Chapter XVIII. Make Your Terms
 

Graydon's uppermost thought now was to make his peace with Madge. He dismissed all his former theories about her as absurd, and felt that, whether he understood her or not, she had become a splendid woman, of whose friendship he might well be proud, and accept it on any terms that pleased her. He also was sure that Miss Wildmere's prejudices would be banished at once and forever by Madge's heroism, believing that the girl's hostile feeling was due only to the natural jealousy of social rivals. "If Stella does not regard Madge's action with generous enthusiasm, I shall think the worse of her," was his masculine conclusion.

The wily girl was not so obtuse as to be unaware of this, and when he came down she said all he could wish in praise of Madge, but took pains to enlarge upon his own courage. At this he pooh-poohed emphatically. "What was that duck-pond of a lake to a man!" he said. "Madge herself has become an expert ocean-swimmer, I am told. She wasn't afraid of the water. It was her skill in finding the child beneath it, and in resuscitation afterward, that chiefly commands my admiration."

"Oh, dear!" cried the girl, "what can I do to command your admiration?"

"You know well, Miss Wildmere, that you command much more."

She blushed, smiled, and looked around a little apprehensively.

"Don't be alarmed," he added; "I have such confidence in you that I will bide your time."

"Thank you, Graydon," she whispered, and hastened away, leaving him supremely happy. It was the first time she had called him "Graydon."

Seeing Dr. Sommers emerging from the hotel, he hastened after him, bent on procuring a peace-offering for Madge--the finest horse that could be had in the region.

"I know of one a few miles from here," said the doctor. "He's a splendid animal, but a high and mighty stepper. I don't believe that even she could manage him."

"I'll break him in for her, never fear. Of course I won't let her take any risks."

"Well, leave it to me, then. I can manage it. He's awfully headstrong, though. I give you fair warning."

"Take me to see him as soon as you can; the horse, I mean, or, rather, both man and horse."

"To-morrow morning, then. I have patients out that way."

At supper and during the evening Madge and her exploit were the themes of conversation. Some tried to give Graydon a part of the credit, but he laughed so contemptuously at the idea that he was let alone. Henry Muir did not say much, but looked a great deal, and with Graydon listened attentively as his wife explained how it was that Madge had proved equal to the emergency.

"Why don't more people follow her example?" said the practical man, "and learn how to do something definite? As she explains the rescue, there was nothing remarkable in it. If she could swim and dive in the ocean for sport, she would not be much afraid to do the same in that so-called lake, to save life. As to her action on shore, the knowledge she used is given in books and manuals. What's more, she had seen it done. But most people are so pointless and shiftless that they never know just what to do in an emergency, no matter what their opportunities for information may have been."

"Now you hit me," Graydon remarked, ruefully, "Left to myself I should have finished the young one, for I was about to run to the hotel with her, a course that I now see would have been as fatal as idiotic."

"Madge says," Mrs. Muir continued, "that they used to bathe a great deal, and that Mr. Wayland explained just what should be done in all the possible emergencies of their outdoor life at Santa Barbara."

"Wayland in a level-headed man. If he is bookish, he's not a dreamer with his head in the clouds. Madge was in good hands with them, and proves it every day."

"I think she shows the influence of Mrs. Wayland even more than that of her husband. Fanny is a very accomplished woman, and saw a great deal of society in her younger days."

"Confound it all! Why didn't you tell me that Madge had been living with two paragons?" said Graydon.

"Oh, you have been so occupied with another paragon that there has not been much chance to tell you anything," was Mrs. Muir's consoling reply.

"Madge has not been made what she is by paragons," Mr. Muir remarked, dryly. "She made herself. They only helped her, and couldn't have helped a silly woman."

"It's time you were jealous, Mary," said Graydon, laughing.

"Mary isn't a silly woman. I should hope that no Muir would marry one."

"I see no prospect of it," was the rather cold reply.

"I fear I see a worse prospect," was his brother's thought. "Of what use are his eyes or senses after what he has seen to-day?"

Mrs. Muir had explained to some lady friends about Madge, and the information was passing into general circulation--the ladies rapidly coming to the conclusion that the young girl's action was not so remarkable after all, which was true enough. The men, however, retained their enthusiastic admiration, although it must be admitted that its inspiration was due largely to Madge's beauty.

"Of course women have done braver things," said one man, with sporting tendencies, "but it was the neat, gamy way in which she did it that took my eye. Her method was as complete and rounded out as herself. Jove! as she bent over that child she was a nymph that would turn the head of a Greek."

"She has evidently turned the head of a Cyprian," laughed one of his friends.

"Come, that's putting it too strong," said the man, with a frown. "I'll affect no airs, though. I'm not a saint, as you all know, but the aspect of that girl, in her self-forgetful effort, might well make me wish I were one. She is as good and pure-hearted as the child she saved. If there had been a flaw in the white marble of her nature she would have been self-conscious. An angel from heaven couldn't have been more absorbed in the one impulse to save."

Graydon had approached the group unobserved, and heard these words. He walked away, smiling, with the thought, "My sentiments, clearly expressed."

The night was warm, and he saw Miss Wildmere and Arnault going out for a stroll. Following a half-defined inclination, he bent his steps toward the lake. The moon was mirrored in its glassy surface, the place silent and deserted. With slight effort of fancy he called up the scene again. He saw in the moonlight the fairy form of the child, and what even others had regarded as the embodiment of human loveliness and truth bending over it.

"And she was the little ghost that once haunted me," he thought, "and seemed all eyes and affection. How those eyes used to welcome and turn to me, as if in some subtle way she drew from me the power to exist at all. I wish I could follow the processes of her change from the hour of our parting, and see how I passed from what I was to her to what I am now. She does not seem to forget or ignore the past. She is not conventional, and never was; hence, friendship may not mean what it does to so many of her sex and age--a little moony sentiment blended with calculation as to a fellow's usefulness. If we could enjoy something of the good-comradeship that obtains between man and man, she is the one woman of the world with whom I should covet the relation. Stella, in herself, is all that I could ask for a wife, but I don't like her family much better than Henry does. Confound the father! Why should he so mix his daughter up in his speculation that she dare not dismiss Arnault at once and follow her heart? If I were not a good-natured man I wouldn't submit to it. As it is, since I am sure of the girl, I suppose I should give paterfamilias a chance to turn himself. She has appealed to me as delicately, yet as openly, as she can, and has given me to understand by everything except plain words that she is mine. Probably that is all she can do without bringing black ruin upon them all. Well, I suppose I should imitate her self-sacrificing spirit; but I hate this jumbling of Wall Street with affairs of the heart. It angers me that she must play with that fellow for financial reasons, and that he, conscious of power, may use language which she would not dare to resent. I can't imagine Madge in such a position. Yet, who knows? As the French say, 'It is the unexpected that happens,' and this has proved true enough in my experience. I'll go and see how Madge is now, and be as penitent as she requires. I don't mind being tyrannized over a little by such a girl;" and he returned.

As he approached Mrs. Muir's door he heard the sound of voices and laughter, and plainly those of his brother and Madge. In response to his knock Mrs. Muir opened the door a little way, and he caught a glimpse of Henry.

"Well?" said Mrs. Muir.

"It's not well at all," he began, in an aggrieved tone. "Here's a family party, and I'm shut out in outer darkness. What have I done to be banished from Rome?"

"'What's banished but set free?'" trilled out Madge. "Oh, Graydon, I'm not fit to be seen!"

"How can I know that unless I see you?"

"Nonsense, Madge!" expostulated her sister, "you look charming. Why put on airs? As he says, it's a family party. Let him join in our fun;" and, without waiting for further objections, she brought him in and gave him a chair.

"Now this warms an exile's heart," he began. "If you had shut the door on me I should have asked Henry to send me back to Europe. Mary's right, Madge; you do look charming."

And so she did, blushing and laughing in her dainty wrapper, with her long hair falling over her shoulders and fastened by a ribbon.

"How comes it that you are in such a deserted and disconsolate condition?" cried Mary.

"I am not in such a condition. Since crossing your threshold I have become contentment itself. Indeed, I regard myself as the most favored man in the house, for I, first of all, am able to lay my homage at Madge's feet."

"Let me warn you from the start that it will prove a stumbling-block in both our paths," said the girl. "Did you not receive my message? But, then, it's stupid to think you will ever consider me."

"I have been considering you a great deal more than you think, especially since you metaphorically boxed my ears this morning, and took away my breath generally this afternoon."

"You seem to have plenty left."

"Oh, I'm recovering. Reason is trying to scramble back on her throne. I've been out to the lake alone in the moonlight, and have had the whole scene over again, to assure myself that it was real."

"What! You have not been in the water?"

"No; I was content to moon it out on the shore; but it seemed to me that I saw you as clearly there as here."

"Little wonder! I must have been the most extraordinary looking creature that ever prowled in these wilds."

"You were; only lookers-on did all the devouring. I wouldn't dare tell you the compliments I have heard."

"You had better not, if your reason is even within sight of her throne. When the danger was all over I caught a mental glimpse of myself, and fell over as if shot;" and a slow, deep crimson stole into her face.

"Madge," said Graydon, gravely and almost rebukingly, "do you think there was a man present who did not reverence you? I was proud even of your acquaintance."

Her face softened under his words, but she did not look at him. "We were partners in misery," she said, laughing softly; "I have a vague remembrance that you were as great a guy as I was."

"I shall be glad to be a guy with you in any circumstances you can imagine, if you will let me make my peace, and will forgive my general stupidity. Be reasonable also, as well as merciful. If it took you over two years to make such changes, you should give me a few days to rub my eyes and get them focused on the result."

Madge was now laughing heartily. "I don't believe a man could ever eat the whole of a humble pie," she said. "He ever insists that the donor, especially if she be a woman, should have a piece also."

"There, now," cried Graydon, ruefully; "give me all of it, and make your terms."

"Solomon himself couldn't have advised you better," said Madge, while Henry leaned back in his chair and laughed as if immensely amused, while Mary improved the occasion by remarking, "When will men ever learn that that is the way to get the best terms possible from a woman?"

"Indeed!" said Graydon. "How you enlighten me! Well, Madge, I'm the more eager now to learn your terms."

She felt that it was a critical moment--that there was, under their badinage, a substratum of truth and feeling--and that she had now a chance to establish relations that would favor her hope, if it had a right to exist at all, and render future companionship free from surmise on the part of her family.

"Come, Graydon," she said, "we have jested long enough, and there is no occasion for misunderstanding. I have not forgotten the past any more than you have, nor all your unstinted kindness for years. As Mary says, this is a family party. I'm not your sister, and embarrassment always accompanies an unnatural relation. The common-sense thing to do is to recognize the relation that does exist. As I intimated at first, I see no reason why we should not be the best of friends, and then, imitating the stiff-necked Hebrews, do what seemeth good in our eyes."

"And these are your terms, Madge?"

"As far as I have any, yes. I don't insist on anything, but warn you that I shall follow my eyes, and consult a very wilful little will of my own."

"Will your wilful will permit you to accept of a horse that I am going after in the morning? Dr. Sommers told me about him, and I had proposed to make him a peace-offering."

Madge clapped her hands with the delight of a child.

"Oh, Graydon, that's splendid of you! I've been sighing, 'My kingdom for a horse,' ever since I came here. But he's no peace-offering. I forgave you when I saw your headlong plunge into the lake. You went into it like a man, while I flopped in so awkwardly that all said I had fallen overboard."

"Shake hands, then."

She sprang up and joined hands with him in frank and cordial grasp, saying, "It's all right now, and Mary and Henry will understand us as well as we do ourselves."

"One condition: you will let me ride with you?"

"When you are disengaged, yes," was her arch reply, "and I'll prove that on horseback I can be as good a comrade as a man."

"Well, if something I've dreamt of is true I never saw such acting," thought Henry Muir. Then he said, quietly, "Madge, how did you find the child so surely and quickly?"

"That accounts for my awkwardness somewhat," she replied, laughing. ("How happy she looks!" he thought.) "I never took my eyes from the spot where I had last seen the child sink, and I had to do everything as if my head was in a vise. Don't let us talk about it any more."

"No, nor about anything else," said Mary, rising. "I'm proving a fine nurse, and am likely to be lectured by the doctor to-morrow. You men must walk. Here is Madge flushed, feverish, and excited about a horse. Brain-fever will be the next symptom."

An hour later Madge was sleeping quietly, but the happy flush and smile had not left her face. She felt that she had at last scored one point. Oh, that she could have more time!

"Jupiter!" muttered Graydon, as he descended the stairs, "her talk makes a fellow's blood tingle."

Miss Wildmere had just entered with Arnault, and Graydon asked, "Are you not going to give me one dance this evening?"

"Yes, two, if you wish," she replied, sweetly.

He took her at her word, and was as devoted as ever. He had no thought of being anything else. Arnault secured the last word, however, and Graydon made no effort to prevent this. He had accepted the disagreeable situation, and proposed, although with increasing reluctance and discontent, to let the girl have a clear field and manage the affair as she thought wise under the circumstances. He was too proud to have maintained a jostling and open pursuit with Arnault in any event, and now, believing that he understood the lady better, felt that there was no occasion for it He had indicated to her just where he stood, and just where she could ever find him. When her diplomacy with Arnault should cease to be essential to her father's safety, the final words could be spoken.

He acted on this policy so quietly that she was somewhat troubled, and feared that Madge might be taking too large a place in his thoughts. Therefore, when Arnault ventured to make a somewhat humorous reference to the young girl's appearance, her spite found utterance. "I never saw such a looking creature in my life. She had the appearance of a crazy woman, with her hair dishevelled, and her wet, muddy clothes sticking to her as if glued. She ought at least to have slipped away when the doctor came. But instead of that she fainted--all put on, I believe, to attract attention."

"She perhaps felt that she must put on something," chuckled Arnault. "The two Muirs looked as if she were too precious and sacred for mortal gaze."

"Well," concluded Miss Wildmere, "I like to see a lady who never forgets herself;" and she was an example of the type.

"I like to see one lady, whom, having seen, no one can forget," was his gallant reply.