To Aaron King—aside from the subtle flattery of the famous novelist's attention—there was in the personality of the odd character a something that appealed to him with peculiar strength. Perhaps it was that the man's words, so often sharp and stinging with bitter sarcasm, seemed always to carry a hidden meaning that gave, as it were, glimpses of another nature buried deeply beneath a wreck of ruined dreams and disappointing achievements. Or, it may have been that, under all the cruel, world-hardness of the thoughts expressed, the young man sensed an undertone of pathetic sadness. Or, again, perhaps, it was those rare moments, when—on some walk that carried them beyond the outskirts of the town, and brought the mountains into unobstructed view—the clouds of bitterness were lifted; and the man spoke with poetic feeling of the realities of life, and of the true glory and mission of the arts; counseling his friend with an intelligence as true and delicate as it was rare and fine.
It was nearly two months after Conrad Lagrange had introduced the young man at the house on Fairlands Heights. The hour was late. The painter—returning from a dinner and an evening at the Taine home—found the novelist, with pipe and dog, in a deserted corner of the hotel veranda. Dropping into the chair that was placed as if it awaited his coming, the artist—with no word of greeting to the man—bent over the brown head that was thrust so insistently against his knee, as Czar, with gently waving tail, made him welcome. Looking affectionately into the brown eyes while he stroked the silky coat, the young man answered in the language that all dogs understand; while the novelist, from under his scowling brows, regarded the two intently.
"They were disappointed that you were not there," said the painter, presently. "Mrs. Taine, particularly, charged me to say that she will not forgive, until you do proper penance for your sin."
"I had better company," retorted the other. "Czar and I went for a look at the mountains. I suppose you have noticed that Czar does not care for the Fairlands Heights crowd. He is very peculiar in his friendships—for a dog. His instincts are remarkable."
At the sound of his name, Czar transferred his attentions, for a moment, to his master; then stretched himself in his accustomed place beside the novelist's chair.
The artist laughed. "I did my best to invent an acceptable excuse for you; but she said it was no use—nothing short of your own personal prayers for mercy would do."
"Humph; you should have reminded her that I purchased an indulgence some weeks ago."
Again, the other laughed shortly. Watching him closely, Conrad Lagrange said, in his most sneering tones, "I trust, young man, that you are not failing to make good use of your opportunities. Let's see—dinner and the evening five times—afternoon calls as many—with motor trips to points of interest—and one theater party to Los Angeles—believe me; it is not often that struggling genius is so rewarded—before it has accomplished anything bad enough to merit such attention."
"I have been idling most shamefully, haven't I?" said the artist.
"Idling!" rasped the other. "You have been the busiest hay-maker in the land. These scientific, intensive cultivation farmers of California are not in your class when it comes to utilizing the sunshine. Take my advice and continue your present activity without bothering yourself by any sentimental thoughts of your palette and brushes. The mere vulgar tools of your craft are of minor importance to one of your genius and opportunity."
Then, in a half embarrassed manner, Aaron King made his announcement. "That may all be," he said, "but just the same, I am going to work."
"I knew it"—returned the other, in mocking triumph—"I knew it the moment you came up the steps there. I could tell it by your walk; by the air with which you carried yourself; by your manner, your voice, your laugh—you fairly reek of prosperity and achievement—you are going to paint her portrait."
"And why not?" retorted the young man, rather sharply, a trifle nettled by the other's tone.
"Why not, indeed!" murmured the novelist. "Indeed, yes—by all means! It is so exactly the right thing to do that it is startling. You scale the heights of fame with such confident certainty in every move that it is positively uncanny to watch you."
"If one's work is true, I fail to see why one should not take advantage of any influence that can contribute to his success," said the painter. "I assure you I am not so wealthy that I can afford to refuse such an attractive commission. You must admit that the beautiful Mrs. Taine is a subject worthy the brush of any artist; and I suppose it is conceivable that I might be ambitious to make a genuinely good job of it."
The older man, as though touched by the evident sincerity of the artist's words, dropped his sneering tone and spoke earnestly; "The beautiful Mrs. Taine is a subject worthy a master's brush, my friend. But take my word for it, if you paint her portrait as a master would paint it, you will sign your own death warrant—so far as your popularity and fame as an artist goes."
"I don't believe it," declared Aaron King, flatly.
"I know you don't. If you did, and still accepted the commission, you wouldn't be fit to associate with honest dogs like Czar, here."
"But why"—persisted the artist—"why do you insist that my portrait of Mrs. Taine will be disastrous to my success, just to the degree that it is a work of genuine merit?"
To which the novelist answered, cryptically, "If you have not the eyes to see the reason, it will matter little whether you know it or not. If you do see the reason, and, still, produce a portrait that pleases your sitter, then you will have paid the price; you will receive your reward; and"—the speaker's tone grew sad and bitter—"you will be what I am."
With this, he arose abruptly and, without another word, stalked into the hotel; the dog following with quiet dignity, at his heels.
From the beginning of their acquaintance, almost, the novelist and the artist had dropped into the habit of taking their meals together. At breakfast, the next morning, Conrad Lagrange reopened the conversation he had so abruptly closed the night before. "I suppose," he said, "that you will set up a studio, and do the thing in proper style?"
"Mrs. Taine told me of a place that is for rent, and that she thinks would be just the thing," returned the young man. "It is across the road from that big grove owned by Mr. Taine. I was wondering if you would care to walk out that way with me this morning and help me look it over."
The older man's hearty acceptance of the invitation assured the artist of his genuine interest, and, an hour later—after Aaron King had interviewed the agent and secured the keys, with the privilege of inspecting the premises—the two set out together.
They found the place on the eastern edge of the town; half-hidden by the orange groves that surrounded it on every side. The height of the palms that grew along the road in front, the pepper and eucalyptus trees that overshadowed the house, and the size of the orange-trees that shut in the little yard with walls of green, marked the place as having been established before the wealth of the far-away East discovered the peculiar charm of the Fairlands hills. The lawn, the walks, and the drive were unkempt and overgrown with weeds. The house itself,—a small cottage with a wide porch across the front and on the side to the west,—unpainted for many seasons, was tinted by the brush of the elements, a soft and restful gray.
But the artist and his friend, as they approached, exclaimed aloud at the beauty of the scene; for, as if rejoicing in their freedom from restraint, the roses had claimed the dwelling, so neglected by man, as their own. Up every post of the porch they had climbed; over the porch roof, they spread their wealth of color; over the gables, screening the windows with graceful lattice of vine and branch and leaf and bloom; up to the ridge and over the cornice, to the roof of the house itself—even to the top of the chimney they had won their way—and there, as if in an ecstasy of wanton loveliness, flung, a spray of glorious, perfumed beauty high into the air.
On the front porch, the men turned to look away over the gentle slope of the orange groves, on the other side of the road, to the towering peaks and high ridges of the mountains—gleaming cold and white in the winter of their altitude. To the northeast, San Bernardino reared his head in lonely majesty—looking directly down upon the foothills and the feeble dwellers in the valley below. Far beyond, and surrounded by the higher ridges and peaks and canyons of the range, San Gorgonio sat enthroned in the skies—the ruler of them all. From the northeast, westward, they viewed the mighty sweep of the main range to Cajon Pass and the San Gabriels, beyond, with San Antonio, Cucamonga, and their sister peaks lifting their heads above their fellows. In the immediate landscape, no house or building was to be seen. The dark-green mass of the orange groves hid every work of man's building between them and the tawny foothills save the gable and chimney of a neighboring cottage on the west.
"Listen"—said Conrad Lagrange, in a low tone, moved as always by the grandeur and beauty of the scene—"listen! Don't you hear them calling? Don't you feel the mountains sending their message to these poor insects who squirm and wriggle in this bit of muck men call their world? God, man! if only we, in our work, would heed the message of the hills!"
The novelist spoke with such intensity of feeling—with such bitter sadness and regret in his voice—that Aaron King could not reply.
Turning, the artist unlocked the door, and they entered the cottage.
They found the interior of the house well arranged, and not in bad repair. "Just the thing for a bachelor's housekeeping"—was the painter's verdict—"but for a studio—impossible," and there was a touch of regret in his voice.
"Let's continue our exploration," said the novelist, hopefully. "There's a barn out there." And they went out of the house, and down the drive on the eastern side of the yard.
Here, again, they saw the roses in full possession of the place—by man, deserted. From foundation to roof, the building—a small simple structure—was almost hidden under a mass of vines. There was one large room below; with a loft above. The stable was in the rear. Built, evidently, at a later date than the house, the building was in better repair. The walls, so hidden without by the roses, were well sided; the floors were well laid. The big, sliding, main door opened on the drive in front; between it and the corner, to the west, was a small door; and in the western end, a window.
Looking curiously from this window, Conrad Lagrange uttered an exclamation, and hurried abruptly from the building. The artist followed.
From the end of the barn, and extending, the full width of the building, to the west line of the yard, was a rose garden—such a garden as Aaron King had never seen. On three sides, the little plot was enclosed by a tall hedge of Ragged Robins; above the hedge, on the south and west, was the dark-green wall of the orange grove; on the north, the pepper and eucalyptus trees in the yard, and a view of the distant mountains; and on the east, the vine-hidden end of the barn. Against the southern wall,—and, so, directly opposite the trellised, vine-covered arch of the entrance,—a small, lattice bower, with a rustic table and seats within, was completely covered, as was the barn, by the magically woven tapestry of the flowers. In the corner of the hedge farthest from the entrance they found a narrow gate. Unlike the rest of the premises, the garden was in perfect order—the roses trimmed and cared for; the walks neatly edged and clean; with no weed or sign of untidiness or neglect anywhere.
The two men had come upon the spot so suddenly—so unexpectedly—the contrast with the neglected grounds and buildings was so marked—that they looked at each other in silence. The little retreat—so lovely, so hidden by its own beauty from the world, so cared for by careful hands—seemed haunted by an invisible spirit. Very quietly,—almost reverently,—they moved about; talking in low tones, as though half expecting—they knew not what.
"Some one loves this place," said the novelist, softly, when they stood, again, in the entrance.
And the artist answered in the same hushed voice, "I wonder what it means?"
When they were again in the barn, Aaron King became eagerly enthusiastic over the possibilities of the big room. "Some rightly toned burlap on the walls and ceiling,"—he pointed out,—"with floor covering and rugs in harmony; there"—rolling back the big door as he spoke—"your north light; some hangings and screens to hide the stairway to the loft, and the stable door; your entrance over here in the corner, nicely out of the way; and the window looking into the garden—it's great man, great!"
"And," answered Conrad Lagrange, from where he stood in the big front door, "the mountains! Don't forget the mountains. The soft, steady, north light on your canvas, and a message from the mountains to your soul, through the same window, should make it a good place to work, Mr. Painter-man. I suppose over here"—he moved away from the window, and spoke in his mocking way—"over here, you will have a tea-table for the ladies of the circle elect—who will come to, 'oh', and, 'ah', their admiration of the newly discovered genius, and to chatter their misunderstandings of his art. Of course, there will be a page in velvet and gold. By all means, get hold of an oriental kid of some kind—oriental junk is quite the rage this year. You should take advantage of every influence that can contribute to your success, you know. And, whatever you do, don't fail to consult the 'Goddess' about these essentials of your craft. Many a promising genius has been lost to fame, through inviting the wrong people to take tea in his studio. But"—he finished whimsically, looking from the window into the garden—"but what the devil do you suppose the spirit who lives out there will think about it all."
* * * * *
The days of the two following weeks were busy days for Aaron King. He leased the place in the orange groves, and set men to work making it habitable. The lawn and grounds were trimmed and put in order; the interior of the house was renovated by painter and paper-hanger; and the barn, under the artist's direction, was transformed into an ideal studio. There was a trip to Los Angeles—quite fortunately upon a day when Mrs. Taine must go to the city shopping—for rugs and hangings; and another trip to purchase the tools of the artist's craft. And, at last, there was a Chinese cook and housekeeper to find; with supplies for his kitchen. It was at Conrad Lagrange's suggestion, that, from the first, every one was given strict orders to keep out of the rose garden.
Every day, the novelist—accompanied, always, by Czar—walked out that way to see how things were progressing; and often,—if he had not been too busy to notice,—Aaron King might have seen a look of wistfulness in the keen, baffling eyes of the famous man—so world-weary and sad. And, while he did not cease to mock and jeer and offer sarcastic advice to his younger friend, the touch of pathos—that, like a minor chord, was so often heard in his most caustic and cruel speeches—was more pronounced. As for Czar—he always returned to the hotel with evident reluctance; and managed to express, in his dog way, the thoughts his distinguished master would not put in words.
Very often, too, the big touring car from the house on Fairlands Heights stopped in front of the cottage, while the occupants inspected the premises, and—with many exclamations of flattering praise, and a few suggestions—made manifest their interest.
In time, it was finished and ready—from the big easel by the great, north window in the studio, to the white-jacketed Yee Kee in the kitchen. When the last workman was gone with his tools; and the two men, after looking about the place for an hour, were standing on the front porch; Conrad Lagrange said, "And the stage is set. The scene shifters are off. The audience is waiting. Ring up the curtain for the next act. Even Czar has looked upon everything and calls it good—heh Czar?"
The dog went to him; and, for some minutes, the novelist looked down into the brown eyes of his four-footed companion who seemed so to understand. Still fondling the dog,—without looking at the artist,—the older man continued, "You will have your things moved over in the morning, I suppose? Or, will we lunch together, once more?"
Aaron King laughed—as a boy who has prepared a surprise, and has been struggling manfully to keep the secret until the proper moment should arrive. Placing his hand on the older man's shoulder, he answered meaningly, "I had planned that we would move in the morning." At the other's puzzled expression he laughed again.
"We?" said the novelist, facing his friend, quickly.
"Come here," returned the other. "I must show you something you haven't seen."
He led the way to a room that they had decided he would not need, and the door of which was locked. Taking a key from his pocket, he handed it to his friend.
"What's this?" said the older man, looking foolishly at the key in his hand.
"It's the key to that door," returned the other, with a gleeful chuckle. Then—"Unlock it."
"Sure—that's what I gave you the key for."
Conrad Lagrange obeyed. Through the open door, he saw, not the bare and empty room he supposed was there, but a bedroom—charmingly furnished, complete in every detail. Turning, he faced his companion silently, inquiringly—with a look that Aaron King had never before seen in those strange, baffling eyes.
"It's yours"—said the artist, hastily—"if you care to come. You'll have a free hand here, you know; for I will be in the studio much of the time. Kee will cook the things you like. You and Czar can come and go as you will. There is the arbor in the rose garden, you know, and see here"—he stepped to the window—"I chose this room for you, because it looks out upon your mountains."
The strange man stood at the window for, what seemed to the artist, a long time. Suddenly, he turned to say sharply, "Young man, why did you do this?"
"Why"—stammered the other, disconcerted—"because I want you—because I thought you would like to come. I beg your pardon—if I have made a mistake—but surely, no harm has been done."
"And you think you could stand living with me—for any length of time?"
The' painter laughed with relief. "Oh, that's it! I didn't know you had such a tender conscience. You scared me for a minute, I should think you would know by this time that you can't phase me with your wicked tongue."
The novelist's face twisted into a grotesque smile. "I warn you—I will flay you and your friends just the same. You need it for the good of your soul."
"As often and as hard as you like"—returned the other, heartily—"just so it's for the good of my soul. You will come?"
"You will permit me to stand my share of the expense?"
"Anything you like—if you will only come."
The older man said gently,—for the first time calling the artist by his given name,—"Aaron, I believe that you are the only person in the world who would, really want me; and I know that you are the only person in the world to whom I would be grateful for such an invitation."
The artist was about to reply, when the big automobile stopped in front of the house. Czar, on the porch, gave a low growl of disapproval; and, through the open door, they saw Mr. Taine and his wife with James Rutlidge and Louise.
The novelist said something, under his breath, that had a vicious sound—quite unlike his words of the moment before. Czar, in disgust, retreated to the shelter of Yee Kee's domain. With a laugh, the younger man went out to meet his friends.
"Are you at home this afternoon, Sir Artist?" called Mrs. Taine, gaily, as he went down the walk.
"I will always be at home to the right people," he answered, greeting the other members of the party.
As they moved toward the house,—Mr. Taine choking and coughing, his daughter chattering and exclaiming, and James Rutlidge critically observing,—Mrs. Taine dropped a little back to Aaron King's side. "And are you really established, at last?" she asked eagerly; with a charming, confidential air.
"We move to-morrow morning," he answered.
"We?" she questioned.
"Conrad Lagrange and I. He is going to live with me, you know."
It is remarkable how much meaning a woman can crowd into that one small syllable; particularly, when she draws a little away from you as she speaks it.
"Why," he murmured apologetically, "don't you approve?"
Mrs. Taine's beautiful eyebrows went up inquiringly—"And why should I either approve or disapprove?"
The young man was saved by the arrival of his guests at the porch steps, and by the appearance of Conrad Lagrange, in the doorway.
"How delightful!" exclaimed Mrs. Taine, heartily; as she, in turn, greeted the famous novelist. "Mr. King was just telling me that you were going to share this dear little place with him. I quite envy you both."
The others had passed into the house.
"You are sometimes guilty of saying twisty things yourself, aren't you?" returned the man; and, as he spoke, his remarkable eyes were fixed upon her as though reading her innermost thoughts.
She flushed under his meaning gaze, but carried it off gaily with—"Oh dear! I wonder if my maid has hooked me up properly, this time?"
They left Mr. Taine in an easy chair, with a bottle of his favorite whisky; and went over the place—from the arbor in the rose garden to Yee Kee's pantry—Mr. Rutlidge, critically and authoritatively approving; Louise, effervescing the same sugary nothings at every step; Mrs. Taine, with a pretty air of proprietorship; Conrad Lagrange, thoughtfully watching; and Aaron King, himself, irresponsibly gay and boyishly proud as he exhibited his achievements.
In the studio, Mrs. Taine—standing before the big easel—demanded to know of the artist, when he would begin her portrait—she was so interested, so eager to begin—how soon could she come? Louise assumed a worshipful attitude, and, gazing at the young man with reverent eyes, waited breathlessly. James Rutlidge drew near, condescendingly attentive, to the center of attraction. Conrad Lagrange turned his back.
"Really," murmured the painter, "I hope you will not be too impatient, Mrs. Taine, I fear I cannot be ready for some time yet. I suppose I must confess to being over-sensitive to my environment; for it is a fact that my working mood does not come upon me readily amid strange surroundings. When I have become acclimated, as it were, I will be ready for you."
"How wonderful!" breathed Louise.
"Quite right," agreed Mr. Rutlidge.
"Whenever you are ready," said Mrs. Taine, submissively.
When their friends from the Heights were gone, Conrad Lagrange looked the artist up and down, as he said with cutting sarcasm, "You did that very nicely. Over-sensitive to your environment, hell! If you are a bit fine strung, you have no business to make a show of it. It's a weakness, not a virtue. And the man who makes capital out of any man's weakness,—even of his own,—is either a criminal or a fool or both."
Then they went back to the hotel for dinner.
The next morning, the artist and the novelist moved from the hotel, to establish themselves in the little house in the orange groves—the little house with its unobstructed view of the mountains, and with its rose garden, so mysteriously tended.
An Unknown Friend
When Yee Kee announced lunch, the artist, the novelist, and the dog were settled in their new home. In the afternoon, the painter spent an hour or two fussing over portfolios of old sketches, in his studio; while Conrad Lagrange and Czar lounged on the front porch.
Once, the dog rose quietly, and, walking sedately to the edge of the porch toward the west, stood for some minutes gazing intently into the dark green mass of the orange grave. At last, as if concluding that whatever it was it was all right, he went calmly back to his place beside the novelist's chair.
"Do you know,"—said the artist, as they sat on the porch that evening, with their after-dinner pipes,—"I believe this old place is haunted."
"If it isn't, it ought to be," answered the other, contentedly—playing with Czar's silky ears. "A good ghost would fit in nicely here, wouldn't it—or he, or she. Its spookship would travel far to find a more delightful place for spooking in, and—providing, of course, she were a perfectly respectable hant—what a charming addition to our family he would make. When it was weary of moping and mowing and sobbing and wailing and gibbering, she could curl up at the foot of your bed and sleep; as Czar, here, curls up and sleeps at the foot of mine. A good ghost, you know—if he becomes really attached to you—is as constant and faithful and affectionate and companionable as a good dog."
"B-r-r-r," said the artist. And Czar turned to look at him, questioningly.
"All the same"—the painter continued—"when I was out there in the studio, I could feel some one watching me—you know the feeling."
Conrad Lagrange returned mockingly, "I trust your over-sensitive, artistic temperament is not to be so influenced by our ghostly visitor that you will be unfitted for your work."
The other laughed. Then he said seriously, "Joking aside, Lagrange, I feel a presentiment—I can't put it into words—but—I feel that I am going to begin the real work of my life right here. I"—he hesitated—"it seems to me that I can sense some influence that I can't define—it's the mystery of the rose garden, perhaps," he finished with another short laugh.
The man, who, in the eyes of the world, had won so large a measure of the success that his friend desired; and whose life was so embittered by the things for which he was envied by many; made no reply other than his slow, twisted smile.
Silently, they watched the purple shadows of the mountains deepen; and saw the outlines of the tawny foothills grow vague and dim, until they were lost in the dusky monotone of the evening. The last faint tint of sunset color went from the sky back of the San Gabriels; while, close to the mountain peaks and ridges, the stars came out. The rows and the contour of the orange groves could no longer be distinguished the forms of the nearby trees were lost—the rich, lustrous green of their foliage brushed out with the dull black of the night; while the twinkling lights of the distant towns and hamlets, in the valley below, shone as sparkling jewels on the inky, velvet robe that, fold on fold, lay over the landscape.
When the two had smoked in silence, for some time, the artist said slowly, "You knew my mother very well, did you not, Mr. Lagrange?"
"We were children together, Aaron." As he spoke, the man's deep voice was gentle, as always, when the young man's mother was mentioned.
Again, for a little, neither spoke. As they sat looking away to the mountains, each seemed occupied with his own thoughts. Yet each felt that the other, to a degree, understood what he, himself, was thinking.
Once more, the artist broke the silence,—facing his mother's friend with quiet resolution,—as though he felt himself forced to speak but knew not exactly how to begin. "Did you know her well—after—after my father's death—and while I was abroad?"
The other bowed his head—"Yes."
As if at loss for words, Aaron King still hesitated. "Mr. Lagrange," he said, at last, "there are some things about—about mother—that I would like to tell you—that I think she would want me to tell you, under the circumstances."
"Yes," said Conrad Lagrange, gently.
"Well,—to begin,—you know, perhaps, how much mother and I have always been—" his fine voice broke and the older man bowed his head; but, with a slight lift of his determined chin, the painter went on calmly—"to each other. After father's death, until I was seventeen, we were never separated. She was my only teacher. Then I went away to school, seeing her only during my vacations, which we always spent, together in the country. Three years ago, I went abroad to finish my study. I did not see her again until—until I was called home."
"I know," came in low tones from the other.
"But, sir, while it seemed necessary that I should be away from home,—that we should be separated,—all through this period, we exchanged almost daily letters; planning for the future, and looking forward to the time when we could, again, be together."
"I know, Aaron. It was very unusual—and very beautiful."
"When we were together, before I went away, I was a mere lad," continued the artist. "I knew in a general way that father had been a successful lawyer, and quite prominent in politics; and—because there was no change in our manner of living after his death, and there seemed to be always money for whatever we wanted, I suppose—I assumed, thoughtlessly, that there would always be plenty. During the years while I was at school, there was never, in any way, the slightest hint in mother's letters that would lead me to question the abundance of her resources. When they called me home,—" his voice broke, "—I found my mother dying—almost in poverty—our home stripped of the art treasures she loved—her own room, even, empty of everything save the barest necessities." In bitter sorrow and shame, the young man buried his face in his hands.
The novelist, his gaunt features twitching with the emotion that even his long schooling in the tragedies of life could not suppress, waited silently.
When the artist had regained, in a measure, his self-control, he continued,—and every word came from him in shame and humiliation,—"Before she died, she told me about—my father. In the settlement of his affairs, at the time of his death, it appeared that he had taken advantage of the confidence of certain clients and had betrayed his trust; appropriating large sums to his own interests. He had even taken advantage of mother's influence in certain circles, and, relying upon her unquestioning faith in his integrity, had made her an unconscious instrument in furthering his schemes."
Conrad Lagrange made as if to speak, but checked himself and waited for the other to continue.
Aaron King went on; "Out of regard for my mother, the matter was kept as quiet as possible. The one who suffered the heaviest loss was able to protect her—in a measure. All the others were fully reimbursed. But mother—it would have been easier for her if she had died then. She withdrew from her friends and from the life she loved—she denied herself to all who sought her and devoted her life to me. Above all, she planned to keep me in ignorance of the truth until I should be equipped to win the place in the world that she coveted for me. It was for that, she sent me away, and kept me from home. As the demands for my educational expenses grew naturally heavier, she supplemented the slender resources, left in the final settlement of my father's estate, by sacrificing the treasures of her home, and by giving up the luxuries to which she had been accustomed from childhood. She even provided for me after her death—not wealth, but a comfortable amount, sufficient to support me in good circumstances until I can gain recognition and an income from my work."
Under the lash of his memories, the young man sprang to his feet.
"In God's name, Lagrange, why did not some one tell me? I did not know—I did not know—I thought—O mother, mother, mother—why did you do it? Why was I not told? All these years I have lived a selfish fool, and you—you—I would have given up everything—I would have worked in a ditch, rather than accept this."
The deep, quiet voice of Conrad Lagrange broke the stillness that followed the storm of the artist's passionate words. "And that is the answer, Aaron. She knew, too well, that you would not have accepted her sacrifice, if you had known. That is why she kept the secret until you had finished your education. She forbade her friends—she forbade me to interfere. And don't you see that she was right? Don't you see it? We would have done her the greatest injustice if we had, against her will, deprived her of this privilege. Her splendid pride, her high sense of honor, her nobility of spirit demanded the sacrifice. It was her right. God forgive me—I tried to make her see it otherwise—but she knew best. She always knew best, Aaron. Her only hope of regaining for you that self-respect and that position in life to which you—by right of birth and natural endowment—are entitled, was in you. The name which she had given to you could be restored to honor by you only. To train and equip you for your work, and to enable you, unhampered by need, to gain your footing, was the determined passion of her life. Her sacrifice, her suffering to that end, was the only restitution she could make to you for that which your father had squandered. Her proud spirit, her fine intelligence, her mother love for you, demanded it."
"I know," returned the artist. "She told me before she died. She made me understand. She said that it was my inheritance. She asked for my promise that I would be true to her purpose. Her last words were an expression of her confidence that I would not disappoint her—that I would win a place and name that would wipe out the shame of my father's dishonor. And I will, Lagrange, I must. Mother—mother shall not be disappointed—she shall not be disappointed."
"No,"—said the older man, so softly that the other, torn by the passion of his own thoughts, did not hear,—"No, Aaron, your mother will not be disappointed."
For a time longer they sat in silence. Then the young man said, "I wish I knew the name of my mother's friend—the one who suffered the heaviest loss through my father, and who so generously protected her in the crisis. I would like to thank him, at least. I begged her to tell me, but she would not. She said he would not want me to know—that for me to attempt to reimburse him would, to his mind, rob him of his real reward."
Conrad Lagrange, his head bowed, spoke quietly to the dog at his feet. Rising, Czar laid his soft muzzle on his master's knee and looked up into the homely, world-worn face. Gently, the strange man—so lonely and embittered in the fame that he had won—at a price—stroked the brown head. "Your mother knew best, Aaron," he said slowly, without looking at his companion. "You must believe that she knew best. Her beautiful spirit could not lead her astray. She was right in this, also. Your sentiment does you honor, but you must respect her wish. Whoever the man was—she had reasons, I am sure, for feeling as she did—that it would be better for you not to know. It was some one, perhaps, whose influence upon you, she had cause to fear."
"It was very strange," returned the artist, hesitatingly. "Perhaps I ought not to say it. But I felt that, as you suggest, she feared for me to know. She seemed to want to tell me, but did not, for my sake. It was very strange."
Conrad Lagrange made no reply.
"I wanted you to know about mother,"—continued the artist,—"because I would like you to understand why—why I must succeed in my work."
The older man smiled to himself, in the dusk. "I have always known why you must succeed, Aaron," he returned. "I have never questioned your motives. I question only your understanding of success. I question—if you will pardon me—your understanding of your mother's wish for you."
Then, in one of those rare momentary moods, when he seemed to reveal to his young friend his real nature that lay so deeply hidden from the world, he added, "You are right, Aaron. This place is haunted—haunted by the spirit of the mountains, yonder—haunted by the spirit of the rose garden, out there. The silent strength of the hills, and the loveliness of the garden will attend you in your studio, as you work. I do not wonder that you feel a presentiment that your artistic future is to be shaped here; for between these influences and the other influences that will be brought to bear upon you, you will be forced to decide. May the God of all true art and artists help you to make no mistake. Listen!"
As though in answer to the solemn words of the man who spoke from the fullness of a life-long experience and from the depths of a life-old love, a strain of music came from out the fragrant darkness. Somewhere, hidden in the depths of the orange grove, the soul of a true musician was seeking expression in the tones of a violin.
Softly, sadly, with poignant clearness, the music lifted into the night—low and pleadingly at first; then stronger and more vibrant with feeling, as though sweetly insistent in its call; swelling next in volume and passion, as though in warning of some threatening evil; ringing with loving fear; sobbing, wailing, moaning, in anguish; clearly, gloriously, triumphant, at last; then sinking into solemn, reverent benediction—losing itself, finally, in the darkness, even as it had come.
The two men, so fashioned by nature to receive such music, listened with emotions they could not have put into words. For the moment, the music to them was the voice of the guarding, calling, warning spirit of the mountains that, in their calm, majestic strength, were so far removed from the petty passions and longings of the baser world at their feet—it was the voice of the loving intimacy, the sweet purity, and the sacred beauty of the spirit of the garden. It was as though the things of which Conrad Lagrange had just spoken so reverently had cried aloud to them, out of the night, in confirmation of his words.
Mrs. Taine in Quaker Gray
Aaron King seemed loth to begin his work on the portrait of Mrs. Taine. Day after day, without apparent reason, he put it off—spending the hours in wandering aimlessly about the place, idling on the porch, or doing nothing in his studio. He would start from the house to the building at the end of the rose garden, as though moved by some clearly defined purpose—and then, for an hour or more, would dawdle among the things of his craft, with irresolute mind—turning over his sketches and drawings with uncertain hands, as though searching for something he knew was not there; toying with his paints and brushes; or sitting before his empty easel, looking away through the big window to the distant mountains. He seemed incapable of fixing his mind upon the task to which he attached so much importance. Several times, Mrs. Taine called, but he begged her to be patient; and she, with pretended awe of the moods of genius, waited.
Conrad Lagrange jeered and mocked, offered sneering advice or sarcastic compliment; and, under it all, was keenly watchful and sympathetic— understanding better than the artist himself, perhaps, the secret of the painter's hesitation. Every day,—sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon or evening unseen musician, in the orange grove wrought for them melodie that, whether grave or gay, always carried, somehow, the feeling that had so moved them in the mysterious darkness of that first evening.
They knew, now, of course, that the musician lived in the neighboring house—the gable and chimney of which was just visible above the orange-trees. But that was all. Obedient to some whimsical impulse that prompted them both, and was born, no doubt, of the circumstance and mood of that first evening, they did not seek to learn more. They feared—though they did not say it—that to learn the identity of the musician would rob them of the peculiar pleasure they found in the music, itself. So they spoke always of their unknown neighbor in a fanciful vein, as in like humor they spoke of the spirit that Aaron King still insisted haunted the place, or as they alluded to the mystery of the carefully tended rose garden.
When the artist could put it off no longer, a day was finally set when Mrs. Taine was to come for the beginning of her portrait. The appointed hour found the artist in his studio. A canvas stood ready upon the easel; palette, colors and brushes were at hand. The painter was standing at the big, north window, looking up away to the mountains—the mountains that the novelist said called so insistently. Suddenly, he turned his head to listen. Sweetly clear and low, through the green wall of the orange-trees, came the music of that hidden violin.
As he stood there,—with his eyes fixed upon the mountains, listening to the spirit that spoke in the tones of the unseen instrument,—Aaron King knew, all at once, that the passing moment was one of those rare moments—that come, all unexpectedly—when, with prophetic vision, one sees clearly the end of the course he pursues and the destiny that waits him at its completion. As clearly, too, he saw the other way, and knew the meaning of the vision. But seldom is the strength given to man, in such moments, to choose for himself. Though he may see the other way clearly, his feet cling to the path he has elected to follow; nor will he, unless some one takes him by the hand saying, "Come," turn aside.
A voice, not at all in harmony with the music, broke upon the artist's consciousness. He turned to see Mrs. Taine standing expectantly in the open door. "Hush!" said the painter, still under the spell of that moment so big with possibilities. "Listen,"—with a gesture, he checked her advance,—"listen."
A look of haughty surprise flashed over the woman's too perfect features. Then, as her ear caught the tones of the violin, she half turned—but only for a moment.
"Very clever, isn't it," she said as she came forward "It must be old Professor Becker. He lives somewhere around here, I understand. They say he is very good."
The artist looked at her for an instant, in amazement Then, as his normal mind asserted itself, he burst into an embarrassed laugh.
At her look of puzzled inquiry, he said, "I beg your pardon, Mrs. Taine. I did not realize how harshly I greeted you. The fact is I—I was dreaming"—he turned suggestively toward the canvas upon the easel. "You see I was expecting you—I was thinking—then the music came—and—well—when you actually appeared in the flesh, I did not for the moment realize that it was really you."
"How charming of you!" she returned. "To be made the subject of an artist's dream—really it is quite the nicest compliment I have ever received. Tell me, do you like me in this?" she slipped the wrap she wore from her shoulders, and stood before him, gowned in the simple, gray dress of a Quaker Maid. Deliberately, she turned her beautiful self about for his critical inspection. Moving to and fro, sitting, half-reclining, standing—in various graceful poses she invited, challenged, dared, his closest attention—professional attention, of course—to every curve and detail.
In spite of its simplicity of color and line, the gown still bore the unmistakable stamp of the wearer's world. The severity of line was subtly made to emphasize the voluptuousness of the body that was covered but not hidden. The quiet color was made to accentuate the flesh the dress concealed only to reveal. The very lack of ornament but served to center the attention upon the charms that so loudly professed to scorn them. It was worldliness speaking in the quiet voice of religion. It was vulgarity advertising itself in terms of good taste. She had made modesty the handmaiden of blatant immodesty, and the daring impudence of it all fairly stunned the painter.
"Oh dear!" she said, watching his face, "I fear you don't like it, at all—and I thought it such a beautiful little gown. You told me to wear whatever I pleased, you know."
"It is a beautiful gown," he said—then added impulsively, "and you are beautiful in it. You would be beautiful in anything."
She shook her head; favoring him with an understanding smile. "You say that to please me. I can see that you don't like me this way."
"But I do," he insisted. "I like you that way, immensely. I was a bit surprised, that's all. You see, I thought, of course, that you would select an evening gown of some sort—something, you know, that would fit your social position—your place in the world. In this costume, the beauty of your shoulders—"
Lowering her eyes as if embarrassed, she said coldly, "The beauty of my shoulders is not for the public. I have never worn—I will not wear—one of those dreadful, immodest gowns."
Aaron King was bewildered. Suddenly, he remembered what Conrad Lagrange had said about her fad. But after so frankly exhibiting herself before him, dressed as she was in a gown that was deliberately planned to advertise her physical charms, to be particular about baring her shoulders in a conventional costume—! It was quite too much.
"Again, I beg your pardon, Mrs. Taine," he managed to say. "I did not know. Under the circumstances, this is exactly the thing. Your portrait, in what is so frankly a costume assumed for the purpose, takes us out of the dilemma very nicely, indeed."
"Why, that's exactly what I thought," she returned eagerly. "And this is so in keeping with my real tastes—don't you see? A real portrait—I mean a serious work of art, you know—should always be something more than a mere likeness, should it not? Don't you think that to be genuinely good, a portrait must reveal the spirit and character—must portray the soul, as well as the features? I do so want this to be a truly great picture—for your sake." Her manner seemed to say that she was doing it all for him. "I have never permitted any one to paint my portrait before, you know," she added meaningly.
"You are very kind, Mrs. Taine," he returned gravely. "Believe me, I do appreciate this opportunity I shall do my best to express my appreciation here"—he indicated the canvas on the easel.
When his sitter was posed to his liking, and the artist, with a few bold, sweeping, strokes of the charcoal had roughed out his subject on the canvas, and was bending over his color-box—he said, casually, to put her at ease, "You came alone this afternoon, did you?"
"Oh, no, indeed! I brought Louise with me. I shall always bring her, or some one. One cannot be too careful, you know," she added with simulated artlessness.
The painter, studying her face, replied mechanically "No indeed."
As he turned back to his canvas, Mrs. Taine continued, "I left her in the house, with a box of chocolates and a novel. I felt that you would rather we were alone."
"Please don't look down," said the artist. "I want your eyes about here"—he indicated a picture on the wall, a little back and to the left of where he stood at the easel.
After this, there was silence in the studio, for a little while. Mrs. Taine obediently kept the pose; her eyes upon the point the artist had indicated; but—as the man, himself, was almost directly in her line of vision—it was easy for her to watch him at his work, when his eyes were on his canvas or palette. The arrangement was admirable in that it relieved the tedium of the hour for the sitter; and gave her face an expression of animated interest that, truthfully fixed upon the canvas, should insure the fame and future of any painter.
It would be quite too much to say that Aaron King became absorbed in his occupation. Thorough master of the tools of his craft, and of his own technic, as well; he was interested in the mere exercising of his skill, but he in no sense lost himself in his work. Two or three times, Mrs. Taine saw him glance quickly over his shoulder, as though expecting some one. Once, for quite a moment, he deliberately turned from his easel to stand at the window, looking up at the distant mountain peaks. Several times, he seemed to be listening.
"May I talk?" she said at last.
"Why, certainly," he returned. "I want you to feel perfectly at ease. You must be altogether at home here. Just let yourself go—say what you like, with no conventional restraints whatever—consider me a mechanical something that is no more than an article of furniture—be as thoroughly yourself as if alone in your own room."
"How funny," she said musingly.
"Not at all"—he returned—"just a matter of business."
"But it would be funny if I were to take you at your word," she replied; suddenly breaking the pose and meeting his gaze squarely. "Is it—is it quite necessary for the mechanical something to look at me like that?"
"I said that you were to consider me as an article of furniture. I didn't say that I felt like a table or chair."
"Don't look down; keep the pose, please," came somewhat sharply from the man at the easel, as though he were mentally taking himself in hand.
After that, she watched him with increasing interest and, when he turned his head in that listening attitude, a curious, resentful light came into her eyes.
Presently, she asked abruptly, "What is it that you hear?"
"I thought I heard music," he answered, coloring slightly and turning to his work with suddenly absorbing interest.
"The violin that so enchanted you when I came to break the spell?" she persisted playfully—though the light in her eyes was not a playful light.
"Yes," he answered shortly; stepping back and shading his eyes with his hand for a careful look at his canvas.
"And don't you know who it is?"
"You said it was an old professor somebody."
"That was my first guess," she retorted. "Was I right?"
"I don't know."
"But it comes from that little box of a house, next door, doesn't it?"
"Evidently," the artist answered. Then, laying aside his palette and brushes he said abruptly, "That is all for to-day; thank you."
"Oh, so soon!" she exclaimed; and the regret in her voice was very pleasing to the man who was decidedly not a mechanical something.
She started eagerly forward toward the easel. But the artist, with a quick motion, drew a curtain across the canvas, to hide his work; while he checked her with—"Not yet, please. I don't want you to see it until I say you may."
"How mean of you," she protested; charmingly submissive. Then, eagerly—"And do you want me to-morrow? You do, don't you?"
"Yes, please—at the same hour."
When the Quaker Maiden's dress was safely hidden under her wrap, Mrs. Taine stood, for a moment, looking thoughtfully about the studio; while the artist waited at the door, ready to escort her to the automobile. "I am going to love this room," she said slowly; and, for the first time, her voice was genuinely sincere, with a hint of wistfulness in its tone that made him regard her wonderingly.
She went to him impulsively. "Will you, when you are famous—when you are a great artist and all the great and famous people go to you to have their portraits painted—will you remember poor me, I wonder?"
"Am I really going to be famous?" he returned doubtfully. "Are you so sure that this picture will mean success?"
"Of course I am sure—I know. You want to succeed don't you?"
Aaron King returned her look, for a moment, without answering. Then, with a quick, fierce determination that betrayed a depth of feeling she had never before seen in him, he exclaimed, "Do I want to succeed! I—I must succeed. I tell you I must."
And the woman answered very softly, with her hand upon his arm, "And you shall—you shall."
* * * * *
Conrad Lagrange and Czar found the artist on the front porch, pulling moodily at his pipe.
"Is it all over for to-day?" asked the novelist as he stood looking down upon the young man with that peculiarly piercing, baffling gaze.
"All over," replied the artist, answering the greeting thrust of Czar's muzzle against his knee, with caressing hand. "Where did you fly to?"
The other dropped into a chair. "I would fly anywhere to escape being entertained by that Ragtime' piece of human nonentity—Louise Taine. I saw them coming, just in time." He was filling his pipe as he spoke. "And how did the work go?"
"All right," replied the painter, indifferently.
The older man shot a curious sidewise glance at his moody companion; then, striking a match, he gave careful attention to his pipe. Watching the cloud of blue smoke, he said quizzingly, "I suppose 'Her Majesty' was royally apparelled for the occasion-properly arrayed in purple and fine linen; as befits the dignity of her state?"
The artist turned at the mocking, suggestive tone and answered savagely, "I suppose you have got to know, damn you! I'm painting her as a Quaker Maiden."
Conrad Lagrange's reply was as surprising in its way as was the outburst of the artist. Instead of the tirade of biting sarcasm and stinging abuse that the painter expected, the older man only gazed at him from under his scowling brows and, shaking his head, sadly, said with sincere regret and understanding "You poor fellow! It must be hell." Then, as his keen mind grasped the full significance of the artist's words, he murmured meditatively, "The personification of the age masquerading in Quaker gray—Shades of the giants who used to be! What an opportunity—if you only had the nerve to do it."
The artist flung out his hand in protest as he rose from his chair to pace up and down the porch. "Don't, Lagrange, don't! I can't stand it, just now."
"All right." said the other, heartily, "I won't." Rising, he put his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Come, let's go for a look at the roses, before Yee Kee calls us to dinner."
In the garden, the artist's eye caught sight of something white lying in the well-kept path. With an exclamation, he went quickly to pick it up. It was a dainty square of lace—a handkerchief—with an exquisitely embroidered "S" in the corner.
The two men looked at each other in silence; with smiling, questioning eyes.
The Portrait That Was Not a Portrait
Aaron King was putting the last touches to his portrait of the woman who—Conrad Lagrange said—was the personification of the age.
From that evening when the young man told his friend the story of his mother's sacrifice, their friendship had become like that friendship which passeth the love of women. While the novelist, true to his promise, did not cease to flay his younger companion—for the good of the artist's soul—those moments when his gentler moods ruled his speech were, perhaps, more frequent; and the artist was more and more learning to appreciate the rare imagination, the delicacy of feeling, the intellectual brilliancy, and the keenness of mental vision that distinguished the man whose life was so embittered by the use he had made of his own rich gifts.
The novelist steadily refused to look at the picture while the work was in progress. He said, bluntly, that he preferred to run no risk of interfering with the young man's chance for fame; and that it would be quite enough for him to look upon his friend's shame when it was accomplished; without witnessing the process in its various stages. The artist laughed to hide the embarrassing fact that he was rather pleased to be left to himself with this particular picture.
Conrad Lagrange did not, however, refuse to accompany his friend, occasionally, to the house on Fairlands Heights; where the painter continued to spend much of his time. When Mrs. Taine made mocking references to the novelist's promise not to leave the artist unprotected to her tender mercies, he always answered with some—as she said—twisty saying; to the effect that the present situation in no way lessened his determination to save the young man from the influences that would accomplish the ruin of his genius. "If"—he always added—"if he is worth saving; which remains to be seen." Always, at the Taine home, they met James Rutlidge. Frequently the celebrated critic dropped in at the cottage in the orange grove.
Under the skillful management of Rutlidge,—at the request of Mrs. Taine,—the newspapers were already busy with the name and work of Aaron King. True, the critic had never seen the artist's work; but, never-the-less, the papers and magazines throughout the country often mentioned the high order of the painter's genius. There were little stories of his study and success abroad; tactful references to his aristocratic family; entertaining accounts of his romantic life with the famous novelist in the orange groves of Fairlands, and of how, in his California studio among the roses, the distinguished painter was at work upon a portrait of the well-known social leader, Mrs. Taine—this being the first portrait ever painted of that famous beauty. That the picture would create a sensation at the exhibition, was the unanimous verdict of all who had been permitted to see the marvelous creation by this rare genius whose work was so little known in this country.
Said Conrad Lagrange—"It is all so easy."
Once or twice, the artist or his friend had seen the woman of the disfigured face; and the novelist still tried in vain to fix her in his memory. Every day, they heard, in the depths of the neighboring orange grove, the music of that unseen violin. They spoke, often, in playful mood, of the spirit that haunted the place; but they made no effort to solve the mystery of the carefully tended rose garden. They knew that whoever cared for the roses worked there only in the early morning hours; and they carefully avoided going into the yard back of the house until after breakfast. They felt that an investigation might rob them of the peculiar humor of their fancy—a fancy that was to them, both, such a pleasure; and gave to their home amid the orange-trees and roses such an added charm.
But the other member of the trio of friends was not so reticent. Czar had formed an—to his most proper dogship—unusual habit. Frequently, when the three were sitting on the porch in the evening, he would rise suddenly from his place beside his master's chair, and walking sedately to the side of the porch facing that neighboring gable and chimney, would stand listening attentively; then, without so much as a "by-your-leave," he would leap to the ground, and vanish somewhere around the corner of the house. Later, he would come sedately back; greeting each, in turn, with that insistent thrust his soft muzzle against a knee; and assuring them, in the wordless speech of his expressive, brown eyes, that his mission had been a most proper one, and that they might trust him to make no foolish mistakes that would mar the peace and harmony of their little household. The men never failed to agree with him that it was all right. In fact, so fully did they trust him that they never even stepped to the corner of the porch to see where he went; nor would they leave their chairs until he had returned.
Upon those days when Mrs. Taine came to the studio,—being always careful that Louise accompanied her as far as the house,—Conrad Lagrange vanished. The man swore by all the strange and wonderful gods he knew—and they were many—that he feared to spend an hour with that effervescing young female devotee of the Arts—lest the mountains in their wrath should fall upon him.
But that day, when Mrs. Taine came for the last sitting, the novelist—engaged in interesting talk with the artist—forgot.
"You are caught," cried the painter, gleefully, as the big automobile stopped at the gate.
"I'll be damned if I am," retorted the novelist, with no profane intent but with meaning quite literal; and, seizing a book, he bolted through the kitchen—nearly upsetting the startled Yee Kee.
"What's matte'," inquired the Chinaman, putting his head in at the living-room door; his almond eyes as wide as they could go, with an expression of celestial consternation that convulsed the artist. Catching sight of the automobile, his oriental features wrinkled into a yellow grin of understanding; "Oh! see um come! Ha! I know. He all time go, she come. He say no like lagtime gal. Dog Cza', him all time gone, too; him no like lagtime—all same Miste' Laglange. Ha! I go, too," and he, in turn, vanished.
"You are early, to-day," said Aaron King, as he escorted Mrs. Taine to the studio.
Just inside the door, she turned impulsively to face him—standing close, her beautifully groomed and voluptuous body instinct with the lure of her sex, her too perfect features slightly flushed, and her eyes submissively downcast. "And have you forgotten that this is the last time I can come?" she asked in a low tone.
"Surely not"—he returned calmly—"you are coming to-morrow, with the others, aren't you?" Her husband with James Rutlidge and Louise Taine were invited for the next day, to view the portrait.
"Oh, but that will be so different!" She loosed the wrap she wore, and threw it aside with an indescribable familiar gesture. "You don't realize what these hours have meant to me—how could you? You do not live in my world. Your world is—is so different You do not know—you do not know." With a sudden burst of passion, she added, "The world that I live in is hell; and this—this—oh, it has been heavenly!"
Her words, her voice, the poise of her figure, the gesture with outstretched arms—it was all so nearly an invitation, so nearly a surrender of herself to him, that the man started forward impulsively. For the moment he forgot his work—he forgot everything—he was conscious only of the woman who stood before him. But even as the light of triumph blazed up in the woman's eyes, the man halted,—drew back; and his face was turned from her as he listened to the sweetly appealing message of the gentle spirit that made itself felt in the music of that hidden violin. It was as though, in truth, the mountains, themselves,—from their calm heights so remote from the little world wherein men live their baser tragedies,—watched over him. "Don't you think we had better proceed with our work?" he said calmly.
The light in the woman's eyes changed to anger which she turned away to hide. Without replying, she went to her place and assumed the pose; and, as she had watched him day after day when his eyes were upon the canvas, she watched him now. Since that first day, when she had questioned him about the unseen musician, they had not mentioned the subject, although—as was inevitable under the circumstances—their intimacy had grown. But not once had he turned from his work in that listening attitude, or looked from the window as though half-expecting some one, without her noting it. And, always, her eyes had flashed with resentment, which she had promptly concealed when the painter, again turning to his easel, had looked from his canvas to her face.
Scarcely was the artist well started in his work, that afternoon, when the music ceased. Presently, Mrs. Taine broke her watchful silence, with the quite casual remark; "Your musical neighbor is still unknown to you, I suppose?"
"Yes,"—he answered smiling, as though more to himself than at her,—"we have never tried to make her acquaintance."
The woman caught him up quickly; "To make her acquaintance? Why do you say, 'her,' if you do not know who it is?"
The artist was confused. "Did I say, her?" he questioned, his face flushed with embarrassment. "It was a slip of the tongue. Neither Conrad Lagrange nor I know anything about our neighbor."
She laughed ironically. "And you could know so easily."
"I suppose so; but we have never cared to. We prefer to accept the music as it comes to us—impersonally—for what it is—not for whoever makes it." He spoke coldly, as though the subject was distasteful to him, under the circumstances of the moment.
But the woman persisted. "Well, I know who it is. Shall I tell you?"
"No. I do not care to know. I am not interested in the musician."
"Oh, but you might be, you know," she retorted.
"Please take the pose," returned Aaron King professionally. Mrs. Taine, wisely, for the time, dropped the subject; contenting herself with a meaning laugh.
The artist silently gave all his attention to the nearly finished portrait. He was not painting, now, with full brush and swift sure strokes,—as had been his way when building up his picture,—but worked with occasional deft touches here and there; drawing back from the canvas often, to study it intently, his eyes glancing swiftly from the picture to the sitter's face and back again to the portrait; then stepping forward quickly, ready brush in hand; to withdraw an instant later for another long and searching study. Presently, with an air of relief, he laid aside his palette and brushes; and turning to Mrs. Taine, with a smile, held out his hand. "Come," he said, "tell me if I have done well or ill."
"It is finished?" she cried. "I may see it?"
"It is all that I can do"—he answered—"come." He led her to the easel, where they stood side by side before his work.
The picture, still fresh from the painter's brush, was a portrait of Mrs. Taine—yet not a portrait. Exquisite in coloring and in its harmony of tone and line, it betrayed in every careful detail—in every mark of the brush—the thoughtful, painstaking care—the thorough knowledge and highly trained skill of an artist who was, at least, master of his own technic. But—if one might say so—the painting was more a picture than a portrait. The face upon the canvas was the face of Mrs. Taine, indeed, in that the features were her features; but it was also the face of a sweetly modest Quaker Maid. The too perfect, too well cared for face of the beautiful woman of the world was, on the canvas, given the charm of a natural unconscious loveliness. The eyes that had watched the artist with such certain knowledge of life and with the boldness born of that knowledge were, in the picture, beautiful with the charm of innocent maidenhood. The very coloring and the arrangement of the hair were changed subtly to express, not the skill of high-priced beauty-doctors and of fashionable hair-dressers, but the instinctive care of womanliness. The costume that, when worn by the woman, expressed so fully her true character; in the picture, became the emblem of a pure and deeply religious spirit.
Mrs. Taine turned impulsively to the artist, and, placing her hand upon his arm, exclaimed in delight, "Oh, is it true? Am I really so beautiful?"
The artist laughed. "You like it?"
"Like it? How could I help liking it? It is lovely."
"I am glad," he returned. "I hoped it would please you."
"And you"—she asked, with eager eyes—"are you satisfied with it? Does it seem good to you?"
"Oh, as for that," he answered, "I suppose one is never satisfied. I know the work is good—in a way. But it is very far from what it should be, I fear. I feel that, after all, I have not made the most of my opportunity." He spoke with a shade of sadness.
Again, she put out her hand impulsively to touch his arm, as she answered eagerly, "Ah, but no one else will say that. No one else will dare. It will be the sensation of the year—I tell you. Just you wait until Jim Rutlidge sees it. Wait until it is hung for exhibition, and he tells the world about it. Everybody worth while will be coming to you then. And I—I will remember these hours with you, and be glad that I could help—even so little. Will you remember them, too, I wonder. Are you glad the picture is finished?"
"And are you not glad?" he returned meaningly.
They had both forgotten the painting before them. They did not see it. They each saw only the other.
"No, I am not glad," she said in a low tone. "People would very soon be talking if I should come here, alone—now that the picture is finished."
"I suppose in any case you will be leaving Fairlands soon, for the summer," he returned slowly.
"O listen,"—she cried with quick eagerness—"we are going to Lake Silence. What's to hinder your coming too? Everybody goes there, you know. Won't you come?"
"But would it be altogether safe?" He reflected doubtfully.
"Why, of course,—Mr. Taine, Louise, and Jim,—we are all going together—don't you see? I don't believe you want to go," she pouted. "I believe you want to forget."
Her alluring manner, the invitation conveyed in her words and voice, the touch of her hand on his arm, and the nearness of her person, fairly swept the man off his feet. With quick passion, he caught her hand, and his words came with reckless heat. "You know that I will not forget you. You know that I could not, if I would. Do you think that I have been so engrossed with my brushes and canvas that I have been unconscious of you? What is that painted thing beside your own beautiful self? Do you think that because I must turn myself into a machine to make a photograph of your beauty, I am insensible to its charm? I am not a machine. I am a man; as you are a woman; and I—"
She checked him suddenly—stepping aside with a quick movement, and the words, "Hush, some one is coming."
The artist, too, heard voices, just without the door.
Mrs. Taine moved swiftly across the room toward her wrap. Aaron King, going to his easel, drew the velvet curtain to hide the picture.
Conrad Lagrange's Adventure
Certainly, when Conrad Lagrange fled so precipitately from Louise Taine, that afternoon, he had no thought that the trivial incident was to mark the beginning of a new era in his life; or that it would work out in the life of his dearest friend such far reaching results. His only purpose was to escape an hour of the frothy vaporings of the poor, young creature who believed herself so interested in art and letters, and who succeeded so admirably in expressing the spirit of her environment and training.
With his pipe and book, the novelist hid himself in the rose garden; finding a seat on the ground, in an angle of the studio wall and the Ragged Robin hedge, where any one entering the enclosure would be least likely to observe him. Czar, heartily approving of his master's action, stretched himself comfortably under the nearest rose-bush, and waited further developments.
Presently, the novelist heard his friend, with Mrs. Taine, come from the house and enter the studio. For a moment, he entertained the uncomfortable fear that the artist, in a spirit of sheer boyish fun that so often moved him, would bring Mrs. Taine to the garden. But the moment passed, and the novelist,—mentally blessing the young man for his forbearance,—with a chuckle of satisfaction, lighted his pipe and opened his book. Scarcely had he found his place in the pages, however, when he was again interrupted—this time, by the welcome tones of their neighbor's violin. Putting his book aside, the man reclining in the shelter of the roses, with half-closed eyes, yielded himself to the fancy of the spirit that called from the depths of the fragrant orange grove.
The mass of roses in the hedge and on the wall of the studio above his head dropped their lovely petals down upon him. The warm, slanting rays of the afternoon sun, softened by the screen of shining leaves and branches, played over the bewildering riot of color. Here and there, golden-bodied bees and velvet-winged butterflies flitted about their fairy-like duties. Far above, in the deep blue, a hawk floated on motionless wings and a lonely crow laid his course toward the distant mountain peaks that gleamed, silvery white, above the blue and purple of the lower ridges and the tawny yellow of their foothills. The air was saturated with the fragrance of the rose and orange blossoms, of eucalyptus and pepper trees, and with the thousand other perfumes of a California spring.
The music ceased. The man waited—hoping that it would begin again. But it did not; and he was about to take up his book, once more, when Czar arose, stretched himself, stood for a moment in a picturesque, listening attitude, then trotted off among the roses; leaving the novelist with an odd feeling of uneasy expectancy—half resolved to stay, half determined to go. The thought of Louise in the house decided him, and he kept his place, hidden as he was, in the corner—a whimsical smile hovering over his world-lined features as though, after all, he felt himself entering upon some enjoyable adventure.
Presently, he heard indistinctly, somewhere in the other end of the garden, a low murmuring voice. As it came nearer, the man's smile grew more pronounced It was a wonderfully attractive voice, clear and full in its pure-toned sweetness. The unseen speaker was talking to the novelist's dog. The smile on the man's face was still more pronounced, as he whispered to himself, "The rascal! So this is what he has been up to!" Rising quietly to his knees, he peered through the flower-laden bushes.
A young woman of rare and exquisite beauty was moving about the garden—bending over the roses, and talking in low tones to Czar, who—to his hidden master—appeared to appreciate fully the favor of his gentle companion's intimacy. The novelist—old in the study of character and trained by his long years of observation and experience in the world of artificiality—was fascinated by the loveliness of the scene.
Dressed simply, in some soft clinging material of white, with a modestly low-cut square at the throat, and sleeves that ended in filmy lace just below the elbow—her lithe, softly rounded form, as she moved here and there, had all the charm of girlish grace with the fuller beauty of ripening womanhood. As she bent over the roses, or stooped to caress the dog, in gentle comradeship, her step, her poise, her every motion, was instinct with that strength and health that is seldom seen among those who wear the shackles of a too conventionalized society. Her face,—warmly tinted by the golden out-of-doors, firm fleshed and clear,—in its unconscious naturalness and in its winsome purity was like the flowers she stooped to kiss.
As he watched, the man noticed—with a smile of understanding—that she kept rather to the side of the garden toward the house; where the artist, at his easel by the big, north light, could not see her through the small window in the end of the room; and where, hidden by the tall hedge, she would not be noticed from Yee Kee's kitchen. Often, too, she paused to listen, as if for any chance approaching step—appearing, to the fancy of the man, as some creature from another world—poised lightly, ready to vanish if any rude observer came too near. Soon,—after a cautious, hesitating, listening look about,—she slipped, swift footed as a fawn, across the garden, and—followed by the dog—disappeared into the latticed rose-covered arbor against the southern wall.
With a chuckle to himself, Conrad Lagrange crept quietly along the hedge to the door of her retreat.
When she saw him there, she gave a little cry and started as though to escape. But the novelist, smiling barred her way; while Czar, joyfully greeting his master, turned from the man to the girl and back to the man again, as if, by dividing his attention equally between the two, he was bent upon assuring each that the other was a friend of the right sort. There was no mistaking the facts that the dog was introducing them, and that he was as proud of his new acquaintance as he was pleased to present his older and more intimate companion.
A sunny smile broke over the girl's winsome face, as she caught the meaning of Czar's behavior. "O," she said, "are you his master?" Her manner was as natural and unrestrained as a child's—her voice, musically sweet and low, as one unaccustomed to the speech of noisy, crowded cities or shrill chattering crowds.
"I am his most faithful and humble subject," returned the man, whimsically.
She was studying his face openly, while her own countenance—unschooled to hide emotions, untrained to deceive—frankly betrayed each passing thought and mood. The daintily turned chin, sensitive lips, delicate nostrils, and large, blue eyes,—with that wide, unafraid look of a child that has never been taught to fear,—revealed a spirit fine and rare; while the low, broad forehead, shaded by a wealth of soft brown hair,—that, arranged deftly in some simple fashion, seemed to invite the caress of every wayward breath of air,—gave the added charm of strength and purpose. The man, seeing these things and knowing—as few men ever know—their value, waited her verdict.
It came with a smile and a pretty fancy, as though she caught the mood of the novelist's reply. "He has told me so much about you—how kind you are to him, and how he loves you. I hope you don't mind that he and I have learned to be good friends. Won't you tell me his name? I have tried everything, but nothing seems to fit. To call such a royal fellow, 'doggie', doesn't do at all, does it?"
Conrad Lagrange laughed—and it was the laugh of a Conrad Lagrange unknown to the world. "No," he said with mock seriousness, "'doggie,' doesn't do at all. He's not that kind of a dog. His name is Czar. That is"—he added, giving full rein to his droll humor—"I gave it to him for a name. He has made it his title. He did that, you know, so I would always remember that he is my superior."
She laughed—low, full-throated and clear—as a girl who has not sadly learned that she is a woman, laughs. Then she fell to caressing the dog and calling him by name; while Czar—in his efforts to express his delight and satisfaction—was as nearly undignified as it was possible for him to be.
As he watched them, the rugged, world-worn features of the famous novelist were lighted with an expression that transformed them.
"And I suppose," she said,—still responding to the novelist's playful mood,—"that Czar told you I was trespassing in your garden. Of course it was his duty to tell. I hope he told you, also, that I do not steal your roses."
The man shook his head, and his sharp, green-gray eyes were twinkling merrily, now—as a boy in the spirit of some amusing venture. "Oh, no! Czar said nothing at all about trespassers. He did tell me, though, about a wonderful creature that comes every day to visit the garden. A nymph, he thought it was—a beautiful Oread from away up there among the silver peaks and purple canyons—or, perhaps, a lovely Dryad from among the oaks and pines. I felt quite sure, though, that the nymph must be an Oread; because he said that she comes to gather colors from the roses, and that every morning and every evening she uses these colors to tint the highest peaks and crests of her mountains—making them so beautiful that mortals would always begin and end each day by looking up at them. Of course, the moment I saw, you I knew who you were."
Unaffectedly pleased as a child at his quaint fancy, she answered merrily, "And so you hid among the roses to trap me, I suppose."
"Indeed, I did not," he retorted indignantly. "I was forced to fly from a wicked Flibbertigibbet who seeks to torment me. I barely escaped with my life, and came into the garden to hide and recover from my fright. Then I heard the most wonderful music and guessed that you must be somewhere around. Then Czar, who had come with me to hide from the Flibbertigibbet in the house, left me. I looked to see where he had gone, and so I saw, sure enough, that it was you. All my life, you know, I have wanted to catch a real nymph; but never could. So when you came into the arbor, I couldn't resist trying again. And, now, here we are—with Czar to say it is all right."
At his fanciful words, she laughed again, and her cheeks flushed with pleasure. Then, with grave sweetness, she said, "Won't you sit down, please, and let me explain seriously?"
"I suppose you must pretend to be like the rest of us," he returned with an air of resignation, "but all the same, Czar and I know you are not."
When they were seated, she said simply, "My name is Sibyl Andres. This place used to be my home. My mother planted this garden with her own hands. Many of these roses were brought from our home in the mountains, where I was born, and where I lived with father and mother until five years ago. I feel, still, as though the old place in the hills were my real home, and every summer, when nearly every one goes away from Fairlands and there is nothing for me to do, Myra Willard and I go up there, for as long as we can. You see, I teach music and play in the churches. Miss Willard taught me. She and mother are the only teachers I have ever had. After father's death, mother and Myra and I lived here for two years; then mother died, and Myra and I moved to that little house over there, because we could not afford to keep this place. But the man who bought it gave me permission to care for the garden; so I come almost every day—through that little gate in the corner of the hedge, there—to tend the roses. Since you men moved in, though, I come, mostly, in the morning—early—before you are up. I only slip in, sometimes, for a few minutes, in the afternoon—when I think it will be safe. You see, being strangers, I—I feared you would think me bold—if I—if I asked to come. So many people really wouldn't understand, you know."
Conrad Lagrange's deep voice was very gentle as he said, "Mr. King and I have known, all the time, that we had no real claim upon this garden, Miss Andres." Then, with his whimsical smile, he added, "You see, we felt, from the very first, that it was haunted by a lovely spirit that would vanish utterly if we intruded. That is why we have been so careful. We did not want to frighten you away. And besides, you know, Czar told us that it was all right!"
The blue eyes shone through a bright mist as she answered the man's kindly words. "You are good, Mr. Lagrange. And all the time it was really you of whom I was so afraid."
"Why me, more than my friend?" he asked, regarding her thoughtfully.
She colored a little under his searching gaze, but answered with that childlike frankness that was so much a part of her winsome charm, "Why, because your friend is an artist—I thought he would be sure to understand. I knew, of course, that you were the famous author; everybody talks about your living here." She seemed to think that her words explained.
"You mean that you were afraid of me because I am famous?" he asked doubtfully.
"Oh no," she answered, "not because you are famous. I mean—I was not afraid of your fame," she smiled.
"And now," said the novelist decisively, "you must tell me at once—do you read my books?" He waited, as though much depended upon her answer.
The blue eyes were gazing at him with that wide, unafraid look as she answered sadly, "No, sir. I have tried, but I can't. They spoil my music. They hurt me, somehow, all over."
Conrad Lagrange received her words with mingled emotions—with pleased delight at her ingenuous frankness; with bitter shame, sorrow, and humiliation and, at the last, with genuine gladness and relief. "I knew it"—he said triumphantly—"I knew it. It was because of my books that you were so afraid of me?" He asked eagerly, as one would ask to have a deep conviction verified.
"You see," she said,—smiling at the manner of his words,—"I did not know that an author could be so different from the things he writes about." Then, with a puzzled air—"But why do you write the horrid things that spoil my music and make me afraid? Why don't you write as you talk—about—about the mountains? Why don't you make books like—like"—she seemed to be searching for a word, and smiled with pleasure when she found it—"like yourself?"
"Listen"—said the novelist impressively, taking refuge in his fanciful humor—"listen—I'll tell you a secret that must always be for just you and me—you like secrets don't you?"—anxiously.
She laughed with pleasure—responding instantly to his mood. "Of course I like secrets."
He nodded approval. "I was sure you did. Now listen—I am not really Conrad Lagrange, the man who wrote those books that hurt you so—not when I am here in your rose garden, or when I am listening to your music, or when I am away up there in your mountains, you know. It is only when I am in the unclean world that reads and likes my books that I am the man who wrote them."
Her eyes shone with quick understanding. "Of course," she agreed, "you couldn't be that kind of a man, and love the music, and like to be here among the roses or up in the mountains, could you?"
"No, and I'll tell you something else that goes with our secret. Your name is not really Sibyl Andres, you know—any more than you really live over there in that little house. Your real home is in the mountains—just as you said—you really live among the glowing peaks, under the dark pines, on the ridges, and in the purple shadows of the canyons. You only come down here to the Fairlands folk with a message from your mountains—and we call your message music. Your name is—"
She was leaning forward, her face glowing with eagerness. "What is my name?"
"What can it be but 'Nature'," he said softly. "That's it, 'Nature'."
"And you? Who are you when you are not—when you are not in that other world?"
"Me? Oh, my real name is 'Civilization'. Can't you guess why?"
She shook her head. "Tell me."
"Because,—in spite of all that the world that reads my books can give,—poor old 'Civilization' cannot be happy without the message that 'Nature' brings from her mountains."
"And you, too, love the mountains and—and this garden, and my music?" she asked half doubtingly. "You are not pretending that too—just to amuse me?"
"No, I am not pretending that," he said.
"Then why—how can you do the—the other thing? I can't understand."
"Of course, you can't understand—how could you? You are 'Nature' and 'Nature' must often be puzzled by the things that 'Civilization' does."
"Yes. I think that is true," she agreed. "But I'm glad you like my music, anyway."
"And so am I glad—that I can like it. That's the only thing that saves me."
"And your friend, the artist,—does he like my mountain music, do you think?"
"Very much. He needs it too."
"I am glad," she answered simply. "I hoped he would like it, and that it would help him. It was really for him that I have played."
"You played for him?"
"Yes," she returned without confusion. "You see, I did not know about you—then. I thought you were altogether the man who wrote those books—and so I could not play for you. That is—I mean—you understand—I could not play—" again she seemed to search for a word, and finding it, smiled—"I could not play myself for you. But I thought that because he was an artist he would understand; and that if I could make the music tell him of the mountains it would, perhaps, help him a little to make his work beautiful and right—do you see?"
"Yes," he answered smilingly, "I see. I might have known that it was for him that you brought your message from the hills. But poor old 'Civilization' is frightfully stupid sometimes, you know."
Laughingly, she turned to the lattice wall of the arbor, and parting the screen of vines a little, said to him, "Look here!"
Standing beside her, Conrad Lagrange, through the window in the end of the studio next the garden, saw Aaron King at his easel; the artist's position in the light of the big, north window being in a direct line between the two openings and the arbor. Mrs. Taine was sitting too far out of line to be seen.
The girl laughed gleefully. "Do you see him at his work? At first, I only hid here to find what kind of people were going to live in my old home. But when he was making our old barn into a studio, and I heard who you both were, I came because I love to watch him; as I try to make the music I think he would love to hear."
The novelist studied her intently. She was so artless—so unaffected by the conventions of the world—in a word, so natural in expressing her thoughts, that the man who had given the best years of his life to feed the vicious, grossly sensual and bestial imaginations of his readers was deeply moved. He was puzzled what to say. At last, he murmured haltingly, "You like the artist, then?"
Her eyes were full of curious laughter as she answered, "Why, what a funny question—when I have never even talked with him. How could I like any one I have never known?"
"But you make your music for him; and you come here to watch him?"
"Oh, but that is for the work he is doing; that is for his pictures." She turned to look through the tiny opening in the arbor. "How I wish I could see inside that beautiful room. I know it must be beautiful. Once, when you were all gone, I tried to steal in; but, of course, he keeps it locked."
"I'll tell you what we'll do," said the man, suddenly—prompted by her confession to resume his playful mood.
"What?" she asked eagerly, in a like spirit of fun.
"First," he answered, half teasingly, "I must know if you could, now, make your music for me as well as for him."
"For the you that loves the mountains and the garden I'm sure I could," she answered promptly.
"Well then, if you will promise to do that—if you will promise not to play yourself for just him alone but for me too—I'll fix it so that you can go into the studio yonder."
"Oh, I will always play for you, too, anyway—now that I know you."
"Of course," he said, "we could just walk up to the door, and I could introduce you; but that would not be proper for us would it?"
She shook her head positively, "I wouldn't like to do that. He would think I was intruding, I am sure."
"Well then, we will do it this way—the first day that Mr. King and I are both away, and Tee Kee is gone, too; I'll slip out here and leave a letter and a key on your gate. The letter will tell you just the time when we go, and when we will return—so you will know whether it is safe for you or not, and how long you can stay. Only"—he became very serious—"only, you must promise one thing."
"That you won't look at the picture on the easel."
"But why must I promise that?"
"Because that picture will not be finished for a long time yet, and you must not look at it until I say it is ready. Mr. King wouldn't like you to see that picture, I am sure. In fact, he doesn't like for any one to see the picture he is working on just now."
"How funny," she said, with a puzzled look. "What is he painting it for? I like for people to hear my music."
The man answered before he thought—"But I don't like people to read my books."
She shrank back, with troubled eyes, "Oh! is he—is he that kind of an artist?"
"No, no, no!" exclaimed the novelist, hastily. "You must not think that. I did not mean you to think that. If he was that kind of an artist, I wouldn't let you go into the studio at all. Mr. King is a good man—the best man I have ever known. He is my friend because he knows the secret about me that you know. He does not read my books. He would not read one of them for anything. It is only that this picture is not finished. When it is finished, he will not care who sees it."
"I'm glad," she said. "You frightened me, for a minute—I understand, now."
"And you promise not to look at the picture on the easel?"
She nodded,—"Of course. And when I come out I'll lock the door and put the key back on the gate again; and no one but you and I will ever know."
"No one but you and I will know," he answered.
As he spoke, Czar, who had been lying quietly in the doorway of the arbor, rose quickly to his feet, with a low growl.
The girl, peering through the screen on the side toward the house, uttered an exclamation of fear and drew back, turning to her companion appealingly. "O please, please don't let that man find me here."
Conrad Lagrauge looked and saw James Rutlidge coming down the path toward the arched entrance to the garden, which was directly across from the arbor.
"Stop him, please stop him," whispered the girl, her hand upon his arm.
"Stay here until I get him out of sight," said the novelist quickly. "I won't let him come into the garden. When we are gone, you can make your escape. Don't forget the music for me, and the key at the gate."
He spoke to Czar, and with the dog obediently at heel went forward to meet Mr. Rutlidge, who had called for Mrs. Taine and Louise.
But all the while that Conrad Lagrange was talking to the man, and leading him toward the door of the studio, he was wondering—why that look of fear upon the face of the girl in the garden? What had Sibyl Andres to do with James Rutlidge?
A Cry in the Night
As Conrad Lagrange and Mr. Rutlidge entered the studio, Aaron King turned from the easel, where he had drawn the velvet curtain to hide the finished portrait. Mrs. Taine was standing at the other side of the room, wrap in hand, calmly waiting, ready to go. The artist greeted Mr. Rutlidge cordially, while the woman triumphantly announced the completion of her portrait.
"Ah! permit me to congratulate you, old man," said Rutlidge, addressing the artist familiarly. "It is too much, I suppose, to expect a look at it this afternoon?"
"Thanks,"—returned the artist,—"you are all coming to-morrow, at three, you know. I would rather not show it to-day. It is a little late for the best light; and I would like for you to see it under the most favorable conditions possible."
The critic was visibly flattered by the painter's manner and by his well-chosen emphasis upon the personal pronoun. "Quite right"—he said approvingly—"quite right, old boy." He turned to the novelist—"These painter chaps, you know, Lagrange, like to have a few hours for a last touch or two before I come around." He laughed pompously at his own words—the others joining.
When Mrs. Taine and her companions were gone, the artist said hurriedly to his friend, "Come on, let's get it over." He led the way back to the studio.
"I thought the light was too bad," said the older man, quizzingly, as they entered the big room.
"It's good enough for your needs," retorted the painter savagely. "You could see all you want by candle-light." He jerked the curtain angrily aside, and—without a glance at the canvas—walked away to stand at the window looking out upon the rose garden—waiting for the flood of the novelist's scorn to overwhelm him. At last, when no sound broke the quiet of the room, he turned—to find himself alone.
Conrad Lagrange, after one look at the portrait on the easel, had slipped quietly out of the building.
The artist found his friend, a few minutes later, meditatively smoking his pipe on the front porch, with Czar lying at his feet.
"Well," said the painter, curiously,—anxious, as he had said, to have it over,—"why the deuce don't you say something?"
The novelist answered slowly, "My vocabulary is too limited, for one reason, and"—he looked thoughtfully down at Czar—"I prefer to wait until you have finished the portrait."
"It is finished," returned the artist desperately. "I swear I'll never touch a brush to the damned thing again."
The man with the pipe spoke to the dog at his feet; "Listen to him, Czar—listen to the poor devil of a painter-man."
The dog arose, and, placing his head upon his master's knee, looked up into the lined and rugged face, as the novelist continued, "If he was only a wee bit puffed up and cocky over the thing, now, we could exert ourselves, so we could, couldn't we?" Czar slowly waved a feathery tail in dignified approval. His master continued, "But when a fellow can do a crime like that, and still retain enough virtue in his heart to hear his work shrieking to heaven its curses upon him for calling it into existence, it's best for outsiders to keep quite still. Your poor old master knows whereof he speaks, doesn't he, dog? That he does!"
"And is that all you have to say on the subject?" demanded the artist, as though for some reason he was disappointed at his friend's reticence.
"I might add a word of advice," said the other.
"Well, what is it?"
"That you pray your gods—if you have any—to be merciful, and bestow upon you either less genius or more intelligence to appreciate it."
* * * * *
At three o'clock, the following afternoon, the little party from Fairlands Heights came to view, the portrait Or,—as Conrad Lagrange said, while the automobile was approaching the house, "Well, here they come—'The Age', accompanied by 'Materialism', 'Sensual', and 'Ragtime'—to look upon the prostitution of Art, and call it good." Escorted by the artist, and the novelist, they went at once to the studio.
The appreciation of the picture was instantaneous—so instantaneous, in fact, that Louise Taine's lips were shaped to deliver an expressive "oh" of admiration, even before the portrait was revealed. As though the painter, in drawing back the easel curtain, gave an appointed signal, that "oh" was set off with the suddenness of a sky-rocket's rush, and was accompanied in its flight by a great volume of sizzling, sputtering, glittering, adjectival sparks that—filling the air to no purpose whatever—winked out as they were born; the climax of the pyrotechnical display being reached in the explosive pop of another "oh" which released a brilliant shower of variegated sighs and moans and ecstatic looks and inarticulate exclamations—ending, of course, in total darkness.
Mrs. Taine hastened to turn the artist's embarrassed attention to an appreciation that had the appearance, at least, of a more enduring value. Drawing, with affectionate solicitude, close to her husband, she asked,—in a voice that was tremulous with loving care and anxiety to please,—"Do you like it, dear?"
"It is magnificent, splendid, perfect!" This effort to give his praise of the artist's work the appearance of substantial reality cost the wretched product of lust and luxury a fit of coughing that racked his burnt-out body almost to its last feeble hold upon the world of flesh and, with a force that shamed the strength of his words, drove home the truth that neither his praise nor his scorn could long endure. When he could again speak, he said, in his husky, rasping whisper,—while grasping the painter's hand in effusive cordiality,—"My dear fellow, I congratulate you. It is exquisite. It will create a sensation, sir, when it is exhibited. Your fame is assured. I must thank you for the honor you have done me in thus immortalizing the beauty and character of Mrs. Taine." And then, to his wife,—"Dearest, I am glad for you, and proud. It is as worthy of you as paint and canvas could be." He turned to Conrad Lagrange who was an interested observer of the scene—"Am I not right, Lagrange?"