Chapter XXVI. I Want You Just as You Are
 

The evening of that day after their return from the mountains, when Conrad Lagrange had found Aaron King so absorbed in his mother's letters, the artist continued in his silent, preoccupied, mood. The next morning, it was the same. Refusing every attempt of his friend to engage him in conversation, he answered only with absent-minded mono-syllables; until the novelist, declaring that the painter was fit company for neither beast nor man, left him alone; and went off somewhere with Czar.

The artist spent the greater part of the forenoon in his studio, doing nothing of importance. That is, to a casual observer he would have seemed to be doing nothing of importance. He did, however, place his picture of the spring glade beside the portrait of Mrs. Taine, and then, for an hour or more, sat considering the two paintings. Then he turned the "Quaker Maid" again to the wall and fixed a fresh canvas in place on the easel. That was all.

Immediately after their midday lunch, he returned to the studio--hurriedly, as if to work. He arranged his palette, paints, and brushes ready to his hand, indeed--but he, then, did nothing with them. Listlessly, without interest, he turned through his portfolios of sketches. Often, he looked away through the big, north window to the distant mountain tops. Often, he seemed to be listening. He was sitting before the easel, staring at the blank canvas, when, clear and sweet, from the depths of the orange grove, came the pure tones of Sibyl Andres' violin.

So soft and low was the music, at first, that the artist almost doubted that it was real, thinking--as he had thought that day when Sibyl came singing to the glade--that it was his fancy tricking him. When he and Conrad Lagrange left the mountains three days before, the girl and her companion had not expected to return to Fairlands for at least two weeks. But there was no mistaking that music of the hills. As the tones grew louder and more insistent, with a ringing note of gladness, he knew that the mountain girl was announcing her arrival and, in the language she loved best, was greeting her friends.

But so strangely selfish is the heart of man, that Aaron King gave the novelist no share in their neighbor's musical greeting. He received the message as if it were to himself alone. As he listened, his eyes brightened; he stood erect, his face turned upward toward the mountain peaks in the distance; his lips curved in a slow smile. He fancied that he could see the girl's winsome face lighted with merriment as she played, knowing his surprise. Once, he started impulsively toward the door, but paused, hesitating, and turned back. When the music ceased, he went to the open window that looked out into the rose garden, and watched expectantly.

Presently, he heard her low-voiced song as she came through the orange grove beyond the Ragged Robin hedge. Then he glimpsed her white dress at the little gate in the corner. Then she stood in full view.

The artist had, so far, seen Sibyl only in her mountain costume of soft brown,--made for rough contact with rocks and underbrush,--with felt hat to match, and high, laced boots, fit for climbing. She was dressed, now, as Conrad Lagrange had seen her that first time in the garden, when he was hiding from Louise Taine. The man at the window drew a little back, with a low exclamation of pleased surprise and wonder. Was that lovely creature there among the roses his girl comrade of the hills? The Sibyl Andres he had known--in the short skirt and high boots of her mountain garb--was a winsome, fanciful, sometimes serious, sometimes wayward, maiden. This Sibyl Andres, gowned in clinging white, was a slender, gracefully tall, and beautifully developed woman.

Slowly, she came toward the studio end of the garden; pausing here and there to bend over the flowers as though in loving, tender greeting; singing, the while, her low-voiced melody; unafraid of the sunshine that enveloped her in a golden flood, undisturbed by the careless fingers of the wind that caressed her hair. A girl of the clean out-of-doors, she belonged among the roses, even as she had been at home among the pines and oaks of the mountains. The artist, fascinated by the lovely scene, stood as though fearing to move, lest the vision vanish.

Then, looking up, she saw him, and stretched out her hands in a gesture of greeting, with a laugh of pleasure.

"Don't move, don't move!" he called impulsively. "Hold the pose--please hold it! I want you just as you are!"

The girl, amused at his tragic earnestness, and at the manner of his welcome, understood that the zeal of the artist had brushed aside the polite formalities of the man; and, as unaffectedly natural as she did everything, gave herself to his mood.

Dragging his easel with the blank canvas upon it across the studio, he cried out, again, "Don't move, please don't move!" and began working. He was as one beside himself, so wholly absorbed was he in translating into the terms of color and line, the loveliness purity and truth that was expressed by the personality of the girl as she stood among the flowers. "If I can get it! If I can only get it!" he exclaimed again and again, with a kind of savage earnestness, as he worked.

All his years of careful training, all his studiously acquired skill, all his mastery of the mechanics of his craft, came to him, now, without conscious effort--obedient to his purpose. Here was no thoughtful straining to remember the laws of composition, and perspective, and harmony. Here was no skillful evading of the truth he saw. So freely, so surely, he worked, he scarcely knew he painted. Forgetting self, as he was unconscious of his technic, he worked as the birds sing, as the bees toil, as the deer runs. Under his hand, his picture grew and blossomed as the roses, themselves, among which the beautiful girl stood.

Day after day, at that same hour, Sibyl Andres came singing through the orange grove, to stand in the golden sunlight among the roses, with hands outstretched in greeting. Every day, Aaron King waited her coming--sitting before his easel, palette and brush in hand. Each day, he worked as he had worked that first day--with no thought for anything save for his picture.

In the mornings, he walked with Conrad Lagrange or, sometimes, worked with Sibyl in the garden. Often, in the evening, the two men would visit the little house next door. Occasionally, the girl and the woman with the disfigured face would come to sit for a while on the front porch with their friends. Thus the neighborly friendship that began in the hills was continued in the orange groves. The comradeship between the two young people grew stronger, hour by hour, as the painter worked at his easel to express with canvas and color and brush the spirit of the girl whose character and life was so unmarred by the world.

A11 through those days, when he was so absorbed in his work that he often failed to reply when she spoke to him, the girl manifested a helpful understanding of his mood that caused the painter to marvel. She seemed to know, instinctively, when he was baffled or perplexed by the annoying devils of "can't-get-at-it," that so delight to torment artist folk; just as she knew and rejoiced when the imps were routed and the soul of the man exulted with the sureness and freedom of his hand. He asked her, once, when they had finished for the day, how it was that she knew so well how the work was progressing, when she could not see the picture.

She laughed merrily. "But I can see you; and I"--she hesitated with that trick, that he was learning to know so well, of searching for a word--"I just feel what you are feeling. I suppose it's because my music is that way. Sometimes, it simply won't come right, at all, and I feel as though I never could do it. Then, again, it seems to do itself; and I listen and wonder--just as if I had nothing to do with it."

So that day came when the artist, drawing slowly back from his easel, stood so long gazing at his picture without touching it that the girl called to him, "What's the matter? Won't it come right?"

Slowly he laid aside his palette and brushes. Standing at the open window, he looked at her--smiling but silent--as she held the pose.

For an instant, she did not understand. "Am I not right?" she asked anxiously. Then, before he could answer--"Oh, have you finished? Is it all done?"

Still smiling, he answered almost sadly, "I have done all that I can do. Come."

A moment later, she stood in the studio door.

Seeing her hesitate, he said again, "Come."

"I--I am afraid to look," she faltered.

He laughed. "Really I don't think it's quite so bad as that."

"Oh, but I don't mean that I'm afraid it's bad--it isn't."

The painter watched her,--a queer expression on his face,--as he returned curiously, "And how, pray tell, do you know it isn't bad--when you have never seen it? It's quite the thing, I'll admit, for critics to praise or condemn without much knowledge of the work; but I didn't expect you to be so modern."

"You are making fun of me," she laughed. "But I don't care. I know your work is good, because I know how and why you did it. You painted it just as you painted the spring glade, didn't you?"

"Yes," he said soberly, "I did. But why are you afraid?"

"Why, that's the reason. I--I'm afraid to see myself as you see me."

The man's voice was gentle with feeling as he answered seriously, "Miss Andres, you, of all the people I have ever known, have the least cause to fear to look at your portrait for that reason. Come."

Slowly, she went forward to stand by his side before the picture.

For some time, she looked at the beautiful work into which Aaron King had put the best of himself and of his genius. At last, turning full upon him, her eyes blue and shining, she said in a low tone, "O Mr. King, it is too--too--beautiful! It is so beautiful it--it--hurts. She seems to, to"--she searched for the word--"to belong to the roses, doesn't she? It makes you feel just as the rose garden makes you feel."

He laughed with pleasure, "What a child of nature you are! You have forgotten that it is a portrait of yourself, haven't you?"

She laughed with him. "I had forgotten. It's so lovely!" Then she added wistfully, "Am I--am I really like that?--just a little?"

"No," he answered. "But that is just a little, a very little, like you."

She looked at him half doubtfully--sincerely unmindful of the compliment, in her consideration of its truth. Shaking her head, with a serious smile, she returned slowly, "I wish that I could be sure you are not mistaken."

"You will permit me to exhibit the picture, will you?" he asked.

"Why, yes! of course! You made it for people to see, didn't you? I don't believe any one could look at it seriously without having good thoughts, could they?"

"I'm sure they could not," he answered. "But, you see, it's a portrait of you; and I thought you might not care for the--ah--" he finished with a smile--"shall I say fame?"

"Oh! I did not think that you would tell any one that I had anything to do with it. Is it necessary that my name should be mentioned?"

"Not exactly necessary"--he admitted--"but few women, these days, would miss the opportunity."

She shook her head, with a positive air. "No, no; you must exhibit it as a picture; not as a portrait of me. The portrait part is of no importance. It is what you have made your picture say, that will do good."

"And what have I made it say?" he asked, curiously pleased.

"Why it says that--that a woman should be beautiful as the roses are beautiful--without thinking too much about it, you know--just as a man should be strong without thinking too much about his strength, I mean."

"Yes," he agreed, "it says that. But I want you to know that, whatever title it is exhibited under, it will always be, to me, a portrait--the truest I have ever painted."

She flushed with genuine pleasure as she said brightly, "I like you for that. And now let's try it on Conrad Lagrange and Myra Willard. You get him, and I'll run and bring her. Mind you don't let Mr. Lagrange in until I get back! I want to watch him when he first sees it."

When the artist found Conrad Lagrange and told him that the picture was finished, the novelist, without comment, turned his attention to Czar.

The painter, with an amused smile, asked, "Won't you come for a look at it, old man?"

The other returned gruffly, "Thanks; but I don't think I care to risk it."

The artist laughed. "But Miss Andres wants you to come. She sent me to fetch you."

Conrad Lagrange turned his peculiar, baffling eyes upon the young man. "Does she like it?"

"She seems to."

"If she seems to, she does," retorted the other, rising. "And that's different."

When the novelist, with his three friends, stood before the easel, he was silent for so long that the girl said anxiously, "I--I thought you would like it, Mr. Lagrange."

They saw the strange man's eyes fill with tears as he answered, in the gentle tones that always marked his words to her, "Like it? My dear child, how could I help liking it? It is you--you!" To the artist, he added, "It is great work, my boy, great! I--I wish your mother could have seen it. It is like her--as I knew her. You have done well." He turned, with gentle courtesy, to Myra Willard; "And you? What is your verdict, Miss Willard?"

With her arm around the beautiful original of the portrait, the woman with the disfigured face answered, "I think, sir, that I, better than any one in all the world, know how good, how true, it is."

Conrad Lagrange spoke again to the artist, inquiringly; "You will exhibit it?"

"Miss Andres says that I may--but not as a portrait."

The novelist could not conceal his pleasure at the answer. Presently, he said, "If it is not to be shown as a portrait, may I suggest a title?"

"I was hoping you would!" exclaimed the painter.

"And so was I," cried Sibyl, with delight. "What is it, Mr. Lagrange?"

"Let it be exhibited as 'The Spirit of Nature--A Portrait'," answered Conrad Lagrange.

As the novelist finished speaking, Yee Kee appeared in the doorway. "They come--big automobile. Whole lot people. Misse Taine, Miste' Lutlidge, sick man, whole lot--I come tell you."

The artist spoke quickly,--"Stop them in the house, Kee; I'll be right in,"--and the Chinaman vanished.

At Yee Kee's announcement, Myra Willard's face went white, and she gave a low cry.

"Never mind, dear," said the girl, soothingly. "We can slip away through the garden--come."

When Sibyl and the woman with the disfigured face were gone, Conrad Lagrange and Aaron King looked at each other, questioningly.

Then the novelist said harshly,--pointing to the picture on the easel,--"You're not going to let that flock of buzzards feed on this, are you? I'll murder some one, sure as hell, if you do."

"I don't think I could stand it, myself," said the artist, laughing grimly, as he drew the velvet curtain to hide the portrait.