The Street Called Straight by Basil King
Meanwhile, down on the lawn, Drusilla and Ashley were talking things over from their own points of view. There had been a second of embarrassment when they were first left alone, which Drusilla got over by pointing with her parasol to an indistinguishable spot in the stretch of tree-tops, spires, and gables sloping from the gate, saying:
"That's our house--the one with the little white cupola."
He made no pretense to listen or to look. "She says she doesn't want to marry me."
He made the statement dispassionately, as though laying down a subject for academic discussion.
It was some little time before she could think what to say.
"Well, that doesn't surprise me," she risked at last.
"Doesn't surprise you?"
She shook her head. "On the contrary, I should be very much astonished if she did--now. I should be astonished at any woman in her position wanting to marry a man in yours."
"I don't care a hang for my position."
"Oh yes, you do. And even if you didn't, it wouldn't matter. It's naturally a case in which you and she have to see from different angles. With you it's a point of honor to stand by her; with her it's the same thing not to let you."
"In honor it's the positive, not the negative, that takes precedence, and the positive happens to be mine."
"I don't think you can argue that way, you know. What takes precedence of everything else is--common sense."
"And do you mean to say that common sense requires that she shall give me up?"
"I shouldn't go so far as to assert that. But I shouldn't mind saying that if she did give you up there'd be a lot of common sense in her doing it."
"On whose account? Mine?"
"Yes; and hers. Perhaps chiefly on hers. You can hardly realize the number of things she has to take care of--and you'd be one more."
"I confess I don't seize your drift."
"It's not very abstruse, however. Just think. It isn't as if Cousin Henry had fallen ill, or had died, or had gone to pieces in any of the ordinary ways. Except for his own discomfort, he might just as well have been tried and sentenced and sent to prison. He's been as good as there. Every one knows it's only a special providence that he didn't go. But if he's escaped that by the skin of his teeth, he hasn't escaped a lot of other things. He hasn't escaped being without a penny in the world. He hasn't escaped having his house sold over his head and being turned out into the streets. He hasn't escaped reaching a perfectly impotent old age, with not a soul on this earth to turn to but Olivia."
"What about me?"
"Would you take him?"
"I shouldn't take him exactly. If he was my father-in-law"--he made a little grimace--"I suppose I could pension him off somewhere, or board him out, like an old horse. One couldn't have him round."
"H'm! I dare say that would do--but I doubt it. If you'd ever been a daughter you might feel that you couldn't dispose of a poor, old, broken-down father quite so easily. After all, he's not a horse. You might more or less forsake him when all was going well, and yet want to stick to him through thick and thin if he came a cropper. Look at me! I go off and leave my poor old dad for a year and more at a time--because he's a saint; but if he wasn't--especially if he'd got into any such scrape as Cousin Henry's--which isn't thinkable--but if he did--I'd never leave him again. That's my temperament. It's every girl's temperament. It's Olivia's. But all that is neither here nor there. If she married you, her whole life would be given up to trying to make you blend with a set of circumstances you couldn't possibly blend with. It would be worse than singing one tune to an orchestra playing another. She'd go mad with the attempt."
"Possibly; except for one factor which you've overlooked."
"Oh, love! Yes, yes. I thought you'd say that." Drusilla tossed her hands impatiently. "Love will do a lot, but it won't do everything. You can't count on it to work miracles in a sophisticated company like the Sussex Rangers. They've passed the age of faith for that sort of thing."
"I don't see," he said, speaking very slowly, "that the Rangers need be altogether taken into consideration."
She looked at him fixedly. "Do you mean that you'd--send in your papers?"
"Only in the sense that if my wife wasn't happy in the Service we could get out of it."
"Then you're really so much in love that you'd be willing to throw up everything on account of it?" There was some incredulity in her tone, to which, however, he offered no objection.
"Willing or unwilling isn't to the point. Surely you see that as far as public opinion goes I'm dished either way. The more I think of it the plainer it becomes. If I marry Olivia I let myself in for connection with a low-down scandal; if I don't, then they'll say I left her in the lurch. As for the effect on any possible promotion there might be in store for me, it would be six of one and half a dozen of the other. If I married her, and there was something good to be had, and old Bannockburn, let us say, was at the Horse Guards, then Lady Ban wouldn't have Olivia; and if I didn't marry her, and there was the same situation with old Englemere in command, then he wouldn't have me. There it is in a nutshell--simply nothing to choose."
They proceeded to stroll aimlessly up and down the lawn.
"I can quite see how it looks from your point of view--" she began.
"No, you can't," he interrupted, sharply, "because you leave out the fact that I am--I don't mind saying it--that is, to you--you've been such a good pal to me!--I shall never forget it!--but I am--head over heels--desperately--in love."
Having already heard this confession in what now seemed the far-off days in Southsea, she could hear it again with no more than a sense of oppression about the heart.
"Yes," she smiled, bravely. "I know you are. And between two ills you choose the one that has some compensation attached to it."
"Between two ills," he corrected, "I'm choosing the only course open to a man of honor. Isn't that it?"
There was a wistful inflection on the query. It put forth at one and the same time a request for corroboration and a challenge to a contrary opinion. If there could be no contrary opinion, he would have been glad of some sign of approval or applause. He wanted to be modest; and yet it was a stimulus to doing precisely the right thing to get a little praise for it, especially from a woman like Drusilla.
In this for once she disappointed him. "Of course you are," she assented, even too promptly.
"And yet you're advising me," he said, returning to the charge, "to make a bolt for it--and leave Olivia to shift for herself."
"If I remember rightly, the question you raised was not about you, but about her. It wasn't as to whether you should marry her, but as to whether she should marry you. I'm not disputing your point of view; I'm only defending Olivia's. I can see three good reasons why you should keep your word to her--"
"Indeed? And what are they?"
She told them off on her fingers. "First, as you can't do anything else. Second--"
"Your first reason," he interrupted, hastily, as though he feared she suspected him of not being convinced of it, "covers the whole ground. We don't need the rest."
"Still," she insisted, "we might as well have them. Second, it's the more prudent of two rather disadvantageous courses. Third--to quote your own words--you're head over heels in love with her. It's easy to see that now, and now another of these reasons is uppermost in your mind; but it's also easy to see that none of them makes a conclusive appeal to Olivia Guion. That's the point."
"The point is that I'm in love with her, and--if it's not claiming too much--she with me. We've nothing else to consider."
"You haven't. She has. She has all the things I've just hinted at--and ever so many more; besides which," she added, taking a detached, casual tone, "I suppose she has to make up her mind one way or another as to what she's going to do about Peter Davenant."
The crow's-foot wrinkles about his eyes deepened to a frown of inquiry. "About Peter--who?"
Drusilla still affected a casual tone. "Oh? Hasn't she told you about him?"
"Not a word. Who is he?"
She nodded in the direction of the house. "He's up-stairs with Cousin Henry."
"The big fellow who was here just now? That--lumpkin?"
"Yes," she said, dryly, "that--lumpkin. It was he who gave Cousin Henry the money to meet his liabilities."
"So he's the Fairy Prince? He certainly doesn't look it."
"No; he doesn't look it; but he's as much of a problem to Olivia as if he did."
"Why? What has he to do with her?"
"Nothing, except that I suppose she must feel very grateful."
They reached the edge of the lawn where a hedge of dahlias separated them from the neighboring garden.
"When you say that," he asked, "do you mean anything in particular?"
"I suppose I mean everything in particular. The situation is one in which all the details count."
"And the bearing of this special detail--"
"Oh, don't try to make me explain that. In the first place, I don't know; and in the second, I shouldn't tell you if I did. I'm merely giving you the facts. I think you're entitled to know them."
"So I should have said. Are there many more? I've had a lot since I landed. I thought I must have heard pretty well all there was--"
"Probably you had, except just that. I imagine Olivia found it difficult to speak of, and so I'm doing it for her."
"Why should she find it difficult to speak of? It's a mere matter of business, I suppose."
"If it's business to give Cousin Henry what would be nearly a hundred thousand pounds in English money, with no prospect that any one can see of his ever getting it back--that is, not unless old Madame de Melcourt--"
"Oh, I say! Then he's one of your beastly millionaires, by Jove!--grind the noses off the poor, and that sort of thing, to play Haroun-al-Raschid with the cash."
"Not in the least. He never ground the nose off any one; and as for being a millionaire, father says that what he's done for Cousin Henry will pretty well clean him out."
"All the same, he's probably done it with a jolly sharp eye to the main chance."
"Oh, I dare say his motives weren't altogether altruistic. Only it's a little difficult to see where the main chance comes in."
"Then what the deuce is he up to?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that. I repeat that I'm only giving you the facts. You must interpret them for yourself."
He looked thoughtful. Drusilla plucked a scarlet dahlia and fastened it in her dress, after which they strolled back slowly to the middle of the lawn. Here Ashley said:
"Has all this got anything to do with Olivia? I wish you wouldn't make mysteries."
"I'm not making mysteries. I'm telling you what's happened just as it occurred. He advanced the money to Cousin Henry, and that's all I know about it. If I draw any inferences--"
"I'm just as likely to be wrong as right."
"Then you have drawn inferences?"
"Who wouldn't? I should think you'd be drawing them yourself."
They wandered on a few yards, when he stopped again. "Look here," he said, with a sort of appealing roughness, "you're quite straight with me, aren't you?"
The rich, surging color came swiftly into her face, as wine seen through something dark and transparent. Her black eyes shone like jet. She would have looked tragic had it not been for her fixed, steady smile.
"Have I ever been anything else with you?"
"No. You've been straight as a die. I'll say that for you. You've been a good pal--a devilish good pal! But over here--in America--everything seems to go by enigmas--and puzzles--and surprises--"
"I'll explain what I can to you," she said, with a heightened color, "but it won't be so very easy. There are lots of people who, feeling as I do--toward Olivia--and--and toward you--would want to beat about the bush. But when all these things began to happen--and you were already on the way--I turned everything over in my mind and decided to speak exactly as I think."
"But it isn't so very easy," she repeated, pretending to rearrange the dahlia in her laces, so as to find a pretext for not looking him in the eyes. "It isn't so very easy; and if--later on--in after years perhaps--when everything is long over--it ever strikes you that I didn't play fair--it'll be because I played so fair that I laid myself open to that imputation. One can, you know. I only ask you to remember it. That's all."
Ashley was bewildered. He could follow little more than half of what she said. "More mysteries," he was sighing to himself as she spoke. "And such a color! That's her strong point. Pity it only comes by fits and flashes. But, good Lord, what a country! Always something queer and new."
"Good-by," she said, offering her hand before he had time to emerge from his meditations. "We shall see you to-morrow evening. And, by the way, we dine at half-past seven. We're country people here, and primitive. No; don't come to the gate. Olivia must be wondering where you are."
He looked after her as she tripped over the lawn toward the roadway, still holding her long-handled, beribboned, eighteenth-century sunshade with the daintiness of a Watteau shepherdess holding a crook.
"She's a good 'un," he said to himself. "Straight as a die, she is--and true as steel."
None the less he was glad when she left him.