Chapter X. A Cry in the Night
 

As Conrad Lagrange and Mr. Rutlidge entered the studio, Aaron King turned from the easel, where he had drawn the velvet curtain to hide the finished portrait. Mrs. Taine was standing at the other side of the room, wrap in hand, calmly waiting, ready to go. The artist greeted Mr. Rutlidge cordially, while the woman triumphantly announced the completion of her portrait.

"Ah! permit me to congratulate you, old man," said Rutlidge, addressing the artist familiarly. "It is too much, I suppose, to expect a look at it this afternoon?"

"Thanks,"--returned the artist,--"you are all coming to-morrow, at three, you know. I would rather not show it to-day. It is a little late for the best light; and I would like for you to see it under the most favorable conditions possible."

The critic was visibly flattered by the painter's manner and by his well-chosen emphasis upon the personal pronoun. "Quite right"--he said approvingly--"quite right, old boy." He turned to the novelist--"These painter chaps, you know, Lagrange, like to have a few hours for a last touch or two before I come around." He laughed pompously at his own words--the others joining.

When Mrs. Taine and her companions were gone, the artist said hurriedly to his friend, "Come on, let's get it over." He led the way back to the studio.

"I thought the light was too bad," said the older man, quizzingly, as they entered the big room.

"It's good enough for your needs," retorted the painter savagely. "You could see all you want by candle-light." He jerked the curtain angrily aside, and--without a glance at the canvas--walked away to stand at the window looking out upon the rose garden--waiting for the flood of the novelist's scorn to overwhelm him. At last, when no sound broke the quiet of the room, he turned--to find himself alone.

Conrad Lagrange, after one look at the portrait on the easel, had slipped quietly out of the building.

The artist found his friend, a few minutes later, meditatively smoking his pipe on the front porch, with Czar lying at his feet.

"Well," said the painter, curiously,--anxious, as he had said, to have it over,--"why the deuce don't you say something?"

The novelist answered slowly, "My vocabulary is too limited, for one reason, and"--he looked thoughtfully down at Czar--"I prefer to wait until you have finished the portrait."

"It is finished," returned the artist desperately. "I swear I'll never touch a brush to the damned thing again."

The man with the pipe spoke to the dog at his feet; "Listen to him, Czar--listen to the poor devil of a painter-man."

The dog arose, and, placing his head upon his master's knee, looked up into the lined and rugged face, as the novelist continued, "If he was only a wee bit puffed up and cocky over the thing, now, we could exert ourselves, so we could, couldn't we?" Czar slowly waved a feathery tail in dignified approval. His master continued, "But when a fellow can do a crime like that, and still retain enough virtue in his heart to hear his work shrieking to heaven its curses upon him for calling it into existence, it's best for outsiders to keep quite still. Your poor old master knows whereof he speaks, doesn't he, dog? That he does!"

"And is that all you have to say on the subject?" demanded the artist, as though for some reason he was disappointed at his friend's reticence.

"I might add a word of advice," said the other.

"Well, what is it?"

"That you pray your gods--if you have any--to be merciful, and bestow upon you either less genius or more intelligence to appreciate it."

       *       *       *       *       *

At three o'clock, the following afternoon, the little party from Fairlands Heights came to view, the portrait Or,--as Conrad Lagrange said, while the automobile was approaching the house, "Well, here they come--'The Age', accompanied by 'Materialism', 'Sensual', and 'Ragtime'--to look upon the prostitution of Art, and call it good." Escorted by the artist, and the novelist, they went at once to the studio.

The appreciation of the picture was instantaneous--so instantaneous, in fact, that Louise Taine's lips were shaped to deliver an expressive "oh" of admiration, even before the portrait was revealed. As though the painter, in drawing back the easel curtain, gave an appointed signal, that "oh" was set off with the suddenness of a sky-rocket's rush, and was accompanied in its flight by a great volume of sizzling, sputtering, glittering, adjectival sparks that--filling the air to no purpose whatever--winked out as they were born; the climax of the pyrotechnical display being reached in the explosive pop of another "oh" which released a brilliant shower of variegated sighs and moans and ecstatic looks and inarticulate exclamations--ending, of course, in total darkness.

Mrs. Taine hastened to turn the artist's embarrassed attention to an appreciation that had the appearance, at least, of a more enduring value. Drawing, with affectionate solicitude, close to her husband, she asked,--in a voice that was tremulous with loving care and anxiety to please,--"Do you like it, dear?"

"It is magnificent, splendid, perfect!" This effort to give his praise of the artist's work the appearance of substantial reality cost the wretched product of lust and luxury a fit of coughing that racked his burnt-out body almost to its last feeble hold upon the world of flesh and, with a force that shamed the strength of his words, drove home the truth that neither his praise nor his scorn could long endure. When he could again speak, he said, in his husky, rasping whisper,--while grasping the painter's hand in effusive cordiality,--"My dear fellow, I congratulate you. It is exquisite. It will create a sensation, sir, when it is exhibited. Your fame is assured. I must thank you for the honor you have done me in thus immortalizing the beauty and character of Mrs. Taine." And then, to his wife,--"Dearest, I am glad for you, and proud. It is as worthy of you as paint and canvas could be." He turned to Conrad Lagrange who was an interested observer of the scene--"Am I not right, Lagrange?"

"Quite right, Mr. Taine,--quite right. As you say, the portrait is most worthy the beauty and character of the charming subject."

Another paroxysm of coughing mercifully prevented the poor creature's reply.

With one accord, the little group turned, now, to James Rutlidge--the dreaded authority and arbiter of artistic destinies. That distinguished expert, while the others were speaking, had been listening intently; ostensibly, the while, he examined the picture with a show of trained skill that, it seemed, could not fail to detect unerringly those more subtle values and defects that are popularly supposed to be hidden from the common eye. Silently, in breathless awe, they watched the process by which professional criticism finds its verdict. That is, they thought they were watching the process. In reality, the method is more subtle than they knew.

While the great critic moved back and forth in front of the easel; drew away from or bent over to closely scrutinize the canvas; shifted the easel a hair breadth several times; sat down; stood erect; hummed and muttered to himself abstractedly; cleared his throat with an impressive "Ahem"; squinted through nearly closed eyes, with his head thrown back, or turned in every side angle his fat neck would permit: peered through his half-closed fist; peeped through funnels of paper; sighted over and under his open hand or a paper held to shut out portions of the painting;--the others thought they saw him expertly weighing the evidence for and against the merit of the work. In reality it was his ears and not his eyes that helped the critic to his final decision--a decision which was delivered, at last, with a convincing air of ponderous finality. Indeed it was a judgment from which there could be no appeal, for it expressed exactly the views of those for whose benefit it was rendered. Then, in a manner subtly insinuating himself into the fellowship of the famous, he, too, turned to Conrad Lagrange with a scholarly; "Do you not agree, sir?"

The novelist answered with slow impressiveness; "The picture, undoubtedly, fully merits the appreciation and praise you have given it. I have already congratulated Mr. King--who was kind enough to show me his work before you arrived."

After this, Yee Kee appeared upon the scene, and tea was served in the studio--a fitting ceremony to the launching of another genius.

"By the way, Mr. Lagrange," said Mrs. Taine, quite casually,--when, under the influence of the mildly stimulating beverage, the talk had assumed a more frivolous vein,--"Who is your talented neighbor that so charms Mr. King with the music of a violin?"

The novelist, as he turned toward the speaker, shot a quick glance at the Artist. Nor did those keen, baffling eyes fail to note that, at the question, James Rutlidge had paused in the middle of a sentence. "That is one of the mysteries of our romantic surroundings madam," said Conrad Lagrange, easily.

"And a very charming mystery it seems to be," returned the woman. "It has been quite affecting to watch its influence upon Mr. King."

The artist laughed. "I admit that I found the music, in combination with the beauty I have so feebly tried to out upon canvas, very stimulating."

A flash of angry color swept into the perfect cheeks of Mrs. Taine, as she retorted with meaning; "You are as flattering in your speech as you are with your brush. I assure you I do not consider myself in your unknown musician's class."

The small eyes of James Rutlidge were fixed inquiringly upon the speakers, while his heavy face betrayed--to the watchful novelist--an interest he could not hide. "Is this music of such exceptional merit?" he asked with an attempt at indifference.

Louise Taine--sensing that the performances of the unnamed violinist had been acceptable to Conrad Lagrange and Aaron King--the two representatives of the world to which she aspired--could not let the opportunity slip. She fairly deluged them with the spray of her admiring ejaculations in praise of the musician--employing, hit or miss, every musical term that popped into her vacuous head.

"Indeed,"--said the critic,--"I seem to have missed a treat." Then, directly to the artist,--"And you say the violinist is wholly unknown to you?"

"Wholly," returned the painter, shortly.

Conrad Lagrange saw a faint smile of understanding and disbelief flit for an instant over the heavy face of James Rutlidge.

When the automobile, at last, was departing with the artist's guests; the two friends stood for a moment watching it up the road to the west, toward town. As the big car moved away, they saw Mrs. Taine lean forward to speak to the chauffeur while James Rutlidge, who was in the front seat, turned and shook his head as though in protest. The woman appeared to insist. The machine slowed down, as though the chauffeur, in doubt, awaited the outcome of the discussion. Then, just in front of that neighboring house, Rutlidge seemed to yield abruptly, and the automobile turned suddenly in toward the curb and stopped. Mrs. Taine alighted, and disappeared in the depths of the orange grove.

Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange looked at each other, for a moment, in questioning silence. The artist laughed. "Our poor little mystery," he said.

But the novelist--as they went toward the house--cursed Mrs. Taine, James Rutlidge, and all their kin and kind, with a vehement earnestness that startled his companion--familiar as the latter was with his friend's peculiar talent in the art of vigorous expression.

After dinner, that evening, the painter and the novelist sat on the porch--as their custom was--to watch the day go out of the sky and the night come over valley and hill and mountain until, above the highest peaks, the stars of God looked down upon the twinkling lights of the towns of men. At that hour, too, it was the custom, now, for the violinist hidden in the orange grove, to make the music they both so loved.

In the music, that night, there was a feeling that, to them, was new--a vague, uncertain, halting undertone that was born, they felt, of fear. It stirred them to question and to wonder. Without apparent cause or reason, they each oddly connected the troubled tone in the music with the stopping of the automobile from Fairlands Heights, that afternoon, at the gate of the little house next door--the artist, because of Mrs. Taine's insistent inquiry about the, to him, unknown musician;--Conrad Lagrange, because of the manner of the girl in the garden when James Rutlidge appeared and because of the critic's interest when they had spoken of the violinist in the studio. But neither expressed his thought to the other.

Presently, the music ceased, and they sat for an hour, perhaps, in silence--as close friends may do--exchanging only now and then a word.

Suddenly, they were startled by a cry. In the still darkness of the night, from the mysterious depths of the orange grove, the sound came with such a shock that the two men, for the moment, held their places, motionless--questioning each other sharply--"What was that?" "Did you hear?"--as though they doubted, almost, their own ears.

The cry came again; this time, undoubtedly, from that neighboring house to the west. It was unmistakably the cry of a woman--a woman in fear and pain.

They leaped to their feet.

Again the cry came from the black depths of the orange grove--shuddering, horrible--in an agony of fear.

The two men sprang from the porch, and, through the darkness that in the orange grove was like a black wall, ran toward the spot from which the sound came--the dog at their heels.

Breathless, they broke into the little yard in front of the tiny box-like house. Lights shone in the windows. All seemed peaceful and still. Czar betrayed no uneasiness. Going to the front door, they knocked.

There was no answer save the sound of some one moving inside.

Again, the artist knocked vigorously.

The door opened, and a woman stood on the threshold.

Standing a little to one side, the men saw her features clearly, in the light from the room. It was the woman with the disfigured face.

Conrad Lagrange was first to command himself. "I beg your pardon, madam. We live in the house next door. We thought we heard a cry of distress. May we offer our assistance in any way? Is there anything we can do?"

"Thank you, sir, you are very kind,"--returned the woman, in a low voice,--"but it is nothing. There is nothing you can do."

And the voice of Sibyl Andres, who stood farther back in the room, where the artist from his position could not see her, added, "It was good of you to come, Mr. Lagrange; but it is really nothing. We are so sorry you were disturbed."

"Not at all," returned the men, as the woman of the disfigured face drew back from the door. "Good night."

"Good night," came from within the house, and the door was shut.