Chapter XXXII. Madge is Matter-of-Fact
 

"Well, I have come back to civilization and all its miseries," thought Graydon. "I was among scenes that know not Wildmeres or Arnaults. 'Oh, my prophetic soul!' I felt that there was something wrong, in spite of her superb acting. Sweet Madge, dear sister Madge, as you ever will be to me, the more I think of it the more clearly I see that you are the one who first began to shatter my delusion. Since that morning when I brought you home from your long vigil, and you revealed to me your true, brave heart Stella Wildmere has never seemed the same, and the revolt of my nature has been growing ever since."

His wish now was to avoid seeing every one until he had met his brother. While the thought of his escape was uppermost in his mind, he was consumed with anxiety to learn the result of Henry's efforts in town. His commercial instincts were also very strong, and the thought of what might happen fairly made him tremble.

He slipped down a back stairway and out into the darkness, then bent his rapid steps to the depot, at which he arrived half an hour before the train was due. Remembering that excited pacing up and down there would not be very intelligent obedience to his brother's injunctions, he started down a country road in the direction from which the train would come, and paced to and fro in his strong excitement. At last the train arrived, and his first glimpse of Henry's face and Madge's was reassuring. The moment the former saw him he called out, "Hello, Graydon! Have you a trout supper for us?"

"Yes," was the hearty response; and he hastened forward and shook hands cordially, saying, in an aside, "Oh, Madge! I am so glad to see you again!"

"You are! Tell that to the marines. The length of your stay proves it to be a fish story."

"Here, Madge, we'll put you in the stage. I'll rest myself by walking to the house with Graydon."

"Henry, you are all right?" said Graydon, eagerly, as soon as they were out of earshot.

"Yes," was the quiet reply; "I raised the money, paid Arnault in full, and have a good surplus in the bank."

"Thank Heaven! How did you raise it? How has all this knowledge reached--"

"Patience, Graydon, patience. As soon as you are in the firm I shall have no secrets from you. Until you are, you must let me manage in my old way."

"I have indeed little claim on your confidence. I have been deceived, and have acted like a fool. But it's all over now. Henry, you may not believe me, but my nonsense would have ended to-night if I hadn't received your letter, and all this had not occurred. I had been disgusted with this Arnault business for some time, and had let Miss Wildmere know my views. As I thought it over while away it all grew so detestable to me that I resolved, if Arnault appeared again and renewed his attentions, I would never renew mine. He's here again, as you may have seen."

"Oh, yes; and I have talked with him. Please show no resentment. I obtained my information in a way unknown to him, and there is nothing unusual in our transaction on its face. How was it that you began to grow critical toward Miss Wildmere?"

"Well, I don't mind telling you. There was not a ring of truth or a stamp of nobility about her words and manner, and I have been associating with a girl who is truth itself and twice as clever and accomplished. Miss Wildmere was growing commonplace in contrast. I learned to love Madge as a sister before she went away, and now no man ever admired and loved a sister more."

Mr. Muir smiled broadly to himself in the darkness, and said: "Truly, Graydon, you are giving satisfactory proofs of returning sanity. We may as well conclude with the old saying, 'All's well that ends well.'"

"I think I had better go to town Monday and resume business. It's time I did something to retrieve myself."

"No, Graydon, not yet. I have everything in hand now, and believe the tide has turned. I realized ten thousand to-day on a transaction that I will tell you about. I am not doing much business now, only watching things and waiting. It was the suddenness of Arnault's demand that worried me--on Saturday, too, you know. He had about the same as said that I might have the money as long as I wanted it, and I should not have needed it much longer. In ordinary times I wouldn't have given it a thought.

"You can help me more up here. It's growing warm, and Jack isn't improving as I would like. After what has occurred I don't wish Mary and Madge to meet these Wildmeres any longer, so I propose that you and Madge go to the Kaaterskill Hotel on Monday and explore. If you like the place, then you can take Mary and the children there. I've had a little scare in town, and propose to realize on some more property and make myself perfectly safe. By going to a higher-priced hotel we increase our credit also, and add to the impression I made to-day, that we are in no danger."

As the stage drew near the piazza Graydon hastened forward to help Madge out. In doing so he saw Miss Wildmere greeting Arnault cordially. As he passed up the steps with Madge, he caught Stella's swift, appealing look at him. He only bowed politely and passed on. It was Madge's triumphal entry now by the same door at which she had seen him enter with Miss Wildmere but a few weeks before. How complete her triumph was, even Madge did not yet know. While she went to her room he sought the office and ordered some of the trout he had caught to be prepared for supper. As he stood there Miss Wildmere left Arnault's side, and said, "Mr. Muir, are you not going to shake hands with me?"

"Why, certainly, Miss Wildmere;" but there was little more than politeness in his tone and manner. As there were many coming and going, she drew away with a reproachful glance. "So long as Arnault is with me, he will not be cordial," was her thought.

She looked around for her father, but he, nervous and apprehensive, had disappeared. He felt that if he should be compelled to disclose the failure of his predictions, she would pass into one of her sullen, unmanageable moods. He feared that things were beyond his control, and decided to let the young men manage for themselves. He was not, however, exceedingly solicitous. He hoped that Arnault, aided by the influence of his munificent offer, would have the skill to push his suit to a prompt conclusion; but he believed that, if this suitor should be dismissed, Graydon would not fail his daughter, and that all might yet end well for her, and perhaps for himself.

The supper-room was again occupied by the late comers, many of whom were accompanied by their families and friends. Mr. Muir's quiet eyes fairly beamed over the group gathered at his table, and he felt that but few moments of his life compared with those now passing. Twenty four hours before he had seen himself drifting helplessly on a lee shore, but a little hand had taken the helm when he had been paralyzed, and now he saw clear sea-room stretching away indefinitely, with a turning tide and favoring gales. The terrible evils threatening him and his had been averted. The results of his lifework would not be swept away, his idolized commercial standing could now be maintained, his wife's brow remain unclouded by care, his children be amply provided for, Graydon saved from a worse fate than financial disaster, and, last but not least, the young fellow would be cured by Madge of all future tendencies toward the Wildmere type. He never could think of this hope without smiling to himself. He had at last obtained the explanation of Madge's effort and success. By the superb result he measured the strength of the love which had led to it. "Great Scott!"--his favorite expletive--he had thought; "what a compass there is in her nature! I had long suspected her secret, but when I touched upon it last night she made my blood tingle by her magnificent resentment. I would sooner have trifled with an enraged empress. Look at her now, smiling, serene, and, although not in the least artful, keeping all her secrets with consummate art. Who would imagine that she was capable of such a volcanic outburst? If Graydon does not lay siege to her now, the name of the future firm should be Henry Muir and idiot."

That sagacious young man did not appear at all blighted by the wreck of the hope he had cherished. He turned no wistful glances toward the girl who had so long satisfied his eyes, and, as he had believed, his heart. He felt much the same as if he had been imposed upon by a cunning disguise. Unknown to her, he had caught a glimpse of what the mask concealed, and his soul was shuddering at the deformities to which he had so nearly allied himself. Her very beauty, with its false promise, had become hateful to him.

"She is indeed a speculator," he thought, "and I'm a little curious to see how she will continue her game." It afforded him vindictive amusement that she often, yet furtively, turned her eyes toward him as if he were still a factor in it.

She never looked once in Graydon's direction but that Arnault was aware of the act. There was no longer any menace in his deportment toward her--he was as devoted as the place and time would permit--but in his eyes dwelt a vigilance and a resolution which should have given her warning.

After supper Mr. and Mrs. Muir found a comfortable nook on the piazza, and the banker smoked his cigar with ineffable content.

"Do you feel too tired for a waltz, Madge?" Graydon asked.

"The idea! when I've rested in the cars half a day."

"Oh, Madge!" he whispered; "dear, sweet little friend--you know I mean sister, only I dare not say it--I'm so glad to be with you again! What makes you look so radiant to-night? You look as though you had a world of happy thoughts behind those sparkling eyes."

"Nonsense, Graydon! You are always imagining things. I have youth, good health, have had my supper--a trout supper, too--and I like to dance, just as a bird enjoys flying."

"You seem a bird-of-paradise. Happy the man who coaxes you into his cage! Brother or not, when your beaux become too attentive they will find me a perfect dragon of a critic."

"When I meet my ideal, you shall have nothing to say."

"I suppose not. I am at a loss to know where you will find him."

"I shan't find him; he must find me."

"He will be an idiot if he doesn't. Pardon me if I don't dance any more to-night. I have had a long tramp over mountain paths, followed by a long, rough ride in a farmer's wagon, and now have a very important act to perform before I sleep. As a proof of my fraternal--I mean friendly--confidence, I will tell you what it is, if you wish."

"I don't propose to fail in any friendly obligations, Graydon," she replied, laughing, as they strolled out into the summer night, followed by Miss Wildmere's half-desperate eyes.

As they walked down a path, Graydon said, "Take my arm; the pavement is a little rough. Dear Madge, you look divine to night. Every time I see you my wonder increases at what you accomplished out on the Pacific coast. That great, boundless, sparkling ocean has given you something of its own nature."

"Graydon, you must be more sensible. When a fellow takes your arm you don't squeeze it against your side and say, 'Dear Tom,' 'Sweet Dick,' or 'Divine Harry,' no matter how good friends they may be. Friends don't indulge in sentimental, far-fetched compliments."

"I certainly never did with any friends of mine. On this very walk you told me that you were not my sister, and added, 'There is no use in trying to ignore nature.' See how true this last assertion is proving, now that I am again under your influence, and so enjoy your society that I cannot ignore nature. During all those years when you were growing from childhood to womanhood I treated you as a sister, thought of you as such. It was nature, or rather the accord of two natures, that formed and cemented the tie, and not an accident of birth. Even when you were an invalid, and I was stupid enough to call you 'lackadaisical,' your presence always gave me pleasure. Often when I had been out all the evening I would say, with vexation, 'I wish I had stayed at home with the little ghost.' How you used to order me about and tyrannize over me from your sofa when you were half child and half woman! I can say honestly, Madge, it was never a bore to me, for you had an odd, piquant way of saying and doing things that always amused me; your very weakness was an appeal to my strength, and a claim upon it. You always appeared to have a sister's affection for me, and your words and manner proved that I brought some degree of brightness into your shadowed life. In learning to love you as a sister in all those years, wherein did I ignore nature? During my absence my feelings did not change in the least, as I proved by my attempts at correspondence, by my greeting when we met. Then you perplexed and worried me more than you would believe, and I imagined all sorts of ridiculous things about you; but on that drive, after your vigil with that poor, dying girl, I felt that I understood you fully at last. Indeed, ever since your rescue of the little Wilder child from drowning my old feelings have been coming back with tenfold force. I can't help thinking of you, of being proud of you. I give you my confidence to-night just as naturally and unhesitatingly as if we had been rocked in the same cradle. I am not wearying you with this long explanation and preamble?"

"No, Graydon," she replied, in a low tone.

"I am very glad. I don't think well of myself to-night at all, and I have a very humiliating confession to make--one that I could make only to such a sister as you are, or rather would have been, were there a natural tie between us. I would not tell any Tom, Dick, and Harry friends in the world what I shall now make known to you. If I didn't trust you so, I wouldn't speak of it, for what I shall say involves Henry as well as myself. Madge, I've been duped, I've been made both a fool and a tool, and the consequences might have been grave indeed. Henry, who has so much quiet sagacity, has in some way obtained information that proved of immense importance to him, and absolutely vital to me. I shudder when I think of what might have happened, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude when I think of my escape. I told you that Miss Wildmere was humoring that fellow Arnault to save her father, and consequently her mother and the child. This impression, which was given me so skilfully, and at last confirmed by plain words, was utterly false. Henry has been in financial danger; Wildmere knew it, and he also knew that Arnault had lent Henry money, which to-day was called in with the hope of breaking him down. They would have succeeded, too, had he not had resources of which they knew nothing. You, of course, can't realize how essential a little ready money sometimes is in a period of financial depression; but Henry left a note which gave me an awful shock, while, at the same time, it made clear Miss Wildmere's scheme. She had simply put me off, that she might hear from Wall Street. If Henry had failed she would have decided for Arnault, and I believe my attentions led to his tricky transaction--that he loaned the money and called it in when he believed that Henry could not meet his demand. I must be put out of his way, for he reasoned justly that the girl would drop me if impoverished. Thus indirectly I might have caused Henry's failure--a blow from which I should never have recovered. Henry is safe now, he assures me; and, oh, Madge, thank God, I have found her out before it was too late! I had fully resolved while oft trouting that I would break with her finally if I found Arnault at her side again. Now he may marry her, for all I care, and I wish him no worse punishment. I shall go to my room now and write to her that everything is over between us. The fact is, Madge, you spoiled Miss Wildmere for me on that morning drive the other day. After leaving your society and going into hers I felt the difference keenly, and while I should then have fulfilled the obligations which I had so stupidly incurred, I had little heart in the affair. Her acting was consummate, but a true woman's nature had been revealed to me, and the glamour was gone from the false one. Now you see what absolute confidence I repose in you, and how heavily this strange story bears against myself. Could I have given it to any one for whom I had not a brother's love, and in whom I did not hope to find a sister's gentle charity? I show you how unspent is the force of all those years when we had scarcely a thought which we could not tell each other. I have little claim, though, to be a protecting brother, when I have been making such an egregious fool of myself. You have grown wiser and stronger than I. You won't think very harshly of me, will you, Madge?"

"No, Graydon."

"And you won't condemn my fraternal affection as contrary to nature?"

She was sorely at a loss. She had listened with quickened breath, a fluttering pulse, and in a growing tumult of hope and fear, to this undisguised revelation of his attitude toward her. She almost thought that she detected between the lines, as it were, the beginning of a different regard. He believed that he had been frankness itself, and his words proved that he looked upon his fraternal affection and confidence as the natural, the almost inevitable, sequence of the past. She could not meet him on the fraternal ground that he was taking again, nor did she wish him to occupy it in his own mind. To maintain the attitude which she had adopted would require as much delicacy as firmness of action, or he would begin to query why she could not go back to their old relations as readily as he could. She had listened to the twice-told tale of the events of the past few days with almost breathless interest, because his words revealed the workings of his own mind, and she had not the least intention of permitting him to settle down into the tranquil affection of a brother.

While she hesitated, he asked, gently, "Don't you feel a little of your old sisterly love for me?"

"No, Graydon, I do not," she replied, boldly. "I suppose you will think me awfully matter-of-fact. I love Mary as my sister, I have the strongest esteem and affection for Henry as my brother-in-law, and I like you for just what you are to me, neither more nor less. The truth is, Graydon, when I woke up from my old limp, shadowy life I had to look at everything just as it was, and I have formed the habit of so doing. I think it is the best way. You did not see Miss Wildmere as she was, but as you imagined her to be, and you blame yourself too severely because you acted as you naturally would toward a girl for whom you had so high a regard. When we stick to the actual, we escape mistakes and embarrassment. Every one knows that we are not brother and sister; every one would admit our right to be very good friends. I have listened to you with the deep and honest sympathy that is perfectly natural to our relations. I think the better of you for what you have told me, but I'm too dreadfully matter-of-fact," she concluded beginning to laugh, "to do anything more."

He sighed deeply.

"Now, there is no occasion for that sigh, Graydon. Recall that morning drive to which you have alluded. What franker, truer friendship could you ask than I gave evidence of then? Come now, be sensible. You live too much in the present moment, and yield to your impulses. Miss Wildmere was a delusion and a snare, but there are plenty of true women in the world. Some day you will meet the right one. She won't object to your friends, but she probably would to sisters who are not sisters."

Graydon laughed a little bitterly as he said, "So you imagine that after my recent experience I shall soon be making love to another girl?"

"Why not? Because Miss Wildmere is a fraud do you intend to spite yourself by letting some fair, true girl pass by unheeded? That might be to permit the fraud to injure you almost as much as if she had married you."

He burst out laughing, as he exclaimed, "Well, your head is level."

"Certainly it is. My head is all right, even though I have not much heart, as you believe. I told you I could be a good fellow, and I don't propose to indulge you in sentiment about what is past and gone--natural and true as it was at the time--or in cynicism for the future. I shall dance at your wedding, and you won't be gray, either. Come; the music has ceased, and it must be almost Sunday morning."

"Very well. On the day when you rightly boxed my ears, and I asked you to make your own terms of peace, I resolved to submit to everything and anything."

"You don't 'stay put,' is the trouble. Did I look and act so very cross that morning?"

"You looked magnificent, and you spoke with such just eloquent indignation that you made my blood tingle. No, my brave, true friend--I may say that, mayn't I?--it was not a little thing for you to go away alone to fight so heroic a battle and achieve such a victory; and, Madge, I honor you with the best homage of my heart. You have taught me how to meet trouble when it comes."

As they went up the steps, Arnault, with a pale, stern face, and looking neither to the right nor to the left, passed them and strode away.