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The Right of Way — Volume 02 online

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This eBook was produced by David Widger


By Gilbert Parker

Volume 2.




Jo Portugtais was breaking the law of the river - he was running a little
raft down the stream at night, instead of tying up at sundown and camping
on the shore, or sitting snugly over cooking-pot by the little wooden
caboose on his raft. But defiance of custom and tradition was a habit
with Jo Portugais. He had lived in his own way many a year, and he was
likely to do so till the end, though he was a young man yet. He had many
professions, or rather many gifts, which he practised as it pleased him.
He was river-driver, woodsman, hunter, carpenter, guide, as whim or
opportunity came to him. On the evening when Charley Steele met with his
mishap he was a river-driver - or so it seemed. He had been up nor'west a
hundred and fifty miles, and he had come down-stream alone with his raft-
which in the usual course should take two men to guide it - through
slides, over rapids, and in strong currents. Defying the code of the
river, with only one small light at the rear of his raft, he voyaged the
swift current towards his home, which, when he arrived opposite the Cote
Dorion, was still a hundred miles below. He had watched the lights in
the river-drivers' camps, had seen the men beside the fires, and had
drifted on, with no temptation to join in the songs floating out over the
dark water, to share the contents of the jugs raised to boisterous lips,
or to thrust his hand into the greasy cooking-pot for a succulent bone.

He drifted on until he came opposite Charlemagne's tavern. Here the
current carried him inshore. He saw the dim light, he saw dark figures
in the bar-room, he even got a glimpse of Suzon Charlemagne. He dropped
the house behind quickly, but looked back, leaning on the oar and
thinking how swift was the rush of the current past the tavern. His eyes
were on the tavern door and the light shining through it. Suddenly the
light disappeared, and the door vanished into darkness. He heard a
scuffle, and then a heavy splash.

"There's trouble there," said Jo Portugais, straining his eyes through
the night, for a kind of low roar, dwindling to a loud whispering, and
then a noise of hurrying feet, came down the stream, and he could dimly
see dark figures running away into the night by different paths.

"Some dirty work, very sure," said Jo Portugais, and his eyes travelled
back over the dark water like a lynx's, for the splash was in his ear,
and a sort of prescience possessed him. He could not stop his raft. It
must go on down the current, or be swerved to the shore, to be fastened.

"God knows, it had an ugly sound," said Jo Portugais, and again strained
his eyes and ears. He shifted his position and took another oar, where
the raft-lantern might not throw a reflection upon the water. He saw a
light shine again through the tavern doorway, then a dark object block
the light, and a head thrust forward towards the river as though

At this moment he fancied he saw something in the water nearing him. He
stretched his neck. Yes, there was something.

"It's a man. God save us - was it murder?" said Jo Portugais, and
shuddered. "Was it murder?"

The body moved more swiftly than the raft. There was a hand thrust up -
two hands.

"He's alive!" said Jo Portugais, and, hurriedly pulling round his waist
a rope tied to a timber, jumped into the water.

Three minutes later, on the raft, he was examining a wound in the head of
an insensible man.

As his hand wandered over the body towards the heart, it touched
something that rattled against a button. He picked it up mechanically
and held it to the light. It was an eye-glass.

"My God!" said Jo Portugais, and peered into the man's face. "It's
him." Then he remembered the last words the man had spoken to him -
"Get out of my sight. You're as guilty as hell!" But his heart yearned
towards the man nevertheless.



In his own world of the parish of Chaudiere Jo Portugais was counted a
widely travelled man. He had adventured freely on the great rivers and
in the forests, and had journeyed up towards Hudson's Bay farther than
any man in seven parishes.

Jo's father and mother had both died in one year - when he was twenty-
five. That year had turned him from a clean-shaven cheerful boy into a
morose bearded man who looked forty, for it had been marked by his
disappearance from Chaudiere and his return at the end of it, to find his
mother dead and his father dying broken-hearted. What had driven Jo from
home only his father knew; what had happened to him during that year only
Jo himself knew, and he told no one, not even his dying father.

A mystery surrounded him, and no one pierced it. He was a figure apart
in Chaudiere parish. A dreadful memory that haunted him, carried him out
of the village, which clustered round the parish church, into Vadrome
Mountain, three miles away, where he lived apart from all his kind. It
was here he brought the man with the eye-glass one early dawn, after two
nights and two days on the river, pulling him up the long hill in a low
cart with his strong faithful dogs, hitching himself with them and
toiling upwards through the dark. In his three-roomed hut he laid his
charge down upon a pile of bear-skins, and tended him with a strange
gentleness, bathing the wound in the head and binding it again and again.

The next morning the sick man opened his eyes heavily. He then began
fumbling mechanically on his breast. At last his fingers found his
monocle. He feebly put it to his eye, and looked at Jo in a strange,
questioning, uncomprehending way.

"I beg - your pardon," he said haltingly, "have I ever - been intro - "
Suddenly his eyes closed, a frown gathered on his forehead. After a
minute his eyes opened again, and he gazed with painful, pathetic
seriousness at Jo. This grew to a kind of childish terror; then slowly,
as a shadow passes, the perplexity, anxiety and terror cleared away, and
left his forehead calm, his eyes unvexed and peaceful. The monocle
dropped, and he did not heed it. At length he said wearily, and with an
incredibly simple dependence:

"I am thirsty now."

Jo lifted a wooden bowl to his lips, and he drank, drank, drank to
repletion. When he had finished he patted Jo's shoulder.

"I am always thirsty," he said. "I shall be hungry too. I always am."

Jo brought him some milk and bread in a bowl. When the sick man had
eaten and drunk the bowlful to the last drop and crumb, he lay back with
a sigh of content, but trembling from weakness and the strain, though
Jo's hand had been under his head, and he had been fed like a little

All day he lay and watched Jo as he worked, as he came and went.
Sometimes he put his hand to his head and said to Jo: "It hurts."
Then Jo would cool the wound with fresh water from the mountain spring,
and he would drag down the bowl to drink from it greedily.

It was as though he could never get enough water to drink. So the first
day in the hut at Vadrome Mountain passed without questioning on the part
of either Charley Steele or his host.

With good reason. Jo Portugais saw that memory was gone; that the past
was blotted out. He had watched that first terrible struggle of memory
to reassert itself, as the eyes mechanically looked out upon new and
strange surroundings, but it was only the automatic habit of the sight,
the fumbling of the blind soul in its cell-fumbling for the latch which
it could not find, for the door which would not open. The first day on
the raft, as Charley had opened his eyes upon the world again after that
awful night at the Cote Dorion, Jo. had seen that same blank
uncomprehending look - as it were, the first look of a mind upon the
world. This time he saw, and understood what he saw, and spoke as men
speak, but with no knowledge or memory behind it - only the involuntary
action of muscle and mind repeated from the vanished past.

Charley Steele was as a little child, and having no past, and
comprehending in the present only its limited physical needs and motions,
he had no hope, no future, no understanding. In three days he was upon
his feet, and in four he walked out of doors and followed Jo into the
woods, and watched him fell a tree and do a woodsman's work. Indoors he
regarded all Jo did with eager interest and a pleased, complacent look,
and readily did as he was told. He seldom spoke - not above three or four
times a day, and then simply and directly, and only concerning his wants.
From first to last he never asked a question, and there was never any
inquiry by look or word. A hundred and twenty miles lay between him and
his old home, between him and Kathleen and Billy and Jean Jolicoeur's
saloon, but between him and his past life the unending miles of eternity
intervened. He was removed from it as completely as though he were dead
and buried.

A month went by. Sometimes Jo went down to the village below, and then,
at first, he locked the door of the house behind him upon Charley.
Against this Charley made no motion and said no word, but patiently
awaited Jo's return. So it was that, at last, Jo made no attempt to lock
the door, but with a nod or a good-bye left him alone. When Charley saw
him returning he would go to meet him, and shake hands with him, and say
"Good-day," and then would come in with him and help him get supper or do
the work of the house.

Since Charley came no one had visited the house, for there were no paths
beyond it, and no one came to the Vadrome Mountain, save by chance. But
after two months had gone the Cure came. Twice a year the Cure made it a
point to visit Jo in the interests of his soul, though the visits came to
little, for Jo never went to confession, and seldom to mass. On this
occasion the Cure arrived when Jo was out in the woods. He discovered
Charley. Charley made no answer to his astonished and friendly greeting,
but watched him with a wide-eyed anxiety till the Cure seated himself at
the door to await Jo's coming. Presently, as he sat there, Charley, who
had studied his face as a child studies the unfamiliar face of a
stranger, brought him a bowl of bread and milk and put it in his hands.
The Cure smiled and thanked him, and Charley smiled in return and said:
"It is very good."

As the Cure ate, Charley watched him with satisfaction, and nodded at him

When Jo came he lied to the Cure. He said he had found Charley wandering
in the woods, with a wound in his head, and had brought him home with him
and cared for him. Forty miles away he had found him.

The Cure was perplexed. What was there to do? He believed what Jo said.
So far as he knew, Jo had never lied to him before, and he thought he
understood Jo's interest in this man with the look of a child and no
memory: Jo's life was terribly lonely; he had no one to care for, and no
one cared for him; here was what might comfort him! Through this
helpless man might come a way to Jo's own good. So he argued with

What to do? Tell the story to the world by writing to the newspaper at
Quebec? Jo pooh-poohed this. Wait till the man's memory came back?
Would it come back - what chance was there of its ever coming back? Jo
said that they ought to wait and see - wait awhile, and then, if his
memory did not return, they would try to find his friends, by publishing
his story abroad.

Chaudiere was far from anywhere: it knew little of the world, and the
world knew naught of it, and this was a large problem for the Cure.
Perhaps Jo was right, he thought. The man was being well cared for, and
what more could be wished at the moment? The Cure was a simple man, and
when Jo urged that if the sick man could get well anywhere in the world
it would be at Vadrome Mountain in Chaudiere, the Cure's parochial pride
was roused, and he was ready to believe all Jo said. He also saw reason
in Jo's request that the village should not be told of the sick man's
presence. Before he left, the Cure knelt down and prayed, "for the good
of this poor mortal's soul and body."

As he prayed, Charley knelt down also, and kept his eyes-calm unwondering
eyes-full fixed on the good M. Loisel, whose grey hair, thin peaceful
face, and dark brown eyes made a noble picture of patience and devotion.

When the Cure shook him by the hand, murmuring in good-bye, "God be
gracious to thee, my son," Charley nodded in a friendly way. He watched
the departing figure till it disappeared over the crest of the hill.

This day marked an epoch in the solitude of the hut on Vadrome Mountain.
Jo had an inspiration. He got a second set of carpenter's tools, and
straightway began to build a new room to the house. He gave the extra
set of tools to Charley with an encouraging word. For the first time
since he had been brought here, Charley's face took on a look of
interest. In half-an-hour he was at work, smiling and perspiring, and
quickly learning the craft. He seldom spoke, but he sometimes laughed a
mirthful, natural boy's laugh of good spirits and contentment. From that
day his interest in things increased, and before two months went round,
while yet it was late autumn, he looked in perfect health. He ate
moderately, drank a great deal of water, and slept half the circle of the
clock each day. His skin was like silk; the colour of his face was as
that of an apple; he was more than ever Beauty Steele. The Cure came
two or three times, and Charley spoke to him but never held conversation,
and no word concerning the past ever passed his tongue, nor did he have
memory of what was said to him from one day to the next. A hundred ways
Jo had tried to rouse his memory. But the words Cote Dorion had no
meaning to him, and he listened blankly to all names and phrases once so
familiar. Yet he spoke French and English in a slow, passive,
involuntary way. All was automatic, mechanical.

The weeks again wore on, and autumn became winter, and then at last one
day the Cure came, bringing his brother, a great Parisian surgeon lately
arrived from France on a short visit. The Cure had told his brother the
story, and had been met by a keen, astonished interest in the unknown man
on Vadrome Mountain. A slight pressure on the brain from accident had
before now produced loss of memory - the great man's professional
curiosity was aroused: he saw a nice piece of surgical work ready
to his hand; he asked to be taken to Vadrome Mountain.

Now the Cure had lived long out of the world, and was not in touch with
the swift-minded action and adventuring intellects of such men as his
brother, Marcel Loisel. Was it not tempting Providence, a surgical
operation? He was so used to people getting ill and getting well without
a doctor - the nearest was twenty miles distant - or getting ill and dying
in what seemed a natural and preordained way, that to cut open a man's
head and look into his brain, and do this or that to his skull, seemed
almost sinful. Was it not better to wait and see if the poor man would
not recover in God's appointed time?

In answer to his sensitively eager and diverse questions, Marcel Loisel
replied that his dear Cure was merely mediaeval, and that he had
sacrificed his mental powers on the altar of a simple faith, which might
remove mountains but was of no value in a case like this, where, clearly,
surgery was the only providence.

At this the Cure got to his feet, came over, laid his hand on his
brother's shoulder, and said, with tears in his eyes:

"Marcel, you shock me. Indeed you shock me!"

Then he twisted a knot in his cassock cords, and added "Come then,
Marcel. We will go to him. And may God guide us aright!"

That afternoon the two grey-haired men visited Vadrome Mountain, and
there they found Charley at work in the little room that the two men had
built. Charley nodded pleasantly when the Cure introduced his brother,
but showed no further interest at first. He went on working at the
cupboard under his hand. His cap was off and his hair was a little
rumpled where the wound had been, for he had a habit of rubbing the place
now and then - an abstracted, sensitive motion - although he seemed to
suffer no pain. The surgeon's eyes fastened on the place, and as Charley
worked and his brother talked, he studied the man, the scar, the contour
of the head. At last he came up to Charley and softly placed his fingers
on the scar, feeling the skull. Charley turned quickly.

There was something in the long, piercing look of the surgeon which
seemed to come through limitless space to the sleeping and imprisoned
memory of Charley's sick mind. A confused, anxious, half-fearful look
crept into the wide blue eyes. It was like a troubled ghost, flitting
along the boundaries of sight and sense, and leaving a chill and a
horrified wonder behind. The surgeon gazed on, and the trouble in
Charley's eye passed to his face, stayed an instant. Then he turned away
to Jo Portugais. "I am thirsty now," he said, and he touched his lips in
the way he was wont to do in those countless ages ago, when, millions
upon millions of miles away, people said: "There goes Charley Steele!"

"I am thirsty now," and that touch of the lip with the tongue, were a
revelation to the surgeon.

A half-hour later he was walking homeward with the Cure. Jo accompanied
them for a distance. As they emerged into the wider road-paths that
began half-way down the mountain, the Cure, who had watched his brother's
face for a long time in silence, said:

"What is in your mind, Marcel?" The surgeon turned with a half-smile.

"He is happy now. No memory, no conscience, no pain, no responsibility,
no trouble - nothing behind or before. Is it good to bring him back?"

The Cure had thought it all over, and he had wholly changed his mind
since that first talk with his brother. "To save a mind, Marcel!" he

"Then to save a soul?" suggested the surgeon. "Would he thank me?"

"It is our duty to save him."

"Body and mind and soul, eh? And if I look after the body and the mind?"

"His soul is in God's hands, Marcel."

"But will he thank me? How can you tell what sorrows, what troubles, he
has had? What struggles, temptations, sins? He has none now, of any
sort; not a stain, physical or moral."

"That is not life, Marcel."

"Well, well, you have changed. This morning it was I who would, and you

"I see differently now, Marcel."

The surgeon put a hand playfully on his brother's shoulder.

"Did you think, my dear Prosper, that I should hesitate? Am I a
sentimentalist? But what will he say?

"We need not think of that, Marcel."

"But yet suppose that with memory come again sin and shame - even crime?"

"We will pray for him." "But if he isn't a Catholic?"

"One must pray for sinners," said the Curb, after a silence.

This time the surgeon laid a hand on the shoulder of his brother
affectionately. "Upon my soul, dear Prosper, you almost persuade me to
be reactionary and mediaeval."

The Curb turned half uneasily towards Jo, who was following at a little
distance. This seemed hardly the sort of thing for him to hear.

"You had better return now, Jo," he said.

"As you wish, M'sieu'," Jo answered, then looked inquiringly at the

"In about five days, Portugais. Have you a steady hand and a quick eye?"

Jo spread out his hands in deprecation, and turned to the Curb, as though
for him to answer.

"Jo is something of a physician and surgeon too, Marcel. He has a gift.
He has cured many in the parish with his herbs and tinctures, and he has
set legs and arms successfully."

The surgeon eyed Jo humorously, but kindly. "He is probably as good a
doctor as some of us. Medicine is a gift, surgery is a gift and an art.
You shall hear from me, Portugais." He looked again keenly at Jo. "You
have not given him 'herbs and tinctures'?"

"Nothing, M'sieu'."

"Very sensible. Good-day, Portugais."

"Good-day, my son," said the priest, and raised his fingers in
benediction, as Jo turned and quickly retraced his steps.

"Why did you ask him if he had given the poor man any herbs or tinctures,
Marcel?" said the priest.

"Because those quack tinctures have whiskey in them."

"What do you mean?"

"Whiskey in any form would be bad for him," the surgeon answered

But to himself he kept saying: "The man was a drunkard - he was a



M. Marcel Loisel did his work with a masterly precision, with the aid of
his brother and Portugais. The man under the instruments, not wholly
insensible, groaned once or twice. Once or twice, too, his eyes opened
with a dumb hunted look, then closed as with an irresistible weariness.
When the work was over, and every stain or sign of surgery removed, sleep
came down on the bed - a deep and saturating sleep, which seemed to fill
the room with peace. For hours the surgeon sat beside the couch, now and
again feeling the pulse, wetting the hot lips, touching the forehead with
his palm. At last, with a look of satisfaction, he came forward to where
Jo and the Cure sat beside the fire.

"It is all right," he said. "Let him sleep as long as he will." He
turned again to the bed. "I wish I could stay to see the end of it.
Is there no chance, Prosper?" he added to the priest.

"Impossible, Marcel. You must have sleep. You have a seventy-mile drive
before you to-morrow, and sixty the next day. You can only reach the
port now by starting at daylight to-morrow."

So it was that Marcel Loisel, the great surgeon, was compelled to leave
Chaudiere before he knew that the memory of the man who had been under
his knife had actually returned to him. He had, however, no doubt in
his own mind, and he was confident that there could be no physical harm
from the operation. Sleep was the all-important thing. In it lay the
strength for the shock of the awakening - if awakening of memory there
was to be.

Before he left he stooped over Charley and said musingly: "I wonder what
you will wake up to, my friend?" Then he touched the wound with a light
caressing finger. "It was well done, well done," he murmured proudly.

A moment afterwards he was hurrying down the hill to the open road, where
a cariole awaited the Cure and himself.

For a day and a half Charley slept, and Jo watched him with an
affectionate solicitude. Once or twice, becoming anxious, because of the
heavy breathing and the motionless sleep, he had forced open the teeth,
and poured a little broth between.

Just before dawn on the second morning, worn out and heavy with slumber,
Jo lay down by the piled-up fire and dropped into a sleep that wrapped
him like a blanket, folding him away into a drenching darkness.

For a time there was a deep silence, troubled only by Jo's deep
breathing, which seemed itself like the pulse of the silence. Charley
appeared not to be breathing at all. He was lying on his back, seemingly
lifeless. Suddenly on the snug silence there was a sharp sound. A tree
outside snapped with the frost.

Charley awoke. The body seemed not to awake, for it did not stir, but
the eyes opened wide and full, looking straight before them - straight up
to the brown smoke-stained rafters, along which were ranged guns and
fishing-tackle, axes and bear-traps. Full clear blue eyes, healthy and
untired as a child's fresh from an all-night's drowse, they looked and
looked. Yet, at first, the body did not stir; only the mind seemed to be
awakening, the soul creeping out from slumber into the day. Presently,
however, as the eyes gazed, there stole into them a wonder, a trouble, an
anxiety. For a moment they strained at the rafters and the crude weapons
and implements there, then the body moved, quickly, eagerly, and turned
to see the flickering shadows made by the fire and the simple order of
the room.

A minute more, and Charley was sitting on the side of his couch, dazed
and staring. This hut, this fire, the figure by the hearth in a sound
sleep-his hand went to his head: it felt the bandage there!

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Online LibraryGilbert ParkerThe Right of Way — Volume 02 → online text (page 1 of 6)