The Red Book Magazine/Volume 14/Number 3/In Spite of the Accidents
The special car had lain on a siding for a week
In Spite of the Accidents
ILLUSTRATED BY GAYLE HOSKINS
MISS MELHUISH rose, stifled a yawn in her sensitive nostrils, and began to strip her gloves.
“And that's all for to-day, thank goodness. I hate business,” she announced definitively.
The Westerner smiled. “That's not quite all. There's another matter.”
She waited—her brilliant look flashing on him—a dainty, slender, young patrician with all youth's graces and none of its illusions.
“It's something personal, to myself,” he explained.
She looked sharply at him, a suggestion of hauteur in her manner.
“I expect to leave for Montana to-night. I'll probably not be in the East again till Fall.”
The cool indifference of her voice might have daunted a less determined man, but this one did not have his close-gripped square jaw and steel-gray eyes for nothing. A born fighter, he had survived and come to the top because of the stark bulldog courage in him.
“I'm a self-made man, Miss Melhuish. I began as a street waif and I've been pretty nearly everything since from a steam-boat roustabout and the cook in a cow-camp to what I am now.”
“It's very creditable, I'm sure, Mr. Brand,” she murmured with a chill abstraction.
“I'm not boasting. I'm telling you this about myself because it may seem to you to have a bearing on what I am to say. Will you marry me, Miss Melhuish?”
“No, thank you, Mr. Brand,” she answered in the same careless tone with which she would have declined an ice.
“Because—” She broke off and glanced at him with fine contempt. “I prefer not to.”
Brand held an even temper. “I understand that. What I am trying to get at is: What do you object to in me?”
It was on her tongue tip to say “Everything,” but she found a more crushing answer. “I don't object to anything. Why should I, since I don't know you?”
She glanced casually at the clock, but the Westerner was impervious to hints. He did not mean to leave till he was ready.
“That can be remedied,” he suggested.
“I hardly think it necessary.”
“You haven't yet told me your reasons.”
She tapped the polished floor impatiently with her suede shoe
“I have said I don't care to. Isn't that reason enough?”
“Not quite, under the circumstances. I understand, of course, that I don't belong to your set. I'm not even a college man. All the education I have was picked up in the outdoor school of life that holds sessions twelve months in the year. Is that what you object to?”
She considered, frowningly, this big masterful man who had to have reasons, and the more she thought of it the greater grew her resentment. It came flaming into her cheeks in a wave of color.
“You're the fifth man that has proposed to me this summer, Mr. Brand. One of them had seen me only three times.”
“That doesn't surprise me,” he smiled. “This is the sixth time I have seen you.”
“All of them knew the extent of my fortune.”
“Ought that to have deterred them if they loved you?”
She laughed scornfully. “Love—fiddlesticks.”
“You mean, of course, that I'm asking you for your money.”
“Baldly but accurately, that's just what I mean.”
He swept her with a critical eye that took in the figure of slim suppleness, the dainty provoking face of spirit and intelligence.
Then, “I'm disappointed in you,” he told her.
This brought a surprised “Why?” from her.
“Yet I needn't be. It's the way you've been brought up. The whole emphasis of your environment has been upon money. It's the standard of worth in your set. Its possession covers a multitude of faults.”
“In me?” she asked, silkily.
“Yes, in you. You've been spoiled ever since you were a baby. Whatever you cried for you got, and of course you came to think you were the most important creature on the planet. That is natural.”
“It is very kind of you, a stranger, to go to so much trouble to tell me this,” she said with soft irony, but nevertheless she was aware of a faint thrill of excitement stealing through her.
“When you needed spanking you didn't get it. When you needed plain talk you got soft soap. I'm going to tell you the truth for a change.”
Standing before her solidly on both feet, tall, loose-limbed and easy, he looked so vigorous and sure of himself that her sense of superiority knew a little shock of doubt.
“Please do,” she said with mock humility.
“You have the narrowness to imply that you have more to offer than I have. I deny it. What have you to offer an honest lover? Your fortune and your beauty principally, and both of them are accidents. What claim have you on the world? What service have you ever given it? You can't even wait on yourself. You're like a baby that has to be fed from a bottle. You don't pay your honest stint of service. You're a drone in the great hive of workers, a wretched little butterfly, a fluffy kitten, good for nothing but to cuddle.”
He paid no attention to her interruption. “For me, at least I'm a worker. I've helped develop a new country, built railroads and dug mines, while you have squandered the profits of my toil. If I'm on the way to success it is because I've taken the world by the throat with a strangle-hold. Out in my country a man has to stand on his feet. He gets there if he's strong; he goes to the wall if he's weak. He isn't judged by the money he's got, unless that is a test of the stuff in him. Now I've offered you a chance to live, really to share in the big things that are doing in the world. I've been magnanimous enough to forget you're living on an immense fortune you never earned, and you try to freeze me with your society stare. Forget it, Miss Melhuish. I grant you people aren't all equal. God didn't make them that way. But don't think for a moment that the butterflies are the superior ones. I take my hat off to the folks that do the world's work. There's a plain name for your class, ma'am, and it is 'loafer.'”
The whole emphasis of your environment has been upon money]
“I never was talked to so in my life,” she gasped.
“Probably not,” he answered coolly. “I can't blame you for that, since it's your misfortune.”
She looked out of the window with what was meant to be a manner of detached abstraction.
“He wouldn't understand if I were to explain. He wouldn't know that gentlemen don't talk that way to ladies,” she said to herself softly but audibly.
“He would understand but he wouldn't care,” the man replied, cheerfully. “He doesn't think it important whether people think him a gentleman or not, if measured by their little yard-sticks. But he's a man, just as you're a girl, Wilma Melhuish. You've got to meet Phil Brand on that basis. All the artificial bars you and your futile set have built up so carefully come tumbling down before that fact. You're just a girl, a slim, flamey girl, ready to love and be loved when the right man comes. I don't care whether I'm the right man or not, but I'm not going to lose you because I'm afraid to tell you the truth.”
There was a glowing spirit in her eyes, some spark of unwonted passion that more sharply accentuated her beauty. To this suitor, at least, she could not bring a pulse quite unfluttered.
Never in his life had he talked nonsense charmingly to a pretty girl. He came to the sex duel with a blacksmith's hammer, but it was impossible to deny to his lean bronzed strength masculine dominance. He had trampled underfoot the barrier of social distinction behind which she had taken refuge. She could, of course, coldly insist upon its existence, or she could take him at his own valuation and tacitly yield the point. Characteristically she did the latter, for vigor of spirit inhabited this slim Parisian gowned body, an independence which sometimes toppled the conventions to which all her life she had been relentlessly trained.
“So I have nothing to offer but my fortune and what you are pleased to call my beauty?” she said with dangerous sweetness.
His alert eyes ran quietly over the long lines of her slender fullness. “You are beautifully finished, of course; no expense spared to hide the real you behind the ivory enamel. I'm only your mining superintendent come out of the West on business (which you say you detest), but I shouldn't have done you the honor to ask you to be my wife if I hadn't seen, for just an instant the real girl behind all this mummery of caste. It was the first day I ever saw you. Perhaps you remember that your old nurse came to call on you while I was here. When she was announced, you jumped up, ran to her, took her in your arms and laughed and cried over her, so it did me good to see you and her. The mask was off then for about 'steen seconds. That's the girl I have asked to marry me, not the one that raises her eyebrows and says 'Indeed!' so icily that the temperature falls.”
“Do you always throw in an essay on morals and manners when you propose?” she asked.
He took her little fling with smiling appreciation.
“I haven't ever found time to ask a girl to marry me before. I'm a busy man. I daresay I've made a botch of it.”
She laughed with slow malice.
“Dear me, no! You're an incomparable lover, Mr. Brand. There's only one fault to find with your system. Perhaps that is not a fault but it is unusual. It is customary, you know, to make a pretense at wooing a young lady before you do her the honor—that's your phrase, I think—of asking her to share your name and fame.”
He laughed shortly. “Yes, I know that. I'm reversing the law. I'd wait a long time before I got an opportunity to pay you any attentions unless you come out to Montana and look over your properties as you ought to do. If I were going to begin at all I had to begin at the wrong end.”
“Then you couldn't have been very much surprised at my answer.”
“Not the least. I expected it.”
“Perhaps that is why you asked me.”
“Yes. I wanted you to know I was on earth. You'll remember me now.”
“I certainly shall.”
“And when you come out to Montana—”
“But I'm not coming.”
“Oh yes, you are. You can't run away from your responsibilities. You'll be out there inside of six months.”
“I wont. I'm not in the least interested in Montana.”
“Your interest will grow.”
She thought it likely, though her “Indeed!” denied, politely, his assertion. For she was discovering that this man was out of the ordinary. What he was really like she could only remotely guess, since her experience had included none of his kind. He might have wrought robbery and murder for all she knew, but there was some dynamic force in him that aroused her curiosity and interest. He was impossible, of course; nevertheless her eyes had caught from his something that went through her as subtly and penetratingly as certain bars of music.
“I'll give myself six months before I see your private car out there,” he said.
Her dark eyes swept him with elaborate indifference. “I wonder now.”
It was at this juncture that E. Percy Sloane was announced. Brand let his inscrutable gaze fall on the young man, appraised him a tailor's model and a saphead—somewhat unjustly it must be admitted—and let his gaze drift into space. Mr. Sloane had been weighed and found wanting, tried by the standards of the man from the West.
“I'll say good-by, Miss Melhuish,” the mine superintendent said, offering his hand.
She took it, and found her gaze unexpectedly lost in the depth of his fathomless steel-gray eyes.
“Good-by, Mr. Brand. Pleasant journey,” she said, but was irritably aware that a soft color was suffusing her.
“See you in Montana soon.”
She shook her head. “I don't think so.”
He smiled derisive doubt and was gone.
Miss Melhuish, breakfasting in her private car with the party she had brought along to see the West, chanced to look from a window upon a square built muscular figure swinging across the tracks.
She laughed reminiscently and announced aloud:
“Enter, a man!”
Mr. E. Percy Sloane looked puzzled. He was a complacent, good-natured, but undistinguished gentleman upon whom rumor had fastened as the future husband of Wilma Melhuish. Just now he was at a loss to account for the faint trace of excitement in her eyes. Nor did he find any reason for it when she further explained.
“It's Mr. Brand, my superintendent.”
That gentleman presently strode in like a breeze from the hills, so conspicuous was his lean bronzed strength, the freshness of his vigor, among this half-dozen of imported exotics from the East. On his native heath he seemed to Miss Melhuish younger than when she had met him in her home. Youth still rang in his laughter, sat lightly on his broad shoulders.
“I knew you would come,” he told the girl at the first chance to speak to her alone.
“But not inside of the six months,” she retorted quickly.
Her friends voted it a strange whimsey that had brought her to Montana. She had not explained to them that this was an adventure, that she had looked forward to it as a temporary rescue from the humdrum of the life which hedged her in so closely. But Brand, watching her out of impassive eyes that told nothing, divined something of the pulse of eagerness that beat in this self-contained, trimly gowned young creature fresh from the hothouse of conventions. For all her slenderness, she walked with the supple ease that showed she liked it. Her springy step, the sparkle in her eye, belied the reserve her pride insisted upon.
“Anyhow you came.”
“Yes, I came. My conscience troubled me. You said it was a responsibility of mine, that I ought to study conditions here in person. Very well. I'm here. Show me everything there is to see.”
More than one horny hand had made her fingers wince]
He did. One visit to the dark underground tunnels which dripped with water and were so hot that perspiration rolled from their faces, was enough for most of the party. Sloane stuck it out three times from a sense of duty.
“He doesn't think I ought to go alone with you,” Wilma whispered to Brand, gleefully. “He carries discretion to a point of indiscretion.”
But even Sloane gave up before Wilma had had enough. Dressed in the shapeless garments and stout shoes her superintendent had secured for her, this soft-skinned, dainty young woman found something to delight her in every shaft-house, cage, cross-cut, or tunnel. It was all new, outside of her experience, and it opened to her a glimpse of a world that had hitherto been as foreign to her as Mars, a workaday world in which Philip Brand was king by virtue of the competence and strength in him. She met rough shift-bosses and found they were human beings like herself. More than one horny hand had made her little gloved fingers wince beneath its hearty pressure. All her life the veneer of social distinctions had been emphasized. For the first time she came in touch with social inferiors who were not flunkeys.
The special car had lain on a siding for a week. During this time the party had spent two days fishing in the hills, but the chaperon, aided and abetted by the others, was beginning to murmur against a longer stay.
Wilma gave way and made arrangements to leave early next day.
“Mr. Brand has promised to take me down the Never Sweat. I do so want to see the mine running at full speed in the night. How many of you want to go with us?” she asked of the assembled party on the last evening of their stay.
Nobody seemed anxious to volunteer.
“I don't see the fun of groping around in dripping tunnels myself,” said one young woman promptly. “I'm going to stay here and play bridge.”
This brought a general chorus of agreement. Wearily Mr. Sloane announced his intention of going with the Never Sweat party. The thing was perfectly absurd, of course, quite impossible in fact, but this mining superintendent, Brand's, influence over Miss Melhuish was beginning to trouble him. He thought it just as well not to give them another opportunity to be alone together. The girl was at a romantic age and was likely to get odd notions into her head. It would cost him some rheumatic twinges perhaps, but a chap had to make some concessions when he intended to marry an independent sort of girl like Wilma.
Wherefore Sloane trailed behind them, sloshing through water, stumbling against sharp rock projections, and enduring other discomforts heroically. Some fifty yards in advance their electric searchlight flashed notice of their presence. Their voices drifted back to him, hers quick and eager, the man's quiet and slow.
“Thank God, we'll be on the way back to civilization to-morrow and Mr. Brand will be wiped off the map,” the clubman comforted himself.
He went forward to examine the cave-in
Brand dragged her back against the breast of the tunnel
Just now, however, Philip Brand was very much on the map for Wilma Melhuish. It was her last night and she was making the most of it. Hers was a virginal soul, but passionately desirous of life despite her training. She was now both shy and merry. Excitement burned in her eyes, so that in the vague light between the electric bulbs they seemed to him to shine like stars. He thought it wonderful that this creature of fire and dew should be so close to him in the intimate solitudes of the deep earth.
Once she looked back at their chaperon, hopelessly in the rear.
“Poor Mr. Sloane! Shall we wait for him? I'm afraid he finds doing his duty pretty arduous to-night.”
“No. Let him catch up if he can.” For an instant Brand's gaze chiseled into her. “I wonder if he can—to-morrow, or next month, or next year.”
She smiled at him with the innocence her art held at command.
“A stern chase is a long chase, they say.”
Even as she spoke there came a terrific roar, together with a collapse of the tunnel roof in front of them.
Brand dragged her back against the breast of the tunnel.
“It's a cave-in,” he told her quietly when the booming echoes had died away.
His arm was still about her, the slender pulsing body against his. She looked up at him out of a face from which the blood had been driven. Her nerves were strung taut as the strings of a violin, but strangely enough she was not afraid.
“Are we in danger?” she asked.
He would not tell her less than the truth.
“I don't know yet. I shall have to look. Probably we are cut off from the outside. But don't be afraid.”
“I'm not. Just at first I was, but not now,” the girl answered steadily.
“You are brave.”
“No. You are here,” she said simply.
He laughed with deep delight.
“And that matters?”
Without any verbal answer her eyes met his.
“Tell me,” he ordered.
“More than anything in the world.”
“Then you're glad to be here, too.”
“I wouldn't be anywhere else for all your millions,” he cried.
She trembled toward his kiss half reluctantly.
Presently he released her and went forward to examine the cave-in.
“I see light through the dirt. The timbers are jammed so that we can crawl through. Come!” he called cheerfully.
Nevertheless he went first and came back again to her in order to make sure it could be done in safety. When they were quite beyond the danger she spoke again.
“You have asked me to marry you—a thousand years ago it seems—and you have kissed me, but you have not told me that you love me,” she said with soft laughter of joy that was half bold and half shy.
“No, I haven't told you in words. But how can I help it?”
“Even though I have nothing to offer an honest lover,” she quoted.
“Nothing to offer,” he scoffed.
“Except the accidents of my money and what you called my beauty,” Wilma reminded him.
He smiled down at her.
“But it is true. Except in accidentals I bring you only poverty. I'm all you said I was—a butterfly and a parasite.”
“Then I love your poverty, my Cophetua's beggar maid.”
“But you'll teach me to be useful,” she insisted.
“We'll teach each other everything worth knowing,” he prophesied, gayly.
“I say, is everything all right in there, Wilma?” Mr. Sloane's anxious voice inquired into the darkness from a safe distance.
“As right as can be,” the girl answered from the hopefulness of her newborn happiness.
“I congratulate you. I was afraid there had been an accident. You're quite sure everything's all right?”
Her eyes, bubbling with laughter, met those of her lover.
“Quite sure, Mr. Sloane. We're safe at last, though there were two accidents. But it's very good of you to congratulate us.”
“Not at all. I've been very anxious. Two accidents, you say. I heard only one.”
Again those in the darkness looked at each other with smiles.
“No, there were two, Mr. Sloane,” she answered, her eyes still on her lover.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1954, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 68 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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