The Street Called Straight by Basil King
"He's going to squeeze me out."
This was Davenant's reflection as he walked back, along the Embankment, to Rodney Temple's house. He made it bitterly, in the light of clarified views, as to the ethics of giving and taking benefits. Up to within the last few days the subject had seemed to him a relatively simple one. If you had money, and wished to give it away, you gave it. If you needed it, and were so lucky as to have it offered you, you took it. That was all. That such natural proceedings should create complicated relations and searchings of heart never entered his mind.
He could see that they might, however, now that the knowledge was forced upon him. Enlightenment came by the easy process of putting himself in Ashley's place. "I wouldn't take my wife as a kind of free gift from another fellow--I'll be hanged if I would! I'd marry her on my own or not at all."
And unless Ashley assumed the responsibilities of his future wife's position, he couldn't marry her "on his own." That much was clear. It was also the most proper thing in the world. It was a right--a privilege. He looked upon it chiefly as a privilege. Ashley would sell his estate, and, having paid him, Davenant, the money he had advanced, would send him about his business. There would be nothing left for him but to disappear. The minute there was no need for him there would be no place for him. He had been no more than the man who holds a horse till the owner comes and rides away.
Worse than that reflection was the fear that his intervention had been uncalled for in the first place. The belief that it was imperative had been his sole excuse for forcing himself on people who fought against his aid and professed themselves able to get along without it. But the event seemed to show that if he had let things alone, Rupert Ashley would have come and taken the burden on himself. As he was apparently able to shoulder it, it would have been better to let him do it. In that case he, Peter Davenant, would not have found himself in a position from which he could not withdraw, while it was a humiliation to be dislodged from it.
But, on the other hand, he would have missed his most wonderful experience. There was that side to it, too. He would not have had these moments face to face with Olivia Guion which were to be as food for his sustenance all the rest of his life. During these days of discussion, of argument, of conflict between his will and hers, he had the entirely conscious sense that he was laying up the treasure on which his heart would live as long as it continued to beat. The fact that she found intercourse with him more or less distasteful became a secondary matter. To be in her presence was the thing essential, whatever the grounds on which he was admitted there. In this way he could store up her looks, her words, her gestures, against the time when the memory of them would be all he should have. As for her proposals of friendship made to him that day--her suggestions of visits to be paid to Ashley and herself, with introductions to a greater world--he swept them aside. He quite understood that she was offering him the two mites that make a farthing out of the penury of her resources, and, while he was touched by the attempt to pay him, he didn't want them.
He had said, and said again, that he didn't want anything at all. Neither did he. It would have been enough for him to go on as he was going now--to fetch and carry, to meet lawyers and pacify creditors, to protect her father because he was her father, and get a glimpse of her or a word from her when he came on his errands to Tory Hill. There were analogies between his devotion and the adoration of a mortal for a goddess beyond the stars. Like Hippolytus, he would have been content that his Artemis should never step down from her shrine so long as he was permitted to lay his gifts on her altar.
At least, he had felt so till to-day. He had begun the adventure in the strength of the desire born of his visit to the scene of his father's work at Hankow to do a little good. True, it was an impulse of which he was more than half ashamed. Its mere formulation in words rendered it bumptious and presumptuous. Beyond the confession made to Rodney Temple on the night of his arrival no force could have induced him to avow it. Better any imputation of craft than the suspicion of wanting to confer benefits on his fellow-men. It was a satisfaction to him to be able to say, even in his own inner consciousness, that the desperate state of Guion's affairs forced his hand and compelled him to a quixotic course which he would not otherwise have taken.
The first glimpse of Ashley brought this verbal shelter to the dust. So long as the accepted lover had been but an abstract conception Davenant had been able to think of him with toleration. But in presence of the actual man the feeling of antagonism was instinctive, animal, instantaneous. Though he pumped up his phrases of welcome to a heartiness he did not feel, he was already saying to himself that his brief day of romance was done. "He's going to squeeze me out." With this alert and capable soldier on the spot, there would be no need for a clumsy interloper any longer. They could do without him, and would be glad to see him go.
The upshot of it all was that he must retire. It was not only the part of tact, but a gentleman could do no less. Ashley had all the rights and powers. The effort to withstand him would be worse than ineffectual, it would be graceless. In Miss Guion's eyes it would be a blunder even more unpardonable than that for which her punishment had been in some ways the ruling factor in his life. He was sure she would not so punish him again, but her disdain would not be needed. Merely to be de trop in her sight, merely to be troublesome, would be a chastisement from which he should suffer all the stings of shame. If he was to go on serving her with the disinterestedness of which, to himself at any rate, he had made a boast, if he was to keep the kindly feeling she had perhaps begun to entertain for him, he must resign his provisional authority into Ashley's hands and efface himself.
To do that would be easy. He had only to advance by a few weeks his departure for Stoughton, Michigan, where he meant to return in any case. It was the familiar field of those opportunities in copper which he hoped to profit by again. Once he was on that ground, Olivia Guion and her concerns would be as much a part of a magic past as the woods and mountains of a holiday are to a man nailed down at an office desk. With a very little explanation to Ashley he could turn his back on the whole business and give himself up to his own affairs.
He made an effort to recapture his zest in the old game, but after the passionate interest he had put into the past week the fun was out of it. Stoughton, Michigan, presented itself as a ramshackled, filthy wooden town of bar-rooms, eating-rooms, pool-rooms, and unspeakable hotels. The joys and excitements he had known over such deals as the buying and selling of the Catapult, the Peppermint, and the Etna mines were as flat now as the lees of yesternight's feast. "I'm not in love with her," he kept saying, doggedly, to himself; and yet the thought of leaving Olivia Guion and her interests to this intrusive stranger, merely because he was supposed to have a prior claim, was sickening. It was more sickening still that the Englishman should not only be disposed to take up all the responsibilities Davenant would be laying down, but seemed competent to do it.
On the embankment he met Rodney Temple, taking the air after his day in the Gallery of Fine Arts. He walked slowly, with a stoop, his hands behind him. Now and then he paused to enjoy the last tints of pink and purple and dusky saffron mirrored in the reaches of the river or to watch the swing of some college crew and the swan-like movement of their long, frail shell.
"Hello! Where are you off to? Home?"
Davenant had not yet raised this question with himself, but now that it was before him he saw it was worth considering. Home, for the present, meant Drusilla and Mrs. Temple, with their intuitions and speculations, their hints and sympathies. He scarcely knew which he dreaded most, the old lady's inquisitive tenderness or Drusilla's unsparing perspicacity.
"Not home just yet, sir," he had the wit to say. "In fact, I'm walking in to Boston, and may not be home to dinner. Perhaps you'll tell Mrs. Temple so when you go in. Then I sha'n't have to 'phone her."
Temple let that pass. "Been up to look at the great man?"
Peter nodded. "Just come from there."
"And what do you make of him?"
"Oh, he's a decent sort."
"Not going to back out, eh?"
"Not at all; just the other way: he wants to step in and take everything off--off our hands."
"You don't say so. Then he's what you say--a decent sort."
"He's more than that," Davenant heard himself saying, to his own surprise. "He's a fine specimen of his type, and the type itself--"
"Is superb," the old man concluded. "That's about what I supposed he'd be. You could hardly imagine Olivia Guion picking out any other kind--especially as it's a kind that's as thick as blackberries in their army."
Davenant corroborated this by a brief account of what Ashley proposed to do. Light gleamed in the old man's eyes and a smile broke the shaggy crevice between his beard and mustache as he listened.
"Splendid! Splendid!" he commented, now at one point and now at another of the information Peter was imparting. "Sell his estate and pay up? That's downright sporting, isn't it?"
"Oh, he's sporting enough."
"And what a grand thing for you to get your money back. I thought you would some day--if Vic de Melcourt ever came to hear of what you'd done; but I didn't expect it so soon."
Davenant turned away. "I wasn't in a hurry."
"No; but he is. That's the point. That's where the beauty of it comes in for Olivia and you."
Peter looked blank. "Olivia and--me?"
"He's doing right," the old man explained, taking hold of the lapel of Davenant's coat, "or what he conceives to be right; and no one man can do that without putting us into a better position all round. Doing right," he continued, emphasizing his words by shaking the lapel and hammering on Peter's breast--"doing right is the solution of all the difficulties into which we get ourselves tied up by shilly-shallying and doing wrong. If Ashley were to hang fire you wouldn't know where the devil you were. But now that he's going straight, it leaves you free to do the same."
"It leaves me free to cut and run." He made little effort to conceal his bitterness.
"Then cut and run, if that's what you feel impelled to do. You won't run far before you see you're running to a purpose. I'll cut and run, too," he added, cheerfully. "I'll be off to see Olivia, and tell her she's made a catch."
Davenant was glad to be able to resume his tramp. "Poor old chap," he said to himself; "a lot he knows about it! It's damned easy to do right when you've got everything your own way."
Having everything his own way was the happy position in which he placed Rupert Ashley, seeing he was able to marry Olivia Guion by the simple process of selling an estate. There was no more to that in Davenant's estimation than to his own light parting with his stocks and bonds. Whatever sacrifice the act might entail would have ample compensation, since the giving up of the temporal and non-essential would secure supreme and everlasting bliss. He would gladly have spared a hand or an eye for a mere chance at the same reward.
Arrived in Boston there was nothing for him to do but to eat an expensive dinner at a restaurant and go back again. He did not return on foot. He had had enough of his own thoughts. They led him round and round in a circle without end. He was ashamed, too, to perceive that they concerned themselves chiefly, not with his love for Olivia Guion, but with his enmity to Rupert Ashley. It was the first time in his life that he was ever possessed by the fury to kill a man. He wouldn't have been satisfied to be rid of Ashley; he wanted to leap on him, to strike him, to choke him, to beat him to death. Sitting with his eyes fixed on the table-cloth, from which the waiter had removed everything but the finger-bowl and the bill, and allowing the cigar that protruded between his knuckles to burn uselessly, he had already indulged in these imaginary exercises, not a little to his relief, before he shook himself and muttered: "I'm a damned fool."
The repetition of this statement, together with the dull belief that repetition engenders, braced him at last to paying his bill and taking the tram-car to Waverton. He had formed a resolution. It was still early, scarcely later than the hour at which he usually dined. He had a long evening before him. He would put it to use by packing his belongings. Then he would disappear. He might go at once to Stoughton, or he might travel no farther than the rooms he had engaged, and which he had occupied in former years, on the less attractive slope of Beacon Hill. It would be all the same. He would be out of the circle of interests that centered round Olivia Guion, and so free to come back to his senses.
He got so much elation out of this resolve that from the electric car to Rodney Temple's house he walked with a swinging stride, whistling tunelessly beneath his breath. He tried to think he was delivered from an extraordinary obsession and restored to health and sanity. He planned to initiate Ashley as the new charge d'affaires without the necessity on his part of seeing Miss Guion again.
And yet, when he opened the door with his latch-key and saw a note lying on the table in the hail, his heart bounded as though it meant to stop beating. It was sheer premonition that made him think the letter was for him. He stooped and read the address before he had taken off his hat and while he was still tugging at his gloves:
Peter Davenant, Esq., 31 Charlesbank.
It was premonition again that told him the contents before he had read a line:
He looked at his watch. It was only half-past eight. "I've no excuse for not going," he said to himself. He made it clear to his heart that he regretted the necessity. After the brave decisions to which he had come, decisions which he might have put into execution, it was a call backward, a retrogression. He began already to be afraid that he might not be so resolute a second time. But he had no excuse for not going. That fact took the matter out of his hands. There was nothing to do but to crumple the letter into his pocket, take down his evening overcoat from its peg, and leave the house before any one knew he had entered.
The night was mild. It was so soft and scented that it might have been in June. From the stars and the street-lamps and the line of electrics along the water's edge there was just light enough to show the surface of the river, dim and metallic, and the wisps of vapor hovering above the marshes. In the east, toward Cambridge and beyond Boston, the sky was bright with the simulation of the dawn that precedes the moonrise.
His heart was curiously heavy. If he walked rapidly it was none the less reluctantly. For the first time since he had taken part and lot in the matter in hand he had no confidence in himself. He had ceased to be able to say, "I'm not in love with her," while he had no other strengthening formula to put in its place.
Algonquin Avenue, which older residents still called Rodney Lane, was as still and deserted as a country road. The entry gate to Tory Hill clicked behind him with curious, lonely loudness. The gravel crunched in the same way beneath his tread. Looking up at the house, he saw neither light nor sign of living. There was something stricken and sinister about the place.
He was half-way toward the front door when a white figure came forward beneath the Corinthian portico. If it had not been so white he couldn't have seen it.
"I'm here, Mr. Davenant."
The voice, too, sounded lonely, like a voice in a vast, empty house. He crossed the lawn to the portico. Olivia had already reseated herself in the wicker chair from which she had risen at his approach.
"Aren't you afraid of taking cold?" She had not offered him her hand; both hands were hidden in the folds of her voluminous wrap. He said the simplest thing he could think of.
"No. I'm wearing a very warm fur-lined cloak. It's very long, too. I couldn't stay indoors. The house seemed so--so dead."
"Is there nobody with you?"
"Colonel Ashley went back to town before dinner. Papa wasn't quite so well. He's trying to sleep. Will you sit down on the step, or go in and bring out a chair? But perhaps you'll find it chilly. If so, we'll go in."
She half rose, but he checked her. "Not at all. I like it here. It's one of our wonderful, old-fashioned Octobers, isn't it? Besides, I've got an overcoat."
He threw the coat over his shoulders, seating himself on the floor, with his feet on the steps below him and his back to one of the fluted Corinthian pilasters. The shadow was so deep on this side of the house--the side remote from the approaching moonrise--that they could see each other but dimly. Of the two she was the more visible, not only because she was in white, but because of the light coming through the open sitting-room behind her from the hail in the middle of the house. In this faint glimmer he could see the pose of her figure in the deep wicker arm-chair and the set of her neat head with its heavy coil of hair.
"I asked you to come," she said, simply, "because I feel so helpless."
"That's a very good reason," he responded, guardedly. "I'm glad you thought of me, rather than of any one else."
He was pleased to note that even to his own ears his accent was polite, but no more. At the same minute he found the useful formula he had been in search of--"I mustn't let her know I'm in love with her."
"There's no one else for me to think of," she explained, in self-excuse. "If there were, I shouldn't bother you."
"That's not so kind," he said, keeping to the tone of conventional gallantry.
"I don't mean that I haven't plenty of friends. I know lots of people--naturally; but I don't know them in a way to appeal to them like this."
"Then so much the better for me."
"That's not a reason for my imposing on your kindness; and yet I'm afraid I must go on doing it. I feel like a person in such desperate straits for ready money that he's reckless of the rate of interest. Not that it's a question of money now--exactly."
"It doesn't matter what it's a case of. I'm at your service, Miss Guion--"
"I know. That's why I asked you to come. I want you to keep Colonel Ashley from doing what he proposed this afternoon."
She spoke more abruptly, more nervously, than was her habit.
"I would if I could; but I don't know that I've any way of dissuading him."
"You needn't dissuade him. You've simply to refuse to take his money."
"It's not quite so easy as that, because there's no direct business between him and me. If Mr. Guion wanted to pay me what I've lent him, I couldn't decline to accept it. Do you see?"
In the dim light he noticed her head nodding slowly. "Oh, so that's the way it is? It would have to be done through papa?"
"It would have to be done through him. And if he preferred to use Colonel Ashley's money rather than mine, I should have nothing at all to say."
"I see; I see," she commented, thoughtfully. "And I don't know how papa would feel about it, or how far I could count on him."
For a few minutes Davenant said nothing. When he spoke it was with some amazement at his own temerity. "I thought you didn't want my help, if you could possibly get any other?"
The words took her by surprise. He could see her draw her cloak more tightly about her, her hands still within its folds.
"I felt that way at first. I don't now. Perhaps I understand you a little better. But, in any case, I couldn't take his."
He pushed the liberty a little further. "But if you're going to marry him--"
"That's just it. I wonder if you've the faintest idea of what it means to a woman to marry a man by making herself a burden to him in advance--and such a burden!"
"It wouldn't be a burden to any one who--who--"
"I know what you're going to say. Love does make a difference. Of course. But it acts one way on the man and another way on the woman. In proportion as it urges him to make the sacrifice, it impels her to prevent it."
He grew still bolder. The cover of the night and the intimacy of the situation made him venturesome. "Then why don't you break off your engagement?"
It was a long while before she answered. "He won't let me," she said then. "And, besides," she added, after slight hesitation, "it's difficult not to be true to a man who's showing himself so noble."
"Is that your only reason?"
She raised her head slightly and turned toward him. He expected something cutting, but she only said: "What makes you ask that?"
He was a little frightened. He backed down, and yet not altogether. "Oh, nothing. I only--wondered."
"If you think I don't care for him--"
"Oh no. Not that--not that at all."
"Well, if you were to think it, it would probably be because I've been through so much--I'm going through so much--that that sort of thing has become secondary."
"I didn't know that--that sort of thing--was ever secondary."
"Because you've never had the experience. If you had--"
The freedom of speech she seemed to be according him led him on to say:
"I've had experience enough--as you may know--to be sure it wouldn't be secondary with me."
She seemed willing to discuss the point. "When I say secondary I mean that I'm in a position in which I find it isn't the most important thing in the world to me to marry the man I--I care for."
"Then, what is the most important thing?"
She stirred impatiently. "Oh, it's no use going into that; I suppose it would be--to be free--not to owe you anything--or anybody anything--to be out of this big, useless house--away from these unpaid servants--and--and free! I'm not a dependent person. I dare say you've noticed that. I shouldn't mind having no money. I know a way by which I could support myself--and papa. I've thought that out. I shouldn't mind being alone in the world, either--if I could only burst the coil that's been wound about me."
"But since you can't," he said, rather cruelly, "wouldn't the next best thing be--to marry the man you care for?"
Her response was to say, irrelevantly, somewhat quaveringly, in a voice as near to tears as he could fancy her coming: "I wish I hadn't fallen out with Aunt Vic."
"Why? Would she help you?"
"She's very good and kind--in her way."
"Why don't you write to her?"
"Writing wouldn't be any good now. It's too late."
Another long silence fell between them. The darkened windows of the house on the other side of the lawn began to reflect a pallid gleam as the moon rose. Shadows of trees and of clumps of shrubbery became faintly visible on the grass. The great rounded elm in the foreground detached itself against the shimmering, illuminated sky like an open fan. Davenant found something ecstatic in the half-light, the peace, and the extraordinary privilege of being alone with her. It would be one more memory to treasure up. Silence, too, was a form of communion more satisfactory to him than speech. It was so full of unutterable things that he wondered at her allowing it to last.
Nevertheless, it was he who broke it. The evening grew chilly at last. Somewhere in the town a clock struck ten. He felt it would be indiscreet to stay longer.
"I'll make a try for it, Miss Guion," he said, when he had got on his feet to go away. "Since you want me to see Colonel Ashley, I will."
"They always say that one man has such influence on another," she said, rising, too--"and you see things so clearly and have such a lot of common sense.... I'll walk down to the gate with you.... I'm tired with sitting still."
He offered his hand to help her in descending the portico steps. Though there was no need for her to take it, she did so. The white cloak, loosely gathered in one hand in front, trailed behind her. He thought her very spirit-like and ethereal.
At the foot of the steps his heart gave a great bound; he went hot and cold. It seemed to him--he was sure--he could have sworn--that her hand rested in his a perceptible instant longer than there was any need for.
A moment later he was scoffing at the miracle. It was a mistake on his part, or an accident on hers. It was the mocking of his own desire, the illusion of his feverish, overstrained senses. It was a restorative to say to himself: "Don't be a damned fool."
And yet they walked to the gate almost in silence. It was a silence without embarrassment, like that which had preceded it. It had some of the qualities of the silence which goes with long-established companionships. He spoke but once, to remind her, protectingly, that the grass was damp, and to draw her--almost tactually--to the graveled path.
They came to the gate, but he did not immediately say good night.
"I wish you could throw the burden of the whole thing on me, Miss Guion," he ventured, wistfully, "and just take it easy."
She looked away from him, over the sprinkling of lights that showed the town. "If I could do it with any one, it would be with you--now."
There was an inflection on the now which again gave him strange and sudden thrills, as though some extraordinary chemical agent had been infused into his blood. All kinds of capitulations were implied in it--changes of heart and mind and attitude--changes that had come about imperceptibly, and for reasons which he, and perhaps she, could not have followed. He felt the upleaping of great joy. It was joy so intense that it made him tactful, temperate. It also made him want to rush away and be alone.
"I'll make that do for the present," he said, smiling down at her through the darkness. "Thank you for letting me come. Good night."
There was again that barely noticeable lingering of her hand in his. The repetition rather disappointed him. "It's just her way of shaking hands," was the explanation he gave of it.
When he had passed out of the gate he pretended to take his way down Algonquin Avenue, but he only crossed the Street to the shelter of a friendly elm. There he could watch her tall, white figure as it went slowly up the driveway. Except for a dim light in the fan-shaped window over the front door the house was dark. The white figure moved with an air of dragging itself along.
"It isn't the most important thing in the world for her," he whispered to himself, "to marry--the man she cares for."
There was a renewal of his blind fury against Ashley, while at the same time he found himself groaning, inwardly: "I wish to God the man she cares for wasn't such a--such a--trump!"