Chapter XIX. An Object for Sympathy
 

Miss Wildmere's indignant virtue was not soothed on the following morning, when, as she returned from a drive with Arnault, Graydon galloped up on a superb bay horse, and Madge so far forgot herself again as to rush to meet him with unaffected pleasure. The champion of propriety paused in the distance to take an observation, for she thought she saw a cloud in the sky.

"What a beauty! what a grand arch of the neck he has! Oh, I'm just wild to be on him! Don't bribe me with horses, Graydon; I can resist anything else."

"I am glad of the information. A volume of thanks would not be worth half so much."

"I thought the thanks were in my tone and manner."

"So I thought, and am more than content; but, Madge, I am troubled about your riding him. I fear he is a very Satan of a horse."

"Nonsense! Wait till you see me mounted, and your fears will vanish. People don't walk at Santa Barbara; they ride; every one rides. If the horse don't tumble, there'll be no tumbling on my part. Oh, he is such a splendid fellow! What shall I call him?"

"Better call him 'Go.' There is more go in him than in any horse I ever bestrode."

"All the better. I shall give him another name, however. It will come to me sometime;" and she patted the proud neck, and fondled the tossing head, in a way to excite the envy of observers from the piazza. "Oh, Graydon, what shall I do for a saddle? Do you think there is one to be had in this region? I'm impatient for a gallop."

"I telegraphed, early this morning, for equipments; and they should be here this afternoon."

"That was considerate kindness itself. You must let me pay for all this. You know I can."

"So can I."

"But there's reason in all things."

"Therefore, a little in me. Please, Madge, don't make me feel that I am almost a stranger to you. If we had remained together, I should have paid out more than this for candy, flowers, and nonsense. I have yielded everything, haven't I? and, as Mary says, I do wish to feel a little like one of the family."

"Well, then," she said, laughing and blushing, "as from one of the family--"

"And from your deceased brother," he interrupted.

She put her finger to her lips. "That's past," she said. "No more allusions. We began sensibly last night, and I certainly am very lenient now in taking gifts that I should protest against even from Henry. I wish to prove to you that I am the Madge of old times as far as I can be."

"Rest assured I'm the same fellow, and ever shall be."

He had dismounted, and they were walking slowly toward the stable. "Bless me!" cried Madge, "where am I going with no better protection than a sunshade? I'm always a little off when a horse like that is at hand. I say, Graydon," she added, in a wheedling tone, "mount and put him through his paces. I can't resist the fun, no matter what the dowagers say."

He vaulted lightly into the saddle, and the horse reared and dashed toward the stable, but was soon pulled up. Then Graydon made him prance, curvet, and trot, Madge looking on with parted lips, and eyes glowing with delicious anticipation. If a close observer had been present he might have seen that the rider, with his fine easy grace and mastery, was, after all, the chief attraction.

She walked back to the house, thinking, "I'll have some bright hours before the skies grow gray. Oh, kindly fate! prosper Mr. Arnault here and in Wall Street, too, for all I care."

"Oh, Mr. Muir, teach me to ride," said Miss Wildmere, when he joined her in the deserted parlor. "You have such a superb horse! and you sat on him as if you were a part of him."

"I will teach you with pleasure," said Graydon. "Nothing would give me more enjoyment, for I am very fond of riding, and we could explore the mountain roads far and near."

"Can I ride your horse?"

"That was not my horse. He belongs to Miss Alden."

"Oh, indeed," began Miss Wildmere, hastily, yet coldly; "I wouldn't think of it, then."

"She would lend him to you readily, if it were safe; but only an expert should ride that horse. As it is, I shall run him four or five miles before I let her mount him. He is awfully high-strung and a little vicious. I'll get you a quiet, safe lady's horse, suitable for a beginner. You will soon acquire confidence and skill. I wouldn't have you incur any risks for all the world."

"Wouldn't you?" she asked, with a fascinating and incredulous smile.

"You know well that I would not."

"I shall scarcely know what I know when I see you galloping away with Miss Alden."

"Come, Miss Stella, we may as well get through with that phase of the question at once. Madge Alden came into our family when I was scarcely more than a boy, and she but a child. She is still one of the family. The idea of your being concerned about her makes me smile audibly. I only wish you girls would be good friends. It would save awkwardness and embarrassment. Madge is a sister to me in everything but name, and ever will be. I'm proud of her, as I ought to be, and a distant manner would be absurd toward a member of our household. Why should I affect it when I'm truly fond of her jolly good company? Don't you think I am setting you a good example? I'm patient over your good times with Mr. Arnault, who is an open suitor."

"I have not said they were good times."

"Nor have you said they were not. He evidently enjoys them, and little wonder. You can make any fellow have a good time without trying. I don't pretend to understand the necessity of your being so friendly, or tolerant, or what you will, with him; neither do I pry or question. My regard for you makes trust imperative. I do trust you as readily as you should trust me. What else can we do till times are better?"

"What do you mean by saying, 'till times are better?'" she asked, in gentle solicitude. "Are you having a hard time in town, like poor papa?"

"Oh, bless you! no. I don't suppose Henry is making much. He's the kind of man to take in sail in times like these. I'm not in the firm yet, you know, but shall be soon. My foreign department of the business is all right. I left it snug and safe. Of course, I don't know much about things on this side of the water yet. Mr. Muir is not the kind of man to speak to any one about his affairs unless it is essential, but if anything were amiss he would have told me. I know the times are dismal, and I am better off on my assured salary than if in the firm now. No one but 'bears' are making anything."

"I hope your brother isn't in anxiety, like papa," she said, warmly.

His quick commercial instinct took alarm, and he asked, "What, have you heard anything?"

"Oh, no indeed. Papa says that Mr. Muir is one of the most conservative of men; but he also says that there is scarcely a chance now for any honest man, and that investments which once seemed as solid as these mountains are sinking out of sight. If it wasn't so we shouldn't be so worried. He wouldn't like it if he knew I was talking to you in this way; but then I know it will go no further, and naturally my mind dwells on the subject of his anxieties. What wouldn't I do to help him!" she concluded, with a fine enthusiasm.

"I think you are doing a great deal to help him, Stella," he said, gravely and gently; "and, believe me, it involves no little sacrifice on my part also."

"But you have promised to be patient, Graydon."

"I have, but you cannot think that I like it or approve of the diplomacy you are compelled to practice, even though your motive be unselfish and filial. I don't think you ought to be placed in such a position, and would that it were in my power to relieve you from it!"

Tears of self-commiseration came into her eyes, and they appeared to him exceedingly pathetic. She made as if she would speak but could not, then retreated hastily to her room. Once in seclusion she dashed the drops away, her eyes glittered with anger, and she stamped her foot on the floor and muttered: "It is indeed an abominable position. I might accept Graydon any day, any hour, now, and dare not. Yet if he gets an inkling of my real attitude he'll be off forever. He is as proud as Lucifer about some things, and would be quick as a flash if his suspicions were aroused. Even the belief that I am humoring Arnault for papa's sake tests his loyalty greatly. If I have to refuse him at last I shall be placed in an odious light. The idiots! why can't they find out whether Henry Muir is going to fail or not! That horrid Madge Alden is not his sister, and knows it, and she is gaining time to make impressions. I know how she felt years ago, when she was a perfect spook. I don't believe she's changed. With all her impulsive ways she's as deep as perdition, and she'd flirt with him to spite me, if nothing more. Papa said last night that I had better accept Arnault. I won't accept him till I must, and he'll rue his success if he wins it." Then the mirror reflected a lovely creature dissolved in tears.

Again she soliloquized: "I can't accept a horse from Graydon; Arnault would never submit to it. The receiving of such a present would compromise me at once. It does not matter so much what I say or look in private; this proves nothing to the world, and I see more and more clearly that Arnault will not permit his pride to be humiliated. He will endure what he calls a fair, open suit philosophically, but the expression of his eyes makes me shiver sometimes. Was ever a girl placed in such a mean and horrible position! I won't endure this shilly-shally much longer. If they can't prove something more definite against the Muirs, I'll accept Graydon. Papa is just horrid! Why can't he make more in Wall Street? There must be ways, and any way is as respectable as the one I may be compelled to take. Well, if I do have to accept Arnault I'll make Graydon think that I had to do so for papa's sake, and we'll become good friends again before long. Perhaps this would be the best way in the end, for papa looked wildly, and spoke of a tenement-house last night. Tenement! Great heavens! I'd sooner die."