Chapter XXXI. Checkmate
 

"Well," exclaimed Mrs. Muir, when they appeared at last; "I thought you and Madge had eloped!"

"We are going to to-morrow by first train," said the young girl. "Henry says he must return to town for the day, and I shall accompany him to do some shopping."

"Now, Henry, this is too bad, and I've scarcely seen you this evening."

"I'm truly sorry, Mary; I did look forward to a good quiet day with you, but there is an important matter which I neglected to see to to-day, and which must be attended to. Graydon will soon be ready to relieve me a great deal."

"Well, I shall be glad when he can do something besides waiting on Mr. Arnault's convenience for the privilege of seeing Miss Wildmere. It will be a terribly long, fatiguing day for you, Madge--for you both, indeed!"

"Oh, I shan't mind it in the least! It won't be half so fatiguing as one of my long rides. You spoke of wanting some things, and I can shop for you, too."

Mrs. Muir had long since given up the idea of objecting seriously to anything for which business was the alleged reason. The chance to do some shopping by proxy soon occupied her mind, and when Miss Wildmere took occasion to pass and repass, the only apparent topic of interest in the Muir group was the prospect of purchasing some expensive goods.

Madge retired early to prepare for her journey. Mrs. Muir soon followed, and her husband remarked that he would merely remain down long enough to write a note to Graydon. This missive was brief, but was charged with dynamite.

On the morrow, long before Miss Wildmere waked from the golden dreams which that day should realize, Madge and Mr. Muir were on their way to the city. The young girl had said: "Don't let us do anything by halves. I have read that in the crisis of a battle timid measures are often fatal. Let me give you everything that you can use as collateral. How much is there?"

"Sixty thousand available at once. As I have said, you shall have your own way."

"Well, for once a woman is wiser than Solomon."

They went immediately to the trust company which had her property in keeping, and, having complied with the forms, obtained the entire sum, then parted on Broadway, to rendezvous at the train. Mr. Muir gave the radiant girl a look which she valued more than the money. He then went to his bank. The official whom he accosted had been rather cold and shy of late, but when he received the securities he grew perceptibly urbane.

On reaching his office Mr. Muir found that a transaction which had been greatly delayed was now consummated, and that another ten thousand in cash was available. This also was sent to the bank at once. Several business men were present when a confidential clerk from Arnault appeared, and asked for a private interview.

"Well, really you must excuse me to-day. I'm very busy, and expect to leave town in an hour or two. Please state what you have to say in few words, or else I will see you next week."

"Mr. Arnault," began the clerk, in a metallic tone, "says that he is compelled to call in the loan he recently made you."

"Oh, certainly, certainly! Have you the securities I gave him as collateral?"

"No, sir, but I can get them," said the man.

"Do so, and I will give you my check. Thank Mr. Arnault for the accommodation, and say I have thirty or forty thousand to spare should he be hard pressed. Be quick."

The Wall Street men present looked at one another significantly, and one of them remarked, "You are forehanded for these times, Muir."

"If this absurd lack of confidence would only pass," was the careless reply, "I should have more money on hand than I could invest profitably;" and then he appeared absorbed in other matters.

Arnault received the message from his clerk with something like dismay, and turning on Mr. Wildmere, who was present, he said, almost savagely, "You have been misleading me."

"Indeed I have not, sir--not intentionally. I can't understand it."

"Well, I can. Muir is an old fox in business. I was a fool to think that a paltry thirty thousand would trouble him. Well, there is nothing to do but to close the matter up."

"What, in regard to my daughter?" said Mr. Wildmere, inadvertently.

"Oh, no; confound it! What has she got to do with this affair?" replied Arnault, with an irritation that he could not disguise. "I certainly have made Miss Wildmere a fair offer; some would regard it as more. I shall go up to-night and receive her answer, as I promised. I am one who never fails in a promise to man or woman, and I am ready to make good all that I have authorized you to say to your daughter, and more."

"Let me add," said Mr. Wildmere, with some assumption of dignity, "that as far as I have influence it is absolutely yours. I have ever prided myself on my fidelity to those who trust me."

"Thanks," replied Arnault, with a little menacing coldness in his tone. "I hope I shall have proof of the fact this evening. If so, all shall go swimmingly."

Poor Wildmere bowed himself out with trepidation at heart, and Arnault followed him with a dark look, muttering, "Let them both beware."

Mr. Muir met Madge at the depot, and was quietly jubilant. Both laughed heartily over the experiences of the day.

"You are a blessed little woman, Madge. I was never so off my balance before in my life as I was last night. When confused and upset, it is one of my impulses to stick to some principle of right, like a mule. Bless you, I think I have secured you twice over! I have given you a lien on property worth two hundred thousand in ordinary times."

"You have taught me to lean on you once more, Henry, and that is worth more than all your other liens."

Mr. Arnault now appeared, and came affably forward, saying, "I am glad my enforced action did not incommode you to-day."

"Thank you. I trust you are not in trouble, Mr. Arnault;" and there was a world of quiet satire in the remark.

"Oh, no--only a temporary need, I assure you," was the hasty reply.

"So I supposed;" and as Arnault turned away, the speaker gave Madge a humorous glance, which made her look of demure innocence difficult to maintain.

       *       *       *       *       *

Graydon had enjoyed fair success in fishing, and yet had not been supremely happy. He found, with the venerated Izaak Walton, that the "gentle art" was conducive to contemplation; but there were certain phases in his situation that were not agreeable to contemplate. As he followed the trout-stream amid the solitudes of nature, the artificial and conventional in life grew less attractive. In spite of his efforts to the contrary, Miss Wildmere seemed to represent just these phases. He recalled critically and dispassionately all the details of their past acquaintance, and found, with something like dismay, that she had exhibited only the traits of a society belle--that he could recall no new ideas or inspiring thoughts received from her. The apparent self-sacrifice for her father, which he had so unequivocally condemned, was, after all, about the best thing he knew of her. The glamour of her beauty had been upon his eyes, and he had credited her with corresponding graces of heart and mind. What evidence had he of their existence?

The more he thought of it, the more his pride, also, rebelled at the ignominious position in the background that he was compelled to take while the Wall Street diplomacy was prolonged. At last, in anger and disgust, he resolved that, if he found Arnault in his old position by Stella's side, he would withdraw at once and forever.

After all, although he was as yet unconscious of it, the secret of his clarified vision was the influence of Madge upon his mind. She seemed in harmony with every beautiful aspect of nature--true and satisfying, while ever changing. Madge was right: the mountains, streams, rocks, and trees became her allies, suggesting her and not Miss Wildmere. He would have returned, for the pleasure of her society, but for his purpose not to appear again until Arnault should have time to arrive from the city and resume his attentions. If they were received as in the past, he would write to Miss Wildmere his withdrawal of further claims upon her thoughts.

It was with something like bitter cynicism that he saw his illusions in regard to Miss Wildmere fade, and when he drove up to the hotel after nightfall on Saturday, he was not sure that he cared much what her answer might be, so apathetic had he become. The force of his old regard was not wholly spent; but in his thoughts of her, much that was repugnant to his feelings and ideals had presented itself to his mind, and he felt that the giving up of his dream of lifelong companionship with her would almost bring a sense of relief. Without pausing to analyze the reason of his eagerness to see Madge and hear of her welfare, he ran up at once to Mrs. Muir's room.

"Madge went to New York!" he echoed, in surprise at Mrs. Muir's information.

"Yes; why not? She went to do some shopping for herself and me. Miss Wildmere's here, and, for a wonder, Mr. Arnault is not. What more could you ask?"

"Hang Mr. Arnault--" He had come near mentioning both in his irritation.

"When will Madge and Henry arrive?"

"Soon now--on the nine-o'clock train. Oh, by the way, Henry left a note for you!"

"Very well. I'll go to my room, dress, and meet them."

"He is asking after Madge rather often, it seems to me. She doesn't compare so very unfavorably with the speculator, after all, even in his eyes."

On reaching his room he threw himself wearily into a chair, and carelessly tore open his brother's note. Instantly he bounded to his feet, approached the light more closely, and saw in his brother's unmistakable hand the following significant words:

"Read this letter carefully and thoughtfully; then destroy it. Show your knowledge of its contents by neither word nor sign. Be on your guard, and permit no one to suspect financial anxieties. Arnault and Wildmere have struck me a heavy blow. The former has lent me money. I must raise a large sum in town, but think I can do it, even in the brief time permitted. If I cannot we lose everything. If I don't have to suspend to-morrow Miss Wildmere will accept you in the evening. She has been waiting till those two precious confederates, her father and Arnault, did their worst, so that she could go over to the winning side. You are of course your own master, but permit me, as your brother, affectionately and solemnly to warn you. Stella Wildmere will never bring you a day's happiness or peace. She loves herself infinitely more than you, her father, or any one else. Be true to me, and you shall share my fortunes. If you follow some insane notion of being true to her, you will soon find you have been false to yourself. Again I warn you. Speak to no one of all this, and give no sign of your knowledge. HENRY."

Graydon read this twice, then crushed the paper in his hand as he muttered, "Fool, dupe, idiot! Now at last I understand her game and allusions. She was made to fear that Henry was about to fail, and she would not accept me until satisfied on this point. Great God! my infatuation for her has been inciting Arnault in these critical times to break my brother down, and her father has been aiding and abetting, in order that I might be removed out of the way. She was so false herself that she suspected her own father, also Arnault, of deceiving her, and so kept putting me off, that she might learn the truth of their predictions or the result of their efforts. How clear it all becomes, now that I have the key! Well, I should be worse than a heathen if I did not thank God for such an escape."