The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part I. Ford.
As the days passed, one much like another, and the retreat seemed more and more secure, it was natural that Ford's thoughts should dwell less on his own danger and more on the girl who filled his immediate horizon. The care with which she foresaw his wants, the ingenuity with which she met them, the dignity and simplicity with which she carried herself through incidents that to a less delicate tact must have been difficult, would have excited his admiration in any case, even if the namelessness which helped to make her an impersonal element in the episode had not stirred his imagination. He was obliged to remind himself often that she was "not his type of girl," in order to confine his heart within the limits which the situation imposed.
It worried him, therefore, it even hurt him, that in spite of all the openings he had given her, she had never offered him a sign of her belief in his innocence. For this reason he took the first occasion when she was seated at her easel, with the dog lying at her feet, to lay his case before her.
He told her of his overindulged boyhood, as the only child of a wealthy New York merchant. He outlined his profitless years at the university, where a too free use of money had hindered work. He narrated the disasters that had left him at the age of two-and-twenty to begin life for himself--his father's bankruptcy, followed by the death of both his parents within the year. He had been eager to start in at the foot of the ladder and work his way upward, when the proposal was made which proved fatal.
Old Chris Ford, his great-uncle, known throughout the Adirondack region as "the lumber king," had offered to take him, train him to the lumber business, and make him his heir. An eccentric, childless widower, commonly believed to have broken his wife's heart by sheer bitterness of tongue, old Chris Ford was hated, feared, and flattered by the relatives and time-servers who hoped ultimately to profit by his favor. Norrie Ford neither flattered nor feared his powerful kinsman, but he hated him with the best. His own instincts were city born and bred. He was conscious, too, of that aptitude with which the typical New-Yorker is supposed to come into being--the capacity to make money. He would have preferred to make it on his own ground and in his own way; and had it not been for the counsels of those who wished him well, he would have replied to his great-uncle's offer with a courteous "No." Wiser heads than his pointed out the folly of such a course as that; and so, reluctantly, he entered on his apprenticeship.
In the two years that followed he could not see what purpose he served other than that of a mark for the old man's poisoned wit. He was taught nothing, and paid nothing, and given nothing to do. He slept under his great-uncle's roof and ate at his table, but the sharp tongue made the bed hard to lie on and the bread difficult to swallow down. Idleness reawakened the propensity to vicious habits which he thought he had outlived, while the rough society of the lumber camps, in which he sought to relieve the tedium of time, extended him the welcome which Falstaff and his comrades gave Prince Hal.
The revolt of his self-respect was on the eve of bringing this phase of his existence to an end when the low farce turned into tragedy. Old Chris Ford was found dead in his bed--shot in his sleep. On the premises there had been but three persons, one of whom must have committed the crime--Norrie Ford, and Jacob and Amalia Gramm. Jacob and Amalia Gramm had been the old man's servants for thirty years. Their faithfulness put them beyond suspicion. The possibility of their guilt, having been considered, was dismissed with few formalities. The conviction of Norrie Ford became easy after that--the more respectable people of the neighborhood being agreed that from the evidence presented no other deduction could be drawn. The very fact that the old man, by his provocation of the lad, so thoroughly deserved his fate made the manner in which he met with it the clearer. Even Norrie Ford's friends, the hunters and the lumbermen, admitted as much as that, though they were determined that he should never suffer for so meritorious an act as long as they could give him a fighting chance for freedom.
The girl listened to Ford's narrative with some degree of interest, though it contained nothing new to her. She could not have lived at Greenport during the period of his trial without being familiar with it all. But when he came to explanations in his own defence she followed listlessly. Though she leaned back in her chair, and courteously stopped painting, while he talked so earnestly, the light in her eyes faded to a lustreless gleam, like that of the black pearl. His perception that her thoughts were wandering gave him a queer sensation of speaking into a medium in which his voice could not carry, cutting short his arguments, and bringing him to his conclusion more hurriedly than he had intended.
"I wanted you to know I didn't do it," he finished, in a tone which begged for some expression of her belief, "because you've done so much to help me."
"Oh, but I should have helped you just the same, whether you had done it or not."
"But I suppose it makes some difference to you," he cried, impatiently, "to know that I didn't."
"I suppose it would," she admitted, slowly, "if I thought much about it."
"Well, won't you think?" he pleaded---"just to oblige me."
"Perhaps I will, when you're gone; but at present I have to give my mind to getting you away. It was to talk about that that I came this morning."
Had she wanted to slip out of giving an opinion on the subject of his guilt, she could not have found a better exit. The means of his ultimate escape engrossed him even more than the theme of his innocence. When she spoke again all his faculties were concentrated into one keen point of attention.
"I think the time has come for you to--go."
If her voice trembled on the last word, he did not notice it. The pose of his body, the lines of his face, the glint of his gray eyes, were alive with interrogation.
"Go?" he asked, just audibly. "When?"
"I'll tell you that then."
"Why can't you tell me now?"
"I could if I was sure you wouldn't raise objections, but I know you will."
"Then there are objections to be raised?"
"There are objections to everything. There's no plan of escape that won't expose you to a good many risks. I'd rather you didn't see them in advance."
"But isn't it well to be prepared beforehand?"
"You'll have plenty of time for preparation--after you've started. If that seems mysterious to you now, you'll know what I mean by it when I come to-morrow. I shall be here in the afternoon at six."
With this information Ford was obliged to be content, spending a sleepless night and an impatient day, waiting for the time appointed.
She came punctually. For the first time she was not followed by her dog. The only change in her appearance he could see was a short skirt of rough material instead of her usual linen or muslin.
"Are we going through the woods?" he asked.
"Not far. I shall take you by the trail that led to this spot before I built the cabin and made the path." As she spoke she surveyed him. "You'll do," she smiled at last. "In those flannels, and with your beard, no one would know you for the Norrie Ford of three weeks ago."
It was easy for him to ascribe the glow in her eyes and the quiver in her voice to the excitement of the moment; for he could see that she had the spirit of adventure. Perhaps it was to conceal some embarrassment under his regard that she spoke again, hurriedly.
"We've no time to lose. You needn't take anything from here. We'd better start."
He followed her over the threshold, and as she turned to lock the cabin he had time to throw a glance of farewell over the familiar hills, now transmuted into a haze of amethyst under the westering sun. A second later he heard her quick "Come on!" as she struck into the barely perceptible path that led upward, around the shoulder of the mountain.
It was a stiff bit of climbing, but she sped along with the dryad-like ease she had displayed on the night when she led him to the cabin. Beneath the primeval growth of ash and pine there was an underbrush so dense that no one but a creature gifted with the inherited instinct of the woods could have found the invisible, sinuous line alone possible to the feet. But it was there, and she traced it--never pausing never speaking, and only looking back from time to time to assure herself that he was in sight, until they reached the top of the dome-shaped hill.
They came out suddenly on a rocky terrace, beneath which, a mile below, Champlain was spread out in great part of its length, from the dim bluff of Crown Point to the far-away, cloud-like mountains of Canada.
"You can sit down a minute here," she said, as he came up.
They found seats among the low scattered bowlders, but neither spoke. It was a moment at which to understand the jewelled imagery of the Seer of the Apocalypse. Jasper, jacinth, chalcedony, emerald, chrysoprasus, were suggested by the still bosom of the lake, towered round by light-reflecting mountains. The triple tier of the Vermont shore was bottle-green at its base, indigo in the middle height, while its summit was a pale undulation of evanescent blue against the jade and topaz of the twilight.
"The steamer Empress of Erin," the girl said, with what seemed like abruptness, "will sail from Montreal on the twenty-eighth, and from Quebec on the twenty-ninth. From Rimouski, at the mouth of the river St. Lawrence, she will sail on the thirtieth, to touch nowhere else till she reaches Ireland. You will take her at Rimouski."
There was a silence, during which he tried to absorb this startling information.
"And from here to Rimouski?" he asked, at last.
"From here to Rimouski," she replied, with a gesture toward the lake, "your way is there."
There was another silence, while his eyes travelled the long, rainbow-colored lake, up to the faint line of mountains where it faded into a mist of bluish-green and gold.
"I see the way," he said then, "but I don't see the means of taking it."
"You'll find that in good time. In the mean while you'd better take this." From her jacket she drew a paper, which she passed to him. "That's your ticket. You'll see," she laughed, apologetically, "that I've taken for you what they call a suite, and I've done it for this reason. They're keeping a lookout for you on every tramp ship from New York, on every cattle-ship from Boston, and on every grain-ship from Montreal; but they're not looking for you in the most expensive cabins of the most expensive liners. They know you've no money; and if you get out of the country at all, they expect it will be as a stoker or a stow-away They'll never think you're driving in cabs and staying at the best hotels."
"But I shan't be," he said, simply.
"Oh yes, you will. You'll need money, of course; and I've brought it. You'll need a good deal; so I've brought plenty."
She drew out a pocketbook and held it toward him. He looked at it, reddening, but made no attempt to take it.
"I can't--I can't--go as far as that," he stammered, hoarsely.
"You mean," she returned, quickly, "that you hesitate to take money from a woman. I thought you might. But it isn't from a woman; it's from a man. It's from my father. He would have liked to do it. He would have wanted me to do it. They keep putting it in the bank for me--just to spend--but I never need it. What can I do with money in a place like Greenport? Here, take it," she urged, thrusting it into his hands. "You know very well it isn't a matter of choice, but of life or death."
With her own fingers she clasped his upon it, drawing back and coloring at her boldness. For the first time in their weeks of intercourse she saw in him a touch of emotion The phlegmatism by which he had hitherto concealed his inward suffering seemed suddenly to desert him. He looked at her with lips quivering, while his eyes filled. His weakness only nerved her to be stronger, sending her for refuge back into the commonplace.
"They'll expect you at Rimouski, because your luggage will already have gone on board at Montreal. Yes," she continued, in reply to his astonishment, "I've forwarded all the trunks and boxes that came to me from my father. I told my guardian I was sending them to be stored--and I am, for you'll store them for me in London when you've done with them. Here are the keys."
He made no attempt to refuse them, and she hurried on.
"I sent the trunks for two reasons; first, because there might be things in them you could use till you get something better; and then I wanted to prevent suspicion arising from your sailing without luggage. Every little thing of that sort counts. The trunks have 'H.S.' painted in white letters on them; so that you'll have no difficulty in knowing them at sight. I've put a name with the same initials on the ticket. You'd better use it till you feel it safe to take your own again."
"What name?" he asked, with eager curiosity, beginning to take the ticket out of its envelope.
"Never mind now," she said, quickly. "It's just a name--any name. You can look at it afterward. We'd better go on."
She made as though she would move, but he detained her.
"Wait a minute. So your name begins with S!"
"Like a good many others," she smiled.
"Then tell me what it is. Don't let me go away without knowing it. You can't think what it means to me."
"I should think you'd see what it means to me."
"I don't. What harm can it do you?"
"If you don't see, I'm afraid I can't explain. To be nameless is--- how shall I say it?--a sort of protection to me. In helping you, and taking care of you, I've done what almost any really nice girl would have shrunk from. There are plenty of people who would say is was wrong. And in a way--a way I could never make you understand, unless you understand already--it's a relief to me that you don't know who I am. And even that isn't everything."
"When this little episode is over"--her voice trembled, and it was not without some blinking of the eyes that she was able to begin again--"when this little episode is over, it will be better for us both--for you as well as for me--to know as little about it as possible. The danger isn't past by any means; but it's a kind of danger in which ignorance can be made to look a good deal like innocence. I shan't know anything about you after you've gone, and you know nothing whatever about me."
"That's what I complain of. Suppose I pull the thing off, and make a success of myself somewhere else, how should I communicate with you again?"
"Why should you communicate with me at all?"
"To pay you back your money, for one thing--"
"Oh, that doesn't matter."
"Perhaps it doesn't from your point of view; but it does from mine. But it wouldn't be my only reason in any case."
Something in his voice and in his eyes warned her to rise and interrupt him.
"I'm afraid we haven't time to talk about it now," she said, hurriedly. "We really must be going on."
"I'm not going to talk about it now," he declared, rising in his turn. "I said it would be a reason for my wanting to communicate with you again. I shall want to tell you something then; though perhaps by that time you won't want to hear it."
"Hadn't we better wait and see?"
"That's what I shall have to do; but how can I come back to you at all if I don't know who you are?"
"I shall have to leave that to your ingenuity," she laughed, with an attempt to treat the matter lightly. "In the mean time we must hurry on. It's absolutely necessary that you should set out by sunset."
She glided into the invisible trail running down the lakeside slope of the mountain, so that he was obliged to follow her. As they had climbed up, so they descended--the girl steadily and silently in advance. The region was dotted with farms; but she kept to the shelter of the woodland, and before he expected it they found themselves at the water's edge. A canoe drawn up in a cove gave him the first clear hint of her intentions.
It was a pretty little cove, enclosed by two tiny headlands, forming a miniature landlocked bay, hidden from view of the lake beyond. Trees leaned over it and into it, while the canoe rested on a yard-long beach of sand.
"I see," he remarked, after she had allowed him to take his own observations. "You want me to go over to Burlington and catch a train to Montreal."
She shook her head, smiling, as he thought, rather tremulously.
"I'm afraid I've planned a much longer journey for you. Come and see the preparations I've made." They stepped to the side of the canoe, so as to look down into it. "That," she pursued, pointing to a small suit-case forward of the middle thwart, "will enable you to look like an ordinary traveller after you've landed. And that," she added, indicating a package in the stern, "contains nothing more nor less than sandwiches. Those are bottles of mineral water. The small objects are a corkscrew, a glass, a railway timetable a cheap compass, and a cheaper watch. In addition you'll find a map of the lake, which you can consult tomorrow morning, after you've paddled all night through the part with which you're most familiar."
"Where am I going?" he asked, huskily, avoiding her eyes. The nonchalance of her tone had not deceived him, and he thought it well not to let their glances meet.
"You'll keep to the middle of the lake and go on steadily. You'll have all Champlain to yourself to-night, and in daylight there's no reason why you shouldn't pass for an ordinary sportsman. All the same, you had better rest by day, and go on again in the evening. You'll find lots of little secluded coves where you can pull up the canoe and be quite undisturbed. I'd do that, if I were you."
He nodded to show that he understood her.
"When you look at the map," she went on, "you'll find that I've traced a route for you, after you get above Plattsville. You'll see that it will take you past the little French-Canadian village of Deux Etoiles. You can't mistake it, because there's a lighthouse, with a revolving light, on a rock, just off the shore. You'll be in Canada then. You'd better time yourself to go by about nightfall."
He nodded his agreement with her again, and she continued.
"About a mile above the lighthouse, and close in by the eastern shore, just where the lake becomes very narrow, there are two little islands lying close together. You'll take them as a landmark, because immediately opposite them, on the mainland, there's a stretch of forest running for a good many miles. There you can land finally. You must drag the canoe right up into the wood, and hide it as well as you can. It's my own canoe, so that it can lie there till it drops to pieces. Is all that quite clear to you?"
Once more he nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Again the sight of his emotion braced her to make her tone more matter-of-fact than ever.
"Now, then," she went on, "if you consult the map you'll see that an old wood-road runs through the forest, and comes out at the station of Saint Jean du Clou Noir. There you can get a train to Quebec.... The road begins nearly opposite the two little islands I spoke of.... I don't think you'll have any difficulty in finding it.... It's about seven miles to the station.... You could walk that easily enough through the night.... I've marked a very good train on the time-table--a train that stops at Saint Jean du Clou Noir at seven thirty-five ..."
A choking sensation warned her to stop, but she retained the power to smile. The sun had set, and the slow northern night was beginning to close in. Across the lake the mountains of Vermont were receding into deep purple uniformity, while over the crimson of the west a veil of filmy black was falling, as though dropped in mid-flight by the angel of the dark. Here and there through the dead-turquoise green of the sky one could detect the pale glimmer of a star.
"You must go now," she whispered. He began to move the canoe into the water.
"I haven't thanked you," he began, unsteadily, holding the canoe by the bow, "because you wouldn't let me. As a matter of fact, I don't know how to do it--adequately. But if I live at all, my life will belong to you. That's all I can say. My life will be a thing for you to dispose of. If you ever have need of it--"
"I shan't have," she said, hastily, "but I'll remember what you say."
"Thanks; that's all I ask. For the present I can only hope for the chance of making my promise good."
She said nothing in reply, and after a minute's silence he entered the canoe. She steadied it herself to allow him to step in. It was not till he had done so and had knelt down with the paddle in his hand that, moved by a sudden impulse she leaned to him and kissed him. Then, releasing the light craft, she allowed it to glide out like a swan on the tiny bay. In three strokes of the paddle it had passed between the low, enclosing headlands and was out of sight. When she summoned up strength to creep to an eminence commanding the lake, it was already little more than a speck, moving rapidly northward, over the opal-tinted waters.