Ridgway of Montana by William MacLeod Raine
Chapter 26. Breaks One and Makes Another Engagement
Miss Balfour's glass made her irritably aware of cheeks unduly flushed and eyes unusually bright. Since she prided herself on being sufficient for the emergencies of life, she cast about in her mind to determine which of the interviews that lay before her was responsible for her excitement. It was, to be sure, an unusual experience for a young woman to be told that her fiance would be unable to marry her, owing to a subsequent engagement, but she looked forward to it with keen anticipation, and would not have missed it for the world. Since she pushed the thought of the other interview into the background of her mind and refused to contemplate it at all, she did not see how that could lend any impetus to her pulse.
But though she was pleasantly excited as she swept into the reception-room, Ridgway was unable to detect the fact in her cool little nod and frank, careless handshake. Indeed, she looked so entirely mistress of herself, so much the perfectly gowned exquisite, that he began to dread anew the task he had set himself. It is not a pleasant thing under the most favorable circumstances to beg off from marrying a young woman one has engaged oneself to, and Ridgway did not find it easier because the young woman looked every inch a queen, and was so manifestly far from suspecting the object of his call. "I haven't had a chance to congratulate you personally yes," she said, after they had drifted to chairs. "I've been immensely proud of you."
"I got your note. It was good of you to write as soon as you heard."
She swept him with one of her smile-lit side glances. "Though, of course, in a way, I was felicitating myself when I congratulated you."
She laughed with velvet maliciousness. "Oh, well, I'm dragged into the orbit of your greatness, am I not? As the wife of the president of the Greater Consolidated Copper Company--the immense combine that takes in practically all the larger copper properties in the country--I should come in for a share of reflected glory, you know."
Ridgway bit his lip and took a deep breath, but before he had found words she was off again. She had no intention of letting him descent from the rack yet.
"How did you do it? By what magic did you bring it about? Of course, I've read the newspapers' accounts, seen your features and your history butchered in a dozen Sunday horrors, and thanked Heaven no enterprising reporter guessed enough to use me as copy. Every paper I have picked up for weeks has been full of you and the story of how you took Wall Street by the throat. But I suspect they were all guesses, merely superficial rumors except as to the main facts. What I want to know is the inside story--the lever by means of which you pried open the door leading to the inner circle of financial magnates. You have often told me how tightly barred that door is. What was the open-sesame you used as a countersign to make the keeper of the gate unbolt?
He thought he saw his chance. "The countersign was 'Aline Harley,'" he said, and looked her straight in the face. He wished he could find some way of telling her without making him feel so like a cad.
She clapped her hands. "I thought so. She backed you with that uncounted fortune her husband left her. Is that it?"
That is it exactly. She gave me a free hand, and the immense fortune she inherited from Harley put me in a position to force recognition from the leaders. After that it was only a question of time till I had convinced them my plan was good." He threw back his shoulders and tried to take the fence again. "Would you like to know why Mrs. Harley put her fortune at my command?"
"I suppose because she is interested in us and our little affair. Doesn't all the world love a lover?" she asked, with a disarming candor.
"She had a better reason," he said, meeting her eyes gravely.
"You must tell me it--but not just yet. I have something to tell you first." She held out her little clenched hand. "Here is something that belongs to you. Can you open it?"
He straightened her fingers one by one, and took from her palm the engagement-ring he had given her. Instantly he looked up, doubt and relief sweeping his face.
"Am I to understand that you terminate our engagement?"
"May I ask why?"
"I couldn't bring myself to it, Waring. I honestly tried, but I couldn't do it."
"When did you find this out?"
"I began to find it out the first day of our engagement. I couldn't make it seem right. I've been in a process of learning it ever since. It wouldn't be fair to you for me to marry you."
"You're a brick, Virginia!" he cried jubilantly.
"No, I'm not. That is a minor reason. The really important one is that it wouldn't be fair to me."
"No, it would not," he admitted, with an air of candor.
"Because, you see, I happen to care for another man," she purred.
His vanity leaped up fully armed. "Another man! Who?"
"That's my secret," she answered, smiling at his chagrin.
"I said mine. At any rate, if three knew, it wouldn't be a secret," was her quick retort.
"Do you think you have been quite fair to me, Virginia?" he asked, with gloomy dignity.
"I think so," she answered, and touched him with the riposte: "I'm ready now to have you tell me when you expect to marry Aline Harley."
His dignity collapsed like a pricked bladder. "How did you know?" he demanded, in astonishment.
"Oh well, I have eyes."
"But I didn't know--I thought--"
"Oh, you thought! You are a pair of children at the game," this thousand-year-old young woman scoffed. "I have known for months that you worshiped each other."
"If you mean to imply " he began severely.
"Hit somebody of your size, Warry," she interrupted cheerfully, as to an infant. "If you suppose I am so guileless as not to know that you were coming here this afternoon to tell me you were regretfully compelled to give me up on account of a more important engagement, then you conspicuously fail to guess right. I read it in your note."
He gave up attempting to reprove her. It did not seem feasible under the circumstances. Instead, he held out the hand of peace, and she took it with a laugh of gay camaraderie.
"Well," he smiled, "it seems possible that we may both soon be subjects for congratulation. That just shows how things work around right. We never would have suited each other, you know."
"I'm quite sure we shouldn't," agreed Virginia promptly. "But I don't think I'll trouble you to congratulate me till you see me wearing another solitaire."
"We'll hope for the best," he said cheerfully. "If it is the man I think, he is a better man than I am."
"Yes, he is," she nodded, without the least hesitation.
"I hope you will be happy with him."
"I'm likely to be happy without him."
"Not unless he is a fool."
"Or prefers another lady, as you do."
She settled herself back in the low easy chair, with her hands clasped behind her head.
"And now I'd like to know why you prefer her to me," she demanded saucily. "Do you think her handsomer?"
He looked her over from the rippling brown hair to the trim suede shoes. "No," he smiled; "they don't make them handsomer."
"Of a better disposition?"
"I like yours, too."
"I find her so, saving your presence." "Please justify yourself in detail." He shook his head, still smiling. "My justification is not to be itemized. It lies deeper--in destiny, or fate, or whatever one calls it."
"I see." She offered Markham's verses as an explanation:
"Perhaps we are led and our loves are fated, And our steps are counted one by one; Perhaps we shall meet and our souls be mated, After the burnt-out sun."
"I like that. Who did you say wrote it?"
The immobile butler, as once before, presented a card for her inspection. Ridgway, with recollections of the previous occasion, ventured to murmur again: "The fairy prince."
Virginia blushed to her hair, and this time did not offer the card for his disapproval.
"Shall I congratulate him?" he wanted to know.
The imperious blood came to her cheeks on the instant. The sudden storm in her eyes warned him better than words.
"I'll be good," he murmured, as Lyndon Hobart came into the room.
His goodness took the form of a speedy departure. She followed him to the door for a parting fling at him.
"In your automobile you may reach a telegraph-office in about five minutes. With luck you may be engaged inside of an hour."
"You have the advantage of me by fifty-five minutes," he flung back.
"You ought to thank me on your knees for having saved you a wretched scene this afternoon," was the best she could say to cover her discomfiture.
"I do. I do. My thanks are taking the form of leaving you with the prince."
"That's very crude, sir--and I'm not sure it isn't impertinent."
Miss Balfour was blushing when she returned to Hobart. He mistook the reason, and she could not very well explain that her blushes were due to the last wordless retort of the retiring "old love," whose hand had gone up in a ridiculous bless-you-my-children attitude just before he left her.
Their conversation started stiffly. He had come, he explained, to say good-by. He was leaving the State to go to Washington prior to the opening of the session.
This gave her a chance to congratulate him upon his election. "I haven't had an opportunity before. You've been so busy, of course, preparing to save the country, that your time must have been very fully occupied."
He did not show his surprise at this interpretation of the fact that he had quietly desisted from his attentions to her, but accepted it as the correct explanation, since she had chosen to offer it.
Miss Balfour expressed regret that he was going, though she did not suppose she would see any less of him than she had during the past two months. He did not take advantage of her little flings to make the talk less formal, and Virginia, provoked at his aloofness, offered no more chances. Things went very badly, indeed, for ten minutes, at the end of which time Hobart rose to go. Virginia was miserably aware of being wretched despite the cool hauteur of her seeming indifference. But he was too good a sportsman to go without letting her know he held no grudge.
"I hope you will be very happy with Mr. Ridgway. Believe me, there is nobody whose happiness I would so rejoice at as yours."
"Thank you," she smiled coolly, and her heart raced. "May I hope that your good wishes still obtain even though I must seek my happiness apart from Mr. Ridgway?"
He held her for an instant's grave, astonished questioning, before which her eyes fell. Her thoughts side-tracked swiftly to long for and to dread what was coming.
"Am I being told--you must pardon me if I have misunderstood your meaning--that you are no longer engaged to Mr. Ridgway?"
She made obvious the absence of the solitaire she had worn.
Before the long scrutiny of his steady gaze: her eyes at last fell.
"If you don't mind, I'll postpone going just yet," he said quietly.
Her racing heart assured her fearfully, delightfully, that she did not mind at all.
"I have no time and no compass to take my bearings. You will pardon me if what I say seems presumptuous?"
Silence, which is not always golden, oppressed her. Why could she not make light talk as she had been wont to do with Waring Ridgway?
"But if I ask too much, I shall not be hurt if you deny me," he continued. "For how long has your engagement with Mr. Ridgway been broken, may I ask?"
"Between fifteen and twenty minutes."
"A lovers' quarrel, perhaps!" he hazarded gently.
"On the contrary, quite final and irrevocable Mr. Ridgway and I have never been lovers. She was not sure whether this last was mean as a confession or a justification.
"Not lovers?" He waited for her to explain Her proud eyes faced him. "We became engaged for other reasons. I thought that did not matter. But I find my other reasons were not sufficient. To-day I terminated the engagement. But it is only fair to say that Mr. Ridgway had come here for that purpose. I merely anticipated him." Her self-contempt would not let her abate one jot of the humiliating truth. She flayed herself with a whip of scorn quite lost on Hobart.
A wave of surging hope was flushing his heart, but he held himself well in hand.
"I must be presumptuous still," he said. "I must find out if you broke the engagement because you care for another man?"
She tried to meet his shining eyes and could not. "You have no right to ask that."
"Perhaps not till I have asked something else. I wonder if I should have any chance if I were to tell you that I love you?"
Her glance swept him shyly with a delicious little laugh. "You never can tell till you try."