Chapter XXII. Disheartening Confidences
 

Under a renewed impulse of loyalty Graydon intercepted Miss Wildmere as she was going to her room, and said: "The clouds in the west are all breaking away--they ever do, you know, if one has patience. We can still have our drive and enjoy it all the more from hope deferred."

"I'm so sorry," she began, in some embarrassment. "Of course I couldn't know last night that it would rain in the morning, and so promised Mr. Arnault this afternoon."

"It seems as if it would ever be hope deferred to me, Miss Wildmere," he said, gravely.

"But, Graydon, you must see how it is--"

"No, I don't see, but I yield, as usual."

"I promise you Sunday afternoon or the first clear day," she exclaimed, eagerly.

"Very well," he replied, brightening. "Remember I shall be a Shylock with this bond." But he was irritated, nevertheless, and went out on the piazza to try the soothing influence of a cigar.

The skies cleared rapidly. So did his brow; and before long he muttered: "I'll console myself by another gallop with Madge. There goes my inamorata, smiling upon another fellow. How long is this going to last? Not all summer, by Jupiter! Her father must not insist on her playing that game too long, even though she does play it so well."

Madge was sitting in her room in dreary apathy and spiritless reaction from the strain of the morning, when she was aroused by a knock on her door. "Madge," called a voice that sent the blood to her face, "what say you to another ride? I know the roads are muddy, but--"

"But I'll go with you," she cried. "Why use adversatives in the same breath with 'ride'? The mud's nothing. What won't rub off can stay on. How soon shall I be ready?"

"That's a good live girl. In half an hour."

When they were a mile or two away Madge asked, as if with sudden compunction, "Graydon, are you sure you were disengaged?"

He laughed outright. "That question comes much too late," he said.

She braced herself as if to receive a deadly blow, and was pale and rigid with the effort as she asked, with an air of curiosity merely, "Are you truly engaged to Miss Wildmere, Graydon?"

"In one sense I am, Madge," he replied, gravely. "I have given her my loyalty, and, to a certain extent, my word; but I have not bound her. Since you have proved so true and generous a friend to me I do not hesitate to let you know the truth. I am sorry you do not like her altogether, and that you have some cause for your feeling; but you are both right at heart. She spoke most enthusiastically of your rescue of the child. You ladies amuse me with your emphasis of little piques; but when it comes to anything large or fine you do justice to one another. Henry had no right to say what he did at dinner, for Stella applauded you as you had her; but Henry's prejudices are inveterate. Why should I not be loyal to her, Madge? I believe she remained free for my sake during the years of my absence."

"I think your feelings are very natural. They are what I should expect of you. You have always seemed to me the soul of honor when once you obtain your bearings," she added, with a wan smile.

"How pale you are, Madge!" he said, anxiously.

"I am not feeling very well to-day, and then I am suffering from the reaction of this morning. I never can get over my old timidity and dislike to do anything in public. I can do what I will, but it often costs me dear. I was led on unexpectedly this morning. I only anticipated singing a ditty for the children when I first went to the piano at their request."

"I saw that, Madge. Any other woman with your power of song would have made it known long before this."

"And, believe me, Graydon, I did not want to sing in rivalry with Miss Wildmere. I'm sorry I did."

"I saw that too," he replied, laughing. "Stella drew that little experience down upon herself."

"I'm sorry now that I sang," she said, in a low tone. "I didn't want to do anything to hurt the feelings of so good a friend as you are."

"You didn't hurt my feelings in the least. Just the contrary. You gave much pleasure, and made me all the more proud of you. It will do Stella no harm to have her self-complacency jostled a little. Slight wonder that her head is somewhat giddy from the immense amount of attention she has received. I'm not perfect, Madge; why should I demand perfection? It's delightful to be talking in this way--like old times. I used to talk to you about Stella years ago. If I have the substance I can forego the shadow, and I do feel that I can say to you all that I could to a sensible and loving sister. Believe me, Madge, I can never get over my old feeling for you, and I'm just as proud of you as if your name was Madge Muir. I think your brave effort and achievement at Santa Barbara simply magnificent. You have long had the affection that I would give to a sister, and now that I understand you, I feel for you all the respect that I could give to any woman."

"Those are kind, generous words, Graydon. I knew that you misunderstood me, and I was only provoked at you, not angry."

"You had good reason to be provoked and much more. If you and Stella understood each other in the same way, and--well--if she were only out of that atmosphere in which she has been brought up, I could ask nothing more."

"What atmosphere?"

"Wall Street atmosphere transferred to the domestic and social circle. You have too much delicacy, Madge, to refer to what I know puzzles you, and I admit that I do not fully understand it all, though I know Stella's motive clearly enough. Her motive is worthy of all commendation, but not her method. She is not so much to blame for this as her father, and perhaps her mother, who appears a weak, spiritless woman, a faint echo of her husband. It is here that the infernal Wall Street atmosphere comes in that she has breathed all her life. Does it not puzzle you, in view of my relations to her, that she should be out driving with Arnault?"

"Yes, Graydon, it does."

"Well, Arnault is a money-lender, and I am satisfied that in some way he has her father in his power. Many of these brokers are like cats. They will hold on to anything by one nail, and the first thing you know they are on their feet again all right. As soon as Wildmere makes a lucky strike in the stock-market he will extricate himself and his daughter at the same time. Of course these things are not formulated in words, in a cold-blooded way, I suppose. Arnault has long been a suitor that would take no rebuff. I am satisfied that she has refused him more than once, but he simply persists, and gives her to understand that he will take his chances. This was the state of affairs when I came home, and she, no doubt, feels that if she can save her father, and keep a home for her mother and the little one, she ought to retain her hold on Arnault. After all, it is not so bad. Many women marry for money outright, and all poor Stella proposes is to be complaisant toward a man who would not continue his business support to one whose daughter had just refused him."

Madge was silent.

"You wouldn't do such a thing, I suppose."

"I couldn't, Graydon," she said, simply. "If I should ever love a man I think I could suffer a great deal for his sake, but there are some things I couldn't do."

"I thought you would feel so."

"Why don't you help her father out?" Madge faltered.

"I don't think I have sufficient means. I have never been over-thrifty in saving, and have not laid by many thousands. I have merely a good salary and very good prospects. You can't imagine how slow and conservative Henry is. In business matters he treats me just as if I were a stranger, and I must prove myself worthy of trust at every point, and by long apprenticeship, before he will give me a voice in affairs. He says coming forward too fast is the ruination of young men in our day. Nothing would tempt him to have dealings with Mr. Wildmere, and I couldn't damage myself more than by any transactions on my own account. But even if I were rich I wouldn't interfere. I don't like her father any better than Henry does, and if I began in this way it would make a bad precedent. What's more, I won't introduce money influences into an affair of this kind. If it comes to the point, Stella must decide for me, ignoring all other considerations. If she does, I won't permit her family to suffer, but I propose to know that she chooses me absolutely in spite of everything. I am also resolved that she shall be separated from her family as far as is right, for there is a tone about them that I don't like."

"I thank you for your confidence, Graydon," said Madge, quietly. "You are acting just as I should suppose you would. No one in the world wishes you happiness more earnestly than I do. Come, let us take this level place like the wind."

She was unusually gay during the remainder of their ride, but seemed bent almost on running her horse to death. "To-morrow is Sunday," she explained, "and I must crowd two rides into one."

"Wouldn't you ride to-morrow?"

"No; I have some old-fashioned notions about Sunday. You have been abroad too long, perhaps, to appreciate them."

"I appreciate fidelity to conscience, Madge."

They had their supper together again as on the evening before, but Madge was carelessly languid and fitful in her mirthful sallies, and complained of over-fatigue. "I won't come down again to-night," she said to Graydon as they passed out of the supper-room. "Good-night."

"Good-night, Madge," he replied, taking her hand in both his own. "I understand you now, and know that you have gone beyond even your superb strength to-day. Sleep the sleep of the justest and truest little woman that ever breathed. I can't tell you how much you have added to my happiness during the past two days."

"He understands me!" she muttered, as she closed the door of her room. "I am almost tempted to doubt whether a merciful God understands me. Why was this immeasurable love put into my heart to be so cruelly thwarted? Why must he go blindly on to so cruel a fate? Of course she'll renounce everything for him. Whatever else she may be, she is not an idiot."

Henry Muir's quiet eyes had observed Madge closely, and from a little distance he had seen the parting between her and his brother. Then he saw Graydon seek Miss Wildmere and resume a manner which he had learned to detest, and the self-contained man went out upon the grounds, and said, through clinched teeth: "To think that there should have been such a fool bearing the name of Muir! He's been gushing to Madge about that speculator, and we shall yet have to take her as we would an infection."