Chapter VI. The Secret of Beauty
 

Mr. and Mrs. Wayland had become so attached to Madge that they were the more ready to listen to her solicitation that they should accompany her East and visit their old haunts. "Very likely I shall return with you," said the young girl, "and make Santa Barbara my home."

This indeed was her plan should defeat await her. She had become attached to the seaside town, as we do to all places that witness the soul's deepest experiences and best achievements. She had learned there to hope for the highest of earth's gifts; she believed that she could live there a serene, quiet, unselfish life, her secret still unknown, should that be her fate.

The old German professor was almost heartbroken at her departure. "It vas alvays so," he said; "ven mine heart vas settled on someding, den I lose it;" but she reassured him by saying that there was no certainty that she would not return.

Mary Muir was so overwhelmed with astonishment that at first she scarcely returned Madge's warm embrace. She expected to find her sister much stronger and better; but this radiant, beautiful girl, half a head taller than herself--was she the shadowy creature who had gone away with what seemed a forlorn hope? She held Madge off and looked at her, she drew her to a mirror and looked at her again, then exclaimed, "This is a miracle! Why did you not tell me?"

"I wished to surprise you. I did write that I was better."

"This is not better; it is best Oh, Madge, you have grown so pretty you almost take away my breath--all travel-stained and weary, too, from your journey! What will not Henry say? I should scarcely have known you. Surely now you need not go back. You are the picture of health."

"We shall see," said Madge, quietly. "It may be best if I find that the East does not agree with me." She was fully determined to keep open her line of retreat.

Mr. Muir, in his quiet way, enjoyed the transformation as greatly as did his wife. He had foreseen changes for the better, but had not hoped for anything like this, he declared.

"I just want to be near when Graydon first sees you!" exclaimed voluble Mrs. Muir, at the dinner-table.

The remark was unexpected, and Madge, to her dismay, found the blood rushing to her face. Quick as thought she put her handkerchief to her mouth, and sought to escape notice under the ruse of a brief strangulation. "This is not going to answer at all," she thought. "I must acquire a better self-control." She at once began talking about Graydon in the most simple and natural manner possible, asking many questions. Mrs. Muir's intuition and powers of observation were not very great, and she was without the faintest suspicion of what was passing in Madge's mind. Keen-eyed, reticent Mr. Muir was not so unheeding, however. When Graydon's name was mentioned he happened to glance up from the dinner which usually absorbed his attention. In dealing with men he had acquired the habit of keen observation. During a business transaction his impassive face and quiet eyes gave no evidence of his searching scrutiny. He not only heard and weighed the words to which he listened, but ever sought to follow the mental processes behind them; and often men had been perplexed by the fact that the banker had apparently arrived at conclusions opposite to the tenor of their statements. When, therefore, he saw the color flying into Madge's face at the unexpected utterance of his brother's name, his attention was arrested and an impression made to which his mind would revert in the future. It might mean nothing; it might mean a great deal. Business and home life were everything to Mr. Muir, and Graydon's admiration of Miss Wildmere did not promise well for either.

The power that Mr. Muir had acquired mainly by practice Madge possessed by nature. As we have seen, she was quite free from that most unwomanly phase of stupidity which is often due to the heart rather than the head. Some women know what is told them if it is told plainly; others look into the eyes of those around them and see what is sought to be concealed. The selfish woman is self-blinded. She often has great powers of discernment, but will not take the trouble to use them, unless prompted by her own interests. Selfishness is too short-sighted, however, to secure lasting benefits. Usually, nothing is more fatal than the success of mere self-seeking. While Madge pressed unwaveringly toward the goal of her hopes, she did not do so in thoughtless or callous indifference toward those who had true claims upon her. With her sister she soon saw that all was well--that she was, as before, absorbed and content with the routine of her life. She was not so sure about her brother-in-law. During her absence lines of care had appeared in his face, and there was an abstracted and sometimes a troubled look in his eyes, as if he was pursued by questions that were importunate and even threatening. The indications of perturbation were slight indeed, but from his nature they would be so in any case. Thus the young girl also received an impression which awakened a faint solicitude. Mr. Muir, as her guardian and the manager of her property, had been a true friend and loyal to his trust. She entertained for him much respect and a strong, quiet affection. He did not dwell in her thoughts merely as one who was useful to her, but rather as one who had been true to her, and to whom she in her place and way would be true and sympathetic were there occasion.

Madge was wearied indeed by her long journey, but not exhausted. In sensations so different from those which had followed her journey to the West she recognized her immeasurable gain. Then she had entered Mrs. Wayland's cottage helpless, hopeless, a fugitive from her own weakness. By wise endeavor she had transformed that very weakness into her strength, and had returned to the scenes from which she had fled earnest and resolute--one who had made her choice for life and would abide by it. Womanly to her very finger-tips, she was acting with the aggressive decision of a man. Sensitive and timid beyond most women, she would not lose her happiness when it might be won in paths not only hedged about by all the proprieties of her lot, but also by a reserve and pride with which her own fine nature was pre-eminently endowed. That she loved Graydon Muir was a truth for life. If he could learn to love her from what she had sought to be, from what she simply was, he should have the chance. Her own deep experience had taught her much and given her the clew to many things. She had studied life, not only in books, but in its actual manifestations. Mrs. Wayland was a social mine in herself, and could recall from the past, volumes of dispassionate gossip, free from malice. In two years Madge had learned to know the world better than many who are in contact with it for long periods, but who see all through the distorted medium of their own prejudices or exceptional experiences. Although she was no longer unsophisticated she was neither cynical nor optimistic. Before her hope could be fulfilled she knew she must enter society, and she studied it thoughtfully--its whims and meannesses as well as its laws and refinements. If she ever reached Graydon's side she meant to stand there with a knowledge and confidence as assured as his own. She soon learned that it is common enough for women to seek to win men by every alluring and coquettish device. She would employ no devices whatever. She would merely reappear above his horizon among other luminaries, and shine with her own pure, unborrowed light. Then it must depend upon himself whether she ever became his own "bright particular star."

So much she felt she had a right to do, and no conventional hesitation as to her course stood in her way. Her love had become the governing impulse of her life, and its dictates were imperative until they trenched upon her sensitive, womanly pride. Then they were met as the rock meets the tide. She did not care what the world might think: it should never have occasion to think at all. Her secret was between herself and God. Graydon himself should never know it unless his name became hers.

How vividly her old haunts recalled him! There was the lounge on which he used to toss the "little wraith" after having carried her around in the semblance of a waltz. The sofa on which had taken place their strange parting still stood as of old in her room. There her head had sunk in unconsciousness upon his breast, the result of her vain, feeble struggle to escape from caresses so natural to him, but no longer to be received by her.

What way-marks in life mute, commonplace things become in the light of memory! To her vivid fancy Graydon was again present in all the positions now made memorable by deep affection. The past unrolled itself again as it had so often done before. She saw the pallid, frightened child that scarcely dared to look deprecatingly at the handsome young collegian. She saw again the kind yet mirthful eyes that beamed encouragingly upon her. She remembered that in the unworthy past they had ever looked upon her with a large, gentle, affectionate tolerance, and she now took chiefly upon herself the blame for those years of weakness. Her present radiant health and beauty proved how unnecessary they had been, and her heart sometimes sunk at the thought of what they might cost her.

Mary had accompanied her to her room, and was asked, in a careless tone, what had become of Miss Wildmere.

"I was told incidentally the other day that she was as great a belle as ever. I had hoped that she would be out of Graydon's way before this time. I have heard, however, that great belles are often slower in marrying than the homeliest girls. If all is true that is said, this Miss Wildmere has made mischief enough; but I am not anxious that our Graydon should cut short her career--that is, if marriage would cut it short. I imagine she will always be a gay society woman. Well, Madge, I suppose you must make up your mind to be a belle yourself. Why don't you cut out this 'speculator,' as my husband calls her? If Graydon had my eyes it wouldn't be a difficult task."

"Graydon hasn't your eyes or mine either," was the brusque reply. "I propose to use my own. They may see some one that I have never met. One thing at least is certain--I don't intend to cut out Miss Wildmere or any one else. The man who wins me will have to do the seeking most emphatically; and I warn you beforehand, sister mine, that you must never let the idea of matchmaking enter your head. Since I have been away I have developed more will of my own than muscle. There is no necessity for me ever to marry, and if I do it will be because I wish to, not because any one else wants me to. Nothing would set me against a man more certainly than to see that he had allies who were manoeuvring in his behalf;" and she concluded with a kiss that robbed her words of a point too sharp, perhaps, for her sister's feelings. She knew Mrs. Muir's peculiarities well enough, however, to believe that such words were needed, and she had intended to speak them in some form at the earliest opportunity. Therefore she was glad that she could utter the warning so early and naturally in their new relations. Nor was it uncalled for, since the thought of bringing Madge and Graydon together had already entered Mrs. Muir's mind. A scheme of this character would grow in fascination every hour. Poor Madge was well aware that, with the best intentions, no one could more certainly blast her hopes than her sister, whose efforts would be unaccompanied by the nicest tact. Moreover, any such attempts might involve the disclosure of her secret.

"Well, you have changed in every respect," said Mary, looking at her wonderingly.

"For the better, I hope. My feeling in this respect, however, seems to me perfectly natural. I don't see how a self-respecting girl could endure anything except a straightforward, downright suit, with plenty of time to make up her own mind. I can do without the man who does not think me worthy of this, and could probably do without him any way. Because a man wants to marry a girl is only one reason for assent, and there may be a dozen reasons to the contrary."

"Why, Madge, how you talk! When you left us it seemed as if any one might pick you up and marry you and you would not have spirit enough to say yes or no. Have you had to refuse any one at Santa Barbara? Perhaps you didn't refuse. You have told me so little of what was going on!"

"That isn't fair to me, Mary. I explained to you that I wished to give you a pleasant surprise. To plan a pleasure for you was not unsisterly, was it? I haven't Miss Wildmere's ambition for miscellaneous conquests. Why should I write about men for whom I cared nothing and toward whom my manner should have made my spoken negative unnecessary?"

"Other girls would. Well, it seems that their suit was downright enough to satisfy you. Good gracious! How many were there?"

Madge laughed, yawned, and her sister saw that her dark eyes were full of the languor of sleep, which added to their beauty.

"Oh, not many," she drawled. "I'll gossip about them some time when not so tired. I'll indicate them by numerals. Why should I babble their names in connection with what they called so sacred? I wonder how many like sacred affairs had occurred before. If I tell you the story of the wooing of Number One, Two, Three, and so on, that will answer just as well, won't it?"

"No, indeed. I wish to know their names, family connection, and whether they were well off or not."

Madge again laughed, and began to disrobe, in order to indicate that their confidence must at least be adjourned for the present. Her sister came and felt her perfect arms and rounded, gleaming shoulders. "Why, Madge," she exclaimed, "your flesh is as white and smooth as ivory, and almost as firm to the touch! It's a wonderful transformation. I can scarcely believe, much less understand it. You have grown so beautiful that you almost turn even my head."

"There is nothing so wonderful about it, Mary. Almost any girl may win health, and therefore more or less beauty, if she has the sense and will to make the effort. You know what I was when I left home. I suggested doctors' bills more than anything else, and it was chiefly my fault;" and she sighed deeply. "When I went to work in a rational way to get strong, I succeeded. I believe this would be true with the great majority. Good-night, dear. When I am rested I'm going to help you in many ways, in return for all you did for that lazy, lackadaisical, limp little nonentity that you used to dose and coddle when you should have given her a good shaking."

"It's all a miracle," said Mrs. Muir to her husband, at the conclusion of lengthy remarks about Madge.

"As much a miracle as my fortune," was the quiet reply. "Madge has had sense enough to know what she wanted and how to get it."