The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part III. Miriam.
On a day when Evie Colfax was nearing Southampton, and Herbert Strange sailing northward from the Rio de la Plata, up the coast of Brazil, Miriam Strange, in New York, was standing in the embrasure of a large bay-window of a fifth-floor apartment, in that section of Fifty-ninth Street that skirts the southern limit of Central Park. Her conversation with the man beside her turned on subjects which both knew to be only preliminary to the business that had brought him in. He inquired about her voyage home from Germany, and expressed his sympathy with "poor Wayne" on the hopelessness and finality of the Wiesbaden oculist's report. Taking a lighter tone, he said, with a gesture toward the vast expanse of autumn color on which they were looking down:
"You didn't see anything finer than that in Europe. Come now!"
"No, I didn't--not in its own way. As long as I can look at this I'm almost reconciled to living in a town."
As her eyes roamed over the sea of splendor that stretched from their very feet, a vision of October gorgeousness against the sky, he was able to steal a glance at her. His immediate observation was to the effect that the suggestion of wildness--or, more correctly, of a wild origin--was as noticeable in her now, a woman of twenty-seven, as it was when he first knew her, a girl of nineteen. That she should have brought it with her from a childhood passed amid lakes and rivers and hills was natural enough--just as it was natural that her voice should have that liquid cadence which belongs to people of the forest, though it is rarely caught by human speech elsewhere; but that she should have conserved these qualities through the training of a woman of the world was more remarkable. But there it was, that something woodland-born which London and New York had neither submerged nor swept away. It was difficult to say in what it consisted, since it eluded the effort to say, "It is this or that." It resisted analysis, as it defied description. Though it might have been in the look, or in the manner, it conveyed itself to the observer's apprehension, otherwise than by the eye or ear, as if it appealed to some extra sense. People who had not Charles Conquest's closeness of perception spoke of her as "odd," while those who had heard the little there was to learn about her, said to each other, "Well, what could you expect?" Young men, as a rule, fought shy of her, not so much from indifference as from a sense of an indefinable barrier between her and themselves so that it was the older men who sought her out. There was always some fear on Conquest's part lest the world should so assimilate her that her distinctiveness--which was more like an influence that radiated than a characteristic that could be seen--would desert her; and it was with conscious satisfaction that he noted now, after an absence of some months, that it was still there.
He noted, too, the sure lines of her profile--a profile becoming clearer cut as she grew older--features wrought with delicacy and yet imbued with strength, suggestive of carved ivory. Delicacy imbued with strength was betokened, too, by the tall slenderness of her figure, whose silence and suppleness of movement came--in Conquest's imagination at least--from her far-off forest ancestry.
"I couldn't live anywhere else but here--if it must be in New York," she said, turning from the window. "I couldn't do without the sense of woods, and space, and sky. I can stand at this window and imagine all sorts of things--that the park really does run into the Catskills, as it seems to do--that the Catskills run into the Adirondacks--and that the Adirondacks take me up to the Laurentides with which my earliest recollections begin."
"I think you're something like Shelley's Venice," he smiled, "a sort of 'daughter of the earth and ocean.' You never seem to me to belong in just the ordinary category--"
She had been afraid of something like this from the minute he was announced, and so hastened to cling to the impersonal.
"Then, the apartment is so convenient. Being all on one floor, it is so much easier for Mr. Wayne to get about it than if he had stairs to climb. I didn't tell you that I've had Mrs. Wayne's room done over for Evie. It's so much larger and lighter than her old one--"
He cleared his throat uneasily.
"I remember your saying something of the kind before you went away in the spring. It's one of the things I came in to talk about to-day?"
"Indeed?" His change of tone alarmed her. He had taken on the air of a man about to break unpleasant news. "Won't you sit down? I'll ring for tea. We're not in very good order yet, but the servants can give us that much."
She spoke for the purpose of hiding her uneasiness, just as she felt that she should be more sure of herself while handling the teacups than if she were sitting idle.
"I've had a letter from Mr. Jarrott," he said, making himself comfortable, while she moved the tea-table in front of her. "He wrote to me, partly as Stephens and Jarrott's legal adviser, and partly as a friend."
He allowed that information time to sink in before continuing.
"He tells me Miss Jarrott is on her way home, with Evie."
"Yes; Evie herself wrote me that. I got the letter at Cherbourg."
"Then she probably told you about the house."
"The house? What house?"
"The house they've asked me to take for the winter--for Miss Jarrott and her."
The tea-things came, giving her the relief of occupation. She said nothing for the moment, and her attention seemed concentrated on the rapid, silent movements of her own hands among the silver and porcelain. Once she looked up, but her glance fell as she saw his small, keen, gray-green eyes scanning her obliquely.
"So I'm not to have her?" she said, at last.
"It's only for this winter--"
"Oh, I know. But what's for this winter will be for every winter!"
"And she won't be far away. I've taken the Grant's house in Seventy-second Street. They asked for a house in which they could do some entertaining. You see, they want to give her a good time--"
"I quite understand all that. Evie has to 'come out.' I've not the least doubt that they're managing it in the best way possible. Yes, I see that. If I feel a little--well, I won't say hurt--but a little--sorry--it's because I've almost brought Evie up. And I suppose I'm the person she's most fond of--as far as she's fond of any one."
"I presume she's fond of my nephew, Billy Merrow."
"I hope so. Billy rather teased her into that engagement, you know. She's too young to be deeply in love--unless it was with one romantic. And Billy isn't that. I'm not sure that there isn't trouble ahead for him."
"Then I shall let him worry through it himself. I've got other things to think about."
When she had given him his tea and begun to sip her own, she looked up with that particular bright smile which in women means the bracing of the courage.
"It'll be all right," she said, with forced conviction. "I know it will. It's foolish in me to think I shall miss her, when she will be so near. It's only because she and Mr. Wayne are all I've got--"
"They needn't be," he interposed, draining his cup, and setting it down, like a man preparing for action.
She knew her own words had exposed her to this, and was vexed with herself for speaking in a dangerous situation without due foresight. For a minute she could think of nothing to say that would ward off his thrust. She sat looking at him rather helplessly, unconsciously appealing to him with her eyes to let the subject drop.
If he meant to go on with it, he took his time--flecking a few crumbs from his white waistcoat and from his fingertips. In the action he showed himself for what he was--a man so neat as just to escape being dapper. There was nothing large about him, in either mind or body; while, on the contrary, there was much that was keen and able. The incisiveness of the face would have been too sharp had it not been saved by the high-bred effect of a Roman nose and a handsome mouth and chin. The fair mustache, faded now rather than gray, softened the cynicism of the lips without concealing it. It was the face of a man accustomed to "see through" other men--to "see through" life--compelling its favors from the world rather than asking them. The detailed exactness and unobtrusive costliness of everything about him, from the pearl in his tie to the polish on his boots, were indicative of a will rigorously demanding "the best," and taking it. The refusal of it now in the person of the only woman whom he had ever wanted as a wife left him puzzled, slightly exasperated, as before a phenomenon not to be explained. It was this unusual resistance that caused the somewhat impatient tone he took with her.
"It's all nonsense--your living as you do--like a professional trained nurse."
"The life of a professional trained nurse isn't nonsense."
"It is for you."
"On the contrary; it's for me, more than for almost any one, to justify my right to being in the world."
"Oh, come now! Don't let us begin on that."
"I don't want to begin on it. I'd much rather not. But if you don't, you throw away the key that explains everything about me."
"All right," he rejoined, in an argumentative tone. "Let's talk about it, then. Let's have it out. You feel your position; granted. Mind you, I've always said you wouldn't have done so if it hadn't been for Gertrude Wayne. The world to-day has too much common sense to lay stress on a circumstance of that kind. Believe me, nobody thinks about it but yourself. Did Lady Bonchurch? Did any of her friends? You've got it a little bit--just a little bit--on the brain; and the fault isn't yours; it belongs to the woman whose soul is gone, I hope, where it's freed from the rules of a book of etiquette."
"She meant well--"
"Oh, every failure, and bungler, and mischief-maker means well. That's their charter. I'm not concerned with that. I'm speaking of what she did. She fixed it in your mind that you were like a sapling sprung from a seed blown outside the orchard. You think you can minimize that accident by bringing forth as good as any to be found within the pale. Consequently you've taken a poor, helpless, blind man off the hands of the people whose duty it is to look after him--and who are well able to do it--"
"That isn't the reason," she declared, flushing. "If Mr. Wayne and I live together it's because we're used to each other--and in a way he has taken the place of my father."
"Oh, come now! That's all very fine. But haven't you got in the back of your mind the thought that the wild tree that's known by its good fruit is the one that's best worth grafting?"
"If I had--" she began, with color deepening.
"If you had, you'd simply be taking a long way round, when there's a short cut home. I'm the orchard, Miriam. All you've got to do is to walk into it--with me."
A warmer tone came into his voice as he uttered the concluding words, adding to her discomfort. She moved the tea-things about, putting them into an unnecessary state of order, before she could reply.
"There's a reason why I couldn't do that," she said, meeting his sharp eyes with one of her fugitive glances. "I would have given it to you when--when you brought up this subject last spring, only you didn't ask me."
"Well, what is it?"
"I couldn't love you."
She forced herself to bring out the words distinctly. He leaned back in his chair, threw one leg across the other, and stroked the thin, colorless line of his mustache.
"No, I suppose you couldn't," he said, quietly, after considering her words.
"So that my answer has to be final."
"I don't see that. Love is only one of the many motives for marriage--and not, as I understand it, the highest one. The divorce courts are strewn with the wrecks of marriages made for love. Those that stand the test of life and time are generally those that have been contracted from some of the more solid--and worthier--motives."
"Then I don't know what they are."
"I could explain them to you if you'd let me. As for love--if it's needed at all--I could bring enough into hotch-potch as the phrase goes, to do for two. I'm over fifty years of age. It never occurred to me that you could--care about me--as you might have cared for some one else. But as far as I can see, there's no one else. If there was, perhaps I shouldn't persist."
She looked up with sudden determination.
"If there was any one else, you--would consider that as settling the question?"
"I might. I shouldn't bind myself. It would depend."
"Then I'll tell you; there is some one else." The words caused her to flush so painfully that she hastened to qualify them. "That is, there might have been."
"What do you mean by--might have been?"
"I mean that, though I don't say I've ever--loved--any man, there was a man I might have loved, if it had been possible."
"And why wasn't it possible?"
"I'd rather not tell you. It was a long time ago. He went away. He never came back again."
"Did he say he'd come back again?"
She shook her head. She tried to meet his gaze steadily, but it was like facing a search-light.
"Were you what you would call--engaged?"
"Oh no." Her confusion deepened. "There was never anything. It was a long time ago. I only want you to understand that if I could care for any one it would be for him. And if I married you--and he came back--"
"Are you expecting him back?"
She was a long time answering the question. She would not have answered it at all had it not been in the hope of getting rid of him.
He took the declaration coolly, and went on.
"Why? What makes you think he'll come?"
"I have no reason. I think he will--that's all."
"Where is he now?"
"I haven't the faintest idea."
"Hasn't he ever written to you?"
"And you don't know what's become of him?"
"Not in the least."
"And yet you expect him back?"
She nodded assent.
"You're waiting for him?"
Once more she braced herself to look him in the eyes and answer boldly.
He leaned back in his chair and laughed, not loudly, but in good-humored derision.
"If that's all that stands between us--"
To her relief he said no more; though she was disappointed that the subject should be dropped in a way that made it possible to bring it up again. As he was taking his leave she renewed the attempt to end the matter once for all.
"I know you think me foolish--" she began.
"No, not foolish; only romantic."
"Then, romantic. Romance is as bad as folly when one is twenty-seven. I confess it," she went on, trying to smile, "only that you may understand that it's a permanent condition which I sha'n't get over."
"Oh yes, you will."
"Things happened--long ago--such as don't generally happen; and so--I'm waiting for him. If he never comes--then I'd rather go on--waiting--uselessly."
It was hard to say, but it was said. He laughed again--not quite so derisively as before--and went away.
When he had gone, she resumed her seat behind the tea-table. She sat looking absently at the floor and musing on the words she had just spoken. Not in all the seven or eight years since Norrie Ford went away had she acknowledged to her own heart what, within the last few minutes, she had declared aloud. The utmost she had ever owned to herself was that she "could have loved him." When she refused other men, she did not confess to waiting for him; she evaded the question with herself, and found pretexts. She would have continued doing so with Conquest, had not his persistency driven her to her last stand. But now that she had uttered the words for his benefit, she had to repeat them for her own. Notwithstanding her passionate love of woods, winds, and waters, she had always been so sane, so practical, in the things that pertained to daily life that she experienced something like surprise at detecting herself in this condition of avowed romance. She had actually been waiting for Norrie Ford to return, and say what he had told her he would say, should it ever become possible! She was waiting for him still! If he never came she would rather go on waiting for him--uselessly! The language almost shocked her; but now that the thing was spoken she admitted it was true. It was a light thrown on herself--if not precisely a new light, at least one from which all shades and colored wrappings that delude the eye and obscure the judgment had been struck away.
She smiled to herself to think how little Conquest understood her when he ascribed to her the ambition to graft her ungarnered branch on the stock of a duly cultivated civilization. She might have had that desire once, but it was long past. It was a kind of glory to her now to be outside the law--with Norrie Ford. There they were exiles together, in a wild paradise with joys of its own, not less sweet than those of any Eden. She had faced more than once the question of being "taken into the orchard," as Conquest put it. The men who had asked her at various times to marry them had been like himself, men of middle age, or approaching it--men of assured position either by birth or by attainment. As the wife of any one of them her place would have been unquestioned. She had not rejected their offers lightly, or from any foregone conclusion. She had taken it as a duty to weigh each one seriously as it came; and, leaving the detail of love apart, she had asked herself whether it was not right for her to seize the occasion of becoming "some one" in the world. Once or twice the position offered her was so much in accordance with her tastes that her refusal brought with it a certain vague regret. "But I couldn't do it," were the words with which she woke from every dream of seeing herself mistress in a quiet English park, or a big house in New York. Her habits might be those of civilized mankind; but her heart was listening for a call from beyond the limits in which men have the recognized right to live. She could put no shackles on her freedom to respond to it--if it ever came.