Chapter XIV. Miss Wildmere's Strategy
 

As we have seen, Madge could not resume her old relations with Graydon Muir. Indeed, the turning-point in her life had been the impulse and decision to escape them by going away. She was also right in thinking that this inability would rather help than hinder her cause. If he had come back and realized his expectations, he would have bestowed unstintedly the placid affection of a brother, given her his confidence, his aid, anything she wished, except his thoughts. While she lost much else, she retained these in a way that puzzled and even provoked him, in view of his devotion to Miss Wildmere. The very fact that he resented the way in which he had been treated by Madge made him think of her, although admitting to himself that it might all turn out for the best. He would have soon accepted changes in externals, and her added accomplishments, but there were other and more subtle changes which he could not grasp. It began to pique him that he had already been forced to abandon more than one impression in regard to her character. It was somewhat humiliating that he, who had seen the world, especially in its social aspects, should be perplexed by a young girl scarcely twenty, and that this girl of all others should be little Madge. He had intimated that she had become imbued with sentimentality and aspirations after ideals, and was hoping to meet a male embodiment of these traits, which he regarded as prominently lackadaisical. Her merry and half ironical laugh was not the natural response of a woman of the intense and aesthetic type.

"I don't understand her yet," he admitted; and he again assured himself that it was not necessary that he should. She had not merely drifted away from him, but had deliberately chosen that others should guide and help in the new development. The thing for him to do now was to secure the girl of his heart, who was not shrouded in mystery. It was evident that Mr. Arnault had been an urgent suitor, and that she was not already engaged to him proved, as he believed, that she had been under the influence of a restraint readily explained by her more than manner toward himself. "She will have to choose between us soon," he thought. "She understands us both, and her heart will soon give its final verdict, if it has not already done so."

Miss Wildmere's heart would have slight voice in the verdict. Indeed, it never had been permitted to say very much, and was approaching the condition of a mute. She had her preference, however, and still hoped to be able to follow it. She smiled upon Graydon almost as sweetly as ever during the next two days, but he felt that she had grown more elusive. She lured him on unmistakably, but permitted no near approach. With consummate art, she increased the spell of her fascinations, and added to the glamour which dazzled him. He might look his admiration, and, more, he might compliment indefinitely; but when he spoke too plainly, or sought stronger indications of her regard, she was on the wing instantly, and he was too fine in his perceptions to push matters against her will. One thing appeared hopeful to him--she seemed possessed by a carefully veiled jealousy of Madge. In his downright earnestness, he determined to give her no cause for this, and treated Madge much as he did Mrs. Muir, allowing for difference in age and relation. He determined that Miss Wildmere should discover no ambiguity in his course or intentions. If thoughts of him had kept her waiting through years, he would justify those thoughts by all the means in his power. Casting about with a lover's ingenuity for an explanation of her tantalizing allurement, yet elusiveness, it occurred to him that she was unwilling to yield readily and easily, from very fear that he might surmise the cause of her freedom--that she had given him her love before it had been asked. Therefore, it was not impossible that she now proposed for him a somewhat thorny probation as an open suitor. She would not appear to be easily won, and perhaps she thought that, since this was to be the last wooing she could enjoy, she would make the most of it. He also resolved to make the most of this phase of life, and to enjoy to the utmost all of her shy witchery, her airy, hovering nearness to the thought uppermost in his mind, as if she were both fascinated by it and afraid. He little dreamed that her feminine grace and finesse were but the practical carrying out of her father's suggestion, to "keep him well in hand."

Madge felt herself neglected and partially forgotten. She saw that Miss Wildmere's spell grew stronger upon Graydon every day. It was not in her nature to seek to attract his attention or in the slightest degree to enter the lists openly against her rival. During the first three days of the week, her chief effort was to be so active and cheerful that her deep despondency should be hidden from all. She was the life of every little group of which she formed a part. Wherever she appeared, mirth and laughter soon followed. The young girls in the house began to acknowledge her as a natural leader, the boyish young fellows to adore her, and the maturer men to discover that she could hold her own with them in conversation, while another class learned, to their chagrin, that she would not flirt. For every walking expedition started she was ready with her alpenstock, and the experts in the bowling alley found a strong, supple competitor, with eye and hand equally true. Graydon, as far as his preoccupation permitted, saw all this with renewed perplexity. She now appeared to him as a beautiful, vigorous girl, with healthful instincts and a large appetite for enjoyment.

Wednesday morning was cool and cloudy, and a large party was forming to climb to Spy Rock. Graydon was longing for more activity, and since the day was so propitious, Miss Wildmere consented to go. Of course Madge was in readiness, and in charming costume for a walk. The moment they were on the steep path he had to admit that she appeared the superior of Miss Wildmere. The one owed her bloom to artificial and metropolitan life; the other had gone to nature, and now acted as if her foot were on her native heath. Her step was light, yet never uncertain. Her progress was easy, and, although different, was quite as graceful as if she were promenading the piazza, proving that she was an adept in mountain-climbing. It was evident, however, that to Miss Wildmere a mountain was a terra incognita. She trod uncertainly, her feet turned on loose stones that hurt her, and before the first steep ascent was passed, she panted and was glad to sit down with others, more or less exhausted.

Madge's breathing was only slightly quickened, and color was beginning to come in her usually pale face, yet she had lent a helping hand more than once.

"How easily you climb, Miss Alden!" gasped Miss Wildmere. "Have you taken lessons?"

"Yes," she replied, smiling sweetly, "and from a master."

Miss Wildmere also was beginning to discover a problem in Madge; she could not patronize, snub, or apparently touch her with shafts of satire. The young girl treated her with cordial indifference, as one-of the guests of the house. She appeared to be capable of enjoying herself thoroughly, with scarcely a consciousness of the belle's existence, unless, as in the present case, she was addressed. Then she would reply with perfect courtesy, but in some such ambiguous way. It soon became evident to Graydon that the two girls were hostile, and this both amused and vexed him. He was beginning to learn that Madge was the more skilful opponent. She was never aggressive, yet seemed clad in polished armor when attacked, and her quick replies flashed back under the light of her smile. By acting, however, as if Miss Wildmere were never in her thoughts, except when in some way obtruded upon them, she gave the keenest wound. The flattered girl enjoyed being envied, hated, and even detested by her own sex, but to be politely ignored was a new and unwelcome experience, and she chafed under it, not so secretly but that Graydon observed her annoyance.

After a rest they started on again, he with Miss Wildmere falling to the rear. Before Madge passed around a curve in the path she saw a lily on a bank above her, and with the aid of her alpenstock sprang upon the mossy shelf, plucked the flower, and leaped down with an effort so quick and agile that it seemed like the impulse of a bird to get something and pass on. She put the flower in her belt, and a moment later was hidden from view.

"I hope you observed that feat," Miss Wildmere remarked. "Indeed, Miss Alden appears inclined to call attention to her feet this morning."

"I hope the ladies will observe them," he replied; "the gentlemen will, for they are pretty. Did you not note that her boots are adapted to walking? You could climb with twice the ease if your heels were not so high. For mountain scrambling a lady needs short skirts, and boots like those that Miss Alden wears. You should see the English girls walking in the Alps. It's my good-fortune, however, that you are partially disabled this morning. Here's a steep place. Take my arm and put all the weight upon it you can--the more the better. Lean on me as if you trusted me."

There was a slight frown on her brow, as he began his speech, but it soon passed, and she said, softly, as she still lingered, "Well, I'm not an athlete. I should value more a man's strong arm than strength of my own."

"You know that the arm of one man is ever at your service."

"'Ever' implies more patience than any man possesses."

"I should think so; yet you will find me reasonably patient."

"Everything is a matter of reason with men."

"Our reason assures us that certain things are a matter of the heart with women. Therefore we hope."

"Men are much too exacting. They reason a thing out and make up their minds. If they base any hopes on women's hearts, they should remember what unreasoning organs they are--full of hesitations, doubts, absurd fears, and more absurd confidence at times. Have you ever seen a bird hovering in the air, not knowing where to alight? Give it time, and it makes its selection and swiftly follows its choice. No good hunter rushes at it in the hope of capturing it during the moment of indecision."

"Indeed, Miss Wildmere, if I understand your little parable, I think Mr. Arnault errs egregiously, yet he does not frighten the bird into a very distant flight."

"You do not know how distant it is."

"No; I only see that he goes straight for the bird the moment he sees her."

"He might have found a more considerate policy wiser." Then she added, gravely, with a little reproach in her voice: "Mr. Arnault is an old friend and a friend of papa's, whom he often favors in business. I think my manner toward you should prove that I am not inclined to be disloyal toward old friends. You have just defended Miss Alden against a little feminine spite on my part. That was nice. In the same way I defend Mr. Arnault, whom, for reasons equally absurd, you do not altogether like. I'm only a woman, you know, and a little spite is one of our prerogatives. After all, it doesn't amount to anything. I would do as much for Miss Alden as for any one in the house." (Quite true, which was nothing.) "You know how girls are."

"Certainly, especially when both are reigning belles."

"The men are always the rulers sooner or later; and I shall give my allegiance to those gentlemen friends who are the least like myself--tolerant, patient, you know. Mr. Arnault is coming to-night to spend the Fourth. I must give him more or less of my time--I should be ungrateful if I did not--but I don't wish you to feel toward me or him as I should toward you and Miss Alden if I saw that you were together a great deal. How you see how frank I am, and what a compliment I pay to your masculine superiority."

"Miss Wildmere, I think I understand you; I hope I do. Your manner of greeting me on my return from long absence proved that you were not disloyal to one old friend. If you could keep me in mind for years, I can hope I am not forgotten during the hours when others have claims upon you. I have ever kept you in mind, and I might say more. If women have a little natural spite, men in some situations are endowed with enormous selfishness, and the bump of appropriation grows almost into a deformity."

"I never expect to see deformities of any kind in Graydon Muir," she said, laughing. "Now that we understand each other so well, give me your hand and pull me up this steep place before which we have stood so long, while getting over another little steep place that lay in our path. I'm glad the others have all gone on, for now you can help me all you choose, and I shan't care."

He did help her, with a touch and freedom that grew into something like caresses. He felt that he had revealed himself almost as completely as if he had spoken his love, and that he had received and was receiving more than encouragement. She did not rebuke his manner, which was that of a lover. There was no committal in that, nothing that could bind her. She permitted the avowal of his hope, that he had been in her thoughts during his long absence, and the natural inference that her hand was still free because of his hold upon her heart. This belief filled him with gratitude, and inspired him, as she intended it should, with generous thoughts and impulses toward her. What if she did prefer to maintain a little longer the delicate half reserve that precedes a positive engagement? It only insured that the cup of happiness should be sipped and enjoyed more leisurely. She had seen too much of life, and enjoyed too many of its pleasures, to act with precipitation now. She understood him, and yet loved him well enough to be jealous of one whom she believed that he regarded as a sister. With amusement he thought: "She is not even that to me now. Hanged if I know what she is to me beyond a pretty, vexatious puzzle!"

Miss Wildmere's strategy had accomplished one thing, however. Believing that he was absolved by Madge's course from everything beyond cordial politeness, he had resolved to carry out her rival's wishes. It was no great cross to forego Madge's society, and if Miss Wildmere saw that he was not consoling himself during the hours she spent with Arnault, she would shorten them in his behalf.

After reaching a certain point he suggested: "Instead of scaling that rocky height after the rest of the party, suppose we follow this grassy wood-road to parts unknown. It will be easier for you than climbing, and you are better society than a crowd."

She assented smilingly, and Madge did not see Graydon again until they met at dinner.

She was pale, and looked weary. "Oh," she thought, "perhaps my hopes are already vain! They have been alone all the morning. He may have spoken; he looks so happy and content that he must have spoken and received the answer he craved. If so, I shall soon join the Waylands in my native village, for I can't keep up much longer without a little hope."

"You are tired, Madge," he said, not unkindly.

"A little," she replied, carelessly. "A short nap this afternoon will insure my being ready for the hop to-night."