The Lane that had No Turning/The Story of the Lime-Burner
THE STORY OF THE LIME-BURNER
FOR a man in whose life there had been tragedy he was cheerful. He had a habit of humming vague notes in the silence of conversation, as if to put you at your ease. His body and face were lean and arid, his eyes oblique and small, his hair straight and dry and straw-coloured; and it flew out crackling with electricity, to meet his cap as he put it on. He lived alone in a little but near his lime-kiln by the river, with no near neighbours, and few companions save his four dogs; and these he fed sometimes at expense of his own stomach. He had just enough crude poetry in his nature to enjoy his surroundings. For he was well placed. Behind the lime-kiln rose knoll on knoll, and beyond these the verdant hills, all converging to Dalgrothe Mountain. In front of it was the river, with its banks dropping forty feet, and below, the rapids, always troubled and sportive. On the farther side of the river lay peaceful areas of meadow and corn land, and low-roofed, hovering farm-houses, with one larger than the rest, having a wind-mill and a flag-staff. This building was almost large enough for a manor, and indeed it was said that it had been built for one just before the conquest in 1759, but the war had destroyed the ambitious owner, and it had become a farm-house. Paradis always knew the time of the day by the way the light fell on the wind-mill. He had owned this farm once, he and his brother Fabian, and he had loved it as he loved Fabian, and he loved it as he loved Fabian, and he loved it now as he loved Fabian’s memory. In spite of all, they were cheerful memories, both of brother and house.
At twenty-three they had become orphans, with two hundred acres of land, some cash, horses and cattle, and plenty of credit in the parish, or in the county, for that matter. Both were of hearty dispositions, but Fabian had a taste for liquor, and Henri for pretty faces and shapely ankles. Yet no one thought the worse of them for that, especially at first. An old servant kept house for them and cared for them in her honest way, both physically and morally. She lectured them when at first there was little to lecture about. It is no wonder that when there came a vast deal to reprove, the bonne desisted altogether, overwhelmed by the weight of it.
Henri got a shock the day before their father died when he saw Fabian lift the brandy used to mix with the milk of the dying man, and pouring out the third of a tumbler, drink it off, smacking his lips as he did so, as though it were a cordial. That gave him a cue to his future and to Fabian’s. After their father died Fabian gave way to the vice. He drank in the taverns, he was at once the despair and the joy of the parish; for, wild as he was, he had a gay temper, a humorous mind, a strong arm, and was the universal lover. The Curé, who did not, of course, know one-fourth of his wildness, had a warm spot for him in his heart. But there was a vicious strain in him somewhere, and it came out one day in a perilous fashion.
There was in the hotel of the Louis Quinze an English servant from the west, called Nell Barraway. She had been in a hotel in Montreal, and it was there Fabian had seen her as she waited at table. She was a splendid-looking creature—all life and energy, tall, fair-haired, and with a charm above her kind. She was also an excellent servant, could do as much as any two women in any house, and was capable of more airy diablerie than any ten of her sex in Pontiac. When Fabian had said to her in Montreal that he would come to see her again, he told her where he lived. She came to see him instead, for she wrote to the landlord of the Louis Quinze, enclosed fine testimonials, and was at once engaged. Fabian was stunned when he entered the Louis Quinze and saw her waiting at table, alert, busy, good to behold. She nodded at him with a quick smile as he stood bewildered just inside the door, then said in English: "This way, m’sieu’."
As he sat down he said in English also, with a laugh and with snapping eyes: "Good Lord, what brings you here, lady-bird?"
As she pushed a chair under him she whispered through his hair: "You!" and then was gone away to fetch pea-soup for six hungry men.
The Louis Quinze did more business now in three months than it had done before in six. But it became known among a few in Pontiac that Nell was notorious. How it had crept up from Montreal no one guessed, and, when it did come, her name was very intimately associated with Fabian’s. No one could say that she was not the most perfect of servants, and also no one could say that her life in Pontiac had not been exemplary. Yet wise people had made up their minds that she was determined to marry Fabian, and the wisest declared that she would do so in spite of everything—religion (she was a Protestant), character, race. She was clever, as the young Seigneur found, as the little Avocat was forced to admit, as the Curé allowed with a sigh, and she had no airs of badness at all and very little of usual coquetry. Fabian was enamoured, and it was clear that he intended to bring the woman to the Manor one way or another.
Henri admitted the fascination of the woman, felt it, despaired, went to Montreal, got proof of her career, came back, and made his final and only effort to turn his brother from the girl.
He had waited an hour outside the hotel for his brother, and when Fabian got in, he drove on without a word. After a while, Fabian, who was in high spirits, said:
"Open your mouth, Henri. Come along, sleepyhead."
Straightway he began to sing a rollicking song, and Henri joined in with him heartily, for the spirit of Fabian’s humour was contagious:
"There was a little man,
The foolish Guilleri
He went unto the chase,
Of partridges the chase.
You’re going to break your neck,
My lovely Guilleri!"
He was about to begin another verse when Henri stopped him, saying:
"You’re going to break your neck, Fabian."
"What’s up, Henri?" was the reply.
"You’re drinking hard, and you don’t keep good company."
Fabian laughed. "Can’t get the company I want, so what I can get I have, Henri, my lad."
"Don’t drink." Henri laid his freehand on Fabian’s knee.
"Whiskey-wine is meat and drink to me—I was born on New Year’s Day, old coffin-face. Whiskey-wine day, they ought to call it. Holy! the empty jars that day."
Henri sighed. "That’s the drink, Fabian," he said patiently. "Give up the company. I’ll be better company for you than that girl, Fabian."
"Girl? What the devil do you mean!"
"She, Nell Barraway, was the company I meant, Fabian."
"Nell Barraway—you mean her? Bosh! I’m going to marry her, Henri."
"You mustn’t, Fabian," said Henri, eagerly clutching Fabian’s sleeve.
"But I must, my Henri. She’s the best-looking, wittiest girl I ever saw—splendid. Never lonely with her."
"Looks and brains isn’t everything, Fabian."
"Isn’t it, though? Isn’t it? Tiens, you try it!"
"Not without goodness." Henri’s voice weakened.
"That’s bosh. Of course it is, Henri, my dear. If you love a woman, if she gets hold of you, gets into your blood, loves you so that the touch of her fingers sets your pulses going pom-pom, you don’t care a sou whether she is good or not."
"You mean whether she was good or not?"
"No, I don’t. I mean is good or not. For if she loves you she’ll travel straight for your sake. Pshaw, you don’t know anything about it!"
"I know all about it."
"Know all about it! You're in love—you?"
Fabian sat open-mouthed for a minute. "Godam!" he said. It was his one English oath.
"Is she good company?" he asked after a minute.
"She's the same as you keep—the same. Voilà!"
"You mean Nell—Nell?" asked Fabian, in a dry, choking voice.
"Yes, Nell. From the first time I saw her. But I’d cut my hand off first. I’d think of you; of our people that have been here for two hundred years; of the rooms in the old house where mother used to be."
Fabian laughed nervously. "Holy heaven, and you’ve got her in your blood, too!"
"Yes, but I'd never marry her. Fabian, at Montreal I found out all about her. She was as bad——"
"That's nothing to me, Henri," said Fabian, "but something else is. Here you are now. I'll make a bargain." His face showed pale in the moonlight. "If you'll drink with me, do as I do, go where I go, play the devil when I play it, and never squeal, never hang back, I'll give her up. But I've got to have you—got to have you all the time, everywhere, hunting, drinking, or letting alone. You'll see me out, for you're stronger, had less of it. I'm soon for the little low house in the grass, bientôt. Stop the horses."
Henri stopped them and they got out. They were just opposite the lime-kiln, and they had to go a few hundred yards before they came to the bridge to cross the river to their home. The light of the fire shone in their faces as Fabian handed the flask to Henri, and said: "Let's drink to it, Henri. You half, and me half." He was deadly pale.
Henri drank to the finger-mark set, and then Fabian lifted the flask to his lips.
"Good-bye, Nell!" he said. "Here’s to the good times we’ve had!" He emptied the flask, and threw it over the bank into the burning lime, and Garotte, the old lime-burner, being half asleep, did not see or hear.
The next day the two went on a long hunting expedition, and the following month Nell Barraway left for Montreal.
Henri kept to his compact, drink for drink, sport for sport. One year the crops were sold before they were reaped, horses and cattle went little by little, then came mortgage, and still Henri never wavered, never weakened, in spite of the Curé and all others. The brothers were always together, and never from first to last did Henri lose his temper, or openly lament that ruin was coming surely on them. What money Fabian wanted he got. The Curé’s admonitions availed nothing, for Fabian would go his gait. The end came on the very spot where the compact had been made; for, passing the lime-kiln one dark night, as the two rode home together, Fabian’s horse shied, the bank of the river gave way, and with a startled "Ah, Henri!" the profligate and his horse were gone into the river below.
Next month the farm and all were sold, Henri Paradis succeeded the old lime-burner at his post, drank no more ever, and lived his life in sight of the old home.