The Street Called Straight by Basil King
Davenant turned away into the moonlit mist. Through it the electric lamps of Boston, curving in crescent lines by the water's edge, or sprinkled at random over the hill which the city climbs, shone for him with the steadiness and quiet comfort inherent in the familiar and the sure after his long roaming. Lighting a cigarette, he strode along the cement pavement beside the iron railing below which the river ran swiftly and soundlessly. At this late hour of the evening he had the embankment to himself, save for an occasional pair of lovers or a group of sauntering students. Lights from the dignified old houses--among which was Rodney Temple's--overlooking the embankment and the Charles threw out a pleasant glow of friendliness. Beyond the river a giant shadow looming through the mist reminded him of the Roman Colisseum seen in a like aspect, the resemblance being accentuated in his imagination by the Stadium's vast silence, by its rows upon rows of ghostly gray sedilia looking down on a haunted, empty ring. His thoughts strayed to Rome, to Cairo, to Calcutta, to Singapore, to the stages of those two patient journeys round the world, made from a sense of duty, in search of a widening of that sheerly human knowledge which life had hitherto denied him. Having started from London and got back to London again, he saw how imperfectly he had profited by his opportunities, how much he had missed. It was characteristic of him to begin all over again, and more thoroughly, conscientiously revisiting the Pyramids, the Parthenon, and the Taj Mahal, endeavoring to capture some of that true spirit of appreciation of which he read in books.
In his way he was not wholly unsuccessful, since by dint of steady gazing he heightened his perceptive powers, whether it were for Notre Dame, the Sistine Madonna, or the Alps, each of which he took with the same seriousness. What eluded him was precisely that human element which was the primary object of his quest. He learned to recognize the beauty of a picture or a mountain more or less at sight; but the soul of these things, of which he thought more than of their outward aspects, the soul that looks through the eyes and speaks with the tongues of peoples, remained inaccessible to his yearnings. He was always outside--never more than a tourist. He made acquaintances by the wayside easily enough, but only of the rootless variety, beginning without an introduction and ending without a farewell. There was nothing that "belonged" to him, nothing to which he himself "belonged."
It was the persistency of the defect that had marked most of his life, even that portion of it spent in Boston and Waverton--the places he called "home." He was their citizen only by adoption, as only by adoption he was the son of Tom and Sarah Davenant. That intimate claim--the claim on the family, the claim on the soil--which springs of birth and antedates it was not his, and something had always been lacking to his life because of the deficiency. Too healthily genial to feel this want more than obscurely, he nevertheless had tried to remedy it by resorting to the obvious means. He had tried to fall in love, with a view to marriage and a family. Once, perhaps twice, he might have been successful had it not been for the intrusive recollection of a moment, years before, when a girl whom he knew to be proud without suspecting how proud she was had in answer to the first passionate words he ever uttered started to her feet, and, fanning herself languidly, walked away. The memory of that instant froze on his tongue words that might have made him happy, sending him back into his solitary ways. They were ways, as he saw plainly enough, that led no whither; for which reason he had endeavored, as soon as he was financially justified, to get out of them by taking a long holiday and traveling round the world.
He was approaching the end of his second journey when the realization came to him that as far as his great object was concerned the undertaking had been a failure. He was as much outside the broader current of human sympathies as ever. Then, all at once, he began to see the reason why.
The first promptings to this discovery came to him one spring evening as he stood on the deck of the steam-launch he had hired at Shanghai to go up and down the Yangste-Kiang. Born in China, the son of a medical missionary, he had taken a notion to visit his birthplace at Hankow. It was a pilgrimage he had shirked on his first trip to that country, a neglect for which he afterward reproached himself. All things considered, to make it was as little as he could do in memory of the brave man and woman to whom he owed his existence.
Before this visit it must be admitted, Rufus and Corinna Hallett, his parents according to the flesh, had been as remote and mythical to the mind of Peter Davenant as the Dragon's Teeth to their progeny, the Spartans. Merely in the most commonplace kind of data he was but poorly supplied concerning them. He knew his father had once been a zealous young doctor in Graylands, Illinois, and had later become one of the pioneers of medical enterprise in the mission field; he knew, too, that he had already worked for some years at Hankow before he met and married Miss Corinna Meecham, formerly of Drayton, Georgia, but at that time a teacher in a Chinese school supported by one of the great American churches. Events after that seemed to have followed rapidly. Within a few years the babe who was to become Peter Davenant had seen the light, the mother had died, and the father had perished as the victim of a rising in the interior of Hupeh. The child, being taken to America, and unclaimed by relatives, was brought up in the institution maintained for such cases by the Missionary Board of the church to which his father and mother had given their services. He had lived there till, when he was seven years old, Tom and Sarah Davenant, childless and yet longing for a child, had adopted him.
These short and simple annals furnished all that Davenant knew of his own origin; but after the visit to Hankow the personality of his parents at least became more vivid. He met old people who could vaguely recall them. He saw entries in the hospital records made by his father's hand. He stood by his mother's grave. As for his father's grave, if he had one, it was like that of Moses, on some lonely Nebo in Hupeh known to God alone. In the compound Davenant saw the spot on which his father's simple house had stood--the house in which he himself was born--though a wing of the modern hospital now covered it. It was a relief to him to find that, except for the proximity of the lepers' ward and the opium refuge, the place, with its trim lawns, its roses, its clematis, its azaleas, its wistaria, had the sweetness of an English rectory garden. He liked to think that Corinna Meecham had been able to escape from her duties in the crowded, fetid, multi-colored city right outside the gates to something like peace and decency within these quiet walls.
He was not a born traveler; still less was he an explorer. At the end of three days he was glad to take leave of his hosts at the hospital, and turn his launch down the river toward the civilization of Shanghai. But it was on the very afternoon of his departure that the ideas came to him which ultimately took him back to Boston, and of which he was now thinking as he strolled through the silvery mist beside the Charles.
He had been standing then on the deck of his steam-launch gazing beyond the river, with its crowding, outlandish junks, beyond the towns and villages huddled along the banks, beyond walls gay with wistaria, beyond green rice-fields stretching into the horizon, to where a flaming sunset covered half the sky--a sunset which itself seemed hostile, mysterious, alien, Mongolian. He was thinking that it was on just this scene that his father and mother had looked year upon year before his birth. He wondered how it was that it had had no prenatal influence on himself. He wondered how it was that all their devotion had ended with themselves, that their altruism had died when Corinna Meecham's soul had passed-away and Rufus Hallett, like another Stephen, had fallen on his knees beneath the missiles of the villagers to whom he was coming with relief. They had spent their lives in the service of others; he had spent his in his own. It was curious. If there was anything in heredity, he ought to have felt at least some faint impulse from their zeal; but he never had. He could not remember that he had ever done anything for any one. He could not remember that he had ever seen the need of it. It was curious. He mused on it--mused on the odd differences between one generation and another, and on the queer way in which what is light to the father will sometimes become darkness in the son.
It was then that he found the question raising itself within him, "Is that what's wrong with me?"
The query took him by surprise. It was so out of keeping with his particular kind of self-respect that he found it almost droll. If he had never given himself to others, as his parents had, he had certainly paid the world all he owed it. He had nothing wherewith to reproach himself on that score. It had been a matter of satisfaction amounting to pride that he had made his bit of money without resorting in any single instance to methods that could be considered shady. If complaint or criticism could not reach him here, it could not reach him anywhere. Therefore the question as to whether there was anything wrong in his attitude toward others was so patently absurd that it could easily be dismissed.
He dismissed it promptly, but it came again. It came repeatedly during that spring and summer. It forced itself on his attention. It became, in its way, the recurrent companion of his journey. It turned up unexpectedly at all sorts of times and in all sorts of places, and on each occasion with an increased comprehension on his side of its pertinence. He could look back now and trace the stages by which his understanding of it had progressed. There was a certain small happening in a restaurant at Yokohama; there was an accident on the dock at Vancouver; there was a conversation on a moonlight evening up at Banff; there was an incident during a drive in the Yosemite; these were mile-stones on the road by which his mind had traveled on to seize the fact that the want of touch between him and his fellow-men might be due to the suppression of some essentially human force within himself. It came to him that something might, after all, have been transmitted from Hupeh and Hankow of which he had never hitherto suspected the existence.
It cannot be said that his self-questioning had produced any answer more definite than that before he found himself journeying back toward Boston. The final impulse had been given him while he was still loitering aimlessly in Chicago by a letter from Mrs. Temple.
"If you have nothing better to do, dear Peter," she wrote, "we shall be delighted if you can come to us for a week or two. Dear Drusilla is with us once again, and you can imagine our joy at having her. It would seem like old times if you were here to complete the little circle. The room you used to have in your college vacations--after dear Tom and Sarah were taken from us--is all ready for you; and Drusilla would like to know you were here to occupy it just as much as we."
In accepting this invitation Davenant knew himself to be drawn by a variety of strands of motive, no one of which had much force in itself, but which when woven together lent one another strength. Now that he had come, he was glad to have done it, since in the combination of circumstances he felt there must be an acknowledged need of a young man, a strong man, a man capable of shouldering responsibilities. He would have been astonished to think that that could be gainsaid.
The feeling was confirmed in him after he had watched the tip of his smoked-out cigarette drop, like a tiny star, into the current of the Charles, and had re-entered Rodney Temple's house.
It was Drusilla's voice, with a sob in it. She was sitting on the stairs, three steps from the top, huddled into a voluminous mauve-and-white dressing-gown. In the one dim light burning in the hall her big black eyes gleamed tragically, as those of certain animals gleam in dusk.
"Oh, Peter, dear, I'm so glad you've come! The most awful thing has happened."
That was Mrs. Temple who, wrapped in something fleecy in texture and pink in hue, was crouched on the lowest step, looking more than ever like a tea-cozy dropped by accident.
"What's the matter?" Davenant asked, too deeply astonished even to take off his hat. "Is it burglars? Where's the professor?"
"He's gone to bed. It isn't burglars. I wish it was. It's something far, far worse. Collins told Drusilla. Oh, I know it's true--though Rodney wouldn't say so. I simply ... know ... it's ... true."
"Oh, it's true," Drusilla corroborated. "I knew that the minute Collins began to speak. It explains everything--all the little queernesses I've noticed ever since I came home--and everything."
"What is it?" Peter asked again. "Who's Collins? And what has he said?"
"It isn't a he; it's a she," Drusilla explained. "She's my maid. I knew the minute I came into the room that she'd got something on her mind--I knew it by the way she took my wrapper from the wardrobe and laid it on the bed. It was too awful!"
"What was too awful? The way she laid your wrapper on the bed?"
"No; what she told me. And I know it's true."
"Well, for the Lord's sake, Drusilla, what is it?"
Drusilla began to narrate. She had forborne, she said, to put any questions till she was being "undone"; but in that attitude, favorable for confidence, she had asked Collins over her shoulder if anything troubled her, and Collins had told her tale. Briefly, it was to the effect that some of the most distinguished kitchens in Boston and Waverton had been divided into two factions, one pro and the other contra, ever since the day, now three weeks ago, when Miss Maggie Murphy, whose position of honorable service at Lawyer Benn's enabled her to profit by the hints dropped at that eminent man's table, had announced, in the servant's dining-room of Tory Hill itself, that Henry Guion was "going to be put in jail." He had stolen Mrs. Clay's money, and Mrs. Rodman's money, "and a lot of other payple's money, too," Miss Murphy was able to affirm--clients for whom Guion, Maxwell & Guion had long acted as trustees--and was now to be tried and sentenced, Lawyer Benn himself being put in charge of the affair by the parties wronged. Drusilla described the sinking of her own heart as these bits of information were given her, though she had not failed to reprimand Collins for the repetition of foolish gossip. This, it seemed, had put Collins on her mettle in defense of her own order, and she had replied that, if it came to that, m'm, the contents of the waste-paper baskets at Tory Hill, though slightly damaged, had borne ample testimony to the truth of the tale as Miss Maggie Murphy told it. If Mrs. Fane required documentary evidence, Collins herself was in a position to supply it, through the kindness of her colleagues in Henry Guion's employ.
Davenant listened in silence. "So the thing is out?" was his only comment.
"It's out--and all over the place," Drusilla answered, tearfully. "We're the only people who haven't known it--but it's always that way with those who are most concerned."
"And over three hundred guests invited to Olivia's wedding next Thursday fortnight! And the British Military Attache coming from Washington! And Lord Woolwich from Ottawa! What's to happen I don't know."
Mrs. Temple raised her hands and let them drop heavily.
"Oh, Peter, can't you do anything?"
"What can he do, child? If Henry's been making away with all that money it would take a fortune to--"
"Oh, men can do things--in business," Drusilla asserted. "I know they can. Banks lend them money, don't they, Peter? Banks are always lending money to tide people over. I've often heard of it. Oh, Peter, do something. I'm so glad you're here. It seems like a providence."
"Colonel Ashley will be here next week, too," Mrs. Temple groaned, as though the fact brought comfort.
"Oh, mother dear, don't speak of him!" Drusilla put up her two hands, palms outward, before her averted face, as though to banish the suggestion. "If you'd ever known him you'd see how impossible--how impossible--this kind of situation is for a man like him. Poor, poor Olivia! It's impossible for her, too, I know; but then we Americans--well, we're more used to things. But one thing is certain, anyhow," she continued, rising in her place on the stairs and stretching out her hand oratorically: "If this happens I shall never go back to Southsea--never, never!--no, nor to Silchester. With my temperament I couldn't face it. My career will be over. There'll be nothing left for me, mother dear, but to stay at home with father and you."
Mrs. Temple rose, sighing heavily. "Well, I suppose we must go to bed, though I must say it seems harder to do that than almost anything. None of us'll sleep."
"Oh, Peter, won't you do something?"
Drusilla's hands were clasped beneath an imploring face, slightly tilted to one side. Her black hair had begun to tumble to her shoulders.
"I'll--I'll think it over," was all he could find to answer.
"Oh, thank you, Peter! I must say it seems like a providence--your being here. With my temperament I always feel that there's nothing like a big strong man to lean on."
The ladies retired, leaving him to put out the light. For a long time he stood, as he had entered, just inside the front door leaning on his stick and wearing his hat and overcoat. He was musing rather than thinking, musing on the odd way in which he seemed almost to have been waited for. Then, irrelevantly perhaps, there shot across his memory the phrases used by Rodney Temple less than an hour ago:
"Some call it conscience. Some call it God. Some call it neither. But," he added, slowly, "some do call it God."