The Street Called Straight by Basil King
It was in the nature of a relief to Olivia Guion when, on the following day, her father was too ill to go to his office. A cold, caused by the exposure of two nights previous, and accompanied by a rising temperature, kept him confined to his room, though not to bed. The occurrence, by maintaining the situation where it was, rendered it impossible to take any irretrievable step that day. This was so much gain.
She had slept little; she had passed most of the night in active and, as it seemed to her, lucid thinking. Among the points clearest to her was the degree to which she herself was involved in the present business. In a measure, the transfer of a large sum of money from Peter Davenant to her father would be an incident more vital to her than to any one else, since she more than any one else must inherit its moral effects. While she was at a loss to see what the man could claim from them in return for his generosity, she was convinced that his exactions would be not unconnected with herself. If, on the other hand, he demanded nothing, then the lifelong obligation in the way of gratitude that must thus be imposed on her would be the most intolerable thing of all. Better any privation than the incurring of such a debt--a debt that would cover everything she was or could become. Its magnitude would fill her horizon; she must live henceforth in the world it made, her very personality would turn into a thing of confused origin, sprung, it was true, from Henry and Carlotta Guion in the first place, but taking a second lease of life from the man whose beneficence started her afresh. She would date back to him, as barbarous women date to their marriage or Mohammedans to the Flight. It was a relation she could not have endured toward a man even if she loved him; still less was it sufferable with one whom she had always regarded with an indefinable disdain, when she had not ignored him. The very possibility that he might purchase a hold on her inspired a frantic feeling, like that of the ermine at pollution.
Throughout the morning she was obliged to conceal from her father this intense opposition--or, at least to refrain from speaking of it. When she made the attempt he grew so feverish that the doctor advised the postponement of distressing topics till he should be better able to discuss them. She could only make him as comfortable as might be, pondering while she covered him up in the chaise-longue, putting his books and his cigars within easy reach, how she could best convert him to her point of view. It was inconceivable to her that he would persist in the scheme when he realized how it would affect her.
She had gone down to the small oval sitting-room commanding the driveway, thinking it probable that Drusilla Fane might come to see her. Watching for her approach, she threw open the French window set in the rounded end of the room and leading out to the Corinthian-columned portico that adorned what had once been the garden side of the house. There was no garden now, only a stretch of elm-shaded lawn, with a few dahlias and zinnias making gorgeous clusters against the already gorgeous autumn-tinted shrubbery. On the wall of a neighboring brick house, Virginia creeper and ampelopsis added fuel to the fire of surrounding color, while a maple in the middle distance blazed with all the hues that might have flamed in Moses's burning bush. It was one of those days of the American autumn when the air is shot with gold, when there is gold in the light, gold on the foliage, gold on the grass, gold on all surfaces, gold in all shadows, and a gold sheen in the sky itself. Red gold like a rich lacquer overlay the trunks of the occasional pines, and pale-yellow gold, beaten and thin, shimmered along the pendulous garlands of the American elms, where they caught the sun. It was a windless morning and a silent one; the sound of a hammer or of a motorist's horn, coming up from the slope of splendid woodland that was really the town, accentuated rather than disturbed the immediate stillness.
To Olivia Guion this quiet ecstasy of nature was uplifting. Its rich, rejoicing quality restored as by a tonic her habitual confidence in her ability to carry the strongholds of life with a high and graceful hand. Difficulties that had been paramount, overpowering, fell all at once into perspective, becoming heights to be scaled rather than barriers defying passage. For the first time in the twenty-four hours since the previous morning's revelations, she thought of her lover as bringing comfort rather than as creating complications.
Up to this minute he had seemed to withdraw from her, to elude her. As a matter of fact, though she spoke of him rarely and always with a purposely prosaic touch, he was so romantic a figure in her dreams that the approach of the sordid and the ugly had dispelled his image. It was quite true, as she had said to Drusilla Fane, that from one point of view she didn't know him very well. She might have said that she didn't know him at all on any of those planes where rents and the price of beef are factors. He had come into her life with much the same sort of appeal as the wandering knight of the days of chivalry made to the damsel in the family fortress. Up to his appearing she had thought herself too sophisticated and too old to be caught by this kind of fancy, especially as it was not the first time she had been exposed to it. In the person of Rupert Ashley, however, it presented itself with the requisite limitations and accompaniments. He was neither so young nor so rich nor of such high rank as to bring a disproportionate element into their romance, while at the same time he had all the endowments of looks, birth, and legendary courage that the heroine craves in the hero. When he was not actually under her eyes, her imagination embodied him most easily in the svelte elegance of the King Arthur beside Maximilian's tomb at Innspruck.
Their acquaintance had been brief, but illuminating--one of those friendships that can afford to transcend the knowledge of mere outward personal facts to leap to the things of the heart and the spirit. It was one of the commonplaces of their intimate speech together that they "seemed to have known each other always"; but now that it was necessary for her to possess some practical measure of his character, she saw, with a sinking of the heart, that they had never passed beyond the stage of the poetic and pictorial.
Speculating as to what he would say when he received her letter telling of her father's misfortunes, she was obliged to confess that she "had not the remotest idea." Matters of this sort belonged to a world on which they had deliberately turned their backs. That is to say, she had turned her back on it deliberately, though by training knowing its importance, fearing that to him it would seem mundane, inappropriate, American. This course had been well enough during the period of a high-bred courtship, almost too fastidiously disdainful of the commonplace; but now that the Fairy Princess had become a beggar-maid, while Prince Charming was Prince Charming still, it was natural that the former should recognize its insufficiency. She had recognized it fully yesterday; but this morning, in the optimistic brightness of the golden atmosphere, romance came suddenly to life again and confidence grew strong. Drusilla had said that she, Olivia, knew him well enough to be sure that he would want to do--everything right. They would do everything right--together. They would save her father whom she loved so tenderly, from making rash mistakes, and--who knew?--find a way, perhaps, to rescue him in his troubles and shelter his old age.
She was so sure of herself to-day, and so nearly sure of Ashley, that even the shock of seeing Peter Davenant coming up the driveway, between the clumps of shrubbery, brought her no dismay. She was quick in reading the situation. It was after eleven o'clock; he had had time to go to Boston, and, learning that her father was not at his office, had come to seek him at home.
She made her arrangements promptly. Withdrawing from the window before he could see her, she bade the maid say that, Mr. Guion being ill, Miss Guion would be glad to see Mr. Davenant, if he would have the kindness to come in. To give an air of greater naturalness to the mise-en-scene, she took a bit of embroidery from her work-basket, and began to stitch at it, seating herself near the open window. She was not without a slight, half-amused sense of lying in ambush, as if some Biblical voice were saying to her, "Up! for the Lord hath delivered thine enemy into thine hand."
* * * * *
"My father isn't well," she explained to Davenant, when she had shaken hands with him and begged him to sit down. "I dare say he may not be able to go out for two or three days to come."
"So they told me at his office. I was sorry to hear it."
"You've been to his office, then? He told me you were there yesterday. That's partly the reason why I've ventured to ask you to come in."
She went on with her stitching, turning the canvas first on one side and then on the other, sticking the needle in with very precise care. He fancied she was waiting for him to "give himself away" by saying something, no matter what. Having, however, a talent for silence without embarrassment, he made use of it, knowing that by means of it he could force her to resume.
He was not at ease; he was not without misgiving. It had been far from his expectation to see her on this errand, or, for the matter of that, on any errand at all. It had never occurred to him that Guion could speak to her of a transaction so private, so secret, as that proposed between them. Since, then, his partner in the undertaking had been foolish, Davenant felt the necessity on his side of being doubly discreet. Moreover, he was intuitive enough to feel her antipathy toward him on purely general grounds. "I'm not her sort," was the summing-up of her sentiments he made for himself. He could not wholly see why he excited her dislike since, beyond a moment of idiotic presumption long ago, he had never done her any harm.
He fancied that his personal appearance, as much as anything, was displeasing to her fastidiousness. He was so big, so awkward; his hands and feet were so clumsy. A little more and he would have been ungainly; perhaps she considered him ungainly as it was. He had tried to negative his defects by spending a great deal of money on his clothes and being as particular as a girl about his nails; but he felt that with all his efforts he was but a bumpkin compared with certain other men--Rodney Temple, for example--who never took any pains at all. Looking at her now, her pure, exquisite profile bent over her piece of work, while the sun struck coppery gleams from her masses of brown hair, he felt as he had often felt in rooms filled with fragile specimens of art--flower-like cups of ancient glass, dainty groups in Meissen, mystic lovelinesses wrought in amber, ivory, or jade--as if his big, gross personality ought to shrink into itself and he should walk on tiptoe.
"I understand from my father," she said, when she found herself obliged to break the silence, "that you've offered to help him in his difficulties. I couldn't let the occasion pass without telling you how much I appreciate your generosity."
She spoke without looking up; words and tone were gently courteous, but they affected him like an April zephyr, that ought to bring the balm of spring, and yet has the chill of ice in it.
"Haven't you noticed," he said, slowly, choosing his words with care, "that generosity consists largely in the point of view of the other party? You may give away an old cloak, for the sake of getting rid of it; but the person who receives it thinks you kind."
"I see that," she admitted, going on with her work, "and yet there are people to whom I shouldn't offer an old cloak, even if I had one to give away."
He colored promptly. "You mean that if they needed anything you'd offer them the best you had."
"I wonder if you'd understand that I'm not speaking ungraciously if I said that--I shouldn't offer them anything at all?"
He put up his hand and stroked his long, fair mustache. It was the sort of rebuke to which he was sensitive. It seemed to relegate him to another land, another world, another species of being from those to which she belonged. It was a second or two before he could decide what to say. "No, Miss Guion," he answered then; "I don't understand that point of view."
"I'm sorry. I hoped you would."
She lifted her clear gray eyes on him for the briefest possible look. "Need I explain?"
The question gave him an advantage he was quick to seize. "Not at all, Miss Guion. You've a right to your own judgments. I don't ask to know them."
"But I think you ought. When you enter into what is distinctly our private family affair, I've a right to give my opinion."
"You don't think I question that?"
"I'm afraid I do. I imagine you're capable of carrying your point, regardless of what I feel."
"But I've no point to carry. I find Mr. Guion wanting to borrow a sum of money that I'm prepared to lend. It's a common situation in business."
"Ah, but this is not business. It's charity."
"Did Mr. Guion tell you so?"
"He did. He told me all about it. My father has no secrets from me."
"Did he use the word--charity?"
"Almost. He said you offered him a loan, but that it really was a gift."
His first impulse was to repudiate this point of view, but a minute's reflection decided him in favor of plain speaking. "Well," he said, slowly, "suppose it was a gift. Would there be any harm in it?"
"There wouldn't be any harm, perhaps; there would only be an--impossibility." She worked very busily, and spoke in a low voice, without looking up. "A gift implies two conditions--on the one side the right to offer, and on the other the freedom to take."
"But I should say that those conditions existed--between Mr. Guion and me."
"But not between you and me. Don't you see? That's the point. To any such transaction as this I have to be, in many ways, the most important party."
Again he was tempted to reject this interpretation; but, once more, on second thought, he allowed it to go uncontested. When he spoke it was to pass to another order of question.
"I wonder how much you know?"
"About my father's affairs? I know everything."
"Yes; everything. He told me yesterday. I didn't expect him to come home last night at all; but he came--and told me what you had proposed."
"You understood, then," Davenant stammered, "that he might have to--to--go away?"
"And aren't you very much appalled?"
The question was wrung from him by sheer astonishment. That she should sit calmly embroidering a sofa-cushion, with this knowledge in her heart, with this possibility hanging over her, seemed to him to pass the limits of the human. He knew there were heroic women; but he had not supposed that with all their heroism they carried themselves with such sang-froid. Before replying she took time to search in her work-basket for another skein of silk.
"Appalled is scarcely the word. Of course, it was a blow to me; but I hope I know how to take a blow without flinching."
"Oh, but one like this--"
"We're able to bear it. What makes you think we can't? If we didn't try, we should probably involve ourselves in worse."
"But how could there be worse?"
"That's what I don't know. You see, when my father told me of your kind offer, he didn't tell me what you wanted."
"Did he say I wanted anything?"
"He said you hadn't asked for anything. That's what leaves us so much in the dark."
"Isn't it conceivable--" he began, with a slightly puzzled air.
"Not that it matters," she interrupted, hurriedly. "Of course, if we had anything with which to compensate you--anything adequate, that is--I don't say that we shouldn't consider seriously the suggestion you were good enough to make. But we haven't. As I understand it, we haven't anything at all. That settles the question definitely. I hope you see."
"Isn't it conceivable," he persisted, "that a man might like to do a thing, once in a way, without--"
"Without asking for an equivalent in return? Possibly. But in this case it would only make it harder for me."
"By putting me under an overwhelming obligation to a total stranger--an obligation that I couldn't bear, while still less could I do away with it."
"I don't see," he reasoned, "that you'd be under a greater obligation to me in that case than you are to others already."
"At present," she corrected, "we're not under an obligation to any one. My father and I are contending with circumstances; we're not asking favors of individuals. I know we owe money--a great deal of money--to a good many people--"
"Who are total strangers, just like me."
"Not total strangers just like you--but total strangers whom I don't know, and don't know anything about, and who become impersonal from their very numbers."
"But you know Mrs. Rodman and Mrs. Clay. They're not impersonal."
All he saw for the instant was that she arrested her needle half-way through the stitch. She sat perfectly still, her head bent, her fingers rigid, as she might have sat in trying to catch some sudden, distant sound. It was only in thinking it over afterward that he realized what she must have lived through in the seconds before she spoke.
"Does my father owe money to them?"
The hint of dismay was so faint that it might have eluded any ear but one rendered sharp by suspicion. Davenant felt the blood rushing to his temples and a singing in his head. "My God, she didn't know!" he cried, inwardly. The urgency of retrieving his mistake kept him calm and cool, prompting him to reply with assumed indifference.
"I really can't say anything about it. I suppose they would be among the creditors--as a matter of course."
For the first time she let her clear, grave eyes rest fully on him. They were quiet eyes, with exquisitely finished lids and lashes. In his imagination their depth of what seemed like devotional reverie contributed more than anything else to her air of separation and remoteness.
"Isn't it very serious--when there's anything wrong with estates?"
He answered readily, still forcing a tone of careless matter-of-fact.
"Of course it's serious. Everything is serious in business. Your father's affairs are just where they can be settled--now. But if we put it off any longer it might not be so easy. Men often have to take charge of one another's affairs--and straighten them out--and advance one another money--and all that--in business."
She looked away from him again, absently. She appeared not to be listening. There was something in her manner that advised him of the uselessness of saying anything more in that vein. After a while she folded her work, smoothing it carefully across her knee. The only sign she gave of being unusually moved was in rising from her chair and going to the open window, where she stood with her back to him, apparently watching the dartings from point to point of a sharp-eyed gray squirrel.
Rising as she did, he stood waiting for her to turn and say something else. Now that the truth was dawning on her, it seemed to him as well to allow it to grow clear. It would show her the futility of further opposition. He would have been glad to keep her ignorant; he regretted the error into which she herself unwittingly had led him; but, since it had been committed, it would not be wholly a disaster if it summoned her to yield.
Having come to this conclusion, he had time to make another observation while she still stood with her back to him. It was to consider himself fortunate in having ceased to be in love with her. In view of all the circumstances, it was a great thing to have passed through that phase and come out of it. He had read somewhere that a man is never twice in love with the same person. If that were so, he could fairly believe himself immune, as after a certain kind of malady. If it were not for this he would have found in her hostility to his efforts and her repugnance to his person a temptation--a temptation to which he was specially liable in regard to living things--to feel that it was his right to curb the spirit and tame the rebellion of whatever was restive to his control. There was something in this haughty, high-strung creature, poising herself in silence to stand upright in the face of fate, that would have called forth his impulse to dominate her will, to subdue her lips to his own, if he had really cared. Fortunately, he didn't care, and so could seek her welfare with detachment.
Turning slowly, she stood grasping the back of the chair from which she had risen. He always remembered afterward that it was a chair of which the flowing curves and rich interlacings of design contrasted with her subtly emphasized simplicity. He had once had the morbid curiosity to watch, in an English law-court, the face and attitude of a woman--a surgeon's wife--standing in the dock to be sentenced to death. It seemed to him now that Olivia Guion stood like her--with the same resoluteness, not so much desperate as slightly dazed.
"Wasn't it for something of that kind--something wrong with estates--that Jack Berrington was sent to prison?"
The question took him unawares. "I--I don't remember."
"I do. I should think you would. The trial was in all the papers. It was the Gray estate. He was Mrs. Gray's trustee. He ruined the whole Gray family."
"Possibly." He did his best to speak airily. "In the matter of estates there are all sorts of hitches that can happen. Some are worse than others, of course--"
"I've seen his wife, Ada Berrington, once or twice, when I've been in Paris. She lives there, waiting for him to come out of Singville. She avoids her old friends when she can--but I've seen her."
"I think I remember hearing about them," he said, for the sake of saying something; "but--"
"I should like to go and talk with my father. Would you mind waiting?"
She made as though she would pass him, but he managed to bar her way.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Miss Guion. If he's not well it'll only upset him. Why not let everything be just as it is? You won't regret it a year hence--believe me. In nine things out of ten you'd know better than I; but this is the tenth thing, in which I know better than you. Why not trust me--and let me have a free hand?"
"I'm afraid I must go to my father. If you'll be kind enough to wait, I'll come back and tell you what he says. Then we shall know. Will you please let me pass?"
He moved to one side. He thought again of the woman in the English law-court. It was like this that she walked from the dock--erect, unflinching, graceful, with eyes fixed straight before her, as though she saw something in the air.
He watched her cross the hall to the foot of the staircase. There she paused pensively. In a minute or two she came back to the sitting-room door.
"If it should be like--like Jack Berrington," she said, from the threshold, with a kind of concentrated quiet in her manner, "then--what you suggested--would be more out of the question than ever."
"I don't see that," he returned, adopting her own tone. "I should think it would be just the other way."
She shook her head.
"There are a lot of points of view that you haven't seen yet," he persisted. "I could put some of them before you if you'd give me time."
"It would be no use doing that. I should never believe anything but that we, my father and I, should bear the responsibilities of our own acts."
"You'll think differently," he began, "when you've looked at the thing all round; and then--"
But before he could complete his sentence she had gone.
* * * * *
Having seen her go up-stairs, he waited in some uncertainty. When fifteen or twenty minutes had gone by and she did not return, he decided to wait no longer. Picking up his hat and stick from the chair on which he had laid them, he went out by the French window, making his way to the gate across the lawn.