Chapter II. Graydon Muir
 

Madge Alden was almost seventeen, and yet she was in many respects a child. Scenes portrayed in books had passed before her mind like pictures, having no definite significance. Mr. Muir was to her like some of the forces in nature--quiet, unobtrusive, omnipotent--and she accepted him without thought. Her sister was one whom she could love easily as a matter of course. She was an indulgent household providence, who cared for the young girl as she did for her own little children. If anything was amiss in Madge's wardrobe the elder sister made it right at once; if Madge had a real or imaginary ailment, Mary was always ready to prescribe a soothing remedy; and if there was a cloud in the sky or the wind blew chill she said, "Madge, do be prudent; you know how easily you take cold." Thus was provided the hot-house atmosphere in which the tender exotic existed. It could not be said that she had thrived or bloomed.

Graydon Muir was the one positive element with which she had come in contact, and thus far she had always accepted him in the spirit of a child. He had begun petting her and treating her like a sister when she was a child. His manner toward her had grown into a habit, which had its source in his kindly disposition. To him she was but a weak, sickly little girl, with a dismal present and a more dreary outlook. Sometimes he mentally compared her with the brilliant girls he met in society, and especially with one but a little older than Madge, who appeared a natural queen in the drawing-room. His life abounded in activity, interests, and pleasures, and if it was his impulse to throw a little zest into the experiences of those in society who had no claims upon him, he was still more disposed to cheer and amuse the invalid in his own home. Moreover, he had become sincerely fond of her. Madge was neither querulous nor stupid. Although not conceited, he had the natural vanity of a handsome and successful man, and while the evident fact that he was such a hero in her eyes amused him, it also predisposed him to kindly and sympathetic feeling toward her. He saw that she gave him not only a sisterly allegiance, but also a richer and fuller tribute, and that in her meagre and shadowed life he was the brightest element. She tried to do more for him than for any one else, while she made him feel that as an invalid she could not do very much, and that he should not expect it. She would often play for him an hour at a time, and again she would be so languid that no coaxing could lure her from the sofa. Occasionally she would even read aloud a few pages with her musical and sympathetic voice, but would soon throw down the book with an air of exhaustion, and plead that he would read to her. In her weakness there was nothing repulsive, and without calculation she made many artless appeals to his strength. He generously responded, saying to himself, "Poor little thing! she has a hard time of it. With her great black eyes she might be a beauty if she only had health and was like other girls; but as it is, she is so light and pale and limp that I sometimes feel as if I were petting a wraith."

Of late she had begun to go out with him a little, he choosing small and quiet companies among people well known to the Muirs, and occasionally her sister also went. Her role of invalid was carefully maintained and recognized. Graydon had always prided himself on his loyalty as an escort; and as long as he was devoted, the neglect of other young men was welcomed rather than regretted; for, except toward him, all her old shyness still existed. With the consciousness that he was caring for her she was well content with some half-secluded nook of observation, from which she looked out upon scenes that were like an animated story. She wove fanciful imaginings around those who attracted her attention, and on her return laughingly discussed the people who had passed, like players, before her eyes. Graydon encouraged her to do this, for her ignorance of society made her remarks original and amusing. He knew the conventional status of every one they met as accurately as his brother recognized the commercial value of the securities that passed under his eye, and Madge's estimates often seemed absurd to the last degree.

Whenever she went out with Graydon his course was eminently satisfactory; she never felt herself neglected, while at the same time she saw that his attentions were welcomed everywhere. She never lost her serene sense of proprietorship, and only grew more fond of him as she noted how readily he left the side of beautiful and gifted women to look after her. He had often laughingly asserted that he went into society only for amusement, and his course under her own observation confirmed his words.

Early in the winter during which our story opens, she had caught a succession of colds, and one proved so severe and obstinate that her friends were alarmed, fearing that she was going into a decline. She slowly rallied, however, but was more frail than ever. Before the gay season closed, just preceding Lent, Madge received an invitation to a very large party. Graydon urged her to go, remarking that she had not yet seen society. "Don't be afraid, I'll take care of you, little ghost," he said, and with this assurance she accompanied him, contrary to her sister's advice. It was indeed a brilliant occasion. The wide rooms of a Madison Avenue palace were thronged, and she had never even imagined such toilets as caught her eye on every side. There were so many present that she could easily maintain her position of quiet spectator, and her eyes dilated with pleasure as she saw that Graydon was as much a leader as at other places where comparatively few were present.

At last her attention was attracted by one who was evidently a late comer, and whose presence appeared to fill the apartment. All the others paled before her, as do the stars when the moon rises among them. She was evidently young, and yet she did not suggest youth. One would almost imagine that she had never had a childhood or a girlhood, but was rather a direct creation of metropolitan society. Her exquisitely turned shoulders and arms were bare, and the diamonds about her neck were a circlet of fire. The complexion of her fair oval face was singularly pure, and the color came and went so easily as to prove that it owed nothing to art. The expression of her gray eyes was rather cold and haughty when at rest, and gave an impression of pride and the consciousness of power. The trait which to the observant Madge seemed most marked at first, however, was her perfect ease. Her slightest movement was grace itself. Her entire self-possession was indicated by the manner in which she greeted the men who sought her attention, and many there were. She could be perfectly polite, yet as repellent as ice, or she could smile with a fascination that even Madge felt would be hard to resist. This girl, who was such an immense contrast to herself, wholly fixed her attention as she stood for a few moments, like a queen, surrounded by her courtiers.

Graydon had gone for a glass of water, and meeting a friend had been detained for a brief space. Madge saw him coming, saw his eye light up with admiration as he caught sight of the beautiful stranger, but he came directly to her, and asked, genially, if there was anything else she would like.

"Yes. Who is that girl yonder?"

"Miss Wildmere. Isn't she lovely? She promised me, last week, her first dance for this evening. Will you excuse me for a little while?"

"Certainly;" and yet she was conscious of a sudden and odd little protest at heart.

He approached the beauty. Miss Wildmere's face flushed with pleasure and softened into a welcoming smile, such as she had not yet bestowed upon any who had sought her favor. Then, in swift alternation, she bent upon Madge a brief, cold glance of scrutiny. So brief was it, and so complacent was the expression of the belle as she turned away, that the pallid, sensitive girl was told, as by words, "You are nothing."

That glance was like a sharp, deep wound, and pierced where she was most vulnerable. It said to her, "You are not capable of being anything to Graydon Muir. I am not in the least afraid of you."

What was she to him? What did she wish to be? To these questions Madge had but one answer. Any and every girl, in her belief, would be only too glad to win him. He had said that Miss Wildmere was lovely; his eyes had expressed an admiration which he had never bestowed upon her; he had led the beauty away with a glad content in his face, and the crowded room was made empty by their absence.

She was no longer conscious of weakness, but, obeying her impulse, sprang up and followed them to the ballroom. Concealed by a little group she stood, unwearied, and watched them as they glided hither and thither with a grace that attracted many eyes. The music appeared to control and animate them, and their motion was harmony itself. Graydon evidently thought only of his fair partner; but her swift glances were everywhere, gathering the rich revenue of admiration which was freely offered. For a second she encountered Madge's large black eyes, full of trouble, and a satirical smile proved that she enjoyed the poor girl's solicitude. To deepen it she looked up at Graydon and said something that caused his face to flush with pleasure. His response was more decisive, for the swift color came into her face, and her eyes drooped. The by-play was momentary, and would not have been seen by a less vigilant observer than Madge; but to her it gave the undoubted impression that they were lovers. When Miss Wildmere looked again to see the result of her unkindly strategy, Madge was gone.

In reaction she had grown almost faint, and reached her former retreat with difficulty. But all her latent womanhood speedily rallied to meet this strange and but half-comprehended emergency. The impulse now uppermost was to retain her self-control and reach the seclusion of her own room. How she was to endure the long hours she scarcely knew. She did not dare to think. Indeed, the effort was scarcely possible, for her mind was at first in tumult, with only one thing clear, a poignant sense of loss and trouble.

Graydon was a long time away, longer than he had ever been before when acting as her escort. While she felt this neglect, and interpreted it naturally, she was not sorry. She dreaded meeting him again. In one brief hour her old ease and freedom with him had gone. She wondered at the change in herself, yet knew that it was as definite and decided as if she had become another person. When be had brought her the glass of water she could look into his face with the frank directness of a child. Why could she not do so now? Why did she almost tremble at the thought of his glance, his touch, his presence? She knew that he would come back with his old genial, kindly manner--that he would be the same. But a change had occurred in her which made the fabled transmutations of magic wands seem superficial indeed. Would he note this change? Could he guess the cause? Oh, what was the cause? Even her pale face grew crimson, for there are truths that come to the consciousness like the lightning from heaven. She did not need to think, to weigh and reason. A woman's heart is often above and beyond her reason, and hers had been awakened at last by the all-powerful touch of love.

The time passed, and still Graydon did not come. He was not absent very long, and yet it began to seem terribly long to her. She had overrated her powers, and found that even pride could not sustain her. She had no reserve of strength to draw upon. The heat of the room grew oppressive, and she was unaccustomed to throngs, confusion, and noise. The consciousness of her weakness was forced upon her most painfully at last by the appearance of Miss Wildmere on Graydon's arm. The belle was smiling, radiant, her step elastic, her eyes shining with excitement and pleasure. Her practiced scrutiny had assured her that she was the queen of the hour; the handsomest and most courtly man present was so devoted as to suggest that he might easily become a lover; she had seen many glances of envy, and one, in the case of poor Madge, of positive pain. What more could her heart desire? Graydon conducted her to her chaperon, near whom half a dozen gentlemen were waiting for a chance to be his successor; and, having obtained her promise for another dance later in the evening, he turned deprecatingly to Madge. His apologies ceased before they were half spoken. She looked so white and ill that he was alarmed, and asked permission to get her a glass of wine.

"No, Graydon," she said, then hesitated, for she felt the color coming into her face, while a strange blur confused every object in the room. "I'm very, very sorry," she added, hastily, after a moment. "I ought not to have come. I'm not equal to this. It wouldn't take you very long to drive home with me, and then you could return. Please, Graydon."

Her tone was so urgent, and she appeared so weak, that he complied at once, saying, with much compunction, "I should not have left you alone so long, but supposed you were amusing yourself by looking at the people."

She did not trust herself to reply. Her one thought was to reach the refuge of her own apartment, and to this end she concentrated her failing energies. The climb to the ladies' dressing-room was a desperate effort; but when she was once outside the house the cold, pure air revived her slightly.

"You can excuse me to our hostess--she will not care," she faltered, and it seemed to her then that nobody would care. Miss Wildmere's glance had conveyed the estimate of society. If she could believe herself first in Graydon's thoughts she would not be cast down, but now the truth was overwhelming.

She leaned away from him in the corner of the carriage, but he put his strong arm round her and drew her to his breast. She tried to resist, but was powerless. Then came the torturing thought, "If I repel him--if I act differently--he will guess the reason," and she was passive; but he felt her slight form tremble.

"My poor little ghost, you are ill in very truth! I'm indeed sorry that I left you so long."

"Believe me, Graydon, I am ill. Please let that excuse me and explain. Oh, that I--I were strong, like Miss Wildmere!"

"Isn't she a beauty?" exclaimed the unconscious Graydon. "The man who wins her might well be proud, for he would have competitors by the score."

"Your chances seem excellent," said Madge, in a low tone.

He laughed complacently, but added: "You don't know these society belles. They can show a great deal of favor to more than one fellow, yet never permit themselves to be pinned by a definite promise. They are harder to catch and hold than a wild Bedouin; but such a girl as Miss Wildmere is worth the effort. Yes, Madge, I do wish you were like her. It would be grand sport to champion you in society and see you run amuck among the fellows. It's a thousand pities that you are such an invalid. I've thought more than once that you were designed to be a beauty. With your eyes and Stella Wildmere's health you would be quite as effective after your style as she is in hers. Never mind, little sister, I shall stand by you, and as long as I live you shall always have a luxurious sofa, with all the novels of the northern hemisphere at your command. Who knows? You may grow strong one of these days. When you do I'll pick out the nice fellows for you."

At every kindly word her heart grew heavier, and when the carriage stopped at their door she could hardly mount the steps. In the hall she faltered and caught the hat-rack for support. He lifted her in his arms and bore her easily to her room, her sister following in much solicitude. "It's nothing," said Madge; "the company was too large and exciting for me. There was no need of Graydon's carrying me upstairs, but he would do it."

"You poor dear!" began her sister, broodingly. "I feared it would be so. Graydon is made of iron, and will never realize how delicate you are."

"He's very kind, and more considerate than I deserve. As he says," she added, bitterly, "I'm nothing but a ghost, and had better vanish."

"Nonsense, Madge," said the young man, with brusque kindness. "You know I want you to haunt me always. Good-by now, little sister. I shall be de trop if I stay any longer. You'll be better in the morning, and to-morrow evening I'll remain home and entertain you."