Chapter I. 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.