The Lane that had No Turning/Medallion's Whim
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 Curé, 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 Curé—"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 Curé, 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 Curé 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 Curé, 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 Curé 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 Curé 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 Curé 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 ça! 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:
"Bénoit, 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 café 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 shyness 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 Curé, 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 himself 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—Béranger’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 Curé, 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."