Chapter 20. A Little Lunch at Aphonse's
 

It chanced that Ridgway, through the swinging door of a department store, caught a glimpse of Miss Balfour as he was striding along the street. He bethought him that it was the hour of luncheon, and that she was no end better company than the revamped noon edition of the morning paper. Wherefore he wheeled into the store and interrupted her inspection of gloves.

"I know the bulliest little French restaurant tucked away in a side street just three blocks from here. The happiness disseminated in this world by that chef's salads will some day carry him past St. Peter with no questions asked."

"You believe in salvation by works?" she parried, while she considered his invitation.

"So will you after a trial of Alphonse's salad."

"Am I to understand that I am being invited to a theological discussion of a heavenly salad concocted by Father Alphonse?"

"That is about the specifications."

"Then I accept. For a week my conscience has condemned me for excess of frivolity. You offer me a chance to expiate without discomfort. That is my idea of heaven. I have always believed it a place where one pastures in rich meadows of pleasure, with penalties and consciences all excluded from its domains."

"You should start a church," he laughed. "It would have a great following--especially if you could operate your heaven this side of the Styx."

She found his restaurant all he had claimed, and more. The little corner of old Paris set her eyes shining. The fittings were Parisian to the least detail. Even the waiter spoke no English.

"But I don't see how they make it pay. How did he happen to come here? Are there enough people that appreciate this kind of thing in Mesa to support it?"

He smiled at her enthusiasm. "Hardly. The place has a scarce dozen of regular patrons. Hobart comes here a good deal. So does Eaton. But it doesn't pay financially. You see, I know because I happen to own it. I used to eat at Alphonse's restaurant in Paris. So I sent for him. It doesn't follow that one has to be less a slave to the artificial comforts of a supercivilized world because one lives at Mesa."

"I see it doesn't. You are certainly a wonderful man."

"Name anything you like. I'll warrant Alphonse can make good if it is not outside of his national cuisine," he boasted.

She did not try his capacity to the limit, but the oysters, the salad, the chicken soup were delicious, with the ultimate perfection that comes only out of Gaul.

They made a delightfully gay and intimate hour of it, and were still lingering over their demi-tasse when Yesler's name was mentioned.

"Isn't it splendid that he's doing so well?" cried the girl with enthusiasm. "The doctor says that if the bullet had gone a fraction of an inch lower, he would have died. Most men would have died anyhow, they say. It was his clean outdoor life and magnificent constitution that saved him."

"That's what pulled him through," he nodded. "It would have done his heart good to see how many friends he had. His recovery was a continuous performance ovation. It would have been a poorer world for a lot of people if Sam Yesler had crossed the divide."

"Yes. It would have been a very much poorer one for several I know."

He glanced shrewdly at her. "I've learned to look for a particular application when you wear that particularly sapient air of mystery."

Her laugh admitted his hit. "Well, I was thinking of Laska. I begin to think her fair prince has come."

"Meaning Yesler?"

"Yes. She hasn't found it out herself yet. She only knows she is tremendously interested."

"He's a prince all right, though he isn't quite a fairy. The woman that gets him will be lucky.

"The man that gets Laska will be more that lucky," she protested loyally.

"I dare say," he agreed carelessly. "But, then, good women are not so rare as good men. There. are still enough of them left to save the world. But when it comes to men like Sam--well, it would take a Diogenes to find another."

"I don't see how even Mr. Pelton, angry as he was, dared shoot him."

"He had been drinking hard for a week. That will explain anything when you add it to his, temperament. I never liked the fellow."

"I suppose that is why you saved his life when the miners took him and were going to lynch him?"

"I would not have lifted a hand for him. That's the bald truth. But I couldn't let the boys spoil the moral effect of their victory by so gross a mistake. It would have been playing right into Harley's hands."

"Can a man get over being drunk in five minutes? I never saw anybody more sober than Mr. Pelton when the mob were crying for vengeance and you were fighting them back."

"A great shock will sober a man. Pelton is an errant coward, and he had pretty good reason to think he had come to the end of the passage. The boys weren't playing. They meant business."

"They would not have listened to another man in the world except you," she told him proudly.

"It was really Sam they listened to--when he sent out the message asking them to let the law have its way."

"No, I think it was the way you handled the message. You're a wizard at a speech, you know."

"Thanks."

He glanced up, for Alphonse was waiting at his elbow.

"You're wanted on the telephone, monsieur."

"You can't get away from business even for an hour, can you?" she rallied. "My heaven ,wouldn't suit you at all, unless I smuggled in a trust for you to fight."

"I expect it is Eaton," he explained. "Steve phoned down to the office that he isn't feeling well to-day. I asked him to have me called up here. If he isn't better, I'm going to drop round and see him."

But when she caught sight of his face as he returned she knew it was serious.

"What's the matter? Is it Mr. Eaton? Is he very ill?" she cried.

His face was set like broken ice refrozen. "Yes, it's Eaton. They say--but it can't be true!"

She had never seen him so moved. "What is it, Waring?"

"The boy has sold me out. He is at the courthouse now, undoing my work--the Judas!"

The angry blood swept imperiously into her cheeks. "Don't waste any more time with me, Waring. Go--go and save yourself from the traitor. Perhaps it is not too late yet."

He flung her a grateful look. "You're true blue, Virginia. Come! I'll leave you at the store as we pass."

The defection of Eaton bit his chief to the quick. The force of the blow itself was heavy--how heavy he could not tell till he could take stock of the situation. He could see that he would be thrown out of court in the matter of the Consolidated Supply Company receivership, since Eaton's stock would now be in the hands of the enemy. But what was of more importance was the fact that Eaton's interest in the Mesa Ore-producing Company now belonged to Harley, who could work any amount of mischief with it as a lever for litigation.

The effect, too, of the man's desertion upon the morale of the M. O. P. forces must be considered and counteracted, if possible. He fancied he could see his subordinates looking shiftyeyed at each other and wondering who would slip away next.

If it had been anybody but Steve! He would as soon have distrusted his right hand as Steve Eaton. Why, he had made the man, had picked him out when he was a mere clerk, and tied him to himself by a hundred favors. Up on the Snake River he had saved Steve's life once when he was drowning. The boy had always been as close to him as a brother. That Steve should turn traitor was not conceivable. He knew all his intimate plans, stood second to himself in the company. Oh, it was a numbing blow! Ridgway's sense of personal loss and outrage almost obliterated for the moment his appreciation of the business loss.

The motion to revoke the receivership of the Supply Company was being argued when Ridgway entered the court-room. Within a few minutes the news had spread like wild-fire that Eaton was lined up with the Consolidated, and already the paltry dozen of loafers in the court-room had swelled into hundreds, all of them eager for any sensation that might develop.

Ridgway's broad shoulders flung aside the crowd and opened a way to the vacant chair waiting for him. One of his lawyers had the floor and was flaying Eaton with a vitriolic tongue, the while men craned forward all over the room to get a glimpse of the traitor's face.

Eaton sat beside Mott, dry-lipped and pallid, his set eyes staring vacantly into space. Once or twice he flung a furtive glance about him. His stripped and naked soul was enduring a foretaste of the Judgment Day. The whip of scorn with which the lawyer lashed him cut into his shrinking sensibilities, and left him a welter of raw and livid wales. Good God! why had he not known it would be like this? He was paying for his treachery and usury, and it was being burnt into him that as the years passed he must continue to pay in self-contempt and the distrust of his fellows.

The case had come to a hearing before Judge Hughes, who was not one of Ridgway's creatures. That on its merits it would be decided in favor of the Consolidated was a foregone conclusion. It was after the judge had rendered the expected decision that the dramatic moment of the day came to gratify the seasoned court frequenters.

Eaton, trying to slip as quietly as possible from the room, came face to face with his former chief. For an interminable instant the man he had betrayed, blocking the way squarely, held the trembling wretch in the blaze of his scorn. Ridgway's contemptuous eyes sifted to the ingrate's soul until it shriveled. Then he stood disdainfully to one side so that the man might not touch him as he passed.

Some one in the back of the room broke the tense silence and hissed: "The damned Judas!" Instantly echoes of "Judas! Judas!" filled the room, and pursued Eaton to his cab. It would be many years before he could recall without scalding shame that moment when the finger of public scorn was pointed at him in execration.