The Street Called Straight by Basil King
"What do you think of him?"
Ashley's tone indicated some uncertainty as to what he thought himself. Indeed, uncertainty was indicated elsewhere than in his tone. It seemed to hang about him, to look from his eyes, to take form in his person. Perhaps this was the one change wrought in him by a month's residence in America. When he arrived everything had bespoken him a man aggressively positive with the habit of being sure. His very attitude, now, as he sat in Rodney Temple's office in the Harvard Gallery of Fine Arts, his hands thrust into his pockets, his legs stretched apart, his hat on the back of his head, suggested one who feels the foundations of the earth to have shifted.
Rodney Temple, making his arrangements for leaving for the day, met one question with another. "What do you?"
"You know him," Ashley urged, "and I don't."
"I thought you did. I thought you'd read him right off--as a cow-puncher."
"He looks like one, by Jove! and he speaks like one, too. You wouldn't call him a gentleman? What?"
"If you mean by a gentleman one who's always been able to take the best in the world for granted, perhaps he isn't. But that isn't our test--over here."
"Then, what is?"
"I'm not sure that I could tell you so that you'd understand--at any rate, not unless you start out with the fact that the English gentleman and the American differ not only in species, but in genus. I'd go so far as to say that they've got to be recognized by different sets of faculties. You get at your man by the eye and the ear; we have to use a subtler apparatus. If we didn't we should let a good many go uncounted. Some of our finest are even more uncouth with their consonants than good friend Davenant. They'd drop right out of your list, but they take a high place in ours. To try to discern one by the methods created for the other is like what George Eliot says of putting on spectacles to detect odors. Ignorance of this basic social fact on both sides has given rise to much international misjudgment. See?"
"Can't say that I do."
"No, you wouldn't. But until you do you won't understand a big simple type--"
"I don't care a hang about his big simple type. What I want to know is how to take him. Is he a confounded sentimentalist?--or is he still putting up a bluff?"
"What difference does it make to you?"
"If he's putting up a bluff, he's waiting out there at Michigan for me to call it. If he's working the sentimental racket, then I've got to be the beneficiary of his beastly good-will."
"If he's putting up a bluff, you can fix him by not calling it at all; and as for his beastly good-will, well, he's a beneficiary of it, too."
"Because beastly good-will is a thing that cuts both ways. He'll get as much out of it as you."
"That's all very fine--"
"It's very fine, indeed, for him. We've an old saying in these parts: By the Street called Straight we come to the House called Beautiful. It's one of those fanciful saws of which the only justification is that it works. Any one can test the truth of it by taking the highway. Well, friend Davenant is taking it. He'll reach the House called Beautiful as straight as a die. Don't you fret about that. You'll owe him nothing in the long run, because he'll get all the reward he's entitled to. When's the wedding? Fixed the date yet?"
"Not going to fix one," Ashley explained, moodily. "One of these days, when everything is settled at Tory Hill and the sale is over, we shall walk off to the church and get married. That seems to be the best way, as matters stand."
"It's a very sensible way at all times. And I hear you're carrying Henry off with you to England."
Ashley shrugged his shoulders. "Going the whole hog. What? Had to make the offer. Olivia couldn't leave him behind. Anything that will make her happy--"
"Will make you happy."
"That's about the size of it."
Having locked the last drawer and put out the desk light, Temple led his guest down the long gallery and across the Yard to the house on Charlesbank. Here Ashley pursued kindred themes in the company of Mrs. Fane, finding himself alone with her at tea. He was often alone with her at tea, her father having no taste for this form of refreshment, while her mother found reasons for being absent.
"Queer old cove, your governor," Ashley observed, stretching himself comfortably before the fire. The blaze of logs alone lit up the room.
"Is that why you seem to have taken a fancy to him?"
"I like to hear him gassing. Little bit like the Bible, don't you know."
"He's very fond of the Bible."
"Seems to think a lot of that chap--your governor."
A nod supposed to indicate the direction of the State of Michigan enabled her to follow his line of thought.
"He does. There's something rather colossal about the way he's dropped out--"
"A jolly sight too colossal. Makes him more important than if he'd stayed on the spot and fought the thing to a finish."
"Fought what thing to a finish?"
He was sorry to have used the expression. "Oh, there's still a jolly lot to settle up, you know."
"But I thought everything was arranged--that you'd accepted the situation."
He stretched himself more comfortably before the fire. "We'd a row," he said, suddenly.
"A row? What kind of a row?"
"A street row--just like two hooligans. He struck me."
"Rupert!" She half sprang up. "He--"
Ashley swung round in his chair. He was smiling.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," she cried, in confusion. "I can't think what made me call you that. I never do--never. It was the surprise--and the shock--"
"That's all right," he assured her. "I often call you Drusilla when I'm talking to Olivia. I don't see why we shouldn't--we've always been such pals--and we're going to be a kind of cousins--"
"Tell me about Peter."
"Oh, there's nothing much that stands telling. We were two idiots--two silly asses. I insulted him--and he struck out. I called him a cad--I believe I called him a damned cad."
"To his face?"
"To his nose."
"Oh, you shouldn't have done that."
"And he got mad, by Jove! Oh, it didn't last. We pulled off in a second or two. We saw we were two idiots--two kids. It wasn't worth getting on one's high horse about--or attempting to follow it up--it was too beastly silly for heroics--except that--that he--"
"Except that he--what?"
"Except that he--got the better of me. He has the better of me still. And I can't allow that, by Jove! Do you see?"
"I don't see very clearly. In what way did he get the better of you?"
"In the whole thing--the way he carried it off--the whole silly business."
"Then I don't see what's to be done about it now."
"Something's got to be done, by Jove! I can't let it go at that."
"Well, what do you propose?"
"I don't propose anything. But I can't go through life letting that fellow stay on top. Why, considering everything--all he's done for Olivia and her father--and now this other thing--and his beastly magnanimity besides--he's frightfully on top. It won't do, you know. But I say, you'll not tell Olivia, will you? She'd hate it--about the row, I mean. I don't mind your knowing. You're always such a good pal to me--"
It was impossible to go on, because Mrs. Temple bustled in from the task of helping Olivia with the packing and sacking at Tory Hill. Having greeted Ashley with the unceremoniousness permissible with one who was becoming an intimate figure at the fireside, she settled to her tea.
"Oh, so sad!" she reflected, her little pursed-up mouth twitching nervously. "The dear old house all dismantled! Everything to go! I've asked Henry to come and stay here. It's too uncomfortable for him, with all the moving and packing going on around him. It'll be easier for dear Olivia, too. So hard for her to take care of him, with all the other things she has on her hands. There's Peter's room. Henry may as well have it. I don't suppose we shall see anything more of Peter for ages to come. But I do wish he'd write. Don't you, Colonel Ashley? I've written to him three times now--and not a line from him! I suppose they must be able to get letters out there, at Stoughton, Michigan. It can't be so far beyond civilization as all that. And Olivia would like it. She's worried about him--about his not writing--and everything. Don't you think, Colonel Ashley?"
Ashley looked blank. "I haven't noticed it--"
"Oh, I have. A woman's eye sees those little things, don't you think? Men have so much on their hands--the great things of the world--but the little things, they often count, don't you think? But I tell dear Olivia not to worry. Everything will come right. Things do come right--very often. I'm more pessimistic than Rodney--that I must say. But still I think things have a way of coming right when we least expect it. I tell dear Olivia that Peter will send a line just when we're not looking for it. It's the watched pot that never boils, you know, and so I tell her to stop watching for the postman. That's fatal to getting a letter--watching for the postman. How snug you two look here together! Well, I'll run up and take off my things. No; no more tea, dear. I won't say good-by, Colonel Ashley, because you'll be here when I come down."
Mrs. Temple was a good woman who would have been astonished to hear herself accused of falsehood but, as a matter of fact, her account of the conversation with Olivia bore little relation to the conversation itself. What she had actually said was:
"Poor Peter! I suppose he doesn't write because he's trying to forget."
The challenge here being so direct, Olivia felt it her duty to take it up. The ladies were engaged in sorting the linen in preparation for the sale.
"Forget Drusilla, I suppose. Hasn't it struck you--how much he was in love with her?"
Olivia held a table-cloth carefully to the light. "Is this Irish linen or German? I know mamma did get some at Dresden--"
Mrs. Temple pointed out the characteristic of the Belfast weave and pressed her question. "Haven't you noticed it--about Peter?"
Olivia tried to keep her voice steady as she said: "I've no doubt I should have seen it if I hadn't been so preoccupied."
"Some people think--Rodney, for instance--that he'd lost his head about you, dear; but we mothers have an insight--"
"Of course! There seems to be one missing from the dozen of this pattern."
"Oh, it'll turn up. It's probably in the pile over there. I thought I'd speak about it, dear," she went on, "because it must be a relief to you not to have that complication. Things are so complicated already, don't you think? But if you haven't Peter on your mind, why, that's one thing the less to worry about. If you thought he was in love with you, dear--in your situation--going to be married to some one else--But you needn't be afraid of that at all. I never saw a young man more in love with any one than he is with Drusilla--and I think she must have refused him. If she hadn't he would never have shot off in that way, like a bolt from the blue--But what's the matter, dear? You look white. You're not ill?"
"It's the smell of lavender," Olivia gasped, weakly. "I never could endure it. I'll just run into the air a minute--"
This was all that passed between Olivia and Mrs. Temple on the subject. If the latter reported it with suppressions and amplifications it was doubtless due to her knowledge of what could be omitted as well as of what would have been said had the topic been pursued. In any case it caused her to sigh and mumble as she went on with her task of folding and unfolding and of examining textures and designs:
"Oh, how mixy! Such sixes and sevens! Everything the wrong way round! My poor Drusilla!--my poor little girlie! And such a good position! Just what she's capable of filling!--as well as Olivia--better, with all her experience of their army. ''Tis better to have loved and lost,' dear Tennyson says; but I don't know. Besides, she's done that already--with poor Gerald--and now, to have to face it all a second time--my poor little girlie!"
As for Olivia, she felt an overpowering desire to flee away. Speeding through the house, where workmen were nailing up cases or sacking rugs, she felt that she was fleeing--fleeing anywhere--anywhere--to hide herself. As a matter of fact, the flight was inward, for there was nowhere to go but to her room. Her way was down the short staircase from the attic and along a hall; but it seemed to her that she lived through a succession of emotional stages in the two or three minutes it took to cover it. Her first wild cry "It isn't true! It isn't true!" was followed by the question "Why shouldn't it be true?" to end with her asking herself: "What difference does it make to me?"
"What difference can it make to me?"
She had reached that form of the query by the time she took up her station at the window of her room, to stare blankly at the November landscape. She saw herself face to face now with the question which, during the past month, ever since Davenant's sudden disappearance, she had used all her resources to evade. That it would one day force itself upon her she knew well enough; but she hoped, too, that before there was time for that she would have pronounced her marriage vows, and so burned her bridges behind her. Amid the requirements of duty, which seemed to shift from week to week, the one thing stable was the necessity on her part to keep her promise to the man who had stood by her so nobly. If once it had seemed to her that Davenant's demands--whatever they might prove to be--would override all others, it was now quite clear that Ashley's claim on her stood first of all. He had been so loyal, so true, so indifferent to his own interests! Besides, he loved her. It was now quite another love from that of the romantic knight who had wooed a gracious lady in the little house at Southsea. That tapestry-tale had ended on the day of his arrival at Tory Hill. In its place there had risen the tested devotion of a man for a woman in great trouble, compelled to deal with the most sordid things in life. He had refused to be spared any of the details she would have saved him from or to turn away from any of the problems she was obliged to face. His very revolt against it, that repugnance to the necessity for doing it which he was not at all times able to conceal, made his self-command in bringing himself to it the more worthy of her esteem. He had the defects of his qualities and the prejudices of his class and profession; but over and above these pardonable failings he had the marks of a hero.
And now there was this thing!
She had descried it from afar. She had had a suspicion of it before Davenant went away. It had not created a fear; it was too strange and improbable for that; but it had brought with it a sense of wonder. She remembered the first time she had felt it, this sense of wonder, this sense of something enchanted, outside life and the earth's atmosphere. It was at that moment on the lawn when, after the unsuccessful meeting between Ashley and Davenant, she had turned with the latter to go into the house. That there was a protective, intimate element in her feeling she had known on the instant; but what she hadn't known on the instant, but was perfectly aware of now, was that her whole subconscious being, had been crying out even then: "My own! My own!"
With the exaggeration of this thought she was able to get herself in hand. She was able to debate so absurd a suggestion, to argue it down, and turn it into ridicule. But she yielded again as the Voice that talked with her urged the plea: "I didn't say you knew it consciously. You couldn't cry 'My own! My own!' to a man whom up to that point you had treated with disdain. But your subliminal being had begun to know him, to recognize him as--"
To elude this fancy she set herself to recapitulating his weak points. She could see why Ashley should thrust him aside as being "not a gentleman." He fell short, in two or three points, of the English standard. That he had little experience of life as it is lived, of its balance and proportion and perspective, was clear from the way in which he had flung himself and his money into the midst of the Guion disasters. No man of the world could possibly have done that. The very fact of his doing it made him lawfully a subject for some of the epithets Ashley applied to him. Almost any one would apply them who wanted to take him from a hostile point of view.
She forgot herself so far as to smile faintly. It was just the sort of deficiency which she had it in her power to make up. The reflection set her to dreaming when she wanted to be doing something else. She could have brought him the dower of all the things he didn't know, while he could give her.... But she caught herself again.
"What kind of a woman am I?"
She began to be afraid. She began to see in herself the type she most detested--the woman who could deliberately marry a man and not be loyal to him. She was on the threshold of marriage with Ashley, and she was thinking of the marvel of life with some one else. When one of the inner Voices denied this charge, another pressed it home by nailing the precise incident on which her heart had been dwelling. "You were thinking of this--of that--of the time on the stairs when, with his face close to yours, he asked you if you loved the man you'd be going away with--of the evening at the gate when your hand was in his and it was so hard to take it away. He has no position to offer you. There's nothing remarkable about him beyond a capacity for making money. He's beneath you from every point of view except that of his mere manhood, and yet you feel that you could let yourself slip into that--into the strength and peace of it--"
She caught herself again--impatiently. It was no use! There was something wilful within her, something that could be called by even a stronger name, that worked back to the point from which she tried to flee, whatever means she took to get away from it.
She returned to her work, persuading Cousin Cherry to go home to tea and leave her to finish the task alone. Even while she did so one of the inner Voices taunted her by saying: "That'll leave you all the more free to dream of--him."
* * * * *
Some days passed before she felt equal to talking about Davenant again. This time it was to the tinkling silver, as she and Drusilla Fane sorted spoons and forks at the sideboard in the dismantled dining-room. Olivia was moved to speak in the desperate hope that one stab from Drusilla--who might be in a position to deliver it--would free her from the obsession haunting her.
There had been a long silence, sufficiently occupied, it seemed, in laying out the different sorts and sizes of spoons in rows of a dozen, while Mrs. Fane did the same with the forks.
"Drusilla, did Mr. Davenant ever say anything to you about me?"
She was vexed with herself for the form of her question. It was not Davenant's feeling toward her, but toward Drusilla, that she wanted to know. She was drawing the fire in the wrong place. Mrs. Fane counted her dozen forks to the end before saying:
"Why, yes. We've spoken of you."
Having begun with a mistake, Olivia went on with it. "Did he say--anything in particular?"
"He said a good many things, on and off."
"Some of which might have been--in particular?"
"All of them, if it comes to that."
"Why did you never tell me?"
"For one reason, because you never asked me."
"Have you any idea why I'm asking you now?"
"Not the faintest. I dare say we sha'n't see anything more of him for years to come."
"Did you--did you--refuse him? Did you send him away?"
"Well, that's one thing I didn't have to do, thank the Lord. There was no necessity. I was afraid at one time that mother might make him propose to me--she's terribly subtle in that way, though you mightn't think it--but she didn't. No; if Peter's in love with any one, it's not with me."
Olivia braced herself to say, "And I hope it's not with me."
Drusilla went on counting.
"Did he ever say anything about that?" Olivia persisted.
Drusilla went on counting. "Eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. That's all of that set. What a lot of silver you've got! And some of it must have been in the family for thousands of years. Yes," she added, in another tone, "yes, he did. He said he wasn't."
Olivia laid down the ladle she was holding with infinite precaution. She had got the stab she was looking for. It seemed for a minute as if she was free--gloatingly free. He hadn't cared anything about her after all, and had said so! She steadied herself by holding to the edge of the sideboard.
Drusilla stooped to the basket of silver standing on the floor, in a seemingly passionate desire for more forks. By the time she had straightened herself again, Olivia was able to say: "I'm so glad of that. You know what his kindness in helping papa has made people think, don't you?"
But Mrs. Fane astonished her by throwing down her handful of silver with unnecessary violence of clang and saying: "Look here, Olivia, I'd rather not talk about it any more. I've reasons. I can't take a hand in your affairs without being afraid that perhaps--perhaps--I--I--sha'n't play the game."
Olivia was silent, but she had much to think of.
It was a few days later still that she found herself in Rodney Temple's little office in the Gallery of Fine Arts. She had come ostensibly to tell him that everything had been arranged for the sale.
"Lemon and Company think that early in December would be the best time, as people are beginning then to spend money for Christmas. Mr. Lemon seems to think we've got a good many things the smaller connoisseurs will want. The servants are to go next Tuesday, so that if you and Cousin Cherry could take papa then--I'm to stay with Lulu Sentner; and I shall go from her house to be married--some day, when everything else is settled. Did you know that before Mr. Davenant went away he left a small bank account for papa?--two or three thousand dollars--so that we have money to go on with. Rupert wants to spend a week or two in New York and Washington, after which we shall come back here and pick up papa. He's not very keen on coming with us, but I simply couldn't--"
He nodded at the various points in her recital, blinking at her searchingly out of his kind old eyes.
"You look pale," he said, "and old. You look forty."
She surprised him by saying, with a sudden outburst: "Cousin Rodney, do you think it's any harm for a woman to marry one man when she's in love with another?" Before he had time to recover himself, she followed this question with a second. "Do you think it's possible for a person to be in love with two people at the same time?"
He understood now the real motive of her visit.
"I'm not a very good judge of love affairs," he said, after a minute's reflection. "But one thing I know, and it's this--that when we do our duty we don't have to bother with the question as to whether it's any harm or not."
"We may do our duty, and still make people unhappy."
"No; not unless we do it in the wrong way."
"So that if I feel that to go on and keep my word is the right thing--or rather the only thing--?"
"That settles it, dearie. The right thing is the only thing--and it makes for everybody's happiness."
"Even if it seems that it--it couldn't?"
"I'm only uttering platitudes, dearie, when I say that happiness is the flower of right. No other plant can grow it; and that plant can't grow any other flower. When you've done the thing you feel you're called to do--the thing you couldn't refuse while still keeping your self-respect--well, then, you needn't be afraid that any one will suffer in the long run--and yourself least of all."
"In the long run! That means--"
"Oh, there may be a short run. I'm not denying that. But no one worth his salt would be afraid of it. And that, dearie," he added, blinking, "is all I know about love affairs."
There being no one in the gallery on which the office opened, she kissed him as she thanked him and went away. She walked homeward, taking the more retired streets through Cambridge and into Waverton, so as to be the more free for thinking. It was a relief to her to have spoken out. Oddly enough, she felt her heart lighter toward Davenant from the mere fact of having told some one, or having partially told some one, that she loved him.
When, on turning in at the gate of Tory Hill, she saw a taxicab standing below the steps of the main entrance, she was not surprised, since Ashley occasionally took one to run out from town. But when a little lady in furs and an extravagant hat stepped out to pay the chauffeur Olivia stopped to get her breath. If it hadn't been impossible she would have said--
But the taxicab whizzed away, and the little lady tripped up the steps.
Olivia felt herself unable to move. The motor throbbed past her, and out the gate, but she still stood incapable of going farther. It seemed long before the pent-up emotions of the last month or two, controlled, repressed, unacknowledged, as they had been, found utterance in one loud cry: "Aunt Vic!"
Not till that minute had she guessed her need of a woman, a Guion, one of her very own, a mother, on whose breast to lay her head and weep her cares out.
* * * * *
The first tears since the beginning of her trials came to Olivia Guion, as, with arms clasped round her aunt and forehead pressed into the little old lady's furs, she sat beside her on a packing-case in the hail. She cried then as she never knew before she was capable of crying. She cried for the joy of the present, for the trouble of the past, and for the relief of clinging to some one to whom she had a right. Madame de Melcourt would have cried with her, had it not been for the effect of tears on cosmetics.
"There, there, my pet," she murmured, soothingly. "Didn't you know your old auntie would come to you? Why didn't you cable? Didn't you know I was right at the end of the wire. There now, cry all you want to. It'll do you good. Your old auntie has come to take all your troubles away, and see you happily married to your Englishman. She's brought your dot in her pocket--same old dot!--and everything. There now, cry. There's nothing like it."