The Street Called Straight by Basil King
As a matter of fact, Davenant was under no illusions concerning the quality of the welcome his hostess was according him, though he found a certain pleasure in being once more in her company. It was not a keen pleasure, but neither was it an embarrassing one; it was exactly what he supposed it would be in case they ever met again--a blending on his part of curiosity, admiration, and reminiscent suffering out of which time and experience had taken the sting. He retained the memory of a minute of intense astonishment once upon a time, followed by some weeks, some months perhaps, of angry humiliation; but the years between twenty-four and thirty-three are long and varied, generating in healthy natures plenty of saving common sense. Work, travel, and a widened knowledge of men and manners had so ripened Davenant's mind that he was able to see his proposal now as Miss Guion must have seen it then, as something so incongruous and absurd as not only to need no consideration, but to call for no reply. Nevertheless, it was the refusal on her part of a reply, of the mere laconic No which was all that, in his heart of hearts, he had ever expected, that rankled in him longest; but even that mortification had passed, as far as he knew, into the limbo of extinct regrets. For her present superb air of having no recollection of his blunder he had nothing but commendation. It was as becoming to the spirited grace of its wearer as a royal mantle to a queen. Carrying it as she did, with an easy, preoccupied affability that enabled her to look round him and over him and through him, to greet him and converse with him, without seeming positively to take in the fact of his existence, he was permitted to suppose the incident of their previous acquaintance, once so vital to himself, to have been forgotten. If this were so, it would be nothing very strange, since a woman of twenty-seven, who has had much social experience, may be permitted to lose sight of the more negligible of the conquests she has made as a girl of eighteen. She had asked him to dinner, and placed him honorably at her right; but words could not have made it plainer than it was that he was but an accident to the occasion.
He was there, in short, because he was staying with Mr. and Mrs. Temple. After a two years' absence from New England he had arrived in Waverton that day, "Oh, bother! bring him along," had been the formula in which Miss Guion had conveyed his invitation, the dinner being but an informal, neighborly affair. Two or three wedding gifts having arrived from various quarters of the world, it was natural that Miss Guion should want to show them confidentially to her dear friend and distant relative, Drusilla Fane. Mrs. Fane had every right to this privileged inspection, since she had not only timed her yearly visit to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Temple, so that it should synchronize with the wedding, but had introduced Olivia to Colonel Ashley, in the first place. Indeed, there had been a rumor at Southsea, right up to the time of Miss Guion's visit to the pretty little house on the Marine Parade, that the colonel's calls and attentions there had been not unconnected with Mrs. Fane herself; but rumor in British naval and military stations is notoriously overactive, especially in matters of the heart. Certain it is, however, that when the fashionable London papers announced that a marriage had been arranged, and would shortly take place, between Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Ashley, of the Sussex Rangers, and of Heneage Place, Belvoir, Leicestershire, and Olivia Margaret, only child of Henry Guion, Esquire, of Tory Hill, Waverton, near Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., no one offered warmer congratulations than the lady in whose house the interesting pair had met. There were people who ascribed this attitude to the fact that, being constitutionally "game," she refused to betray her disappointment. She had been "awfully game," they said, when poor Gerald Fane, also of the Sussex Rangers, was cut off with enteric at Peshawur. But the general opinion was to the effect that, not wanting Rupert Ashley (for some obscure, feminine reason) for herself, she had magnanimously bestowed him elsewhere. Around tea-tables, and at church parade, it was said "Americans do that," with some comment on the methods of the transfer.
On every ground, then, Drusilla was entitled to this first look at the presents, some of which had come from Ashley's brother officers, who were consequently brother officers of the late Captain Fane; so that when she telephoned saying she was afraid that they, her parents and herself, couldn't come to dinner that evening, because a former ward of her father's--Olivia must remember Peter Davenant!--was arriving to stay with them for a week or two, Miss Guion had answered, "Oh, bother! bring him along," and the matter was arranged. It was doubtful, however, that she knew him in advance to be the Peter Davenant who nine years earlier had had the presumption to fall in love with her; it was still more doubtful, after she had actually shaken hands with him and called him by name, whether she paid him the tribute of any kind of recollection. The fact that she had seated him at her right, in the place that would naturally be accorded to Rodney Temple, the scholarly director of the Department of Ceramics in the Harvard Gallery of Fine Arts, made it look as if she considered Davenant a total stranger. In the few conventionally gracious words she addressed to him, her manner was that of the hostess who receives a good many people in the course of a year toward the chance guest she had never seen before and expects never to see again.
"Twice round the world since you were last in Boston? How interesting!" Then, as if she had said enough for courtesy, she continued across the lights and flowers to Mrs. Fane: "Drusilla, did you know Colonel Ashley had declined that post at Gibraltar? I'm so glad. I should hate the Gib."
"The Gib wouldn't hate you," Mrs. Fane assured her. "You'd have a heavenly time there. Rupert Ashley is deep in the graces of old Bannockburn, who's in command. He's not a bad old sort, old Ban isn't, though he's a bit of a martinet. Lady Ban is awful--a bounder in petticoats. She looks like that."
Drusilla pulled down the corners of a large, mobile mouth, so as to simulate Lady Bannockburn's expression, in a way that drew a laugh from every one at the table but the host. Henry Guion remained serious, not from natural gravity, but from inattention. He was obviously not in a mood for joking, nor apparently for eating, since he had scarcely tasted his soup and was now only playing with the fish. As this corroborated what Mrs. Temple had more than once asserted to her husband during the past few weeks, that "Henry Guion had something on his mind," she endeavored to exchange a glance with him, but he was too frankly enjoying the exercise of his daughter's mimetic gift to be otherwise observant.
"And what does Colonel Ashley look like, Drucie?" he asked, glancing slyly at Miss Guion.
"Like that," Mrs. Fane said, instantly. Straightening the corners of her mouth and squaring her shoulders, she fixed her eyes into a stare of severity, and stroked horizontally an imaginary mustache, keeping the play up till her lips quivered.
"It is like him," Miss Guion laughed.
"Is he as stiff as all that?" the professor inquired.
"Not stiff," Miss Guion explained, "only dignified."
"Dignified!" Drusilla cried. "I should think so. He's just like Olivia herself. It's perfectly absurd that those two should marry. Apart, they're a pair of splendid specimens; united, they'll be too much of a good thing. They're both so well supplied with the same set of virtues that when they look at each other it'll be like seeing their own faces in a convex mirror. It'll be simply awful."
Her voice had the luscious English intonation, in spite of its being pitched a little too high. In speaking she displayed the superior, initiated manner apt to belong to women who bring the flavor of England into colonial and Indian garrison towns--a manner Drusilla had acquired notably well, considering that not ten years previous her life had been bounded by American college class-days. Something of this latter fact persisted, notwithstanding her English articulation and style of doing her hair. Her marriage had been the accident of a winter spent with her mother in Bermuda, at a time when the Sussex Rangers were stationed there. Her engagement to Captain Gerald Fane--son of the Very Reverend the Dean of Silchester--was the result of a series of dances given chiefly in the Hamilton hotels. Marriage brought the girl born and bred in a New England college town into a kind of life for which she had had no preparation; but she adapted herself as readily as she would have done had she married a Russian prince or a Spanish grandee. In the effort she made there was a mingling of the matter-of-fact and the tour de force. Regimental life is not unlike that of a large family; it has the same sort of claims, intimacies, and quarrels, the same sort of jealousies within, combined with solidarity against the outsider. Perceiving this quickly, Drusilla proceeded to disarm criticism by being impeccable in dress and negatively amiable in conduct. "With my temperament," she said to herself, "I can afford to wait." Following her husband to Barbados, the Cape, and India, she had just succeeded in passing all the tests of the troop-ship and the married quarters when he died. For a while her parents hoped she would make her widowed home in Boston; but her heart had been given irrevocably to the British army--to its distinguished correctness, to its sober glories, its world-wide roving, and its picturesque personal associations. Though she had seen little of England, except for occasional visits on leave, she had become English in tastes and at heart. For a year after Gerald's death she lived with his family at Silchester, in preference to going to her own. After that she settled in the small house at Southsea, where from time to time she had her girlhood's companion, Olivia Guion, as a guest.
"Perhaps that'll do us good," Miss Guion ventured, in reply to Drusilla's observations at her expense. "To see ourselves as others see us must be much like looking at one's face in a spoon."
"That doesn't do us any good," Rodney Temple corrected, "because we always blame the spoon."
"Don't you mind them, dear," Mrs. Temple cooed. She was a little, apple-faced woman, with a figure suggestive of a tea-cozy, and a voice with a gurgle in it, like a dove's. A nervous, convulsive moment of her pursed-up little mouth made that organ an uncertain element in her physiognomy, shifting as it did from one side of her face to the other with the rapidity of an aurora borealis. "Don't mind them, dear. A woman can never do more than reflect 'broken lights' of her husband, when she has a good one. Don't you love that expression?--'broken lights'? 'We are but broken lights of Thee!' Dear Tennyson! And no word yet from Madame de Melcourt."
"I don't expect any now," Olivia explained. "If Aunt Vic had meant to write she would have done it long ago. I'm afraid I've offended her past forgiveness."
She held her head slightly to one side, smiling with an air of mock penitence.
"Dear, dear!" Mrs. Temple murmured, sympathetically. "Just because you wouldn't marry a Frenchman!"
"And a little because I'm going to marry an Englishman. To Aunt Vic all Englishmen are grocers."
"Horrid old thing!" Drusilla said, indignantly.
"It's because she doesn't know them, of course," Olivia went on. "It's one of the things I never can understand--how people can generalize about a whole nation because they happen to dislike one or two individuals. As a matter of fact, Aunt Vic has become so absorbed in her little circle of old French royalist noblesse that she can't see anything to admire outside the rue de l'Universite and chateau life in Normandy. She does admit that there's an element of homespun virtue in the old families of Boston and Waverton; but that's only because she belongs to them herself."
"The capacity of the American woman for being domesticated in an alien environment," observed Rodney Temple, "is only equaled by the dog's."
"We're nomadic, father," Drusilla asserted, "and migratory. We've always been so. It's because we're Saxons and Angles and Celts and Normans, and--"
"Saxon and Norman and Dane are we," Mrs. Temple quoted, gently.
"They've always been fidgeting about the world, from one country to another," Drusilla continued, "and we've inherited the taste. If we hadn't, our ancestors would never have crossed the Atlantic, in the first place. And now that we've got here, and can't go any farther in this direction, we're on the jump to get back again. That's all there is to it. It's just in the blood. Isn't it, Peter? Isn't it, Cousin Henry?"
Drusilla had a way of appealing to whatever men were present, as though her statements lacked something till they had received masculine corroboration.
"All the same, I wish you could have managed the thing without giving offence to Aunt Vic."
The words were Henry Guion's first since sitting down to table.
"I couldn't help it, papa. I didn't give Aunt Vic offence; she took it."
"She's always been so fond of you--"
"I'm fond of her. She's an old darling. And yet I couldn't let her marry me off to a Frenchman, in the French way, when I'd made up my mind to--to do something else. Could I, Cousin Cherry?"
Mrs. Temple plumed herself, pleased at being appealed to. "I don't see how you could, dear. But I suppose your dear aunt--great-aunt, that is--has become so foreign that she's forgotten our simple ways. So long as you follow your heart, dear--"
"I've done that, Cousin Cherry."
The tone drew Davenant's eyes to her again, not in scrutiny, but for the pleasure it gave him to see her delicate features suffused with a glow of unexpected softness. It was unexpected, because her bearing had always conveyed to him, even in the days when he was in love with her, an impression of very refined, very subtle haughtiness. It seemed to make her say, like Marie Antoinette to Madame Vigee-Lebrun: "They would call me arrogant if I were not a queen." The assumption of privilege and prerogative might be only the inborn consciousness of distinction, but he fancied it might be more effective for being tempered. Not that it was overdone. It was not done at all. If the inner impulse working outward poised a neat, classic head too loftily, or shot from gray eyes, limpid and lovely in themselves, a regard that was occasionally too imperious, Olivia Guion was probably unaware of these effects. With beauty by inheritance, refinement by association, and taste and "finish" by instinct, it was possible for her to engage with life relatively free from the cumbrous impedimenta of self-consciousness. It was because Davenant was able to allow for this that his judgment on her pride of manner, exquisite though it was, had never been more severe; none the less, it threw a new light on his otherwise slight knowledge of her character to note the faint blush, the touch of gentleness, with which she hinted her love for her future husband. He had scarcely believed her capable of this kind of condescension.
He called it condescension because he saw, or thought he saw, in her approaching marriage, not so much the capture of her heart as the fulfilment of her ambitions. He admitted that, in her case, there was a degree to which the latter would imply the former, since she was the sort of woman who would give her love in the direction in which her nature found its fitting outlet. He judged something from what Drusilla Fane had said, as they were driving toward Tory Hill that evening.
"Olivia simply must marry a man who'll give her something to do besides sitting round and looking handsome. With Rupert Ashley she'll have the duties of a public, or semi-public, position. He'll keep her busy, if it's only opening bazars and presenting prizes at Bisley. The American men who've tried to marry her have wanted to be her servants, when all the while she's been waiting for a master."
Davenant understood that, now that it was pointed out to him, though the thought would not have come to him spontaneously. She was the strong woman who would yield only to a stronger man. Colonel Ashley might not be stronger than she in intellect or character, but he had done some large things on a large field, and was counted an active force in a country of forceful activities. There might be a question as to whether he would prove to be her master, but he would certainly never think of being her slave.
"What are you going to do, Henry, when the gallant stranger carries off Olivia, a fortnight hence?"
Though she asked the question with the good intention of drawing her host into the conversation, Mrs. Temple made it a point to notice the effort with which he rallied himself to meet her words.
"What am I going to do?" he repeated, absently. "Oh, my future will depend very much on--Hobson's choice."
"That's true," Miss Guion agreed, hurriedly, as though to emphasize a point. "It's all the choice I've left to him. I've arranged everything for papa--beautifully. He's to take in a partner perhaps two partners. You know," she continued in explanation to Mrs. Fane--"you know that poor papa has been the whole of Guion, Maxwell & Guion since Mr. Maxwell died. Well, then, he's to take in a partner or two, and gradually shift his business into their hands. That wouldn't take more than a couple of years at longest. Then he's going to retire, and come to live near me in England. Rupert says there's a small place close to Heneage that would just suit him. Papa has always liked the English hunting country, and so--"
"And so everything will be for the best," Rodney Temple finished. "There's nothing like a fresh young mind, like a young lady's, for settling business affairs. It would have taken you or me a long time to work that plan out, wouldn't it, Henry? We should be worried over the effect on our trusteeships and the big estates we've had the care of--"
"What about the big estates?"
Davenant noticed the tone in which Guion brought out this question, though it was an hour later before he understood its significance. It was a sharp tone, the tone of a man who catches an irritating word or two among remarks he has scarcely followed. Temple apparently had meant to call it forth, since he answered, with the slightest possible air of intention:
"Oh, nothing--except what I hear."
While Miss Guion and Mrs. Fane chatted of their own affairs Davenant remarked the way in which Henry Guion paused, his knife and fork fixed in the chicken wing on his plate, and gazed at his old friend. He bent slightly forward, too, looking, with his superb head and bust slightly French in style, very handsome and imposing.
"Then you've been--hearing--things?"
Rodney Temple lowered his eyes in a way that confirmed Davenant--who knew his former guardian's tricks of manner--in his suppositions. He was so open in countenance that anything momentarily veiled on his part, either in speech or in address, could reasonably be attributed to stress of circumstances. The broad forehead, straight-forward eyes, and large mouth imperfectly hidden by a shaggy beard and mustache, were of the kind that lend themselves to lucidity and candor. Externally he was the scholar, as distinct from the professional man or the "divine." His figure--tall, large-boned, and loose-jointed--had the slight stoop traditionally associated with study, while the profile was thrust forward as though he were peering at something just out of sight. A courtly touch in his style was probably a matter of inheritance, as was also his capacity for looking suitably attired while obviously neglectful of appearances. His thick, lank, sandy hair, fading to white, and long, narrow, stringy beard of the same transitional hue were not well cared for; and yet they helped to give him a little of the air of a Titian or Velasquez nobleman. In answer to Guion now, he spoke without lifting his eyes from his plate.
"Have I been hearing things? N-no; only that the care of big estates is a matter of great responsibility--and anxiety."
"That's what I tell papa," Miss Guion said, warmly, catching the concluding words. "It's a great responsibility and anxiety. He ought to be free from it. I tell him my marriage is a providential hint to him to give up work."
"Perhaps I sha'n't get the chance. Work may give up--me."
"I wish it would, papa. Then everything would be settled."
"Some things would be settled. Others might be opened--for discussion."
If Rodney Temple had not lifted his eyes in another significant look toward Guion, Davenant would have let these sentences pass unheeded. As it was, his attention was directed to possible things, or impossible things, left unsaid. For a second or two he was aware of an odd suspicion, but he brushed it away as absurd, in view of the self-assurance with which Guion roused himself at last to enter into the conversation, which began immediately to turn on persons of whom Davenant had no knowledge.
The inability to follow closely gave him time to make a few superficial observations regarding his host. In spite of the fact that Guion had been a familiar figure to him ever since his boyhood, he now saw him at really close range for the first time in years.
What struck him most was the degree to which Guion conserved his quality of Adonis. Long ago renowned, in that section of American society that clings to the cities and seaboard between Maine and Maryland, as a fine specimen of manhood, he was perhaps handsomer now, with his noble, regular features, his well-trimmed, iron-gray beard, and his splendid head of iron-gray hair, than he had been in his youth. Reckoning roughly, Davenant judged him to be sixty. He had been a personage prominently in view in the group of cities formed by Boston, Cambridge, and Waverton, ever since Davenant could remember him. Nature having created Guion an ornament to his kind, fate had been equally beneficent in ordaining that he should have nothing to do, on leaving the university, but walk into the excellent legal practice his grandfather had founded, and his father had brought to a high degree of honor as well as to a reasonable pitch of prosperity. It was, from the younger Guion's point of view, an agreeable practice, concerned chiefly with the care of trust funds, in which a gentleman could engage without any rough-and-tumble loss of gentility. It required little or nothing in the way of pleadings in the courts or disputing in the market-place, and--especially during the lifetime of the elder partners--left him leisure for cultivating that graceful relationship to life for which he possessed aptitudes. It was a high form of gracefulness, making it a matter of course that he should figure on the Boards of Galleries of Fine Arts and Colleges of Music, and other institutions meant to minister to his country's good through the elevation of its taste.
"It's the sort of thing he was cut out for," Davenant commented to himself, as his eye traveled from the high-bred face, where refinement blended with authority, to the essentially gentlemanly figure, on which the delicately tied cravat sat with the elegance of an orchid, while the white waistcoat, of the latest and most youthful cut, was as neatly adjusted to the person as the calyx to a bud. The mere sight of so much ease and distinction made Davenant himself feel like a rustic in his Sunday clothes, though he seized the opportunity of being in such company to enlarge his perception of the fine points of bearing. It was an improving experience of a kind which he only occasionally got.
He had an equal sense of the educational value of the conversation, to which, as it skipped from country to country and from one important name to another, it was a privilege to be a listener. His own career--except for his two excursions round the world, conscientiously undertaken in pursuit of knowledge--had been so somberly financial that he was frankly, and somewhat naively, curious concerning the people who "did things" bearing little or no relation to business, and who permitted themselves sensations merely for the sake of having them. Olivia Guion's friends, and Drusilla Fane's--admirals, generals, colonels, ambassadors, and secretaries of embassy they apparently were, for the most part--had what seemed to him an unwonted freedom of dramatic action. Merely to hear them talked about gave him glimpses of a world varied and picturesque, from the human point of view, beyond his dreams. In the exchange of scraps of gossip and latest London anecdotes between Miss Guion and Drusilla Fane, on which Henry Guion commented, Davenant felt himself to be looking at a vivid but fitfully working cinematograph, of which the scenes were snatched at random from life as lived anywhere between Washington and Simla, or Inverness and Rome. The effect was both instructive and entertaining. It was also in its way enlightening, since it showed him the true standing in the world of this woman whom he had once, for a few wild minutes, hoped to make his wife.
The dinner was half over before he began clearly to detach Miss Guion from that environment which he would have called "the best Boston society." Placing her there, he would have said before this evening that he placed her as high as the reasonable human being could aspire to be set. For any one whose roots were in Waverton, "the best Boston society" would in general be taken as the state of blossoming. It came to him as a discovery, made there and then, that Olivia Guion had seized this elect state with one of her earliest tendrils, and, climbing on by way of New York and Washington, had chosen to do her actual flowering in a cosmopolitan air.
He had none of the resentment the home-bred American business man habitually feels for this kind of eccentricity. Now that he had caught the idea, he could see at a glance, as his mind changed his metaphor, how admirably she was suited to the tapestried European setting. He was conscious even of something akin to pride in the triumphs she was capable of achieving on that richly decorated world-stage, much as though she were some compatriot prima-donna. He could see already how well, as the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Ashley, she would fill the part. It had been written for her. Its strong points and its subtleties were alike of the sort wherein she would shine.
This perception of his own inward applause explained something in regard to himself about which he had been wondering ever since the beginning of dinner--the absence of any pang, of any shade of envy, to see another man win where he had been so ignominiously defeated. He saw now that it was a field on which he never could have won. Within "the best Boston society" he might have had a chance, though even there it must have been a poor one; but out here in the open, so to speak, where the prowess and chivalry of Christendom furnished his competitors, he had been as little in the running as a mortal at a contest of the gods. That he was no longer in love with her he had known years ago; but it palliated somewhat his old humiliation, it made the word failure easier to swallow down, to perceive that his love, when it existed, had been doomed, from the nature of things and in advance, to end in nothing, like that of the nightingale for the moon.
* * * * *
By dwelling too pensively on these thoughts he found he had missed some of the turns of the talk, his attention awakening to hear Henry Guion say:
"That's all very fine, but a man doesn't risk everything he holds dear in the world to go cheating at cards just for the fun of it. You may depend upon it he had a reason."
"Oh, he had a reason," Mrs. Fane agreed--"the reason of being hard up. The trouble lay in its not being good enough."
"I imagine it was good enough for him, poor devil."
"But not for any one else. He was drummed out. There wasn't a soul in the regiment to speak to him. We heard that he took another name and went abroad. Anyhow, he disappeared. It was all he could do. He was lucky to get off with that; wasn't he, Peter? wasn't he, father?"
"What he got off with," said Guion, "was a quality of tragic interest which never pertains to the people who stick to the Street called Straight."
"Oh, certainly," Mrs. Fane assented, dryly. "He did acquire that. But I'm surprised to hear you commend it; aren't you, father? aren't you, Peter?"
"I'm not commending it," Guion asserted; "I only feel its force. I've a great deal of sympathy with any poor beggar in his--downfall."
The look with which Rodney Temple accompanied the question once more affected Davenant oddly. It probably made the same impression on Guion, since he replied with a calmness that seemed studied: "Since--lately. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, for no reason. It only strikes me as curious that your sympathy should take that turn."
"Precisely," Miss Guion chimed in. "It's not a bit like you, papa. You used to be harder on dishonorable things than any one."
"Well, I'm not now."
It was clear to Davenant by this time that in these words Guion was not so much making a statement as flinging a challenge. He made that evident by the way in which he sat upright, squared his shoulders, and rested a large, white fist clenched upon the table. His eyes, too, shone, glittered rather, with a light quite other than that which a host usually turns upon his guests. To Davenant, as to Mrs. Temple, it seemed as if he had "something on his mind"--something of which he had a persistent desire to talk covertly, in the way in which an undetected felon will risk discovery to talk about the crime.
No one else apparently at the table shared this impression. Rodney Temple, with eyes pensively downcast, toyed with the seeds of a pear, while Miss Guion and Mrs. Fane began speaking of some other incident of what to them was above everything else, "the Service." A minute or two later Olivia rose.
"Come, Cousin Cherry. Come, Drusilla," she said, with her easy, authoritative manner. Then, apparently with an attempt to make up for her neglect of Davenant, she said, as she held the door open for the ladies to pass: "Don't let them keep you here forever. We shall be terribly dull till you join us."
He was not too dense to comprehend that the words were conventional, as the smile she flung him was perfunctory. Nevertheless, the little attention pleased him.