Chapter 1. Two Men and a Woman
 

"Mr. Ridgway, ma'am."

The young woman who was giving the last touches to the very effective picture framed in her long looking-glass nodded almost imperceptibly.

She had come to the parting of the ways, and she knew it, with a shrewd suspicion as to which she would choose. She had asked for a week to decide, and her heart-searching had told her nothing new. It was characteristic of Virginia Balfour that she did not attempt to deceive herself. If she married Waring Ridgway it would be for what she considered good and sufficient reasons, but love would not be one of them. He was going to be a great man, for one thing, and probably a very rich one, which counted, though it would not be a determining factor. This she could find only in the man himself, in the masterful force that made him what he was. The sandstings of life did not disturb his confidence in his victorious star, nor did he let fine-spun moral obligations hamper his predatory career. He had a genius for success in whatever he undertook, pushing his way to his end with a shrewd, direct energy that never faltered. She sometimes wondered whether she, too, like the men he used as tools, was merely a pawn in his game, and her consent an empty formality conceded to convention. Perhaps he would marry her even if she did not want to, she told herself, with the sudden illuminating smile that was one of her chief charms.

But Ridgway's wary eyes, appraising her mood as she came forward to meet him, read none of this doubt in her frank greeting. Anything more sure and exquisite than the cultivation Virginia Balfour breathed he would have been hard put to it to conceive. That her gown and its accessories seemed to him merely the extension of a dainty personality was the highest compliment he could pay her charm, and an entirely unconscious one.

"Have I kept you waiting?" she smiled, giving him her hand.

His answering smile, quite cool and unperturbed, gave the lie to his words. "For a year, though the almanac called it a week."

"You must have suffered," she told him ironically, with a glance at the clear color in his good-looking face.

"Repressed emotion," he explained. "May I hope that my suffering has reached a period?"

They had been sauntering toward a little conservatory at the end of the large room, but she deflected and brought up at a table on which lay some books. One of these she picked up and looked at incuriously for a moment before sweeping them aside. She rested her hands on the table behind her and leaned back against it, her eyes meeting his fairly.

"You're still of the same mind, are you?" she demanded.

"Oh! very much."

She lifted herself to the table, crossing her feet and dangling them irresponsibly. "We might as well be comfy while we talk;" and she indicated, by a nod, a chair.

"Thanks. If you don't mind, I think I'll take it standing."

She did not seem in any hurry to begin, and Ridgway gave evidence of no desire to hasten her. But presently he said, with a little laugh that seemed to offer her inclusion in the joke:

"I'm on the anxious seat, you know--waiting to find out whether I'm to be the happiest man alive."

"You know as much about it as I do." She echoed his laugh ruefully. "I'm still as much at sea as I was last week. I couldn't tell then, and I can't now."

"No news is good news, they say."

"I don't want to marry you a bit, but you're a great catch, as you are very well aware."

"I suppose I am rather a catch," he agreed, the shadow of a smile at the corners of his mouth.

"It isn't only your money; though, of course, that's a temptation," she admitted audaciously.

"I'm glad it's not only my money." He could laugh with her about it because he was shrewd enough to understand that it was not at all his wealth. Her cool frankness might have frightened away another man. It merely served to interest Ridgway. For, with all his strength, he was a vain man, always ready to talk of himself. He spent a good deal of his spare time interpreting himself to attractive and attracted young women.

Her gaze fastened on the tip of her suede toe, apparently studying it attentively. "It would be a gratification to my vanity to parade you as the captive of my bow and spear. You're such a magnificent specimen, such a berserk in broadcloth. Still. I shan't marry you if I can help it--but, then, I'm not sure that I can help it. Of course, I disapprove of you entirely, but you're rather fascinating, you know." Her eye traveled slowly up to his, appraising the masterful lines of his square figure, the dominant strength of his close-shut mouth and resolute eyes. "Perhaps 'fascinating' isn't just the word, but I can't help being interested in you, whether I like you or not. I suppose you always get what you want very badly?" she flung out by way of question.

"That's what I'm trying to discover"--he smiled.

"There are things to be considered both ways," she said, taking him into her confidence. "You trample on others. How do I know you wouldn't tread on me?"

"That would be one of the risks you would take," he agreed impersonally.

"I shouldn't like that at all. If I married you it would be because as your wife I should have so many opportunities. I should expect to do exactly as I please. I shouldn't want you to interfere with me, though I should want to be able to influence you."

"Nothing could be fairer than that," was his amiably ironical comment.

"You see, I don't know you--not really--and they say all sorts of things about you."

"They don't say I am a quitter, do they?"

She leaned forward, chin in hand and elbow on knee. It was a part of the accent of her distinction that as a rebel she was both demure and daring. "I wonder if I might ask you some questions--the intimate kind that people think but don't say--at least, they don't say them to you."

"It would be a pleasure to me to be put on the witness-stand. I should probably pick up some interesting side-lights about myself."

"Very well." Her eyes danced with excitement. "You're what they call a buccaneer of business, aren't you?"

Here were certainly diverting pastimes. "I believe I have been called that; but, then, I've had the hardest names in the dictionary thrown at me so often that I can't be sure."

"I suppose you are perfectly unscrupulous in a business way--stop at nothing to gain your point?"

He took her impudence smilingly.

"'Unscrupulous' isn't the word I use when I explain myself to myself, but as an unflattered description, such as one my enemies might use to describe me, I dare say it is fairly accurate."

"I wonder why. Do you dispense with a conscience entirely?"

"Well, you see, Miss Balfour, if I nursed a New England conscience I could stand up to the attacks of the Consolidated about as long as a dove to a hawk. I meet fire with fire to avoid being wiped off the map of the mining world. I play the game. I can't afford to keep a button on my foil when my opponent doesn't."

She nodded an admission of his point. "And yet there are rules of the game to be observed, aren't there? The Consolidated people claim you steal their ore, I believe." Her slanted eyes studied the effect of her daring.

He laughed grimly. "Do they? I claim they steal mine. It's rather difficult to have an exact regard for mine and thine before the courts decide which is which."

"And meanwhile, in order to forestall an adverse decision, you are working extra shifts to get all the ore out of the disputed veins."

"Precisely, just as they are," he admitted dryly. "Then the side that loses will not be so disappointed, since the value of the veins will be less. Besides, stealing ore openly doesn't count. It is really a moral obligation in a fight like this," he explained.

"A moral obligation?"

"Exactly. You can't hit a trust over the head with the decalogue. Modern business is war. Somebody is bound to get hurt. If I win out it will be because I put up a better fight than the Consolidated, and cripple it enough to make it let me alone. I'm looking out for myself, and I don't pretend to be any better than my neighbors. When you get down to bed-rock honesty, I've never seen it in business. We're all of us as honest as we think we can afford to be. I haven't noticed that there is any premium on it in Mesa. Might makes right. I'll win if I'm strong enough; I'll fail if I'm not. That's the law of life. I didn't make this strenuous little world, and I'm not responsible for it. If I play I have to take the rules the way they are, not the way I should like them to be. I'm not squeamish, and I'm not a hypocrite. Simon Harley isn't squeamish, either, but he happens to be a hypocrite. So there you have the difference between us."

The president of the Mesa Ore-producing Company set forth his creed jauntily, without the least consciousness of need for apology for the fact that it happened to be divorced from morality. Its frank disregard of ethical considerations startled Miss Balfour without shocking her. She liked his candor, even though it condemned him. It was really very nice of him to take her impudence so well. He certainly wasn't a prig, anyway.

"And morality," she suggested tentatively.

"--hasn't a thing to do with success, the parsons to the contrary notwithstanding. The battle is to the strong."

"Then the Consolidated will beat you finally."

He smiled. "They would if I'd let them; but brains and resource and finesse all count for power. Granted that they have a hundred dollars to my one. Still, I have elements of strength they can't even estimate. David beat Goliath, you know, even though he didn't do it with a big stick."

"So you think morality is for old women?"

"And young women," he amended, smiling.

"And every man is to be a law unto himself?"

"Not quite. Some men aren't big enough to be. Let them stick to the conventional code. For me, if I make my own laws I don't break them."

"And you're sure that you're on the road to true success?" she asked lightly.

"Now, you have heaven in the back of your mind."

"Not exactly," she laughed. "But I didn't expect you to understand."

"Then I won't disappoint you," he said cheerfully.

She came back to the concrete.

"I should like to know whether it is true that you own the courts of Yuba County and have the decisions of the judges written at your lawyer's offices in cases between you and the Consolidated."

"If I do," he answered easily, "I am doing just what the Consolidated would do in case they had been so fortunate as to have won the last election and seated their judicial candidates. One expects a friendly leaning from the men one put in office."

"Isn't the judiciary supposed to be the final, incorruptible bulwark of the nation?" she pretended to want to know.

"I believe it is supposed to be."

"Isn't it rather--loading the dice, to interfere with the courts?"

"I find the dice already loaded. I merely substitute others of my own."

"You don't seem a bit ashamed of yourself."

"I'm ashamed of the Consolidated"--he smiled.

"That's a comfortable position to be able to take." She fixed him for a moment with her charming frown of interrogation. "You won't mind my asking these questions? I'm trying to decide whether you are too much of a pirate for me. Perhaps when I've made up my mind you won't want me," she added.

"Oh, I'll want you!" Then coolly: "Shall we wait till you make up your mind before announcing the engagement?"

"Don't be too sure," she flashed at him.

"I'm horribly unsure."

"Of course, you're laughing at me, just as you would"--she tilted a sudden sideways glance at him--"if I asked you why you wanted to marry me."

"Oh, if you take me that way----"

She interrupted airily. "I'm trying to make up my mind whether to take you at all."

"You certainly have a direct way of getting at things."

He studied appreciatively her piquant, tilted face; the long, graceful lines of her slender, perfect figure. "I take it you don't want the sentimental reason for my wishing to marry you, though I find that amply justified. But if you want another, you must still look to yourself for it. My business leads me to appreciate values correctly. When I desire you to sit at the head of my table, to order my house, my judgment justifies itself. I have a fancy always for the best. When I can't gratify it I do without."

"Thank you." She made him a gay little mock curtsy "I had heard you were no carpet-knight, Mr. Ridgway. But rumor is a lying jade, for I am being told--am I not?--that in case I don't take pity on you, the lone future of a celibate stretches drear before you."

"Oh, certainly."

Having come to the end of that passage, she tried another. "A young man told me yesterday you were a fighter. He said he guessed you would stand the acid. What did he mean?"

Ridgway was an egoist from head to heel. He could voice his own praises by the hour when necessary, but now he side-stepped her little trap to make him praise himself at second-hand.

"Better ask him."

"Are you a fighter, then?"

Had he known her and her whimsies less well, he might have taken her audacity for innocence.

"One couldn't lie down, you know."

"Of course, you always fight fair," she mocked.

"When a fellow's attacked by a gang of thugs he doesn't pray for boxing-gloves. He lets fly with a coupling-pin if that's what comes handy."

Her eyes, glinting sparks of mischief, marveled at him with mock reverence, but she knew in her heart that her mockery was a fraud. She did admire him; admired him even while she disapproved the magnificent lawlessness of him.

For Waring Ridgway looked every inch the indomitable fighter he was. He stood six feet to the line, straight and strong, carrying just sufficient bulk to temper his restless energy without impairing its power. Nor did the face offer any shock of disappointment to the promise given by the splendid figure. Salient-jawed and forceful, set with cool, flinty, blue-gray eyes, no place for weakness could be found there. One might have read a moral callousness, a colorblindness in points of rectitude, but when the last word had been said, its masterful capability, remained the outstanding impression.

"Am I out of the witness-box?" he presently asked, still leaning against the mantel from which he had been watching her impersonally as an intellectual entertainment.

"I think so."

"And the verdict?"

"You know what it ought to be," she accused.

"Fortunately, kisses go by favor, not by, merit."

"You don't even make a pretense of deserving."

"Give me credit for being an honest rogue, at least."

"But a rogue?" she insisted lightly.

"Oh, a question of definitions. I could make a very good case for myself as an honest man."

"If you thought it worth while?"

"If I didn't happen to want to be square with you"--he smiled.

"You're so fond of me, I suppose, that you couldn't bear to have me think too well of you."

"You know how fond of you I am."

"Yes, it is a pity about you," she scoffed.

"Believe me, yes," he replied cheerfully.

She drummed with her pink finger-tips on her chin, studying him meditatively. To do him justice, she had to admit that he did not even pretend much. He wanted her because she was a step up in the social ladder, and, in his opinion, the most attractive girl he knew. That he was not in love with her relieved the situation, as Miss Balfour admitted to herself in impersonal moods. But there were times when she could have wished he were. She felt it to be really due her attractions that his pulses should quicken for her, and in the interests of experience she would have liked to see how he would make love if he really meant it from the heart and not the will.

"It's really an awful bother," she sighed.

"Referring to the little problem of your future?"

"Yes."

"Can't make up your mind whether I come in?"

"No." She looked up brightly, with an effect of impulsiveness. "I don't suppose you want to give me another week?"

"A reprieve! But why? You're going to marry me."

"I suppose so." She laughed. "I wish I could have my cake, and eat it, too."

"It would be a moral iniquity to encourage such a system of ethics."

"So you won't give me a week?" she sighed. "All sorts of things might have happened in that week. I shall always believe that the fairy prince would have come for me."

"Believe that he has come," he claimed.

"Oh, I didn't mean a prince of pirates, though there is a triumph in having tamed a pirate chief to prosaic matrimony. In one way it will be a pity, too. You won't be half so picturesque. You remember how Stevenson puts it: 'that marriage takes from a man the capacity for great things, whether good or bad.'"

"I can stand a good deal of taming."

"Domesticating a pirate ought to be an interesting process," she conceded, her rare smile flashing. "It should prove a cure for ennui, but then I'm never a victim of that malady."

"Am I being told that I am to be the happiest pirate alive?"

"I expect you are."

His big hand gripped hers till it tingled. She caught his eye on a roving quest to the door.

"We don't have to do that," she announced hurriedly, with an embarrassed flush.

"I don't do it because I have to," he retorted, kissing her on the lips.

She fell back, protesting. "Under the circumstances--"

The butler, with a card on a tray, interrupted silently. She glanced at the card, devoutly grateful his impassive majesty's entrance had not been a moment earlier.

"Show him in here."

"The fairy prince, five minutes too late?" asked Ridgway, when the man had gone.

For answer she handed him the card, yet he thought the pink that flushed her cheek was something more pronounced than usual. But he was willing to admit there might be a choice of reasons for that.

"Lyndon Hobart" was the name he read.

"I think the Consolidated is going to have its innings. I should like to stay, of course, but I fear I must plead a subsequent engagement and leave the field to the enemy."

Pronouncing "Mr. Hobart" without emphasis, the butler vanished. The newcomer came forward with the quiet assurance of the born aristocrat. He was a slender, well-knit man, dressed fastidiously, with clear-cut, classical features; cool, keen eyes, and a gentle, you-be-damned manner to his inferiors. Beside him Ridgway bulked too large, too florid. His ease seemed a little obvious, his prosperity overemphasized. Even his voice, strong and reliant, lacked the tone of gentle blood that Hobart had inherited with his nice taste.

When Miss Balfour said: "I think you know each other," the manager of the Consolidated bowed with stiff formality, but his rival laughed genially and said: "Oh, yes, I know Mr. Hobart." The geniality was genuine enough, but through it ran a note of contempt. Hobart read in it a veiled taunt. To him it seemed to say

"Yes, I have met him, and beaten him at every turn of the road, though he has been backed by a power with resources a hundred times as great as mine."

In his parting excuses to Miss Balfour, Ridgway's audacity crystallized in words that Hobart could only regard as a shameless challenge. "I regret that an appointment with Judge Purcell necessitates my leaving such good company," he said urbanely.

Purcell was the judge before whom was pending a suit between the Consolidated and the Mesa Ore-producing Company, to determine the ownership of the Never Say Die Mine; and it was current report that Ridgway owned him as absolutely as he did the automobile waiting for him now at the door.

If Ridgway expected his opponent to pay his flippant gibe the honor of repartee, he was disappointed. To be sure, Hobart, admirably erect in his slender grace, was moved to a slight, disdainful smile, but it evidenced scarcely the appreciation that anybody less impervious to criticism than Ridgway would have cared to see.