The Street Called Straight by Basil King
Madame de Melcourt the chief novelty of American life, for the first few days at least, lay in the absence of any necessity for striving. To wake up in the morning into a society not keeping its heart hermetically shut against her was distinctly a new thing. Not to have to plan or push or struggle, to take snubs or repay them, to wriggle in where she was not wanted, or to keep people out where she had wriggled in, was really amusing. In the wide friendliness by which she found herself surrounded she had a droll sense of having reached some scholastic paradise painted by Puvis de Chavannes. She was even seated on a kind of throne, like Justitia or Sapientia, with all kinds of flattering, welcoming attentions both from old friends who could remember her when she had lived as a girl among them and new ones who were eager to take her into hospitable arms. It was decidedly funny. It was like getting into a sphere where all the wishes were gratified and there were no more worlds to conquer. It would pall in the end; in the end she would come to feel like a gourmet in a heaven where there is no eating, or an Englishman in some Blessed Isle where there is no sport; but for the moment it offered that refreshing change which strengthens the spirit for taking up the more serious things of life again. In any case, it put her into a good-humor of which the residents at Tory Hill were the first to feel the effect.
"Il est tres bien, ton Anglais."
Olivia acknowledged this approval with a smile and a blush, as she went about the drawing-room trying to give it something of its former air. With the new turn of events it had become necessary to restore the house to a condition fit for occupancy. Madame de Melcourt had moved into it with her maid and her man, announcing her intention to remain till she got ready to depart. Her bearing was that of Napoleon making a temporary stay in some German or Italian palace for the purposes of national reorganization and public weal. At the present instant she was enthroned amid cushions in a corner of the sofa, watching Olivia dispose of such bric-a-brac as had not been too remotely packed away.
"I always say," the old lady declared, "that when an Englishman is chic he's very chic, and your Ashley is no exception. I don't wonder you're in love with him."
When seated the Marquise accompanied her words with little jerkings and perkings of her fluffy head, with wavings of the hands and rollings of the eyes--the corelatives of her dartings and dashings while on her feet.
It was easy for Olivia to keep her back turned, while she managed to say: "He thinks you don't like him."
Madame shrugged her shoulders. "I like him as well as I could like any Englishman. He's very smart. You can see at a glance he's some one. From what I'd heard of him--his standing by you and all that--I was afraid he might be an eccentric."
"Whom did you hear it from?"
"Oh, I heard it. There's nothing wonderful in that. A thing that's been the talk of Boston and New York, and telegraphed to the London papers--you don't suppose I shouldn't hear of it some time. And I came right over--just as soon as I was convinced you needed me."
Olivia looked round with misty eyes. "I shall never forget it, Aunt Vic, dear--nor your kindness to papa. He feels it more than he can possibly express to you--your taking what he did so--so gently."
"Ma foi! The Guions must have money. When it comes to spending they're not morally responsible. I'm the only one among them who ever had a business head; and even with me, if it hadn't been for my wonderful Hamlet and Tecla--But you can see what I am at heart--throwing two million francs into your lap as if it were a box of bonbons."
"I'm not sure that you ought, you know."
"And what about the Guion family honor and all that? Who's to take care of it if I don't? The minute I heard what had happened I held up my head and said, Everything may go so long as the credit of the Guion name is saved. N'est-ce pas? We can't live in debt to the old man who advanced your papa the money."
"He isn't an old man at all," Olivia explained, quickly.
"Ca ne fait rien. His age isn't the question. I suppose he lent the money expecting us to pay him back at a handsome rate of interest."
"No, he didn't. That's just it. He lent it to us--out of--out of--"
"Yes; out of what?"
"Out of pure goodness," she said, firmly.
"Fiddle-faddle! People don't do things out of pure goodness. The man who seems to is either a sentimentalist or a knave. If he's a sentimentalist, he does it for effect; if he's a knave, because it helps roguery. There's always some ax to grind."
"I think you'd have to make an exception of Mr. Davenant."
"Davenant? Is that his name? Yes, I believe your papa did tell me so--the boy Tom Davenant fished out of the slums."
With some indignation Olivia told the story of Davenant's birth and adoption. "So you see," she went on, "he has goodness in his blood. There's no reason why that shouldn't be inherited as much as--as insanity--or a taste for alcohol."
"Stuff, dear! The man or the boy, or whatever he is, calculated on getting something better than he gave. We must simply pay him off and get rid of him. Noblesse oblige."
"We may get rid of him, Aunt Vic, but we can never pay him off."
"He'll be paid off, won't he, if we return his loan at an interest of five--I'm willing to say six--per cent.?"
Olivia came forward, looking distressed. "Oh, I hope you won't, dear Aunt Vic. I mean about the five or six per cent. Give him back his money if you will, only give it back in the--in the princely way in which he let us have it."
"Well, I call that princely--six per cent."
"Oh, please, Aunt Vic! You'd offend him. You'd hurt him. He's just the sort of big, sensitive creature that's most easily wounded, and--"
"Tiens! You interest me. Stop fidgeting round the room and come and tell me about him. Sit down," she commanded, pointing to the other corner of the sofa. "There must be a lot I haven't heard."
If Olivia hesitated, it was chiefly because of her own eagerness to talk of him, to sing his praises. Since, however, she must sooner or later learn to do this with self-possession, she fortified herself to begin. With occasional interruptions from her aunt she told the tale as she understood it, taking as point of departure the evening when Davenant came to dine at Tory Hill, on his return from his travels round the world.
"So there was a time when you didn't like him," was Madame de Melcourt's first comment.
"There was a time when I didn't understand him."
"But when you did understand him you changed your mind."
"I couldn't help it."
"And did you change anything more than your--mind?"
There was so much insinuation in the cracked voice that Olivia colored, in spite of the degree in which she thought herself armed against all surprises. It was a minute or more before she was prepared with an answer.
"I changed my attitude toward him. Before that I'd been hostile and insolent, and then--and then--I grew humble. Yes, Aunt Vic--humble. I grew more than humble. I came to feel--well, as you might feel if you'd struck a great St. Bernard dog who'd been rescuing you in the snow. There's something about him that makes you think of a St. Bernard--so big and true and loyal--"
"Did you ever think he might be in love with you?"
She was ready for this question, and had made up her mind to answer it frankly. "Yes. I was afraid he was advancing the money on that account. I felt so right up to--to a few days ago."
"And what happened then?"
"Drusilla told me he'd said he--wasn't."
Madame de Melcourt let that pass. "Did you think he'd fallen in love with you all of a sudden when he came that night to dinner?"
She resolved to tell the whole truth. "I'd known him before. He asked me to marry him years ago. And something happened. I hardly know how to tell you. I didn't answer him."
"Didn't answer him?"
"I got up and walked away, right in the middle of--of what he was trying to tell me."
"Ti-ens! And you had to take his money after all?"
Olivia bowed her head.
"Ca c'est trop fort," the old lady went on. "You're quite right then when you say you'll never be able to pay him off, even if you get rid of him. But he's paid you off, hasn't he? It's a more beautiful situation than I fancied. He didn't tell me that."
Olivia looked up. "He didn't tell you? Who?"
"Your papa," the old lady said, promptly. "It's perfectly lovely, isn't it? I should think when you meet him you must feel frightfully ashamed. Don't you?"
"I should if there wasn't something about him that--"
"And you'll never get over it," the old lady went on, pitilessly, "not even after you've married the other man. The humiliation will haunt you--toujours--toujours! N'est-ce pas? If it were I, I should want to marry a man I'd done a thing like that to--just to carry it off. But you can't, can you? You've got to marry the other man. Even if you weren't so horribly in love with him, you'd have to marry him, when he's stood by you like that. I should be ashamed of you if you didn't."
"Of course, Aunt Vic."
"If he were to back out that would be another thing. But as it is you've got to swallow your humiliation, with regard to this Davenant. Or, rather, you can't swallow it. You've simply got to live on it, so to speak. You'll never be able to forget for an hour of the day that you treated a man like that--and then took his money, will you? It isn't exactly like striking a St. Bernard who's rescuing you in the snow. It's like beating him first and then having him come and save you afterward. Oh, la la! Quelle drole de chose que la vie! Well, it's a good thing we can return his money, at the least."
"You're so good about that, dear Aunt Vic. I didn't understand I was to have it when I couldn't see my way to--to--"
"To marry Berteuil. That's all over and done with. I see you weren't made for life in the real world. Anyhow," she added, taking a virtuous air, "when my word was passed it was passed. Not that your dot will do you much good. It'll all have to go to settle the claims of this Mr.--By the way, where is he? Why doesn't he come and be paid?"
"He's out in Michigan, at a little place called Stoughton."
"Then send for him."
"I'm not sure we can get him. Cousin Cherry has written to him three times since he went away, and he doesn't answer."
"Cousin Cherry! What a goose! Who'd ever think she was the pretty Charlotte Hawke that Rodney Temple fell in love with. What's the matter with you, over here, that you all grow old at a minute's notice, so to speak? I never saw such a lot of frumps as the women who used to be my own contemporaries. Rodney and I were very good friends once. If I could only have settled down in humdrum old Waverton--but we'll let bygones be bygones, and send for your man."
"I'll ask Cousin Cherry to write to him again."
"Stuff, dear. That won't do any good. Wire him yourself, and tell him I'm here."
"Oh, but, Aunt Vic, dear."
With little perkings of the head and much rolling of the eyes the Marquise watched the warm color rise in Olivia's cheek and surge slowly upward to the temples. Madame de Melcourt made signs of trying to look anywhere and everywhere, up to the ceiling and down at the floor, rather than be a witness of so much embarrassment. She emphasized her discretion, too, by making a great show of seeing nothing in particular, toying with her rings and bracelets till Olivia had sufficiently recovered to be again commanded to send for Davenant.
"Tell him I'm here and that I want to have a look at him. Use my name so that he'll see it's urgent. Then you can sign the telegram with your own. Cousin Cherry! Stuff!"
* * * * *
Later that day Madame de Melcourt was making a confession to Rodney Temple.
"Oui, mon bon Rodney. It was love at first sight. The thing hadn't happened to me for years."
"Had it been in the habit of happening?"
"In the habit of happening--that's too much to say. I may have had a little toquade from time to time--I don't say no--of an innocence!--or nearly of an innocence!--Mais que voulez-vous?--a woman in my position!--a widow since I was so high!--and exposed to the most flattering attentions. You know nothing about it over here. L'amour est l'enfant de Boheme, as the song says, and, whatever you can say for Waverton and Cambridge and Boston, you'll admit--"
He leaned back in his rocking-chair with a laugh. "One does the best one can, Vic. We're children of opportunity as well as enfants de Boheme. If your chances have been more generous, and I presume more tempting, than ours, it isn't kind of you to come back and taunt us."
"Don't talk about tempting, Rodney. You can't imagine how tiresome those men become--always on the hunt for money--always trying to find a wife who'll support them without their having to work. I speak of the good people, of course. With the bourgeoisie it's different. They work and take care of their families like other people. Only they don't count. If I hadn't money--they'd slam the door on me like that." She indicated the violence of the act by gesture. "As it is, they smother me. There are three of them at Melcourt-le-Danois at this present moment--Anne Marie de Melcourt's two boys and one girl. They're all waiting for me to supply the funds with which they're to make rich marriages. Is it any wonder that I look upon what's done for my own niece as so much saved? Henry's getting into such a hole seemed to me providential--gives me the chance to snatch something away from them before they--and when it's to go ultimately to him--"
"The young fellow you've taken such a fancy to?"
"You'd have taken a fancy to him, too, if you'd known only men who make it a trade to ask all and give next to nothing in return. You'd be smitten to the core by a man who asks nothing and offers all, if he were as ugly as a gargoyle. But when he takes the form of a blond Hercules, with eyes blue as the myosotis, and a mustache--mais une moustache!--and with no idea whatever of the bigness of the thing he's doing! It was the thunderbolt, Rodney--le coup de foudre--and no wonder!"
"I hope you told him so."
"I was very stiff with him. I sent him about his business just like that." She snapped her fingers. "But I only meant it with reserves. I let him see how I had been wronged--how cruelly Olivia had misunderstood me--but I showed him, too, how I could forgive." She tore at her breast as though to lay bare her heart. "Oh, I impressed him--not all at once perhaps--but little by little--"
"As he came to know you."
"I wouldn't let him go away. He stayed at the inn in the village two weeks and more. It's an old chef of mine who keeps it. And I learned all his secrets. He thought he was throwing dust in my eyes, but he didn't throw a grain. As if I couldn't see who was in love with who--after all my experience! Ah, mon bon Rodney, if I'd been fifty years younger! And yet if I'd been fifty years younger, I shouldn't have judged him at his worth. He's the type to which you can do justice only when you've a standard of comparison, n'est-ce pas? It's in putting him beside other men--the best--even Ashley over there--that you see how big he is."
She tossed her hand in the direction of Ashley and Drusilla, sitting by the tea-table at the other end of the room. Mrs. Temple had again found errands of mercy to insure her absence.
"Il est tres bien, cet Ashley," the Marquise continued, "chic--distinguished--no more like a wooden man than any other Englishman. Il est tres bien--but what a difference!--two natures--the one a mountain pool, fierce, deep, hemmed in all round--the other the great sea. Voila--Ashley et mon Davenant. And he helped me. He gave me courage to stand up against the Melcourt--to run away from them. Oh yes, we ran away--almost. I made a pretext for going to Paris--the old pretext, the dentist. They didn't suspect at my age--how should they?--or they wouldn't have let me come alone. Helie or Paul or Anne Marie would have come with me. Oh, they smother me! But we ran away. We took the train to Cherbourg, just like two eloping lovers--and the bateau de luxe, the Louisiana to New York. Mais helas!--"
She paused to laugh, and at the same time to dash away a tear. "At New York we parted, never to meet again--so he thinks. His work was done! He went straight to that funny place in Michigan to join his pal. He's there now--waiting to hear that Olivia has married her Englishman, as you might wait to hear that sentence of death on some one you were fond of had been carried out. Ah, mon Dieu, quel brave homme! I'm proud to belong to the people who produced him. I don't know that I ever was before."
"Oh, the world is full of brave fellows, when the moment comes to try them."
"Perhaps. I'm not convinced. What about him?" She flicked her hand again toward Ashley. "Would he stand a big test?"
"He's stood a good many of them, I understand. He's certainly been equal to his duty here."
"He's done what a gentleman couldn't help doing. That's something, but it's possible to ask more."
"I hope you're not going to ask it," he began, in some anxiety.
"He strikes me as a man who would grant what was wrung from him, while the other--my blond Hercules--gives royally, like a king."
"There's a soul that climbs as by a ladder, and there's a soul that soars naturally as a lark. I don't know that it matters which they do, so long as they both mount upward."
"We shall see."
"What shall we see? I hope you're not up to anything, Vic?"
With another jerk of her hand in the direction of Ashley and Drusilla, she said, "That's the match that should have--"
But the old man was out of his seat. "You must excuse me now, Vic. I've some work to do."
"Yes, be off. Only--"
She put her forefinger on her lips, rolling her eyes under the brim of her extravagant hat with an expression intended to exclude from their pact of confidence not only the other two occupants of the room, but every one else.
Olivia received the reply to her telegram: "Shall arrive in Boston Wednesday night."
Considering it time to bring the purely financial side of the situation under discussion, Madame de Melcourt explained to her niece that she, the Marquise, had nothing to do, in her own person, with the extraordinary person who was about to arrive. Her part would be accomplished when once she had handed over the dot either to Olivia or to her trustees. As the passing of this sum through Miss Guion's hands was to be no more than a formality, the question of trustees was not worth taking up. With the transfer of securities for the amount agreed upon from the one name to the other--a piece of business which would be carried out by Davis & Stern--the Marquise considered that she would have done all for which she could be called upon. Everything else concerned Olivia and her father and Davenant. Her own interest in the young man would be satisfied with a glance of curiosity.
The brief conversation to this effect having taken place before luncheon, Madame de Melcourt pursued other aspects of the subject with Colonel Ashley when that repast was ended and coffee was being served to them in the library. Olivia having withdrawn to wait on her father, Madame de Melcourt bade him light his cigar while she herself puffed daintily at a cigarette. If she was a little grotesque in doing it, he had seen more than one elderly Englishwoman who, in the same pastime, was even more so.
Taking one thing with another, he liked his future great-aunt by marriage. That is, he liked a connection that would bring him into touch with such things in the world as he held to be important. While he had the scorn natural to the Englishman of the Service class for anything out of England that pretended to be an aristocracy, he admitted that the old French royalist cause had claims to distinction. The atmosphere of it clinging to one who was presumably in the heart of its counsels restored him to that view of his marriage as an alliance between high contracting powers which events in Boston had made so lamentably untenable. If he was disconcerted, it was by her odd way of keeping him at arm's-length.
"She doesn't like me, what?" he had more than once said to Olivia, and with some misgiving.
Olivia could only answer: "I think she must. She's said a good many times that you were chic and distinguished. That's a great deal for any Englishman from her."
"She acts as if she had something up her sleeve."
That had become something like a conviction with him; but to-day he flattered himself that he had made some progress in her graces. His own spirits, too, were so high that he could be affable to Guion, who appeared at table for the only time since the day of their first meeting. Hollow-checked, hollow-eyed, his figure shrunken, and his handsome hand grown so thin that the ring kept slipping from his finger, Guion essayed, in view of his powerful relative's vindication--for so he liked to think of it--to recapture some of his old elegance as a host. To this Ashley lent himself with entire good-will, taking Guion's timid claim for recognition as part of the new heaven and the new earth under process of construction. In this greatly improved universe Olivia, too, acquired in her lover's eyes a charm, a dignity, a softened grace beyond anything he had dreamed of. If she seemed older, graver, sadder perhaps, the change was natural to one who had passed through trials so sordid and so searching. A month of marriage, a month of England, would restore all her youth and freshness.
Nevertheless he was glad to be alone with Madame de Melcourt. It was the moment he had waited for, the moment of paying some fitting tribute to her generosity. He had said little of it hitherto, not wanting, as he put it, "to drag it in by the hair of its head." He knew an opportunity would arise; and it had arisen.
It was the sort of thing he could have done better had he not been haunted by the Englishman's fear of being over-demonstrative. He was easily capable of turning a nice little speech. Apart from the fear of transgressing the canons of negative good form he would have enjoyed turning one. As it was, he assumed a stammer and a drawl, jerking out a few inarticulate phrases of which the lady could distinguish only "so awfully good of you" and "never forget your jolly kindness." This being masculine, soldier-like, and British, he was hurt to notice an amused smile on the Marquise's lips. He could have sworn that she felt the speech inadequate to the occasion. She would probably have liked it better had it been garnished with American flourishes or French ornamentation. "She's taking me for a jolly ass," he said to himself, and reddened hotly.
In contrast to his deliberate insufficiency the old lady's thin voice was silvery and precise. Out of some bit of obscure wilfulness, roused by his being an Englishman, she accentuated her Parisian affectations.
"I'm very much delighted, Col-on-el," she said, giving the military title its three distinct French syllables, "but you must not think me better than I am. I'm very fond of my niece--and of her father. After all, they stand nearer to me than any one else in the world. They're all I've got of my very own. In any case, they should have had the money some day--when I--that is, I'd made my will n'est-ce pas? But what matters a little sooner or a little later? And I want my niece to be happy. I want a great many things; but when I've sifted them all, I think I want that more than anything else."
Ashley bowed. "We shall always feel greatly indebted--" he began, endeavoring to be more elegant than in his words of a few minutes earlier.
"I want her to be happy, Col-on-el. She deserves it. She's a noble creature, with a heart of gold and a spirit of iron. And she loves me, I think."
"I know she does, by Jove!"
"And I can't think of any one else who does love me for myself." She gave a thin, cackling laugh. "They love my money. Le bon Dieu has counted me worthy of having a good deal during these later years. And they're all very fond of it. But she's fond of me. I was very angry with her once; but now I want her to be happy with the man--with the man she's in love with. So when Mr. Davenant came and told me of your noble character--"
"The devil he did!"
Ashley sprang out of his chair. The cigar dropped from his limp fingers. In stooping to pick it up he caught the echo of his own exclamation. "I beg your pardon--" he began, when he had raised himself. He grew redder than ever; his eyes danced.
"Ca ne fait rien, Col-on-el. It's an expression of which I myself often use the equivalent--in French. But I don't wonder you're pleased. Your friend Mr. Davenant made the journey to Europe purposely to tell me how highly you were qualified as a suitor for my niece's hand. When one has a friend like that--"
"But he's not my friend."
"You surprise me, Col-on-el. He spoke of you with so much praise--so much affection, I might say. He said no one could be so worthy to marry my niece--no one could make her so happy--no one could give her such a distinguished position in the world--no one was so fine a fellow in his own person--"
He looked mystified. "But he's out there in Michigan--"
She puffed delicately at her cigarette. "He stayed with me two weeks at Melcourt-le-Danois. That is, he stayed at the inn in the village. It was the same thing. I was very angry with my niece before that. It was he who made me see differently. If it were not for him I shouldn't be here. He traveled to France expressly to beg my help--how shall I say?--on your behalf--in simplifying things--so that you and Olivia might be free from your sense of obligation to him--and might marry--"
"Did he say he was in love with her himself?"
She ignored the hoarse suffering in his voice to take another puff or two at her cigarette. "Ma foi, Col-on-el, he didn't have to."
"Did he say--" He swallowed hard, and began again, more hoarsely: "Did he say she was--in love with--with him?"
There was a hint of rebuke in her tone. "He's a very loyal gentleman. He didn't."
"Did he make you think--?"
"What he made me think, Col-on-el, is my own affair."
He jumped to his feet, throwing his cigar violently into the fire. For a minute or two he stood glaring at the embers. When he turned on her it was savagely.
"May I ask your motive in springing this on me, Marquise?"
"Mon Dieu, Col-on-el, I thought you'd like to know what a friend you have."
"Damn his friendship. That's not the reason. You've something up your sleeve."
She looked up at him innocently. "Have I? Then I must leave it to you to tell me what it is. But when you do," she added, smiling, "I hope you'll take another tone. In France men are gallant with women--"
"And in England women are straight with men. What they have to say they say. They don't lay snares, or lie in ambush."
She laughed. "Quant a cela, Col-on-el, il y en a pour tous les gouts, meme en Angleterre."
"I'll bid you good-by, madame."
He bowed stiffly, and went out into the hail. She continued to smoke daintily, pensively, while she listened to him noisily pulling on his overcoat and taking his stick from the stand. As he passed the library door he stopped on the threshold.
"By Gad, she's mine!" he said, fiercely.
She got up and went to him, taking him by the lapel of the coat. There was something like pity in her eyes as she said: "My poor fellow, nobody has raised that question. What's more, nobody will raise it--unless you do yourself."