Chapter XI. "I Fear I Shall Fail"
 

The band had been discoursing lively strains for some time, and Miss Wildmere had at last dragged her mother down for a chaperon--the only available one as yet. The anxious mother was eager to return to her fretting child, and her daughter was much inclined to resent Graydon's prolonged absence. "If it were politic, and I had other acquaintances, I would punish him," she thought. It was a new experience for her to sit in a corner of the parlor, apparently neglected, while others were dancing. There were plenty who looked wistfully toward her; but there was no one to introduce her, and Graydon's absence left the ice unbroken.

She ignored the inevitable isolation of a new-comer, however, and when he appeared shook her finger at him as she said, "Here I am, constancy itself, waiting to give you my first dance, as I promised."

"I shall try to prove worthy," he said, earnestly. "You must remember, in extenuation, that I have not seen the ladies of our family for a long time."

"You use the plural, and are Dot at all singular in your prolonged absence with the charming Miss Alden. You certainly cannot look upon her as an invalid any longer, however else you may regard her," she added, with an arch look.

"You shall now have my entire regard as long as you will permit it."

"That will depend a little upon yourself. Mamma is tired, and I'm of no account compared with that infant upstairs; therefore I can't keep her as a chaperon this evening, and I will go to my room as soon as you are tired of me."

"Not till then?"

"Not unless I go before."

"At some time in the indefinite future, Mrs. Wildmere, you may hope to see your daughter again."

The poor lady smiled encouragingly and gratefully. She would be most happy to have Graydon take the brilliant creature for better or worse as soon as possible. She liked him, as did all women, for she saw that he had a large, kindly nature. She now stole meekly away, while he with his fair partner glided out upon the floor. All eyes followed them, and even the veterans of society remarked that they had never seen more graceful dancing.

From her seat on the piazza Madge also watched the couple. The struggle to which she had looked forward so long had indeed begun, and most inauspiciously. Her rival had every advantage. The mood in which Graydon had returned predisposed him to prompt action, while she had lost her influence for the present by a course that seemed to him so unnatural as to be prudish. Miss Wildmere's manner gave all the encouragement that a man could wish for, and it was hard to view with charity the smiling, triumphant belle. Madge suddenly became conscious that Mr. Muir was observing her, and she remarked, quietly: "I never saw better dancing than that. It's grace itself. Miss Wildmere waltzes superbly."

"Not better than you, Miss Alden," said Mr. Henderson, a young man who prided himself on his skill in the accomplishment under consideration, and with whom she had danced several times. "I've been looking for you, in the hope that you would favor me this evening."

She rose and passed with him through the open window. The waltz was drawing to a close; the majority had grown weary and sat down; and soon Madge and Miss Wildmere were the only ladies on the floor. Opinion was divided, some declaring that the former was the more graceful and lovely, while perhaps a larger number gave their verdict for the latter.

The strains ceased, and left the couples near each other. Graydon immediately introduced Miss Wildmere. The girls bowed a little too profoundly to indicate cordiality. Madge also presented Mr. Henderson, hoping that he might become a partner for Miss Wildmere, and give Graydon an opportunity to dance with her. He resolved to break the ice at once so far as his relatives were concerned, and he conducted Miss Wildmere to Mrs. Muir, and gave her a seat beside that lady. The girl of his choice should have not only a gallant for the evening, but also a chaperon. He was not one to enter on timid, half-way measures; and he determined that his brother's prejudice should count for nothing in this case. His preference was entitled to respect, and must be respected. Of course the group chatted courteously, as well-bred people do in public, but Miss Wildmere felt that the atmosphere was chilly. She was much too politic to permit the slightest tinge of coldness in her manner toward those with whom she meditated such close relations should the barring "if" melt out of the way.

The people were forming for the lancers, and Mr. Henderson asked Madge to help make up a set. She complied without hesitation. Nor was she unmindful of the fact that Graydon sat in a position which commanded a view of the floor. He had seen her glide out in the waltz with a grace second only to that of Miss Wildmere, even in his prejudiced eyes. Now he again observed her curiously, and his disappointment and bitterness at heart increased, even while she compelled his wondering admiration. He saw that, though she lacked Miss Wildmere's conventional finish, she had a natural grace of her own. He admitted that he had never seen so perfect a physical embodiment of womanhood. She was slightly taller than her rival in his thoughts, and her costume gave an impression of additional height. Apparently she was in the best of spirits, laughing often with her partner and an elderly gentleman who danced opposite to her, and who was full of old-time flourishes and jollity. At last Graydon thought, resentfully, "She is indeed changed. That's the style of life she is looking forward to, and she wishes no embarrassment or advice from me. That dancing-jack, Henderson, and others of his sort are to be her 'friends' also, no doubt. Very well, I know how to console myself;" and he turned his eyes resolutely to Miss Wildmere.

In the galop that followed he naturally danced with his quondam sister, and Mr. Henderson with Miss Wildmere. Graydon was the last one to show feeling in public or do anything to cause remark. Now that Madge possessed in her partner the same advantage that Miss Wildmere had enjoyed, the admiring lookers-on were at a loss to decide which of the two girls bore the palm; and Graydon acknowledged that the former invalid's step had a lightness and an elasticity which he had never known to be surpassed, and that she kept time with him as if his volition were hers. She showed no sign of weariness, even after he began to grow fatigued. As he danced he remembered how he had carried "the little ghost" on his arm, then tossed her, breathless from scarce an effort, on the lounge, whence she looked at him in laughing affection. This strong, superb creature was indeed another and an alien being, and needed no aid from him. Before he was conscious of flagging in his step, she said, quietly, "You are growing tired, Graydon. Suppose we return to the piazza."

"Yes," he said, a trifle bitterly, "you are the stronger now. The 'little ghost' has vanished utterly."

"A woman is better than a ghost," was her reply.

He and Miss Wildmere strolled away down the same path on which Madge had told him that she could not be his sister. Mr. Muir was tired, and went to his room in no very amiable humor. Mrs. Muir waited for Graydon's return, feeling that, although the office of chaperon had in a sense been forced upon her, she could not depart without seeing Miss Wildmere again. The young lady at last appeared, and, believing that she had made all the points she cared for that night, did not tax Mrs. Muir's patience beyond a few moments. While she lingered she looked curiously at Madge, who was going through a Virginia reel as if she fully shared in the decided and almost romping spirit with which it was danced. She was uncertain whether or not she saw a possible rival in Graydon's thoughts, but she knew well that she had found a competitor for sovereignty in all social circles where they might appear together. This fact in itself was sufficient to secure the arrogant girl's ill-will and jealousy. A scarcely perceptible smile, that boded no good for poor Madge, passed over her face, and then she took a cordial leave of Graydon, and retired with Mrs. Muir.

He remained at the window watching, with a satirical smile, the scene within. People of almost every age, from elderly men and matrons down to boys and girls, were participating in the old-fashioned dance. The air was resonant with laughter and music. In the rollicking fun Madge appeared to have found her element. No step was lighter or quicker than hers, and merriment rippled away before her as if she were the genius of mirth. Her dark eyes were singularly brilliant, and burned as with a suppressed excitement.

"She is bound to have her fling like the rest, I suppose," he muttered; "and that romp is more to her than the offer of a brother's love and help--an offer half forgotten already, no doubt. Yet she puzzles one. She never was a weak girl mentally. She was always a little odd, and now she is decidedly so. Well, I will let her gang her ain gate, and I shall go mine."

He little dreamed that she was seeking weariness, action that would exhaust, and that the expression of her eyes, so far from being caused by excitement, was produced by feelings deeper than he had ever known. When the music ceased he sauntered up and told her that her sister had retired.

"I had better follow her example," she said.

"Would you not like a brief stroll on the piazza? After exertions that, in you, seem almost superhuman, you must be warm."

"Why more superhuman in me than in others?"

"Simply because of my old and preconceived notions."

"I fear I am disappointing you in every respect. I had hoped to give you pleasure."

"Oh, well, Madge, I see we must let the past go and begin again."

"Begin fairly, then, and not in prejudice."

"Does it matter very much to you how I begin?"

"I shall not answer such questions."

"I am glad to see that you can enjoy yourself so thoroughly. You can now look forward to a long career of happiness, Madge, since you can obtain so much from a reel."

"You do not know what I am looking forward to."

"Why?"

"Because you are not acquainted with me."

"I thought I was at one time."

"I became discontented with that time, and have tried to be different."

"And you must have succeeded beyond your wildest dreams."

"Oh, no, I've only made a beginning. I should be conceit embodied if I thought myself finished."

"What is your supreme ambition, then?"

"I am trying to be a woman, Graydon. There, I'm cool now. Good-night."

"Very cool, Madge."

He lighted a cigar and continued his walk, more perturbed than he cared to admit even to himself. Indeed, he found that he was decidedly annoyed, and there seemed no earthly reason why there should have been any occasion for such vexation. Of course he was glad that Madge had become strong and beautiful. This would have added a complete charm to their old relations. Why must she also become a mystery, or, rather, seek to appear one? Well, there was no necessity for solving the mystery, granting its existence. "Possibly she would prefer a flirtation to fraternal regard; possibly--Oh, confound it! I don't know what to think, and don't much care. She is trying to become a woman! Who can fathom some women's whims and fancies? She thinks her immature ideas, imbibed in an out-of-the-way corner of the world, the immutable laws of nature. Of one thing at least she is absolutely certain--she can get on without me. I must be kept at too great a distance to be officious."

This point settled, his own course became clear. He would be courtesy itself and mind his own business.

"I fear I shall fail," murmured poor Madge, hiding her face in her pillow, while suppressed sobs shook her frame.