Chapter V. Achievement
 

Mrs. Muir of course heard often from her sister, and was satisfied with the general assurance that she was better and steadily improving. Madge, however, was rather indefinite in her information. As time passed, the idea of giving her friends in the East a surprise took possession of her fancy. She instinctively felt that she needed every incentive to pursue the course she had resolved upon, since she often suffered from fits of depression hard to combat. The hope of appearing like a new being to her relatives was another innocent motive for her long-prolonged effort. Circumstances had never developed epistolary tastes in the sisters, and they were content with brief missives containing general assurances that all was well. Mrs. Muir was one of those ladies who become engrossed with the actual and the present. Had Madge been in her old room she would have been looked after with daily solicitude; being absent, she was loved none the less, but was simply crowded from thought and memory by swarms of little cares. She was doing well, and her sister was satisfied. "'It's a wonderful climate,' Madge writes," she would say, "so even and dry. Madge doesn't take cold as she did here, and can go out nearly every day. Perhaps we ought to become reconciled to the fact that she will have to live there always, since here, with our sudden changes, she could scarcely live at all."

With the kindliest intentions Graydon had sought to initiate a vigorous correspondence. He had learned with immense relief of Madge's improvement through change of residence, and he felt that a series of jolly letters might bring aid and hopefulness. Her responses were not very encouraging, however, and business cares, with the novelty of foreign life, gradually absorbed his thoughts and time until correspondence languished and died.

"It's the old story," he thought, with a shade of irritation. "Letters cost effort, and she is not equal to effort, or thinks she is not."

If he could have seen Madge at that moment riding like the wind on a spirited horse he would have been more astonished than by any of the wonders of the old world.

To Madge his letters were a source of mingled pain and pleasure, but the former predominated. In every line they breathed an affection which could never satisfy. Coldness or indifference could not have so assured her that her love was hopeless; and when she sat down to reply, the language of her heart was so unlike that which she must write as to make her feel almost guilty of deliberate deception. Correspondence made him too vividly present, and she was learning that she had the power, not of forgetting him, but of so occupying her mind with tasks for his sake as to attain serenity. The days were made short by efforts of which he deemed her incapable, and weariness brought rest at night. But when she sat down with her pen, confronting him and not what she sought to do for him, her heart sank. He was too near and dear, yet too remote, even for hope.

This emotion is, however, the most hardy of plants, and although she had often assured herself that she had never entertained it or had any reason to do so, almost before she was aware she found it growing in her heart. Business still kept Graydon abroad, although a year had passed. There were no indications that he was pressing his suit with Miss Wildmere, and our heroine's mirror and the eyes of others began to tell her that the confident belle would not now bestow a glance so cold and indifferent as to mean, "You can be nothing to him or to any one." Moreover, Miss Wildmere's coveted beauty might prove an ally. One so attractive would be sought, perhaps won, before Graydon returned, and absence might have taught him that his regard had been little more than admiration. Naturally Madge would not be inclined to think well of one who had brought so cruel an experience into her life; but, prejudice apart, the society girl had given evidence of a type of womanhood not very high. Even Graydon, in his allusions, had suggested a character repulsive to Madge. A woman "as hard to capture and hold as a 'Bedouin'" was not at all her ideal. The words presented to her one who was either calculating or capricious, either heartless or fickle.

"Truly," she thought, "if there was ever a man who merited whole-hearted, lifelong constancy, it is Graydon Muir; and if he even imagines Miss Wildmere incapable of this, why should he think further of her? Perhaps while beyond the spell of her beauty he has formed a truer estimate of her character, and has abandoned all thought of her as a mocking dream. Perhaps--"

Of what possibilities will not a young girl dream at the dictation of her heart? And as she saw the sharp lines of her profile softening into loveliness, the color fluctuating in her cheeks even at her thoughts, her thin, feeble arms growing white and firm, and the rounded grace of womanhood appearing in all her form, she began to hope that she could endure comparison with Miss Wildmere, even on her lower plane of material beauty. But Madge had too much mind to be content with Miss Wildmere's standard. She coveted outward attractiveness chiefly that the casket might secure attention to its gems. The days of languid, desultory reading and study were over, and she determined to know at least a few things well.

It was to music, however, that she gave her chief attention, since she believed that for this art she had some positive talent A German in the pursuit of health had drifted to the remote southern city. He was past middle age, but had retained through numberless disappointments and discouragements the one enthusiasm of his life; and in Madge he found a pupil after his own heart. While his voice had lost much of its freshness and power, his taste was pure and refined. He kindled in the young girl's mind something of his own love and reverence for music on its own account. To Madge, however, it would always remain a method of expression rather than a science or an art, and the old professor at last learned to recognize her limitations. She would be excellent in only those phases of music which were in accord with her own feeling and thought. She would not, perhaps could not, study it as he had done, for her woman's nature and the growing purpose of her life were ever in the ascendant; but under his guidance her taste grew purer and her knowledge and power increased rapidly. What she did she learned to do well. Even Herr Brachmann was often charmed by the delicate originality of her touch, which proved that her own thought and feeling were infused into the music before her.

But her voice delighted him most. With her increasing vigor was gained the ability to use her vocal organs in sustained effort. He guarded her carefully against over-exertion, and her advance was assured and safe. Note after note, true, sweet, and strong, was added to the compass of her voice, and this exercise reacted with increased benefit on her general health. One can scarcely become a vocalist without toning up the vital organs, and in learning to sing Madge provided an antidote against consumptive tendencies. Her gift of song at last began to attract attention. Strangers loitered near the Wayland Cottage during warm, quiet evenings, and in society she was importuned by those who had heard her before. She usually complied, for she was training herself to sing before an audience of one who was familiar with the best musical talent of the world. Not that she wished to invite comparisons with this kind of talent, but merely to sing with such simple sweetness and truth that Graydon would forget the trained professional in the unaffected charm of the natural girl.

The manner of those who listened stimulated her hope. At the first notes of her song all conversation ceased. Even the unappreciative were impressed by a certain pathos, an appealing minor tone, which touched the heart while pleasing the ear.

During the long summer that followed her first winter at Santa Barbara the little town sank into a semi-torpid state. Strangers disappeared. With many of the permanent residents to kill time was the main object of languid effort. To Madge the season brought varied opportunity. The old professor gave her much of his time. While others slept she read and studied. The heat, tempered by the vast Pacific, was never great, and the air had a vitality that proved a constant aid to her controlling motive. In the morning she rode or took some form of skilled exercise in which she knew Graydon to be proficient, and she rarely missed her ocean bath. Such health was she acquiring that it was becoming a joy in itself. As with all earnest, constant natures, however, her supreme motive grew stronger with time.

In August she received tidings from the East that caused much solicitude and depression. Graydon had returned for a brief visit, and had joined Mr. and Mrs. Muir at a seaside inn. "A Miss Wildmere is staying here also," her sister wrote, "and, somewhat to Mr. Muir's disapproval, Graydon seems not only well acquainted with her, but unusually friendly. Mr. Muir says that if she is like her father she is a 'speculator'; and from the attention she receives and the way she receives it one would think he was right. Graydon, however, seems to be her favorite, and if he could remain long enough it is not hard to see what might happen. But she is a great belle and a coquette too, I should imagine, and she has a large enough following to turn any girl's head. I don't wonder at it either, for she is the most lovely creature I ever saw, and yet she doesn't make a pleasant impression on me. The men are just wild about her. Mr. Muir looks askance at Graydon's devotion, and mutters 'speculator' when Miss Wildmere's name is mentioned. Graydon returns to Europe next week. He inquires often after you, and his questions make me feel that I don't know as much about you and what you are doing as I should. You write often, but somehow you seem remote in more senses than one. I suppose, however, you are reading as usual, and just floating along down stream with time. Well, no matter, dear. You write that you are better and stronger, and have no more of your old dreadful colds. You must spend next summer with us, even if you have to go back to Santa Barbara in the winter."

Neither the shortness of his visit nor the fascinations of Miss Wildmere prevented Graydon from writing Madge a cordial note full of regret that he should not see her. "You have indeed," he wrote, "vanished like a ghost, and become but a haunting memory. It is a year and a half since I have seen you, and I did not succeed in beguiling you into a correspondence. Like the good Indians, you have followed the setting sun into some region as vague and distant as the 'happy hunting-ground.' Mary says that you will come East next summer. The idea! Is there anything of you to come that is corporate and real? If I had the time I would go to you and see. I find Miss Wildmere just about where I left her, only more beautiful and fascinating, and besieged by a host. Absence makes my chance slight indeed, but I do not despair. She so evidently enjoys a defensive warfare, wherein it is the besiegers who capitulate, that she may maintain it until my exile abroad is over. This is to my mind a more rational interpretation of her freedom than that she is waiting for me; and thus I reveal to you that modesty is my most prominent trait. She may be married before I see her again; and should this prove to be the case I will show you what a model of heroic equanimity I can be."

Madge read this letter with a sigh of intense relief, and was not long in resolving that when he came again she would enter the lists with Miss Wildmere and do what her nature permitted before her chance of happiness passed irrevocably. Graydon's letter kindled her hope greatly. It seemed to her that she was to have a chance--that her patient effort might receive the highest reward after all. She thanked God for the hope. Her love was a sacred thing. It was the natural, uncalculating outgrowth of her womanhood, and was inciting her toward all womanly grace.

Madge did not believe her motive, her purpose, to be unwomanly. Should the opportunity offer, she did not intend to win Graydon by angling for him, by arts, blandishments, or one unmaidenly advance. She would try to be so admirable that he would admire her, so true that he would trust her, and so fascinating that he would woo her with a devotion that would leave no chance for "equanimity" were it possible for him to fail. If in her desperate weakness, in the chaos of her first self-knowledge, she could hide her secret, she smiled at the possibility of revealing it now that she had been schooled and trained into strength and self-control.

In her brief letter of reply to Graydon she wrote:

"That I still exist and shall continue to live is proved by my one trait which you regard as encouraging--curiosity. Please send me some books that will tell me about Europe, or, rather, will present Europe as nearly as possible in its real aspect. I may never travel, but am foolish enough to imagine that I can see the world from the standpoint of this sleepy old town."

"Poor little wraith!" said Graydon, as he read the words. "What a queer, shadowy world her fancy will create, even from the most realistic descriptions I can send her!" But he good-naturedly made up a large bundle of books, in which fiction predominated, for he believed that she would read nothing else.

The days gilded on, autumn merged into winter, and strangers came again. Madge was acquiring an experience of which at one time she had never dreamed. She found herself in Miss Wildmere's position. Every day she was put more and more on the defensive. Gentlemen eagerly sought her society, and her situation was often truly embarrassing, for she had as little desire that the besiegers should capitulate as she had intention of surrendering herself. In this respect Miss Wildmere's tactics were easier to carry out. She was not in the least annoyed by any number of abject and committed slaves, and she was approaching the period when she proposed to surrender with great discretion, but to whom was not a settled point.

Madge was beginning to make victims also, but she made them by being simply what she was, and those who suffered most had to admit to themselves that she was almost as elusive as a spirit of the air.

In the spring visitors to the health resort, returning to the East, brought to the Muirs rumors of Madge's beauty, fascination, and accomplishments. They were a little puzzled, but concluded that Madge had appeared well in a rendezvous of invalids, and were glad to believe that she was much better. Prudent Mrs. Muir wrote, however, "Do not think of returning till the last of May. Then we shall soon go to the mountains. This will be another change, and change in your case, you know, has proved so beneficial! We expect Graydon soon. He is tired of residence abroad, and has so arranged the business that a confidential clerk can take his place."

Madge smiled and sighed. The test of her patient endeavor was about to come.