The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part II. Strange.
After a night of little sleep and much thinking he determined to listen to nothing but the love-chant. He came to this decision, not in the recklessness of self-will, but after due consideration of his rights. It was true that, in biblical phrase, necessity was laid upon him. He could no more shut his ears against that entrancing song than he could shut his eyes against the daylight. This was not, however, the argument that he found most cogent, as it was not the impulse from which he meant to act. If he could make this girl his wife it would be something more than a case of getting his own way; it would be an instance--probably the highest instance--of the assertion of himself against a world organized to destroy him. He could not enter that world and form a part of it; but at least he could carry off a wife from it, as a lion may leap into a sheepfold and snatch a lamb.
It was in this light that he viewed the matter when he accepted Miss Jarrott's invitations--now to lunch, now to dinner, now to a seat in their box at the opera or in their carriage in the park--during the rest of the time he remained in town. It became clear to him that the family viewed with approval the attachment that had sprung up between Miss Colfax and himself, and were helping it to a happy ending. He even became aware that they were growing fond of him--making the discovery with a queer sensation of surprise. It was a thing so new in his experience that he would have treated the notion as ridiculous had it not been forced upon him. Women had shown him favors; one lonely old man, now lying in the Recoleta Cemetery, had yearned over him; but a household had never opened its heart to him before. And yet there could be no other reading of the present situation. He began to think that Mr. Jarrott was delaying his departure for Rosario purposely, to keep him near. It was certain that into the old man's bearing toward him there had crept something that might almost be called paternal, so that their business discussions were much like those between father and son. Mrs. Jarrott advanced as far out of the circle of her griefs to welcome him as it was possible for her languorous spirit to emerge. Miss Jarrott, friendly from the first, attached him to the wheels of her social chariot with an air of affectionate possession.
It required no great amount of perspicuity to see that the three elders would be glad if Miss Colfax and he were to "make a match of it," and why. It would be a means--and a means they could approve--of keeping their little girl among them. As matters stood, she was only a visitor, who spoke of her flight back to New York as a matter of course.
"I only came," she lisped to Strange, as they sat one day, under the parrot's chaperonage, in the shady corner of the patio--"I only came because when dear mamma died there was nothing else for me to do. Everything happened so unfortunately, do you see? Mamma died, and my stepfather went blind, and really I had no home. Of course that doesn't matter so much while I'm in mourning--I mean, not having a home--but I simply must go back to New York next autumn, in order to 'come out.'"
[Illustration: "Who is Miriam?" was on his lips]
"Aren't you 'out' enough already?"
"Do you see?" she began to explain, with the quaint air of practical wisdom he adored in her, "I'm not out at all--and I'm nearly nineteen. Dear mamma fretted over it as it was--and if she knew it hadn't been done yet--Well something must be managed, but I don't know what. It isn't as if Miriam could do anything about it, though she's a great deal older than I am, and has seen a lot of social life at Washington and in England. But she's out of the question. Dear mamma would never have allowed it. And she's no relation to me, besides."
The question, "Who is Miriam?" was on his lips, but he checked it in time. He checked all questions as to her relatives and friends whom he did not know already. He was purposely making ignorance his bliss as long as possible, in the hope that before enlightenment could be forced upon him it would be too late for any one to recede.
"Couldn't they do it for you here?" he asked, when he was sure of what he meant to say. "I know the Miss Martins--"
"Carrie and Ethel! Oh, well! That isn't quite the same thing. I couldn't come out in a place like Buenos Aires--or anywhere, except New York."
"But when you've been through it all, you'll come back here, won't you?"
His eyes sought hers, but he saw only the curtains of the lids--those lids with the curious dusk on them, which reminded him of the petals of certain pansies.
"That'll--depend," she said, after a minute's hesitation.
"It'll depend--on what?" he persisted, softly.
Before she could answer the parrot interrupted, screaming out a bit of doggerel in its hoarse staccato.
"Oh, that bird!" the girl cried, springing up. "I do wish some one would wring its neck."
He got no nearer to his point that day, and perhaps he was not eager to. The present situation, with its excitements and uncertainties, was too blissful to bring to a sudden end. Besides, he was obliged to go through some further rehearsing of the creed adopted in the dawn on Lake Champlain before his self-justification could be complete. It was not that he was questioning his right to act; it was only that he needed to strengthen the chain of arguments by which his action must be supported--against himself. Within his own heart there was something that pleaded against the breaking off of this tender sprig of the true olive to graft it on the wild, in addition to which the attitude of the Jarrott family disconcerted him. It was one thing to push his rights against a world ready to deny them, but it was quite another to take advantage of a trusting affection that came more than half-way to meet him. His mind refused to imagine what they would do if they could know that behind the origin of Herbert Strange there lay the history of Norrie Ford. After all, he was not concerned with them, he asserted inwardly, but with himself. They were intrenched within a world able to take care of itself; while there was no power whatever to protect him, once he made a mistake.
So every night, as he sat in his cheerless hotel room, he reviewed his arguments, testing them one by one, strengthening the weak spots according to his lights, and weighing the for and against with all the nicety he could command. On the one side were love, happiness, position, a home, children probably, and whatever else the normal, healthy nature craves; on the other, loneliness, abnegation, crucifixion, slow torture, and slower death. Was it just to himself to choose the latter, simply because human law had made a mistake and put him outside the human race? The answer was obvious enough; but while his intelligence made it promptly, something else within him--some illogical emotion--seemed to lag behind with its corroboration.
This hesitation of his entire being to respond to the bugle-call of his need gave to his wooing a certain irregularity--an advance and recession like that of the tide. At the very instant when the words of declaration were trembling on his lips this doubt about himself would check him. There were minutes--moonlit minutes, in the patio, when the birds were hushed, and the scent of flowers heavy, and the voices of the older ones stole from some lighted room like a soft, human obligato to the melody of the night--minutes when he felt that to his "I love you!" hers would come as surely as the echo to the sound; and yet he shrank from saying it. Their talk would drift near to it, dally with it, flash about it, play attack and defence across it, and drift away again, leaving the essential thing unspoken. The skill with which she fenced with this most fragile of all topics, never losing her guard, never missing her thrust or parry, and yet never inflicting anything like a wound, filled him with a sort of rapture. It united the innocence of a child to the cleverness of a woman of the world, giving an exquisite piquancy to both. In this young creature, who could have had no experience of anything of the kind, it was the very essence of the feminine.
By dint of vigil and meditation he drew the conclusion that his inner hesitancy sprang from the fact that he was not being honest with himself. He was shirking knowledge that he ought to face. Up to the present he had done his duty in that respect, and done it pluckily. He had not balked at the statement that his rA'le in the world was that of an impostor--though an impostor of the world's own creation. It had been part of the task forced upon him "to deceive men under their very noses," as he had expressed it to himself that night on Lake Champlain. Whatever vengeance, therefore, discovery might call upon him, he could suffer nothing in the loss of self-respect. He would be always supported by his inner approval. Remorse would be as alien to him as to Prometheus on the rock.
In the present situation he was less sure of that, and there he put his finger on his weakness. Seeing shadows flitting in the background he dodged them, instead of calling them out into daylight. He was counting on happy chances in dealing with the unforeseen, when all his moves should be based on the precise information of a general.
Therefore, when, in the corner of the patio, the next opportunity arose for asking the question, "Who is Miriam?" he brought it out boldly.
"She's a darling." The unexpected reply was accompanied by a sudden lifting of the lashes for a rapturous look and one of the flashing smiles.
"That's high praise--from you."
"She deserves it--from any one!"
"Why? What for? What has she done to win your enthusiasm when other people find it so hard?"
"It isn't so hard--only some people go the wrong way to work about it, do you see?"
She leaned back in her wicker chair, fanning herself slowly, and smiling at him with that air of mingled innocence and provocation which he found the most captivating of her charms.
"Do I?" he was tempted to ask.
"Do you? Now, let me think. Really, I never noticed. You'd have to begin all over again--if you ever did begin--before I could venture an opinion."
This was pretty, but it was not keeping to the point.
"Evidently Miriam knows how to do it, and when I see her I shall ask her."
"I wish you could see her. You'd adore her. She'd be just your style."
"What makes you think that? Is she so beautiful? What is she like?"
"Oh, I couldn't tell you what she's like. You'd have to see her for yourself. No, I don't think I should call her beautiful, though some people do. She's awfully attractive anyhow."
"Attractive? In what way?"
"Oh, in a lot of ways. She isn't like anybody else. She's in a class by herself. In fact, she has to be, poor thing."
"Why should she be poor thing, with so much to her credit in the way of assets?"
"Do you see?--that's something I can't tell you. There's a sort of mystery about her. I'm not sure that I understand it very well myself. I only know that dear mamma didn't feel that she could take her out, in New York, except among our very most intimate friends, where it didn't matter. And yet when Lady Bonchurch took her to Washington she got a lot of offers--I know that for a fact--and in England, too."
"I seem to be getting deeper in," Strange smiled, with the necessary air of speaking carelessly. "Who is Lady Bonchurch?"
"Don't you know? Why, I thought you knew everything. She was the wife of the British Ambassador. They took a house at Greenport that year because they were afraid about Lord Bonchurch's lungs. It didn't do any good, though. He had to give up his post the next winter, and not long after that he died. I don't think air is much good for people's lungs, do you? I know it wasn't any help to dear mamma. We had all those tedious years at Greenport, and in the end--but that's how we came to know Lady Bonchurch, and she took a great fancy to Miriam. She said it was a shame a girl like that shouldn't have a chance, and so it was. Mamma thought she interfered and I suppose she did. Still, you can't blame her much, when she had no children of her own, can you?"
"I shouldn't want to blame her if she gave Miriam her chance."
"That's what I've always said. And if Miriam had only wanted to, she could have been--well, almost anybody. She had offers and offers in Washington, and in England there was a Sir Somebody-or-other who asked her two or three times over. He married an actress in the end--and dear mamma thought Miriam must be crazy not to have taken him while he was to be had. Dear mamma said it would have been such a good thing for me to have some one like Miriam--who was under obligations to us, do you see?--in a good social position abroad."
"But Miriam didn't see it in that way?"
"She didn't see it in any way. She's terribly exasperating in some respects, although she's such a dear. Poor mamma used to be very tried about her--and she so ill--and my stepfather going blind--and everything. If Miriam had only been in a good social position abroad it would have been a place for me to go--instead of having no home--like this."
There was something so touching in her manner that he found it difficult not to offer her a home there and then; but the shadows were marching out into daylight, and he must watch the procession to the end.
"It seems to have been very inconsiderate of Miriam," he said. "But why do you suppose she acted so?"
"Dear mamma thought she was in love with some one--some one we didn't know anything about--but I never believed that. In the first place, she didn't know any one we didn't know anything about--not before she went to Washington with Lady Bonchurch. And besides, she couldn't be in love with any one without my knowing it, now could she?"
"I suppose not; unless she made up her mind she wouldn't tell you."
"Oh, I shouldn't want her to tell me. I should see it for myself. She wouldn't tell me, in any case--not till things had gone so far that--but I never noticed the least sign of it, do you see? and I've a pretty sharp eye for that sort of thing at all times. There was just one thing. Dear mamma used to say that for a while she used to do a good deal of moping in a little studio she had, up in the hills near our house--but you couldn't tell anything from that. I've gone and moped there myself when I've felt I wanted a good cry--and I wasn't in love with any one."
There was a long silence, during which he sat grave, motionless, reflecting. Now and then he placed his extinguished cigarette to his lips, with the mechanical motion of a man forgetful of time and place and circumstance.
"Well, what are you thinking about?" she inquired, when the pause had lasted long enough. He seemed to wake with a start.
"Oh--I--I don't know. I rather fancy I was thinking about--about this Miss--after all, you haven't given me any name but Miriam."
"Strange, her name is. The same as yours."
"Oh? You've never told me that."
"Aunt Queenie has, though. But you always seem to shuffle so when it's mentioned that I've let it alone. I don't blame you, either; for if there's one thing more tedious than another, it's having people for ever fussing about your name. There was a girl at our school whose name was Fidgett--Jessie Fidgett--a nice, quiet girl, as placid as a church--but I do assure you, it got to be so tiresome--well, you know how it would be--and so I decided I wouldn't say anything about Miriam's name to you, nor about yours to her. Goodness knows, there must be lots of Stranges in the world--just as much as Jarrotts."
"So that--after all--her name was Miriam Strange."
"It was, and is, and always will be--if she goes on like this," Miss Colfax rejoined, not noticing that he had spoken half-musingly to himself. "She was a ward of my step-father's till she came of age," she added, in an explanatory tone. "She's a sort of Canadian--or half a Canadian--or something--I never could quite make out what. Anyhow, she's a dear. She's gone now with my stepfather to Wiesbaden, about his eyes--and you can't think what a relief to me it is. If she hadn't, I might have had to go myself--and at my age--with all I've got to think about--and my coming out--Well, you can see how it would be."
She lifted such sweet blue eyes upon him that he would have seen anything she wanted him to see, if he had not been determined to push his inquiries until there was nothing left for him to learn.
"Were you fond of him?--your stepfather?"
"Of course--in a way. But everything was so unfortunate I know dear mamma thought she was acting for the best when she married him; and if he hadn't begun to go blind almost immediately--But he was very kind to mamma, when she had to go to the Adirondacks for her health. That was very soon after she returned to New York from here--when papa died. But she was so lonely in the Adirondacks--and he was a judge--a Mr. Wayne--with a good position--and naturally she never dreamed he had anything the matter with his eyes--it isn't the sort of thing you'd ever think of asking about beforehand--and so it all happened that way, do you see?"
He did see. He could have wished not to see so clearly. He saw with a light that dazzled him. Any step would be hazardous now, except one in retreat; though he was careful to explain to himself that night that it was retreat for reconnoitre, and not for running away. The mere fact that the Wild Olive had taken on personality, with a place of some sort in the world, brought her near to him again; while the knowledge that he bore her name--possibly her father's name--seemed to make him the creation of her magic to an even greater degree than he had felt hitherto. He could perceive, too, that by living out the suggestions she had made to him in the cabin--the Argentine--Stephens and Jarrott--"the very good firm to work for"--he had never got beyond her influence, no more than the oak-tree gets beyond the acorn that has been its seed. The perception of these things would have been enough to puzzle a mind not easily at home in the complex, even if the reintroduction of Judge Wayne had not confused him further.
It was not astonishing, therefore, that he was seized with a sudden longing to get away--a longing for space and solitude, for the pampas and the rivers, and, above all, for work. In the free air his spirit would throw off its oppression of discomfort, while in a daily routine of occupation he often found that difficulties solved themselves.
"If you think that this business of Kent's can get along without me now," he said to Mr. Jarrott, in the private office, next morning, "perhaps I had better be getting back to Rosario."
Not a muscle moved in the old man's long, wooden face, but the gray-blue eyes threw Strange a curious look.
"Do you want to go?" he asked, after a slight pause.
Strange smiled, with an embarrassment that did not escape observation.
"I've been away longer than I expected--a good deal longer. Things must want looking after, I suppose. Green can take my place for a while, but--"
"Green is doing very well--better than I thought he could. He seems to have taken a new start, that man."
"I'm not used to loafing, sir. If there's no particular reason for my staying on here--"
Mr. Jarrott fitted the tips of his fingers together, and answered slowly.
"There's no particular reason--just now. We've been speaking of--of--a--certain changes--But it's too soon--"
"Of course, sir, I don't want to urge my private wishes against--"
"Quite so; quite so; I understand that. A--a--private wishes, you say?"
"Yes, sir; entirely private."
The gray-blue eyes rested on him in a gaze meant to be uninquisitive and non-committal, but which, as a matter of fact, expressed something from which Strange turned his own glance away.
"Very well; I'd go," the old man said, quietly.
Strange left his cards that afternoon at the house just when he knew Mrs. Jarrott would be resting and Miss Jarrott driving with Miss Colfax. At seven he took the night boat up the Plata to the Parana.