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   Chapter 16 ONE MAID—TWO MEN

The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 20822

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Jack saw to it that he and Joyce followed the others down the trail at a very leisurely pace. The early night of the Rockies was already cutting them off from the rest of the world. Captain Kilmeny and his betrothed could be seen as shadows growing every minute more tenuous. India and her escort were already lost in the descending darkness.

It was the first time that the Goldbanks miner had ever been alone with Miss Seldon. He meant to make the most of his chance. Her loveliness sang its way through his alert, masterful eyes into the blood of the man. Where else under heaven could a woman be found with such a glory of amber extravagance for hair, with such exquisitely turned scarlet lips in so fine-textured colorless a skin of satin? She moved with the lightness of perfect health, the long, graceful lines of her limbs breaking into new curves at every step. Sinuous and supple, she was exquisitely feminine to the finger tips.

They talked little, and that irrelevantly. In both of them the tide of emotion ran full. Each was drawn by the subtle irresistible magnet of sex attraction. When their eyes met it was but for an instant. A shyness, delirious and delightful, ran like a golden thread through the excitement which burned their blood.

"We ... must hurry." Joyce breathed deep, as if she had been running.

"Why must we?" he demanded. "This is my hour. I claim it."

"But ... they're getting ahead of us."

"Let them." He gave her his hand to help her down a steep place in the trail. Their fingers laced, palm clinging to palm.

"You ... mustn't," she protested.

"Mustn't I?"

"No-o."

The note of faintness was in her voice. Courage flooded him in triumphant waves. A moment and his arms were about her, the velvet of her cheek against his. She lay still for an instant, pulses throbbing wildly. But when his lips found hers the woman in her awoke. In an ecstasy of tenderness her arms crept around his neck, and she clung to him. A distant sea surf roared in her ears. For the first time in her life passion had drowned coquetry.

They spoke in kisses, in caresses, in little murmured nothings, as lovers will till the end of time. Something sweet and turbulent swelled in her bosom, an emotion new and inexplicable. For the first time in many experiences of the sex duel she was afraid of herself, of the strength of this impassioned feeling that was sweeping her. She disengaged herself from his embrace and stood back.

Beneath the quick probe of his eyes a faint tremor passed through her body. The long lashes fell to the hot cheeks and curtained lambent windows of light.

"What are we doing?" she cried softly.

"Doing? I'm making love to you, sweetheart, and you're telling me you love me for it," he answered, capturing her hands.

"Yes, but ... I don't want you to ... make love to me ... that way."

"You do." He laughed aloud, and with a swift motion drew her to him again. "We belong, you witch."

His ardent kisses smothered her and drew the color into her lovely face. She yearned toward him, faint with a sweet, exquisite longing. Was this love then? Had it at last trapped her in spite of her cool wariness? She did not know. All she was sure of was that she wanted to be in his strong arms and to feel forever this champagne leap of the blood.

* * * * *

With the excuse that she must dress for dinner, Joyce went at once to her room and locked the door. Discarding the walking suit she was wearing, she slipped into a negligee gown and seated herself before the glass. She liked, while thinking things over, to look at herself in the mirror. The picture that she saw always evoked pleasant fugitive memories. It was so now. Never had her beauty seemed so radiant and vital, so much an inspiration of the spirit in her. Joyce could have kissed the parted scarlet lips and the glowing pansy eyes reflected back to her. It was good to be young and lovely, to know that men's hearts leaped because of her, especially that of the untamed desert son who had made love to her so masterfully.

How had he dared? She was a rare imperious queen of hearts. No man before had ever ravished kisses from her in such turbulent fashion. When she thought of the abandon with which she had given herself to his lips and his embrace, the dye deepened on her cheeks. What was this shameless longing that had carried her to him as one looking down from a high tower is drawn to throw himself over the edge? He had trampled under foot the defenses that had availed against many who had a hundred times his advantages to offer.

It was of herself, not him, that she was afraid. She had wanted his kisses. She had rejoiced in that queer, exultant stir of the blood when his eyes stabbed fathoms deep into hers. What was the matter with her? Always she had felt a good-natured contempt for girls who threw away substantial advantages for what they called love. After steering a course as steady as a mariner's compass for years was she going to play the fool at last? Was she going to marry a pauper, a workingman, one accused of crime, merely because of the ridiculous emotion he excited in her?

The idea was of course absurd. The most obvious point of the situation to her was that she dared not marry him. In her sober senses she would not want to do such a ruinous thing. Already she was beginning to escape from the thrill of his physical presence. He had taken the future for granted, and during that mad quarter of an hour she had let him. Carried away by his impetuosity and her own desire, she had consented to his preposterous hopes. But of a certainty the idea was absurd. Joyce Seldon was the last woman in the world to make a poor man's wife.

To-morrow she must have a serious talk with him and set the matter on a proper footing. She must not let herself be swept away by any quixotic sentiment. The trouble was that she liked him so well. When they met, her good resolutions would be likely to melt in the air. She would safeguard herself from her weakness by telling him during a ride that had been planned. With her friends a few yards in front of them there could be no danger of yielding to her febrile foolishness.

Or perhaps it would be better to wait. It was now only ten days till the time set for leaving. She might write him her decision. It would be sweet to hold him as long as she could....

A knock at the door aroused her from revery. She let Fisher in and made preparations to have her hair dressed. This was always one of the important duties of the day. India and Moya might scamp such things on the plea that they were thousands of miles from civilization, but Joyce knew what was due her lovely body and saw that the service was paid rigorously. She chose to wear to-night a black gown that set off wonderfully the soft beauty of her face and the grace of her figure. Jack Kilmeny was to be there later for bridge, and before he came she had to dazzle and placate Verinder, who had been for several days very sulky at having to play second fiddle.

When Joyce sailed down the corridor to the parlor which adjoined the private dining-room of the party, she caught a glimpse of Verinder turning a corner of the passage toward his room. Lady Farquhar was alone in the parlor.

"Didn't I see Mr. Verinder going out?" asked Joyce, sinking indolently into the easiest chair and reaching for a magazine.

"Yes. At least he was here." After a moment Lady Farquhar added quietly, "He leaves to-morrow."

Joyce looked up quickly. "Leaves where?"

"Goldbanks. He is starting for London."

"But.... What about the reorganization of the companies? I thought...."

"He has changed his plans. James is to have his proxies and to arrange the consolidation. Mr. Verinder is anxious to get away at once."

After an instant's consideration Joyce laughed scornfully. She was dismayed by this sudden move, but did not intend to show it. "Isn't this rather ... precipitous? We're all going in a few days. Why can't he wait?"

Her chaperone looked at Joyce as she answered. "Urgent business, he says."

"Urgent fiddlesticks!" Joyce stifled a manufactured yawn. "I dare say we bore him as much as he does us. Wish we were all back in grimy old London."

"It won't be long now." Lady Jim answered with a smile at the other suggestion. "No, I don't think business calls him, and I don't think he is bored."

Joyce understood the significance of the retort. Verinder at last had revolted against being played with fast and loose. He was going because of her violent flirtation with Jack Kilmeny. This was his declaration of independence.

Miss Seldon was alarmed. She had not for a minute intended to let the millionaire escape. The very possibility of it frightened her. It had not occurred to her that the little man had spirit enough to resent her course so effectively. With the prospect of losing it in sight, his great wealth loomed up to dwarf the desire of the hour. She blamed herself because in the excitement of her affair with Kilmeny she had for the first time in her life let herself forget real values.

But Joyce was too cool a hand to waste time in repining so long as there was a chance to repair the damage. Was the lost prize beyond recovery? Two points were in her favor. Verinder had not yet gone, and he was very much infatuated with her. No doubt his vanity was in arms. He would be shy of any advances. His intention was to beat a retreat in sulky dignity, and he would not respond to any of the signals which in the past had always brought him to heel. It all rested on the fortuity of her getting five minutes alone with him. Granted this, she would have a chance. There are ways given to women whereby men of his type can be placated. She would have to flatter him by abasing herself, by throwing herself upon his mercy. But since this must be done, she was prepared to pay the price.

It appeared that Dobyans Verinder did not intend to give her an opportunity. From the soup to the walnuts the topic of conversation had to do with the impending departure of the mine owner. Joyce was prepared to be very kind to him, but he did not for an instant let his eyes dwell in hers. Behind the curtain of her dark silken lashes she was alertly conscious of the man without appearing to be so. He meant to snub her, to leave without seeing her alone. That was to be her punishmen

t for having cut too deep into his self-esteem. He was going to jilt her.

During dinner and during that subsequent half hour while the ladies waited for the men to rejoin them, Joyce was in a tremor of anxiety. But she carried herself with an indifference that was superb. She had taken a chair at the far end of the long parlor close to a French window opening upon a porch. Apparently she was idly interested in a new novel, but never had she been more watchful. If she had a chance to play her hand she would win; if the luck broke against her she would lose.

Most of her friends had mothers to maneuver for them. Joyce had none, but she was not one to let that stand in her way. Already she had made her first move by asking Lord Farquhar in a whisper not to linger long over the cigars. He had nodded silently, and she knew he would keep his word. If Jack would only stay away until she could see Verinder....

She called the mine owner to her the instant that the men reappeared. He looked across the room sullenly and appeared for one dubious moment to hesitate. But before he could frame an excuse she had spoken again.

"I want you to see this ridiculous illustration. It is the most amusing...."

Without any hesitation she had summoned him before them all. He could not rudely refuse her the ordinary civilities that pass current in society. Sulkily he moved to her side.

She held up the book to him. No illustration met the eyes of the surprised man. Joyce was pointing to a sentence in the story heavily underscored by a pencil.

"Why are you so cruel to me?"

His chin dropped with amazement. Then slowly an angry flush rose to his face. His jaw set firmly as he looked at her.

"Yes, it's certainly ridiculous ... and amusing," he said aloud.

"There's another, too," she went on quickly, recovering the book.

Her fingers turned a page or two swiftly. On the margin was a penciled note.

"I must see you alone, Dobyans. I must."

She lifted to him a face flushed and eager, from which wounded eyes filmy with tears appealed to him. Her shyness, her diffidence, the childlike call upon his chivalry were wholly charming. She was a distractingly pretty woman, and she had thrown herself upon his mercy. Verinder began insensibly to soften, but he would not give up his grievance.

"It's amusing, too-and unnecessary, I think," he said.

The long lashes fluttered tremulously to her cheeks. It seemed to him that she was on the verge of unconsciousness, that the pent emotion was going to prove too much for her.

"I-I think the story calls for it," she answered, a little brokenly.

He retorted, still carrying on the conversation that was to mean one thing to the others in case they heard and another to them. "Depends on the point of view, I suppose. The story is plain enough-doesn't need any more to carry its meaning."

He was standing between her and the rest of the party. Joyce laid an appealing hand on his coat sleeve. Tears brimmed over from the soft eyes. She bit her lip and turned her head away. If ever a woman confessed love without words Joyce was doing it now. Verinder's inflammable heart began to quicken.

"Where?" he asked grudgingly, lowering his voice.

A glow of triumphant relief swept through her. She had won. But the very nearness of her defeat tempered pride to an emotion still related to gratitude. The warm eyes that met his were alive with thanks. She moved her head slightly toward the window.

In another moment they stood outside, alone in the darkness. The night was chill and she shivered at the change from the warm room. Verinder stepped back into the parlor, stripped from the piano the small Navajo rug that draped it, and rejoined Joyce on the porch. He wrapped it about her shoulders.

She nodded thanks and led him to the end of the porch. For a few moments she leaned on the railing and watched the street lights. Then, abruptly, she shot her question at him.

"Why are you going away?"

Stiff as a poker, he made answer. "Business in London, Miss Seldon. Sorry to leave and all that, but--"

She cut him off sharply. "I want the truth. What have I done that you should ... treat me so?"

Anger stirred in him again. "Did I say you had done anything?"

"But you think I'm to blame. You know you do."

"Do I?" His vanity and suspicion made him wary, though he knew she was trying to win him back. He told himself that he had been made a fool of long enough.

"Yes, you do ... and it's all your fault." She broke down and turned half from him. Deep sobs began to rack her body.

"I'd like to know how it's my fault," he demanded resentfully. "Am I to blame because you broke your engagement to walk with me and went with that thief Kilmeny?"

"Yes." The word fell from her lips so low that he almost doubted his ears.

"What? By Jove, that's rich!"

Her luminous eyes fell full into his, then dropped. "If ... if you can't see--"

"See what? I see you threw me overboard for him. I see you've been flirting a mile a minute with the beggar and playing fast and loose with me. I'm hanged if I stand it."

"Oh, Dobyans! Don't you see? I ... I ... You made me."

"Made you?"

She was standing in profile toward him. He could see the quiver of her lip and the shadows beneath her eyes. Already he felt the lift of the big wave that was to float him to success.

"I ... have no mother."

"Don't take the point."

She spoke as a troubled child, as if to the breezes of the night. "I have to be careful. You know how people talk. Could I let them say that I ... ran after you?" The last words were almost in a whisper.

"Do you mean...?"

"Oh, couldn't you see? How blind men are!"

The little man, moved to his soul because this proud beauty was so deeply in love with him, took her in his arms and kissed her.

A little shudder went through her blood. It had not been two hours since Jack Kilmeny's kisses had sent a song electrically into her veins. But she trod down the momentary nausea with the resolute will that had always been hers. Verinder had paid for the right to caress her. He had offered his millions for the privilege. She too must pay the price for what she received.

"We must go in," she told him presently. "They will wonder."

"They won't wonder long, by Jove," he replied, a surge of triumph in his voice.

Joyce looked at him quickly. "You're not going to tell them to-night?"

He nodded. "To-night, my beauty."

"Oh, no. Please not to-night. Let's ... keep it to ourselves for a few days, dear." The last word was a trifle belated, but that might be because she was not used to it.

Verinder shot a look of quick suspicion at her. "I'm going to tell them to-night-as soon as we get back into the room."

"But ... surely it's for me to say that, Dobyans. I want to keep our little secret for awhile." She caught with her hands the lapels of his dinner jacket and looked pleadingly at him.

"No-to-night." He had a good deal of the obstinacy characteristic of many stupid men, but this decision was based on shrewd sense. He held the upper hand. So long as they were in the neighborhood of Jack Kilmeny he intended to keep it.

"Even though I want to wait?"

"Why do you want to wait?" he demanded sullenly. "Because of that fellow Kilmeny?"

She knew that she had gone as far as she dared. "How absurd. Of course not. Tell them if you like, but-it's the first favor I've asked of you since--"

Her voice faltered and broke. It held a note of exquisite pathos. Verinder felt like a brute, but he did not intend to give way.

"You haven't any real reason, Joyce."

"Isn't it a reason that ... I want to keep our engagement just to ourselves for a few days? It's our secret-yours and mine-and I don't want everybody staring at us just yet, Dobyans. Don't you understand?"

"Different here," he answered jauntily. "I want to shout it from the house-top." He interrupted himself to caress her again and to kiss the little pink ear that alone was within reach. "I'll make it up to you a hundred times, but I'm jolly well set on telling them to-night, dear."

She gave up with a shrug, not because she wanted to yield but because she must. Her face was turned away from him, so that he did not see the steely look in her eyes and the hard set of the mouth. She was thinking of Jack Kilmeny. What would he say or do when he was told? Surely he would protect her. He would not give her away. If he were a gentleman, he couldn't betray a woman. But how far would the code of her world govern him? He was primeval man. Would the savagery in him break bounds?

Within five minutes she found out. Jack Kilmeny, in evening dress, was jesting in animated talk with India when the engaged couple re?ntered the room. He turned, the smile still on his face, to greet Joyce as she came forward beside Verinder. The little man was strutting pompously toward Lady Farquhar, the arm of the young woman tucked under his.

The eyes of Joyce went straight to Kilmeny in appeal for charity. In them he read both fear and shame, as well as a hint of defiant justification.

Even before the mine owner spoke everybody in the room knew what had happened on the veranda.

"Congratulate me, Lady Farquhar. Miss Seldon has promised to be my wife," Verinder sang out chirpily.

There was a chorus of ejaculations, of excited voices. Joyce disappeared into the arms of her friends, while Farquhar and Captain Kilmeny shook hands with the beaming millionaire and congratulated him. Jack's hands were filled with sheet music, but he nodded across to his successful rival.

"You're a lucky man to have won so true a heart, Mr. Verinder," he said composedly.

Joyce heard the words and caught the hidden irony. Her heart was in her throat. Did he mean to tell more?

Presently it came his turn to wish her joy. Jack looked straight at her. There was a hard smile on his sardonic face.

"I believe the right man has won you, Miss Seldon. All marriages aren't made in Heaven, but-- I've been hoping Mr. Verinder would lose out because he wasn't good enough for you. But I've changed my mind. He's just the man for you. Hope you'll always love him as much as you do now."

Joyce felt the color beat into her cheeks. She knew now that Kilmeny was not going to betray her, but she knew too that he understood and despised her.

* * *

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