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The Wild Olive by Basil King

Part 6 out of 6

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blind impulse to strike, as soon as he came to a realizing sense of her
action; though she had not expected the moment of his fury till after he
went free. Till then, she had thought, he would be partially unconscious
of his pain, just as a soldier fighting will run along for a while without
feeling a bullet in his flesh. The anticipation of an awakening on his
part some time enabled her to see beyond the madness of this instinct,
even though the words he threw at her struck like stones. The very fact
that she could see how he labored with himself to keep them back gave her
strength to take them without flinching.

"You ... dared...? Without ... my ... permission...?"

"I'd done so many things without your permission that it seemed I could
venture that far."

"You were wrong. It was--too far."

"It wasn't too far--when I loved you."

She uttered the words in a matter-of-fact voice, without a tremor. She
foresaw their effect in bringing him to himself In his next words his tone
had already softened slightly to one of protest.

"But I could have done it so much better--! so much more easily--!

"I could have done that too. Mr. Conquest pointed it out to me. He took no
advantage of my ignorance. As a matter of fact, I wasn't ignorant at all.
I was extremely clear-sighted and wise. My love for you made me so. I
knew--I felt it--that money might fail to do what I wanted. But I knew too
that there was one thing that wouldn't fail. If you were innocent--and I
wasn't wholly sure that you were--I knew there was one energy that would
surely prove you so--and that was Charles Conquest's desire to have me as
his wife. I took the course in which there was least risk of failure--and
you see----"

A little gesture, triumphant in its suggestion, finished her sentence.

"What I see is this," Ford answered, thickly, "that I'm to hold my life at
the cost of your degradation."

"Degradation? That's a hard word. But as applied to me--I don't know what
it means."

"Isn't it degradation?--to enter into a marriage in which you put no

There was a kind of superb indifference in her answer.

[Illustration: "I'm to hold my life at the cost of your degradation"]

"You may call it degradation if you choose. I shouldn't. As long as you go
free, you can call my action anything you like. I dare say," she admitted,
"you're quite right, from the highest moral--and modern--point of view;
but that doesn't appeal to me. You see--you've got to make allowances for
it--I'm not a child of your civilization. I'm not a child of any
civilization at all. At best I'm like the wild creature that submits to
being tamed because it doesn't know what else to do--but remains wild at
heart. I used to think I could come into your system of law and order if
any one would take me. But now I know I shall always be outside it. The
very word you've just used of me shows me that. You say I'm to be
degraded--it's your civilized point of view. I have no comprehension of
that whatever. Because I love you I want to save you. I don't care
anything about the means so long as I reach the end. To undo the harm I've
done to you I'd freely give my body to be burned; so why shoudn't I--? No,
no," she cried, as he made as though he would approach her, "keep away.
Don't come near me! I can only talk to you like this--at a distance. I
shall never say these things again--but I want to tell you--to explain to
you--I should like you to understand."

She repeated herself haltingly because, as Ford held back from approaching
her, a sudden spasm passed over his face, while he hung his head, and
compressed his lips in a way that made him seem surprisingly boyish all at
once, and touched that maternal tenderness in her that had always formed
such a large part of her yearning over him. It was the kind of tenderness
that steadied her own nerve, and kept her dry-eyed and strong, as she saw
him reel to a chair, and flinging his arms on the table beside it, bow
himself down on them, while his form shook convulsively. She had no shame
for him. She understood perfectly that the pressure of years had been
brought to bear on the complex emotions of the moment--to which reaction
from his brief anger and his bitter words added an element of remorse--to
cause this honest, manly nature that had never made any pretence of being
stronger than it was, to give way to the instant's weakness. She was sure
he would never have done it in the presence of any one but her, and she
was thrilled with a curious joy at this proof of their spiritual intimacy.
What was difficult was not the keeping of her own self-control, but the
holding herself back from crossing the room and laying a hand on his
shoulder, in token of their oneness at heart; but there, she felt, the
forbidden line would be passed. She could only wait--it was not long--till
he was calm again. Then he pulled himself together, got up heavily, and
obviously refrained from looking her in the face. In the act and the
attitude there was something so boylike, so natural, so entirely lacking
in the dignity of grief, that if she had any impulse to let her own tears
flow it was then.

But she knew it to be one of those minutes when a woman has to be strong
for herself and for the man, too, even though she break down afterward.
The necessity of coming to an understanding with him, once for all,
impelled her to the economy of her forces, while the nervous snapping of
his fortitude had given her an opportunity she could not afford to lose.

"So I want you to see," she went on, quietly, as though no interruption
had occurred, "that having gained my point in helping to--to get you off,
it's to some extent a matter of indifference what you think of me--what
any one thinks of me--just as it was when I hid you in my studio, nearly
nine years ago. You must put it down to my being of wild origin and not
wholly amenable to civilized dictates. I can only do what the inward
urging drives me on to do--just as my mother did--and my father. If it's

Raising his head at last, he strode toward her. He put his hands rigidly
behind his back, as if to show her that he pinioned them there in token
that she had nothing to fear from him. His eyes were red, and there was
still a painful tightening about his lips.

"You'll have to let me take that back," he muttered, unsteadily. "I didn't
know what I was saying. It's come on me so suddenly that it's broken me
all up. I haven't realized till this evening what--what everything meant.
It seemed to me then that I couldn't stand it."

"But you can."

"Yes, I can," he replied, doggedly. "One can stand anything. If I reached
my limit for a minute, it was in seeing that you have to suffer for my

"Wouldn't you suffer for mine?"

"I couldn't. Suffering for your sake would become such a joy----"

"That it wouldn't be suffering. That's just it. That's what I feel,
exactly. It isn't hard for me to do what I'm doing because I know--I
_know_--I'm helping to save your honor if not your life. I don't believe
money would have done it. Mr. Conquest reminded me that the best legal
services can be bought, but I never thought for an instant that you could
secure zeal such as his for anything less than I offered him. And he's
been so superb! He's given himself up to the thing absolutely. He's
followed every trail with a scent--- with a certainty--your other men,
your Kilcup and Warren, would never have been capable of. I've seen that;
I'm sure of it. He has a wonderful mind, and in his way he has the kindest
heart in the world. I'm very, very fond of him, and I'm deeply grateful.
Next to seeing you free, I don't think I have any desire in life so
strong as to make him happy. I dare say that isn't civilized either--but
it's what I feel. And so we must think of this," she continued, eagerly
explanative; "we must be loyal to him, you and I, as the first of all our
duties. Don't you think so?"

He withdrew his eyes from hers before answering. His power of resistance
was broken. The signs of struggle were visible, and yet the quixotic
element in his own nature helped him to respond to that in hers.

"I'll try," he muttered, looking on the ground.

"You'll do more than try--you'll succeed. Only very small souls could
grudge him what he's earned when he's worked so hard and given himself so
unstintingly. The very fact that you and I know that we love each other
will make it easier to be true to him."

"Conquest must know that we love each other, too," he declared, with some

"Perhaps he does; but, you see, every one has a different way of looking
at life, and I don't think that with him it's a thing that counts greatly.
I'm not sure that I understand him in that respect. I only know that you
and I, who owe him so much, can repay him by giving him what he asks for.
Will you promise me to do it?"

He continued to look downward, as though finding it hard to give his word;
but when he raised his eyes again, he flung back his head with his old air
of resolution.

"I'll promise to do anything you ask me throughout our lives. I don't
admit that Conquest should demand this thing or that he had any right to
let you offer it. But since you want to give it--and I can show you no
other token of my love--and shall never again be able to tell you that I
adore you--that I _adore_ you--I promise--to obey."


The inspection of the house was over, and they had come back to the
drawing-room for tea. Conquest had lavished pains on the occasion, putting
flowers in the rooms, and strewing handsome objects carelessly about, so
as to impart to the great shell as much as possible the air of being lived
in. To the tea-table he had given particular attention, ordering out the
most ornamental silver and the costliest porcelain, and placing the table
itself just where she would probably have it in days to come, so as to get
the effect she produced in sitting there, as he liked to do with a new
picture or piece of furniture.

On her part, Miriam had made the rounds of the rooms with conscientious
care, observing, admiring, suggesting, with just that mingling of shyness
and interest with which a woman in her situation would view her future
home. Having got, by intuition, the idea that he was watching for some
flaw in her manner, she was determined that he should find none. It was
the beginning of that lifelong schooling to his service to which she had
vowed herself, though the effort would have been easier had he not
rendered her self-conscious by scanning her so keenly out of his little
gray-green eyes. Nevertheless, she was pleased with the manner in which
she was acquitting herself, giving him his tea and taking her own with no
sign of embarrassment. As on the preceding day, it was this perfection of
acting, as he chose to call it, that exasperated his restless suspicion
more than any display of weakness.

The thought that she was keeping her true self locked against him had,
during the last twenty-four hours, become an obsession, making it
impossible for him to eat or to sleep. In her serene, impeccable bearing
he saw nothing but the bars up and the blinds drawn down. An instant of
faltering or self-betrayal would have admitted him to at least a glimpse
of what was passing within; but through this well-balanced graciousness it
was as difficult to get at her soul as to read the mind of the Venus of
Milo in the marble nobility of her face. He had led her from room to room,
describing one, explaining another, and apologizing for a third, but all
the while trying to break down her guard, only to find, as they returned
to the point at which they started, that he had failed. It was with nerves
all unstrung, and with a lack of self-command he would have been, in his
saner senses, the first to condemn, that he strode up at last and rapped
sharply at the door of her barricaded citadel.

"Why did you never tell me that you knew Norrie Ford--years ago?"

He was putting his empty cup on the table as he spoke, so that he could
avoid looking at her. She was glad of this respite from his gaze, for she
found the question startling. Before the scrutiny of his eyes was turned
on her again she had herself in hand.

"I should probably have told you some time."

"Very likely. The odd thing is that you didn't tell me at once."

"It wasn't so odd--given all the circumstances."

"It wasn't so odd, given some of the circumstances; but given them
all--_all_--I should say, I ought to have known."

She allowed a few seconds to pass.

"I suppose," she said, slowly, then, "that may fairly be considered a
matter of opinion. I don't see, however, that it makes much
difference--since you know now."

"My knowing or not knowing now isn't quite the point. The fact of
importance is that you never told me."

"I'm sorry you should take it in that way; but since I didn't--and the
matter is beyond remedy--I suppose we shouldn't gain anything by
discussing it."

"I don't know about that. It seems to me a subject that ought to

She tried to smile down his aggressiveness, succeeding partially, in that
he subdued the quarrelsomeness of his voice and manner to that affectation
of banter behind which he concealed habitually his real self, and by which
he most easily deceived her.

"Very well," she laughed; "I'm quite ready to air it; only I don't know
just how it's to be done."

"Suppose you were to tell me what happened, in your own language?"

"If Mr. Ford has told you already, as I imagine he has, I don't see that
my language can be very different from his. All the same, I'll try, since
you want me to."

"Just so."

During the few minutes she took to collect her thoughts he could see sweep
over her features one of those swift, light changes--as delicate as the
ripple of summer wind on water--which transformed her in an instant from
the woman of the world to the forest maid, the spirit of the indigenous.
The mystery of the nomadic ages was in her eyes again as she began her
narrative, wistfully, and reminiscently.

"You see, I'd been thinking a good deal of my father and mother. I hadn't
known about them very long, and I lived with their memory. The Mother
Superior had told me a few things--all she knew, I suppose--before I left
the convent at Quebec; and Mr. and Mrs. Wayne--especially Mrs. Wayne--had
added the rest. That was the chief reason why I wanted the studio--so that
I could get away from the house, which was so oppressive to me, and--so it
seemed to me--live with them, with nothing but the woods and the hills and
the sky about me. I could be very happy then--painting thinge I fancied
they might have done, and pinning them up on the wall. I dare say it was
foolish, but----"

"It was very natural. Go on."

"And then came up all this excitement about Norrie Ford. For months the
whole region talked of nothing else. Nearly every one believed he had shot
his uncle, but, except in the villages, the sympathy with him was
tremendous. Some people--especially the hotel-keepers and those who
depended on the tourist travel--were for law and order; but others said
that old Chris Ford had got no more than he deserved. That was the way
they used to talk. Mr. Wayne was on the side of law and order,
too--naturally--till the trial came on; and then he began----"

"I know all about that. Go on."

"My own sympathy was with the man in prison. I used to dream about him. I
remembered what Mrs. Wayne had told me my mother had done for my father. I
was proud of that. Though I knew only vaguely what it was, I was sure it
was what I should have done, too. So when there was talk of breaking into
the jail and helping Norrie to escape, I used to think how easily I could
keep any one hidden in my studio. I don't mean I thought of it as a
practical thing; it was just a dream."

"But a dream that came true."

"Yes; it came true. It was wonderful. It was the day Mr. Wayne sentenced
him. I knew what he was suffering--Mr. Wayne, I mean. We were all
suffering; even Mrs. Wayne, who in her gentle way was generally so hard.
Some people thought Mr. Wayne needn't have done it; and I suppose it was
just his conscientiousness--because he had such a horror of the
thing--that drove him on to it. He thought he mustn't shirk his duty. But
that night at the house was awful. We dressed for dinner, and tried to act
as if nothing frightful had happened--but it was as if the hangman was
sitting with us at the table. At last I couldn't endure it. I went out
into the garden--you remember it was one of those gardens with clipped
yews. Out there, in the air, I stopped thinking of Mr. Wayne and his
distress to think of Norrie Ford. It seemed to me as if, in some strange
way, he belonged to me--that I ought to do something--as my mother had
done for my father. And then--all of a sudden--I saw him creep in."

"How did you know it was he?"

"I thought it must be, though I was only sure of it when I was on the
terrace and saw his face. He crept along and crept along--Oh, such a
forlorn, hopeless, outcast figure! My heart ached at the sight of him. I
didn't know what he meant to do, and at first I had no intention of
attempting anything. It was by degrees that my own thought about the
studio came back to me. By that time he was on the veranda of the house,
and I was afraid he meant to kill Mr. Wayne. I went after him. I thought I
would entice him away and hide him. But the minute he heard my footstep he
leaped into the house. The next I saw, he was talking to Mr. and Mrs.
Wayne--and something told me he wouldn't hurt them. After that I watched
my chance till he looked outward, and then I beckoned to him. That's how
it happened."

"And then?"

"After that everything was easy. He must have told you. I kept him in the
studio for three weeks, and brought him food--and clothing of my father's.
It seemed to me that my father was doing everything--not I. That's what
made it so simple. I know my father would have wanted me to do it. I was
only the agent in carrying out his will."

"That's one way of looking at it," Conquest said, grimly.

"It's the only way I've ever looked at it; the only way I ever shall."

* * * * *

"It was a romantic situation," he observed, when she had given him the
outlines of the rest of the story. "I wonder you didn't fall in love with

He smoothed the colorless line of his mustache, as though concealing a
smile. He had recaptured the teasing tone he liked to employ toward her,
though its nervous sharpness would have betrayed him had she suspected his
real thoughts. While she said nothing in response, the tilt of her head
was that which he associated with her moods of indignation or pride.

"Perhaps you did," he persisted. Then, as she remained silent, "Did you?"

She resolved on a bold step--the audacity of that perfect candor she had
always taken as a guide.

"I don't know that one could call it that," she said, quietly.

He drew a quick inward breath, clinching his teeth, but keeping his fixed

"But you don't know that one couldn't."

"I can't define what I felt at all."

"It was just enough," he pursued, in his bantering tone, "to keep
you--looking for him back--as you told me--that day."

She lifted her eyes in a swift glance of reproach.

"It was that--then."

"But it's more--now. Isn't it?"

She met him squarely.

"I don't think you've any right to ask."

He laughed aloud, somewhat shrilly.

"That's good!--considering we're to be man and wife."

"We're to be man and wife on a very distinct understanding to which I'm
perfectly loyal. I mean to be loyal to it always--and to you. I shall give
you everything you ever asked for. If there are some things--one thing in
particular--out of my power to give you, I've said so from the first, and
you've told me you could do without them. If what I can't give you I've
given to some one else--because--because--I couldn't help it--that's my
secret, and I claim the right to guard it."

They faced one another across the table piled with ornate silver. He had
not lost his smile.

"You've the merit of being clear," was his only comment.

"You force me to be clear," she declared, with heightened color, "and a
little angry. When you asked me to be your wife--long ago--I told you
there were certain conditions I could never fulfil--and you waived them.
On that ground I'm ready to meet all your wishes, and make you a good wife
to the utmost of my power. I'm eager to do it--because I honor and respect
you as women don't always honor and respect the very men they love. I've
told Norrie Ford, and I repeat it to you, that after seeing him go free
and restored to his place among men, the most ardent desire of my life is
to make you happy. I'm perfectly true; I'm perfectly sincere. What more
can you ask of me?"

He looked at her searchingly, while he thought hard and rapidly. He could
not complain that the bars were up and the blinds drawn any longer. On the
contrary, she had let him see into the recesses of her life with a clarity
that startled him, as pure truth startles often. As he sat musing, his
pretence at cynicism fell from him, together with something of his
furbished air of youth. She saw him grow graver, grayer, older, under her
very eyes, and was moved with compunction--with compassion. Her face still
aglow and her hands clasped in her lap, she leaned to him across the
table, speaking in the rich, low voice that always thrilled him.

"What I feel for you is ... something so much like ... love ... that you
would never have known the difference ... if you hadn't wrung it from me."

Though he toyed aimlessly with some small silver object on the table and
did not look up, her words sent a tremor through his frame. The Wise Man
within him was very eloquent, repeating again and again the sentence she
herself had used a minute or two ago: What more could he ask of her? What
more _could_ he ask of her, indeed, after this assurance right out of the
earnestness and honesty of her pure heart? It was enough to satisfy men
with far greater claims than he had ever put forth, and far more
pretension than he had ever dreamed of cherishing. The Wise Man supplied
him with two or three phrases of reply--neat little phrases, that would
have bound her forever, and yet saved his self-esteem. He turned them over
in his mind and on his tongue, trying to add a touch of glamour while he
kept them terse. He could feel the Wise Man fidgeting impatiently, just as
he could feel her flaming, expectant eyes upon him; and still he toyed
with the small silver object aimlessly, conscious of a certain bitter joy
in his soul's suspense. He had not yet looked up, nor polished the Wise
Man's phrases to his taste, when a footman threw the door open, and Norrie
Ford himself walked in.

The meeting was saved from awkwardness chiefly by Ford's own lack of
embarrassment. As he crossed the room and shook hands, first with Miriam,
then with Conquest, there was a subdued elation in his manner and glance
that reduced small considerations to nothing.

"No; I won't sit down," he explained, hurriedly, and not without
excitement, "because I only looked in for a minute. I've got a cab waiting
for me outside. The fact is, I ran in to say good-bye."

"Good-bye?" Miriam questioned.

"Not for long, I hope. I'm off--to give myself up."

"But why to-night?" Conquest asked. "What's the rush?"

"Only that I want to get my word in first. They've got their eye on me. I
thought it yesterday, and I know it to-day. I want them to see that I'm
not afraid of them, and so I'm asking their hospitality for to-night. I've
got my bag in the cab, and everything ship-shape. I couldn't do it
without coming round for a last word with you, old man; and I was going to
see you afterward, Miss Strange. But since I've found you here----"

"You won't have to," she finished, brightly. "I'm glad to be able to save
your time. I'm confident we're not losing you for long; and as I know
you're eager, I can only wish you God-speed, and be glad to see you go"

She held out her hand, frankly, strongly, as one who has no fear.

"Now," she added, turning to Conquest, "I'll ask you to see me to my
motor. I shall leave you and Mr Ford together, as I know you must have
some last detail to arrange."

Ford protested, but she gathered up her gloves and furs, and both men
accompanied her to the street.

It was an autumn evening, drizzling and dark. Up and down Fifth Avenue the
wet pavements reflected the electric lamps like blurred mirrors. There
were few passengers on foot, but an occasional motor whizzed weirdly out
of the dark and into it. It was because there were no other people to be
seen that two men standing in the rain attracted the attention of the
three who descended Conquest's steps together.

"There they are," Ford said, jerkily. "By George! they've got ahead of

Instinctively Miriam clutched his arm, while one of the two strangers came
forward apologetically.

"You're Mr. John Norrie Ford, ain't you?"

"I am."

"I'm very sorry, sir, but I've got a warrant for your arrest."

"That's all right," Ford said, cheerily. "I was on my way to you, anyhow.
You'll find my bag in the cab, and everything ready. We'll drive, if it's
all the same to you."

"Yes, sir. Sure thing, sir."

The man dropped back a few paces courteously, while Ford turned to his
friends. His air was buoyant. Miriam, too, reflected the radiance of her
vision of his triumph. Conquest alone, looking small and white and
shrivelled in the rain, showed care and fear.

"I don't think there's anything special to say," Ford remarked, with the
awkwardness of a simple nature at an emotional crisis. "I'm not very good
at thanks. Miss Strange knows that already. But it's all in here"--he
tapped his breast, with a characteristic gesture--"very sacred, very

"We know that," Conquest said, unsteadily, with an embarrassment like
Ford's own.

"Well, then--good-bye."


With a long pressure of the hand to each, he turned toward his cab. Of the
two strangers, one took his place beside the driver on the box, while the
other held the door open for Ford to enter. His foot was already on the
step when Miriam cried, "Wait!"

He turned toward her as she glided across the wet pavement.

"Good-bye, good-bye," she whispered again; and drawing down his face to
hers, she kissed him, as she had kissed him once before, beside the waters
of Champlain.

As she drew back from him, Ford's countenance wore the uplifted look of a
knight who has received the consecration to his quest. Even the two
strangers bowed their heads, as though they had witnessed the bestowal of
a sacrament. To Miriam herself it was the seal set on a past that could
never be reopened. She felt the definiteness with which it was ended, as
she heard, on her way back to Conquest's side, the door slammed, while the
cab lumbered away. It seemed to her that Conquest shrank from her as she
approached him.

* * * * *

"You'll come to-morrow? I shall be home about five."

Conquest had put her into her motor, drawn the rugs about her, and closed
the door. As he did so, she noticed something slow and broken in his
movements. Leaning from the open window, she held out her hand, but he
barely touched it.

"No," he said, hoarsely, "I shall not come to-morrow."

"Then, the next day."

"No, nor the next day."

"Well, when you can. If you let me know, I shall stay in, whenever it may

"You needn't stay in. I'm not coming any more."

"Oh, don't say that. Don't say that," she pleaded. "You hurt me."

"I can't come, Miriam. Don't you see? Isn't it plain enough? I can't come.
I thought I could. I tried to think I could hold you--in spite of
everything. But I can't. I _can't_."

"You can hold me--if I stay. I want to stay. You mustn't let me go. I want
you to be happy. You deserve it. You've done so much for me--and _him_."

It was the stress she laid on the last word--a suggestion of something
triumphant and enraptured beyond restraint--that made him bound back to
the centre of the pavement.

"Go on, Laporte," he said to the chauffeur, in a sharp voice. "Miss
Strange is ready."

"No, no," Miriam cried, stretching both hands toward him. "I'm not ready.
Keep me. I want to stay."

"Go on!" he cried, sternly, as the chauffeur hesitated. "Miss Strange is
quite ready. She must go."

Standing by the curb, he watched the motor glide off into the misty,
lamplit darkness. He was watching it still, as it overtook the carriage in
which Norrie Ford had just driven away. As the two vehicles passed abreast
out of his range of vision, he knew they were bearing Ford and Miriam side
by side into Life.

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