Richard Harding Davis.

Soldiers of Fortune online

. (page 1 of 18)
Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisSoldiers of Fortune → online text (page 1 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Charles Keller. HTML version by Al Haines.







"It is so good of you to come early," said Mrs. Porter, as Alice
Langham entered the drawing-room. "I want to ask a favor of you. I'm
sure you won't mind. I would ask one of the debutantes, except that
they're always so cross if one puts them next to men they don't know
and who can't help them, and so I thought I'd just ask you, you're so
good-natured. You don't mind, do you?"

"I mind being called good-natured," said Miss Langham, smiling. "Mind
what, Mrs. Porter?" she asked.

"He is a friend of George's," Mrs. Porter explained, vaguely. "He's a
cowboy. It seems he was very civil to George when he was out there
shooting in New Mexico, or Old Mexico, I don't remember which. He took
George to his hut and gave him things to shoot, and all that, and now
he is in New York with a letter of introduction. It's just like
George. He may be a most impossible sort of man, but, as I said to Mr.
Porter, the people I've asked can't complain, because I don't know
anything more about him than they do. He called to-day when I was out
and left his card and George's letter of introduction, and as a man had
failed me for to-night, I just thought I would kill two birds with one
stone, and ask him to fill his place, and he's here. And, oh, yes,"
Mrs. Porter added, "I'm going to put him next to you, do you mind?"

"Unless he wears leather leggings and long spurs I shall mind very
much," said Miss Langham.

"Well, that's very nice of you," purred Mrs. Porter, as she moved away.
"He may not be so bad, after all; and I'll put Reginald King on your
other side, shall I?" she asked, pausing and glancing back.

The look on Miss Langham's face, which had been one of amusement,
changed consciously, and she smiled with polite acquiescence.

"As you please, Mrs. Porter," she answered. She raised her eyebrows
slightly. "I am, as the politicians say, 'in the hands of my friends.'"

"Entirely too much in the hands of my friends," she repeated, as she
turned away. This was the twelfth time during that same winter that
she and Mr. King had been placed next to one another at dinner, and it
had passed beyond the point when she could say that it did not matter
what people thought as long as she and he understood. It had now
reached that stage when she was not quite sure that she understood
either him or herself. They had known each other for a very long time;
too long, she sometimes thought, for them ever to grow to know each
other any better. But there was always the chance that he had another
side, one that had not disclosed itself, and which she could not
discover in the strict social environment in which they both lived.
And she was the surer of this because she had once seen him when he did
not know that she was near, and he had been so different that it had
puzzled her and made her wonder if she knew the real Reggie King at all.

It was at a dance at a studio, and some French pantomimists gave a
little play. When it was over, King sat in the corner talking to one
of the Frenchwomen, and while he waited on her he was laughing at her
and at her efforts to speak English. He was telling her how to say
certain phrases and not telling her correctly, and she suspected this
and was accusing him of it, and they were rhapsodizing and exclaiming
over certain delightful places and dishes of which they both knew in
Paris with the enthusiasm of two children. Miss Langham saw him off
his guard for the first time and instead of a somewhat bored and clever
man of the world, he appeared as sincere and interested as a boy.

When he joined her, later, the same evening, he was as entertaining as
usual, and as polite and attentive as he had been to the Frenchwoman,
but he was not greatly interested, and his laugh was modulated and not
spontaneous. She had wondered that night, and frequently since then,
if, in the event of his asking her to marry him, which was possible,
and of her accepting him, which was also possible, whether she would
find him, in the closer knowledge of married life, as keen and
lighthearted with her as he had been with the French dancer. If he
would but treat her more like a comrade and equal, and less like a
prime minister conferring with his queen! She wanted something more
intimate than the deference that he showed her, and she did not like
his taking it as an accepted fact that she was as worldly-wise as
himself, even though it were true.

She was a woman and wanted to be loved, in spite of the fact that she
had been loved by many men - at least it was so supposed - and had
rejected them.

Each had offered her position, or had wanted her because she was fitted
to match his own great state, or because he was ambitious, or because
she was rich. The man who could love her as she once believed men
could love, and who could give her something else besides approval of
her beauty and her mind, had not disclosed himself. She had begun to
think that he never would, that he did not exist, that he was an
imagination of the playhouse and the novel. The men whom she knew were
careful to show her that they appreciated how distinguished was her
position, and how inaccessible she was to them. They seemed to think
that by so humbling themselves, and by emphasizing her position they
pleased her best, when it was what she wanted them to forget. Each of
them would draw away backward, bowing and protesting that he was
unworthy to raise his eyes to such a prize, but that if she would only
stoop to him, how happy his life would be. Sometimes they meant it
sincerely; sometimes they were gentlemanly adventurers of title, from
whom it was a business proposition, and in either case she turned
restlessly away and asked herself how long it would be before the man
would come who would pick her up on his saddle and gallop off with her,
with his arm around her waist and his horse's hoofs clattering beneath
them, and echoing the tumult in their hearts.

She had known too many great people in the world to feel impressed with
her own position at home in America; but she sometimes compared herself
to the Queen in "In a Balcony," and repeated to herself, with mock
seriousness: -

"And you the marble statue all the time
They praise and point at as preferred to life,
Yet leave for the first breathing woman's cheek,
First dancer's, gypsy's or street balladine's!"

And if it were true, she asked herself, that the man she had imagined
was only an ideal and an illusion, was not King the best of the others,
the unideal and ever-present others? Every one else seemed to think
so. The society they knew put them constantly together and approved.
Her people approved. Her own mind approved, and as her heart was not
apparently ever to be considered, who could say that it did not approve
as well? He was certainly a very charming fellow, a manly, clever
companion, and one who bore about him the evidences of distinction and
thorough breeding. As far as family went, the Kings were as old as a
young country could expect, and Reggie King was, moreover, in spite of
his wealth, a man of action and ability. His yacht journeyed from
continent to continent, and not merely up the Sound to Newport, and he
was as well known and welcome to the consuls along the coasts of Africa
and South America as he was at Cowes or Nice. His books of voyages
were recognized by geographical societies and other serious bodies, who
had given him permission to put long disarrangements of the alphabet
after his name. She liked him because she had grown to be at home with
him, because it was good to know that there was some one who would not
misunderstand her, and who, should she so indulge herself, would not
take advantage of any appeal she might make to his sympathy, who would
always be sure to do the tactful thing and the courteous thing, and
who, while he might never do a great thing, could not do an unkind one.

Miss Langham had entered the Porters' drawing-room after the greater
number of the guests had arrived, and she turned from her hostess to
listen to an old gentleman with a passion for golf, a passion in which
he had for a long time been endeavoring to interest her. She answered
him and his enthusiasm in kind, and with as much apparent interest as
she would have shown in a matter of state. It was her principle to be
all things to all men, whether they were great artists, great
diplomats, or great bores. If a man had been pleading with her to
leave the conservatory and run away with him, and another had come up
innocently and announced that it was his dance, she would have said:
"Oh, is it?" with as much apparent delight as though his coming had
been the one bright hope in her life.

She was growing enthusiastic over the delights of golf and
unconsciously making a very beautiful picture of herself in her
interest and forced vivacity, when she became conscious for the first
time of a strange young man who was standing alone before the fireplace
looking at her, and frankly listening to all the nonsense she was
talking. She guessed that he had been listening for some time, and she
also saw, before he turned his eyes quickly away, that he was
distinctly amused. Miss Langham stopped gesticulating and lowered her
voice, but continued to keep her eyes on the face of the stranger,
whose own eyes were wandering around the room, to give her, so she
guessed, the idea that he had not been listening, but that she had
caught him at it in the moment he had first looked at her. He was a
tall, broad-shouldered youth, with a handsome face, tanned and dyed,
either by the sun or by exposure to the wind, to a deep ruddy brown,
which contrasted strangely with his yellow hair and mustache, and with
the pallor of the other faces about him. He was a stranger apparently
to every one present, and his bearing suggested, in consequence, that
ease of manner which comes to a person who is not only sure of himself,
but who has no knowledge of the claims and pretensions to social
distinction of those about him. His most attractive feature was his
eyes, which seemed to observe all that was going on, not only what was
on the surface, but beneath the surface, and that not rudely or
covertly but with the frank, quick look of the trained observer. Miss
Langham found it an interesting face to watch, and she did not look
away from it. She was acquainted with every one else in the room, and
hence she knew this must be the cowboy of whom Mrs. Porter had spoken,
and she wondered how any one who had lived the rough life of the West
could still retain the look when in formal clothes of one who was in
the habit of doing informal things in them.

Mrs. Porter presented her cowboy simply as "Mr. Clay, of whom I spoke
to you," with a significant raising of the eyebrows, and the cowboy
made way for King, who took Miss Langham in. He looked frankly
pleased, however, when he found himself next to her again, but did not
take advantage of it throughout the first part of the dinner, during
which time he talked to the young married woman on his right, and Miss
Langham and King continued where they had left off at their last
meeting. They knew each other well enough to joke of the way in which
they were thrown into each other's society, and, as she said, they
tried to make the best of it. But while she spoke, Miss Langham was
continually conscious of the presence of her neighbor, who piqued her
interest and her curiosity in different ways. He seemed to be at his
ease, and yet from the manner in which he glanced up and down the table
and listened to snatches of talk on either side of him he had the
appearance of one to whom it was all new, and who was seeing it for the
first time.

There was a jolly group at one end of the long table, and they wished
to emphasize the fact by laughing a little more hysterically at their
remarks than the humor of those witticisms seemed to justify. A
daughter-in-law of Mrs. Porter was their leader in this, and at one
point she stopped in the middle of a story and waving her hand at the
double row of faces turned in her direction, which had been attracted
by the loudness of her voice, cried, gayly, "Don't listen. This is for
private circulation. It is not a jeune-fille story." The debutantes
at the table continued talking again in steady, even tones, as though
they had not heard the remark or the first of the story, and the men
next to them appeared equally unconscious. But the cowboy, Miss
Langham noted out of the corner of her eye, after a look of polite
surprise, beamed with amusement and continued to stare up and down the
table as though he had discovered a new trait in a peculiar and
interesting animal. For some reason, she could not tell why, she felt
annoyed with herself and with her friends, and resented the attitude
which the new-comer assumed toward them.

"Mrs. Porter tells me that you know her son George?" she said. He did
not answer her at once, but bowed his head in assent, with a look of
interrogation, as though, so it seemed to her, he had expected her,
when she did speak, to say something less conventional.

"Yes," he replied, after a pause, "he joined us at Ayutla. It was the
terminus of the Jalisco and Mexican Railroad then. He came out over
the road and went in from there with an outfit after mountain lions. I
believe he had very good sport."

"That is a very wonderful road, I am told," said King, bending forward
and introducing himself into the conversation with a nod of the head
toward Clay; "quite a remarkable feat of engineering."

"It will open up the country, I believe," assented the other,

"I know something of it," continued King, "because I met the men who
were putting it through at Pariqua, when we touched there in the yacht.
They shipped most of their plant to that port, and we saw a good deal
of them. They were a very jolly lot, and they gave me a most
interesting account of their work and its difficulties."

Clay was looking at the other closely, as though he was trying to find
something back of what he was saying, but as his glance seemed only to
embarrass King he smiled freely again in assent, and gave him his full

"There are no men to-day, Miss Langham," King exclaimed, suddenly,
turning toward her, "to my mind, who lead as picturesque lives as do
civil engineers. And there are no men whose work is as little

"Really?" said Miss Langham, encouragingly.

"Now those men I met," continued King, settling himself with his side
to the table, "were all young fellows of thirty or thereabouts, but
they were leading the lives of pioneers and martyrs - at least that's
what I'd call it. They were marching through an almost unknown part of
Mexico, fighting Nature at every step and carrying civilization with
them. They were doing better work than soldiers, because soldiers
destroy things, and these chaps were creating, and making the way
straight. They had no banners either, nor brass bands. They fought
mountains and rivers, and they were attacked on every side by fever and
the lack of food and severe exposure. They had to sit down around a
camp-fire at night and calculate whether they were to tunnel a
mountain, or turn the bed of a river or bridge it. And they knew all
the time that whatever they decided to do out there in the wilderness
meant thousands of dollars to the stockholders somewhere up in God's
country, who would some day hold them to account for them. They
dragged their chains through miles and miles of jungle, and over flat
alkali beds and cactus, and they reared bridges across roaring canons.
We know nothing about them and we care less. When their work is done
we ride over the road in an observation-car and look down thousands and
thousands of feet into the depths they have bridged, and we never give
them a thought. They are the bravest soldiers of the present day, and
they are the least recognized. I have forgotten their names, and you
never heard them. But it seems to me the civil engineer, for all that,
is the chief civilizer of our century."

Miss Langham was looking ahead of her with her eyes half-closed, as
though she were going over in her mind the situation King had described.

"I never thought of that," she said. "It sounds very fine. As you say,
the reward is so inglorious. But that is what makes it fine."

The cowboy was looking down at the table and pulling at a flower in the
centre-piece. He had ceased to smile. Miss Langham turned on him
somewhat sharply, resenting his silence, and said, with a slight
challenge in her voice: -

"Do you agree, Mr. Clay," she asked, "or do you prefer the
chocolate-cream soldiers, in red coats and gold lace?"

"Oh, I don't know," the young man answered, with some slight
hesitation. "It's a trade for each of them. The engineer's work is
all the more absorbing, I imagine, when the difficulties are greatest.
He has the fun of overcoming them."

"You see nothing in it then," she asked, "but a source of amusement?"

"Oh, yes, a good deal more," he replied. "A livelihood, for one thing.
I - I have been an engineer all my life. I built that road Mr. King is
talking about."

An hour later, when Mrs. Porter made the move to go, Miss Langham rose
with a protesting sigh. "I am so sorry," she said, "it has been most
interesting. I never met two men who had visited so many inaccessible
places and come out whole. You have quite inspired Mr. King, he was
never so amusing. But I should like to hear the end of that adventure;
won't you tell it to me in the other room?"

Clay bowed. "If I haven't thought of something more interesting in the
meantime," he said.

"What I can't understand," said King, as he moved up into Miss
Langham's place, "is how you had time to learn so much of the rest of
the world. You don't act like a man who had spent his life in the

"How do you mean?" asked Clay, smiling - "that I don't use the wrong

"No," laughed King, "but you told us that this was your first visit
East, and yet you're talking about England and Vienna and Voisin's.
How is it you've been there, while you have never been in New York?"

"Well, that's partly due to accident and partly to design," Clay
answered. "You see I've worked for English and German and French
companies, as well as for those in the States, and I go abroad to make
reports and to receive instructions. And then I'm what you call a
self-made man; that is, I've never been to college. I've always had to
educate myself, and whenever I did get a holiday it seemed to me that I
ought to put it to the best advantage, and to spend it where
civilization was the furthest advanced - advanced, at least, in years.
When I settle down and become an expert, and demand large sums for just
looking at the work other fellows have done, then I hope to live in New
York, but until then I go where the art galleries are biggest and where
they have got the science of enjoying themselves down to the very
finest point. I have enough rough work eight months of the year to
make me appreciate that. So whenever I get a few months to myself I
take the Royal Mail to London, and from there to Paris or Vienna. I
think I like Vienna the best. The directors are generally important
people in their own cities, and they ask one about, and so, though I
hope I am a good American, it happens that I've more friends on the
Continent than in the United States."

"And how does this strike you?" asked King, with a movement of his
shoulder toward the men about the dismantled table.

"Oh, I don't know," laughed Clay. "You've lived abroad yourself; how
does it strike you?"

Clay was the first man to enter the drawing-room. He walked directly
away from the others and over to Miss Langham, and, taking her fan out
of her hands as though to assure himself of some hold upon her, seated
himself with his back to every one else.

"You have come to finish that story?" she said, smiling.

Miss Langham was a careful young person, and would not have encouraged
a man she knew even as well as she knew King, to talk to her through
dinner, and after it as well. She fully recognized that because she
was conspicuous certain innocent pleasures were denied her which other
girls could enjoy without attracting attention or comment. But Clay
interested her beyond her usual self, and the look in his eyes was a
tribute which she had no wish to put away from her.

"I've thought of something more interesting to talk about," said Clay.
"I'm going to talk about you. You see I've known you a long time."

"Since eight o'clock?" asked Miss Langham.

"Oh, no, since your coming out, four years ago."

"It's not polite to remember so far back," she said. "Were you one of
those who assisted at that important function? There were so many
there I don't remember."

"No, I only read about it. I remember it very well; I had ridden over
twelve miles for the mail that day, and I stopped half-way back to the
ranch and camped out in the shade of a rock and read all the papers and
magazines through at one sitting, until the sun went down and I
couldn't see the print. One of the papers had an account of your
coming out in it, and a picture of you, and I wrote East to the
photographer for the original. It knocked about the West for three
months and then reached me at Laredo, on the border between Texas and
Mexico, and I have had it with me ever since."

Miss Langham looked at Clay for a moment in silent dismay and with a
perplexed smile.

"Where is it now?" she asked at last.

"In my trunk at the hotel."

"Oh," she said, slowly. She was still in doubt as to how to treat this
act of unconventionality. "Not in your watch?" she said, to cover up
the pause. "That would have been more in keeping with the rest of the

The young man smiled grimly, and pulling out his watch pried back the
lid and turned it to her so that she could see a photograph inside.
The face in the watch was that of a young girl in the dress of a
fashion of several years ago. It was a lovely, frank face, looking out
of the picture into the world kindly and questioningly, and without

"Was I once like that?" she said, lightly. "Well, go on."

"Well," he said, with a little sigh of relief, "I became greatly
interested in Miss Alice Langham, and in her comings out and goings in,
and in her gowns. Thanks to our having a press in the States that
makes a specialty of personalities, I was able to follow you pretty
closely, for, wherever I go, I have my papers sent after me. I can get
along without a compass or a medicine-chest, but I can't do without the
newspapers and the magazines. There was a time when I thought you were
going to marry that Austrian chap, and I didn't approve of that. I
knew things about him in Vienna. And then I read of your engagement to
others - well - several others; some of them I thought worthy, and others
not. Once I even thought of writing you about it, and once I saw you
in Paris. You were passing on a coach. The man with me told me it was
you, and I wanted to follow the coach in a fiacre, but he said he knew
at what hotel you were stopping, and so I let you go, but you were not
at that hotel, or at any other - at least, I couldn't find you."

"What would you have done - ?" asked Miss Langham. "Never mind," she
interrupted, "go on."

"Well, that's all," said Clay, smiling. "That's all, at least, that
concerns you. That is the romance of this poor young man."

"But not the only one," she said, for the sake of saying something.

"Perhaps not," answered Clay, "but the only one that counts. I always
knew I was going to meet you some day. And now I have met you."

"Well, and now that you have met me," said Miss Langham, looking at him
in some amusement, "are you sorry?"

"No - " said Clay, but so slowly and with such consideration that Miss
Langham laughed and held her head a little higher. "Not sorry to meet
you, but to meet you in such surroundings."

"What fault do you find with my surroundings?"

"Well, these people," answered Clay, "they are so foolish, so futile.
You shouldn't be here. There must be something else better than this.
You can't make me believe that you choose it. In Europe you could have
a salon, or you could influence statesmen. There surely must be
something here for you to turn to as well. Something better than

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisSoldiers of Fortune → online text (page 1 of 18)