Chapter XXIII. The Filial Martyr
 

Miss Wildmere appeared in one of her most brilliant moods that evening. There was a dash of excitement, almost recklessness, in her gray eyes. She and Mr. Arnault had been deputed to lead the German, but she took Graydon out so often as to produce in Mr. Arnault's eyes an expression which the observant Mr. Wildmere did not like at all. He had just returned from dreary, half-deserted Wall Street, which was as dead and hopeless as only that region of galvanic life can be at times. He had neither sold nor bought stock, but had moused around, with the skill of an old habitue, for information concerning the eligibility of the two men who were seeking his daughter's hand. In the midsummer dullness and holiday stagnation the impending operation in the Catskills was the only one that promised anything whatever. He became more fully satisfied that Arnault's firm was prospering. They had been persistent "bears" on a market that had long been declining, and had reaped a golden harvest from the miseries of others. On the other hand, he learned that Henry Muir was barely holding his own, and that he had strained his credit dangerously to do this. He knew about the enterprise which had absorbed the banker's capital, and while he believed it would respond promptly to the returning flow of the financial tide, it now seemed stranded among more hopeless ventures. There was no escaping the conviction that Muir was in a perilous position, and that a little thing might push him over the brink. Therefore, he had returned fully beat upon using all his influence in behalf of Arnault, and was spurred to this effort by the fact that his finances, but not his expenses, were running low. His wife could give but a dubious account of Stella's conduct.

"In short," said Mr. Wildmere, irritably, "she is dallying with both, and may lose both by her hesitating folly."

His daughter's greeting was brief and formal. A sort of matter-of-course kiss had been given, and then he had been left to eat his supper alone, since his wife could not just then be absent from her child. At last he lounged out on the piazza, sat down before one of the parlor windows, glanced at the gay scene within, and smoked in silence. Before the German began, Graydon passed him several times, regarding him curiously and with a growing sense of repulsion. He disliked to think that the relation between this man and the girl he would marry was so close.

Before the evening was over, Mr. Wildmere saw that his daughter was in truth pursuing a difficult policy. The angry light in Arnault's eyes and the grave expression on Graydon's face proved how fraught with peril it was to his hopes. Neither of her suitors liked Stella's manner that evening, for it suggested traits which promised ill for the future. Graydon, who understood her the less, was the more lenient judge.

"Not only Arnault," he thought, "but her father also, has been pressing her toward a course from which she revolts, and she is half reckless in consequence."

He endeavored by his quiet and observant attention, by the grave and gentle expression of his eyes, to assure her once more that she could find a refuge in him the moment that she would decide absolutely in his favor. She understood him well, and was enraged that she could not that night go out with him into the moonlight, put her hand in his, and end her suspense.

Her father had whispered, significantly, when they met, "Stella, I must see you before you give Mr. Muir further encouragement;" and she, feeling that it might be among her last chances, for the present, of showing Graydon favor, was lavish of it. But it was not the preference of strong, true, womanly choice; it was rather the half-defiant aspect with which forbidden fruit might be regarded.

As the great clock was about to chime the hour of midnight the dancing ceased. Arnault seemed determined to have the last word, and Graydon interposed no obstacle. The former walked on the piazza by Stella's side for a few turns in moody silence. Her father still sat at his post of observation. Mrs. Wildmere had been with him part of the time, but he had not had much to say to her.

"Mr. Arnault," said Stella, satirically, at last, "I will not tax your remarkable power for entertainment any longer. I will now join papa, and retire."

"Very well, Stella," was the quiet reply; "but before we part I shall speak more to the point than if I had talked hours. By this time another week the question must be decided."

She bowed, and made no other answer.

"Stella," said her father when they were alone and he had regarded for some moments her averted and half-sullen face, "what do you propose to do?" There was no answer.

After another pause he continued: "In settling the question, represent your mother and myself by a cipher. That is all we are, if the logic of your past action counts for anything. Again I ask, What do you propose to do? No matter how pretty and flattered a girl may be, she cannot alter gravitation. There are other facts just as inexorable. Shutting your eyes to them, or any other phase of folly, will not make the slightest difference."

"I think it's a horrid fact that I must marry a man that I don't love."

"That is not one of the facts at all. Stock-gambler as I am, and in almost desperate straits, I require nothing of the kind. Knowing you as I do, I advise you to accept Arnault at once; but I do not demand it; I do not even urge it. If you loved me, if you would say, 'Give up this feverish life of risk; I will help you and suffer with you in your poverty; I will marry Graydon Muir and share his poverty,' I would leave Wall Street at once and forever. It's a maelstrom in which men of my calibre and means are sucked down sooner or later. The prospects now are that it will be sooner, unless I am helped through this crisis."

"I believe you are mistaken about the Muirs being in financial danger."

"I am not mistaken. They may have to suspend daring the coming week."

"I know that Graydon Muir has no suspicion of trouble."

"He is but a clerk in his brother's employ, and has just returned from a long absence. Mr. Muir is one of the most reticent of men. I have invested in the same dead stock that is swamping him, and so know whereof I speak. Should this stock decline further--should it even remain where it is much longer--he can't maintain himself. I know, for I have taken pains to obtain information since I last went to town."

"But if the stock rises," she said, with the natural hope of a speculator's daughter, "he is safe."

"Yes, if."

"How much time will you give me?" she asked, the lines of her face growing hard and resolute.

"This is to be your choice, not mine," said her father, coldly. "You shall not be able to say that I sold you or tried to sell you. Of course it would be terribly hard for me to lose my footing and fall, and I feel that I should not rise again. Arnault worships success and worldly prestige. You are a part of his ambitious scheme. If you helped him parry it out he would do almost anything you wished, and he could throw business enough in my way to put me speedily on my feet. You must make your choice in view of the following facts: You can go on living here, just as you are, two or three weeks longer, dallying with opportunity. By that time, unless I get relief and help, I shall reach the end of my resources, and creditors will take everything. The Muirs cannot help me, and I don't believe they would in any event. I am not on good terms with Henry Muir. If they go down now they will be thoroughly cleaned out. Arnault has long been devoted to you, and you could have unbounded influence over him if you acted in the line of his ruling passion. It would gratify his pride and add to the world's good opinion of him if I prospered also. In plain English, we may all be in a tenement house in a month, or I on safe ground and you the affianced wife of a rich man."

"Well," said Stella, coldly, "you have given me facts enough. It's a pity you couldn't have brought me something better from Wall Street after all these years."

"What have you brought to me during these past years," he demanded, sternly, "but constant requests for money, and the necessity for incessant effort to meet new phases of extravagance? You have not asked what was kind, merciful, and true, but what was the latest style. Few days pass but that I am reminded of you by a bill for some frippery or other; but how often am I reminded of you by acts of filial thoughtfulness, by words of sympathy in my hard battle of life when I am present, or by genial letters when absent? I have spent three hot days in the city seeking chiefly your interest, and a more mechanical, perfunctory thing never existed than your kiss of greeting to-night. There was as much feeling in it as in the quarter that I handed to the stage-driver. I have spent thousands on your education, but you don't sing for me, you don't read to me, you never think of soothing my overtaxed nerves by cheerful, hopeful talk. Were I a steel automaton, supplying your wants, I should answer just as well, and in that case you might remember the laws of matter and apply a little oil occasionally. What are the motives of your life but dress, admiration, excitement, a rapid succession of men to pass under your baleful fascination, and then to pass on crippled in soul for having known you? Unless you can give Graydon Muir a loving woman's heart, and mean to cling to him for worse as well as better, you will commit a crime before God and man if you accept him. With Arnault it is different. In mind you are near enough of kin to marry. As long as you complied with fashionable and worldly proprieties, he would be content; but a man with a heart and soul in his body would perish in the desert of a home that your selfishness would create."

"It's awful for you to talk to me in this way!" she whined, wincing and crying under his arraignment.

"It's awful that I have to speak to you in this way, either to make you realize what deformities your beauty hides, so that you may apply the remedy, or else, if you will not, to promote your union with a man content to take for a wife a belle, and not a woman.

"I suppose I am chiefly to blame, though, or you would be different," he added, with a dark, introspective look. "I was proud of you as a beautiful child, and tried to win your love by indulgence. Heaven knows, I would like to be a different man, but it's all a breathless hurry after bubbles that vanish when grasped! Well, what do you propose to do? You see that you can't hesitate much longer."

"I will decide soon," she answered, sullenly. Although her conscience echoed his words, and she felt their justice, her pride prevailed, and she permitted him to depart without another word.