Chapter XII. First Fruits of His Shame
 

When the postman, in his little cart, stopped at the home of Aaron King and his friend, that day, it was Conrad Lagrange who received the mail. The artist was in his studio, and the novelist, knowing that the painter was not at work, went to him there with a letter.

The portrait--still on the easel--was hidden by the velvet curtain. Sitting by a table that was littered with a confusion of sketches, books and papers, the young man was re-tying a package of old letters that he had, evidently, just been reading.

As the novelist went to him, the artist said quietly,--indicating the package in his hand,--"From my mother. She wrote them during the last year of my study abroad." When the other did not reply, he continued thoughtfully, "Do you know, Lagrange, since my acquaintance with you, I find many things in these old letters that--at the time I received them--I did not, at all, appreciate. You seem to be helping me, somehow, to a better understanding of my mother's spirit and mind." He smiled.

Presently, Conrad Lagrange, when he could trust himself to speak, said, "Your mother's mind and spirit, Aaron, were too fine and rare to be fully appreciated or understood except by one trained in the school of life, itself. When she wrote those letters, you were a student of mere craftsmanship. She, herself no doubt, recognized that you would not fully comprehend the things she wrote; but she put them down, out of the very fullness of her intellectual and spiritual wealth--trusting to your love to preserve the letters, and to the years to give you understanding."

"Why," cried the artist, "those are almost her exact words--as I have just been reading them!"

The other, smiling, continued quietly, "Your appreciation and understanding of your mother will continue to grow through all your life, Aaron. When you are old--as old as I am--you will still find in those letters hidden treasures of thought, and truths of greater value than you, now, can realize. But here--I have brought you your share of the afternoon's mail."

When Aaron King opened the envelope that his friend laid on the table before him, he sat regarding its contents with an air of thoughtful meditation--lost to his surroundings.

The novelist--who had gone to the window and was looking into the rose garden--turned to speak to his friend; but the other did not reply. Again, the man at the window addressed the painter; but still the younger man was silent. At this, Conrad Lagrange came back to the table; an expression of anxiety upon his face. "What is it, old man? What's the matter? No bad news, I hope?"

Aaron King, aroused from his fit of abstraction, laughed shortly, and held out to his friend the letter he had just received. It was from Mr. Taine. Enclosed was the millionaire's check. The letter was a formal business note; the check was for an amount that drew a low whistle from the novelist's lips.

"Rather higher pay than old brother Judas received for a somewhat similar service, isn't it," he commented, as he passed the letter and check back to the artist. Then, as he watched the younger man's face, he asked, "What's the matter, don't you like the flavor of these first fruits of your shame? I advise you to cultivate a taste for this sort of thing as quickly as possible--in your own defense."

"Don't you think you are a little bit too hard on us all, Lagrange?" asked the artist, with a faint smile. "These people are satisfied. The picture pleases them."

"Of course they are pleased," retorted the other. "You know your business. That's the trouble with you. That's the trouble with us all, these days--we painters and writers and musicians--we know our business too damned well. We have the mechanics of our crafts, the tricks of our trades, so well in hand that we make our books and pictures and music say what we please. We use our art to gain our own vain ends instead of being driven by our art to find adequate expression for some great truth that demands through us a hearing. You have said it all, my friend--you have summed up the whole situation in the present-day world of creative art--these people are satisfied. You have given them what they want, prostituting your art to do it. That's what I have been doing all these years--giving people what they want. For a price we cater to them--even as their tailors, and milliners, and barbers. And never again will the world have a truly great art or literature until men like us--in the divine selfishness of their, calling--demand, first and last, that they, themselves, be satisfied by the work of their hands."

Going to the easel, he rudely jerked aside the curtain. Involuntarily, the painter went to stand by his side before the picture.

"Look at it!" cried the novelist. "Look at it in the light of your own genius! Don't you see its power? Doesn't it tell you what you could do, if you would? If you couldn't paint a picture, or if you couldn't feel a picture to be painted, it wouldn't matter. I'd let you ride to hell on your own palette, and be damned to you. But this thing shows a power that the world can ill afford to lose. It is so bad because it is so good. Come here!" he drew his friend to the big window, and pointed to the mountains. "There is an art like those mountains, my boy--lonely, apart from the world; remotely above the squalid ambitions of men; Godlike in its calm strength and peace--an art to which men may look for inspiration and courage and hope. And there is an art that is like Fairlands--petty and shallow and mean--with only the fictitious value that its devotees assume, but never, actually, realize. Listen, Aaron, don't continue to misread your mother's letters. Don't misunderstand her as thinking that the place she coveted for you is a place within the power of these people to give. Come with me into the mountains, yonder. Come, and let us see if, in those hills of God, you cannot find yourself."

When Conrad Lagrange finished, the artist stood, for a little, without reply--irresolute, before his picture--the check in his hand. At last, still without speaking, he went back to the table, where he wrote briefly his reply to Mr. Taine. When he had finished, he handed his letter to the older man, who read:

Dear Sir:

In reply to yours of the 13th, inst., enclosing your check in payment for the portrait of Mrs. Taine; I appreciate your generosity, but cannot, now, accept it.

I find, upon further consideration, that the portrait does not fully satisfy me. I shall, therefore, keep the canvas until I can, with the consent of my own mind, put my signature upon it.

Herewith, I am returning your check; for, of course, I cannot accept payment for an unfinished work.

In a day or two, Mr. Lagrange and I will start to the mountains, for an outing. Trusting that you and your family will enjoy the season at Lake Silence I am, with kind regards,

Yours sincerely, Aaron King.

       *       *       *       *       *

That evening, the two men talked over their proposed trip, and laid their plans to start without delay As Conrad Lagrange put it--they would lose themselves in the hills; with no definite destination in view; and no set date for their return. Also, he stipulated that they should travel light--with only a pack burro to carry their supplies--and that they should avoid the haunts of the summer resorters, and keep to the more unfrequented trails. The novelist's acquaintance with the country into which they would go, and his experience in woodcraft--gained upon many like expeditions in the lonely wilds he loved--would make a guide unnecessary. It would be a new experience for Aaron King; and, as the novelist talked, he found himself eager as a schoolboy for the trip; while the distant mountains, themselves, seemed to call him--inviting him to learn the secret of their calm strength and the spirit of their lofty peace. The following day, they would spend in town; purchasing an outfit of the necessary equipment and supplies, securing a burro, and attending to numerous odds and ends of business preparatory to their indefinite absence.

It so happened, the next day, that Yee Kee,--who was to care for the place during their weeks of absence had matters of importance to himself, that demanded his attention in town. When his masters informed him that they would not be home for lunch, he took advantage of the opportunity and asked for the day.

Thus it came about that Conrad Lagrange--in the spirit of a boy bent upon some secret adventure--stole out into the rose garden, that morning, to leave the promised letter and key at the little gate in the corner of the Ragged Robin hedge.