Chapter IV. Effort

The deep experience, the touchstone of character, of latent power, if such existed, had come to Madge Alden. For days she had drifted helplessly on the rising tide of an apparently hopeless love. With every hour she comprehended more fully what Graydon Muir had become to her and all that he might have been. It seemed that she had been carried forward by a strong, quiet current, only to be wrecked at last. A sense of utter helplessness overwhelmed her. She could not ignore her love; it had become interwoven with every interest and fibre of her life. At first she contemplated it in wonder, in deeply troubled and alarmed perplexity. It was a momentous truth, that had suddenly been made known as some irretrievable misfortune might have been revealed. She had read of love as children hear of mental anxieties and conflicts of which they have no comprehension. As she grew older it had been like poetry, music, romance--something that kindled her imagination into vague, pleasant dreams. It had been as remote from the present and her own experience as lives of adventure in strange and foreign lands. She had awakened at last to find that it was like her vital breath. By some law of her nature she had given, not merely her thoughts and affection, but her very self to another. To her dismay it made no difference that he had not sought the gift and was not even aware of it. Circumstances over which she had no control had brought her into close companionship with Graydon Muir. She had seen him almost daily for years; she knew him with the intimacy of a sister, yet without the safeguard of a natural tie; and from his genial kindness she had drawn almost all the life she had ever possessed. With an unconsciousness akin to that of a plant which takes root and thrives upon finding a soil adapted to it, her love had been developed by his strong, sunny nature. She soon recognized that it was a love such as she had never known, unlike that for her mother or sister or any one else, and it seemed to her that it could pass away only with herself. It was not a vague sentiment, an indefinite longing; it was the concentrated and imperious demand of her whole being, which, denied, left little indeed, even were the whole world hers. Yet such were the cruel conditions of her lot that she could not speak of it even to one whose head had been pillowed on the same mother's breast, and the thought that it might be discovered by its object made her turn cold with dread. It was a holy thing--the spontaneous product of an unperverted heart--and yet she must hide it as if it were a crime.

Above all the trouble and turmoil of her thoughts, clear and definite amid the chaos brought into her old quiet, languid life, was the impulse--the necessity--to conceal that which had become the mainspring of her existence. She had not the experience of one versed in the ways of the world. How could others--how could he--be kept in ignorance of that of which she was so painfully and vividly conscious? Therefore, overwhelmed with dread and a sense of helplessness, she yielded to her first impulse to hide, in order that what seemed inseparable from herself might be concealed.

But she knew that this seclusion could not last--that she must meet this first and great emergency of her life in some other way. From the strong wish to obtain safety in separation, a plan to bring it about gradually took form in her mind. She must escape, either to live or to die, before her secret became known; and in casting about for the means, she at last thought of a family who had been the kindest of neighbors in the village where her mother had died. Mr. Wayland and his wife had been the truest and most sympathetic of friends to the widow and her orphan children, and Madge felt that she could be at home with them. Mrs. Wayland's prolonged ill-health had induced her husband to try, in her behalf, the remedy of an entire change of air and climate. Therefore they had removed, some years before, to Santa Barbara, on the Pacific coast. The signal success of the experiment now kindled a glimmer of hope in poor Madge. That remote city certainly secured the first requisites--separation and distance--and the fact that her friend found health and vigor in the semi-tropical resort promised a little for her frail young life. She had few fears that her old friends would not welcome her, and she was in a position to entail no burdens, even though she should remain an invalid.

The practical question was, How should she get there? But the more she thought upon the plan the more attractive it grew. The situation seemed so desperate that she was ready for a desperate remedy. To remain weak, helpless, and in perpetual dread was impossible.

Her mind also was clear and strong enough for self-arraignment, and in bitterness she partially condemned herself that she had lost her chance for happiness. Her conscience had often troubled her that she had given up so weakly to the habit of invalidism, but she had never had sufficient motive for the vigorous and sustained effort essential to overcome it. Indeed, her frailty had seemed a claim upon Graydon, and made it more natural for him to pet her. Now that she was thinking deeply, she was compelled to admit that her ill health was to some extent her fault as well as her misfortune. Circumstances, natural indolence, and her sister's extreme indulgence had brought about a condition of life that propagated itself. One languid day was the parent of another, it was so much easier to dawdle than to act. Thus she had lost her opportunity. If he had won health, even Graydon said it would have brought her beauty. She might have secured his admiration, respect, and even love, instead of his pity. What could be more absurd than to imagine that he could give aught else to one like herself? "Oh, what a blind fool I have been!" she moaned--"blind to the wants of my own heart, blind to the truth that a man needs a strong, genial companion, and not a dependent shadow."

Graydon's sudden departure took from her project many obstacles and embarrassments. She was not afraid of her sister or her remonstrances, and felt that she could convince Mr. Muir that the change gave the best promise for the future. Graydon's objections would have been hard to meet. He might have been led to guess her motive or insist on being her escort. Now it was merely a question of gaining sufficient strength for the journey and of being resolute.

Mrs. Muir's opposition was not so great as Madge had feared, and Mr. Muir even approved of the plan. The shrewd merchant's judgment was usually correct on all practical matters, and he believed that Madge's best chance was in a radical change. He saw that his wife's indulgence tended to confirm her sister's lack of energy, and that it would be best for Madge to spend the next few years with one who had regained her health by wise endeavor. Mrs. Muir soon saw everything as her husband viewed it, and the young girl prepared for a new world and a new life.

It was indeed a wise decision. There could be no more aimless drifting and brooding. A telegram to Mr. Wayland brought immediate acquiescence in the project, which was arranged more in detail by letters. Madge strove in every possible way to fit herself for the journey, and was surprised at her success. Better than all tonics was the diversion of her thoughts, the prospect of change, the necessity for action. In her thoughtful prudence she even satisfied Mrs. Muir's solicitude, for the young girl realized more fully every day how much depended upon her plan. It seemed to her that there could be no greater misfortune than to become so ill again that in helplessness she must await Graydon's return. Therefore, every faculty of mind, every power of body, was exerted to accomplish her purpose; and, while her farewell to her sister and Mr. Muir was tender and full of gratitude, the consciousness of escape was uppermost in her mind. An elderly friend of Mr. Muir would be her escort to San Francisco, and in that city Mr. Wayland was to meet her.

She arrived safely at her far-distant home, greatly worn and exhausted indeed, but calm in mind from a sense of security. Mrs. Wayland greeted her with her old-time cordiality, and gave herself heartily to the task of rallying the frail girl into health.

During the days of absolute rest which followed the journey, Madge's thoughts were busy. The width of the continent would separate her from the past and those associated with it. Both the breadth of the continent and the ocean were between her and him from whom she had fled; yet he was ever present to her imagination. In this respect the intervening miles counted for nothing. She had not hoped that they would. She could conceive of no plan of life that left him out, yet she felt that she must have some object to look forward to, some motive for action. The spirit she had recently shown in taking so decisive a step proved her to possess a latent force of character of which she herself had not been conscious. She would not sit down to dream and brood away the future. She could never hope for Graydon Muir's love. He would soon return to New York, and the idea that Miss Wildmere or any other girl would remain cold to his suit was preposterous. Yet if she lived she must meet Graydon again, and she now felt that she would live. The decision she had manifested at the crisis of her life was kindling her nature. She was conscious of a growing inclination to prove to Graydon that she was neither "weak nor lackadaisical." The reproach of these, his words, haunted her and rankled in her memory. If she could only make him respect her--if she could only win such a look of admiration as she had seen upon his face when he first recognized Miss Wildmere at the party, it would be a triumph indeed.

Thus a new plan, a new hope, was developed, and became the inspiration of effort. She listened unweariedly as Mrs. Wayland related how she had turned the tide of her ebbing vitality. Thus Madge gained the benefit of another's experience. Little by little she sought to increase her slender resources of strength. The superb climate enabled her to live almost in the open air, and each day she exulted over an increase of vigor. Almost everything favored her in her new home. When she was well enough to go out much the strangers had gone, and everything in the town was restful, yet not enervating. The Waylands, while on the best terms with other permanent residents, were not society people. Mrs. Wayland had become satisfied with that phase of life in her youth. Her husband was a reader, a student, and something of a naturalist. The domestic habits which had been formed while Mrs. Wayland was an invalid still clung to them. While never ceasing to be kind neighbors, they were more than content with books, nature, and each other. Madge therefore had access to a very fine library, and the companionship of intellectual people who had known from contact the present world, and in whose cultivated minds dwelt the experiences of the past. Her friends were in the habit of discussing what they read, and the basis of much of their enjoyment--as of all true companionship--was harmonious disagreement. Thus the young girl was insensibly taught to think for herself and to form her own opinions. They also proved admirable guides in directing her reading. She felt that she had read enough for mere amusement, and now determined to become familiar with the great master-minds, so far as she was capable of following them, and to inform herself on those subjects which Mr. Wayland declared essential to an education.

If circumstances within doors were conducive to mental growth, those without were even more favorable to physical development. The salt air and softly tempered sunshine were perpetual tonics. The place was full of exquisite flowers. She felt that she had never seen roses until she came to Santa Barbara. To a wounded, sensitive spirit there is even a healing influence in the brightness and perfume of flowers. They smiled so sweetly at her that she could not help smiling back. The sunny days passed, one so like another that they begot serenity. The even climate, with its sunny skies, tended to inspirit as well as to invigorate. Almost every day she spent hours in driving and sailing, and as the season advanced she began to take ocean baths, which on that genial coast are suitable almost all the year round. Going thus to nature for healing, she did not appeal in vain. Strength and grace were bestowed imperceptibly, yet surely, as spring clothes the leafless tree.

A love such as had grown unbidden and unconsciously in Madge's heart could not be content with the meagre reward of a little admiration. Such an affection was softening and ennobling in its character, and the mere desire to compel Graydon to glance at her as she had seen him look at Miss Wildmere grew into the higher ambition to become such a woman as would approach in some degree his ideal. She knew his tastes, and as she thought over the past she believed she could gauge his character as could no other. She soon recognized that he was not an exceptional man, that she was not worshipping a hero. He himself would be the last one to claim pre-eminence among his fellows. But his genial, open nature, his physical strength, and his generous, kindly impulses made him an eminently lovable man, and--well, she loved him, and believed she ever should. Frail and defective in almost every respect herself, she would have thought it absurd to cherish some lofty and impossible ideal. He was hearty, wholesome, honest, and she soon began to see that it would be a better and a nobler thing--a nearer approach to happiness--to become a woman whom he could trust and respect than merely to win a little admiration as a tribute to ephemeral beauty.

She would attain beauty if she could, but it should be the appendage, the ornament of mind and character. She, who had seemed to him weakness itself, would aim to suggest eventually that noblest phase of strength--woman's patience and fortitude.

It must not be supposed that Madge reached these conclusions in days, weeks, or even months. Her final purposes were the result of slow, half-conscious growth. Right, brave action produced right feeling, and there are few better moral tonics than developing health. With richer, better blood came truer, higher, and more unselfish thoughts. She found that she could not only live, but that vigorous, well-directed life is in itself enjoyment. It was a pleasure to breathe the pure, balmy air, even when reclining in a carriage or a sail-boat, and as she gained strength sufficient for exercise, she soon became aware of the rich physical rewards that wait upon it. Slowly at first, but with an increasing impetus, she advanced toward health, the condition of all genuine life. She at last exchanged her carriage for a saddle-horse.

Mr. Wayland had one taste in which his wife did not share--a love for horseback exercise, which, indeed, was one of the chief characteristics of the community. Madge knew that Graydon was extremely fond of a good horse, and that he rode superbly. To become his equal therefore in this respect was one of the chief dreams of her ambition. It was with almost a sense of terror that she mounted at first, but Mr. Wayland was considerate. Her horse was only permitted to walk, and she was taken off as soon as she was weary. Confidence increased rapidly, and eventually she became fearless and almost tireless. The beach was like a smooth, hard road-bed, and before the summer was over she thought little of a gallop of ten miles, with the breath of the Pacific fanning her cheek. When Mr. Wayland drove with his wife up through Mission and Hot Springs canons, or eight miles away to the exquisitely beautiful Bartlett Canon and the fine adjacent ranches, she accompanied them on horseback. As she flashed along past date-palms, and through lemon and orange groves, she began to appear semi-tropical herself. She also became Mr. Wayland's companion on his botanizing expeditions, and her steps among the rocks of the foothills and on the slopes of the mountains grew surer, lighter, and more unwearied. Color stole into her face, and a soft fire into her dark eyes when animated. Mrs. Wayland looked on with increasing delight, and thought, "She is growing very beautiful. I wonder if she knows it?"

Indeed she knew it well. What young girl does not? But Madge had a motive for knowledge of which Mrs. Wayland did not dream. In the main the girl was her own physician, and observed her symptoms closely. She knew well what beauty was. Her vivid fancy would at any time recall Miss Wildmere as a living presence; therefore her standard was exceedingly high, and she watched her approach to it as to a distant and eagerly sought goal. Other eyes gave assurance that her own were not deceiving her. The invalid on whom at first but brief and commiserating glances had been bestowed was beginning to be followed by admiring observation. Society recognized her claims, and she was gaining even more attention than she desired. As her strength increased she accepted invitations, and permitted the circle of her acquaintance to widen. It was part of her plan to become as much at home in the social world as Graydon himself. Nor was she long in overcoming a diffidence that had been almost painful. In one sense these people were to her simply a means to an end. She cared so little for them that she was not afraid, and had merely to acquire the ease which results from usage. Diffidence soon passed into a shy grace that was indefinable and yet became a recognized trait. The least approach to loudness and aggressiveness in manner was not only impossible to her, but she also possessed the refinement and tact of which only extremely sensitive natures are capable. A vain, selfish woman is so preoccupied with herself that she does not see or care what others are, or are thinking of, unless the facts are obtruded upon her; another, with the kindest intentions, may not be able to see, and so blunders lamentably; but Madge was so finely organized that each one who approached her made a definite impression, and without conscious effort she responded--not with a conventional and stereotyped politeness, but with an appreciative courtesy which, as she gained confidence and readiness of expression, gave an unfailing charm to her society. With few preconceived and arbitrary notions of her own she accepted people as they were, and made the most of them. Of course there were some in whom even the broadest charity could find little to approve; but it was her purpose to study and understand them and lose forever the unsophisticated ignorance at which Graydon had used to laugh.

Santa Barbara was a winter resort, and she had the advantage of meeting many types. In Mrs. Wayland she had a useful mentor. This lady in her younger days had been familiar with the best phases of metropolitan society, and she counteracted in Madge all tendencies toward provincialism. Thus it gradually became recognized that the "shy, sickly little girl," as she had been characterized at first, was growing into a very attractive young woman. Indeed, after an absence of only a year her own sister would scarcely have recognized her.