The Street Called Straight by Basil King
As Olivia continued on her way toward Rodney Temple's she was able to make it clear to herself that a chief reason for her dislike of Davenant sprang from his immovability. There was something about him like a giant rock. She got the impression that one might dash against him forever and hurt no one but oneself. It was a trait new to her among American men, whom she generally found too yielding where women were concerned. This man had an aloofness, too, that was curiously disconcerting. He made no approaches; he took no liberties. If he showed anything that resembled a personal sentiment toward her, it was dislike. Making that reflection and using that word, she was almost startled. A woman had sometimes disliked her; she knew that; but a man--never! And yet it was difficult to interpret Davenant's bearing toward her in any other way. It was a bearing in which there were no concessions to her whatever, while there was in it--it was only too plain!--a distinct intention to ignore her. For the time being this personal element in the situation loomed larger than any other. It challenged her; it even annoyed her. At the same time it gave Davenant an importance in her eyes which she was far from willing to concede.
Rodney Temple's house, which was really within the borders of Cambridge, built about 1840 by some Harvard professor in easy circumstances, had originally resembled a square brick box. In the course of seventy years it had passed through the hands of several owners, each of whom had built on an additional box according to his needs. To the north a rectangular wing of one story had been thrown out as a drawing-room; to the south a similar projection formed the library and study. A smaller square crowned the edifice as a cupola, while cubes of varying dimensions were half visible at the back. Against the warm, red brick a Wren portico in white-painted wood, together with the white facings of the windows, produced an effect of vivid spotlessness, tempered by the variegated foliage of climbing vines. The limitations of the open lawn were marked by nothing but a line of shrubs.
Having arrived at the door, it was a relief to Olivia, rather than the contrary, to learn that the ladies were not at home, but that Mr. Temple himself would be glad to see her if she would come in. He had, in fact, espied her approach from his study window and had come out into the hall to insist on her staying. Within a minute or two she found herself sitting in one of his big, shabby arm-chairs saying things preliminary to confidence.
It was a large room, with windows on three sides, through which the light poured in to find itself refracted by a hundred lustrous surfaces. The first impression received on entering what Rodney Temple called his work-room was that of color--color unlike that of pictures, flowers, gems, or sunsets, and yet of extraordinary richness and variety. Low bookcases, running round the room, offered on the broad shelf forming the top space for many specimens of that potter's art on which the old man had made himself an authority. Jars and vases stood on tables, plaques and platters hung on the walls, each notable for some excellence in shape, glaze, or decoration. Of Americans of his generation Rodney Temple had been among the first to respond to an appeal that came from ages immeasurably far back in the history of man. His imagination had been stirred in boyhood by watching a common country potter turn off bowls and flowerpots that sprang from the wheel in exquisite, concentric forms or like opening lilies of red earth. Here, he had said to himself, is the beginning of everything we call art--here must have been the first intimation to man that beauty could be an element in the work of his own fingers.
In a handicraft that took the dust of the earth to minister to man's humblest needs, and yet contrived thereby to enrich his aesthetic life, young Rodney Temple, as he was then, found much that was congenial to his own mystical aspirations. During his early travels abroad the factories of Meissen and Sevres interested him more than the Zwinger and the Louvre.
He frequented the booths and quays and dingy streets of the older European cities, bringing out from some lost hiding-place now an Arabic tile in which the green of the oasis intensified the blue of the desert sky; now a Persian bowl of hues that changed with a turn of the head or a quiver of the lids; now a Spanish plaque gleaming with metallic, opalescent colors, too indefinable to name, too fugitive for the eye to transmit to memory. Later he picked up strange examples which, like meteoric stones from another sphere, had found their mysterious way from Chinese palaces to his grimy haunts in London, Amsterdam, or Florence, as the case might be--a blue-and-white jar of Chia-ching, or a Han ceremonial vessel in emerald green, incrusted from long burial, or a celadon bowl that resembled a cup of jade, or some gorgeously decorated bit of Famille Verte. He knew at first little or nothing of the nature and history of these precious "finds." He saw only that they were rare and lovely and that through beauty as a means of grace he entered into communion with men who had neither epoch nor ideals in common with himself.
In the end he became an authority on ceramic art by the simple process of knowing more about it than anybody else. When the trustees of the Harvard Gallery of Fine Arts awoke to that fact, he was an assistant professor of Greek in the University. Under his care, in the new position they offered him, a collection was formed of great celebrity and value; but nothing in it was ever quite so dear to him as the modest treasures he had acquired for himself in the days of his young enthusiasm, when his fellow-countrymen as yet cared for none of these things. As Olivia sat and talked her eye traveled absently from barbaric Rouen cornucopias and cockatoos to the incrusted snails and serpents of Bernard Palissy, resting long on a flowered jardiniere by Veuve Perrin, of Marseilles. She had little technical knowledge of the objects surrounding her, but she submitted to the strange and soothing charm they never failed to work on her--the charm of stillness, of peace, as of things which, made for common homely uses, had passed beyond that stage into an existence of serenity and loveliness.
"When you spoke the other day," she said, after the conversation had turned directly on her father's affairs--"when you spoke the other day about a pillar of cloud, I suppose you meant what one might call--an overruling sense of right."
"That might do as one definition."
"Because in that case you may like to know that I think I've seen it."
"I thought you would if you looked for it."
"I didn't look for it. It was just--there!"
"It's always there; only, as in the case of the two disciples on the Emmaus road, our eyes are holden so that we don't see it."
"I should have seen it easily enough; but if you hadn't told me, I shouldn't have known what it was. I didn't suppose that we got that kind of guidance nowadays."
"The light is always shining in darkness, dearie; only the darkness comprehendeth it not. That's all there is to it."
He sat at his desk, overlooking the embankment and the curves of the Charles. It was a wide desk littered with papers, but with space, too, for some of the favorite small possessions that served him as paper-weights--a Chinese dragon in blue-green enamel, a quaintly decorated cow in polychrome Delft, a dancing satyr in biscuit de Sevres. On the side remote from where he sat was a life-size bust of Christ in fifteenth-century Italian terra-cotta--the face noble, dignified, strongly sympathetic--once painted, but now worn to its natural tint, except where gleams of scarlet or azure showed in the folds of the vesture. While the old man talked, and chiefly while he listened, the fingers of his large, delicately articulated hand stroked mechanically the surfaces of a grotesque Chinese figure carved in apple-green jade. It was some minutes before Olivia made any response to his last words. "Things are very dark to me," she confessed, "and yet this light seems to me absolutely positive. I've had to make a decision that would be too frightful if something didn't seem to be leading me into the Street called Straight, as papa says. Did you know Mr. Davenant had offered to pay our debts?"
He shook his head.
"Of course I couldn't let him do it."
"Do you think I could?"
"Not if you think differently. You're the only judge."
"But if I don't, you know, papa will have to go--" She hesitated. "You know what would happen, don't you?"
"I suppose I do."
"And I could prevent it, you see, if I let papa take this money. I have to assume the responsibility of its refusal. It puts me in a position that I'm beginning to feel--well, rather terrible."
"You don't seem very much interested, Cousin Rodney. I hoped you'd give me some advice."
"Oh, I never give advice. Besides, if you've got into the Street called Straight, I don't see why you need advice from any one."
"I do. The Street called Straight is all very well, but--"
"Then you're not so sure, after all."
"I'm sure in a way. If it weren't for papa I shouldn't have any doubt whatever. But it seems so awful for me to drive him into what I don't think he'd do of his own accord." She went on to explain Davenant's offer in detail. "So you see," she concluded, "that papa's state of mind is peculiar. He agrees with me that the higher thing would be not to take the money; and yet if I gave him the slightest encouragement he would."
"And you're not going to?"
"How could I, Cousin Rodney? How could I put myself under such an obligation to a man I hardly know?"
"He could probably afford it."
"Is he so very rich?" There was a hint of curiosity in the tone.
Rodney Temple shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, rich enough. It would pretty well clean him out; but, then, that would do him good."
"Do him good--how?"
"He's spoiling for work, that fellow is. Since he's had all that money he's been of no use to himself or to anybody else. He's like good capital tied up in a stocking instead of being profitably invested."
"And yet we could hardly put ourselves in a humiliating situation just to furnish Mr. Davenant with an incentive for occupation, could we, Cousin Rodney?"
"I dare say not."
"And he isn't offering us the money merely for the sake of getting rid of it, do you think?"
"Then what is he offering it to you for?"
"That's exactly what I want to know. Haven't you any idea?"
She waited a minute before deciding to speak openly. "I suppose you never heard that he once asked me to marry him?"
He betrayed his surprise by the way in which he put down the little Chinese figure and wheeled round more directly toward her.
"What the dickens made him do that?"
She opened her eyes innocently. "I'm sure I can't imagine."
"It isn't a bit like him. You must have led him on."
"I didn't," she declared, indignantly. "I never took any notice of him at all. Nothing could have astonished me more than his--his presumption."
"And what did you say to him? Did you box his ears?"
"I was very rude, and that's partly the trouble now. I feel as if he'd been nursing a grudge against me all these years--and was paying it."
"In that case he's got you on the hip, hasn't he? It's a lovely turning of the tables."
"You see that, Cousin Rodney, don't you? I couldn't let a man like that get the upper hand of me."
"Of course you couldn't, dear. I'd sit on him if I were you, and sit on him hard. I'd knock him flat--and let Delia Rodman and Clorinda Clay go to the deuce."
She looked at him wonderingly. "Let--who--go to the deuce?"
"I said Delia Rodman and Clorinda Clay. I might have included Fanny Burnaby and the Brown girls. I meant them, of course. I suppose you've been doing a lot of worrying on their account."
"I--I haven't," she stammered. "I haven't thought of them at all."
"Then I wouldn't. They've got no legal claim on you whatever. When they put their money into your father's hands--or when other people put it there for them--they took their chances. Life is full of risks like that. You're not responsible for them, not any more than you are for the fortunes of war. If they've had bad luck, then that's their own lookout. Oh, I shouldn't have them on my mind for a minute."
She was too startled to suspect him of ruse or strategy.
"I haven't had them on my mind. It seems queer--and yet I haven't. Now that you speak of them, of course I see--" She passed her hand across her brow. There was a long, meditative silence before she resumed. "I don't know what I've been dreaming of that it didn't occur to me before. Papa and Mr. Davenant both said that I hadn't considered all the sides to the question; and I suppose that's what they were thinking of. It seems so obvious--now."
She adjusted her veil and picked up her parasol as though about to take leave; but when she rose it was only to examine, without seeing it, a plaque hanging on the wall.
"If papa were to take Mr. Davenant's money," she said, after long silence, without turning round, "then his clients would be as well off as before, wouldn't they?"
"I presume they would."
"And now, I suppose, they're very poor."
"I don't know much about that. None of them were great heiresses, as it was. Miss Prince, who keeps the school, told your cousin Cherry yesterday that the Rodman girls had written her from Florence, asking if she could give them a job to teach Italian. They'll have to teach away like blazes now--anything and everything they know."
She turned round toward him, her eyes misty with distress.
"See this bit of jade?" he continued, getting up from his chair. "Real jade that is. Cosway, of the Gallery, brought it to me when he came home from Peking. That's not real jade you've got at Tory Hill. It's jadeite."
"Is it?" She took the little mandarin in her hand, but without examining him. "I've no doubt you've been dreadfully worried about them--papa's clients, I mean."
"W-well--a little--or, rather, not at all. That is, I should have been worried if it hadn't been for the conviction that something would look out for them. Something always does, you know."
The faint smile that seemed to have got frozen on her lips quivered piteously. "I wish you could have that comfortable feeling about me."
"Oh, I have. That'll be all right. You'll be taken care of from start to finish. Don't have a qualm of doubt about it. There's a whole host of ministering spirits--angels some people call them--I don't say I should myself--but there are legions of mighty influences appointed to wait on just such brave steps as you're about to take."
"That is, if I take them!"
"Oh, you'll take 'em all right, dearie. You'll not be able to help it when you see just what they ought to be. In a certain sense they'll take you. You'll be passed along from point to point as safely as that bit of jade"--he took the carving from between her fingers and held it up--"as safely as that bit of jade has been transmitted from the quarries of Tibet to brighten my old eyes. It's run no end of risks, but the Angel of Beauty has watched over all its journeys. It's been in every sort of queer, mysterious place; it's passed through the hands of mandarins, merchants, and slaves; it's probably stood in palaces and been exposed in shops; it's certainly come over mountains and down rivers and across seas; and yet here it is, as perfect as when some sallow-faced dwarf of a craftsman gave it the last touch of the tool a hundred years ago. And that's the way it'll be with you, dearie. You may go through some difficult places, but you'll come out as unscathed as my little Chinaman. The Street called Straight is often a crooked one; and yet it's the surest and safest route we can take from point to point."
* * * * *
As, a few minutes later, she hurried homeward, this mystical optimism was to her something like a rose to a sick man--beautiful to contemplate, but of little practical application in alleviating pain. Her mind turned away from it. It turned away, too, from the pillar of cloud, of which the symbolism began to seem deceptive. Under the stress of the moment the only vision to which she could attain was that of the Misses Rodman begging for the pitiful job of teaching Italian in a young ladies' school. She remembered them vaguely--tall, scraggy, permanently girlish in dress and manner, and looking their true fifty only about the neck and eyes. With their mother they lived in a pretty villa on the Poggio Imperiale, and had called on her occasionally when she passed through Florence. The knowledge of being indebted to them, of having lived on their modest substance and reduced them to poverty, brought her to the point of shame in which it would have been a comfort to have the mountains fall on her and the rocks cover her from the gaze of men. She upbraided herself for her blindness to the most obviously important aspect of the situation. Now that she saw it, her zeal to "pay," by doing penance in public, became tragic and farcical at once. The absurdity of making satisfaction to Mrs. Rodman and Mrs. Clay, to Fanny Burnaby and the Brown girls, by calling in the law, when less suffering--to her father at least--would give them actual cash, was not the least element in her humiliation.
She walked swiftly, seeing nothing of the cheerful stir around her, lashed along by the fear that Peter Davenant might have left Tory Hill. She was too intent on her purpose to perceive any change in her mental attitude toward him. She was aware of saying to herself that everything concerning him must be postponed; but beyond that she scarcely thought of him at all. Once the interests of the poor women who had trusted to her father had been secured, she would have time to face the claims of this new creditor; but nothing could be attempted till the one imperative duty was performed.
Going up the stairs toward her father's room, the sound of voices reassured her. Davenant was there still. That was so much relief. She was able to collect herself, to put on something like her habitual air of quiet dignity, before she pushed open the door and entered.
Guion was lying on the couch with the rug thrown over him. Davenant stood by the fireplace, endangering with his elbow a dainty Chelsea shepherdess on the mantelpiece. He was smoking one of Guion's cigars, which he threw into an ash-tray as Olivia came in.
Conversation stopped abruptly on her appearance. She herself walked straight to the round table in the middle of the room, and for a second or two, which seemed much longer in space of time, stood silent, the tips of her fingers just touching a packet of papers strapped with rubber bands, which she guessed that Davenant must have brought. Through her downcast lashes she could see, thrown carelessly on the table, three or four strips, tinted blue or green or yellow, which she recognized as checks.
"I only want to say," she began, with a kind of panting in her breath--"I only want to say, papa, that if ... Mr. Davenant will ... lend you the money ... I shall be ... I shall be ... very glad."
Guion said nothing. His eyes, regarding her aslant, had in them the curious receding light she had noticed once before. With a convulsive clutching of the fingers he pulled the rug up about his chin. Davenant stood as he had been standing when she came in, his arm resting on the mantelpiece. When she looked at him with one hasty glance, she noticed that he reddened hotly.
"I've changed my mind," she went on, impelled by the silence of the other two to say something more. "I've changed my mind. It's because of papa's clients--the Miss Rodmans and the others--that I've done it. I couldn't help it. I never thought of them till this afternoon. I don't know why. I've been very dense. I've been cruel. I've considered only how we--papa and I--could exonerate ourselves, if you can call it exoneration. I'm sorry."
"You couldn't be expected to think of everything at once, Miss Guion," Davenant said, clumsily.
"I might have been expected to think of this; but I didn't. I suppose it's what you meant when you said that there were sides to the question that I didn't see. You said it, too, papa. I wish you had spoken more plainly."
"We talked it over, Miss Guion. We didn't want to seem to force you. It's the kind of thing that's better done when it's done of one's own impulse. We were sure you'd come to it. All the same, if you hadn't done it to-day, we'd made up our minds to--to suggest it. That's why I took the liberty of bringing these things. Those are bonds that you've got your hand on--and the checks make up the sum total."
By an instinctive movement she snatched her fingers away; but, recovering herself, she took the package deliberately into her hands and stood holding it.
"I've been explaining to Davenant," Guion said, in a muffled voice, "that things aren't quite so hopeless as they seem. If we ever come into Aunt Vic's money--"
"But there's no certainty of that, papa."
"No certainty, but a good deal of probability. She's always given us to understand that the money wouldn't go out of her own family; and there's practically no one left now but you and me. And if it should come to us, there'd be more than enough to--to square everything. You'd do it, dear, wouldn't you, if Aunt Vic were to leave the whole thing to you? I think she's as likely to do that as not."
"Mr. Davenant must know already that I shall give my whole life to trying to pay our debt. If there's anything I could sign at once--"
Davenant moved from the fireside. "There's nothing to sign, Miss Guion," he said, briefly. "The matter is ended as far as I'm concerned. Mr. Guion has got the money, and is relieved from his most pressing embarrassments. That's all I care about. There's no reason why we should ever speak of it again. If you'll excuse me now--"
He turned toward the couch with his hand outstretched, but during the minute or two in which Olivia and he had been facing each other Guion had drawn the rug over his face. Beneath it there was a convulsive shaking, from which the younger man turned away. With a nod of comprehension to Olivia he tiptoed softly from the room. As he did so he could see her kneel beside the couch and kiss the hand that lay outside the coverlet.
She overtook him, however, when he was downstairs picking up his hat and stick from the hall table.
She stood on the lowest step of the stairs, leaning on the low, white pillar that finished the balustrade. He was obliged to pass her on his way to the door. The minute was the more awkward for him owing to the fact that she did not take the initiative in carrying it off. On the contrary, she made it harder by looking at him gravely without speaking.
"It's relief," he said, nodding with understanding toward the room up-stairs. "I've seen men do that before--after they'd been facing some danger or other with tremendous pluck."
He spoke for the sake of saying something, standing before her with his hat and stick in his hand, not seeing precisely how he was to get away.
"It's a relief to me, too," she said, simply. "You can't imagine what it's been the last few days--seeing things go to pieces like that. Now, I suppose, they'll hold together somehow, though it can't be very well. I dare say you think me all wrong--"
He shook his head.
"I couldn't see any other way. When you've done wrong as we've done it, you'd rather be punished. You don't want to go scot-free. It's something like the kind of impulse that made the hermits and ascetics submit to scourging. But it's quite possible that I shouldn't have had the courage to go through with it--especially if papa had broken down. As you said from the first, I didn't see what was truly vital."
"I shouldn't blame myself too much for that, Miss Guion. It often happens that one only finds the right way by making two or three plunges into wrong ones."
"Do you think I've found it now?"
There was something wistful in the question, and not a little humble, that induced him to say with fervor, "I'm very sure of it."
"And you?" she asked. "Is it the right way for you?"
"Yes; and it's the first time I've ever struck it."
She shook her head slowly. "I don't know. I'm a little bewildered. This morning everything seemed so clear, and now--I understand," she went on, "that we shall be taking all you have."
"Who told you that?" he asked, sharply.
"It doesn't matter who told me; but it's very important if we are. Are we?"
He threw his head back in a way that, notwithstanding her preoccupation, she could not but admire. "No; because I've still got my credit. When a man has that--"
"But you'll have to begin all over again, sha'n't you?"
"Only as a man who has won one battle begins all over again when he fights another. It's nothing but fun when you're fond of war."
"Didn't I do something very rude to you--once--a long time ago?"
The question took him so entirely unawares that, in the slight, involuntary movement he made, he seemed to himself to stagger backward. He was aware of looking blank, while unable to control his features to a non-committal expression. He had the feeling that minutes had gone by before he was able to say:
"It was really of no consequence--"
"Don't say that. It was of great consequence. Any one can see that--now. I was insolent. I knew I had been. You must have been perfectly aware of it all these years; and--I will say it!--I must say it!--you're taking your revenge--very nobly."
He was about to utter something in protest, but she turned away abruptly and sped up the stairs. On the first landing she paused for the briefest instant and looked down.
"Good-by," she faltered. "I must go back to papa. He'll need me. I can't talk any more just now. I'm too bewildered--about everything. Colonel Ashley will arrive in a day or two, and after I've seen him I shall be a little clearer as to what I think; and--and then--I shall see you again."
He continued to stand gazing up the stairway long after he had heard her close the door of Guion's room behind her.