Chapter XXVIII. You're Ruined, My Boy
 

It was no light task to which Aaron King had set his hand. He did not doubt what it would cost him. Nor did Conrad Lagrange, as they talked together that evening, fail to point out clearly what it would mean to the artist, at the very beginning of his career, to fly thus rudely in the face of the providence that had chosen to serve him. The world's history of art and letters affords too many examples of men who, because they refused to pay court to the ruling cliques and circles of their little day, had seen the doors of recognition slammed in their faces; and who, even as they wrought their great works, had been forced to hear, as they toiled, the discordant yelpings of the self-appointed watchdogs of the halls of fame. Nor did the artist question the final outcome,--if only his work should be found worthy to endure,--for the world's history establishes, also, the truth--that he who labors for a higher wage than an approving paragraph in the daily paper, may, in spite of the condemnation of the pretending rulers, live in the life of his race, long after the names to which he refused to bow are lost in the dust of their self-raised thrones.

The painter was driven to his course by that self-respect, without which, no man can sanely endure his own company; together with that reverence--I say it deliberately--that reverence for his art, without which, no worthy work is possible. He had come to understand that one may not prostitute his genius to the immoral purposes of a diseased age, without reaping a prostitute's reward. The hideous ruin that Mr. Taine had, in himself, wrought by the criminal dissipation of his manhood's strength, and by the debasing of his physical appetites and passions, was to Aaron King, now, a token of the intellectual, spiritual, and moral ruin that alone can result from a debased and depraved dissipation of an artist's creative power. He saw clearly, now, that the influence his work must wield upon the lives of those who came within its reach, must be identical with the influence of Sibyl Andres, who had so unconsciously opened his eyes to the true mission and glory of the arts, and thus had made his decision possible. In that hour when Mrs. Taine had revealed herself to him so clearly, following as it did so closely his days of work and the final completion of his portrait of the girl among the roses, he saw and felt the woman, not as one who could help him to the poor rewards of a temporary popularity, but as the spirit of an age that threatens the very life of art by seeking to destroy the vital truth and purpose of its existence. He felt that in painting the portrait of Mrs. Taine--as he had painted it--he had betrayed a trust; as truly as had his father who, for purely personal aggrandizement, had stolen the material wealth intrusted to him by his fellows. The young man understood, now, that, instead of fulfilling the purpose of his mother's sacrifice, and realizing for her her dying wish, as he had promised; the course he had entered upon would have thwarted the one and denied the other.

The young man had answered the novelist truly, that it was a case of the blind beggar by the wayside. He might have carried the figure farther; for that same blind beggar, when his eyes had been opened, was persecuted by the very ones who had fed him in his infirmity. It is easier, sometimes, to receive blindly, than to give with eyes that see too clearly.

When Mrs. Taine went to the artist, in the studio, the next day, she found him in the act of re-tying the package of his mother's letters. For nearly an hour, he had been reading them. For nearly an hour before that, he had been seated, motionless, before the picture that Conrad Lagrange had said was a portrait of the Spirit of Nature.

When Mrs. Taine had slipped off her wrap, and stood before him gowned in the dress that so revealed the fleshly charms it pretended to hide, she indicated the letters in the artist's hands, with an insinuating laugh; while there was a glint of more than passing curiosity in her eyes. "Dear me," she said, "I hope I am not intruding upon the claims of some absent affinity."

Aaron King gravely held out his hand with the package of letters, saying quietly, "They are from my mother."

And the woman had sufficient grace to blush, for once, with unfeigned shame.

When he had received her apologies, and, putting aside the letters, had succeeded in making her forget the incident, he said, "And now, if you are ready, shall we begin?"

For some time the painter stood before the picture on his easel, without touching palette or brush, studying the face of the woman who posed for him. By a slight movement of her eyes, without turning her head, she could look him fairly in the face. Presently as he continued to gaze at her so intently, she laughed; and, with a little shrug of her shoulders and a pretense as of being cold, said, "When you look at me that way, I feel as though you had surprised me at my bath."

The artist turned his attention instantly to his color-box. While setting his palette, with his eyes upon his task, he said deliberately, "'Venus Surprised at the Bath.' Do you know that you would make a lovely Venus?"

With a low laugh, she returned, daringly. "Would you care to paint me as the Goddess of Love?"

He, still, did not look at her; but answered, while, with deliberate care, he selected a few brushes from the Chinese jar near the easel, "Venus is always a very popular subject, you know."

She did not speak for a moment or two; and the painter felt her watching him. As he turned to his canvas--still careful not to look in her direction--she said, suggestively, "I suppose you could change the face so that no one would know it was I who posed."

The man remembered her carefully acquired reputation for modesty, but held to his purpose, saying, as if considering the question seriously, "Oh, as for that part; it could be managed with perfect safety." Then, suddenly, he turned his eyes upon her face, with a gaze so sharp and piercing that the blood slowly colored neck and cheek.

But the painter did not wait for the blush. He had seen what he wanted and was at work--with the almost savage intensity that had marked his manner while he had worked upon the portrait of Sibyl Andres.

And so, day after day, as he painted, again, the portrait of the woman who Conrad Lagrange fancifully called "The Age," the artist permitted her to betray her real self--the self that was so commonly hidden from the world, under the mask of a pretended culture, and the cloak of a fraudulent refinement. He led her to talk of the world in which she lived--of the scandals and intrigues among those of her class who hold such enviable positions in life. He drew from her the philosophies and beliefs and religions of her kind. He encouraged her to talk of art--to give her understanding of the world of artists as she knew it, and to express her real opinions and tastes in pictures and books. He persuaded her to throw boldly aside the glittering, tinsel garb in which she walked before the world, and so to stand before him in all the hideous vulgarity, the intellectual poverty and the moral depravity of her naked self.

At times, when, under his intense gaze, she drew the cloak of her pretenses hurriedly about her, he sat before his picture without touching the canvas, waiting; or, perhaps, he paced the floor; until, with skillful words, her fears were banished and she was again herself. Then, with quick eye and sure, ready hand, he wrought into the portrait upon the easel--so far as the power was given him--all that he saw in the face of the woman who--posing for him, secure in the belief that he was painting a lie--revealed her true nature, warped and distorted as it was by an age that, demanding realism in art, knows not what it demands. Always, when the sitting was finished, he drew the curtain to hide the picture; forbidding her to look at it until he said that it was finished.

Much of the time, when he was not in the studio at work, the painter spent with Mrs. Taine and her friends, in the big touring car, and at the house on Fairlands Heights. But the artist did not, now, enter into the life of Fairlands' Pride for gain or for pleasure--he went for study--as a physician goes into the dissecting room. He justified himself by the old and familiar argument that it was for his art's sake.

Sibyl Andres, he seldom saw, except occasionally, in the early morning, in the rose garden. The girl knew what he was doing--that is, she knew that he was painting a portrait of Mrs. Taine--and so, with Myra Willard, avoided the place. But Conrad Lagrange now, made the neighboring house in the orange grove his place of refuge from Louise Taine, who always accompanied Mrs. Taine,--lest the world should talk,--but who never went as far as the studio.

But often, as he worked, the artist heard the music of the mountain girl's violin; and he knew that she, in her own beautiful way, was trying to help him--as she would have said--to put the mountains into his work. Many times, he was conscious of the feeling that some one was watching him. Once, pausing at the garden end of the studio as he paced to and fro, he caught a glimpse of her as she slipped through the gate in the Ragged Robin hedge. And once, in the morning, after one of those afternoons when he had gone away with Mrs. Taine at the conclusion of the sitting, he found a note pinned to the velvet curtain that hid the canvas on his working easel. It was a quaint little missive; written in one of the girl's fanciful moods, with a reference to "Blue Beard," and the assurance that she had been strong and had not looked at the forbidden picture.

As the work progressed, Mrs. Taine remarked, often, how the artist was changed. When painting that first picture, he had been so sure of himself. Working with careless ease, he had been suave and pleasant in his manner, with ready smile or laugh. Why, she questioned, was he, now, so grave and serious? Why did he pause so often, to sit staring at his canvas, or to pace the floor? Why did he seem to be so uncertain--to be questioning, searching, hesitating? The woman thought that she knew. Rejoicing in her fancied victory--all but won--she looked forward to the triumphant moment when this splendid man should be swept from his feet by the force of the passion she thought she saw him struggling to conceal. Meanwhile she tempted him by all the wiles she knew--inviting him with eyes and lips and graceful pose and meaning gesture.

And Aaron King, with clear, untroubled eye seeing all; with cool brain understanding all; with steady, skillful hand, ruled supremely by his purpose, painted that which he saw and understood into his portrait of her.

So they came to the last sitting. On the following evening, Mrs. Taine was giving a dinner at the house on Fairlands Heights, at which the artist was to meet some people who would be--as she said--useful to him. Eastern people they were; from the accredited center of art and literature; members of the inner circle of the elect. They happened to be spending the season on the Coast, and she had taken advantage of the opportunity to advance the painter's interests. It was very fortunate that her portrait was to be finished in time for them to see it.

The artist was sorry, he said, but, while it would not be necessary for her to come to the studio again, the picture was not yet finished, and he could not permit its being exhibited until he was ready to sign the canvas.

"But I may see it?" she asked, as he laid aside his palette and brushes, and announced that he was through.

With a quick hand, he drew the curtain. "Not yet; please--not until I am ready."

"Oh!" she cried with a charming air of submitting to one whose wish is law, "How mean of you! I know it is splendid! Are you satisfied? Is it better than the other? Is it like me?"

"I am sure that it is much better than the other," he replied. "It is as like you as I can make it."

"And is it as beautiful as the other?"

"It is beautiful--as you are beautiful," he answered.

"I shall tell them all about it, to-morrow night--even if I haven't seen it. And so will Jim Rutlidge."

Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange spent that evening at the little house next door. The next morning, the artist shut himself up in his studio. At lunch time, he would not come out. Late in the afternoon, the novelist went, again, to knock at the door.

The artist called in a voice that rang with triumph, "Come in, old man, come in and help me celebrate."

Entering, Conrad Lagrange found him; sitting, pale and worn, before his picture--his palette and brushes still in his hand.

And such a picture!

A moment, the novelist who knew--as few men know--the world that was revealed with such fidelity in that face upon the canvas, looked; then, with weird and wonderful oaths of delight, he caught the tired artist and whirled him around the studio, in a triumphant dance.

"You've done it! man--you've done it! It's all there; every rotten, stinking shred of it! Wow! but it's good--so damned good that it's almost inhuman. I knew you had it in you. I knew it was in you, all the time--if only you could come alive. God, man! if that could only be exhibited alongside the other! Look here!"

He dragged the easel that held Sibyl Andres' portrait to a place beside the one upon which the canvas just finished rested, and drew back the curtain. The effect was startling.

"'The Spirit of Nature' and 'The Spirit of the Age'," said Conrad Lagrange, in a low tone.

"But you're ruined, my boy," he added gleefully. "You're ruined. These canvases will never be exhibited Her own, she'll smash when she sees it; and you'll be artistically damned by the very gods she has invoked to bless you with fame and wealth. Lord, but I envy you! You have your chance now--a real chance to be worthy your mother's sacrifice.

"Come on, let's get ready for the feast."