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The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 14783

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Verinder's man, Biggs, who had been a fascinated spectator of the Wild West sports at Gunnison, was describing them to Fisher, maid to Lady Farquhar and general buttoner-up-the-back to the entire feminine contingent of the party.

"What do you mean when you say a horse bucks?" she wanted to know.

"'E throws down 'is 'ead and 'e throws up 'is 'eels and you cawn't remain," he explained, without entire originality.

"Fancy now!"

"Consequence is the rider lands himpromptu on terra firma, so to hexpress it."

"Dear me. But doesn't it make him dusty, Mr. Biggs?"

"A bit."

"Couldn't Captain Kilmeny ride one of the bronchos?"

"I've 'eard that the captain is a crack rider, none better in the harmy, Miss Fisher. 'E could ride the blawsted brute if it wouldn't 'ide its bloomin' 'ead between its legs."

Moya, patrolling the willow walk in front of the Lodge, took this in with a chuckle.

It was a still night, save only for the rushing waters of the river. The lamps of the sky had all been lit and were gleaming coldly millions of miles away. The shadowed moonlight in the trees offered a stage set to lowered lights.

The thoughts of the girl had drifted to speculation about the transplanted countryman of hers whose personality had come to interest her so greatly. He had challenged her trust in him and she had responded with a pledge. He had not explained a single one of the suspicious circumstances against him. He had not taken her into his confidence, nor had he in so many words declared his innocence. She was glad he had told her nothing, had demanded her faith as a matter of course. It was part of her pride in him that she could believe without evidence. All the world would know he was not guilty after he had shown his proofs. It would be no test of friendship to stand by him then.

A step sounded on the gravel behind her and an arm opened to let her hand slip round the elbow.

"May I stroll out this dance with you, Miss Dwight?" Lord Farquhar asked formally, dropping into step with her.

Moya and her guardian were kindred spirits. They never needed to explain themselves to each other. Both knew how to make-believe.

"If you're not afraid of a scandal at being alone with me so far from a chaperone," the girl answered lightly.

He burlesqued a sigh. "I'm only afraid there won't be any. It's the penalty of age, my dear. I can claim all sorts of privileges without making Verinder jealous."

"Oh, Verinder," she scoffed.

"Should I have said Kilmeny?" he asked.

"I'll tell you a secret, guardy," whispered Moya gayly. "You're a hundred years younger than either of them."

"I wish my glass told me so."

"Fiddlesticks! Youth is in the heart. Mr. Verinder has never been young and Captain Kilmeny has forgotten how to be."

"I fancy Ned would be willing to learn how again if he had the proper teacher."

She gave his arm a little squeeze. "You dear old matchmaker."

"Heaven forbid! I'm merely inquiring, my dear."

"Oh, I see-your in-loco-parentis duty."

"Exactly. So it isn't going to be Ned?"

She looked across the turbid moonlit river before she answered. "I don't think so."

"Nor Verinder?"

"Goodness, no!" A little ripple of laughter flowed from her lips before she added: "He's changed his mind. It's Joyce he wants now."

Farquhar selected a cigar from the case. "Hm! Sure you didn't change it for him?"

A dimple flashed into her cheeks. "I may have helped a little, but not half as much as Joyce."

"That young woman is a born flirt," Lord Farquhar announced, his beard and the lower part of his face in the sudden glow of the lighted match. "Upon my word, I saw her making eyes at your highwayman the night we had him here."

There was a moment's silence before she answered. "Anybody could see that he was interested in her."

"It doesn't matter to me who interests him, but I can't have any of my wards being romantic over a Dick Turpin," he replied lightly.

She was standing in the shadow, so that he could not see the dye sweep into her cheeks.

"I'm afraid he is going to disappoint you. He's not a highwayman at all."

"Did he tell you so?"

"No. But I know it."

"Looks to me as if he might make a good one. The fellow is cool as a cucumber and afraid of nothing on two legs or four."

"You forget he is India's cousin."

"No, I'm remembering that. His father had a devil of a temper and his mother was as wild as an unbroken colt when I met her."

"They weren't thieves, were they?" she flashed.

He gave her his frank smile. "You like this young man, Moya?"

"Yes. Why shouldn't I?"

"Why not-if you don't like him too well?"

"So that's why you came out here-sent by Lady Farquhar to scold me-and I thought you had come because you like to be with me."

"One reason doesn't preclude the other."

"I've known for several days she had it on her mind-ever since we saw Mr. Kilmeny on Sunbeam Creek."

"Come; let us reason together," he invited cheerfully. "We'll sit on the end of the wharf and dangle our legs while your guardian finishes his cigar and does his duty by you."

They compromised on a wire-woven seat under a cottonwood. Across the river two fishermen could be seen working down stream close to the opposite shore. The two were Verinder and Captain Kilmeny, though at that distance they were not recognizable.

Lord Farquhar seemed in no hurry to begin, nor did Moya attempt to hasten him. His cigar glowed and ashed and glowed again before he spoke.

"Odd how things work out, my dear. There across the river are two men who would like to marry you. Both are good matches. One is by way of being a bit of a bounder perhaps, but the other is as fine a fellow as any girl could look for-not brilliant, but no fool either, and as steady as a clock."

A breath of wind lifted the edge of her white skirt. She followed the woman's instinct to tuck it safely under her before making demure answer. "Captain Kilmeny is his own certificate of merit. Any praise is surplusage."

He shrugged. "That's the perversity of it. You see all his merits and they don't touch you."

With a vivacious little turn that was wholly charming she turned merrily upon him. "Are you by any chance proposing for him, Lord Farquhar?"

"Hasn't he proposed for himself?" her guardian asked bluntly.

"I believe he has."

"And you-didn't see it?"

"I couldn't."

"Sorry." He looked at the tip of his cigar and brushed away the ash. "Because he's a no end good sort."

"You don't know that any better than I do. Don't think I can't see all the advantages of it. I do. I want to say 'Yes,' but-well, I can't. That's all."

"On account of the other man?" he questioned gently.

"I haven't mentioned any other man," she cried, her face in a flame.

"No, I mentioned him. Devilish impudent of me, if you want to take it that way, Moya. But, then, as you've said, I'm in loco. Got to grub around and find out how you feel."

"Lady Jim has been poking you up and telling you it's your duty," she told him in derision.

"I daresay. I'm a lazy beggar. Always shirking when I can."

"Lady Jim isn't lazy."

"Di does her duty even when it isn't pleasant. Pity more of us don't."

"Meaning that it is my unpleasant duty to marry Mr. Verinder's money?"

"Hang Verinder and his money. I'm no end glad you can't stand him. Fact

is, we didn't quite know how bad he was when we asked him to join us."

"What then?"

"Well, sure your money isn't on the wrong horse, Moya? Mind, I don't say it is. I ask."

"If you mean Mr. Kilmeny, there hasn't been a word between us you couldn't have heard yourself," the girl told him stiffly.

"If my memory serves it didn't use to be so much a matter of words. What about your feelings? Di fancies--"

"Of course she does. She's always fancying. That's the business of a chaperone. It's perfectly absurd," Moya flung back hotly.

"Glad you see it that way. It wouldn't do, of course."

She looked directly at him, a challenge in her stormy eyes. "The whole thing is ridiculous. The man hasn't given me a second thought. If you're going to warn anyone, it ought to be Joyce."

Lord Farquhar looked straight at her. "Joyce has her eyes wide open. She can look out for herself."

"And I can't?"

"No, you can't-not when your feelings are involved. You're too impulsive, too generous."

"It's all a storm in a teacup. I've only met him three times to talk with. He's been friendly-no more. But if he and I wanted to-not that there's the ghost of a chance of it, but if we did-I don't see why it wouldn't do."

"Any number of reasons why it wouldn't. Marriage nowadays isn't entirely a matter of sentiment. You're an Englishwoman. He's an American, and will be to the end of the chapter."

"I'm not English; I'm Irish-and the Irish make the best Americans," she told him sturdily.

Farquhar ignored her protest. "His ways of thinking are foreign to yours, so are his habits of life. You're a delightful rebel, my dear, but you've got to come to heel in the end. All girls do. It's a rule of the game, and you'll have to accept it. No matter how captivating your highwayman may be-and upon my word I admire him tremendously-he is not your kind. He makes his own laws, and yours are made for you."

"You're making one for me now, aren't you?" she demanded rebelliously.

"Let's not put it so strong as that. I'm trying to persuade you to something of which you are fully persuaded already."

"I'm not-not in the least. It's absurd to talk about it because the man hasn't the least idea of making love to me. But suppose he wanted to. Why shouldn't I listen to him? You tell me he doesn't have the same little conventions as we do. Thank heaven he hasn't. His mind is free. If that condemns him--"

She broke off from sheer passionate inadequacy to express herself.

"Those conventions are a part of your life, little girl. Can you imagine yourself sitting opposite him at breakfast for the rest of your natural days?"

"You mean because he is a workingman, I suppose."

"If you like. You would miss all the things to which you were used. Love in a cottage isn't practicable for young women brought up as you have been."

"Then I've been brought up wrong. If I were fond enough of the man-but that's absurd. We're discussing an impossible case. I'll just say this, though. I've never met a man who would be as little likely to bore one."

"Does his cousin bore you?"

"No. Captain Kilmeny is interesting in his way too, but--"


"His thoughts are all well regulated ones. He keeps to the proper beaten track." She flung up a hand impatiently. "Oh, I know he's perfect. I've never been allowed to forget that. He's too perfect. He would let me do anything I wanted to do. I would want a husband-if I ever have one-who would be strong enough to make me want to do whatever he said."

Farquhar smiled as he flung his cigar into the river. "That works out better in theory than in practice, my dear. It's the little things that count in married life. What we need is a love well under control and friction eliminated."

"That's not what I want. Give me my great moments, even if I have to pay for them."

He understood perfectly her eager desire for the best life has to offer. What he was proposing for her was a tame second best. But it was safe, and the first rule of the modern marriage mart is to play the game safe. Yet he had a boyish errant impulse to tell her to cut loose and win happiness if she could. What restrained him, in addition to what he owed Lady Jim in the matter, was his doubt as to this young man's character.

"There would be another thing to consider. Kilmeny is under a cloud-a pretty serious one. All the evidence connects him with this robbery. Grant that you believe him innocent. Still, a nice girl can't let her name be connected with that of a man suspected of a crime."

"I'm sure he isn't guilty. I don't care what the evidence is."

"'Fraid that's sentiment. It has a bad look for him."

"Do we desert our friends when things have a bad look for them?"

"Hm! Friends!"

"I used that word," she told him stanchly.

"But you've only talked with the man three times," he answered with a gleam of friendly malice in his eyes.

"I've talked with Mr. Verinder forty times and I'm less his friend after each talk," she returned with energy.

"Well, I daresay I've exaggerated the whole matter, my dear. I was just to give you a hint-no more."

"You've done it, then."

"Strikes me that I've done my duty in the matter."

"You have-admirably," she scoffed.

"It's up to Di now-if you should take a fancy for entertaining your highwayman again while you're fishing."

"It's not likely that I'll ever see him again."

"I daresay not." He rose and looked across the rushing water. "There's just one thing I stick out for. Regardless of your interest in him-no matter what might happen-you wouldn't let things get on another footing until he has proved his innocence-absolutely and beyond question."

"Isn't that rather an unnecessary condition? I'm not in the habit of throwing myself at the heads of strangers who are merely casually polite to me."

He took in her sweet supple slimness, the fine throat line beneath the piquant lifted chin which mocked his caution, the little imps of raillery that flashed from the dark live eyes. In spite of a passionate craving for the adventure of life she had a good deal of reticence and an abundant self-respect. He felt that he had said more than enough already.

"Quite right, my dear. I withdraw my condition."

"It's one I would insist upon myself-if there were any likelihood of any need of it-which there isn't."

An easy-going man, he did not cross bridges till he came to them. His wife had persuaded him that Moya needed a talking to, but he was glad to be through with it.

"Hang the scamp, anyhow!" he laughed. "Maybe he'll break his neck on one of those outlaw bronchos he's so fond of riding. Maybe they'll put him safely away in prison, where there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage. Maybe, as you say, he'll have the bad taste to prefer Joyce to my little Irish wild rose, in which case he'll be put in his place at the proper time."

"It's even possible," she added with a murmur of half-embarrassed laughter, "that if he honored one with an offer-which it has never entered his head to do-one might regretfully decline with thanks."

"Amen! In the meantime God lead your grace by the hand, as old Bacon says." He brought his heels together, bowed over her fingers, and kissed them with exaggerated old-fashioned gallantry.

"Who's being romantic now?" she wanted to know gayly.

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