The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part I. Ford.
On finding himself alone, and relatively free, Ford's first sensation was one of insecurity. Having lived for more than a year under orders and observation, he had lost for the moment some of his natural confidence in his own initiative. Though he struck resolutely up the lake he was aware of an inner bewilderment, bordering on physical discomfort, at being his own master. For the first half-hour he paddled mechanically, his consciousness benumbed by the overwhelming strangeness. As far as he was able to formulate his thought at all he felt himself to be in process of a new birth, into a new phase of existence. In the darkening of the sky above him and of the lake around there came upon him something of the mental obscurity that might mark the passage of a transmigrating soul. After the subdued excitement of the past weeks, and especially of the past hour, the very regularity of his movements now lulled him into a passivity only quickened by vague fears. The noiseless leaping forward of the canoe beneath him heightened his sense of breaking with the past and hastening onward into another life. In that life he would be a new creature, free to be a law unto himself.
A new creature! A law unto himself! The ideas were subconscious, and yet he found the words framing themselves on his lips. He repeated them mentally with some satisfaction as a cluster of lights on his left told him he was passing Greenport. Other lights, on a hill, above the town and away from it, were probably those of Judge Wayne's villa. He looked at them curiously, with an odd sense of detachment, of remoteness, as from things belonging to a time with which he had nothing more to do. That was over and done with.
It was not until a steamer crossed his bows, not more than a hundred yards in front of him, that he began to appreciate his safety. Under the protection of the dark, and in the wide loneliness of the waters, he was as lost to human sight as a bird in the upper air. The steamer--zigzagging down the lake, touching at little ports now on the west bank and now on the east--had shot out unexpectedly from behind a point, her double row of lights casting a halo in which his canoe must have been visible on the waves; and yet she had passed by and taken no note of him. For a second such good-fortune had seemed to his nervous imagination beyond the range of hope. He stopped paddling he almost stopped breathing, allowing the canoe to rock gently on the tide. The steamer puffed and pulsated, beating her way directly athwart his course. The throbbing of her engines seemed scarcely louder than that of his own heart. He could see people moving on the deck, who in their turn must have been able to see him. And yet the boat went on, ignoring him, in tacit acknowledgment of his right to the lake, of his right to the world.
His sigh of relief became almost a laugh as he began again to paddle forward. The incident was like a first victory, an assurance of victories to come. The sense of insecurity with whith he had started out gave place, minute by minute, to the confidence in himself which was part of his normal state of mind. Other small happenings confirmed his self-reliance. Once a pleasure party in a rowboat passed so near him that he could hear the splash of their oars and the sound of their voices. There was something almost miraculous to him in being so close to the commonplace of human fellowship. He had the feeling of pleasant inward recognition that comes from hearing one's mother-tongue in a foreign land. He stopped paddling again, just to catch meaningless fragments of their talk, until they floated away into silence and darkness. He would have been sorry to have them pass out of ear-shot, were it not for his satisfaction in being able to go his way unheeded.
On another occasion he found himself within speaking distance of one of the numerous small lakeside hotels. Lights flared from open doors and windows, while from the veranda, the garden, and the little pier came peals of laughter, or screams and shouts of young people at rough play. Now and then he could catch the tones of some youth's teasing, and the shrill, pretended irritation of a girl's retort. The noisy cheerfulness of it all reached his ears with the reminiscent tenderness of music heard in childhood. It represented the kind of life he himself had loved. Before the waking nightmare of his troubles began he had been of the unexacting type of American lad who counts it a "good time" to sit in summer evenings on "porches" or "stoops" or "piazzas," joking with "the boys," flirting with "the girls," and chattering on all subjects from the silly to the serious, from the local to the sublime. He was of the friendly, neighborly, noisy, demonstrative spirit characteristic of his age and class. He could have entered into this circle of strangers--strangers for the most part, in all probability, to one another--and in ten minutes' time been one of them. Their screams, their twang, their slang, their gossip, their jolly banter, and their gay ineptitude would have been to him like a welcome home. But he was Norrie Ford, known by name and misfortune to every one of them. The boys and girls on the pier, the elderly women in the rocking-chairs, even the waitresses who, in high-heeled shoes and elaborate coiffures, ministered disdainfully to the guests in the bare-floored dining-room, had discussed his life, his trial, his sentence, his escape, and formed their opinions upon him. Were it possible for them to know now that he was lurking out there in the dark, watching their silhouettes and listening to their voices, there would be such a hue and cry as the lake had not heard since the Indians sighted Champlain on its banks.
It was this reflection that first of all stirred the current of his deep, slow resentment. During the fifteen months since his arrest he had been either too busy, or too anxious, or too sorely puzzled at finding himself in so odd a position, to have leisure for positive anger. At the worst of times he had never lost the belief that the world, or that portion of the world which concerned itself with him, would come to recognize the fact that it was making a mistake. He had taken his imprisonment and his trial more or less as exciting adventures. Even the words of his sentence lost most of their awfulness in his inner conviction that they were empty sounds. Of the confused happenings on the night of his escape his clearest memory was that he had been hungry, while he thought of the weeks spent in the cabin as a "picnic." Just as good spirits had seldom failed him, so patience had rarely deserted him. Such ups and downs of emotion as he had experienced resulted in the long run in an increase of optimism. In the back of his slow mind he kept the expectation, almost the intention, of giving his anger play--some time; but only when his rights should have been restored to him.
But he felt it coming on him now, before he was prepared for it. It was taking him unawares, and without due cause, roused by the chance perception that he was cut off from rightful, natural companionship. Nothing as yet had brought home to him the meaning of his situation like the talk and laughter of these lads and girls, who suddenly became to him what Lazarus in Abraham's bosom was to Dives in his torment.
A few dips of the paddle took him out of sight and sound of the hotel; but the dull, indignant passion remained in his heart, finding outward vent in the violence with which he sent the canoe bounding northward beneath the starlight. For the moment it was a blind, objectless passion, directed against nothing and no one in particular. He was not skilled in the analysis of feeling, or in tracing effect to cause. For an hour or two his wrath was the rage of the infuriated animal roaring out its pain, regardless of the hand that has inflicted it. Other rowing-parties came within hearing distance, but he paid them no attention; lake steamers hove in sight, but he had learned how to avoid them; little towns, dotted at intervals of a few miles apart, lit up the banks with the lights of homes, but their shining domesticity seemed to mock him. The birth of a new creature was a painful process; and yet, through all his confused sensations and obscure elemental suffering, he kept the conviction that a new creature was somehow claiming its right to live.
Peace of mind came to him gradually, as the little towns put out their lights, and the lake steamers laid up in tiny ports, and the rowing-parties went home to bed. In the smooth, dark level of the lake and in the stars there was a soothing quality to which he responded before he was aware of doing so. The spacious solitude of the summer night brought with it a large calmness of outlook, in which his spirit took a measure of comfort. There was a certain bodily pleasure, too, in the regular monotony of paddling, while his mental faculties were kept alert by the necessity of finding points by which to steer, and fixing his attention upon them. So, by degrees, his limited reasoning powers found themselves at work, fumbling, with the helplessness of a man whose strong points are physical activity and concentration of purpose, for some light on the wild course on which he was embarked.
Perhaps his first reflection that had the nature of a conclusion or a deduction was on the subject of "old Wayne." Up to the present he had regarded him with special ill will, owing to the fact that Wayne, while inclining to a belief of his innocence, had nevertheless lent himself to the full working of the law. It came to Ford now in the light of a discovery that, after all, it was not Wayne's fault. Wayne was in the grip of forces that deprived him to a large extent of the power of voluntary action. He could scarcely be blamed if he fulfilled the duties he was appointed to perform The real responsibility was elsewhere. With whom did it lie? For a primitive mind like Ford's the question was not an easy one to answer.
For a time he was inclined to call to account the lawyers who had pleaded for the State. Had it not been for their arguments he would have been acquitted. With an ingenuity he had never supposed to exist they had analyzed his career--especially the two years of it spent with Uncle Chris--and showed how it led up to the crime as to an inevitable consequence. They seemed familiar with everything he had ever done, while they were able to prove beyond cavil that certain of his acts were inspired by sinister motives which he himself knew to have sprung from dissipation at the worst. It was astonishing how plausible their story was; and he admitted that if anybody else had been accused, he himself would probably have been convinced by it. Certainly, then, the lawyers must have been to blame--that is, unless they were only carrying out what others had hired them to do.
That qualifying phrase started a new train of thought. Mechanically, dip by dip, swaying gently with each stroke as to a kind of rhythm, he drove the canoe onward, while he pondered it. It was easy to meditate out here, on the wide, empty lake, for no sound broke the midnight stillness but the soft swish of the paddle and the skimming of the broad keel along the water. It was not by any orderly system of analysis, or synthesis, or syllogism, that Ford, as the hours went by, came at last to his final conclusion; and yet he reached it with conviction. By a process of elimination he absolved judge, jury, legal profession, and local public from the greater condemnation. Each had contributed to the error that made him an outlaw, but no one contributor was the whole of the great force responsible. That force, which had set its component parts to work, and plied them till the worst they could do was done, was the body which they called Organized Society. To Ford, Organized Society was a new expression. He could not remember ever to have heard it till it was used in court. There it had been on everybody's lips. Far more than old Chris Ford himself it was made to figure as the injured party. Though there was little sympathy for the victim in his own person, Organized Society seemed to have received in his death a blow that called for the utmost avenging. Organized Society was plaintiff in the case, as well as police, jury, judge, and public. The single human creature who could not apparently gain footing within its fold was Norrie Ford himself. Organized Society had cast him out.
He had been told that before, and yet the actual fact had never come home to him till now. In prison, in court, in the cabin in the woods, there had always been some human hand within reach of his own, some human tie, even though it was a chain. However ignoble, there had been a place for him. But out here on the great vacant lake there was an isolation that gave reality to his expulsion. The last man left on earth would not feel more utterly alone.
For the first time since the night of his escape there came back to him that vague feeling of deserting something he might have defended, that almost physical sensation of regret at not having stood his ground and fought till he fell. He began to understand now what it meant. Dip, splash, dip, splash, his paddle stirred the dimly shining water, breaking into tiny whirlpools the tremulous reflection of the stars. Not for an instant did he relax his stroke, though the regret took more definitive shape behind him. Convicted and sentenced, he was still part of the life of men, just as a man whom others are trying to hurl from a tower is on the tower till he has fallen. He himself had not fallen; he had jumped off, while there was still a chance of keeping his foothold.
It required an hour or two of outward rhythmic movement and confused inward feeling to get him ready for his next mental step. He had jumped off the tower; true; but he was alive and well, with no bones broken. What should he do now? Should he try to tear the tower down? The attempt would not be so very ludicrous, seeing he should only have to join those--socialists, anarchists, faddists--already at the work. But he admired the tower, and preferred to see is stand. If he did anything at all, it would be to try to creep back into it.
The reflection gave still another turn to his thoughts. He was passing Burlington by this time--the electric lamps throwing broad bands of light along the deserted, up-hill streets, between the sleeping houses. It was the first city he had seen since leaving New York to begin his useless career in the mountains. The sight moved him with an odd curiosity, not free from a homesick longing for normal, simple ways of life. He kept the canoe at a standstill, looking hungrily up the empty thoroughfares, as a poor ghost may gaze at familiar scenes while those it has loved are dreaming. By-and-by the city seemed to stir in its sleep. Along the waterside he could hear the clatter of some belated or too early wayfarer; a weird, intermittent creaking told him that the milk-cart of provincial towns was on its beat; from a distant freight-train came the long, melancholy wail that locomotives give at night; and then drowsily, but with the promptness of one conscientious in his duty, a cock crew. Ford knew that somewhere, unseen as yet by him, the dawn was coming, and--again like a wandering ghost--sped on.
But he had been looking on the tower which the children of men had builded, and had recognized his desire to clamber up into it again. He was not without the perception that a more fiery temperament than his own--perhaps a nobler one--would have cursed the race that had done him wrong, and sought to injure it or shun it. Misty recollections of proud-hearted men who had taken this stand came back to him.
"I suppose I ought to do the same," he muttered to himself humbly; "but what would be the use when I couldn't keep it up?"
Understanding himself thus well, his purpose became clearer. Like the ant or the beaver that has seen its fabric destroyed, he must set patiently to work to reconstruct it. He suspected a poor-spirited element in this sort of courage; but his instinct forced him within his limitations. By dint of keeping there and toiling there he felt sure of his ability to get back to the top of the tower in such a way that no one would think he lacked the right to be on it.
But he himself would know it. He shrank from that fact with the repugnance of an honest nature for what is not straightforward; but the matter was past helping. He should be obliged to play the impostor everywhere and with every one. He would mingle with men, shake their hands, share their friendships, eat their bread, and accept their favors--and deceive them under their very noses. Life would become one long trick, one daily feat of skill. Any possible success he could win would lack stability, would lack reality, because there would be neither truth nor fact behind it.
From the argument that he was innocent he got little comfort. He had forfeited his right to make use of that fact any longer. Had he stayed where he was he could have shouted it out till they gagged him in the death-chair. Now he must be dumb on the subject forevermore. In his disappearance there was an acceptation of guilt which he must remain powerless to explain away.
Many minutes of dull pain passed in dwelling on that point. He could work neither back from it nor forward. His mind could only dwell on it with an aching admission of its justice, while he searched the sky for the dawn.
In spite of the crowing of the cock he saw no sign of it--unless it was that the mountains on the New York shore detached themselves more distinctly from the sky of which they had seemed to form a part. On the Vermont side there was nothing but a heaped-up darkness, night piled on night, till the eye reached the upper heavens and the stars.
He paddled on, steadily, rhythmically, having no sense of hunger or fatigue, while he groped for the clew that was to guide him when he stepped on land. He felt the need of a moral programme, of some pillar of cloud and fire that would show him a way he should be justified in taking. He expressed it to himself by a kind of aspiration which he kept repeating, sometimes half aloud:
"O Lord, O Holy One! I want to be a man!"
Suddenly he struck the water with so violent a dash that the canoe swerved and headed landward.
"By God!" he muttered, under his breath, "I've got it.... It isn't my fault.... It's theirs.... They've put me in this fix.... They've brought this dodging, and shifting, and squirming upon me.... The subterfuge isn't mine; it's theirs.... They've taken the responsibility from me.... When they strip me of rights they strip me of duties.... They've forced me where right and wrong don't exist for me any more.... They've pitched me out of their Organized Society, and I've had to go.... Now I'm free ... and I shall profit by my freedom."
In the excitement of these discoveries he smote the waters again. He remembered having said something of the sort on the night of his interview with Wayne; but he had not till now grasped its significance. It was the emancipation of his conscience. Whatever difficulties he might encounter from outside, he should be hampered by no scruples from within. He had been relieved of them; they had been taken from him. Since none had a duty toward him, he had no duty toward any. If it suited his purposes to juggle with men, the blame must rest upon themselves. He could but do his best with the maimed existence they had left to him. Self-respect would entail observance of the common laws of truth and honesty, but beyond this he need never allow consideration for another to come before consideration for himself. He was absolved from the necessity in advance. In the region in which he should pass his inner life there would be no occupant but himself. From the world where men and women had ties of love and pity and mutual regard they had cast him out, forcing him into a spiritual limbo where none of these things obtained. It was only lawful that he should make use of such advantages as his lot allowed him.
There was exaltation in the way in which he grasped this creed as his rule of life; and looking up suddenly, he saw the dawn. It had taken him unawares, stealing like a gray mist of light over the tops of the Vermont hills, lifting their ridges faintly out of night, like the ghosts of so many Titans. Among the Adirondacks one high peak caught the first glimmer of advancing day, while all the lower range remained a gigantic silhouette beneath the perceptibly paling stars. Over Canada the veil was still down, but he fancied he could detect a thinner texture to the darkness.
Then, as he passed a wooded headland, came a sleepy twitter, from some little pink and yellow bill barely withdrawn from its enfolding wing--to be followed by another, and another, and another, till both shores were aquiver with that plaintive chirrup, half threnody for the flying darkness, half welcome to the sun, like the praise of a choir of children roused to sing midnight matins, but still dreaming. Ford's dip was softer now, as though he feared to disturb that vibrant drowsiness; but when, later, capes and coves began to define themselves through the gray gloaming, and, later still, a shimmer of saffron appeared above the eastern summits, he knew it was time to think of a refuge from the daylight.
The saffron became fire; the fire lit up a heaven of chrysoprase and rose. Where the lake had been as a metal mirror for the stars, it rippled and dimpled and gleamed with the tints of mother-of-pearl. He knew the sun must be on the farther slope of the Green Mountains, because the face they turned toward him was dense in shadow, like the unilluminated portion of the moon. On the western shore the Adirondacks were rising out of the bath of night as dewy fresh as if they had been just created.
But the sun was actually in the sky when he perceived that he no longer had the lake to himself. From a village nestling in some hidden cove a rowboat pulled out into the open--a fisherman after the morning's catch. It was easy enough for Ford to keep at a prudent distance; but the companionship caused him an uneasiness that was not dispelled before the first morning steamer came pounding from the northward. He fixed his attention then on a tiny islet some two or three miles ahead. There were trees on it, and probably ferns and grass. Reaching it, he found himself in a portion of the lake forest-banked and little frequented. Pastures and fields of ripening grain on the most distant slopes of Vermont gave the nearest token of life. All about him there was solitude and stillness--with the glorious, bracing beauty of the newly risen day.
Landing with stiffened limbs, he drew up the canoe on a bit of sandy beach, over which sturdy old bushes, elder and birch, battered by the north winds, leaned in friendly, concealing protection. He himself would be able to lie down here, among the tall ferns and the stunted blueberry-scrub, as secluded and secure as ever he had been in prison.
Being hungry and thirsty, he ate and drank, consulting his map the while and fixing approximately his whereabouts. He looked at his little watch and wound it up, and fingered the pages of the railway guide he found beside it.
The acts brought up the image of the girl who had furnished him with these useful accessories to flight. For lack of another name he called her the Wild Olive--remembering her yearning, not wholly unlike his own, to be grafted back into the good olive-tree of Organized Society. With some shame he perceived that he had scarcely thought of her through the night. It was astounding to recollect that not twelve hours ago she had kissed him and sent him on his journey. To him the gulf between then and now was so wide and blank that it might have been twelve weeks, or twelve months, or twelve years. It had been the night of the birth of a new creature, of the transmigration of a soul; it had no measurement in time, and threw all that preceded it into the mists of prenatal ages.
These thoughts passed through his mind as he made a pillow for himself with his white flannel jacket, and twisted the ferns above it into a shelter from the flies. Having done this, he stood still and pondered.
"Have I really become a new creature?" he asked himself.
There was much in the outward conditions to encourage the fancy, while his inner consciousness found it easy to be credulous. Nothing was left of Norrie Ford but the mere flesh and bones--the least stable part of personality. Norrie Ford was gone--not dead, but gone--blasted, annihilated stamped out of existence, by the act of Organized Society. In its place the night of transition had called up some one else.
"But who? ... Who am I? ... What am I?"
Above all, a name seemed required to give him entity. It was a repetition of his feeling about the Wild Olive--the girl in the cabin in the woods. Suddenly he remembered that, if he had found a name for her, she had also found one for him--and that it was written on the steamer ticket in his pocket. He drew it out, and read:
He repeated it at first in dull surprise, and then with disapproval. It was not the kind of name he would have chosen. It was odd, noticeable--a name people would remember He would have preferred something commonplace such as might be found for a column or two in any city directory. She had probably got it from a novel--or made it up. Girls did such things. It was a pity, but there was no help for it now. As Herbert Strange he must go on board the steamer, and so he should be called until--
But he was too tired to fix a date for the resumption of his own name or the taking of another. Flinging himself on his couch of moss and trailing ground-spruce, with the ferns closing over him, and the pines over them, he was soon asleep.