Chapter XVI. Declaration of Independence
 

Mrs. Muir came into Madge's room for a bit of the gossip that she dearly loved, but, as usual, obtained little information or surmise from the young girl. "I'm glad you came down," she said, "if only to prove to Graydon that you were not moping upstairs."

"Why should I mope upstairs?" Madge asked, with a keen look at her sister.

"No reason that I know of, only Graydon has been slightly spoiled by his success among ladies, and society men are always imagining that girls are languishing for them."

"Have I given him or anyone such an impression?" Madge again inquired, indignantly.

"Oh, no, indeed! On the contrary, you seem so indifferent as not to be quite natural. Even Graydon feels it, and is perplexed and troubled. He was inquiring for you during the evening, and I told him you were kindly caring for Jack, so that I might have a little fresh air with Henry on the piazza."

"There it is again--perplexed and troubled. I'm sick of being misunderstood so ridiculously. The scraps of time that he gives me when Miss Wildmere does not fill his eyes and thoughts are employed in criticism. Why should I perplex and trouble him? I have told him to please himself with Miss Wildmere--that I should certainly please myself in my choice of friends, and that he as a man assuredly had a right to do the same. He will soon be engaged to her, and probably is already, but he has no right to demand that I should receive this girl with open arms. She already detests me, and I do not admire her. It's none of my business, but if I were a man I wouldn't stand her flirtation with Mr. Arnault. Even the people in the house are observing it with significant smiles. He must get over the impression that I'm the weak, limp child in mind or body that he left. I'm an independent woman, and have as much right to my thoughts and ways as he to his. If he wants my society, let him treat me with natural friendliness. If he's afraid to do it--if Miss Wildmere won't let him--rest assured I won't receive any furtive, deprecatory attentions. I am abundantly able to take care of myself in my own way."

"Oh, Madge, you have so changed! Before you went away the sun seemed to rise and set in Graydon."

"Well, the sun now rises in the west and sets in the east--What am I saying? Well, perhaps, it's true for me, after all. In the West I gained the power to live a strong, resolute life of my own choosing, and he may as well recognize the truth first as last. Let him give all his thoughts to Miss Wildmere. From what I see and have heard she will keep them busy before and after marriage."

"He's not engaged to her yet; he said so positively."

"Oh, well," Madge replied, with well-assumed indifference, although her heart bounded at the tidings, "it's only a question of time. There, we've talked enough about her. Of course I remember Graydon's old kindness, and all that; and if he would treat me with frank and sensible friendliness, I should enjoy his society. Why not?"

"I thought he regarded you as his sister."

"Sister, indeed! I'm Henry's sister, not his. I'm only an object of criticism, of perplexity, a sphinx, and all that kind of nonsense. He was bent on seeing a 'little ghost,' as he used to call me. I'm not a bit of a ghost, and have as much proud blood in my veins as he has."

"Well, Madge, I'm glad you feel that you are Henry's sister. He likes and admires you so much that I'm half jealous."

"Henry and I understand each other. He thinks I'm sensible, and I certainly think he is. Good-night, now, dear. It's after twelve, and I wish you a merry Fourth of July; I mean to have one."

Graydon had not found himself in a sleeping mood until the shadows of night were almost ready to depart, and so came down very late. Mrs. Wildmere, who was on the piazza with her child, informed him, with a deprecatory smile, that Stella had gone to drive with Mr. Arnault. He bit his lip, and went to make a leisurely breakfast. By the time he had finished, Madge came in with a party of young people who had been on a ramble. Her greeting was friendly, but nothing more, and having received a long letter from Mrs. Wayland, she took it to a small summer-house. Graydon soon strayed after her in a listless way, and in no very amiable humor. The greater anxiety had swallowed up the less, and his perturbed thoughts about Madge were now following a light carriage on some wild mountain road. His generous glow of feeling of the night before had passed somewhat, and he was inclined to think that Miss Wildmere's relations to Arnault, whatever they were, placed him, a committed lover, in a rather anomalous position. Since she was absent, however, he would while away an hour with Madge, and try to solve the riddle she had become.

She greeted him with a slight smile, and went on with her letter. He watched her curiously and with contracting brow.

"Will you ever finish?" he soon asked.

"I can read it some other time," she said, laying it down.

"Oh, that is asking far too much!"

"Is it?"

"Confound it, Madge! Why is it that we are drifting further and further apart every day?"

"I am not drifting," she said, quietly, "nor do you give that impression. I am just where you found me on your return. Since we are so far apart you must be doing the journeying."

"Well, Heaven knows I found you distant enough!"

"I beg your pardon; Heaven knows nothing of the kind! It's not my fault that you value friendship so lightly."

"You know I wished for so much more."

"You thought you did at first, Graydon," she replied, with a quiet smile, "but I imagine that you soon became quite reconciled to my view of the case. The relation would surely prove embarrassing to you. Haven't you since thought that it might?" she asked, with sweet directness.

He colored visibly, and was provoked with himself that he did. "If you persist in being at swords' points with Miss Wildmere--" he began, hesitatingly.

"I persist in being simply myself, and true to my own perceptions. Wherein have I failed in courtesy toward Miss Wildmere?"

"But you dislike her most cordially."

"And you like her most cordially and more. Have I not granted your perfect right to do so?"

"If you were even the friend you claim to be, you would not be so indifferent."

"I have not said I was indifferent. Miss Wildmere is far from indifferent to me. What have I done to gain her ill-will?"

"Much, as human nature goes. You have made yourself her rival in beauty and attractiveness."

"Is that human nature? If that is the cause of her hostility I should say it is Miss Wildmere's nature."

"Let us change the subject," said Graydon, a little irritably. "We shall not agree on this point, I fear; you share in Henry's prejudices."

"I did not introduce the subject, Graydon, and I think for myself."

"Hang it all, Madge! you are so changed I scarcely know you. Every time we meet I find you more of a conundrum. Friend, indeed! You certainly have been a distant one in every sense. If I had been the friend you say I was, you would have written me about the marvellous transformation you were accomplishing."

She sprang up, and her dark eyes flashed indignantly. "I am beginning to think that you are changed more than I," she said, impetuously. "You know, or might, if you took the trouble, that I did not tell Mary, my own sister, of my progress toward health and strength. My wish to give you all a pleasant surprise may seem a little thing to you, or you may give some sinister, unnatural meaning to the act. It was not a little thing to go away 'a ghost, a wraith,' as you were wont to call me--it was not a little thing to go away alone, perhaps to die, as I then felt. Nor was it a little thing to battle for weary months with weakness of mind and body, morbid timidity, indolence, ignorance, and everything that was contrary to my ideal of womanhood. I can say thus much in self-defence. Was there harm in my adding some incentive to a hard sense of duty? I felt that if I could change for the better and keep my secret I could give you all a glad surprise. I had almost a child's pleasure in the thought. Mary and Henry rewarded me, but you are spoiling it all. You at once make an impossible demand, and discover, within twenty-four hours, how awkward my compliance would have been. I did not know you so long without gaining the power of guessing your thoughts. I suggested a simple, natural relation, and as the result I have become a 'conundrum.' A charming title, truly! I shall remain a simple, natural girl, and when you are through with your riddle theories perhaps you will treat me as I think you might in view of old times;" and she started swiftly toward the house.

"Madge!" cried Graydon, springing up and following her.

At that moment Miss Wildmere approached, and Madge gained the piazza and disappeared, leaving Graydon ill disposed toward himself and all the world, even including Miss Wildmere; for she had a charming color, and appeared not in the least a victim to ennui because of forced association with an objectionable party. She came smilingly toward him, saying, "It's too bad to interrupt your hot pursuit of another lady, but girls have not much conscience in such matters."

"As long as you have conscience in other matters, it does not signify," he answered, meaningly.

"Not conscience, but another organ, controls our action chiefly, I imagine," she replied, with a glance that gave emphasis to her words of the previous evening, and she passed smilingly on.

Arnault soon followed her, spoke pleasantly to Graydon, and, having obtained a morning paper, was at once absorbed in its contents.

"He does not appear like a baffled suitor who has enjoyed only a veiled tolerance," was Graydon's thought. "Things will come out all right in the end, I suppose, but they certainly are not proceeding as I expected. Stella will be mine eventually--it were treason to think otherwise--but she is carrying it off rather boldly to keep Arnault so complacent at the same time. As far as Madge is concerned, I've been a fool and made a mess of it. How in the mischief has she been able to divine my very thoughts! She is wrong in one respect, however. If she had felt and acted toward me like a sister I would have been loyal to her, and would have compelled even Miss Wildmere to recognize her rights. I am not so far gone but that I can act in a straightforward, honorable way. My acceptance of her action was an afterthought, a philosophical way I have of making the best of everything. I now believe that it has turned out for the best, but I have been guilty of no coldblooded calculation. Very well, I'll treat her as a simple, natural girl and my very good friend, and see how this course works. Not that she is a simple girl. I've met too many of that kind, and of those also who enshroud themselves in a cloud of little feminine mysteries, all transparent enough to one of experience; but Madge does puzzle me. She has not explained herself with her fine burst of indignation. Jove! how handsome she was! She ever gives the impression that there is something back of all she says and does. Even Henry feels it in his dim way, but that lightning flash made it clear that it is something of which she need not be ashamed. Since she has learned to read me so understandingly, I will try to fathom her thoughts. Perhaps friendship does mean more to her than to others. If so, I'll be as true a friend to her as she to me. If I grant Stella such broad privileges with Arnault, she must admit mine with one of whom it would be absurd to be jealous;" and, with cogitations like the above, he also pretended to read his paper, and finished his cigar.