The Lane that had No Turning/The House with the Tall Porch
THE HOUSE WITH THE TALL PORCH
NO one ever visited the House except the Little Chemist, the Avocat, and Medallion; and Medallion, though merely an auctioneer, was the only person on terms of intimacy with its owner, the old Seigneur, who for many years had never stirred beyond the limits of his little garden. At rare intervals he might be seen sitting in the large stone porch which gave overweighted dignity to the house, itself not very large.
An air of mystery surrounded the place: in summer the grass was rank, the trees seemed huddled together in gloom about the houses, the vines appeared to ooze on the walls, and at one end, where the window-shutters were always closed and barred, a great willow drooped and shivered; in winter the stone walls showed naked and grim among the gaunt trees and furtive shrubs.
None who ever saw the Seigneur could forget him—a tall figure with stooping shoulders; a pale, deeply lined, clean-shaven face, and a forehead painfully white, with blue veins showing; the eyes handsome, penetrative, brooding, and made indescribably sorrowful by the dark skin around them. There were those in Pontiac, such as the Curé, who remembered when the Seigneur was constantly to be seen in the village; and then another person was with him always, a tall, handsome youth, his son. They were fond and proud of each other, and were religious and good citizens in a high-bred, punctilious way.
At that time the Seigneur was all health and stalwart strength. But one day a rumour went abroad that he had quarrelled with his son because of the wife of Farette the miller. No one outside knew if the thing was true, but Julie, the miller’s wife, seemed rather to plume herself that she had made a stir in her little world. Yet the curious habitants came to know that the young man had gone, and after a few years his having once lived there had become a mere memory. But whenever the Little Chemist set foot inside the tall porch he remembered; the Avocat was kept in mind by papers which he was called upon to read and alter from time to time; the Curé never forgot, because when the young man went he lost not one of his flock but two; and Medallion, knowing something of the story, had wormed a deal of truth out of the miller’s wife. Medallion knew that the closed, barred rooms were the young man’s; and he knew also that the old man was waiting, waiting, in a hope which he never even named to himself.
One day the silent old housekeeper came rapping at Medallion’s door, and simply said to him: "Come—the Seigneur!"
Medallion went, and for hours sat beside the Seigneur’s chair, while the Little Chemist watched and sighed softly in a corner, now and again rising to feel the sick man’s pulse or to prepare a cordial. The housekeeper hovered behind the high-backed chair, and when the Seigneur dropped his handkerchief—now, as always, of the exquisite fashion of a past century—she put it gently in his hand.
Once when the Little Chemist touched his wrist, his dark eyes rested on him with inquiry, and he said: "Soon?"
It was useless trying to shirk the persistency of that look. "Eight hours, perhaps, sir," the Little Chemist answered, with painful shyness.
The Seigneur seemed to draw himself up a little, and his hand grasped his handkerchief tightly for an instant; then he said: "Soon. Thank you."
After a little, his eyes turned to Medallion and he seemed about to speak, but still kept silent. His chin dropped on his breast, and for a time he was motionless and shrunken; but still there was a strange little curl of pride—or disdain—on his lips. At last he drew up his head, his shoulders came erect, heavily, to the carved back of the chair, where, strange to say, the Stations of the Cross were figured, and he said, in a cold, ironical voice: "The Angel of Patience has lied!"
The evening wore on, and there was no sound, save the ticking of the clock, the beat of rain upon the windows, and the deep breathing of the Seigneur. Presently he started, his eyes opened wide, and his whole body seemed to listen.
"I heard a voice," he said.
"No one spoke, my master," said the housekeeper.
"It was a voice without," he said.
"Monsieur," said the Little Chemist, "it was the wind in the eaves."
His face was almost painfully eager and sensitively alert. "Hush!" he said; "I hear a voice in the tall porch."
"Sir," said Medallion, laying a hand respectfully on his arm, "it is nothing."
With a light on his face and a proud, trembling energy, he got to his feet. "It is the voice of my son," he said. "Go—go, and bring him in."
No one moved. But he was not to be disobeyed. His ears had been growing keener as he neared the subtle atmosphere of that Brink where man strips himself to the soul for a lonely voyaging, and he waved the woman to the door.
"Wait," he said, as her hand fluttered at the handle. "Take him to another room. Prepare a supper such as we used to have. When it is ready I will come. But, listen, and obey. Tell him not that I have but four hours of life. Go, good woman, and bring him in."
It was as he said. They found the son weak and fainting, fallen within the porch—a worn, bearded man, returned from failure and suffering and the husks of evil. They clothed him and cared for him, and strengthened him with wine, while the woman wept over him and at last set him at the loaded, well-lighted table. Then the Seigneur came in, leaning his arm very lightly on that of Medallion with a kind of kingly air; and, greeting his son before them all, as if they had parted yesterday, sat down. For an hour they sat there, and the Seigneur talked gaily with a colour to his face, and his great eyes glowing. At last he rose, lifted his glass, and said: "The Angel of Patience is wise. I drink to my son!"
He was about to say something more, but a sudden whiteness passed over his face. He drank off the wine, and as he put the glass down, shivered, and fell back in his chair.
"Two hours short, Chemist!" he said, and smiled, and was Still.