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   Chapter 17 A WARNING

The Highgrader By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 21698

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Joyce, a lover of luxury, usually had a roll and coffee in bed as a substitute for breakfast. Sometimes she varied this by appearing late at the table and putting the attendants to unnecessary trouble. This she always paid for with murmurs of apology and sweet smiles of thanks.

On the second morning after the announcement of her engagement to Dobyans Verinder she came down to find the dining-room empty except for the omnibus.

She opened wide eyes of surprise. "Dear me! Am I late?"

"Yes'm."

She glanced at the watch on her wrist. "How inconsiderate of me! I didn't realize the time. Would you mind calling a waiter?"

Meanwhile Joyce began on her grape fruit. Almost simultaneously a sound of voices reached her. Men were coming into the parlor that adjoined the breakfast room.

The high-pitched voice of her affianced lover was the first she recognized. "--to-night! Sure he said to-night?"

Joyce judged that the rough tones of the answer came from a workingman. "That's right. To-night, Bell said. He was to bring his wagon round to Kilmeny's at eleven and they were going to haul the ore to Utah Junction."

A third speaker, evidently Bleyer, the superintendent, cut in quietly. "Bell said it was to be a big shipment, didn't he?"

"Yep. Worth sixty or seventy thousand, he figured."

"Was Bell drunk?"

"I wouldn't say drunk. He had been drinking a good deal. Talkative like. He let it out as a secret, y'understand."

"Anyone there beside you?"

"A miner by the name of Peale."

"Know the man?"

It was Verinder that asked the question and Bleyer that answered.

"Yes. A bad lot. One of those that insulted the young ladies."

"Anyhow, he won't warn Kilmeny."

"Not after the mauling that young man gave him. He's still carrying the scars," Bleyer replied with a low laugh. He added briskly, after a moment, "What do you expect to get out of this, Rollins?"

The workman seemed to answer with some embarrassment. "Thought you might give me that lease in the Mollie Gibson I spoke to you about, Mr. Bleyer."

"It's yours-if this comes out as you say, my man. I'd give more than that to call the turn on Mr. Highgrader Kilmeny," Verinder promised.

"And, o' course, you won't give it away that I told."

"Certainly not."

The arrival of a waiter eliminated Joyce as a listener, for the first thing the man did was to close the door between the parlor and the dining-room.

But she had heard enough to know that Jack Kilmeny was in danger of falling into a trap that was being set for him. Verinder had him at last, just as he had promised that he would get him. No doubt they would have witnesses and would send him to prison as they had threatened.

No more than forty-eight hours earlier Joyce would have been on Kilmeny's side instantly. Now her feelings were mixed. It was still impossible for her to think of him without a flare of passion. She was jealous and resentful because she had lost him, but deeper than these lay the anger born of his scornful surrender of her. It was as if his eyes for the first time had seen the real woman stripped of the glamour lent by her beauty. His contemptuous withdrawal from the field had cut like a knife thrust. She wanted to pay him with usury for his cool, hard disdain. And she had the chance. All she had to do was to be silent and he would fall a victim to his own folly.

There was a hard glitter in the eyes of the young woman. Perhaps Mr. Highgrader Kilmeny, as Verinder had called him, would not be so prodigal of contempt for other people when he stood in the criminal dock. He had been brutally unkind to her. Was she to blame because he was too poor to support her properly? He ought to thank her for having the good sense not to tie herself like a millstone about his neck. They could not live on love just because for the moment passion had swept them from their feet. Instead of being angry at her, he should sympathize with her for being the victim of a pressure which had driven her to a disagreeable duty.

Her simmering anger received a fillip from an accidental meeting with Kilmeny, the first since the night of her engagement. Joyce and Moya were coming out of a stationer's when they came face to face with the miner.

The eyes of the young man visibly hardened. He shook hands with them both and exchanged the usual inane greetings as to the weather. It was just as they were parting that he sent his barbed shot into Joyce.

"I mustn't keep you longer, Miss Seldon. One can guess how keen you must be to get back to Verinder. Love's young dream, and that sort of thing, eh?"

The jeer that ran through his masked insolence brought the angry color to the cheeks of Joyce. She bit her lip to keep back tears of vexation, but it was not until she was in her room with Moya that the need for a confidant overflowed into speech.

"Did you ever hear anything so hateful? He made love to me on the hill.... I let him.... He knows I ... am fond of him. I told him that I loved him. And now...."

Moya stared at her in amaze. "Do you mean that you let Mr. Kilmeny make love to you an hour or two before you became engaged to Mr. Verinder?"

"For Heaven's sake, don't be a prude, Moya," Joyce snapped irritably. "I told you I was fond of him, didn't I? How could I help his kissing me ... or help liking to have him? He ought to be glad. Instead, he insults me." Miss Seldon's self-pity reached the acute stage of sobs. "I was in love with him. Why is he so hard?"

"Perhaps he thinks that since he is in love with you and you with him that gives him some claim," Moya suggested dryly.

"Of course that's what he thinks. But it's absurd. I'm not going to marry Dobyans Verinder because I want to. He knows that as well as you do. Why does he blame me, then? Goodness knows, it's hard enough to marry the man without having my friends misunderstand."

Moya asked an unnecessary question. "Why do you marry him, then?"

"You know perfectly well," flashed Joyce petulantly. "I'm taking him because I must."

"Like a bad-tasting dose of medicine?"

Her friend nodded. "I can't let him go. I just can't. Jack Kilmeny ought to see that."

"Oh, he sees it, but you can't blame him for being bitter."

At the recollection of his impudence anger flared up in Joyce.

"Let him be as bitter as he pleases, then. I happen to know something he would give a good deal to learn. Mr. Jack Kilmeny is going to get into trouble this very night. They've laid a plot--"

She stopped, warned by the tense stillness of Moya.

"Yes?" asked the Irish girl.

"Oh, well! It doesn't matter."

"Who has laid a plot?"

"I've no business to tell. I just happened to overhear something."

"What did you overhear?"

"Nothing much."

"I want to know just what you heard."

Against the quiet steadfast determination of this girl Joyce had no chance. A spirit that did not know defeat inhabited the slender body.

Bit by bit Moya forced out of her the snatch of conversation she had overheard while at breakfast.

"It's a secret. You're not to tell anyone," Joyce protested.

Her friend drummed on the arm of the chair with the tips of her fingers. She was greatly troubled at what she had learned. She was a young woman, singularly stanch to her friends, and certainly she owed something to Verinder. The whole party were his guests at Goldbanks. He had brought them in a private car and taken care of them munificently. There were times when Moya disliked him a good deal, but that would not justify an act of treachery. If she warned Jack Kilmeny-and Moya did not pretend to herself for an instant that she was not going to do this-she would have to make confession to Verinder later. This would be humiliating, doubly so because she knew the man believed she was in love with the Goldbanks miner.

In her heart the Irish girl did not doubt that Jack was guilty, but this would not prevent her from saving him if she could. There came to her a swift vision of two helpless girls in a cabin with drinking ruffians, of the entry of a man into the picture, of his fight against odds to save her and Joyce from insult. Beside this abstract justice became a pale and misty virtue.

"Of course you'll not tell anyone," Joyce repeated.

Moya brought her gaze back from the window. "I shall tell Mr. Kilmeny."

"But it isn't your secret. You have no right to."

"Have you forgotten that night in the cabin?" asked Moya in a low, clear voice. "If you have, I haven't."

"I don't care," Joyce answered petulantly. "He's so hard. Why can't he be nice about this? Why can't he understand-instead of sneering at me? It's a good deal harder for me than for him. Think of fifty years of Dobyans Verinder."

"Would you care to write Mr. Kilmeny a note? I'll take it to him if you like," Moya suggested gently.

Joyce considered. "No, I couldn't put it on paper. But-you might tell him."

"I don't think I could quite do that."

"If it came up right; just show him how I'm placed."

"Perhaps. Shall I tell him that you asked me to warn him?"

Joyce nodded, eyes shining. She was a young woman capable of changing her mind in the snap of a finger. Dainty and exquisite as apple blossoms, she was like a young plant with delicate tendrils forever reaching out. Love she must have and ever more of it. To admiration she was sensitive in every fiber. Whenever she thought of Jack Kilmeny's contempt tears scorched her eyes.

It was like Moya that she carried her warning immediately and directly. Kilmeny was not easy to find. He had been seen entering the office of a lawyer, but had left before she arrived. The attorney understood Jack to say that he was going to an assayer's office, and the young woman learned there that he had not been seen yet by the assayer. From here she walked toward his boarding house, thinking that she might catch him at lunch.

A quick step on the boardwalk behind her caught the girl's attention. Almost at the same moment a voice hailed her.

"Whither away, Miss Dwight?"

She turned, heart beating fast. "I was looking for you, Mr. Kilmeny."

"And you've found me. What luck-for Jack Kilmeny!" His friendly smile-the same one that had claimed comradeship on the Gunnison-beamed upon her with its hint of irony.

A miner with a dinner bucket was coming toward them. Moya spoke quickly.

"I want to see you ... alone. I've something important to tell you."

His cool eyes searched her face alertly. "Come up with me to the old Pandora dump."

They took a side street that ran up the hill, presently came to the end of it, and stopped at the foot of a trail leading to the abandoned shaft-house.

The girl fired her news at him point blank. "Mr. Verinder has found out what you mean to do to-night and you are to be trapped."

"What I mean t

o do?" he repeated.

"About the ore-shipping it or something. I don't know exactly-somebody was drinking and talked, I think."

Moya, watching Kilmeny's face, saw only the slightest change. The eyes seemed to harden and narrow the least in the world.

"Tell me all you know about it."

She repeated what Joyce had overheard, adding that her friend had asked her to tell him.

The faintest ironic smile touched his face. "Will you thank Miss Seldon for me, both for this and many other favors?"

"You don't understand Joyce. You're not fair to her," Moya said impulsively.

"Perhaps not." A sudden warmth kindled in his eyes. "But I know who my real friends are. I'm fair to them, neighbor."

The color beat into her face, but she continued loyally. "May I ... assume you have a kindly interest in Joyce?"

"I'll listen to anything you care to tell me. I owe my friend, Miss Dwight, that much."

"She told me ... a little about you and her. Be fair to her. Remember how she has been brought up. All her life it has been drilled into her that she must make a good match. It's a shameful thing. I hate it. But ... what can a girl like Joyce do?"

"You justify her?"

"I understand her. A decision was forced on her. She had no time to choose. And-if you'll forgive my saying so-I think Joyce did wisely, since she is what she is."

"Of course she did," he answered bitterly.

"Think of her. She doesn't love him, but she sacrifices her feeling to what she considers her duty."

"Shall we substitute ambition for duty?"

"If you like. Her position is not a happy one, but she must smile and be gay and hide her heartache. You can afford to be generous, Mr. Kilmeny."

"I've been a fool," he admitted dryly. "The turn that things have taken is the best possible one for me. But I'm not quite prepared to thank Miss Seldon yet for having awakened me."

She saw that his vanity was stung more than his heart. His infatuation for her had been of the senses. The young woman shifted to another issue.

"You'll be careful to-night, won't you?"

"Very. Mr. Verinder will have to wait for his coup, thanks to you."

"You mean...?" The question hung fire on her lips.

"Go on, neighbor."

"No. It was something I had no business to ask." The cheeks beneath the dusky eyes held each a patch of color burning through the tan.

"Then I'll say it for you. You were going to ask if they would really have caught me with the goods. Wasn't that it?"

She nodded, looking straight at him with the poise of lithe, slim youth he knew so well. Her very breathing seemed for the moment suspended while she waited, tremulous lips apart, for his answer.

"Yes."

"You mean that ... you are a highgrader?"

"Yes."

"I ... was afraid so."

His eyes would not release her. "You made excuses for Miss Seldon. Can you find any for me?"

"You are a man. You are strong. It is different with you."

"My sin is beyond the pale, I suppose?"

"How do I know? I'm only a girl. I've never seen anything of real life. Can I judge you?"

"But you do."

The troubled virginal sweetness of the girl went to his soul. She was his friend, and her heart ached because of his wrongdoing.

"I can't make myself think wrong is right."

"You think the profits from these mines should all go to Verinder and his friends, that none should belong to the men who do the work?"

"I don't know.... That doesn't seem fair.... But I'm not wise enough to know how to make that right. The law is the law. I can't go back of that."

"Can't you? I can. Who makes the laws?" He asked it almost harshly.

"The people, I suppose."

"Nothing of the kind. The operators control the legislatures and put through whatever bills they please. I went to the legislative assembly once and we forced through an eight hour law for underground workers. The state Supreme Court, puppets of capital, declared the statute unconstitutional. The whole machinery of government is owned by our masters. What can we do?"

"I don't know."

"Neither do I-except what I am doing. It is against the law, all right, but I try to see that the workmen get some of the profits they earn."

"Would the operators-what would they do if they proved you guilty of highgrading?"

"It is hard to prove. Ore can't easily be identified."

"But if they did?" she persisted.

"I'd go over the road quick as their courts could send me." A sardonic flicker of amusement moved him to add: "Would you obey the Scriptural injunction and visit me in prison, Miss Dwight?"

"I wouldn't be here. We're going back to England next week."

"But if you were. Would your friendship stand the test?"

Once again she answered, "I don't know," her heart beating wildly as her glance fell away from his.

"I shan't have to try you out this time, neighbor. I'm not going to the pen if I can help it."

"Are you sure of that? The mine owners are quite determined to punish some of the highgraders. Suppose I hadn't come to you to-day. What then?"

He smiled down upon her with the easy recklessness that distinguished him. "I don't think it would have run quite to a prison sentence. The burden of proof lies on the accuser. Because I am in possession of rich ore, it does not follow that I did not come by it legitimately. Ore can't be sworn to like bric-a-brac. I may have shipped this in from South Africa, so far as the law knows. Bleyer knows that. I figure he would have played his hand in the Goldbanks way."

"And how would that be?"

"He would forget the law too, just as we've done on our side. A posse of men would have fallen on me maybe after I had got out of town, and they would have taken that ore from me. They would have been masked so that I could not swear to them."

"Why, that is highway robbery."

He laughed. "We don't use such big words out here, ma'am. Just a hold-up-a perfectly legitimate one, from Bleyer's viewpoint-and it would have left me broke."

"Broke!"

He nodded. "Dead broke. I've got twenty thousand dollars invested in that ore-every cent I've got in the world."

"You paid that to the miners for it?"

"We pay fifty per cent. of what is coming to the men as soon as a rough assay is made, the other fifty after we get the smelter returns. That wagon load of ore is worth-unless I miss my guess badly-about sixty thousand dollars."

"Dear me. So much as that?" She could not quite keep a note of sarcasm out of her voice. "And have you it in a safety deposit vault?"

His cool gaze took her in quietly. He was willing to bet his last dollar on her loyalty, and it was like him to back his judgment in one wild throw. "Not exactly. It is lying in a pile of hay in my barn, all sacked up ready for shipment."

"Waiting there for anybody that wants it," she suggested.

"For anybody that wants it worse than I do," he corrected, the fighting gleam in his eyes.

"I've a right to ask one thing of you-that there will be no bloodshed to-night because of what I have told you."

"There will be none of my seeking," he replied grimly.

"No. That's not enough. You must find a way to avoid it."

"By handing over my hard-earned dishonest profits to the virtuous Verinder?" he asked dryly.

"I don't care how. But I won't have on my shoulders ... murder."

"That's a right hard word, neighbor," he said, falling again into the Western drawl he sometimes used as a mark of his friendship for her. "But have it your own way. I'll not even tote a gat."

"Thank you." She gave him a brisk little nod, suddenly choked up in her throat, and turned to go.

Jack fell into step beside her. "Have I lost my little friend-the one who used to come to me in my dreams and whisper with a lisp that I wasn't a 'stwanger'?" he asked, very gently.

She swallowed twice and walked on without looking at him. But every nerve of her was conscious of his stimulating presence. Since the inner man found expression in that lithe body with the undulating flow of well-packed muscles, in the spare head set so finely on the perfect shoulders, in the steady eyes so frank and self-reliant, surely he was not unworthy the friendship of any woman. But he had just confessed himself a thief. What right had he to ask or she to give so much?

Her hand went out in an impetuous little gesture of despair. "How do I know? You are doing wrong, but ... Oh, why do you do such things?"

"It's in my blood not to let prudence stop me when I've made up my mind to a thing. My father was that way. I'm trying in a rough way to right an injustice-and I like the excitement-and I daresay I like the loot too," he finished with a reckless laugh.

"I wish I could show you how wrong you are," she cried in a low voice.

"You can't. I'll go my own way. But you are still going to let me come and visit you in your dreams, aren't you?"

The glow in her quick live eyes was not a reflection of the sun. She felt the color flood her cheeks in waves. She dared not look at him, but she was poignantly aware that his gaze was fixed on her, that it seemed to bore to the soul and read the hidden secret there. A queer lightheadedness affected her. It was as if her body might float away into space. She loved him. Whatever he was, the man held her heart in the hollow of his careless, reckless hand. To him she would always deny it-or would have if he had thought enough of her to ask-but she knew the truth about herself from many a passionate hour of despair.

Dry as a whisper came her answer, in a voice which lacked the nonchalance she tried to give it. "I daresay I'll be as friendly ... as you deserve."

"You've got to be a heap more friendly than that, partner."

They had come back to the boardwalk which marked the parting of the ways for them. She had won control of herself again and offered him a steady hand.

"I suppose we'll not see each other again.... Good-by."

He was suddenly conscious that he desired very greatly her regard and her approval.

"Is that all you have to say? Are you going to leave me like this?"

"What more is there to be said?" She asked it quietly, with the calm courage that had its birth in hopelessness.

"This much, at least. I don't release you from ... the old tie that used to bind us. We're still going to be dream friends. I haven't forgotten little Moya, who kissed me one night on the deck of the Victorian."

"She was a baby at the time," answered the girl.

He had not released her hand. Now, as he looked straight into the sweet face with eyes like troubled stars, it came to him on a flood of light that he had made a fatal mistake.

He dropped her fingers abruptly. "Good-by."

His crisp footfalls seemed to print themselves on a heart of lead. How could she know that he carried away with him a vision of sweet youth that was to endure!

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