Chapter XXXV. A New Experiment

Stella Wildmere would not leave the seclusion of her room. As the hours passed the more overwhelming grew her disappointment and humiliation, and her chief impulse now was to get away from a place that had grown hateful to her. She had bitterly reproached her father as the cause of her desolation, but thus far he had made no reply whatever. She had passed almost a sleepless night, and since had shut herself up in her room, looking at the past with a fixed stare and rigid face, over which at times would pass a crimson hue of shame.

Mrs. Wildmere went down to dinner with her husband, and then learned that Mr. Arnault had breakfasted with him. This fact she told Stella on her return, and the girl sent for her father immediately.

"Why did you not tell me that Mr. Arnault was here this morning?" she asked, harshly.

He looked at her steadily, but made no reply.

"Why don't you answer me?" she resumed, springing up in her impatience and taking a step toward him.

He still maintained the same steadfast, earnest look, which began to grow embarrassing, for it emphasized the consciousness which she could not stifle, that she alone was to blame.

She turned irritably away, and sat down on the opposite side of the room.

"It's just part and parcel of your past folly," she began. "If I had known he was here, and could have seen him or written to him--"

She still encountered the same searching eyes that appeared to be looking into her very soul.

"Oh, well, if you have nothing to say--"

"I have a great deal to say," answered her father, quietly, "but you are not ready to hear it yet."

"More lecturing and fault-finding," said Stella, sullenly.

"I have not lectured or found fault. I have warned you and tried to make you see the truth and to help you."

"And with your usual success. When can we leave this house?"

"We must leave it to-morrow. I will speak in kindness and truth when you are ready to listen. I know the past; I have little left now but memory."

He waited some moments, but there was no relenting on her part, and he passed out.

All the afternoon conscience waged war with anger, shame, pride and fear--fear for the future, fear of her father, for she had never before seen him look as he had since he had met her on the piazza the evening before. He had manifested none of his usual traits of irritability alternating with a coldness corresponding to her own. He seemed to have passed beyond these surface indications of trouble to the condition of one who sees evils that he cannot avert and who rallies sufficient manhood to meet them with a dignity that bordered on despair.

As Stella grew calmer she had a growing perception of this truth. He no longer indulged in vague, half-sincere predictions of disaster. His aspect was that of a man who was looking at fate.

A cold dread began to creep over her. What was in prospect? Was he, not Henry Muir, to lose everything? After all, he was her father, her protector, her only hope for the future. As reason found chance to be heard, she saw how senseless was her revolt at him. She could not go on ignoring him any longer. Perhaps it would be best to hear what he had to say.

This feeling was intensified by her mother, who at last came in and said, in a weak, half-desperate way, "Stella, there is no use of your going on in this style any longer. Distressed and worried as I am, I can see that we can't help matters now by just wringing our hands. Your father says we must leave as early as possible to-morrow. I can't do everything to get ready. I'm so unnerved I can scarcely stand now. Do come down to supper with us, or else let a good supper be brought to you, and then let us act as if we had not lost our senses utterly. Your father looks and is so strange that I scarcely know him."

"I'll not go down again. Nothing would tempt me to meet Graydon Muir and the curious stare of the people. I suppose they are full of surmises. If you will have a supper sent to me I will take it and do all the packing myself. Please tell papa that I wish to see him after supper."

She then made a toilet suitable for her task, and waited impatiently. Her father soon appeared with a dainty and inviting supper. As soon as they were alone Stella began:

"Now, papa, tell me the worst--not what you fear, but just what is before us."

"Eat your supper first."

"No; I wish to learn the absolute truth. You said you had a great deal to say to me. I'm calm now, and I suppose I've acted like a fool long enough."

"I have much to say, but not many words. I must begin again, Heaven only knows how or where. I am about at the end of my resources. I shall not do anything rash or silly. I shall do my best while I have power to do anything. I do not propose to reproach you for the past. It's gone now, and can't be helped. My proposal to you is that you begin also. You have tried pleasing yourself and thinking of self first pretty thoroughly. You know what it is to be a belle. Now, why not try the experiment of being a true, earnest, unselfish woman, whose first effort is to do right. Believe me, Stella, there is a God in heaven who thwarts selfishness and punishes it in ways often least expected. The people with whom we associate soon recognize the self-seeking spirit, and resent it. You have had a terrible and practical illustration of what I say. Are you not a girl of too much mind to make the same blunder again? With your youth you need not spoil your life, or that of others, unless you do it wilfully."

She leaned back in her chair, and bitter tears came into her eyes.

"Yes," she faltered, "my lesson has been a terrible one; but perhaps I never should have become sane without it. I have been exacting and receiving all my life, and yet to-night I feel that I have nothing. Oh," she exclaimed, with passionate utterance, "I have been such a fool. Nothing, nothing to show for all those gay, brilliant years, not even a father's love and little claim upon it."

He came to her side and kissed her again and again.

"You don't know anything about a father's love," he said. "It survives everything and anything, and your love would save me."

Never, even under the eyes of Graydon Muir, had she been so conscious of her heart before. Had he seen her when she departed on the earliest train in the morning he would have witnessed a new expression on her face.