As if against her will, she paused. "It is growing late," she faltered; "I must go."
He laughed. "I will go with you presently. Don't be afraid." Coming forward, with an air of making himself very much at home, he placed his rifle against the tree where she had been sitting. Then, as if to calm her fears, he continued, "I am camped at Burnt Pine, with a party of friends. I was up here looking for deer sign when I noticed you below, at the cabin there. I was just starting down to you, when I saw that you were going to come up; so I waited. Beautiful spot—this—don't you think?—so out of the way, too. Just the place for a quiet little visit."
As the man spoke, he was eyeing her in a way that only served to confuse and frighten her the more. Murmuring some inaudible reply, she again started to go. But again he said, peremptorily, "Wait." And again, as if against her will, she paused. "If you have no scruples about wandering over the mountains alone with that artist fellow, I do not see why you should hesitate to favor me."
The man's words were, undoubtedly, prompted by what he firmly believed to be the nature of the relation between the girl and Aaron King—a belief for which he had, to his mind, sufficient evidence. But Sibyl had no understanding of his meaning. In the innocence of her pure mind, the purport of his words was utterly lost. Her very fear of the man was not a reasoning fear, but the instinctive shrinking of a nature that had never felt the unclean touch of the world in which James Rutlidge habitually moved. It was this very unreasoning element in her emotions that made her always so embarrassed in the man's presence. It was because she did not understand her fear of him, that the girl, usually so capable of taking her own part, was, in his presence, so helpless.
James Rutlidge, by the intellectual, moral, and physical atmosphere in which he lived, was made wholly incapable of understanding the nature of Sibyl Andres. Secure in the convictions of his own debased mind, as to her relation to the artist; and misconstruing her very manner in his presence; he was not long in putting his proposal into words that she could not fail to understand.
When she did grasp his meaning, her fears and her trembling nervousness gave place to courageous indignation and righteous anger that found expression in scathing words of denunciation.
The man, still, could not understand the truth of the situation. To him, there was nothing more in her refusal than her preference for the artist. That this young woman—to him, an unschooled girl of the hills—whom he had so long marked as his own, should give herself to another, and so scornfully turn from him, was an affront that he could not brook. The very vigor of her wrath, as she stood before him,—her eyes bright, her cheeks flushed, and her beautiful body quivering with the vehemence of her passionate outburst,—only served to fan the flame of his desire; while her stinging words provoked his bestial mind to an animal-like rage. With a muttered oath and a threat, he started toward her.
But the woman who faced him now, with full understanding, was very different from the timid, frightened girl who had not at first understood. With a business-like movement that was the result of Brian Oakley's careful training, her hand dropped to her hip and was raised again.
James Rutlidge stopped, as though against an iron bar. In the blue eyes that looked at him, now, over the dark barrel of the revolver, he read no uncertainty of purpose. The small hand that had drawn the weapon with such ready swiftness, was as steady as though at target practice. Instinctively, the man half turned, throwing up his arm as if to shield his face from a menacing blow. "For God's sake," he gasped, "put that down."
In truth, James Rutlidge was nearer death, at that instant, than he had ever been before.
Drawing back a few fearful paces, his hands still uplifted, he said again, "Put it down, I tell you. Don't you see I'm not going to touch you? You are crazy. You might kill me."
Her words came cold and collected, expressing, together with her calm manner, perfect self-possession "If you can give any good reason why I should not kill you, I will let you go."
The man was carefully drawing backward toward the tree against which he had placed his rifle.
She watched him, with a disconcerting smile. "You may as well stop now," she said, in those even, composed tones. "I shall fire, the moment you are within reach of your gun."
He halted with a gesture of despair; his face livid with fear at her apparent indecision as to his fate.
Presently, she spoke again. "Don't worry. I'm not going to kill you—unless you force me to—which I assure you will not be at all difficult for you to do. Move down the trail until I tell you to stop." She indicated the direction, along the ridge of the mountain spur.
"That will do," she said, when he was some twenty paces away.
He stopped, turning to face her again.
Picking up his Winchester, she skillfully and rapidly threw all of the shells out of the magazine. Then, covering him again with her own weapon, she went a few steps closer and threw the empty rifle at his feet. "Now," she said, "put that gun over your left shoulder, and go on ahead of me down the trail. If you try to dodge or run, or if you change the position of your rifle, I'll kill you."
"What are you going to do?" he asked.
"I'm going to take you down to your camp at Burnt Pine."
James Rutlidge, pale with rage and shame, stood still. "You may as well kill me," he said. "I will never go into camp, this way."
"Don't be uneasy," she returned. "I am no more anxious for the world to know of this, than you are. Do as I say. When we come within sight of your camp, or if we meet any one, I will put up my gun and we will go on together. That's why I am permitting you to carry your rifle."
So they went down the mountainside—the man with his empty rifle over his shoulder; the girl following, a few paces in the rear, with ready weapon.
When they had come within sight of the camp, James Rutlidge said, "There's some one there."
"I see," returned Sibyl, slipping her gun in its holster and stepping forward beside her companion. And there was a note of glad relief in her voice, for it was Brian Oakley who was bending over the camp-fire "Come," she continued to her companion, "and act as though nothing had happened."
The Ranger, on his way down from somewhere in the vicinity of San Gorgonio, had stopped at the hunters' camp for a belated dinner. Finding no one at home, he had started a fire, and had helped himself to coffee and bacon. He was just concluding his appropriated meal, when Sibyl and James Rutlidge arrived.
In a few words, the girl explained to her friend, that she was on her way over the trail from Lone Cabin, and had accidentally met Mr. Rutlidge who had accompanied her as far as the camp. James Rutlidge had little to say beyond assuring the Ranger of his welcome; and very soon, the officer and the girl set out on their way down the Laurel trail to Clear Creek canyon. As they went, Sibyl's old friend asked not a few questions about her meeting with James Rutlidge; but the girl, walking ahead in the narrow trail, evaded him, and was glad that he could not see her face.
Sibyl had spoken the literal truth when she said to Rutlidge, that she did not want any one to know of the incident. She felt ashamed and humiliated at the thought of telling even her father's old comrade and friend. She knew Brian Oakley too well to have any doubts as to what would happen if he knew how the man had approached her, and she shrank from the inevitable outcome. She wished only to forget the whole affair, and, as quickly as possible, turned the conversation into other and safer channels.
The Ranger could not stop at the house with her, but must go on down the canyon, to the Station. So the girl returned to Myra Willard, alone; and, to the woman's surprise, for the second time, with an empty creel.
Sibyl explained her failure to bring home a catch of trout, with the simple statement that she had not fished; and then—to her companion's amazement—burst into tears; begging to return at once to their little home in Fairlands.
Myra Willard thought that she understood, better than the girl herself, why, for the first time in her life, Sibyl wished to leave the mountains. Perhaps the woman with the disfigured face was right.
On the Pipe-Line Trail
James Rutlidge spent the day following his experience with Sibyl Andres, in camp. His companions very quickly felt his sullen, ugly mood, and left him to his own thoughts.
The manner in which Sibyl received his advances had in no way changed the man's mind as to the nature of her relation to Aaron King. To one of James Rutlidge's type,—schooled in the intellectual moral and esthetic tenets of his class,—it was impossible to think of the companionship of the artist and the girl in any other light. If he had even considered the possibility of a clean, pure comradeship existing between them—under all the circumstances of their friendship as he had seen them in the studio, on the trail at dusk, and in the artist's camp—he would have answered himself that Aaron King was not such a fool as to fail to take advantage of his opportunities. The humiliation of his pride, and his rage at being so ignominiously checked by the girl whom he had so long endeavored to win, served only to increase his desire for her. Sibyl's resolute spirit, and vigorous beauty, when aroused by him, together with her unexpected opposition to his advances, were as fuel to the flame of his passion.
His day of sullen brooding over the matter did not improve his temper; and the next morning his friends were relieved to see him setting out alone, with rifle and field-glass and lunch. Ostensibly starting in the direction of the upper Laurel Creek country he doubled back, as soon as he was out of sight of camp, and took the trail leading down to Clear Creek canyon.
It could not be said that the man had any definite purpose in mind. He was simply yielding in a purposeless way to his mood, which, for the time being, could find no other expression. The remote chance that some opportunity looking toward his desire might present itself, led him to seek the scenes where such an opportunity would be most likely to occur.
Crossing the canyon above the Company Headwork he came into the pipe-line trail at a point a little back from the main wagon road and, an hour later, reached the place on Oak Knoll where the Government trail leads down into the canyon below, and where Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange had committed themselves to the judgment of Croesus. Here he left the trail, and climbed to a point on a spur of the mountain, from which he could see the path for some distance on either side and below, and from which his view of the narrow valley was unobstructed. Comfortably seated, with his back against a rock, he adjusted his field-glass and trained it upon the little spot of open green—marked by the giant sycamores, the dark line of cedars, and the half hidden house—where he knew that Sibyl Andres and Myra Willard were living.
No sooner had he focused the powerful glass upon the scene that so interested him, than he uttered a low exclamation. The two women, surrounded by their luggage and camp equipment, were sitting on the porch with Brian Oakley; waiting, evidently, for the wagon that was crossing the creek toward the house. It was clear to the man on the mountainside, that Sibyl Andres and the woman with the disfigured face were returning to Fairlands.
For some time, James Rutlidge sat watching, with absorbing interest, the unconscious people in the canyon below. Once, he turned for a brief glance at the grove of sycamores behind the old orchard, farther down the creek. The camp of Conrad Lagrange and Aaron King was no longer there. Quickly he fixed his gaze again upon Sibyl and her friends. Presently,—as one will when looking long through a field-glass or telescope,—he lowered his hands, to rest his eyes by looking, unaided, at the immediate objects in the landscape before him. At that moment, the figure of a man appeared on the near-by trail below. It was a pitiful figure—ill-kempt ragged, half-starved, haggard-faced.
Creeping feebly along the lonely little path—without seeing the man on the mountainside above—crouching as he walked with a hunted, fearful air—the poor creature moved toward the point of the spur around which the trail led beneath the spot where Rutlidge sat.
As the man on the trail drew nearer, the watcher on the rocks above involuntarily glanced toward the distant Forest Ranger; then back to the—as he rightly guessed—escaped convict.
There are, no doubt, many moments in the life of a man like James Rutlidge when, however bad or dominated by evil influences he may be, he feels strongly the impulse of pity and the kindly desire to help. Undoubtedly, James Rutlidge inherited from his father those tendencies that made him easily ruled by his baser passions. His character was as truly the legitimate product of the age, of the social environment, and of the thought that accepts such characters. What he might have been if better born, or if schooled in an atmosphere of moral and intellectual integrity, is an idle speculation. He was what his inheritance and his life had made him. He was not without impulses for good. The pitiful, hunted creature, creeping so wearily along the trail, awoke in this man of the accepted culture of his day a feeling of compassion, and aroused in him a desire to offer assistance. For the legal aspect of the case, James Rutlidge had all the indifference of his kind, who imbibe contempt for law with their mother's milk. For the moment he hesitated. Then, as the figure below passed from his sight, under the point of the spur, he slipped quietly down the mountainside, and, a few minutes later, met the convict face to face.
At the leveled rifle and the sharp command, "Hands up," the poor fellow halted with a gesture of tragic despair. An instant they stood; then the hunted one turned impulsively toward the canyon that, here, lies almost a sheer thousand feet below.
James Rutlidge spoke sharply. "Don't do that. I'm not an officer. I want to help you."
The convict turned his hunted, fearful, starving face in doubtful bewilderment toward the speaker.
The man with the gun continued, "I got the drop on you to prevent accidents—until I could explain—that's all." He lowered the rifle.
The other went a staggering step forward. "You mean that?" he said in a harsh, incredulous whisper. "You—you're not playing with me?"
"Why should I want to play with you?" returned the other, kindly. "Come, let's get off the trail. I have something to eat, up there." He led the way back to the place where he had left his lunch.
Dropping down upon the ground, the starving man seized the offered food with an animal-like cry; feeding noisily, with the manner of a famished beast. The other watched with mingled pity and disgust.
Presently, in stammering, halting phrases, but in words that showed no lack of education, the wretched creature attempted to apologize for his unseemly eagerness, and endeavored to thank his benefactor. "I suppose, sir, there is no use trying to deny my identity," he said, when James Rutlidge had again assured him of his kindly interest.
"Not at all," agreed the other, "and, so far as I am concerned, there is no reason why you should."
"Just what do you mean by that, sir?" questioned the convict.
"I mean that I am not an officer and have no reason in the world for turning you over to them. I saw you coming along the trail down there and, of course, could not help noticing your condition and guessing who you were. To me, you are simply a poor devil who has gotten into a tight hole, and I want to help you out a bit, that's all."
The convict turned his eyes despairingly toward the canyon below, as he answered, "I thank you, sir, but it would have been better if you had not. Your help has only put the end off for a few hours. They've got me shut in. I can keep away from them, up here in the mountains, but I can't get out. I won't go back to that hell they call prison though—I won't." There was no mistaking his desperate purpose.
James Rutlidge thought of that quick movement toward the edge of the trail and the rocky depth below. "You don't seem such a bad sort, at heart," he said invitingly.
"I'm not," returned the other, "I've been a fool—miserably weak fool—but I've had my lesson—only—I have had it too late."
While the man was speaking, James Rutlidge was thinking quickly. As he had been moved, at first, by a spirit of compassion to give temporary assistance to the poor hunted creature, he was now prompted to offer more lasting help—providing, of course, that he could do so without too great a risk to his own convenience. The convict's hopeless condition, his despairing purpose, and his evident wish to live free from the past, all combined to arouse in the other a desire to aid him. But while that truly benevolent inclination was, in his consciousness, unmarred with sinister motive of any sort; still, deeper than the impulse for good in James Rutlidge's nature lay those dominant instincts and passions that were his by inheritance and training. The brutal desire, the mood and purpose that had brought him to that spot where with the aid of his glass he could watch Sibyl Andres, were not denied by his impulse to kindly service. Under all his thinking, as he considered how he could help the convict to a better life, there was the shadowy suggestion of a possible situation where a man like the one before him—wholly in his power as this man would be—might be of use to him in furthering his own purpose—the purpose that had brought about their meeting.
Studying the object of his pity, he said slowly, "I suppose the most of us are as deserving of punishment as the majority of those who actually get it. One way or another, we are all trying to escape the penalty for our wrong-doing. What if I should help you out—make it possible for you to live like other men who are safe from the law? What would you do if I were to help you to your freedom?"
The hunted man became incoherent in his pleading for a chance to prove the sincerity of his wish to live an orderly, respectable, and honest life.
"You have a safe hiding place here in the mountains?" asked Rutlidge.
"Yes; a little hut, hidden in a deep gorge, over on the Cold Water. I could live there a year if I had supplies."
James Rutlidge considered. "I've got it!" he said at last. "Listen! There must be some peak, at the Cold Water end of this range, from which you can see Fairlands as well as the Galena Valley."
"Yes," the other answered eagerly.
"And," continued Rutlidge, "there is a good 'auto' road up the Galena Valley. One could get, I should think, to a point within—say nine hours of your camp. Do you know anything about the heliograph?"
"Yes," said the man, his face brightening. "That is, I understand the general principle—that it's a method of signaling by mirror flashes."
"Good! This is my plan. I will meet you to-morrow on the Laurel Creek trail, where it turns off from the creek toward San Gorgonio. You know the spot?"
"We will go around the head of Clear Creek, on the divide between this canyon and the Cold Water, to some peak in the Galenas from which we can see Fairlands; and where, with the field-glass, we can pick out some point at the upper end of Galena Valley, that we can both find later."
"When I get back to Fairlands, I will make a night trip in the 'auto' to that point, with supplies. You will meet me there. The day before I make the trip, I'll signal you by mirror flashes that I am coming; and you will answer from the peak. We'll agree on the time of day and the signals to-morrow. When you have kept close, long enough for your beard and hair to grow out well, everybody will have given you up for dead or gone. Then I will take you down and give you a job in an orange grove. There's a little house there where you can live. You won't need to show yourself down-town and, in time, you will be forgotten. I'll bring you enough food to-morrow to last you until I can return to town and can get back on the first night trip."
The man who left James Rutlidge a few minutes later, after trying brokenly to express his gratitude, was a creature very different from the poor, frightened hunted, starving, despairing, wretch that Rutlidge had halted an hour before. What that man was to become, would depend almost wholly upon his benefactor.
When the man was gone, James Rutlidge again took up his field-glass. The old home of Sibyl Andres was deserted. While he had been talking with the convict, the girl and Myra Willard had started on their way back to Fairlands.
With a peculiar smile upon his heavy features, the man slipped the glass into its case, and, with a long, slow look over the scene, set out on his way to rejoin his friends.
I Want You Just as You Are
The evening of that day after their return from the mountains, when Conrad Lagrange had found Aaron King so absorbed in his mother's letters, the artist continued in his silent, preoccupied, mood. The next morning, it was the same. Refusing every attempt of his friend to engage him in conversation, he answered only with absent-minded mono-syllables; until the novelist, declaring that the painter was fit company for neither beast nor man, left him alone; and went off somewhere with Czar.
The artist spent the greater part of the forenoon in his studio, doing nothing of importance. That is, to a casual observer he would have seemed to be doing nothing of importance. He did, however, place his picture of the spring glade beside the portrait of Mrs. Taine, and then, for an hour or more, sat considering the two paintings. Then he turned the "Quaker Maid" again to the wall and fixed a fresh canvas in place on the easel. That was all.
Immediately after their midday lunch, he returned to the studio—hurriedly, as if to work. He arranged his palette, paints, and brushes ready to his hand, indeed—but he, then, did nothing with them. Listlessly, without interest, he turned through his portfolios of sketches. Often, he looked away through the big, north window to the distant mountain tops. Often, he seemed to be listening. He was sitting before the easel, staring at the blank canvas, when, clear and sweet, from the depths of the orange grove, came the pure tones of Sibyl Andres' violin.
So soft and low was the music, at first, that the artist almost doubted that it was real, thinking—as he had thought that day when Sibyl came singing to the glade—that it was his fancy tricking him. When he and Conrad Lagrange left the mountains three days before, the girl and her companion had not expected to return to Fairlands for at least two weeks. But there was no mistaking that music of the hills. As the tones grew louder and more insistent, with a ringing note of gladness, he knew that the mountain girl was announcing her arrival and, in the language she loved best, was greeting her friends.
But so strangely selfish is the heart of man, that Aaron King gave the novelist no share in their neighbor's musical greeting. He received the message as if it were to himself alone. As he listened, his eyes brightened; he stood erect, his face turned upward toward the mountain peaks in the distance; his lips curved in a slow smile. He fancied that he could see the girl's winsome face lighted with merriment as she played, knowing his surprise. Once, he started impulsively toward the door, but paused, hesitating, and turned back. When the music ceased, he went to the open window that looked out into the rose garden, and watched expectantly.
Presently, he heard her low-voiced song as she came through the orange grove beyond the Ragged Robin hedge. Then he glimpsed her white dress at the little gate in the corner. Then she stood in full view.
The artist had, so far, seen Sibyl only in her mountain costume of soft brown,—made for rough contact with rocks and underbrush,—with felt hat to match, and high, laced boots, fit for climbing. She was dressed, now, as Conrad Lagrange had seen her that first time in the garden, when he was hiding from Louise Taine. The man at the window drew a little back, with a low exclamation of pleased surprise and wonder. Was that lovely creature there among the roses his girl comrade of the hills? The Sibyl Andres he had known—in the short skirt and high boots of her mountain garb—was a winsome, fanciful, sometimes serious, sometimes wayward, maiden. This Sibyl Andres, gowned in clinging white, was a slender, gracefully tall, and beautifully developed woman.
Slowly, she came toward the studio end of the garden; pausing here and there to bend over the flowers as though in loving, tender greeting; singing, the while, her low-voiced melody; unafraid of the sunshine that enveloped her in a golden flood, undisturbed by the careless fingers of the wind that caressed her hair. A girl of the clean out-of-doors, she belonged among the roses, even as she had been at home among the pines and oaks of the mountains. The artist, fascinated by the lovely scene, stood as though fearing to move, lest the vision vanish.
Then, looking up, she saw him, and stretched out her hands in a gesture of greeting, with a laugh of pleasure.
"Don't move, don't move!" he called impulsively. "Hold the pose—please hold it! I want you just as you are!"
The girl, amused at his tragic earnestness, and at the manner of his welcome, understood that the zeal of the artist had brushed aside the polite formalities of the man; and, as unaffectedly natural as she did everything, gave herself to his mood.
Dragging his easel with the blank canvas upon it across the studio, he cried out, again, "Don't move, please don't move!" and began working. He was as one beside himself, so wholly absorbed was he in translating into the terms of color and line, the loveliness purity and truth that was expressed by the personality of the girl as she stood among the flowers. "If I can get it! If I can only get it!" he exclaimed again and again, with a kind of savage earnestness, as he worked.
All his years of careful training, all his studiously acquired skill, all his mastery of the mechanics of his craft, came to him, now, without conscious effort—obedient to his purpose. Here was no thoughtful straining to remember the laws of composition, and perspective, and harmony. Here was no skillful evading of the truth he saw. So freely, so surely, he worked, he scarcely knew he painted. Forgetting self, as he was unconscious of his technic, he worked as the birds sing, as the bees toil, as the deer runs. Under his hand, his picture grew and blossomed as the roses, themselves, among which the beautiful girl stood.
Day after day, at that same hour, Sibyl Andres came singing through the orange grove, to stand in the golden sunlight among the roses, with hands outstretched in greeting. Every day, Aaron King waited her coming—sitting before his easel, palette and brush in hand. Each day, he worked as he had worked that first day—with no thought for anything save for his picture.
In the mornings, he walked with Conrad Lagrange or, sometimes, worked with Sibyl in the garden. Often, in the evening, the two men would visit the little house next door. Occasionally, the girl and the woman with the disfigured face would come to sit for a while on the front porch with their friends. Thus the neighborly friendship that began in the hills was continued in the orange groves. The comradeship between the two young people grew stronger, hour by hour, as the painter worked at his easel to express with canvas and color and brush the spirit of the girl whose character and life was so unmarred by the world.
A11 through those days, when he was so absorbed in his work that he often failed to reply when she spoke to him, the girl manifested a helpful understanding of his mood that caused the painter to marvel. She seemed to know, instinctively, when he was baffled or perplexed by the annoying devils of "can't-get-at-it," that so delight to torment artist folk; just as she knew and rejoiced when the imps were routed and the soul of the man exulted with the sureness and freedom of his hand. He asked her, once, when they had finished for the day, how it was that she knew so well how the work was progressing, when she could not see the picture.
She laughed merrily. "But I can see you; and I"—she hesitated with that trick, that he was learning to know so well, of searching for a word—"I just feel what you are feeling. I suppose it's because my music is that way. Sometimes, it simply won't come right, at all, and I feel as though I never could do it. Then, again, it seems to do itself; and I listen and wonder—just as if I had nothing to do with it."
So that day came when the artist, drawing slowly back from his easel, stood so long gazing at his picture without touching it that the girl called to him, "What's the matter? Won't it come right?"
Slowly he laid aside his palette and brushes. Standing at the open window, he looked at her—smiling but silent—as she held the pose.
For an instant, she did not understand. "Am I not right?" she asked anxiously. Then, before he could answer—"Oh, have you finished? Is it all done?"
Still smiling, he answered almost sadly, "I have done all that I can do. Come."
A moment later, she stood in the studio door.
Seeing her hesitate, he said again, "Come."
"I—I am afraid to look," she faltered.
He laughed. "Really I don't think it's quite so bad as that."
"Oh, but I don't mean that I'm afraid it's bad—it isn't."
The painter watched her,—a queer expression on his face,—as he returned curiously, "And how, pray tell, do you know it isn't bad—when you have never seen it? It's quite the thing, I'll admit, for critics to praise or condemn without much knowledge of the work; but I didn't expect you to be so modern."
"You are making fun of me," she laughed. "But I don't care. I know your work is good, because I know how and why you did it. You painted it just as you painted the spring glade, didn't you?"
"Yes," he said soberly, "I did. But why are you afraid?"
"Why, that's the reason. I—I'm afraid to see myself as you see me."
The man's voice was gentle with feeling as he answered seriously, "Miss Andres, you, of all the people I have ever known, have the least cause to fear to look at your portrait for that reason. Come."
Slowly, she went forward to stand by his side before the picture.
For some time, she looked at the beautiful work into which Aaron King had put the best of himself and of his genius. At last, turning full upon him, her eyes blue and shining, she said in a low tone, "O Mr. King, it is too—too—beautiful! It is so beautiful it—it—hurts. She seems to, to"—she searched for the word—"to belong to the roses, doesn't she? It makes you feel just as the rose garden makes you feel."
He laughed with pleasure, "What a child of nature you are! You have forgotten that it is a portrait of yourself, haven't you?"
She laughed with him. "I had forgotten. It's so lovely!" Then she added wistfully, "Am I—am I really like that?—just a little?"
"No," he answered. "But that is just a little, a very little, like you."
She looked at him half doubtfully—sincerely unmindful of the compliment, in her consideration of its truth. Shaking her head, with a serious smile, she returned slowly, "I wish that I could be sure you are not mistaken."
"You will permit me to exhibit the picture, will you?" he asked.
"Why, yes! of course! You made it for people to see, didn't you? I don't believe any one could look at it seriously without having good thoughts, could they?"
"I'm sure they could not," he answered. "But, you see, it's a portrait of you; and I thought you might not care for the—ah—" he finished with a smile—"shall I say fame?"
"Oh! I did not think that you would tell any one that I had anything to do with it. Is it necessary that my name should be mentioned?"
"Not exactly necessary"—he admitted—"but few women, these days, would miss the opportunity."
She shook her head, with a positive air. "No, no; you must exhibit it as a picture; not as a portrait of me. The portrait part is of no importance. It is what you have made your picture say, that will do good."
"And what have I made it say?" he asked, curiously pleased.
"Why it says that—that a woman should be beautiful as the roses are beautiful—without thinking too much about it, you know—just as a man should be strong without thinking too much about his strength, I mean."
"Yes," he agreed, "it says that. But I want you to know that, whatever title it is exhibited under, it will always be, to me, a portrait—the truest I have ever painted."
She flushed with genuine pleasure as she said brightly, "I like you for that. And now let's try it on Conrad Lagrange and Myra Willard. You get him, and I'll run and bring her. Mind you don't let Mr. Lagrange in until I get back! I want to watch him when he first sees it."
When the artist found Conrad Lagrange and told him that the picture was finished, the novelist, without comment, turned his attention to Czar.
The painter, with an amused smile, asked, "Won't you come for a look at it, old man?"
The other returned gruffly, "Thanks; but I don't think I care to risk it."
The artist laughed. "But Miss Andres wants you to come. She sent me to fetch you."
Conrad Lagrange turned his peculiar, baffling eyes upon the young man. "Does she like it?"
"She seems to."
"If she seems to, she does," retorted the other, rising. "And that's different."
When the novelist, with his three friends, stood before the easel, he was silent for so long that the girl said anxiously, "I—I thought you would like it, Mr. Lagrange."
They saw the strange man's eyes fill with tears as he answered, in the gentle tones that always marked his words to her, "Like it? My dear child, how could I help liking it? It is you—you!" To the artist, he added, "It is great work, my boy, great! I—I wish your mother could have seen it. It is like her—as I knew her. You have done well." He turned, with gentle courtesy, to Myra Willard; "And you? What is your verdict, Miss Willard?"
With her arm around the beautiful original of the portrait, the woman with the disfigured face answered, "I think, sir, that I, better than any one in all the world, know how good, how true, it is."
Conrad Lagrange spoke again to the artist, inquiringly; "You will exhibit it?"
"Miss Andres says that I may—but not as a portrait."
The novelist could not conceal his pleasure at the answer. Presently, he said, "If it is not to be shown as a portrait, may I suggest a title?"
"I was hoping you would!" exclaimed the painter.
"And so was I," cried Sibyl, with delight. "What is it, Mr. Lagrange?"
"Let it be exhibited as 'The Spirit of Nature—A Portrait'," answered Conrad Lagrange.
As the novelist finished speaking, Yee Kee appeared in the doorway. "They come—big automobile. Whole lot people. Misse Taine, Miste' Lutlidge, sick man, whole lot—I come tell you."
The artist spoke quickly,—"Stop them in the house, Kee; I'll be right in,"—and the Chinaman vanished.
At Yee Kee's announcement, Myra Willard's face went white, and she gave a low cry.
"Never mind, dear," said the girl, soothingly. "We can slip away through the garden—come."
When Sibyl and the woman with the disfigured face were gone, Conrad Lagrange and Aaron King looked at each other, questioningly.
Then the novelist said harshly,—pointing to the picture on the easel,—"You're not going to let that flock of buzzards feed on this, are you? I'll murder some one, sure as hell, if you do."
"I don't think I could stand it, myself," said the artist, laughing grimly, as he drew the velvet curtain to hide the portrait.
When Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange entered the house to meet their callers from Fairlands Heights, the artist felt, oddly, that he was meeting a company of strangers.
The carefully hidden, yet—to him—subtly revealed, warmth of Mrs. Taine's greeting embarrassed him with a momentary sense of shame. The frothing gush of Louise's inane ejaculations, and the coughing, choking, cursing of Mr. Taine,—whose feeble grip upon the flesh that had so betrayed him was, by now, so far loosed that he could scarcely walk alone,—set the painter struggling for words that would mean nothing—the only words that, under the circumstances, could serve. Aaron King was somewhat out of practise in the use of meaningless words, and the art of talking without saying anything is an art that requires constant exercise if one would not commit serious technical blunders. James Rutlidge's greeting was insolently familiar; as a man of certain mind greets—in public—a boon companion of his private and unmentionable adventures. Toward the great critic, the painter exercised a cool self-restraint that was at least commendable.
While Aaron King, with James Rutlidge and Mr. Taine, with carefully assumed interest, was listening to Louise's effort to make a jumble of "ohs" and "ahs" and artistic sighs sound like a description of a sunset in the mountains, Mrs. Taine said quietly to Conrad Lagrange, "You certainly have taken excellent care of your protege, this summer. He looks splendidly fit."
The novelist, watching the woman whose eyes, as she spoke, were upon the artist, answered, "You are pleased to flatter me, Mrs. Taine."
She turned to him, with a knowing smile. "Perhaps I am giving you more credit than is due. I understand Mr. King has not been in your care altogether. Shame on you, Mr. Lagrange! for a man of your age and experience to permit your charge to roam all over the country, alone and unprotected, with a picturesque mountain girl!—and that, after your warning to poor me!"
Conrad Lagrange smiled grimly. "I confess I thought of you in that connection several times."
She eyed him doubtfully. "Oh, well," she said easily, "I suppose artists must amuse themselves, occasionally—the same as the rest of us."
"I don't think that, 'amuse' is exactly the word, Mrs. Taine," the other returned coldly.
"No? Surely you don't meant to tell me that it is anything serious?"
"I don't mean to tell you anything about it," he retorted rather sharply.
She laughed. "You don't need to. Jim has already told me quite enough. Mr. King, himself, will tell me more."
"Not unless he's a bigger fool than I think," growled the novelist.
Again, she laughed into his face, mockingly. "You men are all more or less foolish when there's a woman in the case, aren't you?"
To which, the other answered tartly, "If we were not, there would be no woman in the case."
As Conrad Lagrange spoke, Louise, exhausted by her efforts to achieve that sunset in the mountains with her limited supply of adjectives, floundered hopelessly into the expressive silence of clasped hands and heaving breast and ecstatically upturned eyes. The artist, seizing the opportunity with the cunning of desperation, turned to Mrs. Taine, with some inane remark about the summers in California.
Whatever it was that he said, Mrs. Taine agreed with him, heartily, adding, "And you, I suppose, have been making good use of your time? Or have you been simply storing up material and energy for this winter?"
This brought Louise out of the depths of that sunset, with a flop. She was so sure that Mr. King had some inexpressibly wonderful work to show them. Couldn't they go at once to the equally inexpressibly beautiful studio, to see the inexpressibly lovely pictures that she was so inexpressibly sure he had been painting in the inexpressibly grand and beautiful and wonderfully lovely mountains?
The painter assured them that he had no work for them to see; and Louise floundered again into the depths of inexpressible disappointment and despair.
Nevertheless, a few minutes later, Aaron King found himself in his studio, alone with Mrs. Taine. He could not have told exactly how she managed it, or why. Perhaps, in sheer pity, she had rescued him from the floods of Louise's appreciation. Perhaps—she had some other reasons. There had been something said about her right to see her own picture, and then—there they were—with the others safely barred from intruding upon the premises sacred to art.
When there was no longer need to fear the eyes of the world, Mrs. Taine was at no pains to hide the warmth of her feeling. With little reserve, she confessed herself in every look and tone and movement.
"Are you really glad to see me, I wonder," she said invitingly. "All this summer, while I have been forced to endure the company of all sorts of stupid people, I have been thinking of you and your work. And, you see, I have come to you, the first possible moment after my return home."
The man—being a man—could not remain wholly insensible to the alluring physical beauty of the splendid creature who stood so temptingly before him; but, to the honor of his kind, he could and did remain master of himself.
The woman, true to her life training,—as James Rutlidge had been true to his schooling when he approached Sibyl Andres in the mountains,—construed the artist's manner, not as a splendid self-control but as a careful policy. To her, and to her kind, the great issues of life are governed, not at all by principle, but by policy. It is not at all what one is, or what one may accomplish that matters; it is wholly what one may skillfully appear to be, and what one may skillfully provoke the world to say, that is of vital importance. Turning from the painter to the easel, as if to find in his portrait of her the fuller expression of that which she believed he dared not yet put into words, she was about to draw aside the curtain; when Aaron King checked her quickly, with a smile that robbed his words of any rudeness.
"Please don't touch that, Mrs. Taine. I am not yet ready to show it."
As she turned from the easel to face him, he took her portrait from where it rested, face to the wall; and placed it upon another easel, saying, "Here is your picture."
With the painting before her, she talked eagerly of her plans for the artist's future; how the picture was to be exhibited, and how, because it was her portrait, it would be praised and talked about by her friends who were leaders in the art circles. Frankly, she spoke of "pull" and "influence" and "scheme"; of "working" this and that "paper" for "write-ups"; of "handling" this or that "critic" and "writer"; of "reaching the committees"; of introducing the painter into the proper inside cliques, and clans; and of clever "advertising stunts" that would make him the most popular portrait painter of his day; insuring thus his—as she called it—fame.
The man who had painted the picture of the spring glade, and who had so faithfully portrayed the truth and beauty of Sibyl Andres as she stood among the roses, listened to this woman's plans for making his portrait of herself famous, with a feeling of embarrassment and shame.
"Do you really think that the work merits such prominence as you say will be given it?" he asked doubtfully.
She laughed knowingly, "Just wait until Jim Rutlidge's 'write-up' appears, and all the others follow his lead, and you'll see! The picture is clever enough—you know it as well as I. It is beautiful. It has everything that we women want in a portrait. I really don't know much about what you painters call art; but I know that when Jim and our friends get through with it, your picture will have every mark of a great masterpiece, and that you will be on the topmost wave of success."
"And then what?" he asked.
Again, she interpreted his words in the light of her own thoughts, and with little attempt to veil the fire that burned in her eyes, answered, "And then—I hope that you will not forget me."
For a moment he returned her look; then a feeling of disgust and shame for her swept over him, and he again turned away, to stand gazing moodily out of the window that looked into the rose garden.
"You seem to be disturbed and worried," she said, in a tone that implied a complete understanding of his mood, and a tacit acceptance of the things that he would say if it were not for the world.
He laughed shortly—"I fear you will think me ungrateful for your kindness. Believe me, I am not."
"I know you are not," she returned. "But don't think that you had better confess, just the same?"
He answered wonderingly, "Confess?"
"Yes." She shook her finger at him, in playful severity. "Oh, I know what you have been up to all summer—running wild with your mountain girl! Really, you ought to be more discreet."
Aaron King's face burned as he stammered something about not knowing what she meant.
She laughed gaily. "There, there, never mind—I forgive you—now that you are safely back in civilization again. I know you artists, and how you must have your periods of ah—relaxation—with rather more liberties than the common herd. Just so you are careful that the world doesn't know too much."
At this frank revelation of her mind, the man stood amazed. For the construction she put upon his relation with the girl whose pure and gentle comradeship had led him to greater heights in his art than he had ever before attained, he could have driven this woman from the studio he felt that she profaned. But what could he say? He remembered Conrad Lagrange's counsel when James Rutlidge had seen the girl at their camp. What could he say that would not injure Sibyl Andres? To cover his embarrassment, he forced a laugh and answered lightly, "Really, I am not good at confessions."
"Nor I at playing the part of confessor," she laughed with him. "But, just the same, you might tell me what you think of yourself. Aren't you just a little ashamed?"
The artist had moved to a position in front of her portrait; and, as he looked upon the painted lie, his answer came. "Rather let me tell you what I think of you, Mrs. Taine. And let me tell you in the language I know best. Let me put my answer to your charges here," he touched her portrait.
Almost, his reply was worthy of Conrad Lagrange, himself.
"I don't quite understand," she said, a trifle put out by the turn his answer had taken.
"I mean," he explained eagerly, "that I want to repaint your portrait. You remember, I wrote, when I returned Mr. Taine's generous check, that I was not altogether satisfied with it. Give me another chance."
"You mean for me to come here again, to pose for you?—as I did before?"
"Yes," he answered, "just as you did before. I want to make a portrait worthy of you, as this is not. Let me tell you, on the canvas, what I cannot—" he hesitated then said deliberately—"what I dare not put into words."
The woman received his words as a veiled declaration of a passion he dared not, yet, openly express. She thought his request a clever ruse to renew their meetings in the privacy of his studio, and was, accordingly delighted.
"Oh, that will be wonderful!—heavenly!" she cried, springing to her feet. "Can we begin at once? May I come to-morrow?"
"Yes," he answered, "come to-morrow."
"And may I wear the Quaker gown?"
"Yes, indeed! I want you just as you were before—the same dress, the same pose. It is to be the same picture, you understand, only a better one—one more worthy of us, both. And now," he continued hurriedly "don't you think that we should return to the house?"
"I suppose so," she answered regretfully—lingering.
The artist was already opening the door.
As they passed out, she placed her hand on his arm, and looked up into his face admiringly. "What a clever, clever man you are, to think of it! And what a story it will make for the papers—when my picture is shown—how you were not satisfied with the portrait and refused to let it go—and how, after keeping it in your studio for months, you repainted it, to satisfy your artistic conscience!"
Aaron King smiled.
The announcement in the house that the artist was to repaint Mrs. Taine's picture, provoked characteristic comment. Louise effervesced a frothy stream of bubbling exclamations. James Rutlidge gave a hearty, "By Jove, old man, you have nerve! If you can really improve on that canvas, you are a wonder." And Mr. Taine, under the watchful eye of his beautiful wife, responded with a husky whisper, "Quite right—my boy—quite right! Certainly—by all means—if you feel that way about it—" his consent and approval ending in a paroxysm of coughing that left him weak and breathless, and nearly eliminated him from the question, altogether.
When the Fairlands Heights party had departed, Conrad Lagrange looked the artist up and down.
"Well,"—he growled harshly, in his most brutal tones,—"what is it? Is the dog returning to his vomit?—or is the prodigal turning his back on his hogs and his husks?"
Aaron King smiled as he answered, "I think, rather, it's the case of the blind beggar who sat by the roadside, helpless, until a certain Great Physician passed that way."
And Conrad Lagrange understood.
You're Ruined, My Boy
It was no light task to which Aaron King had set his hand. He did not doubt what it would cost him. Nor did Conrad Lagrange, as they talked together that evening, fail to point out clearly what it would mean to the artist, at the very beginning of his career, to fly thus rudely in the face of the providence that had chosen to serve him. The world's history of art and letters affords too many examples of men who, because they refused to pay court to the ruling cliques and circles of their little day, had seen the doors of recognition slammed in their faces; and who, even as they wrought their great works, had been forced to hear, as they toiled, the discordant yelpings of the self-appointed watchdogs of the halls of fame. Nor did the artist question the final outcome,—if only his work should be found worthy to endure,—for the world's history establishes, also, the truth—that he who labors for a higher wage than an approving paragraph in the daily paper, may, in spite of the condemnation of the pretending rulers, live in the life of his race, long after the names to which he refused to bow are lost in the dust of their self-raised thrones.
The painter was driven to his course by that self-respect, without which, no man can sanely endure his own company; together with that reverence—I say it deliberately—that reverence for his art, without which, no worthy work is possible. He had come to understand that one may not prostitute his genius to the immoral purposes of a diseased age, without reaping a prostitute's reward. The hideous ruin that Mr. Taine had, in himself, wrought by the criminal dissipation of his manhood's strength, and by the debasing of his physical appetites and passions, was to Aaron King, now, a token of the intellectual, spiritual, and moral ruin that alone can result from a debased and depraved dissipation of an artist's creative power. He saw clearly, now, that the influence his work must wield upon the lives of those who came within its reach, must be identical with the influence of Sibyl Andres, who had so unconsciously opened his eyes to the true mission and glory of the arts, and thus had made his decision possible. In that hour when Mrs. Taine had revealed herself to him so clearly, following as it did so closely his days of work and the final completion of his portrait of the girl among the roses, he saw and felt the woman, not as one who could help him to the poor rewards of a temporary popularity, but as the spirit of an age that threatens the very life of art by seeking to destroy the vital truth and purpose of its existence. He felt that in painting the portrait of Mrs. Taine—as he had painted it—he had betrayed a trust; as truly as had his father who, for purely personal aggrandizement, had stolen the material wealth intrusted to him by his fellows. The young man understood, now, that, instead of fulfilling the purpose of his mother's sacrifice, and realizing for her her dying wish, as he had promised; the course he had entered upon would have thwarted the one and denied the other.
The young man had answered the novelist truly, that it was a case of the blind beggar by the wayside. He might have carried the figure farther; for that same blind beggar, when his eyes had been opened, was persecuted by the very ones who had fed him in his infirmity. It is easier, sometimes, to receive blindly, than to give with eyes that see too clearly.
When Mrs. Taine went to the artist, in the studio, the next day, she found him in the act of re-tying the package of his mother's letters. For nearly an hour, he had been reading them. For nearly an hour before that, he had been seated, motionless, before the picture that Conrad Lagrange had said was a portrait of the Spirit of Nature.
When Mrs. Taine had slipped off her wrap, and stood before him gowned in the dress that so revealed the fleshly charms it pretended to hide, she indicated the letters in the artist's hands, with an insinuating laugh; while there was a glint of more than passing curiosity in her eyes. "Dear me," she said, "I hope I am not intruding upon the claims of some absent affinity."
Aaron King gravely held out his hand with the package of letters, saying quietly, "They are from my mother."
And the woman had sufficient grace to blush, for once, with unfeigned shame.
When he had received her apologies, and, putting aside the letters, had succeeded in making her forget the incident, he said, "And now, if you are ready, shall we begin?"
For some time the painter stood before the picture on his easel, without touching palette or brush, studying the face of the woman who posed for him. By a slight movement of her eyes, without turning her head, she could look him fairly in the face. Presently as he continued to gaze at her so intently, she laughed; and, with a little shrug of her shoulders and a pretense as of being cold, said, "When you look at me that way, I feel as though you had surprised me at my bath."
The artist turned his attention instantly to his color-box. While setting his palette, with his eyes upon his task, he said deliberately, "'Venus Surprised at the Bath.' Do you know that you would make a lovely Venus?"
With a low laugh, she returned, daringly. "Would you care to paint me as the Goddess of Love?"
He, still, did not look at her; but answered, while, with deliberate care, he selected a few brushes from the Chinese jar near the easel, "Venus is always a very popular subject, you know."
She did not speak for a moment or two; and the painter felt her watching him. As he turned to his canvas—still careful not to look in her direction—she said, suggestively, "I suppose you could change the face so that no one would know it was I who posed."
The man remembered her carefully acquired reputation for modesty, but held to his purpose, saying, as if considering the question seriously, "Oh, as for that part; it could be managed with perfect safety." Then, suddenly, he turned his eyes upon her face, with a gaze so sharp and piercing that the blood slowly colored neck and cheek.
But the painter did not wait for the blush. He had seen what he wanted and was at work—with the almost savage intensity that had marked his manner while he had worked upon the portrait of Sibyl Andres.
And so, day after day, as he painted, again, the portrait of the woman who Conrad Lagrange fancifully called "The Age," the artist permitted her to betray her real self—the self that was so commonly hidden from the world, under the mask of a pretended culture, and the cloak of a fraudulent refinement. He led her to talk of the world in which she lived—of the scandals and intrigues among those of her class who hold such enviable positions in life. He drew from her the philosophies and beliefs and religions of her kind. He encouraged her to talk of art—to give her understanding of the world of artists as she knew it, and to express her real opinions and tastes in pictures and books. He persuaded her to throw boldly aside the glittering, tinsel garb in which she walked before the world, and so to stand before him in all the hideous vulgarity, the intellectual poverty and the moral depravity of her naked self.
At times, when, under his intense gaze, she drew the cloak of her pretenses hurriedly about her, he sat before his picture without touching the canvas, waiting; or, perhaps, he paced the floor; until, with skillful words, her fears were banished and she was again herself. Then, with quick eye and sure, ready hand, he wrought into the portrait upon the easel—so far as the power was given him—all that he saw in the face of the woman who—posing for him, secure in the belief that he was painting a lie—revealed her true nature, warped and distorted as it was by an age that, demanding realism in art, knows not what it demands. Always, when the sitting was finished, he drew the curtain to hide the picture; forbidding her to look at it until he said that it was finished.
Much of the time, when he was not in the studio at work, the painter spent with Mrs. Taine and her friends, in the big touring car, and at the house on Fairlands Heights. But the artist did not, now, enter into the life of Fairlands' Pride for gain or for pleasure—he went for study—as a physician goes into the dissecting room. He justified himself by the old and familiar argument that it was for his art's sake.
Sibyl Andres, he seldom saw, except occasionally, in the early morning, in the rose garden. The girl knew what he was doing—that is, she knew that he was painting a portrait of Mrs. Taine—and so, with Myra Willard, avoided the place. But Conrad Lagrange now, made the neighboring house in the orange grove his place of refuge from Louise Taine, who always accompanied Mrs. Taine,—lest the world should talk,—but who never went as far as the studio.
But often, as he worked, the artist heard the music of the mountain girl's violin; and he knew that she, in her own beautiful way, was trying to help him—as she would have said—to put the mountains into his work. Many times, he was conscious of the feeling that some one was watching him. Once, pausing at the garden end of the studio as he paced to and fro, he caught a glimpse of her as she slipped through the gate in the Ragged Robin hedge. And once, in the morning, after one of those afternoons when he had gone away with Mrs. Taine at the conclusion of the sitting, he found a note pinned to the velvet curtain that hid the canvas on his working easel. It was a quaint little missive; written in one of the girl's fanciful moods, with a reference to "Blue Beard," and the assurance that she had been strong and had not looked at the forbidden picture.
As the work progressed, Mrs. Taine remarked, often, how the artist was changed. When painting that first picture, he had been so sure of himself. Working with careless ease, he had been suave and pleasant in his manner, with ready smile or laugh. Why, she questioned, was he, now, so grave and serious? Why did he pause so often, to sit staring at his canvas, or to pace the floor? Why did he seem to be so uncertain—to be questioning, searching, hesitating? The woman thought that she knew. Rejoicing in her fancied victory—all but won—she looked forward to the triumphant moment when this splendid man should be swept from his feet by the force of the passion she thought she saw him struggling to conceal. Meanwhile she tempted him by all the wiles she knew—inviting him with eyes and lips and graceful pose and meaning gesture.
And Aaron King, with clear, untroubled eye seeing all; with cool brain understanding all; with steady, skillful hand, ruled supremely by his purpose, painted that which he saw and understood into his portrait of her.
So they came to the last sitting. On the following evening, Mrs. Taine was giving a dinner at the house on Fairlands Heights, at which the artist was to meet some people who would be—as she said—useful to him. Eastern people they were; from the accredited center of art and literature; members of the inner circle of the elect. They happened to be spending the season on the Coast, and she had taken advantage of the opportunity to advance the painter's interests. It was very fortunate that her portrait was to be finished in time for them to see it.
The artist was sorry, he said, but, while it would not be necessary for her to come to the studio again, the picture was not yet finished, and he could not permit its being exhibited until he was ready to sign the canvas.
"But I may see it?" she asked, as he laid aside his palette and brushes, and announced that he was through.
With a quick hand, he drew the curtain. "Not yet; please—not until I am ready."
"Oh!" she cried with a charming air of submitting to one whose wish is law, "How mean of you! I know it is splendid! Are you satisfied? Is it better than the other? Is it like me?"
"I am sure that it is much better than the other," he replied. "It is as like you as I can make it."
"And is it as beautiful as the other?"
"It is beautiful—as you are beautiful," he answered.
"I shall tell them all about it, to-morrow night—even if I haven't seen it. And so will Jim Rutlidge."
Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange spent that evening at the little house next door. The next morning, the artist shut himself up in his studio. At lunch time, he would not come out. Late in the afternoon, the novelist went, again, to knock at the door.
The artist called in a voice that rang with triumph, "Come in, old man, come in and help me celebrate."
Entering, Conrad Lagrange found him; sitting, pale and worn, before his picture—his palette and brushes still in his hand.
And such a picture!
A moment, the novelist who knew—as few men know—the world that was revealed with such fidelity in that face upon the canvas, looked; then, with weird and wonderful oaths of delight, he caught the tired artist and whirled him around the studio, in a triumphant dance.
"You've done it! man—you've done it! It's all there; every rotten, stinking shred of it! Wow! but it's good—so damned good that it's almost inhuman. I knew you had it in you. I knew it was in you, all the time—if only you could come alive. God, man! if that could only be exhibited alongside the other! Look here!"
He dragged the easel that held Sibyl Andres' portrait to a place beside the one upon which the canvas just finished rested, and drew back the curtain. The effect was startling.
"'The Spirit of Nature' and 'The Spirit of the Age'," said Conrad Lagrange, in a low tone.
"But you're ruined, my boy," he added gleefully. "You're ruined. These canvases will never be exhibited Her own, she'll smash when she sees it; and you'll be artistically damned by the very gods she has invoked to bless you with fame and wealth. Lord, but I envy you! You have your chance now—a real chance to be worthy your mother's sacrifice.
"Come on, let's get ready for the feast."
The Hand Writing on the Wall
It was November. Nearly a year had passed since that day when the young man on the Golden State Limited—with the inheritance he had received from his mother's dying lips, and with his solemn promise to her still fresh in his mind—looked into the eyes of the woman on the platform of the observation car. That same day, too, he first saw the woman with the disfigured face, and, for the first time, met the famous Conrad Lagrange.
Aaron King was thinking of these things as he set out, that evening, with his friend, for the home of Mrs. Taine. He remarked to the novelist that the time seemed, to him, many years.
"To me, Aaron," answered the strange man, "it has been the happiest and—if you would not misunderstand me—the most satisfying year of my life. And this"—he added, his deep voice betraying his emotion—"this has been the happiest day of the year. It is your independence day. I shall always celebrate it as such—I—I have no independence day of my own to celebrate, you know."
Aaron King did not misunderstand.
As the two men approached the big house on Fairlands Heights, they saw that modern palace, from concrete foundation to red-tiled roof, ablaze with many lights. Situated upon the very topmost of the socially graded levels of Fairlands, it outshone them all; and, quite likely, the glittering display was mistaken by many dwellers in the valley below for a new constellation of the heavenly bodies. Quite likely, too, some lonely dweller, high up among the distant mountain peaks, looked down upon the sparkling bauble that lay for the moment, as it were, on the wide lap of the night, and smiled in quiet amusement that the earth children should attach such value to so fragile a toy.
As they passed the massive, stone pillars of the entrance to the grounds, Conrad Lagrange said, "Really, Aaron, don't you feel a little ashamed of yourself?—coming here to-night, after the outrageous return you have made for the generous hospitality of these people? You know that if Mrs. Taine had seen what you have done to her portrait, you could force the pearly gates easier than you could break in here."
The artist laughed. "To tell the truth, I don't feel exactly at home. But what the deuce can I do? After my intimacy with them, all these months, I can't assume that they are going to make my picture a reason for refusing to recognize me, can I? As I see it, they, not I, must take the initiative. I can't say: 'Well, I've told the truth about you, so throw me out'."
The novelist grinned. "Thus it is when 'Art' becomes entangled with the family of 'Materialism.' It's hard to break away from the flesh-pots—even when you know you are on the road to the Promised Land. But don't worry—'The Age' will take the initiative fast enough when she sees your portrait of her. Wow! In the meantime, let's play their game to-night, and take what spoils the gods may send. There will be material here for pictures and stories a plenty." As they went up the wide steps and under the portal into the glare of the lights, and caught the sound of the voices within, he added under his breath, "Lord, man, but 'tis a pretty show!—if only things were called by their right names. That old Babylonian, Belshazzar, had nothing on us moderns after all, did he? Watch out for the writing upon the wall."
When Aaron King and his companion entered the spacious rooms where the pride of Fairlands Heights and the eastern lions were assembled, a buzz of comment went round the glittering company. Aside from the fact that Mrs. Taine, with practised skill, had prepared the way for her protege, by subtly stimulating the curiosity of her guests—the appearance of the two men, alone, would have attracted their attention The artist, with his strong, splendidly proportioned, athletic body, and his handsome, clean-cut intellectual face—calmly sure of himself—with the air of one who knows that his veins are rich with the wealth of many generations of true culture and refinement; and the novelist—easily the most famous of his day—tall, emaciated, grotesquely stooped—with his homely face seamed and lined, world-worn and old, and his sharp eyes peering from under his craggy brows with that analyzing, cynical, half-pathetic half-humorous expression—certainly presented a contrast too striking to escape notice.
For an instant, as comrades side by side upon a battle-field might do, they glanced over the scene. To the painter's eye, the assembled guests appeared as a glittering, shimmering, scintillating, cloud-like mass that, never still, stirred within itself, in slow, graceful restless motions—forming always, without purpose new combinations and groupings that were broken up, even as they were shaped, to be reformed; with the black spots and splashes of the men's conventional dress ever changing amid the brighter colors and textures of the women's gowns; the warm flesh tints of bare white arms and shoulders, gleaming here and there; and the flash and sparkle of jewels, threading the sheen of silks and the filmy softness of laces. Into the artist's mind—fresh from the tragic earnestness of his day's work, and still under the enduring spell of his weeks in the mountains—flashed a sentence from a good old book; "For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away."
Then they were greeting, with conventional nothings their beautiful hostess; who, with a charming air of triumphant—but not too triumphant—proprietorship received them and passed them on, with a low spoken word to Aaron King; "I will take charge of you later."
Conrad Lagrange, before they drifted apart, found opportunity to growl in his companion's ear; "A near-great musician—an actress of divorce court fame—an art critic, boon companion of our friend Rutlidge—two free-lance yellow journalists—a poet—with leading culture-club women of various brands, and a mob of mere fashion and wealth. The pickings should be good. Look at 'Materialism', over there."
In a wheeled chair, attended by a servant in livery, a little apart from the center of the scene,—as though the pageant of life was about to move on without him,—but still, with desperate grip, holding his place in the picture, sat the genius of it all—the millionaire. The creature's wasted, skeleton-like limbs, were clothed grotesquely in conventional evening dress. His haggard, bestial face—repulsive with every mark of his wicked, licentious years—grinned with an insane determination to take the place that was his by right of his money bags; while his glazed and sunken eyes shone with fitful gleams, as he rallied the last of his vital forces, with a devilish defiance of the end that was so inevitably near.
As Aaron King, in the splendid strength of his inheritance, went to pay his respects to the master of the house, that poor product of our age was seized by a paroxysm of coughing, that shook him—gasping and choking—almost into unconsciousness. The ready attendant held out a glass of whisky, and he clutched the goblet with skinny hands that, in their trembling eagerness, rattled the crystal against his teeth. In the momentary respite afforded by the powerful stimulant, he lifted his yellow, claw-like hand to wipe the clammy beads of sweat that gathered upon his wrinkled, ape-like brow; and the painter saw, on one bony, talon-like finger, the gleaming flash of a magnificent diamond.
Mr. Taine greeted the artist with his husky whisper "Hello, old chap—glad to see you!" Peering into the laughing, chattering, glittering, throng he added, "Some beauties here to-night, heh? Gad! my boy, but I've seen the day I'd be out there among them! Ha, ha! Mrs. Taine, Louise, and Jim tried to shelve me—but I fooled 'em. Damn me, but I'm game for a good time yet! A little off my feed, and under the weather; but game, you understand, game as hell!" Then to the attendant—"Where's that whisky?" And, again, his yellow, claw-like hand—with that beautiful diamond, a gleaming point of pure, white light—lifted the glass to his grinning lips.
When Mrs. Taine appeared to claim the artist, her husband—huddled in his chair, an unclean heap of all but decaying flesh—watched them go, with hidden, impotent rage.
A few moments later, as Mrs. Taine and her charge were leaving one group of celebrities in search of another they encountered Conrad Lagrange. "What's this I see?" gibed the novelist, mockingly. "Is it 'Art being led by Beauty to the Judges and Executioners'? or, is it 'Beauty presenting an Artist to the Gods of Modern Art'?"
"You had better be helping a good cause instead of making fun, Mr. Lagrange," the woman retorted. "You weren't always so famous yourself that you could afford to be indifferent, you know."
Aaron King laughed as his friend replied, "Never fear, madam, never fear—I shall be on hand to assist at the obsequies."
In the shifting of the groups and figures, when dinner was announced, the young man found himself, again, within reach of Conrad Lagrange; and the novelist whispered, with a grin, "Now for the flesh-pots in earnest. You will be really out of place in the next act, Aaron. Only we artists who have sold our souls have a right to the price of our shame. You should dine upon a crust, you know. A genius without his crust, huh! A devil without his tail, or an ass without his long ears!"
Most conspicuous in the brilliant throng assembled in that banquet hall, was the horrid figure of Mr. Taine who sat in his wheeled chair at the head of the table; his liveried attendant by his side. Frequently—as though compelled—eyes were turned toward that master of the feast, who was, himself, so far past feasting; and toward his beautiful young wife—the only woman in the room, whose shoulders and arms were not bare.
At first, the talk moved somewhat heavily. Neighbor chattered nothings to neighbor in low tones. It was as though the foreboding presence of some grim, unbidden guest overshadowed the spirits of the company But gradually the scene became more animated The glitter of silver and crystal on the board; the sparkle of jewels and the wealth of shimmering colors that costumed the diners; with the strains of music that came from somewhere behind a floral screen that filled the air with fragrance; concealed, as it were, the hideous image of immorality which was the presiding genius of the feast. As the glare of a too bright light blinds the eyes to the ditch across one's path, so the brilliancy of their surroundings blinded the eyes of his guests to the meaning of that horrid figure in the seat of highest honor. But rich foods and rare wines soon loose the tongues that chatter the thoughts of those who do not think. As the glasses were filled and refilled again, the scene took color from the sparkling goblets. Voices were raised to a higher pitch. Shrill or boisterous laughter rang out, as jest and story went the rounds. It was Mrs. Taine, now, rather than her husband, who dominated the scene. With cheeks flushed and eyes bright she set the pace, nor permitted any laggards.
Conrad Lagrange watched, cool and cynical—his worn face twisted into a mocking smile; his keen, baffling eyes, from under their scowling brows, seeing all, understanding all. Aaron King, weary with the work of the past days, endured—wishing it was over.
The evening was well under way when Mrs. Taine held up her hand. In the silence, she said, "Listen! I have a real treat for you, to-night, friends. Listen!" As she spoke the last word, her eyes met the eyes of the artist, in mocking, challenging humor. He was wondering what she meant, when,—from behind that screen of flowers,—soft and low, poignantly sweet and thrilling in its purity of tone, came the music of the violin that he had learned to know so well.
Instantly, the painter understood. Mrs. Taine had employed Sibyl Andres to play for her guests that evening; thinking to tease the artist by presenting his mountain comrade in the guise of a hired servant. Why the girl had not told him, he did not know. Perhaps she had thought to enjoy his surprise. The effect of the girl's presence—or rather of her music, for she, herself, could not be seen—upon the artist was quite other than Mrs. Taine intended.
Under the spell of the spirit that spoke in the violin, Aaron King was carried far from his glittering surroundings. Again, he stood where the bright waters of Clear Creek tumbled among the granite boulders, and where he had first moved to answer the call of that music of the hills. Again, he followed the old wagon road to the cedar thicket; and, in the little, grassy opening with its wild roses, its encircling wilderness growth, and its old log house under the sheltering sycamores, saw a beautiful girl dancing with the unconscious grace of a woodland sprite, her arms upheld in greeting to the mountains. Once again, he was painting in the sacred quiet of the spring glade where she had come to him with her three gifts; where, in maidenly innocence, she had danced the dance of the butterflies; and, later, with her music, had lifted their friendship to heights of purity as far above the comprehension of the company that listened to her now, as the mountain peaks among the stars that night were high above the house on Fairlands Heights.
The music ceased. It was followed by the loud clapping of hands—with exclamations in high-pitched voices. "Who is it?" "Where did you find him?" "What's his name?"—for they judged, from Mrs. Taine's introductory words, that she expected them to show their appreciation.
Mrs. Taine laughed, and, with her eyes mockingly upon the artist's face answered lightly, "Oh, she is a discovery of mine. She teaches music, and plays in one of the Fairlands churches."
"You are a wonder," said one of the illustrious critics, admiringly. And lifting his glass, he cried, "Here's to our beautiful and talented hostess—the patron saint of all the arts—the friend of all true artists."
In the quiet that followed the enthusiastic endorsement of the distinguished gentleman's words, another voice said, "If it's a girl, can't we see her?" "Yes, yes," came from several. "Please, Mrs. Taine, bring her out." "Have her play again." "Will she?"
Mrs. Taine laughed. "Certainly, she will. That's what she's here for—to amuse you." And, again, as she spoke, her eyes met the eyes of Aaron King.
At her signal, a servant left the room. A moment later, the mountain girl, dressed in simple white, with no jewel or ornament other than a rose in her soft, brown hair, stood before that company. Unconscious of the eyes that fed upon her loveliness; there was the faintest shadow of a smile upon her face as she met, in one swift glance, the artist's look; then, raising her violin, she made music for the revelers, at the will of Mrs. Taine. As she stood there in the modest naturalness of her winsome beauty—innocent and pure as the flowers that formed the screen behind her; hired to amuse the worthy friends and guests of that hideously repulsive devotee of lust and licentiousness who, from his wheeled chair, was glaring at her with eyes that burned insanely—she seemed, as indeed she was, a spirit from another world.
James Rutlidge, his heavy features flushed with drink, was gazing at the girl with a look that betrayed his sensual passion. The face of Conrad Lagrange was dark and grim with scowling appreciation of the situation. Mrs. Taine was looking at the artist. And Aaron King, watching his girl comrade of the hills as she seemed to listen for the music which she in turn drew from the instrument, felt,—by the very force of the contrast between her and her surroundings he had never felt before, the power and charm of her personality—felt—and knew that Sibyl Andres had come into his life to stay.
In the flood of emotions that swept over him, and in the mental and spiritual exultation caused by her music and by her presence amid such scenes; it was given the painter to understand that she had, in truth, brought to him the strength, the purity, and the beauty of the hills; that she had, in truth, shown him the paths that lead to the mountain heights; that it was her unconscious influence and teaching that had made it impossible for him to prostitute his genius to win favor in the eyes of the world. He knew, now, that in those days when he had painted her portrait, as she stood with outstretched hands in the golden light among the roses, he had mixed his colors with the best love that a man may offer a woman. And he knew that the repainting of that false portrait of Mrs. Taine, with all that it would cost him, was his first offering to that love.
The girl musician finished playing and slipped away. When they would have recalled her, Mrs. Taine—too well schooled to betray a hint of the emotions aroused by what she had just seen as she watched Aaron King—shook her head.
At that instant, Mr. Taine rose to his feet, supporting himself by holding with shaking hands to the table. A hush, sudden as the hush of death, fell upon the company. The millionaire's attendant put out his hand to steady his master, and another servant stepped quickly forward. But the man who clung so tenaciously to his last bit of life, with a drunken strength in his dying limbs, shook them off, saying in a hoarse whisper, "Never mind! Never mind—you fools—can't you see I'm game!"
In the quiet of the room, that a moment before rang with excited voices and shrill laughter, the man's husky, straining, whispered boast sounded like the mocking of some invisible, fiendish presence at the feast.
Lifting a glass of whisky with that yellow, claw-like hand upon which the great diamond gleamed—a spot of flawless purity; with his repulsive features twisted into a grewsome ugliness by his straining effort to force his diseased vocal chords to make his words heard; the wretched creature said: "Here's to our girl musician. The prettiest—lassie that I—have seen for many a day—and I think I know a pretty girl—when I see one too. Who comes bright and fresh—from her mountains, to amuse us—and to add, to the beauty—and grace and wit and genius—that so distinguishes this company—the flavor and the freedom of her wild-wood home. Her music—is good, you'll all agree—" he paused to cough and to look inquiringly around, while every one nodded approval and smiled encouragingly. "Her music is good—but I—maintain that she, herself, is better. To me—her beauty is more pleasing to the eye—than—her fiddling can possibly—be to the ear!" Again he was forced to pause, while his guests, with hand and voice, applauded the clever words. Lifting the glass of whisky toward his lips that, by his effort to speak, were drawn back in a repulsive grin, he leered at the celebrities sitting nearest. "I suppose to-morrow—if we desire the company of these distinguished artists—we will have to follow—them to the mountains. I don't blame you, gentlemen—if I was not—ah—temporarily incapacitated—I would certainly—go for a little trip to the inspiring hills—myself. Even if I don't know—as much about music and art as some of you." Again his words were interrupted by that racking cough, the sound of which was lost in the applause that greeted his witticism. Lifting the glass once more, he continued, "So here's to our girl musician—who is her own—lovely self so much more attractive than any music—she can ever make." He drained the glass, and sank back into his chair, exhausted by his effort.