Chapter XV. Perplexed and Beguiled
 

Madge was so discouraged that she contented herself with a manner of listless apathy during dinner, and then retired to her room. Graydon was giving her so little thought that there was slight occasion for disguise, and less incentive for effort to interest him.

"The struggle promises to be short and decisive," she moaned. "Perhaps it has been already decided. I had no chance after all. He came here fully committed in his own thoughts to Miss Wildmere. I have merely lost my old place in his affection, and have had and shall have no opportunity to win his love. If this is to be my fate it is well to discover it so speedily, and not after weeks of torturing hope and fear. I'll learn the truth with absolute certainty as soon as possible, and then find a pretext to join the Waylands."

At last the fatigue of the morning brought the respite of sleep, and when she waked she found late evening shadows in her room, and learned that Mr. Muir had arrived, it being his purpose to spend the Fourth and the remainder of the week with his family.

Weariness and despondency are near akin, and in banishing one Madge found herself better able to cope with the other. At any rate, she determined to show no weakness. If Graydon would never love her he should at least be compelled to respect and admire her, and he should never have cause to surmise the heart-poverty to which she was doomed. Still less would she give her proud rival a chance to wound her again. Miss Wildmere might make Graydon's devotion as ostentatious as she pleased, but should never again detect on Madge's face a look of pained surprise and solicitude.

She made a careful toilet for the evening, telling Mr. Muir and her sister not to wait for her, as she had overslept herself.

"Where is Madge?" Graydon asked, at the supper-table.

"She did not wake up in time to come down with us," Mrs. Muir replied. "What does it matter? Miss Wildmere so fills your eyes that you see no one else. When is it to be, Graydon?"

"Madge evidently sees quite as much of me as she cares to," he replied, somewhat irritably. "I have not asked when it's to be or whether it's to be at all. I suppose," he added, satirically, "that in consideration of my extreme youth I should obtain permission from my family before venturing to ask anything."

"That remark is absurd and uncalled for," Mr. Muir replied, gravely. "Of course you will please yourself, as I did, and we shall make the best of it. But you have no right to expect that we shall see the lady with your eyes. I cannot help seeing her as she is. I do not like her, but if you choose to marry her, rest assured I shall give neither of you cause for complaint. Now, according to my custom, I've had my say. You could not expect me, as your brother, to be indifferent; still less could I pretend an approval that I don't feel; but I recognize that you are as free as I was when Mary's suitor, and I do not think you can reasonably ask more. Our relations are too intimate for misunderstanding. You know that, in my present plans and hopes, I looked forward to receiving you as a partner at no distant time, if such purposes are carried out our interests must always be identical."

"Pardon me, Henry," said Graydon, warmly, "and do not misunderstand my hasty words. I know you have my best welfare at heart--you have ever proved that--but you misjudge my choice. Even Mary begins to see that you do, and woman's insight is keener than man's. You attribute to the daughter the qualities you dislike in the father. Is it nothing that she has waited for me during my long absence, when she could pick and choose from so many?"

"I'm not sure she has been waiting for you; her manner toward Mr. Arnault yonder suggests that she may still pick and choose."

"Bah! I'm not afraid of him. She could have taken him long since had she so wished."

Others who had seats at the table now approached, and prevented further interchange of words on so delicate a subject. Nevertheless Mr. Muir's arrow had not flown wide of the mark, and Graydon thought that Miss Wildmere was unnecessarily cordial toward his rival, and that Mr. Wildmere, who had also come from the city, was decidedly complacent over the fact.

Graydon's furtive observation was now cut short by the entrance of Madge, and even he was dazzled by a beauty that attracted many eyes. It was not merely a lovely woman who was advancing toward him, but a woman whose nature was profoundly excited. What though she moved in quiet, well-bred grace, and greeted Mr. Muir with natural cordiality? The aroused spiritual element was not wanting in the expression of her face or in the dignity of her carriage. Her deep, suppressed feeling, which bordered on despair; her womanly pride, which would disguise all suffering at every cost, gave to her presence a subtle power, felt none the less because intangible. It was evident that she neither saw nor cared for the strangers who were looking their curiosity and admiration; and Graydon understood her barely well enough to think, "Something, whatever it may be, makes her unlike other girls. She was languidly indifferent at dinner; now she is superbly indifferent. This morning and yesterday she was a gay young girl, eager for a mountain scramble or a frolic of any kind. How many more phases will she exhibit before the week is over?"

Poor Madge could not have answered that question herself. She was under the control of one of the chief inspirations of feeling and action. Moods of which she had never dreamed would become inevitable; thoughts which nothing external could suggest would arise in her own heart and determine her manner.

In ceasing to hope one also ceases to fear, and Graydon admitted to himself that he had never before felt the change in Madge so deeply. The weak, timid little girl he had once known now looked as if she could quietly face anything. The crowded room, the stare of strangers, were simply as if they were not; the approach of a thunder-gust in the sultry evening was unheeded; when a loud peal drowned her voice, she simply waited till she could be heard again, and then went on without a tremor in her tones, while all around her people were nervous, starting, and exclaiming. There was not the faintest suggestion of high tragedy in her manner. To a casual observer it was merely the somewhat proud and cold reserve of a lady in a public place, while under the eyes of a strange and miscellaneous assemblage. Graydon imagined that it might veil some resentment because he had been so remiss in his attentions. He could scarcely maintain this view, however, for she was as cordial to him as to any one, while at the same time giving the impression that he was scarcely in her thoughts at all.

Mr. Muir was perplexed also, and watched her with furtive admiration. "If she cares for Graydon's neglect she's a superb actress," he thought. "Great Scott! what an idiot he is, that he cannot see the difference between this grand woman and yonder white-faced speculator! She actually quickens the blood in my veins to-night when she fixes her great black eyes on me."

Graydon felt her power, but believed that there was nothing in it gentle or conciliatory toward himself. Probably her mood resulted from a proud consciousness of her beauty and the triumphs that awaited her. She had been young and gay heretofore with the other young people, but now that a number of mature men, like Arnault, had appeared upon the scene, she proposed to make a different impression. The embodiment of her ideal might be among them. "At any rate," he concluded, "she has the skill to make me feel that I have little place in either her imaginings or hopes, and that for all she cares I may capture Miss Wildmere as soon as I can. Both of us probably are so far beneath her ideals of womanhood and manhood that she can never be friendly to one and is fast losing her interest in the other. She has already virtually said, 'Our relations are accidental, and if you marry Stella Wildmere you need not hope that I shall accept her with open arms as inseparable from one of my best friends.' 'Best friend,' indeed! Even that amount of regard was a lingering sentiment of the past. Now that we have met again she realizes that we have grown to be comparative strangers, and that our tastes and interests lie apart."

Thus day after day he had some new and perturbed theory as to Madge, in which pique, infused with cynical philosophy and utter misapprehension, led to widely varying conclusions. Ardent and impatient lover of another woman as he was, one thing remained true--he could neither forget nor placidly ignore the girl who had ceased to be his sister, and who yet was not very successful in playing the part of a young lady friend.

When the dancing began, the storm was approaching its culmination. More vivid than the light from the chandeliers, the electric flashes dazzled startled eyes with increasing frequency. Miss Wildmere at first tried to show cool indifference in the spirit of bravado, and maintained her place upon the floor with Mr. Arnault and a few others. She soon succumbed, with visible agitation, as a thunderous peal echoed along the sky. Madge danced on with Graydon as if nothing had occurred. He only felt that her form grew a little more tense, and saw that her eyes glowed with suppressed excitement.

"Are you not afraid?" he asked, as soon as his voice could be heard. "See, the ladies are scattering or huddling together, while many look as if the world were coming to an end."

"The world is coming to an end to some every day," she replied.

"That remark is as tragic as it is trite, Madge. What could have suggested it?"

"Trite remarks cannot have serious causes."

"Account for the tragic phase, then."

"I'm in no mood for tragedy, and commonplace does not need explanation."

"What kind of mood are you in to-night, Madge? You puzzle me;" and he looked directly into her eyes. At the moment she was facing a window, and a flash of strange brilliancy made every feature luminous. It seemed to him that he saw her very soul, the spirit she might become, for it is hard to imagine existence without form--form that is in harmony with character. The crash that followed was so terrific that they paused and stood confronting each other. The music ceased; cries of terror resounded; but the momentary transfiguration of the girl before him had been so strange and so impressive that Graydon forgot all else, and still gazed at her with something like awe in his face. Her lip trembled, for the nervous tension was growing too severe. "Why do you look at me so?" she faltered. "What has happened? Is there danger?"

"What has happened, Madge, that I cannot understand you? The electric gleam made you look like an angel of light. Your face seemed light itself. Are you so true and good, Madge, that such vivid radiance brings out no stain or fear? What is it that makes you unlike others?" Instinctively he looked toward Miss Wildmere. Her face was buried in her hands, and Mr. Arnault was bending over her with reassuring words.

Madge felt her self-control departing. "Mary is afraid in a thunderstorm," she said, in a low tone. "I'll go to her. She does not find me so puzzling;" and she hastened away, yet not so swiftly but that he saw her quivering lip and look of trouble.

He took a few impulsive steps in pursuit, then hesitated and walked irresolutely down a hallway, that he might have a chance for further thought. The alarm and confusion were so great that the little episode had been unnoted. It had made an impression on Graydon, however, that he could not shake off readily.

Emotion, if forced, has little power except to repel, but even a glimpse of deep, suppressed feeling haunts the memory, especially if its cause is half in mystery.

Madge had set her heart on one thing, had worked long and patiently for its attainment, had hoped and prayed for it, and within the last few hours was feeling the bitterness of defeat. The event she so dreaded seemed inevitable, even if it had not already occurred. The expression on Graydon's face when she had first met him after his long ramble with Miss Wildmere had been that of a tranquilly happy lover, whose heart was at rest in glad certainty. Why should he not have spoken? what greater encouragement could he ask than the favor she herself had seen? During his long absence another girl had apparently been waiting for him also, "But not working for him," she sighed, "and keeping herself aloof from all and everything that would render her less worthy. While I sought to train heart, body, and soul to be a fit bride, she has dallied with every admirer she met, and now wins him without one hour of self-denial or effort. It is more bitter than death to me. It is cruelty to him, for that selfish girl will never make him happy. Even after he marries her he will be only one among many, and the ballroom glare will be more to her than the light of her own hearth."

Such thoughts had been in Madge's mind, and self-control had been no easy matter. When to all had been added the excitement of the storm and his unexpected words, her overstrained nerves gave way. She was too desperately unhappy for the common fear which temporarily overwhelmed many--the greater swallows up the less--but the storm had led to words that both wounded and alarmed her. Why did she so perplex him? What had the lightning's gleam revealed, to be understood when he should think it all over? Could the truth of her love, of which she was so conscious, be detected in spite of her efforts and disguises? Was she doomed, not only to failure and an impoverished life, but also to the humiliation of receiving a lifelong, yet somewhat complacent pity from Graydon, and possibly the triumphant scorn of her rival?

With these thoughts surging in her mind she locked herself in her room and sobbed like the broken-hearted girl she felt herself to be. The passing storm was nothing to her. A heavier storm was raging in her soul, nor had it ceased when the skies without grew cloudless and serene. She at last felt that she must do something to maintain her disguise. Hearing little Jack crying and Mrs. Muir trying to hush him, she washed her eyes and went to the partially darkened room where the child was, and said, "Let me take him, Mary, and you go down and see Henry."

"It's awfully good of you, Madge. The children have been so frightened that I've been up here all the evening. You seem to have better luck in quieting Jack than any of us."

"He'll be good with me. Go down at once, and don't worry. You have hardly had a chance to see Henry."

"You will come down again after Jack goes to sleep?"

"Yes, if I feel like it."

Graydon soon discovered Mrs. Muir after she had joined her husband, and asked, "Where is Madge?"

"She has kindly taken the baby so that I can spend a little time with Henry. The children have been frightened, and Jack is very fretful. I'm tired out, and don't know what I should do if it wasn't for Madge."

"Why can't the nurse take him?"

"He won't go to her in these bad moods. Madge can quiet him even better than I. What's the matter that you are so anxious to see Madge? You have seemed abundantly able to amuse yourself without her the last few days. Is Mr. Arnault in the way to-night?"

"As if I cared a rap for him!" said Graydon, turning irritably away.

He did care, however, and felt that Miss Wildmere was making too much use of the liberty she had provided for. She, like many others, could be half hysterical while the violence of the storm lasted, and yet, when quiet was restored, was capable of making a jest of her fears and the most of a delightful conjunction of affairs, which placed two eligible men at her beck, to either of whom she could become engaged before she slept. The arrival of her father had turned the scale decidedly in favor of Mr. Arnault, for the latter, without revealing his transaction with Mr. Muir, had whispered to Mr. Wildmere his conviction that Henry Muir was borrowing at ruinous interest. This information accorded with the broker's previous knowledge, and he was eager that his daughter should decide for Arnault at once.

This, however, the wilful girl would not do. She enjoyed the present condition of affairs too well, and was not without hope, also, that her father was mistaken; for she felt sure, from Graydon's manner, that he was not aware of his brother's financial peril, and this fact inclined her to doubt its existence. She was actuated by the feeling that she had given much time and encouragement to Graydon, and that now Arnault should have his turn. Madge had been invisible since the storm, and there was nothing to indicate that Graydon was disposed to give her much thought. Miss Wildmere's natural supposition was that he and Madge had been like brother and sister once, and that the form of the relation still existed, but that in their long separation they had grown somewhat indifferent toward each other. She believed that the solicitude she had seen in Madge's face, on the evening so memorable in the latter's experience, was due to the jealousy of an immature, sickly girl, who had been so humored as to feel that Graydon belonged to her. She naturally believed that if there had been anything beyond this, it would have been developed by correspondence, or else indifference on both sides would not now be so palpable. She disliked Madge chiefly as a rival in beauty and admiration. Nothing could be more clear than that Graydon was completely under the spell of her own fascination, and that Madge was receiving even scant fraternal regard. All she feared was, that during the process of keep him "well in hand" he might become more conscious of Madge's attractions, which she recognized, however much she decried them openly. Even if compelled by circumstances to accept Arnault, she proposed to herself the triumph of rejecting Graydon, and thought she could do this so skilfully as to give the idea that he had made a deep impression on her heart, and so eventually win him again as one of her devoted followers in the future. This product of fashionable society had not the slightest intention of giving up her career as a belle for the sake of Mr. Arnault or any one else. She had more liking and less fear for Graydon than for Arnault. The latter was an open, resolute suitor, but she knew that he was controlled more by ambition than by affection--that he would yield everything and submit to anything up to a certain point. The moment she jeopardized his prestige before the world, or interfered with his scheme of success, she would meet rock-like obduracy, both before and after marriage. She knew that Graydon had a sincere affection for her, and a faith in her which, even in her egotism, she was aware was unmerited--that he had a larger, gentler, and more tolerant nature, and would be easier to manage than Arnault.

Her fear of the latter proved his best ally. There was a resolution in his eye since his return this evening that, even while it angered her somewhat, convinced her that he would not be trifled with. His suit was that of a man who had an advantage which she dared not ignore, and her father's manner increased this impression. She felt that her game was becoming delicate and hazardous, but she would not forego its delicious excitement, or abandon the hope that Graydon might still be in a position to warrant her preference. Therefore she proposed to yield to Arnault as far as she could without alienating Muir, hoping that the former would soon return to town again, and thus more time be secured for her final decision.

Before the first evening of his rivals advent had passed, Graydon felt that he must appear to the people in the house as supplanted, and his pride was beginning to be touched. Mrs. Muir's words had added to his irritation. The episode with Madge had left a decidedly unpleasant impression. He felt not only that he had failed to understand her, but that he might be treating her with a neglect which she had a right to resent. Her appearance and manner during the storm had almost startled him; her abrupt departure had caused sudden and strong compunction; and he had wished that they might come to a better understanding; but thoughts of her had soon given place to anxiety in regard to Miss Wildmere. It began to seem strange that the girl who had apparently waited for him so long, and who had permitted such unequivocal words and manner on his part that day, should now, before his very eyes, be accepting attentions even more unmistakable from another man. She had tried to explain and prepare him for all this, but there was more than he was prepared for. She not only danced oftener with Arnault than with any one else, but also strolled with him on the dusky piazza, which, by reason of the dampness due to the storm, was almost deserted. Graydon had permitted his brow to become clouded, and was so perturbed by the events of the evening that he had not disguised his vexation by gallantries to others. At last he detected smiles and whispered surmises on the part of some who had seen his devotion before the arrival of Mr. Arnault. This almost angered him, and he felt that Miss Wildmere had imposed a role that would be difficult to maintain.

He had lingered conspicuously near, intent on proving his loyalty, and had hoped every moment that his opportunity would come. He felt that she should at least divide her time evenly with him and Mr. Arnault, but the evening was drawing to a close, and the latter had received the lion's share. After noting that others were observing his desolation, he went resolutely out on the piazza, with the intention of asking Miss Wildmere to give him the last waltz. Its wide space was deserted. He waited a few moments, thinking that the object of his thoughts would turn the corner in her promenade with his rival. Time passed, and she did not come. He looked through a parlor window, thinking that she might have entered by some other means of ingress; and while he was standing there steps slowly approached from a part of the piazza which was usually in utter darkness, and which was known as the "lovers' retreat." As the figures passed a lighted window he recognized them, and was also observed. He was too angry and jealous now to carry out his purpose, and returned to the general hallway.

Here he was joined a moment later by Miss Wildmere and Mr. Arnault, and the former began to chat with him in imperturbable ease, while the gentleman bowed and sought another partner for the waltz that was about to be danced. Graydon would not show his chagrin under the many eyes directed toward them, but she nevertheless saw his anger in the cold expression of his eyes, and realized her danger. She ignored everything with inimitable skill and sweetness, and there was nothing for him to do but take her out with the others. Indeed, it almost instantly became his policy to convince observers that their surmises were without foundation. He determined that the girl should show him all the favor his rival had enjoyed, or else--A sudden flash of his eyes indicated to his observant companion that all her skill would be required. She was graciousness itself, and when Arnault could not observe her, stole swift and almost pleading glances into her partner's eyes.

Another observed her, however. Madge did come down at last, for she had concluded that the memorable day should not close until she had had one more glimpse of the problem which had grown so dark and hopeless. Graydon soon observed her standing in the doorway, but then she was talking and laughing with a lady friend. A moment later she glided out on the floor with one of a half dozen who had been waiting for the favor. Graydon sought to catch her eye, but did not succeed. Again she made upon his mind the impression of troubled perplexity, but his purpose was uppermost, and he was bent on carrying it out.

"Come," he said to Miss Wildmere, in quiet tones, "I should enjoy a stroll on the piazza, the room has grown so warm and close."

Feeling that she must yield, she did so with ready grace and apparent willingness, and Graydon led her out through the main entrance, that it might be observed that he received no less favor than had been given to another.

"She is playing them both pretty strong," whispered one of the committee, before referred to, that sits perpetually on the phases of life at such resorts.

"I feared you would not be very patient," said Miss Wildmere, in a low tone.

"I said I would be reasonably patient," was the reply.

"Reason again."

"Yes, Miss Wildmere; I think I can justly say that I am endowed with both heart and reason. There are some questions in life that demand both."

"Please do not speak so coldly. You do not understand."

"I wish I did."

"Be patient and you will. After maintaining friendship true and strong for years, it hurts me to be misjudged now."

"But, Miss Wildmere--" he began, impetuously.

"Hush," she said, hastily; then added, a little coldly, "if I am not worthy of a little trust I am not worthy of anything."

Graydon was touched to the quick. Honorable himself, he felt that he was acting meanly and suspiciously--that his jealousy and irritation were leading him to unmanly conduct. There was some reason for her course, which would be explained eventually, and he ought not to ask a woman to be his wife at all unless he could trust her. Therefore he said, humbly. "I beg your pardon. In my heart I believe you worthy of all trust. I will wait and be as patient as you desire, since I know that you cannot have failed to understand me." Then he added, with a deprecating laugh, "There are times, I suppose, when all men are a little blind and unreasonable."

"Heaven keep him blind!" she thought, yet she winced under his honest words in their contrast with herself.

"I hope some day to prove worthy of your trust," she breathed, softly, and looked in dread into the darkness lest in some way her words should reach Arnault. "Come, please," she added, with a gentle pressure on his arm, "let us return, or the hotel may be closed upon us."

"Please give me all the time you can," pleaded Graydon, as they paused at the door.

Looking within, she saw Arnault with his back toward them, and said, hastily, and as if impulsively, "I will--all that I can. Possibly my regret will be deeper than yours that I cannot give you more."

"You should know that that is not possible," he said, in low, earnest tones. Then he added, in a whisper, as she was entering, "I can trust you now and wait."

"My good fortune is still in the ascendant," was her thought; "I can still keep him in hand, in spite of papa and Mr. Arnault."

"Her father's relations with Mr. Arnault must give him some hold upon her," he thought, "and for her father's sake she cannot yield to me at once, but she will eventually."

Mr. Arnault came forward with smiling lips, light words, yet resolute eyes. Graydon felt that he had received all the assurance that he needed--that she was under some necessity of keeping his rival in good-humor--so he smiled significantly into her eyes, and bowed himself away.

"Muir looked as if he had received all the comfort that he required," Arnault said, as they strolled across the parlor, now deserted.

"Did he? Well, he did not require very much."

"How much?"

"You had better ask him."

"Stella," he said, and there was a suggestion of menace in his tone, "I'm in earnest now. You will soon have to choose between us."

"Shall I?" she replied, bending upon him an arch, bewildering smile. "Then please don't speak as if I had no choice at all;" and she was going.

"Wait," he said. "Will you drive with me to-morrow?"

"Yes. Is there anything else your lordship would like?"

He seized her hand, and held it in both his. "This," he said.

"Is that all?" was her laughing reply, as she withdrew it. "I wish you had more of Mr. Muir's diffidence;" and she vanished before he could speak again.

Graydon found that Madge had retired, so that there was no chance for him to speak to her that night; but his mind was in too happy a tumult to give her much thought.