The Street Called Straight by Basil King
Ashley wanted to be alone. He needed solitude in order to face the stupendous bit of information Mrs. Fane had given him. Everything else he had heard during the past twenty-four hours he had felt himself more or less competent to meet. True, his meeting it would be at a sacrifice and the probable loss of some of the best things he had hoped and worked for; but he should have the satisfaction that comes to every man of honor when he has done a brave thing well. There would be something, too, in giving the lie to people who accused him of having no thought but for his own advancement. He had been sensitive to that charge, because of the strain of truth in it, and yet had seen no means of counteracting it. Very well; he should counteract it now.
Since there was no way out of the situation he had found in America--that is, no way consistent with self-respect--it was characteristic of him, both as diplomatist and master of tactics, to review what was still in his favor. He called himself to witness that he had wasted no time in repining. He had risen to the circumstances as fast as nature would permit, and adapted himself right on the spur of the moment to an entirely new outlook on the future. Moreover, he had been able to detach Olivia herself from the degrading facts surrounding her, seeing her, as he had seen her from the first, holy and stainless, untouched by conditions through which few women could pass without some personal deterioration. In his admiration and loyalty he had not wavered for a second. On the contrary, he was sure that he should love her the more intensely, in spite of, and perhaps because of, her misfortunes.
He felt free, therefore, to resent this new revelation so fantastically out of proportion to the harmony of life. It was the most staggering thing he had ever heard of. An act such as that with which Drusilla credited Davenant brought into daily existence a feature too prodigious to find room there. Or, rather, having found the room through sheer force of its own bulk, it dwarfed everything else into insignificance. It hid all objects and blocked all ways. You could get neither round it nor over it nor through it. You could not even turn back and ignore it. You could only stand and stare at it helplessly, giving it the full tribute of awe.
Ashley gave it. He gave it while lighting mechanically a cigar which he did not smoke and standing motionless in the middle of the lawn, heedless of the glances--furtive, discreet, sympathetic, admiring--cast at him from the windows and balconies of the surrounding houses. His quick eye, trained to notice everything within its ken, saw them plainly enough. The houses were not so distant nor the foliage so dense but that kindly, neighborly interest could follow the whole drama taking place at Tory Hill. Ashley could guess with tolerable accuracy that the ladies whom he saw ostensibly reading or sewing on verandas had been invited to the wedding, and were consequently now in the position of spectators at a play. The mere detail of this American way of living, with unwalled properties merging into one another, and doors and windows flung wide to every passing glance, gave him an odd sense of conducting his affairs in the market-place or on the stage. If he did not object to it, it was because of the incitement to keep up to the level of his best which he always drew from the knowledge that other people's eyes were upon him.
He felt this stimulus when Olivia came out to the Corinthian portico, seating herself in a wicker chair, with an obvious invitation to him to join her. "Drusilla Fane has been telling me about your--your friend."
She knew he meant the last two words to be provocative. She knew it by slight signs of nervousness in his way of standing before her, one foot on the grass and the other on the first step of the portico. He betrayed himself, too, in an unsuccessful attempt to make his intonation casual, as well as by puffing at his cigar without noticing that it had gone out. An instant's reflection decided her to accept his challenge. As the subject had to be met, the sooner it came up the better.
She looked at him mildly. "What did she say about him?"
"Only that he was the man who put up the money."
"Yes; he was."
"Why didn't you tell me that this morning?"
"I suppose because there was so much else to say. We should have come round to it in time. I did tell you everything but his name."
"And the circumstances."
"How do you mean--the circumstances?"
"I got the impression from you this morning that it was some millionaire Johnny who'd come to your father's aid by advancing the sum in the ordinary way of business. I didn't understand that it was a comparatively poor chap who was cleaning himself out to come to yours."
In wording his phrase he purposely went beyond the warrant, in order to rouse her to denial, or perhaps to indignation. But she said only:
"Did Drusilla say it was to come to my aid?"
"She didn't say it--exactly. I gathered that it was what she thought."
She astonished him by saying, simply: "I think so, too."
"Extraordinary! Do you mean to say he dropped out of a clear sky?"
"I must answer that by both a yes and a no. He did drop out of a clear sky just lately; but I'd known him before."
"Ah!" His tone was that of a cross-examiner dragging the truth from an unwilling witness. He put his questions rapidly and sharply, as though at a Court-martial. "So you'd known him before! Did you know him well?"
"I didn't think it was well; but apparently he did, because he asked me to marry him."
Ashley bounded. "Who? That--that cowboy!"
"Yes; if he is a cowboy."
"And you took money from him?"
Her elbows rested on the arm of her chair; the tip of her chin on the back of her bent fingers. Without taking her eyes from his she inclined her head slowly in assent.
"That is," he hastened to say, in some compunction, "your father took it. We must keep the distinction--"
"No; I took it. Papa was all ready to decline it. He had made up his mind--"
"Do you mean that the decision to accept it rested with you?"
"You didn't--" He hesitated, stammered, and grew red. "You didn't--" he began again. "You'll have to excuse the question.... I simply must know, by Jove!... You didn't ask him for it?"
She rose with dignity. "If you'll come in I'll tell you about it. We can't talk out here."
He came up the portico steps to the level on which she was standing. "Tell me that first," he begged.
"You didn't ask him for it? Did you?"
In the French window, as she was about to enter the room, she half turned round. "I don't think it would bear that construction; but it might. I'd rather you judged for yourself. I declined it at first--and then I said I'd take it. I don't know whether you'd call that asking. But please come in."
He followed her into the oval room, where they were screened from neighborly observation, while, with the French window open, they had the advantage of the air and the rich, westering sunshine. Birds hopped about in the trees, and now and then a gray squirrel darted across the grass.
"I should think," he said, nervously, before she had time to begin her explanation, "that a fellow who had done that for you would occupy your mind to the exclusion of everybody else."
Guessing that he hoped for a disclaimer on her part, she was sorry to be unable to make it.
"Not to their exclusion--but perhaps--a little to their subordination."
He pretended to laugh. "What a pretty distinction!"
"You see, I haven't been able to help it. He's loomed up so tremendously above everything--"
"And every one."
"Yes," she admitted, with apologetic frankness, "and every one--that is, in the past few days--that it's as if I couldn't see anything but him."
"Oh, I'm not jealous," he exclaimed, pacing up and down the length of the room.
"Of course not," she agreed, seating herself in one of the straight-backed chairs. Her clasped hands rested on the small round table in the center of the room, while she looked out across the lawn to the dahlias and zinnias on its farther edge.
Ashley, who had flung his panama on a sofa, continued to pace up and down the room, his head bent and his fingers clasped tightly under his jacket behind his back. He moved jerkily, like a man preserving outward self-control in spite of extreme nervous tension.
He listened almost without interruption while she gave him a precise account of Davenant's intervention in her father's troubles. She spared no detail of her own opposition and eventual capitulation. She spoke simply and easily, as though repeating something learned by heart, just as she had narrated the story of Guion's defaulting in the morning. Apart from the fact that she toyed with a paper-knife lying on the table, she sat rigidly still, her eyes never wandering from the line of autumn flowers on the far side of the lawn.
"So you see," she concluded, in her quiet voice, "I came to understand that it was a choice between taking it from him and taking it from the poor women papa had ruined; and I thought that as he was young--and strong--and a man--he'd be better able to bear it. That was the reason."
He came to a standstill on the other side of the table, where he could see her in profile.
"You're extraordinary, by Jove!" he muttered. "You're not a bit like what you look. You look so fragile and tender; and yet you could have let that old man--"
"I could only have done it if it was right. Nothing that's right is very hard, you know."
"And what about the suffering?"
She half smiled, faintly shrugging her shoulders. "Don't you think we make more of suffering than there's any need for? Suffering is nothing much--except, I suppose, the suffering that comes from want. That's tragic. But physical pain--and the things we call trials--are nothing so terrible if you know the right way to bear them."
The abstract question didn't interest him. He resumed his restless pacing.
"So," he began again, in his tone of conducting a court-martial--"so you refused the money in the first place, because you thought the fellow was trying to get you into his power. Have you had any reason to change your opinion since?"
"None, except that he makes no effort to do it."
He stopped again beside the table. "And do you suppose he would? When you've prepared your ambush cleverly enough you don't have to go out and drag your victim into it. You've only to lie still and he'll walk in of his own accord."
"Of course I see that."
"Well, what then?"
She threw him a glance over her shoulder. To do so it was necessary for her to turn her head both sidewise and upward, so that he got the exquisite lines of the neck and profile, the mysterious gray-green tint of the eyes, and the coppery gleam of her hair. The appeal to his senses and to something beyond his senses made him gasp. It made him tremble. "My God, what a wife for me!" he was saying to himself. "She's got the pluck of a Jeanne d'Arc and the nerve of a Christian martyr."
"Well, then," she said, in answer to his words--"then I don't have to walk into the ambush--unless I want to."
"Does that mean that there are conceivable conditions in which you might want to?"
She turned completely round in her chair. Both hands, with fingers interlaced, rested on the table as she looked up at him.
"I shall have to let you find your own reply to that."
"But you know he's in love with you."
"I know he was in love with me once. I've no absolute reason to think that he is so still."
"But supposing he was? Would it make any difference to you?"
"Would it make any difference to you?"
"It would make the difference--"
He stopped in confusion. While he was not clear as to what he was going to say, he was startled by the possibilities before him. The one thing plain was that her question, simple as it seemed, gave an entirely new turn to the conversation. It called on him to take the lead, and put him, neatly and skilfully, in the one place of all others which--had he descried it in advance--he would have been eager to avoid. Would it make any difference to him? What difference could it make? What difference must it make?
It was one of those moments which occur from time to time when a man of honor must speak first and reflect afterward--just as at the heights of Dargal he had had to risk his life for Private Vickerson's, without debating as to which of them, in the general economy of lives, could the more easily be spared.
"It would make the difference--"
He stopped again. It was a great deal to say. Once he had said it there could be no reconsideration. Reconsideration would be worse than not saying it at all, on the principle that not to stand by one's guns might be a greater cowardice than not to mount them. Fear, destruction, and the pit might come upon him; the service, the country, Heneage, home, honors, ambitions, promotions, high posts of command, all might be swept into the abyss, and yet one imperative duty would survive the wreck, the duty to be Rupert Ashley at his finest. The eyes of England were on him. There was always that conviction, that incentive. Let his heroism be never so secret, sooner or later those eyes would find him out.
He was silent so long that she asked, not impatiently: "It would make what difference, Rupert?"
It was clear that she had no idea as to what was passing in his mind. There had been an instant--just an instant--no more--when he had almost doubted her, when her strategy in putting him where he was had seemed too deft to be the result of chance. But, with her pure face turned upward and her honest eyes on his, that suspicion couldn't last.
"It would make the difference--"
If he paused again, it was only because his throat swelled with a choking sensation that made it difficult to speak; he felt, too, that his face was congested. Nevertheless the space, which was not longer than a few seconds by the clock, gave him time to remember that as his mother's and his sisters' incomes were inalienable he was by so much the more free. He was by so much the more free to do the mad, romantic, quixotic thing, which might seem to be a contradiction of his past, but was not so much a contradiction of himself as people who knew him imperfectly might suppose. He was taken to be ambitious, calculating, shrewd; when all the while he knew himself to be--as most Englishmen are at heart--quixotic, romantic, and even a little mad, when madness can be sublime.
He was able at last to get his sentence out.
"It would make the difference that ... before we are married ... or after ... probably after ... I should have to square him."
"Square him?" She echoed the words as though she had no idea what they meant.
"I'm worth ... I must be worth ... a hundred thousand pounds ... perhaps more."
"Oh, you mean, square him in that way."
"I must be a man of honor before everything, by Jove!"
"You couldn't be anything else. You don't need to go to extremes like that to prove it."
Her lack of emotion, of glad enthusiasm, chilled him. She even ceased to look at him, turning her profile toward him and gazing again abstractedly across the lawn. A sudden fear took hold of him, the fear that his hesitations, his evident difficulty in getting the thing out, had enabled her to follow the processes by which he whipped himself up to an act that should have been spontaneous. He had a suspicion, too, that in this respect he had fallen short of the American--the cowboy, as he had called him. "I must do better than him," he said, in his English idiom. The thought that he might not have done as well was rather sickening. If he had so failed it was through inadvertence, but the effect on Olivia would be as great as if it was from fear. To counteract it he felt the need of being more emphatic. His emphasis took the form of simple common sense.
"It isn't going to extremes to take up one's own responsibilities. I can't let a fellow like that do things for your father any more than for mine, by Jove! It's not only doing things for my father, but for--my wife."
Drawing up a small chair, he sat down on the other side of the table. He sat down with the air of a man who means to stay and take possession.
"Oh, but I'm not your wife, Rupert."
"You're my wife already," he declared, "to all intents and purposes. We've published our intention to become man and wife to the world. Neither of us can go back on that. The mere fact that certain words haven't been mumbled over us is secondary. For everything that constitutes duty I'm your husband now."
"Oh no, you're not. You're the noblest man in the world, Rupert. I never dreamed that there could be any one like you. But I couldn't let you--I couldn't--"
He crushed her hands in both of his own, leaning toward her across the table. "Oh, my darling, if you only knew how easy it is--"
"No, it isn't easy. It can't be easy. I couldn't let you do it for me--"
"But what about him? You let--him!"
"Oh, but that's different."
"How is it different?"
"I don't know, Rupert; but it is. Or rather," she went on, rapidly, "I do know, but I can't explain. If you were an American you'd understand it."
"Oh, American--be blowed!" The accent was all tenderness, the protest all beseeching.
"I can't explain it," she hurried on, "because you don't understand us. It's one of the ways in which an Englishman never can understand us. But the truth is that money doesn't mean as much to us as it does to you. I know you think the contrary, but that's where you make your primary mistake. It's light come and light go with most of us, for the simple reason that money is outside our real life; whereas with you English it's the warp and woof of it."
"Oh, bosh, darling!"
"No, it isn't bosh. In your civilization it's as the blood; in ours it's only as the clothing. That's something like the difference. In accepting it from Peter Davenant--which is hard enough!--I take only what he can do without; whereas--"
"I can do without it, too."
"Whereas," she persisted, "if I were to let you do this I should be robbing you of the essence of what you are."
He drew back slightly. "You mean that your Yankee is a strong man, while I'm--"
"I don't mean anything invidious or unkind. But isn't it self-evident, or nearly, that we're individuals, while you're parts of an intricate social system? The minute you fall out of your place in the system you come to grief; but vicissitudes don't affect us much more than a change of coats."
"I don't care a button for my place in the system."
"But I do. I care for it for you. I should have married you and shared it if I could. But I'd rather not marry you than that you should lose it."
"That is," he said, coldly, "you'd rather use his money than--"
She withdrew her hands, her brows contracting and her eyes clouding in her effort to make him understand the position from her point of view. "You see, it's this way. For one thing, we've taken the money already. That's past. We may have taken it temporarily, or for good and all, as things turn out; but in any case it's done. And yet even if it weren't done it would be easier for us to draw on him rather than on you, because he's one of ourselves."
"One of yourselves? I thought that's just what he wasn't. I thought he was a jolly outsider."
"You mean socially. But that again hasn't much significance in a country where socially we're all of one class. Where there's only one class there can't be any outsiders."
"Oh, that's all very fine. But look at you with your extremes of rich and poor!"
"That's the most superficial difference among us. It's the easiest possible thing to transcend. I'm transcending it now in feeling that I've a right--yes, a kind of right--to take Peter Davenant's money, because as Americans we've a claim on each other."
He threw himself against the straight back of the chair, his arms flung out with a gesture that brought his hands nearly to the floor. "You're the last people in the world to feel anything of the kind. Every one knows that you're a set of ruthless, predatory--"
"I know that's the way it seems; and I'm not defending anything that may be wrong. And yet, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, we have a sense of brotherhood--I don't know any other name for it--among ourselves which isn't to be found anywhere else in the world. You English haven't got it. That's why the thing I'm saying seems mere sentiment to you, and even mawkish. You're so afraid of sentiment. But it's true. It may be only a rudimentary sense of brotherhood; and it's certainly not universal, as it ought to be, because we feel it only among ourselves. We don't really include the foreigner--not at least till he becomes one of us. I'm an instance of that limitation myself, because I can't feel it toward you, and I do--"
"You do feel it toward the big chap," he said, scornfully.
She made a renewed effort to explain herself. "You see, it's something like this. If my aunt de Melcourt, who's very well off, were to come forward and help us, I'd let her do it without scruple. Not that there's any particular reason why she should! But if she did--well, you can see for yourself that it wouldn't be as if she were a stranger."
"Of course! She's one of your own people--and all that."
"Well, he's one of our own people--Mr. Davenant. Not to the degree that she is--but the same sort of thing--even if more distant. It's very distant, I admit--"
His lip curled. "So distant as to be out of sight."
"No; not for him--or for me."
He sprang to his feet. "Look here, Olivia," he cried, nervously, holding his chair by the back, "what does it all mean? What are you leading up to?"
"I'm telling you as plainly as I can."
"What you aren't telling me as plainly as you can is which of us you're in love with."
She colored. It was one of those blushes that spread up the temples and over the brows and along the line of the hair with the splendor of a stormy dawn.
"I didn't know the question had been raised," she said, "but since apparently it has--"
It might have been contrition for a foolish speech, or fear of what she was going to say, that prompted him to interrupt her hurriedly:
"I beg your pardon. It was idiotic of me to say that. I didn't mean it. As a matter of fact, I'm jumpy. I'm not master of myself. So much has been happening--"
He came round the table, and, snatching one of her hands, he kissed it again and again. He even sank on one knee beside her, holding her close to him. With the hand that remained free she stroked his crisp, wavy, iron-gray hair as a sign of pardon.
"You're quite wrong about me," he persisted.
"Even if you're right about other Englishmen--which I don't admit--you're wrong about me, by Jove! If I had to give up everything I had in the world I should have all the compensation a man could desire if I got you."
She leaned over him, pressing his head against her breast, as she whispered:
"You couldn't get me that way. You must understand--I must make it as plain to you as I can--that I couldn't go to you except as an equal. I couldn't go to any man--"
He sprang to his feet. "But you came to me as an equal," he cried, in tones of exasperation. "That's all over and done with. It's too late to reconsider the step we've taken--too late for me--much too late!--and equally too late for you."
"I can't admit that, Rupert. I've still the right to draw back."
"The legal right--yes; whether or not you've the moral right would depend on your sense of honor."
"Certainly. There's an honor for you as well as for me. When I'm so true to you it wouldn't be the square thing to play me false."
She rose without haste. "Do you call that a fair way of putting it--to say that I play you false because I refuse to involve you in our family disasters? I don't think any one could blame me for that."
"What they could blame you for is this--for backing out of what is practically a marriage, and for deserting me in a way that will make it seem as if I had deserted you. Quite apart from the fact that life won't be worth anything to me without you, it will mean ruin as a man of honor if I go home alone. Every one will say--every one--that I funked the thing because your father--"
She hastened to speak. "That's a very urgent reason. I admit its force--"
She paused because there was a sound of voices overhead. Footsteps came along the upper hall and began to descend the stairs. Presently Davenant could be heard saying:
"Then I shall tell Harrington that they may as well foreclose at one time as another."
"Just as well." Guion's reply came from the direction of his bedroom door. "I see nothing to be gained by waiting. The sooner it's over the sooner to sleep, what?"
"They're talking about the mortgage on the property," she explained, as Davenant continued to descend. "This house is to be sold--and everything in it--"
"Which is one more reason why we should be married without delay. I say," he added, in another tone, "let's have him in."
"Oh no! What for?"
Before she could object further, Ashley had slipped out into the hall.
"I say! Come along in."
His attitude as he stood with hands thrust into his jacket pockets and shoulders squared bespoke conscious superiority to the man whom he was addressing. Though Davenant was not in her line of vision she could divine his astonishment at this easy, English unceremoniousness, as well as his resentment to the tone of command. She heard him muttering an excuse which Ashley interrupted with his offhand "Oh, come in. Miss Guion would like to see you."
She felt it her duty to go forward and second this invitation. Davenant, who was standing at the foot of the staircase, murmured something about town and business.
"It's too late for town and business at this hour," Ashley objected. "Come in."
He withdrew toward the room where Olivia was standing between the portieres of the doorway. Davenant yielded, partly because of his ignorance of the small arts of graceful refusal, but more because of his curiosity concerning the man Olivia Guion was to marry. He had some interest, too, in observing one who was chosen where he himself had been rejected. It would afford an answer to the question, "What lack I yet?" with which he was tormented at all times. That it could not be a flattering answer was plain to him from the careless, indefinable graces of Ashley's style. It was a style that Davenant would have scorned to imitate, but which nevertheless he envied. In contrast with its unstudied ease he could feel his own social methods to be labored and apologetic. Where he was watchful to do the right thing, what Ashley said or did became the right thing because he said or did it. With the echo of soft English vowels and clear, crisp consonants in his ears, his own pronunciations, too, were rough with the harshness transmitted from an ancestry to whom the melody of speech had been of no more practical concern than the music of the spheres.
Something of all this Olivia guessed. She guessed it with a feeling of being on his side--on the American side--which a month ago would have astonished her. She guessed, too, on Davenant's part, that feeling of irritation which the calm assumptions of the Old World are likely to create when in contact with the aggressive unpretentiousness of the New, and if need were she was ready to stand by him. All she could say, however, for the moment was:
"Won't you sit down? Perhaps I ought to ring for tea."
She made the latter remark from habit. It was what she was accustomed to think of when on an autumn day the sun went behind the distant rim of Brookline hills and dusk began to gather in the oval room, as it was gathering now. If she did not ring, it was because of her sense of the irony of offering hospitality in a house where not even a cup of tea was paid for.
She seated herself beside the round table in the chair she had occupied a half-hour earlier, facing inward to the room instead of outward to the portico. Ashley backed to the curving wall of the room, while Davenant scarcely advanced beyond the doorway. In his slow, careful approach the latter reminded her somewhat of a big St. Bernard dog responding to the summons of a leopard.
"Been up to see--?" Ashley nodded in the direction of what he took to be Guion's room.
Davenant, too, nodded, but said nothing.
"How did you find papa to-day?"
"Pretty fair, Miss Guion; only, perhaps, a little more down on his luck than usual."
"The excitement kept him up at first. Now that that's over--"
Ashley interrupted her, addressing himself to Davenant. "I understand that it's to you we owe Mr. Guion's relief from the most pressing part of his cares."
Davenant's face clouded. It was the thing he was afraid of--Ashley's intrusion into the little domain of helpfulness which for a few days he had made his own. He answered warily:
"My business with Mr. Guion, Colonel, has been private. I hope you won't mind if we leave it so."
Ashley's manner took on the diplomatic persuasiveness he used toward restive barbaric potentates.
"Not a bit, my dear fellow. Of course it's private--only not as regards Miss Guion and me. You simply must allow us to say how grateful we are for your help, even though it need be no more than temporary."
The word produced its effect. Davenant looked from Ashley to Olivia while he echoed it. "Temporary?"
Ashley nodded again. "You have no objection, I presume, to that?"
"If Mr. Guion is ever in a position to pay me back," Davenant said, slowly, in some bewilderment, "of course I'll take it."
"Quite so; and I think I may say that with a little time--let us say a year--we shall be able to meet--"
"It's a good bit of money," Davenant warned him.
"I know that; but if you'll give us a little leeway--as I know you will--"
"He means," Olivia spoke up, "that he'll sell his property--and whatever else he has--and pay you."
"I don't want that," Davenant said, hastily.
"But I do. It's a point of honor with me not to let another man shoulder--"
"And it's a point of honor with me, Rupert--"
"To stand by me," he broke in, quickly.
"I can't see it that way. What you propose is entirely against my judgment. It's fantastic; it's unreal. I want you to understand that if you attempted to carry it out I shouldn't marry you. Whatever the consequences either to you or to me--I shouldn't marry you."
"And if I didn't attempt it? Would you marry me then?"
She looked up, then down, then at Davenant, then away from him. Finally she fixed her gaze on Ashley.
"Yes," she said at last. "If you'll promise to let this wild project drop, I'll marry you whenever you like. I'll waive all the other difficulties--"
Davenant came forward, his hand outstretched. "I think I must say good-by now, Miss Guion--"
"No; wait," Ashley commanded. "This matter concerns you, by Jove!"
Olivia sprang to her feet. "No; it doesn't, Rupert," she said, hastily.
"No; it doesn't," Davenant repeated after her. "It's not my affair. I decline to be brought into it. I think I must say good-by now, Miss Guion--"
"Listen, will you!" Ashley said, impatiently. "I'm not going to say anything either of you need be afraid of. I'm only asking you to do me the justice of trying to see things from my point of view. You may think it forced or artificial or anything you please; but unfortunately, as an officer and a gentleman, I've got to take it. The position you'd put me in would be this--of playing a game--and a jolly important game at that--in which the loser loses to me on purpose."
Ashley found much satisfaction in this way of putting it. Without exposing him to the necessity of giving details, it made clear his perception of what was going on. Moreover, it secured him le beau role, which for a few minutes he feared he might have compromised. In the look he caught, as it flashed between Olivia and Davenant, he saw the signs of that appreciation he found it so hard to do without--the appreciation of Rupert Ashley as the chivalrous Christian gentleman, at once punctilious and daring, who would count all things as loss in order to achieve the highest type of manhood. If in the back of his mind he had the conviction, hardly venturing to make itself a thought, "In the long run it pays," it was but little to his discredit, since he could scarcely have descended from a line of shrewd, far-sighted Anglo-Saxon forefathers without making some such computation.
"If we're going to play a game," he continued, addressing Davenant, before the latter had time to speak, "for Heaven's sake let us play it straight--like men. Let the winner win and the loser lose--"
"I've no objection to that, Colonel, when I do play--but at present--"
"Look here," Ashley said, with a new inspiration; "I put it to you--I put it to you as a man--simply as a man--without any highfalutin principles whatever. Suppose I'd done what you've done--and given my bottom dollar--"
"But I haven't."
"Well, no matter! Suppose I had done what you've done--and you were in my place--would you, as a man--simply as a man, mind you--be willing to go off with the lady whom I had freed from great anxiety--to say the least--and be happy forever after--and so forth--with nothing but a Thank-you-sir? Come now! Would you?"
It was evident that Davenant was shy of accepting this challenge. He colored and looked uneasy--all the more so because Olivia lifted her eyes to him appealingly, as though begging him to come to her support. It was perhaps in the belief that he would do so that she said, earnestly, leaning forward a little:
"Tell him, Mr. Davenant, tell him."
"I don't see what it's got to do with me--" Davenant began to protest.
"It's got everything to do with you," Ashley broke in. "Since you've created the situation you can't shirk its responsibilities."
"Tell him, Mr. Davenant, tell him," Olivia repeated. "Would you, or would you not?"
He looked helplessly from one to the other. "Well, then--I wouldn't," he said, simply.
"There you are!" Ashley cried, triumphantly, moving away from the wall and turning toward Olivia.
She was plainly disappointed. Davenant could so easily have said, "I would." Nevertheless, she answered quietly, picking up the paper-knife that lay on the table and turning it this way and that as though studying the tints of the mother-of-pearl in the dying light:
"It doesn't matter to me, Rupert, what other people would do or would not do. If you persist in this attempt--this mad attempt--I shall not marry you."
He strode to the table, looking down at her averted face and bent head.
"Then we're at a deadlock."
She gave him a quick glance. "No; it isn't a deadlock, because--because there's still a way out."
He leaned above her, supporting himself with his hand on the table. "And it's a way I shall never take so long as you can't say--what you admitted a little while ago that you couldn't say--"
"I can't say it," she murmured, her face still further averted; "but all the same it's cruel of you to make it a condition."
He bent lower till his lips almost touched her hair. "It's cruel of you," he whispered, "to put me in the position where I must."
The room and the hall behind it were now so dim that Davenant had no difficulty in slipping between the portieres and getting away.