Chapter XXVII. Madge's Story
 

Early in the beautiful morning of the following day Graydon was out securing a light carriage, for he reasoned that after watching all night Madge would be too weary to enjoy horseback exercise. He first called on the doctor, and obtained careful directions as to the locality of Madge's sojourn. "The best I can do is to go with you as guide this afternoon to the trout-stream, and then drive back by moonlight," the doctor added.

Within an hour Graydon reached the cottage, and Madge ran out to welcome him. "Now, this is kind and thoughtful of you," she said, and there was unmistakable gladness in her face.

"Dear Madge, you have had a long, dismal night, I fear. I can see it from the lines under your eyes."

"It has been a sad night, Graydon, yet I am very glad I came, and you have now rewarded me. The poor girl is sleeping, and I can slip away."

Mr. and Mrs. Wendall parted from her feelingly and gratefully. Madge promised to come again soon.

For a few moments they drove in silence, and then Madge sighed: "How young, fresh, and full of beautiful life the world seems this morning! The contrast with that poor, suffering, dying girl is too great. Nature often appears strangely indifferent."

"I am not indifferent, Madge. I kept a sort of watch with you for an hour or two last night in the wee, sma' hours, and tried to imagine you sitting in just such an open window as I saw there, with the moonlight on your face; and I thought that the poor girl had one good angel watching over her. You know I am a man of the world, but an act of ministry like this touches me closely."

"No, Graydon; not a good angel, but a very human creature was the watcher."

"Tell me about it--that is, continue the story from the point where Mary left off;" and he explained about Mrs. Muir's account of the previous evening.

"Well, you know what a wilful creature I am?" she began, with the glimmer of a smile.

"Oh, yes; I've learned to understand that feature of your royal womanhood. You are trying to be a woman, Madge. Well, you are one--the kind I believe in. See how much faith I have--I believe, yet don't understand."

"No jesting or compliments this morning, please; I'm too heavy-hearted for them now."

"You ought to be serene and happy after so kind and good a deed."

"No," she said, decisively; "that sympathy must be superficial which can pass almost immediately into self-complacency. Oh, Graydon, it is all so sad, yet not sad; so passing strange, yet as natural and true as life and death! I did sit for hours just as you imagined, looking out on the great, still mountains. Never did they seem so vast and stable, and our life so vapor-like, as when I heard that poor fluttering breath come and go at my side. There was a time when this truth grew oppressive; but later on that feeble life, which seemed but a breath, came to mean something greater and more real than the mountains themselves. But I am anticipating. As soon as Mary departed I became as imperious as I dared to be. I saw that the poor mother had reached about the limit of her endurance, and I arranged the lounge in the sitting-room, so that she could lie down at once, saying: 'I am a stranger, and young, and it's not natural that you should be willing to give up to me too much, nor do I wish you to be far away; yet I can see just how sorely in need of rest you are. You must finish your supper, give me your directions, and then lie down and get every bit of rest you can. I can easily keep awake, and promise to call you whenever you are needed.'

"'Nancy,' her husband added, 'Miss Alden is right. I see by the way she takes hold that she'll do everything, and you're jest beat out.' So between us we had our way.

"'Bless you, miss,' said the man, trying to smile in a way that almost made me cry, 'I'm as handy as a woman 'bout a kitchen;' and he soon proved that he was handier than I could have been, for in a few minutes he pulled up from the well a pail, took out a dressed chicken, and broiled it to perfection. I made his wife eat some of it, and saved a little of the breast for poor Tilly, as they call her."

"Did you take any yourself?" interrupted Graydon.

"Oh, yes, indeed! I'm one of those prosaic creatures whose appetite never fails. If the world were coming to an end to-day I should insist on having my breakfast."

"Madge," said Graydon, ruefully, "I might as well tell you, for I'm sure to be found out: I once called you 'lackadaisical.'"

"Oh, I knew that over two years ago! What's more, you were right."

"No; I was not right," he answered, positively. "I should have recognized the possibilities of your nature then. I did in regard to your beauty, but not those higher qualities which bid fair to make you my patron saint."

"Oh, hush, Graydon. Such words only pain me. I don't want your compliments, and if any man made a patron saint of me I should be so exasperated that I should probably box his ears. Let us stick to what is simple, natural, and true, in all our talk."

"You may say what you please, Madge, I see it more clearly every day, and reproach myself that I did not understand you. I was content to amuse and pet you, and you naturally did not think me capable of doing anything more. You went away alone to make as brave a fight as was ever battled out in this world, and I had no part in helping you. Mr. and Mrs. Wayland were worth a wilderness of superficial society-fellows like me. I now know why you did not care to correspond with me while making your noble effort."

"Truly, Graydon, your memory and penetration are phenomenal."

"You may disclaim out of kindness now, but I know I am right. You make my life appear shallow and trivial. What have I done in the last two years but attend carefully, from habit, to the details of business, and then amuse myself? And when I wrote I merely sought to amuse you. What were my flippant letters worth to one who was in earnest?"

"Graydon," said Madge, looking into his eyes with gentle dignity, "you may do yourself injustice if you will, but you shall not misjudge me. I have acquired a little of the art of taking care of myself, and you are doing me a wrong which I cannot permit. I remember everything, from the time that your kind eyes rested on the pallid, shrinking child that crept down to the dining-room when we first met, and from that day to this you have been kind and helpful to me. I said that I regarded you as one of the best friends I had in the world. Do you think me insincere? Do you think I forget how kind you were when society would not have tolerated the ghost I was? I am not one who forgets and ignores the past--who can go on to new friends with a frigid shoulder for old ones. Let us end these misunderstandings. Before the year is out you will probably be engaged, perhaps married. Our lives will be widely separated. That is inevitable from the nature of things. But distance and absence can cause no such separation as results from misunderstanding. If we should not meet again in twenty years I should be the same loyal friend. Now I've said it, and don't vex me again by speaking as if I had not said and meant it."

"I can scarcely tell whether your words make me more glad or sad. Each feeling is deeper than you will ever believe. You certainly give me the impression that if I marry Stella Wildmere our lives will be separated."

"You don't take nature, especially woman-nature, into consideration at all. I am not congenial to Miss Wildmere; she does not like me. It is nothing against her, but some people are antagonistic. This is especially true among women, and in this case it is not strange. Our experiences have been very different. She has ever been a beautiful, brilliant society-girl. With her at your side you would always be an object of envy in circles congenial to you, for admiration would follow her as the light follows day. In the past, you know, I have not been influenced by society considerations, and in the future they shall be very secondary. Therefore we of necessity are unlike, and could never be much company for each other. There is never any use in trying to ignore the old law of 'like unto like.' I say this in explanation of what you know is true all the world over. Even the close ties of kindred often count for little where tastes, occupations, and habits of thought are diverse. All this is nothing against your perfect right to please yourself. In this land, thank Heaven! families and friends cannot yoke people together to pull forward general and miscellaneous interests."

"You speak as if it were a slight thing when the woman whom a man marries is merely accepted, tolerated, by his kindred."

"I have not said that, Graydon; I have only said again what I said before--that a man has a right to please himself. The truth is trite enough; why recur to it?"

"Gravitation is trite enough, but it often has an acute bearing on one's experience. You do not like Stella--"

"And she does not like me."

"Very well; but you try to be just to her, and when she has lived a while in different associations you will find her greatly changed. I think you can be her close friend in the future. But Henry detests her, and he is so quietly and obstinately tenacious in his views that the fact annoys me exceedingly."

"Very well; you can't help that. You will live in different houses, and your domestic life will be quite removed from business interests."

"Oh, confound Henry! He married to suit himself, so shall I. But, Madge, dear Madge, you will try to love her--to help her to be more like you, for my sake?"

At last Madge's laugh rang out merrily. "For mercy's sake, Graydon, don't ask me to be a missionary to your wife," she cried. "If I escaped with my eyes I should be lucky. You must think your wife perfection, and make her think you do. Woe be unto you if you introduce a female friend and suggest that she should be imitated, even to the arch of an eyebrow. Oh, no, I thank you! That's a sphere in which I shouldn't shine at all, and I wouldn't dare attempt it with any feminine saint in the calendar. Oh, Graydon, what a dear old goose you are!" and she laughed till the tears came into her eyes. He joined her in a half vexed way, protesting that she was still as uncanny as a ghost, although she had lost the aspect of one.

Suddenly she stopped, and tears of sorrow filled her eyes. "Here I am, laughing at our absurd talk," she said, "when I have just left the side of a poor girl, no older than myself, who is ghostly indeed in her flickering life. Is it heartless to seem to forget so soon? Oh, Graydon, you don't know what trouble is! You have only had vexations thus far. Let me tell you what happened last night, if only to make you grateful for your strong, prosperous life."

"Tell me anything you wish. I always have better thoughts and impulses after being with you."

"Please don't regard me as egotistical, or offend me by thinking I am trying to be better than others. Why shouldn't I help that poor girl? We often dance all night for fun; why can't we watch occasionally for pity? And in simple truth it will be a long time before the ache for that poor creature will go out of my heart. It came very close home, Graydon--very close. It brought to mind another girl, who was once scarcely stronger or better than Tilly Wendall is to-day, but God was kind. Tilly also has great black eyes, and they do look so large and pathetic in the wan little face! At first they did not notice me much. I was only another of the watchers who had come to aid her mother. It's astonishing how kind these plain country people are to one another in trouble, and many a housewife in this region has toiled all day and then sat up with the poor child the livelong night.

"For the first few hours I could do little more than help her move in her weak restlessness, and give remedies to relieve her incessant cough. The poor thing seemed neither more nor less than a victim of disease, that with a cruelty almost malign had tortured her. I can't explain how this awful impression grew upon me. It was as if viewless, brutal hands had racked the emaciated form until intelligence was gone, and then, not content, would continue their vindictive work while breath remained in the body. As my watch was prolonged this impression grew into a nightmare of horror. The still house, the silent, white, beautiful world without, and that frail young girl tortured hour after hour under my eyes by fever and a convulsive, incessant, remorseless cough."

She buried her face in her hands, and for a moment or two her voice was choked with sobs.

"Oh, Madge," cried Graydon, almost fiercely, "you anger me! I would strangle a man who harmed a hair of such a child's head. How can I worship a God who sends or permits such a thing? You are braver than I. I could see a man shot, but I couldn't look upon what you have described. Yet the picture brings back the moment when we parted--when you struggled feebly in my arms with a premonition of your almost mortal weakness, and then sank back white and deathlike. If you had not made so wise and brave an effort you might have lingered on in torture like this poor girl. You stood in just that peril, did you not?"

"I suppose I did."

"Oh, what a clod I was! I used to hear you cough night after night, and I would mutter, 'Poor Madge!' and go to sleep. To think that you might have suffered as this girl is suffering! I never realized it before, yet I thought I did. I can't tell you how my whole nature rebels at it all, and pious talk about resignation in the presence of such scenes fairly makes me grind my teeth;" and his brow blackened like night in his mental revolt, and his eyes were sternly fixed in honest, indignant arraignment of the Power he did not scruple to defy, though so impotent to resist.

Madge brushed away her tears, and watched him earnestly for a moment. In that confused instant she exulted in the strong, generous, kindly manhood that would not cringe even to omnipotence when apparently cruel. She said, gently, "Graydon, you are condemning God."

"I can't help it," he began, impetuously, "that is, such a God--"

She put her hand over his mouth.

"I like you better for your words," she continued, "but please don't talk so any more. Let what you have said apply to 'such a God--' I know what you mean, but there is no such being in existence. Let me finish my story. We have had too many interruptions, and this secluded road has an end. I won't try to explain my faith. What happened may make it clearer to you. Well, Tilly gradually grew quieter, and at last slept. The tired mother was sleeping also, and I sat at the window just as you imagined, my thoughts sad and questioning, to say the least At last I saw that Tilly was awake, and looking at me with something like interest and curiosity. I went to her and asked if I could do anything.

"She said, in her slow, feeble way, 'I thought I knew every one about here, but I don't remember to have seen you before.'

"Then I told her who I was, and that her mother was in the next room.

"'You are very kind,' she said. 'And you are from the hotel. Isn't it a little strange?'

"'It should not be,' I replied, and explained how I came to stay, adding, 'Don't talk any more. You are not strong enough.'

"With a quiet smile that astonished me, she said, 'It won't make any difference, Miss Alden; I shall never be any better, or, rather, I shall soon be well. My mind seems growing clearer, and I'd like to talk a little. It is strange to see a young girl here. Are you strong and well?'

"'Yes, very strong, and very glad to help your mother take care of you. I was once almost as ill as you are, yet I got well. Cheer up, and let us nurse you back to health.'

"She shook her head. 'No, that's now impossible. You come and cheer poor mother and father, Miss Alden. I am more than cheerful, I am happy.'

"I made her call me Madge, and said: 'Tell me then in a few words how you can be happy. My heart has just been aching for you ever since I came.'

"Perhaps she saw tears in my eyes, for she said, 'Sit down by me.' Then she took my hand, leaned her cheek upon it, and looked at me with such a lovely sympathy in her beautiful dark eyes!

"'Yes,' she said, 'I see you are young and strong, and you probably have wealth and many friends; still I think I am better off than you are. I am almost home, and you may have long, weary journeying before you yet. You ask me why I am happy. I'll just give you the negative reasons: think how much they mean to me--"And there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain." All these may be taken from my life any hour. Think of what will be added to it. You believe all this, Madge?'

"'Yes.'

"'Then you must know why I am happy, and why I may be better off than you are. It will be very hard for father and mother--there will be more pain for them here in consequence--but soon it will all end forever; in a little while we shall be together again. So you know nearly all about poor little me,' she said, with another of her smiles, which were the sweetest, yet most unearthly things I ever saw. 'And now tell me about yourself. I'm not able to talk much more for the present. I'd like to know something about the friend who helped me through the last few steps of my journey. I can think about you in heaven, you know,' she said, with the sweetest little laugh. 'Don't look so sad, Madge. They'll tell you I'm gone soon. "Gone where?" ask yourself, and never grieve a moment.'

"Oh, Graydon, she made it all seem so real, talking there alone in the night! And it is just as she says or it isn't anything. When you said, 'Such a God,' you had in mind a theological phantom, and I don't wonder you felt as you did; but this girl believes in a God who 'so loved the world'--who so loved her--and I do also. Her pain, her thwarted young life, I don't understand any more than I do other phases of evil, but I can give my allegiance to One who came to take away the evil of the world. That's about all the religion I have, and you mustn't ever say a word against it.

"Well, there is but little more to tell. Tilly spoke in quiet, broken sentences as her cough permitted, and I told her a little about myself and sang to her some hymns that mother sang to me when I was a child. With the dawn her mother came in, and was frightened at having slept so long, but Tilly laughed and said it was just splendid.

"She was evidently a very intelligent girl, and must have been a pretty one, too. She certainly has read a great deal, and has taught in public schools. There didn't seem to be a trace of morbidness in her mind or feeling. She was simply trying to make the best of everything, and her best certainly is the best. She has helped and comforted me more than I could her."

"Comforted you, Madge?"

"Oh, well," was the somewhat confused reply. "I've had trouble, and shall have again. Who is without it long in this world?"

"It's almost hard to see how serious trouble can reach you hereafter, you are so strong, so fortified. No, Madge; I'll never say a word against your faith or that of your new friend. Would to Heaven I had it myself! I wouldn't have missed this talk with you for the world, and you can't know how I appreciate the friendship which has led you to speak to me frankly of what is so sacred. All the whirl and pressure of coming life and business shall never blot from my memory the words you have spoken this morning or the scenes you have made so real."

If this were true, how infinitely deeper would have been his impression if he could have seen the beautiful girl, now smiling into his eyes, bowed in agony at that sick-bed, while she acknowledged with stifled sobs that the dying girl was better off--far happier than she who had to face almost the certainty of lifelong disappointment. Poor Madge had not told Graydon all her story. She would have died rather than have her secret known on earth, but she had not feared to breathe it to one on the threshold of heaven.