The Street Called Straight by Basil King
The three men being left together, Davenant's conviction of inner excitement on the part of his host was deepened. It was as if, on the withdrawal of the ladies, Guion had less intention of concealing it. Not that at first he said anything directly or acted otherwise than as a man with guests to entertain. It was only that he threw into the task of offering liqueurs and passing cigars a something febrile that caused his two companions to watch him quietly. Once or twice Davenant caught Temple's eye; but with a common impulse each hastily looked elsewhere.
"So, Mr. Davenant, you've come back to us. Got here only this afternoon, didn't you? I wonder why you came. Having got out of a dull place like Waverton, why should you return to it?"
Looking the more debonair because of the flush in his face and the gleam in his eye, Guion seated himself in the place his daughter had left vacant between his two guests. Both his movements and his manner of speech were marked by a quick jerkiness, which, however, was not without a certain masculine grace.
"I don't know that I've any better reason," Davenant laughed, snipping off the end of his cigar, "than that which leads the ox to his stall--because he knows the way."
"Good!" Guion laughed, rather loudly. Then, stopping abruptly, he continued, "I fancy you know your way pretty well in any direction you want to go, don't you?"
"I can find it--if I know where I'm going. I came back to Boston chiefly because that was just what I didn't know."
"He means," Rodney Temple explained, "that he'd got out of his beat; and so, like a wise man, he returns to his starting-point."
"I'd got out of something more than my beat; I'd got out of my element. I found that the life of elegant leisure on which I'd embarked wasn't what I'd been cut out for."
"That's interesting--very," Guion said. "How did you make the discovery?"
"By being bored to death."
"Bored?--with all your money?"
"The money isn't much; but, even if it were, it couldn't go on buying me a good time."
"That, of course, depends on what your idea of a good time may be; doesn't it, Rodney?"
"It depends somewhat," Rodney replied, "on the purchasing power of money. There are things not to be had for cash."
"I'm afraid my conception of a good time," Davenant smiled, "might be more feasible without the cash than with it. After all, money would be a doubtful blessing to a bee if it took away the task of going out to gather honey."
"A bee," Guion observed, "isn't the product of a high and complex civilization--"
"Neither am I," Davenant declared, with a big laugh. "I spring from the primitive stratum of people born to work, who expect to work, and who, when they don't work, have no particular object in living on."
"And so you've come back to Boston to work?"
"To work--or something."
"You leave yourself, I see, the latitude of--something."
"Only because it's better than nothing. It's been nothing for so long now that I'm willing to make it anything."
"My excuse for remaining on earth. If I'm to go on doing that, I've got to have something more to justify it than the mere ability to pay my hotel bill."
"You're luckier than you know to be able to do that much," Guion said, with one of his abrupt, nervous changes of position. "But you've been uncommonly lucky, anyhow, haven't you? Made some money out of that mine business, didn't you? Or was it in sugar?"
Davenant laughed. "A little," he admitted. "But, to any one like you, sir, it would seem a trifle."
"To any one like me! Listen." He leaned forward, with feverish eyes, and spoke slowly, tapping on the table-cloth as he did so. "For half a million dollars I'd sell my soul."
Davenant resisted the impulse to glance at Temple, who spoke promptly, while Guion swallowed thirstily a glass of cognac.
"That's a good deal for a soul, Henry. It's a large amount of the sure and tangible for a very uncertain quantity of the impalpable and problematical."
Davenant laughed at this more boisterously than the degree of humor warranted. He began definitely to feel that sense of discomfort which in the last half-hour he had been only afraid of. It was not the commonplace fact that Guion might be short of money that he dreaded; it was the possibility of getting a glimpse of another man's inner secret self. He had been in this position more than once before--when men wanted to tell him things he didn't want to know--when, whipped by conscience or crazed by misfortune or hysterical from drink, they tried to rend with their own hands the veil that only the lost or the desperate suffer to be torn. He had noted before that it was generally men like Guion of a high strung temperament, perhaps with a feminine streak in it, who reached this pass, and because of his own reserve--his rather cowardly reserve, he called it--he was always impelled to run away from them. As there was no possibility of running away now, he could only dodge, by pretending to misunderstand, what he feared Guion was trying to say.
"So everything you undertook you pulled off successfully?" his host questioned, abruptly.
"Not everything; some things. I lost money--often; but on the whole I made it."
"Good! With me it was always the other way."
The pause that followed was an uneasy one, otherwise Temple would not have seized on the first topic that came to hand to fill it up.
"You'll miss Olivia when she's gone, Henry."
"Y-yes; if she goes."
The implied doubt startled Davenant, but Temple continued to smoke pensively. "I've thought," he said, after a puff or two at his cigar, "I've thought you seemed to be anticipating something in the way of a--hitch."
Guion held his cigar with some deliberation over an ash-tray, knocking off the ash with his little finger as though it were a task demanding precision.
"You'll know all about it to-morrow, perhaps--or in a few days at latest. It can't be kept quiet much longer. I got the impression at dinner that you'd heard something already."
"Nothing but gossip, Henry."
Guion smiled, but with a wince. "I've noticed," he said, "that there's a certain kind of gossip that rarely gets about unless there's some cause for it--on the principle of no smoke without fire. If you've heard anything, it's probably true."
"I was afraid it might be. But in that case I wonder you allowed Olivia to go ahead."
"I had to let fate take charge of that. When a man gets himself so entangled in a coil of barbed wire that he trips whichever way he turns, his only resource is to stand still. That's my case." He poured himself out another glass of cognac, and tasted it before continuing. "Olivia goes over to England, and gets herself engaged to a man I never heard of. Good! She fixes her wedding-day without consulting me and irrespective of my affairs. Good again! She's old enough to do it, and quite competent. Meanwhile I lose control of the machine, so to speak. I see myself racing on to something, and can't stop. I can only lie back and watch, to see what happens. I've got to leave that to fate, or God, or whatever it is that directs our affairs when we can no longer manage them ourselves." He took another sip of cognac, and pulled for a minute nervously at his cigar. "I thought at first that Olivia might be married and get, off before anything happened. Now, it looks to me as if there was going to be a smash. Rupert Ashley arrives in three or four days' time, and then--"
"You don't think he'd want to back out, do you?"
"I haven't the remotest idea. From Olivia's description he seems like a decent sort; and yet--"
Davenant got to, his feet. "Shouldn't you like me to go back to the ladies? You want to talk to the professor--"
"No, no," Guion said, easily, pushing Davenant into his seat again. "There's no reason why you shouldn't hear anything I have to say. The whole town will know it soon. You can't conceal a burning house; and Tory Hill is on fire. I may be spending my last night under its roof."
"They'll not rush things like that," Temple said, tying to speak reassuringly.
"They haven't rushed things as it is. I've come to the end of a very long tether. I only want you to know that by this time to-morrow night I may have taken Kipling's Strange Ride with Morrowby Jukes to the Land of the Living Dead. If I do, I sha'n't come back--accept bail, or that sort of thing. I can't imagine anything more ghastly than for a man to be hanging around among his old friends, waiting for a--for a"--he balked at the word--"for a trial," he said at last, "that can have only one ending. No! I'm ready to ride away when they call for me--but they won't find me pining for freedom."
"Can't anything be done?"
"Not for me, Rodney. If Rupert Ashley will only look after Olivia, I shan't mind what happens next. Men have been broken on the wheel before now. I think I can go through it as well as another. But if Ashley should fail us--and of course that's possible--well, you see why I feel as I do about her falling out with the old Marquise. Aunt Vic has always made much of her--and she's very well off--"
"Is there nothing to be expected in that quarter for yourself?"
Guion shook his head. "I couldn't ask her--not at the worst. In the natural course of things Olivia and I would be her heirs--that is, if she didn't do something else with her money--but she's still in the early seventies, and may easily go on for a long time yet. Any help there is very far in the future, so that--"
"Ashley, I take it, is a man of some means?"
"Of comfortable means--no more. He has an entailed property in the Midlands and his pay. As he has a mother and two sisters to pension off, Olivia begged to have no settlements made upon herself. He wanted to do it, after the English fashion, but I think she showed good feeling in declining it. Naturally, I approved of her doing it, knowing how many chances there were that I mightn't be able to--to play up--myself."
After this conversation Davenant could not but marvel at the ease with which their host passed the cigars again and urged him personally to have another glass of Chartreuse. "Then suppose we join the ladies," he added, when further hospitality was declined.
Guion took the time to fleck a few specks of cigar-ash from his shirt-bosom and waistcoat, thus allowing Rodney Temple to pass out first. When alone with Davenant he laid his hand upon the younger man's arm, detaining him.
"It was hardly fair to ask you to dinner," he said, still forcing an unsteady smile, "and let you in for this. I thought at first of putting you off; but in the end I decided to let you come. To me it's been a sort of dress-rehearsal--a foretaste of what it'll be in public. The truth is, I'm a little jumpy. The role's so new to me that it means something to get an idea of how to play it on nerve. I recall you as a little chap," he added, in another tone, "when Tom Davenant and his wife first took you. Got you out of an orphanage, didn't they, or something like that? If I remember rightly, your name was Hall or Hale--"
"It was Hallett--Peter Hallett."
"Hallett, was it? Well, it will do no harm for a young Caesar of finance like you to see what you may come to if you're not careful. Morituri te salutamus, as the gladiators used to say. Only I wish it was to be the arena and the sword instead of the court-room and the Ride with Morrowby Jukes."
Davenant said nothing, not because he had nothing to say, but because his thoughts were incoherent. Perhaps what was most in the nature of a shock to him was the sight of a man whom he both admired for his personality and honored as a pillar of Boston life falling so tragically into ruin. While it was true that to his financially gifted mind any misuse of trust funds had the special heinousness that horse-lifting has to a rancher, yet as he stood with Guion's hand on his shoulder he knew that something in the depths of his being was stirred, and stirred violently, that had rarely been affected before. He had once, as a boy, saved a woman from drowning; he had once seen a man at an upper window of a burning house turn back into the fire while the bystanders restrained him, Davenant, from attempting an impossible rescue. Something of the same unreasoning impulse rose up within him now--the impulse to save--the kind of impulse that takes no account of the merit of the person in peril, seeing only the danger.
But these promptings were dumb in him for the moment from lack of co-ordination. The two or three things he might have said seemed to strangle each other in the attempt to get right of way. In response to Guion's confidences he could only mumble something incoherent and pass on to the drawing-room door. It was a wide opening, hung with portieres, through which he could see Olivia Guion standing by the crackling wood fire, a foot on the low fender. One hand rested lightly on the mantelpiece, while the other drew back her skirt of shimmering black from the blaze. Drusilla Fane, at the piano, was strumming one of Chopin's more familiar nocturnes.
He was still thinking of this glimpse when, a half-hour later, he said to Rodney Temple, as they walked homeward in the moonlight: "I haven't yet told you what I came back for."
"Well, what is it?"
"I thought--that is, I hoped--that if I did the way might open up for me to do what might be called--well, a little good."
"What put that into your head?" was the old man's response to this stammering confession.
"I suppose the thought occurred to me on general principles. I've always understood it was the right thing to attempt."
"Oh, right. That's another matter. Doing right is as easy as drawing breath. It's a habit, like any other. To start out to do good is much like saying you'll add a cubit to your stature. But you can always do right. Do right, and the good'll take care of itself."
Davenant reflected on this in silence as they tramped onward. By this time they had descended Tory Hill, and were on the dike that outlines the shores of the Charles.
By a common impulse both Temple and Davenant kept silent concerning Guion. On leaving Tory Hill they had elected to walk homeward, the ladies taking the carriage. The radiant moonlight and the clear, crisp October air helped to restore Davenant's faculties to a normal waking condition after the nightmare of Guion's hints. Fitting what he supposed must be the facts into the perspective of common life, to which the wide, out-of-door prospect offered some analogy, they were, if not less appalling, at least less overwhelming. Without seeing what was to be done much more clearly than he had seen an hour ago, he had a freer consciousness of power--something like the matter-of-course assumption that any given situation could be met with which he ordinarily faced the world. That he lacked authority in the case was a thought that did not occur to him--no more than it occurred to him on the day when he rescued the woman from drowning, or on the night when he had dashed into the fire to save a man.
It was not till they had descended the straggling, tree-shaded street--along which the infrequent street-lamps threw little more light that that which came from the windows shining placidly out on lawns--and had emerged on the embankment bordering the Charles, that the events of the evening began for Davenant to weave themselves in with that indefinable desire that had led him back to Boston. He could not have said in what way they belonged together; and yet he could perceive that between them there was some such dim interpenetration as the distant lamps of the city made through the silvery mist lying on the river and its adjacent marshes like some efflorescence of the moonlight.
"The difficulty is," he said, after a long silence, "that it's often so hard to know what is right."
"No, it isn't."
The flat contradiction brought a smile to the young man's lips as they trudged onward.
"A good many people say so."
"A good many people say foolish things. It's hard to know what's right chiefly when you're not in a hurry to do it."
"Aren't there exceptions to that rule?"
"I allowed for the exceptions. I said chiefly."
"But when you do want to do it?"
"You'll know what it is. There'll be something to tell you."
"And this something to tell you? What do you call it?"
"Some call it conscience. Some call it God. Some call it neither."
Davenant reflected again.
"And you? What do you call it?"
"I can't see that anything would be gained by telling you. That sort of knowledge isn't of much use till it's worked out for oneself. At least, it wouldn't be of much use to you."
"Why not to me?"
"Because you've started out on your own voyage of discovery. You'll bring back more treasures from that adventure than any one can give you."
These things were said crustily, as though dragged from a man thinking of other matters and unwilling to talk. More minutes went by before Davenant spoke again.
"But doesn't it happen that what you call the 'something-to-tell-you' tells you now and then to do things that most people would call rather wild--or crazy?"
"I dare say."
"So what then?"
"Then you do them."
"If there's an 'Oh, but', you don't. That's all. You belong to the many called, but not to the few chosen."
"But if things are wild--I'm thinking of something in particular--"
"Then you'd better leave it alone, unless you're prepared to be considered a wild man. What Paul did was wild--and Peter--and Joan of Arc--and Columbus--and a good many others. True they were well punished for their folly. Most of them were put in irons, and some of them got death."
"I shouldn't dream of classing myself in their company."
"Every one's in their company who feels a big impulse and has the courage of it. The trouble with most of us is that we can do the feeling all right; but when it comes to the execution--well, we like to keep on the safe side, among the sane."
"So that," Davenant began, stammeringly, "if a fellow got something into his head--something that couldn't be wrong, you know--something that would be right--awfully right in its way, but in a way that most people would consider all wrong--or wild, as I said before--you'd advise him--?"
"I shouldn't advise him at all. Some things must be spontaneous, or they're of little use. If a good seed in good ground won't germinate of its own accord, words of counsel can't help it. But here we are at home. You won't come in just yet? Very well; you've got your latch-key."
"Good-night, sir. I hope you're not going to think me--well, altogether an idiot."
"Very likely I shall; but it'll be nothing if I do. If you can't stand a little thing like that you'd better not have come back with the ideas that have brought you."