Chapter XXXIX. My True Friend
 

They found that Mr. Muir had arrived, and no family party in the long supper-room appeared more free from disturbing thoughts and memories than the one gathered at the banker's table. In Madge the keen-eyed man could detect nothing that was unusual, and in Graydon only a trace of the dignity and seriousness which would inevitably follow some deep experience or earnest purpose. They all spent the evening and the greater part of the following day together, and Madge was touched more than once by observing that Graydon sought unobtrusively to comply with even her imagined wishes and to enhance the point and interest of her spoken thoughts.

In answer to his direct question she had acknowledged the absolute truth, and yet it had proved more misleading than all the disguises which her maidenly reserve had compelled her to adopt. It seemed now that she would have no further trouble with him--that he had defined his purpose, and would abide by it. She was glad that she had not yielded to his appeal and rewarded him in the first consciousness of his new regard for her. This feeling had seemed too recent, tumultuous, and full of impulse, and did not accord with her earnest, chastened spirit, that had attained the goal of its hope by such patient endeavor. She preferred that the first strong outflow from his heart should find wide, deep channels, and that his love for her should take the same recognized place in his life that her love had occupied so long in her own. She also had a genuine and feminine reluctance that the suitor of Stella Wildmere should be known as her lover so speedily, and something more and deeper than good taste was the cause of her aversion.

Yet she was exceedingly happy. The hope that had sustained her so long, that had been so nearly lost, now seemed certain of fulfilment, and no one but she and God knew how much this truth meant. Only He had been her confidant, and she felt that she had been sustained in her struggle from weakness to strength by a Power that was not human, and guided during the past weeks by a wisdom beyond her own.

"He has proved to me a good Father," was her simple belief. "He led me to do the best I could for myself, and then did the rest. I also am sure He would have sustained me had I failed utterly. That my life would not have been vain and useless was shown when I saved little Nellie Wilder."

Thus it may be seen that she was quite unlike many good people. In her consciousness God was not a being to be worshipped decorously and then counted out from that which made her real life and hope.

The future now stretched away full of rest and glad assurance. Graydon's manner already began to fulfil his promise. He would quietly accept the situation as he understood it, and she saw already the steadying power of an unselfish, unfaltering purpose. He appeared by years an older and a graver man, and when he sat by her during the service in the wide parlor, there was not a trace of his old flippant irreverence. Whatever he now believed, he had attained the higher breeding which respects what is sacred to others.

She had but little compunction over his self-sacrificing mood. It was perfectly clear that by quiet, manly devotion he proposed to help "time heal the wound" made by that "idiot" at Santa Barbara, and she that she could gradually reveal to him so much improvement that equanimity and at last hope would find a place in his mind.

They parted Monday morning with a brief, strong pressure of hands, which Graydon felt conveyed volumes of sympathy and mutual understanding. She had said that he could write to her, and he found he had so much to say that he had to put a strong constraint upon himself.

Mr. Muir had watched them curiously during his stay in the mountains, and felt that something had occurred which he could not fathom. Graydon's manner at parting and since, during business hours, had confirmed this impression. He was almost as grave and reticent as the banker himself, and the latter began to chafe and grow irritable over the problem which he was bent on seeing solved in but one way. He looked askance and discontentedly at Graydon during dinner in the evening. When they were alone he was fidgety and rather curt in his remarks. At last he burst out, "Confound it! What has happened between you and Madge?"

"She has refused me, that's all," was the quiet reply.

Mr. Muir gave a low whistle.

"Oh, I understood you the other evening," resumed Graydon. "The phenomenal penetration on which you so pride yourself is at fault for once."

The banker was so nonplused that he permitted his cigar to go out, but he soon reached the conclusion, "He has bungled." "Well," he asked at last, "what do you propose to do?"

"To be to her all that she will ever permit, and die a bachelor for her sake if I must."

Mr. Muir lighted his Havana again and puffed in silence for a while, then said, "I like that. Your purpose is clearly defined. In business and everything else there is solid comfort in knowing what you can depend upon."

Madge's replies to Graydon's letters were scarcely more than notes, but they were breezy little affairs, fragrant with the breath of the mountains, and had an excellent tonic effect in the hot city. They usually contained a description of what she had seen or of some locality visited. On one occasion she wrote:

"Late in the afternoon there had been a shower, not gentle and pattering, but one of those frightful, passionate outbursts which are not infrequent in these mountains. The wind appeared to drive black masses of clouds from all directions save one, which, meeting over the height occupied by the hotel, discharged torrents of rain. At last the wind left the writhing trees in peace, and carried the deeply shadowing cloud away beyond the hills. The sun broke forth, and nature began some magic work. Calling the mist fairies to her aid, she gathered from every ravine and clove delicate airy clouds, which formed a large and rapidly increasing mass of vapor. Soon the plain below--the wide Hudson valley--was entirely shut out, as though a great white curtain had dropped from the sky to the mountain's base. Just then the setting sun, which had been temporarily obscured, shone forth in glorious brightness, casting on the beautiful cloud-curtain the dark, clearly defined shadow of the mountain-top, with its crown of buildings, even the towers and turrets showing with startling distinctness. It was like a mammoth, well-cut cameo, or a gigantic magic lantern effect, with the sun as a calcium light.

"The spectacle lasted only a few moments. Then the cloudy curtain parted, and the valley of the Hudson was seen again, spanned by a rainbow."

The days lengthened into weeks, Graydon coming every Friday afternoon, and wondering slightly at the demurely radiant face that greeted him. "Truly," he thought, "in the words of the old hymn she 'puts a cheerful courage on.'"

At times, however, she would be a little pensive. Then his tones would have a greater depth and gentleness, and his sympathy was very sweet, although she felt a little guilty because she was in no need of it. She could stifle her compunction by thinking:

"There was such a long, weary time when I did need it, and was desolate because of its absence, that I must have a little now to offset those gray, lonely days."

She had thought she loved him before, but as she saw him patiently and unselfishly seeking to brighten her life in every possible way, with no better hope than that at some time in the indefinite future she might give him what was left of her heart after the old fire had died out, her former affection seemed as pale and shadowy as she was herself when first she learned that she had a woman's heart.

Late one Friday afternoon he startled her by asking abruptly, "Madge, what has become of that fellow out West?"

"Please don't speak about that again," she faltered.

"Oh, well, certainly not, if you don't wish me to; but I thought if there was any chance--"

"Chance for what, Graydon?"

"Confound him! I don't suppose I could do anything. I want to make you happy, Madge. I feel just like taking the idiot by the ear, bringing him to you, and saying, 'There, you unconscionable fool, look at that girl--' You know what I mean. I'm suggesting the spirit, not the letter of my action. But, Madge, believe me, if I could help you at any cost to myself--"

"Is your regard for me, of which you spoke, so slight that you could go to work deliberately to bring that man to me?"

"There is no regard about it. My love for you is so great that I would do anything to make you happy."

"Madge," called the voice of Mrs. Muir, who was following them with her husband, "where are you and Graydon?"

"Here!" cried Madge, springing up. Then she gave her hand to him, and he saw that there were tears in her eyes. "Graydon," she said, "I couldn't ask a stronger test than that. I can't tell you how I appreciate it. I shall never impose any such task upon you."

"Don't hesitate on my account. I admit that it would be harder than one of the labors of Hercules, but you command me now and always. Nothing is so bad as to know that you are unhappy."

"Do I seem very unhappy?"

"No, you brave little woman! but who could guess the truth if you were? My knowledge is not derived from your usual manner."

"It is a pity if I cannot be patient when you set me so good an example," she said, as Mr. and Mrs. Muir approached.

When they were alone again for a brief time during the ramble, Graydon resumed: "I wish to make sure of your confidence, Madge; I wish you to take me at my word. I don't think you have been quite just to me. I am not a cold-blooded fellow, and, no doubt, am given to impressions and impulses; but I think constancy is one of my traits. I never wavered in my affection for you until I misunderstood you immediately after my return, and then that very misapprehension kept me worried and perplexed much of the time. I was true to Miss Wildmere as long as there was anything to be constant to, and yet for years she was scarcely anything more than a fancy, a preference. Since my return you know just what she was to me. Nothing is more certain than that I never loved her. I did not know what the word meant then. There is a chapter in your history that I don't know much about, but I am sure I could make good my word to do anything within my power to bring you happiness. I have imagined that a little management, guided by tact and absolute fidelity--"

"Don't say anything more about that, Graydon," she said, firmly. "Not if my heart broke a thousand times would I seek a man or permit him to be sought for me in any such way as you suggest."

"That's settled, then."

"That's settled forever."

"Well, in that case," he said, with a short, nervous laugh, "there may be a chance for me within the next hundred years."

"Are you so willing to take a woman who had once given her heart to another?"

"I don't know anything about 'a woman.' I would take you, Madge, under any circumstances that I can imagine."

"Graydon," said Mrs. Muir, suddenly appearing around a turn in the walk, "what is the matter with you? Why can't you and Madge keep with us more? For some reason we are getting separated all the time. This is a lovely spot. Let us sit down here like a family party and have a little music. I just long to get back home, so that Madge may sing for us as much as we wish. Here she would attract the attention of strangers, and that ends the matter; and so I feel as if I had a rare singing bird, but never a song. In this secluded place no others will hear you, Madge."

"Very well. What do you wish? I feel like singing."

"Make your own choice."

"I'll give you an old song, then, about friendship;" and with notes rivalling those of a hermit-thrush that had been chanting vespers in the dense woods near by, she sang a quaint melody, her voice wakening faint echoes from the adjacent rocks. When she came to the last lines she gave Graydon a shy glance, which seemed to signify, "These words are for you."

  "Kinder than Love is my true friend.
  He'd die for me if that would end
  My sorrow. Yes, would live for me--
  Suffer and live unselfishly,
  And that for him would harder be
  Than at my feet to die for me."

As she ceased she again encountered his steadfast gaze with a glance which said, "Have I not done you justice?"

He was satisfied, and felt that the presence of his relatives had secured a sweeter answer than might otherwise have been given--an answer that contained all he could hope for then.

"Humph!" ejaculated Mr. Muir, very discontentedly.

"What an appreciative remark, Henry!" said Madge, laughing.

"It was; and it expressed my views," said the banker, dryly. "Come, Mary, let us go home to supper."

"Now, I think the song very pretty," said Mary, "only there are no such people nowadays."

As Madge followed with Graydon she continued laughing softly to herself.

"You are not hiding vexation at Henry?" Graydon asked.

"Oh, no, I understand Henry. You think I am always hiding something. You at least should have understood my song."

"Yes, Madge," he said, gravely, "and you also made it clear that you understood me. I am content."

She laughed, imitating the ejaculation.

"Henry's 'humph!' was too rich for anything. It meant volumes. What sentimental fools he thinks us to be!"

"Henry could no more understand such a song than sing it," was Graydon's somewhat irritable response.

"No matter. Such men are invaluable in the world. My nature is very much in accord with Henry's, and so far as he has had experience, he is very sound."

"With your saving clause in mind, I agree with you perfectly about Henry, but not about yourself. Your nature, Madge, like your voice, has a wide compass."

With this one exception there was no other spoken reference during the remainder of the summer to the attitude toward her which he now maintained in thought and action. The season was drawing to a close, and she had enjoyed the latter part of it beyond her fondest hopes and expectations. She made a few congenial acquaintances at the hotel, and with them never wearied in exploring the paths that converged at the great caravansary, and in visiting the various outlooks from which the same wide landscapes presented ever-changing aspects. Chief among these friends was a middle-aged artist, who was deeply imbued with the genius of the mountains, and who had no little skill in catching and idealizing the lovely effects he saw. He proved her best guide, for he had long haunted the region, and the majority of the paths were due to his taste and explorations. In such congenial tasks he acted as agent for the sagacious and liberal owner of the vast property, who was so wise that in his dealings with nature he employed one that loved and understood her. To Madge the artist showed his favorite nooks and haunts, where the wild beauty of the hills dwelt like a living presence, and the scenery not yet painted which, from certain standpoints, almost composed itself on the canvas. Thus he taught her to see the region somewhat as he did, and to find in the general beauty definite, natural pictures that were like flowers in the wilderness. She greatly enjoyed watching with him the wonderful moonlight effects on the vast shaggy sides and summit of High Peak, that reared its almost untrodden solitudes opposite the hotel. This mountain was the favorite haunt of fantastic clouds. Sometimes in the form of detached mists they would pass up rapidly like white spectres from the vast chasm of the Kaaterskill. Again a heavy mass would settle on the whole length of the mountain, the outlines of which would be lost, and the whole take the semblance of one vast height crowned with the moon's radiance. Nothing fascinated Madge more than to observe how the artist caught the essential elements of beauty in the changing cloud scenery and reproduced the effects on a few inches of canvas, and in her better appreciation of similar scenery thereafter, she saw how true it is that art may be the interpreter of nature.

The fine music and varied entertainments at the house served also to beguile her time. On one occasion the young people were arranging a series of tableaux, and she was asked to personate Jephtha's daughter. When the curtain rose on her lovely face and large, dark eyes, the Hebrew maiden and her pathetic history grew into vivid reality against the dim background of the past.

After all, the time that intervened between Monday and Friday afternoon was spent in waiting, and even the hours toward the last were counted. The expression in Graydon's dark blue eyes was always the same when he greeted her, and recalled the line:

  "Kinder than Love is my true friend."

On Saturdays they took long tramps, seeking objective points far beyond the range of ordinary ramblers.