Chapter XX
 

Not the least of the traits which formed Shirley Sumner's character was pride. Proud people quite usually are fiercely independent and meticulously honest--and Shirley's pride was monumental. Hers was the pride of lineage, of womanhood, of an assured station in life, combined with that other pride which is rather difficult of definition without verbosity and is perhaps better expressed in the terse and illuminating phrase "a dead-game sport." Unlike her precious relative, unlike the majority of her sex, Shirley had a wonderfully balanced sense of the eternal fitness of things; her code of honour resembled that of a very gallant gentleman. She could love well and hate well.

A careful analysis of Shirley's feelings toward Bryce Cardigan immediately following the incident in Pennington's woods, had showed her that under more propitious circumstances she might have fallen in love with that tempestuous young man in sheer recognition of the many lovable and manly qualities she had discerned in him. As an offset to the credit side of Bryce's account with her, however, there appeared certain debits in the consideration of which Shirley always lost her temper and was immediately quite certain she loathed the unfortunate man.

He had been an honoured and (for aught Shirley knew to the contrary) welcome guest in the Penninton home one night, and the following day had assaulted his host, committed great bodily injuries upon the latter's employees for little or no reason save the satisfaction of an abominable temper, made threats of further violence, declared his unfaltering enmity to her nearest and best-loved relative, and in the next breath had had the insolence to prate of his respect and admiration for her. Indeed, in cogitating on this latter incongruity, Shirley recalled that the extraordinary fellow had been forced rather abruptly to check himself in order to avoid a fervid declaration of love! And all of this under the protection of a double-bitted axe, one eye on her and the other on his enemies.

However, all of these grave crimes and misdemeanors were really insignificant compared with his crowning offense. What had infuriated Shirley was the fact that she had been at some pains to inform Bryce Cardigan that she loathed him--whereat he had looked her over coolly, grinned a little, and declined to believe her! Then, seemingly as if fate had decreed that her futility should be impressed upon her still further, Bryce Cardigan had been granted an opportunity to save, in a strikingly calm, heroic, and painful manner, her and her uncle from certain and horrible death, thus placing upon Shirley an obligation that was as irritating to acknowledge as it was futile to attempt to reciprocate.

That was where the shoe pinched. Before that day was over she had been forced to do one of two things--acknowledge in no uncertain terms her indebtedness to him, or remain silent and be convicted of having been, in plain language, a rotter. So she had telephoned him and purposely left ajar the door to their former friendly relations.

Monstrous! He had seen the open door and deliberately slammed it in her face. Luckily for them both she had heard, all unsuspected by him as he slowly hung the receiver on the hook, the soliloquy wherein he gave her a pointed hint of the distress with which he abdicated-- which knowledge was all that deterred her from despising him with the fervour of a woman scorned.

Resolutely Shirley set herself to the task of forgetting Bryce when, after the passage of a few weeks, she realized that he was quite sincere in his determination to forget her. Frequent glimpses of him on the streets of Sequoia, the occasional mention of his name in the Sequoia Sentinel, the very whistle of Cardigan's mill, made her task a difficult one; and presently in desperation she packed up and departed for an indefinite stay in the southern part of the State. At the end of six weeks, however, she discovered that absence had had the traditional effect upon her heart and found herself possessed of a great curiosity to study the villain at short range and discover, if possible, what new rascality he might be meditating. About this time, a providential attack of that aristocratic ailment, gout, having laid Colonel Pennington low, she told herself her duty lay in Sequoia, that she had Shirley Sumner in hand at last and that the danger was over. In consequence, she returned to Sequoia.

The fascination which a lighted candle holds for a moth is too well known to require further elucidation here. In yielding one day to a desire to visit the Valley of the Giants, Shirley told herself that she was going there to gather wild blackberries. She had been thinking of a certain blackberry pie, which thought naturally induced reflection on Bryce Cardigan and reminded Shirley of her first visit to the Giants under the escort of a boy in knickerbockers. She had a very vivid remembrance of that little amphitheatre with the sunbeams falling like a halo on the plain tombstone; she wondered if the years had changed it all and decided that there could not possibly be any harm in indulging a very natural curiosity to visit and investigate.

Her meeting with Moira McTavish that day, and the subsequent friendship formed with the woods-boss's daughter, renewed all her old apprehensions. On the assumption that Shirley and Bryce were practically strangers to each other (an assumption which Shirley, for obvious reasons, did not attempt to dissipate), Moira did not hesitate to mention Bryce very frequently. To her he was the one human being in the world utterly worth while, and it is natural for women to discuss, frequently and at great length, the subject nearest their hearts. In the three stock subjects of the admirable sex--man, dress, and the ills that flesh is heir to--man readily holds the ascendancy; and by degrees Moira--discovering that Shirley, having all the dresses she required (several dozen more, in fact) and being neither subnormal mentally nor fragile physically, gave the last two topics scant attention--formed the habit of expatiating at great length on the latter. Moira described Bryce in minute detail and related to her eager auditor little unconscious daily acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, or humour performed by Bryce--his devotion to his father, his idealistic attitude toward the Cardigan employees, his ability, his industry, the wonderful care he bestowed upon his fingernails, his marvellous taste in neckwear, the boyishness of his lighter and the mannishness of his serious moments. And presently, little by little, Shirley's resentment against him faded, and in her heart was born a great wistfulness bred of the hope that some day she would meet Bryce Cardigan on the street and that he would pause, lift his hat, smile at her his compelling smile and, forthwith proceed to bully her into being friendly and forgiving--browbeat her into admitting her change of heart and glorying in it.

To this remarkable state of mind had Shirley Sumner attained at the time old John Cardigan, leading his last little trump in a vain hope that it would enable him to take the odd trick in the huge game he had played for fifty years, decided to sell his Valley of the Giants.

Shortly after joining her uncle in Sequoia, Shirley had learned from the Colonel the history of old man Cardigan and his Valley of the Giants, or as the townspeople called it, Cardigan's Redwoods. Therefore she was familiar with its importance to the assets of the Laguna Grande Lumber Company, since, while that quarter-section remained the property of John Cardigan, two thousand five hundred acres of splendid timber owned by the former were rendered inaccessible. Her uncle had explained to her that ultimately this would mean the tying up of some two million dollars, and inasmuch as the Colonel never figured less than five per cent. return on anything, he was in this instance facing a net loss of one hundred thousand dollars for each year obstinate John Cardigan persisted in retaining that quarter-section.

"I'd gladly give him a hundred thousand for that miserable little dab of timber and let him keep a couple of acres surrounding his wife's grave, if the old fool would only listen to reason," the Colonel had complained bitterly to her. "I've offered him that price a score of times, and he tells me blandly the property isn't for sale. Well, he who laughs last laughs best, and if I can't get that quarter-section by paying more than ten times what it's worth in the open market, I'll get it some other way, if it costs me a million."

"How?" Shirley had queried at the time.

"Never mind, my dear," he had answered darkly. "You wouldn't understand the procedure if I told you. I'll have to run all around Robin Hood's barn and put up a deal of money, one way or another, but in the end I'll get it all back with interest--and Cardigan's Redwoods! The old man can't last forever, and what with his fool methods of doing business, he's about broke, anyhow. I expect to do business with his executor or his receiver within a year."

Shirley, as explained in a preceding chapter, had been present the night John Cardigan, desperate and brought to bay at last, had telephoned Pennington at the latter's home, accepting Pennington's last offer for the Valley of the Giants. The cruel triumph in the Colonel's handsome face as he curtly rebuffed old Cardigan had been too apparent for the girl to mistake; recalling her conversation with him anent the impending possibility of his doing business with John Cardigan's receiver or executor, she realized now that a crisis had come in the affairs of the Cardigans, and across her vision there flashed again the vision of Bryce Cardigan's homecoming--of a tall old man with his trembling arms clasped around his boy, with grizzled cheek laid against his son's, as one who, seeking comfort through bitter years, at length had found it.

Presently another thought came to Shirley. She knew Bryce Cardigan was far from being indifferent to her; she had given him his opportunity to be friendly with her again, and he had chosen to ignore her though sorely against his will. For weeks Shirley had pondered this mysterious action, and now she thought she caught a glimpse of the reason underlying it all. In Sequoia, Bryce Cardigan was regarded as the heir to the throne of Humboldt's first timber- king, but Shirley knew now that as a timber-king, Bryce Cardigan bade fair to wear a tinsel crown. Was it this knowledge that had led him to avoid her?

"I wonder," she mused. "He's proud. Perhaps the realization that he will soon be penniless and shorn of his high estate has made him chary of acquiring new friends in his old circle. Perhaps if he were secure in his business affairs--Ah, yes! Poor boy! He was desperate for fifty thousand dollars!" Her heart swelled. "Oh, Bryce, Bryce," she murmured, "I think I'm beginning to understand some of your fury that day in the woods. It's all a great mystery, but I'm sure you didn't intend to be so--so terrible. Oh, my dear, if we had only continued to be the good friends we started out to be, perhaps you'd let me help you now. For what good is money if one cannot help one's dear friends in distress. Still, I know you wouldn't let me help you, for men of your stamp cannot borrow from a woman, no matter how desperate their need. And yet--you only need a paltry fifty thousand dollars!"

Shirley carried to bed with her that night the woes of the Cardigans, and in the morning she telephoned Moira McTavish and invited the latter to lunch with her at home that noon. It was in her mind to question Moira with a view to acquiring additional information. When Moira came, Shirley saw that she had been weeping.

"My poor Moira!" she said, putting her arms around her visitor. "What has happened to distress you? Has your father come back to Sequoia? Forgive me for asking. You never mentioned him, but I have heard-- There, there, dear! Tell me all about it."

Moira laid her head on Shirley's shoulder and sobbed for several minutes. Then, "It's Mr. Bryce," she wailed. "He's so unhappy. Something's happened; they're going to sell Cardigan's Redwoods; and they--don't want to. Old Mr. Cardigan is home--ill; and just before I left the office, Mr. Bryce came in--and stood a moment looking--at me--so tragically I--I asked him what had happened. Then he patted my cheek--oh, I know I'm just one of his responsibilities--and said 'Poor Moira! Never any luck!' and went into his--private office. I waited a little, and then I went in too; and--oh, Miss Sumner, he had his head down on his desk, and when I touched his head, he reached up and took my hand and held it--and laid his cheek against it a little while--and oh, his cheek was wet. It's cruel of God--to make him-- unhappy, He's good--too good. And--oh, I love him so, Miss Shirley, I love him so--and he'll never, never know. I'm just one of his-- responsibilities, you know; and I shouldn't presume. But nobody--has ever been kind to me but Mr. Bryce--and you. And I can't help loving people who are kind--and gentle to nobodies."

The hysterical outburst over, Shirley led the girl to her cozy sitting-room upstairs and prevailed upon the girl to put on one of her own beautiful negligees. Moira's story--her confession of love, so tragic because so hopeless--had stirred Shirley deeply. She seated herself in front of Moira and cupped her chin in her palm.

"Of course, dear," she said, "you couldn't possibly see anybody you loved suffer so and not feel dreadfully about it. And when a man like Bryce Cardigan is struck down, he's apt to present rather a tragic and helpless figure. He wanted sympathy, Moira--woman's sympathy, and it was dear of you to give it to him."

"I'd gladly die for him," Moira answered simply. "Oh, Miss Shirley, you don't know him the way we who work for him do. If you did, you'd love him, too. You couldn't help it, Miss Shirley."

"Perhaps he loves you, too, Moira." The words came with difficulty.

Moira shook her head hopelessly. "No, Miss Shirley. I'm only one of his many human problems, and he just won't go back on me, for old sake's sake. We played together ten years ago, when he used to spend his vacations at our house in Cardigan's woods, when my father was woods-boss. He's Bryce Cardigan--and I--I used to work in the kitchen of his logging-camp."

"Never mind, Moira. He may love you, even though you do not suspect it. You mustn't be so despairing. Providence has a way of working out these things. Tell me about his trouble, Moira."

"I think it's money. He's been terribly worried for a long time, and I'm afraid things aren't going right with the business. I've felt ever since I've been there that there's something that puts a cloud over Mr. Bryce's smile. It hurts them terribly to have to sell the Valley of the Giants, but they have to; Colonel Pennington is the only one who would consider buying it; they don't want him to have it--and still they have to sell to him."

"I happen to know, Moira, that he isn't going to buy it."

"Yes, he is--but not at a price that will do them any good. They have always thought he would be eager to buy whenever they decided to sell, and now he says he doesn't want it, and old Mr. Cardigan is ill over it all. Mr. Bryce says his father has lost his courage at last; and oh, dear, things are in such a mess. Mr. Bryce started to tell me all about it--and then he stopped suddenly and wouldn't say another word."

Shirley smiled. She thought she understood the reason for that. However, she did not pause to speculate on it, since the crying need of the present was the distribution of a ray of sunshine to broken- hearted Moira.

"Silly," she chided, "how needlessly you are grieving! You say my uncle has declined to buy the Valley of the Giants?"

Moira nodded.

"My uncle doesn't know what he's talking about, Moira. I'll see that he does buy it. What price are the Cardigans asking for it now?"

"Well, Colonel Pennington has offered them a hundred thousand dollars for it time and again, but last night he withdrew that offer. Then they named a price of fifty thousand, and he said he didn't want it at all."

"He needs it, and it's worth every cent of a hundred thousand to him, Moira. Don't worry, dear. He'll buy it, because I'll make him, and he'll buy it immediately; only you must promise me not to mention a single word of what I'm telling you to Bryce Cardigan, or in fact, to anybody. Do you promise?"

Moira seized Shirley's hand and kissed it impulsively. "Very well, then," Shirley continued. "That matter is adjusted, and now we'll all be happy. Here comes Thelma with luncheon. Cheer up, dear, and remember that sometime this afternoon you're going to see Mr. Bryce smile again, and perhaps there won't be so much of a cloud over his smile this time."

When Moira returned to the office of the Cardigan Redwood Lumber Company, Shirley rang for her maid. "Bring me my motor-coat and hat, Thelma," she ordered, "and telephone for the limousine." She seated herself before the mirror at her dressing-table and dusted her adorable nose with a powder-puff. "Mr. Smarty Cardigan," she murmured happily, "you walked rough-shod over my pride, didn't you! Placed me under an obligation I could never hope to meet--and then ignored me-- didn't you? Very well, old boy. We all have our innings sooner or later, you know, and I'm going to make a substantial payment on that huge obligation as sure as my name is Shirley Sumner. Then, some day when the sun is shining for you again, you'll come to me and be very, very humble. You're entirely too independent, Mr. Cardigan, but, oh, my dear, I do hope you will not need so much money. I'll be put to my wit's end to get it to you without letting you know, because if your affairs go to smash, you'll be perfectly intolerable. And yet you deserve it. You're such an idiot for not loving Moira. She's an angel, and I gravely fear I'm just an interfering, mischievous, resentful little devil seeking vengeance on--"

She paused suddenly. "No, I'll not do that, either," she soliloquized. "I'll keep it myself--for an investment. I'll show Uncle Seth I'm a business woman, after all. He has had his fair chance at the Valley of the Giants, after waiting years for it, and now he has deliberately sacrificed that chance to be mean and vindictive. I'm afraid Uncle Seth isn't very sporty--after what Bryce Cardigan did for us that day the log-train ran away. I'll have to teach him not to hit an old man when he's down and begging for mercy. I'll buy the Valley but keep my identity secret from everybody; then, when Uncle Seth finds a stranger in possession, he'll have a fit, and perhaps, before he recovers, he'll sell me all his Squaw Creek timber--only he'll never know I'm the buyer. And when I control the outlet--well, I think that Squaw Creek timber will make an excellent investment if it's held for a few years. Shirley, my dear, I'm pleased with you. Really, I never knew until now why men could be so devoted to business. Won't it be jolly to step in between Uncle Seth and Bryce Cardigan, hold up my hand like a policeman, and say: 'Stop it, boys. No fighting, if you please. And if anybody wants to know who's boss around here, start something.'"

And Shirley laid her head upon the dressing-table and laughed heartily. She had suddenly bethought herself of Aesop's fable of the lion and the mouse!

When her uncle came home that night, Shirley observed that he was preoccupied and disinclined to conversation.

"I noticed in this evening's paper," she remarked presently, "that Mr. Cardigan has sold his Valley of the Giants. So you bought it, after all?"

"No such luck!" he almost barked. "I'm an idiot. I should be placed in charge of a keeper. Now, for heaven's sake, Shirley, don't discuss that timber with me, for if you do, I'll go plain, lunatic crazy. I've had a very trying day."

"Poor Uncle Seth!" she purred sweetly. Her apparent sympathy soothed his rasped soul. He continued:

"Oh, I'll get the infernal property, and it will be worth what I have to pay for it, only it certainly does gravel me to realize that I am about to be held up, with no help in sight. I'll see Judge Moore to- morrow and offer him a quick profit for his client. That's the game, you know."

"I do hope the new owner exhibits some common sense, Uncle dear," she replied, and turned back to the piano. "But I greatly fear," she added to herself, "that the new owner is going to prove a most obstinate creature and frightfully hard to discover."

True to his promise, the Colonel called on Judge Moore bright and early the following morning. "Act Three of that little business drama entitled 'The Valley of the Giants,' my dear Judge," he announced pleasantly. "I play the lead in this act. You remember me, I hope. I played a bit in Act Two."

"In so far as my information goes, sir, you've been cut out of the cast in Act Three. I don't seem to find any lines for you to speak."

"One line, Judge, one little line. What profit does your client want on that quarter-section?"

"That quarter-section is not in the market, Colonel. When it is, I'll send for you, since you're the only logical prospect should my client decide to sell. And remembering how you butted in on politics in this county last fall and provided a slush-fund to beat me and place a crook on the Superior Court bench, in order to give you an edge in the many suits you are always filing or having filed against you, I rise to remark that you have about ten split seconds in which to disappear from my office. If you linger longer, I'll start throwing paper-weights." And as if to emphasize his remark, the Judge's hand closed over one of the articles in question.

The Colonel withdrew with what dignity he could muster.