The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part IV. Conquest.
A few days later she read his name, in a morning paper, in the Asiatic's list of passengers the steamer having arrived at quarantine the night before: Mr. John Norrie Ford. Though flung carelessly into a paragraph printed in small type, it seemed to blaze in fire on the page! It was as if all America must rise at it. As she looked from the window it was with something like surprise that she saw the stream of traffic roaring onward, heedless of the fact that this dread name was being hawked in the streets and sold at the news-stands. She sent out for the evening papers that appear at midday, being relieved and astonished to find that as yet it had created no sensation.
She was not deceived by his ease of manner when he appeared at the apartment in the afternoon. Though he carried his head loftily, and smiled with his habitual air of confidence, she could see that the deep waters of the proud had gone over his soul. Their ebb had streaked his hair and beard with white, and deepened the wrinkles that meant concentrated will into the furrows that come of suffering. She was more or less prepared for that. It was the outward manifestation of what she had read between the lines of the letters he had written her. As he crossed the room, with hand outstretched, her one conscious thought was of the chance to be a woman and a helpmeet Evie had flung away. She had noticed how, on the very threshold, he had glanced twice about the room, expecting to find her there.
They did not speak of her at once. They talked of commonplace introductory things--the voyage, the arrival, the hotel at which he was staying--anything that would help her, and perhaps him, to control the preliminary nervousness. There was no sign of it, however, on his part, while she felt her own spirit rising, as it always did, to meet emergencies. Presently she mentioned her fears regarding his use of his true name.
"No; it isn't dangerous," he assured her, "because I'm out of danger now. Thank the Lord, that's all over. I don't have to live with a great hulking terror behind me any longer. I'm a man like any other. You can't imagine what it means to be yourself, and not to care who knows it. I'm afraid I parade my name just like a boy with a new watch, who wants to tell every one the time. So far no one has paid any particular attention; but I dare say that will come. Is Evie here?"
"She's not here--to-day."
"Why not?" he asked, sharply. "She said she would be. She said she'd come to town--"
"She did come to town, but she thought she'd better not--stay."
"Not stay? Why shouldn't she stay? Is anything up? You don't mean that Miss Jarrott--?"
"No; Miss Jarrott had nothing to do with it. I know her brother has written to her, in the way you must be prepared for. But she couldn't have kept Evie from waiting for you, if Evie herself--"
"Had wanted to," he finished, as she seemed to hesitate at the words.
Since she said nothing to modify this assertion, she hoped he would comprehend its gravity. Indeed, he seemed to be trying to attenuate that when he spoke next.
"I suppose she had engagements--or something."
"She did have engagements--but she could have put them off."
"Only she didn't care to. I see."
She allowed him time to accept this fact before going on.
"Her return to Lenox," she said then, "wasn't because of her engagements."
"Then it must have been because of me. Didn't she want to see me?"
"She didn't want to tell you what she felt she would have to say."
"Oh! So that was it."
He continued to sit looking at her with an expression of interrogation, though it was evident from his eyes that his questions had been answered. They sat in the same relative positions as on the night of their last long talk together, he in his big arm-chair, she in her low one. It struck her as strange--while he stared at her with that gaze of inquiry from which the inquiry was gone--that she, who meant so little to his inner life, should be called on again to live through with him minutes that must forever remain memorable in his existence.
"Poor little thing! So she funked telling me."
The comment was made musingly, to himself, but she took it as if addressed to her.
"She wasn't equal to it."
"But you are. You're equal to anything. Aren't you?" He smiled with that peculiar twisted smile which she had noticed at other times, when he was concealing pain.
"One is generally equal to what one has to do. All the same," she added, with an impulse she could not repress, "I'm sorry to be always associated in your mind with things that must be hard for you."
"You're associated in my mind with everything that's high and noble. That's the only memory I shall ever have of you. You've been with me through some of the dark spots of my life; but if it hadn't been for you I shouldn't have found the way."
"Thank you. I'm glad you can say that. I should be even more sorry than I am to give you this news to-day, if it were not that perhaps I can explain things a little better than Evie could."
"I don't imagine that they require much explanation. I've seen from Evie's letters that--"
"That she was afraid of--the situation. She hasn't changed toward you."
"Do you mean by that that she still--cares anything about me?"
"She says she does."
"But you don't believe her."
"I'm not entitled to an opinion. It's something you and she must work out together. All I can do is to tell you what may give you a little hope."
She watched for the brightening effect of these words upon him, but he sat looking absently at the floor, as if he had not heard them.
"Evie is afraid," she continued, "but I think it's only fair to remember that the circumstances might well frighten any young girl of her sort."
He showed that he followed her by nodding assent, though he neither lifted his head nor spoke.
"She wanted me to tell you that while the--the trial--and other things--are going on, she couldn't be engaged to you--I'm using her own expression, but she didn't say that, when it was all over and you were free, she wouldn't marry you. I noticed that."
He looked up quickly.
"I'm not sure that I catch your drift."
"I mean that when it's all over, and everything has ended as you hope it will, it may be quite possible for you to win her back."
He stared at her, with an incredulous lifting of the eyebrows
"Would you advise me to try?"
"It isn't a matter I could give advice about. I'm showing you what might be possible, but--"
"No, no. That sort of thing doesn't work. There was just a chance that Evie might have stuck to me spontaneously but since she didn't--"
"Since she didn't--what?"
"She was quite right not to. I admit that. It's in the order of things. She followed her instinct rather than her heart--I'm ready to believe that--but there are times in life when instinct is a pretty good guide."
"Am I to understand that you're not--hurt?--or disappointed? Because in that case--"
"I don't know whether I am or not. That's frank. I'm feeling so many things all at once that I can hardly distinguish one emotion from another, or tell which is strongest. I only know--it's become quite plain to me--that a little creature like Evie couldn't find a happy home in my life, any more than a humming-bird, as you once called her, could make its nest among crags."
"Do you mean by that," she asked, slowly, "that you're--definitely--letting her go?"
"I mean that, Evie being what she is, and I being what life has made me--Isn't it perfectly evident? Can you fancy us tied together--now?"
"I never could fancy it. I haven't concealed that from you at any time. But since you loved her, and she loved you--"
"That was true enough--in its way. In its way, it's still true. Evie still loves the man I was, perhaps, and the man I was loves her. The difference is that the man I was isn't sitting here in front of you."
"One changes with years, of course. I didn't suppose one could change in a few months, like that."
"One changes with experience--above all, with that kind of experience which people generally call--suffering. That's the great Alchemist; and he often transmutes our silver into gold. In my case, Evie was silver; but I've found there's something else that stands for--"
"So that," she interposed, quickly, "you're not sorry that Evie--?"
He got up, restlessly, and stood with his back to the empty fireplace.
"It isn't a case for sorrow," he replied, after a minute's thinking, "as it isn't one for joy. It's one purely for acceptance. When I first knew Evie I was still something of a kid. It was so all the more because the kid element in me had never had full play. I was arrogant, and cock-sure and certain of my ability to manipulate the world to suit myself. That was all Evie saw, and she liked it. In as far as she had it in her to fall in love with anything, she fell in love with it."
He took a turn or two across the room, coming back to his stand on the hearth-rug.
"I've travelled far since then," he continued; "I've had to travel far. Evie hasn't been able to come with me; and that's all there is to the story. It isn't her fault; because when I asked her, I had no intention of taking this particular way."
"It was I who drove you into that," she said, with a hint of remorse.
"Yes--you--and conscience--and whatever else I honor most. I give you the credit first of all, because, if it hadn't been for you, I shouldn't have had the moral energy to assert my true self against the false one. Isn't it curious that, after having made me Herbert Strange, it should be you who turned me into Norrie Ford again? It means that you exercise supreme power over me--a kind of creative power. You can make of me what you care to. It's no wonder that I've come to see----" He paused, in doubt as to how to express himself, while her eyes were fixed on him in troubled questioning. "It's no wonder," he went on again, "that I've come to see everything in a truer light--Evie as well as all the rest of it."
With a renewed impulse to move about, he strode toward the bay-window, where he stood for a few seconds, looking out and trying to co-ordinate his thoughts. Wheeling round again, he drew up a small chair close to hers, seating himself sidewise, with his arm resting on the back. He looked like a man anxious to explain himself.
"You're blaming me, I think, because I don't take Evie's defection more to heart. Isn't that so?"
"I'm not blaming you. I may be a little surprised at it."
"You wouldn't be surprised at it, if you knew all I've been through. It's difficult to explain to you--"
"There's no reason why you should try."
"But I want to try. I want you to know. You see," he pursued, speaking slowly, as if searching for the right words--"you see, it's largely a question of progress--of growth. Trouble has two stages. In the first, you think it hard luck that you should have to meet it. In the second, you see that, having met it, and gone through it, you come out into a region of big experience, where everything is larger and nobler than you thought it was before. Now, you'd probably think me blatant if I said that I feel myself emerging into--that."
"No, I shouldn't. As a matter of fact, I know you're doing it."
"Well, then, having got there--out into that new kind of world"--he sketched the vision with one of his Latin gestures--"I discover that--for one reason or another--poor little Evie has stayed on the far side of it. She couldn't pass the first gate with me, or the second, or the third, to say nothing of those I have still to go through. You know I'm not criticising, or finding fault with her, don't you?"
She assured him of that.
"And yet, I must go on, you see. There's no waiting or turning back for me, any more than for a dying man. No matter who goes or who stays, I must press forward. If Evie can't make the journey with me, I can only feel relieved that she's able to slip out of it--but I must still go on. I can't look back; I can't even be sorry--because I'm coming into the new, big land. You see what I mean?"
She signified again that she followed him.
"But the finding of a new land doesn't take anything from the old one. It only enlarges the world. Europe didn't become different because they discovered America. The only change was in their getting to know a country where the mountains were higher, and the rivers broader, and the sunshine brighter, and where there was a chance for the race to expand. Evie remains what she was. The only difference is that my eyes have been opened to--a new ideal."
It was impossible for her not to guess at what he meant. Independently of words, his earnest eyes told their tale, while he bent toward her like a man not quite able to restrain himself. In the ensuing seconds of silence she had time to be aware of three distinct phases of emotion within her consciousness, following each other so rapidly as to seem simultaneous. A throb of reckless joy in the perception that he loved her was succeeded by the knowledge that loyalty to Conquest must make rejoicing vain, while it flashed on her that, having duped herself once in regard to him, she must not risk the humiliating experience a second time. It was this last reflection that prevailed, keeping her still and unresponsive. After all, his new ideal might be something--or some one--quite different from what her fond imagining was so ready to believe.
"I suppose," she said, vaguely, for the sake of saying something, "that trial is the first essential to maturity. We need it for our ripening, as the flowers and fruit need wind and rain."
"And there are things in life," he returned, quickly, "that no immature creature can see. That's the point I want you to notice. It explains me. In a way, it's an excuse for me."
"I don't need excuses for you," she hastened to say, "any more than I require to have anything explained."
"No; of course not. You don't care anything about it. It's only I who do. But I care so much that I want you to understand why it was that--that--I didn't care before."
She felt the prompting to stop him, to silence him, but once more she held herself back. There was still a possibility that she was mistaking him, and her pride was on its guard.
"It was because I didn't know any better," he burst out, in naA-ve self-reproach. "It was because I couldn't recognize the high, the fine thing when I saw it. I've had that experience in other ways, and with just the same result. It was like that when I first began to hear good music. I couldn't make it out--it was nothing but a crash of sounds. I preferred the ditties and dances of a musical comedy; and it was only by degrees that I began to find them flat. Then my ear caught something of the wonderful things in the symphonies that used to bore me. You see, I'm slow--I'm stupid--"
"Not at all," she smiled. "It's quite a common experience."
"But I'm like that all through, with everything. I've been like that--with women. I used to be attracted by quite an ordinary sort. It's taken me years--all these years, till I'm thirty-three--to see that there's a perfect expression of the human type, just as there's a perfect expression of any kind of art. And I've found it."
He bent farther forward, nearer to her. There was a light in his face that seemed to her to denote enthusiasm quite as much as love. To her wider experience in emotions this discovery of himself, which was involved in his discovery of her, was rather youthful, provoking a faint smile.
"You're to be congratulated, then," she said, with an air of distant friendliness. "It isn't every one who's so fortunate."
"That's true. There's only one man in the world who's more fortunate than I. That's Conquest."
In the brusqueness with which she started she pushed her chair slightly back from him. It was to conceal her agitation that she rose, steadying herself on the back of the chair in which she had been seated.
"Conquest saw what I didn't--till it was too late."
He was on his feet now, facing her, with the chair between them.
"I wish you wouldn't say any more," she begged, though without overemphasis of pleading. She was anxious, for her own sake as well as for his, to keep to the tone of the colloquial.
"I don't see why I shouldn't. I'm not going to say anything to shock you. I know you're going to marry Conquest. You told me so before I went away, and----"
"I should like to remind you that Mr. Conquest is the best friend you have. When you hear what he's done for you, you will see that you owe him more than you do any man in the world."
"I know that. I'm the last to forget it. But it can't do any harm to tell the woman--who's going to be his wife--that I owe her even more than I do him."
"It can't do any harm, perhaps; but when I ask you not to----"
"I can't obey you. I shouldn't be a man if I went through life without some expression of my--gratitude; and now's the only time to make it. There are things which I wasn't free to say before, because I was bound to Evie--and which it will soon be too late for you to listen to, because you'll be bound to him. You're not bound to him yet----"
"I am bound to him," she said, in a tone in which there were all the regrets he had no reason to divine. "I don't know what you think of saying; but whatever it is, I implore you not to say it."
"It's precisely because you don't know that I feel the necessity of telling you. It's something I owe you. It's like a debt. It isn't as if we were just any man and any woman. We're a man and a woman in a very special relation to each other. No matter what happens, nothing can change that. And it isn't as if we were going to live in the same world, in the same way. You will be Conquest's wife--a great lady in New York. I shall be--well, Heaven only knows what I shall be, but nothing that's likely to cross your path again. All the same, it won't hurt you, it wouldn't hurt any woman, however good, to hear what I'm going to tell you. It wouldn't hurt any man--not even Conquest--that it should be said to his wife--in the way that I shall say it. If it could, I wouldn't----"
"Wait a minute," she said, suddenly. "Let me ask you something." She took a step toward him, though her hand rested still on the back of the chair. "If I know it already," she continued, looking him in the eyes, "there would be no necessity for you to speak?"
He took the time to consider this in all its bearings.
"I'd rather tell you in my own words," he said, at last; "but if you assure me that you know, I shall be satisfied."
She took a step nearer to him still. Only the tips of her fingers now rested on the back of the chair, to which she held, as to a bulwark. Before she spoke she glanced round the room, as though afraid lest the doors and walls might mistake her words for a confession.
"Then I do know," she said, quietly.