The Street Called Straight by Basil King
Ashley's craving was for space and air. He felt choked, strangled. There was a high wind blowing, carrying a sleety rain. It was a physical comfort to turn into the teeth of it.
He took a road straggling out of the town toward the remoter suburbs, and so into the country. He marched on, his eyes unseeing, his mouth set grimly--goaded by a kind of frenzy to run away from that which he knew he could not leave behind. It was like fleeing from something omnipresent. Though he should turn his back on it never so sternly and travel never so fast, it would be with him. It had already entered into his life as a constituent element; he could no more get rid of it than of his breath or his blood.
And yet the thing itself eluded him. In the very attempt to apprehend it by sight or name, he found it mysteriously beyond his grasp. It was like an enemy in the air, deadly but out of reach. It had struck him, though he could not as yet tell where. He could only stride onward through the wind and rain, as a man who has been shot can ride on till he falls.
So he tramped for an hour or more, finding himself at last amid bleak, dreary marshes, over which the November twilight was coming down. He felt lonely, desolate, far from his familiar things, far from home. His familiar things were his ambitions, as home was that life of well-ordered English dignity, in which to-morrow will bear some relation to to-day.
He felt used up by the succession of American shocks, of American violences. They had reduced him to a condition of bewilderment. For four or five weeks he had scarcely known from minute to minute where he stood. He had maintained his ground as best he was able, holding out for the moment when he could marry his wife and go his way; and now, when ostensibly the hour had come in which to do it, it was only that he might see confusion worse confounded.
He turned back toward the town. He did so with a feeling of futility in the act. Where should he go? What should he do? How was he to deal with this new, extraordinary feature in the case? It was impossible to return to Tory Hill, as if the Marquise had told him nothing, and equally impossible to make what she had said a point of departure for anything else. If he made it a point of departure for anything at all, it could only be for a step which his whole being rebelled against taking.
It was a solution of the instant's difficulties to avoid the turning to Tory Hill and go on to Drusilla Fane's. In the wind and rain and gathering darkness the thought of her fireside was cheering. She would understand him, too. She had always understood him. It was her knowledge of the English point of view that made her such an efficient pal. During all the trying four or five weeks through which he had passed she had been able to give him sympathetic support just where and when he needed it. It was something to know she would give it to him again.
As he told her of Davenant's journey to France he could see her eyes grow bigger and blacker than ever in the flickering firelight. She kept them on him all the while he talked. She kept them on him as from time to time she lifted her cup and sipped her tea.
"Then that's why he didn't answer mother's letters," she said, absently, when he had finished. "He wasn't there."
"He wasn't there, by Jove! And don't you see what a fix he's put me in?"
She replied, still absently: "I'm not sure that I do."
"He's given away the whole show to me. The question is now whether I can take it, what?"
"He hasn't given away anything you didn't have before."
"He's given away something he might perhaps have had himself."
She drew back into the shadow so that he might not see her coloring. She had only voice enough to say: "What makes you think so?"
"Don't you think so?"
"That's not a fair question."
"It's a vital one."
"To you--yes. But--"
"But not to you. Oh, I understand that well enough. But you've been such a good pal that I thought you might help me to see--"
"I'm afraid I can't help you to see anything. If I were to try I might mislead you."
"But you must know, by Jove! Two women can't be such pals as Olivia and you--"
"If I did know I shouldn't tell you. It's something you should find out for yourself."
"Find out! I've asked her."
"Well, if she's told you, isn't that enough?"
"It would be enough in England. But here, where words don't seem to have the same meaning as they do anywhere else--and surprises are sprung on you--and people have queer, complicated motives--and do preposterous, unexpected things--"
"Peter's going to see old Cousin Vic might be unexpected; but I don't think you can call it preposterous."
"It's preposterous to have another man racing about the world trying to do you good, by Jove!"
"He wasn't trying to do you good so much as not to do you harm. He thought he'd done that, apparently, by interfering with Cousin Henry's affairs in the first place. His asking the old Marquise to come to the rescue was only an attempt to make things easier for you."
He sprang to his feet. "And he's got me where I must either call his bluff or--or--or accept his beastly sacrifice."
He tugged fiercely, first at one end, then at the other, of the bristling, horizontal mustache. Drusilla tried to speak calmly.
"He's not making a sacrifice if there was nothing for him to give up."
"That's what I must find out."
She considered it only loyal to say: "It's well to remember that in making the attempt you may do more harm than good. 'Where the apple reddens, never pry, lest we lose our Edens'--You know the warning."
"Yes, I know. That's Browning. In other words, it means, let well enough alone."
"Which isn't bad advice, you know."
"Which isn't bad advice--except in love. Love won't put up with reserves. It must have all--or it will take nothing."
He dropped into a low chair at the corner of the hearth. Wielding the poker in both hands, he knocked sparks idly from a smoldering log. It was some minutes before she ventured to say:
"And suppose you discovered that you couldn't get all?"
"I've thought that out. I should go home, and ask to be allowed to join the first punitive expedition sent out--one of those jolly little parties from which they don't expect more than half the number to come back. There's one just starting now--against the Carrals--up on the Tibet frontier. I dare say I could catch it."
Again some minutes went by before she said: "Is it as bad as all that?"
"It's as bad as all that."
She got up because she could no longer sit still. His pain was almost more than she could bear. At the moment she would have given life just to be allowed to lay her hand soothingly on his shoulder or to stroke his bowed head. As it was, she could barely give herself the privilege of taking one step toward him, and even in doing this she was compelled to keep behind him, lest she should betray herself in the approach.
The offer of help was in the tone, in its timid beseeching.
He understood it, and shook his head without looking up.
"No," he said, briefly. "No. No one can."
She remained standing behind him, because she hadn't the strength to go away. He continued to knock sparks from the log. Repulsed from the sphere of his suffering, she was thrown back on her own. She wondered how long she should stand there, how long he would sit, bending like that, over the dying fire. It was the most intolerable minute of her life, and yet he didn't know it. Just for the instant she resented that--that while he could get the relief of openness and speech, she must be condemned forever to shame and silence. If she could have thrown herself on her knees beside him and flung her arms about his neck, crying, "I love you; I love you! Whoever doesn't--I do!--I do!" she would have felt that life had reached fruition.
The minutes became more unendurable. In sheer self-defense she was obliged to move, to say something, to break the tensity of the strain. One step--the single step by which she had dared to draw nearer him, stretching out yearning hands toward him--one step sufficed to take her back to the world of conventionalities and commonplaces, where the heart's aching is taboo.
She must say something, no matter what, and the words that came were: "Won't you have another cup of tea?"
He shook his head, still without looking up. "Thanks; no."
But she was back again on her own ground, back from the land of enchantment and anguish. It was like returning to an empty home after a journey of poignant romance. She was mistress of herself again, mistress of her secret and her loneliness. She could command her voice, too. She could hear herself saying, as if some one else were speaking from the other side of the room:
"It seems to me you take it too tragically to begin with--"
"It isn't to begin with. I saw there was a screw loose from the first. And since then some one has told me that she was--half in love with him, by Jove!--as it was."
She remained standing beside the tea-table. "That must have been Cousin Henry. He'd have a motive in thinking so--not so much to deceive you as to deceive himself. But if it's any comfort to you to know it, I've talked to them both. I suppose they spoke to me confidentially, and I haven't felt justified in betraying them. But rather than see you suffer--"
He put the poker in its place among the fire-irons and swung round in his chair toward her. "Oh, I say! It isn't suffering, you know. That is, it isn't--"
She smiled feebly. "Oh, I know what it is. You don't have to explain. But I'll tell you. I asked Peter--or practically asked him--some time ago--if he was in love with her--and he said he wasn't."
His face brightened. "Did he, by Jove?"
"And when I told her that--the other day--she said--"
"Yes? Yes? She said--?"
"She didn't put it in so many words--but she gave me to understand--or tried to give me to understand--that it was a relief to her--because, in that case, she wasn't obliged to have him on her mind. A woman has those things on her mind, you know, about one man when she loves another."
He jumped up. "I say! You're a good pal. I shall never forget it."
He came toward her, but she stepped back at his approach. She was more sure of herself in the shadow.
"Oh, it's nothing--"
"You see," he tried to explain, "it's this way with me. I've made it a rule in my life to do--well, a little more than the right thing--to do the high thing, if you understand--and that fellow has a way of getting so damnably on top. I can't allow it, you know. I told you so the other day."
"You mean, if he does something fine, you must do something finer."
He winced at this. "I can't go on swallowing his beastly favors, don't you see? And hang it all! if he is--if he is my--my rival--he must have a show."
"And how are you going to give him a show if he won't take it?"
He started to pace up and down the room. "That's your beastly America, where everything goes by freaks--where everything is queer and inconsequent and tortuous, and you can't pin any one down."
"It seems to me, on the contrary, that you have every one pinned down. You've got everything your own way, and yet you aren't satisfied. Peter has taken himself off; old Cousin Vic has paid the debts; and Olivia is ready to go to church and marry you on the first convenient day. What more can you ask?"
"That's what she said, by Jove!--the old Marquise. She said the question would never be raised unless I raised it."
Drusilla tried to laugh. "Eh, bien? as she'd say herself."
He paused in front of her. "Eh, bien, there is something else; and," he added, tapping his forehead sharply, "I'll be hanged if I know what it is."
She was about to say something more when the sound of the shutting of the street door stopped her. There was much puffing and stamping, with shouts for Jane to come and take an umbrella.
"I say, that's your governor. I'll go and talk to him."
He went without another look at her. She steadied herself with the tips of her fingers on the tea-table, in order not to swoon. She knew she wouldn't swoon; she only felt like it, or like dying. But all she could do was limply to pour herself out an extra cup of tea and drink it.
* * * * *
In the library Ashley was taking heart of grace. He had come to ask advice, but he was really pointing out the things that were in his favor. He repeated Drusilla's summing-up of them almost word for word.
"You see, as far as that goes, I've everything my own way. No question will be raised unless I raise it. The fellow has taken himself off; the Marquise has most generally assumed the family liabilities; and Olivia is ready to come to church with me and be married on the first convenient day. I should be satisfied with that, now shouldn't I?"
The old man nodded. "Your difficulties do seem to have been smoothed out."
He sat, fitting the tips of his fingers together and swinging his leg, in his desk-chair. The light of the green-shaded desk-lamp alone lit up the room. In the semi-obscurity porcelains and potteries gleamed like crystals in a cave. Ashley paced the floor, emerging from minute to minute out of the gloom into the radiance of the lamp.
"I'm not called on to go poking behind things to see what's there, now am I?"
"Not in the least."
"I'm willing to consider every one, and I think I do. But there are limits, by Jove! Now, really?"
"The minute we recognize limits it's our duty not to go beyond them. It's thus far and no farther--for the man who knows the stretch of his tether, at any rate. The trouble with Peter is that his tether is elastic. It'll spin out as far as he sees the need to go. For the rest of us there are limits, as you say; but about him there's something--something you might call limitless."
Ashley rounded sharply. "You mean he's so big that no one can be bigger."
"Not exactly. I mean that very few of us need to be as big as that. It's all very well for him; but most of us have to keep within the measure of our own capacity."
"And sit down under him, while he looms up into God knows where?"
"Well, wouldn't that be your idea?"
"Can't say that it is. My idea is that when I take my rights and keep them, I'm as big as any one."
"Quite so; as big as any one--who takes his rights and keeps them. That's very true."
Ashley stopped, one hand behind him, the other supporting him as he leaned on the desk. "And that's what I propose to do," he said, aggressively.
"It's a very high ideal."
"I propose to accept the status quo without asking any more questions."
"I should think that would be a very good plan. A wise man--one of the wisest--wrote, apropos of well-disposed people who were seeking a standard of conduct: 'Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.' I should think you'd have every reason for that kind of self-approval."
"Do you mean that, sir? or are you--trying it on?"
"I'm certainly not trying it on. The man who takes his rights and keeps them can be amply justified. If there's a counsel of perfection that goes beyond that standard--well, it isn't given to all men to receive it."
"Then you think it isn't given to me. You'd put me down as a good sort of chap who comes in second best."
"What makes you think I should do that?"
"Because--because--hang it all! If I let this fellow keep ahead of me--why, I should come in second best."
"You say keep ahead of me. Do you think he's ahead of you now?"
Ashley straightened himself. He looked uncomfortable. "He's got a pull, by Jove! He made that journey to France--and cracked me up to the Marquise--and wheedled her round--when all the while he must have known that he was hammering nails into his own coffin. He did it, too, after I'd insulted him and we'd had a row."
"Oh, that's nothing. To a fellow like him that sort of thing comes easy."
"It wouldn't come easy to me, by Jove!"
"Then it would be all the more to your credit, if you ever did anything of the kind."
The Englishman bounded away. Once more he began to pace the floor restlessly. The old man took his pipe from a tray, and his tobacco-pouch from a drawer. Having filled the bowl, with meditative leisure he looked round for a match. "Got a light?"
Ashley struck a vesta on the edge of his match-box and applied it to the old man's pipe.
"Should you say," he asked, while doing it, "that I ought to attempt anything in that line?"
"Certainly not--unless you want to--to get ahead."
"I don't want to stay behind."
"Then, it's for you to judge, my son."
There was something like an affectionate stress on the two concluding monosyllables. Ashley backed off, out of the lamplight.
"It's this way," he explained, stammeringly; "I'm a British officer and gentleman. I'm a little more than that--since I'm a V.C. man--and a fellow--dash it all, I might as well say it!--I'm a fellow they've got their eye on--in the line of high office, don't you know? And I can't--I simply can't--let a chap like that make me a present of all his chances--"
"Did he have any?"
Ashley hesitated. "Before God, sir, I don't know--but I'm inclined to think--he had. If so, I suppose they're of as much value to him as mine to me."
"But not of any more."
He hesitated again. "I don't know about that. Perhaps they are. The Lord knows I don't say that lightly, for mine are--Well, we needn't go into that. But I've got a good deal in my life, and I don't imagine that he, poor devil--"
"Oh, don't worry. A rich soil is never barren. When nothing is planted in it, Nature uses it for flowers."
Ashley answered restively. "I see, sir, your sympathies are all on his side."
"Not at all. Quite the contrary. My certainties are on his side. My sympathies are on yours."
"Because you think I need them."
"Because I think you may."
"In case I--"
"In case you should condemn yourself in the thing you're going to allow."
"But what's it to be?"
"That's for you to settle with yourself."
He was silent a minute. When he spoke it was with some conviction. "I should like to do the right thing, by Jove!--the straight thing--if I only knew what it was."
"Oh, there'll be no trouble about that. In the Street called Straight, my son, there are lights to show the way."
* * * * *
"Rum old cove," was Ashley's comment to himself as he went back to Boston. "Got an answer to everything."
From the hotel he telephoned an excuse to Olivia for his unceremonious departure from Tory Hill. "Had an upset," was the phrase by which he conveyed his apologies, leaving it to her to guess the nature of his mischance. As she showed no curiosity on the point, he merely promised to come to luncheon in the morning.
During his dinner he set himself to think, though, amid the kaleidoscopic movement of the hotel dining-room, he got little beyond the stage of "mulling." Such symptoms of decision as showed themselves through the evening lay in his looking up the dates of sailing of the more important liners, and the situation of the Carral country on the map. He missed, however, the support of his principle to be Rupert Ashley at his best. That guiding motto seemed to have lost its force owing to the eccentricities of American methods of procedure. If he was still Rupert Ashley, he was Rupert Ashley sadly knocked about, buffeted, puzzled, grown incapable of the swift judgment and prompt action which had hitherto been his leading characteristics.
He was still beset by uncertainties when he went out to Waverton next morning. Impatient for some form of action, he made an early start. On the way he considered Rodney Temple's words of the previous afternoon, saying to himself: "In the Street called Straight there are lights to show the way, by Jove! Gad! I should like to know where they are."
Nevertheless, it had a clarifying effect on his vision to find, on walking into the drawing-room at Tory Hill, Miss Guion seated in conversation with Peter Davenant. As he had the advantage of seeing them a second before they noticed him, he got the impression that their conversation was earnest, confidential. Olivia was seated in a corner of the sofa, Davenant in a low chair that gave him the appearance of being at her feet.
It was exactly the stimulus Ashley needed to bring his faculties into action. He was at once in possession of all his powers. The feeling inspired by the sight of them together transformed him on the instant into the quick, shrewd, diplomatic officer in whom he recognized himself. It was a feeling too complicated to be called jealousy, though jealousy might have been in it as an ingredient pang. If so, it was entirely subordinate to his new sense--or rather his old sense--of being equal to the occasion. As he crossed the room he felt no misgiving, no hesitation. Neither did he need to forecast, however rapidly, his plan of speech or action, since he knew that in urgent cases it was always given him. If he had to define this sudden confidence he might have said that Rupert Ashley at his best had been restored to life again, but even that would not have expressed the fullness of his consciousness of power.
He nodded to Davenant before shaking hands with Miss Guion. "Hello! Back again?"
Davenant got up from his low chair with some embarrassment. Ashley bowed over Olivia's hand with unusual courtliness. He seated himself in the other corner of the sofa, as one who had a right to the place.
"I had to come East on business," Davenant explained, at once.
Olivia hastened to corroborate this statement. "Aunt Vic wanted Mr. Davenant to come--to settle up all the things--"
"And I had another reason," Davenant interrupted, nervously. "I was just beginning to tell Miss Guion about it when you came in. I've a job out there--in my work--that would suit Mr. Guion. It would be quite in his line--legal adviser to a company--and would give him occupation. He'd be earning money, and wouldn't feel laid aside; and if he was ill I could look after him as well as any one. I--I'd like it."
Olivia looked inquiringly at Ashley. Her eyes were misty.
"Hadn't you better talk to him about it?" Ashley said.
"I thought I'd better speak to you and Miss Guion first. I understand you've offered to--to take him--"
"I shouldn't interfere with what suited him better, in any case. By the way, how did you like the Louisiana?"
Davenant's jaw dropped. His blue eyes were wide with amazement. It was Olivia who undertook to speak, with a little air of surprise that Ashley should make such an odd mistake.
"Mr. Davenant wasn't on the Louisiana. It was Aunt Vic. Mr. Davenant has just come from the West. You do that by train."
"Of course he was on the Louisiana. Landed on the--let me see!--she sailed again yesterday!--landed on the 20th, didn't you?"
"No, no," Olivia corrected again, smiling. "That was the day Aunt Vic landed. You're getting every one mixed."
"But they came together," Ashley persisted. "He brought her. Didn't you?"
The look on Olivia's face frightened Davenant. He got up and stood apologetically behind his chair. "You'll have to forgive me, Miss Guion," he stammered. "I--I deceived you. I couldn't think of anything else to do."
She leaned forward, looking up at him. "But I don't know what you did, as it is. I can't understand--what--what any one is saying."
"Then I'll tell you, by Jove! All the time you thought he was out there at Michigan he was over in France, following up the Marquise. Tracked her like a bloodhound, what? Told her the whole story--how we'd got to a deadlock--and everything. Made her think that unless she came and bailed us out we'd be caught there for the rest of our lives."
Olivia's eyes were still lifted to Davenant's. "Is that true?"
"It's true, by Jove!--true as you live. What's more, he cracked me up as though I was the only man alive--said that when it came to a question of who was worthy--worthy to marry you--he wasn't fit to black my boots."
"No," Davenant cried, fiercely. "There was no question of me."
"Bosh! Bosh, my good fellow! When a man does what you've done there's no question of any one but him."
The color was hot in Davenant's cheeks, but he himself could not have told whether it came from astonishment or anger. "Since Colonel Ashley knows so well what happened, I shall leave him to tell it."
He was about to make his escape, when Olivia stopped him. "No, no. Wait--please wait. Tell me why you did it."
"I'll tell you," Ashley broke in. He spoke with a kind of nervous jauntiness. "I'll tell you, by Jove! We had a row. I called him a cad. I called him a damned cad. There was a damned cad present on that occasion--only--I didn't hit the right nail on the head. But that's not what I'm coming to. He struck me. He struck me right in the teeth, by Jove! And when a man strikes you, it's an insult that can only be wiped out by blood. Very well; he's offered it--his blood. He didn't wait for me to draw it. I suppose he thought I wouldn't go in for the heroic. So of his own accord he went over there to France and shed his heart's blood, in the hope that I might overlook his offence. All right, old chap; I overlook it."
With a laugh Ashley held his hand up toward Davenant, who ignored it.
"Miss Guion," Davenant said, huskily, "Colonel Ashley is pleased to put his own interpretation on what was in itself a very simple thing. You mayn't think it a very creditable thing, but I'll tell you just what happened, and you can draw your own conclusions. I went over to France, and saw your aunt, the Marquise, and asked her to let me have my money back. That's the plain truth of it. She'll tell you so herself. I'd heard she was very fond of you--devoted to you--and that she was very rich and generous--and so I thought, if I told her exactly how matters stood, it would be a good chance to--to--recoup myself for--the loan."
Ashley sprang up with another laugh. "He does that well, doesn't he?" he said to Olivia. "Come along, old boy," he added, slipping his arm through Davenant's. "If I let you stay here you'll perjure your very soul."
Davenant allowed himself to be escorted to the door. Over his shoulder Ashley called back to Olivia: "Fellows are never good friends till after they've had a fight."