The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part IV. Conquest.
It was the middle of October when Evie wrote from Lenox to say she would come to town to meet Ford on his arrival, begging Miriam to give her shelter for a night or two. The Grants remaining abroad, Miss Jarrott had taken the house in Seventy-second Street for another winter, but as Evie would run up to New York alone she preferred for the minute to be Miriam's guest.
"The fact is, I'm worried to death," she wrote, confidentially "and you must help me to see daylight through this tangled mass of everybody saying different things. Aunt Queenie has gone completely back on Herbert, just because Uncle Jarrott has. That doesn't strike me as very loyal, I must say. I shouldn't think it right to desert anybody, unless I wanted to. I wouldn't do it because some one else told me to--not if he was my brother ten times over. I mean to be just as true to Herbert as I can Not that he makes it very easy for me, because he has broken altogether with Uncle Jarrott--and that seems to me the maddest thing. I certainly sha'n't get my trousseau from Aunt Helen now. I don't see what we're all coming to. Everybody is so queer, and they keep hinting things they won't say out, as if there was some mystery. I do wish I could talk to Billy about it. Of course I can't--the way matters stand. And speaking of Billy, that rich Mr. Bird--you remember I told you about him last winter--has asked me to marry him. Just think! I forget how much he has a year, but it's something awful. Of course I told him I couldn't give him a definite answer yet--but that if he insisted on it I should have to make it No. He said he didn't insist--that he'd rather wait till I had time to make up my mind, if I didn't keep him dangling. I told him I wouldn't keep him doing anything whatever, and that if he dangled at all it would be entirely of his own accord. I think he liked my spirit, so he said he'd wait. We left it there, which was the wisest way--though I must say I didn't like his presuming on his money to think I would make a difference between him and the others. Money doesn't mean anything to me, though dear mamma hoped she would live to see me well established. She didn't, poor darling, but that's no reason why I shouldn't try to carry out her wishes. All the same, I mean to be true to Herbert just as long as possible; and so you may expect me on the twenty-ninth."
* * * * *
If there was much in this letter that Miriam found disturbing, it was not the thought that Evie might be false to Ford, or that Ford might suffer, which alarmed her most. There was something in her that cried out in fear before the possibility that Norrie Ford might be free again. Her strength having sprung so largely from the hope of restoring the plans she had marred, the destruction of the motive left her weak; but worse than that was the knowledge that, though she had tried to empty her heart completely of its cravings, only its surface had been drained. It was to get assurance rather than to give information that she read fragments of Evie's letter to Conquest, on the evening of his return from Omaha. He had come to give her the news of his success. That it was good news was evident in his face when he entered the room; and, almost afraid to hear it, she had broached the subject of her anxiety about Evie first.
"She's going to give him the sack; that's what she's going to give him," Conquest said, conclusively, while Miriam folded the dashingly scribbled sheets. "You needn't be worried about her in the least. Miss Evie knows her way about as cleverly as a homing bee. She'll do well for herself whatever else she may not do. Come now!"
"I'm not thinking of that so much as that she should do her duty."
"Duty! Pooh! That sort of little creature has no duty--the word doesn't apply to it. Evie is the most skilful mixture of irresponsible impulse and shrewd calculation you'll find in New York. She'll use both her gifts with perfect heartlessness, and yet in such a way that even her guardian angel won't know just where to find fault with her."
"But she must marry Mr. Ford--now."
He was too busy with his own side of the subject to notice that her assertion had the intensity of a cry. He had a man's lack of interest in another man's love-affairs while he was blissfully absorbed in his own.
"You might as well tell a swallow that it must migrate--now," he laughed. "Poor Ford will feel it, I've no doubt; but we shall make up to him for a good deal of it. We're going to pull him through."
For the instant her anxiety was diverted into another channel. "Does that mean that Amalia Gramm has told you anything?"
"She's told us everything. I thought she would. I don't feel at liberty to give you the details before they come out at the proper time and place; but there's no harm in saying that my analysis of the old woman's psychological state was not so very far wrong. There's no question about it any longer. We'll pull him through. And, by George, he's worth it!"
The concluding exclamation, uttered with so much sincerity, took her by surprise, transmuting the pressure about her heart into a mist of sudden tears. Tears came to her rarely, hardly, and seldom with relief. She was especially unwilling that Conquest should notice them now; but the attempt to dash them away only caused them to fall faster. She could see him watching her in a kind of sympathetic curiosity, slightly surprised in his turn at the unexpected emotion, and trying to divine its cause. Unable to bear his gaze any longer, she got up brusquely from her chair, retreating into the bay-window, where--the curtains being undrawn--she stood looking down on the sea of lights, as beings above the firmament might look down on stars. He waited a minute, and came near her only when he judged that he might do so discreetly.
"You're unnerved," he said, with tender kindliness. "That's why you're upset. You've had too much on your mind. You're too willing to take all the care on your own shoulders, and not let other people hustle for themselves."
She was pressing her handkerchief against her lips, so she made no reply. The moment seemed to him one at which he might go forward a little more boldly. All the circumstances warranted an advance from his position of reserve.
"You need me," he ventured to say, with that quiet assurance which in a lover means much. "I understand you as no one else does in the world."
Her brimming eyes gave him a look which was only pathetic, but which he took to be one of assent.
"I've always told you I could help you," he went on, with tranquil earnestness, "and I could. You've too many burdens to carry alone--burdens that don't belong to you, but which, I know, you'll never lay down. Well, I'll share them. There's Wayne, now. He's too much for you, by yourself--I don't mean from the material point of view, but--the whole thing. It wears on you. It's bound to. Wayne is my friend just as much as yours. He's my responsibility--so long as you take it in that light. I've been thinking of him a lot lately--and I see how, in my house--could put him up--ideally."
Still pressing her handkerchief against her lips with her right hand, she put out her left in a gesture of deprecation. He understood it as one of encouragement, and went on.
"You must come and look at my house. You've never really seen it, and I think you'd like it. I think you'd like--everything I've got everything to make you happy; and if you'll only let me do it, you'll make me happy, too."
She felt able to speak at last. Her eyes were still brimming as she turned toward him, but brimming only as pools are when the rain is over.
"I want you to be happy. You're so good ... and kind ... and you've done so much for me ... you deserve it."
She turned away from him again. With her arm on the woodwork of the window, she rested her forehead rather wearily on her hand. He understood so little of what was passing within her that she found it a relief to suspend for the minute her comedy of spontaneous happiness, letting her heart ache unrestrainedly. Her left hand hanging limp and free, she made no effort to withdraw it when she felt him clasp it in his own. Since she had subscribed to the treaty months ago, since she had insisted on doing it rightly or wrongly, it made little difference when and how she carried the conditions out. So they stood hand in hand together, tacitly, but, as each knew, quite effectually, plighted. In her silence, her resignation, her evident consent he read the proof of that love which, to his mind, no longer needed words.
* * * * *
Late that night, after he had gone away, she wrote to Evie, beseeching her to be true to Ford. The letter was so passionate, so little like herself, that she was afraid of destroying it if she waited till morning, so she posted it without delay. The answer came within forty-eight hours, in the shape of a telegram from Evie. She was coming to town at once, though it wanted still three or four days to Ford's arrival.
It was a white little Evie, with drawn face, who threw herself into Miriam's arms at the station, clutching at her with a convulsive sob.
"Miriam, I can't do it," she whispered, in a kind of terror. "They say he's going to be put in--jail!"
Her voice rose on the last word, so that one or two people paused in their rush past to glance at the pitifully tragic little face.
"Hush, darling," Miriam whispered back. "You'll tell me about it as we go home."
But in the motor Evie could only cry, clinging to Miriam as she used to do in troubled moments in childhood. Arrived at the apartment, Wayne had to be faced with some measure of self-control, and then came dinner. At table Evie, outwardly mistress of herself by this time, talked feverish nonsense about their common friends in Lenox, after which she made an excuse for retiring early. It was only in the bedroom, when they were secure from interruption that Miriam heard what Evie had to tell. She was tearless now, and rather indignant.
"I've had the strangest letter from Herbert," she declared excitedly, as soon as Miriam entered the room. "I couldn't have believed he wrote it in his senses if Aunt Queenie hadn't heard the Same thing from Uncle Jarrott. He says he's got to go to--jail."
There was the same rising inflexion on the last word, suggestive of a shriek of horror, that Miriam had noticed in the station. In her white peignoir, her golden hair streaming over her shoulders, and her hands flung wide apart with an appealing dramatic gesture, Evie was not unlike some vision of a youthful Christian martyr, in spite of the hair-brush in her hand. Miriam sat down sidewise on the edge of the couch, looking up at the child in pity. She felt that it was useless to let her remain in darkness any longer.
"Of course he has to," she said, trying to make her tone as matter of fact as might be. "Didn't you know it?"
"Know it! Did you?"
Evie stepped forward, bending over Miriam as if she meant to strike her.
"I knew it in a general way, darling. I suppose, when he gives himself to the police--"
"The police!" Evie screamed. "Am I to be engaged to a man who--gives himself up to the police?"
"It will only be for a little while, dear--"
"I don't care whether it's for a little while or foreverit can't be. What is he thinking of? What are you thinking of? Don't you see? How can I face the world--with all my invitations--when the man I'm engaged to is--in jail?"
Evie's hands flew up in a still more eloquent gesture, while the blue eyes, usually so soft and veiled, were wide with flaming interrogation.
"I knew that--in some ways--it might be hard for you--"
Evie laughed, a little silvery mirthless ripple of scorn.
"I must say, Miriam, you choose your words skilfully. But you're wrong, do you see? There's no way in which it can be hard for me, because there's no way in which it's possible."
"Oh yes, there is, dear--if you love him."
"That has nothing to do with it. Of course I love him. Haven't I said so? But that doesn't make any difference. Can't I love him without being engaged to--to--to a man who has to go to jail?"
"Certainly; but you can't love him if you don't feel that you must--that you simply must--stand by his side."
"There you go again, Miriam, with your queer ideas. It's exactly what any one would expect you to say."
"I hope so."
"Oh, you needn't hope so, because they would--any one who knew you. But I have to do what's right. I know what I feel in my conscience--and I have to follow it. And besides, I couldn't--I couldn't"--her voice began to rise again--"I couldn't face it--I couldn't bear it--not if I loved him a great deal better than I do."
"That's something you must think about very seriously, dear--"
"I don't have to!" she cried, with a stamp of her foot. "I know it already. It wouldn't make any difference if I thought about it a thousand years. I couldn't be engaged to a man who was in jail, not if I worshipped the ground he trod on."
"But when he's innocent, darling--"
"It's jail, just the same. I can't be engaged to people just because they're innocent. It isn't right to expect it of me. And, anyhow," she added, passionately, "I can't do it. It would kill me. I should never lift my head again. I can't--I can't. It's hateful of any one to say I ought to. I'm surprised at you, Miriam, when you know how dear mamma would have forbidden it. It's all very well for you to give advice, when you have no family--and no one to think about--and hardly any invitations-- Well, I can't, and there's an end of it. If that's your idea of love, then, I must say, my conception is a little different. I've always had high ideals, and I feel obliged to hold to them, however you may condemn me."
She ended with a catch in her breath something like a sob.
"But I'm not condemning you, Evie dear. If you feel what you say, there's nothing for it but to see Mr. Ford and tell him so."
At this suggestion Evie sobered. She was a long time silent before she observed, in a voice that had become suddenly calm and significantly casual, "That's easy for you to say."
"If you speak to him as decidedly as to me, I should think it would be easy for you to do."
"And still easier for you."
Evie spoke in that tone of unintentional intention which is most pointed. It was not lost on Miriam, who recoiled from the mere thought. It seemed to her better to ignore the hint, but Evie, with feverish eagerness, refused to let it pass.
"Did you hear what I said?" she persisted, sharply.
"I heard it, dear; but it didn't seem to me to mean anything."
"That would depend on whether you heard it only with the ear or in the heart."
"You know that everything that has to do with you is in my heart."
"But if you mean by that that I should tell Mr. Ford you're not going to marry him--why, it's out of the question."
"Then who's to tell him? I can't. It's not to be expected."
"But, darling, you must. This is awful."
Miriam got up and went toward her, but Evie, who was nervously brushing her hair, edged away.
"Of course it's awful, but I don't see the use of making it worse than it need be. He'll feel it a great deal more if he sees me, and so shall I."
"And what shall I feel?" Miriam spoke unguardedly, but Evie was too preoccupied to notice the bitterness of the tone.
"I don't see why you should feel anything at all. It's nothing to you--or very little. It wouldn't be your fault; not any more than it's the postman's if he has to bring you a letter with bad news."
Miriam went back to her place on the edge of the couch, where with her forehead bowed for a minute on her hand she sat reflecting. An overwhelming desire for confidence, for sympathy perhaps, for the clearing up of mysteries in any case, was impelling her to tell Evie all that had ever happened between Ford and herself. It had been necessary to maintain so many reserves that possibly this new light would enable Evie to see her own duty more straightforwardly.
"Darling," she began, "I want to tell you something--"
But before she could proceed Evie flung the hair-brush on the floor and uttered a great swelling sob. With her hands hanging at her sidess and her golden head thrown back, she wept with the abandonment of a child, while suggesting the seraphic suffering of a grieving angel by some old master.
In an instant Miriam had her in her arms. It was the appeal she had never been able to resist.
"There, there, my pet," she said, soothingly, drawing her to the couch. "Come to Miriam, who loves you. There, there."
Evie clung to her piteously, with flower-like face tilted outward and upward for the greater convenience of weeping.
"Oh, I'm so lonely!" she sobbed. "I'm so lonely ... I I wish dear mamma ... hadn't died."
Miriam pressed her the more closely.
"I'm so lonely ... and everything's so strange ... and I don't know what to do ... and he's going to be put in jail ... and you're so unkind to me.... Oh, dear! ... I can't tell him ... I can't tell him ... I can't ... I can't ..."
She pillowed her head on Miriam's shoulder, like a child that would force a caress from the hand that has just been striking it. The action filled Miriam with that kind of self-reproach which the weak creature inspires so easily in the strong. In spite of her knowledge to the contrary, she had the feeling of having acted selfishly.
"No, darling," she said, at last, as Evie's sobs subdued into convulsive tremblings, "you needn't tell him. I'll see him. He'll understand how hard it's been for you. It's been hard for every one--and especially for you, darling. I'll do my best. You know I will. And I'm sure he'll understand. There, there," she comforted, as Evie's tears broke out afresh. "Have your cry out, dear. It will do you good. There, there."
* * * * *
So Evie went back next day to Lenox, while Miriam waited for Ford.