Chapter XXXIV. Broken Lights and Shadows
 

Mr. Wildmere looked almost ten years older when he came down to what he supposed would be a solitary breakfast; but something like hope and gladness reappeared on his haggard face when he saw Arnault at his table as usual. He scarcely knew how he would be received, but Arnault was as affable and courteous as he would have been months previous, and no one in the breakfast-room would have imagined that anything had occurred to disturb the relations between the two gentlemen. He inquired politely after the ladies, expressed regret that they were indisposed, and changed the subject in a tone and manner natural to a mere acquaintance.

Although his courtesy would appear faultless to observers, it made Wildmere shiver.

"Mr. Arnault," Mr. Wildmere said, a little nervously, as they left the breakfast-room, "may I speak with you?"

"Certainly," replied Arnault, with cool politeness, and he followed Mr. Wildmere to a deserted part of the piazza.

"You made a very kind and liberal offer to my daughter," the latter began.

"And received my final answer last night," was the cold, decisive reply. "It would be impossible to imagine more definite assurance that Miss Wildmere has no regard for me than was given within the time I stipulated. I have accepted such assurance as final. Good-morning, sir," and with a polite bow he turned on his heel and went to his room.

Mr. Wildmere afterward learned that he took the first train to New York.

"Arnault has a clear field now," Graydon had thought, cynically, while at breakfast. "I can scarcely wish him anything worse than success;" and then he looked complacently around the family group to which he belonged, and felicitated himself that Wildmere traits were conspicuously absent. His eyes dwelt oftenest on Madge. At this early meal she always made him think of a flower with the morning dew upon it. Even her evening costumes were characterized by quiet elegance; but during the earlier hours of the day she dressed with a simplicity that was almost severe, and yet with such good taste, such harmony with herself, that the eye of the observer was always rested and satisfied. Gentlemen who saw her would rarely fail to speak about her afterward; few would ever mention her dress. Miss Wildmere affected daintiness and style; Madge sought in the most quiet and modest way to emphasize her own individuality. As far as possible she wished to be valued for what she actually was. The very fact that there was so much in her life that must be hidden led to a strong distaste for all that was misleading in non-essentials.

"I am going to church with you to-day," said Graydon, "and I shall try to behave."

"Try to! You cannot sit with me unless you promise to behave."

"That is the way to talk to men," said Mrs. Muir, who was completely under her husband's thumb. "They like you all the better for showing some spirit."

"I am not trying to make Graydon like me better, but only to insure that he spends Sunday as should a good American."

"There is no longer any 'better' about my liking for Madge. It's all best. I admit, however, that she has so much spirit that she inspires unaffected awe."

"A roundabout way of calling me awful."

"Since you won't ride or drive with me to-day, are you too 'awfully good,' as Harry says, to take a walk after dinner?"

"It depends on how you behave in church."

They spent the afternoon in a very different manner, however, for soon after breakfast Dr. Sommers told them that Tilly Wendall was at rest, and that the funeral would be that afternoon.

With Dr. Sommers's tidings Graydon saw that a shadow had fallen on Madge's face, and his manner at once became gravely and gently considerate. There were allusions to the dead girl in the service at the chapel, where she had been an attendant, and Graydon saw half-shed tears in Madge's eyes more than once.

She drove out with him in the lovely summer afternoon to the gray old farmhouse. The thoughts of each were busy--they had not much to say to each other--and Madge was grateful, for his quiet consideration for her mood. It was another proof that the man she loved had not a shallow, coarse-fibred nature. With all his strength he could be a gentle, sympathetic presence--thinking of her first, thoughtfully respecting her unspoken wishes, and not a garrulous egotist.

He in turn wondered at his own deep content and at the strange and unexpected turn that his affairs had taken. He not only dwelt on what had happened, but on what might have happened--what he had hoped for and sought to attain. He remembered with shame that he had even wished that Madge had not been at the resort, so that he might be less embarrassed in his suit to Miss Wildmere. From his first waking moment in the morning he had been conscious of an immeasurable sense of relief at his escape. He felt now that he had never deeply loved Miss Wildmere--that she had never touched the best feelings of his heart, because not capable of doing so. But he had admired her. He had been a devotee of society, and she had been to him the beautiful culmination of that phase of life. He saw he had endowed her with the womanly qualities which would make her the light of a home as well as of the ballroom, but he had also seen that the woman which his fancy had created did not exist. There is a love which is the result of admiration and illusion, and this will often cling to its imperfect object to the end. Such was not the case with Graydon, however. His first motive had been little more than an ambition to seek the most brilliant of social gems with which to crown a successful life; but he was too much of a man to marry a belle as such and be content. He must love her as a woman also, and he had loved what he imagined Stella Wildmere to be. Now he felt, however, like a lapidary who, while gloating over a precious stone, is suddenly shown that it is worthless paste. He may have valued it highly an hour before; now he throws it away in angry disgust. But this simile only in part explains Graydon's feelings. He not only recognized Miss Wildmere's mercenary character and selfish spirit, but also the power she would have had to thwart his life and alienate him from his brother and Madge. While she was not the pearl for which he might give all, she could easily have become the active poison of his life.

"Oh," he thought, "how blessed is this content with sweet sister Madge--sister in spite of all she says--compared with brief, feverish pleasure in an engagement with such a sham of a woman, or the mad chaos of financial disaster which my suit might have brought about!" and he unconsciously gave a profound sigh of satisfaction.

"Oh, Graydon, what a sigh!" Madge exclaimed. "Is your regret so great? You were indeed thinking very deeply."

"So were you, Madge--so you have been during the last half hour. My sigh was one of boundless relief and gratitude. If you will permit me, I will tell you the thoughts that occasioned it as a proof of my friendly confidence. May I tell you?"

"Yes, if you think it right," she said, with slightly heightened color.

"It seems to me both right and natural that I should tell you;" and he put the thoughts which preceded his sigh into words.

"Yes," she replied, gravely; "I think you have escaped much that you would regret. Please don't talk about it any more."

"What were you thinking about, Madge?" he asked, looking into her flushed and lovely face.

"I have thought a great deal about Tilly and what passed between us. That is the house there, and it will always remain in my mind as a distinct memory."

Farm wagons and vehicles of all descriptions were gathering at the dwelling. They were driven by men with faces as rugged and weather-beaten as the mountains around them. By their sides were plain-featured matrons, whose rustic beauty had early faded under the stress of life's toil, and apple-cheeked boys and girls, with faces composed into the most unnatural and portentous gravity. There was a sprinkling of young men, with visages so burned by the sun that they might pass for civilized Indians. They were accompanied by young women who, in their remote rural homes, had obtained hints from the world of fashion, and after the manner of American girls had arrayed themselves with a neatness and taste that was surprising; and the fresh pink and white of their complexions made a pleasing contrast with their swains. Although the occasion was one of solemnity, it was not without its pleasurable excitement. They all knew about poor Tilly, and to-day was the culmination of the little drama of her illness, the details of which had been discussed for weeks among the neighbors--not in callous curiosity, but with that strange blending of gossip and sympathy which is found in rural districts. The conclusion of all such talk had been a sigh and the words, "She is prepared to go."

The people as yet were gathered without the door and in groups under the trees. Tilly's remains were still in her own little room, Mrs. Wendall taking her farewell look with hollow, tearless eyes. A few favored ones, chiefly the watchers who had aided the stricken mother, were admitted to this retreat of sorrow.

When Dr. Sommers saw Madge and Graydon he came to them and said, "Mrs. Wendall requested that when you came you and whoever accompanied you should be brought to her. Tilly, before she died, expressed the wish that you should sit with her mother during the funeral. No, no, Mr. Muir, Mrs. Wendall would have no objection to any of Miss Alden's friends. I can give you a seat here by this window. The other rooms will be very crowded with those who are strangers to you."

Graydon found himself by the same window at which Madge had sat in her long vigil. The bed had been removed, and in its place was a plain yet tasteful casket. Mr. Wendall, with his head bowed down, sat at its foot, wiping away tears from time to time with a bandana handkerchief. Two or three stanch friends and helpers sat also in the room, for it would appear that the Wendalls had no relatives in the vicinity.

As Madge sat down by Mrs. Wendall, so intent was the mother's gaze upon her dead child that she did not at first notice the young girl's presence. Madge took a thin, toil-worn hand caressingly in both her own, and then the tearless eyes were turned upon her, and the light of recognition came slowly into them, as if she were recalling her thoughts from an immense distance.

"I'm glad you've come," she said, in a loud, strange whisper. "She wanted you to be with me. She said you had trouble, and would know how to sustain me. She left a message for you. She said, 'Tell dear Madge that the dying sometimes have clear vision--tell her I've prayed for her ever since, and she'll be happy yet, even in this world. Tell her that I only saw her a little while, but she belongs to those I shall wait for to welcome.' You'll stay by me till it's all over, won't you?"

Madge was deeply agitated, but she managed to say distinctly, "Tilly also said something to me, and I want you to think of her words through all that is to come. She said, 'Think where I have gone, and don't grieve a moment.'"

"Yes, I'll come to that by and by; but now I can think of only one thing--they are going to take away my baby;" and she laid her head on the still bosom with a yearning in her face which only God, who created the mother's heart, could understand.

What followed need not be dwelt upon. The mother and father took their last farewell, the casket was carried to the outer room, the simple service was soon over, the tearful tributes paid, and then the slow procession took its way to a little graveyard on a hillside among the mountains.

"I can't go and see Tilly buried," said Mrs. Wendall, in the same unnatural whisper. "I will go to her grave some day, but not yet. I am trying to keep up, but I don't feel that I could stand on my feet a minute now."

"I'll stay with you till they come back," Madge answered, tenderly; and at last she was left alone in the house, holding the tearless mother's hand. She soon bowed her young head upon it, bedewing it with her tears. The poor woman's deep absorption began to pass away. The warm tears upon her hand, the head upon her lap, began to waken the instincts of womanhood to help and console another. She stroked the dark hair and murmured, "Poor child, poor child! Tilly was right. Trouble makes us near of kin."

"You loved Tilly, Mrs. Wendall," Madge sobbed. "Think of where she's gone. No more tears; no more pain; no more death."

Her touch of sympathy broke the stony paralysis; her hot tears melted those which seemed to have congealed in the breaking heart, and the mother took Madge in her arms and cried till her strength was gone.

When Mr. Wendall returned with some of the neighbors, Madge met him at the door and held up a warning finger. The overwrought woman had been soothed into the blessed oblivion of restoring sleep, the first she had for many hours. A motherly-looking woman whispered her intention of remaining with Mrs. Wendall all night. Mr. Wendall took Madge's hand in both his own, and looked at her with eyes dim with tears. Twice he essayed to speak, then turned away, faltering, "When I meet you where Tilly is, perhaps I can tell you."

She went down the little path bordered by flowers which the dead girl had loved and tended, and gathered a few of them. Then Graydon drove her away, his only greeting being a warm pressure of her hand.

At last Madge breathed softly, "Think where I have gone. Where is heaven? What is it?"

His eyes were moist as he turned toward her. "I don't know, Madge," he said. "I know one thing, however, I shall never, as you asked, say a word against your faith. I've seen its fruits to-day."