The Street Called Straight by Basil King
It was late in the afternoon when Davenant reappeared at Tory Hill, having tramped the streets during most of the time since leaving Ashley in the morning. He was nervous. He was even alarmed. He had little clue to Olivia's judgment on his visit to the Marquise, and he found Ashley's hints mysterious.
It was reassuring, therefore, to have her welcome him with gentle cordiality into the little oval sitting-room, where he found her at her desk. She made him take the most comfortable seat, while she herself turned partially round, her arm stretched along the back of her chair. Though the room was growing dim, there was still a crimson light from the sunset.
He plunged at once into the subject that had brought him, explaining the nature of the work her father would be called upon to do. It would be easy work, though real work, just what would be within his powers. There would be difficulties, some arising from the relationship of the Massachusetts bar to that of Michigan, and others on which he touched more lightly; but he thought they could all be overcome. Even if that proved to be impossible, there were other things he knew of that Mr. Guion could do--things quite in keeping with his dignity.
"I've already talked to papa about it," she said. "He's very grateful--very much touched."
"There's no reason for that. I should like his company. I'm--I'm fond of him."
For a few minutes she seemed to be pondering, absently. "There's something I should like to ask you," she said, at last.
"Yes, Miss Guion? What is it?"
"When people have done so much harm as--as we've done, do you think it's right that they should get off scot-free--without punishment?"
"I don't know anything about that, Miss Guion. It seems to me I'm not called upon to know. Where we see things going crooked we must butt in and help to straighten them. Even when we've done that to the best of our powers, I guess there'll still be punishment enough to go round. Outside the law-courts, that's something we don't have to look after."
Again she sat silent, watching the shifting splendor of the sunset. He could see her profile set against the deep-red glow like an intaglio on sard.
"I wonder," she said, "if you have any idea of the many things you've taught me?"
"I?" He almost jumped from his seat. "You're laughing at me."
"You've taught me," she went on, quietly, "how hard and narrow my character has been. You've taught me how foolish a thing pride can be, and how unlovely we can make even that noble thing we call a spirit of independence. You've taught me how big human nature is--how vast and deep and--and good. I don't think I believed in it before. I know I didn't. I thought it was the right thing, the clever thing, to distrust it, to discredit it. I did that. It was because, until I knew you--that is, until I knew you as you are--I had no conception of it--not any more than a peasant who's always starved on barren, inland hills has a conception of the sea."
He was uncomfortable. He was afraid. If she continued to speak like that he might say something difficult to withdraw. He fell back awkwardly on the subject of her father and the job at Stoughton.
"And you won't have to worry about him, Miss Guion, when you're over there in England," he said, earnestly, as he summed up the advantages he had to offer, "because if he's ill, I'll look after him, and if he's very ill, I'll cable. I promise you I will--on my solemn word."
"You won't have to do that," she said, simply, "because I'm going, too."
Again he almost jumped from his chair. "Going, too? Going where?"
"Going to Stoughton with papa."
"I'm not going to be married," she continued, in the same even tone. "I thought perhaps Colonel Ashley might have told you. That's all over."
"He's been so magnificent--so wonderful. He stood by me during all my trouble, never letting me know that he'd changed in any way--"
"Oh, he's changed, has he?"
Because he sat slightly behind her, she missed the thunderous gloom in his face, while she was too intent on what she was saying to note the significance in his tone.
"Perhaps he hasn't changed so much, after all. As I think it over I'm inclined to believe that he was in love with Drusilla from the first-only my coming to Southsea brought in a disturbing--"
"Then he's a hound! I'd begun to think better of him--I did think better of him--but now, by God, I'll--"
With a backward gesture of the hand, without looking at him, she made him resume the seat from which he was again about to spring.
"No, no. You don't understand. He's been superb. He's still superb. He would never have told me at all if he hadn't seen--"
She stopped with a little gasp.
"Yes? If he hadn't seen--what?"
"That I--that I--I care--for some one else."
"Oh! Well, of course, that does make a difference."
He fell back into the depths of his chair, his fingers drumming on the table beside which he sat. Minutes passed before he spoke again. He got the words out jerkily, huskily, with dry throat.
"Some one--in England?"
During the next few minutes of silence he pulled himself imperceptibly forward, till his elbows rested on his knees, while he peered up into the face of which he could still see nothing but the profile.
"Is he--is he--coming to Stoughton?"
"He's going to Stoughton. He's been there--already."
If there was silence again it was because he dared not frame the words that were on his tongue.
"It isn't--it can't be--?"
Without moving otherwise, she turned her head so that her eyes looked into his obliquely. She nodded. She could utter no more than the briefest syllables. "Yes. It is."
His lips were parched, but he still forced himself to speak. "Is that true?--or are you saying it because--because I put up the money?"
She gathered all her strength together. "If you hadn't put up the money, I might never have known that it was true; but it is true. I think it was true before that--long ago--when you offered me so much--so much!--that I didn't know how to take it--and I didn't answer you. I can't tell. I can't tell when it began--but it seems to me very far back--"
Still bending forward, he covered his eyes with his left hand, raising his right in a blind, groping movement in her direction. She took it in both her own, clasping it to her breast, as she went on:
"I see now--yes, I think I see quite clearly--that that's why I struggled against your help, in the first place.... If it had been anybody else I should probably have taken it at once.... You must have thought me very foolish.... I suppose I was.... My only excuse is that it was something like--like revolt--first against the wrong we had been doing, and then against the great, sublime thing that was coming up out of the darkness to conquer me.... That's the way I felt.... I was afraid.... I wanted something smaller--something more conventional--such as I'd been trained for.... It was only by degrees that I came to see that there were big things to live for--as well as little.... It's all so wonderful!--so mysterious! I can't tell!... I only know that now--"
He withdrew his hand, looking troubled.
"Are you--are you--sure?"
She reflected a minute. "I know what makes you ask that. You think I've changed too suddenly. If so, I can explain it."
The silence in which he waited for her to continue assented in some sort to this reading of his thoughts.
"It isn't that I've changed," she said, at last, speaking thoughtfully, "so much as that I've wakened to a sense of what's real for me as distinguished from what's been forced and artificial. You may understand me better if I say that in leading my life up to--up to recently, I've been like a person at a play--a play in which the situations are interesting and the characters sympathetic, but which becomes like a dream the minute you leave the theater and go home. I feel that--that with you--I've--I've got home."
He would have said something, but she hurried on.
"I've not changed toward the play, except to recognize the fact that it was a play--for me. I knew it the instant I began to learn about papa's troubles. That was like a summons to me, like a call. When it came, everything else--the things I'd been taught to strive for and the people whom I had supposed to be the only ones worth living with, grew distant and shadowy, as though they belonged to a picture or a book. It seemed to me that I woke then for the first time to a realization of the life going on about me here in my own country, and to a sense of my share in it. If I hadn't involved myself so much--and involved some one else with me--my duty would have been clearer from the start. But Colonel Ashley's been so noble!--he's understood me so well!--he's helped me so much to understand myself!--that I can't help honoring him, honoring him with my whole heart, even if I see now that I don't--that I never did--care for him in the way--"
She pressed her handkerchief to her lips to keep back what might have become a sob.
"Did you know I--I loved you?" he asked, still speaking hoarsely.
"I thought you must," she said, simply. "I used to say I hoped you didn't--but deep down in my heart--"
He got up and strode to the window, where, with his back to her, he stared awhile at the last cold glimmer of the sun set. His big frame and broad shoulders shut out the light to such an extent that when he turned it was toward a darkened room. He could barely see her, as she sat sidewise to the desk, an arm along the back of her chair. His attitude bespoke a doubt in his mind that still kept him at a distance.
"You're not--you're not--saying all this," he pleaded, "because you think I've done anything that calls for a reward? I said once that I should never take anything from you, and I never shall--unless it's something you give only because you can't help it."
Her answer was quite prompt. "I'm not giving anything--or doing anything. What has happened seems to me to have come about simply and naturally, like the sunrise or the seasons, because it's the fullness of time and what God means. I can't say more about it than that. If it depended on my own volition I shouldn't be able to speak of it so frankly. But now--if you want me--as you wanted me once--"
She rose and stood by her chair, holding herself proudly and yet with a certain meekness. With his hands clasped behind him, as though even yet he dared not touch her, he crossed the twilit room toward her.
* * * * *
Late that night Henry Guion stood on the terrace below the Corinthian-columned portico. There was no moon, but the stars had the gold fire with which they shine when the sky is violet. Above the horizon a shimmering halo marked the cluster of cities and towns. In the immediate foreground the great elm was leafless now, but for that reason more clearly etched against the starlight--line on line, curve on curve, sweeping, drooping, interlaced. Guion stood with head up and figure erect, as if from strength given back to him. Even through the darkness he displayed some of the self-assurance and stoutness of heart of the man with whom things are going well. He was remembering--questioning--doubting.
"I had come to the end of the end ... and I prayed ... yes, I prayed.... I asked for a miracle ... and the next day it seemed to have been worked.... Was it the prayer that did it?... Was it any one's prayer?... Was it any one's faith?... Was it--God?... Had faith and prayer and God anything to do with it?... Do things happen by coincidence and chance?... or is there a Mind that directs them?... I wonder!... I wonder!..."