The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part I. Ford.
The two or three days that followed were much like the first. Each morning she came early, bringing him food, and such articles of clothing as she thought he could wear. By degrees she provided him with a complete change of raiment, and though the fit was tolerable, they laughed together at the transformation produced in him. It was the first time he had seen her smile, and even in the obscurity of the inner room where she still kept him secluded he noted the vividness with which her habitually grave features lighted up. Micmac, too, became friendly, inferring with the instinct of his race that Ford was an object to be guarded.
"No one would know you now," the girl declared, surveying him with satisfaction.
"Were these things all your father's?" he asked, with a new attempt to penetrate the mystery of her personality.
"Yes," she returned, absently, continuing her inspection of him. "They were sent to me, and I kept them. I never knew why I did; but I suppose it was--for this."
"He must have been a tall man?" Ford hazarded, again.
"Yes, he must have been," she returned, unwarily. Then, feeling that the admission required some explanation, she added, with a touch of embarrassment, "I never saw him--not that I can remember."
"Then he died a long time ago?"
Her reply came reluctantly, after some delay:
"Not so very long--about four years ago now."
"And yet you hadn't seen him since you were a child?"
"There were reasons. We mustn't talk. Some one may pass and hear us."
He could see that her hurry in finishing the small tasks she had come in to perform for him arose not so much from precaution as from a desire to escape from this particular subject.
"I suppose you could tell me his name?" he persisted.
Her hands moved deftly, producing order among the things he had left in confusion, but she remained silent. It was a silence in which he recognized an element of protest though he ignored it.
"You could tell me his name?" he asked, again.
"His name," she said, at last, "wouldn't convey anything to you. It wouldn't do you any good to know it."
"It would gratify my curiosity. I should think you might do as much as that for me."
"I'm doing a great deal for you as it is. I don't think you should ask for more."
Her tone was one of reproach rather than of annoyance, and he was left with a sense of having committed an indiscretion. The consciousness brought with it the perception that in a measure he was growing used to his position. He was beginning to take it for granted that this girl should come and minister to his wants. She herself did it so simply, so much as a matter of course, that the circumstance lost much of its strangeness. Now and then he could detect some confusion in her manner as she served him, but he could see too that she surmounted it, in view of the fact that for him the situation was one of life and death. She was clearly not indifferent to elementary social usages; she only saw that the case was one in which they did not obtain. In his long, unoccupied hours of darkness it distracted his thoughts from his own peril to speculate about her; and when she appeared his questions were the more blunt because of the small opportunity she allowed for asking them.
"Won't they miss you at home?" he inquired, on the next occasion when she entered his cell.
She paused with a look of surprise.
"At home? Where do you mean?"
"Why--where you live; where your mother lives."
"My mother died a few months after I was born."
"Oh! But even so, you live somewhere, don't you?"
"I do; but they don't miss me there, if that's what you want to know."
"I was only afraid," he said, apologetically, "that you were giving me too much of your time."
"I've nothing else to do with it. I shall be only too glad if I can help you to escape."
"Why? Why should you care about me?"
"I don't," she said, simply; "at least, I don't know that I do."
"Oh, then you're helping me just--on general principles?"
"Well," he smiled, "mayn't I ask why, again?"
"Because I don't like the law."
"You mean that you don't like the law as a whole?--or--or this law in particular?"
"I don't like any law. I don't like anything about it. But," she added, resorting to her usual method of escape, "we mustn't talk any more now. Some men passed here this morning, and they may be coming back. They've given up looking for you; they are convinced you're up in the lumber camps, but all the same we must be careful still."
He had no further speech with her that day, and the next she remained at the cabin little more than an hour.
"It's just as well for me not to excite curiosity," she explained to him before leaving; "and you needn't be uneasy now. They've stopped the hunt altogether. They say there's not a spot within a radius of ten miles of Greenport that they haven't searched. It would never occur to any one that you could be here. Every one knows me; and so the thought that I could be helping you would be the last in their minds."
"And have you no remorse at betraying their confidence?"
She shook her head. "Most of them," she declared, "are very well pleased to think you've got away; and even if they weren't I should never feel remorse for helping any one to evade the law."
"You seem to have a great objection to the law."
"Well, haven't you?"
"Yes; but in my case it's comprehensible."
"So it is in mine--if you only knew."
"Perhaps," he said, looking at her steadily, "this is as good a time as any to assure you that the law has done me wrong."
He waited for her to say something; but as she stroked Micmac's head in silence, he continued.
"I never committed the crime of which they found me guilty."
He waited again for some intimation of her confidence.
"Their string of circumstantial evidence was plausible enough, I admit. The only weak point about it was that it wasn't true."
Even through the obscurity of his refuge he could feel the suspension of expression in her bearing, and could imagine it bringing a kind of eclipse over her eyes.
"He was very cruel to you--your uncle?--wasn't he?" she asked, at last.
"He was very cantankerous; but that wouldn't be a reason for shooting him in his sleep--whatever I may have said when in a rage."
"I should think it might be."
He started. If it were not for the necessity of making no noise he would have laughed.
"Are you so bloodthirsty--?" he began.
"Oh no, I'm not; but I should think it is what a man would do. My father wouldn't have submitted to it. I know he killed one man; and he may have killed two or three."
Ford whistled under his breath.
"So that," he said, after a pause, "your objection to the law is--hereditary."
"My objection to the law is because it is unjust. The world is full of injustice," she added, indignantly, "and the laws men live by create it."
"And your aim is to defeat them?"
"I can't talk any more now," she said, reverting to an explanatory tone of voice. "I must go. I've arranged everything for you for the day. If you are very quiet you can sit in the studio and read; but you mustn't look out at the window, or even draw back the curtain. If you hear a step outside, you must creep in here and shut the door. And you needn't be impatient; because I'm going to spend the day working out a plan for your escape."
But when she appeared next morning she declined to give details of the plan she had in mind. She preferred to work it out alone, she said, and give him the outlines only when she had settled them. It chanced to be a day of drenching summer rain, and Ford, with a renewed effort to get some clew to her identity, expressed his surprise that she should have been allowed to venture out.
"Oh, no one worries about what I do," she said, indifferently "I go about as I choose."
"So much the better for me," he laughed. "That's how you came to be wandering on old Wayne's terrace, just in the nick of time. What stumps me is the promptness with which you thought of stowing me away."
"It wasn't promptness, exactly. As a matter of fact, I had worked the whole thing out beforehand."
His eyebrows went up incredulously. "For me?"
"No, not for you; for anybody. Ever since my guardian allowed me to build the studio--last year--I've imagined how easy it would be for some--some hunted person to stay hidden here, almost indefinitely. I've tried to fancy it, when I've had nothing better to do."
"You don't seem to have had anything better to do very often," he observed, glancing about the cabin.
"If you mean that I haven't painted much, that's quite true. I thought I couldn't do without a studio--till I got one. But when I've come here, I'm afraid it's generally been to--to indulge in day-dreams."
"Day-dreams of helping prisoners to escape. It wouldn't be every girl's fancy, but it's not for me to complain of that."
"My father would have wanted me to do it," she declared, as if in self-justification. "A woman once helped him to get out of prison."
"Good for her! Who was she?"
Having asked the question lightly, in a boyish impulse to talk, he was surprised to see her show signs of embarrassment.
"She was my mother," she said, after an interval in which she seemed to be making up her mind to give the information.
In the manifest difficulty she had in speaking, Ford sprang to her aid.
"That's like the old story of Gilbert A Becket--Thomas A Becket's father, you know."
The historical reference was received in silence, as she bent over the small task she had in hand.
"He married the woman who helped him out of prison," Ford went on, for her enlightenment.
She raised her head and faced him.
"It wasn't like the story of Gilbert A Becket," she said, quietly.
It took some seconds of Ford's slow thinking to puzzle out the meaning of this. Even then he might have pondered in vain had it not been for the flush that gradually over-spread her features, and brought what he called the wild glint into her eyes. When he understood, he reddened in his own turn, making matters worse.
"I beg your pardon," he stammered. "I never thought--"
"You needn't beg my pardon," she interrupted, speaking with a catch in her breath. "I wanted you to know.... You've asked me so many questions that it seemed as if I was ashamed of my father and mother when I didn't answer.... I'm not ashamed of them.... I'd rather you knew.... Every one does--who knows me."
Half unconsciously he glanced up at the framed sketches on the chimney-piece. Her eyes followed him, and she spoke instantly:
"You're quite right. I meant that--for them."
They were standing in the studio, into which she had allowed him to come from the stifling darkness of the inner room, on the ground that the rain protected them against intrusion from outside. During their conversation she had been placing the easel and arranging the work which formed her pretext for being there, while Micmac, stretched on the floor, with his head between his paws, kept a half-sleepy eye on both of them.
"Your father was a Canadian, then?" he ventured to ask, as she seated herself with a palette in her hand.
"He was a Virginian. My mother was the wife of a French-Canadian voyageur. I believe she had a strain of Indian blood. The voyageurs and their families generally have."
Having recovered her self-possession, she made her statements in the matter-of-fact tone she used to hide embarrassment flicking a little color into the sketch before her as she spoke. Ford seated himself at a distance, gazing at her with a kind of fascination. Here, then, was the clew to that something untamed which persisted through all the effects of training and education, as a wild flavor will last in a carefully cultivated fruit. His curiosity about her was so intense that, notwithstanding the difficulty with which she stated her facts, it overcame his prompting to spare her.
"And yet," he said, after a long pause, in which he seemed to be assimilating the information she had given him--"and yet I don't see how that explains you."
"I suppose it doesn't--not any more than your situation explains you."
"My situation explains me perfectly, because I'm the victim of a wrong."
"Well, so am I--in another way. I'm made to suffer because I'm the daughter of my parents."
"That's a rotten shame," he exclaimed, in boyish sympathy "It isn't your fault."
"Of course it isn't," she smiled, wistfully. "And yet I'd rather suffer with the parents I have than be happy with any others."
"I suppose that's natural," he admitted, doubtfully.
"I wish I knew more about them," she went on, continuing to give light touches to the work before her, and now and then leaning back to get the effect. "I never understood why my father was in prison in Canada."
"Perhaps it was when he killed the man," Ford suggested.
"No; that was in Virginia--at least, the first one. His people didn't like it. That was the reason for his leaving home. He hated a settled life; and so he wandered away into the northwest of Canada. It was in the days when they first began to build the railways there--when there were almost no people except the trappers and the voyageurs. I was born on the very shores of Hudson Bay."
"But you didn't stay there?"
"No. I was only a very little child--not old enough to remember--when my father sent me down to Quebec, to the Ursuline nuns. He never saw me again. I lived with them till four years ago. I'm eighteen now."
"Why didn't he send you to his people? Hadn't he sisters?--or anything like that."
"He tried to, but they wouldn't have anything to do with me."
It was clearly a relief to her to talk about herself. He guessed that she rarely had an opportunity of opening her heart to any one. Not till this morning had he seen her in the full light of day; and, though but an immature judge, he fancied her features had settled themselves into lines of reserve and pride from which in happier circumstances they might have been free. Her way of twisting her dark hair--which waved over the brows from a central parting--into the simplest kind of knot gave her an air of sedateness beyond her years. But what he noticed in her particularly was her eyes--not so much because they were wild, dark eyes, with the peculiar fleeing expression of startled forest things, as because of the pleading, apologetic look that comes into the eyes of forest things when they stand at bay. It was when--for seconds only--the pupils shone with a jet-like blaze that he caught what he called the non-Aryan effect; but that glow died out quickly, leaving something of the fugitive appeal which Hawthorne saw in the eyes of Beatrice Cenci.
"He offered his sisters a great deal of money," she sighed, "but they wouldn't take me."
"Oh? So he had money?"
"He was one of the first Americans to make money in the Canadian northwest; but that was after my mother died. She died in the snow, on a journey--like that sketch above the fireplace. I've been told that it changed my father's life. He had been what they call wild before that--but he wasn't so any more. He grew very hard-working and serious. He was one of the pioneers of that country--one of the very first to see its possibilities. That was how he made his money; and when he died he left it to me. I believe it's a good deal."
"Didn't you hate being in the convent?" he asked, suddenly "I should."
"N-no; not exactly. I wasn't unhappy. The Sisters were kind to me. Some of them spoiled me. It wasn't until after my father died, and I began to realize--who I was, that I grew restless. I felt I should never be happy until I was among people of my own kind."
"And how did you get there?"
She smiled faintly to herself before answering.
"I never did. There are no people of my kind."
Embarrassed by the stress she seemed inclined to lay on this circumstance, he grasped at the first thought that might divert her from it.
"So you live with a guardian! How do you like that?"
"I should like it well enough if he did--that is, if his wife did. You see," she tried to explain, "she's very sweet and gentle, and all that, but she's devoted to the proprieties of life, and I seem to represent to her--its improprieties. I know it's a trial to her to keep me, and so, in a way, it's a trial to me to stay."
"Why do you stay, then?"
"For one reason, because I can't help myself. I have to do what the law tells me."
"I see. The law again!"
"Yes; the law again. But I've other reasons besides that."
"Well, I'm very fond of their little girl, for one thing. She's the greatest darling in the world, and the only creature, except my dog, that loves me."
"What's her name?"
The question drove her to painting with closer attention to her work. Ford followed something of the progress of her thought by watching the just perceptible contraction of her brows into a little frown, and the setting of her lips into a curve of determination. They were handsome lips, mobile and sensitive--lips that might easily have been disdainful had not the inner spirit softened them with a tremor--or it might have been a light--of gentleness.
"It isn't worth while to tell you that," she said, after long reflection. "It will be safer for you in the end not to know any of our names at all."
"Still--if I escape--I should like to know them."
"If you escape, you may be able to find out."
"Oh, well," he said, with assumed indifference, "since you don't want to tell me--"
Going on with her painting, she allowed the subject to drop; but to him the opportunity for conversation was too rare a thing to neglect. Not only was his youthful impulse toward social self-expression normally strong, but his pleasure in talking to a lady--a girl--was undeniable. Sometimes in his moments of solitary meditation he said to himself that she was "not his type of girl"; but the fact that he had been deprived of feminine society for nearly three years made him ready to fall in love with any one. If he did not precisely fall in love with this girl, it was only because the situation precluded sentiment; and yet it was pleasant to sit and watch her paint, and even torment her with his questions.
"So the little girl is one reason for your staying here. What's another?"
She betrayed her own taste for social communion by the readiness with which she answered him--
"I don't know that I ought to tell you that; and yet I might as well. It's just this: they're not very well off--so I can help. Naturally I like that."
"You can help by footing the bills. That's all very fine if you enjoy it, but everybody wouldn't."
"They would if they were in my position," she insisted. "When you can help in any way it gives you a sense of being of use to some one. I'd rather that people needed me, even if they didn't want me, than that they shouldn't need me at all."
"They need your money," he declared, with a young man's outspokenness. "That's what."
"But that's something, isn't it? When you've no place in the world you're glad enough to get one, even if you have to buy it. My guardian and his wife mayn't care much to have me, but it's some satisfaction to know that they'd get along much worse if I weren't here."
"So should I," he laughed. "What I'm to do when I'm turned adrift without you, Heaven only knows. It's curious--the effect imprisonment has on you. It takes away your self-reliance. It gives you a helpless feeling, like a baby. You want to be free--and yet you're almost afraid of the open air."
He was so much at home with her now that, sitting carelessly astride of his chair, with his arms folded on the back, he felt a fraternal element in their mutual relation. She bent more closely over her work, and spoke without looking up.
"Oh, you'll get along all right. You're that sort."
"That's easy to say."
"You may find it easy to do." Her next words, uttered while she continued to flick color into her sketch, caused him to jump with astonishment. "I'd go to the Argentine."
"Why not say the moon?"
"For one reason, because the moon is inaccessible."
"So is the Argentine--for me."
"Oh no, it isn't. Other people have reached it."
"Yes: but they weren't in my fix."
"Some of them were probably in worse."
There was a pause, during which she seemed absorbed in her work, while Ford sat meditatively whistling under his breath.
"What put the Argentine into your head?" he asked, at last.
"Because I happen to know a good deal about it. Everybody says it's the country of new opportunities. I know people who've lived there. The little girl I was speaking of just now--whom I'm so fond of--was born there. Her father is dead since then, and her mother is married again."
He continued to meditate, emitting the same tuneless, abstracted sound, just above his breath.
"I know the name of an American firm out there," she went on. "It's Stephens and Jarrott. It's a very good firm to work for. I've often heard that. And Mr. Jarrott has helped ever so many--stranded people."
"I should be just his sort, then."
His laugh, as he sprang to his feet, seemed to dismiss an impossible subject; and yet as he lay on his couch that evening in the lampless darkness the name of Stephens and Jarrott obtruded itself into his visions of this girl, who stood between him and peril because she "disliked the law," He wondered how far it was dislike, and how far jealous pain. In her eagerness to buy the domestic place she had not inherited she reminded him of something he had read--or heard--of the wild olive being grafted into the olive of the orchard. Well, that would come in the natural course of events. Some fine fellow, worthy to be her mate, would see to it. He was not without a pleasant belief that in happier circumstances he himself might have had the qualifications for the task. He wondered again what her name was. He ran through the catalogue of the names he himself would have chosen for a heroine--Gladys, Ethel, Mildred Millicent!--none of them seemed to suit her. He tried again. Margaret, Beatrice, Lucy, Joan! Joan possibly--or he said to himself, in the last inconsequential thoughts as he fell asleep, it might be--the Wild Olive.