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Two Men And A Woman








From: Ridgway Of Montana

"Mr. Ridgway, ma'am."

The young woman who was giving the last touches to the very effective
picture framed in her long looking-glass nodded almost imperceptibly.

She had come to the parting of the ways, and she knew it, with a shrewd
suspicion as to which she would choose. She had asked for a week to
decide, and her heart-searching had told her nothing new. It was
characteristic of Virginia Balfour that she did not attempt to deceive
herself. If she married Waring Ridgway it would be for what she considered
good and sufficient reasons, but love would not be one of them. He was
going to be a great man, for one thing, and probably a very rich one,
which counted, though it would not be a determining factor. This she could
find only in the man himself, in the masterful force that made him what he
was. The sandstings of life did not disturb his confidence in his
victorious star, nor did he let fine-spun moral obligations hamper his
predatory career. He had a genius for success in whatever he undertook,
pushing his way to his end with a shrewd, direct energy that never
faltered. She sometimes wondered whether she, too, like the men he used as
tools, was merely a pawn in his game, and her consent an empty formality
conceded to convention. Perhaps he would marry her even if she did not
want to, she told herself, with the sudden illuminating smile that was one
of her chief charms.

But Ridgway's wary eyes, appraising her mood as she came forward to meet
him, read none of this doubt in her frank greeting. Anything more sure and
exquisite than the cultivation Virginia Balfour breathed he would have
been hard put to it to conceive. That her gown and its accessories seemed
to him merely the extension of a dainty personality was the highest
compliment he could pay her charm, and an entirely unconscious one.

"Have I kept you waiting?" she smiled, giving him her hand.

His answering smile, quite cool and unperturbed, gave the lie to his
words. "For a year, though the almanac called it a week."

"You must have suffered," she told him ironically, with a glance at the
clear color in his good-looking face.

"Repressed emotion," he explained. "May I hope that my suffering has
reached a period?"

They had been sauntering toward a little conservatory at the end of the
large room, but she deflected and brought up at a table on which lay some
books. One of these she picked up and looked at incuriously for a moment
before sweeping them aside. She rested her hands on the table behind her
and leaned back against it, her eyes meeting his fairly.

"You're still of the same mind, are you?" she demanded.

"Oh! very much."

She lifted herself to the table, crossing her feet and dangling them
irresponsibly. "We might as well be comfy while we talk;" and she
indicated, by a nod, a chair.

"Thanks. If you don't mind, I think I'll take it standing."

She did not seem in any hurry to begin, and Ridgway gave evidence of no
desire to hasten her. But presently he said, with a little laugh that
seemed to offer her inclusion in the joke:

"I'm on the anxious seat, you know--waiting to find out whether I'm to be
the happiest man alive."

"You know as much about it as I do." She echoed his laugh ruefully. "I'm
still as much at sea as I was last week. I couldn't tell then, and I can't
now."

"No news is good news, they say."

"I don't want to marry you a bit, but you're a great catch, as you are
very well aware."

"I suppose I am rather a catch," he agreed, the shadow of a smile at the
corners of his mouth.

"It isn't only your money; though, of course, that's a temptation," she
admitted audaciously.

"I'm glad it's not only my money." He could laugh with her about it
because he was shrewd enough to understand that it was not at all his
wealth. Her cool frankness might have frightened away another man. It
merely served to interest Ridgway. For, with all his strength, he was a
vain man, always ready to talk of himself. He spent a good deal of his
spare time interpreting himself to attractive and attracted young women.

Her gaze fastened on the tip of her suede toe, apparently studying it
attentively. "It would be a gratification to my vanity to parade you as
the captive of my bow and spear. You're such a magnificent specimen, such
a berserk in broadcloth. Still. I shan't marry you if I can help it--but,
then, I'm not sure that I can help it. Of course, I disapprove of you
entirely, but you're rather fascinating, you know." Her eye traveled
slowly up to his, appraising the masterful lines of his square figure, the
dominant strength of his close-shut mouth and resolute eyes. "Perhaps
'fascinating' isn't just the word, but I can't help being interested in
you, whether I like you or not. I suppose you always get what you want
very badly?" she flung out by way of question.

"That's what I'm trying to discover"--he smiled.

"There are things to be considered both ways," she said, taking him into
her confidence. "You trample on others. How do I know you wouldn't tread
on me?"

"That would be one of the risks you would take," he agreed impersonally.

"I shouldn't like that at all. If I married you it would be because as
your wife I should have so many opportunities. I should expect to do
exactly as I please. I shouldn't want you to interfere with me, though I
should want to be able to influence you."

"Nothing could be fairer than that," was his amiably ironical comment.

"You see, I don't know you--not really--and they say all sorts of things
about you."

"They don't say I am a quitter, do they?"

She leaned forward, chin in hand and elbow on knee. It was a part of the
accent of her distinction that as a rebel she was both demure and daring.
"I wonder if I might ask you some questions--the intimate kind that people
think but don't say--at least, they don't say them to you."

"It would be a pleasure to me to be put on the witness-stand. I should
probably pick up some interesting side-lights about myself."

"Very well." Her eyes danced with excitement. "You're what they call a
buccaneer of business, aren't you?"

Here were certainly diverting pastimes. "I believe I have been called
that; but, then, I've had the hardest names in the dictionary thrown at me
so often that I can't be sure."

"I suppose you are perfectly unscrupulous in a business way--stop at
nothing to gain your point?"

He took her impudence smilingly.

"'Unscrupulous' isn't the word I use when I explain myself to myself, but
as an unflattered description, such as one my enemies might use to
describe me, I dare say it is fairly accurate."

"I wonder why. Do you dispense with a conscience entirely?"

"Well, you see, Miss Balfour, if I nursed a New England conscience I could
stand up to the attacks of the Consolidated about as long as a dove to a
hawk. I meet fire with fire to avoid being wiped off the map of the mining
world. I play the game. I can't afford to keep a button on my foil when my
opponent doesn't."

She nodded an admission of his point. "And yet there are rules of the game
to be observed, aren't there? The Consolidated people claim you steal
their ore, I believe." Her slanted eyes studied the effect of her daring.

He laughed grimly. "Do they? I claim they steal mine. It's rather
difficult to have an exact regard for mine and thine before the courts
decide which is which."

"And meanwhile, in order to forestall an adverse decision, you are working
extra shifts to get all the ore out of the disputed veins."

"Precisely, just as they are," he admitted dryly. "Then the side that
loses will not be so disappointed, since the value of the veins will be
less. Besides, stealing ore openly doesn't count. It is really a moral
obligation in a fight like this," he explained.

"A moral obligation?"

"Exactly. You can't hit a trust over the head with the decalogue. Modern
business is war. Somebody is bound to get hurt. If I win out it will be
because I put up a better fight than the Consolidated, and cripple it
enough to make it let me alone. I'm looking out for myself, and I don't
pretend to be any better than my neighbors. When you get down to bed-rock
honesty, I've never seen it in business. We're all of us as honest as we
think we can afford to be. I haven't noticed that there is any premium on
it in Mesa. Might makes right. I'll win if I'm strong enough; I'll fail if
I'm not. That's the law of life. I didn't make this strenuous little
world, and I'm not responsible for it. If I play I have to take the rules
the way they are, not the way I should like them to be. I'm not squeamish,
and I'm not a hypocrite. Simon Harley isn't squeamish, either, but he
happens to be a hypocrite. So there you have the difference between us."

The president of the Mesa Ore-producing Company set forth his creed
jauntily, without the least consciousness of need for apology for the fact
that it happened to be divorced from morality. Its frank disregard of
ethical considerations startled Miss Balfour without shocking her. She
liked his candor, even though it condemned him. It was really very nice of
him to take her impudence so well. He certainly wasn't a prig, anyway.

"And morality," she suggested tentatively.

"--hasn't a thing to do with success, the parsons to the contrary
notwithstanding. The battle is to the strong."

"Then the Consolidated will beat you finally."

He smiled. "They would if I'd let them; but brains and resource and
finesse all count for power. Granted that they have a hundred dollars to
my one. Still, I have elements of strength they can't even estimate. David
beat Goliath, you know, even though he didn't do it with a big stick."

"So you think morality is for old women?"

"And young women," he amended, smiling.

"And every man is to be a law unto himself?"

"Not quite. Some men aren't big enough to be. Let them stick to the
conventional code. For me, if I make my own laws I don't break them."

"And you're sure that you're on the road to true success?" she asked
lightly.

"Now, you have heaven in the back of your mind."

"Not exactly," she laughed. "But I didn't expect you to understand."

"Then I won't disappoint you," he said cheerfully.

She came back to the concrete.

"I should like to know whether it is true that you own the courts of Yuba
County and have the decisions of the judges written at your lawyer's
offices in cases between you and the Consolidated."

"If I do," he answered easily, "I am doing just what the Consolidated
would do in case they had been so fortunate as to have won the last
election and seated their judicial candidates. One expects a friendly
leaning from the men one put in office."

"Isn't the judiciary supposed to be the final, incorruptible bulwark of
the nation?" she pretended to want to know.

"I believe it is supposed to be."

"Isn't it rather--loading the dice, to interfere with the courts?"

"I find the dice already loaded. I merely substitute others of my own."

"You don't seem a bit ashamed of yourself."

"I'm ashamed of the Consolidated"--he smiled.

"That's a comfortable position to be able to take." She fixed him for a
moment with her charming frown of interrogation. "You won't mind my asking
these questions? I'm trying to decide whether you are too much of a pirate
for me. Perhaps when I've made up my mind you won't want me," she added.

"Oh, I'll want you!" Then coolly: "Shall we wait till you make up your
mind before announcing the engagement?"

"Don't be too sure," she flashed at him.

"I'm horribly unsure."

"Of course, you're laughing at me, just as you would"--she tilted a sudden
sideways glance at him--"if I asked you WHY you wanted to marry me."

"Oh, if you take me that way----"

She interrupted airily. "I'm trying to make up my mind whether to take you
at all."

"You certainly have a direct way of getting at things."

He studied appreciatively her piquant, tilted face; the long, graceful
lines of her slender, perfect figure. "I take it you don't want the
sentimental reason for my wishing to marry you, though I find that amply
justified. But if you want another, you must still look to yourself for
it. My business leads me to appreciate values correctly. When I desire you
to sit at the head of my table, to order my house, my judgment
justifies itself. I have a fancy always for the best. When I can't gratify
it I do without."

"Thank you." She made him a gay little mock curtsy "I had heard you were
no carpet-knight, Mr. Ridgway. But rumor is a lying jade, for I am being
told--am I not?--that in case I don't take pity on you, the lone future of
a celibate stretches drear before you."

"Oh, certainly."

Having come to the end of that passage, she tried another. "A young man
told me yesterday you were a fighter. He said he guessed you would stand
the acid. What did he mean?"

Ridgway was an egoist from head to heel. He could voice his own praises by
the hour when necessary, but now he side-stepped her little trap to make
him praise himself at second-hand.

"Better ask him."

"ARE you a fighter, then?"

Had he known her and her whimsies less well, he might have taken her
audacity for innocence.

"One couldn't lie down, you know."

"Of course, you always fight fair," she mocked.

"When a fellow's attacked by a gang of thugs he doesn't pray for
boxing-gloves. He lets fly with a coupling-pin if that's what comes
handy."

Her eyes, glinting sparks of mischief, marveled at him with mock
reverence, but she knew in her heart that her mockery was a fraud. She did
admire him; admired him even while she disapproved the magnificent
lawlessness of him.

For Waring Ridgway looked every inch the indomitable fighter he was. He
stood six feet to the line, straight and strong, carrying just sufficient
bulk to temper his restless energy without impairing its power. Nor did
the face offer any shock of disappointment to the promise given by the
splendid figure. Salient-jawed and forceful, set with cool, flinty,
blue-gray eyes, no place for weakness could be found there. One might have
read a moral callousness, a colorblindness in points of rectitude, but
when the last word had been said, its masterful capability, remained the
outstanding impression.

"Am I out of the witness-box?" he presently asked, still leaning against
the mantel from which he had been watching her impersonally as an
intellectual entertainment.

"I think so."

"And the verdict?"

"You know what it ought to be," she accused.

"Fortunately, kisses go by favor, not by, merit."

"You don't even make a pretense of deserving."

"Give me credit for being an honest rogue, at least."

"But a rogue?" she insisted lightly.

"Oh, a question of definitions. I could make a very good case for myself
as an honest man."

"If you thought it worth while?"

"If I didn't happen to want to be square with you"--he smiled.

"You're so fond of me, I suppose, that you couldn't bear to have me think
too well of you."

"You know how fond of you I am."

"Yes, it is a pity about you," she scoffed.

"Believe me, yes," he replied cheerfully.

She drummed with her pink finger-tips on her chin, studying him
meditatively. To do him justice, she had to admit that he did not even
pretend much. He wanted her because she was a step up in the social
ladder, and, in his opinion, the most attractive girl he knew. That he was
not in love with her relieved the situation, as Miss Balfour admitted to
herself in impersonal moods. But there were times when she could have
wished he were. She felt it to be really due her attractions that his
pulses should quicken for her, and in the interests of experience she
would have liked to see how he would make love if he really meant it from
the heart and not the will.

"It's really an awful bother," she sighed.

"Referring to the little problem of your future?"

"Yes."

"Can't make up your mind whether I come in?"

"No." She looked up brightly, with an effect of impulsiveness. "I don't
suppose you want to give me another week?"

"A reprieve! But why? You're going to marry me."

"I suppose so." She laughed. "I wish I could have my cake, and eat it,
too."

"It would be a moral iniquity to encourage such a system of ethics."

"So you won't give me a week?" she sighed. "All sorts of things might have
happened in that week. I shall always believe that the fairy prince would
have come for me."

"Believe that he HAS come," he claimed.

"Oh, I didn't mean a prince of pirates, though there is a triumph in
having tamed a pirate chief to prosaic matrimony. In one way it will be a
pity, too. You won't be half so picturesque. You remember how Stevenson
puts it: 'that marriage takes from a man the capacity for great things,
whether good or bad.'"

"I can stand a good deal of taming."

"Domesticating a pirate ought to be an interesting process," she conceded,
her rare smile flashing. "It should prove a cure for ENNUI, but then I'm
never a victim of that malady."

"Am I being told that I am to be the happiest pirate alive?"

"I expect you are."

His big hand gripped hers till it tingled. She caught his eye on a roving
quest to the door.

"We don't have to do that," she announced hurriedly, with an embarrassed
flush.

"I don't do it because I have to," he retorted, kissing her on the lips.

She fell back, protesting. "Under the circumstances--"

The butler, with a card on a tray, interrupted silently. She glanced at
the card, devoutly grateful his impassive majesty's entrance had not been
a moment earlier.

"Show him in here."

"The fairy prince, five minutes too late?" asked Ridgway, when the man had
gone.

For answer she handed him the card, yet he thought the pink that flushed
her cheek was something more pronounced than usual. But he was willing to
admit there might be a choice of reasons for that.

"Lyndon Hobart" was the name he read.

"I think the Consolidated is going to have its innings. I should like to
stay, of course, but I fear I must plead a subsequent engagement and leave
the field to the enemy."

Pronouncing "Mr. Hobart" without emphasis, the butler vanished. The
newcomer came forward with the quiet assurance of the born aristocrat. He
was a slender, well-knit man, dressed fastidiously, with clear-cut,
classical features; cool, keen eyes, and a gentle, you-be-damned manner to
his inferiors. Beside him Ridgway bulked too large, too florid. His ease
seemed a little obvious, his prosperity overemphasized. Even his voice,
strong and reliant, lacked the tone of gentle blood that Hobart had
inherited with his nice taste.

When Miss Balfour said: "I think you know each other," the manager of the
Consolidated bowed with stiff formality, but his rival laughed genially
and said: "Oh, yes, I know Mr. Hobart." The geniality was genuine enough,
but through it ran a note of contempt. Hobart read in it a veiled taunt.
To him it seemed to say

"Yes, I have met him, and beaten him at every turn of the road, though he
has been backed by a power with resources a hundred times as great as
mine."

In his parting excuses to Miss Balfour, Ridgway's audacity crystallized in
words that Hobart could only regard as a shameless challenge. "I regret
that an appointment with Judge Purcell necessitates my leaving such good
company," he said urbanely.

Purcell was the judge before whom was pending a suit between the
Consolidated and the Mesa Ore-producing Company, to determine the
ownership of the Never Say Die Mine; and it was current report that
Ridgway owned him as absolutely as he did the automobile waiting for him
now at the door.

If Ridgway expected his opponent to pay his flippant gibe the honor of
repartee, he was disappointed. To be sure, Hobart, admirably erect in his
slender grace, was moved to a slight, disdainful smile, but it evidenced
scarcely the appreciation that anybody less impervious to criticism than
Ridgway would have cared to see.





Next: The Freebooter

Previous: Homing Hearts



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