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   Chapter 9 “MOI-JE SUIS PHILOSOPHE”

The Money Master, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 17623

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The air was like a mellow wine, and the light on the landscape was full of wistfulness. It was a thing so exquisite that a man of sentiment like Jean Jacques in his younger days would have wept to see. And the feeling was as palpable as the seeing; as in the early spring the new life which is being born in the year, produces a febrile kind of sorrow in the mind. But the glow of Indian summer, that compromise, that after-thought of real summer, which brings her back for another good-bye ere she vanishes for ever-its sadness is of a different kind. Its longing has a sharper edge; there stir in it the pangs of discontent; and the mind and body yearn for solace. It is a dangerous time, even more dangerous than spring for those who have passed the days of youth.

It had proved dangerous to Carmen Barbille. The melancholy of the gorgeously tinted trees, the flights of the birds to the south, the smell of the fallow field, the wind with the touch of the coming rains-these had given to a growing discontent with her monotonous life the desire born of self-pity. In spite of all she could do she was turning to the life she had left behind in Cadiz long ago.

It seemed to her that Jean Jacques had ceased to care for the charms which once he had so proudly proclaimed. There was in her the strain of the religion of Epicurus. She desired always that her visible corporeal self should be admired and desired, that men should say, "What a splendid creature!" It was in her veins, an undefined philosophy of life; and she had ever measured the love of Jean Jacques by his caresses. She had no other vital standard. This she could measure, she could grasp it and say, "Here I have a hold; it is so much harvested." But if some one had written her a poem a thousand verses long, she would have said, "Yes, all very fine, but let me see what it means; let me feel that it is so."

She had an inherent love of luxury and pleasure, which was far more active in her now than when she married Jean Jacques. For a Spanish woman she had matured late; and that was because, in her youth, she had been active and athletic, unlike most Spanish girls; and the microbes of a sensuous life, or what might have become a sensual life, had not good chance to breed.

It all came, however, in the dullness of the winter days and nights, in the time of deep snows, when they could go abroad but very little. Then her body and her mind seemed to long for the indolent sun-spaces of Spain. The artificial heat of the big stoves in the rooms with the low ceilings only irritated her, and she felt herself growing more ample from lassitude of the flesh. This particular autumn it seemed to her that she could not get through another winter without something going wrong, without a crisis of some sort. She felt the need of excitement, of change. She had the desire for pleasures undefined.

Then George Masson came, and the undefined took form almost at once. It was no case of the hunter pursuing his prey with all the craft and subtlety of his trade. She had answered his look with spontaneity, due to the fact that she had been surprised into the candour of her feelings by the appearance of one who had the boldness of a brigand, the health of a Hercules, and the intelligence of a primitive Jesuit. He had not hesitated; he had yielded himself to the sumptuous attraction, and the fire in his eyes was only the window of the furnace within him. He had gone headlong to the conquest, and by sheer force of temperament and weight of passion he had swept her off her feet.

He had now come to the last day of his duty at the Mill Cartier, when all he had to do was to inspect the work done, give assurance and guarantee that it was all right, and receive his cheque from Jean Jacques. He had come early, because he had been unable to sleep well, and also he had much to do before keeping his tryst with Carmen Barbille in the afternoon.

As he passed the Manor Cartier this fateful morning, he saw her at the window, and he waved his hat at her with a cheery salutation which she did not hear. He knew that she did not hear or see. "My beauty!" he said aloud. "My splendid girl, my charmer of Cadiz! My wonder of the Alhambra, my Moorish maid! My bird of freedom-hand of Charlemagne, your lips are sweet, yes, sweet as one-and-twenty!"

His lips grew redder at the thought of the kisses he had taken, his cheek flushed with the thought of those he meant to take; and he laughed greedily as he lowered himself into the flume by a ladder, just under the lever that opened the gates, to begin his inspection.

It was not a perfunctory inspection, for he was a good craftsman, and he had pride in what his workmen did.

"Ah!"

It was a sound of dumbfounded amazement, a hoarse cry of horror which was not in tune with the beauty of the morning.

"Ah!"

It came from his throat like the groan of a trapped and wounded lion. George Masson had almost finished his inspection, when he heard a noise behind him. He turned and looked back. There stood Jean Jacques with his hand on the lever. The noise he had heard was the fourteen-foot ladder being dropped, after Jean Jacques had drawn it up softly out of the flume.

"Ah! Nom de Dieu!" George Masson exclaimed again in helpless fury and with horror in his eyes.

By instinct he understood that Carmen's husband knew all. He realized what Jean Jacques meant to do. He knew that the lever locking the mill-wheel had been opened, and that Jean Jacques had his hand on the lever which raised the gate of the flume.

By instinct-for there was no time for thought-he did the only thing which could help him, he made a swift gesture to Jean Jacques, a gesture that bade him wait. Time was his only friend in this-one minute, two minutes, three minutes, anything. For if the gates were opened, he would be swept into the millwheel, and there would be the end-the everlasting end.

"Wait!" he called out after his gesture. "One second!"

He ran forward till he was about thirty feet from Jean Jacques standing there above him, with the set face and the dark malicious, half-insane eyes. Even in his fear and ghastly anxiety, the subconscious mind of George Masson was saying, "He looks like the Baron of Beaugard-like the Baron of Beaugard that killed the man who abused his wife."

It was so. Great-great-grand-nephew of the Baron of Beaugard as he was, Jean Jacques looked like the portrait of him which hung in the Manor Cartier. "Wait-but wait one minute!" exclaimed George Masson; and now, all at once, he had grown cool and determined, and his brain was at work again with an activity and a clearness it had never known. He had gained one minute of time, he might be able to gain more. In any case, no one could save him except himself. There was Jean Jacques with his hand on the lever-one turn and the thing was done for ever. If a rescuer was even within one foot of Jean Jacques, the deed could still be done. It was so much easier opening than shutting the gates of the flume!

"Why should I wait, devil and rogue?" The words came from Jean Jacques' lips with a snarl. "I am going to kill you. It will do you no good to whine-cochon!"

To call a man a pig is the worst insult which could be offered by one man to another in the parish of St. Saviour's. To be called a pig as you are going to die, is an offensive business indeed.

"I know you are going to kill me-that you can kill me, and I can do nothing," was the master-carpenter's reply. "There it is-a turn of the lever, and I am done. Bien sur, I know how easy! I do not want to die, but I will not squeal even if I am a pig. One can only die once. And once is enough.... No, don't-not yet! Give me a minute till I tell you something; then you can open the gates. You will have a long time to live-yes, yes, you are the kind that live long. Well, a minute or two is not much to ask. If you want to murder, you will open the gates at once; but if it is punishment, if you are an executioner, you will give me time to pray."

Jean Jacques did not soften. His voice was harsh and grim. "Well, get on with your praying, but don't talk. You are going to die," he added, his hands gripping the lever tighter.

The master-carpenter had had the true inspiration in his hour of danger. He had touched his appeal with logic, he had offered an argument. Jean Jacques was a logician, a philosopher! That point made about the difference between a murder and an execution was a good one. Beside it was an acknowledgment, by inference, from his victim, that he was getting what he deserved.

"Pray quick and have it over, pig of an adulterer!" added Jean Jacques.

The master-carpenter raised a protesting hand. "There you are mistaken; but it is no matter. At the end of to-day I would hav

e been an adulterer, if you hadn't found out. I don't complain of the word. But see, as a philosopher"-Jean Jacques jerked a haughty assent-"as a philosopher you will want to know how and why it is. Carmen will never tell you-a woman never tells the truth about such things, because she does not know how. She does not know the truth ever, exactly, about anything. It is because she is a woman. But I would like to tell you the exact truth; and I can, because I am a man. For what she did you are as much to blame as she ... no, no-not yet!"

Jean Jacques' hand had spasmodically tightened on the lever as though he would wrench the gates open, and a snarl came from his lips.

"Figure de Christ, but it is true, as true as death! Listen, M'sieu' Jean Jacques. You are going to kill me, but listen so that you will know how to speak to her afterwards, understanding what I said as I died."

"Get on-quick!" growled Jean Jacques with white wrinkled lips and the sun in his agonized eyes. George Masson continued his pleading. "You were always a man of mind"-Jean Jacques' fierce agitation visibly subsided, and a surly sort of vanity crept into his face-"and you married a girl who cared more for what you did than what you thought-that is sure, for I know women. I am not married, and I have had much to do with many of them. I will tell you the truth. I left the West because of a woman-of two women. I had a good business, but I could not keep out of trouble with women. They made it too easy for me."

"Peacock-pig!" exclaimed Jean Jacques with an ugly sneer.

"Let a man when he is dying tell all the truth, to ease his mind," said the master-carpenter with a machiavellian pretence and cunning. "It was vanity, it was, as you say; it was the peacock in me made me be the friend of many women and not the husband of one. I came down here to Quebec from the Far West to get away from consequences. It was expensive. I had to sacrifice. Well, here I am in trouble again-my last trouble, and with the wife of a man that I respect and admire, not enough to keep my hands off his wife, but still that I admire. It is my weakness that I could not be, as a man, honourable to Jean Jacques Barbille. And so I pay the price; so I have to go without time to make my will. Bless heaven above, I have no wife-"

"If you had a wife you would not be dying now. You would not then meddle with the home of Jean Jacques Barbille," sneered Jean Jacques. The note was savage yet.

"Ah, for sure, for sure! It is so. And if I lived I would marry at once."

Desperate as his condition was, the master-carpenter could almost have laughed at the idea of marriage preventing him from following the bent of his nature. He was the born lover. If he had been as high as the Czar, or as low as the ditcher, he would have been the same; but it would be madness to admit that to Jean Jacques now.

"But, as you say, let me get on. My time has come-"

Jean Jacques jerked his head angrily. "Enough of this. You keep on saying 'Wait a little,' but your time has come. Now take it so, and don't repeat."

"A man must get used to the idea of dying, or he will die hard," replied the master-carpenter, for he saw that Jean Jacques' hands were not so tightly clenched on the lever now; and time was everything. He had already been near five minutes, and every minute was a step to a chance of escape-somehow.

"I said you were to blame," he continued. "Listen, Jean Jacques Barbille. You, a man of mind, married a girl who cared more for a touch of your hand than a bucketful of your knowledge, which every man in the province knows is great. At first you were almost always thinking of her and what a fine woman she was, and because everyone admired her, you played the peacock, too. I am not the only peacock. You are a good man-no one ever said anything against your character. But always, always, you think most of yourself. It is everywhere you go as if you say, 'Look out. I am coming. I am Jean Jacques Barbille.

"'Make way for Jean Jacques. I am from the Manor Cartier. You have heard of me.'... That is the way you say things in your mind. But all the time the people say, 'That is Jean Jacques Barbille, but you should see his wife. She is a wonder. She is at home at the Manor with the cows and the geese. Jean Jacques travels alone through the parish to Quebec, to Three Rivers, to Tadousac, to the great exhibition at Montreal, but madame, she stays at home. M'sieu' Jean Jacques is nothing beside her'-that is what the people say. They admire you for your brains, but they would have fallen down before your wife, if you had given her half a chance."

"Ah, that's bosh-what do you know!" exclaimed Jean Jacques fiercely, but he was fascinated too by the argument of the man whose life he was going to take.

"I know the truth, my money-man. Do you think she'd have looked at me if you'd been to her what she thought I might be? No, bien sur! Did you take her where she could see the world? No. Did you bring her presents? No. Did you say, 'Come along, we will make a little journey to see the world?' No. Do you think that a woman can sit and darn your socks, and tidy your room, and bake you pancakes in the morning while you roast your toes, and be satisfied with just that, and not long for something outside?"

Jean Jacques was silent. He did not move. He was being hypnotized by a mind of subtle strength, by the logic of which he was so great a lover.

The master-carpenter pressed his logic home. "No, she must sit in your shadow always. She must wait till you come. And when you come, it was 'Here am I, your Jean Jacques. Fall down and worship me. I am your husband.' Did you ever say, 'Heavens, there you are, the woman of all the world, the rising and the setting sun, the star that shines, the garden where all the flowers of love grow'? Did you ever do that? But no, there was only one person in the world-there was only you, Jean Jacques. You were the only pig in the sty."

It was a bold stroke, but if Jean Jacques could stand that, he could stand anything. There was a savage start on the part of Jean Jacques, and the lever almost moved.

"Stop one second!" cried the master-carpenter, sharply now, for in spite of the sudden savagery on Jean Jacques' part, he felt he had an advantage, and now he would play his biggest card.

"You can kill me. It is there in your hand. No one can stop you. But will that give you anything? What is my life? If you take it away, will you be happier? It is happiness you want. Your wife-she will love you, if you give her a chance. If you kill me, I will have my revenge in death, for it is the end of all things for you. You lose your wife for ever. You need not do so. She would have gone with me, not because of me, but because I was a man who she thought would treat her like a friend, like a comrade; who would love her-sacre, what husband could help make love to such a woman, unless he was in love with himself instead of her!"

Jean Jacques rocked to and fro over the lever in his agitation, yet he made no motion to move it. He was under a spell.

Straight home drove the master-carpenter's reasoning now. "Kill me, and you lose her for ever. Kill me, and she will hate you. You think she will not find out? Then see: as I die I will shriek out so loud that she can hear me, and she will understand. She will go mad, and give you over to the law. And then-and then! Did you ever think what will become of your child, of your Zoe, if you go to the gallows? That would be your legacy and your blessing to her-the death of a murderer; and she would be left alone with the woman that would hate you in death! Voila-do you not see?"

Jean Jacques saw. The terrific logic of the thing smote him. His wife hating him, himself on the scaffold, his little Zoe disgraced and dishonoured all her life; and himself out of it all, unable to help her, and bringing irremediable trouble on her! As a chemical clears a muddy liquid, leaving it pure and atomless, so there seemed to pass over Jean Jacques' face a thought like a revelation.

He took his hand from the lever. For a moment he stood like one awakened out of a sleep. He put his hands to his eyes, then shook his head as though to free it of some hateful burden. An instant later he stooped, lifted up the ladder beside him, and let it down to the floor of the flume.

"There, go-for ever," he said.

Then he turned away with bowed head. He staggered as he stepped down from the bridge of the flume, where the lever was. He swayed from side to side. Then he raised his head and looked towards his house. His child lived there-his Zoe.

"Moi je suis philosophe!" he said brokenly.

After a moment or two, as he stumbled on, he said it again-"Me, I am a philosopher!"

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