The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part IV. Conquest.
Among the three or four qualities Conquest most approved of in himself, not the least was a certain capacity for the patient acquisition of the world's more enviable properties. He had the gift of knowing what he wanted, recognizing it when he saw it, and waiting for it till it came within his reach. From his youth upward he had been a connoisseur of quality rather than a lover of abundance, while he owned to a talent for seeing the value of things which other people overlooked, and throwing them into relief when the objects became his. As far back as the time when the modest paternal heritage had been divided between his brothers and sisters and himself, he had been astute enough to leave the bulk of it to them, contenting himself with one or two bits of ancestral furniture and a few old books, which were now known by all to have been the only things worth having. Throughout his life he had followed this principle of acquiring unobtrusively but getting exactly what he wanted. It was so that he bought his first horse, so that he bought his first motor, so that he purchased the land where he afterward built his house--in a distant, desolate stretch of Fifth Avenue which his acquaintances told him would be hopelessly out of reach, but where, not many years after, most of them were too late to join him.
In building his house, too, he took his time, allowing his friends to make their experiments around him, while he studied the great art of "how not to do it." One of his neighbors erected a Flemish chActeau, another a Florentine palazzo, and a third a FranASec.ois Premier hA'tel; but his plot of ground remained an unkempt tangle of mullein and blue succory. In the end he put up a sober, handsome development on a style which the humbler passers-by often called, with approval, "good, plain American," but whose point of departure was Georgian. He had the instinct for that which springs out of the soil. For this reason he did not shrink from an Early Victorian note--the first note of the modern, prosperous New York--in decoration; and the same taste impelled him toward the American in art. While Neighbor Smith displayed his Gainsboroughs, and Neighbor Jones his Rousseaus or Daubignys, Conquest quietly picked up a thing here and there--always under excellent advice--which no picture-dealer had been able to dispose of, because it came from some studio in Twenty-third Street. Hung on his walls, it produced that much-sought-for effect of "having been always there." He was not a Chauvinist, nor had he any sympathy with the intolerantly patriotic. He was merely a lover of the indigenous.
In much the same way he had sought for--and waited for--a wife. He had been rashly put down as "not a marrying man," when he was only taking his time. He had seen plainly of excellent possibilities--fine women, handsome women, clever women, good women--any of whom presumably he could have had for the asking; but none was, in his own phraseology, "just the right thing." He wanted something unusual, and yet not exotic--something obvious, which no one else had observed--something cultivated, and yet native--something as exquisite as any hothouse orchid, but with the keen, fresh scent of the American woods and waters on its bloom. It was not a thing to be picked up every day, and so he kept on the lookout for it, and waited. Even when he found it, he was not certain, on the spur of the moment, that it would prove exactly what he had in mind. So he waited longer. He watched the effect of time and experience upon it, until he was quite sure. He knew the risk he was running that some one else might snatch it up; but his principle had always been to let everything, no matter how coveted, go, rather than buy in haste.
Lest such an attitude toward Miriam Strange should seem cold-blooded, it should be said in his defence that he considered the aggregate of his sentiments to be--love. She was to be more than "something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse," more than the living, responsive soul among his chattels. There was that in her which appealed to his desire, and to something more deeply seated in him still. After satisfying ear, eye, and intelligence, there was in her nature a whole undiscovered region, undivined, undefined, wakening the imagination, and stirring the speculative faculties, like the subconscious elements in personality. In her wild, non-Aryan glances he saw the flame of eyes that flashed on him out of a past unknown to history; in the liquid cadences of her voice he heard the echo of the speech that had sounded in the land before Plymouth was a stockade or Manhattan was a farm; in her presence he found a claim that antedated everything sprung of Hudson, Cabot, or Columbus. The slender thread that attached her to the ages of nomadic mystery made her for him the indigenous spirit, reborn in a woman of the world.
Knowing himself too old to be dominated by a passion, and too experienced to be snared by wiles, he estimated his feelings as being those of love, as he understood the word. He conceded the fact that love, like every other desire, must work to win, and proceeded to set about his task according to his usual methods of persistent, unobtrusive siege. It was long before Miriam became aware of what he was doing, and her surprise as she drew back was not quite so great as his to see her do it. He was so accustomed to success--after taking the trouble to insure it--that he was astonished, and a little angry, to find his usual tactics fail. He did not believe that she was beyond his grasp; he perceived only that he had taken the wrong way to get her. That there was a right way there could be no question; and he knew that by patient, unremitting search he should find it.
He had, therefore, several sources of satisfaction in espousing the cause of Norrie Ford. The amplitude of his legal knowledge would be to him as gay feathers to the cock; while the contemplation of the prize added to his self-approval in never doubting that it could be won.
* * * * *
It was early March when Ford sailed away, leaving his affairs in Conquest's charge, at the latter's own request. He in his turn placed them in the hands of Kilcup and Warren, who made a specialty of that branch of the law. The reward was immediate, in that frequent talks with Miriam became a matter of course.
His trained mind was prompt to seize the fact that these interviews took place on a basis different from that of their meetings in the past. Where he had been seeking to gain an end he was now on probation. He had been told--or practically told--that what he had been asking would be granted, as soon as certain conditions were fulfilled. It became to him, therefore, a matter of honor, in some degree one of professional etiquette, to fulfil the conditions before referring to the reward. Instead of a suitor pressing his suit, he became the man of business recounting the points scored, or still to be scored, in a common enterprise. In keeping her informed of each new step that Kilcup and Warren were taking, he maintained an attitude of distant respect, of which she could have nothing to complain.
Expecting an equal reserve on her part, it was with some surprise that he saw her assume the initiative in cordiality. He called it cordiality, because he dared not make it a stronger word. Her manner went back to the spontaneous friendliness that had marked their intercourse before she began to see what he was aiming at, while into it she threw an infusion of something that had not hitherto been there. When he came with the information that a fresh bit of evidence had been discovered, or a new light thrown on an old one, she listened with interest--just the right kind of interest--and made pretexts to detain him, sometimes with Wayne as a third, sometimes without, for the pleasure of his own company. Now and then, as spring came on, they would all three, at her suggestion, cross the street, and stroll in the park together. Leaving Wayne on some convenient seat, they would prolong their own walk, talking with the unguarded confidence of mutual trust. It was she who furnished the topics--books, music, politics, people, anything that chanced to be uppermost. When he decided to purchase an automobile a whole new world of consultation was opened up. They visited establishments together, and drove with Wayne into the country to test machines. Returning Conquest would dine informally, in morning dress, with them; or else, from time to time he would invite them to a restaurant. By-and-by he took to organizing little dinners at his own house, ostensibly to cheer up Wayne, but really to see Miriam at his table.
In all this there was nothing remarkable, as between old friends, except the contrast with her bearing toward him during the past year. He had expected that when Norrie Ford went finally free she would fulfil her contract, and fulfil it well; but he had not expected this instalment of graciousness in advance. It set him to pondering, to looking in the mirror, to refining on that careful dressing which he had already made an art. After all, a man in the fifties was young as long as he looked young, and according as one took the point of view.
Except when Ford's affairs came directly under discussion he occupied, seemingly, a secondary place in their thoughts. Miriam rarely spoke of him at all, and if Conquest brought up his name more frequently it was because his professional interest in the numerous "nice points" of the case was becoming keen. He talked them over with her, partly because of his pleasure in the intelligence with which she grasped them, and partly because their intimacy deepened in proportion as the hope strengthened that Ford's innocence would be proved.
It was June before Miriam heard from South America. Two or three letters to Evie had already come, guardedly written, telling little more than the incidents of Ford's voyage and arrival. It was to Miriam he wrote what he actually had at heart.
* * * * *
"The great moment has come and gone," she read to Conquest. "I have seen Mr. Jarrott, and made a clean breast of everything. It was harder than I expected, though I expected it would be pretty hard. I think I felt sorrier for him than for myself, which is saying a good deal. He not only takes it to heart, but feels it as a cut to his pride. I can see that that thought is uppermost. What he feels is not so much the fact that I deceived him as that I deceived him. I can understand it, too. In a country where there is such a lot of this sort of thing, he has never been touched by it before. It has been a kind of boast that his men were always the genuine article. If one of them is called Smith, it is because he is a Smith, and not a Vere de Vere in hiding. But that isn't all. He took me into his family--into his very heart. He showed that, when I told him. He tried not to, but he couldn't help it. I tell you it hurt--me. I won't try to write about it. I'll tell you everything face to face, when I get up to the mark, if I ever do. Apparently my letters hadn't prepared him for the thing at all. He thought it was to be something to do with Evie, though he might have known I wouldn't have chucked up everything for that. The worst of it is, he's no good at seeing things all round. He can't take my point of view a bit. It is impossible to explain the fix I was put in, because he can see nothing but the one fact that I pulled the wool over his eyes--his eyes, that had never suffered sacrilege before. I sympathize with him in that, and yet I think he might try to see that there's something to be said on my side. He doesn't, and he never will--which only hurts me the more.
"As for Evie, he wouldn't let me mention her name. I didn't insist, because it was too painful--I mean, too painful to see how he took it. He said, in about ten words, that Evie had not been any more engaged than if she had given her word to a man of air, and that there was no reason why she should be spoken of. We left it there. I couldn't deny that, and it was no use saying any more. The only reply to him must be given by Evie herself. He is writing to her, and so am I. I wish you would help her to see that she must consider herself quite free, and that she isn't to undertake what she may not have the strength to carry out. I realize more and more that I was asking her to do the impossible."
* * * * *
It was an hour or two after reading this, when Conquest had gone away, that Evie herself--as dainty as spring, in flowered muslin and a Leghorn hat crowned with a wreath of roses--came fluttering in.
"I've had the queerest letter from Uncle Jarrott," she began, breathlessly. "The poor old dear--well, something must be the matter with him. I can't for the life of me imagine what Herbert can have told him, but he doesn't understand a bit."
Miriam locked her own letter in her desk, saying as she did so:
"How does he show it?--that he doesn't understand."
"Why, he simply talks wild--that's how he shows it. He says I am not to consider myself engaged to Herbert--that I was never engaged to him at all. I wonder what he calls it, if it isn't engaged, when I have a ring--and everything."
"It is rather mystifying." Miriam tried to smile. "I suppose he means that having given your word to Herbert Strange, you're not to consider yourself bound to Norrie Ford, unless you want to."
"Pff! I don't care anything about that. I never liked the name of Herbert--or Strange, either. I told you that before. All the same, I wish Uncle Jarrott would have a little sense."
"Suppose--I mean, just suppose, dear--he felt it his duty to forbid your engagement altogether. What would you do then?"
"It wouldn't be very nice of him, I must say. He was as pleased as Punch over it when I was down there. If he's so capricious, I don't see how he can blame me."
"Blame you, for what, dear?"
"For staying engaged--if it's all right."
"But if he thought it wasn't all right?"
"You do, don't you?"
Evie, who had been prancing about the room, turned sharply on Miriam, who was still at her desk.
"That isn't the question--"
"No, but it's a question. I presume you don't mind my asking it?"
"You may ask me anything, darling--of course. But this is your uncle Jarrott's affair, and yours. It wouldn't do for me--"
"Oh, that's so like you Miriam. You'd exasperate a saint--the way you won't give your opinion when you've got one. I wish I could ask Billy. He'd know. But of course I couldn't, when he thinks I'm still engaged to him."
"What do you want to ask him, Evie, dear?"
"Well, he's a lawyer. He could tell me all about what it's all about. I'm sure I don't know. I didn't think it was anything--and yet here's Uncle Jarrott writing as if it was something awful. He's written to Aunt Queenie, too. Of course I must stand by Herbert, whatever happens--if it isn't very bad; but you can see yourself that I don't want to be mixed up in a--a--in a scandal."
"It would hardly be a scandal, dear; but there would be some--some publicity about it."
"I don't mind publicity. I'm used to that, with my name in the paper every other day. It was in this morning. Did you see it?--the Gresley's dance. Only I do wish they would call me Evelyn, and not Evie. It sounds so familiar."
"I'm afraid they'd put more in about you than just that."
"Would they? What?" Her eyes danced already, in anticipation.
"I can't tell you exactly what; but it would be things you wouldn't like."
Evie twitched about the room, making little clicking sounds with her lips, as signs of meditation.
"Well, I mean to be true to him--a while longer," she said, at last, as if coming to a conclusion. "I'm not going to let Uncle Jarrott think I'm just a puppet to be jerked on a string. The idea! When he was as pleased as Punch about it himself. And Aunt Helen said she'd give me my trousseau. I suppose I sha'n't get that now. But there's the money you offered me for the pearl necklace. Only I'd much rather have the pearl--Well, I'll be true to him, do you see? We're leaving for Newport the day after to-morrow. They say there hasn't been such a brilliant summer for a long time as they expect this year. Thank goodness, there's something to take my mind off all this care and worry and responsiblity, otherwise I think I should pass away. But I shall show Uncle Jarrott that he can't do just as he likes with me, anyhow."
Evie and Miss Jarrott went to Newport, and it was the beginning of July before Miriam heard from Ford again. Once more she read to Conquest such portions of the letter as she thought he would find of interest.
* * * * *
"It is all over now," Ford wrote, "between Stephens and Jarrott and me. I'm out of the concern for good. It was something of a wrench, and I'm glad it is past. I didn't see the old man again. I wanted to thank him and say good-bye, but he dodged me. Perhaps it is just as well. Even if I were to meet him now, I shouldn't make the attempt again. I confess to feeling a little hurt, but I thoroughly understand him. He is one of those men--you meet them now and again--survivals from the old school--with a sense of rectitude so exact that they can only see in a straight line. It is all right. Don't think that I complain. It is almost as much for his sake as for my own that I wish he could have taken what I call a more comprehensive view of me. I know he suffers--and I shall never be able to tell him how sorry I am till we get into the kingdom of heaven. In fact, I can't explain anything to any one, except you, which must be an excuse for my long letters. I try to keep you posted in what I'm going through, so that you may convey as much or as little of it as you think fit to Evie. I can't tell her much, and I see from the little notes she writes me that she doesn't yet understand.
"The cat seems to be quite out of the bag in the office, though I haven't said a word to any one, and I know Mr. Jarrott wouldn't. Pride and sore feeling will keep him from ever speaking of me again, except when he can't help it. I don't mean to say that the men know exactly what it is, but they know enough to set them guessing. They are jolly nice about it, too, even the fellows who were hardly decent to me in the old days. Little Green--the chap from Boston who succeeded me at Rosario; I must have told you about him--and his wife can't do enough for me, and I know they mean it."
There was a silence of some weeks before he wrote again.
"I shall not get away from here as soon as I expected, as my private affairs are not easily settled up. This city grows so fast that I have had a good part of my savings in real estate. I am getting rid of it by degrees, but it takes time to sell to advantage. I may say that I am doing very well, for which I am not sorry, as I shall need the money for my trial. I hope you don't mind my referring to it, because I look forward to it with something you might almost call glee. To get back where I started will be like waking from a bad dream. I can't believe that Justice will make the same mistake twice--and even if she does I would rather she had the chance. I am much encouraged by the last reports from Kilcup and Warren. I've long felt that it was Jacob Gramm who did for my poor uncle, though I didn't like to accuse him of it when the proofs seemed all the other way. He certainly had more reason to do the trick than I had, for my uncle had been a brute to him for thirty years, while he had only worried me for two. He wasn't half a bad old chap, either--old Gramm--and it was one of the mysteries of the place to me that he could have stood it so long. The only explanation I could find was that he had a kind of affection for the old man, such as a dog will sometimes have for a master who beats him, or a woman for a drunken husband. I believe the moment came when he simply found himself at the end of his tether of endurance--and he just did for him. His grief, when it was all over, was real enough. Nobody could doubt that. In fact, it was so evidently genuine that the theory I am putting forward now only came to me of late years. I think there is something in it, and I believe the further they go the more they will find to support it. Now that the old chap is dead I should have less scruple in following it up--especially if the old lady is gone too. She was a bit of a vixen, but the husband was a good old sort. I liked him."
Some weeks later he wrote:
"I wander about this place a good deal like a ghost in its old haunts. Everything here is so temporary, so changing--much more so than in New York--that one's footprints are very quickly washed away. Outside the office almost no one remembers me. It is curious to think that I was once so happy here--and so hopeful. There was always a kind of hell in my heart, but I kept it banked down, as we do the earth's internal fires, beneath a tolerably solid crust. Yesterday, finding myself at the Hipodromo, I stood for a while on the spot where I first saw Evie. It used to seem to me a bit of enchanted ground, but I feel now as if I ought to erect a gravestone there. Poor little Evie! How right you were about it all. It was madness on my part to think she could ever climb up my Calvary. My excuse is that I didn't imagine it was going to be so steep. I even hoped she would never see that there was a Calvary at all. Her notes are still pitifully ignorant of the real state of things.
"And speaking of gravestones, I went out the other day to the Recoleta Cemetery, and looked at the grave of my poor old friend, Monsieur Durand. Everything neat, and in good order. It gives me a peculiar satisfaction to see that the decorum he loved reigns where he 'sleeps.' I never knew his secret--except that rumor put him down for an unfrocked priest.
"I doubt if I shall get away from here till the beginning of October; but when I do, everything will be in trim for what I sometimes think of as my resurrection."
* * * * *
These letters, and others like them, Miriam shared conscientiously with Conquest. It was part of the loyalty she had vowed to him in her heart that she should keep nothing from him, except what was sanctified and sealed forever, as her own private history. In the impulse to give her life as a ransom for Norrie Ford's she was eager to do it without reserves, or repinings, or backward looks--without even a wish that it had been possible to make any other use of it. If she was not entirely successful in the last feat, she was fairly equal to the rest, so that in allowing himself to be misled Conquest could scarcely be charged with fatuity. With his combined advantages, personal and otherwise, it was not astonishing that a woman should be in love with him; and if that woman proved to be Miriam Strange, one could only say that the unexpected had happened, as it often does. If, in view of all the circumstances, he dressed better than ever, and gave his little dinners more frequently, while happiness toned down the sharpness of his handsome profile to a softer line, he had little in common with Malvolio.
And what he had began to drop away from him. Insensibly he came to see that the display of his legal knowledge, of his carefully chosen ties, of his splendid equipment in house, horses, and automobiles, had something of the major-domo's strut in parti-colored hose. The day came when he understood that the effort to charm her by the parade of these things was like the appeal to divine grace by means of grinding on a prayer-mill. It was a long step to take, both in thought and emotion, leading him to see love, marriage, women's hearts, and all kindred subjects, from a different point of view. Love in particular began to appear to him as more than the sum total of approbation bestowed on an object to be acquired. Though he was not prepared to give it a new definition, it was clear that the old one was no longer sufficient for his needs. The mere fact that this woman, whom he had vainly tempted with gifts--whom he was still hoping to capture by prowess--could come to him of her own accord, had a transforming effect on himself. If he ever got her--by purchase, conquest, or any other form of acquisition--he had expected to be proud; he had never dreamed of this curious happiness, that almost made him humble.
It was a new conception of life to think that there were things in it that might be given, but which could not be bought; as it was a new revelation of himself to perceive that there were treasures in his dry heart which had never before been drawn on. This discovery was made almost accidentally. He stumbled on it, as men have stumbled on Koh-i-noors and Cullinanes lying in the sand.
"What I really came to tell you," he said to her, on one occasion, as they strolled side by side in the Park, "is that I am going away to-morrow--to the West--to Omaha."
"Isn't that rather sudden?"
"Rather. I've thought for the last few days I might do it. The fact is, they've found Amalia Gramm."
She stopped with a sudden start of interrogation, moving on again at once. It was a hot September evening, at the hour when twilight merges into night. They had left Wayne on a favorite seat, and having finished their own walk northward, were returning to pick him up and take him home. It was just dark enough for the thin crescent of the harvest moon to be pendulous above the city, while a rim of lighted windows in high faASec.ades framed the tree-tops The peace of the quiet path in which they rambled seemed the more sylvan because of the clang and rumble of the streets, as a room will appear more secluded and secure when there is a storm outside.
"They've found her living with some nieces out there," he went on to explain. "She appears to have been half over the world since old Gramm died--home to Germany--back to America--to Denver--to Chicago--to Milwaukee--to the Lord knows where--and now she has fetched up in Omaha. She strikes me in the light of an unquiet spirit. It seems she has nephews and nieces all over the lot--and as she has the ten thousand dollars old Chris Ford left them--"
"Are they going to bring her here?"
"They can't--bedridden--paralyzed, or something. They've got to take her testimony on the spot. I want to be there when they do it. There are certain questions which it is most important to have asked. In a way, it is not my business; but I'm going to make it mine. I've mulled over the thing so long that I think I see the psychology of the whole drama."
"I can never thank you enough for the interest you've shown," she said, after a brief silence.
He gave his short, nervous laugh.
"Nor I you for giving me the chance to show it. That's where the kindness comes in. It's made a different world for me, and me a different man in it. If anybody had told me last winter that I should spend the whole summer in town working on a criminal case--"
"You shouldn't have done that. I wanted you to go away as usual."
"And leave you here?"
"I shouldn't have minded--as long as Mr. Wayne preferred to stay. It's so hard for him to get about, anywhere but in the place he's accustomed to. New York in summer isn't as bad as people made me think."
"I too have found that true. To me it has been a very happy time. But perhaps my reasons were different from yours."
She reflected a minute before uttering her next words, but decided to say them.
"I fancy our reasons were the same."
The low voice, the simplicity of the sentence, the meanings in it and behind it, made him tremble. It was then, perhaps, that he began to see most clearly the true nature of love, both as given and received.
"I don't think they can be," he ventured, hoping to draw her on to say something more; but she did not respond.
After all, he reflected, as they continued their walk more or less in silence, too many words would only spoil the minute's bliss. There was, too, a pleasure in standing afar off to view the promised land almost equal to that of marching into it--especially when, as now, he was given to understand that its milk and honey were awaiting him.