The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part III. Miriam.
The one thing clear to Miriam on the following day was that she had ruined everything with astonishing completeness--a curious result to come from what she was firmly convinced was "doing right." She had calculated that, by a moderate measure of suffering to Evie, and a large one to Ford, Evie's ultimate welfare at least would be secured. Now everything was being brought to grief together. Out of such a wreck nothing could be saved.
With Ford's desire to break the force which made him an impostor she had sympathy, but his willingness to risk his life in order to be in harmony with law and order again was not so easy for her to understand. While education, training and taste kept her, in her own person, within the restrictions of civilized life, yet the part of a free-lance in the world appealed to her strongly atavistic instincts far more directly than membership in a disciplined regular army. The guerilla fighter must of necessity be put to shifts--even moral shifts--which the common soldier, trained and commanded by others, can be spared; but her heart was with the man roving in the hills on his own account. That Ford should deliberately seek chains in barracks, when by her surrender on the subject of Evie she had made it possible for him still to keep the liberty of the field, was to her at once incomprehensible and awful. She had not only the sense of watching a man rushing upon Fate, but the knowledge that she herself had given him the impetus; while she was fully alive to the fact that when he fell everything she cared for in the world would fall with him.
Her mind was too resourceful, her spirit too energetic, to permit of her sitting in helpless anguish over his new determination. She was already busy with plans for counteracting him, in one of which at least she saw elements of hope. Having conceived its possibilities, she was eager to go and test them; but she had decided not to leave the house until she knew that Ford was really putting his plans into execution. The minute Evie learned the fatal news she would have need of her, and she dared not put herself out of the child's reach. Her first duty must be toward the fragile little creature, who would be crushed like a trampled flower.
Shortly before noon she was summoned to the telephone, where Evie was asking if she should find her in. Miriam judged from the tones of the transmitted voice that the worst had been made known. She was not, however, prepared for the briskness with which, ten minutes later, Evie whisked into the room, her cheeks aglow with excitement and her heavenly eyes dancing with a purely earthly sparkle.
"Isn't this awful?" she cried, before Miriam could take her into her loving arms. "Isn't it appalling? But it's not a surprise to me--not in the least. I knew there was something. Haven't I said so? I almost knew that his name wasn't Strange. If I hadn't been so busy with my coming out--and everything--I should have been sure of it. I haven't had time to think of it--do you see? With a lunch somewhere every day at half-past one," she hurried on, breathlessly, "and a tea at half-past four, and a dinner at eight, and a dance at eleven, and very likely the theatre or the opera in between--well, you can see I haven't been able to give much attention to anything else; but I knew, from the very time when I was in Buenos Aires, that there was something queer about that name. I never saw a man so sensitive when any one spoke about his name, not in all my life before--and you know down there it's the commonest thing--why, they're so suspicious on that point that they'd almost doubt that mine was Evie Colfax."
She threw her muff in one direction, her boa in another, and her gloves in still another.
"But, Evie darling, you surely didn't think--"
"Of course I never thought of anything like this. I didn't really think of anything at all. If I'd begun to give my mind to it, I should probably have hit on something a great deal worse."
"What do you mean, dear? Worse--than what?"
"Worse than just being accused of shooting your uncle--and it was only his great-uncle, too. I might have thought of forgery or something dishonorable, though I should know he wasn't capable of it. Being accused isn't much. You can accuse any one--you could accuse me. That doesn't prove anything when he says he didn't do it. Of course he didn't do it. Can't any one see? My goodness! I wish they'd let me make the laws. I'd show them. Just think! To put a man like that in prison--- and say they'd do such awful things to him--and make him change his name--and everything. It's perfectly scandalous. It's an outrage. I shouldn't think such things would be allowed. They wouldn't be allowed in the Argentine. Why, there was a man out there who killed his father-in-law--actually killed him--and they didn't do anything to him at all. I've seen him lots of times. Aunt Queenie has pointed him out to me. He used to have the box next but two to ours at the opera. And to think they should take a man like Herbert, and worry him like that--it makes me so indignant I'd like to--"
Evie ground her teeth, threw her clinched fists outward, and twitched her skirts about the room in the prettiest possible passion of righteous anger.
"But, darling," Miriam asked, in a puzzled voice, "what are you going to do about it?"
Evie wheeled round haughtily.
"Do about it? What would you expect me to do about it? I'm going to tell every one he didn't do it--that's what I'm going to do about it. But of course we're not to speak of it just yet--outside ourselves, you know. He's going to Buenos Aires to tell Uncle Jarrott he didn't do it--and when he comes back we're going to make it generally known. Oh, there's to be law about it--and everything. He means to change his name again to what it was before--Ford, the name was--and I must say, Miriam, I like that a good deal better than Strange, if you don't mind my telling you. It seems odd to have so many Stranges--and I must say I never could get used to the idea of having exactly the same name as yours. It was almost like not being married outside the family--and I should hate to marry a relation. That part of it comes as a pleasant surprise, do you see? I'd made up my mind to Strange, and thought there was no way of getting rid of it, unless I--but I wasn't looking ahead to anything of that kind. I hope I shall never--"
"So, darling, you're going to be true to him?"
"True to him? Of course I'm going to be true to him. Why shouldn't I be? I'm going to be more true to him now than I was before. He's so noble about it, too. I wish you could have seen the way he broke it to me. Aunt Queenie said she never saw anything so affecting, not even on the stage. She was there, you know. Herbert felt he couldn't go over it all twice, and he thought I should need some one to support me through the shock. I didn't--not a bit. But I wish you could have been there, just to see him."
"I can fancy it, dear."
"Of course I know now what you've been fidgeting about ever since he came to New York. He says you recognized him--that you'd seen him at Greenport. Oh, I knew there was something. But I must say, Miriam, I think you might have told me confidentially, and not let it come on me as such a blow as this. Not that I take it as a blow, though, of course, it upsets things terribly. We can't announce our engagement for ever so long, and Aunt Queenie is rushing round in the motor now to take back what she wrote to a few people yesterday. I can't imagine what she'll tell them, because I charged her on her sacred honor not to give them the idea it was broken off, although I'd rather they thought it was broken off than that I hadn't been engaged at all."
"Miss Jarrott takes it quietly, then?"
"Quietly! I wish you could see her. She thinks there never was anything so romantic. Why, she cried over him, and kissed him, and said she'd always be his friend if every one else in the world were to turn against him. As a matter of fact, the poor old dear is head over heels in love with him--do you see?--in that sort of old-maid way--you know the kind of thing I mean. She thinks there's nobody like him, and neither there is. I shall miss him frightfully while he's down there telling Uncle Jarrott. I shall skip half my invitations and go regularly into retreat till he comes back. There's lots more he's going to tell me then--all about what Popsey Wayne had to do with it--and everything. I'm glad he doesn't want to do it now, because my head is reeling as it is. I've so many things to think of--and so much responsibility coming on me all at once--and--"
"Are you going to do anything about Billy?"
"Well, I can postpone that, at any rate. Thank goodness, there's one silver lining to the cloud. I was going to give him a pretty strong hint to-night, seeing Aunt Queenie has begun writing notes around, but now I can let him simmer for a while longer. He won't be able to say I haven't let him down easy, poor old boy. And, Miriam dear," she continued, gathering up her various articles of apparel, preparatory to taking leave, "you'll keep just as quiet about it as you can, like a dear, won't you? We don't mean to say a word about it outside ourselves till Herbert comes back from seeing Uncle Jarrott. That's my advice--and it's all our advice--I mean, Aunt Queenie's, too. Then they're going to law--or something. I know you won't say anything about it, but I thought I'd just put you on your guard."
* * * * *
If Evie's way of taking it was a new revelation to Miriam, of her own miscalculation, it was also a new incentive to setting to work as promptly as possible to repair what she could of the mischief she had made. With Evie's limitations she might never know more of the seriousness of her situation than a bird of the nature of the battle raging near its nest; while if even Ford "went to law," as Evie put it, and he came off victorious, there might still be chances for their happiness. To anything else Miriam was indifferent, as a man in the excitement of saving his children from fire or storm is dead to his own sensations. It was with impetuous, almost frenzied, eagerness, therefore, that she went to the telephone to ring up Charles Conquest, asking to be allowed to see him privately at his office during the afternoon.
In what she had made up her mind to do the fact that she was planning for herself an unnecessary measure of sacrifice was no deterrent. She was in a mood in which self-immolation seemed the natural penalty of her mistakes. She was not without the knowledge that money could buy the help she purposed to obtain by direct intervention; but her inherited instincts, scornful of roundabout methods, urged her to pay the price in something more personal than coin. It replied in some degree to her self-accusation, it assuaged the bitterness of her self-condemnation, to know that she was to be the active agent in putting right that which her errors of judgment had put wrong. To her essentially primitive soul atonement by proxy was as much out of the question as to the devotee beneath the wheels of Juggernaut. Somewhere in the background of her thought there were faint prudential protests against throwing herself away; but she disdained them, as a Latin or a Teuton disdains the Anglo-Saxon's preference for a court of law to the pistol of the duellist. It was something outside the realm of reason. Reckless impulses subdued by convent restraint or civilized requirements awoke with a start all the more violent because of their long sleep, driving her to do that which she knew other women would have done otherwise or not at all.
She was aware, therefore, of limitations in the sacrifice she was making; she was even aware that, in the true sense, it was no sacrifice whatever. She was offering herself up because she chose to--in a kind of wilfulness--but a passionate wilfulness which claimed that for her at least there was no other way. Other women, wiser women, women behind whom there was a long, moderation-loving past, might obey the laws that prompt to the economy of one's self; she could only follow those blind urgings which drove her forefathers to fight when they might have remained at peace, or whipped them forth into the wild places of the earth when they could have stayed in quiet homes. The hard way in preference to the easy way was in her blood. She could no more have resisted taking it now than she could have held herself back eight years ago from befriending Norrie Ford against the law.
Nevertheless, it was a support to her to remember that Conquest's manner on the occasions when business brought her to his office was always a little different from that which he assumed when they met outside. He was much more the professional man with his client, a little the friend, but not at all the lover--if he was a lover anywhere. Having welcomed her now with just the right shade of cordiality, he made her sit at a little distance from his desk, while he himself returned to the revolving-chair at which he had been writing when she entered. After the preliminary greetings, he put on, unconsciously, the questioning air a business man takes at the beginning of an interview which he has been invited to accord.
"I came--about Evie."
Now that she was there it was less easy to begin than she had expected.
"Quite so. I knew there was a hitch. I've just had a mysterious note from Queenie Jarrott which I haven't been able to make out. Can't they hit it off?"
"It's a good deal more serious than that. Mr. Strange came to see Mr. Wayne and me last night. I may as well tell you as simply as I can. His name isn't Strange at all."
"Ho! ho! What's up?"
"Did you ever hear the name of--Norrie Ford?"
"Good Lord, yes! I can't quite remember--Let's see. Norrie Ford? I know the name as well as I know my own. Wasn't that the case--why, yes, it must have been--wasn't that the case Wayne was mixed up in six or eight years ago?"
"Yes, it was."
"The fellow gave 'em all the slip, didn't he?"
"Hadn't he been commuted to a life sentence--?"
"Mr. Wayne hoped it would be done, but it hadn't been done yet. He was still under sentence of--death."
"Yes, yes, yes. It comes back to me. We thought Wayne hadn't displayed much energy or ability of foresight--or something. I remember there was talk about it, and in the newspapers there was even a cock-and-bull story that Wayne had connived at his escape. Well, what has that got to do with Evie?"
"It has everything to do with her."
Conquest's little gray-green eyes blinked as if against the blaze of their own light, while his features sharpened to their utmost incisiveness.
"You don't mean to say--?"
"Well, upon--my--!" The exclamation trailed off into a silent effort to take in this extraordinary piece of intelligence "Do you mean to say the scamp had the cheek--? Oh no, it isn't possible. Come now!"
"It was exactly as I'm going to tell you, but I don't think you should call him a scamp. You see, he's engaged to Evie--"
"He's not engaged to her now?"
"He is. She means to be true to him. So do we all."
Two little scarlet spots burned in her cheeks, but it was not more in the way of emotion than a warm partisanship on Evie's account demanded.
"Well, I'm blowed!" He swung one leg across the other, making his chair describe a semicircle.
"Perhaps you won't be so much--blowed, when you hear all I have to tell you."
"Go ahead; I'm more interested than if it was a dime novel."
As lucidly as she could she gave him the outline of Ford's romance, dwelling as he had done in relating it to her, less on its incidents than on its mental and moral effect upon himself. She suppressed the narrative of the weeks spent in the cabin and based her report entirely on information received from Ford. For testimony as to his life and character in the Argentine she had the evidence of Miss Jarrott, while on the subject of his business abilities--no small point with a New York business man, as she was astute enough to see--there could be no better authority than Conquest himself, who, as Stephens and Jarrott's American legal adviser, had had ample opportunity of judging. She was gratified to note that as her story progressed it called forth sympathetic looks, and an occasional appreciative exclamation, while now and then he slapped his thigh as a mark of the kind of amused astonishment that verges on approbation.
"So we couldn't desert him now, after she's been so brave, could we?" she pleaded, with some amount of confidence; "and especially when he's engaged to Evie."
"I suppose we can't desert him, if he's sane."
"Oh, he's sane."
"Then why the deuce, when he was so well out of harm's way, didn't he stay there?"
"Because of his love for Evie, don't you see?" She had to explain Ford's moral development and psychological state all over again, until he could see it with some measure of comprehension.
"It certainly is the queerest story I ever heard," he declared, in enjoyment of its dramatic elements, "and we're all in it, aren't we? It's like seeing yourself in a play."
"I thought you would look at it in that way. As soon as I began wondering what we could do--this morning--I saw that, after Evie, you were the person most concerned."
"Who? I? Why am I concerned? I've got nothing to do with it!"
"No, of course not, except as Stephens and Jarrott's lawyer. When their representative in New York--"
"Oh, but my dear girl, my duties don't involve me in anything of this kind. I'm the legal adviser to the firm, but I've nothing to do with the private affairs of their employees."
"Mr. Jarrott is very fond of Mr. Strange--"
"Perhaps this will cool his affection."
"I don't think it will as long as Evie insists on marrying him. I'm sure they mean to stand by him."
"They won't be able to stand by him long, if the law gives him--what it meant to give him before."
"Oh, but you don't think there's any danger of that?"
"I don't know about it," he said, shaking his head, ominously. "The fact that he comes back and gives himself up isn't an argument in favor of his innocence. There's generally remorse behind that dodge."
"Then isn't that all the more reason why we should help him?"
"Help him? How?"
"By trying to win his case for him."
He looked at her with eyes twinkling while his fingers concealed the smile behind his colorless mustache.
"And how would you propose to set about that?"
"I don't know, but I suppose you do. There must be ways. He's leaving as soon as he can for South America. He thinks it may be months before he gets back. I thought that--perhaps--in the mean time--while he won't be able to do anything for himself--you might see--"
"Yes, yes; go on," he said, as she hesitated.
"You might see if there is any evidence that could be found--that wasn't found before--isn't that the way they do it?--and have it ready--for him when he came back."
"For a wedding present."
"It would be a wedding present--to all of us. It would be for Evie's sake. You know how I love her. She's the dearest thing to me in the world. If I could only secure her happiness like that--"
"You mean, if I could secure it."
"You'd be doing it actively, but I should want to co-operate."
"In what way?"
She sat very still. She was sure he understood her by the sudden rigidity of his pose, while his eyes stopped twinkling, and his fingers ceased to travel along the line of his mustache. Her eyes fell before the scrutiny in his, but she lifted them again for one of her quick, wild glances.
"In any way you like."
She tried to make her utterance distinct, matter of fact, not too significant, but she failed. In spite of herself, her words conveyed all their meaning. The brief pause that followed was not less eloquent, nor did it break the spell when Conquest gave a short little laugh that might have been nervous and, changing his posture, leaned forward on his desk and scribbled on the blotting-pad. While he would never have admitted it, it was a relief to him, too, not to be obliged to face her.
He was not shocked, neither was he quite surprised. He was accustomed to the thought that a woman's love was a thing to purchase. One man bought it from her father for a couple of oxen, another from herself for an establishment and a diamond tiara. It was the same principle in both cases. He had never considered Miriam Strange as being without a price; his difficulty had been in knowing what it was. The establishment and the diamond tiara having proved as indifferent to her as the yoke of oxen, he was thrown back upon the alternative of heroic deeds. He had more than once suspected that these might win her if they had only been in his line. There being few opportunities for that kind of endeavor as the head of a large and lucrative legal practice, the suggestion only left him cynical. In the bottom of his heart he had long wished to dazzle, by some act of prowess, the eyes that saw him only as a respectable man of middle age, but the desire had merely mocked him with the kind of derision which impotence gets from youth. It seemed now a stroke of luck which almost merited being termed an act of Providence that there should have come a call for exactly his variety of "derringdo" from the very quarter in which he could make it tell.
"We've never gone in for any criminal business here," he said, after long reflection, while he continued to scribble aimlessly, "but, of course, we're in touch with the people who take it up."
"I thought you might be."
"But it's only fair to tell you that if your motive is to save time for our friend in question--"
"That is my motive--the only one."
"Then you could get in touch with them, too."
"But I don't want to."
"Still I think you should consider it. The best legal advice in the world can be--bought--for money."
"I know that."
Lifting his eyes in a sharp look, he saw her head lilted back with her own special air of deliberate temerity.
"Oh, very well, then," he said, quietly, resuming his scribbling again. After this warning he felt justified in taking her at her word.
With that as a beginning she knew she had gained her first great point. In answer to his questions she told the story over again, displaying, as he remembered afterward--but long afterward--a surprising familiarity with its details. She made suggestions which he noted as marked by some acumen, and laid stress on the value of the aid they might expect privately from Philip Wayne. The beauty and eagerness in her face fired the almost atrophied enthusiasm in his own heart, while he could not but see that this entirely altruistic interest had brought them in half an hour nearer together than they had ever been before. It was what they had never had till now--a bond in common. In spite of the persistency of his efforts and his assertions, he had never hitherto got nearer her than a statue on a pedestal gets to its neighbor in a similar situation but now at last they were down on the same earth together. This was more than reason enough for his taking up the cause of Norrie Ford, consecrating to it all his resources, mental and material, and winning it.
In the course of an hour or two their understanding was complete, but he did not refer again to the conditions of their tacit compact. It was she who felt that sufficient had not been said--that the sincerity with which she subscribed to it had not been duly emphasized. She was at the door on the point of going away when she braced herself to look at him and say:
"You can't realize what all this means to me. If we succeed--that is, if you succeed--I hardly dare to tell you of the extent to which I shall be grateful."
He felt already some of the hero's magnanimity as to claiming his reward.
"You needn't think about that," he smiled. "I sha'n't. If by making Evie happy I can serve you, I shall not ask for gratitude."
She looked down at her muff and smoothed its fur, then glanced up swiftly. "No; but I shall want to give it."
With that she was gone--lighter of heart than a few hours ago it had seemed to her possible ever to be again. Her joy was the joy of the captain who feels that he has saved his ship, though his own wound is fatal.