Chapter 12. Aline Makes a Discovery
 

Aline pulled her horse to a walk. "You know Mr. Ridgway pretty well, don't you?"

Miss Balfour gently flicked her divided skirt with a riding-whip, considering whether she might be said to know him well. "Yes, I think I do," she ventured.

"Mrs. Mott says you and he are great friends, that you seem very fond of each other."

"Goodness me! I hope I don't seem fond of him. I don't think 'fond' is exactly the word, anyway, though we are good friends." Quickly, keenly, her covert glance swept Aline; then, withdrawing her eyes, she flung her little bomb. "I suppose we may be said to appreciate each other. At any rate, we are engaged."

Mrs. Harley's pony came to an abrupt halt. "I thought I had dropped my whip," she explained, in a low voice not quite true.

Virginia, though she executed an elaborate survey of the scenery, could not help noticing that the color had washed from her friend's face. "I love this Western country--its big sweep of plains, of low, rolling hills, with a background of mountains. One can see how it gets into a man's blood so that the East seems insipid ever afterward," discoursed Miss Balfour.

A question trembled on Aline's blanched lips.

"Say it," permitted Virginia.

"Do you mean that you are engaged to him--that you are going to marry Mr. Ridgway--without caring for him?"

"I don't mean that at all. I like him immensely."

"But--do you love him?" It was almost a cry--these low words wrung from the tortured heart.

"No fair," warned her friend smilingly.

Aline rode in silence, her stricken face full of trouble. How could she, from her glass house, throw stones at a loveless marriage? But this was different from her own case! Nobody was worthy to marry her hero without giving the best a woman had to give. If she were a girl--a sudden tide of color swept her face; a wild, delirious tingle of joy flooded her veins--oh, if she were a girl, what a wealth of love could she give him! Clarity of vision had come to her in a blinding flash. Untutored of life, the knowledge of its meaning had struck home of the suddenest. She knew her heart now that it was too late; knew that she could never be indifferent to what concerned Waring Ridgway.

Aline caught at the courage behind her childishness, and accomplished her congratulations "You will be happy, I am sure. He is good."

"Goodness does not impress me as his most outstanding quality," smiled Miss Balfour.

"No, one never feels it emphasized. He is too He is too free of selfishness to make much of his goodness. But one can't help feeling it in everything he does and says."

"Does Mr. Harley agree with you? Does he feel it?"

"I don't think Mr. Harley understands him. I can't help thinking that he is prejudiced." She was becoming mistress of her voice and color again.

"And you are not?"

"Perhaps I am. In my thought of him he would still be good, even if he had done all the bad things his enemies accuse him of."

Virginia gave her up. This idealized interpretation of her betrothed was not the one she had, but for Aline it might be the true one. At least, she could not disparage him very consistently under the circumstances.

"Isn't there a philosophy current that we find in people what we look for in them? Perhaps that is why you and Mr. Harley read in Mr. Ridgway men so diverse as you do. It is not impossible you are both right and both wrong. Heaven knows, I suppose. At least, we poor mortals fog around enough when we sit in judgment." And Virginia shrugged the matter from her careless shoulders.

But Aline seemed to have a difficulty in getting away from the subject. "And you--what do you read?" she asked timidly.

"Sometimes one thing and sometimes another. To-day I see him as a living refutation of all the copy-book rules to success. He shatters the maxims with a touch-and-go manner that is fascinating in its immorality. A gambler, a plunger, an adventurer, he wins when a careful, honest business man would fail to a certainty."

Aline was amazed. "You misjudge him. I am sure you do. But if you think this of him why--"

"Why do I marry him? I have asked myself that a hundred times, my dear. I wish I knew. I have told you what I see in him to-day; but tomorrow--why, to-morrow I shall see him an altogether different man. He will be perhaps a radiating center of altruism, devoted to his friends, a level-headed protector of the working classes, a patron of the arts in his own clearminded, unlettered way. But whatever point of view one gets at him, he spares one dullness. Will you explain to me, my dear, why picturesque rascality is so much more likable than humdrum virtue?"

Mrs. Harley's eyes blazed. "And you can talk this way of the man you are going to marry, a man--" She broke off, her voice choked.

Miss Balfour was cool as a custard. "I can, my dear, and without the least disloyalty. In point of fact, he asked me to tell you the kind of man I think him. I'm trying to oblige him, you see."

"He asked you--to tell me this about him?" Aline pulled in her pony in order to read with her astonished eyes the amused ones of her companion.

"Yes. He was afraid you were making too much of his saving you. He thinks he won't do to set on a pedestal."

"Then I think all the more of him for his modesty."

"Don't invest too heavily on his modesty, my dear. He wouldn't be the man he is if he owned much of that commodity."

"The man he is?"

"Yes, the man born to win, the man certain of himself no matter what the odds against him.

He knows he is a man of destiny; knows quite well that there is something big about him that dwarfs other men. I know it, too. Wherefore I seize my opportunity. It would be a sin to let a man like that get away from one. I could never forgive myself," she concluded airily.

"Don't you see any human, lovable things in him?" Aline's voice was an accusation.

"He is the staunchest friend conceivable. No trouble is too great for him to take for one he likes, and where once he gives his trust he does not take it back. Oh, for all his force, he is intensely human! Take his vanity, my dear. It soars to heaven."

"If I cared for him I couldn't dissect his qualities as you do."

"That's because you are a triumph of the survival of nature and impulse over civilization, in spite of its attempts to sap your freshness. For me, I fear I'm a sophisticated daughter of a critical generation. If I weren't, I should not hold my judgment so safely in my own keeping, but would surrender it and my heart."

"There is something about the way you look at him that shocks me. One ought not to let oneself believe all that seems easy to believe."

"That is your faith, but mine is a different one. You see, I'm a Unitarian," returned Virginia blithely.

"He will make you love him if you marry him," sighed Aline, coming back to her obsession.

Virginia nodded eagerly. "In my secret heart that is what I am hoping for, my dear."

"Unless there is another man," added Aline, as if alone with her thoughts.

Virginia was irritably aware of a flood of color beating into her cheeks. "There isn't any other man," she said impatiently.

Yet she thought of Lyndon Hobart. Curiously enough, whenever she conceived herself as marrying Ridgway, the reflex of her brain carried to her a picture of Hobart, clean-handed, fine of instinct, with the inherited inflections of voice and unconscious pride of caste that come from breeding and not from cultivation. If he were not born to greatness, like his rival, at least he satisfied her critical judgment of what a gentleman should be; and she was quite sure that the potential capacity lay in her to care a good deal more for him than for anybody else she had met. Since it was not on the cards, as Miss Virginia had shuffled the pack, that she should marry primarily for reasons sentimental, this annoyed her in her sophisticated hours.

But in the hours when she was a mere girl when she was not so confidently the heir of all the feminine wisdom of the ages, her annoyance took another form. She had told Lyndon Hobart of her engagement because it was the honest thing to do; because she supposed she ought to discourage any hopes he might be entertaining. But it did not follow that he need have let these hopes be extinguished so summarily. She could have wished his scrupulous regard for the proper thing had not had the effect of taking him so completely out of her external life, while leaving him more insistently than ever the subject of her inner contemplation.

Virginia's conscience was of the twentieth century and American, though she was a good deal more honest with herself than most of her sex in the same social circle. Also she was straightforward with her neighbors so far as she could reasonably be. But she was not a Puritan in the least, though she held herself to a more rigid account than she did her friends. She judged her betrothed as little as she could, but this was not to be entirely avoided, since she expected her life to become merged so largely in his. There were hours when she felt she must escape the blighting influence of his lawlessness. There were others when it seemed to her magnificent.

Except for the occasional jangle of a bit or the ring of a horse's shoe on a stone, there was silence which lasted many minutes. Each was busy with her thoughts, and the narrowness of the trail, which here made them go in single file, served as an excuse against talk.

"Perhaps we had better turn back," suggested Virginia, after the path had descended to a gulch and merged itself in a wagon-road. "We shall have no more than time to get home and dress for dinner."

Aline turned her pony townward, and they rode at a walk side by side.

"Do you know much about the difficulty between Mr. Harley and Mr. Ridgway? I mean about the mines--the Sherman Bell, I think they called it?"

"I know something about the trouble in a general way. Both the Consolidated and Mr. Ridgway's company claim certain veins. That is true of several mines, I have been told."

"I don't know anything about business. Mr. Harley does not tell me anything about his. To day I was sitting in the open window, and two men stopped beneath it. They thought there would be trouble in this mine--that men would be hurt. I could not make it all out, but that was part of it. I sent for Mr. Harley and made him tell me what he knew. It would be dreadful if anything like that happened."

"Don't worry your head about it, my dear. Things are always threatening and never happening. It seems to be a part of the game of business to bluff, as they call it."

"I wish it weren't," sighed the girl-wife.

Virginia observed that she looked both sad and weary. She had started on her ride like a prisoner released from his dungeon, happy in the sunshine, the swift motion, the sting of the wind in her face. There had been a sparkle in her eye and a ring of gaiety in her laugh. Into her cheeks a faint color had glowed, so that the contrast of their clear pallor with the vivid scarlet of the little lips had been less pronounced than usual. But now she was listless and distraite, the girlish abandon all stricken out of her. It needed no clairvoyant to see that her heart was heavy and that she was longing for the moment when she could be alone with her pain.

Her friend had learned what she wanted to know, and the knowledge of it troubled her. She would have given a good deal to have been able to lift this sorrow from the girl riding beside her. For she was aware that Aline Harley might as well have reached for the moon as that toward which her untutored heart yearned. She had come to life late and traveled in it but a little way. Yet the tragedy of it was about to engulf her. No lifeboat was in sight. She must sink or swim alone. Virginia's unspoiled heart went out to her with a rush of pity and sympathy. Almost the very words that Waring Ridgway had used came to her lips.

"You poor lamb! You poor, forsaken lamb!"

But she spoke instead with laughter and lightness, seeing nothing of the girl's distress, at least, until after they separated at the door of the hotel.