Chapter XXVII. The Answer
 

When Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange entered the house to meet their callers from Fairlands Heights, the artist felt, oddly, that he was meeting a company of strangers.

The carefully hidden, yet--to him--subtly revealed, warmth of Mrs. Taine's greeting embarrassed him with a momentary sense of shame. The frothing gush of Louise's inane ejaculations, and the coughing, choking, cursing of Mr. Taine,--whose feeble grip upon the flesh that had so betrayed him was, by now, so far loosed that he could scarcely walk alone,--set the painter struggling for words that would mean nothing--the only words that, under the circumstances, could serve. Aaron King was somewhat out of practise in the use of meaningless words, and the art of talking without saying anything is an art that requires constant exercise if one would not commit serious technical blunders. James Rutlidge's greeting was insolently familiar; as a man of certain mind greets--in public--a boon companion of his private and unmentionable adventures. Toward the great critic, the painter exercised a cool self-restraint that was at least commendable.

While Aaron King, with James Rutlidge and Mr. Taine, with carefully assumed interest, was listening to Louise's effort to make a jumble of "ohs" and "ahs" and artistic sighs sound like a description of a sunset in the mountains, Mrs. Taine said quietly to Conrad Lagrange, "You certainly have taken excellent care of your protege, this summer. He looks splendidly fit."

The novelist, watching the woman whose eyes, as she spoke, were upon the artist, answered, "You are pleased to flatter me, Mrs. Taine."

She turned to him, with a knowing smile. "Perhaps I am giving you more credit than is due. I understand Mr. King has not been in your care altogether. Shame on you, Mr. Lagrange! for a man of your age and experience to permit your charge to roam all over the country, alone and unprotected, with a picturesque mountain girl!--and that, after your warning to poor me!"

Conrad Lagrange smiled grimly. "I confess I thought of you in that connection several times."

She eyed him doubtfully. "Oh, well," she said easily, "I suppose artists must amuse themselves, occasionally--the same as the rest of us."

"I don't think that, 'amuse' is exactly the word, Mrs. Taine," the other returned coldly.

"No? Surely you don't meant to tell me that it is anything serious?"

"I don't mean to tell you anything about it," he retorted rather sharply.

She laughed. "You don't need to. Jim has already told me quite enough. Mr. King, himself, will tell me more."

"Not unless he's a bigger fool than I think," growled the novelist.

Again, she laughed into his face, mockingly. "You men are all more or less foolish when there's a woman in the case, aren't you?"

To which, the other answered tartly, "If we were not, there would be no woman in the case."

As Conrad Lagrange spoke, Louise, exhausted by her efforts to achieve that sunset in the mountains with her limited supply of adjectives, floundered hopelessly into the expressive silence of clasped hands and heaving breast and ecstatically upturned eyes. The artist, seizing the opportunity with the cunning of desperation, turned to Mrs. Taine, with some inane remark about the summers in California.

Whatever it was that he said, Mrs. Taine agreed with him, heartily, adding, "And you, I suppose, have been making good use of your time? Or have you been simply storing up material and energy for this winter?"

This brought Louise out of the depths of that sunset, with a flop. She was so sure that Mr. King had some inexpressibly wonderful work to show them. Couldn't they go at once to the equally inexpressibly beautiful studio, to see the inexpressibly lovely pictures that she was so inexpressibly sure he had been painting in the inexpressibly grand and beautiful and wonderfully lovely mountains?

The painter assured them that he had no work for them to see; and Louise floundered again into the depths of inexpressible disappointment and despair.

Nevertheless, a few minutes later, Aaron King found himself in his studio, alone with Mrs. Taine. He could not have told exactly how she managed it, or why. Perhaps, in sheer pity, she had rescued him from the floods of Louise's appreciation. Perhaps--she had some other reasons. There had been something said about her right to see her own picture, and then--there they were--with the others safely barred from intruding upon the premises sacred to art.

When there was no longer need to fear the eyes of the world, Mrs. Taine was at no pains to hide the warmth of her feeling. With little reserve, she confessed herself in every look and tone and movement.

"Are you really glad to see me, I wonder," she said invitingly. "All this summer, while I have been forced to endure the company of all sorts of stupid people, I have been thinking of you and your work. And, you see, I have come to you, the first possible moment after my return home."

The man--being a man--could not remain wholly insensible to the alluring physical beauty of the splendid creature who stood so temptingly before him; but, to the honor of his kind, he could and did remain master of himself.

The woman, true to her life training,--as James Rutlidge had been true to his schooling when he approached Sibyl Andres in the mountains,--construed the artist's manner, not as a splendid self-control but as a careful policy. To her, and to her kind, the great issues of life are governed, not at all by principle, but by policy. It is not at all what one is, or what one may accomplish that matters; it is wholly what one may skillfully appear to be, and what one may skillfully provoke the world to say, that is of vital importance. Turning from the painter to the easel, as if to find in his portrait of her the fuller expression of that which she believed he dared not yet put into words, she was about to draw aside the curtain; when Aaron King checked her quickly, with a smile that robbed his words of any rudeness.

"Please don't touch that, Mrs. Taine. I am not yet ready to show it."

As she turned from the easel to face him, he took her portrait from where it rested, face to the wall; and placed it upon another easel, saying, "Here is your picture."

With the painting before her, she talked eagerly of her plans for the artist's future; how the picture was to be exhibited, and how, because it was her portrait, it would be praised and talked about by her friends who were leaders in the art circles. Frankly, she spoke of "pull" and "influence" and "scheme"; of "working" this and that "paper" for "write-ups"; of "handling" this or that "critic" and "writer"; of "reaching the committees"; of introducing the painter into the proper inside cliques, and clans; and of clever "advertising stunts" that would make him the most popular portrait painter of his day; insuring thus his--as she called it--fame.

The man who had painted the picture of the spring glade, and who had so faithfully portrayed the truth and beauty of Sibyl Andres as she stood among the roses, listened to this woman's plans for making his portrait of herself famous, with a feeling of embarrassment and shame.

"Do you really think that the work merits such prominence as you say will be given it?" he asked doubtfully.

She laughed knowingly, "Just wait until Jim Rutlidge's 'write-up' appears, and all the others follow his lead, and you'll see! The picture is clever enough--you know it as well as I. It is beautiful. It has everything that we women want in a portrait. I really don't know much about what you painters call art; but I know that when Jim and our friends get through with it, your picture will have every mark of a great masterpiece, and that you will be on the topmost wave of success."

"And then what?" he asked.

Again, she interpreted his words in the light of her own thoughts, and with little attempt to veil the fire that burned in her eyes, answered, "And then--I hope that you will not forget me."

For a moment he returned her look; then a feeling of disgust and shame for her swept over him, and he again turned away, to stand gazing moodily out of the window that looked into the rose garden.

"You seem to be disturbed and worried," she said, in a tone that implied a complete understanding of his mood, and a tacit acceptance of the things that he would say if it were not for the world.

He laughed shortly--"I fear you will think me ungrateful for your kindness. Believe me, I am not."

"I know you are not," she returned. "But don't think that you had better confess, just the same?"

He answered wonderingly, "Confess?"

"Yes." She shook her finger at him, in playful severity. "Oh, I know what you have been up to all summer--running wild with your mountain girl! Really, you ought to be more discreet."

Aaron King's face burned as he stammered something about not knowing what she meant.

She laughed gaily. "There, there, never mind--I forgive you--now that you are safely back in civilization again. I know you artists, and how you must have your periods of ah--relaxation--with rather more liberties than the common herd. Just so you are careful that the world doesn't know too much."

At this frank revelation of her mind, the man stood amazed. For the construction she put upon his relation with the girl whose pure and gentle comradeship had led him to greater heights in his art than he had ever before attained, he could have driven this woman from the studio he felt that she profaned. But what could he say? He remembered Conrad Lagrange's counsel when James Rutlidge had seen the girl at their camp. What could he say that would not injure Sibyl Andres? To cover his embarrassment, he forced a laugh and answered lightly, "Really, I am not good at confessions."

"Nor I at playing the part of confessor," she laughed with him. "But, just the same, you might tell me what you think of yourself. Aren't you just a little ashamed?"

The artist had moved to a position in front of her portrait; and, as he looked upon the painted lie, his answer came. "Rather let me tell you what I think of you, Mrs. Taine. And let me tell you in the language I know best. Let me put my answer to your charges here," he touched her portrait.

Almost, his reply was worthy of Conrad Lagrange, himself.

"I don't quite understand," she said, a trifle put out by the turn his answer had taken.

"I mean," he explained eagerly, "that I want to repaint your portrait. You remember, I wrote, when I returned Mr. Taine's generous check, that I was not altogether satisfied with it. Give me another chance."

"You mean for me to come here again, to pose for you?--as I did before?"

"Yes," he answered, "just as you did before. I want to make a portrait worthy of you, as this is not. Let me tell you, on the canvas, what I cannot--" he hesitated then said deliberately--"what I dare not put into words."

The woman received his words as a veiled declaration of a passion he dared not, yet, openly express. She thought his request a clever ruse to renew their meetings in the privacy of his studio, and was, accordingly delighted.

"Oh, that will be wonderful!--heavenly!" she cried, springing to her feet. "Can we begin at once? May I come to-morrow?"

"Yes," he answered, "come to-morrow."

"And may I wear the Quaker gown?"

"Yes, indeed! I want you just as you were before--the same dress, the same pose. It is to be the same picture, you understand, only a better one--one more worthy of us, both. And now," he continued hurriedly "don't you think that we should return to the house?"

"I suppose so," she answered regretfully--lingering.

The artist was already opening the door.

As they passed out, she placed her hand on his arm, and looked up into his face admiringly. "What a clever, clever man you are, to think of it! And what a story it will make for the papers--when my picture is shown--how you were not satisfied with the portrait and refused to let it go--and how, after keeping it in your studio for months, you repainted it, to satisfy your artistic conscience!"

Aaron King smiled.

The announcement in the house that the artist was to repaint Mrs. Taine's picture, provoked characteristic comment. Louise effervesced a frothy stream of bubbling exclamations. James Rutlidge gave a hearty, "By Jove, old man, you have nerve! If you can really improve on that canvas, you are a wonder." And Mr. Taine, under the watchful eye of his beautiful wife, responded with a husky whisper, "Quite right--my boy--quite right! Certainly--by all means--if you feel that way about it--" his consent and approval ending in a paroxysm of coughing that left him weak and breathless, and nearly eliminated him from the question, altogether.

When the Fairlands Heights party had departed, Conrad Lagrange looked the artist up and down.

"Well,"--he growled harshly, in his most brutal tones,--"what is it? Is the dog returning to his vomit?--or is the prodigal turning his back on his hogs and his husks?"

Aaron King smiled as he answered, "I think, rather, it's the case of the blind beggar who sat by the roadside, helpless, until a certain Great Physician passed that way."

And Conrad Lagrange understood.