Chapter XX. "Veiled Wooing"
 

"Graydon, when do you think I can have my first ride?" Madge asked at dinner, with sparkling eyes.

"At about five this afternoon. I have found a saddle that I can borrow in case yours does not come till the late train."

"Oh, I'm so glad that I've lost my appetite! You can't know how much a horse means to me. It was after I began to ride that I grew strong enough to hope."

"Why, Madge, were you so discouraged as that?" he asked, feelingly.

"I had reason to be discouraged," she replied, in a low tone. Then she threw back her head, proudly. "You men little know," she continued, half defiantly. "You think weakness one of our prerogatives, and like us almost the better for it. We are meekly to accept our fate, and from soft couches lift our languid eyes in pious resignation. I won't do it; and when a powerful horse is beneath me, carrying me like the wind, I feel that his strength is mine, and that I need not succumb to feminine imbecility or helplessness in any form."

"Brava, Madge!" cried Henry Muir.

"You were born a knight," added Graydon, "and have already made more and better conquests than many celebrated in prose and poetry."

"Oh, no," cried Madge, lifting her eyebrows in comic distress. "I was born a woman to my finger-tips, and never could conquer even myself. I have an awful temper. Graydon, you have already found that out."

"I have found that I had better accept just what you please to be, and fully admit your right to be just what you please," he answered, ruefully.

"What a lovely and reasonable frame of mind!" Mrs. Muir remarked. "Truly, Miss Wildmere is to be congratulated. You have only to stick to such a disposition, and peace will last longer than the moon."

"Oh, Miss Wildmere will prove a rose without a thorn," Madge added, laughing, while under Mr. Muir's eye her face paled perceptibly. "There will never be anything problematical in her single-minded devotion. She has been well and discreetly brought up, and finished by the best society, while poor me!--I had to fly in the face of fate like a virago, and scramble up the best I could in Western wilds. Oh, well, Graydon, don't be alarmed. I'll be a good fellow if you'll take me out riding occasionally."

He began to laugh, and she continued: "I saw you frown when I began my wicked speech. We'll tick off tabooed subjects, and make an index expurgatorius, and then we'll get on famously."

"No need of that," he said. "As far as I am concerned, please consider me fair game."

"Consider you fair game?" she said, with her head archly on one side. "That would be arrant poaching. Don't fear, Graydon, I shall never regard any man as game, not even if I should become a fat dowager with a bevy of plain daughters and a dull market."

Grave and silent Mr. Muir leaned back in his chair and laughed so heartily that he attracted attention at the Wildmere table across the room.

"That man doesn't act as if on the brink of failure," thought Miss Wildmere. "It's all a conspiracy of Arnault with papa."

"You are making game of me in one sense very successfully," Graydon admitted, laughing a little uneasily.

"Oh, in that sense, all men are legitimate game, and I shall chaff as many as possible, out of spite that I was not a man."

"You would make a good one--you are so devoid of sentiment and so independent."

"And yet within a week I think a certain gentleman was inclined to think me sentimental, aesthetic, intense, a victim of ideals and devotional rhapsodies."

"Oh, ye gods! Here, waiter, bring me my dessert, and let me escape," cried Graydon.

"Did you say I was to be ready at five?" she asked, sweetly.

"Yes, and bring down articles of a truce, and we'll sign them in red ink."

An hour later she heard the gallop of a horse, and saw him riding away. "She shan't mount the animal," he had thought, "till I learn more about him and give him all the running he wants to-day. She has a heavy enough score against me as it is, and I'll not employ another brute to make things worse."

He learned more fully what he had discovered before, that she would have her hands full in managing the horse, and he gave him a run that covered him with foam and tested his breathing. At four he galloped back to the station to see if the saddle had arrived, but found that even his skill and strength were not sufficient to make the animal approach the engine. Shouting to the baggage-man to bring the expected articles to the stable, he was soon there and made another experiment. A hostler brought him a blanket, which he strapped around his waist, and mounted again in a lady's style. It was at once evident that the horse had never been ridden by a woman. He reared, kicked, and plunged around frightfully, and Graydon had to clutch the mane often to keep his seat. Madge had speedily joined him, and looked with absorbed interest, at times laughing, and again imploring Graydon to dismount. This he at last he did, the perspiration pouring from his face. Resigning the trembling and wearied horse to a stable-boy, he came toward the young girl, mopping his brow and exclaiming: "It will never do at all. He is ugly as sin. No woman should ride him, not even a squaw."

"Bah, Graydon! he did not throw you, although he had you at every disadvantage. I'm not in the least afraid. Has the saddle come?"

"Yes; but I protest, Madge. Here, Dr. Sommers" (who was approaching), "lay your commands on this rash girl."

"If Dr. Sommers says I'm rash he doesn't understand my case, and I refuse to employ him," cried Madge. Then she added, sweetly: "If I break any bones, doctor, I'll be your very humble and obedient servant. It's half-past four, and I'll be ready as soon as you are, Graydon. No backing out. You might as well warn me against the peril of a rocking-chair;" and she went to put on her habit.

"Heaven help us!" said Graydon to the doctor. "We're in a scrape. She's so resolute that I believe she would go alone. What would you do? Hang it all! the people of the house have got an inkling of what's up; some are gathering near, and the windows are full of heads."

"Put the saddle on one of the quiet livery horses, and you ride this brute," said the doctor.

"You don't know her. She wouldn't stand that at all."

"Then give her her head. After yesterday I believe she can do what she undertakes. You have tired the horse out pretty thoroughly, and I guess she'll manage him."

Leaving orders to have Madge's horse sponged off and dried, and the best animal in the stable prepared for himself, he said, "Well then, doctor, be on hand to repair damages," and went to his room to change his dress.

The doctor did more. He saw that Madge's horse was saddled carefully, meanwhile admiring the beautiful equipment that Graydon had ordered. He also insured that Graydon had a good mount.

When at last the young man tapped at Madge's door she came out looking most beautiful in her close-fitting habit and low beaver, with its drooping feather. Mary followed her, protesting and half crying, and Mr. Muir looked very grave.

"Madge," said Graydon, earnestly, "I should never forgive myself if any harm came to you. That horse is not fit for you to ride."

"Good people, see here," said Madge, turning upon them; "I am not a reckless child, nor am I making a rash experiment. Even if I did not fear broken bones, do you think I would give you needless anxiety? Graydon has kindly obtained for me a fine horse, and I must make a beginning to show you and him that I can ride. If Mr. and Mrs. Wayland were here they would laugh at you. Don't come out to see me off, Mary. Others would follow, and I don't want to be conspicuous. I do wish people would mind their own business."

"No danger of my coming out. I don't want to see you break your neck," cried Mary, re-entering her room.

"You must let me go, Madge," said Mr. Muir, firmly. "I may have to interpose my authority."

"Yes, do come, for Heaven's sake!" said Graydon.

"Very well," laughed Madge. "If I once get on, you and the horse may both find it hard to get me off. Where are the horses?" she asked, upon reaching the door.

"You must yield one point and mount near the stable," said Graydon, resolutely.

"Oh, certainly, I'll yield everything except my ride."

Madge's horse stood pawing the ground, showing how obdurate and untamable was his spirit. She exclaimed at the beauty of the saddle and its housings, and said, "Thank you, Graydon," so charmingly that he anathematized himself for giving her a brute instead of a horse. "I should have satisfied myself better about him," he thought, "and have looked further."

In a moment she had the animal by the head, and was patting his neck, while he turned an eye of fire down upon her, and showed no relenting in his chafed and excited mood. Graydon meanwhile examined everything carefully, and saw that the bridle had a powerful curb.

"Well," said he, ruefully, "if you will, you will."

"Yes; in no other way can I satisfy you," was her quiet reply.

"Let us get away, then; spectators are gathering. You should be able to hold him with this rein. Come."

She put her foot in his hand, and was mounted in a second, the reins well in hand. The horse reared, but a sharp downward pull to the right brought him to his feet again. Then he plunged and kicked, but she sat as if a part of him, meanwhile speaking to him in firm, gentle tones. His next unexpected freak was to run backward in a way that sent the neighboring group flying. Instantly Madge gave him a stinging blow over the hind quarters, and he fairly sprang into the air.

"Get off, Madge," cried Mr. Muir, authoritatively, but the horse was speeding down the road toward the house, and Graydon, who had looked on breathlessly, followed. Before they reached the hotel she had brought him up with the powerful curb, and prancing, curvetting, straining side-wise first in one direction, then in the other, meanwhile trembling half with anger, half with terror, the mastered brute passed the piazza with its admiring groups. Graydon was at her side. He did not see Miss Wildmere frowning with vexation and envy, or Arnault's complacent observance. With sternly compressed lips and steady eye he watched Madge, that, whatever emergency occurred, he might do all that was possible. The young girl herself was a presence not soon to be forgotten. Her lips were slightly parted, her eye glowing with a joyous sense of power, and her pose, flexible to the eccentric motions of the horse, grace itself. They passed on down the winding carriage-drive, out upon the main street, and then she turned, waved her handkerchief to Mr. Muir, and with her companion galloped away.

Several of Mr. Muir's acquaintances came forward, offering congratulations, which he accepted with his quiet smile, and then went up to reassure his wife, who, in spite of her words to the contrary, had kept her eyes fastened upon Madge as long as she was in sight.

"Well," she exclaimed, "did you ever see anything equal to that?"

"No," said her husband, "but I have seen nothing wonderful or unnatural; she did not do a thing that she had not been trained and taught to do, and all her acts were familiar by much usage."

"I think she's a prodigy," exclaimed Mrs. Muir.

"Nothing of the kind. She is a handsome girl, with good abilities, who has had the sense to make the most and best of herself instead of dawdling."

After an easy gallop of a mile, in which Madge showed complete power to keep her horse from breaking into a mad run, she drew rein and looked at Graydon with a smile. He took off his hat and bowed, laughingly.

"Oh, Graydon," she said, "it was nice of you to let me have my own way!"

"I didn't do it very graciously. I have seldom been more worried in my life."

"I'm glad you were a little worried," she said. "It recalls your look and tone at the time of our parting, when you said, 'Oh, Madge, do get well and strong!' Haven't I complied with your wish?"

"Had my wish anything to do with your compliance?"

"Why not?"

"What an idiot I've been! I fear I have been misjudging you absurdly. I've had no end of ridiculous thoughts and theories about you."

"Indeed! Apparently I had slight place in your thoughts at all, but I made great allowances for a man in your condition."

"That was kind, but you were mistaken. Why, Madge, we were almost brought up together, and I couldn't reconcile the past and the present. The years you spent in the far West, and their result, are more wonderful than a fairytale. I wish you would tell me about them."

"I will. Friends should be reasonably frank. What's more, I wish to show you how natural and probable the result, as you call it, has been. Your wondering perplexity vexes me. You know what I was when we parted."

"No, I don't believe I do, or you couldn't be what you are now."

"Well, I can tell you: I had weak lungs, a weak body, and a weak, uncultured mind. I was weak in all respects, but I discovered that I had a will, and I had sense enough, as Henry says, to know that if I was ever going to be more than a ghost it was time I set about it. I knew of Mrs. Wayland's restoration to health in the climate of Santa Barbara, and I determined to try it myself. I couldn't have had better friends or advantages than the place afforded. But oh, Graydon, I was so weak and used up when I reached there that I could scarcely do more than breathe. But I had made up my mind either to get well or to die. I rested for days, until I could make a beginning, and then, one step at a time, as it were, I went forward. Take two things that you have seen me do, for example. One can bathe in the sea at Santa Barbara almost throughout the year. At first I was as timid as a child, and scarcely dared to wet my feet; but Mr. Wayland was a sensible instructor, and led me step by step. The water was usually still, and I gradually acquired the absolute confidence of one who can swim, and swims almost every day. So with a horse. I could hardly sit on one that was standing still, I was so weak and frightened; but with muscle and health came stronger nerves and higher courage. After a few months I thought nothing of a ten-mile gallop on the beach or out to the canons. I took up music in the same way, and had a thoroughly good teacher. He did the best he could for me, which wasn't so very much. I never could become a scientist in anything, but I was determined to be no sham within my limitations. I have tried to do some things as well as I could and let the rest go. Now you see how easily I can explain myself, and I only seem wonderful because of contrast with what I was."

"But where do I come in?" he asked, eagerly.

"Did you not say, 'Please get well and strong?' I thought it would gratify you and Mary and Henry. You used to call me a ghost, and I did not want to be a ghost any longer. I saw that you enjoyed your vigorous life fully, and felt that I might enjoy life also; and as I grew strong I did enjoy everything more and more. Two things besides, and I can say, 'All present or accounted for.' Mr. Wayland is a student, and has a splendid library. He coached me--that was your old college jargon--on books, and Mrs. Wayland coached me on society. So here I am, weighing a hundred and twenty pounds, more or less, and ready for another gallop;" and away she went, the embodiment of beautiful life.

"One more question, Madge," he said, as they slackened pace again. "Why wouldn't you write to me oftener?"

"I don't like to write letters. Mine to Mary were scarcely more than notes. Ask her. Are you satisfied now? Am I a sphinx--a conundrum--any longer?"

"No; and at last I am more than content that you are not little Madge."

"Why, this is famous, as Dr. Sommers says. When was a man ever known to change his mind before?"

"I've changed mine so often of late that I'm fairly dizzy. You are setting me straight at last."

Madge laughed outright, and after a moment said, "Now account for yourself. What places did you visit abroad?"

He began to tell her, and she to ask questions that surprised him, showing that she had some idea of even the topography and color of the region, and a better knowledge of the history and antiquities than himself. At last he expressed his wonder. "What nonsense!" she exclaimed. "You don't remember the little I did write you. As I said before, did you not at my request--very kindly and liberally, too, Graydon--send me books about the places you expected to see? A child could have read them and so have gained the information that surprises you."

They talked on, one thing leading to another, until he had a conscious glow of mental excitement. She knew so much that he knew, only in a different way, and her thoughts came rippling forth in piquant, musical words. Her eyes were so often full of laughter that he saw that she was happy, and he remembered after their return that she had not said an ill-natured word about any one. It was another of their old-time, breezy talks, only larger, fuller, complete with her rich womanhood. He found himself alive in every fibre of his body and faculty of his mind.

As they turned homeward the evening shadows were gathering, and at last the dusky twilight passed into a soft radiance under the rays of the full-orbed moon.

"Oh, don't let us hasten home," pleaded poor Madge, who felt that this might be her only chance to throw about him the gossamer threads which would draw the cord and cable that could bind him to her. "What is supper to the witchery of such a night as this?"

"What would anything be to the witchery of such a girl as this, if one were not fortified?" he thought. "This is not the comradeship of a good fellow, as she promised. It is the society of a charming woman, who is feminine in even her thoughts and modes of expression--who is often strangely, bewilderingly beautiful in this changing light. When we pass under the shadow of a tree her eyes shine like stars; when the rays of the moon are full upon her face it is almost as pure and white as when it was illumined by the electric flash. Did I not love another woman, I could easily imagine myself learning to love her. Confound it! I wish Stella had more of Madge's simple loftiness of character. She would compel different business methods in her father. She would work for him, suffer for him, but would not play diplomat. I like that Arnault business to-night less than ever."

Mr. and Mrs. Muir were anxiously awaiting them on the piazza as they trotted smartly up the avenue. "It's all right," cried Graydon. "The horse has learned to know his mistress, and will give no more trouble."

"I wish you had as much sense," growled Muir, in his mustache; then added, aloud, "Come to supper. Mary could not eat anything till assured of your safety."

"Yes, Henry, I won't keep you waiting a moment, but go in with my habit on. I suppose the rest are all through, and I'm as ravenous as a wolf."

They were soon having the merriest little supper, full of laughing reminiscence, and Henry rubbed his hands under the table as he thought, "Arnault is off mooning with the speculator, and Graydon doesn't look as if the green-eyed monster had much of a grip upon him."

Miss Wildmere's solicitude would not permit her to prolong her walk with Arnault, and she returned to the parlor comparatively early in the evening. She found Graydon awaiting her, and he was as quietly devoted as ever. She looked at him a little questioningly, but he met her eyes with his quiet and assured look. When she danced with Arnault and other gentlemen he sought a partner in Madge or some other lady; and once, while they were walking on the piazza, and Miss Wildmere said, "You must have enjoyed yourself immensely with Miss Alden to have been out so long," he replied, "I did. I hope you passed your time as agreeably."

She saw that her relations with Arnault gave him an advantage and a freedom which he proposed to use--that she had no ground on which to find fault--and that he was too proud to permit censure for a course less open to criticism than her own.

Before she slept she thought long and deeply, at last concluding that perhaps affairs were taking the right turn for her purpose. Graydon was tolerating as a disagreeable necessity what he regarded as her filial diplomacy with Arnault. He was loyally and quietly waiting until this necessity should cease, and was so doing because he supposed it to be her wish. If she could keep him in just this attitude it would leave her less embarrassed, give her more time, than if he were an ardent and jealous suitor. She was scarcely capable of love, but she admired him more than ever each day. She saw that he was the superior of Arnault in every way, and was so recognized by all in the house; therefore one of her strongest traits--vanity--was enlisted in his behalf. She saw, also, that he represented a higher type of manhood than she had been accustomed to, and she was beginning to stand in awe of him also, but for reasons differing widely from those which caused her fear of Arnault. She dreaded the latter's pride, the resolute selfishness of his scheme of life, which would lead him to drop her should she interfere with it. She was learning to dread even more Graydon's high-toned sense of honor, the final decisions he reached from motives which had slight influence with her. What if she should permit both men to slip from her grasp, while she hesitated? She fairly turned cold with horror at the thought of this and of the poverty which might result.

Thus, from widely differing motives, two girls were sighing for time; and Graydon Muir, strong, confident, proud of his knowledge of society and ability to take care of himself, was walking blindly on, the victim of one woman's guile, the object of another woman's pure, unselfish love, and liable at any hour to be blasted for life by the fulfilment of his hope and the consummation of his happiness.

Sweet Madge Alden, hiding your infinite treasure, deceiving all and yet so true, may you have time!