The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part II. Strange.
He was again thinking how easy it had been, as he stood, more than three years later, on the bluffs of Rosario, watching the sacks of wheat glide down the long chute--full seventy feet--into the hold of the Walmer Castle. The sturdy little Italians who carried the bags from the warehouse in long single file might have been those he had superintended in the wool-shed in Buenos Aires in the early stages of his rise. But he was not superintending these. He superintended the superintendents of those who superintended them. Tired with his long day in the office, he had come out toward the end of the afternoon not only to get a breath of the fresh air off the Parana, but to muse, as he often did, over the odd spectacle of the neglected, half-forgotten Spanish settlement, that had slumbered for two hundred years, waking to the sense of its destiny as a factor of importance in the modern world. Wheat had created Chicago and Winnipeg Adam-like from the ground; but it was rejuvenating Rosario de Santa FA(C) Faust-like, with its golden elixir. It interested the man who called himself Herbert Strange--resident manager of Stephens and Jarrott's great wheat business in this outlet of the great wheat provinces--to watch the impulse by which Decrepitude rose and shook itself into Youth. As yet the process had scarcely advanced beyond the early stages of surprise. The dome of the seventeenth-century Renaissance cathedral accustomed for five or six generations to look down on low, one-storied Spanish dwellings surrounding patios almost Moorish in their privacy, seemed to lift itself in some astonishment over warehouses and flour-mills; while the mingling of its sweet old bells with the creaking of cranes and the shrieks of steam was like that chorus of the centuries in which there can be no blending of the tones.
Strange felt himself so much a part of the rejuvenescence that the incongruity gave him no mental nor A|sthetic shock. If in his present position he took a less naA-ve pride than in that of three years ago, he was conscious none the less of a deep satisfaction in having his part, however humble, in the exercise of the world's energies. It gave him a sense of oneness with the great primal forces--with the river flowing beneath him, two hundred miles to the Atlantic, with the wheat fields stretching behind him to the confines of Brazil and the foothills of the Andes--to be a moving element in this galvanizing of new life into the dormant town, in this finding of new riches in the waiting earth. There was, too, a kind of companionship in the steamers moored to the red buoys in the river, waiting their turns to come up to the insufficient quays and be loaded. They bore such names as Devonshire, Ben Nevis, and Princess of Wales. They would go back to the countries where the speech was English, and the ideals something like his own. They would go back, above all, to the north, to the north that he yearned for with a yearning to which time brought no mitigation, to the north which was coming to mean for him what heaven means to a soul outside the scope of redemption.
It was only on occasions that this sentiment got possession of him strongly. He was generally able to keep it down. Hard work, assisted by his natural faculty for singleness of purpose and concentration of attention, kept him from lifting the eyes of his heart toward the unattainable. Moreover, he had developed an enthusiasm, genuine in its way, for the land of his adoption. The elemental hugeness of its characteristics--its rivers fifty to a hundred miles in width, its farms a hundred thousand acres in extent, its sheep herds and cattle herds thousands to the count--were of the kind to appeal to an ardent, strenuous nature. There was an exhilarating sense of discovery in coming thus early to one of the world's richest sources of supply at a minute when it was only beginning to be tapped. Out in the Camp there was an impression of fecundity, of earth and animal alike, that seem to relegate poverty and its kindred ills to a past that would never return; while down in the Port the growth of the city went on like the bursting of some magic, monstrous flower. It was impossible not to share in some degree the pride of the braggart Argentine.
It was difficult, too, not to love a country in which the way had been made so smooth for him. While he knew that he brought to his work those qualities most highly prized by men of business, he was astonished nevertheless at the rapidity with which he climbed. Men of long experience in the country had been more than once passed over, while he got the promotion for which they had waited ten and fifteen years. He admired the way in which for the most part they concealed their chagrin, but now and then some one would give it utterance.
"Hello, grafter!" a little man had said to him, on the day when his present appointment had become known among his colleagues.
The speaker was coming down the stairs of the head office in the Avenida de Mayo as Strange was going up. His name was Green, and though he had been twenty years in Argentine, he haled from Boston. Short and stout, with gray hair, a gray complexion, a gray mustache, and wearing gray flannels, with a gray felt hat, he produced a general impression of neutrality. Strange would have gone on his way unheeding had not the snarling tone arrested him. He had ignored this sort of insult more than once; but he thought the time had come for ending it. He turned on an upper step, looking down on the ashy-faced little man, to whom he had once been subordinate and who was now subordinate to him.
"Hello--what?" he asked, with an air of quiet curiosity.
"I said, Hello, grafter," Green repeated, with bravado.
"I guess you know that as well as I do."
"I don't. What is it? Out with it. Fire away."
His tranquil air of strength had its effect in overawing the little man, though the latter stood firm and began to explain.
"A grafter is a fellow with an underground pull for getting hold of what belongs to some one else. At least that's what I understand by it--"
"It's very much what I understand by it, too. But have I ever got hold of anything of yours?"
"Yes, confound you! You've taken my job--the job I've waited for ever since 1885."
"Did waiting for it make it yours? If so, you would have come by it more easily than I did. I worked for it."
"Worked for it? Haven't I worked for it, too? Haven't I been in this office for going on seventeen years? Haven't I done what they've paid me for--?"
"I dare say. But I've done twice what they've paid me for. That's the secret of my pull, and I don't mind giving it away. You mayn't like it--some fellows don't; but you'll admit it it's a pull you could have had, as well as I. Look here, Green," he continued, in the same quiet tone, "I'm sorry for you. If I were in your place, I dare say I should feel as you do. But if I were in your place, I'll be hanged if I shouldn't make myself fit to get out of it. You're not fit--and that's the only reason why you aren't going as resident manager to Rosario. You're labelled with the year '1885,' as if you were a bottle of champagne--and you've forgotten that champagne is a wine that gets out of date. You're a good chap--quite as good as your position--but you're not better than your position--and when you are you won't be left in it any longer."
In speaking in this way the man who had been Norrie Ford was consciously doing violence to himself. His natural tendency was to be on friendly terms with those around him, and he had no prompting stronger than the liking to be liked. In normal conditions he was always glad to do a kindness; and when he hurt any one's feelings he hurt his own still more. Even now, though he felt justified in giving little Green to understand his intoleration of impertinence, he was obliged to fortify himself by appealing to his creed that he owed no consideration to any one. Little Green was protected by a whole world organized in his defence; Norrie Ford had been ruined by that world, while Herbert Strange had been born outside it. With a temperament like that of a quiet mastiff, he was forced to turn himself into something like a wolf.
In spite of the fact that little Green's account of the brief meeting on the stairs presented it in the light of the castigation he had administered to "that confounded upstart from nobody knows where," Strange noticed that it made the clerks in the office, most of whom had been his superiors as Green had been, less inclined to bark at his heels. He got respect from them, even if he could not win popularity--and from popularity, in any case, he had been shut out from the first. No man can be popular who works harder than anybody else, shuns companionship, and takes his rare amusements alone. He had been obliged to do all three, knowing in advance that it would create for him a reputation of an "ugly brute" in quarters whence he would have been glad to get good-will.
Finding the lack of popularity a safeguard not only against prying curiosity, but against inadvertent self-betrayal, it was with some misgiving that he saw his hermit-like seclusion threatened, as he rose higher in the business and consequently in the social--scale. In the English-speaking colony of Buenos Aires the one advance is likely to bring about the other--especially in the case of a good-looking young man, evidently bound to make his mark, and apparently of respectable antecedents. The first menace of danger had come from Mr. Jarrott himself, who had unexpectedly invited his intelligent employee to lunch with him at a club, in order to talk over a commission with which Strange was to be intrusted. On this occasion he was able to stammer his way out of the invitation; but when later, Mr. Skinner, the second partner, made a like proposal, he was caught without an excuse, being obliged, with some confusion, to eat his meal in a fashionable restaurant in the Calle Florida. Oddly enough, both his refusal on the one occasion and his acceptance on the other obtained him credit with his elders and superiors, as a modest young fellow, too shy to seize an honor, and embarrassed when it was thrust upon him.
To Strange both occurrences were so alarming that he put himself into a daily attitude of defence, fearing similar attack from Mr. Martin, the third member of the firm. He, however, made no sign; and the bomb was thrown by his wife. It came in the shape of a card informing Mr. Strange that on a certain evening, a few weeks hence, Mrs. Martin would be at home, at her residence in Hurlingham. It was briefly indicated that there would be dancing, and he was requested to answer if he pleased. The general information being engraved, his particular name was written in a free bold hand, which he took to be that of one of the daughters of the family.
Though he did his best to keep his head, there was everything in that bit of pasteboard to throw him into a state of something like excitement. Not only were the doors of the world Norrie Ford had known being thrown open to Herbert Strange, but the one was being moved by the same thrill--the thrill of the feminine--that had been so powerful with the other. He was growing more susceptible to it in proportion as it seemed forbidden--just as a man in a desert island may dream of the delights of wine.
He had looked at the Misses Martin, but had never supposed they could fling a glance at him. He had seen them at the public gathering-places--in their box at the opera, in the grand stand at the Jockey Club, in their carriage at Palermo or in the Florida. They were handsome girls--blonde and dashing--whose New York air was in pleasant contrast to the graceful indolence or stolid repose of the dark-eyed ladies of the Argentine, too heavily bejewelled and too consciously dressed according to the Paris mode. Strange said of the Misses Martin, as he had said of Wild Olive, that they were "not his type of girl"--but they were girls--they were American girls--they were bright, lively girls, representing the very poetry and romance of the world that had turned him out.
It was a foregone conclusion that he should decline their invitation, and he did so; but the mere occasion for doing it gave his mind an impetus in the direction in which he had been able hitherto to check it. He began again to think of the feminine, to dream of it, to long for it. For the time being it was the feminine in the abstract--without features or personality. As far as it took form at all it was with the dainty, nestling seductiveness that belonged to what he called his "type"--a charm that had nothing in common with the forest grace of the Wild Olive or the dash of the Misses Martin.
Now and then he caught glimpses of it, but it was generally out of reach. Soft eyes, of the velvety kind that smote him most deliciously, would lift their light upon him through the casement of some old Spanish residence, or from the daily procession of carriages moving slowly along the palm avenue at Palermo or in the Florida. When this happened he would have a day or two of acting foolishly, in the manner of the Bonarense bucks. He would stand for hours of his leisure time--if he could get away from the office at the minute of the fashionable promenade--on the pavement of the Florida, or under a palm-tree in the park, waiting for a particular carriage to drive round again and again and again, while he returned the sweet gaze which the manners of the country allow an unknown lady to bestow, as a rose is allowed to shed its beauty. This being done, he would go away, and realize that he had been making himself ridiculous.
Once the incarnation of his dreams came so near him that it was actually within his grasp. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil dangled its fruit right before his eyes in the person of Mademoiselle Hortense, who sang at the CafA(C) Florian, while the clients, of whom he was sometimes one, smoked and partook of refreshments. She was just the little round, soft, dimpling, downy bundle of youth and love he so often saw in his mind's eye, and so rarely in reality, and he was ready to fall in love with any one. The mutual acquaintance was formed, as a matter of course, over the piece of gold he threw into the tambourine, from which, as she passed from table to table, she was able to measure her hearer's appreciation of art. Those were the days in which he first began to be able to dress well, and to have a little money to throw away. For ten days or a fortnight he threw it away in considerable sums, being either in love or in a condition like it. He respected Mademoiselle Hortense, and had sympathy with her in her trials. She was desperately sick of her roving life as he was of Mrs. Wilson's boarding-house. She was as eager to marry and settle down as he to have a home. The subject was not exactly broached between them, but they certainly talked round it. The decisive moment came on the night when her troupe was to sail for Montevideo. In the most delicate way in the world she gave him to understand that she would remain even at the eleventh hour if he were to say the word. She might be on the deck, she might be in her berth, and it still would not be too late. He left her at nine, and she was to sail at eleven. During the two intervening hours he paced the town, a prey to hopes, fears, temptations, distresses. To do him justice, it was her broken heart he thought of, not his own. To him she was only one of many possibilities; to her, he was the chance of a lifetime. She might never, he said to himself, "fall into the clutches of so decent a chap again." It was a wild wrestle between common sense and folly--so wild that he was relieved to hear a clock strike eleven, and to know she must have sailed.
The incident sobered him by showing him how near and how easily he could come to a certain form of madness. After that he worked harder than ever, and in the course of time got his appointment at Rosario. It was a great "rise," not only in position and salary, but also in expectations. Mr. Martin had been resident manager at Rosario before he was taken into partnership--so who could tell what might happen next?
The first intimation of the change was conveyed by Mr. Jarrott in a manner characteristically casual. Strange, being about to leave the private office one day, after a consultation on some matter of secondary import, was already half-way to the door, while Mr. Jarrott himself was stooping to replace a book in the revolving bookcase that stood beside his chair.
"By-the-way," he said, without looking up, "Jenkins is going to represent the house in New York. We think you had better take his place at Rosario."
Strange drew himself up to attention. He knew the old man liked his subordinates to receive momentous orders as if they came in the routine of the day.
"Very well, sir," he said, quietly, betraying no sign of his excitement within. Raising himself, Mr. Jarrott looked about uneasily, as if trying to find something else to say, while Strange began again to move toward the door.
"And Mrs. Jarrott--"
Strange stopped so still that the senior partner paused with that air of gentlemanly awkwardness--something like an Englishman's--which he took on when he had firmly made up his mind.
"Mrs. Jarrott," he continued, "begs me to say she hopes you will--a--come and lunch with us on Sunday next."
There was a long pause, during which the young man searched wildly for some formula that would soften his point-blank refusal.
"Mrs. Jarrott is awfully kind," he began at last to stammer, "but if she would excuse me--"
"She will expect you on Sunday at half-past twelve."
The words were uttered with that barely perceptible emphasis which, as the whole house knew, implied that all had been said.
* * * * *
In the end the luncheon was no formidable affair. Except for his fear, lest it should be the thin edge of the wedge of that American social life which it would be perilous for him to enter, he would have enjoyed this peep into a comfortable home, after his long exile from anything of the sort. In building his house at Palermo, Mr. Jarrott had kept, in the outlines at least, to the old Spanish style of architecture, as being most suited to the history and climate of the country, though the wealthy Argentines themselves preferred to have their residences look--like their dresses, jewels, and carriages--as if they had come from Paris. The interior patio was spacious, shaded with vines, and gay with flowers, while birds, caged or free, were singing everywhere. The rooms surrounding it were airy and cool, and adapted to American standards of comfort. In the dining-room mahogany, damask, crystal, and silver gave Strange an odd feeling of having been wafted back to the days and usages of the boyhood of Norrie Ford.
As the only guest he found himself seated on Mrs. Jarrott's right, and opposite Miss Queenie Jarrott, the sister of the head of the house. The host, as his manner was, spoke little. Miss Jarrott, too, only looked at Strange across the table, smiling at him with her large, thin, upward-curving smile, comic in spite of itself, and with a certain pathos, since she meant it to be charged with sentiment. Over the party at table, over the elderly men-servants who waited on them, over the room, over the patio, there was--except for the singing of the birds--the hush that belongs to a household that never hears the noise or the laughter of youth.
Mrs. Jarrott took the brunt of the conversation on herself She was a beautiful woman, faded now with the pallor that comes to northern people after a long residence in the sub-tropical south, and languid from the same cause. Her handsome hazel eyes looked as if they had been used to weeping, though they conserved a brightness that imparted animation to her face. A white frill round her throat gave the only relief to her plain black dress, but she wore many handsome rings, after the Argentine fashion as well as a brooch and earrings of black pearls.
She began by asking her guest if it was true, as Mr. Jarrott had informed her, that he was not one of the Stranges of Virginia. She thought he must be. It would be so odd if he wasn't. There were Stranges in Virginia, and had been for a great many generations. In fact, her own family, the Colfaxes, had almost intermarried with them. When she said almost, she meant that they had intermarried with the same families--the Yorkes, the Endsleighs and the Poles. If Mr. Strange did belong to the Virginia Stranges, she was sure they could find relatives in common. Oh, he didn't? Well, it seemed really as if he must. If Mr. Strange came from New York, he probably knew the Wrenns. Her own mother was a Wrenn. She had been Miss Wrenn before she was Mrs. Colfax. He thought he had heard of them? Oh, probably. They were well-known people--at least they had been in the old days--though New York was so very much changed. She rarely went back there now, the voyage was so long, but when she did she was quite bewildered. Her own family used to be so conservative, keeping to a little circle of relatives and friends that rarely went north of Boston or south of Philadelphia; but now when she made them a visit she found them surrounded by a lot of people who had never been heard of before. She thought it a pity that in a country where there were so few distinctions, those which existed shouldn't be observed.
It was a relief to Strange when the sweet, languorous monologue, punctuated from time to time by a response from himself, or an interjectory remark from one of the others, came to an end, and they proceeded to the patio for coffee.
It was served in a corner shaded by flowering vines, and presided over by a huge green and gray parrot in a cage. The host and hostess being denied this form of refreshment took advantage of the moment to stroll arm in arm around the court, leaving Miss Jarrott in tAŠte-A -tAŠte with Strange. He noticed that as this lady led the way her figure was as lithe as a young girl's and her walk singularly graceful. "No one is ever old with a carriage like yours," Miss Jarrott had been told, and she believed it. She dressed and talked according to her figure, and, had it not been for features too heavily accentuated in nose and chin, she might have produced an impression of eternal spring-tide. As it was, the comic papers would have found her cruelly easy to caricature, had she been a statesman. The parrot screamed at her approach, croaking out an air, slightly off the key:
"Up and down the ba-by goes, Turning out its lit-tle ..."
Tempted to lapse into prose, it proceeded to cry:
"Wa-al, Polly, how are you to-day? Wa-al, pretty well for an old gal," after which there was a minute of inarticulate grumbling. When coffee was poured, and the young man's cigarette alight, Miss Jarrott seized the opportunity which her sister-in-law's soft murmur at the table had not allowed her.
"It's really funny you should be Mr. Strange, because I've known a young lady of the same name. That is, I haven't known her exactly, but I've known about her."
Not to show his irritation at the renewal of the subject, Strange presumed she was one of the Stranges of Virginia, with right and title to be so called.
"She is and she isn't," Miss Jarrot replied. "I know you'll think it funny to hear me speak so; but I can't explain I'm like that. I can't always explain. I say lots and lots of things that people just have to interpret for themselves It's funny I should be like that, isn't it? I wonder why? Can you tell me why? And this Miss Strange--I never knew her really--not really--but I feel as if I had. I always feel that way about friends of friends of mine. I feel as if they were my friends, too. I'd go through fire and water for them. Of course that's just an expression but you know what I mean, now don't you?"
Having been assured on that point, she continued:
"I'm afraid you'll find us a very quiet household, Mr. Strange, but we're in mourning. That is, Mrs. Jarrott is in mourning; and when those dear to me are in mourning I always feel that I'm in mourning, too. I'm like that. I never can tell why it is, but--I'm like that. My sister-in-law has just lost her sister-in-law. Of course that's no relation to me, is it? And yet I feel as if it was. I've always called Mrs. Colfax my sister-in-law, and I've taught her little girl to call me Aunt Queenie. They lived here once. Mr. Colfax was Mrs. Jarrott's brother and Mr. Jarrott's partner. The little girl was born here. It was a great loss to my brother when Mr. Colfax died. Mrs. Colfax went back to New York and married again. That was a blow, too; so we haven't been on the same friendly terms of late years. But now I hope it will be different. I'm like that. I always hope. It's funny, isn't it? No matter what happens, I always think there's a silver lining to the cloud. Now, why should I be like that? Why shouldn't I despair, like other people?"
Strange ventured the suggestion that she had been born with a joyous temperament.
"Wa-al, pretty well for an old gal!" screamed the parrot ending in a croaking laugh.
"I'm sure I don't know," Miss Jarrott mused. "Everybody is different, don't you think? And yet it sometimes seems to me that no one can be so different as I am. I always hope and hope; and you see, in this case I've been justified. We're going to have our little girl again. She's coming to make us a long, long visit. Her name is Evelyn; and once we get her here we hope she'll stay. Who knows? There may be something to keep her here. You never can tell about that. She's an orphan, with no one in the world but a stepfather, and he's blind. So who has a better right to her? I always think that people who have a right to other people should have them, don't you? Besides, he's going to Wiesbaden, to a great oculist there, so that Evelyn will come to us as her natural protectors. She's nearly eighteen now, and she wasn't eight when she left us. Oh yes, of course we've seen her since then--when we've gone to New York--but that hasn't been often. She will have changed; she'll have her hair up, and be wearing her dresses long; but I shall know her. Oh, you couldn't deceive me. I never forget a face. I'm like that. No, nor names either. I should remember you, Mr. Strange, if I met you fifty years from now. I noticed you when you first began to work for Stephens and Jarrott. So did my sister-in-law, but I noticed you first. We've often spoken of you, especially after we knew your name was Strange. It seemed to us so strange. That's a pun, isn't it? I often make them. We both thought you were like what Henry--that's Mr. Jarrott's oldest son--might have grown to, if he had been spared to us. We've had a great deal of sorrow--Oh, a great deal! It's weaned my sister-in-law away from the world altogether. She's like that. My brother, too--he isn't the same man. So when Evelyn comes we hope we shall see you often, Mr. Strange. You must begin to look on this house as your second home. Indeed, you must. It'll please my brother. I've never heard him speak of any young man as he's spoken of you. I think he sees the likeness to Henry. That'll be next year when Evelyn comes. No, I'm sorry to say it isn't to be this year. She can't leave her stepfather till he goes to Wiesbaden. Then she'll be free. Some one else is going to Wiesbaden with him. And isn't it funny, it's the same Miss Strange--the lady we were speaking of just now."
It was already some months since those words had been spoken, so that he had ceased to dwell on them; but at first they haunted him like a snatch of an air that passes through the mental hearing, and yet eludes the attempt to bring it to the lips. Even if he had had the synthetic imagination that easily puts two and two together, he had not the leisure, in the excitement of his removal to Rosario and the undertaking of his duties there, to follow up a set of clews that were scarcely more palpable than odors. Nevertheless the words came back to him from time to time, and always with the same odd suggestion of a meaning special--perhaps fatal--to himself. They came back to him at this minute, as he stood watching the loading of the Walmer Castle and breathing the fresh air off the Parana. But if they threatened danger, it was a danger that disappeared the instant he turned and faced it--leaving nothing behind but the evanescent memory of a memory, such as will sometimes remain from a dream about a dream.