The Lane that had No Turning/The Prisoner
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: "M'sieu' 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.