THE WOMAN OF FORTUNE
Marcus Hardy, late of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and territorially of Rayleigh Manor, Hants, stood whistling softly upon the scant green carpet outside the Wengernhaus. He was watching the white whisks of snow shooting down the couloirs of the Eiger opposite him like slim coiling serpents—nothing but the sonorous after-roar from the valley beneath telling of the thousand tons of ice and snow which had gone plunging and leaping downwards to pulverize themselves a mile and a half below.
"Thank the Lord I'm no genius!" was the somewhat superfluous burden of his meditations. "If a fellow has to be as solemn as a boiled owl and as infernally touchy as a professor of poetry — by Christopher! I'd rather be a mole-catcher and tramp the fields with a flat spud under my arm!"
And the ex-student of Trinity Hall kicked up great grass tufts in his indignation. Then, quick compunction seizing him, he added in an altered vein, "Good old Keith! It would do him all the good in the world to tumble neck and crop into love. That would give him something decent to moon about, I know."
And Marcus glanced at his friend's window with the air of a man who, having tried all the hidden things of love, has come to the conclusion that these also are vanity. The next moment he received a shock.
"By Jove!" he exclaimed under his breath, as a shadow slanted quickly across the grass, and he lifted his eyes instinctively to mark the shadow-caster as she passed. "Jove! what a clipper!"
And the figure which occasioned the exclamation being now well in front, Marcus squared his shoulders, drew a deeply satisfactory breath, and gave himself up to a frank unashamed Anglo-Saxon stare, followed as it often was in his impressionable bosom by an equally unrestrained admiration.
"Oh, I say!" he communed with himself half aloud. "I tell you she's a beauty! No mistake this time, Mark! She's got a profile like Diana when she was giving that poor hunting bloke particular fits, proud and a little bit cold till you rouse her; and, I declare, just the very dark hair I like — light and swirly, like snow blowing off an arête when there's a gale up aloft. Gad! a girl like that would make a poet out of me too! She would, in a week!"
Another shadow fell upon the grass.
A tall, military-looking man, clean-run and grey-moustached, had come quietly out of the inn of Johann Jossi, and now paused by the table in front of which Marcus stood waiting for his friend, and watching this sudden apparition of radiant girlhood with widely-opened eyes of surprised admiration.
Secure in the fact that Dian's back was turned towards him, Marcus continued his observations aloud more than half consciously, and wholly without remarking the amused smile on the face of his new companion.
"I tell you what, Harford; she's a daisy! Why that girl's a tearing beauty any day in the week! Wish I knew her! Wha-aat?" He turned with such frank, boyish appreciation in his honest eyes that, catching the faintest quizzical flicker on the face of the military-looking man, he reddened a little.
"I beg your pardon!" he said, a little stiffly; "I thought it was my friend who had come out and was standing behind me."
The placid, tolerant smile remained. The military-looking man seemed unaccountably pleased.
"Yes," slowly came the reply, spoken with the most delicate suspicion of a drawl, "yes—she is a beauty. And more than that, she's the best girl in the world!"
As he said them, the words were more the statement of a universally admitted fact than any mere verdict of chance enthusiasm.
Marcus turned quickly upon him.
"You know her?" he queried. "Golly, wish I did! Who is she?"
"Well" —the monosyllable, more by a certain liquid dwelling on the consonants akin to the delicate Welsh usage than by any accent, proclaimed the speaker an American — "there are reasons why I ought to know that young lady well, though I'm not sure that I do. She's my daughter, sir!"
Marcus coloured hotly, like the boy he was in spite of his twenty-five years.
"I'm sure I beg your pardon," he cried, impulsively lifting his soft cap from his closely cropped head, with that characteristically eager gesture which endeared him to his friends. "I always was an ass. Do you know, I never think what I say till I get into some beastly hole. I hope you won't think me a common border ruffian. E—r—r! My name is Marcus Hardy — of Rayleigh, in Hants!" he added, with some vague desire to indicate himself.
The giant paused, blushing to his freckled temples. The military-looking man, however, only smiled benignly and bowed in his turn.
"My name, sir," he said very quietly, "is Henry Quincy March."
"Ah, Governor!" said Hardy promptly, "I heard you were over here — in fact, well, if it isn't cheek to say so, I'm deuced glad to meet the war governor of the State of Callibraska!"
Governor March looked as surprised as he was obviously pleased.
"But how?" he said. "I thought that the English cared no more for our Civil War than for the crow fights and kite skirmishes of the ancient Scots and Picts."
As he spoke he was looking the young man over, and saying to himself that he would never have suspected Marcus Hardy of any historical knowledge more esoteric than the annals of Rugby football, or the names and weights of the strokes in the last six winning Oxford and Cambridge boats.
"Well, the truth is, sir," answered Marcus, "I ought to have been a soldier. But the 'mater' shut down on it. My mother belongs to the Peace Society — that is, when she's not on the warpath. She thinks wars are all wrong, and just pitches it into me hot that I've got to stop at home and look after my stake in the country. Hang my stake in the country, say I! They can have the whole show to pasture their three-acre cows on, as far as I'm concerned!"
The elder man smiled indulgently.
"And so very naturally you come to Switzerland to do it," he said. "So do I. I've got a stake in my country, too, and that's why I'm here!"
After this there was a pause, and the two men silently faced the mighty mountain wall, which over against the Wengern Alp squares its shoulders and defiantly compels all eyes, like Atlas upbearing the vault of heaven. Far in front of them the girl stood, apparently on the very verge of the precipice, her elbow making a pretty angle with her head as she looked out under her hand. Her whole figure was poised with a certain indescribable lightness. She wore a plain but serviceable tweed dress, which fitted like an easy glove the slim alertness of her form. Outlined against the snow of a suckling glacier, her head seemed small and classical, so accurately had the dark-brown hair been collected into a knot behind, leaving only a tight ringlet or two of a more golden hue to spray upon the hollow of her neck. But upon her forehead, under a piquant yet business-like sailor hat of white straw, a little riot of loose curls stirred lightly and changefully in the breeze ; and cast faint shadows upon the warm dusky tan of a complexion in which a vivid life thrilled, and through which the quick life blood could be seen leaping responsive to every thought. As the young girl turned away from the mountains, she compressed her lips in quick, petulant anger, and all unconsciously her head poised itself in fashion yet more goddess-like upon a neck round which closed, perhaps rather too rigidly and demurely, a white collar of military severity. White cuffs, turned over a little at her wrists like those of an hospital nurse, were fastened with plain gold studs.
"Are you looking for Kearney, Ione?" Mr. March inquired as the girl came towards them.
The Governor's daughter looked directly at her father with a faint shade of annoyance on her face, as Marcus lifted his hat with instinctive frankness. She bowed very slightly in acknowledgment, so slightly that Marcus felt indefinitely chilled, though somehow he had the consciousness that the girl's annoyance had been caused neither by his salutation nor yet by her father's including her in their conversation.
"No," she said; "I was only looking out for Ida and Astoria."
Governor March's face lightened.
"Oh," he said, "I saw them go up the mountain behind the hotel, armed to the teeth with twenty-four pounder field-glasses to look for their brother. I daresay you will find them around there somewhere, and also obtain a view of Kearney half way up the Eiger by this time."
"I have no intention of looking for Kearney, father!" said the girl, with an accent somewhat superfluously determined for the occasion.
"Well," said the Governor slowly, "perhaps you are right. I don't myself think that the young man needs encouragement — that is, on ordinary office days. But after all, isn't this a sort of Glorious Fourth? And when a youth has been carrying 'mid snow and ice the banner with the strange device, and shouting 'Excelsior' all the morning till he is crow-hoarse, you might at least take one peep at him just to show interest. Excelsioring without a gallery is not exactly Kearney's pet form of wickedness!"
The girl did not reply, but stood gazing abstractedly up at the vast mountain wall which rose abruptly out of the desolate Valley of Death beneath them, into which the avalanches spouted and roared every few minutes, being loosened and dispatched almost as regularly as trucks from a mine by the rays of the morning sun.
The three were still standing about the white-spread table when Marcus heard his friend's step behind him, and turned round to greet Keith Harford, and, if possible, to include him in the conversation. As he did so the girl bowed slightly and continued on her way to the inn. But as she went she turned her regard full upon the grave face and erect figure of Keith Harford, sometime tutor and now travelling companion to Marcus Hardy. Their eyes met and dwelt a moment each on the other, the girl's inquiringly, the man's abstractedly. The moment passed, fleeting as the waft of delicate air which accompanied Ione March's passage, apparently as like those before it and behind as any telegraph pole which scuds past a lightning express. But looked back upon, the momentary eye-blink now seems pregnant with fate and potent for the Eternities.
"A pretty American! Clearly we must get out of this or Marcus will be falling in love again!" That was all Harford's contemporary thought.
"He walks well and has nice eyes —but he doesn't like me. I wonder why!" mused Ione March in the instinctive manner of pretty women as she went towards the house.
Governor March was not only a very agreeable but a very handsome man, and as he turned again towards the young Englishmen his look was full of kindly dignity and encouragement.
"This is my friend — and former bear-leader, Mr. Keith Harford," said Marcus, smiling, as Harford came up, "and the best fellow in the world, if he does write books which publishers won't buy!"
"Small blame to them," said Harford with a little laugh; "the publishers would publish my books quickly enough if the public would only read them. They can't make bricks without straw any more than other people!"
"Are your literary productions published in the United States, sir?" asked the Governor, after he and Harford had lifted their hats slightly but courteously to each other.
Keith Harford shook his head sadly, and with a kind of characteristic drolling languor in his voice, replied, "I fear, sir, my friend gives you a wrong impression. I have hardly written anything for publication. It is true, however, that I earn a few coppers by contributing to the monthly magazines and the weekly press."
"Ah," cried the other gratefully, at last striking a subject to which he could do justice, “you should come to our country, where the Press is a mighty power — one greater than President and Congress put together. You would find ample scope for your talent there."
"I fear, sir," Keith Harford answered, "that the Press of your country would have none of me. I am not a shining success even here, where methods are old-fashioned and slow. I have little ambition, and no confidence in myself. I have never made much of anything in this world, not even of my pupil here — to whom, for instance, I endeavoured to convey some skill in the use of the English language, but, as you see, wholly without success."
"You did, old boy," cried Marcus joyously, "you stuffed me no end with roots and derivations. But, praise the pigs, I could always go right outside and forget them like Billy-o!"
"And he calls that jargon English," smiled Keith Harford as he referred the matter to the Governor.
"No, sir," said Mr. March, whose thoughts refused any but the practical groove, "and you never will succeed if, as you say, you have no confidence in yourself. Allow me to tell you that such humility shows the poorest kind of judgment, sir. There now is John Cyrus Judd, the father of young Kearney Judd, to whom my daughter is engaged to be married — John Cyrus Judd, sir, is the most successful operator in bread stuffs and general finance our country has ever seen. You remember the wheat corner in '70, the year of the war and of the failure of the Russian crops? Well, sir, John Cyrus Judd cleared over ten millions of dollars in one year. But he didn't do it by going about telling every one that he was entirely unacquainted with the difference between a bean and a pea. No, sir; he was supposed to know everything. He did know most things, and what he didn't know he took the credit for knowing. And so John Cyrus scooped the land of promise from Dan even to Beersheba."
Keith Harford stood looking silently at the smooth round head of the Monk, who wore his cowl of snow drawn well down about his ears, and humped his shoulders a trifle as if the morning air bit shrewdly up there. The Governor followed the direction of the young man's eyes.
"Mr. Kearney Judd is making the ascent of the Eiger to-day," said he, "and his sisters have gone up the hill behind the hotel to look for him through an Alvan Clark telescope!"
"Is Mr. Kearney Judd the, ah — the gentleman in light gaiters and straight eyebrows who was here last night with his guides, Christian Schlegel and Peter Jossi?" queried Marcus with a sudden access of interest.
Governor March nodded humorously.
"I guess you have located my friend pretty descriptively, sir, though he had more clothing on than you say when last heard from. But now I will leave you to your breakfast, and see if I can find my daughter."
The young men followed the erect and handsome figure of the famous war Governor with their eyes till he passed round the corner of the inn.
"What a beastly shame!" cried Marcus, kicking up the turf discontentedly. "That toad engaged to a girl like this! Why, I listened to him bullying his guides till for two pins I'd have knocked his bally head off. I wish now I had!" he added regretfully.
But Keith Harford was not paying the slightest attention to this enounciation of the sorrows of Marcus. His eyes were again fixed dreamily and sadly upon the mighty toothed pyramid of the Eiger.
Observing his abstraction Hardy put his palms to his own mouth and produced a weird imitation of the native jodel almost at Harford's ear.
"What's the matter now, you howling dervish?" cried his friend, startled, turning upon him indignantly.
"Well," said Marcus hotly, "if I see a man a thousand and one miles from his breakfast, I'm going to call him back to this world if I ruin my voice in doing it. I suppose you are such a hideous purblind old mole that you don't realize that you've just seen one of the prettiest girls in the four continents, and that she's engaged to a beast in spats — yes, in spats and brown knickers, with a voice like an infernal peacock squalling on a roof."
"Do you want any breakfast?" said Keith Harford with a great calm.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.