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   Chapter 23 JEAN JACQUES HAS WORK TO DO

The Money Master, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 12729

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


A single lighted lamp, turned low, was suspended from the ceiling of the raftered room, and through the open doorway which gave on to a little wooden piazza with a slight railing and small, shaky gate came the swish of the Watloon River. No moon was visible, but the stars were radiant and alive-trembling with life. There was something soothing, something endlessly soothing in the sound of the river. It suggested the ceaseless movement of life to the final fulness thereof.

So still was the room that it might have seemed to be without life, were it not for a faint sound of breathing. The bed, however, was empty, and no chair was occupied; but on a settle in a corner beside an unused fireplace sat a man, now with hands clasped between his knees, again with arms folded across his breast; but with his head always in a listening attitude. The whole figure suggested suspense, vigilance and preparedness. The man had taken off his boots and stockings, and his bare feet seemed to grip the floor; also the sleeves of his jacket were rolled up a little. It was not a figure you would wish to see in your room at midnight unasked. Once or twice he sighed heavily, as he listened to the river slishing past and looked out to the sparkle of the skies. It was as though the infinite had drawn near to the man, or else that the man had drawn near to the infinite. Now and again he brought his fists down on his knees with a savage, though noiseless, force. The peace of the river and the night could not contend successfully against a dark spirit working in him. When, during his vigil, he shook his shaggy head and his lips opened on his set teeth, he seemed like one who would take toll at a gateway of forbidden things.

He started to his feet at last, hearing footsteps outside upon the stairs. Then he settled back again, drawing near to the chimney-wall, so that he should not be easily seen by anyone entering. Presently there was the click of a latch, then the door opened and shut, and cigar-smoke invaded the room. An instant later a hand went up to the suspended oil-lamp and twisted the wick into brighter flame. As it did so, there was a slight noise, then the click of a lock. Turning sharply, the man under the lamp saw at the door the man who had been sitting in the corner. The man had a key in his hand. Exit now could only be had through the door opening on to the river.

"Who are you? What the hell do you want here?" asked the fellow under the lamp, his swarthy face drawn with fear and yet frowning with anger.

"Me-I am Jean Jacques Barbille," said the other in French, putting the key of the door in his pocket. The other replied in French, with a Spanish-English accent. "Barbille-Carmen's husband! Well, who would have thought-!"

He ended with a laugh not pleasant to hear, for it was coarse with sardonic mirth; yet it had also an unreasonable apprehension; for why should he fear the husband of the woman who had done that husband such an injury!

"She treated you pretty bad, didn't she-not much heart, had Carmen!" he added.

"Sit down. I want to talk to you," said Jean Jacques, motioning to two chairs by a table at the side of the room. This table was in the middle of the room when the man under the lamp-Hugo Stolphe was his name-had left it last. Why had the table been moved?

"Why should I sit down, and what are you doing here?-I want to know that," Stolphe demanded. Jean Jacques' hands were opening and shutting. "Because I want to talk to you. If you don't sit down, I'll give you no chance at all.... Sit down!" Jean Jacques was smaller than Stolphe, but he was all whipcord and leather; the other was sleek and soft, but powerful too; and he had one of those savage natures which go blind with hatred, and which fight like beasts. He glanced swiftly round the room.

"There is no weapon here," said Jean Jacques, nodding. "I have put everything away-so you could not hurt me if you wanted.... Sit down!"

To gain time Stolphe sat down, for he had a fear that Jean Jacques was armed, and might be a madman armed-there were his feet bare on the brown painted boards. They looked so strange, so uncanny. He surely must be a madman if he wanted to do harm to Hugo Stolphe; for Hugo Stolphe had only "kept" the woman who had left her husband, not because of himself, but because of another man altogether-one George Masson. Had not Carmen herself told him that before she and he lived together? What grudge could Carmen's husband have against Hugo Stolphe?

Jean Jacques sat down also, and, leaning on the table said: "Once I was a fool and let the other man escape-George Masson it was. Because of what he did, my wife left me."

His voice became husky, but he shook his throat, as it were, cleared it, and went on. "I won't let you go. I was going to kill George Masson-I had him like that!" He opened and shut his hand with a gesture of fierce possession. "But I did not kill him. I let him go. He was so clever-cleverer than you will know how to be. She said to me-my wife said to me, when she thought I had killed him, 'Why did you not fight him? Any man would have fought him.' That was her view. She was right-not to kill without fighting. That is why I did not kill you at once when I knew."

"When you knew what?" Stolphe was staring at the madman.

"When I knew you were you. First I saw that ring-that ring on your hand. It was my wife's. I gave it to her the first New Year after we married. I saw it on your hand when you were drinking at the bar next door. Then I asked them your name. I knew it. I had read your letters to my wife-"

"Your wife once on a time!"

Jean Jacques' eyes swam red. "My wife always and always-and at the last there in my arms." Stolphe temporized. "I never knew you. She did not leave you because of me. She came to me because-because I was there for her to come to, and you weren't there. Why do you want to do me any harm?" He still must be careful, for undoubtedly the man was mad-his eyes were too bright.

"You were the death of her," answered Jean Jacques, leaning forward. "She was most ill-ah, who would not have been sorry for her! She was poor. She had been to you-but to live with a woman day by day, but to be by her side when the days are done, and then one morning to say, 'Au revoir till supper' and then go and never come back, and t

o take money and rings that belonged to her!... That was her death-that was the end of Carmen Barbille; and it was your fault."

"You would do me harm and not hurt her! Look how she treated you-and others."

Jean Jacques half rose from his seat in sudden rage, but he restrained himself, and sat down again. "She had one husband-only one. It was Jean Jacques Barbille. She could only treat one as she treated me-me, her husband. But you, what had you to do with that! You used her-so!" He made a motion as though to stamp out an insect with his foot. "Beautiful, a genius, sick and alone-no husband, no child, and you used her so! That is why I shall kill you to-night. We will fight for it."

Yes, but surely the man was mad, and the thing to do was to humour him, to gain time. To humour a madman-that is what one always advised, therefore Stolphe would make the pourparler, as the French say.

"Well, that's all right," he rejoined, "but how is it going to be done? Have you got a pistol?" He thought he was very clever, and that he would now see whether Jean Jacques Barbille was armed. If he was not armed, well, then, there would be the chances in his favour; it wasn't easy to kill with hands alone.

Jean Jacques ignored the question, however. He waved a hand impatiently, as though to dismiss it. "She was beautiful and splendid; she had been a queen down there in Quebec. You lied to her, and she was blind at first-I can see it all. She believed so easily-but yes, always! There she was what she was, and you were what you are, not a Frenchman, not Catholic, and an American-no, not an American-a South American. But no, not quite a South American, for there was the Portuguese nigger in you-Sit down!"

Jean Jacques was on his feet bending over the enraged mongrel. He had spoken the truth, and Carmen's last lover had been stung as though a serpent's tooth was in his flesh. Of all things that could be said about him, that which Jean Jacques said was the worst-that he was not all white, that he had nigger blood! Yet it was true; and he realized that Jean Jacques must have got his information in Shilah itself where he had been charged with it. Yet, raging as he was, and ready to take the Johnny Crapaud-that is the name by which he had always called Carmen's husband-by the throat, he was not yet sure that Jean Jacques was unarmed. He sat still under an anger greater than his own, for there was in it that fanaticism which only the love or hate of a woman could breed in a man's mind.

Suddenly Stolphe laughed outright, a crackling, mirthless, ironical laugh; for it really was absurdity made sublime that this man, who had been abandoned by his wife, should now want to kill one who had abandoned her! This outdid Don Quixote over and over.

"Well, what do you want?" he asked.

"I want you to fight," said Jean Jacques. "That is the way. That was Carmen's view. You shall have your chance to live, but I shall throw you in the river, and you can then fight the river. The current is swift, the banks are steep and high as a house down below there. Now, I am ready...!"

He had need to be, for Stolphe was quick, kicking the chair from beneath him, and throwing himself heavily on Jean Jacques. He had had his day at that in South America, and as Jean Jacques Barbille had said, the water was swift and deep, and the banks of the Watloon high and steep!

But Jean Jacques was unconscious of everything save a debt to be collected for a woman he had loved, a compensation which must be taken in flesh and blood. Perhaps at the moment, as Stolphe had said to himself, he was a little mad, for all his past, all his plundered, squandered, spoiled life was crying out at him like a hundred ghosts, and he was fighting with beasts at Ephesus. An exaltation possessed him. Not since the day when his hand was on the lever of the flume with George Masson below; not since the day he had turned his back for ever on the Manor Cartier had he been so young and so much his old self-an egotist, with all the blind confidence of his kind; a dreamer inflamed into action with all a mad dreamer's wild power. He was not fifty-two years of age, but thirty-two at this moment, and all the knowledge got of the wrestling river-drivers of his boyhood, when he had spent hours by the river struggling with river-champions, came back to him. It was a relief to his sick soul to wrench and strain, and propel and twist and force onward, step by step, to the door opening on the river, this creature who had left his Carmen to die alone.

"No, you don't-not yet. The jail before the river!" called a cool, sharp, sour voice; and on the edge of the trembling platform overhanging the river, Hugo Stolphe was dragged back from the plunge downward he was about to take, with Jean Jacques' hand at his throat.

Stolphe had heard the door of the bedroom forced, but Jean Jacques had not heard it; he was only conscious of hands dragging him back just at the moment of Stolphe's deadly peril.

"What is it?" asked Jean Jacques, seeing Stolphe in the hands of two men, and hearing the snap of steel. "Wanted for firing a house for insurance-wanted for falsifying the accounts of a Land Company-wanted for his own good, Mr. Hugo Stolphe, C.O.D.-collect on delivery!" said the officer of the law. "And collected just in time!"

"We didn't mean to take him till to-morrow," the officer added, "but out on the river one of us saw this gladiator business here in the red-light zone, and there wasn't any time to lose.... I don't know what your business with him was," the long-moustached detective said to Jean Jacques, "but whatever the grudge is, if you don't want to appear in court in the morning, the walking's good out of town night or day-so long!"

He hustled his prisoner out.

Jean Jacques did not want to appear in court, and as the walking was officially good at dawn, he said good-bye to Virginie Poucette's sister through the crack of a door, and was gone before she could restrain him.

"Well, things happen that way," he said, as he turned back to look at Shilah before it disappeared from view.

"Ah, the poor, handsome vaurien!" the woman at the tavern kept saying to her husband all that day; and she could not rest till she had written to Virginie how Jean Jacques came to Shilah in the evening, and went with the dawn.

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