Chapter 23. Aline Turns a Corner
 

Aline might have been completely prostrated by the news of her husband's sudden end, coming as it did as the culmination of a week of strain and horror. That she did not succumb was due, perhaps, to Ridgway's care for her. When Harley's massive gray head had dropped forward to the table, his enemy's first thought had been of her. As soon as he knew that death was sure, he hurried to the hotel.

He sent his card up, and followed it so immediately that he found her scarcely risen from the divan on which she had been lying in the receiving-room of her apartments. The sleep was not yet shaken from her lids, nor was the wrinkled flush smoothed from the soft cheek that had been next the cushion. Even in his trouble for her he found time to be glad that Virginia was not at the moment with her. It gave him the sense of another bond between them that this tragic hour. should belong to him and her alone--this hour of destiny when their lives swung round a corner beyond which lay wonderful vistas of kindly sunbeat and dewy starlight stretching to the horizon's edge of the long adventure.

She checked the rush of glad joy in her heart the sight of him always brought, and came forward slowly. One glance at his face showed that he had brought grave news.

"What is it? Why are you here?" she cried tensely.

"To bring you trouble, Aline."

"Trouble!" Her hand went to her heart quickly.

"It is about--Mr. Harley."

She questioned him with wide, startled eyes, words hesitating on her trembling lips and flying unvoiced.

"Child--little partner--the orders are to be brave." He came forward and took her hands in his, looking down at her with eyes she thought full of infinitely kind pity.

"Is it--have they--do you mean the verdict?"

"Yes, the verdict; but not the verdict of which you are thinking."

She turned a quivering face to his. "Tell me. I shall be brave."

He told her the brutal fact as gently as he could, while he watched the blood ebb from her face. As she swayed he caught her in his arms and carried her to the divan. When, presently, her eyes fluttered open, it was to look into his pitiful ones. He was kneeling beside her, and her head was pillowed on his arm.

"Say it isn't true," she murmured.

"It is true, dear."

She moved her head restlessly, and he took away his arm, rising to draw a chair close to the lounge. She slipped her two hands under her head, letting them lie palm to palm on the sofapillow. The violet eyes looked past him into space. Her tangled thoughts were in a chaos of disorder. Even though she had known but a few months and loved not at all the grim, gray-haired man she had called husband, the sense of wretched bereavement, the nearness of death, was strong on her. He had been kind to her in his way, and the inevitable closeness of their relationship, repugnant as it had been to her, made its claims felt. An hour ago he had been standing here, the strong and virile ruler over thousands. Now he lay stiff and cold, all his power shorn from him without a second's warning. He had kissed her good-by, solicitous for her welfare, and it had been he that had been in need of care rather than she. Two big tears hung on her lids and splashed to her cheeks. She began to sob, and half-turned on the divan, burying her face in her hands.

Ridgway let her weep without interruption for a time, knowing that it would be a relief to her surcharged heart and overwrought nerves. But when her sobs began to abate she became aware of his hand resting on her shoulder. She sat up, wiping her eyes, and turned to him a face sodden with grief.

"You are good to me," she said simply.

"If my goodness were only less futile! Heaven knows what I would give to ward off trouble from you. But I can't, nor can I bear it for you."

"But it is a help to know you would if you could. He--I think he wanted to ward off grief from me, but he could not, either. I was often lonely and sad, even though he was kind to me. And now he has gone. I wish I had told him how much I appreciated his goodness to me."

"Yes, we all feel that when we have lost some one we love. It is natural to wish we had been better to them and showed them how much we cared. Let me tell you about my mother. I was thirteen when she died. It was in summer. She had not been well for a long time. The boys were going fishing that day and she asked me to stay at home. I had set my heart on going, and I thought it was only a fancy of hers. She did not insist on my staying, so I went, but felt uncomfortable all day. When I came back in the evening they told me she was dead. I felt as if some great icy hand were tightening, on my heart. Somehow I couldn't break down and cry it out. I went around with a white, set face and gave no sign. Even at the funeral it was the same. The neighbors called me hard-hearted and pointed me out to their sons as a terrible warning. And all the time I was torn with agony."

"You poor boy."

"And one night she came to me in a dream. She did not look as she had just before she died, but strong and beautiful, with the color in her face she used to have. She smiled at me and kissed me and rumpled my hair as she used to do. I knew, then, it was all right. She understood, and I didn't care whether others did or not. I woke up crying, and after I had had my grief out I was myself again."

"It was so sweet of her to think to come to you. She must have been loving you up in heaven and saw you were troubled, and came down just to comfort you and tell you it was all right," the girl cried with soft sympathy.

"That's how I understood it. Of course, I was only a boy, but somehow I knew it was more than a dream. I'm not a spiritualist. I don't believe such things happen, but I know it happened to me," he finished illogically, with a smile.

She sighed. "He was always so thoughtful of me, too. I do wish I had--could have been--more--"

She broke off without finishing, but he understood.

"You must not blame yourself for that. He would be the first to tell you so. He took you for what you could give him, and these last days were the best he had known for many years."

"He was so good to me. Oh, you don't know how good."

"It was a great pleasure to him to be good to you, the greatest pleasure he knew."

She looked up as he spoke, and saw shining deep in his eyes the spirit that had taught him to read so well the impulse of another lover, and, seeing it, she dropped her eyes quickly in order not to see what was there. With him it had been only an instant's uncontrollable surge of ecstasy. He meant to wait. Every instinct of the decent thing told him not to take advantage of her weakness, her need of love to rest upon in her trouble, her transparent care for him and confidence in him so childlike in its entirety. For convention he did not care a turn of his hand, but he would do nothing that might shock her self-respect when she came to think of it later. Sternly he brought himself back to realities.

"Shall I see Mr. Mott for you and send him here? It would be better that he should make the arrangements than I."

"If you please. I shall not see you again before I go, then?" Her lips trembled as she asked the question.

"I shall come down to the hotel again and see you before you go. And now good-by. Be brave, and don't reproach yourself. Remember that he would not wish it."

The door opened, and Virginia came in, flushed with rapid walking. She had heard the news on the street and had hurried back to the hotel.

Her eyes asked of Ridgway: "Does she know?" and he answered in the affirmative. Straight to Aline she went and wrapped her in her arms, the latent mothering instinct that is in every woman aroused and dormant.

"Oh, my dear, my dear," she cried softly.

Ridgway slipped quietly from the room and left them together.