The Street Called Straight by Basil King
It was not till the motor had actually got out of Havre and was well along the dusty white road to the chateau that Davenant began to have misgivings. Up to that point the landmarks--and and the sea-marks--had been familiar. On board the Louisiana, in London, in Paris, even in Havre, he had felt himself on his accustomed beat. On steamers or trains and in hotels he had that kind of confidence in himself which, failing him somewhat whenever he entered the precincts of domestic life, was sure to desert him altogether now, as he approached the strange and imposing.
"Madame est a la campagne."
A black-eyed old woman had told him so on the previous day. For the instant he was relieved, since it put off the moment of confronting the great lady a little longer.
He had, in fact, rung the bell at the frowning portal in the rue de l'Universite with some trepidation. Suggestions of grandeur and mystery beyond anything he was prepared to meet lay within these seemingly fortified walls. At the same time it gave glory to the glamour in which the image of Olivia Guion always appeared to him to think she had passed and repassed these solemn gates at will, and that the stately Louis Quinze hotel, of which the concierge allowed him a glimpse across the courtyard, had, on and off, been her home for years. It was one more detail that removed her beyond his sphere and made her inaccessible to his yearnings.
From the obliging post-office clerk at the bank on which he drew--a gentleman posted in the movements of all distinguished Americans on the continent of Europe--he learned that "la campagne" for the Marquise de Melcourt meant the chateau of Melcourt-le-Danois in the neighborhood of Harfleur. He was informed, moreover, that by taking the two-o'clock train to Havre he could sleep that night at the Hotel Frascati, and motor out to Melcourt easily within an hour in the morning. It began then to occur to him that what had presented itself at first as a prosaic journey from Boston to Paris and back was becoming an adventure, with a background of castles and noble dames.
Nevertheless, he took heart for the run to Havre, and except for feeling at twilight the wistfulness that comes out of the Norman landscape--the melancholy of things forgotten but not gone, dead but still brooding wraith-like over the valley of the Seine, haunting the hoary churches, and the turreted chateaux, and the windings of the river, and the long lines of poplar, and the villages and forests and orchards and corn-fields--except for this, his spirits were good. If now and then he was appalled at what he, a shy fellow with no antecedents to recommend him and no persuasive powers, had undertaken, he thought of Olivia Guion. The thing he was attempting became trivial when compared with the possible benefits to her.
That reflections too, enabled him to come victoriously out of three long hours of inward wrestling--three long hours spent on the jetty which thrust itself into the sea just outside his hotel at Havre. He supposed he had already fought the battle with himself and won it. Its renewal on the part of powers within his soul took him by surprise.
He had strolled out after dinner to the Chaussee des Etats-Unis to while away the time before going to bed. Ships and sailors, with the lights and sights and sounds of a busy port, had for him the fascination they exert over most men who lead rather sedentary lives. At that time in the evening the Chaussee des Etats-Unis was naturally gay with the landsman's welcome to the sailor on shore. The cafes were crowded both inside and out. Singing came from one and the twang of an instrument from another, all along the quay. Soldiers mingled fraternally with sailors, and pretty young women, mostly bareheaded and neatly dressed in black, mingled with both. It was what a fastidious observer of life might call "low," but Davenant's judgments had no severity of that kind. He looked at the merry groups, composed for the most part of chance acquaintances, here to-day and gone to-morrow, swift and light of love, with a curious craving for fellowship. From the gatherings of friends he felt himself invariably the one shut out.
It was this sense of exclusion that finally sent him away from the cheerful quay to wander down the jetty which marks the line where the Harbor of Grace, with its intricate series of basins and docks, becomes the sea. It was a mild night, though the waves beat noisily enough against the bastions of the pier. At intervals he was swept by a scud of spray. All sorts of acrid odors were in the wind--smells of tar and salt and hemp and smoke and oil--the perfumes of sea-hazard and romance.
Pulling his cap over his brows and the collar of his ulster about his ears, he sat down on the stone coping. His shoulders were hunched; his hands hung between his knees. He did not care to smoke. For a few minutes he was sufficiently occupied in tracing the lines and the groupings of lights. He had been in Havre more than once before, and knew the quai de Londres from the quai de New York, and both from the quai du Chili. Across the mouth of the Seine he could distinguish the misty radiance which must be Trouville from that which must be Honfleur. Directly under his eyes in the Avant Port the dim hulls of steamers and war-ships, fishing-boats and tugs, lay like monsters asleep.
There was no reason why all this should make him feel outside the warm glow and life of things; but it did. It did worse in that it inspired a longing for what he knew positively to be unattainable. It stirred a new impulse to fight for what he had definitely given up. It raised again questions he thought he had answered and revived hopes he had never had to quench, since from the beginning they were vain.
Were they vain? In taking this form the query became more insidious--more difficult to debate and settle once for all. To every argument there was a perpetually recurring, "Yes, but--" with the memory of the instants when her hand rested in his longer than there was any need for, of certain looks and lights in her eyes, of certain tones and half-tones in her voice. Other men would have made these things a beginning, whereas he had taken them as the end. He had taken them as the end by a foregone conclusion. They had meant so much to him that he couldn't conceive of asking more, when perhaps they were nothing but the first fruits.
The wind increased in violence; the spray was salt on his mustache, and clung to the nap of his clothing. The radiance that marked Trouville and Honfleur grew dim almost to extinction. Along the quay the cafes began to diminish the number of their lights. The cheerful groups broke up, strolling home to the mansard or to the fo'castle, with bursts of drunken or drowsy song. Davenant continued to sit crouched, huddled, bowed. He ceased to argue, or to follow the conflict between self-interest and duty, or to put up a fight of any kind. He was content to sit still and suffer. In its own way suffering was a relief. It was the first time he had given it a chance since he had brought himself to facing squarely the fact of his useless, pointless love. He had always dodged it by finding something to be done, or choked it down by sheer force of will. Now he let it rush in on him, all through him, all over him, flooding his mind and spirit, making his heart swell and his blood surge and his nerves ache and his limbs throb and quiver. If he could have formed a thought it would have been that of the Hebrew Psalmist when he felt himself poured out like water. He had neither shame for his manhood nor alarm for his pride till he heard himself panting, panting raucously, with a sound that was neither a moan nor a sob, but which racked him convulsively, while there was a hot smarting in his eyes.
But in the end he found relief and worked his way out to a sort of victory. That is to say, he came back to see, as he had seen all along, that there was one clear duty to be done. If he loved Olivia Guion with a love that was worthy to win, it must also be with a love that could lose courageously. This was no new discovery. It was only a fact which loneliness and the craving to be something to her, as she was everything to him, had caused him for the moment to lose sight of. But he came back to it with conviction. It was conviction that gave him confidence, that calmed him, enabling him, as a clock somewhere struck eleven, to get up, shake the sea-spray from his person, and return to his hotel.
It was while he was going to bed that Rodney Temple's words came back to him, as they did from time to time: "Some call it God."
"I wonder if it is--God," he questioned.
* * * * *
But the misgiving that beset him, as he motored out of Havre in the morning, was of another kind. It was that which attaches to the unlikely and the queer. Once having plunged into a country road, away from railways and hotels, he felt himself starting on a wild-goose chase. His assurance waned in proportion as conditions grew stranger. In vain an obliging chauffeur, accustomed to enlighten tourists as to the merits of this highway, pointed out the fact that the dusty road along which they sped had once--and not so many years ago--been the border of the bed of the Seine, that the white cliffs towering above them on the left, and edged along the top with verdure, marked the natural brink of the river, and that the church so admirably placed on a hillside was the shrine of a martyred maiden saint, whose body had come ashore here at Graville, having been flung into the water at Harfleur. Davenant was deaf to these interesting bits of information. He was blind, too. He was blind to the noble sweep of the Seine between soft green hills. He was blind to the craft on its bosom--steamers laden with the produce of orchard and the farm for England; Norwegian brigantines, weird as The Flying Dutchman in their black and white paint, carrying ice or lumber to Rouen; fishing-boats with red or umber sails. He was blind to the villages, clambering over cliffs to a casino, a plage, and a Hotel des Bains, or nestling on the uplands round a spire. He was blind to the picturesque wooded gorges, through which little tributaries of the great river had once run violently down from the table-land of the Pays de Caux. He was blind to the charms of Harfleur, famous and somnolent, on the banks of a still more somnolent stream. He resumed the working of his faculties only when the chauffeur turned and said:
"Voila, monsieur--voila le chateau de madame la marquise."
If it was possible for Davenant's heart to leap and sink in the same instant, it did it then. It leaped at the sight of this white and rose castle, with its towers and donjon and keep; it sank at the thought that he, poor old unpretentious Peter Davenant, with no social or personal passports of any kind, must force his way over drawbridge and beneath portcullis--or whatever else might be the method of entering a feudal pile--into the presence of the chatelaine whose abode here must be that of some legendary princess, and bend her to his will. Stray memories came to him of Siegfrieds and Prince Charmings, with a natural gift for this sort of thing, but only to make his own appearance in the role the more absurd.
Melcourt-le-Danois had that characteristic which goes with all fine and fitting architecture of springing naturally out of the soil. It seemed as if it must always have been there. It was as difficult to imagine the plateau on which it stood without it as to see Mont Saint Michel merely as a rocky islet. The plateau crowned a white bluff running out like the prow of a Viking ship into a bend of the Seine, commanding the river in both directions. It was clear at a glance that when Roger the Dane laid here the first stone of his pirates' stronghold, to protect his port of Harfleur, the salt water must have dashed right up against the chalky cliff; but the centuries during which the silt of the Vosges had been carried down the river and piled up against the rocks at its mouth, had driven the castle inland for an eighth of a mile. Melcourt-le-Danois which had once looked down into the very waves now dominated in the first place a strip of gardens, and orchards of small fruit, through which the, road from Harfleur to the village of Melcourt, half a mile farther up the Seine, ran like a bit of white braid.
Viewed from the summit of the cliff on which Davenant's motor had stopped, the chateau was composed of two ancient towers guarding the long, and relatively low, relatively modern, brick mansion of the epoch of Louis Treize. The brick, once red, had toned down now to a soft old rose; the towers, once white, were splashed above the line to which the ivy climbed with rose and orange. Over the tip of the bluff and down its side of southern exposure, toward the village of Melcourt, ran a park of oak and chestnut, in all the October hues of yellow and olive-brown.
But ten minutes later, when the motor had made a detour round cliffs and little inlets and arrived at the main entrance to the chateau, Davenant found the aspect of things less intimidating. Through a high wrought-iron grille, surmounted by the head of an armorial beast, he had the view of a Lenotre garden, all scrolls and arabesques. The towers, which at a distance had seemed part of a continuous whole, now detached themselves. The actual residence was no more imposing than any good-sized house in America. Davenant understood the chauffeur to say that "Madame la marquise l'avait modernise jusqu'au bout des ongles."
Having summoned up courage to ring the bell, he found it answered by a middle-aged woman with a face worn by time and weather to the polished grooves and creases to which water wears a rock.
"On ne visite pas le chateau."
She made the statement with the stony, impersonal air of one who has to say the same thing a good many times a year. Davenant pressed close to the grille, murmuring something of which she caught the word "Madame."
"Madame la marquise n'est pas visible."
The quick Norman eye had, however, noticed the movement of Davenant's hand, detecting there something more than a card. In speaking she edged nearer the grille. Thrusting his fingers between the curves of the iron arabesques, he said, in his best French: "Prenez."
Measuring time by the pounding of his heart rather than the ticking of his watch, it seemed to him he had a long time to wait before the woman reappeared, handing him back his card through the openwork of the grille, saying briefly: "Madame la marquise ne recoit pas." Perhaps it was the crestfallen look in the blond giant's face that tempted her to add: "Je le regrette, monsieur."
In the compassionate tone he read a hint that all was not lost. Scribbling under his name the words: "Boston, Mass. Very urgent," he once more passed the card through the grille, accompanied by the manual act that had won the woman's sympathy in the first place.
"Allez, please," he said, earnestly, "and--vite."
He found his penciled words effective, for presently the woman came back. "Venez, monsieur," she said, as she unlocked the grille with a large key carried beneath her apron. Her stony official manner had returned.
As he drew near the house a young man sketching or writing under a yew-tree looked up curiously. A few steps farther on a pretty girl, in a Leghorn hat, clipping roses into a basket, glanced at him with shy, startled eyes. In the hall, where he was left standing, a young officer in sky-blue tunic and red breeches, who had been strumming at a piano in an adjoining room, strolled to the door and stared at him. A thin, black-eyed, sharp-visaged, middle-aged lady, dressed in black and wearing a knitted shawl--perhaps the mother of the three young people he had just seen--came half-way down the strip of red carpet on the stairs, inspected him, and went up again. It was all more disconcerting than he had expected.
The great hall, of which the chief beauty was in the magnificent sweep of the monumental stairway, with its elaborate wrought-iron balustrade, struck him as a forbidding entry to a home. A man-servant came at last to deliver him from the soft, wondering eyes of the young officer, and lead him into a room which he had already recognized as a library through the half-open door.
Here he had just time to get a blurred impression of portraits, busts, Bull surfaces, and rich or ancient bindings--with views through the long windows of the traffic on the Seine--when a little old lady appeared in a doorway at the farther end of the room. He knew she was a little old lady from all sorts of indefinable evidence, in spite of her own efforts to be young. He knew it in spite of fluffy golden hair and a filmy, youthful morning robe that displayed the daintiness of her figure as well as the expensiveness of her taste.
She tripped rapidly down the long room, with quick little steps and a quick little swinging of the arms that made the loose gossamer sleeves blow outward from the wrists. He recognized her instantly as the Marquise de Melcourt from her resemblance, in all those outlines which poudre de riz and cherry paste could not destroy, to the Guion type. The face would have still possessed the Guion beauty, had she given it a chance. Looking at it as she came nearer, Davenant was reminded of things he had read of those Mongolian tribes who are said to put on masks to hide their fear and go resolutely forth to battle. Having always considered this a lofty form of courage, he was inconsistent in finding its reflection here--the fear of time beneath these painted cheeks and fluffy locks, and the fight against it carried on by the Marquise's whole brave bearing--rather pitifully comic.
Madame herself had no such feeling. She wore her mask with absolute nonchalance, beginning to speak while still some yards away.
"Eh, bien, monsieur?"
Davenant doubled himself up into a deep bow, but before he had time to stammer out some apologetic self-introduction, she continued:
"You've come from Davis and Stern, I suppose, on business. I always tell them not to send me people, but to cable. Why didn't they cable? They know I don't like Americans coming here. I'm pestered to death with them--that is, I used to be--and I should be still, if I didn't put 'em down."
The voice was high and chattering, with a tendency to crack. It had the American quality with a French intonation. In speaking, the Marquise made little nervous dashes, now to the right, now to the left, as though endeavoring to get by some one who blocked her way.
"I haven't come on business, my--my lady."
He used this term of respect partly from a frightened desire to propitiate a great personage and partly because he couldn't think of any other.
"Then what have you come on? If it's to see the chateau you may as well go away. It's never shown. Those are positive orders. I make no exceptions. They must have told you so at the gate. But you Americans will dare anything. Mon Dieu, quel tas de barbares!"
The gesture of her hands in uttering the exclamation was altogether French, but she betrayed her oneness with the people she reviled by saying: "Quel tah de bah-bah!"
"I haven't come to see the chateau either, my lady--"
"You can call me madame," she interrupted, not without a kindlier inflection on the hint.
He began again. "I haven't come to see the chateau, either--madame. I've come to see you."
She made one of her little plunges. "Oh, indeed! Have you? I thought you'd learned better than that--over there. You used to come in ship-loads, but--"
He began to feel more sure of himself. "When I say I came to see you, madame, I mean, I came to--to tell you something."
"Then, so long as it's not on business, I don't want to hear it. I suppose you're one of Walter Davenant's boys? I don't consider him any relation to me at all. It's too distant. If I acknowledged all the cousins forced on me from over there I might as well include Abraham and Adam. Are you the first or the second wife's son?"
He explained his connection with the Davenant name. "But that isn't what I came to talk about, madame--not about myself. I wanted to tell you of--of your nephew--Mr. Henry Guion."
She turned with a movement like that of a fleeing nymph, her hand stretched behind her. "Don't. I don't want to hear about him. Nor about my niece. They're strangers to me. I don't know them."
"You'd like to know them now, madame--because they're in great trouble."
She took refuge behind a big English arm-chair, leaning on the back.
"I dare say. It's what they were likely to come to. I told my niece so, the last time she allowed me the privilege of her conversation. But I told her, too, that in the day of her calamity she wasn't to look to me."
"She isn't looking to you, madame. I am. I'm looking to you because I imagine you can help her. There's no one else--"
"And has she sent you as her messenger? Why can't she come herself, if it's so bad as all that--or write? I thought she was married--to some Englishman."
"They're not married yet, madame; and unless you help her I don't see how they're going to be--the way things stand."
"Unless I help her! My good fellow, you don't know what you're saying. Do you know that she refused--refused violently--to help me?"
He shook his head, his blue eyes betraying some incredulity.
"Well, then, I'll tell you. It'll show you. You'll be able to go away again with a clear conscience, knowing you've done your best and failed. Sit down."
As she showed no intention of taking a seat herself, he remained standing.
"She refused the Duc de Berteuil." She made the statement with head erect and hands flung apart. "I suppose you have no idea of what that meant to me?"
"I'm afraid I haven't."
"Of course you haven't. I don't know an American who would have. You're so engrossed in your own small concerns. None of you have any conception of the things that really matter--the higher things. Well, then, let me tell you. The Duc de Berteuil is--or rather was--the greatest parti in France. He isn't any more, because they've married him to a rich girl from South America or one of those places--brown as a berry--with a bust--" She rounded her arms to give an idea of the bust. "Mais, n'importe. My niece refused him. That meant--I've never confessed it to any one before--I've been too proud--but I want you to understand--it meant my defeat--my final defeat. I hadn't the courage to begin again. C'etait le desastre. C'etait Sedan."
It seemed to him that her mouth worked with an odd piteousness; and before going on she put up a crooked little jeweled hand and dashed away a tear.
"It would have been everything to me. It would have put me where I belong, in the place I've been trying to reach all these years. The life of an American woman in Europe, monsieur, can be very cruel. We've nothing to back us up, and everything to fight against in front. It's all push, and little headway. They don't want us. That's the plain English of it. They can't imagine why we leave our own country and come over here. They're so narrow. They're selfish, too. Everything they've got they want to keep for themselves. They marry us--the Lord only knows why!--and nine times out of ten all we get for it is the knowledge that we've been bamboozled out of our own dots. There was Rene de Lonchartres who married that goose Annie Armstrong. They ridiculed her when she came over here, and at the same time clapped him on the back for having got her. That's as true as you live. It's their way. They would have ridiculed me, too, if I hadn't been determined years ago to beat them on their own ground. I could have done it, too, if--"
"If it had been worth while," he ventured.
"You know nothing about it. I could have done it if my niece had put out just one little finger--when I'd got everything ready for her to do it. Yes, I'd got everything ready--and yet she refused him. She refused him after I'd seen them all--his mother, his sisters, his two uncles--one of them in waiting on the Duc d'Orleans--Philippe V., as we call him--all of them the purest old noblesse d'epee in Normandy."
Her agitation expressed itself again in little dartings to and fro. "I went begging to them, as you might say. I took all their snubs--and oh! so fine some of them were!--more delicate than the point of a needle! I took them because I could see just how I should pay them back. I needn't explain to you how that would be, because you couldn't understand. It would be out of the question for an American."
"I don't think we are good at returning snubs, madame. That's a fact."
"You're not good at anything but making money; and you make that blatantly, as if you were the first people in the world to do it. Why, France and England could buy and sell you, and most of you don't know it. Mais, n'importe. I went begging to them, as I've told you. At first they wouldn't hear of her at any price--didn't want an American. That was bluff, to get a bigger dot. I had counted on it in advance. I knew well enough that they'd take a Hottentot if there was money enough. For the matter of that, Hottentot and American are much the same to them. But I made it bluff for bluff. Oh, I'm sharp. I manage all my own affairs in America--with advice. I've speculated a little in your markets quite successfully. I know how I stand to within a few thousand dollars of your money. I offered half a million of francs. They laughed at it. I knew they would, but it's as much as they'd get with a French girl. I went to a million--to a million and a half--to two millions. At two millions--that would be--let me see--five into twenty makes four--about four hundred thousand dollars of your money--they gave in. Yes, they gave in. I expected them to hold out for it, and they did. But at that figure they made all the concessions and gave in."
"And did he give in?" Davenant asked, with naive curiosity.
"Oh, I'd made sure of him beforehand. He and I understood each other perfectly. He would have let it go at a million and a half. He was next door to being in love with her besides. All he wanted was to be well established, poor boy! But I meant to go up to two millions, anyhow. I could afford it."
"Four hundred thousand dollars," Davenant said, with an idea that he might convey a hint to her, "would be practically the sum--"
"I could afford it," she went on, "because of those ridiculous copper-mines--the Hamlet and Tecla. I wasn't rich before that. My dot was small. No Guion I ever heard of was able to save money. My father was no exception."
"You are in the Hamlet and Tecla!" Davenant's blue eyes were wide open. He was on his own ground. The history of the Hamlet and Tecla Mines had been in his own lifetime a fairy-tale come true.
Madame de Melcourt nodded proudly. "My father had bought nearly two thousand shares when they were down to next to nothing. They came to me when he died. It was mere waste paper for years and years. Then all of a sudden--pouff!--they began to go up and up--and I sold them when they were near a thousand. I could have afforded the two millions of francs--and I promised to settle Melcourt-le-Danois on them into the bargain, when I--if I ever should--But my niece wouldn't take him--simply--would--not. Ah," she cried, in a strangled voice, "c'etait trop fort!"
"But did she know you were--what shall I say?--negotiating?"
"She was in that stupid England. It wasn't a thing I could write to her about. I meant it as a surprise. When all was settled I sent for her--and told her. Oh, monsieur, vous n'avez pas d'idee! Queue scene! Queue scene! J'ai failli en mourir." She wrung her clasped hands at the recollection.
"That girl has an anger like a storm. Avec tous ses airs de reine et de sainte--she was terrible. Never shall I forget it--jamais! jam-ais! au grand jamais! Et puis," she added, with a fatalistic toss of her hands, "c'etait fini. It was all over. Since then--nothing!"
She made a little dash as if to leave him, returning to utter what seemed like an afterthought. "It would have made her. It would have made me. We could have dictated to the Faubourg. We could have humiliated them--like that." She stamped her foot. "It would have been a great alliance--what I've been so much in need of. The Melcourt--well, they're all very well--old noblesse de la Normandie, and all that--but poor!--mais pauvres!--and as provincial as a cure de campagne. When I married my poor husband--but we won't go into that--I've been a widow since I was so high--ever since 1870--with my own way to make. If my niece hadn't deserted me I could have made it. Now all that is past--fini-ni-ni! The clan Berteuil has set the Faubourg against me. They've the power, too. It's all so intricate, so silent, such wheels within wheels--but it's done. They've never wanted me. They don't want any of us--not for ourselves. It's the sou!--the sou!--the everlasting sou! Noble or peasant--it makes no difference. But if my niece hadn't abandoned me--"
"Why shouldn't you come home, madame?" Davenant suggested, touched by so much that was tragic. "You wouldn't find any one after the sou there."
"They're all about me," she whispered--"the Melcourt. They're all over the house. They come and settle on me, and I can't shake them off. They suffocate me--waiting for the moment when--But I've made my will, and some'll be disappointed. Oh, I shall leave them Melcourt-le-Danois. It's mine. I bought it with my own money, after my husband's death, and restored it when the Hamlet and Tecla paid so well. It shall not go out of their family--for my husband's sake. But," she added, fiercely, "neither shall the money go out of mine. They shall know I have a family. It's the only way by which I can force the knowledge on them. They think I sprang out of the earth like a mushroom. You may tell my niece as much as that--and let her get all the comfort from it she can. That's all I have to say, monsieur. Good morning."
The dash she made from him seeming no more final than those which had preceded it, he went on speaking.
"I'm afraid, madame, that help is too far in the future to be of much assistance now. Besides, I'm not sure it's what they want. We've managed to keep Mr. Henry Guion out of prison. That danger is over. Our present concern is for Miss Olivia Guion's happiness."
As he expected, the shock calmed her. Notwithstanding her mask, she grew suddenly haggard, though her eyes, which--since she had never been able to put poudre de riz or cherry paste in them--were almost as fine as ever, instantly flashed out the signal of the Guion pride. Her fluffy head went up, and her little figure stiffened as she entrenched herself again behind the arm-chair. Her only hint of flinching came from a slackening in the flow of speech and a higher, thinner quality in the voice.
"Has my nephew, Henry Guion, been doing things--that--that would send him--to prison?"
In spite of herself the final words came out with a gasp.
"It's a long story, madame--or, at least, a complicated one. I could explain it, if you'd give me the time."
They took seats at last. Owing to the old lady's possession of what she herself called a business mind he found the tale easy in the telling. Her wits being quick and her questions pertinent, she was soon in command of the facts. She was soon, too, in command of herself. The first shock having passed, she was able to go into complete explanations with courage.
"So that," he concluded, "now that Mr. Guion is safe, if Miss Guion could only marry--the man--the man she cares for--everything would be put as nearly right as we can make it."
"And at present they are at a deadlock. She won't marry him if he has to sell his property, and so forth; and he can't marry her, and live in debt to you. Is that it?"
"That's it, madame, exactly. You've put it in a nutshell."
She looked at him hardly. "And what has it all got to do with me?"
He looked at her steadily in his turn. "I thought perhaps you wouldn't care to live in debt to me, either."
She was startled. "Who? I? En voila une idee!"
"I thought," he went on, "that possibly the Guion sense of family honor--"
"Fiddle-faddle! There's no sense of family honor among Americans. There can't be. You can only have family honor where, as with us, the family is the unit; whereas, with you, the unit is the individual. The American individual may have a sense of honor; but the American family is only a disintegrated mush. What you really thought was that you might get your money back."
"If you like, madame. That's another way of putting it. If the family paid me, Miss Guion would feel quite differently--and so would Colonel Ashley."
"When you say the family," she sniffed, "you mean me."
"In the sense that I naturally think first of its most distinguished member. And, of course, the greater the distinction the greater must be--shall I call it the indignity?--of living under an obligation--"
"Am I to understand that you put up this money--that's your American term, isn't it?--that you put up this money in the expectation that I would pay you back?"
"Not exactly. I put up the money, in the first place, to save the credit of the Guion name, and with the intention, if you didn't pay me back, to do without it."
"And you risked being considered over-officious."
"There wasn't much risk about that," he smiled. "They did think me so--and do."
"And you got every one into a fix."
"Into a fix, but out of prison."
She grew restless, uncomfortable, fidgeting with her rings and bracelets.
"And pray, what sort of a person is this Englishman to whom my niece has got herself engaged?"
"One of their very finest," he said, promptly. "As a soldier, so they say, he'll catch up one day with men like Roberts and Kitchener; and as for his private character--well, you can judge of it from the fact that he wants to strip himself of all he has so that the Guion name shall owe nothing to any one outside--"
"Then he's a fool."
"From that point of view--yes. There are fools of that sort, madame. But there's something more to him."
He found himself reciting glibly Ashley's claims as a suitor in the way of family, position, and fortune.
"So that it would be what some people might call a good match."
"The best sort of match. It's the kind of thing she's made for--that she'd be happy in--regiments, and uniforms, and glory, and presenting prizes, and all that."
"Hm. I shall have nothing to do with it." She rose with dignity. "If my niece had only held out a little finger--"
"It was a case, madame," he argued, rising, too--"it was a case in which she couldn't hold out a little finger without offering her whole hand."
"You know nothing about it. I'm wrong to discuss it with you at all. I'm sure I don't know why I do, except that--"
"Except that I'm an American," he suggested--"one of your own."
"One of my own! Quelle idee! Do you like him--this Englishman?"
He hedged. "Miss Guion likes him."
"But you don't."
"I haven't said so. I might like him well enough if--"
"If you got your money back."
He smiled and nodded.
"Is she in love with him?"
"How do you know? Has she told you so?"
"Y-es; I think I may say--she has."
"Did you ask her?"
He colored. "I had to--about something."
"You weren't proposing to her yourself, were you?"
He tried to take this humorously. "Oh no, madame--"
"You can't be in love with her, or you wouldn't be trying so hard to marry her to some one else--not unless you're a bigger fool than you look."
"I hope I'm not that," he laughed.
"Well, I shall have nothing to do with it--nothing. Between my niece and me--tout est fini." She darted from him, swerving again like a bird on the wing. "I don't know you. You come here with what may be no more than a cock-and-bull story, to get inside the chateau."
"I shouldn't expect you to do anything, madame, without verifying all I've told you. For the matter of that, it'll be easy enough. You've only to write to your men of business, or--which would be better still--take a trip to America for yourself."
She threw out her arms with a tragic gesture. "My good man, I haven't been in America for forty years. I nearly died of it then. What it must be like now--"
"It wouldn't be so fine as this, madame, nor so picturesque. But it would be full of people who'd be fond of you, not for the sou--but for yourself."
She did her best to be offended. "You're taking liberties, monsieur. C'est bien american, cela."
"Excuse me, madame," he said, humbly. "I only mean that they are fond of you--at least, I I know Miss Guion is. Two nights before I sailed I heard her almost crying for you--yes, almost crying. That's why I came. I thought I'd come and tell you. I should think it might mean something to you--over here so long--all alone--to have some one like that--such a--such a--such a wonderful young lady wanting you--in her trouble--"
"And such a wonderful young man wanting his money back. Oh, I'm not blind, monsieur. I see a great deal more than you think. I see through and through you. You fancy you're throwing dust in my eyes, and you haven't thrown a grain. Pouff! Oh, la, la! Mais, c'est fini. As for my niece--le bon Dieu l' a bien punie. For me to step in now would be to interfere with the chastisement of Providence. Le bon Dieu is always right. I'll say that for Him. Good morning." She touched a bell. "The man will show you to the door. If you like to stroll about the grounds--now that you've got in--well, you can."
With sleeves blowing she sped down the room as if on pinions. The man-servant waited respectfully. Davenant stood his ground, hoping for some sign of her relenting. It was almost over her shoulder that she called back:
"Where are you staying?"
He told her.
"Stupid place. You'll find the Chariot d'Or at Melcourt a great deal nicer. Simple, but clean. An old chef of mine keeps it. Tell him I sent you. And ask for his poularde au riz."