The Street Called Straight by Basil King
Finding the door of her father's room ajar, Miss Guion pushed it open and went in.
Wearing a richly quilted dressing-gown, with cuffs and rolled collar of lavender silk, he lay asleep in the chaise-longue, a tan-colored rug across his feet. On a table at his left stood a silver box containing cigars, a silver ash-tray, a silver match-box, and a small silver lamp burning with a tiny flame. Each piece was engraved with his initials and a coat-of-arms. On his right there was an adjustable reading-stand, holding an open copy of a recent English review. One hand, adorned with an elaborately emblazoned seal-ring, hung heavily toward the floor; a cigar that had gone out was still between the fingers. His head, resting on a cushion of violet brocade, had fallen slightly to one side.
She sat down beside him, to wait till he woke up. It was a large room, with white doors and wainscoting. Above the woodwork it was papered in pale yellow. On the walls there were water-colors, prints, photographs, and painted porcelain plaques. Over the bed, for decorative rather than devotional purposes, hung an old French ivory crucifix, while lower down was a silver holy-water stoup of Venetian make, that was oftenest used for matches. It had been the late Mrs. Guion's room, and expressed her taste. It contained too many ornaments, too many knickknacks, too many mirrors, too many wardrobes, too many easy-chairs, too much embossed silver on the dressing-table, too much old porcelain, wherever there was a place for it. Everything was costly, from the lace coverlet on the bed to the Persian rugs on the floor.
Olivia looked vaguely about the room, as on an apartment she had never before seen. She found herself speculating as to the amount these elaborate furnishings would fetch if sold. She recalled the fact, forgotten till now, that when the Berringtons' belongings, purchased with reckless extravagance, passed under the hammer, they had gone for a song. She made the same forecast regarding the contents of Tory Hill. Much money had been spent on them, but, with the exception perhaps of some of the old portraits, there was little of real intrinsic value. She made the reflection coldly, drearily, as bearing on things that had no connection with herself.
Her eyes traveled back to her father. With the muscles of the face relaxed in sleep, he looked old and jaded. The mustache, which had not been waxed or curled that day, sagged at the corners, the mouth sagging under it. Above the line of the beard the skin was mottled and puffy. The lashes rested on his cheeks with the luxuriance of a girl's, and the splendid eyebrows had all their fullness; but the lids twitched and quivered like those of a child that has fallen asleep during a fit of weeping.
It was this twitching that softened her, that compelled her to judge him from the most merciful point of view. There was something piteous about him, something that silenced reproaches, that disarmed severity. She had come up-stairs staggered, incredulous--incredulous and yet convinced--outraged, terrified; but now the appeal of that fagged face and those quivering lids was too strong for her. It wrought in her not so much sympathy as comprehension, an understanding of him such as she had never before arrived at. In his capacity of father she had loved him unrestrainedly, but admired him with reserves. It was impossible not to love a parent so handsome, so genial, so kind, so generally admired; it was equally impossible not to criticize, however gently, a man with such a love of luxury, of unwarranted princeliness, and of florid display. She was indulgent to his tastes in the degree to which a new and enlightened generation can be tolerant of the errors of that preceding it, but she could not ignore the fact that the value he set on things--in morals, society, or art--depended on their power to strike the eye. She had smiled at that, as at something which, after all, was harmless. She had smiled, too, when he offered to himself--and to her also, it had to be admitted--the best of whatever could be had, since, presumably, he could afford it; though, as far as she was concerned, she would have been happier with simpler standards and a less ambitious mode of life. In following the path her parents had marked out for her, and to some extent beaten in advance, she had acquiesced in their plans rather than developed wishes of her own. Having grown tired of her annual round of American and English country-houses, with interludes for Paris, Biarritz, or Cannes, she had gone on chiefly because, as far as she could see, there was nothing else to do.
Looking at him now, it came over her for the first time that she must be a disappointment to him. He had never given her reason to suspect it, and yet it must be so. First among the aims for which he had been striving, and to attain to which he had hazarded so much, there must have been the hope that she should make a brilliant match. That, and that alone, would have given them as a family the sure international position he had coveted, and which plenty of other Americans were successful in securing.
It was only of late years, with the growth of her own independent social judgment, that she could look back over the past and see the Guions as in the van of that movement of the New World back upon the Old of which the force was forever augmenting. As Drusilla Fane was fond of saying, it was a manifestation of the nomadic, or perhaps the predatory, spirit characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. It was part of that impulse to expand, annex, appropriate, which had urged the Angles to descend on the shores of Kent and the Normans to cross from Dives to Hastings. Later, it had driven their descendants over the Atlantic, as individuals, as households, or as "churches"; and now, from their rich, comfortable, commonplace homes in New England, Illinois, or California, it bade later descendants still lift up their eyes and see how much there was to be desired in the lands their ancestors had left behind--fair parks, stately manors, picturesque chateaux, sonorous titles, and varied, dignified ways of living.
To a people with the habit of compassing sea and land to get whatever was good to have the voyage back was nothing, especially in the days of easy money and steam. The Guions had been among the first to make it. They had been among the first Americans to descend on the shores of Europe with the intention--more or less obscure, more or less acknowledged, as the case might be--of acquiring and enjoying the treasures of tradition by association or alliance or any other means that might present themselves. Richard Guion, grandfather of Henry Guion, found the way to cut a dash in the Paris of the early Second Empire and to marry his daughter, Victoria Guion, to the Marquis de Melcourt. From the simple American point of view of that day and date it was a dazzling match, long talked of by the naive press of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
By the more ambitious members of the Guion house it was considered as the beginning of a glorious epoch; but, looking back now, Olivia could see how meager the results had been. Since those days a brilliant American society had sprung up on the English stem, like a mistletoe on an oak; but, while Henry and Charlotta Guion would gladly have struck their roots into that sturdy trunk, they lacked the money essential to parasitic growth. As for Victoria Guion, French life, especially the old royalist phase of it, which offers no crevices on its creaseless bark in which a foreign seed can germinate, absorbed her within its tough old blossom as a pitcher-plant sucks in a fly. Henceforth the utmost she could do for her kith and kin was to force open the trap from time to time, so that Olivia, if she liked, could be swallowed, too. In that task the old lady was not only industrious but generous, offering to subscribe handsomely toward the dot, as well as giving it to be understood that the bride-elect would figure in the end as her residuary legatee. Owing to this prospect Olivia had been compelled to decline a comte and a vicomte of crusading ancestry, procured at some pains by Madame de Melcourt; but when she also refused the eminently eligible Duc de Berteuil, whose terms in the way of dowry were reasonable, while he offered her a splendidly historic name and background, the Marquise not unnaturally lost her temper and declared that she washed her hands of her grandniece once for all.
Not till this minute had Olivia ever considered that this reluctance on her part to be "well established" must have been something like a grief to her father, for he had never betrayed a sign of it. On the contrary, he had seemed to approve her decisions, and had even agreed with her in preferring the mistletoe to the pitcher-plant. He welcomed her back to Tory Hill, where her residences were longer, now that she ceased to be much with Madame de Melcourt, and yet was always ready with money and his consent when she had invitations from her friends abroad. On her engagement to Rupert Ashley he expressed complete satisfaction, and said in so many words that it was a more appropriate match for her than any French alliance, however distinguished. His tenderness in this respect came over her now as peculiarly touching, unsealing the fount of filial pity at a moment when other motives might have made for indignation and revolt.
He opened his eyes without giving any other sign of waking.
"Hallo! What are you looking at me for?"
The tone was not impatient, but she heard in it an implication of fear.
"Papa, are your troubles anything like Jack Berrington's?"
He gazed at her without moving a muscle or changing a shade. She only fancied that in the long look with which he regarded her there was a receding, sinking, dying light, as though the soul within him was withdrawing.
"What makes you ask that?"
The intonation was expressionless, and yet, it seemed to her, a little wary.
"I ask chiefly because--well, because I think they are."
He looked at her for a minute more, perhaps for longer.
"Well, then--you're right."
Again she had the sensation, familiar to her since yesterday, of the world reeling to pieces around her while her own personality survived. When she spoke, her voice sounded as if it came out of the wildness of a surging wreck.
"Then that's what you meant in saying yesterday that when everything was settled you still wouldn't be able to pay all you owed."
"That's what I meant--exactly."
He lay perfectly still, except that he raised his hand and puffed at his extinct cigar. She looked down at the pattern on the Persian rug beside his couch--a symmetrical scroll of old rose, on a black ground sown with multicolored flowerets.
"I suppose it's the Clay heirs and the Rodman heirs you owe the money to?"
"And the Compton heirs, and old Miss Burnaby, and the two Misses Brown, and--"
"Haven't they anything left?"
"Oh yes. It isn't all gone, by any means." Then he added, as if to make a clean breast of the affair and be done with it: "The personal property--what you may call the cash--is mostly gone! Those that have owned real estate--like the Rodmans and Fanny Burnaby--well, they've got that still."
"I see." She continued to sit looking meditatively down at the rug. "I suppose," she ventured, after long thinking, "that that's the money we've been living on all these years?"
"Yes; in the main." He felt it useless to quibble or to try to extenuate the facts.
"How many years would that be?"
"I'm not very sure; on and off, it's about ten since I began using some of their money to--help out my income. Latterly--you may as well know it--I haven't had any real income of my own at all."
"So that their money has been paying for--for all this."
Her hands made a confused little gesture, indicating the luxury of his personal appointments and of the room.
He shrugged his shoulders and arched his eyebrows in a kind of protest, which was nevertheless not denial. "W-well! If you choose to put it so!"
"And for me, too," she went on, looking at him now with a bewildered opening of her large gray eyes--"for my visits, my clothes, my maid--everything!"
"I don't see any need," he said, with a touch of peevishness, "for going so terribly into detail."
"I don't see how it can be helped. It's so queer--and startling--to think I've had so much that wasn't mine."
"You mustn't think it was deliberately planned--" he began, weakly.
"And now the suggestion is," she interrupted, "that Mr. Davenant should pay for it. That seems to me to make it even worse than--than before."
"I confess I don't follow you there," he complained. "If he doesn't--then I go to Singville."
"Wouldn't you rather?"
He raised himself stiffly into a sitting posture. "Would you?"
She did not hesitate in her reply. "Yes, papa. I would rather--if I were you."
"But since you're not me--since you are yourself--would you still rather that I went to Singville?"
There was a little lift to her chin, a faint color in her face as she replied: "I'd rather pay--however I did it. I'd rather pay--in any way--than ask some one else to do it."
He fell back on the cushion of violet brocade. "So would I--if I had only myself to think of. We're alike in that."
"Do you mean that you'd rather do it if it wasn't for me?"
"I've got to take everything into consideration. It's no use for me to make bad worse by refusing a good offer. I must try to make the best of a bad business for every one's sake. I don't want to take Davenant's money. It's about as pleasant for me as swallowing a knife. But I'd swallow a knife if we could only hush the thing up long enough for you to be married--and for me to settle some other things. I shouldn't care what happened after that. They might take me and chuck me into any hole they pleased."
"But I couldn't be married in that way, papa dear. I couldn't be married at all to--to one man--when another man had a claim on me."
"Had a claim on you? How do you mean?"
"He'll have that--if he pays for everything--pays for everything for years and years back. Don't you see?"
"A claim on you for what, pray?"
"That's what I don't know. But whatever it is, I shall feel that I'm in his debt."
"Nonsense, dear. I call that morbid. It is morbid."
"But don't you think it's what he's working for? I can't see anything else that--that could tempt him; and the minute we make a bargain with him we agree to his terms."
There was a long silence before he said, wearily:
"If we call the deal off we must do it with our eyes open to the consequences. Ashley would almost certainly throw you over--"
"No; because that possibility couldn't arise."
"And you'll have to be prepared for the disgrace--"
"I shall not look on it as disgrace so much as--paying. It will be paying for what we've had--if not in one sort of coin, then in another. But whatever it is, we shall be paying the debt ourselves; we sha'n't be foisting it off on some one else."
"Why do you say we?"
"Well, won't it be we? I shall have my part in it, sha'n't I? You wouldn't shut me out from that? I've had my share of the--of the wrong, so I ought to take my share in the reparation. My whole point is that we should be acting together."
"They can't put you in Singville."
"No; but they can't keep me from sitting outside the walls. I shall want to do that, papa, if you're within. I'm not going to separate myself from you--or from anything you're responsible for. I couldn't if I wanted to; but as it happens I shouldn't try. I should get a kind of satisfaction out of it, shouldn't you?--the satisfaction of knowing that every day we suffered, and every night we slept through or wept through, and every bit of humiliation and dishonor, was so much contributed to the great work of--paying up. Isn't that the way you'd take it?"
"That's all very fine now, dear, when you're--what shall I say?--a little bit exaltee; but how do you think you'll feel when they've--when they've"--he continued to speak with his eyes shut convulsively--"when they've arrested me and tried me and sentenced me and locked me up for ten or fifteen years?"
"I shall feel as if the bitterness of death were past. But I should feel worse than that--I should feel as if the bitterness of both death and hell were still to come if we didn't make an effort to shoulder our own responsibilities."
There was more in the same vein. He listened for the greater part of the time with his eyes closed. He was too unutterably tired to argue or to contest her point of view. Beyond suggesting that there were sides to the question she hadn't yet considered, he felt helpless. He was restrained, too, from setting them forth by a certain hesitation in demanding from her anything she did not concede of her own accord. That she would ultimately see for herself he had little doubt. In any case he was more or less indifferent from sheer spiritual exhaustion. He had ceased to direct, or try to direct, his own affairs or those of any one else. In his present condition he could only lie still and let come what might. Fate or God would arrange things either in the way of adjustment or of fatal ruin without interference on his part.
So as he lay and listened to his daughter he uttered some bit of reason or some feeble protest only now and then. When, occasionally, he looked at her, it was to see her--somewhat deliriously--white, slim, ethereal, inexorable, like the law of right. He was feverish; his head throbbed; whenever he opened his eyes the objects in the room seemed to whirl about, while she sat tense, low-voiced, gentle, a spirit of expiation.
Among the various ways in which he had thought she might take his dread announcement this one had never occurred to him; and yet, now that he saw it, he recognized it as just what he might have expected from the almost too rigid rectitude and decidedly too uncompromising pride that made up her character. It was the way, too, he admitted, most worthy of a Guion. It was the way he would have chosen for himself if he had nothing to consider but his own tastes. He himself was as eager in his way to make satisfaction as she; he was only deterred by considerations of common sense. From the point of view of a man of business it was more than a little mad to refuse the money that would pay his creditors, hush up a scandal, and keep the course of daily life running in something like its accustomed channel, merely because for the rest of his days he must be placed in a humiliating moral situation. He wouldn't like that, of course; and yet everything else was so much worse for his clients, even more than for himself. This was something she did not see. In spite of the measure in which he had agreed with her heroic views of "paying," he returned to that thought after she had kissed him and gone away.
During the conversation with him Olivia had so completely forgotten Davenant that when she descended to the oval sitting-room she was scarcely surprised to find that he had left and that Drusilla Fane was waiting in his place.
"You see, Olivia," Mrs. Fane reasoned, in her sympathetic, practical way, "that if you're not going to have your wedding on the 28th, you've got to do something about it now."
"What would you do?"
Olivia brought her mind back with some effort from the consideration of the greater issues to fix it on the smaller ones. In its way Drusilla's interference was a welcome diversion, since the point she raised was important enough to distract Olivia's attention from decisions too poignant to dwell on long.
"I've thought that over," Drusilla explained--"mother and I together. If we were you we'd simply scribble a few lines on your card and send it round by post."
"Yes? And what would you scribble?"
"We'd say--you see, it wouldn't commit you to anything too pointed--we'd say, simply, 'Miss Guion's marriage to Colonel Ashley will not take place on October 28th.' There you'd have nothing but the statement, and they could make of it what they liked."
"Which would be a good deal, wouldn't it?"
"Human nature being human nature, Olivia, you can hardly expect people not to talk. But you're in for that, you know, whatever happens now."
"Oh, of course."
"So that the thing to do is to keep them from going to the church next Thursday fortnight, and from pestering you with presents in the mean while. When you've headed them off on that you'll feel more free to--to give your mind to other things."
The suggestion was so sensible that Olivia fell in with it at once. She accepted, too, Drusilla's friendly offer to help in the writing of the cards, of which it would be necessary to send out some two hundred. There being no time to lose, they set themselves immediately to the task, Drusilla at the desk, and Olivia writing on a blotting-pad at a table. They worked for twenty minutes or half an hour in silence.
"Miss Guion's marriage to Colonel Ashley will not take place on October 28th."
"Miss Guion's marriage to Colonel Ashley will not take place on October 28th."
"Miss Guion's marriage to Colonel Ashley will not take place on October 28th."
The words, which to Olivia had at first sounded something like a knell, presently became, from the monotony of repetition, nothing but a sing-song. She went on writing them mechanically, but her thoughts began to busy themselves otherwise.
"Drusilla, do you remember Jack Berrington?"
The question slipped out before she saw its significance. She might not have perceived it so quickly even then had it not been for the second of hesitation before Drusilla answered and the quaver in her voice when she did.
The amount of information contained in the embarrassment with which this monosyllable was uttered caused Olivia to feel faint. It implied that Drusilla had been better posted than herself; and if Drusilla, why not others?
"Do you know what makes me think of him?"
Again there was a second of hesitation. Without relaxing the speed with which she went on scribbling the same oft-repeated sentence, Olivia knew that her companion stayed her pen and half turned round.
"I can guess."
Olivia kept on writing. "How long have you known?"
Drusilla threw back the answer while blotting with unnecessary force the card she had just written: "A couple of days."
"Has it got about--generally?"
"Generally might be too much to say. Some people have got wind of it; and, of course, a thing of that kind spreads."
After all, she reflected, perhaps it was just as well that the story should have come out. It was no more possible to keep it quiet than to calm an earthquake. She had said just now to her father that she would regard publicity less as disgrace than as part of the process of paying up. Very well! If they were a mark for idle tongues, then so much the better, since in that way they were already contributing some few pence toward quenching the debt.
"I should feel worse about it," Drusilla explained, after a silence of some minutes, "if I didn't think that Peter Davenant was trying to do something to--to help Cousin Henry out."
Olivia wrote energetically. "What's he doing?"
"Oh, the kind of thing men do. They seem to have wonderful ways of raising money."
"How do you know he's trying it?"
"I don't know for certain; I've only an idea. I rather gather it by the queer way he comes and goes. The minute a thing is in Peter's hands--"
"Have you such a lot of confidence in him?"
"For this sort of thing--yes. He's terribly able, so they say, financially. For the matter of that, you can see it by the way he's made all that money. Bought mines, or something, and sold them again. Bought 'em for nothing, and sold 'em for thousands and thousands."
"Did I ever tell you that he once asked me to marry him?"
Drusilla wheeled round in her chair and stared, open-mouthed, at her friend's back.
"Oh, it was years ago. I dare say he's forgotten it."
"I'll bet you ten to one he hasn't."
Olivia took another card and wrote rapidly. "Do you suppose," she said, trying to speak casually, "that his wanting to help papa out has anything to do with that?"
"I shouldn't wonder. I shouldn't wonder at all."
"What could it have?"
"Oh, don't ask me! How should I know? Men are so queer. He's getting some sort of satisfaction out of it, you may depend."
Drusilla answered as she would have liked to be answered were she in a similar position. That an old admirer should come to her aid like a god from the machine would have struck her as the most touching thing in the world. As she wheeled round again to her task it was not without a pang of wholly impersonal envy at so beautiful a tribute. She had written two or three cards before she let fall the remark:
"And now poor, dear old mother is manoeuvering to have me marry him."
The idea was not new to Olivia, so she said, simply, "And are you going to?"
"Oh, I don't know." Drusilla sighed wearily, then added: "I sha'n't if I can help it."
"Does that mean that you'll take him if you can't do better?"
"It means that I don't know what I shall do at all. I'm rather sick of everything--and so I might do anything. I don't want to come back to live in America, and yet I feel an alien over there, now that I haven't Gerald to give me a raison d'etre. They're awfully nice to me--at Southsea--at Silchester--everywhere--and yet they really don't want me. I can see that as plainly as I can see your name on this card. But I can't keep away from them. I've no pride. At least, I've got the pride, but there's something in me stronger than pride that makes me a kind of craven. I'm like a dog that doesn't mind being kicked so long as he can hang about under the dining-room table to sniff up crumbs. With my temperament it's perfectly humiliating, but I can't help it. I've got the taste for that English life as a Frenchman gets a taste for absinthe--knows that it'll be the ruin of him, and yet goes on drinking."
"I suppose you're not in love with any one over there?"
There was no curiosity in this question. Olivia asked it--she could scarcely tell why. She noticed that Drusilla stopped writing again and once more half turned round, though it was not till long afterward that she attached significance to the fact.
"Who on earth should I be in love with? What put that into your head?"
"Oh, I don't know. Stranger things have happened. You see a great many men--"
So they went skimming over the surface of confidence, knowing that beneath what they said there were depths below depths that they dared not disturb. All the same, it was some relief to both when the maid came to the door to summon them to luncheon.