Chapter XXX. The Strong Man Unmanned
 

Madge locked her doors, bathed her hot face, then paced her room in great agitation, feeling that not only her own happiness was in peril, but Graydon's also. Her mental distress was greatly enhanced by a feeling that in order to save her relatives she herself had been guilty of what to her sensitive nature appeared almost like a crime. "Was it right?" she asked herself again and again, and at last reached the conclusion that the fealty she owed to her relatives and to the man she loved justified her course--that she should shield them even at such cost to herself. "It was not curiosity that kept me passive," she thought, "but the hope, the chance to save Henry from financial ruin and Graydon from far worse disaster." It would indeed be "horrible" for any true man to marry such a girl; and to permit the man she loved to make such a fatal blunder was simply monstrous. Yet how could she prevent it without doing violence to every maidenly principle of her nature?

Should she tell her sister? This impulse passed almost instantly. Mary had not the tact, nerve, or reticence to meet such an emergency. It seemed, however, that if something was not done almost immediately this callous, selfish girl would cause lifelong wretchedness to Graydon as certainly as to Madge herself. Such a nature could not long maintain its disguise, and probably would not be at pains to do so after marriage. The self-sacrifice that she had led Graydon to believe in was all deceit. It was self with her, first and last; it would be self always. Madge knew Graydon well enough to be sure that to him, when his illusions were dissipated, the marriage vow would become a chain growing heavier with time.

This absolutely certain phase of the danger was so terrible that at first it almost completely dominated her thoughts. "Oh," she moaned, "I could see him marry a woman who would make him happy, and yet survive, but this would be worse than death!"

As she became more calm and could think connectedly, her mind reverted to what had been said about Henry's financial peril; and while she was inclined to take the same view as Miss Wildmere, she soon began to see that her brother-in-law should be informed of all references to him. Then the impression grew upon her that it would be wisest to tell him all, and let him save his brother, if possible, from a fate infinitely worse than lifelong poverty. Would this involve the disclosure to Mr. Muir of her secret? Sometimes she thought that he half suspected her already, and she feared that she could scarcely speak of a subject that touched her heart's interests so closely without revealing to those keen gray eyes more than she would have them see. But the risk must be taken to save Graydon.

"Can it be?" she said, after musing awhile, "that Henry is in any such danger as that man asserted, or was it a trumped-up scheme to influence the girl? Still, he did say that if she would choose Graydon and poverty he would not interpose. Poverty! I would welcome bondage and chains with Graydon. I would almost welcome Henry's failure, that I might prove to them my devotion. Every penny of my fortune should be theirs. Henry has looked very anxious and troubled sometimes when thinking himself unobserved. He keeps everything to himself so--"

Suddenly she sprang up with a flash of joy in her face, and whispered to herself, excitedly: "Suppose there is truth in what was said by those speculators. I have a fortune, and it's my own. Henry said it was so left to me that I could control it after I was eighteen. I can lend Henry the money to pay Arnault. I will give him every penny I possess to carry him safely through. Oh, I am so glad he is coming to-night!"

"Come down to supper," called Mrs. Muir.

"Why, Madge," exclaimed the lady, as they sat down under the light of the chandelier, "how flushed you are! And your eyes fairly beam with excitement. I half believe you are feverish."

"Nonsense! No doses for me now; milk and beefsteak are my remedies. I've been dwelling on some scenes partly imaginary, and you know how wrought-up I get."

"Oh, yes; now I remember, you asked Miss Thompson for a book, and went for it to her room. Of course that was the last seen of you. I never could get so carried away by a story."

"I haven't your even disposition, Mary."

"Miss Wildmere looks brilliant to-night, also. And if there isn't her father! This is the first time I've seen him up during the week. Well, I'm glad to see that his daughter can wake up a little for his sake, a well as for some other man."

Madge looked at her with mingled curiosity and repugnance. "Horrid little monster!" she thought. "Now she is performing her filial act. As her father said, 'such high-toned people should not be misjudged.'"

"I think you dislike her worse than Henry does," said Mrs. Muir, with a low laugh. "You look at her as if she were a snake."

"She is not a girl after my heart," Madge replied, carelessly; then added, under her breath, "She's a vampire, but she shan't drain Graydon's life-blood."

Miss Wildmere was certainly in a genial mood. The munificent offer received from Mr. Arnault had enhanced her self-appreciation, and she felt that she had met it with rare nerve and sagacity. She had not shown herself dazzled like a village girl, and eager to grasp the prize. Moreover, she had thought, with proud complacency: "The man who can offer so much is not going to give me up, even should I keep him waiting months longer. I still believe that Graydon can give me all I want at present, and at the same time a position in society which Arnault could never attain, though worth millions. Arnault is on top of the wave now, but he is a speculator, like papa, and I'm sick of these Wall Street ups and downs. I believe in Henry Muir's conservatism. Because he is keeping quiet now they think he is going to fail. He is just the kind of man to be five times as rich as people think. Graydon will succeed to his business and business methods, and will not only make an immense fortune, but keep it. Papa has given me the test of all these gloomy warnings. If Henry Muir does not fail to-morrow, I won't believe a word of all that's been said. If he does, I'll do the next best thing, and take Arnault. No tenement-house for me, thank you. I've not been in society so long as not to make the most of my chances;" and under the inspiration of thoughts like these Miss Wildmere condescended to be affable to her parents, and to smile upon the world in general.

Madge Alden was an exception, however, and for her she had only a frown as she looked across the room at the young girl and saw the admiration and friendly regard that were so freely bestowed upon her. As was inevitable, the selfish spirit of one girl had repelled and the kindly nature of the other had attracted good-will. Human instinct is quick to recognize the tax-gatherers of society--the people who are ever exacting, yet give little except slights, wounds, and criticism.

"Oh," thought Miss Wildmere, "if I can only marry Graydon and snub that girl unmercifully I shall be perfectly happy!"

The late train would not arrive before nine o'clock, and Madge determined to go down in the stage to meet Mr. Muir. In the meantime her quick mind was coping with the emergency. She had often heard it said that in times of financial uncertainty an air of the utmost confidence should be maintained. Therefore she drew her sister into the parlor, and managed to place her in a lively and congenial group of ladies. Mrs. Muir herself was happy in the thought of soon seeing her husband, and appeared cheerfulness embodied.

Miss Wildmere saw her laughing and chatting with such unforced geniality that she muttered: "It's perfectly absurd to imagine that her husband is on the eve of bankruptcy. Even if he tried he couldn't keep such trouble utterly from his wife, and I've seen enough of people to be sure she does not dream of danger. The best people of the house are ever around her and that Madge Alden. Unless papa returns to-morrow night with predictions confirmed, the Muirs will have to admit me hereafter into their charmed circle. 'Sister Madge' looks also as if something keyed her up tremendously. Perhaps she is thinking that Graydon will return to-morrow to be her escort on long rides again. I'll soon put a spoke in that wheel, my proud minx. In a few hours you may wear a very different expression."

When the two girls met, however, they were scrupulously polite; but Madge took such pains to make these occasions rare that Miss Wildmere perceived the avoidance, and her vindictive feeling was intensified. Madge saw one or two of her dark looks, but only thought, "I shall now take a part in your cruel game, and it may not end as you imagine." She danced and laughed as if not a care weighed upon her mind.

When the hour arrived for the stage to meet the train she slipped away, wrapped herself in a cloak, and said to the driver that she was going to meet a relative. The train, was on time, and Mr. Muir, with others who were strangers, entered the stage.

"Why, Madge!" he exclaimed; "you here? This certainly is very kind."

They sat a little apart, and she whispered: "Don't show any surprise at this or anything else to-night. I have something to tell you, and you must manage to give me a private interview without any one knowing it--not even Mary at present."

"It's about Graydon," he said, anxiously.

"It's chiefly about yourself. I've heard something." She took his hand in the darkness, and felt it tremble. "You know how to keep cool and disguise your feelings," she resumed. "We can beat them yet. I left Mary in the parlor, the merriest of a merry group. She is happy in the thought that you are coming, and doesn't suspect anything. I am sure you will know just what to do when I tell you all, and you can avert all danger. Greet Mary as usual, and make the people in the house think you have no trouble on your mind."

"All right, Madge. As soon as I've had a little supper, you come to my room."

"No, you must take a walk with me outside. I want no walls with ears around."

"Is it so very serious?"

"You will know best when I have told you everything."

A few moments later Mr. Muir walked into the parlor the picture of serene confidence, and smiling pleasure at meeting his wife, who sprang up, exclaiming: "I declare, I was so enjoying myself that I did not realize it was time for you to be here. Come, I've ordered a splendid supper for you."

"I shall reward your thoughtfulness abundantly," he replied, "for I am ravenous." He then greeted Mrs. Muir's friends cordially, said some pleasant words, and even bowed, when retiring, very politely to Mrs. Wildmere, who in her meek, deprecating way sat near the door.

Two or three gentlemen sought Madge's hand for the next dance, and she was out upon the floor again, her absence not having been commented upon.

Not a feature of this by-play had been lost on Miss Wildmere, and she smiled satirically. "They thought to dupe me with delusions about Mr. Muir. He has no more idea of failing than I have, and before very long he shall be Brother Henry to me as well as to Madge Alden."

After a little while Madge excused herself and joined her relatives in the dining-room. She found her sister happy in giving all the details of what had occurred in her husband's absence, and he was listening with his usual quiet interest, while deliberately prolonging his meal to give the impression that his appetite made good his words. But Madge saw that he was pale and at times preoccupied.

At last he rose from the table, and Mrs. Muir said, "I will go and have a look at the children, and then join you on the piazza."

"Very well, Mary, I'll be there soon. I've sat so long in the cars that I want to walk a little for a change, so don't hasten or worry if I'm gone a little longer than usual. After such a splendid supper as you have secured for me I need a little exercise, and will smoke my cigar on my feet. The fact is, I don't get exercise enough. Come, Madge, you'd walk all day if you had a chance."

Mrs. Muir thought the idea very sensible. Mr. Muir and Madge passed out through a side door. The former lighted his cigar leisurely, and they strolled away as if for no other purpose than to enjoy the warm evening. The storm had not come, but clouds were flying wildly across the disk of the moon, and the hurry-skurry in the sky was akin to the thoughts of the quiet saunterers.

"Where shall we go?" he asked.

"Not far away. There is an open walk near, where we could see any one approach us."

"Now, Madge," Mr. Muir began, after reaching the spot, "I have followed your suggestions, for I have great confidence in your good sense. Your words have worried me exceedingly."

"There is reason for it, Henry, even though there is probably no truth in what has been said about your financial peril."

"Great God!" he exclaimed, starting, "is that subject talked about?"

"Do you owe money to Mr. Arnault?"

"Yes," with a groan.

"Would it hurt you should he demand it to-morrow?"

"Oh, Madge, this is dreadful!" and she saw that he was trembling.

"Now, Henry, take heart, and be your cool, brave self."

"Give me a little time, Madge. I've been carrying a heavy load, but thought the worst was over. I believe things have touched bottom, and I was beginning to see my way to safety in a short time. Even now the tide is turning, and I can realize on some things in a few days. But if this money is demanded to-morrow--Saturday, too, when nearly all my friends are out of town--it is very doubtful whether I could raise it."

"Would it cause your failure?"

"Yes, yes, indeed. A man may be worth a million but if he can't get hold of ready money at the moment it is needed, everything may be swept away. Oh, Madge, this is cruel I With just a little more time I could be safe and rich."

"Why have you not told us this?"

"Because I wouldn't touch your money and Mary's under any circumstances, and I know that you both would have given me no peace, through trying to persuade me to borrow from you."

"That's just like you, Henry. How much do you owe Mr. Arnault?"

"Madge, I'm not going to borrow your money."

"Of course not, Henry. Please tell me."

"You will take no action without my consent?"

"Certainly not."

"Well, the paltry sum of thirty thousand, if demanded to-morrow, may involve the loss of my fortune. Of course if I could not pay this at once all the rest would be down on me. How in the world did you gain any knowledge of this affair?"

"Thank God, and take courage. I believe good is going to come out of this evil, and I believe you will think so too when you have heard my story;" and she told him everything.

"And Graydon has, to all intents and purposes, engaged himself to this--speculator," said Mr. Muir, grinding his teeth. "He's no brother of mine if he does not break with her; and, as it is, I feel as if I could never trust him with my affairs again."

Henry Muir was a man not easily moved, but now his concentrated passion was terrible to witness. His hands worked convulsively; his respiration was quick and irregular. His business and his commercial standing were his idols, and to think that a selfish, scheming girl had caused the jeopardy of both to further her own petty ambition, and that his brother should be one of her tools, enraged him beyond measure.

"Now," he hissed, "I understand why that plausible scamp offered to lend me money. He and his confederate Wildmere have been watching and biding their time. I had to be ruined in order to bring that speculator's daughter to a decision, and Graydon has been doing his level best to further these schemes."

"Henry, Henry, do be calm. You are not ruined, and shall not be."

"It's no use, Madge; I'm foully caught in their devilish toils."

Madge grasped his arm with a force that compelled his attention.

"Henry Muir," she said, in low and almost stern tones, "you shall listen to me. Ignorant girl as I am, I know better, and I demand that you meet this emergency, not in impotent anger, but with your whole manhood. I demand it for the sake of my sister and your children, for your own sake and Graydon's. You explained to me before we left town that I had sixty thousand dollars in United States bonds, first mortgage, and other good securities. You also explained that by the provisions of my father's will I had control of this money after I was eighteen. You have been so scrupulous that you have not even thought of asking for the use of it, but I demand of you, as an honest man, what right have you to prevent me from doing what I please with it?"

"You cannot make me take it, Madge."

"I can and will. I shall go to the city with you by the earliest train, and when Arnault asks for his money you shall quietly give it to him, and no one but ourselves shall know anything about the matter. If you pay this money promptly, will it not help your credit at once?"

"Certainly, Madge, but--"

"Oh, Henry," she cried, "why will you cloud all our lives by scruples that are now not only absurd but almost criminal? Think of the loss you will inflict on Graydon, your children, and your wife, by such senseless refusal. Have you not said that a little time will insure safety and fortune? And there is my money lying idle, when with to-morrow's sun it could buy me more happiness than could millions at another time. I trust to your business judgment fully. Suppose the money was lost--suppose my whole fortune was lost--do you think I would care a jot compared with being denied at this critical moment? I should hate the money you saved for me in this way, and I should never forgive you for saving it." She stood aloof and faced him proudly, as she continued: "Do you imagine I fear poverty? Believe me, Henry Muir, I have brain and muscle to take care of myself and others too if need be." Then, in swift alternation of mood, she clasped her hands caressingly upon his arm, and added: "But I have a woman's heart, and there are troubles worse than poverty. To see you lose the results of your lifework, and to see Graydon's prospects blighted, would be more than I could bear. You can give me all the security you wish, if that will satisfy you better; but if you deny me now, I shall lose confidence in you, and feel that you have failed me in the most desperate emergency of my life."

"The most desperate emergency of your life, Madge?"

"Yes; of my life," she replied, her voice choking with sobs, for the strain was growing too great for her nerve-force to resist. "You give way to senseless anger; you inveigh against Graydon, when he has only acted honorably, and has been deceived; you refuse to do the one simple, rational thing that will avert this trouble and bring safety to us all."

"Why, Madge, if I fail, this speculator will drop Graydon at once. Scott! this fact alone would be large compensation."

"If you were cool--if you were yourself--you could save Graydon in every way. I want to see him go on in life, prosperous and happy, not thwarted and disheartened almost at its beginning. Oh, why won't you? Why won't you?" and she wrung her hands in distress.

"Is Graydon so very much to you, Madge?" he asked, in a wondering tone.

"Hush!" she said, imperiously; "there are things which no man or woman shall know or appear to know unless I reveal them. It's enough that I am trying to save you all, and my own peace of mind. Henry Muir, I will not be denied. There are moments when a woman feels and knows what is right, while a man, with his narrow, cast-iron rules, would ruin everything. You must carry out my wish, and Graydon must know nothing about it. Oh, God! that I were a man!"

"Thank God, you are a woman! Child as you are, compared with my years and experience, you shall have your own way. I will this once put my lifelong principle under my feet, and if the future house of Muir & Brother is saved, you shall save it."

"Oh, thank you, thank you, Henry! Now see how happy I am. I have but one stipulation--the 'brother' must not know it. We shall go on the first train, shall we not?"

"Yes. You can say you want to do some shopping. Come, we have been away from Mary too long already. Oh, Madge, Madge, would that there were more girls like you!"