Chapter XXXIII. The End of Diplomacy
 

Mr. Arnault's manner as he passed struck both Graydon and Madge as indicating strong feeling and stern purpose. In order to account for his action, it is necessary to go back in our history for a short period. While Madge was receiving such rich compensation for having become simply what she was, Miss Wildmere had been gathering the rewards of diplomacy. As we have seen, she had reached the final conclusion that if Mr. Muir did not fail that day she would accept Graydon at once; and, during its earlier hours, she had been complacency itself, feeling that everything was now in her own hands. Mr. Muir's appearance and manner the previous evening had nearly convinced her that he was in no financial difficulties whatever--that her father and Mr. Arnault were either mistaken or else were deceiving her. "If the latter is the case," she had thought, "they have so bungled as to enable me to test the truth of their words within twenty-four hours.

"I am virtually certain," she said, with an exultant smile, "that I shall be engaged to Graydon Muir before I sleep to-night."

In the afternoon it began to trouble her that Graydon had not appeared. As the hours passed she grew anxious, and with the shadow of night there fell a chill on her heart and hope. This passed into alarm when at last Graydon arrived with his brother and Madge, and greeted her with the cold recognition that has been described. She had met Mr. Arnault cordially at first, because there were still possibilities in his favor; but when her father promptly disappeared, with the evident purpose to avoid questions, and Mr. Muir and his family at supper gave evidence of superb spirits instead of trouble, she saw that she had been duped, or, in any case, misled. Her anger and worry increased momentarily, especially since Graydon, beyond a little furtive observation, completely ignored her. She naturally ascribed his course to resentment at her first greeting of Arnault, his continued presence at her side, and the almost deferential manner with which he was treated by her father, who had joined his family at supper, when no queries could be made.

"I'll prove to Graydon by my manner that I am for him," was her thought; but he either did not or would not see her increasing coldness toward Arnault.

Her purpose and tactics were all observed and thoroughly understood by the latter, however, but he gave few obvious signs of the fact. In his words, tones, compliments he proved that he was making good all that he had promised; but the changing expression in his eyes grew so ominous that Mr. Wildmere saw his suppressed anger with alarm.

Miss Wildmere felt sure that before the evening was over she could convey to Graydon her decision, and chafed every moment over the leisurely supper that Mr. Arnault persisted in making, especially as she saw that it was not his appetite that detained him. The Muir group had passed out, and to leave him and her father would not only be an act of rudeness, but also would appear like open pursuit of Graydon. When at last she reached the parlor, to decline Arnault's invitation to dance would be scarcely less than an insult; yet, with intensifying anger and fear, she saw that circumstances were compelling her to appear as if she had disregarded Graydon's warnings and expectations. So far from being dismissed, Arnault was the one whom she had first greeted and to whom she was now giving the evening.

While she was dancing with Arnault, Graydon, with Madge, appeared upon the floor. She was almost reckless in her efforts to secure his attention. In this endeavor she did not fail, but she failed signally in winning any recognition, and the ill-concealed importunity of her eyes hastened Graydon's departure with Madge, and gave time for the long interview described in the previous chapter. She grew cold with dread. It was the impulse of her self-pleasing nature to want that most which seemed the most denied, and she reasoned, "He is angry because Arnault is at my side as usual, in spite of all he said. He is determined to bring me to a decision, and won't approach me at Arnault's side. Yet I dare not openly shake Arnault off, and he's so attentive that I must do it openly if at all. Graydon's manner was so very strange and cold that I feel that I should do something to conciliate him at once; and yet how can I when Arnault is bent upon monopolizing the whole evening? He gives me no chance to leave him unless I am guilty of the shameful rudeness of telling him to leave me. Oh, if I could only see Graydon alone, even for a moment!"

Arnault was indeed a curious study, and yet he was acting characteristically. He had virtually given up hope of ever winning Stella Wildmere. He had wooed devotedly, offered wealth, and played his final card, and in each had failed. When he left the city he still had hope that his promise of immediate wealth and Mr. Wildmere's necessity and influence might turn the scale in his favor; and he believed that having secured her decision she, as a woman of the world, would grow content and happy in the future that he could provide for her. But, be his fate what it might, both his pride and his peculiar sense of honor made it imperative that he should be her suitor until the time stipulated for his answer should expire. Up to twelve o'clock that night he would not give her the slightest cause for resentment or even complaint. Then his obligation to her ceased utterly, and she knew that it would.

He had been irritated and despondent ever since Mr. Muir, through Madge's aid, had so signally checkmated him. But Stella's greeting had reassured him, and Graydon's manner toward her gave the impression that she had not been extending encouragement to him. This promising aspect of affairs speedily began to pass away, however, when he saw her step to Graydon's side and ask if he was not going to shake hands with her. He knew how proud the girl was, and by this high standard measured the strength of the regard which impelled to this advance. He had since noted every effort that she had made to secure Graydon's attention, and the truth became perfectly clear. She had utterly lost faith in his and her father's predictions of financial disaster to Henry Muir, and would accept Graydon at the earliest opportunity. He saw that his defeat in Wall Street insured his defeat in the Catskills, and feared that Graydon had guessed his strategy, and, therefore, would not approach the girl while he was at her side. There was no use in his playing lover any longer--he had no desire to do so--for even he now so clearly recognized the mercenary spirit which might have brought her to his arms, that such manhood as he had revolted at it. If she had given him her hand it would have been secured purely through a financial trick, and even his Wall Street soul experienced a revulsion of disgust at the thought of a wife thus obtained. If he could have detected a little sentiment toward him, some kindly regret that she could not reward his long-continued and unstinted devotion, he would have parted from her more in sorrow than in anger; but now he knew that she was wild to escape from him, that she would instantly break her promise not to accept Muir before the close of the week, and, to his punctilious business mind, the week did not end until twelve o'clock Saturday night.

With a sort of grim vindictiveness he had muttered, "She shall keep her promise. Neither she nor Muir shall be happy till my time has expired."

Later in the evening, Graydon not returning, the thought occurred to Arnault, "Perhaps he too has recognized the sharp game she has played--perhaps Henry Muir has said to him, 'She has been putting you off to see the result of the sudden calling in of Arnault's loan,' and now young Muir proposes to console himself with that handsome Miss Alden;" and a gleam of pleasure at the prospect illumined his face for a moment. Meanwhile he maintained his mask before the world so admirably that even Miss Wildmere little guessed the depth of his revolt. He was the last one to reveal his bitter disappointment and humiliating defeat to the vigilant gossips of the house. Those who saw his smiling face and gallantries, and heard his breezy, half-cynical words, little guessed the storm within. He had been taught in the best school in the world how to say and look one thing and mean another.

At last an acquaintance approached, and said, "Pardon me, Mr. Arnault, but I don't propose to permit you to monopolize Miss Wildmere all the evening;" and then asked for the next dance.

Stella complied instantly, thinking, "Graydon may return now at any moment, and if he sees that I am not with Arnault will come to me, as usual."

Arnault bowed politely, looked at his watch, and invited another lady to dance. Stella had been on the floor but a few moments when not Graydon, but her father came and said to her partner, "Excuse me, sir. I wish to speak to my daughter."

Requesting her companion to wait, she followed Mr. Wildmere through an open window, and when on the piazza he took her hand and put it within his arm with a firmness that permitted no resistance. Arnault noted the proceeding with a cynical smile.

"Stella," said her father, in a low, stern tone, "did you not promise Mr. Arnault his answer this evening?"

"Answer my question first," she replied, bitterly. "Did Henry Muir fail to-day? Of course he did not. You have been deceiving me."

"I did not deceive you--I was mistaken myself. But I warn you. Graydon Muir is not at your side. He may not return. Arnault is waiting to give you wealth and me safety, but he may not wait much longer. You are taking worse risks than I ever incurred in the Street, and your loss may be greater than any I have met with."

"Bah!" she replied, in anger. "I might have been engaged to Graydon Muir this moment had I not listened to your croakings. I'll manage for myself now;" and she broke away and joined her partner again.

After the dance was over she said, "Suppose we walk on the piazza; I'm warm." She was cold and trembling. Arnault took his stand in the main hall, where he and she could see the clock should she approach him again. The last hour was rapidly passing. Miss Wildmere and her attendant strolled leisurely the whole length of the piazza, but Graydon was not to be seen. Then she led him through a hall whence she could glance into the reception and reading rooms. The quest was futile, and she passed Arnault unheedingly into the parlor, saying that she was tired, and with her companion sat down where they could be seen from the doorway and windows. But he thought her singularly distraite in her effort to maintain conversation.

"Oh," she thought, "he will come soon--he must come soon! I must--I must see him before I retire!"

Arnault meantime maintained his position in the hall, chatting and laughing with an acquaintance. She could see him, and there was little in his manner to excite apprehension. He occasionally looked toward her, but she tried to appear absorbed in conversation with the man whom she puzzled by her random words. Arnault also saw that her eyes rested in swift, eager scrutiny on every one who entered from without, and that the two hands of the clock were pointing closely toward midnight.

The parlor was becoming deserted. Those whom the beauty of the night had lured without were straggling in, the man at her side was growing curious and interested, and he determined to maintain his position as long as she would.

He was detained but little longer. The clock soon chimed midnight. Arnault gave her a brief, cold look, turned on his heel and went out, passing Graydon and Madge, who were at that moment ascending the steps.

"Oh, pardon me," said Miss Wildmere, fairly trembling with dread; "I had no idea it was so late!" and she bowed her companion away instantly. At that moment she saw Graydon entering, and she went to the parlor door; but he passed her without apparent notice, and bade Madge a cordial good-night at the foot of the stairs. As he was turning away Miss Wildmere was at his side.

"Mr. Muir--Graydon," she said, in an eager tone, "I wish to speak with you."

He bowed very politely, and answered, in a voice that she alone could hear, "You will receive a note from me at your room within half an hour." Then, bowing again, he walked rapidly away.

She saw from his grave face and unsympathetic eyes that she had lost him.

Half desperate, and with the instinct of self-preservation, she passed out on the piazza to bid Arnault good-night, as she tried to assure herself, with pallid lips, but ready then at last to take any terms from him. Arnault was not to be seen. After a moment her father stepped to her side and said:

"Stella, it is late. You had better retire."

"I wish to say good-night to Mr. Arnault," she faltered.

"Mr. Arnault has gone."

"Gone where?" she gasped.

"I don't know. As the clock struck twelve he came rapidly out and walked away. He passed by me, but would not answer when I spoke to him. Come, let me take you to your room."

With a chill at heart almost like that of death she went with him, and sat down pale and speechless.

In a few moments a note was brought to Mr. Wildmere's door, and he took it to his daughter. She could scarcely open it with her nerveless fingers, and when she read the brief words--

"MISS WILDMERE--You must permit me to renounce all claims upon you now and forever. Memory and your own thoughts will reveal to you the obvious reasons for my action, GRAYDON MUIR,"

she found a brief respite from the results of her diplomacy in unconsciousness.