Chapter XXIV. "I'll See How You Behave"
 

The dawn of the following sacred day was bright, beautiful, and serene, bringing to the world a new wealth of opportunity. Miss Wildmere began its hours depressed and undecided. Her conscience and better angel were pleading; she felt vaguely that her life and its motives were wrong, and was uncomfortable over the consciousness. Her phase of character, however, was one of the most hopeless. It was true that her vanity had grown to the proportions of a disease, but even this might be overcome. Her father's stern words had wounded it terribly, and she had experienced twinges of self-disgust. But another trait had become inwrought, by long habit, with every fibre of her soul--selfishness. It was almost impossible to give up her own way and wishes. Graydon Muir pleased her fancy, and she was bent on marrying him. Her father's assurance that she would bring him disappointment, not happiness, weighed little. Too many men had told her that she was essential to their happiness to permit qualms on this score. Her conscience did shrink, to some extent, from a loveless, business-like marriage, and her preference for Graydon made such a union all the more repugnant; but she was incapable of feeling that she would do him a wrong by giving him the pretty jewelled hand for which so many had asked. Indeed, the question now was, Could she be so self-sacrificing as to think of it under the circumstances? If that stock would only rise, if in some way she could be assured that the Muirs would be sustained, and so pass on to the wealth sure to flow in upon them in prosperous times, she would decide the question at once, whether they would do anything for her father or not. He could scramble on in some way, as he had done in the past. What she desired most was the assurance that there should be no long and doubtful interregnum of poverty and privation--that she might continue to be a queen in society during the period of youth and beauty.

This remained the chief consideration amid the chaos of her conflicting feelings and interests, for she had lived this life so long that she could imagine no other as endurable. She had, moreover, the persistence of a small nature, and longed to humiliate the Muir pride, and to spite Madge Alden, who she half believed cherished more than a sisterly regard for Graydon. As for her father, she did little more than resent his words and the humiliating disquietude they had caused. They had sorely wounded her vanity, and presented a painful alternative.

As the day passed, and old habits of mind resumed sway, she began to concentrate her thoughts on three questions: Should she accept Graydon and take her chances with him? Should she accept Mr. Arnault, with his wealth, and be safe? or should she hesitate a little longer, in the hope that she could secure Graydon and wealth also? The persistence of a will that had always had its own way decided finally in favor of the last course of action. She would not give Graydon up unless she must, and not until she must. Accustomed to consult self-interest, she believed that her father was doing the same, that he was favoring Arnault because the latter would be more useful to him, and that for this reason he was exaggerating the Muirs' peril, if not inventing it. She dismissed his words about leaving Wall Street with scarcely a thought; he always talked in this way when the times were bad or his ventures unlucky. They had been on the eve of ruin so many times, that the cry of "wolf" was not so alarming as formerly.

"I suppose I must decide before this week is over," she thought. "Arnault has practically given me this length of time, and I shall take him at his word." Therefore, she was very sweet to him during the morning hours, and prepared him to submit to her drive with Graydon in the afternoon.

Arnault felt that he had given his ultimatum, and was resolved to abide by it. At the same time he knew that it would be a terrible wrench to give up the girl. The very difficulty of winning her had stimulated to the utmost his passion for attainment. She was the best that existed in his superficial world, and fulfilled his ideal. Her delicate yet somewhat voluptuous beauty completely intoxicated him.

He too thought, and made his decision during the day. If he won her at all it must be speedily, and it should be done by promises of devotion and wealth if possible, and by breaking the Muirs down if this should become necessary. The time had come for decisive action. It was evident that her father was in sore straits; the man's appearance confirmed this belief. Arnault was almost certain that Henry Muir was in his power. He would not play the latter card unless he must, but he would watch so vigilantly as to be promptly aware of the necessity. He decided to spend several days of the present week in the mountains and so keep himself informed how the game went here, and while in the city he would not only be observant, but would also drop a few words to weaken Mr. Muir's credit. One thing, however, was settled--the problematical issue of his matrimonial scheme must soon be made known, and he rather relished its congenial elements of speculative uncertainty, being conscious that so much depended upon his skill and power to pull unseen wires.

Seeing that Arnault was at Miss Wildmere's side, Graydon accompanied his relatives to church, and soon found himself looking over the same hymn-book with Madge. The choir were present, and she now merely delighted Graydon with her rich alto; and so rich and true was it that he often felt his nerves thrilling at her tones. He did not become absorbed in the service or sermon, but thought a little wonderingly: "Here is a faith ever finding expression all over the world, while I ignore it. How much truth does it represent? It's evidently a reality to Madge, although she makes so little parade of the fact. I don't believe she would do anything contrary to its teachings as she understands them. We men may think what we please, but we have confidence in a woman who looks as she does now. She is not in the least inclined to devotional rhapsodies or to subserviency to priestcraft, like so many women abroad. She merely appears to recognize a divine power as she accepts nature, only more reverently and consciously. I suppose I am an agnostic as much as anything, yet I should only be too glad to have Stella at my side with such an expression on her face. I wonder if she will go with me this afternoon. I will submit to this diplomacy a few days longer, and shall then end the matter. There is an increasing revulsion of my whole being from such tactics in my future wife. Beyond a certain point she shall not be a partner in her father's gambling operations, and I would have brought the affair to an end at once, were it not for that limp little woman, his wife, and her child. But I can't sacrifice my self-respect and Stella's character for them. I must get her out of that atmosphere, so that her true nature may develop. Sweet Madge Alden, with your eyes so serious and true, and again so full of mirth and spirit, what a treasure you will prove some day if there is a man worthy of you!"

In his deep preoccupation, he forgot his intent regard, until reminded of it by the slow deepening of her color, which so enhanced her beauty that he could not at once withdraw his gaze. Suddenly she turned on him with a half-angry, half-mirthful flash in her eyes, and whispered, "Looking at girls in church is not good form; but, if you will do it, look at some other girl."

He was delighted at this little unexpected prick, and replied, "St. Paul never would have complained of such a thorn." Then he saw Dr. Sommers looking ominously at him. This factotum of the chapel sat where he could oversee the miscellaneous little assemblage, and his eyes instantly pounced upon any offender. Graydon pushed his insubordination no further than making an irreverent face at the doctor, and then addressed himself to the minister during the remainder of the hour.

"We'll arrange it differently next Sunday, Miss Alden," said the doctor, as Madge passed out; "I'll have Mr. Muir sit with me."

"Try it," whispered Graydon, "and if you don't fall from grace before meeting is over I'll give you a new trout-pole. Miss Alden can manage me better than you can."

"No doubt, no doubt. A man must be in a bad way if she couldn't make a saint of him if she undertook it," was the doctor's laughing reply.

Greatly amused, Graydon repeated the words to Madge. "She won't undertake it in this case," was her brusque comment. "I have no ambition to enlighten continental heathen, with their superior tolerance of a faith good enough for women and children."

"My charming rose has not only a thorn but a theological stiletto in her belt."

"It is evident you have never had trouble, Graydon."

"Why is it evident?"

"Because you are content with the surface-tide of life."

"And you are not?"

"One rarely is when fearing to sink."

"What has that to do with faith?"

"Faith can sustain; that's all."

"And your faith sustained you?"

"What else was there to sustain when day after day brought, not a choice of pleasures, but the question, Shall I live or die?"

"Poor Madge! Dear Madge! And you didn't let me know. I don't suppose I could have helped you, though."

"No; not then."

"Madge," he said, earnestly, "won't you promise me one thing? If you ever should have trouble of any kind again, won't you let me help you, or at least try to?"

"I'll see how you behave," she said, laughing. "Besides, it's not women's place to make trouble for men. The idea! Our mission is to soothe and console you superior beings."

"Women do make a power of trouble for men. Mother Eve began wrong, and--"

"And Adam laid all his misdeeds on her weak shoulders."

"The upshot of all this talk is, I suppose, that your shoulders are so strong, and your spirit so high, that you can at least take care of your own troubles."

"I hope so," she again laughed, "and be ready also to give you a lift. When you successful men do get a tumble in life, you are the most helpless of mortals."

"Well, well, well, to think that I am talking to little Madge, who could not say good-by to me without fainting away!"

"Good-by meant more to me than to you. You were going away to new and pleasant activity. I doubted whether I should see you again--or indeed any one long," she added, hastily.

"Don't imagine that I did not feel awfully that night, dear Madge. Tears do not come into my eyes easily, but I added a little salt water to the ocean as I leaned over the taffrail and saw the city that contained you fade from view."

"Did you truly, Graydon?" she asked, turning away.

"I did, indeed."

In her averted face and quickened respiration he thought he saw traces of more than passing feeling, but she turned on him in sudden gayety, and said: "Whenever I see the ocean I'll remember how its tides have been increased. Graydon, I've a secret to tell you, which, for an intense, aesthetic, and vaguely devotional woman, is a most humiliating confession: I'm awfully hungry. When will dinner be ready?"

"I have a secret to tell you also," he replied, with a half-vexed flash in his eyes: "There is a girl in this house who explains herself more or less every day, and who yet remains the most charming conundrum that ever kept a man awake from perplexity."

"Oh, dear!" cried Madge, "is Miss Wildmere so bad as that? Poor, pale victim of insomnia! By the way, do you and Mr. Arnault keep a ledger account of the time you receive? or do you roughly go on the principle of 'share and share alike'?" and with eyes flashing back laughter at his reddening face, she ran up the steps and disappeared.

"That was a Parthian arrow," he muttered. "If we go smoothly on the sharing principle at present, we shall soon go roughly enough, or cease to go at all."

But the lady in question was putting forth all her resources, which were not slight when enlisted in her own behalf, to keep the two men in statu quo until more time, with its chances, should pass.

Arnault smiled grimly when he saw her departing with Graydon. She had been evasive, but very friendly, during the day thus far, and after what he had said the preceding night he felt that he was committed to her moods for a week if he could not bring her to a decision before. Seeing Mr. Wildmere walking restlessly up and down the piazza, he joined him, and offering a superb cigar, said, "Suppose we go out to the lake and see where the little kid was so nearly drowned."

Soon after they were smoking in the shade, the thoughts of both reverting to kindred anxieties. Arnault decided to make one move before the final one. Perhaps only this would be required; perhaps it might prepare the way for more serious action. They talked over business. Arnault, permitting the other to see through a veiled distinctness of language that he was prospering, remarked, "By the way, I have a little transaction which I wish you would carry out for us," and mentioned an affair of ordinary brokerage, concluding, in off-hand tones, "from what you said some days since I infer that you may find a little money handy at present. I can let you have a check for five hundred or a thousand just as well as not. I know how dull times are now, and you will soon make it up by commissions."

The hard-pressed man could scarcely disguise the relief which these words brought. He began a grateful acknowledgment of the kindness, when Arnault interrupted him by saying, "Oh, that's nothing--mere matter of business. I will write you a check to-night for a thousand. It's only an advance, you know," and then changed the subject.

"Will you go to town to-morrow?" Mr. Wildmere asked.

"No, not to-morrow. I'll run down Tuesday or Wednesday. In spite of the times business doesn't give us much leeway this summer, but I've arranged to be away more or less at present." Then he added, with what was meant to be a frank, deprecatory laugh, "I suppose you see how it is. It's some time since I asked permission to pay my addresses to your daughter. I don't think I've been neglectful of opportunities, but I don't get on as fast as I would like, and now feel that if I would keep any chance at all I must be on hand. Muir is a formidable rival."

"You know that you have my consent and more, Mr. Arnault."

"It's the lady's consent that I must obtain," was the reply. "Muir is a fine fellow, and I cannot wonder that she hesitates--that is, if she does hesitate. I may be wasting my time here and adding to the bitterness of my disappointment, for of course it must become greater if I see Miss Wildmere every day and still fail."

There was a covert question in this remark, and after a moment or two Mr. Wildmere said, hesitatingly: "I do not think you are wasting your time. I think Stella is in honest doubt as to her choice. At least, that is my impression. You know that young ladies in our free land do not take much counsel of parents, and Stella has ever been very independent in her views. When once she makes up her mind you will find her very decided and loyal. Of course I have my strong preference in this case, and have a right also to make it known to her, as I shall. I should be very sorry to see her engaged to a man whose fortunes are dependent on a brother in such financial straits as Mr. Muir is undoubtedly in."

"Do you think Henry Muir is in very great danger?"

"I do indeed."

"Hum!" ejaculated Arnault, looking serious.

"What! would he involve you?"

"Oh, no, a mere trifle; but then--Well, please make some inquiries to-morrow, and I'll see you during the week."

"I'll do anything I can to oblige you, Mr. Arnault. I wouldn't like my questions, however, to hurt Muir's credit, you understand."

"Of course not, nor would I wish this; but as one of our brokers you can pick up some information, like enough. I knew, as did others, that Muir was having a rather hard time of it, but if there is pressing danger I may have to take some action."

"In that case of course you can command me."

"I only wish to do what is fair and considerate among business men. We'll lunch together when I come to town, and perhaps the case will be clearer then."

During his drive with Miss Wildmere, Graydon simply adhered to the tactics which he had adopted, and she saw that he was waiting until the Arnault phase of the problem should be eliminated. When, however, she took occasion to bewail the dismal prospects of her "poor papa," and to open the way for him to speak naturally of his own and his brother's affairs, he was gravely silent. She didn't like this, for it tended to confirm her father's belief that they were in trouble, or else it looked like suspicion of her motive. The trait of reticence which Graydon at times shared with his brother was not agreeable, for it suggested hidden processes of thought which might develop into very decisive action. She came back satisfied that Graydon was still thoroughly "in hand," and that she must obtain information in some other way, if possible.

There was sacred music in the parlor during the evening, but neither Miss Wildmere nor Madge would sing in solo. Graydon good-naturedly tried to arrange a duet between the two girls. The former declined instantly, yet took off the edge of her refusal by saying, "I would gladly sing for you if I could, but do not care to permit all these strangers to institute comparisons."

Therefore, the guests sang in chorus as usual, a professional playing the accompaniments. There were few, however, who did not recognize the strong, sweet alto which ran through each melody like a minor key. Graydon's acute ear for music heard little else, and he said to Madge "I shall be glad when this hotel life is over. What delicious evenings I shall have this fall! By the way, I'm going to have your piano tuned when I go to town."

"Perhaps."

"Perhaps what? Perhaps I shall remember about the tuner? You'll see."

"I may go back with the Waylands. I'm not at all sure that I shall not spend my winter on the Pacific."

"Why, Madge! With your health you could spend it in Greenland."

"That's what I may do. We always have a lovely green land in that climate."

"I must investigate Santa Barbara. You have left some one or something there which has powerful attractions."

"Yes, memories; as well as skies so bright that you can't help smiling back at them."

"I supposed you were going to enter society this fall and create a furore."

"Oh, bah!" Then she began to laugh, and said, "A certain gentleman in this house thought I was so bent on having my fling in society that I didn't wish to be embarrassed by even a little fraternal counsel."

"A certain fellow in this house finds himself embarrassed by a black-eyed clairvoyant, who reads his thoughts as if they were sign-boards, but remains inscrutable herself."

"Such an objectionable and inconvenient creature should certainly be banished to wilds of the West"

"As one of the Muir family I'll never consent."

"You'll soon be engrossed by cares of your own," she concluded, laughing. "Good-night."

"Stay," said Graydon, eagerly; "one so gifted with second-sight should be able to read the thoughts of others."

"Whose?" Madge asked, demurely.

"Whose indeed? As if you did not know! Miss Wildmere's."

"What! Reveal a woman's thoughts? I won't speak to you again to-night;" and she left him with his tranquillity not a little disturbed.