The Street Called Straight by Basil King
It was not difficult for Davenant to ascribe his lightness of heart, on leaving Tory Hill, to satisfaction in getting rid of his superfluous money, since he had some reason to fear that the possession of it was no great blessing. To a man with little instinct for luxury and no spending tastes, twenty or thirty thousand dollars a year was an income far outstripping his needs. It was not, however, in excess of his desires, for he would gladly have set up an establishment and cut a dash if he had known how. He admired the grand style in living, not so much as a matter of display, because presumably it stood for all sorts of mysterious refinements for which he possessed the yearning without the initiation. The highest flight he could take by his own unaided efforts was in engaging the best suite of rooms in the best hotel, when he was quite content with his dingy old lodgings; in driving in taxicabs, when the tram-car would have suited him just as well, and ordering champagne, when he would have preferred some commoner beverage. Fully aware of the insufficiency of this method of reaching a higher standard, he practised it only because it offered the readiest means he could find of straining upward. He was sure that with a wife who knew the arts of elegance to lead the way his scent for following would be keen enough; but between him and the acquisition of this treasure there lay the memory of the haughty young creature who had, in the metaphor with which he was most familiar, "turned him down."
But it was not the fact that he had more money than he needed of which he was afraid; it was rather the perception that the possibility of indulging himself--coupled with what he conceived to be a kind of duty in doing it--was sapping his vigor. All through the second year of his holiday he had noticed in himself the tendency of the big, strong-fibered animal to be indolent and overfed. On the principle laid down by Emerson that every man is as lazy as he dares to be he got into the way of sleeping late, of lounging in the public places of hotels, and smoking too many cigars. With a little encouragement he could have contracted the incessant cocktail and Scotch-and-soda habits of some of his traveling compatriots.
He excused these weaknesses on the ground that when he had returned to Boston, and got back to his ordinary round of work and exercise, they would vanish, without having to be overcome; and yet the nearer he drew to his old home, the less impulse he felt for exertion. He found himself asking the question, "Why should I try to make more money when I've got enough already?" to which the only reply was in that vague hope of "doing a little good," inspired by his visit to the scene of his parents' work at Hankow. In this direction, however, his aptitudes were no more spontaneous than they were for the life of cultivated taste. Henry Guion's need struck him, therefore, as an opportunity. If he took other views of it besides, if it made to him an appeal totally different from the altruistic, he was able to conceal the fact--from himself, at any rate--in the depths of a soul where much that was vital to the man was always held in subliminal darkness. It disturbed him, then, to have Drusilla Fane rifle this sanctuary with irreverent persistency, dragging to light what he had kept scrupulously hidden away.
Having found her alone in the drawing-room drinking her tea, he told her at once what he had accomplished in the way of averting the worst phase of the danger hanging over the master of Tory Hill. He told her, too, with some amount of elation, which he explained as his glee in getting himself down to "hard-pan." Drusilla allowed the explanation to pass till she had thanked him ecstatically for what he had done.
"Really, Peter, men are fine! The minute I heard Cousin Henry's wretched story I knew the worst couldn't come to the worst, with you here. I only wish you could realize what it means to have a big, strong man like you to lean on."
Davenant looked pleased; he was in the mood to be pleased with anything. He had had so little of women's appreciation in his life that Drusilla's enthusiasm was not only agreeable but new. He noticed, too, that in speaking Drusilla herself was at her best. She had never been pretty. Her mouth was too large, her cheek-bones too high, and her skin too sallow for that; but she had the charm of frankness and intelligence.
Davenant said what was necessary in depreciation of his act, going on to explain the benefit he would reap by being obliged to go to work again. He enlarged on his plans for taking his old rooms and his old office, and informed her that he knew a fellow, an old pal, who had already let him into a good thing in the way of a copper-mine in the region of Lake Superior. Drusilla listened with interest till she found an opportunity to say:
"I'm so glad that is your reason for helping Cousin Henry, Peter; because I was afraid there might be--another."
He stopped abruptly, looking dashed. Unaccustomed to light methods of attack and defense, it took him a few seconds to see Drusilla's move.
"You thought I might be--in love?"
"That's queer," he went on, "because I'd got the same impression about you."
It was Drusilla's turn to be aghast. She was a little surprised at not being offended, too.
"What made you think that?" she managed to ask, after getting command of herself.
"What makes one think anything? However," he conceded, "I dare say I'm wrong."
"That's a very good conclusion to come to. I advise you to keep to it."
"I will if you'll do the same about me."
She seized the opening to carry the attack back in his direction.
"I can't make a bargain of that kind, Peter. The scientific mind bases its conclusions on--observed phenomena."
"Which I guess is the reason why the scientific mind is so often wrong. I've had a good deal to do with it in the copper-mine business. It's always barking up the wrong tree. I've often heard it said that the clever scientist is generally a poor reasoner."
"Well, perhaps he is. But I wasn't reasoning. I was merely going by instinct when I thought you might have a special motive for helping Cousin Henry. If you had, you know, it wouldn't be any harm."
"It mightn't be any harm; but would it be any good?"
"Well, that might depend a good deal--on you."
"On me? How so? I don't know what you're driving at."
"I'm not driving at anything. I'm only speculating. I'm wondering what I should do if I were in your place--with all your advantages."
"If I were a man and had a rival," Drusilla persisted, "I should be awfully honorable in the stand I'd take toward him--just like you. But if anything miscarried--"
"You don't expect anything to miscarry?"
She shook her head. "No; I don't expect it. But it might be a fortunate thing if it did."
"You don't mean to infer that this man Ashley mightn't come up to the scratch?"
"Colonel Ashley has come up to a good many scratches in his time. He's not likely to fail in this one."
"Well, then, what more is there to it?"
"There's a good deal more. There are things I can't explain, and which you wouldn't understand if I did. Coming up to the scratch isn't everything. Charles the First came up to the scratch when he walked up and had his head cut off; but there was more to be said."
"And you mean that your Colonel Ashley would be brave enough to walk up and have his head cut off?"
"I know he'd be brave enough. It's no question of courage. He had the Victoria Cross before he was thirty. But it's a noble head; and it might be a pity it should have to fall."
"But I don't understand why it should."
"No, you wouldn't unless you'd lived among them. They'd all admit he had done the right thing. They'd say that, having come out here to marry her, he could do no less than go through with it. That part of it would be all right. Even in the Rangers it might make comparatively little difference--except that now and then Olivia would feel uncomfortable. Only when he was mentioned at the Horse Guards for some important command they'd remember that there was something queer--something shady--about his wife's family, and his name would be passed over."
He nodded thoughtfully. "I see."
"Oh no, you don't. It's much too intricate for you to see. You couldn't begin to understand how poignant it might become, especially for her, without knowing their ways and traditions--"
He jumped to his feet. "Their ways and traditions be--!"
"Yes; that's all very fine. But they're very good ways, Peter. They've got to keep the honor of the Service up to a very high standard. Their ways are all right. But that doesn't keep them from being terrible forces to come up against, especially for a proud thing like her. And now that the postponing of the wedding has got into the papers--"
"Yes; I've seen 'em. Got it pretty straight, too, all things considered."
"And that sort of thing simply flies. It will be in the New York papers to-morrow, and in the London ones the day after. We always get those things cabled over there. We know about the elopements and the queer things that happen in America when we don't hear of anything else. Within forty-eight hours they'll be talking of it at the Rangers' depot in Sussex--and at Heneage--and all through his county--and at the Horse Guards. You see if they aren't! You've no idea how people have their eye on him. And when they hear the wedding has been put off for a scandal they'll have at their heels all the men who've hated him--and all the women who've envied her--"
He leaned his shoulders against the mantelpiece, his hands behind his back. "Pooh! That sort of dog can only bark."
"No; that's where you're wrong, Peter. In England it can bite. It can raise a to-do around their name that will put a dead stop to his promotion--that is, the best kind of promotion, such as he's on the way to."
"The deuce take his promotion! Let's think of--her."
"That's just what I thought you'd do, Peter; and with all your advantages--"
"Drop that, Drusilla," he commanded. "You know you don't mean it. You know as well as I do that I haven't a chance--even if I wanted one--which I don't. You're not thinking of me--or of her. You're thinking of him--and how to get him out of a match that won't tend to his advancement."
"I'm thinking of every one, Peter--of every one but myself, that is. I'm thinking of him, and her, and you--"
"Then you'll do me a favor if you leave me out."
She sprang to her feet, her little figure looking slim and girlish.
"I can't leave you out, Peter, when you're the Hamlet of the piece. That's nonsense. I'm not plotting or planning on any one's behalf. It isn't my temperament. I only say that if this--this affair--didn't come off--though I suppose it will--I feel sure it will--yet if it didn't--then, with all your advantages--and after what you've done for her--"
He strode forward, almost upsetting the tea-table beside which she stood. "Look here, Drusilla. You may as well understand me once for all. I wouldn't marry a girl who took me because of what I'd done for her, not if she was the last woman in the world."
"But you would if she was the first, Peter. And I'm convinced that for you she is the first--"
"Now, now!" he warned her, "that'll do! I've been generous enough not to say anything as to who's first with you, though you don't take much pains to hide it. Why not--?"
"You're all first with me," she protested. "I don't know which of you I'm the most sorry for."
"Don't waste your pity on me. I'm perfectly happy. There's only one of the lot who needs any consideration whatever. And, by God! if he's not true to her, I'll--"
"Your intervention won't be called for, Peter," she assured him, making her way toward the door. "You're greatly mistaken if you think I've asked for it."
"Then for Heaven's sake what have you asked for? I don't see."
She was in the hall, but she turned and spoke through the doorway. "I've only asked you not to be an idiot. I merely beg, for all our sakes, that if something precious is flung down at your feet you'll have the common sense to stoop and pick it up."
"I'll consider that," he called after her, as she sped up the stairs, "when I see it lying there."