The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part III. Miriam.
The feeling of being equal to anything she might have to face continued with her. Now that the moment for action had arrived she had confidence in her ability to meet it, since it had to be done. At dinner she was able to talk to Wayne on indifferent topics, and later, when he had retired to his den to practise his Braile, she sat down in the drawing-room with a book. Noticing that she wore the severe black dress in which she had assisted at the "killing off" of Evie's family, she brightened it with a few unobtrusive jewels, so as to look less like the Tragic Muse. The night being cold, a cheerful fire burned on the hearth, beside which she sat down and waited.
When he was shown in, about half-past eight, it seemed to her best not to rise to receive him. Something in her repose, or in her dignity, gave him the impression of arriving before a tribunal, and he began his explanations almost from the doorway.
"I got your note. Young Merrow caught me at dinner. I was dining alone, so that I could come at once."
"You're very kind. I'm glad you were able to do it. Won't you sit down?"
Without offering her hand, she indicated a high arm-chair suitable for a man, on the other side of the hearth. He seated himself with an air of expectation, while she gazed pensively at the fire, speaking at last without looking up.
"I hear Miss Jarrott has begun to announce your engagement to Evie."
"I understood she was going to, to a few intimate friends."
"And you allowed it?"
"As you see."
"Didn't you know that I should have to take that for a signal?"
"I've never given you to understand that a signal wouldn't come--if you required one."
"No; but I hoped--" She broke off, continuing to gaze at the fire. "Do you remember," she began again--"do you remember telling me--that evening on the shore of Lake Champlain--just before you went away--that if ever I needed your life, it would be at my disposal?--to do with as I chose?"
"Then I'm going to claim it." She did not look up, but she heard him change his position in his chair. "I shouldn't do it if there was any other way. I'm sure you understand that. Don't you?" she insisted, glancing at him for an answer.
"I know you wouldn't do it, unless you were convinced there was a reason."
"I've tried to be just to you, and to see things from your point of view. I do; I assure you. If I were in your position I should feel as you do. But I'm not in your position. I'm in one of great responsibility, toward Evie and toward her friends."
"I don't see what you owe to them."
[Illustration: Again there was a long silence.]
"I owe them the loyalty that every human being owes to every other."
"To every other--except me."
"I'm loyal to you, at least, whoever else may not be. But it wouldn't be loyalty if I let you marry Evie. I'm going to ask you--not to do it--to go away--to leave her alone--to go--for good."
There was a long silence. When he spoke, it was hoarsely but otherwise without change of tone.
"Is that what you meant?--just now?"
"Yes. That's what I meant."
"Do you intend me to get out of New York, to go back to the South--?"
She lifted her hand in protestation.
"I'm not giving orders or making conditions. New York is large. There's room in it for you and Evie, too."
"I dare say. One doesn't require much space to break one's heart in."
"Evie wouldn't break her heart. I know her better than you do. She'd suffer for a while, but she'd get over it, and in the end, very soon probably--marry some one else."
"How cruel you can be," he said, with a twisted smile.
"I can be, when it's right. In this case I'm only as cruel as--the truth. I'm saying it because it must make things easier for you. Your own pain will be the less from the knowledge that, in time, Evie will get over hers."
"I suppose it ought to be, but--"
He did not finish his sentence, and again there was a long hush, during which, while she continued to gaze pensively at the fire, she could hear him shifting with nervous frequency in his chair. When at last she ventured to look at him he was bowed forward, his elbow supported on his knee, and his forehead resting on his hand.
"You'll keep your promise to me?" she persisted, softly, with a kind of pitiful relentlessness.
"I'll tell you in a minute."
He jerked out the words in the brusque way in which a man says all that, for the moment, he is physically able to utter. She allowed more time to elapse. The roar of traffic and the clanging of electric trams came up from the street below, but no sound seemed able to penetrate the stillness in which they sat. As far as Miriam was conscious of herself at all, it was simply to note the curious deadness of her emotions, as though she had become a mere machine for doing right, like a clock that strikes punctually. Nevertheless, it caused her some surprise when he raised himself and said, in a voice that would have been casual on a common occasion:
"I suppose you think me a cad?"
"No; why should I?"
"Because I am one."
"I don't know why you should say that, or what it has to do with--anything."
"It's about that--that--promise."
"Do you mind if we speak quite frankly? I should like to. I've been bluffing that point ever since you and I met again. It's been torture to have to do it--damned, humiliating torture; but it's been difficult to do anything else. You see, I couldn't even speak of it without seeming to--to insult you--that is, unless you took me in just the right way."
His look, his attitude, the tones of his voice, the something woe-begone and yet boyish in his expression, recalled irresistibly the days in the cabin, when he often wore just this air. She had observed before that when they were alone together the years seemed to fall from his manner, while he became the immature, inexperienced young fugitive again. She had scarcely expected, however, that this lapse into youth would occur to-night. She herself felt ages old--as though all the ends of the world had come upon her.
"You may say anything you like. There's nothing you could possibly tell me that I shouldn't understand."
"Well, then, when I made that promise, I meant to keep it, and to keep it in a special way. I thought--of course we were both very young--but I thought that, after what had happened--"
"Wait a minute. I want to tell you something before you go on." She rallied her spirit's forces for a desperate step, gathering all her life's possible happiness into one extravagant handful, and flinging it away, in order to save her pride before this man, who was about to tell her that he had never been able to love her. "What I am going to say may strike you as irrelevant; but if it is, you can ignore it. I expect to be married--in a little while--it's practically a settled thing--to Charles Conquest, whom I think you know. Now, will you go on, please?"
He stared at her in utter blankness.
He got up and took a few restless turns up and down the room, his head bent, his hands behind his back. He reseated himself when his confused impressions grew clearer.
"So that it doesn't matter what I thought about--that promise?"
"Not in the least." She had saved herself. "The one thing important to me is that you should have made it."
"And that you can hold me to it," he added, tersely.
"I presume I can do that?"
"You can, unless--unless I find myself in a position to take the promise back."
"I can hardly see how that position could come about," she said, with an air of wondering.
"I can. You see," he went on in an explanatory tone, "it was an unusual sort of promise--a promise made, so to speak, for value received--for unusual value received. It wasn't one that a common occasion would have called forth. It was offered because you had given me--life."
He rested his arm now on a table that stood between them and, leaning toward her, looked her steadily in the eyes.
"I haven't the faintest idea what you're going to say," she remarked, rather blankly.
"No, but you'll see. You gave me life. I hold that life in a certain sense at your pleasure. It is at your disposal. It must remain at your disposal--- until I give it back."
She sat upright in her chair, leaning in her turn on the table, and drawing nearer to him.
"I can't imagine what you mean," she said, under her breath and looking a little frightened.
"You'll see presently. But don't be alarmed. It's going to be all right. As long as I hold the life you gave me," he continued to explain, "I must do your bidding. I'm not a free man; I'm--don't be offended--I'm your creature. I don't say I was a free man before this came up. I haven't been a free man ever since I've been Herbert Strange. I've been the slave of a sort of make-believe. I've made believe, and I've felt I was justified. Perhaps I was. I'm not quite sure. But I haven't liked it; and now I begin to feel that I can't stand it any longer. You follow me, don't you?"
She nodded, still leaning toward him across the table, and not taking her eyes from his. He remembered afterward though he paid no heed to it at the time, how those eyes grew wide with awe and flashed with strange, lambent brightness.
"I told you a few days ago," he pursued, "that there were times when it was hell. That was putting it mildly--too mildly. There's been no time when it wasn't hell--in here." He tapped his forehead. "I've struggled, and fought, and pushed, and swaggered, and bluffed, and had ups and downs, and taken heart, and swaggered and bluffed again, and lied all through--and I've made Herbert Strange a respectable man of business on the high road to success. But when I come near you it all goes to pieces--like one of those curiously conserved dead bodies when they're brought to the air. There's nothing to them. There's nothing to me--so long as I'm Herbert Strange."
"But you are Herbert Strange. You can't help yourself--now."
"Herbert Strange goes back into the nothingness out of which he was born the minute I become Norrie Ford again."
"But you can't do that!"
She drew herself up hastily, with a gasp.
"It's exactly what I mean to do." He spoke very slowly "I'm going to be a free man, and my own master, even if it leads me where--where they meant to put me when you snatched me away. I'm going back to my fellow-men, to the body corporate--"
She rose in agitation, and drew back from him toward the chimney-piece. "So that if--if anything happens," she said, "I shall have driven you to it. That's how you get your revenge."
"Not at all. I'm not coming to this decision suddenly, or in a spirit of revenge, in any way." He followed her, standing near her, on the hearth-rug. "I can truthfully say," he went on in his slow, explanatory fashion, "that there's been no time, since the minute I made my first dash for liberty, when I haven't known, in the bottom of my heart, what a good thing it would have been if I hadn't done it. I've come to see--I've had to--- that the death-chair would have been better, with self-respect, than freedom to go and come, with the necessity to gag every one, every minute of the day, and every day in the year, and all the time, with lies. If that seems far-fetched to you--"
"No, it doesn't."
"Well, if it did you'd see it wasn't, if you were in my place for a month. I didn't mind it so much at first. I stood it by day and just suffered by night--till the Jarrotts began to be so kind to me, and I came to New York--and--and--and Evie!"
"I'm sorry I've spoken to you as I have," she said, hastily. "If I'd known you felt like that--"
"You were quite right. I always understood that. But I can't go on with it. If Evie marries me now, it shall be knowing who I am."
"You don't mean that you could possibly tell her?"
"I'm going to tell every one."
She stifled a little cry. "Then it will be my doing!"
"It will be your doing--up to a point. But it will be something for you to be proud of, not to regret. You've only brought my mistake so clearly before me that even I can't stand it--when I've stood so much. You ask me to turn my back on Evie and sneak away. You've got the right to command, and there's nothing for me but to obey you. But I can't help seeing the sort of life that would be left to me after I'd carried out your orders. It wouldn't only be the loss of Evie--I may lose her in any case--it would be the loss of everything within myself that's enabled me hitherto merely to hold up my head--and bluff."
"I might withdraw what I've just asked you to do. Perhaps we could find some other way."
He laughed with grim lightness.
"You're weakening. That's not like you. And it wouldn't do any good now. Even if we did patch up some other scheme, there would still remain what you talked about a minute ago--the loyalty that every human being owes to every other."
"But I thought you didn't recognize that?"
"I said I didn't. But in here"--he tapped his fingers over the heart--"I did, and I do. You've brought me to see it."
"That's very noble, but you saw it for yourself--"
"Through a glass--darkly; now I can look at the thing in clear daylight, and see what I have to do."
She dropped into her chair again, looking up at him. He stood with his back to the fire, holding his head high, his bearing marked by a dogged, perhaps forced, serenity.
"But what can you do?" she asked, after considering his words. "You're so involved. All this business--and the people in South America--"
"Oh, there are ways and means. I haven't made plans, but I've thought, from time to time, of what I should do if I ever came to just this pass. The first thing would be to tell the few people who are most concerned, confidentially. Then I should go back to South America, and settle things give me your respect again--not even the little you've given me hitherto--and God knows that can't have been much. I could stand anything in the world--anything--rather than that you should come to that."
"But I shouldn't, when I myself had dissuaded you--"
"No, no; don't try. You'd be doing wrong. You've been to me so high and holy that I don't like to think you haven't the strength to go on to the end. I've got it, because you've given it me. Don't detract from your own gift by holding me back from using it. You found me a prisoner--or an escaped one--and I've been a prisoner all these years, the prisoner of something worse than chains. Now I'm going free. Look!" he cried, with sudden inspiration. "I'll show you how it's done. You'll see how easy it will be."
He moved to cross the room.
"What are you going to do?"
She sprang up as if to hold him back, but his finger was on the bell.
"You don't mind, I hope?" he asked; but he had rung before she could give an answer. The maid appeared in the doorway.
"Ask Mr. Wayne if he would be good enough to come in here a minute. Tell him Mr. Strange particularly wants to see him."
He went back to his place by the fireside, where he stood apparently calm, showing no sign of excitement except in heightened color and the stillness of nervous tension Miriam sank into her chair again.
"Don't do anything rash," she pleaded. "Wait till to-morrow There will always be time. For God's sake!"
If he heard her he paid no attention, and presently Wayne appeared. He hesitated a minute on the threshold, and during that instant Ford could see that he looked ashy and older, as if something had aged him suddenly. His hands trembled, too, as he felt his way in.
"Good-evening," he said, speaking into the air as blind men do. "I thought I heard your voice."
Having groped his way across the room and reached the table that stood between the arm-chairs Miriam and Ford had occupied, he stopped. He stood there, with fingers drumming soundlessly on the polished wood, waiting for some one to speak.
In spite of the confidence with which he had rung the bell, Ford found it difficult now to begin. It was only after one or two inarticulate attempts that he was able to say anything.
"I asked you to come in, sir," he began, haltingly, "to tell you something very special. Miss Strange knows it already.... If I've done wrong in not telling you before ... you'll see I'm prepared to take my punishment.... My name isn't Strange ... it isn't Herbert."
"I know it isn't."
The words slipped out in a sharp tone, not quite nervous, but thin and worn. Miriam's attitude grew tense. Ford took a step forward from the fireside. With his arm flung over the back of his chair, and his knee resting on the seat of it, he strained across the table, as if to annihilate the space between Wayne and himself.
The blind man nodded. When he spoke it was again into the air.
"Yes; I knew. You're Norrie Ford. I ought to say I've only known it latterly--about a fortnight now."
"Oh, it just came to me--by degrees, I think."
"Why didn't you say something about it?"
"I thought I wouldn't. It has worried me, but I thought I'd keep still."
"Do you mean that you were going to let everything--go on?"
"I weighed all the considerations. That's the decision I came to. You must understand," he went on to explain, in a voice that was now tremulous as well as thin, "that I'd had you a good deal on my mind, during these past eight years. I sentenced you to death when I almost knew you were innocent. It was my duty. I couldn't help it. The facts told dead against you. Every one admitted that. True, the evidence might have been twisted to tell against old Gramm and his wife, but they hadn't been dissipated, and they hadn't been indicted, and they hadn't gone round making threats against Chris Ford's life like you."
"I didn't mean them. It was nothing but a boy's rage--"
"Yes, but you made them; and when the old man was found--But I'll not go into that now. I only want to say that, while I couldn't acquit you with my intelligence, I felt constrained to do it in my heart, especially when everything was over, and it was too late. The incident has been the one thing in my professional career that I've most regretted. I don't quite blame myself. I had to do my duty. And yet it was a relief to me when you got away. I don't know that I could have acted differently, but--but I liked you. I've gone on liking you. I've often thought about you, and wondered what had become of you. And one day--not long ago--as I was going over the old ground once more, I saw I'd been thinking about--you. That's how it came to me."
"And you were going to remain silent, and let me marry Evie?"
The blind man reflected.
"I saw what was to be said against it. But I weighed all the evidence carefully. You were an injured man; you'd made a great fight and you'd won--as far as one man can win against the world. I came to the conclusion that I wasn't called on to strike you down a second time, after you'd scrambled up so pluckily. Evie is very dear to me; I don't say that I should see her married to you without some misgiving; but I decided that you deserved her. It was a great responsibility to take, but I took it and made up my mind to--let her go."
"Oh, you're a good man! I didn't think there was such mercy in the world."
Ford flung out the words in a cry that was half a groan and half a shout of triumph. Miriam choked back a sob. The neat little man shrugged his shoulders deprecatingly.
"There's one thing I should like to ask," he pursued, "among the many that I don't know anything about, and that I don't care to inquire into. How did you come by the name of this lady's father, my old friend Herbert Strange?"
Ford and Miriam exchanged swift glances. She shook her head, and he took his cue.
"I happened to see it in a--a sort of--paper. I had no idea it was that of a real person. I fancied it had come out of a novel--- or something like that. I didn't mean to keep it, but it got fastened on me."
"Very odd," was his only comment. "Isn't it, Miriam?
"Now," he added, "I suppose you've had all you want of me, so I'll say good-night."
He held out his hand, which Ford grasped, clinched rather, in both his own.
"God bless you!" Wayne murmured, still tremulously. "God bless you--my boy, and bring everything out right. Miriam, I suppose you'll come in and see me before you go to bed."
They watched him shuffle his way out of the room, and watched the door long after he had closed it. When at last Miriam turned her eyes on Ford they were luminous with the relief of her own defeat.
"You see!" she cried, triumphantly. "You see the difference between him and me--between his spirit and mine! Now which of us was right?"