The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part II. Strange.
"Evie, what do you think made Mr. Strange rush away like that? Your uncle says he didn't have to--that he might just as well have stayed in town."
"I'm sure I don't know," was Evie's truthful response, as she flitted about the dining-room table arranging the flowers before luncheon.
"Your uncle thinks you do," Mrs. Jarrott said, leaning languidly back in an arm-chair. Her tone and manner implied that the matter had nothing to do with her, though she was willing to speak of it. This was as far as she could come to showing an interest in anything outside herself since the boys died. She would not have brought up the subject now if the girl's pallor during the last few days had not made them uneasy.
"I haven't the least idea," Miss Colfax declared. "I was just as much surprised as you were, Aunt Helen."
"Your uncle thinks you must have said something to him--"
"I didn't. I didn't say anything to him whatever. Why should I? He's nothing to me."
"Of course he's nothing to you, if you're engaged to Billy Merrow."
Miss Colfax leaned across the table, taking a longer time than necessary to give its value to a certain rose.
"I'm not engaged to him now," she said, as if after reflection--"not in my own mind, that is."
"But you are in his, I suppose."
"Well, I can't help that, can I?"
"Not unless you write and tell him it's all over."
Miss Colfax stood still, a large red flower raised in protestation.
"That would be the cruellest thing I ever heard of," she exclaimed, with conviction. "I don't see how you can bear to make the suggestion."
"Then what are you going to do about it?"
"I needn't do anything just yet. There's no hurry--till I get back to New York."
"Do you mean to let him go on thinking--?"
"He'd much rather. Whenever I tell him, it will be too soon for him. There's no reason why he should know earlier than he wants to."
"But is that honor, dear?"
"How can I tell?" At so unreasonable a question the blue eyes clouded with threatening tears. "I can't go into all those fine points, Aunt Helen, do you see? I've just got to do what's right."
Mrs. Jarrot rose with an air of helplessness. She loved her brother's daughter tenderly enough, but she admitted to herself that she did not understand young girls. Having borne only sons, she had never been called upon to struggle with the baffling.
"I hope you're not going to tell any one, Aunt Helen," Evie begged, as Mrs. Jarrott seemed about to leave the room. "I shouldn't want Uncle Jarrott to know, or Aunt Queenie, either."
"I shall certainly spare them," Mrs. Jarrott said, with what for her was asperity. "They would be surprised, to say the least, after the encouragement you gave Mr. Strange."
"I didn't give it--he took it. I couldn't stop him."
"Did you want to?"
"I thought of it--sometimes--till I gave up being engaged to Billy."
"And having passed that mental crisis, I suppose it didn't matter."
"Well, the mental crisis, as you call it, left me free. I sha'n't have to reproach myself--"
"No; Mr. Merrow will do that for you."
"Of course he will. I expect him to. It would be very queer if he didn't. I shall have a dreadful time making him see things my way. And with all that hanging over me, I should think I might look for a little sympathy from you, Aunt Helen. Lots of girls wouldn't have said anything about it. But I told you because I want you to see I'm perfectly straight and above-board."
Mrs. Jarrott said no more for the moment, but later in the day she confided to her husband that the girl puzzled her. "She mixes me up so that I don't know which of us is talking sense." She was not at all sure that Evie was fretting about Mr. Strange--though she might be. If she wasn't, then she couldn't be well. That was the only explanation of her depression and loss of appetite.
"You can bet your life he's thinking of her," Mr. Jarrott said, with the lapse from colloquial dignity he permitted himself when he got into his house-jacket. "He's praying to her image as if it was a wooden saint."
With the omission of the word wooden this was much what Strange was doing at Rosario. Not venturing--in view of all the circumstances--to write to her, he could only erect a shrine in his heart, and serve it with a devotion very few saints enjoy. He found, however, that absence from her did not enable him to form detached and impartial opinions on his situation, just as work brought no subconsciously reached solution to the problems he had to face. In these respects he was disappointed in the results of his unnecessary flight from town.
At the end of two months he was still mentally where he was when he left Buenos Aires. His intelligence assured him that he had the right of a man who has no rights to seize and carry off what he can; while that nameless something else within him refused to ratify the statement. What precise part of him raised this obstacle he was at a loss to guess. It could not be his conscience, since he had been free of conscience ever since the night on Lake Champlain. Still less could it be his heart, seeing that his heart was crying out for Evie Colfax more fiercely than a lion roars for food. The paralysis of his judgment had become such that he was fast approaching the determination to make Love the only arbiter, and let all the rest go hang!
He was encouraged in this impulse by the thought that between her and himself there was the mysterious bond of something "meant." He believed vaguely in a Power, which, with designs as to human destinies, manifests its intentions by fitful gleams, vouchsafed somewhat erratically. In this way Evie Colfax, as a beautiful, fairy-like child, had been revealed to him at the most critical instant of his life. His mind had never hitherto gone back willingly to recollections of that night; but now he made the excursion into the past with a certain amount of pleasure. He could see her still, looking at a picture-book, her face resting on the back of her hand, and golden ringlets falling over her bare arm. He could see the boy, too. He remembered that his name was Billy. Billy who? he wondered. He could hear the sweet, rather fretful voice calling from the shadows:
"Evie dear, it's time to go to bed. Billy, I don't believe they let you stay up as late as this at home."
How ridiculous it would have been to remember such trivial details all these years if something hadn't been "meant" by it. There was a hint in the back of his mind that by the same token something might have been "meant" about the Wild Olive, too, but he had not an equal temptation to dwell on it. The Wild Olive, he repeated, had never been "his type of girl"--not from the very first. It was obviously impossible for a superintending Power to "mean" things that were out of the question.
He had got no further than this when the news was conveyed to him by Mrs. Green, whom he met accidentally in the street, that Mr. Skinner, the second partner, had had a "stroke," and had been ordered to Carlsbad. Mrs. Skinner, so Mrs. Green's letters from the Port informed her, was to accompany her husband. Furthermore, Miss Colfax was seizing the opportunity to travel with them to Southampton, where she would be able to join friends who would take her to New York. There was even a rumor that Miss Jarrott was to accompany her niece, but Mrs. Green was unable to vouch for the truth of it. In any case, she said, there were signs of "a regular shaking up," such as comes periodically in any great mercantile establishment; and this time, she ventured to hope, Mr. Green would get his rights.