"I don't like them. I'm afraid of them," she whispered.
"We mustn't let them know it," Moya whispered in her ear.
For an hour she had been racked by fears, had faced unflinchingly their low laughs and furtive glances.
Now one of the men spoke. "From Goldbanks?"
"You don't live there."
"No. We belong to the English party—Mr. Verinder's friends."
"Oh, Verinder's friends. And which of you is his particular friend?" The sneer was unmistakable.
"We started out this afternoon for wild flowers and the storm caught us," Moya hurried on.
"So you're Verinder's friends, are you? Well, we don't think a whole lot of Mr. Verinder out here."
Moya knew now that the mention of Verinder's name had been a mistake. The relations between the mine owners and the workmen in the camp were strained, and as a foreign non-resident capitalist the English millionaire was especially obnoxious. Moreover, his supercilious manners had not helped to endear him since his arrival.
The man called Dave got to his feet with a reckless laugh. "No free lodgings here for Mr. Verinder's friends. You'n got to pay for your keep, my dears."
Miss Dwight looked at him with unflinching eyes which refused to understand his meaning. "We'll pay whatever you ask and double the amount after we reach camp."
"Don't want your dirty money. Gi' us a kiss, lass. That's fair pay. We ain't above kissing Verinder's friends if he is a rotten slave driver."
Moya rose to her slender height, and the flash of courage blazed in her eyes.
"Sit down," she ordered.
The man stopped in his tracks, amazed at the resolution of the slim tall girl.
"Go on, Dave. Don't let her bluff you," his companion urged.
The miner laughed and moved forward.
"You coward, to take advantage of two girls driven to you by the storm. I didn't think the man lived that would do it," panted Moya.
"You'n got a bit to learn, miss. Whad's the use of gettin' your Dutch up. I ain't good enough for 'ee, like enough."
The girl held up a hand. "Listen!"
They could hear only the wild roar of the storm outside and the low sobs of Joyce as she lay crouched on the bed.
"Well?" he growled. "I'm listenin'. What, then?"
"I'd rather go out into that white death than stay here with such creatures as you are."
"Doan't be a fool, lass. Us'n won't hurt 'ee any," the second man reassured roughly.
"You'll stay here where it's warm. But you'll remember that we're boss in this shack. You'n came without being asked. I'm domned if you'll ride your high horse over me."
"Go on, Dave. Tak' your kiss, man."
Then the miracle happened. The door opened, and out of the swirling wind-tossed snow came a Man.
OUT OF THE STORM A MAN
He stood blinking in the doorway, white-sheeted with snow from head to heel. As his eyes became accustomed to the light they passed with surprise from the men to the young women. A flash of recognition lit in them, but he offered no word of greeting.
Plainly he had interrupted a scene of some sort. The leer on the flushed face of Dave, the look of undaunted spirit in that of the girl facing him, the sheer panic-stricken terror of her crouching companion, all told him as much. Nor was it hard to guess the meaning of that dramatic moment he had by chance chosen for his entrance. His alert eyes took in every detail, asked questions but answered none, and in the end ignored much.
"What are you doing here?" demanded one of the miners.
"Been out to the Jack Pot and was on my way back to town. Got caught in the storm and struck for the nearest shelter. A bad night out, Trefoyle." He closed the door, moved forward into the room, and threw off his heavy overcoat.
Moya had recognized him from the first instant. Now Joyce too saw who he was. She twisted lithely from the bed, slipped past Moya, past the miners, and with the sob of a frightened child caught at his hand and arm.
"Oh, Mr. Kilmeny, save us ... save us!"
Jack nodded reassuringly. "It's all right. Don't worry."
She clung to him, shivering back to self-control. This man's presence spelled safety. In the high-laced boots of a mining man, he showed a figure well-knit and graceful, springy with youth, but carrying the poise of power. His clean-cut bronzed face backed the promise; so too did the ease of his bearing.
Moya gave a deep sigh of relief and sat down on the edge of the bed, grown suddenly faint. At last her burden was lifted to stronger shoulders.
"You ain't wanted here, Jack Kilmeny," the standing miner said sourly. He was undecided what to do, perplexed and angry at this unexpected hindrance.
"Seems to be a difference of opinion about that, Peale," retorted the newcomer lightly, kicking snow from the spurs and the heels of his boots.
"Trefoyle and me own this cabin. You'll sing small, by Goad, or you'll get out."
"You wouldn't put a dog out on a night like this, let alone a man. It would be murder," Kilmeny answered mildly.
"There's horses in the tunnel. You can bed wi' them."
Jack glanced around, took in the whisky bottle and their red-rimmed eyes. He nodded agreement.
"Right you are, boys. We three will move over to the tunnel and leave the house to the women."
"You ain't got the say here, not by a domned sight, Jack Kilmeny. This'll be the way of it. You'll git out. We'll stay. Understand?" Peale ground out between set teeth.
Jack smiled, but his eyes were like steel. "Suppose we go over to the shaft-house and talk it over, boys. We'll all understand it better then."
Kilmeny still stood close to the red-hot stove. He was opening and closing his fingers to take the stiffness of the frost out of them.
"By Goad, no! You go—we stay. See?"
The young man was now rubbing industriously the thumb and forefinger of his right hand with the palm of his left.
"No, I don't see that, Peale. Doesn't sound reasonable to me. But I'll talk it over with you both—in the shaft-house."
Jack's eyes were fastened steadily on Peale. The man was standing close to a shelf in a corner of the cabin. The shelf was in the shadow, but Kilmeny guessed what lay upon it. He was glad that though his legs were still stiff and cold the fingers of his right hand had been massaged to a supple warmth.
"You be warm now, lad. Clear out," warned the big Cornishman.
"Build 'ee a fire in the tunnel, mon," suggested Trefoyle.
"We'll all go or we'll all stay. Drop that, Peale."
The last words rang out in sharp command. Quicker than the eye could follow Kilmeny's hand had brushed up past his hip and brought with it a shining thirty-eight.
Taken by surprise, Peale stood stupidly, his hand still on the shelf. His fingers had closed on a revolver, but they had found the barrel instead of the butt.
"Step forward to the table, Peale—with your hand empty. That's right. Now listen. These young women have got to sleep. They're fagged to exhaustion. We three are going over to the shaft-house. Anything you've got to say to me can be said there. Understand?"
The man stood in a stubborn sullen silence, but his partner spoke up.
"No guns along, Kilmeny, eh?"
"No. We'll leave them here."
"Good enough, eh, Peale?"
Trefoyle's small eyes glittered. Slyly he winked to his partner to agree, then got a lantern, lit it clumsily, and shuffled out with Peale at his heels.
Joyce clung to Jack's arm, bewitchingly helpless and dependent. A queer thrill went through him at the touch of her soft finger tips.
"You won't leave us," she implored. "You wouldn't, would you?"
"Only for a little while. Bolt the door. Don't open it unless I give the word." He stepped across to Moya and handed her his revolver. In a very low voice he spoke to her. "Remember. You're not to open unless I tell you to let me in. If they try to break the door shoot through it at them waist high. Shoot to kill. Promise me that."
Her dark eyes met and searched his. The faintest quiver of the lip showed that she knew what was before him. "I promise," she said in the same low voice.
Moya bolted the door after him and sat down trembling by the table, the revolver in her shaking hand. She knew he had gone to fight for them and that he had left his weapon behind according to agreement. He was going against odds just as his father had done before him in that memorable fight years ago. If they beat him they would probably kill him. And what chance had one slender man against two such giants. She shuddered.
"What are they going to do, Moya?" whispered Joyce.
Her friend looked at her steadily. "Didn't you hear? They said they wanted to talk over the arrangements."
"Yes, but—didn't it seem to you——? Why did he give you that pistol?"
"Oh, just so that we wouldn't be afraid."
Hand in hand they sat. Their hearts beat like those of frightened rabbits. The wail of the wind screaming outside seemed the cry of lost souls. Was murder being done out there while they waited?
Kilmeny strode after the Cornishmen with the light-footed step of a night nurse. Beside the huge miners he looked slight, but the flow of his rippling muscles was smooth and hard as steel. He had been in many a rough and tumble fray. The saying went in Goldbanks that he "had the guts" and could whip his weight in wildcats. There was in him the fighting edge, that stark courage which shakes the nerve of a man of lesser mettle. He knew that to-night he needed it if ever he did. For these men were strong as bears and had as little remorse.
Inside the shaft-house, his quick glance swept the dimly lighted room and took in every detail.
Trefoyle put the lantern down on a shelf and turned to the man who had interfered with them. "Is't a fight ye want, mon?"
Kilmeny knew the folly of attempting argument or appeal to their sense of right. Straight to business he cut. "I'm not hunting one. But I reckon this is up to me. I'll take you one at a time—unless you'd rather try it two to one and make sure."
His sneer stung. Peale tore off his coat with an angry roar.
"By Goad, I'm good enough for you."
Head down like a bull, he rushed at his foe. Jack sidestepped and lashed out at him as he shot past. Peale went down heavily, but scrambled awkwardly to his feet and flung himself forward again. This time Kilmeny met him fairly with a straight left, tilted back the shaggy head, and crossed with the right to the point of the jaw.
As the fellow went to the floor the second time Jack was struck heavily on the side of his face and knocked from his feet upon the body of the Cornishman. Even as he fell Kilmeny knew that Trefoyle had broken faith. He rolled over quickly, so that the latter, throwing himself heavily on top of him, kneed his partner instead of Jack.
His great hands gripped the young man as he wriggled away. By sheer strength they dragged him back. Kilmeny wrapped his legs around Trefoyle to turn over. He heard a groan and guessed the reason. The muscular legs clenched tighter the man above him, moved slowly up and down those of his foe. With a cry of pain the Cornishman flung himself to one side and tore loose. His trouser legs were ripped from thigh to calf and blood streamed down the limb. The sharp rowels of Kilmeny's spurs had sunk into the flesh and saved their owner.
Jack staggered to his feet half dazed. Peale was slowly rising, his murderous eyes fixed on the young man. The instinct of self-preservation sent the latter across the room to a pile of steel drills. As the two men followed he stooped, caught up one of the heavy bars, and thrust with a short-arm movement for Trefoyle's head. The man threw out his hands and keeled over like a stuck pig.
Kilmeny threw away his drill and fought it out with Peale. They might have been compared to a rapier and a two-handed broadsword. Jack was more than a skilled boxer. He was a cool punishing fighter, one who could give as well as take. Once Peale cornered him, bent evidently on closing and crushing his ribs with a terrific bear hug. It would have been worth a dozen lessons from a boxing master to see how the young man fought him back with jabs and uppercuts long enough to duck under the giant's arm to safety.
The wild swinging blows of the Cornishman landed heavily from time to time, but his opponent's elbow or forearm often broke the force. The lighter man was slippery as an eel, as hard to hit as a Corbett. Meanwhile, he was cutting his foe to ribbons, slashing at him with swift drives that carried the full force of one hundred seventy-five pounds, sending home damaging blows to the body that played the mischief with his wind. The big miner's face was a projection map with wheals for mountains and with rivers represented by red trickles of blood.
Quartering round the room they came again to the drills. Peale, panting and desperate, stooped for one of them. As he rose unsteadily Kilmeny closed, threw him hard, and fell on top. Jack beat savagely the swollen upturned face with short arm jolts until the fellow relaxed his hold with a moan.
"Doan't 'ee kill me, mon. I've had enough," he grunted.
Kilmeny sprang to his feet, caught up the bar of steel, and poked the prostrate man in the ribs with it.
"Get up," he ordered. "You're a pair of cowardly brutes. Can't be decent to a couple of helpless women in your power. Can't play fair in a fight with a man half the size of one of you. Get up, I say, and throw a dipperful of water in Trefoyle's face. He's not dead by a long shot, though he deserves to be."
Peale clambered to his feet in sulky submission and did as he was told. Slowly Trefoyle's eyelids flickered open.
"What be wrong wi' un?" he asked, trying to sit up.
"You got what was coming to you. Is it enough, or do you want more?"
"Did 'ee hit me, lad. Fegs, it's enough. I give you best."
"Then get up. We'll go back to the house for blankets and fuel. You'll sleep to-night with the horses in the tunnel."
The two girls shivering in the hot room heard the footsteps of the returning men as they crunched the snow. Moya sat opposite the door, white to the lips, her hand resting on the table and holding the revolver. Joyce had sunk down on the bed and had covered her face with her hands.
A cheerful voice called to them from outside.
"All right. Everything settled. Let us in, please."
Moya flew to the door and unbolted it. The Cornishmen came in first, and after them Kilmeny. At sight of the ravages of war Joyce gave a little cry of amazement. The big miners were covered with blood. They had the cowed hangdog look of thoroughly beaten men. Jack's face too was a sight, but he still walked springily.
He gave curt commands and the others obeyed him without a word. Almost the first thing he did was to step to the table and fling the whisky bottle through the door into the storm.
"We'll not need that," he said.
One of the miners gathered up their extra blankets while the other took a load of firewood.
As soon as they had gone Joyce cried breathlessly, "You fought them."
Jack looked at her and his eyes softened. All men answered to the appeal of her beauty. "We had a little argument. They couldn't see it my way. But they're satisfied now."
Moya bit her lower lip. Her eyes were shining with tears. A queer emotion welled up in her heart. But it was Joyce who put their thanks into words.
"You saved us. You're the bravest man I ever saw," she cried.
A deeper color rose to the embarrassed face of the young man. "I expect you didn't need any saving to speak of. The boys got too ambitious. That's about all." He was thinking that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever set eyes upon and thanking his lucky stars that he had come along in the nick of time.
"You can say that, Mr. Kilmeny, but we know," she answered softly.
"All right. Have it your own way, Miss Seldon," he returned with a smile.
"You'll let us doctor your wounds, won't you?" Moya asked shyly.
He laughed like a boy. "You're making me ashamed. I haven't any wounds. I ought to have washed the blood off before I came in, but I didn't have a chance. All I need is a basin of water and a towel."
The girl ran to get them for him. He protested, laughing, but was none the less pleased while they hovered about him.
"Such a dirty towel. Don't you suppose there's a clean one somewhere," Joyce said with a little moue of disgust as she handed it to him.
He shook his head. "It's like the one in 'The Virginian'—been too popular."
Moya gave him the scarf that had been around her head while she was riding. "Take this. No.... I want you to use it ... please."
After he had dried his face Jack explained their disposition for the night.
"We'll stay in the tunnel. You'll be alone here—and quite safe. No need to be in the least nervous. Make yourselves comfortable till morning if you can."
"And you—do you mean that you're going back ... to those men?" Moya asked.
"They're quite tame—ready to eat out of my hand. Don't worry about me."
"But I don't want you to go. I'm afraid to be alone. Stay here with us, Mr. Kilmeny. I don't care about sleeping," Joyce begged.
"There's nothing to be afraid of—and you need your sleep. I'll not be far away. You couldn't be safer in Goldbanks. I'll be on guard all night, you know," he reassured.
It escaped him for the moment that Joyce was thinking about her own safety, while Moya was anxious about his, but later he was to remember it.
He had not been gone ten minutes before Joyce was sound asleep. She trusted him and she trusted Moya, and for her that was enough. All her life she had relied on somebody else to bear the brunt of her troubles. But the girl with the powdered freckles beneath the dusky eyes carried her own burdens. She too had implicit confidence in the champion who had come out of the storm to help them and had taken his life in hand to do it. Her heart went out to him with all the passionate ardor of generous youth. She had never met such a man, so strong, so masterful, and yet so boyish.
Her brain was far too active for slumber. She sat before the stove and went over the adventures of the past two hours. How strange that they had met him again in this dramatic fashion. Perhaps he lived at Goldbanks now and they would see more of him. She hoped so mightily, even though there persisted in her mind a picture of his blue-gray eyes paying homage to Joyce.
SHOT TO THE CORE WITH SUNLIGHT
The storm had blown itself out before morning. A white world sparkled with flashes of sunlight when Moya opened the door of the cabin and gazed out. Looking down into the peaceful valley below, it was hard to believe that death had called to them so loudly only a few hours earlier.
Kilmeny emerged from the shaft-house and called a cheerful good-morning across to her.
"How did you sleep?" he shouted as he crunched across the snow toward her.
"Not so very well. Joyce slept for both of us."
Their smiles met. They had been comrades in the determination to shield her from whatever difficulties the situation might hold.
"I'm glad. Is she quite herself this morning? Last night she was very tired and a good deal alarmed."
"Yes. After you came Joyce did not worry any more. She knew you would see that everything came right."
The color crept into his bronzed face. "Did she say so?"
"Yes. But it was not what she said. I could tell."
"I'm glad I could do what I did."
The eyes that looked at him were luminous. Something sweet and mocking glowed in them inscrutably. He knew her gallant soul approved him, and his heart lifted with gladness. The beauty of her companion fascinated him, but he divined in this Irish girl the fine thread of loyalty that lifted her character out of the commonplace. Her slender, vivid personality breathed a vigor of the spirit wholly engaging.
Joyce joined her friend in the doorway. With her cheeks still flushed from sleep and her hair a little disheveled, she reminded Jack of a beautiful crumpled rose leaf. Since her charm was less an expression of an inner quality, she needed more than Moya the adventitious aids of dress.
The young woman's smile came out warmly at sight of Kilmeny. It was her custom always to appropriate the available man. Toward this bronzed young fellow with the splendid throat sloping into muscular shoulders she felt very kindly this morning. He had stood between her and trouble. He was so patently an admirer of Joyce Seldon. And on his own merits the virility and good looks of him drew her admiration. At sight of the bruises on his face her heart beat a little fast with pleasurable excitement. He had fought for her like a man. She did not care if he was a workingman. His name was Kilmeny. He was a gentleman by birth, worth a dozen Verinders.
"Mr. Kilmeny, how can we ever thank you?"
He looked at her and nodded gayly. "Forget it, Miss Seldon. I couldn't have done less."
"Or more," she added softly, her lovely eyes in his.
No change showed in the lean brown face of the man, but his blood moved faster. It was impossible to miss the appeal of sex that escaped at every graceful movement of the soft sensuous body, that glowed from the deep still eyes in an electric current flashing straight to his veins. He would have loved to touch the soft flushed cheek, the crisp amber hair clouding the convolutions of the little ears. His eyes were an index of the man, bold and possessive and unwavering. They announced him a dynamic American, one who walked the way of the strong and fought for his share of the spoils. But when she looked at him they softened. Something fine and tender transfigured the face and wiped out its sardonic recklessness.
"The pressing question before the house is breakfast. There are bacon and flour and coffee here. Shall I make a batch of biscuits and offer you pot luck? Or do you prefer to wait till we can get to Goldbanks?"
"What do you think?" Moya asked.
"I think whatever you think. We'll not reach town much before noon. If you can rough it for a meal I should advise trying out the new cook. It really depends on how hungry you are."
"I'm hungry enough to eat my boots," the Irish girl announced promptly.
"So am I. Let's stay—if our hosts won't object," Joyce added.
"I'm quite sure they won't," Kilmeny replied dryly. "All right. A camp breakfast it is."
"I'm going to help you," Moya told him.
"Of course. You'd better wash the dishes as soon as we get hot water. They're probably pretty grimy."
He stepped into the cabin and took off his coat. Moya rolled up her sleeves to the elbows of her plump dimpled arms. Miss Seldon hovered about helplessly and wanted to know what she could do.
The miner had not "batched" in the hills for years without having learned how to cook. His biscuits came to the table hot and flaky, his bacon was done to a turn. Even the chicory coffee tasted delicious to the hungry guests.
With her milk-white skin, her vivid crimson lips so exquisitely turned, and the superb vitality of her youth, Joyce bloomed in the sordid hut like a flower in a rubbage heap. To her bronzed vis-a-vis it seemed that the world this morning was shimmering romance. Never before had he enjoyed a breakfast half as much. He and Miss Seldon did most of the talking, while Moya listened, the star flash in her eyes and the whimsical little smile on her lips.
Joyce was as gay as a lark. She chattered with the childish artlessness that at times veiled her sophistication. Jack was given to understand that she loved to be natural and simple, that she detested the shams of social convention to which she was made to conform. Her big lovely eyes were wistful in their earnestness as they met his. It was not wholly a pose with her. For the moment she meant all she said. A delightful excitement fluttered her pulses. She was playing the game she liked best, moving forward to the first skirmishes of that sex war which was meat and drink to her vanity. The man attracted her as few men ever had. That nothing could come of it beyond the satisfaction of the hour did not mitigate her zest for the battle.
They were still at breakfast when one of the Cornishmen pushed open the door and looked in. He stood looking down on them sullenly without speaking.
"Want to see me, Peale?" asked Kilmeny.
"Did I say I wanted to see 'ee?" demanded the other roughly.
"Better come in and shut the door. The air's chilly."
The battered face of his companion loomed over the shoulder of Peale. To Kilmeny it was plain that they had come with the idea of making themselves disagreeable. Very likely they had agreed to force their company upon the young women for breakfast. But the sight of their dainty grace, together with Jack's cheerful invitation, was too much for their audacity. Peale grumbled something inaudible and turned away, slamming the door as he went.
The young miner laughed softly. If he had shown any unwillingness they would have pushed their way in. His urbanity had disarmed them.
"They're not really bad men, you know—just think they are," he explained casually.
"I'm afraid of them. I don't trust them," Joyce shuddered.
"Well, I trust them while they're under my eye. The trouble with men of that stripe is that they're yellow. A game man gives you a fighting chance, but fellows of this sort hit while you're not looking. But you needn't worry. They're real tame citizens this morning."
"Yes, they looked tame," Moya answered dryly. "So tame I'm sure they'd like to crucify you."
"I daresay they would, but in this world a man can't get everything he would like. I've wanted two or three pleasures myself that I didn't get."
His gaze happened to turn toward Joyce as he was speaking. He had been thinking of nothing definite, but at the meeting of their eyes something flashed into birth and passed from one to the other like an electric current. Jack knew now something that he wanted, but he did not admit that he could not get it. If she cared for him—and what else had her eyes told him in the golden glow of that electric moment?—a hundred Verinders and Lady Farquhar could not keep them apart.
His heart sang jubilantly. He rose abruptly and left the room because he was afraid he could not veil his feeling.
Joyce smiled happily. "Where is he going?" she asked innocently.
Moya looked at her and then turned her eyes away. She had understood the significance of what she had seen and a door in her heart that had been open for weeks clanged shut.
"I don't know, unless to get the horses," she said quietly.
A few minutes later he returned, leading the animals. From the door of the shaft-house the Cornishmen watched them mount and ride away. The men smoked in sullen silence.
Before they had ridden a hundred yards Joyce was in gay talk with Kilmeny. She had forgotten the very existence of the miners. But Moya did not forget. She had seen the expression of their faces as the horses had passed. If a chance ever offered itself they would have their revenge.
It was a day winnowed from a lifetime of ordinary ones. They rode through a world shot to the core with sunlight. The snow sparkled and gleamed with it. The foliage of the cottonwoods, which already had shaken much of their white coat to the ground, reflected it in greens and golds and russets merged to a note of perfect harmony by the Great Artist. Though the crispness of early winter was in the air, their nostrils drew in the fragrance of October, the faint wafted perfume of dying summer.
Beneath a sky of perfect blue they pushed along the shoulder of the hill, avoiding the draw into which snow had drifted deep. Life stormed in their veins, glowed in their flushed cheeks, rang in the care-free laughter of at least two of them. Jack broke trail, turning often in the saddle with a lithe twist of his lean muscular body, to suggest a word of caution at the bad places. Always then he discovered the deep violet eyes of Joyce Seldon with their smoldering fire. To let himself dwell upon her loveliness of fine-textured satiny skin, set off by the abundant crown of lustrous bronze hair, was to know again a quickened pulse of delight.
When he spoke it was with the languid drawl of the Western plainsman. In humor he feigned to conceal his passion, but Joyce knew him to be alertly conscious of her every word, every turn of her pliant body.
They reached the road, where two could ride abreast. Sometimes he was with the one, again with the other. Moya, who had not much to say this morning, made it easy for him to be with Joyce. She did not need to be told that he was under the allure of that young woman's beauty; and not alone of her beauty, but of that provocative stimulating something that can be defined only as the drag of sex. All men responded to it when Joyce chose to exert herself, many when she did not.
Once he turned to point out to Moya some snow-covered mounds above the road.
"Graves of a dozen mule-skinners killed by Indians nearly thirty years ago. My father was the only one of the party that escaped."
Half a mile from town they met two men on horseback and exchanged news. All Goldbanks had been searching for them through the night. The Farquhar party were wild with anxiety about them.
Kilmeny gave prompt quiet orders. "Get back to town, boys, and tell Lady Farquhar that it's all right. We'll be along in a few minutes."
The news of their safety spread as by magic. Men and women and children poured into the streets to welcome them. It was as much as Kilmeny could do to keep back the cheering mob long enough to reach the hotel. Verinder, Lady Jim, and India came down the steps to meet them, Captain Kilmeny and Lord Farquhar both being away at the head of search parties. India and Lady Farquhar broke down without shame and cried as they embraced the returned wanderers.
"We thought ... we thought...." India could not finish in words, but Moya knew what she meant.
"It was very nearly that way, dear, but everything is all right now," her friend smiled through a film of tears.
"It was Moya saved us—and afterward Mr. Kilmeny," Joyce explained between sobs.
The crowd below cheered again and Moya borrowed India's handkerchief to wave. It touched her to see how glad these people were to know they had been rescued.
Lady Farquhar thanked Kilmeny with a gulp in her throat. "We'll want to hear all about it and to get a chance to thank you properly. Will you come to dinner this evening? Joyce and Moya should be rested by then."
Jack accepted promptly. "I'll be very glad to come."
"PROVE IT!... PROVE IT!"
Sam Bleyer, superintendent of the big Verinder mines, had been up to see his chief at the hotel and was passing the private sitting-room of the Farquhar party when a voice hailed him. He bowed inclusively to Lady Farquhar, Miss Seldon, and Miss Dwight.
"You called me?"
"I did. Are you in a very great hurry?" Joyce flashed her most coquettish smile at him.
"You are never to be in a hurry when Miss Seldon wants you, Bleyer," announced Verinder, following the superintendent into the room.
Bleyer flushed. He was not "a lady's man," as he would have phrased it, but there was an arresting loveliness about Joyce that held the eye.
"You hear my orders, Miss Seldon," he said.
"Awfully good of you, Mr. Verinder," Joyce acknowledged with a swift slant smile toward the mine owner. "Just now I want Mr. Bleyer to be an information bureau."
"Anything I can do," murmured Bleyer.
He was a thin little man with a face as wrinkled as a contour map of South America. Thick glasses rested on a Roman nose in front of nearsighted eyes. Frequently he peered over these in an ineffective manner that suggested a lost puppy in search of a friend. But in spite of his appearance Bleyer was a force in Goldbanks. He knew his business and gave his whole energies to it.
"We're all so interested in Mr. Kilmeny. Tell us all about him, please."
"That's a rather large order, isn't it?" The wrinkles in his leathery face broke into a smile. "What in particular do you want to know?"
"Everything. What does he do? How does he live? How long has he been here?"
"He has been around here about five years. He has a lease in a mine." There was a flinty dryness in the manner of the superintendent that neither Joyce nor Moya missed.
"And he makes his living by it?"
Above his spectacles the eyes of Bleyer gleamed resentfully. "You'll have to ask Mr. Kilmeny how he makes his living. I don't know."
"You're keeping something from us. I believe you do know, Mr. Bleyer." With a swift turn of her supple body Joyce appealed to Verinder. "Make him tell us, please."
Moya did not lift the starlike eyes that were so troubled from the face of Bleyer. She knew the man implied something discreditable to Kilmeny. The look that had flashed between him and Verinder told her so much. Red signals of defiance blazed on both cheeks. Whatever it was, she did not intend to believe him.
Verinder disclosed a proper reluctance. "Bleyer says he doesn't know."
"Oh, he says! I want him to tell what he thinks."
"You won't like it," the mine owner warned.
"I'll be the best judge of that." Joyce swung upon Bleyer. "You hear, sir. You're to tell me what you mean."
"I don't mean anything." He paused, then looked straight at Joyce with a visible harshness. "I'll tell you what the common gossip is if you want to know, Miss Seldon. They say he is a highgrader."
"And what is a highgrader?" demanded Moya.
"A highgrader is one who steals rich ore from the mine where he works," answered Verinder smugly.
Moya, eyes hot and shining, flashed her challenge at him. "I don't believe it—not a word of it, so far as Mr. Kilmeny is concerned."
"Afraid that doesn't change the facts, Miss Dwight. It's a matter of general knowledge." Beneath Verinder's bland manner there lurked a substratum of triumph.
"General fiddlesticks! Don't believe it, Joyce," cried Moya stormily. "He doesn't even work as a miner. He owns his own lease."
"He used to work in the mines, even if he doesn't now. There are stories——"
"Ridiculous to think it of Mr. Kilmeny," exploded Moya. "We've done nothing but insult him ever since we've known him. First he was a highwayman. Now he is a thief. Anything else, Mr. Verinder?"
"Everybody knows it," retorted Verinder sulkily.
"Then prove it. Put him in prison. Aren't there any laws in the state? If everybody knows it, why isn't he arrested?" the Irish girl flamed.
"Moya," chided Lady Farquhar gently.
Her ward turned upon Lady Jim a flushed face stirred by anger to a vivid charm. "Can't you see how absurd it is? He owns his own lease. Mr. Bleyer admits it. Is he robbing himself, then?"
The muscles stood out on the cheeks of the superintendent like cords. He stuck doggedly to his guns. "I didn't say he stole the ore himself. The charge is that he buys it from the men who do take it. His lease is an excuse. Of course he pretends to get the ore there."
"It's the common talk of the camp," snapped Verinder contemptuously. "The man doesn't even keep it under decent cover."
"Then prove it ... prove it! That ought to be easy—since everybody knows it." Moya's voice was low, but her scornful passion lashed the Englishman as with a whip.
"By Jove, that's just what I'm going to do. I'm going to put our friend behind the bars for a few years," the smug little man cried triumphantly.
The red spots on Moya's cheeks burned. The flashing eyes of the girl defied her discarded lover.
"If you can," she amended with quiet anger.
The soft laugh of Joyce saved for the moment the situation. "Dear me, aren't we getting a little excited? Mr. Bleyer, tell me more. How does a—a highgrader, didn't you call him?—how does he get a chance to steal the ore?"
"He picks out the best pieces while he is working—the nuggets that are going to run a high per cent. of gold—and pockets them. At night he carries them away."
"But—haven't you any policemen here? Why don't you stop them and search them?"
"The miners' union is too strong. There would be a strike if we tried it. But it has got to come to that soon. The companies will have to join hands for a finish fight. They can't have men hoisted up from their work with a hundred dollars' worth of ore stowed away on them."
"Is it as bad as that, Mr. Bleyer?" asked Lady Farquhar in surprise.
"Sometimes they take two or three hundred dollars' worth at once."
"They don't all steal, do they?" demanded Moya with an edge of sarcasm in her clear voice.
Bleyer laughed grimly. "I'd like to know the names of even a few that don't. I haven't been introduced to them."
"One hundred per cent. dishonest," murmured Moya without conviction.
"I don't guarantee the figures, Miss Dwight." The superintendent added grudgingly: "They don't look at it that way. Bits of high-grade ore are their perquisite, they pretend to think."
Verinder broke in. "They say your friend Kilmeny took ore to the value of two thousand dollars from the Never Quit on one occasion. It ran to that amount by actual smelter test, the story goes. I've always rather doubted it."
"Why—since he is so dishonest?" Moya flung at him.
"Don't think a man could carry away so much at one time. What d'ye think, Bleyer?"
"Depends on how high-grade ore the mine carries. At Cripple Creek we found nearly four thousand on a man once. He was loaded down like a freight car—looked like the fat boy in 'Pickwick Papers.'"
"Should think he'd bulge out with angles where the rock projected," Lady Farquhar suggested.
"The men have it down to a system there. We used to search them as they left work. They carry the ore in all sorts of unexpected places, such as the shoulder padding of their coats, their mouths, their ears, and in slings scattered over the body. The ore is pounded so that it does not bulge."
"Perhaps I'm doing Mr. Kilmeny an injustice, then. Very likely he did get away with two thousand at one time," Verinder jeered with an unpleasant laugh.
"Yes, let's think the worst of everybody that we can, Mr. Verinder," came Moya's quick scornful retort.
The Croesus of Goldbanks stood warming himself with his back to the grate, as smug and dapper a little man as could be found within a day's journey.
"Very good, Miss Dwight. Have it your own way. I'm not a bally prophet, you know, but I'll go this far. Your little tin hero is riding for a fall. It's all very well for him to do the romantic and that sort of piffle, by Jove, but when you scrape the paint off he's just a receiver of stolen property and a common agitator. Don't take my word for it. Ask Bleyer." Without looking at him he gave a little jerk of the head toward his superintendent. "Who is the most undesirable citizen here, Bleyer? Who makes all the trouble for the companies?"
Bleyer shook his head. "I can't back my opinion with proof."
"You know what people say. Whom do the men rely on to back them whenever they have trouble with us? Out with it."
"Kilmeny is their king pin—the most influential man in camp."
"Of course he is. Anybody could tell to look at him that he is a leader. Does it follow he must be a criminal?" Moya demanded abruptly.
The superintendent smiled. He understood what was behind that irritation. "You're a good friend, Miss Dwight."
"It's absurd that I am. He did nothing for Joyce and me—except fight for us and see that we were sheltered and fed and brought home safely. Why shouldn't we sit still and let his reputation be torn to tatters?"
Bluecher bore down upon the field of Waterloo. "Of course we're 'for' Mr. Kilmeny, as you Yankees say. I don't care whether he is a highgrader or not. He's a gentleman—and very interesting." Joyce nodded decisively, tilting a saucy chin toward Verinder. "We're for him, aren't we, Moya?"
Lady Farquhar smiled and let her embroidery drop to the table as she rose. "I like him myself. There's something about him that's very attractive. I do hope you are wrong, Mr. Bleyer. He does not look like an anarchist and a thief."
"That is not the way he would define himself. In this community highgrading isn't looked on as theft. Last year our sheriff was suspected of buying ore from miners and shipping it to the smelters. Public opinion does not greatly condemn the practice." Bleyer, bowing as he spoke, excused himself and withdrew.
Verinder appealed to Lady Farquhar. The indignation of the newly rich sat heavily upon him. With all his little soul he disliked Jack Kilmeny. Since the man had done so signal a service for Joyce, jealousy gnawed at his heart.
"Of course we've got to be decent to the man, I suppose. He had a big slice of luck in getting the chance to help Miss Seldon and Miss Dwight. And I don't forget that he is a cousin to our friends. If it wasn't for that I'd say to mail him a check and wipe the slate clean. But of course——"
"You'd never dare," breathed Moya tensely. "I won't have him insulted."
"Of course not, under the circumstances. No need to get volcanic, Miss Dwight. I merely suggested what I'd like to do. Now the burden is off my shoulders. I have given you the facts."
"You've given us only suspicions, Mr. Verinder. I don't think it would be fair to assume them correct," the chaperone answered.
But Moya knew that Verinder had dropped his seed in fruitful soil. Lady Farquhar would not forget. Jack Kilmeny's welcome would be something less than cordial henceforth.
A HIGHGRADER—IN PRINCIPLE
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 role. 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.
ONE MAID—TWO MEN
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.
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 punishment 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."
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 reentered 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.
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?"
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."
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?"
"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.