The Lane that had No Turning/A Fragment of Lives
A FRAGMENT OF LIVES
THEY met at last, Dubarre, and Villiard, the man who had stolen from him the woman he loved. Both had wronged the woman, but Villiard most, for he had let her die because of jealousy.
They were now in a room alone in the forest of St. Sebastian. Both were quiet, and both knew that the end of their feud was near.
Going to a cupboard Dubarre brought out four glasses and put them on the table. Then from two bottles he poured out what looked like red wine, two glasses from each bottle. Putting the bottles back he returned to the table.
"Do you dare to drink with me?" Dubarre asked, nodding towards the glasses. "Two of the glasses have poison in them, two have good red wine only. We will move them about and then drink. Both may die, or only one of us."
Villiard looked at the other with contracting, questioning eyes.
"You would play that game with me?" he asked in a mechanical voice.
"It would give me great pleasure." The voice had a strange, ironical tone. "It is a grand sport—as one would take a run at a crevasse and clear it, or fall. If we both fall, we are in good company; if you fall, I have the greater joy of escape; if I fall, you have the same joy."
"I am ready," was the answer. "But let us eat first."
A great fire burned in the chimney, for the night was cool. It filled the room with a gracious heat and with huge, comfortable shadows. Here and there on the wall a tin cup flashed back the radiance of the fire, the barrel of a gun glistened soberly along a rafter, and the long, wiry hair of an otter-skin in the corner sent out little needles of light. Upon the fire a pot was simmering, and a good savour came from it. A wind went lilting by outside the hut in tune with the singing of the kettle. The ticking of a huge, old-fashioned repeating-watch on the wall was in unison with these.
Dubarre rose from the table, threw himself upon the little pile of otter-skins, and lay watching Villiard and mechanically studying the little room.
Villiard took the four glasses filled with the wine and laid them on a shelf against the wall, then began to put the table in order for their supper, and to take the pot from the fire.
Dubarre noticed that just above where the glasses stood on the shelf a crucifix was hanging, and that red crystal sparkled in the hands and feet where the nails should be driven in. There was a painful humour in the association. He smiled, then turned his head away, for old memories flashed through his brain—he had been an acolyte once: he had served at the altar.
Suddenly Dubarre rose, took the glasses from the shelf and placed them in the middle of the table—the death’s head for the feast.
As they sat down to eat, the eyes of both men unconsciously wandered to the crucifix, attracted by the red sparkle of the rubies. They drank water with the well-cooked meat of the wapiti, though red wine faced them on the table. Each ate heartily; as though a long day were before them and not the shadow of the Long Night. There was no speech save that of the usual courtesies of the table. The fire, and the wind, and the watch seemed the only living things besides themselves, perched there between heaven and earth.
At length the meal was finished, and the two turned in their chairs towards the fire. There was no other light in the room, and on the faces of the two, still and cold, the flame played idly.
"When?" said Dubarre at last.
"Not yet," was the quiet reply.
"I was thinking of my first theft—an apple from my brother’s plate," said Dubarre, with a dry smile. "You?"
"I, of my first lie."
"That apple was the sweetest fruit I ever tasted."
"And I took the penalty of the lie, but I had no sorrow."
Again there was silence.
"Now?" asked Villiard, after an hour had passed.
"I am ready."
They came to the table.
"Shall we bind our eyes?" asked Dubarre. "I do not know the glasses that hold the poison."
"Nor I the bottle that held it. I will turn my back, and do you change about the glasses."
Villiard turned his face towards the timepiece on the wall. As he did so it began to strike—a clear, silvery chime: "One! two! three——!"
Before it had finished striking both men were facing the glasses again.
"Take one," said Dubarre.
Villiard took the one nearest himself. Dubarre took one also. Without a word they lifted the glasses and drank.
"Again," said Dubarre.
"You choose," responded Villiard.
Dubarre lifted the one nearest himself, and Villiard picked up the other. Raising their glasses again, they bowed to each other and drank.
The watch struck twelve, and stopped its silvery chiming.
They both sat down, looking at each other, the light of an enormous chance in their eyes, the tragedy of a great stake in their clinched hands; but the deeper, intenser power was in the face of Dubarre, the explorer.
There was more than power; malice drew down the brows and curled the sensitive upper lip. Each man watched the other for knowledge of his own fate. The glasses lay straggling along the table, emptied of death and life.
All at once a horrible pallor spread over the face of Villiard, and his head jerked forward. He grasped the table with both hands, twitching and trembling. His eyes stared wildly at Dubarre, to whose face the flush of wine had come, whose look was now maliciously triumphant.
Villiard had drunk both glasses of the poison!
"I win!" Dubarre stood up. Then, leaning over the table towards the dying man, he added: "You let her die—well! Would you know the truth? She loved you—always."
Villiard gasped, and his look wandered vaguely along the opposite wall.
Dubarre went on. "I played the game with you honestly, because—because it was the greatest man could play. And I, too, sinned against her. Now die! She loved you—murderer!"
The man’s look still wandered distractedly along the wall. The sweat of death was on his face; his lips were moving spasmodically.
Suddenly his look became fixed; he found voice.
"Pardon—Jésu!" he said, and stiffened where he sat.
His eyes were fixed on the jewelled crucifix. Dubarre snatched it from the wall, and hastening to him held it to his lips: but the warm sparkle of the rubies fell on eyes that were cold as frosted glass. Dubarre saw that he was dead.
"Because the woman loved him!" he said, gazing curiously at the dead man.
He turned, went to the door and opened it, for his breath choked him.
All was still on the wooded heights and in the wide valley.
"Because the woman loved him he repented," said Dubarre again with a half-cynical gentleness as he placed the crucifix on the dead man’s breast.