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   Chapter 15 A HIGHGRADER—IN PRINCIPLE

The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 14213

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


In spite of the warm defense she had made of Kilmeny, the heart of Moya was troubled. She knew him to be reckless. The boundaries of ethical conduct were not the same for him as for Lord Farquhar, for instance. He had told her as much in those summer days by the Gunnison when they were first adventuring forth to friendship. His views on property and on the struggle between capital and labor were radical. Could it be that they carried him as far as this, that he would take ore to which others had title?

The strange phase of the situation was that nobody in Goldbanks seemed to give any consideration to the moral issue. If rumor were true, the district attorney and a good many of the business men of the town were engaged in disposing of this ore for the miners on a percentage basis. Between the miners and the operating companies was war. If a workman could get the better of the owners by taking ore that was a point to his credit. Even Verinder and Bleyer at bottom regarded the matter as a question of strength and not as one of equity.

Moya was still in process of thinking herself and life out. It was to her an amazing thing that a whole community should so lose its sense of values as to encourage even tacitly what was virtually theft. She did not want to pass judgment upon Goldbanks, for she distrusted her horizon as narrow. But surely right was right and wrong wrong. Without a stab of pain she could not think of Jack Kilmeny as engaged in this illicit traffic.

In her heart she was afraid. Bleyer was a man to be trusted, and in effect he had said that her friend was a highgrader. Even to admit a doubt hurt her conscience as a disloyalty, but her gropings brought no certainty of his innocence. It would be in keeping with the man's character, as she read it, not to let fear of the consequences hold him from any course upon which he was determined. Had he not once warned her in his whimsical smiling way that she would have to make "a heap of allowances" for him if she were to remain his friend? Was it this to which he had referred when he had told her he was likely to disappoint her, that a man must live by the code of his fellows and judge right and wrong by the circumstances? Explicitly he had given her to understand that his standards of honesty would not square with hers, since he lived in a rough mining camp where questions had two sides and were not to be determined by abstract rule.

As for Joyce, the charges against Kilmeny did not disturb her in the least. He might be all they said of him and more; so long as he interested her that was enough. Just now her head was full of the young man. In the world of her daydreams many suitors floated nebulously. Past and present she had been wooed by a sufficient number. But of them all not one had moved her pulses as this impossible youth of the unmapped desert West had done. Queer errant impulses tugged at her well-disciplined mind and stormed the creed of worldliness with which she had fenced her heart.

A stroll to view the sunset had been arranged by the young people up what was known as Son-of-a-Gun Hill. Moya walked of course with Captain Kilmeny, her betrothed. Joyce saw to it that Verinder was paired with India, Jack Kilmeny falling to her lot. Since India knew that her escort was eager to get with Miss Seldon, she punished his impatience by loitering far behind the others.

During the past few days Jack had pushed his tentative suit boldly but lightly. He understood that Joyce was flirting with him, but he divined that there had been moments when the tide of her emotion had swept the young woman from her feet. She was a coquette, of course, but when his eyes fell like a plummet into hers they sounded depths beneath the surface foam. At such times the beat of the surf sounded in his blood. The spell of sex, with all its fire and passion, drew him to this lovely creature so prodigal of allure.

The leading couples stood for a moment's breathing space near the summit. Beneath them the squalid little town huddled in the draw and ran sprawling up the hillsides. Shaft-houses and dumps disfigured even the business street.

Joyce gave a laughing little shudder. "Isn't it a horrid little hole?"

Jack looked at her in surprise, but it was Moya that answered.

"Oh, I don't think so, Joyce. Of course it's not pretty, but-doesn't it seem to stand for something big and-well, indomitable? Think of all the miles of tunnels and stopes, of all the work that has gone into making them." She stopped to laugh at her own enthusiasm before she added: "Goldbanks stands to me for the hope in the human heart that rises in spite of everything. It is the product of an idea."

Miss Seldon gave a little lift to her superb shoulders. "You're incurably romantic, Moya. It's only a scramble for money, after all."

"Don't know about that, Miss Seldon," disagreed Captain Kilmeny. "Of course it's gold they all want. But gold stands for any number of good things, tangible and abstract-success, you know, and home, and love, and kiddies, the better development of the race-all that sort of thing."

"Is that what it means to the highgraders too?" Joyce let her smiling eyes rest with innocent impudence in those of the miner.

Kilmeny showed no sign of discomfiture. His gaze met hers fully and steadily. "Something of that sort, I suppose."

"Just what is a highgrader?"

Moya held her breath. The debonair lightness of the question could not rob it of its significance. Nobody but Joyce would have dared such a home thrust.

Jack laughed dryly. "A highgrader is a miner who saves the company for which he works the trouble of having valuable ore smelted."

"But doesn't the ore belong to the company?"

"There's a difference of opinion about that. Legally it does, morally it doesn't-not all of it. The man who risks his life and the support of his family by working underground is entitled to a share of the profit, isn't he?"

"He gets his wages, doesn't he?"

"Enough to live on-if he doesn't want to live too high. But is that all he is entitled to? Your friend"-he waved a hand toward Verinder, puffing up the trail a hundred yards below-"draws millions of dollars in dividends from the work of these men. What does he do to earn it?"

"You're a socialist," charged Joyce gayly. "Or is it an anarchist that believes such dreadful things?"

"Mr. Kilmeny doesn't quite believe all he says," suggested Moya quietly.

"Don't I?" Behind Jack's quizzical smile there was a hint of earnestness. "I believe that Dobyans Verinder is a parasite in Goldbanks. He gobbles up the product of others' toil."

Joyce flashed at him a swift retort. "Then if you believe that, you ought to be a highgrader yourself."

"Joyce," reproved Moya, aghast.

"I mean, of course, in principle," her friend amended, blushing slightly at her own audacity.

Her impudence amused the miner. "Perhaps I am-in principle."

"But only in principle," she murmured, tilting a radiant challenge at him.

"Exactly-in principle," he agreed. There was humor in his saturnine

face.

Joyce ventured one daring step further. "But of course in practice--"

"You should have been a lawyer, Miss Seldon," he countered. "If you were, my reply would be that by advice of counsel I must decline to answer."

"Oh, by advice of counsel! Dear me, that sounds dreadfully legal, doesn't it, Moya? Isn't that what criminals say when--?"

"--When they don't want to give themselves away. I believe it is," he tossed back with the same lightness. "Before I make confession I shall want to know whether you are on my side-or Verinder's."

Under the steady look of his bold, possessive eyes the long silken lashes fell to the soft cheeks. Joyce understood the unvoiced demand that lay behind the obvious one. He had thrown down the gage of battle. Was she for Verinder or for him? If he could have offered her one-half the advantages of his rival, her answer would not have been in doubt. But she knew she dared not marry a poor man, no matter how wildly his presence could set her pulses flying or how great her longing for him. Not the least intention of any romantic absurdity was in her mind. When the time came for choice she would go to Verinder and his millions. But she did not intend to let Jack Kilmeny go yet.

She lifted to him a face flushed and excited, answering apparently his words and not his thoughts. "I haven't decided yet. How can I tell till I hear what you have to say for yourself?"

"You couldn't find a more charming sister confessor for your sins," the captain told his cousin.

"I'll do my best," Joyce promised. Then, with a flash of friendly malice: "But I haven't had the experience of Moya. She is just perfect in the r?le. I know, because she hears all mine."

Moya flushed resentfully. She did not intend to set up for a prude, but she certainly did not mean to treat highgrading as if it were a joke. If Jack Kilmeny was innocent, why did he not indignantly deny the charge?

"Afraid I'll have to be excused," she said, a little stiffly.

"Miss Dwight doesn't approve of me," explained the miner. "If I confessed to her she would probably turn me over to the sheriff."

The girl's quick eyes flashed into his. "I don't approve of taking ore that doesn't belong to one-if that's what you mean, Mr. Kilmeny."

Jack liked the flare of temper in her. She was very human in her impulses. At bottom, too, he respected the integrity of mind that refused to compromise with what she thought was wrong.

But no admission of this showed in his strong brown face. His mordant eyes mocked her while he went into a whimsical argument to show that highgrading was really a virtue, since it tended to keep the rich from growing richer and the poor poorer. He wanted to know by what moral right Verinder owned the Mollie Gibson and the Never Quit any more than he did.

The mine owner, puffing from the exertions of the last bit of ascent, exclaimed indignantly: "Own 'em, by Jove! Doesn't a Johnny own what he buys and pays for?"

"You don't suppose that when God or Nature or the First Cause created that ore vein a million years ago he had Dobyans Verinder in mind as the owner," derided Kilmeny.

"That's all anarchistic rot, you know. Those mines are my property, at least a commanding interest. They're mine because I bought the shares. Government is founded on a respect for property rights."

"So I've observed," retorted Jack dryly. "I'd back that opinion, too, if I owned half of Goldbanks."

"I suppose Mr. Kilmeny's highgrading friends are superior to law. It isn't necessary for them to abide by the rules society has found best for its protection," Moya suggested.

The engaging smile of the accused rested upon Miss Dwight. "I met you and your friends in a motor car yesterday. I'll bet that speedometer said twenty-five miles, but the town ordinance puts the speed limit at fifteen. What about that?"

"You know that's different. No moral question was involved. But when it comes to taking what belongs to another-well, a thief is a thief."

"Right as a rivet, Miss Dwight. But you're begging the question. Does that ore belong to Dobyans Verinder any more than it does to-well, to Jack Kilmeny, say for the sake of argument? I go down there and risk my life blasting it out. He--"

"But you don't," interrupted Moya.

"Not to-day perhaps-or yesterday. But I did last year and the year before that. I've brought up in my arms the bodies of men torn to pieces and carried them to their wives and kiddies. How about those women and children? Haven't they earned an interest in the mine? Isn't their moral claim greater than that of Mr. Verinder, who sits in London and draws the dividends?"

"They are pensioned, aren't they?"

"They are not," returned Jack curtly. "The mine owners of Goldbanks don't believe in encouraging negligence. If these workmen hadn't taken chances they probably would not have been killed, you see. But if they didn't take chances none of the men could earn a living for their families. It is plain how very much to blame they are."

Moya looked across the summits of the hills into the brilliant sunset that lay like a wonderful canvas in the crotch of the peaks. A troubled little frown creased her forehead. For the first time there had come home to her the injustice of the social system under which she and her friends thrived. No adequate answer came to her. Verinder and Joyce joined in argument against the young miner, but Moya did not hear what they said.

She was unusually silent on the way home. Once she looked up and asked Captain Kilmeny a question.

"After all, two wrongs don't make a right, do they?"

"No, dear girl. Life's full of injustice. I dare say some of the men I lead are better than Ned Kilmeny, but I've got to forget that and sit tight in the seat that's been dealt me by the cards. If Jack is trying to justify highgrading, he hasn't a leg to stand on."

She sighed. "You don't think, do you, that--?"

He answered her broken sentence. "Don't know. He doesn't play the game by the same rules we do, but my judgment is that the gossip about him has no basis of fact."

The girl he loved gave him one grateful look and fell again into silence. She wished she felt more sure. Only that morning she had read an editorial in one of the local papers warning the men that the operators were determined to suppress highgrading at any cost, even if some of the more flagrant offenders had to be sent to the penitentiary. That such a fate could befall Jack Kilmeny was unthinkable. Yet what more likely than that the managers should choose him for an example if they could prove him guilty?

The dusk had fallen over the hills and the lights were glimmering out from the town below through the growing darkness. Captain Kilmeny walked beside his slim, tall, worshipful sweetheart with a heavy heart. She was his promised bride. That she would keep faith he did not doubt. But the progress that he made in winning her love was so little that he seemed to himself to be marking time. The shadow of his vagabond cousin still lay between them.

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