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During the last moments of their drive Madge and Graydon were comparatively silent. They were passing dwellings, meeting strangers, and they could not, with the readiness of natures less finely organized, descend to commonplaces. Each had abundant food for thought, while even Graydon now believed that he so truly understood Madge, and had so much in common with her, that words were no longer needed for companionship.
As they approached the piazza, they saw that Arnault was still Miss Wildmere's devoted attendant. His presence meant hope for Madge, and Graydon was slightly surprised at his own indifference. He felt that the girl to whom he regarded himself as bound belonged to a different world, a lower plane of life than that of which he had been given a glimpse. The best elements of his nature had been profoundly moved, and brought to the surface, and he found them alien to the pair on the piazza. He was even self-reproachful that he saw with so little resentment Stella's present companionship.
"While I don't like her course at all," he thought, "I must believe that she is acting from the most self-sacrificing motives. What troubles me most now is that I have a growing sense of the narrowness of her nature."
He had never come from her presence with his manhood aroused to its depths. It was her beauty that he dwelt upon; her piquant, alluring tones and gestures. Madge was not an ill-natured critic of the girl who threatened to destroy her future, but, by being simply what she was, she made the other shrink and grow common by contrast.
To Graydon such comparisons were odious indeed, and he would not willingly permit them; but, in conformity to mental laws and the force of circumstances, they would present themselves. Each day had found him in the society of the two girls, and even an hour like one of those just passed compelled him to feel the superiority of Madge. His best hope already for Stella was that she would change when surrounded by better influences--that her faultless taste in externals would eventually create repugnance to modes of thought and action unsuitable in a higher plane of life. He did not question his love for her, but he felt this morning that it was a love which was becoming disenchanted early, and into which the elements of patience and tolerance might have to enter largely. Should he marry her to-day he could not, as Madge had said, and with the first glow of affection, believe her perfect. He even sighed as he thought of the future.
His heart was very tender toward Madge, but it was with an affection that seemed to him partly fraternal, and partly a regard for one different, better, purer than himself. He proved the essential fineness, the capabilities of his nature, by his appreciation of some of her higher traits. Her ministry to the dying girl had given her a sacredness in his eyes. For the time she was becoming a sort of religion to him. He revealed this attitude of mind to her by a gentle manner, and a tone of respect and consideration in the least thing he said.
"Oh," thought the poor girl, "he could be so much to me and I to him! His touch, even in thought, would never be coarse and unfeeling; and I have seen again and again that I can inspire him, move him, and make him happy. Why must a wretched blunder thwart and blight two lives?"
Before they had finished their breakfast the beautiful languor of sleep was again in his companion's eyes, and he said: "Dear Madge, promise me you will take a long rest. Before we part I want to tell you what an illumined page you have put in my memory this morning. Some of the shadows in the picture are very dark, but there is also a light in it that 'never was on sea or land.' When you wake I shall be on my way to the trout-stream to which Dr. Sommers will guide me; and, do you know? I feel as if my memories will be in accord with the scene of my camping-ground. As I sit in my tent-door to-night I shall think over all you have said and described."
Her only answer was a smile, that for some reason quickened his pulse.
Much occurred before they met again.
He went to his room, wrote some letters, and made other preparations. Then, feeling that he should give the remaining time before his departure to Miss Wildmere, he sought her. She appeared to be waiting for him on the piazza, and there was reproach in her tone, as she said, "I half feared you were going without bidding me good-by."
"Such fears were scarcely just to me."
"I did not know but that you had so greatly enjoyed your morning drive as to go away in a fit of absent-mindedness. I have been sitting here alone an hour."
"I could not know that. When I drove up I saw that I should be de trop," he replied, as they sauntered to an adjacent grove.
"Now, Graydon, you know that is never true, so far as I am concerned."
"The trouble is, Miss Wildmere, others are concerned in such a way that the only resource left me is to keep my distance."
"Mr. Arnault has returned to the city," she said, with what appeared a great sigh of relief. "I am perfectly free now."
"Till Mr. Arnault returns."
"I cannot help his return."
"Oh, no. I do not question his right to come back, or even to buy this hotel and turn us all out."
"Please don't talk about him any more. I'm doing the best I can."
"I believe you think so, but I cannot think it will prove the best for any one. It is not what I expected or even imagined. You are acting from a mistaken sense of duty, and I am more sorry every day that you can commit such an error. Look at it in its true light, Stella. I cannot believe you are deceiving me: you must be leading Mr. Arnault to entertain a false hope."
"Graydon, I have refused Mr. Arnault, and he will take no refusal."
"You can refuse him in such a way that he must take it at once and forever."
"You don't know--" she began, tears coming into her eyes.
"No; you have only led me to surmise a great deal by implication."
"What would become of mamma and my little sister if papa should fail utterly?" and tears came faster. No one could be more pathetic than Miss Wildmere when she chose.
"Can you not trust me for them as well as for yourself?"
"Oh, Mr. Muir, I know you mean most generously and kindly, but papa is so anxious and fearful! He tries to keep up before others, but I know how he feels, and it's terrible. He is past middle age, and business success means very much to him. How can I do anything to harm him? I know so little about business and its perils, while papa thinks there may be terrible dangers ahead for every one. You might have the good-will to help us and yet soon be scarcely able to help yourself. I have been made to feel that the best I could do through these troublous times was to try to aid papa as far as possible, and then I shouldn't have anything with which to reproach myself."
Graydon was perplexed. Apparently she was doing wrong in the most self-sacrificing spirit, and believed that doing right, which would end her abnegation, was wrong and selfish.
While he hesitated, she resumed: "You see, Graydon, papa has the same as said that Mr. Arnault was tiding him over until he could realize on securities now of little value. Of course there has been no compromising understanding in words--do not think us capable of that. It would cut me to the heart to have you misjudge me or condemn me. I will give you the highest proof I can of my--my--esteem by being frank on a delicate subject, so that you can see how I am placed. I don't think many young ladies would do as much. Of course what I say is sacred between us. Mr. Arnault offered himself long since, and I promptly declined the honor, but he laughingly told me he would take no refusal, and chatted through the rest of the evening as pleasantly as if nothing had happened. I have virtually refused him several times since, but he persists, declaring that he will remain an agreeable friend until I change my mind. Surely, I am not misleading him. I do like him as a friend, and he knows that I have for him no other regard, and never had. Before you came he had begun to help papa, and to throw business in his way, and just now he is rendering him very great service. He may do this in the hope of influencing me, but he gives his aid without conditions. Yet I know him well enough to be sure that he would withdraw this business help should I now harshly dismiss him or engage myself to another. While I do show him that I appreciate his kindness, I do nothing to indicate that my feeling is changed. He must know that I regard him in the same light as in the past. If he is content with this, I have asked myself why I should be precipitate--why alienate him now in the very crisis of papa's affairs. Of course if I had only myself to think of--I've been foolish enough to think that I might help papa and still be happy in the end. Am I so very naughty, Graydon?"
He was at a loss how to answer her, but felt that he must at once disabuse her mind of one expectation.
"I admit, Stella," he said, thoughtfully, "that you are peculiarly placed, and I thank you for making clearer what I had partially surmised. While I admire and respect the motive, I must still repeat that I regret beyond all words such action in one who is so much to me. It is right also that I should define my own position more clearly. I will imitate your generous frankness. You know how greatly I admired you before I first went abroad; and while I felt that there was little chance for me, you being sought by so many, I did not give up hope. This hope was strengthened by my visit last summer, and when I returned and found you free a few weeks since I determined to win you if I could. You know I would have spoken before had you permitted. I have for some little time felt myself irrevocably bound by what has passed between us. I also believed that you would eventually give me a full explanation in regard to Mr. Arnault, and that his attentions would cease. As to my not being able to take care of you, that is absurd. I am not wealthy yet, but few young men in the city have better prospects. My brother's business is large and profitable, and I am soon to share in it. I could not, from the nature of things, enter into business relations with your father--I should not be at the head of the firm--but neither you nor yours should ever want. As to my brother, he is in no financial danger whatever. He has a large fortune, and is conservatism itself. If you are placed in an embarrassing position, I am also. Arnault's manner is not that of a friend. Others misjudge you and me also. It looks to the people here, and to my own family, as if you were playing with us both.
"Moreover," he continued, after a moment's thought, "you are drifting into a false relation with Arnault, although you may not be conscious of it. Before these troubles began you simply tolerated his attentions good-naturedly, and without any special motive. Now you have a definite motive and purpose, and--pardon me, Stella--they are misleading him. He would not continue his attentions an hour, did he believe they were utterly hopeless. To Arnault and all others you appear undecided between him and myself. Such an experiment as you are trying cannot work well. If he has any other power beyond that of your maidenly preference, he will not hesitate to increase it, and may make your father more utterly dependent upon him while appearing helpful."
"Yes; I have thought of that," she said, musingly.
"There seems to me but one straightforward, high-toned thing for you to do, Stella, and that is to follow your heart."
He was almost frightened at himself that he spoke with so little eagerness and longing. His words seemed but the honorable and logical sequence of what had gone before. For some reason this girl in the broad light of day did not appear to be the same as when she had fascinated him in the witching moonlight the evening before. It was not that her beauty had gone with the glamour of the night, but he had been breathing a different and a purer atmosphere. Madge had been revealing what to him seemed ideal womanhood.
In regard to Stella his illusion had so far passed that he thought, consciously, "Even at her best she is presenting Wildmere traits; her very self-sacrifice takes on a Wildmere form, and there is a flavor of Wall Street in it all."
But he still believed that he loved her, and that, if she was equal to such great though mistaken self-sacrifice for her father, she would, under his influence, throw off certain imperfections and gain a better tone.
That such thoughts were passing through his mind was a bad omen for the continuance of Miss Wildmere's power, and yet the opportunity of her life was still hers. She had simply to put her hand into his with a look of trust, and abide by the act, to secure a loyalty that would always have tried to promote her best interests. That she was strongly tempted to do this was proved by her manner, in spite of the fact that she had promised Arnault not to decide against him before Saturday.
It was a moment of indecision. His strong assurance that he was abundantly able to take care of her, that Mr. Muir was wealthy and free from financial embarrassment, almost turned the scale. She felt that both Arnault and her father were deceiving her for their own purposes, and she had little hesitation in acting for herself without regard to them. Graydon's suggestion that her action was not high-toned, although delicately made, touched her pride to the quick, and she was compelled to feel during this interview, as never before, the superiority of the man who addressed her. She longed to force Henry Muir to acknowledge the daughter of the man he shunned in business; and not the least among her incentives was the thought of triumphing over Madge as a possible rival.
"At any rate," she had thought, "if I become engaged to Graydon he will have to be very much less fraternal. As to his not aiding papa," she concluded, "I can't help that. When once married I could make him do all he could afford, and papa and mamma have no right to expect anything more."
To the potency of all these considerations was added a sentiment for the man who awaited her answer, and who chafed inwardly that it was so long in coming.
"Truly," he thought, "this is a strange wooing. Henry himself could not more carefully weigh the pros and cons than does she apparently, nor am I in feverish suspense. I had hoped for something different in my mating."
A glimmering perception that her manner was not calculated to inspire a lover at last dawned on Miss Wildmere, and with it came a faltering purpose to decide in favor of Graydon at once; but as she turned toward him, to speak with what was meant to be a bewildering smile of joy, a messenger from the office said, "A telegram, miss."
Graydon frowned, and then laughed outright. She stopped in the very act of tearing open the envelope, and looked at him inquiringly.
"Oh, nothing," he said, lightly. "The opportuneness of that fellow's coming was phenomenal. How much longer am I to wait for your decision, Stella? Were the world in our secret, I should be known as St. Graydon the patient."
She flushed, but adopted his apparently light mood as the least embarrassing. "My memory is good, and I shall know how to reward you," she smilingly replied. "Please let me satisfy my mind about papa, for I'm sure it's from him."
"Oh, satisfy your mind fully about everything, Miss Wildmere."
She tore open the envelope with a strong gesture of impatience, and read, with a suddenly paling cheek, "Unless you choose the immediate certainty of absolute loss, wait till I see you. Will come soon. Wildmere."
She crushed the telegram in her hand, and turned away with a half-tragic air which at the moment struck Graydon as a little "stagy," and then he condemned himself for the thought. As she did not speak for a moment, he said, sympathetically, "Your tidings are bad?"
She tried to think, but was confused, and felt that she was in a cruel dilemma. Could Graydon be deceiving her? or was he as ignorant as he seemed of his brother's peril? Was her father in league with Arnault after all? and were they uniting to separate her from Graydon? She could not tell. She must gain more time. She would see her father, charge him with duplicity, and wring the truth from him.
When she turned to Graydon her eyes were full of tears again, and she faltered: "You may despise me if you will, but my father has made an appeal to me, and is coming to see me. I must hear what he has to say. I must tell him that I can't endure--that I can't go on this way any longer. I would gladly help him, save him, but after what you have said it's impossible to--Oh, was ever a girl placed in such wretched straits! Graydon, can you be patient a little longer?"
"There is nothing else for me to do, Stella. I only stipulate that your decision be made speedily, and that Arnault be given to understand what my rights are. I shall have no difficulty in enforcing them."
"I shall decide speedily. It is not right that I should be placed in such a torturing, humiliating position."
"Now I agree with you perfectly. When does your father come?"
"He says 'soon.'"
"Very well; I will return on Saturday."
"I wish you wouldn't go away now," she entreated.
"I think it is best," replied Graydon, decisively, yet kindly. "I have said all that is possible to an honorable man. By remaining I am placed in an anomalous position which my self-respect does not permit any longer."
"I suppose," she sighed, "that I should not ask too much. Well, so be it, then."
They walked back to the house in silence. At the door of a side entrance she turned to him, her face flushing at the admission, and said, hastily, "I waited a long time for you, Graydon," and then fled to her room.
"Oh, confound it!" he muttered, as he walked away. "What a muddle it all is! I ought to feel like strangling myself for permitting this doubting, cynical spirit to creep over me. Curse it all! her words and manner haven't the ring of absolute truth. It seems as if I heard a voice in the very depths of my soul, saying, 'Beware!' Am I becoming an imbecile? I doubted and misjudged Madge. Thank Heaven that is past forever! Now I am doubting and misjudging the woman I have asked to be my wife. I must be misjudging her--the alternative is horrible. I can't escape one conviction, however. It is turning out just as I expected and told her it would. Arnault's aid to her father has been delusive, and Wildmere is deeper in the mire than ever. This is a fine ending of my social career! The girl of my choice puts me off until she can end this Wall Street business more satisfactorily. She must wait and hear her father's reasons for further diplomacy before she can answer me. If Henry knew all this--But Madge, crystal Madge, won't repeat what I said. I must risk the loss of her society also. Has her keen insight into character enabled her to detect these Wildmere traits, and is this the cause of her antipathy? How simply she said 'I couldn't do'--what Stella has accomplished with so much skill that the gossips in the house are in honest doubt as to her choice, or whether, indeed, she proposes to accept either Arnault or myself. Well, well, I'll wait till she has had this interview with her father, and then she must either decide for me and against such tactics forever, or else she can wear my scalp in her belt with those of the other unfortunates."
In an hour he was on the road with Dr. Sommers to a wild and secluded valley.
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