The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part I. Ford.
Mrs. Wayne went to the door, but on Ford's assurance that her child had nothing to fear from him, she paused with her hand on the knob to look in curiosity at this wild young man, whose doom lent him a kind of fascination. Again, for a minute, all three were silent in the excess of their surprise. Wayne himself sat rigid, gazing up at the new-comer with strained eyes blurred with partial blindness. Though slightly built and delicate, he was not physically timid; and as the seconds went by he was able to form an idea as to what had happened. He himself, in view of the tumultuous sympathy displayed by hunters and lumber-jacks with the man who passed for their boon companion, had advised Ford's removal from the pretty toy prison of the county-town to the stronger one at Plattsville. It was clear that the prisoner had been helped to escape, either before the change had been effected or while it was taking place. There was nothing surprising in that; the astonishing thing was that the fugitive should have found his way to this house above all others. Mrs. Wayne seemed to think so too, for it was she who spoke first, in a tone which she tried to make peremptory, in spite of its tremor of fear.
"What did you come here for?"
Ford looked at her for the first time--in a blankness not without a dull element of pleasure. It was at least two or three years since he had seen anything so dainty--not, in fact, since his own mother died. At all times his mind worked slowly, so that he found nothing to reply till she repeated her question with a show of increased severity.
"I came here for protection," he said then.
His hesitation and bewildered air imparted assurance to his still astonished hosts.
"Isn't it an odd place in which to look for that?" Wayne asked, in an excitement, he strove to subdue.
The question was the stimulus Ford needed in order to get his wits into play.
"No," he replied, slowly; "I've a right to protection from the man who sentenced me to death for a crime of which he knows me innocent."
Wayne concealed a start by smoothing the newspaper over his crossed knees, but he was unable to keep a shade of thickness out of his voice as he answered:
"You had a fair trial. You were found guilty. You have had the benefit of all the resources allowed by the law. You have no right to say I know you to be innocent."
Wholly spent, Ford dropped into a chair from which one of the children had risen. With his arm hanging limply over the back he sat staring haggardly at the judge, as though finding nothing to say.
"I have a right to read any man's mind," he muttered, after a long pause, "when it's as transparent as yours. No one had any doubt as to your convictions--after your charge."
"That has nothing to do with it. If I charged in your favor, it was because I wanted you to have the benefit of every possible plea. When those pleas were found insufficient by a jury of your peers--"
Ford emitted a sound that might have been a laugh, had there been mirth in it.
"A jury of my peers! A lot of thick-headed country tradesmen, prejudiced against me from the start because I'd sometimes kicked up a row in their town! They weren't my peers any more than they were yours!"
"The law assumes all men to be equal--"
"Just as it assumes all men to be intelligent--only they're not. The law is a very fine theory. The chief thing to be, said against it is that five times out of ten it leaves human nature out of account. I'm condemned to death, not because I killed a man, but because you lawyers won't admit that your theory doesn't work."
He began to speak more easily, with the energy born of his desperate situation and his sense of wrong. He sat up straighter; the air of dejection with which he had sunk to the chair slipped from him; his gray eyes, of the kind called "honest," shot out glances of protest. The elder man found himself once more struggling against the wave of sympathy which at times in the court-room had been almost too strong for him. He was forced to intrench himself mentally within the system he served before bracing himself to reply.
"I can't keep you from having your opinion--"
"Nor can I save you from having yours. Look at me, judge!" He was bolt upright now, throwing his arms wide with a gesture in which there was more appeal than indignation "Look at me! I'm a strong, healthy-bodied, healthy-minded fellow of twenty-four; but I'm drenched to the skin, I'm half naked, I'm nearly dead with hunger, I'm an outlaw for life--and you're responsible for it all."
It was Wayne's turn for protest, and though he winced, he spoke sharply.
"I had my duty to perform--"
"Good God, man, don't sit there and call that thing your duty! You're something more than a wheel in a machine. You were a human being before you were a judge. With your convictions you should have come down from the bench and washed your hands of the whole affair. The very action would have given me a chance--"
"You mustn't speak like that to my husband," Mrs. Wayne broke in, indignantly, from the doorway. "If you only knew what he has suffered on your account--"
"Is it anything like what I've suffered on his?"
"I dare say it's worse. He has scarcely slept or eaten since he knew he would have to pass that dreadful sen--"
"Come! come!" Wayne exclaimed, in the impatient tone of a man who puts an end to a useless discussion. "We can't spend time on this subject any longer. I'm not on my defence--"
"You are on your defence," Ford declared, instantly. "Even your wife puts you there. We're not in a courtroom as we were this morning. Circumstantial evidence means nothing to us in this isolated house, where you're no longer the judge, as I'm no longer the prisoner. We're just two naked human beings, stripped of everything but their inborn rights--and I claim mine."
"Well--what are they?"
"They're simple enough. I claim the right to have something to eat, and to go my way without being molested--or betrayed. You'll admit I'm not asking much."
"You may have the food," Mrs. Wayne said, in a tone not without compassion. "I'll go and get it."
For a minute or two there was no sound but that of her cough, as she sped down a passage. Before speaking, Wayne passed his hand across his brow as though in an effort to clear his mental vision.
"No; you don't seem to be asking much. But, as a matter of fact, you're demanding my pledge to my country. I undertook to administer its laws--"
Ford sprang up.
"You've done it," he cried, "and I'm the result! You've administered the law right up to its hilt, and your duty as a judge is performed. Surely you're free now to think of yourself as a man and to treat me as one."
"I might do that, and still think you a man dangerous to leave at large."
"But do you?"
"That's my affair. Whatever your opinion of the courts that have judged your case, I must accept their verdict."
"In your official capacity--yes; but not here, as host to the poor dog who comes under your roof for shelter. My rights are sacred. Even the wild Arab--"
He paused abruptly. Over Wayne's shoulder, through the window still open to the terrace, he saw a figure cross the darkness. Could his pursuers be waiting outside for their chance to spring on him? A perceptible fraction of a second went by before he told himself he must have been mistaken.
"Even the wild Arab would think them so," he concluded, his glance shifting rapidly between the judge and the window open behind him.
"But I'm not a wild Arab," Wayne replied. "My first duty is toward my country and its organized society."
"I don't think so. Your first duty is toward the man you know you've sentenced wrongly. Fate has shown you an unusual mercy in giving you a chance to help him."
"I can be sorry for the sentence and yet feel that I could not have acted otherwise."
"Then what are you going to do now?"
"What would you expect me to do but hand you back to justice?"
There was a suggestion of physical disdain in the tone of the laconic question, as well as in the look he fixed on the neat, middle-aged man doing his best to be cool and collected Wayne glanced over his shoulder toward the telephone on the wall. Norrie Ford understood and spoke quickly:
"Yes; you could ring up the police at Greenport, but I could strangle you before you crossed the floor."
"So you could; but would you? If you did, should you be any better off? Should you be as well off as you are now? As it is, there is a possibility of a miscarriage of justice, of which one day you may get the benefit. There would be no such possibility then. You would be tracked down within forty-eight hours."
"Oh, you needn't argue; I've no intention--" Once more he paused. The same shadow had flitted across the dark space outside, this time with a distinct flutter of a white dress. He could only think it was some one getting help together; and while he went on to finish his sentence in words, all his subconscious faculties were at work, seeking an escape from the trap in which he was taken.
"I've no intention of doing violence unless I'm driven to it--"
"But if you are driven to it--?"
"I've a right to defend myself. Organized society, as you call it, has put me where it has no further claim upon me. I must fight against it single-handed--and I'll do it. I shall spare neither man nor woman--nor woman"--he raised his voice so as to be heard outside--"who stands in my way."
He threw back his head and looked defiantly out into the night. As if in response to this challenge a tall, white figure suddenly emerged from the darkness and stood plainly before him.
It was a girl, whose movements were curiously quick and silent, as she beckoned to him, over the head of the judge, who sat with his back toward her.
"Then all the more reason why society should protect itself against you," Wayne began again; but Ford was no longer listening. His attention was wholly fixed on the girl, who continued to beckon noiselessly, fluttering for an instant close to the threshold of the room, then withdrawing suddenly to the very edge of the terrace, waving a white scarf in token that he should follow her. She had repeated her action again and again, beckoning with renewed insistence, before he understood and made up his mind.
"I don't say that I refuse to help you," Wayne was saying. "My sympathy with you is very sincere. If I can get your sentence commuted--In fact, a reprieve is almost certain--"
With a dash as lithe and sudden as that which had brought him in, Ford was out on the terrace, following the white dress and the waving scarf which were already disappearing down the yew-tree walk. The girl's flight over grass and gravel was like nothing so much as that of a bird skimming through the air. Ford's own steps crunched loudly on the stillness of the night, so that if any one lay in ambush he knew he could not escape. He was prepared to hear shots come ringing from any quarter, but he ran on with the indifference of a soldier grown used to battle, intent on keeping up with the shadow fleeing before him.
He followed her through the garden gate he himself had left open, and down the lane leading to the pasture. At the point where he had entered it from the right, she turned to the left, keeping away from the mountains and parallel with the lake. There was no moon, but the night was clear; and no sound but that of the shrill, sustained chorus of insect life.
Beyond the pasture the lane became nothing but a path, zigzagging up a hillside between patches of Indian corn. The girl sped over it so lightly that Ford would have found it hard to keep her in sight if from time to time she had not paused and waited. When he came near enough to see the outlines of her form she flew on again, less like a living woman than a mountain wraith.
From the top of the hill he could see the dull gleam of the lake with its girdle of lamp-lit towns. Here the woodland began again; not the main body of the forest, but one of its long arms, thrust down over hill and valley, twisting its way in among villages and farm lands. That which had been a path now become a trail, along which the girl flitted with the ease of habit and familiarity.
In the concentration of his effort to keep the moving white spot in view Ford lost count of time. Similarly he had little notion of the distance they were covering. He guessed that they had been ten or fifteen minutes on the way, and that they might have gone a mile, when, after waiting for him to come almost near enough to speak to her, she began moving in a direction at an acute angle to that by which they had come. At the same time he perceived that they were on the side of a low wooded mountain and that they were beating their way round it.
All at once they emerged on a tiny clearing--a grassy ledge on the slope. Through the starlight he could see the hillside break away steeply into a vaporous gorge, while above him the mountain raised a black dome amid the serried points of the sky-line. The dryad-like creature beckoned him forward with her scarf, until suddenly she stopped with the decisive pause of one who has reached her goal. Coming up with her, he saw her unlock the door of a small cabin, which had hitherto not detached itself from the surrounding darkness.
"Go in," she whispered. "Don't strike a light. There are biscuits somewhere, in a box. Grope for them. There's a couch in a corner."
Without allowing him to speak, she forced him gently over the threshold and closed the door upon him. Standing inside in the darkness, he heard the grating of her key in the lock, and the rustle of her skirts as she sped away.