The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part III. Miriam.
The result of the dinner that evening was that Evie grew more fretful. After the departure of her guests, she evolved a brief formula which she used frequently during the next few weeks: "There's something!" With her quick eyes and quicker intuitions, it was impossible for her not to see that Ford and Miriam possessed common memories of the kind that distinguish old acquaintances from new ones. When it did not transpire in chance words she caught it in their glances or divined it in the mental atmosphere. As autumn passed into early winter she became nervous, peevish, and exacting; she lost much from her pretty ways and something from her looks. In the family the change was ascribed to the fatigue incidental to the sudden round of lunches, dinners, dances, suppers, theatre-parties, opera-goings, and "teas" with which American boys and girls of a certain age are surfeited pitilessly with pleasure, as Strasburg geese are stuffed for patA(C) de foie gras. Ford, however, suspected the true reason, and Miriam knew it. They met as seldom as might be; and yet, with the many things requiring explanation between them, frank conversation became imperative.
"You see how it is already," Miriam said to him. "It's making her unhappy from the start. You can't conceal the truth from her very long."
"She isn't fretting about the truth; she's fretting about what she imagines."
"She's fretting because she doesn't understand, and she'll go on fretting till she does. I'm not sorry. It must show you--"
"It shows me the necessity of our being married as soon as possible, so that I may take care of her, and put a stop to it."
"I agree with you that you'd put a stop to it. You'd put a stop to everything. She wouldn't live a year--or you wouldn't. Either she'd die--or she'd abhor you. And if she didn't die, you'd want to."
"I wish to the Lord I had died--eight years ago. The great mistake I made was when the lumber-jacks loosed my hand-cuffs and started me through the woods. They called it giving me a chance, and for a few minutes I thought it was one. A chance! Good God! I remember feeling, as I ran, that I was deserting something. I didn't know what it was just then, but I've understood it since. It would have been a pluckier thing to have been in my coffin as Norrie Ford--or even doing time--than to be here as Herbert Strange."
She said nothing for the moment, but as they walked along side by side he shot a glance at her, and saw her coloring. They had met in the park. He was going toward the house in Seventy-second Street when she was coming away from it. Seizing the opportunity of a few words in private, he had turned to stroll back with her.
"I didn't expect you to be here as Herbert Strange," she said, as though in self-excuse. "I had to give you a name that was like my own, when I was writing letters about your ticket, and sending checks. I had to do everything to avoid suspicion at a time when Greenport was watched. I thought you might be able to take your own name or something like it--"
He explained to her how that had never been possible.
"Evie fidgets about it," he continued. "She puts together the two facts that you and I seem to have known each other, and that my name is identical with your father's. She doesn't know what to make of it; she only thinks 'there's something.' She hasn't said more than that in words, but I see her little mind at work."
"Evie isn't the only one," she informed him. "There's Mr. Wayne. He has to be reckoned with. He recognized your voice from the first minute of hearing it, though he hasn't said yet that he knows whose it is. He may do so at any time. He's very surprising at that sort of thing. I can see him listening when you're there, not only to your words, but to your very movements, trying to recapture--"
"The upshot of everything," he said, abruptly, "is that I must marry her, take her back to the Argentine, where I found her, and where we shall both be out of harm's way."
"You wouldn't be out of harm's way. You can't turn your back on it like that. You alone might be able to slip through, but not if you have Evie."
"That will be my affair; I'll see to it. I take the full responsibility on myself."
"I couldn't let you. Remember that. You can't marry her. Let me say it plainly--"
"Oh, you've said it plainly enough."
"If I've said it too plainly, it's because you force me. You're so wilful."
"You mean, I'm so determined. What it amounts to is the clash of your will against mine; and you refuse to see that I can't give way."
"I see that you must give way. It's in the nature of things. It's inevitable. If I didn't know that, do you think I should interfere? Do you think I should dare to run the risk of wrecking your happiness if I could do anything else? If you knew how I hate doing anything at all--"
"But you needn't. You can just let things be."
"I can't let things be--with all I know; and yet it's impossible for me to appeal to any one, except yourself. You put me in a position in which I must either betray you or betray those who trust me. Because I can't do either--"
"I profit by your noble-mindedness. I told you I would. I'm sorry to have to do it--I'll even admit that I'm ashamed of it--and yet there's no other course for me. I'm not taking you at an unfair advantage, because I've concealed nothing from you from the first. You talk about the difficulty of your position, but you don't begin to imagine mine. As if everything else wasn't gall to me, I've got your disapproval to add wormwood."
"It isn't my disapproval; it's simply--the situation. My opinion counts for nothing--"
"It counts for everything with me--and yet I have to ignore it. But, after all," he flung out, bitterly, "it's the old story. I claim the right to squeeze out of life such drops of happiness--if you can call it happiness--as men have left to me, and you deny it. There it is in a nutshell. Because other people have inflicted a great wrong on me, you insist that I shall inflict a greater one on myself. And this time it wouldn't be only on myself; it would be on poor little Evie. There's where it cuts. No, no; I shall go on. I've the right to do it. You must stop me if you can. If you don't, or won't--why, then--"
"I can stop you ... if you drive me to extremes ... but it wouldn't be by doing ... any of the things you expect."
It was because of the catch in her voice that he stopped in his walk, and confronted her. In spite of the little tremor he could see in her no sign of yielding, and behind her veil he caught a gleam like that of anger. It was at that minute, perhaps, that he became distinctly conscious for the first time of a doubt as to the superiority of "his type of girl." Notwithstanding the awakening of certain faint perceptions, he had hitherto denied within himself that there was anything higher or more lovely. But in this girl's unflinching loyalty, and in her tenacious clinging to what she considered right, he was getting a new glimpse of womanhood, which, however, in no way weakened his determination to resist her.
"As far as I see," he said, after long hesitation, "you and I have two irreconcilable duties. My duty is to marry Evie; yours is to prevent me. In that case there's nothing for either of us but to forge ahead, and see who wins. If you win, I shall bear no malice; and I hope you'll be equally generous if I do."
"But I don't want to win independently of you. If I did, nothing could be easier."
"Then why not do it?"
He tossed up his hand with one of his fatalistic Latin gestures, drawing the attention of the passers-by to the man and woman talking so earnestly. For this reason, and because she was losing her self-command, she hastened to take leave of him.
Arrived at home, it gave her no comfort to find Charles Conquest--the most spick and span of middle-aged New-Yorkers--waiting in the drawing-room.
"I thought you might come in," he explained, "so I stayed. I have to get your signature to the papers about that property in Montreal. I've fixed the thing up and we'll sell."
"You said you'd send the papers--"
"That sounds as if you weren't glad to see me," he laughed, "but I'll ignore the discourtesy. Here," he added, unfolding the documents, "you put your name there--and there--near the L.S."
She carried the papers to her desk, and sat down to write. Conquest took the liberty of old friendship to stroll about the room, with his hands behind him, humming a little tune.
"Well," he said suddenly, "has he come back?"
He had not approached the subject, beyond alluding to it covertly, since the day she had confided to him the confused story of her hopes. She blotted her signature carefully thinking out her reply.
"I've given up expecting him," she said at last.
"Ho! ho! So that's out of the way."
She pretended to be scanning the documents before her so as to be able to sit with her back to him.
"It isn't, for the reason that there's--no way," she said, after some hesitation.
"Oh yes, there is," he laughed, "where there's a will."
"But I've no will."
"I have; I've enough for two."
"I'll tell you what you have got," she said, half turning and speaking to him over the back of her chair. He drew near her. "You've got a great deal of common sense, and I want to ask your advice."
"I can give that, as radium emits light--without ever diminishing the original store."
"Then tell me. Has one ever the right to interfere where a man and a woman--"
"No, never. You needn't give me any more details, because it's one of the questions an oracle finds easiest to answer. No one ever thanks you--"
"I shouldn't be doing it for thanks."
"And you get your own fingers burnt."
"That wouldn't matter. I'd let my fingers burn to the bone if it would do any good."
"It wouldn't. You may take my word for it. I know who you're talking about. It's Evie Colfax."
She started, looking guilty. "Why should you suppose that?"
"I've got eyes. I've watched her, and I know she's a little minx. Oh, you needn't protest. She's a taking little minx, and this time she's in the right."
"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."
"What has Billy Merrow got to offer her, even if he is my nephew? Come now! He won't be in a position to marry for the next two or three years. Whereas that fellow Strange--"
"Have you heard anything about him?" she asked, breathlessly.
"It isn't what I've heard, it's what I see. He's a very good chap, and a first-rate man of business."
"Do you know him well--personally?"
"I meet him around--at the club and other places--and naturally I have something to do with him at the office. I like him. If Evie can snap him up she'll be doing well for herself. I'm sorry for Billy, of course; but he'll have time to break his heart more than once before he'll have money enough to do anything else with it. If I'd married at his age--"
This, however, was venturing on delicate ground, so that he broke off, wheeling round toward the centre of the drawing-room. She folded the documents and brought them to him.
"You know why I didn't send them?" he said, as he took them. "I thought if I came myself, you might have something to tell me."
"I haven't; not anything special, that is."
"You've told me something special already--that you're not looking for him back."
"I'd rather not talk about it now, if you don't mind."
"Then we'll talk about what goes with it--the other side of the subject."
"There is no other side of the subject."
"Oh, come now, Miriam! You haven't heard all I've got to tell you. You've never let me really present my case, as we lawyers say. If you could see things as I do--"
"But I can't, and you mustn't ask me to-day. I'm tired--"
"It would rest you."
"No, no; not to-day. Don't you see I'm not--I'm not myself? I've had a very trying morning."
"What's the matter? Tell me. I can keep a confidence even if I can't do some other things. Come now! I don't like to think you're worried when perhaps I could help you. That's what I should be good for, don't you see? I could assist you to bear a lot of things--"
His tone, which was so often charged with a slightly mocking banter, became tender, and he attempted to take her hand. For a minute it seemed as if it might be a relief to trust him, to tell him the whole story and follow his counsel; but a second's thought showed her that she could not shift the responsibility from herself, and that in the end she should have to act alone.
"Not to-day," she pleaded. "I'm not equal to it."
"Then I'll come another day."
"Yes, yes; if you like, only--"
"Some day soon?"
"When you like, only leave me now. Please go away. You won't think I'm rude, will you? But I'm not--not as I generally am--"
"Good-bye." He put out his, hand frankly, and smiled so humbly, and yet withal so confidently, that she felt as if in spite of herself she might yield to his persistence through sheer weariness.
* * * * *
To her surprise, the next few weeks passed without incident bringing no development in the situation. She saw little of Evie and almost nothing of Ford. One or two encounters with Charles Conquest had no result beyond the reiteration on his part of a set phrase, "You're coming to it, Miriam," which, while exasperating her nerves, had a kind of hypnotic effect upon her will. She felt as if she might be "coming to it." Without calculating the probabilities she saw clearly enough that if she married Conquest the very act would furnish proof to Ford that her intervention in his affairs had been without self-interest. It would even offer some proof to herself, the sort of proof that strengthens the resolution and supports what is tottering in the pride. Notwithstanding the valor with which she struggled her victory over herself was not so complete that she could contemplate the destruction of Ford's happiness with absolute confidence in the purity of her motives in bringing it to ruin. It was difficult to take the highest road when what was left of her own fiercest instincts accompanied her on it. That she had fierce instincts she was quite aware. It was not for nothing that she had been born almost beyond the confines of the civilized earth, of parents for whom law and order and other men's rights were as the dead letter. True, she was trying to train the inheritance received from them to its finer purposes, as the vine draws strange essences from a flinty soil and sublimates them into the grape--but it was still their inheritance. While she was proud of it, she was afraid of it; and the fact that it leaped with her to separate Norrie Ford from Evie Colfax was a reason for distrusting the very impulse she knew to be right. Marriage with Conquest presented itself, therefore as a refuge--from Ford's suspicion and her own.
For the time being, however, the necessity for doing anything was not pressing. Evie was caught into the social machine that had been set going on her account, and was not so much whirling in it as being whirled. Her energies were so taxed by the task of going round that she had only snatches of time and attention to give to her own future. In one of these she wrote to her uncle Jarrott, asking his consent to the immediate proclamation of her engagement, with his approval of her marriage at the end of the winter, though the reasons she gave him were not the same as those she advanced to Miriam. To him she dwelt on the maturity of her age--twenty by this time--the unchanging nature of her sentiments, and her desire to be settled down. To Miriam she was content to say, "There's something! and I sha'n't get to the bottom of it till we're married."
Of the opening thus unexpectedly offered her Miriam made full use, pointing out the folly or verifying suspicions after marriage rather than before.
"Well, I'm going to do it, do you see?" was Evie's only reply. "I know it will be all right in the end."
Still a few weeks were to pass, and it was early in the new year before Uncle Jarrott's cablegram arrived with the three words, "If you like." Miriam received the information at the opera, where she had been suddenly called on to take the place of Miss Jarrott, laid low with "one of her headaches." It was Ford who told her, during an entr'acte, when for a few minutes Evie had left the box with the young man who made the fourth in the party. Finding themselves alone, Ford and Miriam withdrew as far as possible from public observation, speaking in rapid undertones.
"But you'll not let her do it?" Miriam urged.
"I shall, if you will. You can stop it--or posptone it. If you don't, I have every right to forge ahead. It's no use going over the old arguments again--"
"You put me in an odious position. You want me either to betray you or betray the people who've been kind to me. It would be betrayal if I were to let you go on."
"Then stop me; it's in your power."
"Very well; I will."
He gave her a quick look, astonished rather than startled, but there was no time for further speech before Evie and her companion returned.
It was Miriam's intention to put her plan into immediate execution, but she let most of the next day go by without doing anything. Understanding his driving her to extremes to be due less to deliberate defiance than to a desperate braving of the worst, she was giving him a chance for repentance. Just at the closing in of the winter twilight, at the hour when he generally appeared, the door was flung open and Billy Merrow rushed in excitedly.
"What's all this about Evie?" he shouted, almost before crossing the threshold. "I've been there, and no one is at home. What's it about? Who has invented the confounded lie?"
She could only guess at his meaning, but she forced him to shake hands and calm himself. Turning on the electric light, she saw a young man with decidedly tousled reddish hair, and features as haggard as a perfectly healthy, honest, freckled face could be.
"Sit down, Billy, and tell me about it."
"I can't; I'm crazy."
"So I see; but tell me what you're crazy about."
"Haven't you heard it? Of course you have. They wouldn't be writing it to Uncle Charlie if you didn't know all about it. But I'm hanged if I'll let it go on."
Little by little she dragged the story from him. Miss Queenie Jarrott had written to Charles Conquest as one of the oldest friends of the family to inform him, "somewhat confidentially as yet," of her niece's engagement to Mr. Herbert Strange, of Buenos Aires and New York. Uncle Charlie, knowing what this would mean to him, had come to break the news and tell him to "buck up and take it standing."
"I'll bet you I sha'n't take it lying down," he assured Miriam. "Evie is engaged to me."
"Yes, Billy, but you see Miss Jarrott didn't know it. That's where the mistake has been. You know I've always been opposed to the secrecy of the affair, and I advised you and Evie to wait till you could both speak out."
"It isn't so very secret. You know it and so does Uncle Charlie."
"But Evie's own family have been kept in the dark, except that she told her aunt in South America. But that's where the mistake comes in, don't you see? Miss Jarrott, not having an idea about you, you see--"
"Spreads it round that Evie is engaged to some one else, when she isn't. I'll show her who's engaged, when I can find her in. I'm going to sit on her door-step till--"
"I wouldn't do anything rash, Billy. Suppose you were to leave it to me?"
"What good would that do? If that old witch is putting it round, the only thing for Evie and me to do is to contradict her."
"Has Evie ever given you an idea that anything was wrong?"
"Evie's been the devil. I don't mind saying it to you, because you understand the kind of devil she'd be. But Lord! I don't care. It's just her way. She's told me to go to the deuce half a dozen times, but she knows I won't till she comes with me. Oh, no. Evie's all right--"
"Yes, of course, Evie's all right. But you know, Billy dear, this thing requires a great deal of management and straightening out, and I do wish you'd let me take charge of it. I know every one concerned, you see, so that I could do it better than any one--any one but you, I mean--"
"I understand that all right. I'm not going to be rough on them, but all the same--"
She got him to sit down at last, made tea for him, and soothed him. At the end of an hour he had undertaken not to molest Miss Jarrott, or to fight that "confounded South-American," or to say a word of any kind to Evie till she was ready to say a word to him. He became impressed with the necessity for diplomatic action and, after some persuasion, promised to submit to guidance--at any rate, for a time.
"And now, Billy, I'm going to write a note. The first thing to be done is that you should find Mr. Strange and deliver it to him before nine o'clock this evening. You'll do it quietly, won't you? and not let him see that you are anything more than my messenger. No matter where he is, even in a private house, you must see that he gets the note, if at all possible."
When he had sworn to this she wrote a few lines hurriedly. He carried them away in the same tumultuous haste with which he had come. After his departure she felt herself unexpectedly strong and calm.