Chapter VIII. Rival Girls
 

Instead of Graydon there came a letter saying that he would be detained abroad another week. The heat was oppressive, and the family physician said that little Jack should be taken to the country at once. Therefore they packed in haste, and started for a hotel in the Catskills at which rooms had been engaged. Graydon was to join them there as soon after his return as possible.

Madge looked wistfully at the mountains, as with shadowy grandeur they loomed in the distance. There is ever a solemnity about mountain scenery, and she felt it as she passed under the lofty brows of wooded heights. To her spirit it was grateful and appropriate, for, while she would lead among them apparently the existence of a young girl bent only on enjoyment, she believed she would leave them, either a happy woman, or else facing the tragedy of a thwarted life. Their deepest shadows might, even when her laugh was gayest, typify the despondency she would hide from all.

It was Saturday, and Mr. Muir accompanied his family. He and his wife looked worn and weary, for at this time circumstances were bringing an excess of care to both. Mrs. Muir was a devoted mother, and little Jack had taxed her patience and strength to the utmost. A defensive warfare is ever the severest test of manhood, and Mr. Muir had found the past week a trying one. He had been lured into an enterprise that at the time had seemed certain of success, even to his conservative mind, but unforeseen elements had entered into the problem, and it now required all his nerve, all his resources, to meet the strain. Neither Madge nor his wife knew anything of this. Indeed, it was not his habit to speak of his affairs to any one, unless the exigencies of the case required explanation. In this emergency he was obliged to maintain among his associates an air of absolute confidence. Now that he was out of the arena he gave evidence of the strain.

Madge saw this, and resolved that her large reserve of vitality should be drawn upon. The tired mother should be relieved and the perplexed and wearied man beguiled into forgetfulness of the sources of anxiety. Jack would have indulged in a perpetual howl during the journey had not his attention been diverted by Madge's unexpected expedients, which often suspended an outcry with comical abruptness, while her remarks and questions made it impossible for Mr. Muir to toil on mentally in Wall Street. By reason of the heat the majority of the passengers dozed or fretted. She heroically kept up the spirits of her little band, oblivious of the admiring eyes that often turned toward her flushed, animated face.

There are few stronger tests than unflagging good-humor during a disagreeable journey with cross children. At last the ordeal came to an end, and in the late afternoon shadows they alighted at the wide piazza of the Under-Cliff House, and were shown to airy rooms, which proved that the guests were not kept in pigeon-holes for the sole benefit of the proprietor. Our heroine employed the best magic the world has known--thoughtful helpfulness. Mr. Muir was banished. "You would be as useful as a whale," she said to him, when he offered to aid his wife in unpacking and getting settled. "Go down to the piazza and smoke in peace. I shall be worth a dozen of you as soon as I take off my travelling-dress."

She verified her words, and before they were aware of it Mrs. Muir, who was prone to fall into hopeless confusion at such times, and the nurse were acting under her direction. The elder little boy and girl were coaxed, restrained, managed, and soon sent down to their father, redressed and serene. Jack was lulled to sleep in Madge's room. The trunks instead of disgorging chaos, were compelled to part with their contents in an orderly way. In little more than an hour the two rooms allotted to Mr. and Mrs. Muir, and the nurse with the children, took on a cosey, inhabitable aspect, and by supper-time the ladies, in evening costume and with unruffled brows, joined Mr. Muir.

"The idea of my ever permitting Madge to go back to Santa Barbara!" exclaimed Mrs. Muir. "This day alone has proved that I can never get on without her. Just go and look at your room, sir. One would think we had been settled here a week. You ought to pay Madge's bills, and give her a handsome surplus."

"If time is money," said Madge, "Henry will have to pay me well. He must stay and help me explore these mountains in every direction. But now let us eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow we shall go to church."

"I've half a mind to take you down to Wall Street with me next week," said Mr. Muir. "Perhaps you can straighten out things there."

"No, sir. I'm a woman's-rights girl, and one of her rights is to get things out of the way as soon as possible, so that people can have a good time. Thank heaven our affairs can be shut up in drawers and hung up in closets, and there we can leave them--in this case for a good supper first, and a long quiet rest on this piazza afterward. Don't you think you could find a drawer somewhere in which to tuck away your Wall Street matters, Henry? You won't need them till some time next week, for you must certainly spend two or three days with us."

Mr. Muir laughed. "I've heard of managing women before, but you beat them all. You have won, to-day, the right to manage for a while. I'll join you soon; then supper; and, as you suggest, I'll put the Wall Street matters somewhere and lock them up."

Thus their mountain sojourn began auspiciously. The supper was excellent, and they were in a mood to enjoy it; they found the piazza deliciously cool after the long hot day; and the faint initial pipings of autumn insects only emphasized the peace and quiet of the evening. The mountains brooded around them like great shadows, their outlines gemmed with stars, and the very genius of repose seemed to settle down upon the weary man and woman who were in the thick of their life's battle.

They were among the earliest arrivals at the house, and had a wide space to themselves. Indeed, they could have been scarcely more secluded at their own summer residence. For those seeking rest, an early flight to summer resorts brings a rich reward.

While her relatives dozed or merely revived sufficiently from time to time to make some desultory remark, Madge thought deeply. At first she had been disappointed at the postponement of Graydon's return, but she grew reconciled as she dwelt upon it. While hope was deferred, she enjoyed a longer lease of anticipation. When he did come she might soon learn that all hope was vain. Besides, the delay gave her time to familiarize herself with the region and its most beautiful walks and drives. The mountains, woods, and rocks should all be pressed into her service. They would not reveal her secret, and they might engender thoughts and words with which Miss Wildmere would be out of harmony.

"I've been thinking," Mr. Muir at last remarked.

"Nonsense! you've been asleep," Madge replied.

"No; I've thought profoundly."

"Not even a penny for any thoughts of yours since supper."

"They would be worth fortunes, life, health, happiness, to half the world."

"Then keep still till you have a patent, copyright, or something," said his wife.

"No. I rise simply to remark--also to retire--that a little oil keeps machinery from wearing out and going to pieces. Come now, old lady" (pulling his wife to her feet), "you are the better to-night, as I am, for the oil that Madge has slipped in here and there. I fear the machinery to-day would have run badly without it."

The group that gathered at the breakfast-table next morning bore early testimony to the tonic of the hills. Jack only was not so well, and Mrs. Muir remained with him, while Madge and Mr. Muir wended their way to a little chapel whose spire was the only summons to worship. A short, genial, middle-aged man met them at the door, with such hospitable cordiality as to suggest that he was receiving friends at his own home, and conducted them to seats. A venerable clergyman sat in the pulpit with a face full of quiet benignity. Every one who came appeared to receive an almost personal welcome; and Madge and Mr. Muir looked enviously at the self-appointed usher. It was as evident that he was not a professional sexton as that the little congregation could not afford such a luxury. No care clouded his brow. Evidently his future did not depend on fluctuations in the maelstrom of commerce, nor had he one hope so predominant over all others that his life was one of masked suspense, as was the case with poor Madge. He was rather like the rugged, sun-lighted mountains near, solid, stable, simple. No matter what happened, he would remain and appear much the same.

Such was the tenor of Madge's thoughts as she waited for the opening of service. Fanciful and imaginative to a great degree, she found a certain mental enjoyment in observing the impressions made upon her by strangers.

The service was brief and simple; the good old clergyman preached the gospel of hope, and his words calmed and strengthened the young girl's mind. She was made to feel that there is something more and better than present happiness--that there are remedies for earthly ills.

When she returned to the hotel she found that Mrs. Muir was worried about Jack, who was worse, and that a Dr. Sommers had been sent for. She could not help smiling when, a little later, the hospitable usher of the chapel came briskly in. She eventually learned that the doctor provoked smiles wherever he went, as a breeze raises ripples on the surface of a stream. He smiled himself when he met people, and every one took the contagion. He examined the baby, said the case would require a little watching until certain teeth came through, and then that there would be no further trouble. He spoke with the same confidence with which he would announce that July was near.

"You watch the case, then," said Mr. Muir, decisively. "I must be in town. If you can look after the child and save my wife from worry, my mind will be easy as regards this end of the line at least."

"All right, sir. We'll manage it. Healthy boy. No trouble."

"Have you lived long among the mountains, doctor?" Madge ventured to ask.

"I should think so. As long as I have lived. Was born and brought up among 'em."

"It must be dreary here in the winter," Mrs. Muir remarked.

"Not a bit of it. It's never dreary."

"How far among the hills does your practice extend?" Madge pursued.

"As far as I'll go, and I'm usually going."

"Perhaps you can give us, then, some advice as to drives and walks."

"Oh, lots, free gratis. I can tell Mr. Muir of a trout-stream or two, also."

"Doctor," said Madge, laughing, "I am very ill. I shall need much advice, and prescriptions of all the romantic walks and drives in the vicinity."

"And like most of the advice from doctors, it won't be taken. A stroll on the piaza is about all that most ladies are equal to. You look, however, as if you should not fear a steep path or a rough road."

"You shall see," cried Madge.

"Yes, I will see," said the doctor, laughing, and bowing himself out. "I've seen a great many ladies who could dance miles, but were as afraid of a mountain as of a bear."

At the dinner-table Mrs. Muir said, laughingly, "In Dr. Sommers, Madge has found a kindred spirit--another oiler of machinery. If between him and Madge things don't go smoothly, the fates are indeed against us."

"When life does go smoothly, it is because of just such good, cheery common-sense," Mr. Muir remarked, sententiously. "I'm in the financial centre of this part of the world, and schemes involving millions and the welfare of States--indeed of whole sections of the country--are daily brought to my consideration, and I tell you again men are often in no condition to act wisely or well because the wear and tear of their life is greater after business hours than during them. Business maniac as Madge thinks me to be, little Jack is of more consequence than a transcontinental railway. I must face the music--the discord, rather--of Wall Street to-morrow. There is no use in protesting or coaxing; I must be there; but it's a great thing to be able to return with my nerves soothed, rested, and quieted. Heaven help the men who, after the strain of the day, must go home to be pricked half to death with pin-and-needle-like worries, if not worse."

"Please imagine Madge and myself making a profound courtesy for the implied compliment," said Mrs. Muir. "But can you not spend part of the week with us?"

"No. Graydon will soon be here, and there is much to be seen to. He writes that he has worked very hard to get things in shape so that he can leave them, and that he wishes to take a vacation. As far as possible I shall gratify him. He can be with you here, and come to town occasionally as I need him. It's all turning out very well, and I am better off than many in these troublous times."

The remainder of his stay passed quietly in absolute rest, and on the following morning he was evidently strengthened for the renewal of the struggle.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Stella!"

Miss Wildmere remained absorbed in her novel.

"Stella!" repeated Mr. Wildmere, impatiently.

"What is it?" she asked, fretfully. "I'm in an exciting scene. Can't you wait awhile?"

"Oh, throw down your confounded novel! You should be giving your mind to real life and exciting scenes of your own. No, I can't wait and don't propose to, for I must go out."

The words were spoken in a small but elegant house, furnished in an ultra-fashionable style. Mr. Wildmere was a stout, florid man, who looked as if he might be burning his candle at both ends. His daughter was dressed to receive summer evening calls at her own home, for she was rarely without them. If the door-bell had rung she would have dismissed her exciting scene without hesitation, but it was only her father who asked her attention.

"Very well," she said, absently, turning down a leaf.

Her father observed her listless air and averted face for a moment with contracted brow, then quietly remarked, "Graydon Muir may return at any time now."

Her apathy disappeared at once, and a faint color stole into her face.

"Haven't you had enough of general attention and flirtation? I know that my wishes have little weight; you have refused not a few good offers and one on which I had set my heart; but let the past go. The immediate future may require careful and decisive action. I speak in view of your own interests, and to such considerations I know you will not be indifferent. If you were taking a natural and intelligent interest in my affairs you would have some comprehension of my difficulties and dangers. The next few months will decide whether I can keep up or not. In the meantime you have your opportunity. Graydon Muir will share in the fortunes of his brother, who has had the reputation of being very wealthy and eminently conservative. I have learned, however, that he has invested largely in one enterprise that now appears to be very dubious--how largely no one but himself knows. If this affair goes through all right you couldn't do better than develop Graydon Muir into an impatient suitor; and you had better keep him well in hand for a time, anyway. He is a good business man and far more to be depended upon than rich young fellows who have inherited wealth, with no ability except in spending it. If the Muirs pass through these times they will become one of the strongest and safest houses in the country. Remember that the if is to be considered. Mr. Arnault, too, is a member of a strong, wealthy house. I would advise you to make your choice between these two men speedily. You are not adapted to a life of poverty, and would not enjoy it. An alliance with either of these men might also aid in sustaining me."

Miss Wildmere listened attentively, but made no comment, and her father evidently did not require any, for he went out immediately. He understood his daughter sufficiently to believe that she needed no further advice. He was right. The exciting crisis in her novel was forgotten, and her fair face took on an expression that did not enhance its beauty. Calculation on the theme uppermost in her mind produced a revery in which an artist would not have cared to paint her. It was evident that the time had come when she must dispose of herself, and the question was, how to do it to the best advantage.

To Graydon she gave her preference. He was remarkably fine looking, and could easily be a leader in society if he so desired--"and certainly shall be," she thought, "if I take his name." As far as her heart spoke in the matter it declared for him, also. Other men had wooed and pleaded, but she had ever mentally compared them with Graydon, and they had appeared insignificant. She had felt sure for a long time that he would eventually be at her feet, and she had never decided to refuse him. Now she was ready to accept but for this ominous "if," which her father had emphasized. She could not think of marrying him should he become a poor man.

She neither liked nor disliked Mr. Arnault. He was a man of the world, reported wealthy, established in a large but not very conservative business. He had the name of being a little fast and speculative, but she was accustomed to that style of man. He was an open suitor who would take no rebuff, and had laughingly told her so. After his refusal, instead of going away in despondency or in a half-tragic mood, he had good-naturedly declared his intentions, and spent the remainder of the evening in such lively chat that she had been pleased and amused by his tactics. Since that time he had made himself useful, was always ready to be an escort with a liberal purse, and never annoyed her with sentiment. She understood him, and he was aware that she did. He took his chances for the future, and was always on hand to avail himself of any mood or emergency which he could turn to his advantage. In various unimportant ways he was of service to Mr. Wildmere, but hoped more from the broker's embarrassments than from the girl's heart.

"I might do worse," muttered the beauty--"I might do worse. If it were not for Graydon Muir, I'd decide the question at once."

The door-bell rang, and Graydon was announced. Even her experienced nerves had a glad tingle of excitement, she was so genuinely pleased to see him. And well she might be, for he was a man to light any woman's eyes with admiration. If something of his youth had passed, his face had gained a rich compensation in the strong lines of manhood, and his manner a courtly dignity from long contact with the best elements of life. One saw that he knew the world, but had not been spoiled by it. That he had not become cynical was proved by his greeting of Miss Wildmere. He was capable of hoping that her continued freedom, in spite of her remarkable beauty, might be explained on the ground of a latent regard for him, which had kept her ready for his suit after an absence so unexpectedly prolonged. Through a friend he had, from time to time, been informed about her; and there was no ring on her hand to forbid his ardent glances.

Never before had she appeared so alluringly attractive. He was a thorough American, and had not been fascinated by foreign types of beauty. In his fair countrywoman he believed that he saw his ideal. Her beauty was remarkable for a fullness, a perfection of outline, combined with a fairness and delicacy which suggested that she was not made of ordinary clay. Miss Wildmere prided herself upon giving the impression that she was remote from all that was common or homely in life. She cultivated the characteristic of daintiness. In her dress, gloves, jewelry, and complexion she would be immaculate at any cost. Graydon's fastidious taste could never find a flaw in her, as regarded externals, and she knew the immense advantage of pleasing his eye with a delicacy that even approached fragility in its exquisite fairness, while at the same time her elastic step in the dance or promenade proved that she had abundance of vitality.

Nothing could have been more auspicious than his coming to-night--the very first evening after his arrival. It assured her of the place she still held in his thoughts; it gave her the chance to renew, in the glad hours of his return, the impression she had made; and she saw in his admiring eyes how favorable that impression was. She exulted that he found her so well prepared. Her clinging summer costume revealed not a little of her beauty, and suggested more, while she permitted her eyes to give a welcome more cordial even than her words.

He talked easily and vivaciously, complimented her openly, yet with sincerity, and rallied her on the wonder of wonders that she was still Miss Wildmere.

"Not so great a marvel as that you return a bachelor. Why did you not marry a German princess or some reduced English countess?"

"I was not driven to that necessity, since there were American queens at home. I am delighted that you are still in town. What are your plans for the summer?"

"We have not fully decided as yet."

"Then go to the Catskills. Our ladies are there at the Under-Cliff House, and I am told that it is a charming place."

"I will speak to mamma of it. She must come to some decision soon. Papa says that he will be too busy to go out of town much."

"Why, then, the Catskills is just the place--accessible to the city, you know. That is the reason we have chosen it. I propose to take something of a vacation, but find that I must go back and forth a good deal, and so shall escape the bore of a long journey."

"You have given two good reasons for our going there. The place cannot be stupid, since we may see you occasionally, and papa could come oftener."

"Persuade Mrs. Wildmere into the plan by all means, and promise me your first waltz after your arrival;" and there was eagerness in his tone.

"Will you also promise me your first?"

"Yes, and last also, if you wish."

"Oh, no! I do not propose to be selfish; Miss Alden will have her claims."

"What, Sister Madge? She must have changed greatly if she will dance at all. She is an invalid, you know."

"I hear she has returned vastly improved in health--indeed, that she is quite a beauty."

"I hope so," he said, cordially, "but fear that rumor has exaggerated. My brother said she was better, and added but little more. Have you seen her?"

"No. I only heard, a short time since, that she had returned."

Madge had not gone into society, and had she met Miss Wildmere face to face she would not have been recognized, so greatly was she changed from the pallid, troubled girl over whom the beauty had enjoyed her petty triumph; but the report of Miss Alden's attractions had aroused in Miss Wildmere's mind apprehensions of a possible rival.

Graydon's manner was completely reassuring. Whatever Miss Alden might have become, she evidently had no place in his thoughts beyond that natural to their relations. No closer ties had been formed by correspondence during his long absence.

Further tete-a-tete was interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Arnault. The young men were courteous and even cordial to each other, but before half an hour had passed they recognized that they were rivals. Graydon's lips grew firm, and his eyes sparkled with the spirit of one who had not the faintest idea of yielding to another. Miss Wildmere was delighted. The game was in her own hands. She could play these two men off against each other, and take her choice. Mr. Arnault was made to feel that he was not de trop, and, as usual, he was nonchalant, serene, and evidently meant to stay. Therefore Graydon took his leave, and was permitted to carry away the impression that his departure was regretted.

"Mr. Arnault," said Miss Wildmere, quietly, "we have decided to spend some time at the Under-Cliff House in the Catskills. So you perceive that I shall be deprived of the pleasure of your calls for a while."

"Not at all. I shall take part of my summering there also. When do you go?"

"In a few days--sometime before the fourth. How fortunately it all happens!" she added, laughing. "When did you decide on the Catskills?"

"That's immaterial. When did you?"

"That also is immaterial. Perhaps you would like to ask mamma?"

"I'd rather ask papa--both, I should say," he replied, with a significant shrug.

"Do so by all means. Meanwhile I would suggest that a great many people go to the Catskills--thirty thousand, more or less, it is said."

"I had another question in mind. Is Graydon Muir going there in order to follow the crowd?"

"If he is going I suppose he will follow his inclinations."

"Or you?"

"Were that possible, I could not prevent it. Indeed, women rarely resent such things."

"No indeed. It is well you do not, for you would become the embodiment of resentment. How large is your train now, Stella?"

"You can dimmish it by one if you choose," she replied, smiling archly.

"I should be little missed, no doubt."

"I didn't say that."

"I'm more afraid of Muir than of all the train together."

"That's natural. The train has little chance collectively."

"Don't pretend to misunderstand me. There was unmistakable meaning in Muir's eyes."

"I should hope so. He means to help me have a good time. So do you, I trust."

"Certainly. You may judge of the future from the past," he added, significantly, as he rose to take his leave.

"Then the future promises well for me," she said, giving him her hand cordially; "for you have been one of the best of friends."

"And a good deal more. Good-night."

"Mamma," said Miss Wildmere, stopping at the nursery on her way to her room, "we must get ready to go to the Catskills at once."

"Why, Stella! This is the first I've heard of this plan. Your father has said that he doesn't see how we can go out of town at all this summer."

"Nonsense! I'll insure that papa agrees."

"I don't see how I can get ready soon. The baby is fretful, and I'm all worn out between broken rest and worry. Won't you take Effie for a little while?"

"Where's the nurse?"

"She's out. Of course she has to have some time to herself."

"You just spoil the servants. It's her business to take care of the child. What else is she paid for? Why can't one of the other maids take her?"

"Effie is too nervous to go to strangers to-night."

"Oh, well, give her to me, then."

The sensitive little organization knew at once that it was in the hands not only of a comparative stranger, but also of one whose touch revealed little sympathy, and its protest was so great that the tired mother took it again, while the beautiful daughter, the cynosure of all eyes in public, went to her room to finish the "exciting scene" at her leisure.

But the scene had grown unreal. Its hero was but a shadow, and a distorted one at that. The book fell from her hand; she again saw Graydon Muir coming forward to greet her with an easy grace which no prince in story could surpass, and with an expression in his dark blue eyes which no woman fails to understand. It assured her that neither in the old world nor in the new had he seen her equal.

"I wish it could be," she murmured; "I hope it can be; were it not for that 'if' it should be soon."

Thus, after her own fashion, another girl had designs upon Graydon.