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The Wild Olive
by Basil King
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"Oh, that's all off. In the existing circumstances Evie didn't feel like—keeping the thing up."

"That's too bad. You've been pretty hard hit—what? When a fellow is as game as you a girl should stand by him, come now! But I know Evie. I've known her from her cradle. She'll back round, you'll see. When we've pulled you through, as we're going to, she'll take another view of things. I know for a fact that she's been head over heels in love with you ever since her trip to Buenos Aires."

As Ford made no remark, Conquest felt it well to drive the point home.

"We can all help in that, old boy; and you can count on us—both on Miss Strange and me. No one has such influence over Evie as Miriam, and I know she's very keen on seeing you and her—you and Evie, I mean—hit it off. I don't mind telling you that, as a matter of fact, it's been Miriam's anxiety on Evie's account that has mixed me up in your case at all. I don't say that I haven't got interested in you for your own sake; but it was she who stirred me up in the first place. It's going to mean a lot to her to see you get through—and marry Evie."

Ford smiled—his odd, twisted smile—but as he said nothing, Conquest decided to let the subject drop. He had, in fact, gone as far as his present judgment would carry him, and anything farther might lead to a false step. In a situation alive with claims and counter-claims, with yearnings of the heart and promptings of the higher law, he could preserve his rights only by a walk as wary as the treading of a tight-rope.

This became clearer to him later in the night, when Ford had gone away, and he was left free to review the circumstances with that clarity of co-ordination he had so often brought to bear on other men's affairs. Out of the mass of data he selected two conditions as being the only ones of importance.

If Miriam Strange was marrying him because she loved him, nothing else needed to be considered. This fact would subordinate everything to itself; and there were many arguments to support the assumption that she was doing so. One by one he marshalled them before him, from the first faint possibility up to the crowning proof that there was no earthly reason for her marrying him at all, unless she wanted to. He had pointed that out to her clearly, on the day when she came to him to make her terms. He had been guilty on that occasion of a foolish generosity, for that it went with a common-sense honesty to take advantage of another's ignorance, or impulsiveness, was part of his business creed. Nevertheless, having shown her this uncalled-for favor, he did not regret it now, since it put the spontaneous, voluntary nature of her act beyond dispute.

To a late hour of the night he wandered about the great silent rooms of the house which he had made the expression of himself. Stored with costly, patiently selected comforts, it lacked only the last requisite which was to impart the living touch. Having chosen this essential with so much care, and begun to feel for her something far more vital than the pride of possession which had been his governing emotion hitherto, it was an agony with many aspects to think he might have to let her go.

That there was this possibility was undeniable. It was the second of the two paramount considerations. Though Ford's enthusiasm tried to make itself enthusiasm and no more, there had been little difficulty in seeing what it was. All the same, it would be a passion to pity and ignore, if on Miriam's side there was nothing to respond to it. But it was here that, in spite of all his arguments, Conquest's doubts began. With much curious ignorance of women, there was a point of view from which he knew them well. It was out of many a poignant bit of domestic history, of which his profession had made him the confidant, that he had distilled the observation made to Ford earlier in the evening: "It isn't often that a woman's heroism works in a straight line, like a soldier's or a fireman's." Notwithstanding her directness, he could see Miriam Strange as just the type of woman to whom these words might be applicable. If by marrying a man whom she did not love she thought she could help another whom she did love, a culpable sacrifice was just the thing of which she would be capable. He called it culpable sacrifice with some emphasis for in his eyes all sacrifice was culpable. It was more than culpable, in that it verged on the absurd. There were few teachings of an illogical religion, few promptings of a misdirected energy, for which he had a greater scorn than the precept that the strong should suffer for the weak, or one man for another. Every man for himself and the survival of the fittest was the doctrine by which he lived; and his abhorrence of anything else was the more intense for the moment because he found himself in a situation where he might be expected to repudiate his faith.

But there it was, that something in public opinion which, in certain circumstances, might challenge him—might ask him for magnanimity, might appeal to him for mercy, might demand that he make two other human beings happy while he denied himself. It was preposterous, it was grotesque, but it was there. He could hear its voice already, explaining that since Miriam Strange had given him her word in an excess of self-devotion, it was his duty to let her off. He could see the line of argument; he could hear the applause following on his noble act. He had heard it before—especially in the theatre—and his soul had shaken with laughter. He had read of it in novels, only to toss such books aside. "The beauty of renunciation," he had often said, "appeals to the morbid, the sickly, and the sentimental. It has no function among the healthy and the sane." He had not only said that, but he had believed it. He believed it still, and lived by it. By doing so he had amassed his modest fortune and won a respected position in the world. He had not got on into middle life without meeting the occasion more than once when he could have saved others—a brother, or a sister, or a friend—and forborne to save himself. He had felt the temptation and resisted it, with the result that he was up in the world when he might have been down in it, and envied by those who would have despised him without hesitation when they had got out of him all he could give. He could look back now and see the folly it would have been had he yielded to impulses that every sentimentalist would have praised. He was fully conscious that the moment of danger might be on the point of returning again, and that he must be prepared for it.

He was able to strengthen himself with the greater conviction because of his belief in the sanctity of rights. The securing of rights, the defining of rights, the protection of rights, had been his trade ever since he was twenty-five. The invasion of rights was among the darkest crimes in his calendar. In the present case his own rights could not be called into question; they were inviolable. Miriam Strange had come to him deliberately, and for due consideration had signed herself away. He had spared nothing, in time, pains, or money, to fulfil his part of the compact. It would be monstrous, therefore, if he were to be cheated of his reward. That either Ford or Miriam would attempt this he did not believe, even if between them the worst, from his point of view, was at the worst; but that an absurd, elusive principle which called itself chivalry, but really was effeminacy of will, might try to disarm him by an appeal to scruples he contemned, was the possibility he feared. He feared it because he estimated at its worth the force of restraint a sentimental civilization and a naA-ve people can bring to bear, in silent pressure, upon the individual. While he knew himself to be strong in his power of resistance, he knew too that the mightiest swimmer can go down at last in a smiling, unrippled sea.

His exasperation was as much with his doubt about himself as with the impalpable forces threatening him, as he strode fiercely from room to room, turning out the flaring lights before going to bed. After all, his final resolutions were pitifully insufficient, in view of the tragic element—for he took it tragically—that had suddenly crept into his life. While his gleam of happiness was in danger of going out, the sole means he could find of keeping it aglow was in deciding on a prudent ignoring of whatever did not meet the eye, on a discreet assumption that what he had been dreaming for the past few months was true. As a matter of fact, there was nothing to show him that it wasn't true; and it was only common sense to let the first move toward clearing his vision come from the other side rather than from his.

And yet it was precisely this passive attitude which he found himself next day least able to maintain. If he needed anything further to teach him that love was love, it was this restless, prying jealousy, making it impossible to let well enough alone. After a trying day at the office, during which he irritated his partners and worried his clerks, he presented himself late in the afternoon at Miriam's apartment at the hour when he generally went to his club, and he knew she would not expect him. Thinking to surprise Ford with her—like the suspicious husband in a French play, he owned to himself, grimly—he experienced something akin to disappointment to find her drinking tea with two old ladies, whom he outstayed. During the ceremonies of their leave-taking he watched Miriam closely, seeking for some impossible proof that she either loved Ford or did not love him, and getting nothing but a renewed and maddening conviction of her grace and quiet charm.

* * * * *

"What about Evie's happiness?"

Miriam raised her eyebrows inquiringly at the question before stooping to put out the spirit-lamp.

"Well, what about it?" she asked, without looking up.

"Oh, nothing—except that we don't seem to be securing it."

She gazed at him now, with an expression frankly puzzled. He had refused tea, but she kept her accustomed place behind the tea-table, while he stretched himself comfortably in the low arm-chair by the hearth, which she often occupied herself.

"Don't you remember?" he went on. "Evie's happiness was the motive of our little—agreement."

He endeavored to make his tone playful, but there was a something sharp and aggressive in his manner, at which she colored slightly, no less than at his words.

"I suppose," she said, as if after meditation, "Evie's happiness isn't in our hands."

"True; but there's a good deal that is in our hands. There's, for example—our own."

"Up to a point—yes."

"And up to that point we should take care of it. Shouldn't we?"

"I dare say. But I don't know what you mean."

He gave the nervous little laugh which helped him over moments of embarrassment.

"Ford was with me last night. He said it was all off between him and Evie."

"I thought he might tell you that."

"So that," he went on, forcing a smile, with which his voice and manner were not in accord, "our undertaking having failed, the bottom's out of everything. Don't you see?"

She was so astonished that she walked into his trap, just as he expected.

"I don't see in the least. I thought our undertaking—as you call it—was going to be particularly successful."

"Successful—how?"

He dropped his smile and looked interrogative, his bit of acting still keeping her off her guard.

"Why, if Amalia Gramm's testimony is all you think it's going to be——"

"Oh, I see. That's the way you look at it."

"Isn't it the way you look at it, too?"

He smiled again, indulgently, but with significance.

"No; I confess it isn't—at least, it hasn't been. I thought—perhaps I was wrong—that our interest was in getting Ford off, so that he could marry Evie. Since he isn't going to marry her, why—naturally—we don't care so much—whether he gets off or not."

"Oh, but——"

She checked herself; she even grew a little pale. She began to see dimly whither he was leading her.

"Of course I don't say we should chuck him over," he went on; "but it isn't the same thing any longer, is it? I think it only fair to point that out to you, because it gives you reasonable ground for reconsidering your—decision."

"Oh, but I don't want to."

While she had said exactly what he hoped to hear, she had not said it as he hoped to hear it. There were shades of tone even to impetuosity, and this one lacked the note his ear was listening for. None the less, he told himself, a wise man would have stopped right there; and he was conscious of his folly in persisting, while he still persisted.

"That's for you to decide, of course. Only if we go on, it must be understood that we've somewhat shifted our ground."

"I haven't shifted mine."

"Not as you understand it yourself—as, possibly, you've understood it all along. But you have, as I see things. When you came to me—to my office——"

She put up her hand as though she would have screened her face, but controlled herself to listen quietly.

"Your object, then," Conquest continued, cruelly, "was to get Ford off, so that he might marry Evie. Now, I understand it to be simply—to get him off."

She looked at him with eyes full of distress or protest. It was a minute or two before she spoke.

"I don't see the necessity for such close definition."

"I do. I want you to know exactly what you're doing. I want you to see that you're paying a higher price than you need pay—for the services rendered."

He had got her now just where he had been trying to put her. He had snared her, or given her an opportunity, according as she chose to take it. She could have availed herself of the latter by a look or a simple intonation, for the craving of his heart was such that his perceptions were acute for the slightest hint. Had she known that, it would have been easy for her to respond to him, playing her part with the loyalty with which she had begun it. As it was, his cold manner and his slightly mocking tone betrayed her. Her answer was meant to give him the kind of assurance she thought he was looking for; and she couched it in the language she supposed he would most easily understand. In the things it said and did not say her very sincerity was what stabbed him.

"I hope it won't be necessary to bring this subject up again. I know what I undertook, and I'm anxious to fulfil it. I should be very much hurt if I wasn't allowed to, just because you had scruples about taking me at my word. You've been so—so splendid—in doing your part that I should feel humiliated if I didn't do mine."

There was earnestness in her regard and a suggestion of haughtiness in the tilt of her head. The Wise Man within him bade him be content, and this time he listened to the voice. He did her the justice to remember, too, that she was offering him all he had ever asked of her; and if he was dissatisfied, it was because he had increased his demands without telling her.

It was by a transition of topic that he saw he could nail her to her purpose.

"By-the-way," he said, when they had got on neutral ground again, and were speaking of Wayne, "I wish you would come and see what I think of doing for him. There are two rooms back of my library—too dark for my use—but that wouldn't matter to him, poor fellow—"

He saw that she was nerving herself not to flinch at this confrontation with the practical. He saw too that her courage and her self-command would have deceived any one but him. The very pluck with which she nodded her comprehension of his idea, and her sympathy with it, enraged him to a point at which, so it seemed to him, he could have struck her. Had she cried off from her bargain he could have borne it far more easily. That would at least have given him a sense of superiority, and helped him to be magnanimous; while this readiness to pay put him in the wrong, and drove him to exact the uttermost farthing of his rights. On a weak woman he might have taken pity; but this strong creature, who refused to sue to him by so much as the quiver of an eyelid, and rejected his concessions before he had time to put them forth, exasperated every nerve that had been wont to tingle to his sense of power. Since she had asked no quarter, why should he give it?—above all, when to give quarter was against his principles.

"And perhaps," he pursued, in an even voice, showing no sign of the tempest within, "that would be as good a time as any for you to look over the entire house. If there are any changes you would like to have made——"

"I don't think there will be."

"All the same, I should like you to see. A man's house, however well arranged, isn't always right for a woman's occupancy; and so——"

"Very well; I'll come."

"When?"

"I'll come to-morrow."

"About four?"

"Yes; about four. That would suit me perfectly."

She spoke frankly, and even smiled faintly, with just such a shadow of a blush as the situation called for. The Wise Man within him begged him once more to be content. If, the Wise Man argued, this well-poised serenity was not love, it was something so like it that the distinction would require a splitting of hairs. Conquest strove to listen and obey; but even as he did so he was aware again of that rage of impotence which finds its easiest outlet in violence. As he rose to take his leave, with all the outward signs of friendly ceremoniousness, he had time to be appalled at the perception that he, the middle-aged, spick-and-span New-Yorker, should so fully understand how it is that a certain type of frenzied brute can kill the woman whom he passionately loves, but who is hopelessly out of reach.



XXIV



Except when his business instincts were on the alert, Ford's slowness of perception was perhaps most apparent in his judgment of character and his analysis of other people's motives. Taking men and women as he found them, he had little tendency to speculate as to the impulses within their lives, any more than as to the furnishings behind their house-fronts. A human being was all exterior to him, something like a street. Even in matters that touched him closely, the act alone was his concern; and he dealt with its consequences, without, as a rule, much inquisitive probing of its cause.

So when Miriam Strange elected to marry Conquest, he accepted the settled fact, for the time being, in the spirit in which he would have taken some disastrous manifestation of natural phenomena. Investigation of the motive of such a step was as little in his line as it would have been in the case of a destructive storm at sea. To his essentially simple way of viewing life it was something to be lamented, but to be borne as best one was able, while one said as little as one could about it.

And yet, somewhere in the wide, rarely explored regions of his nature there were wonderings, questionings, yearnings protests, cries, that forced themselves to the surface now and then, as the boiling waters within the earth gush out in geyser springs. It required urgent pressure to impel them forth, but when they came it was with violence. Such an occasion had been his night on Lake Champlain; such another was the evening when he announced to Miriam his intention of becoming Norrie Ford again. When these moments came they took him by surprise, even though afterward he was able to recognize the fact that they had been long preparing.

It was in this way, without warning, that his heart had sprung on him the question: Why should she marry him? At the minute when Conquest was leaving Miriam, he, Ford, was tramping the streets of New York, watching them grow alive with light, in glaring, imaginative ugliness—ugliness so dazzling in its audacity and so fanciful in its crude commercialism that it had the power to thrill. It was perhaps the electric stimulus of sheer light that quickened the pace of his slow mentality from the march of acceptance to the rush of protest, at an instant when he thought he had resigned himself to the facts.

Why should she marry Conquest? He was shouldering his way through the crowds when the question made itself heard, with a curious illuminating force that suggested its own answer. He was walking, partly to work off the tension of the strain under which these few days were passing, and partly because he had got the idea that he was being shadowed. He had no profound objection to that, though he would have preferred to give himself up of his own free will rather than to be arrested. Perhaps, after all, it was only an accident that had caused him to catch sight of the same two men at different moments through the day, and just now it amused him to put them to the test by leading them a dance. He had come to the conclusion that he had been mistaken, or that he had outwitted them, when this odd question, irrelevant to anything he had directly in his thoughts, presented itself as though it had been asked by some voice outside him: Why should she marry him?

Up to the present his unanalytical mind would have replied as it would have replied to the same query concerning any one else that she was marrying him "because she wanted to." That would have seemed to him to cover the whole ground of any one's affairs; but all at once it had become insufficient. It was as if the street had suddenly become insufficient as a highway, breaking into a chasm. He stopped abruptly, confronting, as it were, that bewildering void which a psychological situation invariably seemed to him. To get into a place where his few straightforward formulA did not apply gave him that sense of distress which every creature feels out of its native element.

It was a proof of the dependence with which, in matters requiring mental or emotional experience, he had come to lean on Miriam Strange, as well as of the directness with which he appealed to her for help, that he should face about on the instant, and turn his steps toward her.

* * * * *

Only a few minutes earlier she had seen Conquest go, and in the interval since his departure she had had time to detect the windings of his strategy, and to be content with the skill with which she had met them. She understood him thoroughly, both in his fear of letting her go and his shame at holding her. Standing in her wide bay-window, her slight figure erect, her hands behind her back, she looked down, without seeing it, on the spangled city, as angels intent on their own high thoughts might pass over the Milky Way. She smiled faintly to herself, thinking how she should lead this kindly man, who for her sake had done so much for Norrie Ford, back to a sense of security and self-respect. When Norrie Ford went free she meant to live for nothing else but the happiness of the man who had cleared his name and given him back to the world. It would be a kind of consecration to her, like that of the nun who forsakes the dearest ties for a life of good works and prayer. Conquest had told her that she was paying a bigger price than she needed to pay for the services rendered, but that depended somewhat on the value one set on the services. In this case she would not have been content in paying less. To do so would seem to indicate that she was not grateful. Since perceiving his compunction as to claiming his reward, she was aware of an elation, an exaltation, in forcing it upon him.

She was in the glow of this sentiment when Ford was ushered in. He was so vitally in her thoughts that, though she did not expect him, his presence gave her no surprise. It helped her, in fact, to sustain the romantic quality in her mood to treat his coming as a matter of course, and make it a natural incident to the moment.

"Come and look down on the stars," she said, in the tone she might have used to another member of her household who had appeared accidentally. "The view here, in the evening, makes one feel as if one had been wafted above the sky."

She half-turned toward him, but did not offer her hand as he took his place by her side. For a few seconds he said nothing, and when he spoke she accepted his words in the manner in which she had taken his coming.

"So you're going to marry Conquest!"

It was to show that the abrupt remark had not perturbed her that she nodded her head assentingly, still with the smile that had greeted his arrival.

"Why?"

In spite of her efforts she manifested some surprise.

"What makes you ask that question—now?"

"Because it never occurred to me before that there might be a special reason."

"Well, there is one."

"Has it anything to do with me?"

She backed away from him slightly, to the side curve of the window, where it joined the straight line of the wall. In this position she had him more directly in view.

"I said there was a reason," she answered, after some hesitation. "I didn't say I would tell you what it was."

"No, but you will, won't you?"

"I don't see why you should want to know."

"Is that quite true?" he queried, with a somewhat startling fixing of his eyes upon her. "Don't you see? Can't you imagine?"

"I don't see why—in such circumstances as these—any man should want to know what a woman doesn't tell him."

"Then I'll explain to you. I want to know, because ... I think ... you're marrying Conquest ... when you don't love him ..."

"He never asked me to love him. He said he could do without that."

"... while ... you do love ... some one else."

She reflected before speaking. Under his piercing look she took on once more the appealing expression of forest creatures at bay.

"Even if that were true," she said, at last, "there would be no harm in it as long as there was what you asked me for at first—a special reason."

"Is there ever a reason for a step like that? I don't believe it."

"But I do believe it, you see. That makes a difference."

"It would make a still greater difference if I begged you not to do it, wouldn't it?"

She shook her head. "It wouldn't—now."

"I let you see yesterday that I—I loved you."

"Since you force me to acknowledge it—yes."

"And you've shown me," he ventured, "within the last minute, that you—love me."

Her figure grew more erect against the background of exterior darkness. Even the hand that rested on the woodwork of the window became tense. Lambent fire in her eyes—the light that he used to call non-Aryan—took the place of the fugitive glance of the woodland animal; but she kept her composure.

"Well, what then?"

"Then you'd be committing a sacrilege against yourself—if you married any one else but me."

If her heart bounded at the words, she did nothing to betray it.

"You say that, because it seems so to you. I take another view of it. Love to me does not necessarily mean marriage, any more than marriage necessarily implies love. There have been happy marriages without love, and there can be honorable love that doesn't ask marriage as its object. If I married you now, I should seem to myself to be deserting a high impulse for a lower one."

"There's only one sort of impulse to love."

"Not to my love. I know what you mean—but my love has more than one prompting, and the highest is—or I hope it is—to try to do what's right."

"But this would not be right."

"I'm the only judge of that."

"Not if we love each other. In that case I become a judge of it, too."

Once more she reflected. In speaking she lifted her head and looked at him frankly.

"Very well; I'll admit it. Perhaps it's true. In any case, I'd rather things were clear to you. It will help us both. I'll tell you what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it."

It was one of those occasions when a woman's emotion is so great that she seems to have none at all. As iron is said to come to a degree of heat so intense that it does not burn, so Miriam Strange seemed to herself to have reached a stage where the sheer truth, simple and without reserve, could bring no shame to her womanhood. Words that could not have passed her lips either before that evening or after it escaped her in the subsequent minutes as a matter of course.

"I entered into your life twice, and each time I did you harm. On the first occasion I turned you into Herbert Strange, and sent you out on a career of deception; on the second, I came between you and Evie, and brought you to the present pass, where you're facing death again, as you were eight or nine years ago. It's no use to tell you that I wanted to do my best, because good intentions are not much excuse for the trouble they often cause. But I'm ready to say this: that whenever you've suffered, I've suffered more. That's especially true of what's happened in the last six months. And when I saw how much I had put wrong, it was a comfort to think there was something at least that I could put right again."

"But you've put nothing wrong. That's what I should like to convince you of."

"I've put you in a position of danger. When I see that, I see enough to act upon."

"It's a very slight danger."

"It is now, because I've made it slight. It wasn't—before I went to Mr. Conquest."

"You went to him—what for?"

"He wanted me to marry him. He had wanted it for a long time. I told him I would do so, on condition that he found the evidence that would prove you innocent."

Ford laughed harshly, and rather loudly, stopping suddenly, as though he had ceased to see the joke.

"So that's it! That's why Conquest has been so devilishly kind. I wondered at his interest—or at least I should have wondered if I'd had the time. As a matter of fact, I took it for granted that he should help me, as a drowning man takes it for granted that the chance passer-by should pull him out. It wasn't till this evening—about half an hour ago—By Jove! I ran right up against it."

"You ran right up against—what?"

"Against the truth. It came in a flash—just like that." He snapped his fingers. "You're selling yourself—to get me off."

She seemed to grow straighter, taller. For the minute he saw nothing but the blaze of her eyes.

"Well? Why shouldn't I? My mother sold herself—to get a man off. He was my father. I'm proud of her. She did the best she could with her life. I'm doing the best I can with mine."

"But I shouldn't be doing the best I can with mine—if I let you continue."

"Isn't it too late for you to stop me? If I've sold myself as you put it, the price has been paid in. Mr. Conquest has secured the evidence that will acquit you. It will be used. That's all I care about—much."

She saw the hot color surge into his cheeks and brows. It seemed to her that his eyes grew red as the blood left his lips. She had never before been called on to confront a man angry with a passion beyond his control, but instinct told her what the signs were. Instinct told her, too, that, however confused his own sensations might be, his anger was not so much resentment against anything she might have done as it was despair at having lost her. She had guessed already that he would be seized with a 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—! without——"

"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 love?"

There was a kind of superb indifference in her answer.



"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 degrading—"

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 sake——"

"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 bitterness.

"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."



XXV



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 be—aired."

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 him."

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 smile.

"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 me."

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 strong."

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

"Well, then—good-bye."

"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 be."

"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.

THE END

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