The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part IV. Conquest.
"The old lady was willing enough to talk," Conquest assured Ford, in his narrative of the taking of Amalia Gramm's testimony. "There's nothing more loquacious than remorse. I figured on that before going out to Omaha."
"But if she had no hand in the crime, I don't see where the remorse comes in."
"It comes in vicariously. She feels it for Jacob, since Jacob didn't live to feel it for himself. It involves a subtle element of wifely devotion which I guess you're too young, or too inexperienced, to understand. She was glad old Jacob was gone, so that she could make his confession with impunity. She was willing to make any atonement within her power, since it was too late to call him to account."
"Isn't that a bit far-fetched?"
"Possibly--except to a priest, or a lawyer, or a woman herself. It isn't often that a woman's heroism works in a straight line, like a soldier's, or a fireman's. It generally pops at you round some queer corner, where it takes you by surprise. Before leaving Omaha I'd come to see that Amalia Gramm was by no means the least valiant of her sex."
Conquest's smoking-room, with its space and height, its deep leather arm-chairs, its shaded lamps, its cheerful fire, suggested a club rather than a private dwelling, and invited the most taciturn guest to confidence. Ford stretched himself before the blaze with an enjoyment rendered keener by the thought that it might be long before he had occasion to don a dinner-jacket again, or taste such a good Havana. Though it was only the evening of his arrival, he was eager to give himself up. Now that he had "squared himself," as he expressed it, with Miriam Strange, he felt he had put the last touch to his preparations. Kilcup and Warren were holding him back for a day or two, but his own promptings were for haste.
"I admit," Conquest continued to explain, as he fidgeted about the room, moving a chair here, or an ash-tray there, with the fussiness of an old bachelor of housekeeping tastes--"I admit that I thought the old woman was trying it on at first. But I came to the conclusion that she had told a true story from the start. When she gave her evidence at your trial she thought you were--the man."
"There's nothing surprising in that. They almost made me think so, too."
"It did look fishy, my friend. You won't mind my saying that much. Clearer heads than your jury of village store-keepers and Adirondack farmers might have given the same verdict. But old lady Gramm's responsibility hadn't begun then. It was a matter of two or three years before she came to see--as women do see things about the men they live with--that the hand which did the job was Jacob's. By that time you had disappeared into space, and she didn't feel bound to give the old chap away. She says she would have done it if it could have saved you; but since you had saved yourself, she confined her attentions to shielding Jacob. You may credit as much or as little of that as you please; but I believe the bulk of it. In any case, since it does the trick for us we have no reason to complain. Come now!"
"I'm not going to complain of anything. It's been a rum experience all through, but I can't say that, in certain aspects, I haven't enjoyed it. I have enjoyed it. If it weren't for the necessity of deceiving people who are decent to you, I'd go through it all again."
"That's game," Conquest said, approvingly, as he worked round to the hearth-rug, where he stood cutting the end of a cigar, with Ford's long figure stretched out obliquely before him.
"I would," Ford assured him. "I'd go through it all again, like a shot. It's been a lark from--I won't say from start to finish--but certainly from the minute--let me see just when!--certainly from the minute when Miss Strange beckoned to me, over old Wayne's shoulder."
An odd look came by degrees into Conquest's face--the look of pitying amusement with which one listens to queer things said by some one in delirium. He kept the cutter fixed in the end of the cigar, too much astonished to complete his task.
"Since Miss Strange did--what?"
Ford was too deeply absorbed in his own meditations to notice the tone.
"I mean, since she pulled me through."
Conquest's face broke into a broad smile.
"Are you dreaming, old chap? Or have you 'got 'em again'?"
"I'm going back in the story," Ford explained, with a hint of impatience. "I'm talking about the night when Miss Strange saved me."
"Miss Strange saved you? How?"
Ford raised himself slowly in his chair, his long legs stretched out straight before him, and his body bent stiffly forward, as he stared up at Conquest, in puzzled interrogation.
"Do you mean to say," he asked, incredulously, "that she hasn't told you--that?"
"Perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me yourself. I'll be hanged if I know what you're talking about."
There was suppressed irritation in the way in which he tore off the end of the cigar and struck a match. Ford let himself sink back into the chair again.
"So she never told you! By George, that's like her! It's just what I might have expected."
"Look here," Conquest said, sharply, "did you know Miss Strange before you came up here from South America?" He stood with his cigar unlighted, for he had let the match burn down to his fingers before attempting to apply it. "Was your taking the name of Strange," he demanded with sudden inspiration, "merely an accident, as I've supposed it was--or had it anything to do with her?"
"It wasn't an accident, and it did have something to do with her."
"Just so! And you kept it dark!"
Something in Conquest's intonation caused Ford to look up. He saw a man with face suddenly growing gray, as though a light had gone out of it. He was disturbed only to the point of feeling that he had spoken tactlessly, and proceeded to repair the error.
"I kept it dark for obvious reasons. If Miss Strange didn't tell you about it, it's because she isn't the kind of person to talk of an incident in which her own part was so noble. I'll give you the whole story now."
"I should be obliged to you," Conquest said, dryly.
He sat down on the very edge of one of the big arm-chairs, leaning forward, and fingering his still unlighted cigar nervously, as he watched Ford puff out successive rings of smoke before beginning. He was less on his guard to screen the intenseness with which he listened, because Ford spoke at first in a dreamy way, without looking in his direction.
With more insight into the circumstances surrounding him Ford would have told his tale with greater reticence. As it was he spoke with enthusiasm, an enthusiasm born of an honest desire that Conquest should see the woman he was about to marry in the full beauty of her character. In regard to this he himself had made the discovery so slowly and so recently that he was animated by something like a convert's zeal. Beginning his narrative quietly, in a reminiscent vein, with intervals in which he lapsed altogether into meditation, he was presently fired with all the animation in a story-teller when he perceives he is holding his hearer spellbound. As a matter of fact, he was moved not so much by the desire of convincing Conquest of Miriam Strange's nobility, as by the impulse to do her justice, once in his life at least, in language of his own.
It was a naA-ve bit of eloquence, of which no detail was lost on the experienced man of the world, who sat twirling his cigar with nervous fingers, his eyes growing keener in proportion as his face became more gray. It was part of his professional acquirement to be able to draw his deductions from some snatch of human drama as he listened to its unfolding. His quickness and accuracy of judgment had, indeed, been a large element in his success; so that the habit of years enabled him to preserve a certain calmness of comprehension now. It lost nothing in being a studied calmness, since the forcing of his faculties within restraint concentrated their acumen.
Ford concluded with what for him was an almost lyric outburst.
"By George! Conquest, I didn't know there were such women in the world. She's been a revelation to me--as art and religion are revelations to other people. She came to me as the angel came to Peter in the prison; but, like Peter, I didn't know it was an angel. There's a sort of glory about her--a glory which it takes a higher sense than any I've got to see and understand. After all she's done for me--after all this time--I'm only now beginning to get glimpses of it; but it's merely as we get glimpses of an infinite beyond, because we see the stars. She's a mystery to me, in the same way that genius is a mystery, or holiness. I didn't appreciate her because I hadn't the soul, and yet it's in seeing that I hadn't the soul that I begin to get it. That's curious, isn't it? She's like some heavenly spirit that's passed by me, and touched me into newness of life."
His ardor was so sincere, his hymn of praise so spontaneous that he expected some sort of echo back. It seemed to him that even if Conquest did not join in this chant in honor of the woman who presumably loved him, whom more presumably still he loved, it would be but natural for him to applaud it. Ford knew that if any one else had sung of Miriam Strange as he had just been singing, he would have leaped to his feet and wrung the man's hand till it ached. It surprised him, therefore, it disappointed him, that Conquest should sit unmoved, unless the spark-like twinkle of his little eyes could be taken as emotion.
It was a relief to Conquest to get up, scratch another match, and light his cigar at last, turning his back so that it should not be seen that his fingers trembled. When he was sure of himself he faced about again, taking his seat.
"It's the most amazing story I ever heard," was his only comment, in response to Ford's look of expectation.
"I hoped it might strike you as something more than--amazing," Ford ventured, after a minute's waiting for a more appreciative word.
"Perhaps it will when I get my breath. You must give me time for that. Do you actually tell me that she kept you in her studio for weeks----?"
"Three weeks and four days, to be exact."
"And that she furnished you with food and clothing----?"
"And money--but I paid that back."
"And got you away in that ingenious fashion----?"
"Just as I've told you."
"Amazing! Simply amazing! And," he added, with some bitterness, "you came back here--and you and she together--took us all in."
Ford drew his cigar from his lips, and, turning in his chair, faced Conquest in an attitude and with a look which could not be misinterpreted.
"I came back here, and took you all in--if you like. Miss Strange had nothing to do with it. She didn't even expect me."
The last sentence gave Conquest the opening he was looking for, but now that he had it, he hesitated to make use of it. In his memory were the very words Miriam Strange had stammered out to him in the sort of confession no woman ever makes willingly: "Things happened ... such as don't generally happen ... and even if he never comes ... I'd rather go on waiting for him ... uselessly." It was all growing clear to him, and yet not so clear but that there was time even now to let the matter drop into the limbo of things it is best not to know too much about. It was against his better judgment, then--his better judgment as a barrister-at-law--that he found himself saying:
"She didn't expect you at that day and date, perhaps: but she probably looked for you some time."
"Possibly; but if so, I know little or nothing about it."
The reply, delivered with a certain dignified force of intention, recalled Conquest to a sense of his own interests. He had too often counselled his clients to let sleeping dogs lie, not to be aware of the advantage of doing it himself; and so, restraining his jealous curiosity, he turned the conversation back to the evidence of Amalia Gramm.
During the next half-hour he manifested that talent--partly native and partly born of practice--which he had often commended in himself, of talking about one thing and thinking of another. His exposition of the line to be adopted in Ford's defence was perfectly lucid, when all the while he was saying to himself that this was the man whom Miriam Strange had waited for through eight romantic years.
The fact leaped at him, but it was part of his profession not to be afraid of facts. If they possessed adverse qualities one recognized them boldly, in the practise of law, chiefly with a view of circumventing them. The matter presented itself first of all, not as one involving emotional or moral issues, but as an annoying arrangement of circumstances which might cheat him out of what he had honestly acquired. He had no intention of being cheated by any one whatever; and as he made a rapid summary of the points of the case he saw that the balance of probabilities was in his favor. It was to make that clear to Ford that he led the conversation back again to the subject of his adventures, tempting him to repeat at least a portion of his hymn of praise. By the time he had finished it Conquest was able to resume the friendly, confidential tone with which they had begun the evening.
"It's very satisfactory to me, old man," he said, between quiet puffs at his cigar, "to know that you think so highly of Miss Strange, because--I don't know whether you have heard it--she and I are to be married before long."
He looked to see Ford disconcerted by this announcement and was surprised to see him take it coolly.
"Yes; I knew that. I've meant to congratulate you when the time came. I should say it had come now."
There was a candor about him that Conquest could scarcely discredit, though he was unwilling to trust it too far.
"Thanks, old man. I scarcely expected you to be so well posted. May I ask how--?"
"Oh, I've known it a long time. Miss Strange told me before I went to South America last spring."
This evidence of a confidential relation between the two gave him a second shock, but he postponed its consideration, contenting himself for the moment with making it plain to Ford that "Hands off!" must be the first rule of the game. His next move was meant to carry the play into the opponent's quarters.
"As a matter of fact, I've never congratulated you," he said, with apparent tranquillity. "I've known about you and Evie for some time past, but--"
"Oh, that's all off. In the existing circumstances Evie didn't feel like--keeping the thing up."
"That's too bad. You've been pretty hard hit--what? When a fellow is as game as you a girl should stand by him, come now! But I know Evie. I've known her from her cradle. She'll back round, you'll see. When we've pulled you through, as we're going to, she'll take another view of things. I know for a fact that she's been head over heels in love with you ever since her trip to Buenos Aires."
As Ford made no remark, Conquest felt it well to drive the point home.
"We can all help in that, old boy; and you can count on us--both on Miss Strange and me. No one has such influence over Evie as Miriam, and I know she's very keen on seeing you and her--you and Evie, I mean--hit it off. I don't mind telling you that, as a matter of fact, it's been Miriam's anxiety on Evie's account that has mixed me up in your case at all. I don't say that I haven't got interested in you for your own sake; but it was she who stirred me up in the first place. It's going to mean a lot to her to see you get through--and marry Evie."
Ford smiled--his odd, twisted smile--but as he said nothing, Conquest decided to let the subject drop. He had, in fact, gone as far as his present judgment would carry him, and anything farther might lead to a false step. In a situation alive with claims and counter-claims, with yearnings of the heart and promptings of the higher law, he could preserve his rights only by a walk as wary as the treading of a tight-rope.
This became clearer to him later in the night, when Ford had gone away, and he was left free to review the circumstances with that clarity of co-ordination he had so often brought to bear on other men's affairs. Out of the mass of data he selected two conditions as being the only ones of importance.
If Miriam Strange was marrying him because she loved him, nothing else needed to be considered. This fact would subordinate everything to itself; and there were many arguments to support the assumption that she was doing so. One by one he marshalled them before him, from the first faint possibility up to the crowning proof that there was no earthly reason for her marrying him at all, unless she wanted to. He had pointed that out to her clearly, on the day when she came to him to make her terms. He had been guilty on that occasion of a foolish generosity, for that it went with a common-sense honesty to take advantage of another's ignorance, or impulsiveness, was part of his business creed. Nevertheless, having shown her this uncalled-for favor, he did not regret it now, since it put the spontaneous, voluntary nature of her act beyond dispute.
To a late hour of the night he wandered about the great silent rooms of the house which he had made the expression of himself. Stored with costly, patiently selected comforts, it lacked only the last requisite which was to impart the living touch. Having chosen this essential with so much care, and begun to feel for her something far more vital than the pride of possession which had been his governing emotion hitherto, it was an agony with many aspects to think he might have to let her go.
That there was this possibility was undeniable. It was the second of the two paramount considerations. Though Ford's enthusiasm tried to make itself enthusiasm and no more, there had been little difficulty in seeing what it was. All the same, it would be a passion to pity and ignore, if on Miriam's side there was nothing to respond to it. But it was here that, in spite of all his arguments, Conquest's doubts began. With much curious ignorance of women, there was a point of view from which he knew them well. It was out of many a poignant bit of domestic history, of which his profession had made him the confidant, that he had distilled the observation made to Ford earlier in the evening: "It isn't often that a woman's heroism works in a straight line, like a soldier's or a fireman's." Notwithstanding her directness, he could see Miriam Strange as just the type of woman to whom these words might be applicable. If by marrying a man whom she did not love she thought she could help another whom she did love, a culpable sacrifice was just the thing of which she would be capable. He called it culpable sacrifice with some emphasis for in his eyes all sacrifice was culpable. It was more than culpable, in that it verged on the absurd. There were few teachings of an illogical religion, few promptings of a misdirected energy, for which he had a greater scorn than the precept that the strong should suffer for the weak, or one man for another. Every man for himself and the survival of the fittest was the doctrine by which he lived; and his abhorrence of anything else was the more intense for the moment because he found himself in a situation where he might be expected to repudiate his faith.
But there it was, that something in public opinion which, in certain circumstances, might challenge him--might ask him for magnanimity, might appeal to him for mercy, might demand that he make two other human beings happy while he denied himself. It was preposterous, it was grotesque, but it was there. He could hear its voice already, explaining that since Miriam Strange had given him her word in an excess of self-devotion, it was his duty to let her off. He could see the line of argument; he could hear the applause following on his noble act. He had heard it before--especially in the theatre--and his soul had shaken with laughter. He had read of it in novels, only to toss such books aside. "The beauty of renunciation," he had often said, "appeals to the morbid, the sickly, and the sentimental. It has no function among the healthy and the sane." He had not only said that, but he had believed it. He believed it still, and lived by it. By doing so he had amassed his modest fortune and won a respected position in the world. He had not got on into middle life without meeting the occasion more than once when he could have saved others--a brother, or a sister, or a friend--and forborne to save himself. He had felt the temptation and resisted it, with the result that he was up in the world when he might have been down in it, and envied by those who would have despised him without hesitation when they had got out of him all he could give. He could look back now and see the folly it would have been had he yielded to impulses that every sentimentalist would have praised. He was fully conscious that the moment of danger might be on the point of returning again, and that he must be prepared for it.
He was able to strengthen himself with the greater conviction because of his belief in the sanctity of rights. The securing of rights, the defining of rights, the protection of rights, had been his trade ever since he was twenty-five. The invasion of rights was among the darkest crimes in his calendar. In the present case his own rights could not be called into question; they were inviolable. Miriam Strange had come to him deliberately, and for due consideration had signed herself away. He had spared nothing, in time, pains, or money, to fulfil his part of the compact. It would be monstrous, therefore, if he were to be cheated of his reward. That either Ford or Miriam would attempt this he did not believe, even if between them the worst, from his point of view, was at the worst; but that an absurd, elusive principle which called itself chivalry, but really was effeminacy of will, might try to disarm him by an appeal to scruples he contemned, was the possibility he feared. He feared it because he estimated at its worth the force of restraint a sentimental civilization and a naA-ve people can bring to bear, in silent pressure, upon the individual. While he knew himself to be strong in his power of resistance, he knew too that the mightiest swimmer can go down at last in a smiling, unrippled sea.
His exasperation was as much with his doubt about himself as with the impalpable forces threatening him, as he strode fiercely from room to room, turning out the flaring lights before going to bed. After all, his final resolutions were pitifully insufficient, in view of the tragic element--for he took it tragically--that had suddenly crept into his life. While his gleam of happiness was in danger of going out, the sole means he could find of keeping it aglow was in deciding on a prudent ignoring of whatever did not meet the eye, on a discreet assumption that what he had been dreaming for the past few months was true. As a matter of fact, there was nothing to show him that it wasn't true; and it was only common sense to let the first move toward clearing his vision come from the other side rather than from his.
And yet it was precisely this passive attitude which he found himself next day least able to maintain. If he needed anything further to teach him that love was love, it was this restless, prying jealousy, making it impossible to let well enough alone. After a trying day at the office, during which he irritated his partners and worried his clerks, he presented himself late in the afternoon at Miriam's apartment at the hour when he generally went to his club, and he knew she would not expect him. Thinking to surprise Ford with her--like the suspicious husband in a French play, he owned to himself, grimly--he experienced something akin to disappointment to find her drinking tea with two old ladies, whom he outstayed. During the ceremonies of their leave-taking he watched Miriam closely, seeking for some impossible proof that she either loved Ford or did not love him, and getting nothing but a renewed and maddening conviction of her grace and quiet charm.
* * * * *
"What about Evie's happiness?"
Miriam raised her eyebrows inquiringly at the question before stooping to put out the spirit-lamp.
"Well, what about it?" she asked, without looking up.
"Oh, nothing--except that we don't seem to be securing it."
She gazed at him now, with an expression frankly puzzled. He had refused tea, but she kept her accustomed place behind the tea-table, while he stretched himself comfortably in the low arm-chair by the hearth, which she often occupied herself.
"Don't you remember?" he went on. "Evie's happiness was the motive of our little--agreement."
He endeavored to make his tone playful, but there was a something sharp and aggressive in his manner, at which she colored slightly, no less than at his words.
"I suppose," she said, as if after meditation, "Evie's happiness isn't in our hands."
"True; but there's a good deal that is in our hands. There's, for example--our own."
"Up to a point--yes."
"And up to that point we should take care of it. Shouldn't we?"
"I dare say. But I don't know what you mean."
He gave the nervous little laugh which helped him over moments of embarrassment.
"Ford was with me last night. He said it was all off between him and Evie."
"I thought he might tell you that."
"So that," he went on, forcing a smile, with which his voice and manner were not in accord, "our undertaking having failed, the bottom's out of everything. Don't you see?"
She was so astonished that she walked into his trap, just as he expected.
"I don't see in the least. I thought our undertaking--as you call it--was going to be particularly successful."
He dropped his smile and looked interrogative, his bit of acting still keeping her off her guard.
"Why, if Amalia Gramm's testimony is all you think it's going to be----"
"Oh, I see. That's the way you look at it."
"Isn't it the way you look at it, too?"
He smiled again, indulgently, but with significance.
"No; I confess it isn't--at least, it hasn't been. I thought--perhaps I was wrong--that our interest was in getting Ford off, so that he could marry Evie. Since he isn't going to marry her, why--naturally--we don't care so much--whether he gets off or not."
She checked herself; she even grew a little pale. She began to see dimly whither he was leading her.
"Of course I don't say we should chuck him over," he went on; "but it isn't the same thing any longer, is it? I think it only fair to point that out to you, because it gives you reasonable ground for reconsidering your--decision."
"Oh, but I don't want to."
While she had said exactly what he hoped to hear, she had not said it as he hoped to hear it. There were shades of tone even to impetuosity, and this one lacked the note his ear was listening for. None the less, he told himself, a wise man would have stopped right there; and he was conscious of his folly in persisting, while he still persisted.
"That's for you to decide, of course. Only if we go on, it must be understood that we've somewhat shifted our ground."
"I haven't shifted mine."
"Not as you understand it yourself--as, possibly, you've understood it all along. But you have, as I see things. When you came to me--to my office----"
She put up her hand as though she would have screened her face, but controlled herself to listen quietly.
"Your object, then," Conquest continued, cruelly, "was to get Ford off, so that he might marry Evie. Now, I understand it to be simply--to get him off."
She looked at him with eyes full of distress or protest. It was a minute or two before she spoke.
"I don't see the necessity for such close definition."
"I do. I want you to know exactly what you're doing. I want you to see that you're paying a higher price than you need pay--for the services rendered."
He had got her now just where he had been trying to put her. He had snared her, or given her an opportunity, according as she chose to take it. She could have availed herself of the latter by a look or a simple intonation, for the craving of his heart was such that his perceptions were acute for the slightest hint. Had she known that, it would have been easy for her to respond to him, playing her part with the loyalty with which she had begun it. As it was, his cold manner and his slightly mocking tone betrayed her. Her answer was meant to give him the kind of assurance she thought he was looking for; and she couched it in the language she supposed he would most easily understand. In the things it said and did not say her very sincerity was what stabbed him.
"I hope it won't be necessary to bring this subject up again. I know what I undertook, and I'm anxious to fulfil it. I should be very much hurt if I wasn't allowed to, just because you had scruples about taking me at my word. You've been so--so splendid--in doing your part that I should feel humiliated if I didn't do mine."
There was earnestness in her regard and a suggestion of haughtiness in the tilt of her head. The Wise Man within him bade him be content, and this time he listened to the voice. He did her the justice to remember, too, that she was offering him all he had ever asked of her; and if he was dissatisfied, it was because he had increased his demands without telling her.
It was by a transition of topic that he saw he could nail her to her purpose.
"By-the-way," he said, when they had got on neutral ground again, and were speaking of Wayne, "I wish you would come and see what I think of doing for him. There are two rooms back of my library--too dark for my use--but that wouldn't matter to him, poor fellow--"
He saw that she was nerving herself not to flinch at this confrontation with the practical. He saw too that her courage and her self-command would have deceived any one but him. The very pluck with which she nodded her comprehension of his idea, and her sympathy with it, enraged him to a point at which, so it seemed to him, he could have struck her. Had she cried off from her bargain he could have borne it far more easily. That would at least have given him a sense of superiority, and helped him to be magnanimous; while this readiness to pay put him in the wrong, and drove him to exact the uttermost farthing of his rights. On a weak woman he might have taken pity; but this strong creature, who refused to sue to him by so much as the quiver of an eyelid, and rejected his concessions before he had time to put them forth, exasperated every nerve that had been wont to tingle to his sense of power. Since she had asked no quarter, why should he give it?--above all, when to give quarter was against his principles.
"And perhaps," he pursued, in an even voice, showing no sign of the tempest within, "that would be as good a time as any for you to look over the entire house. If there are any changes you would like to have made----"
"I don't think there will be."
"All the same, I should like you to see. A man's house, however well arranged, isn't always right for a woman's occupancy; and so----"
"Very well; I'll come."
"I'll come to-morrow."
"Yes; about four. That would suit me perfectly."
She spoke frankly, and even smiled faintly, with just such a shadow of a blush as the situation called for. The Wise Man within him begged him once more to be content. If, the Wise Man argued, this well-poised serenity was not love, it was something so like it that the distinction would require a splitting of hairs. Conquest strove to listen and obey; but even as he did so he was aware again of that rage of impotence which finds its easiest outlet in violence. As he rose to take his leave, with all the outward signs of friendly ceremoniousness, he had time to be appalled at the perception that he, the middle-aged, spick-and-span New-Yorker, should so fully understand how it is that a certain type of frenzied brute can kill the woman whom he passionately loves, but who is hopelessly out of reach.