaken and pale, left the court-room hurriedly, for Blaze Turgeon's father had been his friend from boyhood.
Blaze took his sentence calmly, looking the jury squarely in the eyes, and when the judge stopped, he bowed to him, and then turned to the jury and said:
"Gentlemen, you have ruined my life. You don't know, and I don't know, who killed the man. You have guessed, and I take the penalty. Suppose I'm innocent—how will you feel when the truth comes out? You've known me more or less these twenty years, and you've said, with evidently no more knowledge than I've got, that I did this horrible thing. I don't know but that one of you did it. But you are safe, and I take my ten years!"
He turned from them, and, as he did so, he saw a woman looking at him from a corner of the court-room, with a strange, wild expression. At the moment he saw no more than an excited, bewildered face, but afterwards this face came and went before him, flashing in and out of dark places in a kind of mockery.
As he went from the court-room another woman made her way to him in spite of the guards. It was the Little Chemist's wife, who, years before, had been his father's housekeeper, who knew him when his eyes first opened on the world.
"My poor Blaze! my poor Blaze!" she said, clasping his manacled hands.
In prison he refused to see all visitors, even Medallion, the Little Chemist's wife, and the good Father Fabre. Letters, too, he refused to accept and read. He had no contact, wished no contact with the outer world, but lived his hard, lonely life by himself, silent, studious— for now books were a pleasure to him. He had entered his prison a wild, excitable, dissipated youth, and he had become a mature brooding man. Five years had done the work of twenty.
The face of the woman who looked at him so strangely in the court-room haunted him so that at last it became a part of his real life, lived largely at the window where he looked out at the pigeons on the roof of the hospital.
"She was sorry for me," he said many a time to himself. He was shaken with misery often, so that he rocked to and fro as he sat on his bed, and a warder heard him cry out even in the last days of his imprisonment:
"O God, canst Thou do everything but speak!" And again: "That hour—the memory of that hour, in exchange for my ruined life!"
One day the gaoler came to him and said: "Monsieur Turgeon, you are free. The Governor has cut off five years from your sentence."
Then he was told that people were waiting without—Medallion, the Little Chemist and his wife, and others more important. But he would not go to meet them, and he stepped into the open world alone at dawn the next morning, and looked out upon a still sleeping village. Suddenly there stood before him a woman, who had watched by the prison gates all night; and she put out her hand in entreaty, and said with a breaking voice: "You are free at last!"
He remembered her—the woman who had looked at him so anxiously and sorrowfully in the court-room. "Why did you come to meet me?" he asked.
"I was sorry for you."
"But that is no reason."
"I once committed a crime," she whispered, with shrinking bitterness.
"That's bad," he said. "Were you punished?" He looked at her keenly, almost fiercely, for a curious suspicion shot into his mind.
She shook her head and answered no.
"I let some one else take my crime upon him and be punished for it," she said, an agony in her eyes. "Why was that?"
"I had a little child," was her reply.
"And the man who was punished instead?"
"He was alone in the world," she said.
A bitter smile crept to his lips, and his face was afire. He shut his eyes, and when they opened again discovery was in them.
"I remember you now," he said. "I remember now.
"I waked and saw you looking at me that night! Who was the father of your child?"
"Jean Gamache," she replied. "He ruined me and left me to starve."
"I am innocent of his death!" he said quietly and gladly.
She nodded. He was silent for a moment. "The child still lives?" he asked. She nodded again. "Well, let it be so," he said. "But you owe me five years—and a good name."
"I wish to God I could give them back!" she cried, tears streaming down her cheeks. "It was for my child; he was so young."
"It can't be helped now," he said sighing, and he turned away from her.
"Won't you forgive me?" she asked bitterly.
"Won't you give me back those five years?"
"If the child did not need me I would give my life," she answered. "I owe it to you."
Her haggard, hunted face made him sorry; he, too, had suffered.
"It's all right," he answered gently. "Take care of your child."
Again he moved away from her, and went down the little hill, with a cloud gone from his face that had rested there five years. Once he turned to look back. The woman was gone, but over the prison a flock of pigeons were flying. He took off his hat to them.
Then he went through the town, looking neither to right nor left, and came to his own house, where the summer morning was already entering the open windows, though he had thought to find the place closed and dark.
The Little Chemist's wife met him in the doorway. She could not speak, nor could he, but he kissed her as he had done when he went condemned to prison. Then he passed on to his own room, and entering, sat down before the open window, and peacefully drank in the glory of a new world. But more than once he choked down a sob rising in his throat.
AN UPSET PRICE
Once Secord was as fine a man to look at as you would care to see: with a large intelligent eye, a clear, healthy skin, and a full, brown beard. He walked with a spring, had a gift of conversation, and took life as he found it, never too seriously, yet never carelessly. That was before he left the village of Pontiac in Quebec to offer himself as a surgeon to the American Army. When he came back there was a change in him. He was still handsome, but something of the spring had gone from his walk, the quick light of his eyes had given place to a dark, dreamy expression, his skin became a little dulled, and his talk slower, though not less musical or pleasant. Indeed, his conversation had distinctly improved. Previously there was an undercurrent of self-consciousness; it was all gone now. He talked as one knowing his audience. His office became again, as it had been before, a rendezvous for the few interesting men of the place, including the Avocat, the Cure, the Little Chemist, and Medallion. They played chess and ecarte for certain hours of certain evenings in the week at Secord's house. Medallion was the first to notice that the wife—whom Secord had married soon after he came back from the war—occasionally put down her work and looked with a curious inquiring expression at her husband as he talked. It struck Medallion that she was puzzled by some change in Secord.
Secord was a brilliant surgeon and physician. With the knife or beside a sick-bed, he was admirable. His intuitive perception, so necessary in his work, was very fine: he appeared to get at the core of a patient's trouble, and to decide upon necessary action with instant and absolute confidence. Some delicate operation performed by him was recorded and praised in the Lancet; and he was offered a responsible post in a medical college, and, at the same time, the good-will of a valuable practice. He declined both, to the lasting astonishment, yet personal joy, of the Cure and the Avocat; but, as time went on, not so much to the surprise of the Little Chemist and Medallion. After three years, the sleepy Little Chemist waked up suddenly in his chair one day, and said: "Parbleu, God bless me!" (he loved to mix his native language with English) got up and went over to Secord's office, adjusted his glasses, looked at Secord closely, caught his hand with both of his own, shook it with shy abruptness, came back to his shop, sat down, and said: "God bless my soul! Regardez ca!"
Medallion made his discovery sooner. Watching closely he had seen a pronounced deliberation infused through all Secord's indolence of manner, and noticed that often, before doing anything, the big eyes debated steadfastly, and the long, slender fingers ran down the beard softly. At times there was a deep meditativeness in the eye, again a dusky fire. But there was a certain charm through it all—a languid precision, a slumbering look in the face, a vague undercurrent in the voice, a fantastical flavour to the thought. The change had come so gradually that only Medallion and the wife had a real conception of how great it was. Medallion had studied Secord from every stand-point. At the very first he wondered if there was a woman in it. Much thinking on a woman, whose influence on his life was evil or disturbing, might account somewhat for the change in Secord. But, seeing how fond the man was of his wife, Medallion gave up that idea. It was not liquor, for Secord never touched it. One day, however, when Medallion was selling the furniture of a house, he put up a feather bed, and, as was his custom— for he was a whimsical fellow—let his humour have play. He used many metaphors as to the virtue of the bed, crowning them with the statement that you slept in it dreaming as delicious dreams as though you had eaten poppy, or mandragora, or—He stopped short, said, "By jingo, that's it!" knocked the bed down instantly, and was an utter failure for the rest of the day.
The wife was longer in discovering the truth, but a certain morning, as her husband lay sleeping after an all-night sitting with a patient, she saw lying beside him—it had dropped from his waistcoat pocket—a little bottle full of a dark liquid. She knew that he always carried his medicine-phials in a pocket-case. She got the case, and saw that none was missing. She noticed that the cork of the phial was well worn. She took it out and smelled the liquid. Then she understood. She waited and watched. She saw him after he waked look watchfully round, quietly take a wine-glass, and let the liquid come drop by drop into it from the point of his forefinger. Henceforth she read with understanding the changes in his manner, and saw behind the mingled abstraction and fanciful meditation of his talk.
She had not yet made up her mind what to do. She saw that he hid it from her assiduously. He did so more because he wished not to pain her than from furtiveness. By nature he was open and brave, and had always had a reputation for plainness and sincerity. She was in no sense his equal in intelligence or judgment, nor even in instinct. She was a woman of more impulse and constitutional good-nature than depth. It is probable that he knew that, and refrained from letting her into the knowledge of this vice, contracted in the war when, seriously ill, he was able to drag himself about from patient to patient only by the help of opium. He was alive to his position and its consequences, and faced it. He had no children, and he was glad of this for one reason. He could do nothing now without the drug; it was as necessary as light to him. The little bottle had been his friend so long, that, with his finger on its smooth- edged cork, it was as though he held the tap of life.
The Little Chemist and Medallion kept the thing to themselves, but they understood each other in the matter, and wondered what they could do to cure him. The Little Chemist only shrank back, and said, "No, no, pardon, my friend!" when Medallion suggested that he should speak to Secord. But the Little Chemist was greatly concerned—for had not Secord saved his beloved wife by a clever operation? and was it not her custom to devote a certain hour every week to the welfare of Secord's soul and body, before the shrine of the Virgin? Her husband told her now that Secord was in trouble, and though he was far from being devout himself, he had a shy faith in the great sincerity of his wife. She did her best, and increased her offerings of flowers to the shrine; also, in her simplicity, she sent Secord's wife little jars of jam to comfort him.
One evening the little coterie met by arrangement at the doctor's house. After waiting an hour or two for Secord, who had been called away to a critical case, the Avocat and the Cure went home, leaving polite old- fashioned messages for their absent host; but the Little Chemist and Medallion remained. For a time Mrs. Secord remained with them, then retired, begging them to await her husband, who, she knew, would be grateful if they stayed. The Little Chemist, with timid courtesy, showed her out of the room, then came back and sat down. They were very silent. The Little Chemist took off his glasses a half-dozen times, wiped them, and put them back. Then suddenly turned on Medallion. "You mean to speak to-night?"
"Yes, that's it."
"Regardez ca—well, well!"
Medallion never smoked harder than he did then. The Little Chemist looked at him nervously again and again, listened towards the door, fingered with his tumbler, and at last hearing the sound of sleigh-bells, suddenly came to his feet, and said: "Voila, I will go to my wife." And catching up his cap, and forgetting his overcoat, he trotted away home in a fright.
What Medallion did or said to Secord that night neither ever told. But it must have been a singular scene, for when the humourist pleads or prays there is no pathos like it; and certainly Medallion's eyes were red when he rapped up the Little Chemist at dawn, caught him by the shoulders, turned him round several times, thumped him on the back, and called him a bully old boy; and then, seeing the old wife in her quaint padded night-gown, suddenly hugged her, threw himself into a chair, and almost shouted for a cup of coffee.
At the same time Mrs. Secord was alternately crying and laughing in her husband's arms, and he was saying to her: "I'll make a fight for it, Lesley, a big fight; but you must be patient, for I expect I'll be a devil sometimes without it. Why, I've eaten a drachm a day of the stuff, or drunk its equivalent in the tincture. No, never mind praying; be a brick and fight with me that's the game, my girl."
He did make a fight for it, such an one as few men have made and come out safely. For those who dwell in the Pit never suffer as do they who struggle with this appetite. He was too wise to give it up all at once. He diminished the dose gradually, but still very perceptibly. As it was, it made a marked change in him. The necessary effort of the will gave a kind of hard coldness to his face, and he used to walk his garden for hours at night in conflict with his enemy. His nerves were uncertain, but, strange to say, when (it was not often) any serious case of illness came under his hands, he was somehow able to pull himself together and do his task gallantly enough. But he had had no important surgical case since he began his cure. In his heart he lived in fear of one; for he was not quite sure of himself. In spite of effort to the contrary he became irritable, and his old pleasant fantasies changed to gloomy and bizarre imaginings.
The wife never knew what it cost her husband thus, day by day, to take a foe by the throat and hold him in check. She did not guess that he knew if he dropped back even once he could not regain himself: this was his idiosyncrasy. He did not find her a great help to him in his trouble. She was affectionate, but she had not much penetration even where he was concerned, and she did not grasp how much was at stake. She thought indeed that he should be able to give it up all at once. He was tender with her, but he wished often that she could understand him without explanation on his part. Many a time he took out the little bottle with a reckless hand, but conquered himself. He got most help, perhaps, from the honest, cheerful eye of Medallion and the stumbling timorous affection of the Little Chemist. They were perfectly disinterested friends—his wife at times made him aware that he had done her a wrong, for he had married her with thus appetite on him. He did not defend himself, but he wished she would—even if she had to act it—make him believe in himself more. One morning against his will he was irritable with her, and she said something that burnt like caustic. He smiled ironically, and pushed his newspaper over to her, pointing to a paragraph. It was the announcement that an old admirer of hers whom she had passed by for her husband, had come into a fortune. "Perhaps you've made a mistake," he said.
She answered nothing, but the look she gave was unfortunate for both. He muffled his mouth in his long silken beard as if to smother what he felt impelled to say, then suddenly rose and left the table.
At this time he had reduced his dose of the drug to eight drops twice a day. With a grim courage he resolved to make it five all at once. He did so, and held to it. Medallion was much with him in these days. One morning in the spring he got up, went out in his garden, drew in the fresh, sweet air with a great gulp, picked some lovely crab-apple blossoms, and, with a strange glowing look in his eyes, came in to his wife, put them into her hands, and kissed her. It was the anniversary of their wedding-day. Then, without a word, he took from his pocket the little phial that he had carried so long, rolled it for an instant in his palm, felt its worn, discoloured cork musingly, and threw it out of the window.
"Now, my dear," he whispered, "we will be happy again."
He held to his determination with a stern anxiety. He took a month's vacation, and came back better. He was not so happy as he hoped to be; yet he would not whisper to himself the reason why. He felt that something had failed him somewhere.
One day a man came riding swiftly up to his door to say that his wife's father had met with a bad accident in his great mill. Secord told his wife. A peculiar troubled look came into his face as he glanced carefully over his instruments and through his medicine case. "God, I must do it alone!" he said.
The old man's injury was a dangerous one: a skilful operation was necessary. As Secord stood beside the sufferer, he felt his nerves suddenly go—just as they did in the war before he first took the drug. His wife was in the next room—he could hear her; he wished she would make no sound at all. Unless this operation was performed successfully the sufferer would die—he might die anyhow. Secord tried to gather himself up to his task, but he felt it was of no use. A month later when he was more recovered physically he would be able to perform the operation, but the old man was dying now, while he stood helplessly stroking his big brown beard. He took up his pocket medicine-case, and went out where his wife was.
Excited and tearful, she started up to meet him, painfully inquiring. "Can you save him?" she said. "Oh, James, what is the matter? You are trembling."
"It's just this way, Lesley: my nerve is broken; I can't perform the operation as I am, and he will die in an hour if I don't."
She caught him by the arm. "Can you not be strong? You have a will. Will you not try to save my father, James? Is there no way?"
"Yes, there is one way," he said. He opened the pocket-case and took out a phial of laudanum. "This is the way. I can pull myself together with it. It will save his life." There was a dogged look in his face.
"Well? well?" she said. "Oh, my dear father, will you not keep him here?"
A peculiar cold smile hovered about his lips. "But there is danger to me in this . . . and remember, he is very old!"
"Oh," she cried, "how can you be so shocking, so cruel!" She rocked herself to and fro. "If it will save him—and you need not take it again, ever!"