The Wild Olive by Basil King
Part II. Strange.
Another year had passed before he learned what Miss Jarrott's words were to mean to him. Knowledge came then as a flash of revelation in which he saw himself and his limitations clearly defined. His success at Rosario had been such that he had begun to think himself master of Fate; but Fate in half an hour laughingly showed herself mistress of him.
He had been called to Buenos Aires on an errand of piety and affection--to bury Monsieur Durand. The poor old unfrocked priest had been gathered to his rest, taking his secret with him--penitent, reconciled to the Church, and fortified with the Last Sacraments. Strange slipped a crucifix between the wax-like fingers, and followed--the only mourner--to the Recoleta Cemetery.
Having ordered a cross to mark the grave, he remained in town a day or two longer to attend to a small matter which for some time past he had at heart and on his conscience. It was now three or four years since he had set aside the sum lent him by the girl for whom he had still no other name than that of the Wild Olive. He had invested it, and reinvested it, till it had become a fund of some importance. Putting it now into the safest American securities, he placed them in the hands of a firm of English solicitors in Buenos Aires, with directions not only to invest the interest from time to time, but--in the event of his death--to follow certain sealed instructions with which also he intrusted them. From the few hints he was able to give them in this way he had little doubt but that her identity could be discovered, and the loan returned.
In taking these steps he could not but see that what would be feasible in case of his death must be equally feasible now; but he had two reasons for not attempting it. The first was definite and prudential. He was unwilling to risk anything that could connect him ever so indirectly with the life of Norrie Ford. Secondly, he was conscious of a vague shrinking from the payment of this debt otherwise than face to face. Apart from considerations of safety, he was unwilling to resort to the commonplace channels of business as long as there was a possibility of taking another way.
Not that he was eager to see her again. He had questioned himself on that point, and knew she had faded from his memory. Except for a vision of fugitive dark eyes--eyes of Beatrice Cenci--he could scarcely recall her features. Events during the last six years had pressed so fast on each other, life had been so full, so ardent, each minute had been so insistent that he should give it his whole soul's attention, that the antecedent past was gone like the passion no effort can recapture. As far as he could see her face at all, it looked at him out of an abyss of oblivion to which his mind found it as hard to travel back as a man's imagination to his infancy.
It was with some shame that he admitted this. She had saved him--in a sense, she had created him. By her sorcery she had raised up Herbert Strange out of the ruin of Norrie Ford, and endowed him with young vigor. He owed her everything. He had told her so. He had vowed his life to her. It was to be hers to dispose of, even at her caprice. It was what he had meant in uttering his parting words to her. But, now, that he had the power in some degree, he was doing nothing to fulfil his promise. He had even lost the desire to make the promise good.
It was not difficult to find excuses for himself. They were ready-made to his hand. There was nothing practical that he could do except what he had done about the money. Life was not over yet; and some day the chance might come to prove himself as high-souled as he should like to be. If he could only have been surer that he was inwardly sincere he would not have been uneasy over his inactivity.
Then, within a few minutes, the thing happened that placed him in a new attitude, not only toward the Wild Olive, but toward all life.
Business with the head office detained him in Buenos Aires longer than he had expected. It was business of a few hours at a time, leaving him leisure for the theatres and the opera, for strollings at Palermo, and for standing stock-still watching the procession of carriages in the Florida or the Avenida Sarmiento, in the good Bonarense fashion. He was always alone, for he had acquired the art--none too easy--of taking pleasure without sharing it.
So he found himself, one bright afternoon, watching the races from the lawn of the Hipodromo of the Jockey Club. He was fond of horses, and he liked a good race. When he went to the Hipodromo it was for the sporting, not the social, aspect of the affair. Nevertheless, as he strolled about, he watched for that occasional velvety glance that gave him pleasure, and amused himself with the types seated around him, or crossing his path--heavy, swarthy Argentines, looking like Italian laborers grown rich--their heavy, swarthy wives, come out to display all the jewels that could be conveniently worn at once--pretty, dark-eyed girls, already with a fatal tendency to embonpoint, wearing diamonds in their ears and round their necks as an added glory to costumes fresh from the rue de la Paix--grave little boys, in gloves and patent-leather boots, seated without budging by their mammas, sucking the tops of their canes in imitation of their elder brothers, who wandered about in pairs or groups, all of the latest cut, eying the ladies but rarely addressing them--tall Englishmen, who looked taller than they were in contrast to the pudgy race around them, as the Germans looked lighter and the French more blond--Italian opera singers, Parisian actresses Spanish dancers, music-hall soubrettes--diplomats of all nations--clerks out for a holiday--sailors on shore--tourists come to profit by a spectacle that has no equal in the southern world, and little of the kind that is more amusing in the north.
As Strange's glance roamed about in search of a response he not infrequently received it, for he was a handsome fellow by this time--tall, well dressed, and well set up, his trim, fair beard emphasizing the clear-cut regularity of his profile, without concealing the kindliness that played about the mouth. A little gray on the temples, as well as a few tiny wrinkles of concentration about the eyes, gave him an air of maturity beyond his age of thirty-two. The Anglo-Saxon influence in the Argentine is English--from which cause he had insensibly taken on an English air, as his speech had acquired something of the English intonation. He was often told that he might pass for an Englishman anywhere, and he was glad to think so. It was a reason the less for being identified as Norrie Ford. It sometimes seemed to him that he could, in case of necessity, go back to North America, to New York, to Greenport, or even to the little county town where he had been tried and sentenced to death, and run no risk of detection.
* * * * *
The staring of other men first directed his attention toward her. She was sitting slightly detached from the party of Americans to whom she clearly belonged, and in which the Misses Martin formed the merrily noisy centre. Though dressed in white, that fell softly about her feet, and trained on the grass sidewise from her chair, her black cuffs, collar and hat suggested the last days of mourning. Whether or not she was aware of the gaze of the passers-by it was difficult to guess, for her air of demure simplicity was proof against penetration. She was one of those dainty little creatures who seem to see best with the eyes downcast; but when she lifted her dark lashes, the darker from contrast with the golden hair, to sweep heaven and earth in a blue glance that belonged less to scrutiny than to prayer, the effort seemed to create a shyness causing the lids, dusky as some flowers are, to drop heavily into place again, like curtains over a masterpiece. It was so that they rose and fell before Strange, her eyes meeting his in a look that no Argentine beauty could ever have bestowed, in that it was free from coquetry or intention, and wholly accidental.
It was in fact this accidental element, with its lack of preparation, that gave the electric thrill to both. That is to say, in Strange the thrill was electric; as for her, she gave no sign further than that she opened her parasol and raised it to shade her face. Having done this she continued to sit in undisturbed composure, though she probably saw through her fringing lashes that the tall, good-looking young man still stood spellbound, not twenty yards away.
Strange, on his part, was aware of the unconventionality of his behavior, though he was incapable of moving on. He felt the occasion to be one which justified him in transcending the established rules of courtesy. He was face to face with the being who met not only all the longings of his earthly love, but the higher, purer aspirations that accompanied it. It was not, so he said to himself, a chance meeting; it was one which the ages had prepared, and led him up to. She was "his type of girl" only in so far as she distilled the essence of his gross imaginings and gave them in their exquisite reality. So, too, she was the incarnation of his dreams only because he had yearned for something mundane of which she was the celestial, and the true, embodiment. He had that sense of the insufficiency of his own powers of preconception which comes to a blind man when he gets his sight and sees a rose.
He was so lost in the wonder of the vision that he had to be awakened as from a trance when Miss Jarrott, very young and graceful, crossed the lawn and held out her hand.
"Mr. Strange! I didn't know you were in town. My brother never mentioned it. He's like that. He never tells. If I didn't guess his thoughts, I shouldn't know anything. But I always guess people's thoughts. Why do you suppose it is? I don't know. Do you? When I see people, I can tell what they're thinking of as well as anything. I'm like that; but I can't tell how I do it. I saw you from over there, and I knew you were thinking about Evelyn. Now weren't you? Oh, you can't deceive me. You were thinking of her just as plain--! Well, now you must come and be introduced."
He felt that he stumbled blindly as he crossed the bit of greensward in Miss Jarrott's wake; and yet he kept his head sufficiently to know that he was breaking his rules, contradicting his past, and putting himself in peril. In being presented to the Misses Martin and their group, he was actually entering that Organized Society to which Herbert Strange had no attachments, and in which he could thrust down no roots. By sheer force of will he might keep a footing there, as a plant that cannot strike into the soil may cling to a bare rock. All the same the attempt would be dangerous, and might easily lead to his being swept away.
It was in full consciousness, therefore, of the revolution in his life that he bowed before the Misses Martin, who received him coldly. He had not come to their dance, nor "called," nor shown them any of the civilities they were accustomed to look for from young men. Turning their attention at once to the other gentlemen about them, they made no effort to detain him as Miss Jarrott led him to Miss Colfax.
Here the introduction would have been disappointing if the greatness of the event had not been independent of the details with which it happened. Strange was not in a condition to notice them, any more than a soul can heed the formalities with which it is admitted into heaven. Nearly all his impressions were subconscious--to be brought to the surface and dwelt on after he went away. It was thus he recorded the facts relating to the gold tint--the teint dorA(C)--of her complexion, the curl of her lashes that seemed to him deep chestnut rather than quite black, as well as the little tremor about her mouth, which was pensive in repose, and yet smiled with the unreserved sweetness of an infant. He could not be said to have taken in any of these points at a glance; but they came to him later, vividly, enchantingly, in the solitude of his room at the Phoenix Hotel.
What actually passed would have been commonplace in itself had it not been for what lay behind. Miss Colfax acknowledged the introduction with a fleeting smile and a quick lifting of the curtains of her eyes. He did not need that glimpse to know that they were blue, but he got a throb of bliss from it, as does one from the gleam of a sunlit sea. To her answers to the questions he asked as to when she had arrived, how she liked the Argentine, and what she thought of the Hipodromo, he listened less than to the silvery timbre of her voice. Mere words were as unimportant to those first minutes of subtle ecstasy as to an old Italian opera. The music was the thing, and for that he had become one enraptured auditory nerve.
There was no chair for him, so that he was obliged to carry on the conversation standing. He did not object to this, as it would give him an excuse for passing on. That he was eager to go, to be alone, to think, to feel, to suffer, to realize, to trace step by step the minutes of the day till they had led him to the supreme instant when his eyes had fallen on her, to take the succeeding seconds one by one and extract the significance from each, was proof of the power of the spell that had been cast upon him.
"And isn't it funny, Evie, dear," Miss Jarrott began, just as he was about to take his leave, "that Mr. Strange's name should be--"
"Yes, I've been thinking about that," Miss Colfax fluted, with that pretty way she had of speaking with little movement of the lips.
But he was gone. He was gone with those broken sentences ringing in his ears--casual and yet haunting--meaningless and yet more than pregnant--creeping through the magic music of the afternoon, as a death-motive breathes in a love-chant.