Chapter XIII. Myra Willard's Challenge
 

Since her meeting with Conrad Lagrange in the rose garden, Sibyl Andres had looked, every day, for that promised letter. She found it early in the afternoon. It was a quaint letter--written in the spirit of their meeting--telling her the probable time of her neighbor's return; warning her, in fear of some fanciful horror, to beware of the picture on the easel; and wishing her joy of the adventure. With the note, was a key.

A few minutes later, the girl unlocked the door of the studio, and entered the building that had once been so familiar to her, but was now, in its interior, so transformed. Slowly, she pushed the door to, behind her. As though half frightened at her own daring, she stood quite still, looking about. In the atmosphere of that somewhat richly furnished apartment; poised timidly as if for ready flight; she seemed, indeed, the spirit that the novelist--in playful fancy--insisted that she was. Her cheeks were glowing with color; her eyes were bright with the excitement of her innocent adventure, and with her genuine admiration and appreciation of the beautiful room.

Presently,--growing bolder,--she began moving about the studio--light-footed and graceful as a wild thing from her own mountain home, and, indeed, with much the air of a gentle creature of the woods that had strayed into the haunts of men. Intensely interested in the things she found, she gradually forgot her timidity, and gave herself to the enjoyment of her surroundings, with the freedom and abandon of a child. From picture to picture, she went, with wide, eager eyes. She turned over the sketches in the big portfolios that were so invitingly open; looked with awe upon the brushes stuck in the big Chinese jar--upon the palettes, and at the tubes of color; flitting to the window that looked out upon her garden, and back to the great, north light with its view of the distant mountains; and again and again, paused to stand with her hands clasped behind her, in front of the big easel with its canvas hidden under the velvet curtain. Then she must try the chairs, the oriental couch, and even the stool--where she had seen the artist sitting, sometimes, at his work, when she had watched him from the arbor; and last--in a pretty make believe--she tried the seat on the model throne, as though posing herself, for her portrait.

Suddenly, with a startled cry, she sprang to her feet; then shrank back, white and trembling--her big eyes fixed with pleading fear upon the man who stood in the open doorway, regarding her with a curious, triumphant smile. It was James Rutlidge.

Sibyl, occupied with her childlike delight, had failed to hear the automobile when it stopped in front of the house. Finding no one in the house the man had gone on to the studio, where--with the assurance of an intimate acquaintance--he had pushed open the door that was standing ajar.

At the girl's frightened manner, the man laughed. Closing the door, he said, with an insinuating sneer, "You were not expecting me, it seems."

His words aroused Sibyl from her momentary weakness. Rising, she said calmly, "I was not expecting any one, Mr. Rutlidge."

Again he laughed--with unpleasant meaning. "You certainly look to be very much at home." He moved confidently to the easel stool and, seating himself continued with a leering smile, "What's the matter with my taking the artist's place for a little while--at least, until he comes?"

The girl was too innocent to understand his assumption but her pure mind could not fail to sense the evil in his words.

"I had permission to come here this afternoon," she said--her voice trembling a little with the fear that she did not understand. "Won't you go, please? Neither Mr. King nor Mr. Lagrange are at home."

"I do not doubt your having permission to come here," he returned, with meaning stress upon the word, "permission". "I see you even carry a key to this really delightful room." He motioned with his head toward the door where he had seen the key in the lock, as she had left it.

At this, she grasped a hint of the man's thought and, for an instant, drew hack in shame. Then, suddenly with a burst of indignant anger, she took a step toward him, demanding clearly; "Are you saying that I am in the habit of coming here to meet Mr. King?"

He laughed mockingly. "Really, my dear, no one, seeing you, now, could blame the man for giving you a key to this place where he is popularly supposed to be undisturbed. Mr. King is neither such a virtuous saint, nor so engrossed in his art, as to resent the companionship of such a vision of loveliness--simply because it comes in the form of good flesh and blood. Why be angry with me?"

Her cheeks were crimson as she said, again, "Will you go?"

"Not until you have settled the terms of peace," he answered with that leering smile. "Fortune has favored me, this afternoon, and I mean to profit by it."

For an instant, she looked at him--frightened and dismayed. Suddenly, with the flash-like quickness that was a part of her physical inheritance from her mountain life, she darted past him; eluding his effort to detain her--and was out of the building.

With an oath, the man, acting upon the impulse of the moment, ran after her. Outside the door of the studio, he caught a glimpse of her white dress as she disappeared into the rose garden. In the garden, he saw her as she slipped through the little gate in the far corner of the hedge, into the orange grove. Recklessly he followed. Among the trees, he glimpsed, again, the white flash of her skirts, and dashed forward. At the farther edge of the grove that walled in the little yard where Sibyl lived, he saw her standing by the kitchen door. But between the girl and that last row of close-set trees, waiting his coming, stood the woman with the disfigured face.

Rutlidge paused--angry with himself for so foolishly yielding to the impulse of his passion.

Myra Willard went toward him fearlessly--her fine eyes blazing with righteous indignation. "What are you trying to do, James Rutlidge?" she demanded--and her words were bold and clear.

The man was silent.

"You are evidently a worthy son of your father," the woman continued--every clear-cut word biting into his consciousness with stinging scorn. "He, in his day, did all he knew to turn this world into a hell for those who were unfortunate enough to please his vile fancy. You, I see, are following faithfully his footsteps. I know you, and the creed of your kind--as I knew your father before you. No girl of innocent beauty is safe from you. Your unclean mind is as incapable of believing in virtue, as you are helpless in the grip of your own insane lust."

The man was stung to fury by her cutting words. "Take your ugly face out of my sight," he said brutally.

Fearlessly, she drew a step nearer. "It is because I am a woman that I have this ugly face, James Rutlidge." She touched her disfigured cheek--"These scars are the marks of the beast that rules you, sir, body and soul. Leave this place, or, as there is a God, I'll tell a tale that will forbid you ever showing your own evil countenance in public, again."

Something in her eyes and in her manner, as she spoke, caused the man--beside himself with rage, as he was--to draw back. Some mysterious force that made itself felt in her bold words told him that hers was no idle threat. A moment they stood face to face, in the edge of the shadowy orange grove--the man of the world, prominent in circles of art and culture; and the woman whose natural loveliness was so distorted into a hideous mask of ugliness. With a short, derisive laugh, James Rutlidge turned and walked away.

       *       *       *       *       *

Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange were returning from town. As they neared their home, they saw one of the Taine automobiles in front of the house. "Company," said the artist with a smile--thinking of his letter to the millionaire.

"It's Rutlidge," said the novelist--noting the absence of the chauffeur.

They were turning in at the entrance, when Czar--who had dashed ahead as if to investigate--halted, suddenly, with a low growl of disapproval.

"Huh!" ejaculated Conrad Lagrange, with his twisted grin. "It's Senior 'Sensual' all right. Look at Czar; he knows the beast is around. Go fetch him, Czar."

With an angry bark, the dog disappeared around the corner of the porch. The two men, following, were met by Rutlidge who had made his way back through the grove and the rose garden from the house next door. The dog, with muttering growls, was sniffing suspiciously at his heels.

"Czar," said his master, suggestively. With a meaning glance, the dog reluctantly ceased his embarrassing attentions and went to see if everything was all right about the premises.

In answer to their greeting and the quite natural question if he had been waiting long, Rutlidge answered with a laugh. "Oh, no--I have been amusing myself by prowling around your place. Snug quarters you have here; really, I never quite appreciated their charm, before."

They seated themselves on the porch. Conrad Lagrange--thinking of Sibyl Andres and that letter which he had left on the gate--from under his brows, watched their caller closely; the while he filled with painstaking care his brier pipe.

"We like it," returned the artist.

"I should think so--I'd be sorry to leave it if I were you. Mr. Taine tells me you are going to the mountains."

"We're not giving up this place, though," replied Aaron King. "Yee Kee stays to take care of things until our return."

"Oh, I see. I generally go into the mountains, myself for a little hunt when the deer season opens. It may be that I will run across you somewhere. By the way--you haven't met your musical neighbor yet, have you?"

The novelist gave particular attention to his pipe which did not seem to be behaving properly.

The artist answered shortly, "No."

"I'd certainly make her acquaintance, if I were you," said Rutlidge, with his suggestive smile. "She is a dream. A delightful little retreat--that studio of yours."

The painter, puzzled by the man's words and by his insinuating air, returned coldly, "It does very well for a work-shop."

The other laughed meaningly; "Yes, oh yes--a great little work-shop. I suppose you--ah--do not fear to trust your art treasures to the Chinaman, during your absence?"

Conrad Lagrange--certain, now, that the man had seen Sibyl Andres either entering or leaving the studio--said abruptly, "You need give yourself no concern for Mr. King's studio, Rutlidge. I can assure you that the treasures there will be well protected."

James Rutlidge understood the warning conveyed in the novelist's words that, to Aaron King, revealed nothing.

"Really," said the painter to their caller, "you are not uneasy for the safety of Mrs. Taine's portrait, are you, old man? If you are, of course--"

"Damn Mrs. Taine's portrait!" ejaculated the man, rising hurriedly. "You know what I mean. It's all right, of course. I must be going. Hope you have a good outing and come back to find all your art treasures safe." He laughed coarsely, as he went down the walk.

When the automobile was gone, the artist turned to his friend. "Now what in thunder did he mean by that? What's the matter with him? Do you suppose they imagine that there is anything wrong because I wouldn't turn over the picture?"

"He is an unclean beast, Aaron," the novelist answered shortly. "His father was the worst I ever knew, and he's like him. Forget him. Here comes the delivery boy with our stuff. Let's overhaul the outfit. I hope they'll get here with that burro, before dark. Where'll we put him, in the studio, heh?"

"Look here,"--said the artist a few minutes later, returning from a visit to the studio for something,--"this is what was the matter with Rutlidge. And you did it, old man. This is your key."

"What do you mean?" asked the other in confusion taking the key.

"Why, I found the studio door wide open, with your key in the lock. You must have been out there, just before we left this morning, and forgot to shut the door. Rutlidge probably noticed it when he was prowling about the place, and was trying to roast me for my carelessness."

Conrad Lagrange stared stupidly at the key in his hand. "Well I am damned," he muttered. Then added, in savage and--as it seemed to the artist--exaggerated wrath, "I'm a stupid, blundering, irresponsible old fool." Nor was he consoled when the painter innocently assured him that no harm had resulted from his carelessness.

That night, as the two men sat on the porch, watching the last of the light on the mountain tops, they heard again the cry of fear and pain that came from the little house hidden in the depths of the orange grove. Wonderingly they listened. Once more it came--filled with shuddering terror.

When the sound was not repeated, Conrad Lagrange thoughtfully knocked the ashes from his pipe. "Poor soul," he said. "Those scars did more than disfigure her beautiful face. I'll wager there's a sad story there, Aaron. It's strange how I am haunted by the impression that I ought to know her. But I can't make it come clear. Heigho,"--he added a moment later as if to free his mind from unpleasant thoughts,--"I'll be glad when we are safely up in the hills yonder. Do you know, old man, I feel as though we're getting away just in the nick of time. My back hair and the pricking of my thumbs warn me that your dearly beloved spooks are combining to put up some sort of a spooking job on us. I hope Yee Kee has a plentiful supply of joss-sticks to stand 'em off, if they get too busy while we are gone."

Aaron King laughed quietly in the dusk, as he returned "And I have a presentiment that those precious members of our household are preparing to accompany us to the hills. I feel in my bones that something is going to happen up there"--he pointed to the distant mountains, then added--"to me, at least. I feel as though I were about to bid myself good-by--if you know what I mean. I hope that donkey of ours isn't a psychic donkey, or, if he is, that he'll listen to reason and be content with his escorts of flesh and blood."

As he finished speaking, the quiet of the evening was broken by a lusty, "Hee-haw, hee-haw," in front of the house.

"There, I told you so!" ejaculated the painter.

Laughing, the two men followed Czar down the walk, in the dark, to receive the shaggy, long-eared companion for their wanderings.

As many a man has done--Aaron King had spoken, in jest, more truth than he knew.