"I am," he answered. "I have been forced to learn it thoroughly. By the way, Miss Andres,"—he added, without turning his head, as he knelt on the ground to take food from the pack,—"that Winchester will do you no good. It is not loaded. I have the shells in my belt." He arose, facing her, and throwing open his coat, touched the butt of a Colt forty-five that hung in a shoulder holster under his left armpit. "This will serve in case quick action is needed, and it is always safely out of your reach, you see."
The girl laughed. "I admit that I was tempted," she said. "I might have known that you put the rifle within my reach to try me."
"I thought it would save you needless disappointment to make things clear at once," he answered. "Breakfast is ready."
The incident threw a strong light upon the character with which Sibyl had to deal. She realized, more than ever, that her only hope lay in so winning this man's sympathies and friendship that he would turn against whoever had forced him into his present position. The struggle was to be one of those silent battles of the spirit, where the forces that war are not seen but only felt, and where those who fight must often fight with smiling faces. The girl's part was to enlist her captor to fight for her, against himself. She saw, as clearly, the need of approaching her object with caution. Eager to know who it was that ruled this man, and by what peculiar power a character so strong could be so subjected, she dared not ask. Hour after hour, as they journeyed deeper and deeper into the mountain wilds, she watched and waited for some sign that her companion's mood would make it safe for her to approach him. Meanwhile, she exercised all her womanly tact to lead him to forget his distasteful position, and so to make his uncongenial task as pleasant as possible.
The girl did not realize how far her decision, in itself, aroused the admiring sympathy of her captor. Her coolness, self-possession, and bravery in meeting the situation with calm, watchful readiness, rather than with hysterical moaning and frantic pleading, did more than she realized toward accomplishing her purpose.
During that long forenoon, she sought to engage her guide in conversation, quite as though they were making a pleasure trip that was mutually agreeable. The man—as though he also desired his thoughts removed as far as might be from his real mission—responded readily, and succeeded in making himself a really interesting companion. Only once, did the girl venture to approach dangerous ground.
"Really," she said, "I wish I knew your name. It seems so stupid not to know how to address you. Is that asking too much?"
The man did not answer for some time, and the girl saw his face clouded with somber thought.
"I beg your pardon," she said gently. "I—I ought not to have asked."
"My name is Henry Marston, Miss Andres," he said deliberately. "But it is not the name by which I am known these days," he added bitterly. "It is an honorable name, and I would like to hear it again—" he paused—"from you."
Sibyl returned gently, "Thank you, Mr. Marston—believe me, I do appreciate your confidence, and—" she in turn hesitated—"and I will keep the trust."
By noon, they had reached Granite Peak in the Galenas, having come by an unmarked way, through the wild country around the head of Clear Creek Canyon.
They had finished lunch, when Marston, looking at his watch, took a small mirror from his pocket and stood gazing expectantly toward the distant valley where Fairlands lay under the blue haze. Presently, a flash of light appeared; then another and another. It was the signal that Aaron King had seen and to which he had called Brian Oakley's attention, that first day of their search.
With his mirror, the man on Granite Peak answered and the girl, watching and understanding that he was communicating with some one, saw his face grow dark with anger. She did not speak.
They had traveled a half mile, perhaps, from the peak, when the man again stopped, saying, "You must dismount here, please."
Removing the things from the saddle, he led the horse a little way down the Galena Valley side of the ridge, and tied the reins to a tree. Then, slapping the animal about the head with his open hand, he forced the horse to break the reins, and started him off toward the distant valley. Again, the girl understood and made no comment.
Lifting the pack to his own strong shoulders, her companion—his eyes avoiding hers in shame—said gruffly, "Come."
Their way, now, led down from the higher levels of peak and ridge, into the canyons and gorges of the Cold Water country. There was no trail, but the man went forward as one entirely at home. At the head of a deep gorge, where their way seemed barred by the face of an impossible cliff that towered above their heads a thousand feet and dropped, another thousand, sheer to the tops of the pines below, he halted and faced the girl, enquiringly. "You have a good head, Miss Andres?"
Sibyl smiled. "I was born in the mountains, Mr. Marston," she answered. "You need not fear for me."
Drawing near to the very brink of the precipice, he led her, by a narrow ledge, across the face of the cliff; and then, by an easier path, down the opposite wall of the gorge.
It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at a little log cabin that was so hidden in the wild tangle of mountain growth at the bottom of the narrow canyon as to be invisible from a distance of a hundred yards.
The girl knew that they had reached the end of their journey. Nearly exhausted by the hours of physical exertion, and worn with the mental and nervous strain, she sank down upon the blankets that her companion spread for her upon the ground.
"As soon as it is dark, I will cook a hot supper for you," he said, regarding her kindly. "Poor child, this has been a hard, hard, day for you. For me—"
Fighting to keep back the tears, she tried to thank him. For a moment he stood looking down at her. Then she saw his face grow black with rage, and, clenching his great fists, he turned away.
While waiting for the darkness that would hide the smoke of the fire, the man gathered cedar boughs from trees near-by, and made a comfortable bed in the cabin, for the girl. As soon as it was dark, he built a fire in the rude fire-place, and, in a few minutes, announced supper. The meal was really excellent; and Sibyl, in spite of her situation, ate heartily; which won an admiring comment from her captor.
The meal finished, he said awkwardly, "I want to thank you, Miss Andres, for making this day as easy for me as you have. We will be alone here, until Friday, at least; perhaps longer. There is a bar to the cabin door. You may rest here as safely as though you were in your own room. Good night."
Before she could answer, he was gone.
A few minutes later, Sibyl stood in the open door. "Mr. Marston," she called.
"Yes, Miss Andres," came, instantly, out of the darkness.
"Please come into the cabin."
There was no answer.
"It will be cold out there. Please come inside."
"Thank you, Miss Andres; but I will do very nicely. Bar the door and go to sleep."
"But, Mr. Marston, I will sleep better if I know that you are comfortable."
The man came to her and she saw him in the dim light of the fire, standing hat in hand. He spoke wonderingly. "Do you mean, Miss Andres, that you would not be afraid to sleep, if I occupied the cabin with you?"
"No," she answered, "I am not afraid. Come in."
But he did not move to cross the threshold. "And why are you not afraid?" he asked curiously.
"Because," she answered, "I know that you are a gentleman."
The man laughed harshly—such a laugh as Sibyl had never before heard. "A gentleman! This is the first time I have heard that word in connection with myself for many a year, Miss Andres. You have little reason for using it—after what I have done to you—and am doing."
"Oh, but you see, I know that you are forced to do what you are doing. You are a gentleman, Mr. Marston.—Won't you please come in and sleep by the fire? You will be so uncomfortable out there. And you have had such a hard day."
"God bless you, for your good heart, Miss Andres," the man said brokenly. "But I will not intrude upon your privacy to-night. Don't you see," he added savagely, "don't you see that I—I can't? Bar your door, please, and let me play the part assigned to me. Your kindness to me, your confidence in me, is wasted."
He turned abruptly away and disappeared in the darkness.
What Should He Do
The next morning, it was evident to Sibyl Andres that the man who said his name was Henry Marston had not slept.
All that day, she watched the battle—saw him fighting with himself. He kept apart from her, and spoke but little. When night came, as soon as supper was over, he again left the cabin, to spend the long, dark hours in a struggle that the girl could only dimly sense. She could not understand; but she felt him fighting, fighting; and she knew that he fought for her. What was it? What terrible unseen force mastered this man,—compelled him to do its bidding,—even while he hated and loathed himself for submitting?
Watchful, ready, hoping, despairing, the helpless girl could only pray that her companion might be given strength.
The following morning, at breakfast, he told her that he must go to Granite Peak to signal. His orders were to lock her in the cabin, and to go alone; but he would not. She might go with him, if she chose.
Even this crumb of encouragement—that he would so far disobey his master—filled the girl's heart with hope. "I would love to go with you, Mr. Marston," she said, "but if it is going to make trouble for you, I would rather stay."
"You mean that you would rather be locked up in the cabin all day, than to make trouble for me?" he asked.
"It wouldn't be so terrible," she answered, "and I would like to do something—something to—to show you that I appreciate your, kindness to me. There's nothing else I can do, is there?"
The man looked at her wonderingly. It was impossible to doubt her sincerity. And Sibyl, as she saw his face, knew that she had never before witnessed such mental and spiritual anguish. The eyes that looked into hers so questioningly, so pleadingly, were the eyes of a soul in torment. Her own eyes filled with tears that she could not hide, and she turned away.
At last he said slowly, "No, Miss Andres, you shall not stay in the cabin to-day. Come; we must go on, or I shall be late."
At Granite Peak, Sibyl watched the signal flashes from distant Fairlands—the flashes that Aaron King was watching, from the peak where they had sat together that day of their last climb. As the man answered the signals with his mirror, and the girl beside him watched, the artist was training his glass upon the spot where they stood; but, partially concealed as they were, the distance was too great.
When Sibyl's captor turned, after receiving the message conveyed by the flashes of light, his face was terrible to see; and the girl, without asking, knew that the crisis was drawing near. Deadly fear gripped her heart; but she was strangely calm. On the way back to the cabin, the man scarcely spoke, but walked with bent head; and the girl felt him fighting, fighting. She longed to cry out, to plead with him, to demand that he tell her why he must do this thing; but she dared not. She knew, instinctively that he must fight alone. So she watched and waited and prayed. As they were crossing the face of the canyon wall, on the narrow ledge, the man stopped and, as though forgetting the girl's presence, stood looking moodily down into the depths below. Then they went on. That night, he did not leave the cabin as soon as they had finished their evening meal, but sat on one of the rude seats with which the little hut was furnished, gazing into the fire.
The girl's heart beat quicker, as he said, "Miss Andres, I would like to ask your opinion in a matter that I cannot decide satisfactorily to myself."
She took the seat on the other side of the rude fireplace.
"What is it, Mr. Marston?"
"I will put it in the form of a story," he answered. Then, after a wait of some minutes, as though he found it hard to begin, he said, "It is an old story, Miss Andres; a very common one, but with a difference. A young man, with every chance in the world to go right, went wrong. He was well-born. He was fairly well educated. His father was a man of influence and considerable means. He had many friends, good and bad. I do not think the man was intentionally bad, but I do not excuse him. He was a fool—that's all—a fool. And, as fools must, he paid the price of his foolishness.
"A sentence of thirty years in the penitentiary is a big price for a young man to pay for being a fool, Miss Andres. He was twenty-five when he went in—strong and vigorous, with a good mind; the prospects years of prison life—but that's not the story. I could not hope to make you understand what a thirty years sentence to the penitentiary means to a man of twenty-five. But, at least, you will not wonder that the man watched for an opportunity to escape. He prayed for an opportunity. For ten years,—ten years,—Miss Andres, the man watched and prayed for a chance to escape. Then he got away.
"He was never a criminal at heart, you must understand. He had no wish, now, to live a life of crime. He wished only to live a sane, orderly, useful, life of freedom. They hunted him to the mountains. They could not take him, but they made it impossible for him to escape—he was starving—dying. He would not give himself up to the twenty years of hell that waited him. He did not want to die—but he would die rather than go back.
"Then, one day, when he was very near the end, a man found him. The poor hunted devil of a convict aroused his pity. He offered help. He gave the wretched, starving creature food. He arranged to furnish him with supplies, until it would be safe for him to leave his hiding place. He brought him food and clothing and books. Later, when the convict's prison pallor was gone, when his hair and beard were grown, and the prison manner and walk were, in some measure, forgotten; when the officers, thinking that he had perished in the mountains, had given up looking for him; his benefactor gave him work—beautiful work in the orange groves—where he was safe and happy and useful and could feel himself a man.
"Do you wonder, Miss Andres, that the man was grateful? Do you wonder that he worshipped his benefactor—that he looked upon his friend as upon his savior?"
"No," said the girl, "I do not wonder. It was a beautiful thing to do—to help the poor fellow who wanted to do right. I do not wonder that the man who had escaped, loved his friend."
"But listen," said the other, "when the convict was beginning to feel safe; when he saw that he was out of danger; when he was living an honorable, happy life, instead of spending his days in the hell they call prison; when he was looking forward to years of happiness instead of to years of torment; then his benefactor came to him suddenly, one day, and said, 'Unless you do what I tell you, now—unless you help me to something that I want, I will send you back to prison. Do as I say, and your life shall go on as it is—as you have planned. Refuse, and I will turn you over to the officers, and you will go back to your hell for the remainder of your life.'
"Do you wonder, Miss Andres, that the convict obeyed his master?"
The girl's face was white with despair, but she did not lose her self-control. She answered the man, thoughtfully—as though they were discussing some situation in which neither had a vital interest. "I think, Mr. Marston," she said, "that it would depend upon what it was that the man wanted the convict to do. It seems to me that I can imagine the convict being happier in prison, knowing that he had not done what the man wanted, than he would he, free, remembering what he had done to gain his freedom. What was it the man wanted?"
Breathlessly, Sibyl waited the answer.
The man on the other side of the fire did not speak.
At last, in a voice hoarse with emotion, Henry Marston said, "Freedom and a life of honorable usefulness purchased at a price, or hell, with only the memory of a good deed—which should the man choose, Miss Andres?"
"I think," she replied, "that you should tell me, plainly, what it was that the man wanted the convict to do."
"I will go on with the story," said the other.
"The convict's benefactor—or, perhaps I should say, master—loved a woman who refused to listen to him. The girl, for some reason, left home, very suddenly and unexpectedly to any one. She left a hurried note, saying, only, that she was going away. By accident, the man found the note and saw his opportunity. He guessed that the girl would go to friends in the mountains. He saw that if he could intercept her, and keep her hidden, no one would know what had become of her. He believed that she would marry him rather than face the world after spending so many days with him alone, because her manner of leaving home would lend color to the story that she had gone with him. Their marriage would save her good name. He wanted the man whom he could send back to prison to help him.
"The convict had known his benefactor's kindness of heart, you must remember, Miss Andres. He knew that this man was able to give his wife everything that seems desirable in life—that thousands of women would have been glad to marry him. The man assured the convict that he desired only to make the girl his wife before all the world. He agreed that she should remain under the convict's protection until she was his wife, and that the convict should, himself, witness the ceremony." The man paused.
When the girl did not speak, he said again, "Do you wonder, Miss Andres, that the convict obeyed his master?"
"No," said the girl, softly, "I do not wonder. But, Mr. Marston," she continued, hesitatingly, "what do you think the convict in your story would have done if the man had not—if he had not wanted to marry the girl?"
"I know what he would have done in that case," the other answered with conviction. "He would have gone back to his twenty years of hell. He would have gone back to fifty years of hell, if need be, rather than buy his freedom at such a price."
The girl leaned forward, eagerly; "And suppose—suppose—that after the convict had done his master's bidding—suppose that after he had taken the girl away from her friends—suppose, then, the man would not marry her?"
For a moment there was no sound in the little room, save the crackling of the fire in the fire-place, and the sound of a stick that had burned in two, falling in the ashes.
"What would the convict do if the man would not marry the girl?" persisted Sibyl.
Her companion spoke with the solemnity of a judge passing sentence; "If the man violated his word—if he lied to the convict—if his purpose toward the girl was anything less than an honorable marriage—if he refused to keep his promise after the convict had done his part—he would die, Miss Andres. The convict would kill his benefactor—as surely as there is a just God who, alone, can say what is right and what is wrong."
The girl uttered a low cry.
The man did not seem to notice. "But the man will do as he promised, Miss Andres. He wishes to make the girl his wife. He can give her all that women, these days, seem to desire in marriage. In the eyes of the world, she would be envied by thousands. And the convict would gain freedom and the right to live an honorable life—the right to earn his bread by doing an honest man's work. Freedom and a life of honorable service, at the price; or hell, with only the memory of a good deed—which should he choose, Miss Andres? The convict is past deciding for himself."
The troubled answer came out of the honesty of the girl's heart; "Mr. Marston, I do not know."
A moment, the man on the other side of the fireplace waited. Then, rising, he quietly left the cabin. The girl did not know that he was gone, until she heard the door close.
* * * * *
In that log hut, hidden in the deep gorge, in the wild Cold Water country, Sibyl Andres sat before the dying fire, waiting for the dawn. On a high, wind-swept ledge in the Galena mountains, Aaron King grimly walked his weary beat. In Clear Creek Canyon, Myra Willard and Conrad Lagrange waited, and Brian Oakley planned for the morrow. Over in the Galena Valley, an automobile from Fairlands stopped at the mouth of a canyon leading toward Granite Peak. Somewhere, in the darkness of the night, a man strove to know right from wrong.
The Man Was Insane
Neither Sibyl Andres nor her companion, the next morning, reopened their conversation of the night before. Each was preoccupied and silent, with troubled thoughts that might not be spoken.
Often, as the forenoon passed, Sibyl saw the man listening, as though for a step on the mountainside above. She knew, without being told, that the convict was expecting his master. It was, perhaps, ten o'clock, when they heard a sound that told them some one was approaching.
The man caught up his rifle and slipped a round of cartridges into the magazine; saying to the girl, "Go into the cabin and bar the door; quick, do as I say! Don't come out until I call you."
She obeyed; and the convict, himself, rifle in hand, disappeared in the heavy underbrush.
A few minutes later, James Rutlidge parted the bushes and stepped into the little open space in front of the cabin. The convict reappeared, his rifle under his arm.
The new-comer greeted the man whom Sibyl knew as Henry Marston, with, "Hello, George, everything all right? Where is she?"
"Miss Andres is in the cabin. When I heard you coming, I asked her to go inside, and took cover in the brush, myself, until I knew for sure that it was you."
Rutlidge laughed. "You are all right, George. But you needn't worry. Everything is as peaceful as a graveyard. They've found the horse, and they think now that the girl killed herself, or met with an accident while wandering around the hills in a state of mental aberration."
"You left the supplies at the same old place, I suppose?" said the convict.
"Yes, I brought what I could," Rutlidge indicated a pack which he had slipped from his shoulder as he was talking. "You better hike over there and bring in the rest to-night. If you leave at once, you will make it back by noon, to-morrow."
The girl in the cabin, listening, heard every word and trembled with fear. The convict spoke again.
"What are your plans, Mr. Rutlidge?"
"Never mind my plans, now. They can wait until you get back. You must start at once. You say Miss Andres is in the cabin?" He turned toward the door.
But the other said, shortly, "Wait a minute, sir. I have a word to say, before I go."
"Well, out with it."
"You are not going to forget your promise to me?"
"Certainly not, George. You are safe."
"I mean regarding Miss Andres."
"Oh, of course not! Why, what's the matter?"
"Nothing, only she is in my care until she is your wife."
James Rutlidge laughed. "I will take good care of her until you get back. You need have no fear. You're not doubting my word, are you?"
"If I doubted your word, I would take Miss Andres with me," answered the convict, simply.
James Rutlidge looked at him, curiously; "Oh, you would?"
"Yes, sir, I would; and I think I should tell you, too, that if you should forget your promise—"
"Well, what would you do if I should forget?"
The answer came deliberately; "If you do not keep your promise I will kill you, Mr. Rutlidge."
James Rutlidge did not reply.
Stepping to the cabin door, the convict knocked.
Sibyl's voice answered, "Yes?"
"You may come out now, please, Miss Andres."
As the girl opened the door, she spoke to him in a low tone. "Thank you, Mr. Marston. I heard."
"I meant you to hear," he returned in a whisper. "Do not be afraid." In a louder tone he continued. "I must go for supplies, Miss Andres. I will be back to-morrow noon."
He stepped around the corner of the cabin, and was gone.
Sibyl Andres faced James Rutlidge, without speaking. She was not afraid, now, as she had always been in his presence, until that day when he had so plainly declared himself to her and she met his advances with a gun. The convict's warning to the man who could send him back to prison for practically the remaining years of his life, had served its purpose in giving her courage. She did not believe that, for the present, Rutlidge would dare to do otherwise than heed the warning.
James Rutlidge regarded her with a smile of triumphant satisfaction. "Really," he said, at last, "you do not seem at all glad to see me."
She made no reply.
"I am frightfully hungry"—he continued, with a short laugh, moving toward her as she stood in the door of the cabin—"I've been walking since midnight I was in such a hurry to get here that I didn't even stop for breakfast."
She stepped out, and moved away from the door.
With another laugh, he entered the cabin.
Presently, when he had helped himself to food, he went back to the girl who had seated herself on a log, at the farther side of the little clearing. "You seem fairly comfortable here," he said.
She did not speak.
"You and my man get along nicely, I take it. He has been kind to you?"
Still she did not speak.
He spoke sharply, "Look here, my girl, you can't keep this up, you know. Say what you have to say, and let's get it over."
All the time, she had been regarding him intently—her wide, blue eyes filled with wondering pain. "How could you?" she said at last. "Oh, how could you do such a thing?"
His face flushed. "I did it because you have driven me mad, I guess. From the first time I saw you, I have wanted you. I have tried again and again, in the last three years, to approach you; but you would have nothing to do with me. The more you spurned me, the more I wanted you. Then this man, King, came. You were friendly enough, with him. It made me wild. From that day when I met you in the mountains above Lone Cabin, I have been ready for anything. I determined if I could not win you by fair means, I would take you in any way I could. When my opportunity came, I took advantage of it. I've got you. The story is already started that you were the painter's mistress, and that you have committed suicide. You shall stay here, a while, until the belief that you are dead has become a certainty; then you will go East with me."
"But you cannot do a thing so horrible!" she exclaimed "I would tell my story to the first people we met."
He laughed grimly, as he retorted with brutal meaning, "You do not seem to understand. You will be glad enough to keep the story a secret—when the time comes to go."
Bewildered by fear and shame, the girl could only stammer, "How could you—oh how could you! Why, why—"
"Why!" he echoed. Then, as he went a step toward her, he exclaimed, with reckless profanity, "Ask the God who made me what I am, why I want you! Ask the God who made you so beautiful, why!"
He moved another step toward her, his face flushed with the insane passion that mastered him, his eyes burning with the reckless light of one past counting the cost; and the girl, seeing, sprang to her feet, in terror. Wheeling suddenly, she ran into the cabin, thinking to shut and bar the door. She reached the door, and swung it shut, but the bar was gone. While he was in the cabin he had placed it out of her reach. Putting his shoulder to the door, the man easily forced it open against her lighter weight. As he crossed the threshold, she sprang to the farthest corner of the little room, and cowered, trembling—too shaken with horror to cry out. A moment he paused; then started toward her.
At that instant, the convict burst through the underbrush into the little opening.
Hearing the sound, Rutlidge wheeled and sprang to the open door.
The convict was breathing heavily from the exertion of a hard run.
"What are you doing here?" demanded Rutlidge, sharply. "What's the matter?"
"Some one is following my trail down from Granite Peak."
"Well, what are you carrying that rifle for?" said Rutlidge, harshly, with an oath.
"There may be others near enough to hear a shot," answered the convict. "Besides, Mr. Rutlidge, this is your part of the game—not mine. I did not agree to commit murder for you."
"Where did you see him?"
"A half mile beyond the head of the gulch, where we turn off to go to the supply point."
Rutlidge, rifle in hand, stepped from the house. "You stay here and take care of the girl—and see that she doesn't scream." With the last word he set out at a run.
The convict sprang into the cabin, where Sibyl still crouched in the corner. The man's voice was imploring as he said, "Miss Andres, Miss Andres, what is the matter? Did he touch you? Tell me, did he harm you?"
Sobbing, the girl held out her hands, and he lifted her to her feet. "You—you came—just in time, Mr. Marston."
An instant he stood there, then muttering something under his breath, he turned, caught up his rifle, and started toward the door.
But, as he reached the threshold, she cried out, "Mr. Marston, don't, don't leave me again."
The convict stopped, hesitated, then he said solemnly "Miss Andres, can you pray? I know you can. You are a good girl. If God can hear a prayer he will surely hear you. Come with me. Come—and pray girl—pray for me."
* * * * *
The most charitable construction that can be put upon the action of James Rutlidge, just related, is to accept the explanation of his conduct that he, himself made to Sibyl. The man was insane—as Mr. Taine was insane—as Mrs. Taine was insane.
What else can be said of a class of people who, in an age wedded to materialism, demand of their artists not that they shall set before them ideals of truth and purity and beauty, but that they shall feed their diseased minds with thoughts of lust and stimulate their abnormal passions with lascivious imaginings? Can a class—whatever its pretense to culture may be—can a class, that, in story and picture and music and play, counts greatest in art those who most effectively arouse the basest passions of which the human being is capable, be rightly judged sane?
James Rutlidge was bred, born, and reared in an atmosphere that does not tolerate purity of thought. It was literally impossible for him to think sanely of the holiest, most sacred, most fundamental facts of life. Education, culture, art, literature,—all that is commonly supposed to lift man above the level of the beasts,—are used by men and women of his kind to so pervert their own natures that they are able to descend to bestial depths that the dumb animals themselves are not capable of reaching. In what he called his love for Sibyl Andres, James Rutlidge was insane—but no more so than thousands of others. The methods of securing the objects of their desires vary—the motive that prompts is the same—the end sought is identical.
As he hurriedly climbed the mountainside, out of the deep gorge that hid the cabin, the man's mind was in a whirl of emotions—rage at being interrupted at the moment of his triumph; dread lest the approaching one should be accompanied by others, and the girl be taken from him; fear that the convict would prove troublesome, even should the more immediate danger be averted; anger at himself for being so blindly precipitous; and a maddening indecision as to how he should check the man who was following the tracks that led from Granite Peak to the evident object of his search. The words of the convict rang in his ears. "This is your job. I did not agree to commit murder for you."
Murder had no place in the insanity of James Rutlidge To destroy innocence, to kill virtue, to murder a soul—these are commonplaces in the insane philosophy of his kind. But to kill—to take a life deliberately—the thought was abhorrent to him. He was not educated to the thought of taking life—he was trained to consider its perversion. The heroes in his fiction did not kill men—they betrayed women. The heroines in his stories did not desire the death of their betrayers—they loved them, and deserted their husbands for them.
But to stand idly aside and permit Sibyl Andres to be taken from him—to face the exposure that would inevitably follow—was impossible. If the man who had struck the trail was alone, there might still be a chance—if he could be stopped. But how could he check him? What could he do? A rifle-shot might bring a dozen searchers.
While these thoughts were seething in his hot brain, he was climbing rapidly toward the cliff at the head of the gorge, across which, he knew, the man who was following the tracks that led to the cabin below, must come.
Gaining the end of the ledge that leads across the face of that mighty wall of rock, less than a hundred feet to the other side, he stopped. There was no one in sight. Looking down, he saw, a thousand feet below the tops of the trees in the bottom of the gorge. Lifting his head, he looked carefully about, searching the mountainsides that slope steeply back from the rim of the narrow canyon. He looked up at the frowning cliff that towered a thousand feet above his head. He listened. He was thinking, thinking. The best of him and the worst of him struggled for supremacy.
A sound on the mountainside, above the gorge, and beyond the other end of the ledge, caught his ear. With a quick step he moved behind a projecting corner of the cliff. Rifle in hand, he waited.
An Inevitable Conflict
When Aaron King set out to follow the tracks he had found at Granite Peak, after his long, hard trip along the rugged crest of the Galenas, his weariness was forgotten. Eagerly, as if fresh and strong, but with careful eyes and every sense keenly alert, he went forward on the trail that he knew must lead him to Sibyl Andres.
He did not attempt to solve the problem of how the girl came there, nor did he pause to wonder about her companion. He did not even ask himself if Sibyl were living or dead. He thought of nothing; knew nothing; was conscious of nothing; but the trail that led away into the depths of the mountain wilderness. Insensible to his own physical condition; without food; unacquainted with the wild country into which he was going; reckless of danger to himself but with all possible care and caution for the sake of the girl he loved, he went on.
Coming to the brink of the gorge in which the cabin was hidden, the trail, following the rim, soon led him to the ledge that lay across the face of the cliff at the head of the narrow canyon. A moment, he paused, to search the vicinity with careful eyes, then started to cross. As he set foot upon the ledge, a voice at the other end called sharply, "Stop."
At the word, Aaron King halted.
A moment passed. James Rutlidge stepped from behind the rocks at the other end of the ledge. He was covering the artist with a rifle.
In a flash, the man on the trail understood. The automobile, the mirror signals from Fairlands—it was all explained by the presence and by the menacing attitude of the man who barred his way. The artist's hand moved toward the weapon that hung at his hip.
"Don't do that," said the man with the rifle. "I can't murder you in cold blood; but if you attempt to draw your gun, I'll fire."
The other stood still.
James Rutlidge spoke again, his voice hoarse with emotion; "Listen to me, King. It's useless for me to deny what brought me here. The trail you are following leads to Sibyl Andres. You had her all summer. I've got her now. If you hadn't stumbled onto the trail up there, I would have taken her out of the country, and you would never have seen her again. I might have killed you before you saw me, but I couldn't. I'm not that kind. Under the circumstances there is no possible compromise. I'll give you a fighting chance for your life and the girl. I'll take a fighting chance for my life and the girl. Throw your gun out of reach and I'll leave mine here. We'll meet on the ledge there."
James Rutlidge was no coward. Mr. Taine, also,—it will be remembered,—on the night of his death, boasted that he was game.
Without an instant's hesitation, Aaron King unbuckled the belt that held his weapon and, turning, tossed it behind him, with the gun still in its holster. At the other end of the ledge, James Rutlidge set his rifle behind the rock.
Deliberately, the two men removed their coats and threw aside their hats. For a moment they stood eyeing each other. Into Aaron King's mind flashed the memory of that scene at the Fairlands depot, when, moved by the distress of the woman with the disfigured face, he had first spoken to the man who faced him now. With startling vividness, the incidents of their acquaintance came to him in flash-like succession—the day that Rutlidge had met Sibyl in the studio; the time of his visit to the camp in the sycamore grove; the night of the Taine banquet—a hundred things that had strengthened the feeling of antagonism which had marked their first meeting. And, through it all, he seemed to hear Conrad Lagrange saying that in his story of life this character's name was "Sensual." The artist, in that instant, knew that this meeting was inevitable.
It was only for a moment that the two men—who in their lives and characters represented forces so antagonistic—stood regarding each other, each knowing that the duel would be—must be—to the death. Deliberately, they started toward the center of the ledge. Over their heads towered the great cliff. A thousand feet below were the tops of the trees in the bottom of the gorge. About them, on every hand, the silent, mighty hills watched—the wild and lonely wilderness waited.
As they drew closer together, they moved, as wrestlers, warily—crouching, silent, alert. Stripped to their shirts and trousers, they were both splendid physical types. James Rutlidge was the heavier, but Aaron King made up for his lack in weight by a more clean-cut, muscular firmness.
They grappled. As two primitive men in a savage age might have met, bare handed, they came together. Locked in each other's arms, their limbs entwined, with set faces, tugging muscles, straining sinews, and taut nerves they struggled. One moment they crushed against the rocky wall of the cliff—the next, and they swayed toward the edge of the ledge and hung over the dizzy precipice. With pounding hearts, laboring breath, and clenched teeth they wrestled.
James Rutlidge's foot slipped on the rocky floor; but, with a desperate effort, he regained his momentary loss. Aaron King—worn by his days of anxiety, by his sleepless nights and by the long hours of toil over the mountains, without sufficient food or rest—felt his strength going. Slowly, the weight and endurance of the heavier man told against him. James Rutlidge felt it, and his eyes were beginning to blaze with savage triumph.
They were breathing, now, with hoarse, sobbing gasps, that told of the nearness of the finish. Slowly, Aaron King weakened. Rutlidge, spurred to increase his effort, and exerting every ounce of his strength, was bearing the other downward and back.
At that instant, the convict and Sibyl Andres reached the cliff. With a cry of horror, the girl stood as though turned to stone.
Motionless, without a word, the convict watched the struggling men.
With a sob, the girl stretched forth her hands. In a low voice she called, "Aaron! Aaron! Aaron!"
The two men on the ledge heard nothing—saw nothing.
Sibyl spoke again, almost in a whisper, but her companion heard. "Mr. Marston, Mr. Marston, it is Aaron King. I—I love him—I—love him."
Without taking his eyes from the struggling men, the convict answered, "Pray, girl; pray, pray for me." As he spoke, he steadily raised his rifle to his shoulder.
Aaron King went down upon one knee. Rutlidge his legs braced, his body inclined toward the edge of the precipice, was gathering his strength for the last triumphant effort.
The convict, looking along his steady rifle barrel, was saying again, "Pray, pray for me, girl." As the words left his lips, his finger pressed the trigger, and the quiet of the hills was broken by the sharp crack of the rifle.
James Rutlidge's hold upon the artist slipped. For a fraction of a second, his form half straightened and he stood nearly erect; then, as a weed cut by the sharp scythe of a mower falls, he fell; his body whirling downward toward the trees and rocks below. The sound of the crashing branches mingled with the reverberating report of the shot. On the ledge, Aaron King lay still.
The convict dropped his rifle and ran forward. Lifting the unconscious man in his arms, he carried him a little way down the mountain, toward the cabin; where he laid him gently on the ground. To Sibyl, who hung over the artist in an agony of loving fear, he said hurriedly, "He'll be all right, presently, Miss Andres. I'll fetch his coat and hat."
Running back to the ledge, he caught up the dead man's rifle, coat, and hat, and threw them over the precipice, as he swiftly crossed for the artist's things. Recovering his own rifle, he ran back to the girl.
"Listen, Miss Andres," said the convict, speaking quickly. "Mr. King will be all right in a few minutes. That rifle-shot will likely bring his friends; if not, you are safe, now, anyway. I dare not take chances. Good-by."
From where she sat with the unconscious man's head in her lap, she looked at him, wonderingly. "Good-by?" she repeated questioningly.
Henry Marston smiled grimly. "Certainly, good-by What else is there for me?"
A moment later, she saw him running swiftly down the mountainside, like some hunted creature of the wilderness.
The Better Way
Alone on the mountainside with the man who had awakened the pure passion of her woman heart, Sibyl Andres bent over the unconscious object of her love. She saw his face, unshaven, grimy with the dirt of the trail and the sweat of the fight, drawn and thin with the mental torture that had driven him beyond the limit of his physical strength; she saw how his clothing was stained and torn by contact with sharp rocks and thorns and bushes; she saw his hands—the hands that she had watched at their work upon her portrait as she stood among the roses—cut and bruised, caked with blood and dirt—and, seeing these things, she understood.
In that brief moment when she had watched Aaron King in the struggle upon the ledge,—and, knowing that he was fighting for her, had realized her love for him,—all that Mrs. Taine had said to her in the studio was swept away. The cruel falsehoods, the heartless misrepresentations, the vile accusations that had caused her to seek the refuge of the mountains and the protection of her childhood friends were, in the blaze of her awakened passion, burned to ashes; her cry to the convict—"I love him, I love him"—was more than an expression of her love; it was a triumphant assertion of her belief in his love for her—it was her answer to the evil seeing world that could not comprehend their fellowship.
As the life within the man forced him slowly toward consciousness, the girl, natural as always in the full expression of herself, bent over him with tender solicitude. With endearing words, she kissed his brow, his hair, his hands. She called his name in tones of affection. "Aaron, Aaron, Aaron." But when she saw that he was about to awake, she deftly slipped off her jacket and, placing it under his head, drew a little back.
He opened his eyes and looked wonderingly up at the dark pines that clothed the mountainsides. His lips moved and she heard her name; "Sibyl, Sibyl."
She leaned forward, eagerly, her cheeks glowing with color. "Yes, Mr. King."
"Am I dreaming, again?" he said slowly, gazing at her as though struggling to command his senses.
"No, Mr. King," she answered cheerily, "you are not dreaming."
Carefully, as one striving to follow a thread of thought in a bewildering tangle of events, he went over the hours just past. "I was up on that peak where you and I ate lunch the day you tried to make me see the Golden State Limited coming down from the pass. Brian Oakley sent me there to watch for buzzards." For a moment he turned away his face, then continued, "I saw flashes of light in Fairlands and on Granite Peak. I left a note for Brian and came over the range. I spent one night on the way. I found tracks on the peak. There were two, a man and a woman. I followed them to a ledge of rock at the head of a canyon," he paused. Thus far the thread of his thought was clear. "Did some one stop me? Was there—was there a fight? Or is that part of my dream?"
"No," she said softly, "that is not part of your dream."
"And it was James Rutlidge who stopped me, as I was going to you?"
"Then where—" with quick energy he sat up and grasped her arm—"My God! Sibyl—Miss Andres, did I, did I—" He could not finish the sentence, but sank back, overcome with emotion.
The girl spoke quickly, with a clear, insistent voice that rallied his mind and forced him to command himself.
"Think, Mr. King, think! Do you remember nothing more? You were struggling—your strength was going—can't you remember? You must, you must!"
Lifting his face he looked at her. "Was there a rifle-shot?" he asked slowly. "It seems to me that something in my brain snapped, and everything went black. Was there a rifle-shot?"
"Yes," she answered.
"And I did not—I did not—?"
"No. You did not kill James Rutlidge. He would have killed you, but for the shot that you heard."
"And Rutlidge is—?"
"He is dead," she answered simply.
Briefly, she told him the story, from the time that she had met Mrs. Taine in the studio until the convict had left her, a few minutes before. "And now," she finished, rising quickly, "we must go down to the cabin. There is food there. You must be nearly starved. I will cook supper for you, and when you have had a night's sleep, we will start home."
"But first," he said, as he rose to his feet and stood before her, "I must tell you something. I should have told you before, but I was waiting until I thought you were ready to hear. I wonder if you know. I wonder if you are ready to hear, now."
She looked him frankly in the eyes as she answered, "Yes, I know what you want to tell me. But don't, don't tell me here." She shuddered, and the man remembering the dead body that lay at the foot of the cliff, understood. "Wait," she said, "until we are home."
"And you will come to me when you are ready? When you want me to tell you?" he said.
"Yes," she answered softly, "I will go to you when I am ready."
* * * * *
At the cabin in the gulch, the girl hastened to prepare a substantial meal. There was no one, now, to fear that the smoke would be seen. Later, with cedar boughs and blankets, she made a bed for him on the floor near the fire-place. When he would have helped her she forbade him; saying that he was her guest and that he must rest to be ready for the homeward trip.
Softly, the day slipped away over the mountain peaks and ridges that shut them in. Softly, the darkness of the night settled down. In the rude little hut, in the lonely gulch, the man and the woman whose lives were flowing together as two converging streams, sat by the fire, where, the night before, the convict had told that girl his story.
Very early, Sibyl insisted that her companion lie down to sleep upon the bed she had made. When he protested, she answered, laughing, "Very well, then, but you will be obliged to sit up alone," and, with a "Good night," she retired to her own bed in another corner of the cabin. Once or twice, he spoke to her, but when she did not answer he lay down upon his woodland couch and in a few minutes was fast asleep.
In the dim light of the embers, the girl slipped from her bed and stole quietly across the room to the fire-place, to lay another stick of wood upon the glowing coals. A moment she stood, in the ruddy light, looking toward the sleeping man. Then, without a sound, she stole to his side, and kneeling, softly touched his forehead with her lips. As silently, she crept back to her couch.
* * * * *
All that afternoon Brian Oakley had been following with trained eyes, the faintly marked trail of the man whose dead body was lying, now, at the foot of the cliff. When the darkness came, the mountaineer ate a cold supper and, under a rude shelter quickly improvised by his skill in woodcraft, slept beside the trail. Near the head of Clear Creek, Jack Carleton, on his way to Granite Peak, rolled in his blanket under the pines. Somewhere in the night, the man who had saved Sibyl Andres and Aaron King, each for the other, fled like a fearful, hunted thing.
* * * * *
At daybreak, Sibyl was up, preparing their breakfast But so quietly did she move about her homely task that the artist did not awake. When the meal was ready, she called him, and he sprang to his feet, declaring that he felt himself a new man. Breakfast over, they set out at once.
When they came to the cliff at the head of the gulch, the girl halted and, shrinking back, covered her face with trembling hands; afraid, for the first time in her life, to set foot upon a mountain trail. Gently, her companion led her across the ledge, and a little way back from the rim of the gorge on the other side.
Five minutes later they heard a shout and saw Brian Oakley coming toward them. Laughing and crying, Sibyl ran to meet him; and the mountaineer, who had so many times looked death in the face, unafraid and unmoved, wept like a child as he held the girl in his arms.
When Sibyl and Aaron had related briefly the events that led up to their meeting with the Ranger, and he in turn had told them how he had followed the track of the automobile and, finding the hidden supplies, had followed the trail of James Rutlidge from that point, the officer asked the girl several questions. Then, for a little while he was silent, while they, guessing his thoughts, did not interrupt. Finally, he said, "Jack is due at Granite Peak, sometime about noon. He'll have his horse, and with Sibyl riding, we'll make it back down to the head of Clear Creek by dark. You young folks just wait for me here a little. I want to look around below there, a bit."
As he started toward the gulch, Sibyl sprang to her feet and threw herself into his arms. "No, no, Brian Oakley, you shall not—you shall not do it!"
Holding her close, the Ranger looked down into her pleading eyes, smilingly. "And what do you think I am going to do, girlie?"
"You are going down there to pick up the trail of the man who saved Aaron—who saved me. But you shall not do it. I don't care if you are an officer, and he is an escaped convict! I will not let you do anything that might lead to his capture."
"God bless you, child," answered Brian Oakley, "the only escaped convict I know anything about, this last year, according to my belief, died somewhere in the mountains. If you don't believe it, look up my official reports on the matter."
"And you're not going to find which way he went?"
"Listen, Sibyl," said the Ranger gravely. "The disappearance of James Rutlidge, prominent as he was, will be heralded from one end of the world to the other. The newspapers will make the most of it. The search is sure to be carried into these hills, for that automobile trip in the night will not go unquestioned, and Sheriff Walters knows too much of my suspicions. In a few days, the body will be safely past recognition, even should it be discovered through the buzzards. But I can't take chances of anything durable being found to identify the man who fell over the cliff."
When he returned to them, two hours later, he said, quietly, "It's a mighty good thing I went down. It wasn't a nice job, but I feel better. We can forget it, now, with perfect safety. Remember"—he charged them impressively—"even to Myra Willard and Conrad Lagrange, the story must be only that an unknown man took you, Sibyl, from your horse. The man escaped, when Aaron found you. We'll let the Sheriff, or whoever can, solve the mystery of that automobile and Jim Rutlidge's disappearance."
A half mile from Granite Peak, they met Jack Carleton and, by dark, as Brian Oakley had said, were safely down to the head of Clear Creek; having come by routes, known to the Ranger, that were easier and shorter than the roundabout way followed by the convict and the girl.
It was just past midnight when the three friends parted from young Carleton and crossed the canyon to Sibyl's old home.
Facing the Truth
As Brian Oakley had predicted, the disappearance of James Rutlidge occupied columns in the newspapers, from coast to coast. In every article he was headlined as "A Distinguished Citizen;" "A Famous Critic;" "A Prominent Figure in the World of Art;" "One of the Greatest Living Authorities;" "Leader in the Modern School;" "Of Powerful Influence Upon the Artistic Production of the Age." The story of the unknown mountain girl's abduction and escape was a news item of a single day; but the disappearance of James Rutlidge kept the press busy for weeks. It may be dismissed here with the simple statement that the mystery has never been solved.
Of the unknown man who had taken Sibyl away into the mountains, and who had escaped, the world has never heard. Of the convict who died but did not die in the hills, the world knows nothing. That is, the world knows nothing of the man in this connection. But Aaron and Sibyl, some years later, knew what became of Henry Marston—which does not, at all, belong to this story.
Upon his return with Conrad Lagrange to their home in the orange groves, Aaron King plunged into his work with a purpose very different from the motive that had prompted him when first he took up his brushes in the studio that looked out upon the mountains and the rose garden.
Day after day, as he gave himself to his great picture,—"The Feast of Materialism,"—he knew the joy of the worker who, in his art, surrenders himself to a noble purpose—a joy that is very different from the light, passing pleasure that comes from the mere exercise of technical skill. The artist did not, now, need to drive himself to his task, as the begging musician on the street corner forces himself to play to the passing crowd, for the pennies that are dropped in his tin cup. Rather was he driven by the conviction of a great truth, and by the realization of its woeful need in the world, to such adequate expression as his mastery of the tools of his craft would permit He was not, now, the slave of his technical knowledge; striving to produce a something that should be merely technically good. He was a master, compelling the medium of his art to serve him; as he, in turn, was compelled to serve the truth that had mastered him.
Sometimes, with Conrad Lagrange, he went for an evening hour to the little house next door. Sometimes Sibyl and Myra Willard would drop in at the studio, in the afternoon. The girl never, now, came alone. But every day, as the artist worked, the music of her violin came to him, out of the orange grove, with its message from the hills. And the painter at his easel, reading aright the message, worked and waited; knowing surely that when she was ready she would come.
Letters from Mrs. Taine were frequent. Aaron King, reading them—nearly always under the quizzing eyes of Conrad Lagrange, whose custom it was to bring the daily mail—carefully tore them into little pieces and dropped them into the waste basket, without comment.
Once, the novelist asked with mock gravity, "Have you no thought for the day of judgment, young man? Do you not know that your sins will surely find you out?"
The artist laughed. "It is so written in the law, I believe."
The other continued solemnly, "Your recklessness is only hastening the end. If you don't answer those letters you will be forced, shortly, to meet the consequences face to face."
"I suppose so," returned the painter, indifferently. "But I have my answer ready, you know."
"You mean that portrait?"
The novelist laughed grimly. "I think it will do the trick. But, believe me, there will be consequences!"
The artist was in his studio, at work upon the big picture, when Mrs. Taine called, the day of her return to Fairlands.
It was well on in the afternoon. Conrad Lagrange and Czar had started for a walk, but had gone, as usual, only as far as the neighboring house. Yee Kee, meeting Mrs. Taine at the door, explained, doubtfully, that the artist was at his work. He would go tell Mr. King that Mrs. Taine was here.
"Never mind, Kee. I will tell him myself," she answered; and, before the Chinaman could protest, she was on her way to the studio.
"Damn!" said the Celestial eloquently; and retired to his kitchen to ruminate upon the ways of "Mellican women."
Mrs. Taine pushed open the door of the studio, so quietly, that the painter, standing at his easel and engrossed with his work, did not notice her presence. For several moments the woman stood watching him, paying no heed to the picture, seeing only the man. When he did not look around, she said, "Are you too busy to even look at me?"
With an exclamation, he faced her; then, as quickly, turned again; with hand outstretched to draw the easel curtain. But, as though obeying a second thought that came quickly upon the heels of the first impulse, he did not complete the movement. Instead, he laid his palette and brushes beside his color-box, and greeted her with, "How do you do, Mrs. Taine? When did you return to Fairlands? Is Miss Taine with you?"
"Louise is abroad," she answered. "I—I preferred California. I arrived this afternoon." She went a step toward him. "You—you don't seem very glad to see me."
The painter colored, but she continued impulsively, without waiting for his reply. "If you only knew all that I have been doing for you!—the wires I have pulled; the influences I have interested; the critics and newspaper men that I have talked to! Of course I couldn't do anything in a large public way, so soon after Mr. Taine's death, you know; but I have been busy, just the same, and everything is fixed. When our picture is exhibited next season, you will find yourself not only a famous painter, but a social success as well." She paused. When he still did not speak, she went on, with an air of troubled sadness; "I do miss Jim's help though. Isn't it frightful the way he disappeared? Where do you suppose he is? I can't—I won't—believe that anything has happened to him. It's all just one of his schemes to get himself talked about. You'll see that he will appear again, safe and sound, when the papers stop filling their columns about him. I know Jim Rutlidge, too well."
Aaron King thought of those bones, picked bare by the carrion birds, at the foot of the cliff. "It seems to be one of the mysteries of the day," he said. "Commonplace enough, no doubt, if one only had the key to it."
Mrs. Taine had evidently not been in Fairlands long enough to hear the story of Sibyl's disappearance—for which the artist mentally gave thanks.
"I am glad for one thing," continued the woman, her mind intent upon the main purpose of her call. "Jim had already written a splendid criticism of your picture—before he went away—and I have it. All this newspaper talk about him will only help to attract attention to what he has said about you. They are saying such nice things of him and his devotion to art, you know—it is all bound to help you." She waited for his approval, and for some expression of his gratitude.
"I fear, Mrs. Taine," he said slowly, "that you are making a mistake."
She laughed nervously, and answered with forced gaiety. "Not me. I'm too old a hand at the game not to know just how far I dare or dare not go."
"I do not mean that"—he returned—"I mean that I can not do my part. I fear you are mistaken in me."
Again, she laughed. "What nonsense! I like for you to be modest, of course—that will be one of your greatest charms. But if you are worried about the quality of your work—forget it, my dear boy. Once I have made you the rage, no one will stop to think whether your pictures are good or bad. The art is not in what you do, but in how you get it before the world. Ask Conrad Lagrange if I am not right."
"As to that," returned the artist, "Mr. Lagrange agrees with you, perfectly."
"But what is this that you are doing now? Will it be ready for the exhibition too?" She looked past him, at the big canvas; and he, watching her curiously stepped aside.
Parts of the picture were little more than sketched in, but still, line and color spoke with accusing truth the spirit of the company that had gathered at the banquet in the home on Fairlands Heights, the night of Mr. Taine's death. The figures were not portraits, it is true, but they expressed with striking fidelity, the lives and characters of those who had, that night, been assembled by Mrs. Taine to meet the artist. The figure in the picture, standing with uplifted glass and drunken pose at the head of the table—with bestial, lust-worn face, disease-shrunken limbs, and dying, licentious eyes fixed upon the beautiful girl musician—might easily have been Mr. Taine himself. The distinguished writers, and critics; the representatives of the social world and of wealth; Conrad Lagrange with cold, cynical, mocking, smile; Mrs. Taine with her pretense of modest dress that only emphasized her immodesty; and, in the midst of the unclean minded crew, the lovely innocence and the unconscious purity of the mountain girl with her violin, offering to them that which they were incapable of receiving—it was all there upon the canvas, as the artist had seen it that night. The picture cried aloud the intellectual degradation and the spiritual depravity of that class who, arrogating to themselves the authority of leaders in culture and art, by their approval and patronage of dangerous falsehood and sham in picture or story, make possible such characters as James Rutlidge.
Aaron King, watching Mrs. Taine as she looked at the picture on the easel, saw a look of doubt and uncertainty come over her face. Once, she turned toward him, as if to speak; but, without a word, looked again at the canvas. She seemed perplexed and puzzled, as though she caught glimpses of something in the picture that she did not rightly understand Then, as she looked, her eyes kindled with contemptuous scorn, and there was a pronounced sneer in her cold tones as she said, "Really, I don't believe I care for you to do this sort of thing." She laughed shortly. "It reminds one a little of that dinner at our house. Don't you think? It's the girl with the violin, I suppose."
"There are no portraits in it, Mrs. Taine," said the artist, quietly.
"No? Well, I think you'd better stick to your portraits. This is a great picture though," she admitted thoughtfully. "It, it grips you so. I can't seem to get away from it. I can see that it will create a sensation. But just the same, I don't like it. It's not nice, like your portrait of me. By the way"—and she turned eagerly from the big canvas as though glad to escape a distasteful subject—"do you remember that I have never seen my picture yet? Where do you keep it?"
The painter indicated another easel, near the one upon which he was at work, "It is there, Mrs. Taine."
"Oh," she said with a pleased smile. "You keep it on the easel, still!" Playfully, she added, "Do you look at it often?—that you have it so handy?"
"Yes," said the artist, "I must admit that I have looked at it frequently." He did not explain why he looked at her portrait while he was working upon the larger picture.
"How nice of you," she answered "Please let me see it now. I remember when you wanted to repaint it, you said you would put on the canvas just what you thought of me; have you? I wonder!"
"I would rather that you judge for yourself, Mrs. Taine," he answered, and drew the curtain that hid the painting.
As the woman looked upon that portrait of herself, into which Aaron King had painted, with all the skill at his command, everything that he had seen in her face as she posed for him, she stood a moment as though stunned. Then, with a gesture of horror and shame, she shrank back, as though the painted thing accused her of being what, indeed, she really was.
Turning to the artist, imploringly, she whispered, "Is it—is it—true? Am I—am I that?"
Aaron King, remembering how she had sent the girl he loved so nearly to a shameful end, and thinking of those bones at the foot of the cliff, answered justly; "At least, madam, there is more truth in that picture than in the things you said to Miss Andres, here in this room, the day you left Fairlands."
Her face went white with quick rage, but, controling herself, she said, "And where is the picture of your mistress? I should like to see it again, please."
"Gladly, madam," returned the artist. "Because you are a woman, it is the only answer I can make to your charge; which, permit me to say, is as false as that portrait of you is true."
Quickly he pushed another easel to a position beside the one that held Mrs. Taine's portrait, and drew the curtain.
The effect, for a moment, silenced even Mrs. Taine—but only for a moment. A character that is the product of certain years of schooling in the thought and spirit of the class in which Mrs. Taine belonged, is not transformed by a single exhibition of painted truth. From the two portraits, the woman turned to the larger canvas. Then she faced the artist.
"You fool!" she said with bitter rage. "O you fool! Do you think that you will ever be permitted to exhibit such trash as this?" she waved her hand to include the three paintings. "Do you think that I am going to drag you up the ladder of social position to fame and to wealth for such reward as that?" she singled out her own portrait. "Bah! you are impossible—impossible! I have been mad to think that I could make anything out of you. As for your idiotic claim that you have painted the truth—" She seized a large palette knife that lay with the artist's tools upon the table, and springing to her portrait, hacked and mutilated the canvas. The artist stood motionless making no effort to stop her. When the picture was utterly defaced she threw it at his feet. "That, for your truth, Mr. King!" With a quick motion, she turned toward the other portrait.
But the artist, who had guessed her purpose, caught her hand. "That picture was yours, madam—this one is mine." There was a significant ring of triumph in his voice.
Neither Aaron King nor Mrs. Taine had noticed three people who had entered the rose garden, from the orange grove, through the little gate in the corner of the hedge. Conrad Lagrange, Myra Willard and Sibyl were going to the studio; deliberately bent upon interrupting the artist at his work. They sometimes—as Conrad Lagrange put it—made, thus, a life-saving crew of three; dragging the painter to safety when the waves of inspiration were about to overwhelm him. Czar, of course, took an active part in these rescues.
As the three friends approached the trellised arch that opened from the garden into the yard, a few feet from the studio door, the sound of Mrs. Taine's angry voice, came clearly through the open window.
Conrad Lagrange stopped. "Evidently, Mr. King has company," he said, dryly.
"It is Mrs. Taine, is it not?" asked Sibyl, quietly, recognizing the woman's voice.
"Yes," answered the novelist.
The woman with the disfigured face said hurriedly, "Come, Sibyl, we must go back. We will not disturb Mr. King, now, Mr. Lagrange. You two come over this evening." They saw her face white and frightened.
"I believe I'll go back with you, if you don't mind," returned Conrad Lagrange, with his twisted grin; "I don't think I want any of that in there, either." To the dog who was moving toward the studio door, he added; "Here, Czar, you mustn't interrupt the lady. You're not in her class."
They were moving away, when Mrs. Taine's voice came again, clearly and distinctly, through the window.
"Oh, very well. I wish you joy of your possession. I promise you, though, that the world shall never hear of this portrait of your mistress. If you dare try to exhibit it, I shall see that the people to whom you must look for your patronage know how you found the original, an innocent, mountain girl, and brought her to your studio to live with you. Fairlands has already talked enough, but my influence has prevented it from going too far. You may be very sure that from now on I shall not exert myself to deny it."
The artist's friends in the rose garden, again, stopped involuntarily. Sibyl uttered a low exclamation.
Conrad Lagrange looked at Myra Willard. "I think," he said in a low tone, "that the time has come. Can you do it?"
"Yes. I—I—must," returned the woman. She spoke to the girl, who, being a little in advance, had not heard the novelist's words, "Sibyl, dear, will you go on home, please? Mr, Lagrange will stay with me. I—I will join you presently."
At a look from Conrad Lagrange, the girl obeyed.
"Go with Sibyl, Czar," said the novelist; and the girl and the dog went quickly away through the garden.
In the studio, Aaron King gazed at the angry woman in amazement. "Mrs. Taine," he said, with quiet dignity, "I must tell you that I hope to make Miss Andres my wife."
She laughed harshly. "And what has that to do with it?"
"I thought that if you knew, it might help you to understand the situation," he answered simply.
"I understand the situation, very well," she retorted, "but you do not appear to. The situation is this: I—I was interested in you—as an artist. I, because my position in the world enabled me to help you, commissioned you to paint my portrait. You are unknown, with no name, no place in the world. I could have given you success. I could have introduced you to the people that you must know if you are to succeed. My influence would insure you a favorable reception from those who make the reputations of men like you. I could have made you the rage. I could have made you famous. And now—"
"Now," he said calmly, "you will exert your influence to hinder me in my work. Because I have not pleased you, you will use whatever power you have to ruin me. Is that what you mean, Mrs. Taine?"
"You have made your choice. You must take the consequences," she replied coldly, and turned to leave the studio.
In the doorway, stood the woman with the disfigured face.
Conrad Lagrange stood near.
Marks of the Beast
When Mrs. Taine would have passed out of the studio, the woman with the disfigured face said, "Wait madam, I must speak to you."
Aaron King recalled that strange scene at the depot, the day of his arrival in Fairlands.
"I have nothing to say to you"—returned Mrs. Taine, coldly—"stand aside please."
But Conrad Lagrange quietly closed the door. "I think, Mrs. Taine," he remarked dryly, "than you will be interested in what Miss Willard has to say."
"Oh, very well," returned the other, making the best of the situation. "Evidently, you heard what I just said to your protege."
The novelist answered, "We did. Accept my compliments madam; you did it very nicely."
"Thanks," she retorted, "I see you still play your role of protector. You might tell your charge whether or not I am mistaken as to the probable result of his—ah—artistic conscientiousness."
"Mr. King knows that you are not. You have, indeed, put the situation rather mildly. It is a sad fact, but, never-the-less, a fact, that the noblest work is often forced to remain unrecognized and unknown to the world by the same methods that are used to exalt the unworthy. You undoubtedly have the power of which you boast, Mrs. Taine, but—"
"But what?" she said triumphantly. "You think I will hesitate to use my influence?"
"I know you will not use it—in this case," came the unexpected answer.
She laughed mockingly, "And why not? What will prevent?"
"The one thing on earth, that you fear, madam"—answered Conrad Lagrange—"the eyes of the world."
Aaron King listened, amazed.
"I don't think I understand," said Mrs. Taine, coldly.
"No? That is what Miss Willard proposes to explain," returned the novelist.
She turned haughtily toward the woman with the disfigured face. "What can this poor creature say to anything I propose?"
Myra Willard answered gently, sadly, "Have you no kindness, no sympathy at all, madam? Is there nothing but cruel selfishness in your heart?"
"You are insolent," retorted the other, sharply. "Say what you have to say and be brief."
Myra Willard drew close to the woman and looked long and searchingly into her face. The other returned her gaze with contemptuous indifference.
"I have been sorry for you," said Myra Willard slowly. "I have not wished to speak. But I know what you said to Sibyl, here in the studio; and I overheard what you said to Mr. King, a few minutes ago. I cannot keep silent."
"Proceed," said Mrs. Taine, shortly. "Say what you have to say, and be done with it."
Myra Willard obeyed. "Mrs. Taine, twenty-six years ago, your guardian, the father of James Rutlidge won the love of a young girl. It does not matter who she was. She was beautiful and innocent That was her misfortune. Beauty and innocence often bring pain and sorrow, madam, in a world where there are too many men like Mr. Rutlidge, and his son. The girl thought the man—she did not know him by his real name—her lover. She thought that he became her husband. A baby was born to the girl who believed herself a wife; and the young mother was happy. For a short time, she was very happy.
"Then, the awakening came. The girl mother was holding her baby to her breast, and singing, as happy mothers do, when a strange woman appeared in the open door of the room. She was a beautiful woman, richly dressed; but her face was distorted with passion. The young mother did not understand. She did not know, then, that the woman was Mrs. Rutlidge—the true wife of the father of her child. She knew that, afterward. The woman, in the doorway lifted her hand as though to throw something, and the mother, instinctively, bowed her head to shield her baby. Then something that burned like fire struck her face and neck. She screamed in agony, and fainted.
"The rest of the story does not matter, I think. The injured mother was taken to the hospital. When she recovered, she learned that Mrs. Rutlidge was dead—a suicide. Later, Mr. Rutlidge took the baby to raise as his ward; telling the world that the child was the daughter of a relative who had died at its birth. You must understand that when the disfigured mother of the baby came to know the truth, she believed that it would be better for the little one if the facts of its birth were never known. The wealthy Mr. Rutlidge could give his ward every advantage of culture and social position. The child would grow to womanhood with no stain upon her name. Because she felt she owed her baby this, the only thing that she could give her, the mother consented and disappeared.
"Madam," finished Myra Willard, slowly, "a little of the acid that burned that mother's face fell upon the shoulder of her illegitimate baby."
"God!" exclaimed the artist.
Throughout Myra Willard's story, Mrs. Taine stood like a woman of stone. At the end, she gazed at the woman's disfigured face, as though fascinated with horror, while her hands moved to finger the buttons of her dress. Unconscious of what she was doing, as though under some strange spell, without removing her gaze from Myra Willard's marred features she opened the waist of her dress and bared to them her right shoulder. It was marked by a broad scar like the scars that disfigured the face of her mother.
Myra Willard started forward, impelled by the mother instinct. "My baby, my poor, poor girl!"
The words broke the spell. Drawing back with an air of cold, unconquerable pride, the woman looked at Conrad Lagrange. "And now," she said, as she swiftly rearranged her dress, "perhaps you will be good enough to tell me why you have done this."
Myra Willard turned away to sink into a chair, white and trembling. Aaron King stepped quickly to her side, and, placing his hand gently on her shoulder waited for the novelist to speak.
"Miss Willard told you this story because I asked her to," said Conrad Lagrange. "I asked her to tell you because it gives me the power to protect the two people who are dearer to me than all the world."
"Still in your role of protector, I see," sneered Mrs. Taine.
"Exactly, madam. It happens that I was a reporter on a certain newspaper when the incidents just related occurred. I wrote the story for the press. In fact, it was the story that gave me my start in yellow journalism, from which I graduated the novelist of your acquaintance. I know the newspaper game thoroughly, Mrs. Taine. I know the truth of this story that you have just heard. Permit me to say, that I know how to write in the approved newspaper style, and to add that my name insures a wide hearing. Proceed to carry out your threats, and I promise you that I will give this attractive bit of news, in all its colorful details, to every newspaper in the land. Can't you see the headlines? 'Startling Revelation,' 'The Secret of the Beautiful Mrs. Taine's Shoulders,' 'Why a Leader in the Social World makes Modesty her Fad,' 'The Parentage of a Social Leader.' Do you understand, madam? Use your influence to interfere with or to hinder Mr. King in his work; or fail to use your influence to contradict the lies you have already started about the character of Miss Andres; and I will use the influence of my pen and the prestige of my name to put you before the eyes of the world for what you are."
For a moment the woman looked at him, defiantly. Then, as she grasped the full significance of what he had said, she slowly bowed her head.
Conrad Lagrange opened the door.
As she went out, the woman with the disfigured face started forward, holding out her hands appealingly.
Mrs. Taine did not look back, but went quickly toward the big automobile that was waiting in front of the house.
Aaron King's Success
The winter months were past.
Aaron King was sitting before his finished picture. The colors were still fresh upon the canvas that, to-day, hangs in an honored place in one of the great galleries of the world. To the last careful touch, the artist had put into his painted message, the best he had to give. Back of every line and brush-stroke there was the deep conviction of a worthy motive. For an hour, he had been sitting there, before the easel, brush and palette in hand, without touching the canvas. He could do no more.
Laying aside his tools, he went to his desk, and took from the drawer, that package of his mother's letters. He pushed a deep arm-chair in front of his picture, and again seated himself. As he read letter after letter, he lifted his eyes, at almost every sentence from the written pages to his work. It was as though he were submitting his picture to a final test—as, indeed, he was. He had reached the last letter when Conrad Lagrange entered the studio; Czar at his heels.
Every day, while the picture was growing under the artist's hand, his friend had watched it take on beauty and power. He did not need to speak of the finished painting, now.
"Well, lad," he said, "the old letters again?"
The artist, caressing the dog's silky head as it was thrust against his knee, answered, "Yes, I finished the picture two hours ago. I have been having a private exhibition all on my own hook. Listen." From the letter in his hand he read:
"It is right for you to be ambitious, my son. I would not have you otherwise. Without a strong desire to reach some height that in the distance lifts above the level of the present, a man becomes a laggard on the highway of life—a mere loafer by the wayside—slothful, indolent—slipping easily, as the years go, into the most despicable of places—the place of a human parasite that, contributing nothing to the wealth of the race, feeds upon the strength of the multitude of toilers who pass him by. But ambition, my boy, is like to all the other gifts that lead men Godward. It must be a noble ambition, nobly controlled. A mere striving for place and power, without a saving sense of the responsibility conferred by that place and power, is ignoble. Such an ambition, I know—as you will some day come to understand—is not a blessing but a curse. It is the curse from which our age is suffering sorely; and which, if it be not lifted, will continue to vitiate the strength and poison the life of the race.
"Because I would have your ambition, a safe and worthy ambition, Aaron, I ask that the supreme and final test of any work that comes from your hand may be this; that it satisfy you, yourself—that you may be not ashamed to sit down alone with your work, and thus to look it squarely in the face. Not critics, nor authorities, not popular opinion, not even law or religion, must be the court of final appeal when you are, by what you do, brought to bar; but by you, yourself, the judgment must be rendered. And this, too, is true, my son, by that judgment and that judgment alone, you will truly live or you will truly die."
"And that"—said the novelist—so famous in the eyes of the world, so infamous in his own sight—"and that is what she tried to make me believe, when she and I were young together. But I would not. I would not accept it. I thought if I could win fame that she—" he checked himself suddenly.
"But you have led me to accept it, old man," cried the artist heartily. "You have opened my eyes. You have helped me to understand my mother, as I never could have understood her, alone."
Conrad Lagrange smiled. "Perhaps," he admitted whimsically. "No doubt good may sometimes be accomplished by the presentation of a horrible example. But go on with your private exhibition. I'll not keep you longer. Come, Czar."
In spite of the artist's protests, he left the studio.
While the painter was putting away his letters, the novelist and the dog went through the rose garden and the orange grove, straight to the little house next door. They walked as though on a definite mission.
Sibyl and Myra Willard were sitting on the porch.
"Howdy, neighbor," called the girl, as the tall, ungainly form of the famous novelist appeared. "You seem to be the bearer of news. What is the latest word from the seat of war?"
"It is finished," said Conrad Lagrange, returning Myra's gentle greeting, and accepting the chair that Sibyl offered.
"The picture?" said the girl eagerly, a quick color flushing her cheeks. "Is the picture finished?"
"Finished," returned the novelist. "I just left him mooning over it like a mother over a brand-new baby."
They laughed together, and when, a moment later, the girl slipped into the house and did not return, the woman with the disfigured face and the famous novelist looked at each other with smiling eyes. When Czar, with sudden interest, started around the corner of the house, his master said suggestively, "Czar, you better stay here with the old folks."
Passing through the house, and out of the kitchen door, Sibyl ran, lightly, through the orange grove, to the little gate in the corner of the Ragged Robin hedge. A moment she paused, hesitating, then, stealing cautiously into the rose garden, she darted in quick flight to the shelter of the arbor; where she parted the screen of vines to gain a view of the studio.
Between the big, north window and the window that opened into the garden, she saw the artist. She saw, too, the big canvas upon the easel. But Aaron King was not, now, looking at his work just finished. He was sitting before that other picture into which he had unconsciously painted, not only the truth that he saw in the winsome loveliness of the girl who posed for him with outstretshed hands among the roses, but his love for her as well.
With a low laugh, Sibyl drew back. Swiftly, as she had reached the arbor, she crossed the garden, and a moment later, paused at the studio door. Again she hesitated—then, gently,—so gently that the artist, lost in his dreams, did not hear,—she opened the door. For a little, she stood watching him. Softly, she took a few steps toward him. The artist, as though sensing her presence, started and looked around.
She was standing as she stood in the picture; her hands outstretched, a smile of welcome on her lips, the light of gladness in her eyes.
As he rose from his chair before the easel, she went to him.
* * * * *
Not many days later, there was a quiet wedding, at Sibyl's old home in the hills. Besides the two young people and the clergyman, only Brian Oakley, Mrs. Oakley, Conrad Lagrange and Myra Willard were present. These friends who had prepared the old place for the mating ones, after a simple dinner following the ceremony, returned down the canyon to the Station.
Standing arm in arm, where the old road turns around the cedar thicket, and where the artist had first seen the girl, Sibyl and Aaron watched them go. From the other side of roaring Clear Creek, they turned to wave hats and handkerchiefs; the two in the shadow of the cedars answered; Czar barked joyful congratulations; and the wagon disappeared in the wilderness growth.
Instead of turning back to the house behind them, the two, without speaking, as though obeying a common impulse, set out down the canyon.
A little later they stood in the old spring glade, where the alders bore, still, in the smooth, gray bark of their trunks, the memories of long-ago lovers; where the light fell, slanting softly through the screen of leaf and branch and vine and virgin's-bower, upon the granite boulder and the cress-mottled waters of the spring, as through the window traceries of a vast and quiet cathedral; and where the distant roar of the mountain stream trembled in the air like the deep tones of some great organ.