Chapter XXVI. Mrs. Muir's Account
 

After a light supper Graydon went in search of Stella, but she was nowhere to be found, nor had the warm evening lured Mrs. Wildmere from her room. He had learned that Arnault was still at the house, and he inferred, from the surpassing beauty of the moonlit evening, that his rival would not let such witching hours pass without an effort to turn them to account. With a frown he retreated from the music, dancing, and gayety of a full house, and went up to Mrs. Muir's room.

That lady was found writing to her husband, but she welcomed Graydon, and began volubly: "I'm very glad you have come; I'm so full and overflowing about Madge that I had to write to Henry."

"It certainly does seem an odd proceeding on her part--this remaining all night at a farmhouse among strangers," was his discontented reply.

"It would be odd in any one but Madge. I do not think there are many girls in this house who would be guilty of such eccentricities--certainly not Miss Wildmere," she added, with a rather malicious twinkle in her eyes. "If I were a man, I wouldn't stand it. I've been on the alert somewhat to-day, for I don't wish to see you made a fool of. That Mr. Arnault has been at her side the livelong time, and he's out driving with her now."

"I understand all about that," said Graydon, impatiently; "tell me about Madge."

"Perhaps you do, and perhaps you don't. It's certainly beyond my comprehension," continued Mrs. Muir, determined to free her mind. "If she is anything to you, or wishes to be, her performances are as unique as those of Madge, although in a different style. We Alden girls were not brought up in that way. Pardon me; I know it's your affair, but you are my brother, and have been a good one, too. I can't wonder that Henry dislikes her. Well, well, I see you are getting nettled, and I won't say anything more, but tell you about Madge. It has been an awfully hot day, you know, and I did not order a carriage till five. Madge was restless, and had sighed for a gallop more than once, so I proposed to do the best for her I could. As we were starting for our drive Dr. Sommers appeared, and I asked him to go with us.

"'I will,' he said, 'if you will take me to see one of my patients--one that will make Miss Alden contented till she has some imaginary trouble of her own. My horse is nearly used up from the long drive I've had in the heat.'

"'Oh, do take me to see some one in trouble!' exclaimed Madge.

"'Yes,' replied the doctor, laughing, 'that will be a novelty. To see you young ladies dancing and promenading, one would think you had never heard of trouble.'

"After a lovely drive through a wild valley we came to a little gray farmhouse, innocent of paint since the memory of man. The mountain rose steeply behind it with overhanging rocks, cropping out through the forest here and there. An orchard shaded the dwelling, and beyond the narrow roadway in front brawled a trout-stream. To the eastward were rough, stony fields, that sloped up, at what seemed an angle of forty-five degrees, to other wooded mountains. It was the roughest, wildest-looking place I ever saw. How strange and lonely it must look now in the moonlight, with not another dwelling in sight!"

"Too lonely for Madge to be there," exclaimed Graydon. "I don't like it, and I should not have expected such imprudence from you, Mary."

"Oh, Madge is safe enough! Wait till you know all. Well, the farmer and his wife were at their early supper when we arrived. I went in with Madge and the doctor, for I wanted to see how such people lived, and also thought I could do something for them. I hadn't been in the room five minutes, however, before I gave up all thought of offering assistance. The people were plainly and even poorly dressed. The man was in his shirt-sleeves, but he put on his coat immediately. He had a kind of natural, quiet dignity and a subdued manner--the result of his trouble, no doubt. We were in their little sitting-room or parlor, but the door into the kitchen, where they had been taking their meal, was open. The room we were in was very plainly furnished, but perfectly neat, and I was at once struck by the number of books that it contained. Would you believe it? one of the leading magazines lay on the table. The mother, a pale, gaunt woman, who looked utterly worn out, went with the doctor to the adjoining sick-room, and the husband's eyes followed them anxiously.

"'Your place seems rather lonely,' I said to him, 'but you evidently know how to find society in books.'

"'Yes,' he answered, 'I s'pose this region seems lonesome to you, but not to us who were brought up here. It all depends on what you're used to, especially when you're a-growin' up. I'm not much of a reader myself, but Tilly was'; and he heaved a great sigh. 'She took to readin' almost as soon as to walkin',' he continued, 'and used to read aloud to us. I s'pose I soon dozed off, but her mother took it all in, and durin' the long winter evenin's they kinder roamed all over the world together. I suspicion Tilly had more books than was good for her, but she was our only child, and I couldn't say no to her. She edicated herself to be a teacher, and stood high, and we was proud of her, sure enough, but I'm afeared all that study and readin' wasn't good for her;' and then came another of his deep sighs.

"Madge's great eyes meanwhile were more and more full of trouble, and there was a deal of pathos suggested by the man's simple story. Indeed, I felt my own throat swelling at the poor man's last sigh, it was so deep and natural, and seemed to express a great sorrow, for which there were no words in his homely vernacular."

"What selfish egotists we are over our picayune vexations!" Graydon muttered.

"Well, the mother and the doctor now appeared. The latter looked grave; and when he looks grave things are serious indeed.

"'Ain't she no better?' the father asked, with entreaty in his tone.

"'I wish she was,' said the doctor, in his blunt way, which nevertheless expressed more sympathy than a lot of fine phrases. Then he said to the mother: 'You're all worn out, and yet she'll need close watching to-night. Isn't there some neighbor--'

"'Oh, please let me stay!' began Madge, in a low, eager tone, speaking for the first time. 'I'm strong, and I'll follow your directions in everything. Do, please. I've been ill myself, and think I know how to nurse.'

"The woman hesitated, and looked doubtfully, wonderingly, at the doctor. Madge sprang up, and taking the mother's hand, continued: 'Indeed, madam, you do look worn out; you will be ill yourself. For your daughter's sake, as well as mine, let me stay.'

"'For your sake, miss?'

"'Yes, for my sake. Why should I not bear a little of this heavy burden? It will do me good. Doctor, say I can stay. My strength should not be wasted in amusement only.'

"'Well,' he replied, 'if Mrs. Muir consents, there's no one I'd trust sooner.'

"'Then it's settled, Mary,' she said, in her decisive way. 'It's perfectly proper for me to stay under the protection of these good people.'

"'But you haven't had your supper,' I began.

"A little color came into the woman's face at my foolish speech, and she said, 'If the young lady will take what we can offer--'

"'Of course I will,' interrupted Madge, with a smile that would have propitiated a dragon; 'a little bread and milk would suit me best.'

"'She shall have a chicken broiled as nice as she ever tasted at the hotel,' said the man, impulsively. 'Heaven bless your kind heart, and perhaps you can coax Tilly to take a bit!'

"'The young lady's name is Miss Alden,' said the doctor, 'and this is Mrs. Muir, Mr. and Mrs. Wendall, ladies; I should have introduced you before, but my mind was on my patient. Well, well, well, what a world it is! Some very good streaks run through it, though.'

"'I'll come for you in the morning,' I said to Madge, who had thrown off her hat, looking so resolute and absorbed in her purpose that I knew there was nothing more to be said. So I shook hands with the poor people, and came away with the doctor."

"I'm going for Madge in the morning," said Graydon, decisively.

"I thought you were going trouting with the doctor."

"Not till I've told Madge what I think of her," he said, gravely.

"I'm sure her impulse and motives were good."

"They were more than good--they were divine, and just like Madge Alden as she now is. She keeps one's blood tingling with surprises; but I've not become such a cynic that I do not understand her. When you come to think of it, what is more natural than that one girl with her superb health should lend her strength to another who, perhaps, is dying; but you may well ask, Who in the house would think of doing this?"

"Yes; the doctor said she was dying--that she couldn't last much longer."

"Well, I never had a sister, but I'm just as proud of Madge, and just as fond of her, as if she were my own flesh and blood. She shall never lack what a brother can do for her while I live."

"I'm glad you feel so," said Mrs. Muir. Then she sighed, and thought, "A plague upon him! Why will he keep following up the other white-faced thing, when he might win Madge if he tried hard enough. It's plain that she don't care for him now except as she used to. And she does care for him just as she did before she went away, in spite of all her prudishness about the words brother and sister. I'm not blind. She has grown so pretty, however, that I suppose Graydon would wish to kiss her too often. She is just as fond of him as he is of her, and in just the same way; but if I had his chance I'd soon have it a different way;" and the good lady was complacency itself over her penetration, as she bade Graydon good-night. No one could see and report the surface of affairs more accurately than she.

As he descended to the hall, Arnault and Miss Wildmere entered. The latter hastened forward and gave him her hand most cordially, saying, "Why, Mr. Muir, I'm ever so glad to see you; you have been away an age."

"A day, Miss Wildmere. Your appearance indicates that you have survived admirably."

"The moon is so bright that we could drive fast, and I'm always happy when in rapid motion."

"You have had the advantage of me then; yet I've been in rapid motion a good part of the day on express trains."

"I feared you were not going to return to-day," she said, as she strolled out with him on the piazza.

"Feared?"

"Yes, why not?"

"It strikes me that I might ask, Why?"

"Surely you would not have me lose such an evening as this, Mr. Muir?" she said, a little reproachfully.

"I would have you follow your own heart."

"I shall follow it as soon as possible," she replied, so earnestly that he was disarmed--especially as the glance which accompanied the words was full of soft allurement and appeal. Of her own accord she put her hand on his arm, and spoke in low, contented tones, as if she had at last found rest and refuge. The moon poured around her a flood of radiance, which gave her an ethereal aspect. Her white drapery enhanced and spiritualized her remarkable beauty, making her appear all that lover or poet could ask. His own words grew kinder and gentler; his heart went out to her as never before; she seemed so fair, delicate, and pure in that witching light that he longed to rescue her at once from her surroundings. Why should he not? She had never manifested a more gentle and yielding mood. He directed her steps from the piazza to a somewhat distant summer-house, and her reluctance was a shy half revolt, which only emphasized the natural meaning of her unspoken consent.

Mrs. Muir was still keeping her eyes open, and from her window saw them pass under the shadow of the trees.

At last they were sitting alone in the summer night. Graydon felt that words were scarcely needed--that his manner had spoken unequivocally, and that hers had granted all; but he took her hand and looked earnestly into her downcast face. "Oh, Stella--" he began.

A twig snapped in the adjacent grove. She sprang up. "Hush, Graydon," she whispered; "not yet. Please trust me. Oh, what am I thinking of to be out so late!--but could not resist. Come;" and she started for the house.

As they passed in at the door he said, in a low, deep tone, "You cannot put me off much longer, Stella."

"No, Graydon," she whispered, hurriedly, and hastened to her room.

In his deep feeling he had not heard the suspicious sound in the grove, and Miss Wildmere's manner was only another expression of the strong constraint which he believed to be imposed upon her by her father's financial peril. He felt bitterly disappointed, however. Although irritated, he was yet rendered more than forgiving by the apparent truth that she had almost yielded to the impulses of her heart, in spite of grave considerations--and promises perhaps--to the contrary.

He was at a loss what to do, yet felt that the present condition of affairs was becoming intolerable. Almost immediately upon his return from Europe he had written to Mr. Wildmere for permission to pay his addresses, and had received a brief and courteous reply. The thought of again appealing to the father occurred to him, but was speedily dismissed with unconquerable repugnance. The very fact that this man compelled his daughter to take such a course made Graydon wish never to speak to him again. "No," he muttered; "the girl must yield to me, and cut loose from all her father's shifty ways and associations."

The night was so beautiful, and his thoughts kept him so wakeful, that he sat in a shadow and watched the moonlight transfiguring the world into beauty. Before long he heard a step, and a man came from that end of the piazza which was nearest the summer-house. As he passed in, Graydon saw that it was Arnault. The quick suspicion came into his mind, "Could he have been watching?" Then flashed another thought, "Could she have become aware of his presence, and was this the cause of her abrupt flight?"

The latter supposition was dismissed indignantly and at once. The affair was taking on an aspect, however, so intensely disagreeable that he resolved to write to Miss Wildmere that he would absent himself until Arnault should disappear below the horizon. He would then go trouting or take a trip to some other resort. This course he believed would bring her to a decision, and after their recent interview he could scarcely doubt its nature.

Before he was aware of it, his thoughts returned to Madge. In fancy he saw the gray farmhouse on the lonely mountain-side, with a sweet face at the window, the dark, sympathetic eyes now looking out on the silent, moonlit landscape, and again at the thin, white face of a dying girl. "Poor, poor child!" he thought, reverting to the patient. "Well, for once, at least, she has had a good angel watching over her. I would like to see Madge's face framed by the open window in this witching light. Would to Heaven that Stella was more like her! Yet Stella was beautiful as a dream to-night, and it seemed that my vision of happiness was on the very eve of fulfilment."