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   Chapter 8 THE GATE IN THE WALL

The Money Master, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 12439

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


Jean Jacques was not without originality of a kind, and not without initiative; but there were also the elements of the very old Adam in him, and the strain of the obvious. If he had been a real genius, rather than a mere lively variation of the commonplace-a chicken that could never burst its shell, a bird which could not quite break into song-he might have made his biographer guess hard and futilely, as to what he would do after having seen his wife's arms around the neck of another man than himself-a man little more than a manual labourer, while he, Jean Jacques Barbille, had come of the people of the Old Regime. As it was, this magnate of St. Saviour's, who yesterday posed so sympathetically and effectively in the Court at Vilray as a figure of note, did the quite obvious thing: he determined to kill the master-carpenter from Laplatte.

There was no genius in that. When, from under the spreading beech-tree, Jean Jacques saw his wife footing it back to her house with a light, wayward step; when he watched the master-carpenter vault over a stone fence five feet high with a smile of triumph mingled with doubt on his face, he was too stunned at first to move or speak. If a sledge-hammer strikes you on the skull, though your skull is of such a hardness that it does not break, still the shock numbs activity for awhile, at any rate. The sledge-hammer had descended on Jean Jacques' head, and also had struck him between the eyes; and it is in the credit balance of his ledger of life, that he refrained from useless outcry at the moment. Such a stroke kills some men, either at once, or by lengthened torture; others it sends mad, so that they make a clamour which draws the attention of the astonished and not sympathetic world; but it only paralysed Jean Jacques. For a time he sat fascinated by the ferocity of the event, his eyes following the hurrying wife and the jaunty, swaggering master-carpenter with a strange, animal-like dismay and apprehension. They remained fixed with a kind of blank horror and distraction on the landscape for some time after both had disappeared.

At last, however, he seemed to recover his senses, and to come back from the place where he had been struck by the hammer of treachery. He seemed to realize again that he was still a part of the common world, not a human being swung through the universe on his heart-strings by a Gorgon.

The paper and pencil in his hand brought him back from the far Gehenna where he had been, to the world again-how stony and stormy a world it was, with the air gone as heavy as lead, with his feet so loaded down with chains that he could not stir! He had had great joy of this his world; he had found it a place where every day were problems to be solved by an astute mind, problems which gave way before the master-thinker. There was of course unhappiness in his world. There was death, there was accident occasionally-had his own people not gone down under the scythe of time? But in going they had left behind in real estate and other things good compensation for their loss. There was occasional suffering and poverty and trouble in his little kingdom; but a cord of wood here, a barrel of flour there, a side of beef elsewhere, a little debt remitted, a bag of dried apples, or an Indian blanket-these he gave, and had great pleasure in giving; and so the world was not a place where men should hang their heads, but a place where the busy man got more than the worth of his money.

It had never occurred to him that he was ever translating the world into terms of himself, that he went on his way saying in effect, "I am coming. I am Jean Jacques Barbille. You have heard of me. You know me. Wave a hand to me, duck your head to me, crack the whip or nod when I pass. I am M'sieu' Jean Jacques, philosopher."

And all the while he had only been vaguely, not really, conscious of his wife and child. He did not know that he had only made of his wife an incident in his life, in spite of the fact that he thought he loved her; that he had been proud of her splendid personality; and that, with passionate chivalry, he had resented any criticism of her.

He thought still, as he did on the Antoine, that Carmen's figure had the lines of the Venus of Milo, that her head would have been a model either for a Madonna, or for Joan of Arc, or the famous Isabella of Aragon. Having visited the Louvre and the Luxembourg all in one day, he felt he was entitled to make such comparisons, and that in making them he was on sure ground. He had loved to kiss Carmen in the neck, it was so full and soft and round; and when she went about the garden with her dress shortened, and he saw her ankles, even after he had been married thirteen years, and she was thirty-four, he still admired, he still thought that the world was a good place when it produced such a woman. And even when she had lashed him with her tongue, as she did sometimes, he still laughed-after the smart was over-because he liked spirit. He would never have a horse that had not some blood, and he had never driven a sluggard in his life more than once. But wife and child and world, and all that therein was, existed largely because they were necessary to Jean Jacques.

That is the way it had been; and it was as though the firmament had been rolled up before his eyes, exposing the everlasting mysteries, when he saw his wife in the arms of the master-carpenter. It was like some frightening dream.

The paper and pencil waked him to reality. He looked towards his house, he looked the way George Masson had gone, and he knew that what he had seen was real life and not a dream. The paper fell from his hand. He did not pick it up. Its fall represented the tumbling walls of life, was the earthquake which shook his world into chaos. He ground the sheet into the gravel with his heel. There would be no cheese-factory built at St. Saviour's for many a year to come. The man of initiative, the man of the hundred irons would not have the hundred and one, or keep the hundred hot any more; because he would be so busy with the iron which had entered into his soul.

When the paper had been made one with the earth, a problem buried for ever, Jean Ja

cques pulled himself up to his full height, as though facing a great thing which he must do.

"Well, of course!" he said firmly.

That was what his honour, Judge Carcasson, had said a few hours before, when the little Clerk of the Court had remarked an obvious thing about the case of Jean Jacques.

And Jean Jacques said only the obvious thing when he made up his mind to do the obvious thing-to kill George Masson, the master-carpenter.

This was evidence that he was no genius. Anybody could think of killing a man who had injured him, as the master-carpenter had done Jean Jacques. It is the solution of the problem of the Patagonian. It is old as Rameses.

Yet in his own way Jean Jacques did what he felt he had to do. The thing he was going to do was hopelessly obvious, but the doing of it was Jean Jacques' own; and it was not obvious; and that perhaps was genius after all. There are certain inevitable things to do, and for all men to do; and they have been doing them from the beginning of time; but the way it is done-is not that genius? There is no new story in the world; all the things that happen have happened for untold centuries; but the man who tells the story in a new way, that is genius, so the great men say. If, then, Jean Jacques did the thing he had to do with a turn of his own, he would justify to some degree the opinion he had formed of himself.

As he walked back to his desecrated home he set himself to think. How should it be done? There was the rifle with which he had killed deer in the woods beyond the Saguenay and bear beyond the Chicoutimi. That was simple-and it was obvious; and it could be done at once. He could soon overtake the man who had spoiled the world for him.

Yet he was a Norman, and the Norman thinks before he acts. He is the soul of caution; he wants to get the best he can out of his bargain. He will throw nothing away that is to his advantage. There should be other ways than the gun with which to take a man's life-ways which might give a Norman a chance to sacrifice only one life; to secure punishment where it was due, but also escape from punishment for doing the obvious thing.

Poison? That was too stupid even to think of once. A pitch-fork and a dung-heap? That had its merits; but again there was the risk of more than one life.

All the way to his house, Jean Jacques, with something of the rage of passion and the glaze of horror gone from his eyes, and his face not now so ghastly, still brooded over how, after he had had his say, he was to put George Masson out of the world. But it did not come at once. All makers of life-stories find their difficulty at times. Tirelessly they grope along a wall, day in, day out, and then suddenly a great gate swings open, as though to the touch of a spring, and the whole way is clear to the goal.

Jean Jacques went on thinking in a strange, new, intense abstraction. His restless eyes were steadier than they had ever been; his wife noticed that as he entered the house after the Revelation. She noticed also his paleness and his abstraction. For an instant she was frightened; but no, Jean Jacques could not know anything. Yet-yet he had come from the direction of the river!

"What is it, Jean Jacques?" she asked. "Aren't you well?"

He put his hand to his head, but did not look her in the eyes. His gesture helped him to avoid that. "I have a head-la, such a head! I have been thinking, thinking-it is my hobby. I have been planning the cheese-factory, and all at once it comes on-the ache in my head. I will go to bed. Yes, I will go at once." Suddenly he turned at the door leading to the bedroom. "The little Zoe-is she well?"

"Of course. Why should she not be well? She has gone to the top of the hill. Of course, she's well, Jean Jacques."

"Good-good!" he remarked. Somehow it seemed strange to him that Zoe should be well. Was there not a terrible sickness in his house, and had not that woman, his wife, her mother, brought the infection? Was he himself not stricken by it?

Carmen was calm enough again. "Go to bed, Jean Jacques," she said, "and I'll bring you a sleeping posset. I know those headaches. You had one when the ash-factory was burned."

He nodded without looking at her, and closed the door behind him.

When she came to the bedroom a half-hour later, his face was turned to the wall. She spoke, but he did not answer. She thought he was asleep. He was not asleep. He was only thinking how to do the thing which was not obvious, which was also safe for himself. That should be his triumph, if he could but achieve it.

When she came to bed he did not stir, and he did not answer her when she spoke.

"The poor Jean Jacques!" he heard her say, and if there had not been on him the same courage that possessed him the night when the Antoine was wrecked, he would have sobbed.

He did not stir. He kept thinking; and all the time her words, "The poor Jean Jacques!" kept weaving themselves through his vague designs. Why had she said that-she who had deceived, betrayed him? Had he then seen what he had seen?

She did not sleep for a long time, and when she did it was uneasily. But the bed was an immense one, and she was not near him. There was no sleep for him-not even for an hour. Once, in exhaustion, he almost rolled over into the poppies of unconsciousness; but he came back with a start and a groan to sentient life again, and kept feeling, feeling along the wall of purpose for a masterly way to kill.

At dawn it came, suddenly spreading out before him like a picture. He saw himself standing at the head of the flume out there by the Mill Cartier with his hand on the lever. Below him in the empty flume was the master-carpenter giving a last inspection to the repairs. Beyond the master-carpenter-far beyond-was the great mill-wheel! Behind himself, Jean Jacques, was the river held back by the dam; and if the lever was opened,-the river would sweep through the raised gates down the flume to the millwheel-with the man. And then the wheel would turn and turn, and the man would be in the wheel.

It was not obvious; it was original; and it looked safe for Jean Jacques. How easily could such an "accident" occur!

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