Chapter IX. The Meeting
 

Graydon had completed his final transactions abroad with more expedition than he had anticipated, and, having been favored by a quick passage, had arrived several days sooner than he was expected. Therefore he decided to accompany his brother to the Catskills on Saturday, spending the intervening time in business and such arrangements as would leave him free to remain in the country for a week or two. The second evening after his arrival again found him in Miss Wildmere's parlor, and before he left he was given to understand that Mrs. Wildmere had decided upon the Under-Cliff House also, and that they would depart on Saturday.

"Then you will be compagnon de voyage," said Graydon, with undisguised pleasure.

Somewhat to Mrs. Wildmere's surprise, her husband quietly acquiesced in his daughter's wishes, telegraphed for rooms, and desired his wife to be ready.

She was a quiet, meek little woman, whose life had somehow become entangled in a sphere which was not in harmony with her nature. Her beauty had faded early, and she had little force of character with which to maintain her influence over her husband. His life was amid the fierce excitements of Wall Street; hers, as far as she had a life, was a weary effort to keep up appearances and meet the expenses of a fashionable daughter, on an uncertain and greatly fluctuating income.

Mr. Wildmere informed her that his affairs would keep him in town until late in the following week, but that, as the house to which she was going was a quiet family hotel, she would have no trouble.

Mr. Muir had telegraphed the arrival of his brother, and the latter had written a few cordial but hasty lines to both his sister-in-law and Madge. Where he spent his evenings was unknown to Mr. Muir, but that gentleman had little trouble in guessing when he saw his brother greet the Wildmeres as if he understood their plans, and laughingly promise Mr. Wildmere that he would see the ladies and their belongings safely established in the Under-Cliff House. Graydon observed the slight cloud on his brother's face, but ignored it, feeling that his preference was an affair of his own. He believed that the long-wished-for opportunity to press his suit with vigor had come, and had no hesitation as to his purpose. He did not intend to act precipitately, however. He would first learn just how Mr. Arnault stood, and become reasonably assured by Miss Wildmere's manner toward himself that her preference was not a hope, but a reality.

The enterprise in which Mr. Muir had engaged, and which now so taxed his financial strength, was outside of his regular business, and Graydon knew nothing of it. The young man believed that his own means and exceptionally good prospects were sufficient to warrant the step he proposed to take. He assuredly had the right to please himself in his choice, and he felt that he would be fortunate indeed could he win one whom so many had sought in vain.

It never entered Mr. Muir's mind to interpose any authority or undue influence. He merely felt in regard to the matter a repugnance natural to one so alien in disposition to Mr. Wildmere and his daughter, and it was a source of bitter mortification to him that he now found himself in a position not unlike that of the broker, in what would appear, in the present aspect of affairs, to be an outside speculation. During the ride to the mountains he mentally compared Miss Wildmere's behavior with that of Madge a week before. Witnessing Graydon's evident infatuation, he would have been glad to recognize any manifestation of traits that promised well for his future; but the young lady was evidently altogether occupied with the attentions she received, her own beauty, and the furtive admiration of fellow-passengers. Poor Mrs. Wildmere and the nurse were left to manage the cross baby as best they could. Graydon once or twice tried to do something, but his strange face and voice only frightened the child.

To Madge it had seemed an age since the telegram announcing Graydon's arrival had thrilled every nerve with hope and fear. Then had come his hasty note, proving conclusively his affectionate indifference. She was simply Madge to him, as of old. He was the one man of all the world to her, and no calculating "if" would be the source of her restraint.

True to her old tactics, however, she had spent no time in idle dreaming. She had cultivated Dr. Sommers's acquaintance, and he had already accompanied her and her sister through a wild valley, on the occasion of a visit to one of his patients. Little Jack had improved under his care, and Mrs. Muir was growing serene, rested, and eager for Saturday. Madge shared her impatience, and yet dreaded the hour during which she felt that a glimpse of the future would be revealed. She had driven out daily with her sister, and familiarized herself with the topography of the region. Having formed the acquaintance of some pleasant and comparatively active people in the house, she had joined such walking expeditions as they would venture upon. In rowing the children upon a small lake she also disposed of some of her superabundant vitality and the nervous excitement which anticipation could not fail to produce. In the evening there was more or less dancing, and her hand was eagerly sought by such of the young men as could obtain the right to ask it. Mrs. Muir's remark that she would become a belle in spite of herself proved true; but while she affected no exclusive or distant airs, the most callow and forward youth felt at once the restraint of her fine reserve. Her sensitive nature enabled her, in a place of public resort, to know instinctively whom to keep at a distance, and who, like Dr. Sommers, not only invited but justified a frank and friendly manner.

As the time for the gentlemen to arrive approached, Mrs. Muir showed more restless interest than Madge. The one anticipated a bit of amusement over Graydon's surprise; the other looked forward to meeting her fate. Mrs. Muir was garrulous; Madge was comparatively silent, and maintained the semblance of interest in a book so naturally that her sister exclaimed, "I expect you will die with a book in your hand! I could no more read now than preach a sermon. Come, it's time to make your toilet. Let me help you, and I want you to get yourself up 'perfectly regardless.' You must outshine them all at the hop this evening."

"Nonsense, Mary! They won't be here for an hour and a half. I'm going to lie down;" and she went to her room. When her sister sought admittance half an hour later the door was locked and all was quiet. At last, in her impatience, she knocked and cried, "Wake up. They will be here soon."

"I'm not asleep, and it will not take me long to dress."

"Well, you are the coolest young woman I ever knew," Mrs. Muir called out, finding that admittance was denied her.

Madge had determined to spend the final hour of her long separation alone. Her nature had become too deep and strong to seek trivial diversion from the suspense that weighed upon her spirit. As she thought of the possibility of failure, and its results, her courage faltered a little, and a few tears would come. At last, with a glance heavenward which proved that there was nothing in her heart to keep her from looking thither for sanction, she left her room, serene and resolute. She had taken her woman's destiny into her own hand, to mold it in her own way, but in no arrogant and unbelieving spirit.

Mrs. Muir uttered a disappointed protest. "Oh, Madge, how plainly you are dressed!"

"I knew you wouldn't like it at first," was the quiet reply. By the time they had reached the parlor door opposite the office, near which they proposed to wait for the travellers, now momentarily expected, Mrs. Muir was compelled to acknowledge the correctness of Madge's taste. Her costume no more distracted attention from herself than would the infolding calyx of a rosebud. In its exquisite proportions her fine figure was outlined by close white drapery, which made her appear taller than she really was. A single half-open Jacqueminot rose, like the one she had sent to Graydon at their parting over two years since, was fastened on her bosom. Her dark eyes burned with a suppressed excitement. Her complexion, if not so white as that of Miss Wildmere, was pure, and had a richer hue of health. But she was pale now. Her red lips half destroyed their exquisite curves in firm compression. The moment had not quite come for action, when those lips must be true to herself, true to her purpose, even while they spoke words which might be misleading to others.

Mrs. Muir, with triumph, saw the glances of strong admiration turned toward her sister from every side. Madge saw them also, but only to read in them the verdict she hoped to obtain from the kind blue eyes for whose coming she waited.

Standing with Mrs. Muir, facing the long hall down which Graydon must advance, she knew she would see him before he could recognize her. How much of longing, of breathless interest, would be concentrated in those moments of waiting, she herself had never imagined till they were passing.

The stages began to arrive, with consequent bustle, and the hasty advance toward the office of men seeking to register their names early, in order to secure a choice of rooms. At last she saw Graydon's tall form and laughing face, and for a second something approaching to faintness caused her to close her eyes. When she opened them again they rested upon Miss Wildmere.

This young lady understood the art of making an impressive and almost triumphal entry on new scenes. Therefore she had been in no haste. Indeed, haste had no place among her attributes: it was ungraceful and usually not effective. When, therefore, the crowd had passed on, and there was a comparatively clear space in the hall, she advanced down it at Graydon's side as if her mind was wholly engrossed with their lively chat. Never for a second was she unconscious of the attention they attracted. Graydon was one at whom even men would turn and look as he passed, and she believed that there was none other who could keep step with him like herself. So thought the self-appointed committee of reception who always regard curiously the new-comers at a summer resort, and there were whispered notes of admiration as the two paused for a moment before the register and looked back. Then it was seen that a meek-looking little lady and a nurse and child were straggling after them, while Mr. Muir brought up the rear. Graydon had some light wraps thrown gracefully over his arm, but the merchant carried the less ornamental impedimenta of the party, for the earlier guests had already overladened the office-boys. He now handed the valise--a sort of tender upon the baby--to a porter, and rather grimly acknowledged Mrs. Wildmere's mingled thanks and feeble protestations.

"Please register for us," said Miss Wildmere, glancing carelessly yet observantly around. An intervening group had partially hidden Madge and her sister. It was also evident that Graydon was too much occupied with his fair companion to look far away. He complied, thinking, meantime, "Some day I may register for her again, and then my name will suffice for us both." The smile which followed the thought brought out the best lines of his handsome profile to poor Madge, who permitted no phase of expression on that face to escape her scrutiny. So true was the clairvoyance of her intense interest that she guessed the thought which was so agreeable to him, and she grew paler still.

Mr. Muir hastened to greet his wife, and then Graydon recognized her. He came at once and kissed her in his accustomed hearty way. Madge stood near, unnoted, unrecognized.

"Where's Madge? Isn't she well enough to come down?" he asked, his eyes following Miss Wildmere, who had entered the parlor, which she must cross to reach her room beyond. Mrs. Muir began to laugh immoderately, and Mr. Muir followed his brother's eyes with vexation. Graydon was on the qui vive instantly, and Madge drew a step nearer and began to smile. For once the punctilious and elegant Graydon forgot his courtesy, and looked at Madge in utter astonishment--an expression, however, which passed swiftly into admiration and delight.

"Madge!" he exclaimed, seizing both her hands. "I couldn't have believed it. I wouldn't believe it now but for your eyes;" and before she could prevent him he had placed a kiss upon her lips.

Miss Wildmere had seen the unknown beauty as she passed, had inventoried her with woman's instantaneous perception, had paused on the distant threshold and seen the greeting, then had vanished with a vindictive flash in her gray eyes.

Graydon's impetuous words and salute had produced smiles and envious glances, and the family party withdrew into a retired corner of the apartment, Madge's cheeks, meanwhile, vying, in spite of herself, with the rose on her breast. Graydon would not relinquish her hand, and, as Mrs. Muir had predicted, indulged in little more than exclamation points.

"There now, be rational," cried the young girl, laughing, her heart for the moment full of gladness and triumph. He was indeed bending upon her looks of admiration, delight, and affection.

"Why have I been kept in the dark about all this?" he at last asked, incoherently.

"For the same reason that we were. Madge meant to give us a surprise, and succeeded. I couldn't get over it, and they were always laughing at me, so I determined that I should have my laugh at you. Oh, wasn't it rich? To think of the elegant and travelled society man standing there staring with his eyes and mouth wide open!"

"I don't think it was quite so bad as that, but if it was there's good reason for it. Tell me, Madge, how this miracle was wrought!"

"There, that's just what I called it," cried Mrs. Muir, "and it's nothing less than one, in spite of all that Madge and Henry can say."

"When you are ready for supper I will show you one phase of the miracle," said Madge, laughing, with glad music in her voice. "Come, I'm not an escaped member of a menagerie, and there's no occasion for you to stare any longer."

"Yes, come along," added Mr. Muir; "I've had no roast beef to-day and a surfeit of sentiment."

The young fellow colored slightly, but said brusquely: "Men's tastes change with age. I suppose you did not find a little sentiment amiss once upon a time. Well, Madge, you are not a bit of a ghost now, yet I fear you are an illusion."

"Illusions will vanish when you come to help me at supper. We will wait for you on the piazza."

As she paced its wide extent, her illusions also vanished. Graydon had greeted, her as a brother, and a brother only. When the tumult at her heart subsided, this truth stood out most clearly. His kiss still tingled upon her lips. It must be the last, unless followed by a kiss of love. Their brotherly and sisterly relations must be shattered at once. No such relations existed for her, and only as she destroyed such regard on his part could a tenderer affection take its place. With her as his sister he would be content; he might not readily think of her in another light, and meantime might drift swiftly into an engagement with Miss Wildmere.