The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part II. Strange.
Dressed in overalls that had once been white, he was superintending the stacking of wool in a long, brick-walled, iron-roofed shed in Buenos Aires when the thought came to him how easy it had all been. He paused for a minute in his work of inspection--standing by an open window, where a whiff of fresh air from off the mud-brown Rio de la Plata relieved the heavy, greasy smell of the piles of unwashed wool--just to review again the past eighteen months. Below him stretched the noisy docks, with their row of electric cranes, as regular as a line of street lamps, loading or unloading a mile of steamers lying broadside on, and flying all flags but the Stars and Stripes. Wines, silk, machinery, textiles were coming out; wheat, cattle, hides, and beef were pouring in. In the confusion of tongues that reached him he could, on occasions, catch the tones of Spaniard, Frenchman, Swede, and Italian, together with all the varieties of English speech from Highland Scotch to Cockney; but none of the intonations of his native land. The comparative rarity of anything American in his city of refuge, while it added to his sense of exile, heightened his feeling of security. It was still another of the happy circumstances that had helped him.
The strain under which he had lived during this year and a half had undoubtedly been great; but he could see now that it had been inward strain--the mental strain of unceasing apprehension, the spiritual strain of the new creature in casting off the old husk, and adapting itself not merely to new surroundings, but to a new life. This had been severe. He was not a rover, and still less an adventurer, in any of the senses attached to that word. His instincts were for the settled, the well-ordered, and the practical. He would have been content with any humdrum existence that permitted his peaceable, commercially gifted soul to develop in its natural environment. The process, therefore, by which Norrie Ford became Herbert Strange, even in his own thoughts, had been one of inner travail, though the outward conditions could not have been more favorable. Now that he had reached a point where his more obvious anxieties were passing away, and the hope of safety was becoming a reality, he could look back and see how relatively easy everything had been.
He had leisure for reflection because it was the hour for the men's midday meal and siesta. He could see them grouped together--some thirty-odd--at the far end of the shed--sturdy little Italians, black-eyed, smiling, thrifty, dirty, and contented to a degree that made them incomprehensible to the ambitious, upward-toiling American set over them. They sat, or lounged, on piles of wood, or on the floor, some chattering, most of them asleep. He had begun like them. He had stacked wool under orders till he had made himself capable of being in command. He had been beneath the ladder; and though his foot was only on the lowest rung of it even now, he was satisfied to have made this first step upward.
He could not be said to have taken it to his own surprise, since he had prepared himself for it, and for other such steps to follow it, knowing that they must become feasible in time. He had been given to understand that what the Argentine, in common with some other countries, needed most was neither men nor capital, but intelligence. Men were pouring in from every corner of the globe; capital was keen in looking for its opportunity; but for intelligence the demand was always greater than the supply.
The first intimation of such a need had come to him on the Empress of Erin, in mid-Atlantic, by a chance opportunity of the voyage. It was on one of the first days of liberty when he had ventured to mix freely with his fellow-passengers. Up to the present he had followed the rule of conduct adopted at the little Canadian station of Saint Jean du Clou Noir. He went into public when necessary, but no oftener. He did then what other people did, in the way to attract the least attention. The season favored him, for amid the throngs of early autumn travellers, moving from country back to town, or from seaside resorts to the mountains he passed unnoticed. At Quebec he was one of the crowd of tourists come to see the picturesque old town. At Rimouski he was lost among the trainful of people from the Canadian maritime provinces taking the Atlantic steamer at a convenient port. He lived through each minute in expectation of the law's tap on his shoulder; but he acquired the habit of nonchalance. On shipboard it was a relief to be able to shut himself up in his cabin--his suite!--feigning sickness, but really allowing his taut nerves to relax, as he watched first the outlines of the Laurentides, and then the shores of Anticosti, and lastly the iron-black coast of Labrador, follow each other below the horizon. Two or three appearances at table gave him confidence that he had nothing to fear. By degrees he allowed himself to walk up and down the deck, where it was a queer sensation to feel that the long row of eyes must of necessity be fixed upon him. The mere fact that he was wearing another man's clothes--clothes he had found in the cabin trunk that had come on board for him--produced a shyness scarcely mitigated by the knowledge that he was far from looking grotesque.
Little by little he plucked up courage to enter the smoking-room where the tacit, matter-of-course welcome of his own sex seemed to him like extraordinary affability. An occasional word from a neighbor, or an invitation to "take a hand at poker," or to "have a cocktail," was like an assurance to a man who fancies himself dead that he really is alive. He joined in no conversations and met no advances, but from the possibilities of doing so he would go back to his cabin smiling.
The nearest approach to pleasure he allowed himself was to sit in a corner and listen to the talk of his fellow-men. It was sometimes amusing, but oftener stupid; it turned largely on food, with irrelevant interludes on business. It never went beyond the range of topics possible to the American or Canadian merchants, professional men, politicians, and saloon-keepers, who form the rank and file of smoking-room society on any Atlantic liner; but the Delphic worshipper never listened to Apollo's oracle with a more rapt devotion than Ford to this intercommunion of souls.
It was in this way that he chanced one day to hear a man speaking of the Argentine. The remarks were casual, choppy, and without importance, but the speaker evidently knew the ground. Ford had already noticed him, because they occupied adjoining steamer-chairs--a tall, sallow Englishman of the ineffectual type, with sagging shoulders, a drooping mustache, and furtive eyes. Ford had scarcely thought of the Argentine since the girl in the cabin had mentioned it--- now ten or twelve days ago; but the necessity of having an objective point, and one sufficiently distant turned his mind again in that direction.
"Did I hear you speaking yesterday of Buenos Aires?" he ventured to ask, on the next occasion when he found himself seated beside his neighbor on deck.
The Englishman drew his brier-root pipe from his mouth, glanced sidewise from the magazine he was reading, and jerked his head in assent.
"What kind of place did it seem to you?"
Pondering this reply, Ford might have lost courage to speak again had he not caught the eye of the Englishman's wife as she leaned forward and peeped at him across her husband's brier-root. There was something in her starry glance--an invitation, or an incitement--that impelled him to continue.
"I've been told it's the land of new opportunities."
The Englishman grunted without looking up. "I didn't see many."
"May I ask if you saw any?"
"None fit for a white man."
"My husband means none fit for a--gentleman. I liked the place."
From the woman's steely smile and bitter-sweet tones Ford got hints of masculine inefficiency and feminine contempt which he had no wish to follow up. He knew from fragments of talk overheard in the smoking-room that they had tried Mexico, California, and Saskatchewan in addition to South America. From the impatience with which she shook the foot just visible beneath the steamer-rug, while all the rest of her bearing feigned repose, he guessed her humiliation at returning empty to the land she had left with an Anglo-Saxon's pioneering hope, beside a husband who could do nothing but curse luck. To get over the awkward minute he spoke hurriedly.
"I've heard of a very good house out there--Stephens and Jarrott. Do you happen to know anything about them?"
"Wool," the Englishman grunted again. "Wool and wheat. Beastly brutes."
"They were horribly impertinent to my husband," the woman spoke up, with a kind of feverish eagerness to have her say. "They actually asked him if there was anything he could do. Fancy!"
"Oh, I know people of that sort put a lot of superfluous questions to you," Ford said. But the lady hurried on.
"As to questions, there are probably fewer asked you in Argentine than anywhere else in the world. It's one of the standing jokes of the place, both in Buenos Aires and out in the Camp. Of course, the old Spanish families are all right; but when it comes to foreigners a social catechism wouldn't do. That's one of the reasons the place didn't agree with us. We wanted people to know who we'd been before we got there; but that branch of knowledge isn't cultivated."
"More beastly Johnnies in the Argentine passin' under names not their own," said the man, moved to speak, at last, "than in all the rest of the world put together. Heard a story at the Jockey Club--lot of beastly native bounders in the Jockey Club--heard a story at the Jockey Club of a little Irish Johnny who'd been cheatin' at cards. Three other asses kicked him out. Beggar turned at the door and got in his lick of revenge. 'Say boys, d'yez know why they call me Mickey Flanagan out here? Because it's me na-ame.' Beggar 'd got 'em all there."
Ford nerved himself to laugh, but made an excuse for rising.
"Oh, there's lots of cleverness among them," the lady observed, before he had time to get away. "In fact, it's one of the troubles with the country--for people like us. There's too much competition in brains. My husband hit the right nail on the head when he said there was no chance for any beastly Johnny out there, unless he could use his bloomin' mind--and for us that was out of the question."
Ford never spoke to them again, but he meditated on their words, finding himself at the end of twenty-four hours in possession of a new light. "I've got to use my bloomin' mind." The words seemed to offer him the clew to life. It was the answer to the question, "What should I do there?" which positively asked itself, whenever he thought of seeking a refuge in this country or in that. It came as a discovery that within himself was the power that would enable him to make the best of any country, and the country to make the best of him.
He could hardly have explained how his decision to try Argentina had become fixed. Until he saw whether or not he should get successfully ashore at Liverpool there was a paralysis of all mental effort; but once on the train for London his plans appeared before him already formed. The country where few questions were asked and the past had no importance was clearly the place for him. Within a fortnight he was a second-class passenger on board the Royal Mail Steam Packet Parana, bound for Buenos Aires--thus fulfilling, almost unexpectedly to himself, the suggestion made by the girl in the Adirondack cabin, whose star, as he began to believe, must rule his fate.
He thought of her now and then, but always with the same curious sense of remoteness--or unreality, as of a figure seen in a dream. Were it not for the substantial tokens of her actuality he possessed she would have seemed to him like the heroine of a play. He would have reproached himself for disloyalty if the intensity of each minute as he had to meet it had not been an excuse for him. The time would come when the pressure of the instant would be less great, and he should be able to get back the emotion with which he left her. Perhaps if she had been "his type of girl," her image would not have faded so quickly.
There was but one thing for which he was not grateful to her. She had fixed the name of Herbert Strange upon him in such a way that he was unable to shake it off. His own first name was the unobjectionable monosyllable John--though he had always been known by his less familiar middle name, Norrie--and as John Ford he could have faced the world with a certain amount of bluff. He meant to begin the attempt immediately on reaching London, but the difficulty of appearing in a hotel under one name while everything he brought with him bore another was patent to him at once. Similarly, he could not receive the correspondence incidental to his outfit and his passage under the name of Ford in a house where he was known as Strange. Having applied for his passage as Strange, he knew it would create comment if he asked to be put down in the books as Ford. Do what he would he was obliged to appear on the printed list of second-cabin passengers as Herbert Strange, and he had made at least one acquaintance who would expect to call him so after they reached land.
This was a little, clean-shaven man, in the neighborhood of sixty, always dressed at sea as he probably dressed on shore. He wore nothing but black, with a white shirt and a ready-made black bow-tie. He might have been a butler, an elderly valet, or a member of some discreet religious order in street costume. Ford had heard a flippant young Frenchman speak of him as an "ancien curA(C), qui a fait quelque bAŠtise"; and indeed there was about him that stamp of the ecclesiastic which is sometimes ineffaceable.
"I call myself Durand," he said to Ford, using the conveniently ambiguous French idiom, "je m'appelle Durand."
"Et je m'appelle Strange, I call myself Strange," Ford had replied, claiming the name for the first time without hesitation, but feeling the irrevocable nature of the words as soon as he had uttered them.
Out of the crowd of second-rate Europeans of all races who made up the second cabin, the man who called himself Strange had selected the man who called himself Durand by some obscure instinct of affinity. "He looks like an old chap who could give one information," was Strange's own way of putting it, not caring to confess that he was feeling after a bit of sympathy. But the give and take of information became the basis of their friendship, and imparted the first real stimulus to the young man's awkward efforts to use his mind.
Monsieur Durand had been thirty years in the Argentine, observing the place and the people, native and foreign, with the impartial shrewdness only possible to one who sought little for himself. It was a pleasure to share the fruits of his experience with one so eager to learn, for young men were not in the habit of showing him deference. He could tell Mr. Strange many things that would be to his advantage--what to do--what to avoid--what sort of place to live in--what he ought to pay--and what sort of company to keep.
Yes, he knew the firm of Stephens and Jarrott--an excellent house. There was no Mr. Stephens now, only a Mr. Jarrott. Mr. Stephens had belonged to the great days of American enterprise in the southern hemisphere, to the time of Wheelwright, and Halsey, and Hale. The Civil War had put an end to that. Mr. Jarrott had come later--a good man, not generally understood. He had suffered a great loss a few years ago in the death of his brother-in-law and partner, Mr. Colfax. Mrs. Colfax, a pretty little woman, who hadn't old age in her blood either--one could see that--had gone back to the United States with her child--but a child!--blond as an angel--altogether darling--tout A fait mignonne. Monsieur Durand thought he remembered hearing that Mrs. Colfax had married again, but he couldn't say for certain. What would you? One heard so many things. He knew less of the family since the last boy died--the boy to whom he gave lessons in Spanish and French. Death hadn't spared the household--taking the three sons one after another and leaving father and mother alone. It was a thousand pities Mrs. Colfax had taken the little girl away. They loved her as if she had been their own--especially after the boys died. An excellent house! Mr. Strange couldn't do better than seek an entry there--it is I who tell you so--c'est moi qui vous le dis.
All this was said in very good English, with occasional lapses into French, in a soft, benevolent voice, with slow benedictory movements of the hands, more and more suggestive of an ecclesiastic en civile--or under a cloud. Strange stole an occasional glance into the delicate, clear-cut face, where the thin lips were compressed into permanent lines of pain, and the sunken brown eyes looked out from under scholarly brows with the kind of hopeful anguish a penitent soul might feel in the midst of purifying flames. He remembered again that the flippant young Frenchman had said, "Un ancien curA(C), qui a fait quelque bAŠtise." Was it possible that some tragic sin lay under this gentle life? And was the four-funnelled, twin-screwed Parana but a ghostly ship bearing a cargo of haunted souls into their earthly purgatory?
"But listen, monsieur," the old man began next day. But listen! There would be difficulties. Stephens and Jarrott employed only picked men, men with some experience--except for the mere manual labor such as the Italians could perform. Wouldn't it be well for Mr. Strange to qualify himself a little before risking a refusal? Ah, but how? Monsieur Durand would explain. There was first the question of Spanish. No one could get along in the Argentine without a working knowledge of that tongue. Monsieur Durand himself gave lessons in it--and in French--but in the English and American colonies of Buenos Aires exclusively. There were reasons why he did not care to teach among Catholics, though he himself was a fervent one, and he hoped--repentant. He pronounced the last word with some emphasis, as though to call Strange's attention to it. If his young friend would give him the pleasure of taking a few lessons, they could begin even now. It would while away the time on the voyage. He had his own method of teaching, a method based on the Berlitz system, but not borrowed from it, and, he ventured to say, possessing its own good points. For example: el tabaco--la pipa--los cigarillos. Que es esto? Esto es la pipa. Very simple. In a few weeks' time the pupil is carrying on conversations.
It would be an incalculable advantage to Mr. Strange if he could enter on his Argentine life with some command of the vernacular. It might even be well to defer his search for permanent employment until he could have that accomplishment to his credit. If he possessed a little money--even a very little--Oh, he did? Then so much the better. He need not live on it entirely, but it would be something to fall back on while getting the rudiments of his education. In the mean time he could learn a little about wool if he picked up jobs--Oh, very humble ones!--they were always to be had by the young and able-bodied--at the Mercado Central, one of the great wool-markets of the world. He could earn a few pesetas, acquire practical experience, and fit himself out in Spanish, all at the same time.
And he could live with relative economy. Monsieur Durand could explain that too. In fact, he might get board and lodging in the same house as himself, with Mrs. Wilson who conducted a modest home for "gentlemen only." Mrs. Wilson was a Protestant--what they called a Methodist, he believed--but her house was clean, with a few flowers in the patio, very different from the frightful conventillos in which the poor were obliged to herd. If Mr. Strange thought it odd that he, Monsieur Durand, should be living beneath a Protestant roof--well, there were reasons which were difficult to explain.
Later on, perhaps, Mr. Strange might take a season on some great sheep estancia out in the Camp, where there were thousands of herds that were thousands strong. Monsieur Durand could help him in that too. He could introduce him to wealthy proprietors whose sons he had taught. It would be a hard life, but it need not be for long. He would live in a mud hut, dirty, isolated, with no companionship but that of the Italian laborers and their womenkind. But the outdoor existence would do him good; the air over the pampas was like wine; and the food would not be as bad as he might expect. There would be an abundance of excellent meat, chiefly mutton, it was true, which when cooked A la guacho--carne concuero, they called it in the Camp--roasted in the skin so as to keep all the juices in the meat--! A gesture of the hands, accompanied by a succulent inspiration between the teeth, gave Strange to understand that there was one mitigation at least to life on an Argentine estancia.
To come into actual contact with the sheep, to know Oxfords, Cheviots, Leicesters, and Black-faced Downs, to assist at the feedings and washings and doctorings and shearings, to follow the crossings and recrossings and crossings again, that bred new varieties as if they were roses, to trace the processes by which the Argentine pampas supply novel resources to the European manufacturer, and the European manufacturer turns out the smart young man of London or New York, with his air of wearing "the very latest"--all this would not only give Strange a pleasing sense of being at the root of things, but form a sort of apprenticeship to his trade.
* * * * *
The men had not yet finished their hour of siesta, but Strange himself was at work. Ten minutes were sufficient for his own snack, and he never needed rest. Moreover, he was still too new to his position to do other than glory in the fact that he was a free being, doing a man's work, and earning a man's wage. Out in the Camp he had been too desolate to feel that, but here in Buenos Aires, at the very moment when the great city was waking to the knowledge of her queenship in the southern world--when the commercial hordes of the north were sweeping down in thousands of ships across the equator to outdo each other in her markets, it was an inspiring thing merely to be alive and busy. He was as proud of Stephens and Jarrott's long brick shed, where the sun beat pitilessly on the corrugated iron roof, and the smell of wool nearly sickened him, as if it had been a Rothschild's counting-house. His position there was just above the lowest; but his enthusiasm was independent of trivial things like that. How could he lounge about, taking siestas, when work was such a pleasure in itself? The shed of which he had the oversight was a model of its kind, not so much because his ambition designed to make it so, as because his ardor could make it nothing else.
The roar of dock traffic through the open windows drowned everything but the loudest sounds, so that busily working, he heard nothing, and paid no attention, when some one stopped behind him. He had turned accidentally, humming to himself in the sheer joy of his task, when the presence of the stranger caused him to blush furiously beneath his tan. He drew himself up, like a soldier to attention. He had never seen the head of the firm that employed him, but he had heard a young Englishman describe him as "looking like a wooden man just coming into life," so that he was enabled to recognize him now. He did look something like a wooden man, in that the long, lean face, of the tone of parchment, was marked by the few, deep, almost perpendicular folds that give all the expression there is to a Swiss or German medieval statue of a saint or warrior in painted oak. One could see it was a face that rarely smiled, though there was plenty of life in the deep-set, gray-blue eyes, together with a force of cautious, reserved, and possibly timid, sympathy. Of the middle height and slender, with hair just turning from iron-gray to gray, immaculate in white duck, and wearing a dignified Panama, he stood looking at Strange--who, tall and stalwart in his greasy overalls, held his head high in conscious pride in his position in the shed--as Capital might look at Labor. It seemed a long time before Mr Jarrott spoke--the natural harshness of his voice softened by his quiet manner.
"You're in charge of this gang?"
There was an embarrassed pause. As though not knowing what to say next, Mr. Jarrott's gaze travelled down the length of the shed to where the Italians, rubbing their sleepy eyes, were preparing for work again.
"You're an American, I believe?"
"How old are you?"
"Not quite twenty-six."
"What's your name?"
"Ah? One of the Stranges of Virginia?"
There was another long pause, during which the older man's eyes wandered once more over the shed and the piles of wool, coming back again to Strange.
"You should pick up a little Spanish."
"I've been studying it. Hablo EspaA+-ol, pero no muy bien."
Mr. Jarrott looked at him for a minute in surprise.
"So much the better--tanto mejor," he said, after a brief pause, and passed on.