Chapter XXV. Gossamer Threads
 

Mr. Muir was to depart on the early train the following morning, and was pleased when Madge opened her door at the same time and said, "I'm going to see that you have a good breakfast and a good send-off."

She chattered merrily with him during the meal, ignoring his somewhat wistful and questioning glances. "When shall we see you again, Henry?" she asked.

"Friday evening, I hope."

"Don't work and worry too much."

"I defy fate now. You've given me your luck."

"Heaven forbid! Well, good-by."

A little later she and two of her boys, as she called them, were off on the hills. Mrs. Muir and Graydon breakfasted long after, and the latter observed with a frown that Arnault was still at the Wildmere table, with all the serenity of one en famille.

"Doctor," he said, a little later, "how much will you take--the money to be given to your chapel--to go trouting with me for a day?"

"A good round sum," Dr. Sommers replied.

"All right. When can you go?"

"Wednesday, I guess, if I can leave my patients."

"Oh, come now; go and give your patients a chance to get well."

"Wait till I catch you sick, and I'll pay you up for that."

"You'll stand a better chance of catching trout."

The day passed much as usual, only Arnault appeared in the ascendant.

"He is going to town in a day or two," pleaded the diplomat, after dinner.

"And I'm going trouting," Graydon replied.

"When?"

"Soon."

"Only for a day, I suppose."

"It depends on my luck. You will get on better when I'm away."

"It's cruel for you to speak like that," she replied, her eyes moistening.

"I suppose it is," was his rueful reply; "but I can be more patient, I imagine, back in the mountains than here."

"But how about poor me?"

"That is a question that I often ask myself, Miss Wildmere, but you alone can answer it. As far as I am able to judge, you can meet the problem in your mind, whatever it is, as well, if not better, in my absence. You must understand me, and I have promised to be reasonably patient."

"Very well, Mr. Muir," she replied, in apparent sadness, "I will try not to tax your patience beyond what you well term reason."

"Something far beyond reason, and--I may add--pride also, permits you to tax it all. I would rather not revert to this topic again. It is embarrassing to us both. I cannot help saying, however, that it is essential to my happiness that the present state of affairs should soon cease."

"If it were only present happiness that one had to consider--" she began, and then hastened away.

Thus she played upon his sympathy, and held him by the generous side of his nature.

But he determined not to give Arnault the pleasure of seeing him wait for the crumbs of time that fell from his table, and he delighted Madge, having sought her out on the piazza, by remarking: "It is so cool to-day I do not see why we cannot start at once. I shall not find the time too long, for you can talk as well as ride."

She made good his words, and gave wings to the hours. Among the scenes through which they passed, she reminded him, not of an exotic or a stray tropical bird, but rather of the ideal mountain nymph humanized, developed into modern life, the strong original forces of nature harmonized into perfect womanhood, yet unimpaired. Her smiles, her piquant words, and, above all, the changing expression of her lovely eyes, affected him subtilely, and again imparted a rising exhilaration. Her thoughts came not like the emptying of a cup, but rippled forth like a sparkling rill from some deep and exhaustless supply. And what reservoir is more inexhaustible than the love of a heart like hers?--a love born as naturally and unconsciously as life itself--that, when discovered, changes existence by a sudden kaleidoscopic turn, compelling all within and without to pass at once into new arrangement and combination--that inspires heroic, patient effort, self-denial, and even self-sacrifice.

She had prepared herself for this opportunity by years of training and thought, but his presence brought her an inspiration beyond all that she had gained from books or study. He was the magician who unconsciously had the power to waken and kindle her whole nature, to set the blood flowing in her veins like wine, and to arouse a rapidity and versatility of thought that was surprising even to herself. With the pure genius of love she threw about his mind gossamer threads, drew the filaments together, and held them in her heart. The pulses of life grew stronger within him, his fancy kindled, the lore of books long since forgotten, as he supposed, flashed into memory, and out into happy allusion and suggestion. Still his wonder increased that her knowledge coincided so fully with his own, and that their lines of reading had been so closely parallel. It was hard for him to find a terra incognita of thought into which she had not made some slight explorations. In his own natural domains she skilfully appeared to know enough to follow, but not to lead with mortifying superiority. She also had her own preserves of thought and fancy, of which she gave him tantalizing glimpses, then let fall the screening boughs; and he, who fain would see more, was content to pass on, assured that another vista would soon be revealed. It was the reserve of this frank girl that most charmed and incited him, the feeling, more or less defined, that while she appeared to manifest herself by every word and smile, something richer and rarer still was hidden.

"No one will ever have a chance to understand her fully but the man she loves," he thought. "To him she would give the clew to all her treasures, or else show them with sweet abandon, and it would require a lifetime for the task. She has a beauty and a character that would never pall, for the reason that she draws her life so directly from nature. I have never met a woman that affected me as she does."

He sighed again. In spite of the loyalty to which he believed himself fully committed, Stella Wildmere, with her Wall Street complications, her variegated experience as to adorers, and her present questionable diplomacy, seemed rather faded beside this girl, upon whose heart the dew still rested.

For the first time the thought passed consciously through his mind, "Stella has never made me so happy as I have been the last few hours. More than that, she never gave life an aspect so rich, sweet, and full of noble possibility. Madge makes blase, shallow cynicism impossible in a fellow."

As he danced with Miss Wildmere that evening, or sauntered with her on the piazza or through secluded paths, the same tendency to comparisons tormented him. He could not make himself believe that Miss Wildmere's words were like the flow of a clear, bubbling spring, pure and sweet. There was in them a sediment, the product of a life which had passed through channels more and more distasteful to contemplate.

The next day he went to town to look after some business matters, and returned by the latest train. To his surprise he found Madge absent, and was immediately conscious of a vague sense of disappointment.