The Street Called Straight by Basil King
During the next day and the next Guion continued ill, so ill that his daughter had all she could attend to in the small tasks of nursing. The lull in events, however, gave her the more time for thinking, and in her thoughts two things struck her as specially strange. Of these, the first and more remarkable was the degree to which she identified herself with her father's wrong-doing. The knowledge that she had for so many years been profiting by his misdeeds produced in her a curious sense of having shared them. Though she took pains to remind herself that she was morally guiltless, there was something within her--an imaginative quality perhaps that rejected the acquittal. Pity, too, counted in her mental condition, as did also that yearning instinct called maternal, which keeps women faithful to the weak and the fallen among those they love. To have washed her own hands and said, "See here! I am innocent!" would have seemed to her much like desertion of a broken old man who had no one but her to stand by him. Even while she made attempts to reason herself out of it, the promptings to the vicarious acceptance of guilt, more or less native to the exceptionally strong and loyal, was so potent in her that she found herself saying, in substance if not in words, "Inasmuch as he did it, I did it, too." It was not a purposely adopted stand on her part; it was not even clear to her why she was impelled to take it; she took it only because, obeying the dictates of her nature; she could do nothing else.
Nevertheless, it occasioned her some surprise, whenever she had time to think of it, to note the speed with which she had adapted herself to the facts. Once revealed, she seemed to have always known them--to have shared that first embarrassment for ready money that had induced her father to borrow from funds so temptingly under his control, and to have gone on with him, step by step, through the subsequent years of struggle and disaster. They were years over which the sun was already darkened and the moon turned into blood, so that, looking back on them, it was almost impossible to recapture the memory of the light-heartedness with which she had lived through them. It was incredible to her now that they had been years of traveling and visiting and dancing and hunting and motoring and yachting, of following fashion and seeking pleasure in whatever might have been the vogue of the minute. Some other self, some pale, secondary, astral self, must have crossed and recrossed the Atlantic and been a guest in great houses and become a favorite in London, Paris, Biarritz, Florida, Scotland, Rome! Some other self must have been sought out for her society, admired for her style, and privileged to refuse eligible suitors! Some other self must have met Rupert Ashley in the little house at Southsea and promised to become his wife! From the standpoint of the present it seemed to her as if an unreal life had ended in an unreal romance that was bringing to her, within a day or two, an unreal hero. She was forced again face to face with that fact that the man who was coming to marry her was, for all practical knowledge that she had of him, a stranger. In proportion as calamity encompassed her he receded, taking his place once more in that dim world she should never have frequented and in which she had no longer lot nor part.
She should never have frequented it for the simple reason that for all she had brought to it or got from it some one else had to pay. The knowledge induced a sense of shame which no consciousness of committed crime could have exceeded. She would have been less humiliated had she plotted and schemed to win flattery and homage for herself than she was in discovering that people had been tricked into giving them spontaneously. To drop the mask, to tear asunder the robe of pretense, to cry the truth from the housetops, and, like some Scriptural woman taken in adultery, lie down, groaning and stunned, under the pelting of the stones of those who had not sinned, became to her, as the hours dragged on, an atonement more and more imperative.
But the second odd fact she had to contemplate was the difficulty of getting a new mode of life into operation. Notwithstanding all her eagerness to pay, the days were still passing in gentle routine somewhat quietly because of her father's indisposition, but with the usual household dignity. There was a clock-work smoothness about life at Tory Hill, due to the most competent service secured at the greatest expense. Old servants, and plenty of them, kept the wheels going noiselessly even while they followed with passionate interest the drama being played in the other part of the house. To break in on the course of their duties, to disturb them, or put a stop to them, was to Olivia like an attempt to counteract the laws that regulate the sunrise. She knew neither how to set about it nor where to begin. There was something poignant in the irony of these unobtrusive services from the minute when her maid woke her in the morning till she helped her to change her dress for dinner, and yet there was nothing for it but to go through the customary daily round. When it became necessary to tell the women that the preparations for the wedding must be stopped and that the invitations to the two big dinners that were to be given in honor of Colonel Ashley had been withdrawn she gathered from small signs--the feigned stolidity of some of them and the overacted astonishment of others--that they had probably been even better informed than Drusilla Fane. After that the food they brought her choked her and the maid's touch on her person was like fire, while she still found herself obliged to submit to these long-established attentions.
She was reduced to drawing patience from what Guion told her as to his illness checking temporarily the course of legal action. Most of the men with whom it lay to set the law in motion, notably Dixon, the District-Attorney, were old friends of his, who would hesitate to drag him from a sick-room to face indictment. He had had long interviews with Dixon about the case already, and knew how reluctant that official was to move in the matter, anyhow; but as soon as he, Guion, was out and about again, all kindly scruples would have to yield. "You'll find," he explained to her, "that the question as to breaking-camp will settle itself then. And besides," he added, "it'll be better to wait till Ashley comes and you know what he's likely to do for you."
With the last consideration she could not but agree, though she shrank from his way of putting it. It was some satisfaction at least to know that, since the two hundred cards she had sent out had reached their recipients, the process of public penance must in some measure have been started. She had seen no one who could tell her what the effect had been; her bridesmaids evidently knew enough to consider silence the better part of sympathy; not even Drusilla Fane had looked in or called her on the telephone during the last day or two; but she could imagine pretty well the course that comment and speculation must be taking through the town. There would be plenty of blame, some jubilation, and, she felt sure, not a little sympathy withal. There was among her acquaintance a local American pride that had always been jealous of her European preferences and which would take the opportunity to get in its bit of revenge, but in general opinion would be kindly. There came an afternoon when she felt the desire to go forth to face it, to take her first impressions of the world in her new relationship toward it. She had not been beyond their own gate since the altered conditions had begun to obtain. She had need of the fresh air; she had need to find her bearings; she had need of a few minutes' intercourse with some one besides her father, so as not to imperil her judgment by dwelling too incessantly on an idee fixe. Rupert Ashley would land that night or the next morning. In forty-eight hours he would probably be in Boston. It was prudent, she reflected, to be as well poised and as sure of herself as possible before his arrival on the scene.
Her father was slightly better. He could leave his bed, and, wrapped in his violet dressing-gown, could lie on the chaise-longue, surrounded by the luxurious comforts that were a matter of course to him. As she made him snug he observed with a grim smile that his recovery was a pity. He could almost hear, so he said, Dixon and Johnstone and Hecksher and others of his cronies making the remark that his death would be a lucky way out of the scrape.
She had come, dressed for the street, to tell him she was walking down to the Temples', to see what had become of Drusilla Fane. She thought it needless to add that she was inventing the errand in order to go out and take notes on the new aspect the world must henceforth present to her.
He looked at her with an approval that gradually merged into a sense of comfort. She had chosen the simplest dress and hat in her wardrobe, as significant of a chastened soul; but simplicity more than anything else emphasized her distinction. "She'll be all right," he said, consolingly, to himself. "Whatever happens she's the kind to come out on top. Rupert Ashley would be a fool to throw over a superb, high-spirited creature like that. He'll not do it. Of that I feel sure."
The conviction helped him to settle more luxuriously into the depths of his couch and to relish the flavor of his cigar. He was quite sincere in the feeling that if she were but safe he should be more or less indifferent to the deluge overwhelming himself.
"Papa," she ventured at last, watching carefully the action of the little silver button-hook, as she buttoned her gloves, "if that Mr. Davenant came while I'm gone, you wouldn't change your mind, would you?"
"I don't think he's in the least likely to turn up."
"But if he did?"
"Well, I suppose you'll be back before long. We couldn't settle anything without talking it over, in any case."
Forced to be content with that, she kissed him and turned away.
She found a comfort in getting into the open air, into the friendly streets, under the shade of the familiar trees, that surprised her. The absence of pose characteristic of the average American town struck her for the first time as soothing. With none of the effort to make life conform to a rigid standard of propriety, which in an English community would be the first thing to notice, there was an implied invitation to the spirit to relax. In the slap-dash, go-as-you-please methods of building, paving, and cleaning she saw a tacit assumption that, perfection being not of this world, one is permitted to rub along without it. Rodney Lane, which in Colonial days had led to Governor Rodney's "Mansion," had long ago been baptized Algonquin Avenue by civic authorities with a love of the sonorous, but it still retained the characteristics of a New England village street. Elms arched over it with the regularity of a Gothic vaulting, and it straggled at its will. Its houses, set in open lawns, illustrated all the phases of the national taste in architecture as manifested throughout the nineteenth century, from the wooden Greek temple with a pillared facade of the early decades to the bizarre compositions, painted generally in dark red and yellow, with many gables and long sweeps of slanting roof, which marked that era's close. In most cases additions had been thrown out from time to time, ells trailing at the back, or excrescences bulging at the sides, that were not grotesque only because there had been little in the first effect to spoil. In more than one instance the original fabric was altered beyond recognition; here and there a house she could remember had altogether disappeared; a new one had replaced it that before long might be replaced by a newer still. To Olivia the consoling thought was precisely in this state of transition, to which rapid vicissitude, for better or for worse, was something like a law. It made the downfall of her own family less exceptional, less bitter, when viewed as part of a huge impermanency, shifting from phase to phase, with no rule to govern it but the necessities of its own development.
Until this minute it was the very element in American life she had found most distasteful. Her inclinations, carefully fostered by her parents, had always been for the solid, the well-ordered, the assured, evolved from precedent to precedent till its conventions were fixed and its doings regulated as by a code of etiquette. Now, all of a sudden, she perceived that life in shirt-sleeves possessed certain advantages over a well-bred existence in full dress. It allowed the strictly human qualities an easier sort of play. Where there was no pretense at turning to the world a smooth, impeccable social front, toil and suffering, misfortune and disgrace, became things to be less ashamed of. Practically every one in these unpretentious, tree-shaded houses knew what it was to struggle upward, with many a slip backward in the process and sometimes a crashing fall from the top. These accidents were understood. The result was the creation of a living atmosphere, not perhaps highly civilized, but highly sympathetic, charged with the comprehension of human frailty, into which one could carry one's dishonor, not wholly with equanimity, but at least with the knowledge that such burdens were not objects for astonishment. As she descended the hill, therefore, she felt, as she had never felt before, the comforting assurance of being among brethren, before whom she should not have the wearisome task of "keeping up appearances," and by whom she would be supported, even at the worst, through a fellow-feeling with her cares.
This consciousness helped her to be firm when, a few minutes later, having reached the dike by the border of the Charles, she came face to face with Peter Davenant. She saw him from a long way off, but without recognition. She noticed him only as an unusually tall figure, in a summery gray suit and a gray felt hat. He was sauntering in a leisurely way toward her, stopping now and then to admire some beautiful dog sniffing the scent of water-rats in the weeds, or a group of babies tumbling on the sand, or a half-naked undergraduate sculling along the serpentine reaches of the river, or a college crew cleaving the waters with the precision of an arrow, to a long, rhythmic swing of eight slim bodies and a low, brief grunt of command. The rich October light striking silvery gleams from the walls of the Stadium and burnished gold from the far-off dome of the State House brought all the hues of fire from the rim of autumnal hills on the western horizon. It touched up with soft dove-gray, in which were shades of green and purple, the row of unpainted, ramshackle wooden cabins--hovels of a colony of "squatters" that no zeal for civic improvement had ever been able to dislodge--lined along a part of the embankment, and wrought indefinable glories in the unkempt marshes, stretching away into shimmering distances, where factory windows blazed as if from inner conflagration and steam and smoke became roseate or iridescent.
The tall stranger, so much better dressed than the men who usually strolled on the embankment at this hour of a week-day afternoon, fixed her attention to such a degree as to make her forget that she herself was probably a subject of curiosity and speculation among the passers-by. It was with a little disappointment that as she came nearer she said to herself, "It's only--that man." Common fairness, however, obliged her to add that he seemed "more like a gentleman" than she had supposed. That he was good-looking, in a big, blond, Scotch or Scandinavian way, she had acknowledged from the first. On recognizing Davenant her impulse was to pass him with the slightest recognition, but on second thoughts it seemed best to her to end the affair impending between them once for all.
"I'm sorry you didn't wait for me to come downstairs the other day," she said, after they had exchanged greetings, "because I could have told you that my father agreed with me--that it wouldn't be possible for us to accept your kind help."
"I hope he's better," was Davenant's only answer.
"Much better, thank you. When he's able to see you, I know he will want to express his gratitude more fully than I can."
"I hoped he'd be able to see me to-day. I was on my way to Tory Hill."
She was annoyed both by his persistency and by the coolness of his manner, as, leaning on his stick, he stood looking down at her. He looked down in a way that obliged her to look up. She had not realized till now how big and tall he was. She noticed, too, the squareness of his jaw, the force of his chin, and the compression of his straight, thin lips beneath the long curve of his mustache. In spite of his air of granite imperturbability, she saw that his fair skin was subject to little flushes of embarrassment or shyness, like a girl's. As she was in a mood to criticize, she called this absurd and said of his blue eyes, resting on her with a pensive directness, as though he were studying her from a long way off, that they were hard. Deep-set and caverned under heavy, overhanging brows, they more than any other feature imparted to his face the frowning and farouche effect by which she judged him. Had it not been for that, her hostility to everything he said and did might not have been so prompt. That he was working to get her into his power became more than ever a conviction the minute she looked into what she called that lowering gaze.
All the same, the moment was one for diplomatic action rather than for force. She allowed a half-smile to come to her lips, and her voice to take a tone in which there was frank request, as she said: "I wish you wouldn't go."
"I shouldn't if it wasn't important. I don't want to annoy you more than I can help."
"I don't see how anything can be important when--when there's nothing to be done."
"There's a good deal to be done if we choose to do it; but we must choose at once. The Benn crowd is getting restive."
"That doesn't make any difference to us. My father has decided to take the consequences of his acts."
"You say that so serenely that I guess you don't understand yet just what they'd be."
"I do--I do, perfectly. My father and I have talked it all over. We know it will be terrible; and yet it would be more terrible still to let some one else pay our debts. I dare say you think me monstrous, but--"
"I think you mistaken. I don't want to say more than that. If I find Mr. Guion of the same opinion--"
"I see. You don't consider my word sufficient."
"Your word is all right, Miss Guion," he tried to laugh. "What you lack is authority. My dealings are with your father. I can't settle anything with--a substitute."
She colored swiftly. "I don't presume to settle anything. I only thought I might give you some necessary information. I hoped, too, to save you a little trouble in sparing you the walk to Tory Hill."
He looked away from her, his eyes wandering up the reach of the river, over which the long, thin, many-oared college craft shot like insects across a pool.
"Why should you be so bent on seeing your father follow Jack Berrington, when it could be avoided?"
"Why should you care? What difference does it make to you? If you'd only explain that--"
"It explains itself. If I saw a woman leap into the river there I should pull her out. The more she insisted on being drowned, the more I should try to save her."
"But, you see, I'm not leaping into a river. On the contrary, I'm getting out of one. It seems to me that you'd be only forcing me back and making my last state worse than the first."
It took him a minute to grasp the force of this. "That would depend, of course, on the point of view. As a matter of fact, it's something with which I've nothing to do. It concerns you, and it concerns Mr. Guion, but it doesn't concern me. For me the whole thing is very simple. I've offered to lend Mr. Guion a sum of money. It's for him to take or to leave. If he refuses it, I sha'n't be offended; and if he doesn't refuse it--"
"You'd let him have it, just the same?"
"Of course. Why not?"
"In spite of all I've said as to what I should feel?"
"But I'm not supposed to know anything about that, you know. I repeat that it isn't my affair. If Mr. Guion should accept my loan against your wishes--well, that's something you'd have to fix up with him."
She was some minutes silent, her eyes ranging over the river and the marshes, like his own.
"If you urged it on him," she said at last, "I think he'd take it."
"Then so much the better, from my point of view."
"Precisely; but then your point of view is a mystery. Not that it makes any difference," she hastened to add. "If my father accepts your loan, it will be for me to pay it back, in one way or another--if I ever can."
"We could talk of that," he smiled, trying to be reassuring, "after more important things had been settled."
"There wouldn't be anything more important--for me."
"Oh, you wouldn't find me an importunate creditor."
"That wouldn't help matters--so long as I owed the debt. After all, we belong to that old-fashioned, rather narrow-minded class of New England people to whom debt of any kind is the source of something like anguish. At least," she corrected herself, "I belong to that class."
It was on his lips to remind her that in her case there could be no present release from indebtedness, there could only be a change of creditors; but he decided to express himself more gracefully.
"Wouldn't it be possible," he asked, "to put the boot on the other foot, and to consider me as the person to whom the favor is shown in being allowed to do something useful?"
She lifted her chin scornfully. "That would be childish. It would be a mere quibbling with words."
"But it would be true. It's the way I should take it."
She confronted him with one of her imperious looks. "Why?"
In the monosyllable there was a demand for complete explanation, but he met it with one of his frank smiles.
"Couldn't you let me keep that as my secret?"
"So that you would be acting in the daylight and we in the dark."
"You might be in the dark, and still have nothing to be afraid of."
She shook her head. "I should be afraid. It was in the dark, according to the old story, that the antelope escaped a lion by falling into a hunter's trap."
"Do I look like that kind of a hunter?" He smiled again at the absurdity of her comparison.
"You can't tell anything from looks--with men. With men a woman has only one principle to guide her--to keep on the safe side."
"I hope you won't think me uncivil, Miss Guion, if I point out that, at present, you haven't got a safe side to keep on. That's what I want to offer you."
"I might ask you why again, only that we should be going round in a circle. Since you don't mean to tell me, I must go without knowing; but I'm sure you can understand that to some natures the lion is less to be feared than the hunter."
"He doesn't feel so." He nodded his head in the direction of Tory Hill.
"He feels so. He's only a little--wavering."
"And I guess you're a little wavering, too, Miss Guion, if you'd only own up to it."
He watched her straighten her slight figure while her delicate features hardened to an expression of severity. "I'm not wavering on the principle, nor because of anything I should have to face myself. If I have any hesitation, it's only because of what it would mean for papa."
He allowed an instant to pass while he looked down at her gravely. "And he's not the only one, you know," he said, with all the significance he could put into his tone.
His hint, however, was thrown away, since she was intent on her own line of thought. With a slight nod of the head, dignified rather than discourteous, she departed, leaving him, to the great interest of the passers-by, leaning on his stick and staring after her.