Chapter XII. The Promptings of Miss Wildmere's Heart
 

Graydon slept very late the following morning. He found out that he was tired, and resolved to indulge his craving for rest so far as his suit to Miss Wildmere would permit. When he could do nothing to promote his advantage he proposed to be indolence itself. He found that his vexation had quite vanished, and, in cynical good-nature, he was inclined to laugh at the state of affairs. "Let Madge indulge her whims," he thought; "I may be the more free to pursue my purposes. Her sister, of course, shares in Henry's prejudices against the Wildmeres, and they would influence Madge adversely. All handsome girls are jealous of each other, and, perhaps, if what I had so naturally hoped and expected had proved true, I should have had more sisterly counsel and opposition than would have been agreeable. Objections now would be in poor taste, to say the least. If I'm not much mistaken I can speak my mind to Stella Wildmere before many days pass; and, woman-nature being such as it is, it may be just as well that I am not too intimate with a sister who, after all, is not my sister. Stella might not see it in the light that I should;" and so he came down at last, prepared to adapt himself very philosophically to the new order of things.

"The world moves and changes," he soliloquized, smilingly, "and we must move on and change with it."

He found Mr. and Mrs. Muir, with Madge and the children, ready for church, and told them, laughingly, to "remember him if they did not think him past praying for." During his breakfast he recalled the fact that Madge was uncommonly well dressed. "She hasn't in externals," he thought, "the provincial air that one might expect, although her ideas are not only provincial, but prim, obtained, no doubt, from some goody-good books that she has read in the remote region wherein she has developed so remarkably. She has some stilted ideal of womanhood which she is seeking to attain, and the more unnatural the ideal, the more attractive, no doubt, it appears to her."

It did not occur to him that he was explaining Madge on more theories than one, and that they were not exactly harmonious. Having finished his meal, he sought for Miss Wildmere, and soon found her in a shady corner, reading a light, semi-philosophical work, thus distinguishing and honoring the day in her choice of literature. He proposed to read to her, but the book was soon forgotten in animated talk on his part. She could skilfully play the role of a good listener when she chose, and could, therefore, be a delightful companion. Her color came and went under words and compliments that at times were rather ardent and pronounced. He soon observed, however, that she led the way promptly from delicate ground. This might result from maidenly reserve or from the fact that she was not quite ready for decisive words. He still believed that he had all needed encouragement--that the expression of her eyes often answered his, and he knew well what his meant. When, in response to his invitation, she promised to drive with him in the afternoon, all seemed to be going as he wished.

Graydon felt that during dinner and thereafter for a time he should be devoted to his party, to preclude criticism on his course in the late afternoon and in the evening, when he proposed to seek society which promised more than theirs. He began to discover that, except as her intelligence was larger, in one respect Madge had not changed from her old self. She responded appreciatively to his thought and fancy, and gave him back in kind with interest. She began to question him about a place in Europe with which he was familiar, and showed such unusual knowledge of the locality that he asked, "You haven't slipped over there unknown to me, I trust?"

"You might think of an easier explanation than that. You kindly sent me books, some of which were rather realistic."

"Did you read them all?"

"Certainly. It would have been a poor return if I had not."

"What an inordinate sense of duty you must have had!"

"I did not read them from a sense of duty. You have perhaps forgotten that I am fond of books."

"Not all of the books were novels."

"Many that were not proved the most interesting."

"Oh, indeed; another evidence of change," he said, laughing.

"And of sense, too, I think. Mr. Wayland, who is a student, had a splendid library, and he gave me some ideas as to reading."

"Can you part with any of them?"

"That depends," she replied, with a manner as brusque as his own.

"On what?"

"The inducements and natural opportunities. I'm not going to recite a lesson like a schoolgirl."

"One would think you had been to school."

"I have, where much is taught and learned thoroughly."

"Now, that is enigmatical again."

"The best of the books you sent me left some room for the imagination."

"Ha, ha, ha, Madge! you are scoring points right along. I told you, Graydon, that you couldn't understand her in a moment or in a week."

"I never regarded your imagination as rampant, Henry. Have you fathomed all her mystery?"

"Far from it; nor do I expect to, and yet you will grant to me some degree of penetration."

"Well, to think that I should have come home to find a sphinx instead of little Madge!"

"Thank you. A sphinx is usually portrayed with at least the head of a woman."

"In this case she has one that would inspire a Greek sculptor. Perhaps in time I may discover a heart also."

"That's doubtful."

"Indeed."

"Yes, indeed."

"What far-fetched nonsense!" said Mrs. Muir, sententiously. "Madge has come back one of the best and most sensible girls in the world. Men and poets are always imagining that women are mysteries. The fact is, they are as transparent as glass when they know their own minds; when they don't, who else should know them?"

"Who indeed?" said Graydon, laughing. "Your saving clause, Mary, is as boundless as space."

"How absurd! I understand Madge perfectly, and so does Henry."

"You said last evening that the change in her was a miracle. Once in the realm of the supernatural, what may not one expect?"

"You knew what I meant. I referred to Madge's health and appearance and accomplishments and all that. She has not changed in heart and feeling any more than I have, and I'm sure I'm not a sphinx."

"No, Mary; you are a sensible and excellent wife and my very dear sister. You suggest no mystery. Madge certainly does, for you have, in addition to all the rest, announced an indefinite list of accomplishments."

"If I remain the subject of conversation I shall complain that your remarks are personal," said Madge, her brows contracting with a little vexation.

"That is what makes our talk so interesting. Personals are always read first. In drawing Mary and Henry out, I am getting acquainted with you."

"It's not a good way. You like it merely because it teases me and saves trouble. If you must gossip and surmise about me, wait till I'm absent."

"There, Madge, you know I'm nine-tenths in fun," said he, laughing.

"That leaves a small margin for kindly interest in an old acquaintance," was her reply as they rose from the table, and he saw that her feelings were hurt.

"Confound it!" he thought, with irritation, "it's all so uncalled-for and unnatural! Nothing is as it used to be. Well, then, I'll talk about books and matters as impersonal as if we were disembodied spirits."

They had scarcely seated themselves on the piazza before Miss Wildmere came forward and introduced her mother. The young lady was determined to prepare the way for a family party. Graydon had a confident, opulent air, which led to the belief that her father's fears were groundless, and that before many weeks should elapse the Muirs would have to acknowledge her openly. It would save embarrassment if this came about naturally and gradually, and she believed that she could be so charming as to make them covet the alliance. Miss Alden might not like it, and the more she disliked it the better.

Mrs. Muir's thoughts were somewhat akin. "If Graydon will marry this girl, it's wise that we should begin on good terms. This is a matter that Henry can't control, and there's no use in our yielding to prejudice."

Therefore she was talkative, courteous, and rapidly softened toward the people whom her husband found so distasteful. Graydon employed all his skill and tact to make the conversation general and agreeable, but the cloud did not wholly pass from Madge's brow. From the moment of her first cold, curious stare, years since, Miss Wildmere had antagonized every fibre of the young girl's soul and body, and she had resolved never to be more than polite to her. She did not look forward to future relationship, as was the case with Mrs. Muir, but rather to entire separation, should Graydon become Miss Wildmere's accepted suitor. Now, with the instinct of self-defence, she was more cordial to her rival than to Graydon, until, at the solicitation of the children, she stole away. Mr. Muir remarked that he was going to take a nap, and soon followed her.

Their departure was a relief to Graydon, for it rendered the carrying out of his plan less embarrassing. In his eagerness to be alone with the object of his hopes, he soon obtained a carriage, and with Miss Wildmere drove away. Mrs. Muir and Mrs. Wildmere compared maternal and domestic notes sometime longer, and then the former went to her room quite reconciled to what now appeared inevitable.

"I think you are prejudiced, Henry," she remarked to her husband, who was tossing restlessly on the bed.

"Least said soonest mended," was his only response, and then he changed the subject.

Graydon came back with the hope--nay, almost the certainty--of happiness glowing in his eyes. He had spoken confidently of his business plans and prospects, and had touched upon the weariness of his exile and his longing for more satisfactory pleasures than those of general society. His companion had listened with an attention and interest that promised more than sympathy. The wild, rugged scenes through which they had passed had made her delicate beauty more exquisite from contrast. It was as if a rare tropical bird had followed the wake of summer and graced for a time a region from which it must fly with the first breath of autumn. In distinction from all they saw and met she appeared so fragile, such a charming exotic, that he felt an overpowering impulse to cherish and shelter her from every rude thing in the world. With a nice blending of reserve and complaisance she appeared to yield to his mood and yet to withhold herself. To a man of Graydon's poise and knowledge of society such skilful tactics served their purpose perfectly. They gave her an additional charm in his eyes, and furnished another proof of the fineness of her nature. She could not only feel, but manifest the nicest shades of preference. If not fully satisfied as to her own heart, what could be more refined and graceful than the slight restraint she imposed upon him? and how fine the compliment she paid him in acting on the belief that he was too well bred and self-controlled to precipitate matters!

"She has the tact and intuition to see," he thought, "that she can show me all the regard she feels and yet incur no danger of premature and incoherent words. She will one day yield with all the quiet grace that she shows when rising to accept my invitation to waltz."

Therefore, as he approached the hotel he was complacency itself until he saw Mr. Arnault on the piazza, and then his face darkened with the heaviest of frowns.

"Why, what is the matter?" Miss Wildmere asked.

"I had hoped that this perfect afternoon might be followed by a more delightful evening, but from the manner in which that gentleman is approaching you, it is evident that he expects to claim you."

"Claim me? I do not think any one has that right just yet. Mr. Arnault certainly has not."

"Then I may still hope for your society this evening?"

"Have I not permitted you to be with me nearly all day? You must be more reasonable. Good-evening, Mr. Arnault. Did you drop from the clouds?"

"There are none, and were there I should forget them in this pleasure. Mr. Muir, I congratulate you. We have both been on the road this afternoon, but you have had the advantage of me."

"And mean to keep it, confound you!" thought Graydon. "Ah, good-evening, Mr. Arnault. You are right; I have found rough roads preferable to smooth rails and a palace car."

"How well you are looking, Miss Stella! but that's chronic with you. This is perfectly heavenly" (looking directly into her eyes) "after the heat of the city and my dusty journey."

"You are a fine one to talk about things heavenly after fracturing the Sabbath-day. What would have happened to you in Connecticut a hundred years ago?"

"I should have been ridden on one rail instead of two, probably. I'm more concerned about what will happen to me to-day, and that depends not on blue laws, but blue blood. I saw your father this morning, and he intrusted me with a letter for you."

Mr. Arnault manifested not a particle of jealousy or apprehension, and Graydon felt himself shouldered out of the way by a courtesy to which he could take no exception. He saw that only Miss Wildmere herself could check his rival's resolute and easy assurance. This he now felt sure she would do if it passed a certain point, and he went to his room, annoyed merely, and without solicitude. "She must let the fellow down easily, I suppose," he thought; "and after to-day I need have few fears. If she had wanted him she could have taken him long ago."

Miss Wildmere also went to her room and read her father's letter. It contained these few and significant words: "In speaking of possible relations with Mr. M. I emphasized a small but important word--'if.' I now commend it to you still more emphatically. You know I prefer Mr. M. Therefore you will do well to heed my caution. Mr. M. may lose everything within a brief time."

Miss Wildmere frowned and bit her lip with vexation. Then her white face took on hard, resolute lines. "I came near making a fool of myself this afternoon," she muttered. "I was more than once tempted to let Graydon speak. Heavens! I'd like to be engaged to him for awhile. Mr. Arnault plays a bold, steady hand, but he's the kind of man that might throw up the game if one put tricks on him. My original policy is the best. I must pit one against the other in a fair and open suit till I can take my choice. Now that it is clear that Graydon cares little for that hideous thing he calls his sister, my plan is safe."

"What a lovely color you have, Madge!" Graydon remarked, as they met at supper. "You are unequalled in your choice of cosmetics."

"Not to be surpassed, at any rate."

"Where did you get it?"

"Up at Grand View."

"What, have you climbed that mountain?"

"It's not much of a mountain."

"It's a tremendous mountain," cried little Harry. "Aunt Madge's been teaching us to climb, and she lifted us up and down the steep places as if we were feathers, and she told us stories about the squirrels and birds we saw up there. Oh, didn't we have a lovely time, Jennie?"

"Now I understand," said Graydon. "The glow in your face comes from the consciousness of good deeds."

"It comes from exertion. Are you not making too much effort to be satirical?"

"Therefore my face should be suffused with the hue of shame. You see I have changed also, and have become a cynic and a heathen from long residence in Europe."

"Please be a noble savage, then."

"That's not the style of heathen they develop abroad."

"Madge told us about the savages that used to live in these mountains, and how bad they were treated," piped Jennie.

"Poor Lo! No wonder he went to the bad," said Graydon, significantly. "He was never recognized as a man and a brother."

"And he was unsurpassed in retaliation," Madge added.

"Considering his total depravity and general innocence, that was to be expected."

"It turned out to be bad policy."

"In so far as he was a man he hadn't any policy."

"I shall not depreciate the Indians for the sake of argument. They rarely followed the wrong trail, however."

"What on earth are you and Madge driving at?" exclaimed Mrs. Muir.

"It matters little at what, but Madge appears to be the better driver," chuckled Mr. Muir.

"You have a stanch champion in Henry," said Graydon.

"You wouldn't have him take sides against a woman?"

"Oh, no, but you have become so abundantly able to take care of yourself that he might remain neutral."

"When you all begin to talk English again I'll join in, and now merely remark that I am grateful to you, Madge, for taking care of the children. Jack was good with the nurse, too, and I've had a splendid nap."

"I'm evidently the delinquent," laughed Graydon, "and have led the way in a conversation that has been as bad as whispering in company. What will become of me? You are not going to church to-night, Madge?"

"I did not expect to. If your conscience needs soothing--"

"Oh, no, no. My conscience has been seared with a hot iron--a cold one, I mean. The effects are just the same."

At the supper-room door they were met by Dr. Sommers, with a world of comical trouble in his face, and he drew Madge aside.

"What's a man to do?" he began. "Here's our choir-leader sick, and the rest won't chirp without him. I can't sing any more than I can dance. You can--sing, I mean--both, for that matter. I'd give the best cast of a fly I ever had to take you out in a reel. Well, here's the trouble. It's nearly meeting-time, and what's a meeting without music? You can sing--I'm sure you can. I've heard you twice in the chapel. Now, it isn't imposing on good-nature, is it, to ask you to come over and start the tunes for us to-night? Come now, go with me. It will be a great favor, and I'll get even with you before the summer is over."

Madge hesitated a moment. She had hoped for a chat with Graydon that evening, which might lead to a better understanding, and end their tendency to rather thorny badinage. But she heard him chatting gayly with Miss Wildmere and Mr. Arnault in the distance; therefore she said, quietly, "It is time for me to get even with you first. To refuse would not be nice after the lovely drive you took us the other day."

"Oh, you made that square as you went along. Well, now, this is famous. What a meeting we'll have!"

"You explain to Mrs. Muir, and I'll get my hat."

"I'm in luck," the doctor began, joining the Muirs on the piazza.

"Of course you are. You are always in luck," said Mrs. Muir.

"Oh, no, oh, no. Draw it milder than that. I've fished many a bad day. I'm in luck to-night. What do you think? You can't guess."

"You and Madge had your heads together, and so something will happen. Are you going to capture a mountain?"

"Yes, a brace of 'em before long. Well, as good luck would have it, our choir-leader is sick. I thought it was bad luck at first, and meant to give him an awful dose for being so inopportune. It has turned out famously. 'All-things work together for good,' you know. That text required faith once when I had hooked a three-pound trout, and in my eagerness tumbled in where the fish was. Oh, here you are, Miss Alden. We'll go right along, for it's about time."

"But you haven't explained," cried Mrs. Muir.

"We will when we come back," said the doctor.

"Oh, I'm merely going over to the chapel to help the doctor out with the singing," said Madge, carelessly. "Good-by."

"Well," remarked Mr. Muir, sotto voce, "if I were a young fellow, there's a trail I'd follow, and not that will-o'-the-wisp yonder."

"What did you say, Henry?" asked his wife.

"It will be hot in town to-morrow, Mary. It's growing confoundedly hot in Wall Street."

"Nothing serious, Henry?"

"It's always serious there."

"Oh, well, you'll come out all right. It's a way you have."

Mr. Muir looked grim and troubled, but the piazza was dusky. "She can't help me," he thought, "and if she was worrying she might hinder me. Things are no worse, and they may soon be better. If I had fifty thousand for a month, though, the strain would be over. She'd be nagging me to take a lot of her money, and I'd see Wall Street sunk first. Well, well, Wildmere and I may land together in the same ditch."

For a few moments Graydon and Mr. Arnault sat on either side of the broker's daughter, each seeking the advantage. The young lady enjoyed the situation immensely, and for a time had the art to entertain both. Arnault at last boldly and frankly took the initiative, saying, "Please take a walk with me, Miss Wildmere. I have come all the way from New York for the pleasure of an evening in your society. You will excuse us, Mr. Muir. You have had to-day and will have to-morrow, for I must take an early train."

Miss Wildmere laughed, and said: "I must go with you surely, or you will think you have made a bad 'put' in railroad tickets, as well as shares, for you are like the rest, I suppose;" and with a smiling glance backward at Graydon she disappeared.

"You are mistaken," he said; "we foresaw this 'squeeze' in the market, and have money to lend if the security is ample. We were never doing better."

"Poor papa!" she sighed, "his securities are lacking, I suppose. He does not write very cheerfully."

"His security is the best in the city, in my estimation. I'd take this little hand in preference to government bonds."

"Oh, don't lend papa anything on that basis, for you would surely manage to claim the collateral, or whatever you call it in your Wall Street jargon."

"You are infinitely better off than the majority in these hard times."

"How so?"

"By one word you can make three rich, yourself included. Your father only needs to be tided over a few months."

"Come, come, Mr. Arnault, this is Sunday, and you must not talk business."

"My fault leans to virtue's side for once."

"I'm not just sure to which side it leans," was her laughing reply.

"Are you going to accept Muir?"

"I'm not going to accept any one at present--certainly not Mr. Muir before he asks me."

"He will ask you."

"Has he taken you into his confidence?"

"Oh, he's as patent as a country borrower."

"Mr. Arnault, we must change the subject; such questions and remarks are not in good taste, to say the least. I appreciate your friendship, but it does not give you the right to forget that I am a free girl, or to ignore my assurance that I propose to remain free for the present."

"That is all the assurance that I require just now," he answered. "I have been a frank, devoted suitor, Stella. If you do not act precipitately you will act wisely in the end. I shall not be guilty of the folly of depreciating Muir--he's a good fellow in his way--but you will soon be convinced that you cannot afford to marry him."

"I think I can afford not to marry any one until my heart prompts me to the act," she replied, with well-assumed dignity. Her swift thought was, "He also knows that the Muirs are embarrassed. How is it that Graydon speaks and acts in the assured confidence of continued wealth? Is he deceiving me?"

Mr. Arnault changed the subject, and none could do this with more adroitness than he, or be a more entertaining gallant if he so chose. At the same time he maintained a subtle observance, in spite of his vaunted frankness, and he soon believed he had reason to hope that Miss Wildmere had been influenced by his words. Almost imperceptibly she permitted additional favor to come into her manner, and when she said good-night and good-by also, in view of his early start for the city, it was at the foot of the stairway, she casually remarking that she would not come down again.

"My brief visit has not been in vain," he thought. "I have delayed matters, and that now means a great deal. She will marry the survivor of this financial gale, and in every man's philosophy the survival of the fittest is always the survival of the ego."