The Street Called Straight by Basil King
It may be admitted at once that, on arriving at Tory Hill and hearing from Olivia's lips the tale of her father's downfall, Colonel Rupert Ashley received the first perceptible check in a very distinguished career. Up to this point the sobriquet of "Lucky Ashley," by which he was often spoken of in the Rangers, had been justified by more than one spectacular success. He had fulfilled so many special missions to uncivilized and half-civilized and queerly civilized tribes that he had come to feel as if he habitually went on his way with the might of the British Empire to back him. It was he who in South Africa brought the M'popos to order without shedding a drop of blood; it was he who in the eastern Soudan induced the followers of the Black Prophet to throw in their lot with the English, securing by this move the safety of Upper Egypt; it was he who in the Malay Peninsula intimidated the Sultan of Surak into accepting the British protectorate, thus removing a menace to the peace of the Straits Settlements. Even if he had had no other exploits to his credit, these alone would have assured his favor with the home authorities. It had become something like a habit, at the Colonial Office or the War Officer or the Foreign Office, as the case might be, whenever there was trouble on one of the Empire's vague outer frontiers, to ask, "Where's Ashley?" Wherever he was, at Gibraltar or Simla or Cairo or at the Rangers' depot in Sussex, he was sent for and consulted. Once having gained a reputation for skill in handling barbaric potentates, he knew how to make the most of it, both abroad and in Whitehall. On rejoining his regiment, too, after some of his triumphant expeditions, he was careful to bear himself with a modesty that took the point from detraction, assuring, as it did, his brother-officers that they would have done as well as he, had they enjoyed the same chances.
He was not without a policy in this, since from the day of receiving his commission he had combined a genuine love of his profession with a quite laudable intention to "get on." He cherished this ambition more naturally, perhaps, than most of his comrades, who took the profession of arms lightly, for the reason that the instinct for it might be said to be in his blood. The Ashleys were not an old county family. Indeed, it was only a generation or so since they had achieved county rank. It was a fact not generally remembered at the present day that the grandfather of the colonel of the Sussex Rangers had been a successful and estimable manufacturer of brushes. In the early days of Queen Victoria he owned a much-frequented emporium in Regent Street, at which you could get anything in the line from a tooth-brush to a currycomb. Retiring from business in the fifties, with a considerable fortune for the time, this Mr. Ashley had purchased Heneage from the impoverished representatives of the Umfravilles. As luck would have it, the new owners found a not unattractive Miss Umfraville almost going with the place, since she lived in select but inexpensive lodgings in the village. Her manners being as gentle as her blood, and her face even gentler than either, if such a thing could be, it was in keeping with the spirit that had borne the Ashleys along to look upon her as an opportunity. Young Mr. Ashley, to whom his father had been able to give the advantages of Oxford, knew at a glance that with this lady at his side recognition by the county would be assured. Being indifferent to recognition by the county except in so far as it expressed a phase of advancement, and superior to calculation as a motive for the matrimonial state, young Ashley proceeded with all due formality to fall in love; and it was from the passion incidental to this episode that Lucky Ashley was born.
All this had happened so long ago, according to modern methods of reckoning, that the county had already forgotten what it was the original Ashley had manufactured, or that he had manufactured anything at all. By the younger generation it was assumed that Heneage had passed to the Ashley family through intermarriage with the Umfravilles. Certain it was that the Ashleys maintained the Umfraville tradition and used the Umfraville arms. What chiefly survived of the spirit that had made the manufacture of brushes so lucrative a trade was the intention young Rupert Ashley took with him into the army--to get on.
He had got on. Every one spoke of him nowadays as a coming man. It was conceded that when generals like Lord Englemere or Lord Bannockburn passed away, it would be to such men as Rupert Ashley--the number of them could be counted on the fingers of your two hands!--that the country would look for its defenders. They were young men, comparatively, as yet; but they were waiting and in training. It was a national asset to know that they were there.
It was natural, then, that Ashley's eyes should be turning in the direction of the great appointments. He had won so much distinction in the Jakh War and the Dargal War that there was nothing to which, with time, he could not aspire. True, he had rivals; true, there were men who could supplant him without putting any great strain upon their powers; true, there were others with more family influence, especially of that petticoat influence which had been known to carry so much weight in high and authoritative quarters; but he had confidence in himself, in his ability, his star--the last named of which had the merit of always seeming to move forward.
Everything began to point, therefore, to his marrying. In a measure it was part of his qualification for high command. He had reached that stage in his development, both private and professional, at which the co-operation of a good and graceful wife would double his capacity for public service, besides giving him that domestic consolation of which he began to feel the need. There were posts he could think of--posts that would naturally be vacant before many years were past--in which the fact of his being unmarried would be a serious drawback if his name were to come up. Better to be unmarried than to be saddled with a wife who from any deficiency of birth or manner was below the level of her station! Of course! He had seen more than one man, splendidly qualified otherwise, passed over because of that mischance. But with a wife who in her way was equal to him in his they would both go far. Who could venture to say how far?
In this respect he was fortunate in knowing exactly what he wanted. That is, he had seen enough of the duties of high position to be critical of the ladies who performed them. Experience enabled him to create his ideal by a process of elimination. Many a time, as he watched some great general's wife--Lady Englemere, let us say, or Lady Bannockburn--receive her guests, he said to himself, "That is exactly what my wife shall not be." She should not be a military intrigante like the one, nor a female martinet like the other, nor a gambler like a third, nor a snob like a fourth, nor a fool about young men like several he could think of. By dint of fastidious observation and careful rejection of the qualities of which he disapproved, a vision rose before him of the woman who would be the complement of himself. He saw her clever, spirited, high-bred--a woman of the world, familiar with literature and arts, and speaking at least one language besides her mother-tongue. In dress she should be exquisite, in conversation tactful, in manner sympathetic. As mistress of the house she should be thorough; as a hostess, full of charm; as a mother--but his imagination hardly went into that. That she should be a perfect mother he took for granted, just as he took it for granted that she should be beautiful. A woman who had the qualifications he desired could not be less than beautiful from the sheer operation of the soul.
Considering how definite his ideas were--and moderate, on the whole--it surprised him to find no one to embody them. It sometimes seemed to him that the traditional race of Englishwomen had become extinct. Those he met were either brilliant and hard, or handsome and horsey, or athletic and weedy, or smart and selfish, or pretty and silly, or sweet and provincial, or good and grotesque. With the best will in the world to fall in love, he found little or no temptation. Indeed, he had begun to think that the type of woman on whom he had set his heart was, like some article of an antiquated fashion, no longer produced when unexpectedly he saw her.
He saw her unexpectedly, because it was at church; and whatever his motives on that bright Sunday morning in May in attending the old garrison chapel in Southsea, the hope of seeing his vision realized was not one. If, apart from the reasons for which people are supposed to go to church, he had any special thought, it was that of meeting Mrs. Fane. It had happened two or three times already that, having perceived her at the service, he had joined her on the Common afterward, and she had asked him home to lunch. They had been pleasant little luncheons--so pleasant that he almost regretted the fact that she was an American. He had nothing against Americans in themselves. He knew a number of their women who had married into one arm or another of the Service with conspicuous advantage to their husbands. That, in fact, was part of the trouble. There were so many of them nowadays that he had begun to feel vaguely that where there was question of high position--and he hoped modestly that in his case there was distinctly question of that--it was time the principle was being established of England for the English. Nevertheless, he had got so far in his consideration of Drusilla Fane as to ask himself whether she was not, as the widow of a British officer, an Englishwoman to all intents and purposes as well as in the strict letter of the law. He could not say that he was in love with her; but neither could he say that one of these days he might not be. If he ever were it would certainly be on the principle of faute de mieux; but many a man has chosen his wife on no better ground than that.
Such criticism as he had to make to her disadvantage he could form there and then in the chapel while they were reading the lessons or chanting the psalms. She sat two or three rows in front of him, on the other side of the aisle. There was something about Drusilla in church that suggested a fish out of water. He had noticed it before. She was restless, inattentive; she kept turning her head to see who was behind her or at the other end of the pew; she rarely found the places in the prayer-book or knew just when to kneel down; when she did kneel down she sank into an awkward little bunch; every now and then she stifled, or did not stifle, a yawn.
Ashley had a theory that manner in church is the supreme test of the proprieties. He knew plenty of women who could charm at a dinner or dazzle at a dance, but who displayed their weaknesses at prayer. All unwitting to herself, poor Drusilla was inviting his final--or almost final--judgment on her future, so far at least as he was concerned, for the simple reason that she twitched and sighed and forgot to say the Amens.
And just then his eyes traveled to her neighbor--a tall young lady, dressed in white, with no color in her costume but a sash of hues trembling between sea-green and lilac. She was slender and graceful, with that air at once exquisite and unassuming that he had seen in the Englishwoman of his dreams. Though he could get no more than a side glimpse of her face, he divined that it was pure and that it must be thrown into relief by the heavy coil of coppery-brown hair. But what he noticed in her first was that which he thought of concerning other women last--a something holy and withdrawn, a quality of devotion without which he had no conception of real womanhood. It seemed to be a matter of high courtesy with her not to perceive that the choir-boys sang out of tune or that the sermon was prosy. In the matter of kneeling he had seen only one woman in his life--and she the highest in the land--who did it with this marvelous grace at once dignified and humble. "It takes old England," he said to himself, gloatingly, "to make 'em like that--simple and--stunning."
But on the Common after service, and at luncheon after that, and during the three or four weeks that ensued, he had much to do in reforming his opinions. There were several facts about Olivia Guion that disorientated his points of view and set him looking for new ones. Though he was not wholly successful in finding them, he managed, nevertheless, to justify himself for falling in love in violation of his principles. He admitted that he would have preferred to marry a compatriot of his own, and some one above the rank of a solicitor's daughter; but, since he had discovered the loveliest and noblest creature in the world, it was idle to cavil because one land or one situation in life rather than another had produced her. As well complain of the rubies and pearls that deck the English crown because some were found in Tibetan mountains and others in Indian seas. There are treasures, he argued, so precious as to transcend all merely national limitations, making them petty and irrelevant. The one thing to the point was that in Olivia Guion he had won the human counterpart of himself, who could reflect his qualities and complete them.
* * * * *
He had been so proud that the blow on receiving Olivia's letter in New York was a cruel one. Though it told him nothing but that her father had lost all his money and that the invitations to the wedding had been withdrawn, this in itself was immeasurably distressing to a man with a taste for calling public attention to his movements and who liked to see what concerned him march with a certain pomp. His marriage being an event worthy to take place in sight of the world, he had not only found ways of making it a topic of interest before leaving England, but he had summoned to it such friends of distinction as he possessed on the American side of the water. Though he had not succeeded in getting the British Ambassador, Benyon, the military attache at Washington, was to come with his wife, and Lord Woolwich, who was aide-de-camp at Ottawa, had promised to act as best man. His humiliation on speculating as to what they must have said when they received Olivia's card announcing that the marriage was not to take place on the 28th was such that he fell to wondering whether it wouldn't have been better to bluff the loss of money. They might have carried out their plans in spite of it. Indeed he felt the feasibility of this course the more strongly after he had actually seen Olivia and she had given him the outlines of her tale.
Watching his countenance closely, she saw that he blanched. Otherwise he betrayed no sign of flinching. His manner of sitting rigid and upright in his corner of the rustic seat was a perfectly natural way of listening to a story that affected him so closely. What distressed her chiefly was the incongruity between his personality and the sordid drama in which she was inviting him to take part. He was even more distinguished-looking than he appeared in the photographs she cherished or in the vision she had retained in her memory. Without being above the medium male height, he was admirably shaped by war, sport, and exercise. His neat head, with its thick, crispy hair, in which there was already a streak of gray, was set on his shoulders at just the right poise for command. The high-bridged nose, inherited from the Umfravilles, was of the kind commonly considered to show "race." The eyes had the sharpness, and the thin-lipped mouth the inflexibility, that go with a capacity for quick decisions. While he was not so imposing in mufti as in his uniform, the trim traveling-suit of russet brown went well with the bronze tint of the complexion. It was so healthy a bronze, as a usual thing, that his present pallor was the more ashen from contrast.
Knowing from his telegram the hour at which to expect him, she had gone down the driveway to meet him when she saw him dismiss his taxicab at the gate. She chose to do this in order that their first encounter might take place out-of-doors. With the windows of the neighboring houses open and people sitting on verandas or passing up and down the road, they could exchange no more than some conventional greeting. She would assume nothing on the ground of their past standing toward each other. He seemed to acquiesce in this, since he showed no impatience at being restricted to the formality of shaking hands.
Happily for both, commonplace words were given them--questions and answers as to his voyage, his landing, his hotel. He came to her relief, too, as they sauntered toward the house, by commenting on its dignity and Georgian air, as well as by turning once or twice to look at the view. Nearing the steps she swerved from the graveled driveway and began to cross the lawn.
"We won't go in just yet," she explained. "Papa is there. He felt he ought to dress and come downstairs to receive you. He's very far from well. I hope you'll do your best not to--to think of him too harshly."
"I shouldn't think harshly of any one simply because he'd had business bad luck."
"He has had business bad luck--but that isn't all. We'll sit here."
Taking one corner of a long garden-seat that stood in the shade of an elm, she signed to him to take the other. On the left they had the Corinthian-columned portico of the garden front of the house; in the distance, the multicolored slopes of the town. Olivia, at least, felt the stimulating effect of the, golden forenoon sunshine.
As for Ashley, in spite of his outward self-possession, he was too bewildered to feel anything at all. Having rushed on from New York by night, he was now getting his first daylight glimpse of America; and, though, owing to more urgent subjects for, thought, he was not consciously giving his attention to things outward, he had an oppressive sense of immensity and strangeness. The arch of the sky was so sweeping, the prospect before them so gorgeous, the sunlight so hard, and the distances so clear! For the first time in his life a new continent aroused in him an odd sense of antagonism. He had never had it in Africa or Asia or in the isles of the Southern Sea. There he had always gone with a sense of power, with the instinct of the conqueror; while here.... But Olivia was speaking, saying things too appalling for immediate comprehension.
Her voice was gentle and even; she spoke with a certain kind of ease. She appeared to rehearse something already learned by heart.
"So, you see, he didn't merely lose his own money; he lost theirs--the money of his clients--which was in his trust. I hadn't heard of it when I wrote you in New York, otherwise I should have told you. But now that you know it--"
He looked mystified. "He's jolly lucky not to be in England," he said, trying not to seem as stunned as he felt. "There that sort of thing is a very serious--"
"Offence," she hastened to say. "Oh, so it is here. I must tell you quite plainly that if the money hadn't come papa would have had to go to--"
"But the money did come?"
She made a point of finishing her sentence. "If the money hadn't come papa would have had to go to prison. Yes, the money did come. A friend of--of papa's--and Drusilla's--advanced it. It's been paid over to the people who were going to law."
"So that part of it is settled?"
"That part of it is settled to the extent that no action will be taken against papa."
She continued to talk on gently, evenly, giving him the facts unsparingly. It was the only way. Her very statements, so it seemed to her, implied that as marriage between them was no longer possible their engagement was at an end.
She was not surprised that he scarcely noticed when, having said all she had to say, she ceased speaking. Taking it for granted that he was thinking out the most merciful way of putting his verdict into words, she, too, remained silent. She was not impatient, nor uneasy, nor alarmed. The fact that the business of telling him was no longer ahead of her, that she had got it over, brought so much relief that she felt able to await his pleasure.
She mistook, however, the nature of his thoughts. Once he had grasped the gist of her information, he paid little attention to its details. The important thing was his own conduct. Amid circumstances overwhelmingly difficult he must act so that every one, friend or rival, relative, county magnate or brother officer, the man in his regiment or the member of his club, the critic in England or the onlooker in America, should say he had done precisely the right thing.
He used the words "precisely the right thing" because they formed a ruling phrase in his career. For twenty-odd years they had been written on the tablets of his heart and worn as frontlets between his brows. They had first been used in connection with him by a great dowager countess now deceased. She had said to his mother, apropos of some forgotten bit of courtliness on his part, "You can always be sure that Rupert will do precisely the right thing." Though he was but a lad at Eton at the time, he had been so proud of this opinion, expressed with all a dowager countess's authority, that from the moment it was repeated to him by his mother he made it a device. It had kept him out of more scrapes than he could reckon up, and had even inspired the act that would make his name glorious as long as there were annals of the Victoria Cross.
He had long been persuaded that had the dowager countess not thus given the note to his character his record would never have been written on that roll of heroes. "I should have funked it," was his way of putting it, by which he meant that he would have funked it through sheer ignorance of himself and of his aptitude for the high and noble. It was an aptitude that flourished best under an appreciative eye--of the dowager countess looking down from heaven--or of the discerning here on earth--as an actor is encouraged by a sympathetic public to his highest histrionic efforts. If there was anything histrionic in Ashley himself, it was only in the sense that he was at his finest when, actually or potentially, there was some one there to see. He had powers then of doing precisely the right thing which in solitude might have been dormant from lack of motive.
It was undoubtedly because he felt the long-sighted eyes of England on him that he had done precisely the right thing in winning the Victoria Cross. He confessed this--to himself. He confessed it often--every time, in fact, when he came to a difficult passage in his life. It was his strength, his inspiration. He confessed it now. If he sat silent while Olivia Guion waited till it seemed good to him to speak, it was only that he might remind himself of the advantages of doing the right thing, however hard. He had tested those advantages time and time again. The very memories they raised were a rebuke to weakness and hesitation. If he ever had duties he was inclined to shirk, he thought of that half-hour which had forever set the seal upon his reputation as a British soldier.
He thought of it now. He saw himself again looking up at the bristling cliffs that were to be rushed, whence the Afridis were pouring their deadly fire. He saw himself measuring with his eye the saddle of precipitous slope that had to be crossed, devoid of cover and strewn with the bodies of dead Ghurkas. Of the actual crossing, with sixty Rangers behind him, he had little or no recollection. He had passed under the hail of bullets as through perils in a dream. As in a dream, too, he remembered seeing his men, when he turned to cheer them on, go down like nine-pins--throwing up their arms and staggering, or twisting themselves up like convulsive cats. It was grotesque rather than horrible; he felt himself grinning inwardly, as at something hellishly comic, when he reached the group of Ghurkas huddled under the cavernous shelter of the cliff. Then, just as he threw himself on the ground, panting like a spent dog and feeling his body all over to know whether or not he had been wounded, he saw poor Private Vickerson out in the open, thirty yards from the protection of the wall of rock. While the other Rangers to a man were lying still, on the back with the knees drawn up, or face downward, with the arms outstretched, or rolled on the side as though they were in bed, Vickerson was rising on his hands and dragging himself forward. It was one of Ashley's most vivid recollections that Vickerson's movements were like a seal's. They had the drollery of a bit of infernal mimicry. It was also a vivid recollection that when he ran out to the soldier's aid he had his first sensation of fear. The bullets whizzed so thick about him that he ran back again. It was an involuntary running back, as involuntary as snatching his fingers out of a fire. He could remember standing under the rock, and, as Vickerson did not move, half hoping he were dead. That would put an end to any further attempts to save him. But the soldier stirred again, propping himself with both hands and pulling his body onward for a few inches more. Again Ashley ran out into a tempest of iron and fire and over ground slippery with blood. He could still feel himself hopping back, as a barefooted boy who has ventured into a snow-storm hops back into the house. A third time he ran out, and a fourth. At the fourth he distinctly worded the thought which had been at the back of his mind from the beginning, "I shall get the V.C. for this." He tried to banish the unworthy suggestion, but it was too strong for him. Over the cliffs, and out of the clouds, and from beyond the horizon, he felt the unseen eyes of England upon him, inciting him to such a valor that at the fifth attempt he dragged in his man.
He came out of this reverie, which, after all, was brief, to find the gentle tones in which Olivia had made her astounding revelations still in his ears; while she herself sat expectant, and resigned. He knew she was expectant and resigned and that she had braced her courage for the worst. With many men, with most men, to do so would have been needful. In the confusion of his rapid summaries and calculations it was a pleasurable thought that she should learn from him, and through him and in him, that it was not so with all. The silence which at first was inadvertent now became deliberate as--while he noted with satisfaction that he had not overstated to himself the exquisite, restrained beauty of her features, her eyes, her hair, her hands, and of the very texture and fashion of her clothing--he prolonged the suspense which was to be the prelude to his justifying once again the dowager countess's good opinion. It was to his credit as a brave man that he could nerve himself for this with his eyes wide open--wider open than even Mrs. Fane's--to to the consequences that might be in store for him.