Chapter III. The Parting
 

At last Madge was alone. Her sister had suggested everything she could think of, meanwhile bewailing the young girl's extreme imprudence. Madge entreated for quiet and rest, and at last was left alone. Hour after hour she lay with wide, fixed gaze. Her mind and imagination did not partake of her physical weakness, and now they were abnormally active. As the bewilderment from the shock of her abrupt awakening passed, the truth hourly grew clearer. From the time she had first come under her sister's roof Graydon Muir had begun to make himself essential to her. His uniform kindness had created trust, freedom, and a content akin to happiness. Now all was swept away. She understood that his love was an affection resulting from pity and the strong, genial forces of his nature. The girl who could kindle his spirit and inspire the best and most enthusiastic efforts of his manhood must be like Miss Wildmere--strong, beautiful, capable of keeping step with him under society's critical eyes, and not a mere shadow of a woman like herself. Her morbidly acute fancy recalled the ballroom. She saw him again after his return, encircling the fair girl with his arm, and looking down into her eyes with a meaning unmistakable. Oh, why had she gone to that fatal party! The past, in contrast to the present and the promise of the future, seemed happiness itself.

What could she do? What should she do? The more she thought of it the more unendurable her position appeared. In her vivid self-consciousness the old relations could not continue. Heretofore his caresses had been a matter of course, of habit. They could be so no longer. She shrank from them with inexpressible fear, knowing they would bring what little blood she possessed to her face and very brow in tell-tale floods. The one event from which her sensitive womanhood drew back in deepest dread was his knowledge of her love. To prevent this she would rather die, and she felt so weak and despairing that she thought and almost hoped she would die. If she could only go away, where she would not see him, and hide her wound! But how could she, chained near his daily presence by weakness and helplessness?

Thus through the long night her despairing thoughts went to and fro, and found no rest. Miss Wildmere's cold glance met her everywhere with the assurance that such a creature as she could never be anything to him, and, alas! his own words confirmed the verdict. Love that gives all demands all, and such pitiful affection as he now gave was only a mockery. The morning found her too weak to leave her room, and for the few following days she made illness her excuse for remaining in seclusion. As Graydon looked ruefully at her vacant chair the fourth evening after the company, Mrs. Muir remarked, reproachfully, "I hope you now realize how delicate Madge is. You never should have coaxed her to go to that party."

He was filled with compunction, and brought her flowers, boxes of candy, books, and everything which he imagined would amuse her. At the same time he was growing a little impatient and provoked. He knew that he had taken her from the kindest motives. Now that she gave up utterly to her invalidism, he was inclined to question its necessity. He found that he missed her more than he would have imagined, and his brief hours at home were dreary by reason of her seclusion.

"Why don't you call in a first-class physician and put Madge under a thorough course of treatment?" he asked, irritably. "She has no disease now that I know anything about, and I don't believe it's necessary that she should remain so weak and lackadaisical."

"We did have our doctor call often, and he said she would outgrow her troubles if she would take plenty of fresh of fresh air and exercise. And now she positively refuses to see a physician."

"I wouldn't humor a sick girl's fancies. She needs tonics and a general building up. With your permission I'll stop on my way downtown to-morrow and tell Dr. Anderson to call."

Mrs. Muir repeated the conversation to her sister, with the literalness of which only unimaginative women are capable. Madge turned her face to the wall, and said, coldly and decisively, "I refuse to see a physician. I am no longer a child, and my wishes must be respected." After a moment she added, apologetically: "A doctor could do me no good. I shall soon be stronger. You understand me better than Dr. Anderson can. You are the best and kindest nurse that ever breathed, and I've had enough of doctors. I'll take anything you give me."

These politic words appealed to Mrs. Muir's weak point. Nothing pleased her better than to believe that she could act the part of physician in the family, and prescribing for Madge was a source of unflagging interest. When she informed Graydon of their decision in the morning, he muttered something not very complimentary to either of the ladies; but his good-nature prevailed, and instead of the doctor he ordered a superb bouquet of Jacqueminot roses.

Meanwhile events were taking place of which Madge had no knowledge, but which would favor the plan slowly maturing in her mind. Mr. Muir's business affairs had been taking a turn which made it probable that he would soon have to send his brother abroad. As long as there was uncertainty the reticent man said nothing, but at last he received advices which brought him to a prompt decision, and Graydon was told that he must go at once. The young fellow submitted with fairly good grace. A brief foreign residence had its attractions, but it interfered with his incipient suit to Miss Wildmere. He felt that he had not gone far enough for a definite proposal, but he showed, during the brief call that his time permitted, an interest which the young lady well understood. Since he was to be absent for an indefinite period, and would have no chance to observe her other little affairs, she permitted herself to be gracious and regretful up to the point of inspiring much hope for the future. With a nicety of tact--the result of experience--she confirmed his view that they had made favorable impressions on each other, and that for the present they must be content with this.

He had but a day in which to make his preparations in order to catch a fast steamer that sailed at daylight the following morning. Madge's first sensation when she learned of his near departure was one of immense relief. The possibility which she had so dreaded could not now be realized, and her plan could be carried out with far less embarrassment. But as time passed, and she knew that their separation was so near, her heart relented toward him with inexpressible tenderness. The roses that perfumed the room were a type of his unstinted kindness and consideration. She was just enough to acknowledge that these were even more than she could naturally expect from him--that the majority of young men would have treated her with a half contemptuous pity which she was now beginning to admit would be partially deserved. On the occasions when she had gone out with him she had learned how unattractive in society her pale face and shy ways were. Such attentions as she had received had been to her sensitive spirit like charity. Graydon had been animated by unaffected good-will and an affection that was, after its kind, genuine. While she felt that it would be no longer possible to receive these mild manifestations of regard while giving something so different, she still knew, with a half despairing sinking of heart, how blank and desolate her life would be without them. She must meet him once more, and word was sent that she would receive his good-by after dinner. Having safely passed this one interview, she hoped that she might be able to control the future, and either cease to be, or bring about changes upon which she had resolved.

Only a soft, dim light shone in her room when he came to say farewell.

"Why, Madge," he exclaimed, "you are better! You actually have color. Perhaps it is fever, though," he added, dubiously. "At any rate, it's very becoming."

"I think it must be the reflection from your roses there, you extravagant fellow," she replied, laughing.

"That's famous, Madge. If you will laugh again like that I'll send you a present from Paris. Dear Madge, do get well. Don't let us have anything dismal in our parting. It's only for a little while, you know. When I come back it will be summer, and I'll take you to the seashore or mountains or somewhere, and help you get well."

"You are very kind, Graydon. You have been a true brother to me from the time you tried to cheer and encourage the pale, frightened little girl that sat opposite you at the dinner-table. Don't you remember?"

"Of course I do. It seemed so droll to me that you were afraid when there was nothing to be afraid of."

"My fear was natural. Little as I know of the world, I know that--at least for one like me. It may seem weak and silly to you, but, brought up as I had been, I was morbidly sensitive. You might have meant to be kind and sympathetic and all that, and yet have hurt me cruelly. I have been out with you enough to know how I am regarded. I don't complain. I suppose it is the way of the world, but it has not been your way. You have brought sunshine from the first, not from a sense of duty, not out of sheer humiliating pity, but because it was the impulse of your strength to help and cheer one who was so weak, and if--if--anything--Well, I want you to know before you go away that I appreciate it all and shall never forget it."

"Oh, come, Madge, don't talk so dismally. What do you mean by 'if--if--anything'? You are going to get strong and well, and we will open the campaign together next fall."

She shook her head, but asked, lightly, "How will Miss Wildmere endure your absence?"

"Easier than you, I imagine. She knows how to console herself. Still, as my little sister, I will tell you in confidence that she was very kind in our parting interview. How much her kindness meant only she herself knows, and I've been in society long enough to know that it may mean very little."

"Are you so wholly bent upon winning her, Graydon?"

"Oh, you little Mother Eve! You are surely going to get well. There is no sign of longevity in a woman so certain as curiosity. I've not yet reached the point of breaking my heart about her, whatever she does. Wouldn't you like so beautiful a creature for your sister?"

"The contrast would be too great. I should indeed seem a ghost beside her. Still, if she would make you happy--" But she could go no further.

"Well, well, that's a very uncertain problem of the future. Don't say anything about it at home. My brother don't like her father. They do not get on well in business. Let us talk about yourself. What are you going to do while I am gone?"

"What can such a shadow as I do? Tell me rather what you are going to do, and where you'll be. You are real, and what you do amounts to something."

"There's one thing I'm going to do, and that is, write you some jolly letters that will make you laugh in spite of yourself. They will be part of the tonic treatment that I want you to promise me to begin at once."

"I have already entered upon it, Graydon," she said, quietly, "and I don't think any one will value your letters more than I, only I may not get strong enough to write very much in reply. I've never had occasion to write many letters, you know. Tell me where you will be and what you are going to do," and she leaned back upon her lounge and closed her eyes.

While he complied, he thought, "She has grown pale and thin even to ghastliness, yet I was sure she had color when I first came in. Poor little thing! perhaps her fears are well founded, and I may never see her again;" and the good-hearted fellow was full of tender and remorseful regret. He was quite as fond of her as if she had been his own sister, perhaps even more so, for his affection was not merely the result of a natural tie, but of something congenial to his nature in the girl herself, and it cut him to the heart to see her so white and frail. He stopped a moment, and she opened her eyes and looked at him inquiringly.

"Oh, Madge," he broke out, "I'm so sorry I took you to that confounded party. You seemed getting on hopefully until that blasted evening. You must get well enough to haunt me after your old fashion. You don't know what a dear little sister you have become, and I didn't know it myself until you were secluded by illness, and all through my fault. You have barricaded yourself long enough with that stand and its vase of roses. I'm not going to say good-by at this distance." He removed the stand, and seating himself by her side, he drew her head down upon his shoulder and kissed her again and again. "There now," he continued, "you look perfectly lovely. Kisses are a part of the tonic treatment you need, and I wish I were going to be here to give them. Why, you queer little woman! I did not know you had so much blood in your body."

"It's--it's because I'm not strong," she said, struggling for release. Suddenly she became still, her face took on almost the hue of death, and he saw that she was unconscious.

In terrible alarm he laid her hastily on the lounge, and rushed for Mrs. Muir.

"She has merely fainted," said that experienced woman, after a moment's examination. "You never will learn, Graydon, that Madge is not as strong as yourself. Call one of the maids, and leave her to me."

That was the last time he saw Madge Alden for more than two years. She soon rallied, but agreed with her sister that it would be best not to see him again. She sent him one of his own roses, with the simple message, "Good-by."

Late at night he went down to the steamer, depressed and anxious, carrying with him the vivid memory of Madge lying white and death-like where he had laid her apparently lifeless form.

"I shall never see her again," he muttered. "Such weakness must be mortal."