The Street Called Straight by Basil King
Fortunately there was no one in the upper hall, nor on the stairs, nor in the lower hall, nor in the oval room into which Ashley stumbled his way. The house was all sunshine and silence. He dropped into the nearest arm-chair. "It's a lie," he kept repeating to himself. "It's a lie. It's a damned, infernal lie. It's a put-up job between them--between the old scoundrel and that--that oaf."
The reflection brought him comfort. By degrees it brought him a great deal of comfort. That was the explanation, of course! There was no need of his being panic-stricken. To frighten him off was part of their plan. Had he not challenged her two or three times to say she didn't care for him? If she had any doubt on the subject he had given her ample opportunity to declare it. But she had not done so. On the contrary, she had made him both positive and negative statements of her love. What more could he ask?
He breathed again. The longer he thought of it the better his situation seemed to grow. He had done all that an honorable man could think of. He had been chivalrous to a quixotic degree. If they had not accepted his generous proposals, then so much the worse for them. They--Guion and Davenant--were pursuing obstructionist tactics, so as to put him in a place where he could do nothing but retreat. Very well; he would show them! There were points beyond which even chivalry could not go; and if they found themselves tangled in their own barbed wire they themselves would be to blame.
So, as the minute of foolish, jealous terror passed away, he began to enjoy the mellow peace of the old house. It was the first thing he had enjoyed since landing in America. His pleasure was largely in the anticipation of soon leaving that country with all the honors and Olivia Guion besides.
It was a gratification to the Ashley spirit, too, to note how promptly the right thing had paid. It was really something to take to heart. The moral to be drawn from his experiences at the heights of Dargal had been illustrated over and over again in his career; and this was once more. If he had funked the sacrifice it would have been on his conscience all the rest of his life. As it was, he had made it, or practically made it, and so could take his reward without scruple.
He put this plainly before Olivia when at last she appeared. She came slowly through the hail from the direction of the dining-room, a blank-book and a pencil in her hand.
"I'm making an inventory," she explained. "You know that everything will have to be sold?"
He ignored this to hurry to his account of the interview with Guion. It had been brief, he said, and in a certain sense unsatisfactory. He laid stress on his regret that her father should have seen fit to decline his offer--that's what it amounted to--but he pointed out to her that that bounder Davenant, who had doubtless counseled this refusal, would now be the victim of his own wiles. He had overreached himself. He had taken one of those desperate risks to which the American speculative spirit is so often tempted--and he had pushed it too far. He would lose everything now, and serve him right!
"I've made my offer," he went on, in an injured tone, "and they've thrown it out. I really can't do more, now, can I?"
"You know already how I feel about that."
They were still standing. He had been too eager to begin his report to offer her a chair or to take one himself.
"They can't expect me to repeat it, now, can they?" he hurried on. "There are limits, by Jove! I can't go begging to them--"
"I don't think they expect it."
"And yet, if I don't, you know--he's dished. He loses his money--and everything else."
In putting a slight emphasis on the concluding words he watched her closely. She betrayed herself to the extent of throwing back her head with a little tilt to the chin.
"I don't believe he'd consider that being dished. He's the sort of man who loses only when he--flings away."
"He's the sort of man who's a beastly cad."
He regretted these words as soon as they were uttered, but she had stung him to the quick. Her next words did so again.
"Then, if so, I hope you won't find it necessary to repeat the information. I mistook him for something very high--very high and noble; and, if you don't mind, I'd rather go on doing it."
She swept him with a look such as he knew she must be capable of giving, though he had never before seen it. The next second she had slipped between the portieres into the hail. He heard her pause there.
It was inevitable that Guion's words should return to him: "Half in love with him--as it is."
"That's rot," he assured himself. He had only to call up the image of Davenant's hulking figure and heavy ways to see what rot it was. He himself was not vain of his appearance; he had too much to his credit to be obliged to descend to that; but he knew he was a distinguished man, and that he looked it. The woman who could choose between him and Davenant would practically have no choice at all. That seemed to him conclusive.
Nevertheless, it was with a view to settling this question beyond resurrection that he followed her into the hall. He found her standing with the note-book still in her hand.
He came softly behind her and looked over her shoulder, his face close to hers. She could feel his breath on her cheek, but she tried to write.
"I'm sorry I said what I did," he whispered.
She stayed her pencil long enough to say: "I hope you're still sorrier for having thought it."
"I'm sorry you know I think it. Since it affects you so deeply--"
"It affects me deeply to see you can be unjust."
"I'm more than unjust. I'm--well you can fancy what I am, when I say that I know some one who thinks you're more than half in love with this fellow--as it is."
"Is that papa?"
"I don't see that it matters who it is. The only thing of importance is whether you are or not."
"If you mean that as a question, I shall have to let you answer it yourself."
"Would you tell me if--if you were?"
"What would be the use of telling you a thing that would make you unhappy and that I couldn't help?"
"Am I to understand, then, that you are half in love with him?"
She continued the effort to write.
"I think I've a right to press that question," he resumed. "Am I, or am I not, to understand--"
She turned slowly. Her face was flushed, her eyes were misty.
"You may understand this," she said, keeping her voice as much under control as possible, "you may understand this, that I don't know whom I'm in love with, or whether or not I'm in love with any one. That's the best I can say. I'm sorry, Rupert--but I don't think it's altogether my fault. Papa's troubles seem to have transported me into a world where they neither marry nor are given in marriage--where the whole subject is alien to--"
"But you said," he protested, bitterly, "no longer ago than yesterday that you--loved me."
"And I suppose I do. I did in Southsea. I did--right up to the minute when I learned what papa--and I--had been doing all these years--and that if the law had been put in force--You see, that's made me feel as if I were benumbed--as if I were frozen--or dead. You mustn't blame me too much--"
"My darling, I'm not blaming you. I'm not such a duffer but that I can understand how you feel. It'll be all right. You'll come round. This is like an illness, by Jove!--that's what it's like. But you'll get better, dear. After we're married--if you'll only marry me--"
"I said I'd do that, Rupert--I said it yesterday--if you'd give up--what I understand you have given up--"
He was on his guard against admitting this. "I haven't given it up. They've made it impossible for me to do it; that's all. It's their action, not mine."
"It comes to the same thing. I'm ready to keep my promise."
"You don't say it with much enthusiasm."
"Perhaps I say it with something better. I think I do. At the same time I wish--"
"You wish what?"
"I wish I had attached another condition to it."
"It mayn't be too late for that even now. Let's have it."
"If I had thought of it," she said, with a faint, uncertain smile, "I should have exacted a promise that you and he should be--friends."
He spoke sharply. "Who? Me? That's a good 'un, by Jove! You may as well understand me, dear, once and for all. I don't make friends of cow-punchers of that sort."
"I do," she said, coldly, turning again to her note-book.
* * * * *
It was not strange that Ashley should pass the remainder of the day in a state of irritation against what he called "this American way of doing things." Neither was it strange that when, after dinner in the evening, Davenant kept close to him as they were leaving Rodney Temple's house, the act should have struck the Englishman as a bit of odious presumption. Having tried vainly to shake his companion off, he was obliged to submit to walking along the Embankment with him, side by side.
He had not found the dinner an entertaining event. Drusilla talked a great deal, but was uneasy and distraite. Rodney Temple seemed to him "a queer old cove," while Mrs. Temple made no impression on him at all. Olivia had urged her inability to leave her father as an excuse for not coming. Davenant said little beyond giving the information that he was taking leave of his host and hostess to sleep that night in his old quarters in Boston and proceed next day to Stoughton, Michigan. This fact gave him a pretext for saying good night when Ashley did and leaving the house in his company.
"We're going the same way, aren't we?" he asked, as soon as they were outside.
"No," Ashley said, promptly; "you're taking the tram, and I shall walk."
"I should like to walk, too, Colonel, if you don't mind."
Since silence raised the most telling objection, Ashley made no reply. Taking out his cigarette-case, he lit a cigarette, without offering one to his companion. The discourtesy was significant, but Davenant ignored it, commenting on the extraordinary mildness of the October night and giving items of information as to the normal behavior of American autumn weather. As Ashley expressed no appreciation of these data, the subject was dropped. There was a long silence before Davenant nerved himself to begin on the topic he had sought this opportunity to broach.
"You said yesterday, Colonel, that you'd like to pay me back the money I've advanced to Mr. Guion. I'd just as soon you wouldn't, you know."
Ashley deigned no answer. The tramp went on in silence broken only by distant voices or a snatch of song from a students' club-house near the river. Somewhere in the direction of Brookline a locomotive kept up a puffing like the beating of a pulse.
"I don't need that money," Davenant began again. "There's more where it came from. I shall be out after it--from to-morrow on."
Ashley's silence was less from rudeness than from self-restraint. All his nerves were taut with the need to visit his troubles on some one's head. A soldiering life had not accustomed him to indefinite repression of his irritable impulses, and now after two or three days of it he was at the limit of his powers. It was partly because he knew his patience to be nearly at an end that he wanted to be alone. It was also because he was afraid of the blind fury with which Davenant's mere presence inspired him. While he expressed this fury to himself in epithets of scorn, he was aware, too, that there were shades of animosity in it for which he had no ready supply of terms. Such exclamatory fragments as forced themselves up through the troubled incoherence of his thoughts were of the nature of "damned American," "vulgar Yankee," "insolent bounder," rendering but inadequately the sentiments of a certain kind of Englishman toward his fancied typical American, a crafty Colossus who accomplishes everything by money and brutal strength. Had there been nothing whatever to create a special antagonism between them, Ashley's feeling toward Davenant would still have been that of a civilized Jack-the-Giant-Killer toward a stupendous, uncouth foe. It would have had elements in it of fear, jealousy, even of admiration, making at its best for suspicion and neutrality, and at its worst for.... But Davenant spoke again.
"I'd a great deal rather, Colonel, that--"
The very sound of his voice, with its harsh consonants and its absurd repetitions of the military title, grated insufferably on Ashley's ear. He was beyond himself although he seemed cool.
"My good fellow, I don't care a hang what you'd a great deal rather."
Ashley lit a fresh cigarette with the end of the old one, throwing the stump into the river almost across Davenant's face, as the latter walked the nearer to the railing.
The American turned slightly and looked down. The action, taken in conjunction with his height and size and his refusal to be moved, intensified Ashley's rage, which began now to round on himself. Even the monotonous tramp-tramp of their footsteps, as the Embankment became more deserted, got on his nerves. It was long before Davenant made a new attempt to fulfil his mission.
"In saying what I said just now," he began, in what he tried to make a reasonable tone, "I've no ax to grind for myself. If Miss Guion--"
"We'll leave that name out," Ashley cried, sharply. "Only a damned cad would introduce it."
Though the movement with which Davenant swung his left arm through the darkness and with the back of his left hand struck Ashley on the mouth was so sudden as to surprise no one more than himself, it came with all the cumulative effect of twenty-four hours' brooding. The same might be said of the spring with which Ashley bounded on his adversary. It had the agility and strength of a leopard's. Before Davenant had time to realize what he had done he found himself staggering--hurled against the iron railing, which threatened to give way beneath his weight. He had not taken breath when he was flung again. In the dim light of the electrics he could see the glare in Ashley's eyes and hear him panting. Davenant, too, panted, but his wrath that had flared up like a rocket had already come down like a stick.
"Look here," he stammered; "we--we--c-can't do this sort of thing."
Ashley fell back. He, too, seemed to realize quickly the folly of the situation. When he spoke it was less in anger than in protest.
"By God, you struck me!"
"I didn't know it, Colonel. If I did, we're quits on it--because--because you insulted me. Perhaps you didn't know that. I'm willing to think you didn't--if you'll only believe that the whole thing has been a mistake--a damned, idiotic, tom-fool mistake."
The words had their effect. Ashley fell back still farther. There was a sinking of his head and a shrinking of his figure that told of reaction from the moment of physical excess.
A roadside bench was visible beneath an arc-lamp but a few yards away. "Come and sit down," Davenant said, hoarsely. He found it difficult to speak.
Ashley stumbled along. He sat down heavily, like a man spent with fatigue or drink. With his elbows on his knees, he hid his face in his hands, while his body rocked.
Davenant turned away, walking down the Embankment. He walked on for fifty or sixty yards. He himself felt a curious sense of being battered and used up. His heart pounded and the perspiration stood on his brow. Putting his hand to his collar, he found his evening cravat awry and his waistcoat pulled out of shape.
He grasped the rail, as if for support, looking off with unseeing eyes into the night. Lights along the river-side were reflected in the water; here and there a bridge made a long low arch of lamps; more lights sprinkled the suburban hills, making a fringe to the pall of stars. They grew pale, even while he looked at them, as before a brighter radiance, and he knew that behind him the moon was coming up. He thought of the moonrise of the previous evening, when Olivia Guion had walked with him to the gate and let her hand rest in his. He recalled her words, as he had recalled them a hundred times that day, "The man I care for." He went back over each phase of their conversation, as though it was something he was trying to learn by heart. He remembered her longing for her aunt de Melcourt.
All at once he struck the railing with the energy of a man who has a new inspiration. "By George!" he said, half aloud, "that's an idea--that's certainly an idea! I wonder if.... The Indiana sailed last week ... it ought to be the turn of the Louisiana the day after to-morrow. By George, I believe I could make it if ..."
He hurried back to the bench where Ashley was still sitting. The latter was upright now, his arm stretched along the back. He had lit a cigarette.
Davenant approached to within a few feet. "Look here, Colonel," he said, gently, "we've got to forget this evening."
It was a minute or two before Ashley said: "What's the good of forgetting one thing when there are so many others to remember?"
"Perhaps we can forget them, too--one by one. I guess you haven't understood me. I dare say I haven't understood you, either, though I think I could if you'd give me a chance. But all I want to say is this, that I'm--off--"
Ashley turned quickly. "Off? Where?"
"Where we're not likely to meet--for some little time--again."
"Oh, but I say! You can't--"
"Can't what, Colonel?"
"Can't drop--drop out of the running--damn it all, man! you can't--you can't--let it be a walk-over for me--after all that's--"
"That's where you've made your mistake, Colonel, I guess. You thought there was--was a--a race, so to speak--and that I was in it. Well, I wasn't?"
"But what the deuce--?"
"I not only wasn't in it--but there was no race. There never was. It was a walk-over for--for some one--from the start. Now I guess I'll say good night."
He turned away abruptly, but, having taken a few steps, came back again.
"Look here! Let's have a cigarette."
Ashley fumbled for his case, opened it, and held it up. "I say, take two or three."
As Ashley lifted the one he was smoking to serve as a light Davenant noticed that the hand trembled, and steadied it in the grasp of his own.
"Thanks; and good night again," he said, briefly, as he strode finally away into the darkness.