The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part III. Miriam.
Enlightenment came to her in the carriage while she was driving homeward. During the five or ten minutes since Evie had spoken she, Miriam, had been sitting still and upright in the darkness, making no further attempt to see reason through this succession of bewilderments from sheer inability to contend against them. For the time being, at any rate, the struggle was too much for her. The issues raised by Evie's overwhelming announcement were so confusing that she must postpone their consideration. She must postpone everything but her own tumultuous passion, which had to be faced and mastered instantly. She was fighting with herself, with her own wild inward cries of protest, anger, jealousy, and self-pity, trying to distinguish each from the others and to silence it by appeal to her years of romantic folly, when suddenly Wayne spoke, in the cheery tone of a man who has unexpectedly passed a pleasant evening.
"I had a nice long chat with the Great Unknown, who was sitting beside you, when the ladies left the dining-room. Who do you think he is?"
After the shocks of the last two hours, she was prepared to hear Wayne tell her, in an offhand way, that it was Norrie Ford. Nevertheless, she summoned what was left of her stunned faculties and did her best to speak carefully.
"I heard them call him Mr. Strange--"
"Odd that was, wasn't it? But it isn't such a very uncommon name. I've met other Stranges--"
"Oh yes. So have I."
"Well, who do you think he is? Why, he's Stephens and Jarrott's new man in New York. He's taken Jenkins's place. You remember Jenkins, don't you? That little man with a lisp. I had a nice long chat with him--Strange, I mean. He tells me he's a New-Yorker by birth, but that he went out to the Argentine after his father failed in business. Well, he won't fail in business, I bet a penny. He's tremendously enthusiastic over the Argentine, too. Showed he had his head put on the right way when he went there. Wonderful country--the United States of South America some people call it. We're missing our opportunities out there. Great volume of trade flowing to Europe of which we had almost the monopoly at one time. I had a nice long chat with him."
Her tired emotions received a new surprise as Wayne's words directed her thoughts to the morning when she had made to Ford the first suggestion of the Argentine. She had not precisely forgotten it; she had only thought it of too little importance to dwell on. She remembered that she had considered the idea practical till she had expressed it, but that his opposition had seemed to turn it into the impossible. She had never supposed that he might have acted on it--not any more than she had expected him to retain her father's name once he had reached a place of safety. In spite of the suddenness with which her dreams regarding him had been dispelled, it gave her a thrill of satisfaction to think that the word which, in a sense, had created him had been hers. To her fierce jealousy, with which her pride was wrestling even now, there was a measure of comfort in the knowledge that he could never be quite free from her, that his existence was rooted in her own.
"Queenie Jarrott tells me," Wayne meandered on, "that her brother thinks very highly of this young man. It seems that his business abilities are quite remarkable, and they fancy he looks like Henry--the eldest of the boys who died. It's extraordinary how his voice reminds me of some one--don't know who. It might be--But then again--"
"His voice is like a thousand other voices," she thought it well to say, "just as he looks like a thousand other men. He's one of those rather tall, rather good-looking, rather well-dressed youngish men--not really young--of whom you'll pass twenty within a mile any day in Fifth Avenue, and who are as thick as soldiers on a battle-field at the lower end of Broadway."
* * * * *
With the data Wayne had given her she worked out the main lines of the story during the night; but it was not until she had done so that its full significance appeared to her. Having grasped that, she could scarcely wait for daylight in order to go to Evie, and yet when morning came she abandoned that course as impolitic. Reflection showed her that her struggle must be less with Evie than with Ford, while she judged that he himself would lose no time in putting the battle in array. He must see as plainly as she did that she stood like an army across his path, and that he must either retreat before her or show fight. She believed he would do the latter and do it soon. She thought it probable that he would appear that very day, and that her wisest plan was to await his opening attack. The necessity, so unexpectedly laid upon her, of defending the right deflected her mind from dwelling too bitterly on her own disillusioning.
The morning having passed without a sign from him, she made her arrangements for having the afternoon undisturbed sending Wayne to drive, and ordering the servants to admit no one but Mr. Strange, should he chance to call. Having intrenched herself behind the fortification of the tea-table, she waited. In spite of her preoccupation, or rather because of it, she purposely read a book, forcing herself to fix her attention on its pages in order to have her mind free from preconceived notions as to how she must act and what she must say. Her single concession to herself was to put on a new and becoming house dress, whose rich tones of brown and amber harmonized with her ivory coloring and emphasized the clear-cut distinction of her features. Before taking up her position she surveyed herself with the mournful approval which the warrior about to fall may give to the perfection of his equipment.
It was half-past four when the servant showed him in. His formal attire seemed to her, as he crossed the room, oddly civilized and correct after her recollections of him. Notwithstanding her dread of the opening minutes, the meeting passed off according to the fixed procedure of the drawing-room. It was a relief to both to find that the acts of shaking hands and sitting down had been accomplished with matter-of-course formality. With the familiar support of afternoon-call conventions difficult topics could be treated at greater ease.
"I'm very glad to find you at home," he began, feeling it to be a safe opening. "I was almost afraid--"
"I stayed in on purpose," she said, frankly. "I thought you might come."
"I wasn't sure whether or not you knew me last night--"
"I didn't at first. I really hadn't noticed you, though I remembered afterward that you were standing with Mrs. Endsleigh Jarrott when Mr. Wayne and I came into the room. I wonder now if you recognized me?"
"Oh, rather! I knew you were going to be there. I've been in New York a month."
"Then you might have come to see me sooner."
"Well, you see--"
He paused and colored, trying to cover up his embarrassment with a smile. She allowed her eyes to express interrogation not knowing that her frank gaze disconcerted him. She herself went back so eagerly to the days when he was the fugitive, Norrie Ford, and she the nameless girl who was helping him, that she could not divine his humiliation at being obliged to drop his mask. Since becoming engaged to Evie Colfax and returning to New York, he perceived more clearly than ever before that his true part in the world was that of the respectable, successful man of business which he played so skilfully. It cost him an effort she could have no reason to suspect to be face to face with the one person in the world who knew him as something else.
"You see," he began again, "I had to consider a good many things--naturally. It wouldn't have done to give any one an idea that we had met before."
"No, of course not. But last night you might have--"
"Last night I had to follow the same tactics. I can't afford to run risks. It's rather painful, it's even a bit humiliating--"
"I can imagine that, especially here in New York. In out-of-the-way places it must be different. There it doesn't matter. But to be among the very people who--"
"You think that there it does matter. I had to consider that. I had to make it plain to myself that there was nothing dishonorable in imposing on people who had forced me into a false position. I don't say it's pleasant--"
"Oh, I know it can't be pleasant. I only wondered a little, as I saw you last night, why you let yourself be placed in a position that made it necessary."
"I should have wondered at that myself a year ago. I certainly never had any intention of doing it. It's almost as much a surprise to me to be here as it is to you to see me. I suppose you thought I would never turn up again."
"No, I didn't think that. On the contrary, I thought you would turn up--only not just here."
It struck him that she was emphasizing that point for a purpose--to bring him to another point still. He took a few seconds to reflect before deciding that he would follow her lead without further hanging back.
"I shouldn't have returned to New York if I hadn't become engaged to Miss Colfax. You know about that, don't you? I think she meant to tell you."
She inclined her head assentingly, without words. He noticed her dark eyes resting on him with a kind of pity. He had cherished a faint hope--the very faintest--that she might welcome what he had just said sympathetically. In the few minutes during which she remained silent that hope died.
"I suppose," she said, gently, "that you became engaged to Evie before knowing who she was?"
"I fell in love with her before knowing who she was. I'm afraid that when I actually asked her to marry me I had heard all there was to learn."
"Then why did you do it?"
He shrugged his shoulders with a movement acquired by long residence among Latins. His smile conveyed the impossibility of explaining himself in a sentence.
"I'll tell you all about it, if you'd like to hear."
"I should like it very much. Remember, I know nothing of what happened after--after--"
He noticed a shade of confusion in her manner, and hastened to begin his narrative.
Somewhat to her surprise, he sketched his facts in lightly, but dwelt strongly on the mental and moral necessities his situation forced on him. He related with some detail the formation of his creed of conduct in the dawn on Lake Champlain, and showed her that according to its tenets he was permitted a kind of action that in other men might be reprehensible. He came to the story of Evie last of all, and allowed her to see how dominating a part Fate, or Predestination had played in evolving it.
"So you see," he ended, "it was too late then to do anything--but to yield."
"Or withdraw," she added, softly.
He stared at her a moment, his body bent slightly forward his elbows resting on the arms of his chair. As a matter of fact, he was thinking less of her words than of her beauty--so much nobler in type than he remembered it.
"Yes," he returned, quietly, "I can see that it would strike you in that way. So it did me--at first. But I had to look at the subject all round--"
"I don't need to do that."
He stared at her again. There was a decision in her words which he found hard to reconcile with the pity in her eyes and the gentle softness of her smile.
"You mean that you don't want to take my--necessities--into consideration."
"I mean that when I see the one thing right to do, I don't have to look any further."
"The one thing right to do--for you?--or for me?"
"There's no reason why I should intervene at all. I look to you to save me from the necessity."
He hesitated a minute before deciding whether to hedge or to meet her squarely.
"By giving up Evie and--clearing out," he said, with a perceptible hint of defiance.
"I shouldn't lay stress on your--clearing out."
"But you would on my giving up Evie?"
"Don't you see," she began, in an explanatory tone, "I, in my own person, have nothing to do with it? It isn't for me to say this should be done or that. You can't imagine how hard it is for me to say anything at all; and if I speak, it isn't as myself--it's as the voice of a situation. You must understand as well as I do what that situation imposes."
"But I don't intend that a situation shall impose anything--on me. I mean to act as master--"
"But I'm neither so independent nor so strong--nor is Evie. You don't consider her."
"I don't have to consider any one. When I make Evie happy I do all that can be asked of me."
"No, you would be called on to keep her happy. And she couldn't remain happy if she were married to you. It isn't possible. She couldn't live with you any more than--than a humming-bird could live with a hawk."
They both smiled, rather nervously.
"But I'm not a hawk," he insisted. "I'm much more a humming-bird than you imagine. You think me some sort of creature of prey because you believe--that I did--what I was accused of--"
The circumstances seemed so far off from him now, so incongruous with what he had become, that he reverted to them with difficulty.
"I don't attach any importance to that," she said, with a tranquillity that startled him. "I suppose I ought to, but I never have. If you killed your uncle, it seems to me--very natural. He provoked you. He deserved it. My father would have done it certainly."
"But I didn't, you see. That puts another color on the case."
"It doesn't for me. And it doesn't, as it affects Evie. Whether you're innocent or guilty--and I don't say I think you to be guilty--I've never thought much about it--but whether you're guilty or not, your life is the kind of tragedy Evie couldn't share. It would kill her."
"It wouldn't kill her, if she didn't know anything about it."
"But she would know. You can't keep that sort of thing from a wife. She wouldn't be married to you a year before she had discovered that you were--a--"
"An escaped convict. Why not say it?"
"I wasn't going to say it. But at least she would know that you were a man who was pretending to be--something that he wasn't."
"You mean an impostor. Well, I've already explained to you that I'm an impostor only because Society itself has made me one, I'm not to blame--"
"I quite see the force of that. But Evie wouldn't. Don't you understand? That's my point. She would only see the horror of it, and she would be overwhelmed. It wouldn't matter to her that you could bring forward arguments in your own defence. She wouldn't be capable of understanding them. You must see for yourself that mentally--and spiritually--just as bodily--she's as fragile as a butterfly. She couldn't withstand a storm. She'd be crushed by it."
"I don't think you do her justice. If she were to discover--I mean, if the worst were to come to the worst--well, you can see how it's been with yourself. You've known from the beginning all there is to know--and yet--"
She meant the brief statement to divert his attention from himself, but she perceived that it aroused a flash of self-consciousness in both. While she could hear herself saying inwardly, "I'd rather go on waiting for him--uselessly," he was listening to a silvery voice, as it lisped the words, "Dear mamma used to think she was in love with some one; we didn't know anything about it." Each reverted to the memory of the lakeside scene in which he had said, "My life will belong to you ... a thing for you to dispose of ..." and each was afraid that the other was doing so.
All at once she saw herself as she fancied he must see her--a woman claiming the fulfilment of an old promise, the payment of a long-standing debt. He must think she was making Evie a pretext in her fight for her own hand. His vow--if it was a vow--had been the germ of so much romance in her mind that she ascribed it to a place in the foreground of his. In all she was saying he would understand a demand on her part that he should make it good. Very well, then; if he could do her such injustice, he must do it. She could not permit the fear of it to inspire her with moral cowardice or deter her from doing what was right.
Nevertheless, it helped her to control her agitation to rise and ring for tea. She felt the need of some commonplace action to assure herself and him that now, at last, she was outside the realm of the romantic. He rose as she did, to forestall her at the bell; and as the servant entered with the tray, they moved together into the embrasure of the wide bay-window. Down below the autumn colors were fading, while leaves, golden-yellow or blood-red, were being swirled along the ground.
"I had to do things out there"--his nod was meant to indicate the direction of South America--"in a somewhat high-handed manner, and I've acquired the habit of it. If I'd stuck at difficulties I shouldn't have got anywhere."
She looked at him inquiringly, as though to ask the purport of the observation.
"You must see that I'm obliged to put this thing through--on Evie's account as much as mine. After getting her to care for me, I can't desert her now, whatever happens."
"She wouldn't suffer--after a while. She'd get over it. You might not, but she--"
"She shall not get over it, if I can help it. How can you ask me to let her?"
"Only on the ground that you love her well enough."
"Would you call that love?"
"In view of all the circumstances, it would be my idea of it."
"Then it wouldn't be mine. The only love I understand is the love that fights for its object, in the face of all opposition."
She looked at him a minute with what she tried to make a smile, but which became no more than a quivering of the lip and lashes.
"I hope you won't fight," she said, in a tone of appeal, "because it would have to be with me. If anything could break my heart, that would."
She knew how near to self-betrayal she had gone, but in her eagerness she was reckless of the danger.
"How do you know it wouldn't break mine too?" he asked, with a scrutiny that searched her eyes. "But there are times in life when men have just to fight--and let their hearts be broken. In becoming responsible for Evie's happiness I've given a pledge from which I can't withdraw--"
"But that's where you don't understand her--"
"Possibly; but it's where I understand myself."
"Tea is served, miss," the maid said, coming forward to where they talked in undertones. At the same minute there was a shuffling at the door and Wayne entered from his drive. Ford would have gone forward to help him, but she put out her hand and stopped him.
"He likes to find his way himself," she whispered.
"They tell me there's tea in here," Wayne said, cheerily, from the doorway.
"There's more than tea," Miriam replied in as bright a tone as she could assume. "There's Mr. Strange, whom you met last night."
"Ah, that's good." Wayne groped his way toward the voices. "How do you do! Glad to see you. It's windy out-of-doors. One feels the winter beginning to nip."
Ford took the extended hand, and, without seeming to do so, adroitly piloted the blind man to a seat as they moved, all three, to the tea-table.
For the next ten minutes their talk turned on the common topics of the day. As during her conversation with Conquest a few weeks before, Miriam found again that the routine of duties of acting as hostess steadied her nerves. With Ford aiding her in the little ways to which he had become accustomed since his engagement to Evie, hostility was absent from their mutual relation, even though opposition remained. That at least was a comfort to her; and now and then, as she handed him the bread and butter or a plate of cakes to pass to Wayne, their eyes could meet in a glance of comprehension.
Wayne was still enjoying his tea when Ford turned to him with an abrupt change of tone.
"I'm glad you came in, sir, while I was still here, because there's something I particularly want to tell you."
He did not look at Miriam, but he could feel the way in which she sat upright and aghast. Wayne turned his sightless eyes, hidden by large colored glasses, toward the speaker, and nodded.
"Yes?" he said, interrogatively.
"I would have told you before, only that Miss Jarrott and Miss Colfax thought I had better wait till every one got settled. In any case, Mr. Jarrott made it a condition before I left Buenos Aires that it shouldn't go outside the family till Miss Colfax had had her social winter in New York."
Wayne's face grew grave, but not unsympathetic.
"I suppose I know what's coming," he said, quietly.
"It's the sort of thing that was bound to come sooner or later with Miss Colfax," Ford smiled, speaking with an air of assurance. "What makes me uneasy is that I should be the man to come and tell the news. If it was any one you knew better--"
"You've probably heard that I'm not Evie's guardian," Wayne interposed. "I've no control at all over what she does."
"I understand that; but to me there's an authority above the legal one--or at least on a level with it--and I should be unhappy--we should both be unhappy--if we didn't have your consent."
Wayne looked pleased. He was so rarely consulted in the affairs of the family, especially since his affliction had forced him aside, that this deference was a clew to the young man's character. Nevertheless, he allowed some seconds to pass in silence, while Ford threw at Miriam a glance of defiance, in which there was also an expression of audacious friendliness. She sat rigid and pale, her hands clinching the arms of her chair.
"It's a serious matter--of course," Wayne said, after becoming hesitation; "but I've great confidence in Henry Jarrott. Next to Evie herself, he's the person most concerned--in a certain way. I'm told he thinks well of you--"
"He ought to know," Ford broke in, confidently. "I've nothing to show in the way of passports, except myself and my work. I've been with him ever since I went to South America, and he's been extremely kind to me. The only certificate of character I can offer is one from him."
"That's sufficient. We should be sorry to let Evie go, shouldn't we, Miriam? She's a sweet child, and very much like her dear mother. But, as you say, it was bound to happen one day or another; and we can only be glad that--I'm happy to congratulate you, Mr. Strange. Your name, at any rate, is a familiar one. It's that of an old boyhood's friend of mine, who showed me the honor of placing this young lady in my charge. We called him Harry. His full name was Herbert Harrington, but he dropped the first. You seem to have taken it up--it's odd, isn't it, Miriam?--and I take it as a happy omen."
"Thank you." Ford rose, and made the blind man understand that he was holding out his hand, "I shall be more satisfied now for having told you."
Miriam accompanied him into the hall, on pretext of ringing for the lift.
"Oh, why did you do that?" she protested. "Don't you see that it only makes things more complicated than they were already?"
"It's my first move," he laughed, with friendly bravado. "Now you can make yours."
She gazed at him in puzzled distress as the lift rose.
"I'm coming again," he said, with renewed confidence. "I've a lot more things to say."
"And I have only one," she answered, turning back toward the drawing-room.
"He's a nice young fellow," Wayne said, as he heard her enter. He had risen and felt his way into the bay-window, where he stood looking outward as if he could see. "I suppose it must be all right, since the Jarrotts are so enthusiastic Poor little Evie! I hope she'll be happy. It's extraordinary how his voice reminds me of--"
She stood still in the middle of the room, waiting for him to continue. Nothing he could add would have surprised her now. But he said no more.