Chapter XXXVIII. "Certainly I Refuse You"
 

Having heard that one of the finest views among the mountains was to be had at Indian Head, a vast overhanging precipice facing toward the entrance to the Kaaterskill Clove, Graydon easily induced Madge to explore with him the tangled paths which led thither.

How his eyes exulted over her as she tripped on before him down the steep, winding, rocky paths! As he followed he often wondered where her feet had found their secure support, so rugged was the way. Yet on she glanced before him, swaying, bending to avoid branches, or pushing them aside, her motions instinct with vitality and natural grace.

Once, however, he had a fright. She was taking a deep descent swiftly, when her skirt caught on a stubborn projecting stump of a sapling, and it appeared that she would fall headlong; but by some surprising, self-recovering power, which seemed exerted even in the act of falling, she lay before him in the path, almost as if reclining easily upon her elbow, and was nearly on her feet again before he could reach her side.

"Are you hurt?" he asked, most solicitously, brushing off the dust from her dress.

"Not in the least," she replied, laughing.

"Well," he exclaimed, "I don't believe you or any one else could do that so handsomely again if you tried a thousand times! Don't try, please. I carried you the other day some little distance, and found that you were no longer a little ghost."

"You carried me, Graydon? I thought the people from the farmhouse came."

"Oh, I didn't wait for them! I was half beside myself."

"Evidently," she replied, a little coolly.

Her tone made him falter in his purpose, and when at last they reached Indian Head, she was so resolutely impersonal in her talk, and had so much to say about the history and the legends of the region of which she had read, that he felt that she was in no mood for what he intended to say. As the time passed he grew nervously apprehensive over his project, and at last they started on their return with his plan unfulfilled. They agreed to try a path to their left, which was scarcely distinguishable, and it soon appeared to end at a point that sloped almost perpendicularly to a wild gorge that ran up between the hills.

"That must be what is down on the map as Tamper Clove," said Madge; "and do you know, some think that it was up that valley Irving made poor Rip carry the heavy keg? Oh, I wish we could get down into it and go back that way!"

"Let me explore;" and he began swinging himself down by the aid of saplings and smaller growth. "Some one has passed here recently," he called back, "for trees are freshly blazed and branches broken. Yes," he cried, a moment later; "here is a well-defined path leading up the clove toward the hotel. Do you think you dare attempt it?"

"Certainly," she answered; and before he could reach her she was half-way down the descent.

"Madge!" he cried, in alarm.

"Oh, don't worry," she said; "I was over worse places in the West."

"Well, what can't she do!" he exclaimed, as she stood beside him in the path.

"I can't give up my own way very easily," she replied. "You have found that out."

"That don't trouble me in the least. I don't wish you to give up your own way. It's warm down here, and our walk won't be so breezy as if we had followed the ridge."

"We will take it leisurely and have a rest by and by."

The gorge grew narrower and wilder. They passed an immense tree, under which Indians may have bivouacked, and in some storm long past the lightning had plowed its way from the topmost branch to its gnarled roots.

At last the path crossed a little rill that tinkled with a faint murmur among the stones, making a limpid pool here and there. Immense bowlders, draped with varied-hued mosses and lichens, were scattered about, where in ages past the melting glacier had left them. The trees that densely shaded the place seemed primeval in their age, loftiness, and shaggy girth.

"Oh, what a deliciously cool and lovely spot!" cried Madge, throwing down her alpenstock. "Get me some oak leaves, Graydon, and I will make you a cup and give you a drink."

In a moment she made a fairy chalice with the aid of little twigs, and when she handed it to him, dripping with water, his hand trembled as he took it.

"Why, Graydon," she exclaimed, "what on earth makes you so nervous?"

"I am not used to climbing, and I suppose my hand has a little tremor from fatigue."

"You poor thing! Here is a mossy rock on which you can imitate Rip. You have only to imagine that my leaf goblet is the goblin flagon of Irving's legend."

"Where and what would you be after twenty years?"

"Probably a wrinkled spinster at Santa Barbara."

"You wouldn't go away and leave me?"

"Certainly I would, if I couldn't wake you up."

He looked into her mirthful eyes and lovely face. Oh, how lovely it was, flushed from heat and climbing! "Madge," he said, impetuously, "you have waked me--every faculty of my soul, every longing of my heart. Will you be my wife?"

Her face grew scarlet. She sprang to her feet, and asked, with half serious, half comic dismay, "Will I be your what!"

"I asked you to be my wife," he began, confusedly.

"Oh, Graydon, this is worse than asking me to be your sister!" she replied, laughing. "Your alternations fairly make me dizzy."

"Truly, Madge," he stammered, "a man can scarcely pay a woman a greater compliment--"

"Oh, it's a compliment!" she interrupted.

"No," he burst out, with more than his first impetuosity; "I'm in earnest. You, who almost read my thoughts, know that I am in earnest--that--"

By a strong yet simple gesture she checked him.

"You scarcely realize what you are asking, Graydon," she said, gravely. "I have no doubt your present emotion is unforced and sincere, but it requires time to prove earnestness. You were equally sure you were in earnest a short time since, and I had little place, comparatively, in your thoughts."

"But I did not know you then as I do now."

"You thought you did. You had vivid impressions then about me, and more vivid about another woman. You are acting now under another impression, and from impulse. If I ever give myself away it shall not be in response to an impulse."

"Madge, you misjudge me--" he began, hotly.

"I think I know most of the facts, and you know how matter-of-fact I am. You may think I do not know what love is, but I do. It is a priceless thing. It is a woman's life, and all that makes a true woman's life. It is something that one cannot always give at will, or wisely; but if I had the power to give it at all, it should be to a man who had earned the right to ask it, and not to one who, within a few short days, had formed new impressions about me. Love is not the affection of a friend, or even of a sister. There is no necessity for me to marry."

"Then you refuse me?" he said, a little stiffly.

"Certainly I refuse you, Graydon. Has my manner led you to think that I was eager for a chance to accept you?"

"Oh, no, indeed! You have checked my slightest tendencies toward sentiment."

"Thank you for the assurance. I do not care in the least for sentiment."

His airy fabric of hope, of almost certainty, had been shattered so suddenly that he was overwhelmed. There seemed but one conclusion.

"Madge," he said, in a low, hoarse voice, "answer me, yes or no. You loved some one at Santa Barbara who did not return your love? That is your trouble of which Mrs. Wendall spoke--I could not help hearing her words--that is the mystery about you which has been haunting me with increasing perplexity; that was the sorrow I heard in your voice the evening you sang in the chapel, and which has vaguely, yet strongly, moved me since? Tell me, is it not so? Tell me, as a friend, that I may be a truer friend."

She had turned away in a manner that confirmed his thought.

"You are suggesting a humiliating confession, Graydon."

"Yes, humiliating to the man who saw you, knew you, yet did not love you. Tell me, Madge. It will make my own course clearer."

"Yes, then," she replied.

He sighed deeply, and was silent for a few moments.

"Madge," he at last resumed, "look at me. I wish to tell you something."

She turned slowly toward him, and he saw that her lip was trembling, and that tears were gathering in her eyes.

"You may think me cruel in wringing such a confession from you, but perhaps you will forgive me when you hear all I have to say. You may look upon me now as a creature of impulses and impressions. The memory of my recent infatuation is fresh in your mind, but you yourself said I could be straightforward when once I got my bearings. I have them now, and I take my course. As a friend you have revealed to me much of your woman's nature, and, having known the best, I shall not look for anything less than yours. I shall be devoted to you through life. I will be to you all that I can be--all that you will permit. It is said that time heals all wounds. Perhaps some day--well, if it ever can be, I should be content to take what you could give. You said I was kind and patient with the little ghost. I should be far kinder, gentler--"

She had felt herself going fast, and had almost yielded to the impulse to exclaim, "You, Graydon, are the one who did not return my love; and although your love has been so brief and untested compared with mine, I will trust you;" when voices were heard on the same path by which they had come, and the figures of other ramblers were seen indistinctly through the foliage.

She gave his hand a strong pressure, seized her alpenstock, and hastened swiftly forward. The path soon afterward emerged on the public road. The breeze cooled her hot cheeks, kissed away her tears, and half an hour later they approached the hotel, chatting as quietly as the strictest conventionality would require.