THE STREET CALLED STRAIGHT
AUTHOR OF THE INNER SHRINE, THE WILD OLIVE, ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY ORSON LOWELL
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
Published by Arrangement with Harper & Brothers
1911, 1912. PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA PUBLISHED MAY, 1912
"By the Street Called Straight we come to the House called Beautiful"
—New England Saying
THE STREET CALLED STRAIGHT
As a matter of fact, Davenant was under no illusions concerning the quality of the welcome his hostess was according him, though he found a certain pleasure in being once more in her company. It was not a keen pleasure, but neither was it an embarrassing one; it was exactly what he supposed it would be in case they ever met again—a blending on his part of curiosity, admiration, and reminiscent suffering out of which time and experience had taken the sting. He retained the memory of a minute of intense astonishment once upon a time, followed by some weeks, some months perhaps, of angry humiliation; but the years between twenty-four and thirty-three are long and varied, generating in healthy natures plenty of saving common sense. Work, travel, and a widened knowledge of men and manners had so ripened Davenant's mind that he was able to see his proposal now as Miss Guion must have seen it then, as something so incongruous and absurd as not only to need no consideration, but to call for no reply. Nevertheless, it was the refusal on her part of a reply, of the mere laconic No which was all that, in his heart of hearts, he had ever expected, that rankled in him longest; but even that mortification had passed, as far as he knew, into the limbo of extinct regrets. For her present superb air of having no recollection of his blunder he had nothing but commendation. It was as becoming to the spirited grace of its wearer as a royal mantle to a queen. Carrying it as she did, with an easy, preoccupied affability that enabled her to look round him and over him and through him, to greet him and converse with him, without seeming positively to take in the fact of his existence, he was permitted to suppose the incident of their previous acquaintance, once so vital to himself, to have been forgotten. If this were so, it would be nothing very strange, since a woman of twenty-seven, who has had much social experience, may be permitted to lose sight of the more negligible of the conquests she has made as a girl of eighteen. She had asked him to dinner, and placed him honorably at her right; but words could not have made it plainer than it was that he was but an accident to the occasion.
He was there, in short, because he was staying with Mr. and Mrs. Temple. After a two years' absence from New England he had arrived in Waverton that day, "Oh, bother! bring him along," had been the formula in which Miss Guion had conveyed his invitation, the dinner being but an informal, neighborly affair. Two or three wedding gifts having arrived from various quarters of the world, it was natural that Miss Guion should want to show them confidentially to her dear friend and distant relative, Drusilla Fane. Mrs. Fane had every right to this privileged inspection, since she had not only timed her yearly visit to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Temple, so that it should synchronize with the wedding, but had introduced Olivia to Colonel Ashley, in the first place. Indeed, there had been a rumor at Southsea, right up to the time of Miss Guion's visit to the pretty little house on the Marine Parade, that the colonel's calls and attentions there had been not unconnected with Mrs. Fane herself; but rumor in British naval and military stations is notoriously overactive, especially in matters of the heart. Certain it is, however, that when the fashionable London papers announced that a marriage had been arranged, and would shortly take place, between Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Ashley, of the Sussex Rangers, and of Heneage Place, Belvoir, Leicestershire, and Olivia Margaret, only child of Henry Guion, Esquire, of Tory Hill, Waverton, near Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., no one offered warmer congratulations than the lady in whose house the interesting pair had met. There were people who ascribed this attitude to the fact that, being constitutionally "game," she refused to betray her disappointment. She had been "awfully game," they said, when poor Gerald Fane, also of the Sussex Rangers, was cut off with enteric at Peshawur. But the general opinion was to the effect that, not wanting Rupert Ashley (for some obscure, feminine reason) for herself, she had magnanimously bestowed him elsewhere. Around tea-tables, and at church parade, it was said "Americans do that," with some comment on the methods of the transfer.
On every ground, then, Drusilla was entitled to this first look at the presents, some of which had come from Ashley's brother officers, who were consequently brother officers of the late Captain Fane; so that when she telephoned saying she was afraid that they, her parents and herself, couldn't come to dinner that evening, because a former ward of her father's—Olivia must remember Peter Davenant!—was arriving to stay with them for a week or two, Miss Guion had answered, "Oh, bother! bring him along," and the matter was arranged. It was doubtful, however, that she knew him in advance to be the Peter Davenant who nine years earlier had had the presumption to fall in love with her; it was still more doubtful, after she had actually shaken hands with him and called him by name, whether she paid him the tribute of any kind of recollection. The fact that she had seated him at her right, in the place that would naturally be accorded to Rodney Temple, the scholarly director of the Department of Ceramics in the Harvard Gallery of Fine Arts, made it look as if she considered Davenant a total stranger. In the few conventionally gracious words she addressed to him, her manner was that of the hostess who receives a good many people in the course of a year toward the chance guest she had never seen before and expects never to see again.
"Twice round the world since you were last in Boston? How interesting!" Then, as if she had said enough for courtesy, she continued across the lights and flowers to Mrs. Fane: "Drusilla, did you know Colonel Ashley had declined that post at Gibraltar? I'm so glad. I should hate the Gib."
"The Gib wouldn't hate you," Mrs. Fane assured her. "You'd have a heavenly time there. Rupert Ashley is deep in the graces of old Bannockburn, who's in command. He's not a bad old sort, old Ban isn't, though he's a bit of a martinet. Lady Ban is awful—a bounder in petticoats. She looks like that."
Drusilla pulled down the corners of a large, mobile mouth, so as to simulate Lady Bannockburn's expression, in a way that drew a laugh from every one at the table but the host. Henry Guion remained serious, not from natural gravity, but from inattention. He was obviously not in a mood for joking, nor apparently for eating, since he had scarcely tasted his soup and was now only playing with the fish. As this corroborated what Mrs. Temple had more than once asserted to her husband during the past few weeks, that "Henry Guion had something on his mind," she endeavored to exchange a glance with him, but he was too frankly enjoying the exercise of his daughter's mimetic gift to be otherwise observant.
"And what does Colonel Ashley look like, Drucie?" he asked, glancing slyly at Miss Guion.
"Like that," Mrs. Fane said, instantly. Straightening the corners of her mouth and squaring her shoulders, she fixed her eyes into a stare of severity, and stroked horizontally an imaginary mustache, keeping the play up till her lips quivered.
"It is like him," Miss Guion laughed.
"Is he as stiff as all that?" the professor inquired.
"Not stiff," Miss Guion explained, "only dignified."
"Dignified!" Drusilla cried. "I should think so. He's just like Olivia herself. It's perfectly absurd that those two should marry. Apart, they're a pair of splendid specimens; united, they'll be too much of a good thing. They're both so well supplied with the same set of virtues that when they look at each other it'll be like seeing their own faces in a convex mirror. It'll be simply awful."
Her voice had the luscious English intonation, in spite of its being pitched a little too high. In speaking she displayed the superior, initiated manner apt to belong to women who bring the flavor of England into colonial and Indian garrison towns—a manner Drusilla had acquired notably well, considering that not ten years previous her life had been bounded by American college class-days. Something of this latter fact persisted, notwithstanding her English articulation and style of doing her hair. Her marriage had been the accident of a winter spent with her mother in Bermuda, at a time when the Sussex Rangers were stationed there. Her engagement to Captain Gerald Fane—son of the Very Reverend the Dean of Silchester—was the result of a series of dances given chiefly in the Hamilton hotels. Marriage brought the girl born and bred in a New England college town into a kind of life for which she had had no preparation; but she adapted herself as readily as she would have done had she married a Russian prince or a Spanish grandee. In the effort she made there was a mingling of the matter-of-fact and the tour de force. Regimental life is not unlike that of a large family; it has the same sort of claims, intimacies, and quarrels, the same sort of jealousies within, combined with solidarity against the outsider. Perceiving this quickly, Drusilla proceeded to disarm criticism by being impeccable in dress and negatively amiable in conduct. "With my temperament," she said to herself, "I can afford to wait." Following her husband to Barbados, the Cape, and India, she had just succeeded in passing all the tests of the troop-ship and the married quarters when he died. For a while her parents hoped she would make her widowed home in Boston; but her heart had been given irrevocably to the British army—to its distinguished correctness, to its sober glories, its world-wide roving, and its picturesque personal associations. Though she had seen little of England, except for occasional visits on leave, she had become English in tastes and at heart. For a year after Gerald's death she lived with his family at Silchester, in preference to going to her own. After that she settled in the small house at Southsea, where from time to time she had her girlhood's companion, Olivia Guion, as a guest.
"Perhaps that'll do us good," Miss Guion ventured, in reply to Drusilla's observations at her expense. "To see ourselves as others see us must be much like looking at one's face in a spoon."
"That doesn't do us any good," Rodney Temple corrected, "because we always blame the spoon."
"Don't you mind them, dear," Mrs. Temple cooed. She was a little, apple-faced woman, with a figure suggestive of a tea-cozy, and a voice with a gurgle in it, like a dove's. A nervous, convulsive moment of her pursed-up little mouth made that organ an uncertain element in her physiognomy, shifting as it did from one side of her face to the other with the rapidity of an aurora borealis. "Don't mind them, dear. A woman can never do more than reflect 'broken lights' of her husband, when she has a good one. Don't you love that expression?—'broken lights'? 'We are but broken lights of Thee!' Dear Tennyson! And no word yet from Madame de Melcourt."
"I don't expect any now," Olivia explained. "If Aunt Vic had meant to write she would have done it long ago. I'm afraid I've offended her past forgiveness."
She held her head slightly to one side, smiling with an air of mock penitence.
"Dear, dear!" Mrs. Temple murmured, sympathetically. "Just because you wouldn't marry a Frenchman!"
"And a little because I'm going to marry an Englishman. To Aunt Vic all Englishmen are grocers."
"Horrid old thing!" Drusilla said, indignantly.
"It's because she doesn't know them, of course," Olivia went on. "It's one of the things I never can understand—how people can generalize about a whole nation because they happen to dislike one or two individuals. As a matter of fact, Aunt Vic has become so absorbed in her little circle of old French royalist noblesse that she can't see anything to admire outside the rue de l'Universite and chateau life in Normandy. She does admit that there's an element of homespun virtue in the old families of Boston and Waverton; but that's only because she belongs to them herself."
"The capacity of the American woman for being domesticated in an alien environment," observed Rodney Temple, "is only equaled by the dog's."
"We're nomadic, father," Drusilla asserted, "and migratory. We've always been so. It's because we're Saxons and Angles and Celts and Normans, and—"
"Saxon and Norman and Dane are we," Mrs. Temple quoted, gently.
"They've always been fidgeting about the world, from one country to another," Drusilla continued, "and we've inherited the taste. If we hadn't, our ancestors would never have crossed the Atlantic, in the first place. And now that we've got here, and can't go any farther in this direction, we're on the jump to get back again. That's all there is to it. It's just in the blood. Isn't it, Peter? Isn't it, Cousin Henry?"
Drusilla had a way of appealing to whatever men were present, as though her statements lacked something till they had received masculine corroboration.
"All the same, I wish you could have managed the thing without giving offence to Aunt Vic."
The words were Henry Guion's first since sitting down to table.
"I couldn't help it, papa. I didn't give Aunt Vic offence; she took it."
"She's always been so fond of you—"
"I'm fond of her. She's an old darling. And yet I couldn't let her marry me off to a Frenchman, in the French way, when I'd made up my mind to—to do something else. Could I, Cousin Cherry?"
Mrs. Temple plumed herself, pleased at being appealed to. "I don't see how you could, dear. But I suppose your dear aunt—great-aunt, that is—has become so foreign that she's forgotten our simple ways. So long as you follow your heart, dear—"
"I've done that, Cousin Cherry."
The tone drew Davenant's eyes to her again, not in scrutiny, but for the pleasure it gave him to see her delicate features suffused with a glow of unexpected softness. It was unexpected, because her bearing had always conveyed to him, even in the days when he was in love with her, an impression of very refined, very subtle haughtiness. It seemed to make her say, like Marie Antoinette to Madame Vigee-Lebrun: "They would call me arrogant if I were not a queen." The assumption of privilege and prerogative might be only the inborn consciousness of distinction, but he fancied it might be more effective for being tempered. Not that it was overdone. It was not done at all. If the inner impulse working outward poised a neat, classic head too loftily, or shot from gray eyes, limpid and lovely in themselves, a regard that was occasionally too imperious, Olivia Guion was probably unaware of these effects. With beauty by inheritance, refinement by association, and taste and "finish" by instinct, it was possible for her to engage with life relatively free from the cumbrous impedimenta of self-consciousness. It was because Davenant was able to allow for this that his judgment on her pride of manner, exquisite though it was, had never been more severe; none the less, it threw a new light on his otherwise slight knowledge of her character to note the faint blush, the touch of gentleness, with which she hinted her love for her future husband. He had scarcely believed her capable of this kind of condescension.
He called it condescension because he saw, or thought he saw, in her approaching marriage, not so much the capture of her heart as the fulfilment of her ambitions. He admitted that, in her case, there was a degree to which the latter would imply the former, since she was the sort of woman who would give her love in the direction in which her nature found its fitting outlet. He judged something from what Drusilla Fane had said, as they were driving toward Tory Hill that evening.
"Olivia simply must marry a man who'll give her something to do besides sitting round and looking handsome. With Rupert Ashley she'll have the duties of a public, or semi-public, position. He'll keep her busy, if it's only opening bazars and presenting prizes at Bisley. The American men who've tried to marry her have wanted to be her servants, when all the while she's been waiting for a master."
Davenant understood that, now that it was pointed out to him, though the thought would not have come to him spontaneously. She was the strong woman who would yield only to a stronger man. Colonel Ashley might not be stronger than she in intellect or character, but he had done some large things on a large field, and was counted an active force in a country of forceful activities. There might be a question as to whether he would prove to be her master, but he would certainly never think of being her slave.
"What are you going to do, Henry, when the gallant stranger carries off Olivia, a fortnight hence?"
Though she asked the question with the good intention of drawing her host into the conversation, Mrs. Temple made it a point to notice the effort with which he rallied himself to meet her words.
"What am I going to do?" he repeated, absently. "Oh, my future will depend very much on—Hobson's choice."
"That's true," Miss Guion agreed, hurriedly, as though to emphasize a point. "It's all the choice I've left to him. I've arranged everything for papa—beautifully. He's to take in a partner perhaps two partners. You know," she continued in explanation to Mrs. Fane—"you know that poor papa has been the whole of Guion, Maxwell & Guion since Mr. Maxwell died. Well, then, he's to take in a partner or two, and gradually shift his business into their hands. That wouldn't take more than a couple of years at longest. Then he's going to retire, and come to live near me in England. Rupert says there's a small place close to Heneage that would just suit him. Papa has always liked the English hunting country, and so—"
"And so everything will be for the best," Rodney Temple finished. "There's nothing like a fresh young mind, like a young lady's, for settling business affairs. It would have taken you or me a long time to work that plan out, wouldn't it, Henry? We should be worried over the effect on our trusteeships and the big estates we've had the care of—"
"What about the big estates?"
Davenant noticed the tone in which Guion brought out this question, though it was an hour later before he understood its significance. It was a sharp tone, the tone of a man who catches an irritating word or two among remarks he has scarcely followed. Temple apparently had meant to call it forth, since he answered, with the slightest possible air of intention:
"Oh, nothing—except what I hear."
While Miss Guion and Mrs. Fane chatted of their own affairs Davenant remarked the way in which Henry Guion paused, his knife and fork fixed in the chicken wing on his plate, and gazed at his old friend. He bent slightly forward, too, looking, with his superb head and bust slightly French in style, very handsome and imposing.
"Then you've been—hearing—things?"
Rodney Temple lowered his eyes in a way that confirmed Davenant—who knew his former guardian's tricks of manner—in his suppositions. He was so open in countenance that anything momentarily veiled on his part, either in speech or in address, could reasonably be attributed to stress of circumstances. The broad forehead, straight-forward eyes, and large mouth imperfectly hidden by a shaggy beard and mustache, were of the kind that lend themselves to lucidity and candor. Externally he was the scholar, as distinct from the professional man or the "divine." His figure—tall, large-boned, and loose-jointed—had the slight stoop traditionally associated with study, while the profile was thrust forward as though he were peering at something just out of sight. A courtly touch in his style was probably a matter of inheritance, as was also his capacity for looking suitably attired while obviously neglectful of appearances. His thick, lank, sandy hair, fading to white, and long, narrow, stringy beard of the same transitional hue were not well cared for; and yet they helped to give him a little of the air of a Titian or Velasquez nobleman. In answer to Guion now, he spoke without lifting his eyes from his plate.
"Have I been hearing things? N-no; only that the care of big estates is a matter of great responsibility—and anxiety."
"That's what I tell papa," Miss Guion said, warmly, catching the concluding words. "It's a great responsibility and anxiety. He ought to be free from it. I tell him my marriage is a providential hint to him to give up work."
"Perhaps I sha'n't get the chance. Work may give up—me."
"I wish it would, papa. Then everything would be settled."
"Some things would be settled. Others might be opened—for discussion."
If Rodney Temple had not lifted his eyes in another significant look toward Guion, Davenant would have let these sentences pass unheeded. As it was, his attention was directed to possible things, or impossible things, left unsaid. For a second or two he was aware of an odd suspicion, but he brushed it away as absurd, in view of the self-assurance with which Guion roused himself at last to enter into the conversation, which began immediately to turn on persons of whom Davenant had no knowledge.
The inability to follow closely gave him time to make a few superficial observations regarding his host. In spite of the fact that Guion had been a familiar figure to him ever since his boyhood, he now saw him at really close range for the first time in years.
What struck him most was the degree to which Guion conserved his quality of Adonis. Long ago renowned, in that section of American society that clings to the cities and seaboard between Maine and Maryland, as a fine specimen of manhood, he was perhaps handsomer now, with his noble, regular features, his well-trimmed, iron-gray beard, and his splendid head of iron-gray hair, than he had been in his youth. Reckoning roughly, Davenant judged him to be sixty. He had been a personage prominently in view in the group of cities formed by Boston, Cambridge, and Waverton, ever since Davenant could remember him. Nature having created Guion an ornament to his kind, fate had been equally beneficent in ordaining that he should have nothing to do, on leaving the university, but walk into the excellent legal practice his grandfather had founded, and his father had brought to a high degree of honor as well as to a reasonable pitch of prosperity. It was, from the younger Guion's point of view, an agreeable practice, concerned chiefly with the care of trust funds, in which a gentleman could engage without any rough-and-tumble loss of gentility. It required little or nothing in the way of pleadings in the courts or disputing in the market-place, and—especially during the lifetime of the elder partners—left him leisure for cultivating that graceful relationship to life for which he possessed aptitudes. It was a high form of gracefulness, making it a matter of course that he should figure on the Boards of Galleries of Fine Arts and Colleges of Music, and other institutions meant to minister to his country's good through the elevation of its taste.
"It's the sort of thing he was cut out for," Davenant commented to himself, as his eye traveled from the high-bred face, where refinement blended with authority, to the essentially gentlemanly figure, on which the delicately tied cravat sat with the elegance of an orchid, while the white waistcoat, of the latest and most youthful cut, was as neatly adjusted to the person as the calyx to a bud. The mere sight of so much ease and distinction made Davenant himself feel like a rustic in his Sunday clothes, though he seized the opportunity of being in such company to enlarge his perception of the fine points of bearing. It was an improving experience of a kind which he only occasionally got.
He had an equal sense of the educational value of the conversation, to which, as it skipped from country to country and from one important name to another, it was a privilege to be a listener. His own career—except for his two excursions round the world, conscientiously undertaken in pursuit of knowledge—had been so somberly financial that he was frankly, and somewhat naively, curious concerning the people who "did things" bearing little or no relation to business, and who permitted themselves sensations merely for the sake of having them. Olivia Guion's friends, and Drusilla Fane's—admirals, generals, colonels, ambassadors, and secretaries of embassy they apparently were, for the most part—had what seemed to him an unwonted freedom of dramatic action. Merely to hear them talked about gave him glimpses of a world varied and picturesque, from the human point of view, beyond his dreams. In the exchange of scraps of gossip and latest London anecdotes between Miss Guion and Drusilla Fane, on which Henry Guion commented, Davenant felt himself to be looking at a vivid but fitfully working cinematograph, of which the scenes were snatched at random from life as lived anywhere between Washington and Simla, or Inverness and Rome. The effect was both instructive and entertaining. It was also in its way enlightening, since it showed him the true standing in the world of this woman whom he had once, for a few wild minutes, hoped to make his wife.
The dinner was half over before he began clearly to detach Miss Guion from that environment which he would have called "the best Boston society." Placing her there, he would have said before this evening that he placed her as high as the reasonable human being could aspire to be set. For any one whose roots were in Waverton, "the best Boston society" would in general be taken as the state of blossoming. It came to him as a discovery, made there and then, that Olivia Guion had seized this elect state with one of her earliest tendrils, and, climbing on by way of New York and Washington, had chosen to do her actual flowering in a cosmopolitan air.
He had none of the resentment the home-bred American business man habitually feels for this kind of eccentricity. Now that he had caught the idea, he could see at a glance, as his mind changed his metaphor, how admirably she was suited to the tapestried European setting. He was conscious even of something akin to pride in the triumphs she was capable of achieving on that richly decorated world-stage, much as though she were some compatriot prima-donna. He could see already how well, as the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Ashley, she would fill the part. It had been written for her. Its strong points and its subtleties were alike of the sort wherein she would shine.
This perception of his own inward applause explained something in regard to himself about which he had been wondering ever since the beginning of dinner—the absence of any pang, of any shade of envy, to see another man win where he had been so ignominiously defeated. He saw now that it was a field on which he never could have won. Within "the best Boston society" he might have had a chance, though even there it must have been a poor one; but out here in the open, so to speak, where the prowess and chivalry of Christendom furnished his competitors, he had been as little in the running as a mortal at a contest of the gods. That he was no longer in love with her he had known years ago; but it palliated somewhat his old humiliation, it made the word failure easier to swallow down, to perceive that his love, when it existed, had been doomed, from the nature of things and in advance, to end in nothing, like that of the nightingale for the moon.
* * * * *
By dwelling too pensively on these thoughts he found he had missed some of the turns of the talk, his attention awakening to hear Henry Guion say:
"That's all very fine, but a man doesn't risk everything he holds dear in the world to go cheating at cards just for the fun of it. You may depend upon it he had a reason."
"Oh, he had a reason," Mrs. Fane agreed—"the reason of being hard up. The trouble lay in its not being good enough."
"I imagine it was good enough for him, poor devil."
"But not for any one else. He was drummed out. There wasn't a soul in the regiment to speak to him. We heard that he took another name and went abroad. Anyhow, he disappeared. It was all he could do. He was lucky to get off with that; wasn't he, Peter? wasn't he, father?"
"What he got off with," said Guion, "was a quality of tragic interest which never pertains to the people who stick to the Street called Straight."
"Oh, certainly," Mrs. Fane assented, dryly. "He did acquire that. But I'm surprised to hear you commend it; aren't you, father? aren't you, Peter?"
"I'm not commending it," Guion asserted; "I only feel its force. I've a great deal of sympathy with any poor beggar in his—downfall."
The look with which Rodney Temple accompanied the question once more affected Davenant oddly. It probably made the same impression on Guion, since he replied with a calmness that seemed studied: "Since—lately. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, for no reason. It only strikes me as curious that your sympathy should take that turn."
"Precisely," Miss Guion chimed in. "It's not a bit like you, papa. You used to be harder on dishonorable things than any one."
"Well, I'm not now."
It was clear to Davenant by this time that in these words Guion was not so much making a statement as flinging a challenge. He made that evident by the way in which he sat upright, squared his shoulders, and rested a large, white fist clenched upon the table. His eyes, too, shone, glittered rather, with a light quite other than that which a host usually turns upon his guests. To Davenant, as to Mrs. Temple, it seemed as if he had "something on his mind"—something of which he had a persistent desire to talk covertly, in the way in which an undetected felon will risk discovery to talk about the crime.
No one else apparently at the table shared this impression. Rodney Temple, with eyes pensively downcast, toyed with the seeds of a pear, while Miss Guion and Mrs. Fane began speaking of some other incident of what to them was above everything else, "the Service." A minute or two later Olivia rose.
"Come, Cousin Cherry. Come, Drusilla," she said, with her easy, authoritative manner. Then, apparently with an attempt to make up for her neglect of Davenant, she said, as she held the door open for the ladies to pass: "Don't let them keep you here forever. We shall be terribly dull till you join us."
He was not too dense to comprehend that the words were conventional, as the smile she flung him was perfunctory. Nevertheless, the little attention pleased him.
The three men being left together, Davenant's conviction of inner excitement on the part of his host was deepened. It was as if, on the withdrawal of the ladies, Guion had less intention of concealing it. Not that at first he said anything directly or acted otherwise than as a man with guests to entertain. It was only that he threw into the task of offering liqueurs and passing cigars a something febrile that caused his two companions to watch him quietly. Once or twice Davenant caught Temple's eye; but with a common impulse each hastily looked elsewhere.
"So, Mr. Davenant, you've come back to us. Got here only this afternoon, didn't you? I wonder why you came. Having got out of a dull place like Waverton, why should you return to it?"
Looking the more debonair because of the flush in his face and the gleam in his eye, Guion seated himself in the place his daughter had left vacant between his two guests. Both his movements and his manner of speech were marked by a quick jerkiness, which, however, was not without a certain masculine grace.
"I don't know that I've any better reason," Davenant laughed, snipping off the end of his cigar, "than that which leads the ox to his stall—because he knows the way."
"Good!" Guion laughed, rather loudly. Then, stopping abruptly, he continued, "I fancy you know your way pretty well in any direction you want to go, don't you?"
"I can find it—if I know where I'm going. I came back to Boston chiefly because that was just what I didn't know."
"He means," Rodney Temple explained, "that he'd got out of his beat; and so, like a wise man, he returns to his starting-point."
"I'd got out of something more than my beat; I'd got out of my element. I found that the life of elegant leisure on which I'd embarked wasn't what I'd been cut out for."
"That's interesting—very," Guion said. "How did you make the discovery?"
"By being bored to death."
"Bored?—with all your money?"
"The money isn't much; but, even if it were, it couldn't go on buying me a good time."
"That, of course, depends on what your idea of a good time may be; doesn't it, Rodney?"
"It depends somewhat," Rodney replied, "on the purchasing power of money. There are things not to be had for cash."
"I'm afraid my conception of a good time," Davenant smiled, "might be more feasible without the cash than with it. After all, money would be a doubtful blessing to a bee if it took away the task of going out to gather honey."
"A bee," Guion observed, "isn't the product of a high and complex civilization—"
"Neither am I," Davenant declared, with a big laugh. "I spring from the primitive stratum of people born to work, who expect to work, and who, when they don't work, have no particular object in living on."
"And so you've come back to Boston to work?"
"To work—or something."
"You leave yourself, I see, the latitude of—something."
"Only because it's better than nothing. It's been nothing for so long now that I'm willing to make it anything."
"My excuse for remaining on earth. If I'm to go on doing that, I've got to have something more to justify it than the mere ability to pay my hotel bill."
"You're luckier than you know to be able to do that much," Guion said, with one of his abrupt, nervous changes of position. "But you've been uncommonly lucky, anyhow, haven't you? Made some money out of that mine business, didn't you? Or was it in sugar?"
Davenant laughed. "A little," he admitted. "But, to any one like you, sir, it would seem a trifle."
"To any one like me! Listen." He leaned forward, with feverish eyes, and spoke slowly, tapping on the table-cloth as he did so. "For half a million dollars I'd sell my soul."
Davenant resisted the impulse to glance at Temple, who spoke promptly, while Guion swallowed thirstily a glass of cognac.
"That's a good deal for a soul, Henry. It's a large amount of the sure and tangible for a very uncertain quantity of the impalpable and problematical."
Davenant laughed at this more boisterously than the degree of humor warranted. He began definitely to feel that sense of discomfort which in the last half-hour he had been only afraid of. It was not the commonplace fact that Guion might be short of money that he dreaded; it was the possibility of getting a glimpse of another man's inner secret self. He had been in this position more than once before—when men wanted to tell him things he didn't want to know—when, whipped by conscience or crazed by misfortune or hysterical from drink, they tried to rend with their own hands the veil that only the lost or the desperate suffer to be torn. He had noted before that it was generally men like Guion of a high strung temperament, perhaps with a feminine streak in it, who reached this pass, and because of his own reserve—his rather cowardly reserve, he called it—he was always impelled to run away from them. As there was no possibility of running away now, he could only dodge, by pretending to misunderstand, what he feared Guion was trying to say.
"So everything you undertook you pulled off successfully?" his host questioned, abruptly.
"Not everything; some things. I lost money—often; but on the whole I made it."
"Good! With me it was always the other way."
The pause that followed was an uneasy one, otherwise Temple would not have seized on the first topic that came to hand to fill it up.
"You'll miss Olivia when she's gone, Henry."
"Y-yes; if she goes."
The implied doubt startled Davenant, but Temple continued to smoke pensively. "I've thought," he said, after a puff or two at his cigar, "I've thought you seemed to be anticipating something in the way of a—hitch."
Guion held his cigar with some deliberation over an ash-tray, knocking off the ash with his little finger as though it were a task demanding precision.
"You'll know all about it to-morrow, perhaps—or in a few days at latest. It can't be kept quiet much longer. I got the impression at dinner that you'd heard something already."
"Nothing but gossip, Henry."
Guion smiled, but with a wince. "I've noticed," he said, "that there's a certain kind of gossip that rarely gets about unless there's some cause for it—on the principle of no smoke without fire. If you've heard anything, it's probably true."
"I was afraid it might be. But in that case I wonder you allowed Olivia to go ahead."
"I had to let fate take charge of that. When a man gets himself so entangled in a coil of barbed wire that he trips whichever way he turns, his only resource is to stand still. That's my case." He poured himself out another glass of cognac, and tasted it before continuing. "Olivia goes over to England, and gets herself engaged to a man I never heard of. Good! She fixes her wedding-day without consulting me and irrespective of my affairs. Good again! She's old enough to do it, and quite competent. Meanwhile I lose control of the machine, so to speak. I see myself racing on to something, and can't stop. I can only lie back and watch, to see what happens. I've got to leave that to fate, or God, or whatever it is that directs our affairs when we can no longer manage them ourselves." He took another sip of cognac, and pulled for a minute nervously at his cigar. "I thought at first that Olivia might be married and get, off before anything happened. Now, it looks to me as if there was going to be a smash. Rupert Ashley arrives in three or four days' time, and then—"
"You don't think he'd want to back out, do you?"
"I haven't the remotest idea. From Olivia's description he seems like a decent sort; and yet—"
Davenant got to, his feet. "Shouldn't you like me to go back to the ladies? You want to talk to the professor—"
"No, no," Guion said, easily, pushing Davenant into his seat again. "There's no reason why you shouldn't hear anything I have to say. The whole town will know it soon. You can't conceal a burning house; and Tory Hill is on fire. I may be spending my last night under its roof."
"They'll not rush things like that," Temple said, tying to speak reassuringly.
"They haven't rushed things as it is. I've come to the end of a very long tether. I only want you to know that by this time to-morrow night I may have taken Kipling's Strange Ride with Morrowby Jukes to the Land of the Living Dead. If I do, I sha'n't come back—accept bail, or that sort of thing. I can't imagine anything more ghastly than for a man to be hanging around among his old friends, waiting for a—for a"—he balked at the word—"for a trial," he said at last, "that can have only one ending. No! I'm ready to ride away when they call for me—but they won't find me pining for freedom."
"Can't anything be done?"
"Not for me, Rodney. If Rupert Ashley will only look after Olivia, I shan't mind what happens next. Men have been broken on the wheel before now. I think I can go through it as well as another. But if Ashley should fail us—and of course that's possible—well, you see why I feel as I do about her falling out with the old Marquise. Aunt Vic has always made much of her—and she's very well off—"
"Is there nothing to be expected in that quarter for yourself?"
Guion shook his head. "I couldn't ask her—not at the worst. In the natural course of things Olivia and I would be her heirs—that is, if she didn't do something else with her money—but she's still in the early seventies, and may easily go on for a long time yet. Any help there is very far in the future, so that—"
"Ashley, I take it, is a man of some means?"
"Of comfortable means—no more. He has an entailed property in the Midlands and his pay. As he has a mother and two sisters to pension off, Olivia begged to have no settlements made upon herself. He wanted to do it, after the English fashion, but I think she showed good feeling in declining it. Naturally, I approved of her doing it, knowing how many chances there were that I mightn't be able to—to play up—myself."
After this conversation Davenant could not but marvel at the ease with which their host passed the cigars again and urged him personally to have another glass of Chartreuse. "Then suppose we join the ladies," he added, when further hospitality was declined.
Guion took the time to fleck a few specks of cigar-ash from his shirt-bosom and waistcoat, thus allowing Rodney Temple to pass out first. When alone with Davenant he laid his hand upon the younger man's arm, detaining him.
"It was hardly fair to ask you to dinner," he said, still forcing an unsteady smile, "and let you in for this. I thought at first of putting you off; but in the end I decided to let you come. To me it's been a sort of dress-rehearsal—a foretaste of what it'll be in public. The truth is, I'm a little jumpy. The role's so new to me that it means something to get an idea of how to play it on nerve. I recall you as a little chap," he added, in another tone, "when Tom Davenant and his wife first took you. Got you out of an orphanage, didn't they, or something like that? If I remember rightly, your name was Hall or Hale—"
"It was Hallett—Peter Hallett."
"Hallett, was it? Well, it will do no harm for a young Caesar of finance like you to see what you may come to if you're not careful. Morituri te salutamus, as the gladiators used to say. Only I wish it was to be the arena and the sword instead of the court-room and the Ride with Morrowby Jukes."
Davenant said nothing, not because he had nothing to say, but because his thoughts were incoherent. Perhaps what was most in the nature of a shock to him was the sight of a man whom he both admired for his personality and honored as a pillar of Boston life falling so tragically into ruin. While it was true that to his financially gifted mind any misuse of trust funds had the special heinousness that horse-lifting has to a rancher, yet as he stood with Guion's hand on his shoulder he knew that something in the depths of his being was stirred, and stirred violently, that had rarely been affected before. He had once, as a boy, saved a woman from drowning; he had once seen a man at an upper window of a burning house turn back into the fire while the bystanders restrained him, Davenant, from attempting an impossible rescue. Something of the same unreasoning impulse rose up within him now—the impulse to save—the kind of impulse that takes no account of the merit of the person in peril, seeing only the danger.
But these promptings were dumb in him for the moment from lack of co-ordination. The two or three things he might have said seemed to strangle each other in the attempt to get right of way. In response to Guion's confidences he could only mumble something incoherent and pass on to the drawing-room door. It was a wide opening, hung with portieres, through which he could see Olivia Guion standing by the crackling wood fire, a foot on the low fender. One hand rested lightly on the mantelpiece, while the other drew back her skirt of shimmering black from the blaze. Drusilla Fane, at the piano, was strumming one of Chopin's more familiar nocturnes.
He was still thinking of this glimpse when, a half-hour later, he said to Rodney Temple, as they walked homeward in the moonlight: "I haven't yet told you what I came back for."
"Well, what is it?"
"I thought—that is, I hoped—that if I did the way might open up for me to do what might be called—well, a little good."
"What put that into your head?" was the old man's response to this stammering confession.
"I suppose the thought occurred to me on general principles. I've always understood it was the right thing to attempt."
"Oh, right. That's another matter. Doing right is as easy as drawing breath. It's a habit, like any other. To start out to do good is much like saying you'll add a cubit to your stature. But you can always do right. Do right, and the good'll take care of itself."
Davenant reflected on this in silence as they tramped onward. By this time they had descended Tory Hill, and were on the dike that outlines the shores of the Charles.
By a common impulse both Temple and Davenant kept silent concerning Guion. On leaving Tory Hill they had elected to walk homeward, the ladies taking the carriage. The radiant moonlight and the clear, crisp October air helped to restore Davenant's faculties to a normal waking condition after the nightmare of Guion's hints. Fitting what he supposed must be the facts into the perspective of common life, to which the wide, out-of-door prospect offered some analogy, they were, if not less appalling, at least less overwhelming. Without seeing what was to be done much more clearly than he had seen an hour ago, he had a freer consciousness of power—something like the matter-of-course assumption that any given situation could be met with which he ordinarily faced the world. That he lacked authority in the case was a thought that did not occur to him—no more than it occurred to him on the day when he rescued the woman from drowning, or on the night when he had dashed into the fire to save a man.
It was not till they had descended the straggling, tree-shaded street—along which the infrequent street-lamps threw little more light that that which came from the windows shining placidly out on lawns—and had emerged on the embankment bordering the Charles, that the events of the evening began for Davenant to weave themselves in with that indefinable desire that had led him back to Boston. He could not have said in what way they belonged together; and yet he could perceive that between them there was some such dim interpenetration as the distant lamps of the city made through the silvery mist lying on the river and its adjacent marshes like some efflorescence of the moonlight.
"The difficulty is," he said, after a long silence, "that it's often so hard to know what is right."
"No, it isn't."
The flat contradiction brought a smile to the young man's lips as they trudged onward.
"A good many people say so."
"A good many people say foolish things. It's hard to know what's right chiefly when you're not in a hurry to do it."
"Aren't there exceptions to that rule?"
"I allowed for the exceptions. I said chiefly."
"But when you do want to do it?"
"You'll know what it is. There'll be something to tell you."
"And this something to tell you? What do you call it?"
"Some call it conscience. Some call it God. Some call it neither."
Davenant reflected again.
"And you? What do you call it?"
"I can't see that anything would be gained by telling you. That sort of knowledge isn't of much use till it's worked out for oneself. At least, it wouldn't be of much use to you."
"Why not to me?"
"Because you've started out on your own voyage of discovery. You'll bring back more treasures from that adventure than any one can give you."
These things were said crustily, as though dragged from a man thinking of other matters and unwilling to talk. More minutes went by before Davenant spoke again.
"But doesn't it happen that what you call the 'something-to-tell-you' tells you now and then to do things that most people would call rather wild—or crazy?"
"I dare say."
"So what then?"
"Then you do them."
"If there's an 'Oh, but', you don't. That's all. You belong to the many called, but not to the few chosen."
"But if things are wild—I'm thinking of something in particular—"
"Then you'd better leave it alone, unless you're prepared to be considered a wild man. What Paul did was wild—and Peter—and Joan of Arc—and Columbus—and a good many others. True they were well punished for their folly. Most of them were put in irons, and some of them got death."
"I shouldn't dream of classing myself in their company."
"Every one's in their company who feels a big impulse and has the courage of it. The trouble with most of us is that we can do the feeling all right; but when it comes to the execution—well, we like to keep on the safe side, among the sane."
"So that," Davenant began, stammeringly, "if a fellow got something into his head—something that couldn't be wrong, you know—something that would be right—awfully right in its way, but in a way that most people would consider all wrong—or wild, as I said before—you'd advise him—?"
"I shouldn't advise him at all. Some things must be spontaneous, or they're of little use. If a good seed in good ground won't germinate of its own accord, words of counsel can't help it. But here we are at home. You won't come in just yet? Very well; you've got your latch-key."
"Good-night, sir. I hope you're not going to think me—well, altogether an idiot."
"Very likely I shall; but it'll be nothing if I do. If you can't stand a little thing like that you'd better not have come back with the ideas that have brought you."
Davenant turned away into the moonlit mist. Through it the electric lamps of Boston, curving in crescent lines by the water's edge, or sprinkled at random over the hill which the city climbs, shone for him with the steadiness and quiet comfort inherent in the familiar and the sure after his long roaming. Lighting a cigarette, he strode along the cement pavement beside the iron railing below which the river ran swiftly and soundlessly. At this late hour of the evening he had the embankment to himself, save for an occasional pair of lovers or a group of sauntering students. Lights from the dignified old houses—among which was Rodney Temple's—overlooking the embankment and the Charles threw out a pleasant glow of friendliness. Beyond the river a giant shadow looming through the mist reminded him of the Roman Colisseum seen in a like aspect, the resemblance being accentuated in his imagination by the Stadium's vast silence, by its rows upon rows of ghostly gray sedilia looking down on a haunted, empty ring. His thoughts strayed to Rome, to Cairo, to Calcutta, to Singapore, to the stages of those two patient journeys round the world, made from a sense of duty, in search of a widening of that sheerly human knowledge which life had hitherto denied him. Having started from London and got back to London again, he saw how imperfectly he had profited by his opportunities, how much he had missed. It was characteristic of him to begin all over again, and more thoroughly, conscientiously revisiting the Pyramids, the Parthenon, and the Taj Mahal, endeavoring to capture some of that true spirit of appreciation of which he read in books.
In his way he was not wholly unsuccessful, since by dint of steady gazing he heightened his perceptive powers, whether it were for Notre Dame, the Sistine Madonna, or the Alps, each of which he took with the same seriousness. What eluded him was precisely that human element which was the primary object of his quest. He learned to recognize the beauty of a picture or a mountain more or less at sight; but the soul of these things, of which he thought more than of their outward aspects, the soul that looks through the eyes and speaks with the tongues of peoples, remained inaccessible to his yearnings. He was always outside—never more than a tourist. He made acquaintances by the wayside easily enough, but only of the rootless variety, beginning without an introduction and ending without a farewell. There was nothing that "belonged" to him, nothing to which he himself "belonged."
It was the persistency of the defect that had marked most of his life, even that portion of it spent in Boston and Waverton—the places he called "home." He was their citizen only by adoption, as only by adoption he was the son of Tom and Sarah Davenant. That intimate claim—the claim on the family, the claim on the soil—which springs of birth and antedates it was not his, and something had always been lacking to his life because of the deficiency. Too healthily genial to feel this want more than obscurely, he nevertheless had tried to remedy it by resorting to the obvious means. He had tried to fall in love, with a view to marriage and a family. Once, perhaps twice, he might have been successful had it not been for the intrusive recollection of a moment, years before, when a girl whom he knew to be proud without suspecting how proud she was had in answer to the first passionate words he ever uttered started to her feet, and, fanning herself languidly, walked away. The memory of that instant froze on his tongue words that might have made him happy, sending him back into his solitary ways. They were ways, as he saw plainly enough, that led no whither; for which reason he had endeavored, as soon as he was financially justified, to get out of them by taking a long holiday and traveling round the world.
He was approaching the end of his second journey when the realization came to him that as far as his great object was concerned the undertaking had been a failure. He was as much outside the broader current of human sympathies as ever. Then, all at once, he began to see the reason why.
The first promptings to this discovery came to him one spring evening as he stood on the deck of the steam-launch he had hired at Shanghai to go up and down the Yangste-Kiang. Born in China, the son of a medical missionary, he had taken a notion to visit his birthplace at Hankow. It was a pilgrimage he had shirked on his first trip to that country, a neglect for which he afterward reproached himself. All things considered, to make it was as little as he could do in memory of the brave man and woman to whom he owed his existence.
Before this visit it must be admitted, Rufus and Corinna Hallett, his parents according to the flesh, had been as remote and mythical to the mind of Peter Davenant as the Dragon's Teeth to their progeny, the Spartans. Merely in the most commonplace kind of data he was but poorly supplied concerning them. He knew his father had once been a zealous young doctor in Graylands, Illinois, and had later become one of the pioneers of medical enterprise in the mission field; he knew, too, that he had already worked for some years at Hankow before he met and married Miss Corinna Meecham, formerly of Drayton, Georgia, but at that time a teacher in a Chinese school supported by one of the great American churches. Events after that seemed to have followed rapidly. Within a few years the babe who was to become Peter Davenant had seen the light, the mother had died, and the father had perished as the victim of a rising in the interior of Hupeh. The child, being taken to America, and unclaimed by relatives, was brought up in the institution maintained for such cases by the Missionary Board of the church to which his father and mother had given their services. He had lived there till, when he was seven years old, Tom and Sarah Davenant, childless and yet longing for a child, had adopted him.
These short and simple annals furnished all that Davenant knew of his own origin; but after the visit to Hankow the personality of his parents at least became more vivid. He met old people who could vaguely recall them. He saw entries in the hospital records made by his father's hand. He stood by his mother's grave. As for his father's grave, if he had one, it was like that of Moses, on some lonely Nebo in Hupeh known to God alone. In the compound Davenant saw the spot on which his father's simple house had stood—the house in which he himself was born—though a wing of the modern hospital now covered it. It was a relief to him to find that, except for the proximity of the lepers' ward and the opium refuge, the place, with its trim lawns, its roses, its clematis, its azaleas, its wistaria, had the sweetness of an English rectory garden. He liked to think that Corinna Meecham had been able to escape from her duties in the crowded, fetid, multi-colored city right outside the gates to something like peace and decency within these quiet walls.
He was not a born traveler; still less was he an explorer. At the end of three days he was glad to take leave of his hosts at the hospital, and turn his launch down the river toward the civilization of Shanghai. But it was on the very afternoon of his departure that the ideas came to him which ultimately took him back to Boston, and of which he was now thinking as he strolled through the silvery mist beside the Charles.
He had been standing then on the deck of his steam-launch gazing beyond the river, with its crowding, outlandish junks, beyond the towns and villages huddled along the banks, beyond walls gay with wistaria, beyond green rice-fields stretching into the horizon, to where a flaming sunset covered half the sky—a sunset which itself seemed hostile, mysterious, alien, Mongolian. He was thinking that it was on just this scene that his father and mother had looked year upon year before his birth. He wondered how it was that it had had no prenatal influence on himself. He wondered how it was that all their devotion had ended with themselves, that their altruism had died when Corinna Meecham's soul had passed-away and Rufus Hallett, like another Stephen, had fallen on his knees beneath the missiles of the villagers to whom he was coming with relief. They had spent their lives in the service of others; he had spent his in his own. It was curious. If there was anything in heredity, he ought to have felt at least some faint impulse from their zeal; but he never had. He could not remember that he had ever done anything for any one. He could not remember that he had ever seen the need of it. It was curious. He mused on it—mused on the odd differences between one generation and another, and on the queer way in which what is light to the father will sometimes become darkness in the son.
It was then that he found the question raising itself within him, "Is that what's wrong with me?"
The query took him by surprise. It was so out of keeping with his particular kind of self-respect that he found it almost droll. If he had never given himself to others, as his parents had, he had certainly paid the world all he owed it. He had nothing wherewith to reproach himself on that score. It had been a matter of satisfaction amounting to pride that he had made his bit of money without resorting in any single instance to methods that could be considered shady. If complaint or criticism could not reach him here, it could not reach him anywhere. Therefore the question as to whether there was anything wrong in his attitude toward others was so patently absurd that it could easily be dismissed.
He dismissed it promptly, but it came again. It came repeatedly during that spring and summer. It forced itself on his attention. It became, in its way, the recurrent companion of his journey. It turned up unexpectedly at all sorts of times and in all sorts of places, and on each occasion with an increased comprehension on his side of its pertinence. He could look back now and trace the stages by which his understanding of it had progressed. There was a certain small happening in a restaurant at Yokohama; there was an accident on the dock at Vancouver; there was a conversation on a moonlight evening up at Banff; there was an incident during a drive in the Yosemite; these were mile-stones on the road by which his mind had traveled on to seize the fact that the want of touch between him and his fellow-men might be due to the suppression of some essentially human force within himself. It came to him that something might, after all, have been transmitted from Hupeh and Hankow of which he had never hitherto suspected the existence.
It cannot be said that his self-questioning had produced any answer more definite than that before he found himself journeying back toward Boston. The final impulse had been given him while he was still loitering aimlessly in Chicago by a letter from Mrs. Temple.
"If you have nothing better to do, dear Peter," she wrote, "we shall be delighted if you can come to us for a week or two. Dear Drusilla is with us once again, and you can imagine our joy at having her. It would seem like old times if you were here to complete the little circle. The room you used to have in your college vacations—after dear Tom and Sarah were taken from us—is all ready for you; and Drusilla would like to know you were here to occupy it just as much as we."
In accepting this invitation Davenant knew himself to be drawn by a variety of strands of motive, no one of which had much force in itself, but which when woven together lent one another strength. Now that he had come, he was glad to have done it, since in the combination of circumstances he felt there must be an acknowledged need of a young man, a strong man, a man capable of shouldering responsibilities. He would have been astonished to think that that could be gainsaid.
The feeling was confirmed in him after he had watched the tip of his smoked-out cigarette drop, like a tiny star, into the current of the Charles, and had re-entered Rodney Temple's house.
It was Drusilla's voice, with a sob in it. She was sitting on the stairs, three steps from the top, huddled into a voluminous mauve-and-white dressing-gown. In the one dim light burning in the hall her big black eyes gleamed tragically, as those of certain animals gleam in dusk.
"Oh, Peter, dear, I'm so glad you've come! The most awful thing has happened."
That was Mrs. Temple who, wrapped in something fleecy in texture and pink in hue, was crouched on the lowest step, looking more than ever like a tea-cozy dropped by accident.
"What's the matter?" Davenant asked, too deeply astonished even to take off his hat. "Is it burglars? Where's the professor?"
"He's gone to bed. It isn't burglars. I wish it was. It's something far, far worse. Collins told Drusilla. Oh, I know it's true—though Rodney wouldn't say so. I simply ... know ... it's ... true."
"Oh, it's true," Drusilla corroborated. "I knew that the minute Collins began to speak. It explains everything—all the little queernesses I've noticed ever since I came home—and everything."
"What is it?" Peter asked again. "Who's Collins? And what has he said?"
"It isn't a he; it's a she," Drusilla explained. "She's my maid. I knew the minute I came into the room that she'd got something on her mind—I knew it by the way she took my wrapper from the wardrobe and laid it on the bed. It was too awful!"
"What was too awful? The way she laid your wrapper on the bed?"
"No; what she told me. And I know it's true."
"Well, for the Lord's sake, Drusilla, what is it?"
Drusilla began to narrate. She had forborne, she said, to put any questions till she was being "undone"; but in that attitude, favorable for confidence, she had asked Collins over her shoulder if anything troubled her, and Collins had told her tale. Briefly, it was to the effect that some of the most distinguished kitchens in Boston and Waverton had been divided into two factions, one pro and the other contra, ever since the day, now three weeks ago, when Miss Maggie Murphy, whose position of honorable service at Lawyer Benn's enabled her to profit by the hints dropped at that eminent man's table, had announced, in the servant's dining-room of Tory Hill itself, that Henry Guion was "going to be put in jail." He had stolen Mrs. Clay's money, and Mrs. Rodman's money, "and a lot of other payple's money, too," Miss Murphy was able to affirm—clients for whom Guion, Maxwell & Guion had long acted as trustees—and was now to be tried and sentenced, Lawyer Benn himself being put in charge of the affair by the parties wronged. Drusilla described the sinking of her own heart as these bits of information were given her, though she had not failed to reprimand Collins for the repetition of foolish gossip. This, it seemed, had put Collins on her mettle in defense of her own order, and she had replied that, if it came to that, m'm, the contents of the waste-paper baskets at Tory Hill, though slightly damaged, had borne ample testimony to the truth of the tale as Miss Maggie Murphy told it. If Mrs. Fane required documentary evidence, Collins herself was in a position to supply it, through the kindness of her colleagues in Henry Guion's employ.
Davenant listened in silence. "So the thing is out?" was his only comment.
"It's out—and all over the place," Drusilla answered, tearfully. "We're the only people who haven't known it—but it's always that way with those who are most concerned."
"And over three hundred guests invited to Olivia's wedding next Thursday fortnight! And the British Military Attache coming from Washington! And Lord Woolwich from Ottawa! What's to happen I don't know."
Mrs. Temple raised her hands and let them drop heavily.
"Oh, Peter, can't you do anything?"
"What can he do, child? If Henry's been making away with all that money it would take a fortune to—"
"Oh, men can do things—in business," Drusilla asserted. "I know they can. Banks lend them money, don't they, Peter? Banks are always lending money to tide people over. I've often heard of it. Oh, Peter, do something. I'm so glad you're here. It seems like a providence."
"Colonel Ashley will be here next week, too," Mrs. Temple groaned, as though the fact brought comfort.
"Oh, mother dear, don't speak of him!" Drusilla put up her two hands, palms outward, before her averted face, as though to banish the suggestion. "If you'd ever known him you'd see how impossible—how impossible—this kind of situation is for a man like him. Poor, poor Olivia! It's impossible for her, too, I know; but then we Americans—well, we're more used to things. But one thing is certain, anyhow," she continued, rising in her place on the stairs and stretching out her hand oratorically: "If this happens I shall never go back to Southsea—never, never!—no, nor to Silchester. With my temperament I couldn't face it. My career will be over. There'll be nothing left for me, mother dear, but to stay at home with father and you."
Mrs. Temple rose, sighing heavily. "Well, I suppose we must go to bed, though I must say it seems harder to do that than almost anything. None of us'll sleep."
"Oh, Peter, won't you do something?"
Drusilla's hands were clasped beneath an imploring face, slightly tilted to one side. Her black hair had begun to tumble to her shoulders.
"I'll—I'll think it over," was all he could find to answer.
"Oh, thank you, Peter! I must say it seems like a providence—your being here. With my temperament I always feel that there's nothing like a big strong man to lean on."
The ladies retired, leaving him to put out the light. For a long time he stood, as he had entered, just inside the front door leaning on his stick and wearing his hat and overcoat. He was musing rather than thinking, musing on the odd way in which he seemed almost to have been waited for. Then, irrelevantly perhaps, there shot across his memory the phrases used by Rodney Temple less than an hour ago:
"Some call it conscience. Some call it God. Some call it neither. But," he added, slowly, "some do call it God."
Closing the door behind his departing guests, Guion stood for a minute, with his hand still on the knob, pressing his forehead against the woodwork. He listened to the sound of the carriage-wheels die away and to the crunching tread of the two men down the avenue.
"The last Guion has received the last guest at Tory Hill," he said to himself. "That's all over—all over and done with. Now!"
It was the hour to which he had been looking forward, first as an impossibility, then as a danger, and at last as an expectation, ever since the day, now some years ago, when he began to fear that he might not be able to restore all the money he had "borrowed" from the properties in his trust. Having descried it from a long way off, he knew that with reasonable luck it could not overtake him soon. There were many chances, indeed, that it might never overtake him at all. Times might change; business might improve; he might come in for the money he expected from his old Aunt de Melcourt; he might die. If none of these things happened, there were still ways and means by which he might make money in big strokes and "square himself" without any one ever being the wiser. He had known of cases, or, at least, he had suspected them, in which men in precisely his position had averted by daring play the deadliest peril and gone down into honored graves. Fortune had generally favored him hitherto, and probably would favor him again.
So after the first dreadful days of seeing his "mistakes," and, in his recoil, calling himself by opprobrious names, he began to get used to his situation and boldly to meet its requirements. That he would prove equal to them he had scarcely any doubt. It was, in fact, next to inconceivable that a man of his antecedents and advantages should be unable to cope with conditions that, after all, were not wholly exceptional in the sordid history of business.
He admitted that the affair was sordid, while finding an excuse for his own connection with it in the involuntary defilement that comes from touching pitch. It was impossible, he said, for a man of business not to touch pitch, and he was not a man of business of his own accord. The state of life had been forced on him. He was a trustee of other people's property by inheritance, just as a man becomes a tsar. As a career it was one of the last he would have chosen. Had he received from his father an ample personal fortune instead of a mere lucrative practice he would have been a country gentleman, in the English style, with, of course, a house in town. Born with a princely aptitude for spending his own money, he felt it hard that he should have been compelled to make it his life's work to husband that of others. The fact that he had always, to some extent been a square man in a round hole seemed to entitle him to a large share of moral allowance, especially in his judgment on himself. He emphasized the last consideration, since it enabled him, in his moments of solitude, to look himself more straightly in the face. It helped him to buttress up his sense of honor, and so his sense of energy, to be able to say, "I am still a gentleman."
He came in time to express it otherwise, and to say, "I must still play the gentleman." He came to define also what he meant by the word still. The future presented itself as a succession of stages, in which this could not happen till that had happened, nor the final disaster arrive till all the intervening phases of the situation had been passed. He had passed them. Of late he had seen that the flames of hell would get hold upon him at that exact instant when, the last defense having been broken down and the last shift resorted to, he should turn the key on all outside hope, and be alone with himself and the knowledge that he could do no more. Till then he could ward them off, and he had been fighting them to the latest second. But on coming home from his office in Boston that afternoon he had told himself that the game was up. Nothing as far as he could see would give him the respite of another four and twenty hours. The minutes between him and the final preparations could be counted with the finger on the clock.
In the matter of preparation the most important detail would be to tell Olivia. Hoping against hope that this would never become necessary, he had put off the evil moment till the postponement had become cruel. But he had lived through it so often in thought, he had so acutely suffered with her in imagination the staggering humiliation of it all, that now, when the time had come, his feelings were benumbed. As he turned into his own grounds that day it seemed to him that his deadness of emotion was such that he could carry the thing through mechanically, as a skilled surgeon uses a knife. If he found her at tea in the drawing-room he might tell her then.
He found her at tea, but there were people with her. He was almost sorry; and yet it keyed him up to see that there was some necessity "to still play the gentleman." He played it, and played it well—with much of his old-time ease. The feat was so extraordinary as to call out a round of mental applause for himself; and, after all, he reflected, there would be time enough in the evening.
But tea being over, Miss Guion announced that Mr. and Mrs. Temple and Drusilla Fane were coming informally to dinner, bringing with them a guest of theirs, "some one of the name of Davenant." For an instant he felt that he must ask her to telephone and put them off, but on second thoughts it seemed better to let them come. It would be in the nature of a reprieve, not so much for himself as for Olivia. It would give her one more cheerful evening, the last, perhaps, in her life. Besides—the suggestion was a vague one, sprung doubtless of the hysterical element in his suppressed excitement—he might test his avowals on Temple and Davenant, getting a foretaste of what it would be to face the world. He formed no precise intention of doing that; he only allowed his mind to linger on the luxury of trying it. He had suspected lately that Rodney Temple knew more of his situation than he had ever told him, so that the way to speak out would be cleared in advance; and as for the man of the name of Davenant—probably Tom Davenant's adopted son, who was said to have pulled off some good things a few years ago—there would be, in humbling himself before one so successful, a morbid joy of the kind the devotee may get in being crushed by an idol.
In this he was not mistaken. While they were there he was able to draw from his own speeches, covert or open, the relief that comes to a man in pain from moaning. Now that they were gone, however, the last extraneous incident that could possibly stand between him and the beginning of the end had passed. The moment he had foreseen, as one foresees death, was on him; so, raising his head from the woodwork of the doorway, he braced himself, and said, "Now!"
At almost the same instant he heard the rustle of his daughter's skirts as she came from the drawing-room on her way up-stairs. She advanced slowly down the broad hail, the lights striking iridescent rays from the trimmings of her dress. The long train, adding to her height, enhanced her gracefulness. Only that curious deadness of sensation of which he had been aware all day—the inability to feel any more that comes from too much suffering—enabled him to keep his ground before her. He did keep it, advancing from the doorway two or three steps toward her, till they met at the foot of the stairway.
"Have you enjoyed your evening?" were the words he found himself saying, though they were far from those he had at heart. He felt that his smile was ghastly; but, as she seemed not to perceive it, he drew the conclusion that the ghastliness was within.
She answered languidly. "Yes, so so. It might have been pleasanter if it hadn't been for that awful man."
"Who? Young Davenant? I don't see anything awful about him."
"I dare say there isn't, really—in his place. He may be only prosy. However," she added, more brightly, "it doesn't matter for once. Good night, papa dear. You look tired. You ought to go to bed. I've seen to the windows in the drawing-room, but I haven't put out the lights."
Having kissed him and patted him on the cheek, she turned to go up the stairway. He allowed her to ascend a step or two. It was the minute to speak.
"I'm sorry you feel that way about young Davenant. I rather like him."
He had not chosen the words. They came out automatically. To discuss Davenant offered an excuse for detaining her, while postponing the blow for a few minutes more.
"Oh, men would," she said, indifferently, without turning round. "He's their style."
"Which is to his discredit?"
"Not to his discredit, but to his disadvantage. I've noticed that what they call a man's man is generally something of a bore."
"Davenant isn't a bore."
"Isn't he? Well, I really didn't notice in particular. I only remember that he used to be about here years ago—and I didn't like him. I suppose Drusilla has to be civil to him because he was Cousin Rodney's ward."
She had paused on the landing at the angle of the staircase.
"He's good-looking," Guion said, in continued effort to interpose the trivial between himself and what he had still to tell her.
"Oh, that sort of Saxon giant type is always good-looking. Of course. And dull too."
"I dare say he isn't as dull as you think."
"He might be that, and still remain pretty dull, after the allowances had been made. I know the type. It's awful—especially in the form of the American man of business."
"I'm an American man of business myself."
"Yes; by misadventure. You're the business man made, but not born. By nature you're a boulevardier, or what the newspapers call a 'clubman.' I admire you more than I can say—everybody admires you—for making such a success of a work that must always have been uncongenial at the least."
The opening was obvious. Nothing could have been more opportune. Two or three beginnings presented themselves, and as he hesitated, choosing between them, he moistened his lips and wiped the cold perspiration from his brow. After all, the blessed apathy within him was giving way and going to play him false! He had a minute of feeling as the condemned man must feel when he catches sight of the guillotine.
Before his parched tongue could formulate syllables she mounted another step or two of the staircase, and turned again, leaning on the banister and looking over. He noticed—by a common trick of the perceptive powers at crises of anguish—how the slender white pilasters, carved and twisted in sets of four, in the fashion of Georgian houses like Tory Hill, made quaint, graceful lines up and down the front of her black gown.
"It's really true—what I say about business, papa," she pursued. "I'm very much in earnest, and so is Rupert. I do wish you'd think of that place near Heneage. It will be so lovely for me to feel you're there; and there can't be any reason for your going on working any longer."
"No; there's no reason for that," he managed to say.
"Well then?" she demanded, with an air of triumph. "It's just as I said. You owe it to every one, you owe it to me, you owe it to yourself above all, to give up. It might have been better if you'd done it long ago."
"I couldn't," he declared, in a tone that sounded to his own ears as a cry. "I tried to, ... but things were so involved ... almost from the first...."
"Well, as long as they're not involved now there's no reason why it shouldn't be better late than never."
"But they are involved now," he said, with an intensity so poignant that he was surprised she didn't notice it.
"Then straighten them out. Isn't that what we've been saying all along, Cousin Rodney and I? Take a partner; take two partners. Cousin Rodney says you should have done it when Mr. Maxwell died, or before—"
"I couldn't.... Things weren't shipshape enough ... not even then."
"I'm sure it could be managed," she asserted, confidently; "and if you don't do it now, papa, when I'm being married and going away for good, you'll never do it at all. That's my fear. I don't want to live over there without you, papa; and I'm afraid that's what you're going to let me in for." She moved from the banister, and continued her way upward, speaking over her shoulder as she ascended. "In the mean time, you really must go to bed. You look tired and rather pale—just as I do after a dull party. Good night; and don't stay up."
She reached the floor above, and went toward her room. He felt strangled, speechless. There was a sense of terror too in the thought that his nerve, the nerve on which he had counted so much, was going to fail him.
His voice was so sharp that she hurried back to the top of the stairs.
"What is it, papa? Aren't you well?"
It was the sight of her face, anxious and suddenly white, peering down through the half-light of the hall that finally unmanned him. With a heart-sick feeling he turned away from the stairway.
"Yes; I'm all right. I only wanted you to know that ... that ... I shall be working rather late. You mustn't be disturbed ... if you hear me moving about."
He would have upbraided himself more bitterly for his cowardice had he not found an excuse in the thought that, after all, there would be time in the morning. It was best that she should have the refreshment of the night. The one thing important was that she should not have the shock of learning from others on the morrow that he was not coming back—that he was going to Singville. Should he go there at all, he was determined to stay. Since he had no fight to put up, it was better that his going should be once for all. The thought of weeks, of months, perhaps, of quasi-freedom, during which he should be parading himself "on bail," was far more terrible to him than that of prison. He must prepare her for the beginning of his doom at all costs to himself; but, he reasoned, she would be more capable of taking the information calmly in the daylight of the morning than now, at a few minutes of midnight.
It was another short reprieve, enabling him to give all his attention to the tasks before him. If he was not to come back to Tory Hill he must leave his private papers there, his more intimate treasures, in good order. Certain things would have to be put away, others rearranged, others destroyed. For the most part they were in the library, the room he specially claimed as his own. Before setting himself to the work there he walked through some of the other rooms, turning out the lights.
In doing so he was consciously taking a farewell. He had been born in this house; in it he had spent his boyhood; to it he had come back as a young married man. He had lived in it till his wife and he had set up their more ambitious establishment in Boston, an extravagance from which, perhaps, all the subsequent misfortunes could be dated. He had known at the time that his father, had he lived, would have condemned the step; but he himself was a believer in fortunate chances. Besides, it was preposterous for a young couple of fashion to continue living in a rambling old house that belonged to neither town nor country, at a time when the whole trend of life was cityward. They had discussed the move, with its large increase of expenditure, from every point of view, and found it one from which, in their social position, there was no escape. It was a matter about which they had hardly any choice.
So, too, a few years later, with the taking of the cottage at Newport. It was forced on them. When all their friends were doing something of the sort it seemed absurd to hesitate because of a mere matter of means—especially when by hook or by crook the means could be procured. Similar reasoning had attended their various residences abroad—in London, Paris, Rome. Country-houses in England or villas on the Riviera became matters of necessity, according to the demands of Olivia's entry into the world of fashion or Mrs. Guion's health.
It was not till the death of the latter, some seven years ago, that Guion, obliged to pause, was able to take cognizance of the degree to which he had imperiled himself in the years of effort to maintain their way of life. It could not be said that at the time he regretted what he had done, but he allowed it to frighten him into some ineffectual economies. He exchanged the cottage at Newport for one at Lenox, and, giving up the house in Boston, withdrew to Tory Hill. Ceasing himself to go into society, he sent his daughter abroad for a large portion of her time, either in the care of Madame de Melcourt or, in London, under the wing of some of the American ladies prominent in English life.
Having taken these steps, with no small pride in his capacity for sacrifice, Guion set himself seriously to reconstruct his own fortune and to repair the inroads he had made on those in his trust. It was a matter in which he had but few misgivings as to his capacity. The making of money, he often said, was an easy thing, as could be proved by the intellectual grade of the men who made it. One had only to look about one to see that they were men in whom the average of ability was by no means high, men who achieved their successes largely by a kind of rule of thumb. They got the knack of investment—and they invested. He preferred the word investment to another which might have challenged comment. They bought in a low market and sold in a high one—and the trick was done. Some instinct—a flair, he called it—was required in order to recognize, more or less at sight, those properties which would quickly and surely appreciate in value; and he believed he possessed it. Given the control of a few thousands as a point of departure, and the financial ebb and flow, a man must be a born fool, he said, not to be able to make a reasonable fortune with reasonable speed.
Within the office of Guion, Maxwell & Guion circumstances favored the accession to power of the younger partner, who had hitherto played an acquiescent rather than an active part. Mr. Maxwell was old and ailing, though neither so ailing nor so old as to be blind to the need of new blood, new money, and new influence in the fine old firm. His weakness was that he hated beginning all over again with new men; so that when Smith and Jones were proposed as possible partners he easily admitted whatever objections Guion raised to them, and the matter was postponed. It was postponed again. It slipped into a chronic condition of postponement; and Mr. Maxwell died.
The situation calling then for adroitness on Guion's part, the fact that he was able to meet it to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned, increased his confidence in his own astuteness. True, it required some manipulation, some throwing of dust into people's eyes, some making of explanations to one person that could not be reconciled with those made to another; but here again the circumstances helped him. His clients were for the most part widows and old maids, many of them resident abroad, for whom Guion, Maxwell & Guion had so long stood, in the matter of income, for the embodiment of paternal care that they were ready to believe anything and say anything and sign anything they were told to. With the legal authorities to whom he owed account he had the advantage of the house's high repute, making it possible to cover with formalities anything that might, strictly speaking, have called for investigation. Whatever had to be considered shifty he excused to himself on the ground of its being temporary; while it was clearly, in his opinion, to the ultimate advantage of the Clay heirs and the Rodman heirs and the Compton heirs and all the other heirs for whom Guion, Maxwell & Guion were in loco parentis, that he should have a free hand.
The sequel astonished rather than disillusioned him. It wrought in him disappointment with the human race, especially as represented by the Stock Exchange, without diminishing his confidence in his own judgment. Through all his wild efforts not to sink he was upborne by the knowledge that it was not his calculations that were wrong, but the workings of a system more obscure than that of chance and more capricious than the weather. He grew to consider it the fault of the blind forces that make up the social, financial, and commercial worlds, and not his own, when he was reduced to a frantic flinging of good money after bad as offering the sole chance of working out his redemption.
And, now that it was all over, he was glad his wife had not lived to see the end. That, at least, had been spared him. He stood before her portrait in the drawing-room—the much-admired portrait by Carolus Duran—and told her so. She was so living as she looked down on him—a suggestion of refined irony about the lips and eyes giving personality to the delicate oval of the face—that he felt himself talking to her as they had been wont to talk together ever since their youth. In his way he had stood in awe of her. The assumption of prerogative—an endowment of manner or of temperament, he was never quite sure which—inherited by Olivia in turn, had been the dominating influence in their domestic life. He had not been ruled by her—the term would have been grotesque—he had only made it his pleasure to carry out her wishes. That her wishes led him on to spending money not his own was due to the fact, ever to be regretted, that his father had not bequeathed him money so much as the means of earning it. She could not be held responsible for that, while she was the type of woman to whom it was something like an outrage not to offer the things befitting to her station. There was no reproach in the look he lifted on her now—nothing but a kind of dogged, perverse thankfulness that she should have had the way of life she craved, without ever knowing the price he was about to pay for it.
In withdrawing his glance from hers he turned it about on the various objects in the room. Many of them had stood in their places since before he was born; others he had acquired at occasional sales of Guion property, so that, as the different branches of the family became extinct or disappeared, whatever could be called "ancestral" might have a place at Tory Hill; others he had collected abroad. All of them, in these moments of anguish—the five K'ang-hsi vases on the mantelpiece, brought home by some seafaring Guion of Colonial days, the armorial "Lowestoft" in the cabinets, the Copley portraits of remote connections on the walls, the bits of Chippendale and Hepplewhite that had belonged to the grandfather who built Tory Hill—all of them took on now a kind of personality, as with living look and utterance. He had loved them and been proud of them; and as he turned out the lights, leaving them to darkness, eyes could not have been more appealing nor lips more eloquent than they in their mute farewell.