The Street Called Straight by Basil King
Guion awoke in a chill, gray light, to find himself covered with a rug, and his daughter, wrapped in a white dressing-gown, bending above him. Over her shoulder peered the scared face of a maid. His first sensation was that he was cold, his first act to pull the rug more closely about him. His struggle back to waking consciousness was the more confused because of the familiar surroundings of the library.
"Oh, papa, what's the matter?"
He threw the coverlet from him and dragged himself to a sitting posture.
"What time is it?" he asked, rubbing his eyes. "I must have dropped off to sleep. Is dinner ready?"
"It's half-past six in the morning, papa dear. Katie found you here when she came in to dust the room. The window was wide open and all these things strewn about the floor. She put the rug on you and came to wake me. What is it? What's happened? Let me send for the doctor."
With his elbow on his knee, he rested his forehead on his hand. The incidents of the night came back to him. Olivia seated herself on the couch beside him, an arm across his shoulder.
"I'm cold," was all he said.
"Katie, go and mix something hot--some whisky or brandy and hot water--anything! And you, papa dear, go to bed. I'll call Reynolds and he'll help you."
"I'm cold," he said again.
Rising, he crawled to the mirror into which he had looked last night, shuddering at sight of his own face. The mere fact that he was still in his evening clothes, the white waistcoat wrinkled and the cravat awry, shocked him inexpressibly.
"I'm cold," he said for the third time.
But when he had bathed, dressed, and begun his breakfast, the chill left him. He regained the mastery of his thoughts and the understanding of his position. A certain exaltation of suffering which had upheld him during the previous night failed him, however, now, leaving nothing but a sense of flat, commonplace misery. Thrown into relief by the daylight, the facts were more relentless--not easier of acceptance.
As he drank his coffee and tried to eat he could feel his daughter watching him from the other end of the table. Now and then he screened himself from her gaze by pretending to skim the morning paper. Once he was startled. Reflected in the glass of a picture hanging on the opposite wall he caught the image of a man in a blue uniform, who mounted the steps and rang the door-bell.
"Who's that?" he asked, sharply. He dared not turn round to see.
"It's only the postman, papa darling. Who else should it be?"
"Yes; of course." He breathed again. "You mustn't mind me, dear. I'm nervous. I'm--I'm not very well."
"I see you're not, papa. I saw it last night. I knew something was wrong."
"There's something--very wrong."
"What is it? Tell me."
Leaning on the table, with clasped hands uplifted, the loose white lace sleeves falling away from her slender wrists, she looked at him pleadingly.
"We've--that is, I've--lost a great deal of money."
"Oh!" The sound was just above her breath. Then, after long silence, she asked: "Is it much?"
He waited before replying, seeking, for the last time, some mitigation of what he had to tell her.
"It's all we have."
"Oh!" It was the same sound as before, just audible--a sound with a little surprise in it, a hint of something awed, but without dismay.
He forced himself to take a few sips of coffee and crumble a bit of toast.
"I don't mind, papa. If that's what's troubling you so much, don't let it any longer. Worse things have happened than that." He gulped down more coffee, not because he wanted it, but to counteract the rising in his throat. "Shall we have to lose Tory Hill?" she asked, after another silence.
He nodded an affirmative, with his head down.
"Then you mean me to understand what you said just now--quite literally. We've lost all we have."
"When everything is settled," he explained, with an effort, "we shall have nothing at all. It will be worse than that, since I sha'n't be able to pay all I owe."
"Yes; that is worse," she assented, quietly.
Another silence was broken by his saying, hoarsely:
"You'll get married--"
"That will have to be reconsidered."
"Do you mean--on your part?"
"I suppose I mean--on everybody's part?"
"Do you think he would want to--you must excuse the crudity of the question--do you think he would want to back out?"
"I don't know that I could answer that. It isn't quite to the point. Backing out, as you call it, wouldn't be the process--whatever happened."
He interrupted her nervously. "If this should fall through, dear, you must write to your Aunt Vic. You must eat humble pie. You were too toplofty with her as it was. She'll take you."
"Take me, papa? Why shouldn't I stay with you? I'd much rather."
He tried to explain. It was clearly the moment at which to do it.
"I don't think you understand, dear, how entirely everything has gone to smash. I shall probably--I may say, certainly--I shall have to--to go--"
"I do understand that. But it often happens--especially in this country--that things go to smash, and then the people begin again. There was Lulu Sentner's father. They lost everything they had--and she and her sisters did dressmaking. But he borrowed money, and started in from the beginning, and now they're very well off once more. It's the kind of thing one hears of constantly--in this country."
"You couldn't hear of it in my case, dear, because--well, because I've done all that. I've begun again, and begun again. I've used up all my credit--all my chances. The things I counted on didn't come off. You know that that happens sometimes, don't you?--without any one being to blame at all?"
She nodded. "I think I've heard so."
"And now," he went on, eager that she should begin to see what he was leading her up to--"and now I couldn't borrow a thousand dollars in all Boston, unless it was from some one who gave it to me as a charity. I've borrowed from every one--every penny for which I could offer security--and I owe--I owe hundreds of thousands. Do you see now how bad it is?"
"I do see how bad it is, papa. I admit it's worse than I thought. But all the same I know that when people have high reputations other people trust them and help them through. Banks do it, don't they? Isn't that partly what they're for? It was Pierpoint & Hargous who helped Lulu Sentner's father. They stood behind him. She told me so. I'm positive that with your name they'd do as much for you. You take a gloomy outlook because you're ill. But there's no one in Boston--no one in New England--more esteemed or trusted. When one can say, 'All is lost save honor,' then, relatively speaking, there's very little lost at all."
He got up from the table and went to his room. After these words it was physically impossible for him to tell her anything more. He had thought of a means which might bring the fact home to her through the day by a process of suggestion. Packing a small bag with toilet articles and other necessaries, he left it in a conspicuous place.
"I want Reynolds to give it to my messenger in case I send for it," he explained to her, when he had descended to the dining-room again.
She was still sitting where he left her, at the head of the table, pale, pensive, but not otherwise disturbed.
"Does that mean that you're not coming home to-night?"
"I--I don't know. Things may happen to--to prevent me."
"Where should you go?--to New York?"
"No; not to New York."
He half hoped she would press the question, but when she spoke it was only to say:
"I hope you'll try to come home, because I'm sure you're not well. Of course I understand it, now I know you've had so much to upset you. But I wish you'd see Dr. Scott. And, papa," she added, rising, "don't have me on your mind--please don't. I'm quite capable of facing the world without money. You mayn't believe it, but I am. I could do it--somehow. I'm like you. I've a great deal of self-reliance, and a great deal of something else--I don't quite know what--that has never been taxed or called on. It may be pride, but it isn't only pride. Whatever it is, I'm strong enough to bear a lot of trouble. I don't want you to think of me at all in any way that will worry you."
She was making it so hard for him that he kissed her hastily and went away. Her further enlightenment was one more detail that he must leave, as he had left so much else, to fate or God to take care of. For the present he himself had all he could attend to.
Half-way to the gate he turned to take what might prove his last look at the old house. It stood on the summit of a low, rounded hill, on the site made historic as the country residence of Governor Rodney. Governor Rodney's "Mansion" having been sacked in the Revolution by his fellow-townsmen, the neighborhood fell for a time into disrepute under the contemptuous nickname of Tory Hill. On the restoration of order the property, passed by purchase to the Guions, in whose hands, with a continuity not customary in America, it had remained. The present house, built by Andrew Guion, on the foundations of the Rodney Mansion, in the early nineteenth century, was old enough according to New England standards to be venerable; and, though most of the ground originally about it had long ago been sold off in building-lots, enough remained to give an impression of ample outdoor space. Against the blue of the October morning sky the house, with its dignified Georgian lines, was not without a certain stateliness--rectangular, three-storied, mellow, with buff walls, buff chimneys, white doorways, white casements, white verandas, a white balustrade around the top, and a white urn at each of the four corners. Where, as over the verandas, there was a bit of inclined roof, russet-red tiles gave a warmer touch of color. From the borders of the lawn, edged with a line of shrubs, the town of Waverton, merging into Cambridge, just now a stretch of crimson-and-orange woodland, where gables, spires, and towers peeped above the trees, sloped gently to the ribbon of the Charles. Far away, and dim in the morning haze, the roofed and steepled crest of Beacon Hill rose in successive ridges, to cast up from its highest point the gilded dome of the State House as culmination to the sky-line. Guion looked long and hard, first at the house, then at the prospect. He walked on only when he remembered that he must reserve his forces for the day's possibilities, that he must not drain himself of emotion in advance. If what he expected were to come to pass, the first essential to his playing the man at all would lie in his keeping cool.
So, on reaching his office, he brought all his knowledge of the world into play, to appear without undue self-consciousness before his stenographer, his bookkeeper, and his clerks. The ordeal was the more severe because of his belief that they were conversant with the state of his affairs. At least they knew enough to be sorry for him--of that he was sure; though there was nothing on this particular morning to display the sympathy, unless it was the stenographer's smile as he passed her in the anteroom, and the three small yellow chrysanthemums she had placed in a glass on his desk. In the nods of greeting between him and the men there was, or there seemed to be, a studied effort to show nothing at all.
Once safely in his own office, he shut the door with a sense of relief in the seclusion. It crossed his mind that he should feel something of the same sort when locked in the privacy of his cell after the hideous publicity of the trial. From habit as well as from anxiety he went straight to a mirror and surveyed himself again. Decidedly he had changed since yesterday. It was not so much that he was older or more care-worn--he was different. Perhaps he was ill. He felt well enough, except for being tired, desperately tired; but that could be accounted for by the way in which he had spent the night. He noticed chiefly the ashy tint of his skin, the dullness of his eyes, and--notwithstanding the fact that his clothes were of his usual fastidiousness--a curious effect of being badly dressed more startling to him than pain. He was careful to brush his beard and twist his long mustache into its usual upward, French-looking curve, so as to regain as much as possible the air of his old self, before seating himself at his desk to look over his correspondence. There was a pile of letters, of which he read the addresses slowly without opening any of them.
What was the use? He could do nothing. He had come to the end. He had exhausted all the possibilities of the situation. Besides, his spirit was broken. He could feel it. Something snapped last night within him that would never be whole, never even be mended, again. It was not only the material resources under his control that he had overtaxed, but the spring of energy within himself, leaving him no more power of resilience.
An hour may have passed in this condition of dull suspense, when he was startled by the tinkle of his desk telephone. It was with some effort that he leaned forward to answer the call. Not that he was afraid--now; he only shrank from the necessity of doing anything.
"Mr. Davenant would like to see you," came the voice of the stenographer from the anteroom.
There was nothing to reply but, "Ask Mr. Davenant to come in." He uttered the words mechanically. He had not thought of Davenant since he talked with Olivia on the stairs--a conversation that now seemed a curiously long time ago.
"I hope I'm not disturbing you, Mr. Guion," the visitor said, apologetically, with a glance at the letters on the desk.
"Not at all, my dear fellow," Guion said, cordially, from force of habit, offering his hand without rising from the revolving chair. "Sit down. Have a cigar. It's rather a sharp morning for the time of year."
The use of the conventional phrases of welcome helped him to emerge somewhat from his state of apathy. Davenant declined the cigar, but seated himself near the desk, in one of the round-backed office chairs. Not being a man easily embarrassed by silences, he did not begin to speak at once, and during the minute his hesitation lasted Guion bethought him of Olivia's remark, "That sort of Saxon-giant type is always good-looking." Davenant was good-looking, in a clear-skinned, clear-eyed way. Everything about him spoke of straight-forwardness and strength, tempered perhaps by the boyish quality inseparable from fair hair, a clean, healthily ruddy complexion, and a direct blue glance that rested on men and things with a kind of pensive wondering. All the same, the heavy-browed face on a big, tense neck had a frowning, perhaps a lowering expression that reminded Guion of a young bull before he begins to charge. The lips beneath the fair mustache might be too tightly and too severely compressed, but the smile into which they broke over regular white teeth was the franker and the more engaging because of the unexpected light. If there was any physical awkwardness about him, it was in the management of his long legs; but that difficulty was overcome by his simplicity. It was characteristic of Guion to notice, even at such a time as this, that Davenant was carefully and correctly dressed, like a man respectful of social usages.
"I came in to see you, Mr. Guion," he began, apparently with some hesitation, "about what we were talking of last night."
Guion pulled himself together. His handsome eyebrows arched themselves, and he half smiled.
"Last night? What were we talking of?"
"We weren't talking of it, exactly. You only told us."
"Only told you--what?" The necessity to do a little fencing brought some of his old powers into play.
"That you wanted to borrow half a million dollars. I've come in to--to lend you that sum--if you'll take it."
For a few seconds Guion sat rigidly still, looking at this man. The import and bearing of the words were too much for him to grasp at once. All his mind was prepared to deal with on the spur of the moment was the fact of this offer, ignoring its application and its consequences as things which for the moment lay outside his range of thought.
As far as he was able to reflect, it was to assume that there was more here than met the eye. Davenant was too practised as a player of "the game" to pay a big price for a broken potsherd, unless he was tolerably sure in advance that within the potsherd or under it there lay more than its value. It was not easy to surmise the form of the treasure nor the spot where it was hidden, but that it was there--in kind satisfactory to Davenant himself--Guion had no doubt. It was his part, therefore, to be astute and wary, not to lose the chance of selling, and yet not to allow himself to be overreached. If Davenant was playing a deep game, he must play a deeper. He was sorry his head ached and that he felt in such poor trim for making the effort. "I must look sharp," he said to himself; "and yet I must be square and courteous. That's the line for me to take." He tried to get some inspiration for the spurt in telling himself that in spite of everything he was still a man of business. When at last he began to speak, it was with something of the feeling of the broken-down prize-fighter dragging himself bleeding and breathless into the ring for the last round with a young and still unspent opponent.
"I didn't suppose you were in--in a position--to do that."
"I am." Davenant nodded with some emphasis.
"Did you think that that was what I meant when I--I opened my heart to you last night?"
"No. I know it wasn't. My offer is inspired by nothing but what I feel."
"Good!" It was some minutes before Guion spoke again. "If I remember rightly," he observed then, "I said I would sell my soul for half a million dollars. I didn't say I wanted to borrow that amount."
"You may put it in any way you like," Davenant smiled. "I've come with the offer of the money. I want you to have it. The terms on which you'd take it don't matter to me."
"But they do to me. Don't you see? I'd borrow the money if I could. I couldn't accept it in any other way. And I can't borrow it. I couldn't pay the interest on it if I did. But I've exhausted my credit. I can't borrow any more."
"You can borrow what I'm willing to lend, can't you?"
"No; because Tory Hill is mortgaged for all it will stand. I've nothing else to offer as collateral--"
"I'm not asking for collateral. I'm ready to hand you over the money on any terms you like or on no terms at all."
"Do you mean that you'd be willing to--to--to give it to me?"
"I mean, sir," he explained, reddening a little, "that I want you to have the money to use--now. We could talk about the conditions afterward and call them what you please. If I understood you correctly last night, you're in a tight place--a confoundedly tight place--"
"I am; but--don't be offended!--it seems to me you'd put me in a tighter."
"It's a little difficult to explain." He leaned forward, with one of his nervous, jerky movements, and fingered the glass containing the three chrysanthemums, but without taking his eyes from Davenant. So far he was quite satisfied with himself. "You see, it's this way. I've done wrong--very wrong. We needn't go into that, because you know it as well as I. But I'm willing to pay the penalty. That is, I'm ready to pay the penalty. I've made up my mind to it. I've had to--of course. But if I accepted your offer, you'd be paying it, not I."
"Well, why shouldn't I? I've paid other people's debts before now--once or twice--when I didn't want to. Why shouldn't I pay yours, when I should like the job?"
Davenant attempted, by taking something like a jovial tone, to carry the thing off lightly.
"There's no reason why you shouldn't do it; there's only a reason why I shouldn't let you."
"I don't see why you shouldn't let me. It mayn't be just what you'd like, but it's surely better than--than what you wouldn't like at all."
Taking in the significance of these words, Guion colored, not with the healthy young flush that came so readily to Davenant's face, but in dabbled, hectic spots. His hand trembled, too, so that some of the water from the vase he was holding spilled over on the desk. It was probably this small accident, making him forget the importance of his role, that caused him to jump up nervously and begin pacing about the room.
Davenant noticed then what he had not yet had time for--the change that had taken place in Guion in less than twenty hours. It could not be defined as looking older or haggard or ill. It could hardly be said to be a difference in complexion or feature or anything outward. As far as Davenant was able to judge, it was probably due, not to the loss of self-respect, but to the loss of the pretense at self-respect; it was due to that desolation of the personality that comes when the soul has no more reason to keep up its defenses against the world outside it, when the Beautiful Gate is battered down and the Veil of the Temple rent, while the Holy of Holies lies open for any eye to rifle. It was probably because this was so that Guion, on coming back to his seat, began at once to be more explanatory than there was any need for.
"I haven't tried to thank you for your kind suggestion, but we'll come to that when I see more clearly just what you want."
"I've told you that. I'm not asking for anything else."
"So far you haven't asked for anything at all; but I don't imagine you'll be content with that. In any case," he hurried on, as Davenant seemed about to speak, "I don't want you to be under any misapprehension about the affair. There's nothing extenuating in it whatever--that is, nothing but the intention to 'put it back' that goes with practically every instance of"--he hesitated long--"every instance of embezzlement," he finished, bravely. "It began this way--"
"I don't want to know how it began," Davenant said, hastily. "I'm satisfied with knowing the situation as it is."
"But I want to tell you. In proportion as I'm open with you I shall expect you to be frank with me."
"I don't promise to be frank with you."
"Anyhow, I mean to set you the example."
He went on to speak rapidly, feverishly, with that half-hysterical impulse toward confession from the signs of which Davenant had shrunk on the previous evening. As Guion himself had forewarned, there was nothing new or unusual in the tale. The situations were entirely the conventional ones in the drama of this kind of unfaithfulness. The only element to make it appealing, an element forcibly present to Davenant's protective instincts, was the contrast between what Guion had been and what he was to-day.
"And so," Guion concluded, "I don't see how I could accept this money from you. Any honorable man--that is," he corrected, in some confusion, "any sane man--would tell you as much."
"I've already considered what the sane man and the honorable man would tell me. I guess I can let them stick to their opinion so long as I have my own."
"And what is your opinion? Do you mind telling me? You understand that what you're proposing is immoral, don't you?"
"Yes--in a way."
Guion frowned. He had hoped for some pretense at contradiction.
"I didn't know whether you'd thought of that."
"Oh yes, I've thought of it. That is, I see what you mean."
"It's compounding a felony and outwitting the ends of justice and--"
"I guess I'll do it just the same. It doesn't seem to be my special job to look after the ends of justice; and as for compounding a felony--well, it'll be something new."
Guion made a show of looking at him sharply. The effort, or the pretended effort, to see through Davenant's game disguised for the moment his sense of humiliation at this prompt acceptance of his own statement of the case.
"All the same," he observed, trying to take a detached, judicial tone, "your offer is so amazing that I presume you wouldn't make it unless you had some unusual reason."
"I don't know that I have. In fact, I know I haven't."
"Well, whatever its nature, I should like to know what it is."
"Is that necessary?"
"Doesn't it strike you that it would be--in order? If I were to let you do this for me you'd be rendering me an extraordinary service. We're both men of business, men of the world; and we know that something for nothing is not according to Hoyle."
Davenant looked at him pensively. "That is, you want to know what I should be pulling off for myself?"
"That's about it."
"I don't see why that should worry you. If you get the money--"
"If I get the money I put myself in your power."
"What of that? Isn't it just as well to be in my power as in the power of other people?"
Again Guion winced inwardly, but kept his self-control. He was not yet accustomed to doing without the formulas of respect from those whom he considered his inferiors.
"Possibly," he said, not caring to conceal a certain irritation; "but even so I should like to know in case I were in your power what you'd expect of me."
"I can answer that question right away. I shouldn't expect anything at all."
"Then you leave me more in the dark than ever."
Davenant still eyed him pensively. "Do I understand you to be suspicious of my motives?"
"Suspicious might not be the right word. Suppose we said curious."
Davenant reflected. Perhaps it was his mastery of the situation that gave him unconsciously a rock-like air of nonchalance. When he spoke it was with a little smile, which Guion took to be one of condescension. Condescension in the circumstances was synonymous with insolence.
"Well, sir, suppose I allowed you to remain curious? What then?"
They were the wrong words. It was the wrong manner. Guion looked up with a start. His next words were uttered in the blind instinct of the haughty-headed gentleman who thinks highly of himself to save the moment's dignity.
"In that case I think we must call the bargain off."
Davenant shot out of his seat. He, too, was not without a current of hot blood.
"All right, sir. It's for you to decide. Only, I'm sorry. Good-by!" He held out his hand, which Guion, who was now leaning forward, toying with the pens and pencils on the desk, affected not to see. A certain lack of ease that often came over Davenant at moments of leave-taking or greeting kept him on the spot. "I hoped," he stammered, "that I might have been of some use to you, and that Miss Guion--"
Guion looked up sharply. "Has she got anything to do with it?"
"Nothing," Davenant said, quickly, "nothing whatever."
"I didn't see how she could have--" Guion was going on, when Davenant interrupted.
"She has nothing to do with it whatever," he repeated. "I was only going to say that I hoped she might have got through her wedding without hearing anything about--all this--all this fuss."
In uttering the last words he had moved toward the door. His hand was on the knob and he was about to make some repetition of his farewells when Guion spoke again. He was leaning once more over the desk, his fingers playing nervously with the pens and pencils. He made no further effort to keep up his role of keen-sighted man of business. His head was bent, so that Davenant could scarcely see his face, and when he spoke his words were muffled and sullen.
"Half a million would be too much. Four hundred and fifty thousand would cover everything."
"That would be all the same to me," Davenant said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
But he went back to the desk and took his seat again.