Chapter X. Old Ties Broken
 

"Madge," said Graydon, rejoining her on the piazza, and giving her his arm, while Mrs. Muir sat down to wait for her husband, "you wear a rose like the one you sent me when we parted so long ago. Oh, but my heart was heavy then! Did you make this choice to-night by chance?"

"You have a good memory."

"You have not answered me."

"I shall admit nothing that will increase your vanity."

"You will now of necessity make my pride overweening."

"How is that? I hope to have a better influence over you."

"As I look at you I regard my pride as most pardonable and natural. My old thoughts and hopes are realized beyond even imagination, although, looking at your eyes, in old times, I always had a high ideal of your capabilities. I should be a clod indeed if I were not proud of such a sister to champion in society."

Madge's hearty laugh was a little forced as she said, "You have a delightfully cool way of taking things for granted. I'm no longer a little sick girl, but, to vary Peggotty's exultant statement, a young lady 'growed.' You forgot yourself, sir, in your greeting; but that was pardonable in your paroxysm of surprise.

"What, Madge! Will you not permit me to be your brother?"

"What an absurd question!" she answered, still laughing. "You are not my brother. Can I permit water to run up hill? You were like a brother, though, when I was a sick child in the queer old times--kinder than most brothers, I think. But, Graydon, I am grown up. See, my head comes above your shoulder."

"Well, you are changed."

"For the better, in some respects, I hope you will find."

"I don't at all like the change you suggest in our relations, and am not sure I will submit to it. It seems absurd to me."

"It will not seem so when you come to think of it," she replied, gravely and gently. "You think of me still as little Madge; I am no longer little Madge, even to myself. A woman's instincts are usually right, Graydon."

"Oh, thank you! I am glad I am still 'Graydon.' Why do you not call me 'Mr. Muir?'"

"Because I am perfectly rational. Because I regard you as almost the best friend I have."

"Break up that confabulation," cried Mr. Muir to the young people, who had paused and were confronting each other at the further end of the piazza. "If you think Madge can explain herself in a moment or a week you are mistaken. Come to supper."

"My brother is right--you are indeed an enigma," he said, discontentedly.

"An enigma, am I?" she responded, smiling. "Please remember that most of the world's enigmas were slowly found out because so simple."

As they passed from the dusky piazza to the large, brilliantly lighted supper-room, with nearly all its tables occupied, he was curious to observe how she would meet the many critical eyes turned toward her. Again he was puzzled as well as surprised. She walked at his side as though the room were empty. There was no affectation of indifference, no trace of embarrassed or of pleased self-consciousness. From the friendly glances and smiles that she received it was also apparent that she had already made acquaintances. She moved with the easy, graceful step of perfect good breeding and assured confidence, and was as self-possessed as himself. Was this the little ghost who had once been afraid of her own shadow, which was scarcely less substantial than herself?

They had been seated but a moment when Miss Wildmere entered alone. To Graydon this appeared pathetic. He did not know that her mother was so worn out from the journey, and so embarrassed by unaided efforts to get settled while still caring for her half-sick child, that she had decided to make a slight and hasty repast in her own room. Miss Wildmere cared little for what took place behind the scenes, but was usually superb before the footlights. Nothing could have been more charming or better calculated to win general good-will than her advance down the long room. In external beauty she was more striking at first than Madge. She did not in the least regret that she must enter alone, for she was not proud of her mother, and nothing drew attention from herself. She assumed, however, a slight and charming trace of embarrassment and perplexity, which to Graydon was perfectly irresistible, and he mentally resolved that she should not much longer want a devoted escort. Madge saw his glance of sympathy and strong admiration, his smile and low bow as she passed, ushered forward by the obsequious headwaiter, and her heart sank. In spite of all she had attempted and achieved, the old cynical assurance came back to her--"You are nothing to Graydon, and never can be anything to him." She was pale enough now, but her eyes burned with the resolution not to yield until all hope was slain. She talked freely, and was most friendly toward Graydon, but there was a slight constraint in his manner. The beautiful and self-possessed girl who sat opposite him was not little Madge whom it had been his pleasure to pet and humor. She evidently no longer regarded herself as his sister, but rather as a charming young woman abundantly able to take care of herself. She had indeed changed marvellously in more respects than one, and he felt aggrieved that he had been kept in ignorance of her progress. He believed that she had grown away from him and the past, as well as grown up, according to her declaration. He recalled her apparent disinclination for correspondence, and now thought it due to indifference, rather than an indolent shrinking from effort. The surprise she had given him seemed a little thing--an act due possibly to vanity--compared with the sisterly accounts she might have written of her improvement. She had achieved the wonder without aid from him, and so of course had not felt the need of his help in any way. In remembrance of the past he felt that he had not deserved to be so ignored. Her profession of friendship was all well enough--there could scarcely be less than that--but the Madge he had looked forward to meeting again as of old no longer existed. Oh, yes, she should have admiration and exclamation points to her heart's content, but he had come from his long exile hungry for something more and better than young lady friends. He had long since had a surfeit of these semi-Platonic affinities. The girl who apparently had been refusing scores of men for his sake was more to his taste. His brother's repugnance only irritated and incited him, and he thought, "I'll carry out his business policy to the utmost, but away from the office I am my own man."

As these thoughts passed through his mind, they began to impart to his manner a tinge of gallantry, the beginning of a departure from his old fraternal and affectionate ways. He was too well-bred to show pique openly, or to reveal a sense of injury during the first hours of reunion, but he already felt absolved from being very attentive to a girl who not only had proved so conclusively that she could manage admirably for herself, but who also had been so indifferent that she had not needed his sympathy in her efforts or thought it worth while to gladden him with a knowledge of her progress. He had loved her as a sister, and had given ample proof of this. He had maintained his affection for the Madge that he remembered. "But I have been told," he thought, bitterly, "that the young lady before me is a 'friend.' She has been a rather distant friend, if the logic of events counts for anything. Not satisfied with the thousands of miles that separated us, she has also withheld her confidence in regard to changes that would have interested even a casual acquaintance."

Madge soon detected the changing expression of his eyes, the lessening of simple, loving truth in his words, and while she was pained she feared that all this and more would necessarily result from the breaking up of their old relations. Her task was a difficult one at best--perhaps it was impossible--nor had she set about it in calculating policy. Their old relations could not be maintained on her part. Even the touch of his hand had the mysterious power to send a thrill to her very heart. Therefore she must surround herself at once with the viewless yet impassable barriers which a woman can interpose even by a glance.

As they rose, Graydon remarked, "I have helped you at supper, and yet one of my illusions has not vanished. The air at Santa Barbara must have been very nourishing if your appetite was no better there than here. Your strange 'sea-change' on that distant coast is still marvellous to me."

"Mary can tell you how ravenous I usually am. I do not meet friends every day from whom I have been separated so long."

"It is a very ordinary thing for me to meet 'friends,'" he replied, sotto voce, "for I have many. I had hopes that I should meet one who would be far more than a friend. I'm half inclined to go out to Santa Barbara and see if my little sister Madge is not still there."

"Do you think me a fraud?"

"Oh, no, only so changed that I scarcely know how to get acquainted with you."

"Even if I granted so much, which I do not, I might suggest that one must be uninteresting indeed if she inspires no desire for acquaintance. But such talk is absurd between us, Graydon."

"Of course it is. You are so changed for the better that I can scarcely believe my eyes or ears, and my heart not at all. Of course your wishes shall be my law, and my wishes will lead me to seek your acquaintance with deep and undisguised interest. You see the trouble with me is that I have not changed, and it will require a little time for me to adapt myself to the new order of things. I am now somewhat stunned and paralyzed. In this imbecile state I am both stupid and selfish. I ought to congratulate you, and so I do with all the shattered forces of my mind and reason. You have improved amazingly. You are destined to become a belle par excellence, and probably are one now--I know so little of what has occurred since we parted."

"You are changed also, Graydon. You used to be kind in the old days;" and she spoke sadly.

"In some respects I am changed," he said, earnestly; "and my affection for you is of such long standing and so deep that it prompts me to make another protest." (They had strolled out upon the grounds and were now alone.) "I have changed in this respect; I am no longer so young as I was, and am losing my zest for general society. I was weary of residence abroad, where I could have scarcely the semblance of a home, and, while I had many acquaintances and friends, I had no kindred. I'm sorry to say that the word 'friend,' in its reference to young ladies, does not mean very much to me; or, rather, I have learned from experience just what it does mean. A few years since I was proud of my host of young lady friends, and some I thought would continue to be such through life. Bah! They are nearly all married or engaged; their lives have drifted completely away from mine, as it was natural and inevitable that they should. We are good friends still, but what does it amount to? I rarely think of them; they never of me, I imagine. We exert no influence on each other's lives, and add nothing to them. I never had a sister, but I had learned to love you as if you were one, and when I heard that you were to be of our family again, the resumption of our old relations was one of my dearest expectations. It hurt me cruelly, Madge, when you laughed at the idea as preposterous, and told me that I had forgotten myself when following the most natural impulse of my heart. It seemed to me the result of prudishness, rather than womanly delicacy, unless you have changed in heart as greatly as in externals. You could be so much to me as a sister. It is a relationship that I have always craved--a sister not far removed from me in age; and such a tie, it appears to me, might form the basis of a sympathy and confidence that would be as frank as unselfish and helpful. That is what I looked forward to in you, Madge. Why on earth can it not be?"

She was painfully embarrassed, and was glad that his words were spoken under the cover of night. She trembled, for his question probed deep. How could she explain that what was so natural for him was impossible for her? He mistook her hesitation for a sign of acquiescence, and continued: "Wherein have I failed to act like a brother? During the years we were together was I not reasonably kind and considerate? You did not think of yourself then as one of my young lady friends. Why should you now? I have not changed, and, as I have said, I have returned hungry for kindred and the quieter pleasures of home. It is time that I was considering the more serious questions of life, and of course the supreme question with a man of my years is that of a home of his own. I have never been able to think of such a home and not associate you with it. I can invite my sister to it and make her a part of it, but I cannot invite young lady friends. A sister can be such a help to a fellow; and it seems to me that I could be of no little aid to you. I know the world and the men you will meet in society. Unless you seclude yourself, you will be as great a belle as Miss Wildmere. You also have a fine property of your own. Will it be nothing to have a brother at your side to whom you can speak frankly of those who seek your favor? Come, Madge, be simple and rational. I have not changed; my frank words and pleadings prove that I have not. If we do not go back to the hotel brother and sister it will be because you have changed;" and he attempted to put his arm around her and draw her to him.

She sprang aloof. "Well, then, I have changed," she said, in a low, concentrated voice. "Think me a prude if you will. I know I am not. You are unjust to me, for you give me, in effect, no alternative. You say, 'Think of me as a brother; feel and act as if you were my sister,' when I am not your sister. It's like declaring that there is nothing in blood--that such relations are questions of choice and will. I said in downright sincerity that I regarded you as almost the best friend I had, and I have not so many friends that the word means nothing to me. I do remember all your kindness in the past--when have I forgotten it for an hour?--but that does not change the essential instincts of my womanhood, and since we parted I've grown to womanhood. You in one sense have not changed, and I still am in your mind the invalid child you used to indulge and fondle. It is not just to me now to ask that I act and feel as if there were a natural tie between us. The fact ever remains that there is not. Why should I deceive you by pretending to what is impossible? Nature is stronger than even your wishes, Graydon, and cannot be ignored."

She spoke hesitatingly, feeling her way across most difficult and dangerous ground, but her decision was unmistakable, and he said, quietly, "I am answered. See, we have wandered far from the house. Had we not better return?"

After a few moments of silence she asked, "Are you so rich in friends that you have no place for me?"

"Why, certainly, Madge," he replied, in cordial, offhand tones, "we are friends. There's nothing else for us to be. I don't pretend to understand your scruples. Even if a woman refused to be my wife I should be none the less friendly, unless she had trifled with me. To my man's reason a natural tie does not count for so much as the years we spent together. I remember what you were to me then, and what I seemed to you. I tried to keep up the old feeling by correspondence. The West is a world of wonders, and you have come from it the greatest wonder of all."

"I hope I shall not prove to you a monstrosity, Graydon. I will try not to be one if you will give me a chance."

"Oh, no, indeed; you promise to be one of the most charming young ladies I ever met."

"I don't promise anything of the kind," she replied, with a laugh that was chiefly the expression of her intense nervous tension. It jarred upon his feelings, and confirmed him in the belief that their long separation had broken up their old relations completely, and that she, in the new career which her beauty opened before her, wished for no embarrassing relations of any kind.

"Well," he said, with an answering laugh, "I suppose I must take you for what you are and propose to be--that is, if I ever find out."

In a few moments more, after some light badinage, he left her with Mr. and Mrs. Muir on the piazza, and went to claim his waltz with Miss Wildmere.