Chapter XXXVI. Madge Alden's Ride
 

Methodical Henry Muir found that the events of the last few days had resulted in a reaction and weariness which he could not readily shake off, and he had expressed an intention of sleeping late on Monday and taking the second train. When he and his family gathered at breakfast, the removal to Hotel Kaaterskill was the uppermost theme, and it was agreed that Madge and Graydon should ride thither on horseback, and return by a train, if wearied. Mr. Muir then went to the city, well prepared to establish himself on a safer footing. Graydon and Madge soon after were on their way through the mountain valleys, the latter with difficulty holding her horse down to the pace they desired to maintain.

After riding rapidly for some distance, they reached long, lonely stretches, favorable for conversation, and Graydon was too fond of hearing Madge talk to lose the opportunity. He looked wonderingly at her flushed face, with the freshness of the morning in it; her brilliant eyes, from which flashed a spirit that nothing seemed to daunt; the sudden compression of her lips, as with power and inimitable grace she reined in her chafing steed. Never before had she appeared so vital and beautiful, and he rode at her side with something like exultation that they were so much to each other. He was turning his back on a past fraught with peril, over which hung the shadow of what must have been a lifelong disappointment.

"The girl who would have taken me, as Henry chooses among commercial securities, cannot now make me an adjunct to her self-pleasing career," he thought. "I am free--free to become to Madge what I was in old times. No one now has the right to look askance at our affection and companionship. What an idiot I was to endure Stella's criticism while she was playing it so sharp between Arnault and myself! No wonder crystal Madge said she and Stella were not congenial!

"I call Madge crystal, yet I don't understand her fully, and have not since my return. She has had some deep, sad experience, which she is hiding from all. From what Mrs. Wendall said at the funeral yesterday, Madge must have revealed more of it to that dying girl than to any one else. How my heart thrilled at those strange whispered words! How dearly I would love to help her and bring unalloyed happiness into her life! But whatever it was referred to I cannot touch upon till she of her own accord gives me her confidence. Could she have formed what promises to be a hopeless love in her Western home, and is she now hiding a wound that will not heal, while bravely and cheerfully facing life as it is? Perhaps her purpose to return to Santa Barbara proves that she does not regard her love as utterly hopeless. Well, whatever the truth may be, she hides her secret with consummate skill, and I shall not pry into even her affairs. I only know that as I feel now I should prize her friendship above any other woman's love."

"What are you thinking of so deeply?" she asked, meeting his eyes.

"My thought just then was that I should prize your friendship above any other woman's love, and I had been felicitating myself that Stella Wildmere would never have the right to criticise the fact."

"Oh, Graydon, what a man of moods and tenses you are!" Then she added, laughing, "There has been indeed a kaleidoscopic turn in affairs. Mr. Arnault disappeared yesterday, and Mary learned that the Wildmeres left by the early train this morning."

"Yes, Miss Wildmere followed Arnault promptly. They are near of kin, but not too near to marry. Their nuptials should be solemnized in Wall Street, under flowers arranged into a dollar symbol."

"I feel sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Wildmere, though; especially the former. I think he might have been quite different had the fates been kinder."

"I would rather dismiss them all from my mind as far as possible. Don't think me callous about Stella. If she had decided for me at once and been true I would have been loyal to her in spite of everything; but the revelation of her cold, mercenary soul makes me shudder when I think how narrowly I escaped allying myself to it."

"You have indeed had an escape," Madge replied, gravely. "If she were a young, thoughtless, undeveloped girl her womanhood might have come to her afterward. I hope I am mistaken, but she has made a singular impression on me."

"Please tell me it. You have insight into character that in one so young is surprising."

"I have no special insight. I simply feel people. They create an atmosphere and make some dominant impression with which I always associate them."

"I am eager to know what impression Miss Wildmere has made."

"I fear this would be true of her, even after she becomes a mature woman. A man might be almost perishing at her side from mental trouble of some kind, and, so far from feeling for him and sympathizing, she wouldn't even know it, and he couldn't make her know it. She would look at him quietly with her gray eyes as she would at a problem in the calculus, and with scarcely more desire to understand him, and with perhaps less power to do so. She would turn from him to a new dress, a new admirer, or a new phase of amusement, and forget him, and the fact that he was her husband would not make much difference. Some deep experience of her own may change her, but I don't know. I fear another's experience would be like a tragedy without the walls while she was safe within."

"Oh, Madge, think of a man with a strong, sensitive nature beating his very heart to death against such pumice-stone callousness!"

"I don't like to think of it," she replied. "Come, I ask with you now that we forget her as far as possible. She may not disappoint a man like Arnault. Let them both become shadows in the background of memory. Here's a level place. Now for a gallop."

When at last they pulled up, Graydon said, "Your horse is awfully strong and restless to-day."

"Yes; he has not been used enough of late. He'll be quiet before night, for I am enjoying this so much that I should like to return in the same way."

"I am delighted to hear you say so. My spirits begin to rise the moment I am with you, and you are the only woman I ever knew from whose side I could not go with the feeling, 'Well, some other time would suit me now.'"

Her laugh rang out so suddenly and merrily that her horse sprang into a gallop, but she checked him speedily, and thought, with an exultant thrill, "Graydon now has surely revealed an unmistakable symptom." To him she said:

"You amuse me immensely. You are almost as outspoken as little Harry, and, like him, you mistake the impression of the moment for the immutable."

"Now, that's not fair to me. I've been constant to you. Own up, Madge, haven't I?"

With a glance and smile which she never gave to others, and rarely to him, she said:

"I own up. I don't believe a real brother would have been half so nice.".

"Let the past guarantee the future, then. Shake hands against all future misunderstandings."

She was scarcely ready to shake hands on such a basis, but of course would have complied. In the slight confusion her hand relaxed its grasp on the curb-rein, and at the same moment a locomotive, coming along the side of the opposite mountain, blew a shrill whistle. Instantly her horse had the bit in his teeth, and was off at a furious pace.

At first she did not care, but soon found, with anxiety, that he paid no attention to her efforts to check him, and that his pace was passing into a mad run. The gorge was growing narrower, and the lofty mountains stood, with their rocky feet, nearer and nearer together. She could see through the intervening trees that the road and rail-track were becoming closely parallel, and at last realized that her horse was unmanageable.

When the engineer of the train saw Madge's desperate riding he surmised that her horse was not under control, and put on extra steam in order to take the exciting cause of the animal's terror out of the way. He thought he could easily reach the summit of the clove where the carriage-drive crossed the track before Madge, and then pass swiftly over the down-grade beyond; but he had not calculated on the terrific speed of the horse; and when at last the track and roadway were almost side by side the frantic beast, with his pale rider, was abreast of the train. For a moment the engineer was irresolute, and then, too late, as he feared, "slowed up."

The narrow road, with a precipitous mountain on the left, was so near to the flying train that the passengers in an open car could almost touch Madge, and she was to them like a strange and beautiful apparition, with her white face and large dark eyes filled with an unspeakable dread.

"Oh, stop the train!" she cried, and her voice, with the whole power of her lungs, rang out far above the clatter of the wheels, wakening despairing echoes from the mountains impending on either side.

The speed of the cars was perceptibly checked; the passengers saw the foam-flecked brute, with head stubbornly bent downward and eye of fire, pass beyond them. An instant later, to their horrified gaze and that of Graydon's, who was following as fast as a less swift horse could carry him, Madge and the locomotive appeared to come together. The young man gave a hoarse, inarticulate cry between a curse and a shout, and whipped his horse forward furiously.

The speed of the train was renewed, and he saw through the open car that Madge must have passed unharmed before the engine, just grazing it. It also appeared that she was gaining the mastery, for her horse was rearing; then cars of ordinary make intervened and hid her from view a moment, and the train clattered noisily on.

When he crossed the track Madge was not where he had last seen her. The road beyond ran at a greater distance from the railway, and was lined with trees and bushes. Through an opening among these he saw that the horse had resumed his old mad pace, that Madge was still mounted, but that she was no longer erect, and sat with her head bowed and her whip-hand clutching the mane. He also saw, with a sinking heart, that the road curved a little further on, and evidently crossed the track again.

A moment later--Oh, horror! An opening in the foliage revealed Madge dashing headlong, apparently, into the train. He grew so faint that he almost fell from his horse, and was scarcely conscious, until, with a strong revulsion of hope, he found himself under the track which, about an eighth of a mile from the previous crossing, passes just above the roadway. Not aware of this fact, and with vision broken by intervening trees, he could not have imagined anything else than a collision, which must have been fatal in its consequences.

With hope his pulse quickened, his strength returned, and he again urged his jaded horse forward, at the same time sending out his voice:

"Madge, Madge, keep up a little longer."

The road had left the car-track, the noise of the train was dying away in the distance. At last, turning a curve, he saw that Madge's horse had come down to a canter, and that she was pulling feebly at the rein.

As he approached he shouted "Whoa!" with such a voice of command that the horse stopped suddenly and she almost fell forward.

"Quick, Graydon, quick!" she gasped.

He sprang to the ground, and a second later she was an unconscious burden in his arms.

He laid her gently on a mossy bank under an oak; then, with a face fairly livid with passion, he drew a small revolver from his hip-pocket, stepped back to the horse that now stood trembling and exhausted in the road, and shot him dead.

He now saw that they had been observed at a neighboring farmhouse, and that people were running toward them. Gathering Madge again in his arms, he bore her toward the dwelling, in which effort he was soon aided by a stout countryman.

The farmer's wife was all solicitude, and to her and her daughter's ministrations Madge was left, while Graydon waited, with intense anxiety, in the porch, explaining what had occurred, with a manner much distraught, in answer to many questions.

"The cursed brute is done for now," he concluded.

Madge's faint proved obstinate, and at last Graydon began to urge the farmer to go for a physician.

The daughter at last appeared with the glad tidings that the young girl was "coming to nicely."

Graydon breathed a fervent "Thank God!" and sank weak and limp into a seat on the porch. The farmer brought him a glass of cool milk from the cellar, and then Graydon sent in word that he would like to see the lady as soon as possible.

When he entered the "spare room" of the farmhouse Madge, with a smile that was like a ray of sunshine, extended her hand from the lounge on which she was reclining, and said:

"You didn't fail me, Graydon. I couldn't have kept up a moment longer. I should have fainted before had I not heard your voice. How good God has been!"

He held her hand in both his own, his mouth twitched nervously, but his emotion was too strong for speech.

"Don't feel so badly, Graydon," she resumed, and her voice was gentleness itself; "I am not hurt, nor are you to blame."

"I am to blame," he said, hoarsely. "I gave you that brute, but he's dead. I shot him instantly. Oh, Madge, if--if--I feel that I would have shot myself."

"Graydon, please be more calm," she faltered, tears coming into her eyes. "There, see, you are making me cry. I can't bear to see you--I can't bear to see a man--so moved. Please now, you look so pale that I am frightened. I'm not strong, but shall get better at once if I see you yourself."

"Forgive me, Madge, but it seems as if I had suffered the pangs of death ten times over--there, I won't speak about it till we both have recovered from the shock. Dear, brave little girl; how can I thank you enough for keeping up till I could reach you!"

She began to laugh a little too nervously to be natural. Her heart was glad over her escape, and in a gladder tumult at his words and manner. He was no shadow of a man, nor did ice-water flow in his veins. His feeling had been so strong that it had almost broken her self-control.

"Some day," she exulted, "some day God will turn his fraternal affection into the wine of love."

"I'm so nervous," she said, "that I must either laugh or cry. What a plight we are in! How shall we go forward or backward?"

"We shall not do either very soon. Mrs. Hobson is making you a cup of tea, and then you must rest thoroughly, and sleep, if possible."

"What will you do?"

"Oh, I'll soothe my nerves with a cigar, and berate myself on the porch! When you are thoroughly rested I'll have Mr. Hobson drive us on to the nearest station. We are in no plight whatever, if you received no harm."

"I haven't. Promise me one thing."

"Anything--everything."

"Do no berating. I'm sorry you killed the horse; but he did act vilely, and I suppose you had to let off your anger in some way. I was angry myself at first--he was so stupid. But when I found I couldn't hold him at all I thought I must die--Oh, how it all comes back to me! What thoughts I had, and how sweet life became! Oh, oh--" and she began sobbing like a child.

"Madge, please--I can't endure this, indeed I can't."

But her overwrought nerves were not easily controlled, and he knelt beside her, speaking soothingly and pleadingly. "Dear Madge, dear sister Madge. Oh, I wish Mary was here!" and he kissed her again and again.

"Graydon," she gasped, "stop! There--I'm better;" and she did seem to recover almost instantly.

"Law bless you, sir," said Mrs. Hobson, who had entered with the tea, "your sister'll be all right in an hour or so."

Graydon sprang to his feet, and there was a strong dash of color in his face. As for the hitherto pallid Madge, her visage was like a peony, and she was preternaturally quiet.

"Try to sleep, Madge," said Graydon, from the doorway, "and I won't 'worry or take on' a bit;" and he disappeared.

There was no sleep for her, and yet she felt herself wonderfully restored. Was it the potency of Mrs. Hobson's tea? or that which he had placed upon her lips?