The Works of E. P. Roe
A YOUNG GIRL'S WOOING
CHAPTER I A Crescent of a Girl
CHAPTER II Graydon Muir
CHAPTER III The Parting
CHAPTER IV Effort
CHAPTER V Achievement
CHAPTER VI The Secret of Beauty
CHAPTER VII Not a Miracle
CHAPTER VIII Rival Girls
CHAPTER IX The Meeting
CHAPTER X Old Ties Broken
CHAPTER XI "I Fear I Shall Fail"
CHAPTER XII The Promptings of Miss Wildmere's Heart
CHAPTER XIII "You Will Be Disappointed"
CHAPTER XIV Miss Wildmere's Strategy
CHAPTER XV Perplexed and Beguiled
CHAPTER XVI Declaration of Independence
CHAPTER XVII Not Strong in Vain
CHAPTER XVIII Make Your Terms
CHAPTER XIX An Object for Sympathy
CHAPTER XX "Veiled Wooing"
CHAPTER XXI Suggestive Tones
CHAPTER XXII Disheartening Confidences
CHAPTER XXIII The Filial Martyr
CHAPTER XXIV "I'll See How You Behave"
CHAPTER XXV Gossamer Threads
CHAPTER XXVI Mrs. Muir's Account
CHAPTER XXVII Madge's Story
CHAPTER XXVIII Dispassionate Lovers
CHAPTER XXIX The Enemies' Plans
CHAPTER XXX The Strong Man Unmanned
CHAPTER XXXI Checkmate
CHAPTER XXXII Madge is Matter-of-Fact
CHAPTER XXXIII The End of Diplomacy
CHAPTER XXXIV Broken Lights and Shadows
CHAPTER XXXV A New Experiment
CHAPTER XXXVI Madge Alden's Ride
CHAPTER XXXVII "You are Very Blind"
CHAPTER XXXVIII "Certainly I Refuse You"
CHAPTER XXXIX "My True Friend"
CHAPTER XL The End of the Wooing
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Are you so bent upon winning her, Graydon?"
"There, now, be rational" cried the young girl
Her lips were parted, her pose, grace itself
"Promise me you will take a long rest"
"So you imagine I shall soon be making love to another girl?"
A CRESCENT OF A GIRL
When Madge Alden was seventeen years of age an event occurred which promised to be the misfortune of her life. At first she was almost overwhelmed and knew not what to do. She was but a young and inexperienced girl, and for a year or more had been regarded as an invalid.
Madge Alden was an orphan. Four years prior to the opening of our story she had lost her mother, her surviving parent, and since had resided with her elder sister Mary, who was several years her senior, and had married Henry Muir, a merchant of New York City. This gentleman had cordially united with his wife in offering Madge a home, and his manner toward the young girl, as far as his absorbed and busy life permitted, had been almost paternal. He was a quiet, reticent man, who had apparently concentrated every faculty of soul and body on the problem of commercial success. Trained to business from boyhood, he had allowed it to become his life, and he took it very seriously. It was to him an absorbing game—his vocation, and not a means to some ulterior end. He had already accumulated enough to maintain his family in affluence, but he no more thought of retiring from trade than would a veteran whist-player wish to throw up a handful of winning cards. The events of the world, the fluctuations in prices, over which he had no control, brought to his endeavor the elements of chance, and it was his mission to pit against these uncertainties untiring industry and such skill and foresight as he possessed.
His domestic life was favorable to his ruling passion. Mary Alden, at the time of her marriage, was a quiet girl, whose early life had been shadowed by sorrow. She had seen her father pass away in his prime, and her mother become in consequence a sad and failing woman. The young girl rallied from these early years of depression into cheerfulness, and thoroughly enjoyed what some might regard as a monotonous life; but she never developed any taste for the diversions of society. Thus it may be surmised that Mr. Muir encountered no distractions after business hours. He ever found a good dinner awaiting him, and his wife held herself in readiness to do what he wished during the evening, so far as the claims of the children permitted. Therefore there were few more contented men in the city than he, and the name of Henry Muir had become a synonym among his acquaintances for methodical business habits.
In character and antecedents his younger brother, Graydon Muir, who was also an inmate of his family, presented many marked contrasts to the elder man. He had received a liberal education, and had graduated at a city college. He had developed into one of the best products of metropolitan life, and his defects were chiefly due to the circumstances of his lot. During his academic course he had been known as an athletic rather than a bookish man, and had left his Alma Mater with an Apollo-like physique. At the same time he had developed fine literary tastes, and was well informed, even if he had not gone very deeply into the classics and the sciences that were remote from the business career which he had chosen. After a brief interval of foreign travel he had entered his brother's office, and was schooling his buoyant, pleasure-loving temperament to the routine of trade. When business hours were over, however, Graydon gave himself up to the gratification of his social tastes. His vitality and flow of spirits were so immense that wherever he went he always caused a breezy ripple of excitement. Even veteran society girls found something exhilarating in the mirthful flash of his blue eyes, and to be whirled through a waltz on his strong arm was a pleasure not declined by reigning belles. Many looks that to other men might have been the arrows of Cupid were directed toward him, but they glanced harmlessly from his polished armor. Society was to him what business was to his brother,—an arena in which he easily manifested his power. At the same time he was a manly fellow, and had no taste for corner flirtations or the excitement of drawing perilously near to a committal with those who would have responded to marked attentions. The atmosphere he loved was that of general and social gayety. The girls that he singled out for his especial regard were noted for their vivacity and intelligence, as well as their beauty. Meanwhile he had won a reputation for his good-natured attentions to "wall-flowers." Such kindly efforts were rarely made at the promptings of conscience. The truth was, he enjoyed life so fully himself that he disliked to see any one having a dismal time. It gave him genuine pleasure to come to a plain-featured, neglected damsel, and set all her blood tingling by a brief whirl in a dance or a breezy chat that did her good, body and soul, so devoid of satire or patronage was the attention. His superb health and tireless strength, his perfect familiarity with the usages of society, and his graceful decision of action made everything he did appear as easy and natural as the beat of a bird's wing upon the air, and in his large circle it was felt that no entertainment was complete without his presence.
Graydon was still attending college when Madge Alden first became associated with him in her home-life. She was then but thirteen, and was small and slight for her age. The first evening when she came down to dinner, shrinking in the shadow of her sister, lingered ever in her memory. Even now it gave her pain to recall her embarrassment when she was compelled to take her seat in the full blaze of the light and meet the eyes of the one to whom she felt that she must appear so very plain and unattractive. Clad in the deepest mourning, pallid from grief and watching at her mother's bedside, coming from a life of seclusion and sorrow, sensitive in the extreme, she had barely reached that age when awkwardness is in the ascendant, and the quiet city home seemed the centre of a new and strange world. One other thing she remembered in that initial chapter of her life,—the kindly glances that Graydon Muir bent on the pale crescent of a girl who sat opposite to him. Even as a child she knew that the handsome young fellow was not secretly laughing at or criticising her, and before dinner was over she had ventured upon a shy, grateful glance, in reward for his good-humored efforts to break the ice.
There had, in truth, been no ice to break. The child was merely like a plant that had grown in the shade, and to her the strong, healthful youth was sunshine. His smile warmed and vivified her chilled nature, his hearty words and manner were bracing to her over-sensitive and timid soul, and his unaffected, unforced kindness was so constant that she gradually came to regard it as one of the best certainties of her life. She soon learned, however, that behind his sunny good-nature was a fiery and impatient spirit, ready to manifest itself if he was chafed beyond a certain point, and so a slight element of fear was mingled with her childlike affection.
He had sufficient tact to understand Madge's diffidence, and he knew that their family life would soon banish it. He welcomed this pale slip of a girl to their home circle because it gave him pleasure to pet and rally such a wraith into something like genuine existence. He also hoped that eventually she would become a source of amusement to him. Nor was he disappointed. Madge's mind was not colorless, if her face was, and she gradually began to respond to his mirthfulness, and to take an interest, intelligent for a child, in what occupied his thoughts. Kindness creates an atmosphere in which the most sensitive and diffident natures develop and reveal themselves, and Madge Alden, who might easily have been chilled into a reticent and dispirited girl, eventually manifested an unusual versatility of fancy and thought, acquiring also no slight power of expression.
Thus Graydon obtained his reward. His brother was a grave and silent man, to whom few themes could be broached except those of business and the events and politics of the day in their relation to trade. His sister-in-law was absorbed in household and family cares, but Madge's great black eyes responded with quick appreciation to all that he said, and their merry nonsense often provoked a smile upon even the face of Mr. Muir. The good-natured sympathy of the young man therefore passed gradually into a genuine fraternal regard, and he rarely came home of an evening without bringing flowers, bonbons, or some other evidence that he had remembered her. Unconsciously to herself, he became more to her than her sister, who was indulgent in the extreme, but not very demonstrative. Her shyness disappeared, and his caresses seemed as natural as those of an elder brother, in which light she regarded him.
Thus time passed on, and the girl rapidly approached the stature of womanhood. Apparently she grew too fast for her slight reserve of physical strength. She nominally attended a fashionable school, but was often absent from ill health, and for this reason her sister permitted her to follow her own moods. Indolence and inanition accounted largely for her lack of strength. Exercise brought weariness, and she would not take it. Nothing pleased her more than to curl up on a lounge with a book; and her sister, seeing that she was reading most of the time, felt that she was getting an education. To the busy lady a book was a book, a kind of general fertilizer of the mind, and as Madge usually took cold when she went out, and was assuredly acquiring from the multitude of volumes she devoured all the knowledge a woman needed, she was safer in the evenly heated city house. The sisters had independent fortunes of their own, and the great point in Mrs. Muir's mind was that they should live and enjoy them. If Madge was only sufficiently coddled now while she was growing, she would get strong eventually; and so the good lady, who had as much knowledge of hygiene as of Sanscrit, tempted the invalid with delicacies, permitted her to eat the confectionery that Graydon brought so often, and generally indulged a nature that needed wise and firm development.
Thus Madge lived on, growing more pale and languid with each succeeding year. The absence in the mountains and at the seashore which Mr. Muir permitted to his family every summer brought changes for the better, even though the young girl spent most of the time in a hammock or reclining in the stern of a sail-boat. She could not escape the invigoration caused by the mere breathing of pure air, but during the winters in town she lost all and more than she had gained, and sunk back into her old apathetic life.
This life, however, contained two elements which gave some color and zest to her existence. All through the day she would look forward to Graydon's return from business, and when she heard his latch-key the faintest possible color would steal into her cheeks. Up-stairs, two steps at a time, he would come, kiss her, waltz her about the room with a strength which scarcely permitted her feet to touch the floor, then toss her back on the lounge, where she would lie, laughing, breathless, and happy. With a man's ignorant tolerance he accepted her character as an invalid, and felt that the least he could do was to brighten a life which seemed so dismal to him. When he came down dressed for dinner or some evening engagement, she looked at him with a frank, admiring pride that amused him immensely. When he returned earlier than usual he often found her still upon the lounge with her inevitable book, usually a novel, and then he would take her upon his lap and call her his "dear little spook, the household ghost that would soon cease to cast a shadow;" and she, with a languid curiosity, would easily beguile from him a portrayal of the scenes through which he had just passed. She cared little for them, but from his stores of vitality and strength he imparted life to her, and without understanding why, she simply knew she was happy.
Apart from her fondness for the unreal scenes presented by the miscellaneous books she read—scenes all the more unreal because she had no experience by which to correct them—she had one other taste which promised well for the future—a sincere love of music. She was taking lessons, but it was from a superficial teacher, who was content to give her pretty and showy pieces; and she brought even to this favorite study the desultory habits which characterized all her efforts to obtain an education. When she sat down to her piano, however, nature was her strong ally. Her ear was fine and correct, and her sensitive, fanciful spirit gave delicacy and originality to her touch. It scarcely seems possible for one to become a sympathetic musician without a large degree of imagination and a nature easily moved by thought and feeling. The young girl's thoughts and feelings were as yet very vague, not concentrated on definite objects, and yet so good a connoisseur as Graydon often acknowledged her power, and would listen with pleased attention to her girlish rendering of music made familiar to him by the great performers of the day. He enjoyed it all the more because it was her own interpretation, often incorrect, but never commonplace or slovenly; and when her fingers wandered among the keys in obedience to her own impulses he was even more charmed, although the melody was usually without much meaning. She was also endowed with the rudiments of a fine voice, and would often strike notes of surpassing sweetness and power; but her tones would soon quaver and break, and she complained that it tired her to sing. That ended the matter, for anything that wearied her was not to be thought of.
Thus she had drifted on with time, unconscious of herself, unconscious of the influences that would bring to pass the decisive events in the future. She was like multitudes of others who are controlled by circumstances of their lot until the time comes when a deep personal experience applies the touchstone to character.
Madge Alden was almost seventeen, and yet she was in many respects a child. Scenes portrayed in books had passed before her mind like pictures, having no definite significance. Mr. Muir was to her like some of the forces in nature—quiet, unobtrusive, omnipotent—and she accepted him without thought. Her sister was one whom she could love easily as a matter of course. She was an indulgent household providence, who cared for the young girl as she did for her own little children. If anything was amiss in Madge's wardrobe the elder sister made it right at once; if Madge had a real or imaginary ailment, Mary was always ready to prescribe a soothing remedy; and if there was a cloud in the sky or the wind blew chill she said, "Madge, do be prudent; you know how easily you take cold." Thus was provided the hot-house atmosphere in which the tender exotic existed. It could not be said that she had thrived or bloomed.
Graydon Muir was the one positive element with which she had come in contact, and thus far she had always accepted him in the spirit of a child. He had begun petting her and treating her like a sister when she was a child. His manner toward her had grown into a habit, which had its source in his kindly disposition. To him she was but a weak, sickly little girl, with a dismal present and a more dreary outlook. Sometimes he mentally compared her with the brilliant girls he met in society, and especially with one but a little older than Madge, who appeared a natural queen in the drawing-room. His life abounded in activity, interests, and pleasures, and if it was his impulse to throw a little zest into the experiences of those in society who had no claims upon him, he was still more disposed to cheer and amuse the invalid in his own home. Moreover, he had become sincerely fond of her. Madge was neither querulous nor stupid. Although not conceited, he had the natural vanity of a handsome and successful man, and while the evident fact that he was such a hero in her eyes amused him, it also predisposed him to kindly and sympathetic feeling toward her. He saw that she gave him not only a sisterly allegiance, but also a richer and fuller tribute, and that in her meagre and shadowed life he was the brightest element. She tried to do more for him than for any one else, while she made him feel that as an invalid she could not do very much, and that he should not expect it. She would often play for him an hour at a time, and again she would be so languid that no coaxing could lure her from the sofa. Occasionally she would even read aloud a few pages with her musical and sympathetic voice, but would soon throw down the book with an air of exhaustion, and plead that he would read to her. In her weakness there was nothing repulsive, and without calculation she made many artless appeals to his strength. He generously responded, saying to himself, "Poor little thing! she has a hard time of it. With her great black eyes she might be a beauty if she only had health and was like other girls; but as it is, she is so light and pale and limp that I sometimes feel as if I were petting a wraith."
Of late she had begun to go out with him a little, he choosing small and quiet companies among people well known to the Muirs, and occasionally her sister also went. Her role of invalid was carefully maintained and recognized. Graydon had always prided himself on his loyalty as an escort; and as long as he was devoted, the neglect of other young men was welcomed rather than regretted; for, except toward him, all her old shyness still existed. With the consciousness that he was caring for her she was well content with some half-secluded nook of observation, from which she looked out upon scenes that were like an animated story. She wove fanciful imaginings around those who attracted her attention, and on her return laughingly discussed the people who had passed, like players, before her eyes. Graydon encouraged her to do this, for her ignorance of society made her remarks original and amusing. He knew the conventional status of every one they met as accurately as his brother recognized the commercial value of the securities that passed under his eye, and Madge's estimates often seemed absurd to the last degree.
Whenever she went out with Graydon his course was eminently satisfactory; she never felt herself neglected, while at the same time she saw that his attentions were welcomed everywhere. She never lost her serene sense of proprietorship, and only grew more fond of him as she noted how readily he left the side of beautiful and gifted women to look after her. He had often laughingly asserted that he went into society only for amusement, and his course under her own observation confirmed his words.
Early in the winter during which our story opens, she had caught a succession of colds, and one proved so severe and obstinate that her friends were alarmed, fearing that she was going into a decline. She slowly rallied, however, but was more frail than ever. Before the gay season closed, just preceding Lent, Madge received an invitation to a very large party. Graydon urged her to go, remarking that she had not yet seen society. "Don't be afraid, I'll take care of you, little ghost," he said, and with this assurance she accompanied him, contrary to her sister's advice. It was indeed a brilliant occasion. The wide rooms of a Madison Avenue palace were thronged, and she had never even imagined such toilets as caught her eye on every side. There were so many present that she could easily maintain her position of quiet spectator, and her eyes dilated with pleasure as she saw that Graydon was as much a leader as at other places where comparatively few were present.
At last her attention was attracted by one who was evidently a late comer, and whose presence appeared to fill the apartment. All the others paled before her, as do the stars when the moon rises among them. She was evidently young, and yet she did not suggest youth. One would almost imagine that she had never had a childhood or a girlhood, but was rather a direct creation of metropolitan society. Her exquisitely turned shoulders and arms were bare, and the diamonds about her neck were a circlet of fire. The complexion of her fair oval face was singularly pure, and the color came and went so easily as to prove that it owed nothing to art. The expression of her gray eyes was rather cold and haughty when at rest, and gave an impression of pride and the consciousness of power. The trait which to the observant Madge seemed most marked at first, however, was her perfect ease. Her slightest movement was grace itself. Her entire self-possession was indicated by the manner in which she greeted the men who sought her attention, and many there were. She could be perfectly polite, yet as repellent as ice, or she could smile with a fascination that even Madge felt would be hard to resist. This girl, who was such an immense contrast to herself, wholly fixed her attention as she stood for a few moments, like a queen, surrounded by her courtiers.
Graydon had gone for a glass of water, and meeting a friend had been detained for a brief space. Madge saw him coming, saw his eye light up with admiration as he caught sight of the beautiful stranger, but he came directly to her, and asked, genially, if there was anything else she would like.
"Yes. Who is that girl yonder?"
"Miss Wildmere. Isn't she lovely? She promised me, last week, her first dance for this evening. Will you excuse me for a little while?"
"Certainly;" and yet she was conscious of a sudden and odd little protest at heart.
He approached the beauty. Miss Wildmere's face flushed with pleasure and softened into a welcoming smile, such as she had not yet bestowed upon any who had sought her favor. Then, in swift alternation, she bent upon Madge a brief, cold glance of scrutiny. So brief was it, and so complacent was the expression of the belle as she turned away, that the pallid, sensitive girl was told, as by words, "You are nothing."
That glance was like a sharp, deep wound, and pierced where she was most vulnerable. It said to her, "You are not capable of being anything to Graydon Muir. I am not in the least afraid of you."
What was she to him? What did she wish to be? To these questions Madge had but one answer. Any and every girl, in her belief, would be only too glad to win him. He had said that Miss Wildmere was lovely; his eyes had expressed an admiration which he had never bestowed upon her; he had led the beauty away with a glad content in his face, and the crowded room was made empty by their absence.
She was no longer conscious of weakness, but, obeying her impulse, sprang up and followed them to the ballroom. Concealed by a little group she stood, unwearied, and watched them as they glided hither and thither with a grace that attracted many eyes. The music appeared to control and animate them, and their motion was harmony itself. Graydon evidently thought only of his fair partner; but her swift glances were everywhere, gathering the rich revenue of admiration which was freely offered. For a second she encountered Madge's large black eyes, full of trouble, and a satirical smile proved that she enjoyed the poor girl's solicitude. To deepen it she looked up at Graydon and said something that caused his face to flush with pleasure. His response was more decisive, for the swift color came into her face, and her eyes drooped. The by-play was momentary, and would not have been seen by a less vigilant observer than Madge; but to her it gave the undoubted impression that they were lovers. When Miss Wildmere looked again to see the result of her unkindly strategy, Madge was gone.
In reaction she had grown almost faint, and reached her former retreat with difficulty. But all her latent womanhood speedily rallied to meet this strange and but half-comprehended emergency. The impulse now uppermost was to retain her self-control and reach the seclusion of her own room. How she was to endure the long hours she scarcely knew. She did not dare to think. Indeed, the effort was scarcely possible, for her mind was at first in tumult, with only one thing clear, a poignant sense of loss and trouble.
Graydon was a long time away, longer than he had ever been before when acting as her escort. While she felt this neglect, and interpreted it naturally, she was not sorry. She dreaded meeting him again. In one brief hour her old ease and freedom with him had gone. She wondered at the change in herself, yet knew that it was as definite and decided as if she had become another person. When be had brought her the glass of water she could look into his face with the frank directness of a child. Why could she not do so now? Why did she almost tremble at the thought of his glance, his touch, his presence? She knew that he would come back with his old genial, kindly manner—that he would be the same. But a change had occurred in her which made the fabled transmutations of magic wands seem superficial indeed. Would he note this change? Could he guess the cause? Oh, what was the cause? Even her pale face grew crimson, for there are truths that come to the consciousness like the lightning from heaven. She did not need to think, to weigh and reason. A woman's heart is often above and beyond her reason, and hers had been awakened at last by the all-powerful touch of love.
The time passed, and still Graydon did not come. He was not absent very long, and yet it began to seem terribly long to her. She had overrated her powers, and found that even pride could not sustain her. She had no reserve of strength to draw upon. The heat of the room grew oppressive, and she was unaccustomed to throngs, confusion, and noise. The consciousness of her weakness was forced upon her most painfully at last by the appearance of Miss Wildmere on Graydon's arm. The belle was smiling, radiant, her step elastic, her eyes shining with excitement and pleasure. Her practiced scrutiny had assured her that she was the queen of the hour; the handsomest and most courtly man present was so devoted as to suggest that he might easily become a lover; she had seen many glances of envy, and one, in the case of poor Madge, of positive pain. What more could her heart desire? Graydon conducted her to her chaperon, near whom half a dozen gentlemen were waiting for a chance to be his successor; and, having obtained her promise for another dance later in the evening, he turned deprecatingly to Madge. His apologies ceased before they were half spoken. She looked so white and ill that he was alarmed, and asked permission to get her a glass of wine.
"No, Graydon," she said, then hesitated, for she felt the color coming into her face, while a strange blur confused every object in the room. "I'm very, very sorry," she added, hastily, after a moment. "I ought not to have come. I'm not equal to this. It wouldn't take you very long to drive home with me, and then you could return. Please, Graydon."
Her tone was so urgent, and she appeared so weak, that he complied at once, saying, with much compunction, "I should not have left you alone so long, but supposed you were amusing yourself by looking at the people."
She did not trust herself to reply. Her one thought was to reach the refuge of her own apartment, and to this end she concentrated her failing energies. The climb to the ladies' dressing-room was a desperate effort; but when she was once outside the house the cold, pure air revived her slightly.
"You can excuse me to our hostess—she will not care," she faltered, and it seemed to her then that nobody would care. Miss Wildmere's glance had conveyed the estimate of society. If she could believe herself first in Graydon's thoughts she would not be cast down, but now the truth was overwhelming.
She leaned away from him in the corner of the carriage, but he put his strong arm round her and drew her to his breast. She tried to resist, but was powerless. Then came the torturing thought, "If I repel him—if I act differently—he will guess the reason," and she was passive; but he felt her slight form tremble.
"My poor little ghost, you are ill in very truth! I'm indeed sorry that I left you so long."
"Believe me, Graydon, I am ill. Please let that excuse me and explain. Oh, that I—I were strong, like Miss Wildmere!"
"Isn't she a beauty?" exclaimed the unconscious Graydon. "The man who wins her might well be proud, for he would have competitors by the score."
"Your chances seem excellent," said Madge, in a low tone.
He laughed complacently, but added: "You don't know these society belles. They can show a great deal of favor to more than one fellow, yet never permit themselves to be pinned by a definite promise. They are harder to catch and hold than a wild Bedouin; but such a girl as Miss Wildmere is worth the effort. Yes, Madge, I do wish you were like her. It would be grand sport to champion you in society and see you run amuck among the fellows. It's a thousand pities that you are such an invalid. I've thought more than once that you were designed to be a beauty. With your eyes and Stella Wildmere's health you would be quite as effective after your style as she is in hers. Never mind, little sister, I shall stand by you, and as long as I live you shall always have a luxurious sofa, with all the novels of the northern hemisphere at your command. Who knows? You may grow strong one of these days. When you do I'll pick out the nice fellows for you."
At every kindly word her heart grew heavier, and when the carriage stopped at their door she could hardly mount the steps. In the hall she faltered and caught the hat-rack for support. He lifted her in his arms and bore her easily to her room, her sister following in much solicitude. "It's nothing," said Madge; "the company was too large and exciting for me. There was no need of Graydon's carrying me upstairs, but he would do it."
"You poor dear!" began her sister, broodingly. "I feared it would be so. Graydon is made of iron, and will never realize how delicate you are."
"He's very kind, and more considerate than I deserve. As he says," she added, bitterly, "I'm nothing but a ghost, and had better vanish."
"Nonsense, Madge," said the young man, with brusque kindness. "You know I want you to haunt me always. Good-by now, little sister. I shall be de trop if I stay any longer. You'll be better in the morning, and to-morrow evening I'll remain home and entertain you."
At last Madge was alone. Her sister had suggested everything she could think of, meanwhile bewailing the young girl's extreme imprudence. Madge entreated for quiet and rest, and at last was left alone. Hour after hour she lay with wide, fixed gaze. Her mind and imagination did not partake of her physical weakness, and now they were abnormally active. As the bewilderment from the shock of her abrupt awakening passed, the truth hourly grew clearer. From the time she had first come under her sister's roof Graydon Muir had begun to make himself essential to her. His uniform kindness had created trust, freedom, and a content akin to happiness. Now all was swept away. She understood that his love was an affection resulting from pity and the strong, genial forces of his nature. The girl who could kindle his spirit and inspire the best and most enthusiastic efforts of his manhood must be like Miss Wildmere—strong, beautiful, capable of keeping step with him under society's critical eyes, and not a mere shadow of a woman like herself. Her morbidly acute fancy recalled the ballroom. She saw him again after his return, encircling the fair girl with his arm, and looking down into her eyes with a meaning unmistakable. Oh, why had she gone to that fatal party! The past, in contrast to the present and the promise of the future, seemed happiness itself.
What could she do? What should she do? The more she thought of it the more unendurable her position appeared. In her vivid self-consciousness the old relations could not continue. Heretofore his caresses had been a matter of course, of habit. They could be so no longer. She shrank from them with inexpressible fear, knowing they would bring what little blood she possessed to her face and very brow in tell-tale floods. The one event from which her sensitive womanhood drew back in deepest dread was his knowledge of her love. To prevent this she would rather die, and she felt so weak and despairing that she thought and almost hoped she would die. If she could only go away, where she would not see him, and hide her wound! But how could she, chained near his daily presence by weakness and helplessness?
Thus through the long night her despairing thoughts went to and fro, and found no rest. Miss Wildmere's cold glance met her everywhere with the assurance that such a creature as she could never be anything to him, and, alas! his own words confirmed the verdict. Love that gives all demands all, and such pitiful affection as he now gave was only a mockery. The morning found her too weak to leave her room, and for the few following days she made illness her excuse for remaining in seclusion. As Graydon looked ruefully at her vacant chair the fourth evening after the company, Mrs. Muir remarked, reproachfully, "I hope you now realize how delicate Madge is. You never should have coaxed her to go to that party."
He was filled with compunction, and brought her flowers, boxes of candy, books, and everything which he imagined would amuse her. At the same time he was growing a little impatient and provoked. He knew that he had taken her from the kindest motives. Now that she gave up utterly to her invalidism, he was inclined to question its necessity. He found that he missed her more than he would have imagined, and his brief hours at home were dreary by reason of her seclusion.
"Why don't you call in a first-class physician and put Madge under a thorough course of treatment?" he asked, irritably. "She has no disease now that I know anything about, and I don't believe it's necessary that she should remain so weak and lackadaisical."
"We did have our doctor call often, and he said she would outgrow her troubles if she would take plenty of fresh of fresh air and exercise. And now she positively refuses to see a physician."
"I wouldn't humor a sick girl's fancies. She needs tonics and a general building up. With your permission I'll stop on my way downtown to-morrow and tell Dr. Anderson to call."
Mrs. Muir repeated the conversation to her sister, with the literalness of which only unimaginative women are capable. Madge turned her face to the wall, and said, coldly and decisively, "I refuse to see a physician. I am no longer a child, and my wishes must be respected." After a moment she added, apologetically: "A doctor could do me no good. I shall soon be stronger. You understand me better than Dr. Anderson can. You are the best and kindest nurse that ever breathed, and I've had enough of doctors. I'll take anything you give me."
These politic words appealed to Mrs. Muir's weak point. Nothing pleased her better than to believe that she could act the part of physician in the family, and prescribing for Madge was a source of unflagging interest. When she informed Graydon of their decision in the morning, he muttered something not very complimentary to either of the ladies; but his good-nature prevailed, and instead of the doctor he ordered a superb bouquet of Jacqueminot roses.
Meanwhile events were taking place of which Madge had no knowledge, but which would favor the plan slowly maturing in her mind. Mr. Muir's business affairs had been taking a turn which made it probable that he would soon have to send his brother abroad. As long as there was uncertainty the reticent man said nothing, but at last he received advices which brought him to a prompt decision, and Graydon was told that he must go at once. The young fellow submitted with fairly good grace. A brief foreign residence had its attractions, but it interfered with his incipient suit to Miss Wildmere. He felt that he had not gone far enough for a definite proposal, but he showed, during the brief call that his time permitted, an interest which the young lady well understood. Since he was to be absent for an indefinite period, and would have no chance to observe her other little affairs, she permitted herself to be gracious and regretful up to the point of inspiring much hope for the future. With a nicety of tact—the result of experience—she confirmed his view that they had made favorable impressions on each other, and that for the present they must be content with this.
He had but a day in which to make his preparations in order to catch a fast steamer that sailed at daylight the following morning. Madge's first sensation when she learned of his near departure was one of immense relief. The possibility which she had so dreaded could not now be realized, and her plan could be carried out with far less embarrassment. But as time passed, and she knew that their separation was so near, her heart relented toward him with inexpressible tenderness. The roses that perfumed the room were a type of his unstinted kindness and consideration. She was just enough to acknowledge that these were even more than she could naturally expect from him—that the majority of young men would have treated her with a half contemptuous pity which she was now beginning to admit would be partially deserved. On the occasions when she had gone out with him she had learned how unattractive in society her pale face and shy ways were. Such attentions as she had received had been to her sensitive spirit like charity. Graydon had been animated by unaffected good-will and an affection that was, after its kind, genuine. While she felt that it would be no longer possible to receive these mild manifestations of regard while giving something so different, she still knew, with a half despairing sinking of heart, how blank and desolate her life would be without them. She must meet him once more, and word was sent that she would receive his good-by after dinner. Having safely passed this one interview, she hoped that she might be able to control the future, and either cease to be, or bring about changes upon which she had resolved.
Only a soft, dim light shone in her room when he came to say farewell.
"Why, Madge," he exclaimed, "you are better! You actually have color. Perhaps it is fever, though," he added, dubiously. "At any rate, it's very becoming."
"I think it must be the reflection from your roses there, you extravagant fellow," she replied, laughing.
"That's famous, Madge. If you will laugh again like that I'll send you a present from Paris. Dear Madge, do get well. Don't let us have anything dismal in our parting. It's only for a little while, you know. When I come back it will be summer, and I'll take you to the seashore or mountains or somewhere, and help you get well."
"You are very kind, Graydon. You have been a true brother to me from the time you tried to cheer and encourage the pale, frightened little girl that sat opposite you at the dinner-table. Don't you remember?"
"Of course I do. It seemed so droll to me that you were afraid when there was nothing to be afraid of."
"My fear was natural. Little as I know of the world, I know that—at least for one like me. It may seem weak and silly to you, but, brought up as I had been, I was morbidly sensitive. You might have meant to be kind and sympathetic and all that, and yet have hurt me cruelly. I have been out with you enough to know how I am regarded. I don't complain. I suppose it is the way of the world, but it has not been your way. You have brought sunshine from the first, not from a sense of duty, not out of sheer humiliating pity, but because it was the impulse of your strength to help and cheer one who was so weak, and if—if—anything—Well, I want you to know before you go away that I appreciate it all and shall never forget it."
"Oh, come, Madge, don't talk so dismally. What do you mean by 'if—if—anything'? You are going to get strong and well, and we will open the campaign together next fall."
She shook her head, but asked, lightly, "How will Miss Wildmere endure your absence?"
"Easier than you, I imagine. She knows how to console herself. Still, as my little sister, I will tell you in confidence that she was very kind in our parting interview. How much her kindness meant only she herself knows, and I've been in society long enough to know that it may mean very little."
"Are you so wholly bent upon winning her, Graydon?"
"Oh, you little Mother Eve! You are surely going to get well. There is no sign of longevity in a woman so certain as curiosity. I've not yet reached the point of breaking my heart about her, whatever she does. Wouldn't you like so beautiful a creature for your sister?"
"The contrast would be too great. I should indeed seem a ghost beside her. Still, if she would make you happy—" But she could go no further.
"Well, well, that's a very uncertain problem of the future. Don't say anything about it at home. My brother don't like her father. They do not get on well in business. Let us talk about yourself. What are you going to do while I am gone?"
"What can such a shadow as I do? Tell me rather what you are going to do, and where you'll be. You are real, and what you do amounts to something."
"There's one thing I'm going to do, and that is, write you some jolly letters that will make you laugh in spite of yourself. They will be part of the tonic treatment that I want you to promise me to begin at once."
"I have already entered upon it, Graydon," she said, quietly, "and I don't think any one will value your letters more than I, only I may not get strong enough to write very much in reply. I've never had occasion to write many letters, you know. Tell me where you will be and what you are going to do," and she leaned back upon her lounge and closed her eyes.
While he complied, he thought, "She has grown pale and thin even to ghastliness, yet I was sure she had color when I first came in. Poor little thing! perhaps her fears are well founded, and I may never see her again;" and the good-hearted fellow was full of tender and remorseful regret. He was quite as fond of her as if she had been his own sister, perhaps even more so, for his affection was not merely the result of a natural tie, but of something congenial to his nature in the girl herself, and it cut him to the heart to see her so white and frail. He stopped a moment, and she opened her eyes and looked at him inquiringly.
"Oh, Madge," he broke out, "I'm so sorry I took you to that confounded party. You seemed getting on hopefully until that blasted evening. You must get well enough to haunt me after your old fashion. You don't know what a dear little sister you have become, and I didn't know it myself until you were secluded by illness, and all through my fault. You have barricaded yourself long enough with that stand and its vase of roses. I'm not going to say good-by at this distance." He removed the stand, and seating himself by her side, he drew her head down upon his shoulder and kissed her again and again. "There now," he continued, "you look perfectly lovely. Kisses are a part of the tonic treatment you need, and I wish I were going to be here to give them. Why, you queer little woman! I did not know you had so much blood in your body."
"It's—it's because I'm not strong," she said, struggling for release. Suddenly she became still, her face took on almost the hue of death, and he saw that she was unconscious.
In terrible alarm he laid her hastily on the lounge, and rushed for Mrs. Muir.
"She has merely fainted," said that experienced woman, after a moment's examination. "You never will learn, Graydon, that Madge is not as strong as yourself. Call one of the maids, and leave her to me."
That was the last time he saw Madge Alden for more than two years. She soon rallied, but agreed with her sister that it would be best not to see him again. She sent him one of his own roses, with the simple message, "Good-by."
Late at night he went down to the steamer, depressed and anxious, carrying with him the vivid memory of Madge lying white and death-like where he had laid her apparently lifeless form.
"I shall never see her again," he muttered. "Such weakness must be mortal."
The deep experience, the touchstone of character, of latent power, if such existed, had come to Madge Alden. For days she had drifted helplessly on the rising tide of an apparently hopeless love. With every hour she comprehended more fully what Graydon Muir had become to her and all that he might have been. It seemed that she had been carried forward by a strong, quiet current, only to be wrecked at last. A sense of utter helplessness overwhelmed her. She could not ignore her love; it had become interwoven with every interest and fibre of her life. At first she contemplated it in wonder, in deeply troubled and alarmed perplexity. It was a momentous truth, that had suddenly been made known as some irretrievable misfortune might have been revealed. She had read of love as children hear of mental anxieties and conflicts of which they have no comprehension. As she grew older it had been like poetry, music, romance—something that kindled her imagination into vague, pleasant dreams. It had been as remote from the present and her own experience as lives of adventure in strange and foreign lands. She had awakened at last to find that it was like her vital breath. By some law of her nature she had given, not merely her thoughts and affection, but her very self to another. To her dismay it made no difference that he had not sought the gift and was not even aware of it. Circumstances over which she had no control had brought her into close companionship with Graydon Muir. She had seen him almost daily for years; she knew him with the intimacy of a sister, yet without the safeguard of a natural tie; and from his genial kindness she had drawn almost all the life she had ever possessed. With an unconsciousness akin to that of a plant which takes root and thrives upon finding a soil adapted to it, her love had been developed by his strong, sunny nature. She soon recognized that it was a love such as she had never known, unlike that for her mother or sister or any one else, and it seemed to her that it could pass away only with herself. It was not a vague sentiment, an indefinite longing; it was the concentrated and imperious demand of her whole being, which, denied, left little indeed, even were the whole world hers. Yet such were the cruel conditions of her lot that she could not speak of it even to one whose head had been pillowed on the same mother's breast, and the thought that it might be discovered by its object made her turn cold with dread. It was a holy thing—the spontaneous product of an unperverted heart—and yet she must hide it as if it were a crime.
Above all the trouble and turmoil of her thoughts, clear and definite amid the chaos brought into her old quiet, languid life, was the impulse—the necessity—to conceal that which had become the mainspring of her existence. She had not the experience of one versed in the ways of the world. How could others—how could he—be kept in ignorance of that of which she was so painfully and vividly conscious? Therefore, overwhelmed with dread and a sense of helplessness, she yielded to her first impulse to hide, in order that what seemed inseparable from herself might be concealed.
But she knew that this seclusion could not last—that she must meet this first and great emergency of her life in some other way. From the strong wish to obtain safety in separation, a plan to bring it about gradually took form in her mind. She must escape, either to live or to die, before her secret became known; and in casting about for the means, she at last thought of a family who had been the kindest of neighbors in the village where her mother had died. Mr. Wayland and his wife had been the truest and most sympathetic of friends to the widow and her orphan children, and Madge felt that she could be at home with them. Mrs. Wayland's prolonged ill-health had induced her husband to try, in her behalf, the remedy of an entire change of air and climate. Therefore they had removed, some years before, to Santa Barbara, on the Pacific coast. The signal success of the experiment now kindled a glimmer of hope in poor Madge. That remote city certainly secured the first requisites—separation and distance—and the fact that her friend found health and vigor in the semi-tropical resort promised a little for her frail young life. She had few fears that her old friends would not welcome her, and she was in a position to entail no burdens, even though she should remain an invalid.
The practical question was, How should she get there? But the more she thought upon the plan the more attractive it grew. The situation seemed so desperate that she was ready for a desperate remedy. To remain weak, helpless, and in perpetual dread was impossible.
Her mind also was clear and strong enough for self-arraignment, and in bitterness she partially condemned herself that she had lost her chance for happiness. Her conscience had often troubled her that she had given up so weakly to the habit of invalidism, but she had never had sufficient motive for the vigorous and sustained effort essential to overcome it. Indeed, her frailty had seemed a claim upon Graydon, and made it more natural for him to pet her. Now that she was thinking deeply, she was compelled to admit that her ill health was to some extent her fault as well as her misfortune. Circumstances, natural indolence, and her sister's extreme indulgence had brought about a condition of life that propagated itself. One languid day was the parent of another, it was so much easier to dawdle than to act. Thus she had lost her opportunity. If he had won health, even Graydon said it would have brought her beauty. She might have secured his admiration, respect, and even love, instead of his pity. What could be more absurd than to imagine that he could give aught else to one like herself? "Oh, what a blind fool I have been!" she moaned—"blind to the wants of my own heart, blind to the truth that a man needs a strong, genial companion, and not a dependent shadow."
Graydon's sudden departure took from her project many obstacles and embarrassments. She was not afraid of her sister or her remonstrances, and felt that she could convince Mr. Muir that the change gave the best promise for the future. Graydon's objections would have been hard to meet. He might have been led to guess her motive or insist on being her escort. Now it was merely a question of gaining sufficient strength for the journey and of being resolute.
Mrs. Muir's opposition was not so great as Madge had feared, and Mr. Muir even approved of the plan. The shrewd merchant's judgment was usually correct on all practical matters, and he believed that Madge's best chance was in a radical change. He saw that his wife's indulgence tended to confirm her sister's lack of energy, and that it would be best for Madge to spend the next few years with one who had regained her health by wise endeavor. Mrs. Muir soon saw everything as her husband viewed it, and the young girl prepared for a new world and a new life.
It was indeed a wise decision. There could be no more aimless drifting and brooding. A telegram to Mr. Wayland brought immediate acquiescence in the project, which was arranged more in detail by letters. Madge strove in every possible way to fit herself for the journey, and was surprised at her success. Better than all tonics was the diversion of her thoughts, the prospect of change, the necessity for action. In her thoughtful prudence she even satisfied Mrs. Muir's solicitude, for the young girl realized more fully every day how much depended upon her plan. It seemed to her that there could be no greater misfortune than to become so ill again that in helplessness she must await Graydon's return. Therefore, every faculty of mind, every power of body, was exerted to accomplish her purpose; and, while her farewell to her sister and Mr. Muir was tender and full of gratitude, the consciousness of escape was uppermost in her mind. An elderly friend of Mr. Muir would be her escort to San Francisco, and in that city Mr. Wayland was to meet her.
She arrived safely at her far-distant home, greatly worn and exhausted indeed, but calm in mind from a sense of security. Mrs. Wayland greeted her with her old-time cordiality, and gave herself heartily to the task of rallying the frail girl into health.
During the days of absolute rest which followed the journey, Madge's thoughts were busy. The width of the continent would separate her from the past and those associated with it. Both the breadth of the continent and the ocean were between her and him from whom she had fled; yet he was ever present to her imagination. In this respect the intervening miles counted for nothing. She had not hoped that they would. She could conceive of no plan of life that left him out, yet she felt that she must have some object to look forward to, some motive for action. The spirit she had recently shown in taking so decisive a step proved her to possess a latent force of character of which she herself had not been conscious. She would not sit down to dream and brood away the future. She could never hope for Graydon Muir's love. He would soon return to New York, and the idea that Miss Wildmere or any other girl would remain cold to his suit was preposterous. Yet if she lived she must meet Graydon again, and she now felt that she would live. The decision she had manifested at the crisis of her life was kindling her nature. She was conscious of a growing inclination to prove to Graydon that she was neither "weak nor lackadaisical." The reproach of these, his words, haunted her and rankled in her memory. If she could only make him respect her—if she could only win such a look of admiration as she had seen upon his face when he first recognized Miss Wildmere at the party, it would be a triumph indeed.
Thus a new plan, a new hope, was developed, and became the inspiration of effort. She listened unweariedly as Mrs. Wayland related how she had turned the tide of her ebbing vitality. Thus Madge gained the benefit of another's experience. Little by little she sought to increase her slender resources of strength. The superb climate enabled her to live almost in the open air, and each day she exulted over an increase of vigor. Almost everything favored her in her new home. When she was well enough to go out much the strangers had gone, and everything in the town was restful, yet not enervating. The Waylands, while on the best terms with other permanent residents, were not society people. Mrs. Wayland had become satisfied with that phase of life in her youth. Her husband was a reader, a student, and something of a naturalist. The domestic habits which had been formed while Mrs. Wayland was an invalid still clung to them. While never ceasing to be kind neighbors, they were more than content with books, nature, and each other. Madge therefore had access to a very fine library, and the companionship of intellectual people who had known from contact the present world, and in whose cultivated minds dwelt the experiences of the past. Her friends were in the habit of discussing what they read, and the basis of much of their enjoyment—as of all true companionship—was harmonious disagreement. Thus the young girl was insensibly taught to think for herself and to form her own opinions. They also proved admirable guides in directing her reading. She felt that she had read enough for mere amusement, and now determined to become familiar with the great master-minds, so far as she was capable of following them, and to inform herself on those subjects which Mr. Wayland declared essential to an education.
If circumstances within doors were conducive to mental growth, those without were even more favorable to physical development. The salt air and softly tempered sunshine were perpetual tonics. The place was full of exquisite flowers. She felt that she had never seen roses until she came to Santa Barbara. To a wounded, sensitive spirit there is even a healing influence in the brightness and perfume of flowers. They smiled so sweetly at her that she could not help smiling back. The sunny days passed, one so like another that they begot serenity. The even climate, with its sunny skies, tended to inspirit as well as to invigorate. Almost every day she spent hours in driving and sailing, and as the season advanced she began to take ocean baths, which on that genial coast are suitable almost all the year round. Going thus to nature for healing, she did not appeal in vain. Strength and grace were bestowed imperceptibly, yet surely, as spring clothes the leafless tree.
A love such as had grown unbidden and unconsciously in Madge's heart could not be content with the meagre reward of a little admiration. Such an affection was softening and ennobling in its character, and the mere desire to compel Graydon to glance at her as she had seen him look at Miss Wildmere grew into the higher ambition to become such a woman as would approach in some degree his ideal. She knew his tastes, and as she thought over the past she believed she could gauge his character as could no other. She soon recognized that he was not an exceptional man, that she was not worshipping a hero. He himself would be the last one to claim pre-eminence among his fellows. But his genial, open nature, his physical strength, and his generous, kindly impulses made him an eminently lovable man, and—well, she loved him, and believed she ever should. Frail and defective in almost every respect herself, she would have thought it absurd to cherish some lofty and impossible ideal. He was hearty, wholesome, honest, and she soon began to see that it would be a better and a nobler thing—a nearer approach to happiness—to become a woman whom he could trust and respect than merely to win a little admiration as a tribute to ephemeral beauty.
She would attain beauty if she could, but it should be the appendage, the ornament of mind and character. She, who had seemed to him weakness itself, would aim to suggest eventually that noblest phase of strength—woman's patience and fortitude.
It must not be supposed that Madge reached these conclusions in days, weeks, or even months. Her final purposes were the result of slow, half-conscious growth. Right, brave action produced right feeling, and there are few better moral tonics than developing health. With richer, better blood came truer, higher, and more unselfish thoughts. She found that she could not only live, but that vigorous, well-directed life is in itself enjoyment. It was a pleasure to breathe the pure, balmy air, even when reclining in a carriage or a sail-boat, and as she gained strength sufficient for exercise, she soon became aware of the rich physical rewards that wait upon it. Slowly at first, but with an increasing impetus, she advanced toward health, the condition of all genuine life. She at last exchanged her carriage for a saddle-horse.
Mr. Wayland had one taste in which his wife did not share—a love for horseback exercise, which, indeed, was one of the chief characteristics of the community. Madge knew that Graydon was extremely fond of a good horse, and that he rode superbly. To become his equal therefore in this respect was one of the chief dreams of her ambition. It was with almost a sense of terror that she mounted at first, but Mr. Wayland was considerate. Her horse was only permitted to walk, and she was taken off as soon as she was weary. Confidence increased rapidly, and eventually she became fearless and almost tireless. The beach was like a smooth, hard road-bed, and before the summer was over she thought little of a gallop of ten miles, with the breath of the Pacific fanning her cheek. When Mr. Wayland drove with his wife up through Mission and Hot Springs canons, or eight miles away to the exquisitely beautiful Bartlett Canon and the fine adjacent ranches, she accompanied them on horseback. As she flashed along past date-palms, and through lemon and orange groves, she began to appear semi-tropical herself. She also became Mr. Wayland's companion on his botanizing expeditions, and her steps among the rocks of the foothills and on the slopes of the mountains grew surer, lighter, and more unwearied. Color stole into her face, and a soft fire into her dark eyes when animated. Mrs. Wayland looked on with increasing delight, and thought, "She is growing very beautiful. I wonder if she knows it?"
Indeed she knew it well. What young girl does not? But Madge had a motive for knowledge of which Mrs. Wayland did not dream. In the main the girl was her own physician, and observed her symptoms closely. She knew well what beauty was. Her vivid fancy would at any time recall Miss Wildmere as a living presence; therefore her standard was exceedingly high, and she watched her approach to it as to a distant and eagerly sought goal. Other eyes gave assurance that her own were not deceiving her. The invalid on whom at first but brief and commiserating glances had been bestowed was beginning to be followed by admiring observation. Society recognized her claims, and she was gaining even more attention than she desired. As her strength increased she accepted invitations, and permitted the circle of her acquaintance to widen. It was part of her plan to become as much at home in the social world as Graydon himself. Nor was she long in overcoming a diffidence that had been almost painful. In one sense these people were to her simply a means to an end. She cared so little for them that she was not afraid, and had merely to acquire the ease which results from usage. Diffidence soon passed into a shy grace that was indefinable and yet became a recognized trait. The least approach to loudness and aggressiveness in manner was not only impossible to her, but she also possessed the refinement and tact of which only extremely sensitive natures are capable. A vain, selfish woman is so preoccupied with herself that she does not see or care what others are, or are thinking of, unless the facts are obtruded upon her; another, with the kindest intentions, may not be able to see, and so blunders lamentably; but Madge was so finely organized that each one who approached her made a definite impression, and without conscious effort she responded—not with a conventional and stereotyped politeness, but with an appreciative courtesy which, as she gained confidence and readiness of expression, gave an unfailing charm to her society. With few preconceived and arbitrary notions of her own she accepted people as they were, and made the most of them. Of course there were some in whom even the broadest charity could find little to approve; but it was her purpose to study and understand them and lose forever the unsophisticated ignorance at which Graydon had used to laugh.
Santa Barbara was a winter resort, and she had the advantage of meeting many types. In Mrs. Wayland she had a useful mentor. This lady in her younger days had been familiar with the best phases of metropolitan society, and she counteracted in Madge all tendencies toward provincialism. Thus it gradually became recognized that the "shy, sickly little girl," as she had been characterized at first, was growing into a very attractive young woman. Indeed, after an absence of only a year her own sister would scarcely have recognized her.
Mrs. Muir of course heard often from her sister, and was satisfied with the general assurance that she was better and steadily improving. Madge, however, was rather indefinite in her information. As time passed, the idea of giving her friends in the East a surprise took possession of her fancy. She instinctively felt that she needed every incentive to pursue the course she had resolved upon, since she often suffered from fits of depression hard to combat. The hope of appearing like a new being to her relatives was another innocent motive for her long-prolonged effort. Circumstances had never developed epistolary tastes in the sisters, and they were content with brief missives containing general assurances that all was well. Mrs. Muir was one of those ladies who become engrossed with the actual and the present. Had Madge been in her old room she would have been looked after with daily solicitude; being absent, she was loved none the less, but was simply crowded from thought and memory by swarms of little cares. She was doing well, and her sister was satisfied. "'It's a wonderful climate,' Madge writes," she would say, "so even and dry. Madge doesn't take cold as she did here, and can go out nearly every day. Perhaps we ought to become reconciled to the fact that she will have to live there always, since here, with our sudden changes, she could scarcely live at all."
With the kindliest intentions Graydon had sought to initiate a vigorous correspondence. He had learned with immense relief of Madge's improvement through change of residence, and he felt that a series of jolly letters might bring aid and hopefulness. Her responses were not very encouraging, however, and business cares, with the novelty of foreign life, gradually absorbed his thoughts and time until correspondence languished and died.
"It's the old story," he thought, with a shade of irritation. "Letters cost effort, and she is not equal to effort, or thinks she is not."
If he could have seen Madge at that moment riding like the wind on a spirited horse he would have been more astonished than by any of the wonders of the old world.
To Madge his letters were a source of mingled pain and pleasure, but the former predominated. In every line they breathed an affection which could never satisfy. Coldness or indifference could not have so assured her that her love was hopeless; and when she sat down to reply, the language of her heart was so unlike that which she must write as to make her feel almost guilty of deliberate deception. Correspondence made him too vividly present, and she was learning that she had the power, not of forgetting him, but of so occupying her mind with tasks for his sake as to attain serenity. The days were made short by efforts of which he deemed her incapable, and weariness brought rest at night. But when she sat down with her pen, confronting him and not what she sought to do for him, her heart sank. He was too near and dear, yet too remote, even for hope.
This emotion is, however, the most hardy of plants, and although she had often assured herself that she had never entertained it or had any reason to do so, almost before she was aware she found it growing in her heart. Business still kept Graydon abroad, although a year had passed. There were no indications that he was pressing his suit with Miss Wildmere, and our heroine's mirror and the eyes of others began to tell her that the confident belle would not now bestow a glance so cold and indifferent as to mean, "You can be nothing to him or to any one." Moreover, Miss Wildmere's coveted beauty might prove an ally. One so attractive would be sought, perhaps won, before Graydon returned, and absence might have taught him that his regard had been little more than admiration. Naturally Madge would not be inclined to think well of one who had brought so cruel an experience into her life; but, prejudice apart, the society girl had given evidence of a type of womanhood not very high. Even Graydon, in his allusions, had suggested a character repulsive to Madge. A woman "as hard to capture and hold as a 'Bedouin'" was not at all her ideal. The words presented to her one who was either calculating or capricious, either heartless or fickle.
"Truly," she thought, "if there was ever a man who merited whole-hearted, lifelong constancy, it is Graydon Muir; and if he even imagines Miss Wildmere incapable of this, why should he think further of her? Perhaps while beyond the spell of her beauty he has formed a truer estimate of her character, and has abandoned all thought of her as a mocking dream. Perhaps—"
Of what possibilities will not a young girl dream at the dictation of her heart? And as she saw the sharp lines of her profile softening into loveliness, the color fluctuating in her cheeks even at her thoughts, her thin, feeble arms growing white and firm, and the rounded grace of womanhood appearing in all her form, she began to hope that she could endure comparison with Miss Wildmere, even on her lower plane of material beauty. But Madge had too much mind to be content with Miss Wildmere's standard. She coveted outward attractiveness chiefly that the casket might secure attention to its gems. The days of languid, desultory reading and study were over, and she determined to know at least a few things well.
It was to music, however, that she gave her chief attention, since she believed that for this art she had some positive talent A German in the pursuit of health had drifted to the remote southern city. He was past middle age, but had retained through numberless disappointments and discouragements the one enthusiasm of his life; and in Madge he found a pupil after his own heart. While his voice had lost much of its freshness and power, his taste was pure and refined. He kindled in the young girl's mind something of his own love and reverence for music on its own account. To Madge, however, it would always remain a method of expression rather than a science or an art, and the old professor at last learned to recognize her limitations. She would be excellent in only those phases of music which were in accord with her own feeling and thought. She would not, perhaps could not, study it as he had done, for her woman's nature and the growing purpose of her life were ever in the ascendant; but under his guidance her taste grew purer and her knowledge and power increased rapidly. What she did she learned to do well. Even Herr Brachmann was often charmed by the delicate originality of her touch, which proved that her own thought and feeling were infused into the music before her.
But her voice delighted him most. With her increasing vigor was gained the ability to use her vocal organs in sustained effort. He guarded her carefully against over-exertion, and her advance was assured and safe. Note after note, true, sweet, and strong, was added to the compass of her voice, and this exercise reacted with increased benefit on her general health. One can scarcely become a vocalist without toning up the vital organs, and in learning to sing Madge provided an antidote against consumptive tendencies. Her gift of song at last began to attract attention. Strangers loitered near the Wayland Cottage during warm, quiet evenings, and in society she was importuned by those who had heard her before. She usually complied, for she was training herself to sing before an audience of one who was familiar with the best musical talent of the world. Not that she wished to invite comparisons with this kind of talent, but merely to sing with such simple sweetness and truth that Graydon would forget the trained professional in the unaffected charm of the natural girl.
The manner of those who listened stimulated her hope. At the first notes of her song all conversation ceased. Even the unappreciative were impressed by a certain pathos, an appealing minor tone, which touched the heart while pleasing the ear.
During the long summer that followed her first winter at Santa Barbara the little town sank into a semi-torpid state. Strangers disappeared. With many of the permanent residents to kill time was the main object of languid effort. To Madge the season brought varied opportunity. The old professor gave her much of his time. While others slept she read and studied. The heat, tempered by the vast Pacific, was never great, and the air had a vitality that proved a constant aid to her controlling motive. In the morning she rode or took some form of skilled exercise in which she knew Graydon to be proficient, and she rarely missed her ocean bath. Such health was she acquiring that it was becoming a joy in itself. As with all earnest, constant natures, however, her supreme motive grew stronger with time.
In August she received tidings from the East that caused much solicitude and depression. Graydon had returned for a brief visit, and had joined Mr. and Mrs. Muir at a seaside inn. "A Miss Wildmere is staying here also," her sister wrote, "and, somewhat to Mr. Muir's disapproval, Graydon seems not only well acquainted with her, but unusually friendly. Mr. Muir says that if she is like her father she is a 'speculator'; and from the attention she receives and the way she receives it one would think he was right. Graydon, however, seems to be her favorite, and if he could remain long enough it is not hard to see what might happen. But she is a great belle and a coquette too, I should imagine, and she has a large enough following to turn any girl's head. I don't wonder at it either, for she is the most lovely creature I ever saw, and yet she doesn't make a pleasant impression on me. The men are just wild about her. Mr. Muir looks askance at Graydon's devotion, and mutters 'speculator' when Miss Wildmere's name is mentioned. Graydon returns to Europe next week. He inquires often after you, and his questions make me feel that I don't know as much about you and what you are doing as I should. You write often, but somehow you seem remote in more senses than one. I suppose, however, you are reading as usual, and just floating along down stream with time. Well, no matter, dear. You write that you are better and stronger, and have no more of your old dreadful colds. You must spend next summer with us, even if you have to go back to Santa Barbara in the winter."
Neither the shortness of his visit nor the fascinations of Miss Wildmere prevented Graydon from writing Madge a cordial note full of regret that he should not see her. "You have indeed," he wrote, "vanished like a ghost, and become but a haunting memory. It is a year and a half since I have seen you, and I did not succeed in beguiling you into a correspondence. Like the good Indians, you have followed the setting sun into some region as vague and distant as the 'happy hunting-ground.' Mary says that you will come East next summer. The idea! Is there anything of you to come that is corporate and real? If I had the time I would go to you and see. I find Miss Wildmere just about where I left her, only more beautiful and fascinating, and besieged by a host. Absence makes my chance slight indeed, but I do not despair. She so evidently enjoys a defensive warfare, wherein it is the besiegers who capitulate, that she may maintain it until my exile abroad is over. This is to my mind a more rational interpretation of her freedom than that she is waiting for me; and thus I reveal to you that modesty is my most prominent trait. She may be married before I see her again; and should this prove to be the case I will show you what a model of heroic equanimity I can be."
Madge read this letter with a sigh of intense relief, and was not long in resolving that when he came again she would enter the lists with Miss Wildmere and do what her nature permitted before her chance of happiness passed irrevocably. Graydon's letter kindled her hope greatly. It seemed to her that she was to have a chance—that her patient effort might receive the highest reward after all. She thanked God for the hope. Her love was a sacred thing. It was the natural, uncalculating outgrowth of her womanhood, and was inciting her toward all womanly grace.
Madge did not believe her motive, her purpose, to be unwomanly. Should the opportunity offer, she did not intend to win Graydon by angling for him, by arts, blandishments, or one unmaidenly advance. She would try to be so admirable that he would admire her, so true that he would trust her, and so fascinating that he would woo her with a devotion that would leave no chance for "equanimity" were it possible for him to fail. If in her desperate weakness, in the chaos of her first self-knowledge, she could hide her secret, she smiled at the possibility of revealing it now that she had been schooled and trained into strength and self-control.
In her brief letter of reply to Graydon she wrote:
"That I still exist and shall continue to live is proved by my one trait which you regard as encouraging—curiosity. Please send me some books that will tell me about Europe, or, rather, will present Europe as nearly as possible in its real aspect. I may never travel, but am foolish enough to imagine that I can see the world from the standpoint of this sleepy old town."
"Poor little wraith!" said Graydon, as he read the words. "What a queer, shadowy world her fancy will create, even from the most realistic descriptions I can send her!" But he good-naturedly made up a large bundle of books, in which fiction predominated, for he believed that she would read nothing else.
The days gilded on, autumn merged into winter, and strangers came again. Madge was acquiring an experience of which at one time she had never dreamed. She found herself in Miss Wildmere's position. Every day she was put more and more on the defensive. Gentlemen eagerly sought her society, and her situation was often truly embarrassing, for she had as little desire that the besiegers should capitulate as she had intention of surrendering herself. In this respect Miss Wildmere's tactics were easier to carry out. She was not in the least annoyed by any number of abject and committed slaves, and she was approaching the period when she proposed to surrender with great discretion, but to whom was not a settled point.
Madge was beginning to make victims also, but she made them by being simply what she was, and those who suffered most had to admit to themselves that she was almost as elusive as a spirit of the air.
In the spring visitors to the health resort, returning to the East, brought to the Muirs rumors of Madge's beauty, fascination, and accomplishments. They were a little puzzled, but concluded that Madge had appeared well in a rendezvous of invalids, and were glad to believe that she was much better. Prudent Mrs. Muir wrote, however, "Do not think of returning till the last of May. Then we shall soon go to the mountains. This will be another change, and change in your case, you know, has proved so beneficial! We expect Graydon soon. He is tired of residence abroad, and has so arranged the business that a confidential clerk can take his place."
Madge smiled and sighed. The test of her patient endeavor was about to come.
THE SECRET OF BEAUTY
Mr. and Mrs. Wayland had become so attached to Madge that they were the more ready to listen to her solicitation that they should accompany her East and visit their old haunts. "Very likely I shall return with you," said the young girl, "and make Santa Barbara my home."
This indeed was her plan should defeat await her. She had become attached to the seaside town, as we do to all places that witness the soul's deepest experiences and best achievements. She had learned there to hope for the highest of earth's gifts; she believed that she could live there a serene, quiet, unselfish life, her secret still unknown, should that be her fate.
The old German professor was almost heartbroken at her departure. "It vas alvays so," he said; "ven mine heart vas settled on someding, den I lose it;" but she reassured him by saying that there was no certainty that she would not return.
Mary Muir was so overwhelmed with astonishment that at first she scarcely returned Madge's warm embrace. She expected to find her sister much stronger and better; but this radiant, beautiful girl, half a head taller than herself—was she the shadowy creature who had gone away with what seemed a forlorn hope? She held Madge off and looked at her, she drew her to a mirror and looked at her again, then exclaimed, "This is a miracle! Why did you not tell me?"
"I wished to surprise you. I did write that I was better."
"This is not better; it is best Oh, Madge, you have grown so pretty you almost take away my breath—all travel-stained and weary, too, from your journey! What will not Henry say? I should scarcely have known you. Surely now you need not go back. You are the picture of health."
"We shall see," said Madge, quietly. "It may be best if I find that the East does not agree with me." She was fully determined to keep open her line of retreat.
Mr. Muir, in his quiet way, enjoyed the transformation as greatly as did his wife. He had foreseen changes for the better, but had not hoped for anything like this, he declared.
"I just want to be near when Graydon first sees you!" exclaimed voluble Mrs. Muir, at the dinner-table.
The remark was unexpected, and Madge, to her dismay, found the blood rushing to her face. Quick as thought she put her handkerchief to her mouth, and sought to escape notice under the ruse of a brief strangulation. "This is not going to answer at all," she thought. "I must acquire a better self-control." She at once began talking about Graydon in the most simple and natural manner possible, asking many questions. Mrs. Muir's intuition and powers of observation were not very great, and she was without the faintest suspicion of what was passing in Madge's mind. Keen-eyed, reticent Mr. Muir was not so unheeding, however. When Graydon's name was mentioned he happened to glance up from the dinner which usually absorbed his attention. In dealing with men he had acquired the habit of keen observation. During a business transaction his impassive face and quiet eyes gave no evidence of his searching scrutiny. He not only heard and weighed the words to which he listened, but ever sought to follow the mental processes behind them; and often men had been perplexed by the fact that the banker had apparently arrived at conclusions opposite to the tenor of their statements. When, therefore, he saw the color flying into Madge's face at the unexpected utterance of his brother's name, his attention was arrested and an impression made to which his mind would revert in the future. It might mean nothing; it might mean a great deal. Business and home life were everything to Mr. Muir, and Graydon's admiration of Miss Wildmere did not promise well for either.
The power that Mr. Muir had acquired mainly by practice Madge possessed by nature. As we have seen, she was quite free from that most unwomanly phase of stupidity which is often due to the heart rather than the head. Some women know what is told them if it is told plainly; others look into the eyes of those around them and see what is sought to be concealed. The selfish woman is self-blinded. She often has great powers of discernment, but will not take the trouble to use them, unless prompted by her own interests. Selfishness is too short-sighted, however, to secure lasting benefits. Usually, nothing is more fatal than the success of mere self-seeking. While Madge pressed unwaveringly toward the goal of her hopes, she did not do so in thoughtless or callous indifference toward those who had true claims upon her. With her sister she soon saw that all was well—that she was, as before, absorbed and content with the routine of her life. She was not so sure about her brother-in-law. During her absence lines of care had appeared in his face, and there was an abstracted and sometimes a troubled look in his eyes, as if he was pursued by questions that were importunate and even threatening. The indications of perturbation were slight indeed, but from his nature they would be so in any case. Thus the young girl also received an impression which awakened a faint solicitude. Mr. Muir, as her guardian and the manager of her property, had been a true friend and loyal to his trust. She entertained for him much respect and a strong, quiet affection. He did not dwell in her thoughts merely as one who was useful to her, but rather as one who had been true to her, and to whom she in her place and way would be true and sympathetic were there occasion.
Madge was wearied indeed by her long journey, but not exhausted. In sensations so different from those which had followed her journey to the West she recognized her immeasurable gain. Then she had entered Mrs. Wayland's cottage helpless, hopeless, a fugitive from her own weakness. By wise endeavor she had transformed that very weakness into her strength, and had returned to the scenes from which she had fled earnest and resolute—one who had made her choice for life and would abide by it. Womanly to her very finger-tips, she was acting with the aggressive decision of a man. Sensitive and timid beyond most women, she would not lose her happiness when it might be won in paths not only hedged about by all the proprieties of her lot, but also by a reserve and pride with which her own fine nature was pre-eminently endowed. That she loved Graydon Muir was a truth for life. If he could learn to love her from what she had sought to be, from what she simply was, he should have the chance. Her own deep experience had taught her much and given her the clew to many things. She had studied life, not only in books, but in its actual manifestations. Mrs. Wayland was a social mine in herself, and could recall from the past, volumes of dispassionate gossip, free from malice. In two years Madge had learned to know the world better than many who are in contact with it for long periods, but who see all through the distorted medium of their own prejudices or exceptional experiences. Although she was no longer unsophisticated she was neither cynical nor optimistic. Before her hope could be fulfilled she knew she must enter society, and she studied it thoughtfully—its whims and meannesses as well as its laws and refinements. If she ever reached Graydon's side she meant to stand there with a knowledge and confidence as assured as his own. She soon learned that it is common enough for women to seek to win men by every alluring and coquettish device. She would employ no devices whatever. She would merely reappear above his horizon among other luminaries, and shine with her own pure, unborrowed light. Then it must depend upon himself whether she ever became his own "bright particular star."
So much she felt she had a right to do, and no conventional hesitation as to her course stood in her way. Her love had become the governing impulse of her life, and its dictates were imperative until they trenched upon her sensitive, womanly pride. Then they were met as the rock meets the tide. She did not care what the world might think: it should never have occasion to think at all. Her secret was between herself and God. Graydon himself should never know it unless his name became hers.
How vividly her old haunts recalled him! There was the lounge on which he used to toss the "little wraith" after having carried her around in the semblance of a waltz. The sofa on which had taken place their strange parting still stood as of old in her room. There her head had sunk in unconsciousness upon his breast, the result of her vain, feeble struggle to escape from caresses so natural to him, but no longer to be received by her.
What way-marks in life mute, commonplace things become in the light of memory! To her vivid fancy Graydon was again present in all the positions now made memorable by deep affection. The past unrolled itself again as it had so often done before. She saw the pallid, frightened child that scarcely dared to look deprecatingly at the handsome young collegian. She saw again the kind yet mirthful eyes that beamed encouragingly upon her. She remembered that in the unworthy past they had ever looked upon her with a large, gentle, affectionate tolerance, and she now took chiefly upon herself the blame for those years of weakness. Her present radiant health and beauty proved how unnecessary they had been, and her heart sometimes sunk at the thought of what they might cost her.
Mary had accompanied her to her room, and was asked, in a careless tone, what had become of Miss Wildmere.
"I was told incidentally the other day that she was as great a belle as ever. I had hoped that she would be out of Graydon's way before this time. I have heard, however, that great belles are often slower in marrying than the homeliest girls. If all is true that is said, this Miss Wildmere has made mischief enough; but I am not anxious that our Graydon should cut short her career—that is, if marriage would cut it short. I imagine she will always be a gay society woman. Well, Madge, I suppose you must make up your mind to be a belle yourself. Why don't you cut out this 'speculator,' as my husband calls her? If Graydon had my eyes it wouldn't be a difficult task."
"Graydon hasn't your eyes or mine either," was the brusque reply. "I propose to use my own. They may see some one that I have never met. One thing at least is certain—I don't intend to cut out Miss Wildmere or any one else. The man who wins me will have to do the seeking most emphatically; and I warn you beforehand, sister mine, that you must never let the idea of matchmaking enter your head. Since I have been away I have developed more will of my own than muscle. There is no necessity for me ever to marry, and if I do it will be because I wish to, not because any one else wants me to. Nothing would set me against a man more certainly than to see that he had allies who were manoeuvring in his behalf;" and she concluded with a kiss that robbed her words of a point too sharp, perhaps, for her sister's feelings. She knew Mrs. Muir's peculiarities well enough, however, to believe that such words were needed, and she had intended to speak them in some form at the earliest opportunity. Therefore she was glad that she could utter the warning so early and naturally in their new relations. Nor was it uncalled for, since the thought of bringing Madge and Graydon together had already entered Mrs. Muir's mind. A scheme of this character would grow in fascination every hour. Poor Madge was well aware that, with the best intentions, no one could more certainly blast her hopes than her sister, whose efforts would be unaccompanied by the nicest tact. Moreover, any such attempts might involve the disclosure of her secret.
"Well, you have changed in every respect," said Mary, looking at her wonderingly.
"For the better, I hope. My feeling in this respect, however, seems to me perfectly natural. I don't see how a self-respecting girl could endure anything except a straightforward, downright suit, with plenty of time to make up her own mind. I can do without the man who does not think me worthy of this, and could probably do without him any way. Because a man wants to marry a girl is only one reason for assent, and there may be a dozen reasons to the contrary."
"Why, Madge, how you talk! When you left us it seemed as if any one might pick you up and marry you and you would not have spirit enough to say yes or no. Have you had to refuse any one at Santa Barbara? Perhaps you didn't refuse. You have told me so little of what was going on!"
"That isn't fair to me, Mary. I explained to you that I wished to give you a pleasant surprise. To plan a pleasure for you was not unsisterly, was it? I haven't Miss Wildmere's ambition for miscellaneous conquests. Why should I write about men for whom I cared nothing and toward whom my manner should have made my spoken negative unnecessary?"
"Other girls would. Well, it seems that their suit was downright enough to satisfy you. Good gracious! How many were there?"