The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part I. Ford.
From the heavy sleep of fatigue Ford woke with the twittering of birds that announces the dawn. His first thought before opening his eyes, that he was still in his cell, was dispelled by the silky touch of the Sorrento rugs on which he lay. He fingered them again and again in a kind of wonder, while his still half-slumbering senses struggled for the memory of what had happened, and the realization of where he was. When at last he was able to reconstruct the events of the preceding night, he raised himself on his elbow and peered about him in the dim morning twilight.
The object he discerned most readily was an easel, giving him the secret of his refuge. On the wooden walls of the cabin, which was fairly spacious, water-color sketches were pinned at intervals, while on the mantelpiece above a bricked fireplace one or two stood framed. Over the mantelpiece a pair of snow-shoes were crossed as decorations, between which hung a view of the city of Quebec. On a lay-figure in a corner was thrown carelessly the sort of blanket coat worn by Canadians during winter sports. Paints and palettes were arranged on a table by the wall, and on a desk in the middle of the room were writing materials and books. More books stood in a small suspended bookcase. Beside a comfortable reading-chair one or two magazines lay on the floor. His gaze travelled last to the large apron, or pinafore, on a peg fastened in a door immediately beside his couch. The door suggested an inner room, and he got up promptly to explore it. It proved to be cramped and dark, lighted only from the larger apartment, which in its turn had but the one high north window of the ordinary studio. The small room was little more than a shed or "lean-to", serving the purposes of kitchen and storeroom combined. The arrangements of the whole cabin showed that some one had built it with a view to passing in seclusion a few days at a time without forsaking the simpler amenities of civilized life; and it was clear that that "some one" was a woman. What interested Ford chiefly for the moment was the discovery of a sealed glass jar of water, from which he was able to slake his twenty hours' thirst.
Returning to the room in which he had slept, he drew back the green silk curtain covering the north light in order to take his bearings. As he had guessed on the previous night, the slope on which the cabin was perched broke steeply down into a wooded gorge, beyond which the lower hills rolled in decreasing magnitude to the shore of Champlain, visible from this point of view in glimpses, less as an inland sea than like a chain of lakelets. Sunrise over Vermont flooded the waters with tints of rose and saffron, but made of the Green Mountains a long, gigantic mass of purple-black twisting its jagged outline toward the north into the Hog's Back and the Camel's Hump with a kind of monstrous grace. To the east, in New York, the Adirondacks, with the sunlight full upon them, shot up jade-colored peaks into the electric blue--the scarred pyramid of Graytop standing forth dark, detached, and alone, like a battered veteran sentinel.
In an access of conscious hatred of this vast panoramic beauty which had become the background of his tragedy, Ford pulled the curtain into place again and turned once more to the interior of the room. It began to seem more strange to him the more it grew familiar. Why was he here? How long was he to stay? How was he to get away again? Had this girl caught him like a rat in a trap, or did she mean well by him? If, as he supposed, she was Wayne's daughter, she would probably not be slow in carrying out her father's plan of handing him back to justice--and yet his mind refused to connect the wraith of the night before with either police work or betrayal. Her appearance had been so dim and fleeting that he could have fancied her the dryad of a dream, had it not been for his surroundings.
He began to examine them once more, inspecting the water-colors on the wall one by one, in search of some clew to her personality. The first sketch was of a nun in a convent garden--the background vaguely French, and yet with a difference. The next was of a trapper, or voyageur, pushing a canoe into the waters of a wild northern lake. The next was a group of wigwams with squaws and children in the foreground. Then came more nuns; then more voyageurs with their canoes; then more Indians and wigwams It occurred to Ford that the nuns might have been painted from life, the voyageurs and Indians from imagination He turned to the two framed drawings on the chimney-piece Both represented winter scenes. In the one a sturdy voyageur was conveying his wife and small personal belongings across the frozen snow on a sled drawn by a team of dogs. In the other a woman, apparently the same woman as in the preceding sketch, had fallen in the midst of a blinding storm, while a tall man of European aspect--decidedly not the voyageur--was standing beside her with a baby in his arms. These were clearly fancy pictures, and, so it seemed to Ford, the work of one who was trying to recapture some almost forgotten memory. In any case he was too deeply engrossed by his own situation to dwell on them further.
He wheeled round again toward the centre of the room, impatiently casting about him for something to eat. The tin box, from which he had devoured all the biscuits, lay empty on the floor, but he picked it up and ate hungrily the few crumbs sticking in its corners. He ransacked the small dark room in the hope of finding more, but vainly. As far as he could see, the cabin had never been used for the purpose it was meant to serve, nor ever occupied for more than a few hours at a time. It had probably been built in a caprice that had passed with its completion. He guessed something from the fact that there was no visible attempt to sketch the scene before the door, though the site had evidently been chosen for its beauty.
He had nothing by which to measure time, but he knew that precious hours which he might have utilized for escape were passing. He began to chafe at the delay. With the impulse of youth to be active, he longed to be out, where he could at least use his feet. His clothes had dried upon him; in spite of his hunger he was refreshed by his night's sleep; he was convinced that, once in the open, he could elude capture. He pulled back the curtain again in order to reconnoitre. It was well to be as familiar as possible with the immediate lay of the land, so as to avail himself of any advantages it might offer.
The colors of sunrise had disappeared, and he judged that it must be seven or eight o'clock. Between the rifts of the lower hills the lake was flashing silver, while where Vermont had been nothing but a mass of shadow, blue-green mountains were emerging in a triple row, from which the last veils of vapor were being dragged up into the firmament On the left, the Adirondacks were receding into translucent dimness, in a lilac haze of heat.
With an effort to get back the woodcraft suddenly inspired by his first dash for freedom, he ran his eye over the landscape, noting the points with which he was familiar. To the west, in a niche between Graytop and the double peak of Windy Mountain, he could place the county-town; to the north, beyond the pretty headlands and the shining coves, the prison of Plattsville was waiting to receive him. Farther to the north was Canada; and to the south the great waterway led toward the populous mazes of New York.
With an impatience bordering on nervousness he realized that these general facts did not help him. He must avoid the prison and the county-town, of course; while both New York and Canada offered him ultimate chances. But his most pressing dangers lurked in the immediate foreground; and there he could see nothing but an unsuggestive slope of ash and pine. The rapidity of instinct by which last night he had known exactly what to do gave place this morning to his slower and more characteristic mental processes.
He was still gazing outward in perplexity, when, through the trees beyond the grassy ledge, he caught the flicker of something white. He pressed closer to the pane for a better view, and a few seconds later a girl, whom he recognized as the nymph of last night, came out of the forest, followed by a fawn-colored collie. She walked smoothly and swiftly, carrying a large basket with her right hand, while with her left she motioned him away from the window. He stepped back, leaping to the door as she unlocked it, in order to relieve her of her burden.
"You mustn't do that," she said, speaking quickly. "You mustn't look out of the window or come to the door. There are a hundred men beating the mountain to find you."
She closed the door and locked it on the inside. While Ford lifted her basket to the desk in the centre of the room she drew the green curtain hastily, covering the window. Her movements were so rapid that he could catch no glimpse of her face, though he had time to note again the curious silence that marked her acts. The dog emitted a low growl.
"You must go in here," she said, decisively, throwing open the door of the inner room. "You mustn't speak or look out unless I tell you. I'll bring you your breakfast presently. Lie down, Micmac."
The gesture by which she forced him across the threshold was compelling rather than commanding. Before he realized that he had obeyed her, he was standing alone in the darkness, with the sound of a low voice of liquid quality echoing in his ears. Of her face he had got only the hint of dark eyes flashing with an eager, non-Caucasian brightness--eyes that drew their fire from a source alien to that of any Aryan race.
But he brushed that impression away as foolish. Her words had the unmistakable note of cultivation, while a glance at her person showed her to be a lady. He could see, too, that her dress, though simple, was according to the standard of means and fashion. She was no Pocahontas; and yet the thought of Pocahontas came to him. Certainly there was in her tones, as well as in her movements, something akin to this vast aboriginal nature around him, out of which she seemed to spring as the human element in its beauty.
He was still thinking of this when the door opened and she came in again, carrying a plate piled high with cold meat and bread-and-butter.
"I'm sorry it's only this," she smiled, as she placed it before him; "but I had to take what I could get--and what wouldn't be missed. I'll try to do better in future."
He noted the matter-of-fact tone in which she uttered the concluding words, as though they were to have plenty of time together; but for the moment he was too fiercely hungry to speak. For a few seconds she stood off, watching him eat, after which she withdrew, with the light swiftness that characterized all her motions.
He had nearly finished his meal when she returned again.
"I've brought you these," she said, not without a touch of shyness, against which she struggled by making her tone as commonplace as possible. "I shall bring you more things by degrees."
On a chair beside that on which he was sitting she laid a pair of slippers, a pair of socks, a shirt, a collar, and a tie.
He jumped up hastily, less in surprise than in confusion.
"I can't take anything of Judge Wayne's--" he began to stammer; but she interrupted him.
"I understand your feelings about that," she said, simply. "They're not Judge Wayne's; they were my father's. I have plenty more."
In his relief at finding she was not Wayne's daughter he spoke awkwardly.
"Your father? Is he--dead?"
"Yes; he's dead. You needn't be afraid to take the things. He would have liked to help a man--in your position."
"In my position? Then you know--who I am?"
"Yes; you're Norrie Ford. I saw that as soon as I chanced on the terrace last night."
"And you're not afraid of me?"
"I am--a little," she admitted; "but that doesn't matter."
"You needn't be--" he began to explain, but she checked him again.
"We mustn't talk now. I must shut the door and leave you in the dark all day. Men will be passing by, and they mustn't hear you. I shall be painting in the studio, so that they won't suspect anything, if you keep still."
Allowing him no opportunity to speak again, she closed the door, leaving him once more in darkness. Sitting in the constraint she imposed upon him, he could hear her moving in the outer room, where, owing to the lightness of the wooden partition, it was not difficult to guess what she was doing at any given moment. He knew when she opened the outer door and moved the easel toward the entrance. He knew when she took down the apron from its peg and pinned it on. He knew when she drew up a chair and pretended to set to work. In the hour or two of silence that ensued he was sure that, whatever she might be doing with her brush, she was keeping eye and ear alert in his defence.
Who was she? What interest had she in his fate? What power had raised her up to help him? Even yet he had scarcely seen her face; but he had received an impression of intelligence. He was sure she was no more than a girl--certainly not twenty--and yet she acted with the decision of maturity. At the same time there was about her that suggestion of a wild origin--that something not wholly tamed to the dictates of civilized life--which persisted in his imagination, even if he could not verify it in fact.
Twice in the course of the morning he heard voices. Men spoke to her through the open doorway, and she replied. Once he distinguished her words.
"Oh no," she called out to some one at a distance. "I'm not afraid. He won't do me any harm. I've got Micmac with me. I often stay here all day, but I shall go home early. Thanks," she added, in response to some further hint. "I'd rather not have any one here. I never can paint unless I'm quite alone."
Her tone was light, and Ford fancied that as she spoke she smiled at the passers-by who had thought it right to warn her against himself; but when, a few minutes later, she pushed open the door softly, the gravity that seemed more natural to her had returned.
"Several parties of men have gone by," she whispered. "They have no suspicion. They won't have, if you keep still. They think you have slipped away from here, and have gone back toward the lumber camps. This is your lunch," she continued, hastily, placing more food before him. "It will have to be your dinner, too. It will be safer for me not to come into this room again to-day. You must not go out into the studio till you're sure it's dark. No noise. No light. I've put an extra rug on the couch in case you're chilly in the night."
She spoke breathlessly, in whispers, and, having finished, slipped away.
"You're awfully good," he whispered back. "Won't you tell me your name?"
"Hush!" she warned him, as she closed the door.
He stood still in the darkness, leaving his food untasted, listening to the soft rustle of her movements beyond the wall. Except that he heard no more voices, the afternoon passed like the morning. At the end of what seemed to him interminable hours he knew by acute attention that she hung her apron on its peg, put on her hat, and took up her basket, while Micmac rose and shook himself. Presently she closed the door of the cabin and locked it on the outside. He fancied he could almost hear her step as she sped over the grass and into the forest. Only then did the tension of his nerves relax, as, dropping to his chair in the darkness, he began to eat.