Chapter XXIX. The Enemies' Plans
 

It has been shown that Arnault believed the decisive period to have come that would see the success or failure of his "operation" in the Catskills. Keen, penetrating, he had comprehended the situation clearly. He knew that Stella wished to accept Graydon, and was held in check by financial considerations only. He had seen her manner during the preceding moonlight evening, and with intense anger had observed from a neighboring grove the episode in the summer-house. The twig had not casually parted under his step, but had been snapped between his fingers. Stella's quick alarm and flight had revealed the continuance of his hold upon her fears, if not her heart. From that moment he dismissed all indecision. In bitterness he realized that his prolonged stay in the mountains had not advanced his interests. He had hoped to win the girl by devotion, keeping financial pressure in the background; she had been only suave, agreeable, and elusive. He had told her that he expected her decision by Saturday evening; she had merely bowed in a non-committal way. Meanwhile it was evident that if the Muirs kept up, apparently retaining the power to pass unscathed to better times, she would prolong her hesitancy, and in the end accept Graydon. He determined, therefore, to see her first, then her father, and to call in his loan immediately.

While Graydon and Madge were returning next morning from the lonely farmhouse Arnault was breakfasting at the hotel. He appeared in excellent spirits. Miss Wildmere's alert observation could not detect from his manner his knowledge of the fact that she had been on the point of yielding to Graydon the evening before. He was full of gallant courtesy toward her, and every glance and word expressed admiration. This was always the breath of life to her, and while it had ceased to give positive pleasure, its absence was like uncomfortable weather.

After the meal was over he led her to the same summer-house in which Graydon had almost spoken words endowed with a lover's warmth and eagerness.

"Stella," he said, "I shall go to town on the ten-o'clock train."

"I supposed you had concluded to remain all the week," she replied.

"No; very important interests call me to the city, much to my regret. You only bowed when I requested that I should receive a final answer before the close of this week. I shall return Saturday. Will you end my suspense within this time?"

She was silent.

"Will you make me another promise, then? Will you remain free this week? If you will not bind yourself to me, will you promise that no one else shall have a claim upon you until the time specified expires?"

After some hesitation she said, "Yes, I will promise that."

"Please do so, and you will not regret it," was his quiet response.

"I am not so eager to be bound that I cannot promise so much."

"Very well then, I am content for the present;" and he changed the subject.

They soon returned to the piazza, and Arnault employed his utmost effort to be agreeable during the brief time remaining.

Earlier in the week he had written Mr. Wildmere a letter, in consequence of which the momentous telegram had restrained the daughter at the critical moment already mentioned.

When Madge came down to a late dinner she saw that Arnault had disappeared from the Wildmere table, and that the belle was already a victim of ennui in the absence of both gentlemen. During the afternoon Mrs. Muir was eager to gossip a little over the aspect of affairs, but soon found that Madge would do scarcely more than listen.

"I don't understand that Miss Wildmere at all," said the elder sister; "late last evening she went to yonder summer-house, hanging on Graydon's arm as if they were engaged or married, and now he's gone to be absent several days. This morning she was there again with Arnault, and he wasn't talking about the weather, either. Now he's gone also. Before Graydon went she had another long interview with him while you were asleep. Good gracious! what is she aiming at? Young men were not so patient in my day or in our village; and quiet as Henry appears, he wouldn't play second string to a bow as Graydon does. When Miss Wildmere first came I thought it was about settled, and I tried to be polite to one whom I thought we should soon have to receive. Now it's a sort of neck-and-neck race between the two men. If Graydon wins, how shall you treat Miss Wildmere?"

"Politely for Graydon's sake, of course."

"Whose chances are best?"

"Graydon's."

"Do you think she loves him?"

"Yes, as far as she can love any one.'

"Why, Madge, what do you mean?"

"She could not love as we should; she doesn't know what the word means. If she did she wouldn't hesitate."

"You think Henry's opinion of her is correct, then?"

"I think he's right usually. Miss Wildmere is devoted to one being--herself."

"Why, Madge, it would be dreadful to have Graydon marry such a girl!"

"Graydon is not Harry Muir. He attained his majority some years since."

"He certainly is old enough to show more spirit. Well, I don't understand her tactics, but such belles, I suppose, are a law unto themselves."

"Don't let us gossip about her any more. If Graydon becomes engaged there is only one thing for us to do. Miss Wildmere has made herself disagreeable to me in many little nameless ways, and we never could be friends, but I shall not give Graydon cause for just complaint. If he asks me to see her with his eyes, I shall laugh at him and decline."

"They shall never live with us," said Mrs. Muir, emphatically. "I know I'm not a brilliant and accomplished woman, but I have always made home a place of rest and comfort for Henry, and I intend it always shall be just such a refuge. He is nervous and uncomfortable whenever that girl comes near him. Some people can't get on together at all. I am so glad that he likes you! He says you are one that a man could depend upon in all sorts of weather."

"We'll see; but I like Santa Barbara weather, which is usually serene."

"Oh, Madge, you'll not go there again?"

"Yes, I shall probably make it my home. I should never keep my health in the East, and I should dread a winter in New York more than I can tell you."

"Well," said Mrs. Muir, discontentedly, "I suppose you will have your own way in everything hereafter; but I think you might at least try to spend a winter with us."

"If there were cause I would, Mary, but you are happy in your home, and I am not greatly needed. In my Western home I feel I can get the most out of life, just as you are getting the most out of yours. I should suffer from my old troubles in New York." This statement was true enough to both ladies, although a very prosaic impression was conveyed to Mrs. Muir's mind.

To Madge, Graydon's absence contained a strong element of hope. He would not have gone away if all had been settled between him and Miss Wildmere, and, as Mary had said, there appeared stronger evidence of uncertainty now than at first. Graydon had seen Miss Wildmere, and she evidently had not finally dismissed Arnault.

Madge indulged in no idle brooding, however, and by activity every hour in the day, passed the time bravely. One of her boy admirers had a horse, and became her escort on long excursions; and with Mrs. Muir she went to see Tilly Wendall again on Friday morning. The poor girl was very weak indeed, and could do little more than smile her welcome. Madge promised to spend Sunday night with her. She would have come before, but Graydon had told her that he might return Friday evening, and as a storm was threatening she thought it probable that he would hasten back to avoid it. She believed that there was still hope for her, and determined that she should never have cause in the future to reproach herself with lost opportunities. There was no imperative call of duty to her sick friend, for Mrs. Wendall said that two or three neighbors had lately offered their services.

Mrs. Muir was gladdened on her return to the hotel by a telegram from her husband, saying that he would arrive on the late train and spend Saturday with her. She and Madge sat down to dinner in a cheerful mood, which evidently was not shared by Miss Wildmere.

That brilliant young woman, although she made herself the centre of all things as far as possible, was a victim of poverty when thrown upon her own resources. Madge detected her in suppressed yawns, and had noted that she had apparently done little else than read novels since parting with the two men who were metaphorically at her feet. Since the telegram she had not received a word from her father or any one, and was inwardly chafing at the dead calm that had followed her exciting experiences. She did not misinterpret the deceptive peace, however, and knew that on the morrow she must decide what even she regarded as the most momentous question of life. Persons under the dominion of pure selfishness escape many perplexities, however, and she was prone to take short cuts to desired ends. Ready to practice deceit herself, she became more strongly impressed that her father and Arnault were misleading her. Therefore she impatiently awaited the former's appearance, that she might tax him with duplicity. Unless he had something stronger than vague surmises to offer, she intended on the morrow to promise Graydon Muir to be his wife.

As has been seen, Wildmere had too much conscience to try to sell his daughter outright, but since she was in a mood for a bargain he had insured the possibility of one remarkably good in his estimation, and was now on his way with very definite offers and statements indeed.

In the late afternoon Madge was speaking about a book to an acquaintance who said, "Go up to my room and get it."

Madge was not sure whether she cared to read the book or not, and sat down to examine it. Suddenly she heard distinctly the words, "I don't believe Henry Muir is in danger of failure. Graydon scouted the idea. You and Arnault are seeking to mislead me."

Madge then remembered that the next room was occupied by Miss Wildmere, and her first impulse was to make a noise, that the proximity of some one might be known, but like a flash came the thought, "Chance may have put me in the way of getting information of vital importance to Henry;" and the next sentence spoken assured her that this was true, for she heard a voice which she recognized as Mr. Wildmere's say:

"In all human probability Muir will be compelled to suspend to-morrow. Mr. Arnault has placed in his hands a call loan. You know what that is. Arnault is so alarmed about Muir's condition that he will demand the money in the morning, and I am perfectly satisfied that Muir can't raise it. You know enough about business to be aware of what will happen if he cannot. Such is the market now that if Muir goes down he will be cleaned out utterly, and Graydon will have to begin at the bottom like any other young man without resources. Of course, Arnault cannot afford to lose the money, and must act like any other business man.

"But he did not send me here to tell you this. As his broker I know about it, and tell you of my own accord. This is what he did authorize me to say to you. Had not business interests, which have already suffered from his devotion to you, prevented, he would be here now to make the offer in person. He says that he will settle upon you one hundred thousand dollars in your own right the day you marry him, and also give you an elegant home in the city. Now what is your answer?"

"When Henry Muir fails I'll believe all this," was the sullen reply.

"Be careful, Stella. Devoted as Arnault is he is not a man to be trifled with. He has made you a munificent offer, but if you show this kind of spirit he is just the one to withdraw at once and forever. If you love Graydon Muir well enough to share his poverty, I have not another word to say, although I shall be homeless myself in consequence."

"Nonsense, papa! You have been on the eve of ruin more times than I can remember. Graydon assured me that he was abundantly able to take care of me, and that his brother was in no danger. I can have all the elegance I want and still follow my own inclination. If Henry Muir fails, of course that ends the matter; and if he is to fail to-morrow it will be time enough to give Mr. Arnault my answer to-morrow night, as he asked that I would. If I give him a favorable one I prefer to do it in person, for I don't wish to appear mercenary. You, I hope, have the sense to keep this phase out of view."

"Oh, certainly. Such high-minded people as we are should not be misjudged," was the bitter reply.

"One has to take the world as it is, and one soon learns that all are looking after their own interests," was the cynical reply.

"A beautiful sentiment for one so young! Well, I must return to the city to-night, and I cannot take your acceptance of Mr. Arnault's offer?"

"No. I will give my answer in person to-morrow night. I can either accede in a way that will please him, or decline in a manner that will keep his friendship. I suppose you believe what you say about Mr. Muir, but I am sure you are mistaken, and I have set my heart on marrying Graydon."

"Your heart?" satirically.

She made no answer.

"You are taking no slight risk," he resumed, after a moment.

"Either Arnault is misleading you, or Graydon is deceiving me, and I would believe him in preference to Arnault any day. I won't be duped."

"But I tell you, Stella, that under the circumstances Graydon's ignorance is not at all strange. He has been absent; he is not in the firm; and what is swamping Muir is an investment outside of his regular business."

"You yourself said within a month that if Henry Muir went through this business crisis he would represent one of the strongest and wealthiest houses in the country. If he is in the danger you assert, the fact will soon be manifested. Mr. Arnault has requested my answer to-morrow night. I have not promised to give it; I have only promised him not to accept Graydon in the meantime."

"The fact that Mr. Arnault is helping me so greatly counts for nothing, I suppose."

"Oh, yes; I appreciate it very much, but not enough to marry him unless I must. I am literally following your advice--to choose between these two men. I shall convey to Mr. Arnault the impression that I am deeply moved by the generosity of his offer. I am. Girls don't get such offers every day. You can show him that the very fact of my hesitation proves that I am not mercenary; or I can, when I see him. At the same time I am not at all satisfied that Graydon Muir's offer is not a better one, and it is certainly more to my mind--if you don't like the word heart. This fact, however, may as well not be mentioned."

After some moments' hesitation he said, slowly: "Very well, then. You are my daughter, although a strange one, and I shall do as well for you as I can."

"Yes, please. I parted with sentiment long ago, but I can do well by those who do well by me. I shall soon be off your hands, and then you won't have me to worry about."

He made no response, and Madge heard his step pass into his wife's room. A moment later Miss Wildmere also departed, and her voice was soon heard on the piazza. The conversation had been carried on in a comparatively low tone, and some words had been lost, but those heard made the sense given above. Circumstances had favored Madge. The open window at which she was sitting was near the next window in Miss Wildmere's room, and within two or three feet there was the customary thin-panelled door which enables the proprietor to throw rooms together, as required, for the accommodation of families. Therefore, without moving or volition on her part information vital to her relatives had been brought to her knowledge. She was perfectly overwhelmed at first, and sat as if stunned, her cheeks scarlet with shame for the act of listening, even while she felt that for the sake of the innocent and unsuspecting, to whom she owed loyalty and love, it was right. Soon, however, came the impulse to seek the refuge of her own room and think of what must be done. She stepped lightly to the outer door; there was no sound in the corridor, and with all the composure she could assume she passed quietly out and gained her own apartment unobserved.