The Street Called Straight by Basil King
When the colonel of the Sussex Rangers woke on the following morning the Umfraville element in him, fatigued doubtless with the demands of the previous day, still slept on. That strain in him which had made his maternal ancestors gentlemen-adventurers in Tudor times, and cavaliers in the days of Charles the First, and Jacobites with James the Second, and roysterers with George the Fourth--loyal, swashbuckling, and impractical, daring, dashing, lovable, absurd, bound to come to grief one day or another, as they had come--that strain lying dormant, Ashley was free to wake in the spirit of the manufacturer of brushes. In other words he woke in alarm. It was very real alarm. It was alarm not unlike that of the gambler who realizes in the cold stare of morning that for a night's excitement he has thrown away a fortune.
The feeling was so dreadful that, as he lay for a few minutes with his eyes closed, he could say without exaggeration that he had never felt anything so sickening in his life. It was worse than the blue funk that attended the reveille for his first battle--worse than the bluer remorse that had come with the dawn after some of his more youthful sprees. The only parallel to it he could find was in the desolation of poor creatures he had seen, chiefly in India, reduced suddenly by fire, flood, or earthquake to the skin they stood in and a lodging on the ground. His swaggering promises of yesterday had brought him as near as possible to that.
Fortunately, when he had sprung out of bed the feeling became less poignant. By the time he had had his bath and his breakfast it had got itself within the limits of what could be expressed in the statement: "I've been a jolly ass."
Though there was no denying this fact, he could nevertheless use the reproach in its precise signification. He was not a jolly ass because he had remained true to Olivia Guion, but because of the extravagant methods of his faithfulness. No one but an Umfraville, he declared, would have hesitated to accept the status quo. Considering that in spite of everything he was still eager to give Olivia the shelter of his name and the advantages of his position, his insistence on doing more fell short of the grotesque.
Nevertheless he had insisted on it, and it was too late to shrink from making good his offer. No doubt, if he did so shrink, Olivia would commend him; but it would be a commendation not inconsistent with a fall in her esteem. His nerves still tingled with the joy of hearing her say, as she had said yesterday: "You're the noblest man in the world; I never dreamed there could be any one like you." She was so sparing with her words that these meant more from her than from another. If she used them, it was because she thought he was the noblest man in the world and because he did surpass her dreams. This was setting up the standard in a way that permitted no falling short of it. He must be Rupert Ashley at his best even if the world went to pieces while he made the attempt. Moreover, if he failed, there was always Peter Davenant ready to loom up above him. "I must keep higher than him," he said to himself, "whatever it costs me." So, little by little, the Umfraville in him also woke, with its daredevil chivalry. It might be said to have urged him on, while the Ashley prudence held him back, when from his room in the hotel he communicated by telephone with Olivia, begging her to arrange an interview between Guion and himself about eleven o'clock.
* * * * *
On taking the message to her father Olivia found him awake, but still in bed. Since his downfall had become generally known, she had noticed a reluctance on his part to get up. It was true he was not well; but his shrinking from activity was beyond what his degree of illness warranted. It was a day or two before she learned to view this seeming indolence as nothing but the desire to creep, for as many hours as possible out of the twenty-four, into the only refuge left to him. In his bed he was comparatively safe, not from the law, which he no longer had to fear, but from intrusion and inspection, and, above all, from sympathy.
It was between nine and ten o'clock. The blinds were up, the windows open, and the sunshine was streaming in. A tray with his scarcely tasted breakfast on it stood beside the bed. Guion lay on his back, his head sunk deep into the pillows. Though his face was turned from the door and his eyes closed, Olivia knew he was not sleeping. After performing small tasks in the room, carrying the breakfast tray into the hall, and lowering the blinds, she sat down at the bedside.
As he turned his head slowly she thought his eyes had the look of mortal ennui that Rembrandt depicts in those of Lazarus rising from the tomb and coming back to life.
She delivered her message, to which he replied, "He can come."
"I think I ought to tell you," she continued, "what he's coming for."
She gave him the gist of her conversation with Ashley on the previous day and the one great decision to which they had led him up. It would have gratified Ashley, could he have overheard, to note the skill with which she conveyed precisely that quality of noble precipitancy in his words and resolutions which he himself feared they had lacked. If a slight suspicion could have risen in his mind, it would have been that of a certain haste on her part to forestall any possible questioning of his eagerness such as he had occasion to observe in himself. That might have wounded him.
"So he wants to go ahead," Guion said, when she had finished.
"Can't he do that and still leave things as they are?"
"He seems to think he can't."
"I don't see why. If I have to owe the money to any one, I'd rather owe it to Davenant."
"So should I."
"Do you really want to marry him?"
The question startled her. "Marry him? Who?"
There was a look almost of humor in Guion's forlorn eyes. "Well, I didn't mean Davenant. I didn't suppose there was any--"
"Papa, darling," she hastened to say, "as things are at present I'd rather not marry any one at all. There's so much for me to do in getting life on another footing for us both that marriage seems to belong to another kind of world."
He raised himself on his elbow, turning toward her. "Then why don't you tell him so?"
"I have; but he won't take that as a reason. And, besides, I've said I would marry him if he'd give up this wild project--"
"But you're in love with him, aren't you? You may as well tell me," he continued, as she colored. "I must have some data to go on."
"I--I was in love with him," she faltered. "I suppose I am still. But while everything is as it is, I--I--can't tell; I--I don't know. I'm--I'm feeling so many other things that I don't know whether I feel--feel love--or not. I dare say I do. But it's like asking a man if he's fond of playing a certain game when he thinks he's going to die."
He slipped down into bed again, pulling the coverlet about his chin and turning his face away. As he said nothing more, she rose to go. "About eleven, then, papa dear."
She could hear a muffled assent as she left the room. She was afraid he was crying.
Nevertheless, when she had gone Guion rang for Reynolds and made his usual careful toilet with uncommon elaboration. By the time his guest arrived he was brushed and curled and stretched on the couch. If he had in the back of his mind a hope of impressing Ashley and showing him that if he, Guion, had fallen, it was from a height, he couldn't help it. To be impressive was the habit of his life--a habit it was too late now to overcome. Had he taken the Strange Ride with Morrowby Jukes, he would have been impressive among the living dead. Curiously enough, too, now that that possibility was past, he wondered if he didn't regret it. He confessed as much to Ashley.
"I know what you've come for," he said, when Ashley, who had declined a cigar, seated himself beside the couch.
"That means, I suppose, that Olivia has got ahead of me."
"She told me what you've proposed. It's very fine--very sporting."
"I haven't proposed it because it's either sporting or fine. It seems to me the only thing to do."
"Y-es; I can understand that you should feel so about it. I should myself if I were in your place and had a right to be generous. The trouble is--that it wouldn't work."
Ashley would have given much not to feel this sudden exhilaration of relief. It was so glowing that, in spite of his repugnance, he could have leaned forward and wrung Guion's hand. He contrived, however, to throw a tone of objection into his voice as he said: "Wouldn't work? Why not?"
Guion raised himself on his elbow. "It's no use going over the arguments as to the effect on your position. You've considered all that, no doubt, and feel that you can meet it. Whether you could or not when it came to the point is another question. But no matter. There are one or two things you haven't considered. I hate to put them before you, because--well, because you're a fine fellow--and it's too bad that you should be in this fix. It's part of my--my--my chastisement--to have put you there; but it'll be something to me--some alleviation; if you can understand--to help to get you out."
Ashley was dumb. He was also uncomfortable. He hated this sort of thing.
Guion continued. "Suppose I were to let you go ahead on this--let you raise the money--and take it from you--and pay Davenant--and all that--then you might marry my daughter, and get life on some sort of tolerable working basis. I dare say." He pulled himself forward on the couch. Ashley noticed the blazing of his eyes and hectic color in his cheeks. "You might even be happy, in a way," he went on, "if you didn't have--me."
"Didn't have--you? I don't understand--"
"And you'd have me. You couldn't get out of it. I'm done for--I'm no good to any one any more--but I'm not going to die. That's my point. That's my punishment, too. Can't you imagine what it means to a man like me--who used to think well of himself--who's been well thought of--can't you imagine what it is to have to inspire every one who belongs to him with loathing? That's what I've got to do for the rest of my life--and I'm going to live."
"Oh, I say!"
"You mayn't believe it, Ashley, but I'd rather have been--shut up--put away--where people couldn't see me--where I didn't have to see them. You know Olivia and I were facing that. I expect she's told you. And 'pon my soul there are many ways in which it would have been easier than--than this. But that's not what I'm coming to. The great fact is that after you'd counted your cost and done your utmost you still have me--like a dead rat strung round your neck--"
"Oh, I say, by Jove!"
"Olivia, poor child, has to bear it. She can, too. That's a remarkable thing about us New England people--our grit in the face of disgrace. I fancy there are many of our women who'd be as plucky as she--and I know one man. I don't know any others."
Ashley felt sick. He had never in his life felt such repulsion as toward what seemed to him this facile, theatrical remorse. If Guion was really contrite, if he really wanted to relieve the world of his presence, he could blow his brains out. Ashley had known, or known of, so many who had resorted to this ready remedy for a desperate plight that it seemed simple. His thoughts were too complex, however, for immediate expression, and, before he could decide what to respond, Guion said:
"Why don't you give him a chance?"
Ashley was startled. "Chance? What chance? Who?"
Ashley grasped the back of his chair as though about to spring up. "What's he want a chance for? Chance for what?"
"I might have said: 'Why don't you give her a chance?' She's half in love with him--as it is."
"That's a lie. That's an infernal lie."
Ashley was on his feet. He pushed the chair from him, though he still grasped it. He seemed to need it for support. Guion showed no resentment, continuing to speak with feverish quiet.
"I think you'll find that the whole thing is predestined, Ashley. Davenant's coming to my aid is what you might call a miracle. I don't like to use the expression--it sounds idiotic--and canting--and all that--but, as a matter of fact, he came--as an answer to prayer."
Ashley gave a snort of impatience. Guion warmed to his subject, dragging himself farther up on the couch and throwing the coverlet from his knees.
"Yes, of course; you'd feel that way about it--naturally. So should I if anybody else were to tell me. But this is how it happened. One night, not long ago, while you were on the water, I was so hard hit that I--well, I actually--prayed. I don't know that I ever did before--that is, not really--pray. But I did then; and I didn't beat about the bush, either. I didn't stop at half measures; I asked for a miracle right out and out--and I got it. The next morning Davenant came with his offer of the money. You may make what you like out of that; but I make--"
"I make this, by Jove; that you and he entered into a bargain that he should supply the cash, and you should--"
"Wrong!" With his arm stretched to its full length he pointed his forefinger up into Ashley's face. "Wrong!" he cried, again. "I asked him if she had anything to do with it, and he said she hadn't."
"Pff! Would you expect him to acknowledge it? He might deny it till he damned his soul with lies; but that wouldn't keep you and him from--"
"Before God, Ashley, I never thought of it till later. I know it looks that way--the way you put it--but I never thought of it till later. I dragged it out of him that he'd once been in love with her and had asked her to marry him. That was a regular knock-down surprise to me. I'd had no idea of anything of the kind. But he said he wasn't in love with her any longer. I dare say he thinks he isn't; but--"
"Suppose he is; that needn't affect her--except as an impertinence. A woman can defend herself against that sort of thing, by Jove!"
"It needn't affect her--only--only as a matter of fact--it does. It appeals to her imagination. The big scale of the thing would impress almost any woman. Look here, Ashley," he cried, with a touch of hysteria; "it'll be better for us all in the long run if you'll give him a chance. It'll be better for you than for any one else. You'll be well out of it--any impartial person would tell you that. You must see it yourself. You do see it yourself. We're not your sort--"
But Ashley could stand it no longer. With a smothered, inarticulate oath, he turned abruptly, and marched out of the room.