Chapter 25. Friendly Enemies
 

Ridgway had promised Aline that he would see her soon, and when he found himself in New York he called at the big house on Fifth Avenue, which had for so long been identified as the home of Simon Harley. It bore his impress stamped on it. Its austerity suggested the Puritan rather than the classic conception of simplicity. The immense rooms were as chill as dungeons, and the forlorn little figure in black, lost in the loneliness of their bleakness, wandered to and fro among her retinue of servants like a butterfly beating its wings against a pane of glass.

With both hands extended she ran forward to meet her guest.

"I'm so glad, so glad, so glad to see you."

The joy-note in her voice was irrepressible. She had been alone for weeks with the conventional gloom that made an obsession of the shadow of death which enveloped the house. All voices and footsteps had been subdued to harmonize with the grief of the mistress of this mausoleum. Now she heard the sharp tread of this man unafraid, and saw the alert vitality of his confident bearing. It was like a breath of the hills to a parched traveler.

"I told you I would come."

"Yes. I've been looking for you every day. I've checked each one off on my calendar. It's been three weeks and five days since I saw you."

"I thought it was a year," he laughed, and the sound of his uncurbed voice rang strangely in this room given to murmurs.

"Tell me about everything. How is Virginia, and Mrs. Mott, and Mr. Yesler? And is he really engaged to that sweet little school-teacher? And how does Mr. Hobart like being senator?"

"Not more than a dozen questions permitted at a time. Begin again, please."

"First, then, when did you reach the city?"

He consulted his watch. "Just two hours and twenty-seven minutes ago."

"And how long are you going to stay?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

"For one thing, on whether you treat me well," he smiled.

"Oh, I'll treat you well. I never was so glad to see a real live somebody in my life. It's been pretty bad here." She gave a dreary little smile as she glanced around at the funereal air of the place. "Do you know, I don't think we think of death in the right way? Or, maybe, I'm a heathen and haven't the proper feelings."

She had sat down on one of the stiff divans, and Ridgway found a place beside her.

"Suppose you tell me about it," he suggested.

"I know I must be wrong, and you'll be shocked when you hear."

"Very likely."

"I can't help feeling that the living have rights, too," she began dubiously. "If they would let me alone I could be sorry in my own way, but I don't see why I have to make a parade of grief. It seems to--to cheapen one's feelings, you know."

He nodded. "Just as if you had to measure your friendship for the dead with a yardstick of Mother Grundy. It's a hideous imposition laid on us by custom, one of Ibsen's ghosts."

"It's so good to hear you say that. And do you think I may begin to be happy again?"

"I think it would be allowable to start with one smile a day, say, and gradually increase the dose," he jested. "In the course of a week, if it seems to agree with you, try a laugh."

She made the experiment without waiting the week, amused at his whimsical way of putting it. Nevertheless, the sound of her own laughter gave her a little shock.

"You came on business, I suppose?" she said presently.

"Yes. I came to raise a million dollars for some improvements I want to make."

"Let me lend it to you," she proposed eagerly.

"That would be a good one. I'm going to use it to fight the Consolidated. Since you are now its chief stockholder you would be letting me have money with which to fight you."

"I shouldn't care about that. I hope you beat me."

"You're my enemy now. That's not the way to talk." His eyes twinkled merrily.

"Am I your enemy? Let's be friendly enemies, then. And there's something I want to talk to you about. Before he died Mr. Harley told me he had made you an offer. I didn't understand the details, but you were to be in charge of all the copper-mines in the country. Wasn't that it?"

"Something of that sort. I declined the proposition."

"I want you to take it now and manage everything for me. I don't know Mr. Harley's associates, but I can trust you. You can arrange it any way you like, but I want to feel that you have the responsibility."

He saw again that vision of power--all the copper interests of the country pooled, with himself at the head of the combination. He knew it would not be so easy to arrange as she thought, for, though she had inherited Harley's wealth, she had not taken over his prestige and force. There would be other candidates for leadership. But if he managed her campaign Aline's great wealth must turn the scale in their favor.

"You must think this over again. You must talk it over with your advisers before we come to a decision," he said gravely.

"I've told Mr. Jarmyn. He says the idea is utterly impossible. But we'll show him, won't we? It's my money and my stock, not his. I don't see why he should dictate. He's always 'My dear ladying' me. I won't have it," she pouted.

The fighting gleam was in Ridgway's eyes now. "So Mr. Jannyn thinks it is impossible, does he?"

"That's what he said. He thinks you wouldn't do at all."

"If you really mean it we'll show him about that."

She shook hands with him on it.

"You're very good to me," she said, so naively that he could not keep back his smile.

"Most people would say I was very good to myself. What you offer me is a thing I might have fought for all my life and never won."

"Then I'm glad if it pleases you. That's enough about business. Now, we'll talk about something important."

He could think of only one thing more important to him than this, but it appeared she meant plans to see as much as possible of him while he was in the city.

"I suppose you have any number of other friends here that will want you?" she said.

"They can't have me if this friend wants me," he answered, with that deep glow in his eyes she recognized from of old; and before she could summon her reserves of defense he asked: "Do you want me, Aline?"

His meaning came to her with a kind of sweet shame. "No, no, no--not yet," she cried.

"Dear," he answered, taking her little hand in his big one, "only this now: that I can't help wanting to be near you to comfort you, because I love you. For everything else, I am content to wait."

"And I love you," the girl-widow answered, a flush dyeing her cheeks. "But I ought not to tell you yet, ought I?"

There was that in her radiant tear-dewed eyes that stirred the deepest stores of tenderness in the man. His finer instincts, vandal and pagan though he was, responded to it.

"It is right that you should tell me, since it is true, but it is right, too, that we should wait."

"It is sweet to know that you love me. There are so many things I don't understand. You must help me. You are so strong and so sure, and I am so helpless."

"You dear innocent, so strong in your weakness," he murmured to himself.

"You must be a guide to me and a teacher."

"And you a conscience to me," he smiled, not without amusement at the thought.

She took it seriously. "But I'm afraid I can't. You know so much better than I do what is right."

"I'm quite a paragon of virtue," he confessed.

"You're so sure of everything. You took it for granted that I loved you. Why were you so sure?"

"I was just as sure as you were that I cared for you. Confess."

She whispered it. "Yes, I knew it, but when you did not come I thought, perhaps You see, I'm not strong or clever. I can't help you as Virginia could." She stopped, the color washing from her face. "I had forgotten. You have no right to love me--nor I you," she faltered.

"Girl o'mine, we have every right in the world. Love is never wrong unless it is a theft or a robbery. There is nothing between me and Virginia that is not artificial and conventional, no tie that ought not to be broken, none that should ever of right have existed. Love has the right of way before mere convention a hundredfold."

"Ah! If I were sure."

"But I was to be a teacher to you and a judge for you."

"And I was to be a conscience to you."

"But on this I am quite clear. I can be a conscience to myself. However, there is no hurry. Time's a great solvent."

"And we can go on loving each other in the meantime."

He lifted her little pink fingers and kissed them. "Yes, we can do that all the time."