The Street Called Straight by Basil King
Ashley had the tact, sprung of his English instinct for moderation, not to express his good intentions too directly. He preferred to let them filter out through a seemingly casual manner of taking them for granted. Neither did he attempt to disguise the fact that the strangeness incidental to meeting again, in trying conditions and under another sky, created between himself and Olivia a kind of moral distance across which they could draw together only by degrees. It was a comfort to her that he did not try to bridge it by anything in the way of forced tenderness. He was willing to talk over the situation simply and quietly until, in the course of an hour or two, the sense of separation began to wear away.
The necessity on her part of presenting Ashley to her father and offering him lunch brought into play those social resources that were as second nature to all three. It was difficult to think the bottom could be out of life while going through a carefully chosen menu and drinking an excellent vin de Graves at a table meticulously well appointed. To escape the irony of this situation they took refuge in the topics that came readiest, the novelty to Ashley of the outward aspect of American things keeping them on safe ground till the meal was done. It was a relief to both men that Guion could make his indisposition an excuse for retiring again to his room.
It was a relief to Olivia, too. For the first time in her life she had to recognize her father as insupportable to any one but herself and Peter Davenant. Ashley did his best to conceal his repulsion; she was sure of that; he only betrayed it negatively in a tendency to ignore him. He neither spoke nor listened to him any more than he could help. By keeping his eyes on Olivia he avoided looking toward him. The fact that Guion took this aversion humbly, his head hanging and his attention given to his plate, did not make it the less poignant.
All the same, as soon as they were alone in the dining-room the old sense of intimacy, of belonging to each other, suddenly returned. It returned apropos of nothing and with the exchange of a glance. There was a flash in his eyes, a look of wonder in hers--and he had taken her, or she had slipped, into his arms.
And yet when a little later he reverted to the topic of the morning and said, "As things are now, I really don't see why we shouldn't be married on the 28th--privately, you know," her answer was, "What did you think of papa?"
Though he raised his eyebrows in surprise that she should introduce the subject, he managed to say, "He seems pretty game."
"He does; but I dare say he isn't as game as he looks. There's a good deal before him still."
"If we're married on the 28th he'd have one care the less."
"Because I should be taken off his hands. I'm afraid that's not the way to look at it. The real fact is that he'd have nobody to help him."
"I've two months' leave. You could do a lot for him in that time."
She bent over her piece of work. It was the sofa-cushion she had laid aside on the day when she learned from Davenant that her father's troubles were like Jack Berrington's. They had come back for coffee to the rustic seat on the lawn. For the cups and coffee service a small table had been brought out beside which she sat. Ashley had so far recovered his sang-froid as to be able to enjoy a cigar.
"Would you be very much hurt," she asked, without raising her head, "if I begged you to go back to England without our being married at all?"
"Oh, but I say!"
The protest was not over-strong. He was neither shocked nor surprised. A well-bred woman, finding herself in such trouble as hers, would naturally offer him some way of escape from it.
"You see," she went on, "things are so complicated already that if we got married we should complicate them more. There's so much to be done--as to papa--and this house--and the future--of the kind of thing you don't know anything about. They're sordid things, too, that you'd be wasted on if you tried to learn them."
He smiled indulgently. "And so you're asking me--a soldier!--to run away."
"No, to let me do it. It's so--so impossible that I can't face it."
"Oh, nonsense!" He spoke with kindly impatience. "Don't you love me? You said just now--in the dining-room--when--"
"Yes, I know; I did say that. But, you see--we must consider it--love can't be the most important thing in the world for either you or me."
"I understand. You mean to say it's duty. Very good. In that case, my duty is as plain as a pikestaff."
"Your duty to stand by me?"
"I should be a hound if I didn't do it."
"And I should feel myself a common adventuress if I were to let you."
His protest this time was more emphatic. There was even a pleading note in it. In the course of two or three hours he had got back much of the feeling he had had in England that she was more than an exquisite lady, that she was the other part of himself. It seemed superfluous on her part to fling open the way of retreat for him too wide.
She smiled at his exclamation. "Yes, I dare say that's how it strikes you. But it's very serious to me. Isn't it serious to you, too, to feel that you must be true to me--and marry me--after all that's come to pass?"
"One doesn't think that way--or speak that way--of marrying the woman one--adores."
"Men have been known to marry the women they adored, and still regret the consequences they had to meet."
"She's right," he said to himself. "It is serious."
There could be no question as to her wisdom in asking him to pause. At his age and in his position, and with his merely normal capacity for passion, it would be absurd to call the world well lost for love. Notwithstanding his zeal to do the right thing, there was something due to himself, and it was imperative that he should consider it. Dropping the stump of his cigar into his empty coffee-cup, he got up and strode away. The emotion of the minute, far in excess of the restrained phrases convention taught them to use, offered an excuse for his unceremoniousness.
He walked to the other side of the lawn, then down to the gate, then round to the front of the house. To a chance passer-by he was merely inspecting the premises. What he saw, however, was not the spectacular foliage, nor the mellow Georgian dwelling, but himself going on his familiar victorious way, freed from a clogging scandal that would make the wheels of his triumphal car drive heavily. He saw himself advancing, as he had advanced hitherto, from promotion to promotion, from command to command. He saw himself first alone, and then with a wife--a wife who was not Olivia Guion. Then suddenly the vision changed into something misty and undefined; the road became dark, the triumphal car jolted and fell to pieces; there was reproach in the air and discomfort in his sensations. He recognized the familiar warnings that he was not doing precisely the right thing. He saw Olivia Guion sitting as he had left her four or five minutes before, her head bent over her stitching. He saw her there, deserted, alone. He saw the eyes of England on him, as he drove away in his triumphal car, leaving her to her fate. His compunction was intense, his pity overwhelming. Merely at turning his back on her to stroll around the lawn he felt guilty of a cowardly abandonment. And he felt something else--he felt the clinging of her arms around his neck; he felt the throb of her bosom against his own as she let herself break down just for a second--just for a sob. It seemed to him that he should feel that throb forever.
He hurried back to where he had left her. "It's no use," he said to himself; "I'm in for it, by Jove. I simply can't leave her in the lurch."
There was no formal correctness about Ashley's habitual speech. He kept, as a rule, to the idiom of the mess, giving it distinction by his crisp, agreeable enunciation.
Olivia had let the bit of embroidery rest idly in her lap. She looked up at his approach. He stood before her.
"Do I understand," he asked, with a roughness assumed to conceal his agitation, "that you're offering me my liberty?"
"No; that I'm asking you for mine."
"On what grounds?"
She arched her eyebrows, looking round about her comprehensively. "I should think that was clear. On the grounds of--of everything."
"That's not enough. So long as you can't say that you don't--don't care about me any more--"
There was that possibility. It was very faint, but if she made use of it he should consider it decisive. Doing precisely the right thing would become quite another course of action if her heart rejected him. But she spoke promptly.
"I can't say that; but I can say something more important."
He nodded firmly. "That settles it, by Jove. I sha'n't give you up. There's no reason for it. So long as we love each other--"
"Our loving each other wouldn't make your refusal any the less hard for me. As your wife I should be trying to fill a position for which I'm no longer qualified and in which I should be a failure."
"As my wife," he said, slowly, with significant deliberation, "we could make the position anything you felt able to fill."
She considered this. "That is, you could send in your papers and retire into private life."
"If we liked."
"So that you'd be choosing between your career--and me."
"I object to the way of putting it. If my career, as you call it, didn't make you happy, you should have whatever would do the trick."
"I'm afraid you'll think me captious if I say that nothing could do it. If you weren't happy, I couldn't be; and you'd never be happy except as a soldier."
"That trade would be open to me whatever happened."
"In theory, yes; but in practice, if you had a wife who was under a cloud you'd have to go under it, too. That's what it would come to in the working-out."
She stood up from sheer inability to continue sitting still. The piece of embroidery fell on the grass. Ashley smiled at her--a smile that was not wholly forced, because of the thoughts with which she inspired him. Her poise, her courage, the something in her that would have been pride if it had not been nearer to meekness and which he had scarcely called meekness before he felt it to be fortitude, gave him confidence in the future. "She's stunning--by Jove!" It seemed to him that he saw her for the first time. For the first time since he had known her he was less the ambitious military officer seeking a wife who would grace a high position than he was a man in love with a woman. Separating these two elements within himself, he was able to value her qualities, not as adornments to some Home or Colonial Headquarters House, but as of supreme worth for their own sake. "People have only got to see her," he said, inwardly, to which he added aloud:
"I dare say the cloud may not be so threatening, after all; and even if it is, I should go under it with the pluckiest woman in the world."
She acknowledged this with a scarcely visible smile and a slight inclination of the head. "Thank you; I'm foolish enough to like to hear you say it. I think I am plucky--alone. But I shouldn't be if I involved anybody else."
"But if it was some one who could help you?"
"That might be different, but I don't know of any one who could. You couldn't. If you tried you'd only injure yourself without doing me any good."
"At the least, I could take you away from--from all this."
"No, because it's the sort of thing one can never leave behind. It's gone ahead of us. It will meet us at every turn. You and I--and papa--are probably by to-day a subject for gossip in half the clubs in New York. To-morrow it will be the same thing in London--at the club you call the Rag--and the Naval and Military--and your different Service clubs--"
To hide the renewal of his dismay he pooh-poohed this possibility. "As a mere nine days' wonder."
"Which isn't forgotten when the nine days are past. Long after they've ceased speaking of it they'll remember--"
"They'll remember," he interrupted, fiercely, "that I jilted you."
She colored hotly. "That you--what?"
He colored, too. The words were as much a surprise to him as to her. He had never thought of this view of the case till she herself summoned up the vision of his friends and enemies discussing the affair in big leather arm-chairs in big, ponderous rooms in Piccadilly or St. James's Square. It was what they would say, of course. It was what he himself would have said of any one else. He had a renewed feeling that retreat was cut off.
"If we're not married--if I go home without you--it's what'll be on everybody's lips."
"But it won't be true," she said, with a little gasp.
He laughed. "That won't matter. It's how it'll look."
"It's what we're talking about, isn't it? It's what makes the difference. I shall figure as a cad."
He spoke as one who makes an astounding discovery. She was inexpressibly shocked.
"Oh, but you couldn't," was all she could find to say, but she said it with conviction.
He laughed again. "You'll see. There's no one--not my best friends--not my mother--not my sisters--who won't believe--whatever you and I may say to the contrary--who won't believe but that I--threw you over."
A toss of his hand, a snap of his fingers, suited the action to the word.
Her color came and went in little shifting flashes. She moved a pace or two aimlessly, restively. Her head went high, her chin tilted. When she spoke her voice trembled with indignation, but she only said:
"They couldn't believe it long."
"Oh, couldn't they! The story would follow me to my grave. Things like that are never forgotten among fellows so intimate as soldiers. There was a chap in our regiment who jilted a nice girl at the Cape--sailed for home secretly only a week before the wedding." He paused to let her take in the dastardly nature of the flight. "Well, he rejoined at the depot. He stayed--but he didn't stay long. The Rangers got too hot for him--or too cold. The last I ever heard of him he was giving English lessons at Boulogne."
The flagrancy of the case gave her an advantage. "It's idle to think that that kind of fate could overtake you."
"The fate that can overtake me easily enough is that as long as I live they'll say I chucked a girl because she'd had bad luck."
She was about to reply when the click of the latch of the gate diverted her attention. Drusilla Fane, attended by Davenant, was coming up the hill. Seeing Olivia and Ashley at the end of the lawn, Drusilla deflected her course across the grass, Davenant in her wake. Her wide, frank smile was visible from a long way off.
"This is not indiscretion," she laughed, as she advanced; "neither is it vulgar curiosity to see the lion. I shouldn't have come at all if mother hadn't sent me with a message."
Wearing a large hat a la Princesse de Lamballe and carrying a long-handled sunshade which she held daintily, like a Watteau shepherdess holding a crook, Drusilla had an air of refined, eighteenth-century dash. Knowing the probability that she disturbed some poignant bit of conversation, she proceeded to take command, stepping up to Olivia with a hasty kiss. "Hello, you dear thing!" Turning to Ashley, she surveyed him an instant before offering her hand. "So you've got here! How fit you look! What sort of trip did you have, and how did you leave your people? And, oh, by the way, this is Mr. Davenant."
Davenant, who had been paying his respects to Miss Guion, charged forward, with hand outstretched and hearty: "Happy to meet you, Colonel. Glad to welcome you to our country."
Ashley snapped out the monosyllable in a dry, metallic voice pitched higher than his usual key. The English softening of the vowel sound, so droll to the American ear, was also more pronounced than was customary in his speech, so that the exclamation became a sharp "A-ow!"
Feeling his greeting to have been insufficient, Davenant continued, pumping up a forced rough-and-ready cordiality. "Heard so much about you, Colonel, that you seem like an old friend. Hope you'll like us. Hope you'll enjoy your stay."
"Oh, indeed? I don't know, I'm sure."
Ashley's glance shifted from Drusilla to Olivia as though asking in some alarm who was this exuberant bumpkin in his Sunday clothes who had dropped from nowhere. Davenant drew back; his face fell. He looked like a big, sensitive dog hurt by a rebuff. It was Mrs. Fane who came to the rescue.
"Peter's come to see Cousin Henry. They've got business to talk over. And mother wants to know if you and Colonel Ashley won't come to dinner to-morrow evening. That's my errand. Just ourselves, you know. It'll be very quiet."
Olivia recovered somewhat from the agitation of the previous half-hour as well as from the movement of sudden, inexplicable anger which Ashley's reception of Davenant had produced in her. Even so she could speak but coldly, and, as it were, from a long way off.
"You'll go," she said, turning to Ashley, "and I'll come if I can leave papa. I'll run up flow and see how he is and take Mr. Davenant with me."