Ridgway of Montana by William MacLeod Raine
Chapter 11. Virginia Intervenes
James K. Mott, local chief attorney for the Consolidated, was struggling with a white tie before the glass and crumpling it atrociously.
"This dress-suit habit is the most pernicious I know. It's sapping the liberties of the American people," he grunted at last in humorous despair.
"Let me, dear."
His wife tied it with neatness and dispatch, and returned to the inspection of how her skirt hung.
"Mr. Harley asked me to thank you for calling on his wife. He says she gets lonesome during the day while he is away so much. I was wondering if you couldn't do something for her so that she could meet some of the ladies of Mesa. A luncheon, or something of that sort, you know. Have you seen my hat-brush anywhere?"
"It's on that drawer beside your hat-box. She told me she would rather not. I suggested it. But I'll tell you what I could do: take Virginia Balfour round to see her. She's lively and good company, and knows some of the people Mrs. Harley knows."
"That's a good idea. I want Harley to know that we appreciate his suggestions, and are ready to do our part. He has shown a disposition to consult me on a good many things that ought to lie in Hobart's sphere rather than mine. Something's going to drop. Now, I like Hobart, but I want to show myself in a receptive mood for advancement when his head falls, as it certainly will soon."
Virginia responded eagerly to Mrs. Mott's suggestion that they call together on Mrs. Harley at the hotel.
"My dear, you have saved my life. I've been dying of curiosity, and I haven't been able to find vestige of an excuse to hang my call on. I couldn't ask Mr. Ridgway to introduce me, could I?"
"No, I don't see that you could," smiled Mrs. Mott, a motherly little woman with pleasant brown eyes. "I suppose Mr. Ridgway isn't exactly on calling terms with Mr. Harley's wife, even if he did save her life."
"Oh, Mr. Ridgway isn't the man to let a little thing like a war a outrance stand in the way of his social duties, especially when those duties happen to be inclinations, too. I understand he did call the evening of their arrival here."
"He didn't!" screamed Mrs. Mott, who happened to possess a voice of the normal national register. "And what did Mr. Harley say?"
"Ah, that's what one would like to know. My informant deponeth not beyond the fact unadorned. One may guess there must have been undercurrents of embarrassment almost as pronounced as if the President were to invite his Ananias Club to a pink tea. I can imagine Mr. Harley saying: 'Try this cake, Mr. Ridgway; it isn't poisoned;' and Mr. Ridgway answering: 'Thanks! After you, my dear Gaston."'
Miss Balfour's anxiety to meet the young woman her fiance had rescued from the blizzard was not unnatural. Her curiosity was tinged with frank envy, though jealousy did not enter into it at all. Virginia had come West explicitly to take the country as she found it, and she had found it, unfortunately, no more hazardous than little old New York, though certainly a good deal more diverting to a young woman with democratic proclivities that still survived the energetic weeding her training had subjected them to.
She did not quite know what she had expected to find in Mesa. Certainly she knew that Indians were no longer on the map, and cowboys were kicking up their last dust before vanishing, but she had supposed that they had left compensations in their wake. On the principle that adventures are to the adventurous, her life should have been a whirl of hairbreadth escapes.
But what happened? She took all sorts of chances without anything coming of it. Her pirate fiance was the nearest approach to an adventure she had flushed, and this pink-and-white chit of a married schoolgirl had borrowed him for the most splendid bit of excitement that would happen in a hundred years. She had been spinning around the country in motor-cars for months without the sign of a blizzard, but the chit had hit one the first time. It wasn't fair. That was her blizzard by rights. In spirit, at least, she had "spoken for it," as she and her brother used to say when they were children of some coveted treasure not yet available. Virginia was quite sure that if she had seen Waring Ridgway at the inspired moment when he was plowing through the drifts with Mrs. Harley in his arms--only, of course, it would have been she instead of Mrs. Harley, and he would not have been carrying her so long as she could stand and take it--she would have fallen in love with him on the spot. And those two days in the cabin on half-ration they would have put an end forever to her doubts and to that vision of Lyndon Hobart that persisted in her mind. What luck glace' some people did have!
But Virginia discovered the chit to be rather a different personality than she had supposed. In truth, she lost her heart to her at once. She could have stood out against Aline's mere good looks and been the stiffer for them. She was no man, to be moved by the dark hair's dusky glory, the charm of soft girlish lines, the effect of shy unsophistication that might be merely the highest art of social experience. But back of the sweet, trembling mouth that seemed to be asking to be kissed, of the pathetic appeal for friendliness from the big, deep violet eyes, was a quality of soul not to be counterfeited. Miss Balfour had furbished up the distant hauteur of the society manner she had at times used effectively, but she found herself instead taking the beautiful, forlorn little creature in her arms.
"Oh, my dear; my dear, how glad I am that dreadful blizzard did not hurt you!"
Aline clung to this gracious young queen as if she had known her a lifetime. "You are so good to me everybody is. You know how Mr. Ridgway saved me. If it had not been for him I should have died. I didn't care--I wanted to die in peace, I think--but he wouldn't let me."
"I should think not."
"If you only knew him--perhaps you do."
"A little," confessed Virginia, with a flash of merry eyes at Mrs. Mott.
"He is the bravest man--and the strongest."
"Yes. He is both," agreed his betrothed, with pride.
"His tenderness, his unselfishness, his consideration for others--did you ever know anybody like him for these things?"
"Never," agreed Virginia, with the mental reservations that usually accompanied her skeptical smile. She was getting at her fiance from a novel point of view.
"And so modest, with all his strength and courage.',
"It's almost a fault in him," she murmured.
"The woman that marries him will be blessed among women."
"I count it a great privilege," said Miss Balfour absently, but she pulled up with a hurried addendum: "To have known him."
"Indeed, yes. If one met more men like him this would be a better world."
"It would certainly be a different world."
It was a relief to Aline to talk, to put into words the external skeleton facts of the surging current that had engulfed her existence since she had turned a corner upon this unexpected consciousness of life running strong and deep. Harley was not a confidant she could have chosen under the most favorable circumstances, and her instinct told her that in this matter he was particularly impossible. But to Virginia Balfour--Mrs. Mott had to leave early to preside over the Mesa Woman's Club, and her friend allowed herself to be persuaded to stay longer--she did not find it at all hard to talk. Indeed, she murmured into the sympathetic ear of this astute young searcher of hearts more than her words alone said, with the result that Virginia guessed what she herself had not yet quite found out, though her heart was hovering tremblingly on the brink of discovery.
But Virginia's sympathy for the trouble fate had in store for this helpless innocent consisted with an alert appreciation of its obvious relation to herself. What she meant to discover was the attitude toward the situation of one neither particularly innocent nor helpless. Was he, too, about to be "caught in the coil of a God's romances," or was he merely playing on the vibrating strings of an untaught heart?
It was in part to satisfy this craving for knowledge that she wrote Ridgway a note as soon as she reached home. It said:
MY DEAR RECREANT LAGGARD: If you are not too busy playing Sir Lancelot to fair dames in distress, or splintering lances with the doughty husbands of these same ladies, I pray you deign to allow your servant to feast her eyes upon her lord's face. Hopefully and gratefully yours, VIRGINIA.
P. S.--Have you forgotten, sir, that I have not seen you since that terrible blizzard and your dreadful imprisonment in Fort Salvation?
P. P. S.--I have seen somebody else, though. She's a dear, and full of your praises. I hardly blame you.
She thought that ought to bring him soon, and it did.
"I've been busy night and day," he apologized
when they met.
Virginia gave him a broadside demurely.
"I suppose your social duties do take up a good deal of your time."
"My social duties? Oh, I see!" He laughed appreciation of her hit. Evidently through her visit she knew a good deal more than he had expected. Since he had nothing to hide from her except his feelings, this did not displease him. "My duties in that line have been confined to one formal call."
She sympathized with him elaborately. "Calls of that sort do bore men so. I'll not forget the first time you called on me."
"Nor I," he came back gallantly.
"I marveled how you came through alive, but I learned then that a man can't be bored to death."
"I came again nevertheless," he smiled. "And again--and again."
"I am still wondering why."
"'Oh, wad some power the giffie gite us To see ourselves as others see us!"'
he quoted with a bow.
"Is that a compliment?" she asked dubiously.
"I have never heard it used so before. Anyhow, it is a little hackneyed for anybody so original as you."
"It was the best I could do offhand."
She changed the subject abruptly. "Has the new campaign of the war begun yet?"
"Well, we're maneuvering for position."
"You've seen him. How does he impress you?"
"The same as he does others. A hard, ruthless fighter. Unless all signs fail, he is an implacable foe."
"But you are not afraid?"
He smiled. "Do I look frightened?"
"No, you remind me of something a burglar once told me--"
"A burglar--a reformed burglar!" She gave him a saucy flash of her dark eyes. "Do you think I don't know any lawbreakers except those I have met in this State? I came across this one in a mission where I used to think I was doing good. He said it was not the remuneration of the profession that had attracted him, but the excitement. It was dreadfully frowned down upon and underpaid. He could earn more at his old trade of a locksmith, but it seemed to him that every impediment to success was a challenge to him. Poor man, he relapsed again, and they put him in Sing Sing. I was so interested in him, too."
"You've had some queer friends in your time," he laughed, but without a trace of disapproval.
"I have some queer ones yet," she thrust back.
"Let's not talk of them," he cried, in pretended alarm.
Her inextinguishable gaiety brought back the smile he liked. "We'll talk of some one else--some one of interest to us both." |
"I am always ready to talk of Miss Virginia Balfour," he said, misunderstanding promptly.
She smiled her disdain of his obtuseness in an elaborately long survey of him.
"Well?" he wanted to know.
"That's how you look--very well, indeed. I believe the storm was greatly exaggerated," she remarked.
"Isn't that rather a good definition for a blizzard--a greatly exaggerated storm?"
"You don't look the worse for wear--not the wreck I expected to behold."
"Ah, you should have seen me before I saw you."
"Thank you. I have no doubt you find the sight of my dear face as refreshing as your favorite cocktail. I suppose that is why it has taken you three days after your return to reach me and then by special request."
"A pleasure delayed is twice a pleasure anticipation and realization."
Miss Balfour made a different application of his text, her eyes trained on him with apparent indifference. "I've been enjoying a delayed pleasure myself. I went to see her this afternoon."
He did not ask whom, but his eyes brightened.
"She's worth a good deal of seeing, don't you think?"
"Oh, I'm in love with her, but it doesn't follow you ought to be."
"Am I?"--he smiled.
"You are either in love or else you ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"An interesting thing about you is your point of view. Now, anybody else would tell me I ought to be ashamed if I am in love."
"I'm not worried about your morals," she scoffed. "It's that poor child I'm thinking of."
"I think of her a good deal, too."
"Ah! and does she think of you a good deal That's what we must guard against."
"Yes. You see I'm her confidante." She told it him with sparkling eyes, for the piquancy of it amused her. Not every engaged young woman can hear her lover's praises sung by the woman whose life he has saved with the proper amount of romance.
She nodded, laughing at him. "I didn't get a chance to tell her about me."
"I suppose not."
"I think I'll tell her about you, though--just what a ruthless barbarian you are."
His eyes gleamed "I wish you would. I'd like to find out whether she would believe you. I have tried to tell her myself, but the honest truth is, I funk it."
"You haven't any right to let her know you are interested in her." She interrupted him before he could speak. "Don't trifle with her, Waring. She's not like other girls."
He met her look gravely. "I wouldn't trifle with her for any reason."
Her quick rejoinder overlapped his sentence. "Then you love her!"
"Is that an alternative?"
"Faith, my lady, you're frank!"
"I'm not mealy-mouthed. You don't think yourself scrupulous, do you?"
"I'm afraid I am not."
"I don't mind so much your being in love with her, though it's not flattering to my vanity, but --" She stopped, letting him make the inference.
"Do you think that likely?" he asked, the color flushing his face.
He wondered how much Aline had told this confidante. Certain specific things he knew she had not revealed, but had she let her guess the situation between them?
She compromised with her conscience. "I don't know. She is romantic--and Simon Harley isn't a very fertile field for romance, I suppose."
"You would imply "
"Oh, you have points, and nobody knows them better than Waring Ridgway," she told him jauntily. "But you needn't play that role to the address of Aline Harley. Try me. I'm immune to romance. Besides, I'm engaged to you," she added, laughing at the inconsequence the fact seemed to have for both of them.
"I'm afraid I can't help the situation, for if I've been playing a part, it has been an unconscious one."
"That's the worst of it. When you star as Waring Ridgway you are most dangerous. What I want is total abstinence."
"You'd rather I didn't see her at all?"
Virginia dimpled, a gleam of reminiscent laughter in her eyes. "When I was in Denver last month a Mrs. Smythe--it was Smith before her husband struck it rich last year--sent out cards for a bridge afternoon. A Mrs. Mahoney had just come to the metropolis from the wilds of Cripple Creek. Her husband had struck a gold-mine, too, and Mr. Smythe was under obligations to him. Anyhow, she was a stranger, and Mrs. Smythe took her in. It was Mrs. Mahoney's introduction to bridge, and she did not know she was playing for keeps. When the afternoon was over, Mrs. Smythe hovered about her with the sweetest sympathy. 'So sorry you had such a horrid run of cards, dear. Better luck next time.' It took Mrs. Mahoney some time to understand that her social afternoon had cost one hundred and twenty dollars, but next day her husband sent a check for one hundred and twenty-two dollars to Mrs. Smythe. The extra two dollars were for the refreshments, he naively explained, adding that since his wife was so poor a gambler as hardly to be able to keep professionals interested, he would not feel offended if Mrs. Smythe omitted her in future from her social functions."
Ridgway took it with a smile. "Simon Harley brought his one hundred and twenty-two dollars in person."
"He didn't! When?"
"This morning. He proposed benevolent assimilation as a solution of our troubles."
"He offered to consolidate all the copper interests of the country and put me at the head of the resulting combine."
"If you wouldn't play bridge with Mrs. Harley?"
"And you "
"Declined to pledge myself."
She clapped her hands softly. "Well done, Waring Ridgway! There are times when you are magnificent, when I could put you on a pedestal, you great big, unafraid man. But you mustn't play with her, just the same."
"Why mustn't I?"
"For her sake."
He frowned past her into space, his tight-shut jaw standing out saliently. "You're right, Virginia. I've been thinking so myself. I'll keep off the grass," he said, at last.
"You're a good fellow," slipped out impulsively.
"Well, I know where there's another," he said. "I ought to think myself a lucky dog."
Virginia lifted quizzical eyebrows. "Ought to! That tastes of duty. Don't let it come to that. We'll take it off if you like." She touched the solitaire he had given her.
"Ah, but I don't like"--he smiled.