The Street Called Straight by Basil King
There was dignity in the way in which Davenant both withdrew and stood his ground. He was near the Corinthian portico of the house as Olivia approached him. Leaning on his stick, he looked loweringly back at Ashley, who talked to Drusilla without noticing him further. Olivia guessed that in Davenant's heart there was envy tinged with resentment, antipathy, not tempered by a certain unwilling admiration. She wondered what it was that made the difference between the two men, that gave Ashley his very patent air of superiority. It was a superiority not in looks, since Davenant was the taller and the handsomer; nor in clothes, since Davenant was the better dressed; nor in the moral make-up, since Davenant had given proofs of unlimited generosity. But there it was, a tradition of self-assurance, a habit of command which in any company that knew nothing about either would have made the Englishman easily stand first.
Her flash of anger against the one in defense of the other passed away, its place being taken by a feeling that astonished her quite as much. She tried to think it no more than a pang of jealousy at seeing her own countryman snubbed by a foreigner. She was familiar with the sensation from her European, and especially her English, experiences. At an unfriendly criticism it could be roused on behalf of a chance stranger from Colorado or California, and was generally quite impersonal. She told herself that it was impersonal now, that she would have had the same impulse of protection, of championship, for any one.
Nevertheless, there was a tone in her voice as she joined him that struck a new note in their acquaintanceship.
"I'm glad you came when you did. I wanted you to meet Colonel Ashley. You'll like him when you know him better. Just at first he was a little embarrassed. We'd been talking of things--"
"I didn't notice anything--that is, anything different from any other Englishman."
"Yes; that's it, isn't it? Meeting an Englishman is often like the first plunge into a cold bath--chilling at first, but delightful afterward."
He stopped under the portico, to say with a laugh that was not quite spontaneous: "Yes; I dare say. But my experience is limited. I've never got to the--afterward."
"Oh, well, you will," she said, encouragingly, "now that you know Colonel Ashley."
"I've heard of men plunging into a cold bath and finding it so icy that they've popped out again."
"Yes; thin-blooded men, who are sensitive to chills. Not men like you."
They entered the house, lingering in the oval sitting-room through which they had to pass.
"Fortunately," he tried to say, lightly, "it doesn't matter in this case whether I'm sensitive to chills or not."
"Oh, but it does. I want you two to be friends."
"What for?" The question was so point-blank as to be a little scornful, but she ignored that.
"On Colonel Ashley's side, for what he'll gain in knowing you; on yours--for something more."
He stopped again, at the foot of the staircase in the hall. "May I ask--just what you mean by that?"
She hesitated. "It's something that a tactful person wouldn't tell. If I do, it's only because I want you to consider me as--your friend. I know you haven't hitherto," she hurried on, as he flushed and tried to speak. "I haven't deserved it. But after what's happened--and after all you've done for us--"
"I could consider you my friend without asking Colonel Ashley to think of me as his."
"Hardly--if I marry him; and besides--when you know him--You see," she began again, "what I have in mind depends upon your knowing him--rather well."
"Then, Miss Guion," he laughed, "you can drop it. I've sized him up with a look. I've seen others like him--at Gibraltar and Malta and Aden and Hongkong and Cairo, and wherever their old flag floats. They're a fine lot. He's all right for you--all right in his place. Only, the place isn't--mine."
"Still," she persisted, "if I marry him you'd be sometimes in England; and you'd come to visit us, wouldn't you?"
"Come and--what?" His astonishment made him speak slowly.
She took a step or two up the stairway, leaning on the banister in a way to prevent his advancing. She was now looking down at him, instead of looking up.
"Isn't it true--?" she said, with hesitation--"at least I've rather guessed it--and I've gathered it from things Drusilla has said about you--You see," she began once more, "if we're to be friends you mustn't mind my speaking frankly and saying things that other people couldn't say. You've intervened so much in my life that I feel you've given me a right to--intervene--in yours."
"Oh, intervene as much as you like, Miss Guion," he said, honestly.
"Well, then, isn't it true that there are things you've wanted--wanted very much--and never had? If so--and I marry Colonel Ashley--"
"Hold on! Let's see what you mean by--things. If it's visiting round in high society--"
He tried to render as scorn his dismay at this touching on his weakness.
"I don't mean anything so crude. Visiting round in high society, as you call it, would at best be only the outward and visible sign of an inward--and, perhaps, spiritual--experience of the world. Isn't that what you've wanted? You see, if I do marry Colonel Ashley, I could--don't be offended!--I could open a door to you that you've never been able to force for yourself."
"You mean get me into society."
"You needn't be so disdainful. I didn't mean that--exactly. But there are people in the world different from those you meet in business--and in their way more interesting--certainly more picturesque. They'd like you if they knew you--and I had an idea that you--rather craved--After all, it's nothing to be ashamed of. It's only making the world bigger for oneself, and--"
Backing away from the stairway, he stood on a rug in the middle of the hall, his head hung like a young bull about to charge.
"What made you think of it?"
"Isn't that obvious? After you've done so much for me--"
"I haven't done anything for you, Miss Guion. I've said so a good many times. It wouldn't be right for me to take payment for what you don't owe me. Besides, there's nothing I want."
"That is to say," she returned, coldly, "you prefer the role of benefactor. You refuse to accept the little I might be able to do. I admit that it isn't much--but it's something--something within my power, and which I thought you might like. But since you don't--"
"It's no question of liking; it's one of admitting a principle. If you offer me a penny it's in part payment for a pound, while I say, and say again, that you don't owe me anything. If there's a debt at all it's your father's--and it's not transferable."
"Whether it's transferable or not is a matter that rests between my father and me--and, of course, Colonel Ashley, if I marry him."
He looked at her with sudden curiosity. "Why do you always say that with--an 'if'?"
She reflected an instant. "Because," she said, slowly, "I can't say it in any other way."
He straightened himself; he advanced again to the foot of the stairway.
"Is that because of any reason of--his?"
"It's because of a number of reasons, one of which is mine. It's this--that I find it difficult to go away with one man--when I have to turn my back upon the overwhelming debt I owe another. I do owe it--I do. The more I try to ignore it, the more it comes in between me and--"
He pressed forward, raising himself on the first step of the stairs, till his face was on a level with hers. He grew red and stammered:
"But, Miss Guion, you're--you're--in love with him?--the man you'd be going away with?"
She nodded. "Yes; but that wouldn't help me to feel justified with regard to the--the duty--I was leaving behind."
He dropped again to the level of the hall. "I don't understand. Do you mean to say that what I've done for Mr. Guion would keep you from getting married?"
"I'm not prepared to say that. Colonel Ashley is so--so splendid in the way he takes everything that--But I'll say this much," she began again, "that you've made it hard for me to be married."
"How so? I thought it would be all the other way."
"If you'll put yourself in my place--or in Colonel Ashley's place--you'll see. Try to think what it means for two people like us to go away--and be happy--and live in a great, fashionable world--and be people of some importance--knowing that some one else--who was nothing to us, as we were nothing to him--had to deprive himself of practically everything he had in the world to enable us to do it."
"But if it was a satisfaction to him--"
"That wouldn't make any difference to us. The facts would be the same."
"Then, as far as I see, I've done more harm than good."
"You've helped papa."
"But I haven't helped you."
"As I understand it, you didn't want to."
"I didn't want to--to do the reverse."
"Perhaps it wouldn't be the reverse if you could condescend to let me do something for you. It would be the fair exchange which is no robbery. That's why I suggest that if I'm to have that--that life over there--you should profit by its advantages."
He shook his head violently. "No, Miss Guion. Please don't think of it. It's out of the question. I wish you'd let me say once for all that you owe me nothing. I shall never accept anything from you--never!"
"Oh!" It was the protest of one who has been hurt.
"I'll take that back," he said, instantly. "There is something you can do for me and that I should like. Marry your Englishman, Miss Guion, and do what you said just now--go away and be happy. If you want to give me a reward, I'll take that."
She surveyed him a minute in astonishment. "You're perfectly extraordinary," she said at last, in a tone of exasperation, "and"--she threw at him a second later--"and impossible!"
Before he could reply she went grandly up the stairway, so that he was obliged to follow her. In the hall above she turned on him again. Had he not known that he had given her no cause for offence he would have said that her eyes filled with tears.
"Things are very hard as it is," she said, reproachfully. "You needn't go out of your way to make them gratuitously cruel."
"But, Miss Guion--" he began to protest.
"Please go in," she commanded, throwing open, as she spoke, the door of her father's room.