The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part III. Miriam.
She discovered that Norrie Ford had come back, and that some of her expectations were fulfilled by finding him actually seated beside her one evening at dinner.
Miss Jarrott's taste in table light was in the direction of candles tempered by deep-red shades. As no garish electricity was allowed to intrude itself into this soft glow, the result was that only old acquaintances among her guests got a satisfactory notion of each other's features. It was with a certain sense of discovery that, by peering through the rose-colored twilight, Miriam discerned now a Jarrott or a Colfax, now an Endsleigh or a Pole--faces more or less well known to her which she had not had time to recognize during the few hurried minutes in the drawing-room.
It was the dinner of which Evie had said, in explaining her plan of campaign to Miriam, "We must kill off the family first of all." It was plain that she regarded the duty as a bore; but she was too worldly wise not to see that her bread cast upon the waters would return to her. Most of the Jarrotts were important; some were wealthy; and one--Mrs. Endsleigh Jarrott--was a power in such matters as assemblies and cotillons. The ladies Colfax were little less influential; and while the sphere of the Poles and Endsleighs was in the world of art, letters, and scholarship, rather than in that of fashion and finance, they had the uncontested status of good birth. To Evie they represented just so much in the way of her social assets, and she was quick in appraising them at their correct relative values. Some would be good for a dinner given in her honor, others for a dance. The humblest could be counted on for a theatre-party or a "tea." She was skilful, too, in presenting her orphan state with a touching vividness that enlisted their sympathies on behalf of "poor Jack's," or "poor Gertrude's," pretty little girl, according to the side of the house on which they recognized the relationship.
With the confusion incidental to the arrival from South America, the settling into a new house, and the ordering of new clothes, Miriam had had little of the old intimate intercourse with Evie during the six weeks since the latter's return. There was no change in their mutual relation; it was only that Evie was caught up into the glory of the coming winter, and had no time for the apartment in Fifty-ninth Street. It was with double pleasure, therefore, that Miriam responded one day to Evie's invitation to "come and look at my things," which meant an inspection of the frocks and hats that had just come home. They lay about now, in clouds like a soft summer sunset, or in gay spots of feathers and flowers, on the bed and the sofa in Evie's room, and filled all the chairs except the one on which Miriam had retreated into the farthest corner of the bay-window. Seated there, not quite in profile, against the light, her head turned and slightly inclined, in order to get a better view of Evie's finery, her slender figure possessed a sort of Vandyke grace, heightened rather than diminished by the long plumes and rich draperies of the month's fashion. Evie flitted between closets, wardrobes, and drawers, prattling while she worked off that first event of her season, in which the family were to be "killed off." She recited the names of those who would "simply have to be asked" and of those who could conveniently be omitted.
"And, of course, Popsey Wayne must come," she observed in her practical little way. "I dare say he won't want to, poor dear, but it wouldn't do if he didn't. Only you, you dear thing, will have to go in with him--to pilot him and look after him when the dishes are passed. But I'm going to have some one nice on your other side, do you see?--some one awfully nice. We shall have to ask a few people outside the family, just to give it relief, and save it from looking like Christmas."
"You'll have Billy, I suppose."
Evie took the time to deposit a lace blouse in a drawer, as softly as a mother lays a sleeping babe to rest.
"No, I sha'n't ask Billy," she said, while she was still stooping.
"Won't he think that queer?"
"I hope so." She turned from the drawer, and lifted a blue gossamer creation from the bed. Miriam smiled indulgently.
"Why? What's the matter? Have you anything to punish him for?"
"I've nothing to punish him for; I've only got something I want to--bring home to him." She paused in the middle of the room, with her blue burden held in her outstretched arms, somewhat like a baby at a christening. "I might as well tell you, Miriam, first as last. You've got to know it some time, though I don't want it talked about just yet. I've broken my engagement to Billy."
"Broken your engagement! Why, I saw Billy myself this morning. I met him as I was coming over. He said he was here last night, and seemed particularly cheerful."
"He doesn't know it yet. I'm doing it--by degrees."
"You're doing it by--what?" Miriam rose and came toward her, stopping midway to lean on the foot-rail of the bed. "Evie darling, what do you mean?"
Evie's eyes brimmed suddenly, and her lip trembled.
"If you're going to be cross about it--"
"I'm not going to be cross about it, but I want you to tell me exactly what you're doing."
"Well, I'm telling you. I've broken my engagement, and I want to let Billy know it in the kindest way. I don't want to hurt his feelings. You wouldn't like me to do that yourself. I'm trying to bring him where he'll see things just as I do."
"And may I ask if you're--getting him there?"
"I shall get him there in time. I'm doing lots of things to show him."
"Such as what?"
"Such as not asking him to the dinner, for one thing. He'll know from that there's something wrong. He'll make a fuss, and I shall be disagreeable. Little by little he'll get to dislike me--and then--"
"And how long do you think it will take for that good work to be accomplished?"
"I don't see that that matters. I suppose I may take all the time I need. We're both young--"
"And have all your lives to give to it. Is that what you mean?"
"I don't want to give all my life to it, because--I may as well tell you that, too, while I'm about it--because I'm engaged to some one else."
Miriam went back, like a person defeated, to the chair from which she had just risen, while Evie buried herself in the depths of a closet, where she remained long enough, as she hoped, to let Miriam's first astonishment subside. On coming out she assumed a virtuous tone.
"You see now why I simply had to break with Billy. I couldn't possibly keep the two things going together--as some girls would. I'm one of those who do right, whatever happens. It's very hard for me--but if people would only be a little more sympathetic--"
It was some minutes before Miriam knew just what to say. Even when she began to speak she doubted her capacity for making herself understood.
"Evie darling," she said, trying to speak as for a child's comprehension, "this is a very serious matter. I don't think you realize how serious it is. If you find you don't love Billy well enough, of course you must ask him to release you. I should be sorry for that, but I shouldn't blame you. But until you've done it you can't give your word to any one."
"Well, I must say I never heard anything like that," Evie declared, indignantly. "You do have the strangest ideas, Miriam. Dear mamma used to say so, too. I try to defend you, but you make it difficult for me, I must say. I never knew any one like you for making things more complicated than they need be. You talk of my asking Billy to release me when I released myself long ago--in my own mind. That's where I have to look. I must do things according to my conscience--and when that's clear--"
"It isn't only a case of conscience, dear; it's one of common sense. Conscience has a way of sometimes mistaking the issue, whereas common sense can generally be trusted to be right."
"Of course, if you're going to talk that way, Miriam, I don't see what's left for me to answer; but it doesn't sound very reverent, I must say. I'm trying to look at things in the highest light, and it doesn't strike me as the highest light to be unkind to Billy when I needn't be. If you think I ought to treat him cruelly you must keep your opinion, but I know you'll excuse me if I keep mine."
She carried her head loftily as she bore another gown into the adjoining darkness, and Miriam waited patiently till she emerged again.
"Does your other--I hardly know what to call him--does your other fiancA(C) know about Billy?"
"Why on earth should he? What good would that do? It will be all over--I mean about Billy--before I announce my second engagement, and as the one to Billy will never be announced at all there's no use in saying anything about it."
"But suppose Billy himself finds out?"
"Billy won't find out anything whatever until I get ready to let him."
The finality of this retort reduced Miriam to silence. She allowed some minutes to pass before saying, with some hesitation:
"I suppose you don't mind my knowing--who it is?"
Evie was prepared for this question and answered it promptly.
"I shan't mind your knowing--by-and-by. I want you to meet him first. When you've once seen him, I know you'll be more just to me. Till then I'm willing to go on being--misunderstood."
* * * * *
During the three more weeks that intervened before the family dinner Miriam got no further light on Evie's love-affairs. She purposely asked no questions through fear of seeming to force the girl's confidence, but she obtained some relief from thinking that the rival suitor could be no other than a certain young Graham, of whom she had heard much from Evie during the previous year. His chances then had stood higher than Billy Merrow's; and nothing was more possible than a discovery on Evie's part that she liked him the better of the two. It was a situation that called for sympathy for Billy, but not otherwise for grave anxiety, so that Miriam could wait quietly for further out-pourings of Evie's heart, and give her mind to the mysteries incidental to the girl's social presentation to the world.
Of the ceremonies attendant on this event the "killing off" of the family was the one Miriam dreaded most. It was when she came within the periphery of this powerful, meritorious, well-to-do circle, representing whatever was most honorable in New York, that she chiefly felt herself an alien. She could scarcely have explained herself in this respect, since many of the clan had been kind to her, and none had ever shown her incivility. It was when she confronted them in the mass, when she saw their solidarity, their mutual esteem, their sum total of wealth, talents, and good works, that she grew conscious of the difference of essence between herself and them. Not one of them but had the right to the place he sat in!--a right maintained by himself, but acquired by his fathers before him--not one of them but was living in the strength of some respectable tradition of which he could be proud! Endsleigh Jarrott's father, for example, had been a banker, Reginald Pole's the president of a university, Rupert Colfax's a judge; and it was something like that with them all. In the midst of so much that was classified, certified, and regular she was as obviously a foreign element as a fly in amber. She came in as the ward of Philip Wayne, who himself was a new-comer and an intruder, since he entered merely as "poor Gertrude's second husband," by a marriage which they all considered a mistake.
With the desire to be as unobtrusive as possible, she dressed herself in black, without ornament of any kind, unaware of the fact that with her height of figure, her grace of movement, her ivory tint, and that expression of hers which disconcerted people because it was first appealing and then proud, she would be more than ever conspicuous against the background of brilliant toilets, fine jewels, and assured manners which the family would produce for the occasion. As a matter of fact, there was a perceptible hush in the hum of talk as she made her entry into the drawing-room, ostensibly led by Philip Wayne, but really leading him. As she paused near the door, half timid, half bewildered, looking for her hostess, it did not help her to feel at ease to see Mrs. Endsleigh Jarrott--a Rubens Maria de Medici in white satin and pearls--raise her lorgnette and call on a tall young man who stood beside her to take a look. There was no time to distinguish anything further before Miss Jarrott glided up, with mincing graciousness, to shake hands.
"How do you do! How do you do! So glad you've come. I think you must know nearly every one here, so I needn't introduce any one. I hardly ever introduce. It's funny, isn't it? They say it's an English custom not to introduce, but I don't do it just by nature. I wonder why I shouldn't?--but I never do--or almost never. So if you don't happen to know your neighbors at table just speak. It was Evie who arranged where every one was to sit. I don't know. They say that's English, too--just to speak. I believe it's quite a recognized thing in London to say, 'Is this your bread or mine?' and then you know each other. Isn't it funny? Now I think we're all here. Will you take in Miriam, Mr. Wayne?"
A hasty embrace from Evie--an angelic vision in white--was followed by a few words of greeting from Charles Conquest after which Miriam saw Miss Jarrott take the arm of Bishop Endsleigh, and the procession began to move.
At table Miriam was glad of the dim, rose-colored light. It offered her a seclusion into which she could withdraw, tending her services to Wayne. She was glad, too, that the family, having so much to say to itself, paid her no special attention. She was sufficiently occupied in aiding the helpless blind man beside her, and repeating for his benefit the names of their fellow-guests. As the large party talked at the top of its lungs, Miriam's quiet voice, with its liquid, almost contralto, quality, reached her companion's ears unheard by others. She began with Bishop Endsleigh who was on Miss Jarrott's right. Then came Mrs. Stephen Colfax; after her Mr. Endsleigh Jarrott, who had on his right Mrs. Reginald Pole. Mrs. Pole's neighbor was Charles Conquest, whom she shared with Mrs. Rodney Wrenn. Now and then Wayne himself would give proof of that increased acuteness in his hearing of which he had spoken more than once since his blindness had become total. "Colfax Yorke is here," he observed at one time. "I hear his voice. He's sitting on our side of the table." "Mrs. Endsleigh Jarrott is next but one to you," he said at another time. "She's airing her plans for the reconstruction of New York society."
So for a while they kept one another in small talk, affecting the same sort of vivacity that obtained around them. It was not till dinner was half over that he asked in an undertone:
"Who is your neighbor?"
"I don't know," she managed to whisper back. "He's so taken up with Mrs. Endsleigh Jarrott that he hasn't looked this way. I don't think he's any member of the family."
"He must be," Wayne replied. "I know his voice. I have some association with it, but just what I can't remember."
Miriam herself listened to hear him speak, catching only an irrelevant word or two.
"He sounds English," she said then.
"No, he isn't English. That's not my association. It's curious how the mind acts. Since I became--since my sight failed--my memory instinctively brings me voices instead of faces, when I want to recall anything. Aren't you going to speak to him? You've got the formula: Is this your bread or mine?"
"It's very convenient, but I don't think I shall use it."
"He'd like you to, I know. I heard him say to Mrs. Endsleigh Jarrott as we came in--while Queenie Jarrott was talking--that you were he most strikingly beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life. How's that for a compliment from a perfect stranger?"
"I certainly sha'n't speak to him now. A man who could say that to Mrs. Endsleigh, after having seen her, must be wofully wanting in tact."
Mary Pole on Wayne's right claimed his attention and Miriam was left her own mistress. Almost at once her attention was arrested by hearing Mrs. Endsleigh Jarrott saying in that appealing voice which she counted as the secret of her success with men:
"Now do give me your frank opinion, Mr. Strange. You don't know how much I should like it. It's far from my idea that we should slavishly copy London. You know that, don't you? We've an entirely different stock of materials to work with. But I'm firmly convinced that by working on the London model we should make society far more general, far more representative, and far--oh, far--more interesting! Now, what do you think? Do give me your frank opinion."
Mr. Strange! Her own name was sufficiently uncommon to cause Miriam to glance sidewise, in her rapid, fugitive way, at the person who bore it. His face was turned from her as he bent toward Mrs. Jarrott, but again she heard his voice, and this time more distinctly.
"I'm afraid my opinion wouldn't be of much value. Nevertheless, I know you must be right."
"Now I'm disappointed in you," Mrs. Jarrott said, with pretty reproachfulness. "You're not taking me seriously. Oh, I see, I see. You're just an ordinary man, after all; when I thought for a minute you might be--well, a little different. Do take some of that asparagus," she added in another tone. "It's simply delicious."
It was while he was helping himself to this delicacy that Miriam got the first clear view of his face, half turned as it was toward her. He seemed aware that she was observing him, for during the space of some seconds he held the silver implements idle in his hands, while he lifted his eyes to meet hers. The look they exchanged was significant and long, and yet she was never quite sure that she recognized him then. For the minute she was only conscious of a sudden, inward shock, to which she was unable to ascribe a cause. Something had happened, though she knew not what. Having in the course of a few minutes regained her self-control, she could only suppose that it was a repetition of that unreasoning panic which had now and then brought her to the verge of fainting, when by chance, in London, Paris, or New York, she caught a glimpse of some tall figure that carried her imagination back to the cabin in the Adirondacks. She had always thought that he might appear in some crowd and take her by surprise. She had never expected to find him in a gathering that could be called social. Still less had she looked to meet him like this, with Philip Wayne who had sentenced him to death not three feet away. The mere idea was preposterous. And yet--
She glanced at him again. He was listening attentively while Mrs. Endsleigh Jarrott's voice ran on:
"People say our society has no traditions. It has traditions. It has the traditions of the country village, and it has never outgrown them. We're nothing but the country village writ large. New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore--we're the country village over again, with its narrowness its sets, its timidity, all writ so large that they hide anything like a real society from us. Now isn't it so, Mr. Strange? Don't be afraid to give me your frank opinion because that's what I'm asking for."
Miriam herself made an effort to seem to be doing something that would enable her to sit unnoticed. She was glad that Wayne was engaged by Mary Pole so that he could no longer listen to the voice that wakened his recollections. She looked again at the tall, carefully dressed man beside her, so different in all his externals from anything she imagined Norrie Ford could ever become. Norrie Ford was an outlaw and this was a man of the world. She felt herself being reassured--and yet disappointed. Her first feeling of faintness passed away, enabling her to face the situation with greater calm. Under cover of the energetic animation characteristic of every American dinner-party at which the guests are intimate, she had leisure to think over the one or two hints that were significant. Now and then a remark was addressed to her across the table to which she managed to return a reply sufficiently apt to give her the appearance of being in touch with what was going on around her; but in reality she was taking in the fact, with the spirit rather than the mind, that Norrie Ford had returned.
She never understood just how and when that assurance came to her. It was certainly not by actual recognition of his features, as it was not by putting together the few data that came under her observation. Thinking it over in after years, she could only say that she "just found herself knowing it." He was there--beside her. Of that she had no longer a doubt.
Her amazement did not develop all at once. Indeed, the position had an odd naturalness, like something in a dream. The element of impossibility in what had happened was so great that for the time being her mind refused to meet it. She was only aware of that vague sense of satisfaction, of inward peace, that comes when long-desired ends have been fulfilled.
The main fact being accepted, her outer faculties could respond to the call that a dinner-party makes on its least important member. When the conversation at her end of the table became general she took her part, and later engaged in a three-cornered discussion with Wayne and Mary Pole on the subject of an endowed theatre; but all the while her subconscious mind was struggling for a theory to account for Norrie Ford's presence in that particular room and in that unexpected company. The need of some immediate, plausible reason for so astounding an occurrence deadened her attention to the comparative quietness with which she accepted his coming--now that she had regained her self-control, although she was conscious of stirrings of wild joy in this evidence that he had been true to her. Had she recalled what she had said to him eight years ago as to the Argentine, and the "very good firm to work for," she would have had an easy clew, but that had passed from her mind almost with the utterance--certainly with his departure He had gone out into the world, leaving no more trace behind him than the bird that has flown southward. Not once during the intervening years did the thought cross her mind that words which she had spoken nearly at haphazard could have acted as a guide to him, while still less did she dream that they could have led him into the very seat beside her which he was occupying now.
Nevertheless, he was there, and for the present she could dispense with the knowledge of the adventures that had brought him. He was there, and that was the reason of his coming in itself. He had hewn his way through all difficulties to reach her--as Siegfried came to Brunhild, over the mountains and through the fire. He had found the means--both the means and the daring--to enter and make himself accepted in her own world, her own circle, her own family--in so far as she had a family--and to sit right down at her side.
She was not surprised at it. She assured herself of that. At the very instant when she was saying to Mary Pole, across Philip Wayne's white waistcoat, that she had always thought of endowed institutions of creative art as belonging to the races of weaker individual initiative--at the very instant when she was saying that, she was repeating to herself that the directness, the high-handedness, and the success of this kind of exploit was exactly what she would have expected of Norrie Ford. It was what she had expected of him--in one form or another. It was with a sense of inward pride that she remembered that her faith in him had never wavered, even though it was not until Conquest forced her that she had confessed the fact. She glanced at Conquest across the table now and caught his eye. He smiled at her and raised his glass, as though to drink to her health. She smiled in return, daringly, triumphantly, as she would not have ventured to do an hour ago. She could see him flush with pleasure--a rare occurrence--at her unusual graciousness, while she was only rejoicing in her escape from him. Under the shadow of the tall man beside her, who had achieved the impossible in order to be loyal to her, she felt for the first time in her life that she had found a shelter. It mattered nothing that he was engrossed with Mrs. Endsleigh Jarrott, and that, after the one glance, he had not turned toward her again; she was sure he knew that she understood him, and that he recognized her power to wait in patience to have the mystery explained.
In the drawing-room he was introduced to her. Miss Jarrott led him up and made the presentation.
"Miss Strange, I want you to know Mr. Strange. Now isn't that funny? You can't think how many times I've thought how interesting it would be to see you two meet. It's so unusual to have the same name, especially when it's such a strange name as yours. There's a pun. I simply can't help making them. My brother says I inherited all the sense of humor in the family. I don't know why I do it, but I always see a joke. Can you tell me why I do it?"
Neither Strange nor Miriam knew what replies they made, but a conversation of some sort went on for a minute or two, after which Miss Jarrott whisked him away to present him to some one else. When he had gone Miriam was left with a feeling of spiritual chill. While it was impossible to betray a previous acquaintance before Miss Jarrott, there had been nothing whatever in his bearing to respond to the recognition in hers. There was something that might have been conveyed from mind to mind without risk, and he had not used the opportunity. In as far as he addressed her at all it had been through Miss Jarrott, and he had looked around her and over her rather than directly into her eyes.
During the rest of the evening she caught glimpses of him only in the distance, talking now to one member of the family, now to another. It was clear that Miss Jarrott was, in a way, showing him off, and that he was received as some one of importance. She admired the coolness with which he carried himself, while her inherited instincts gave her a curious thrill of content that these law-making, law-keeping people should be duped.
She hoped he would find an occasion for passing again in her direction. If she could have only a word with him it might help to make the situation intelligible. But he did not return, and presently she noticed, in looking about the room, that he had disappeared. She, too, was eager to be gone. Only in solitude could she get control of the surging thoughts, the bewildering suggestions, the contradictory suppositions that crowded it on her. She saw how useless it was to try to build a theory without at least one positive fact to go on.
It was just as they were departing that her opportunity to ask a question came. They had said their good-nights to Miss Jarrott and were in the hall, waiting for the footman to call their carriage, when Evie, whom they had not wanted to disturb, came fluttering after them. She was flushed but radiant, and flung herself into Miriam's arms.
"You dear thing! I haven't had time to say a word to you or Popsey Wayne the entire evening. But you'll excuse me, won't you? I've had to be civil to them all--do you see?--and do them up well. I knew you wouldn't mind. I wanted you to have a good time, but I'm afraid you haven't."
"Oh yes," Miriam said, disengaging herself from the girl's embrace. "It's been wonderful--it really has. But, Evie dear," she whispered, drawing her away from the group of ladies who stood cloaked and hooded, also waiting for their carriages, "tell me--who is that Mr. Strange who sat next to me?"
Evie's eyes went heavenward, and she took on a look of rapture.
"I hope you liked him."
"I didn't have much chance to see. But why do you hope it?"
"Because--don't you see? Oh, surely you must see--because--he's the one."