Chapter XXIX. The Hand Writing on the Wall

It was November. Nearly a year had passed since that day when the young man on the Golden State Limited--with the inheritance he had received from his mother's dying lips, and with his solemn promise to her still fresh in his mind--looked into the eyes of the woman on the platform of the observation car. That same day, too, he first saw the woman with the disfigured face, and, for the first time, met the famous Conrad Lagrange.

Aaron King was thinking of these things as he set out, that evening, with his friend, for the home of Mrs. Taine. He remarked to the novelist that the time seemed, to him, many years.

"To me, Aaron," answered the strange man, "it has been the happiest and--if you would not misunderstand me--the most satisfying year of my life. And this"--he added, his deep voice betraying his emotion--"this has been the happiest day of the year. It is your independence day. I shall always celebrate it as such--I--I have no independence day of my own to celebrate, you know."

Aaron King did not misunderstand.

As the two men approached the big house on Fairlands Heights, they saw that modern palace, from concrete foundation to red-tiled roof, ablaze with many lights. Situated upon the very topmost of the socially graded levels of Fairlands, it outshone them all; and, quite likely, the glittering display was mistaken by many dwellers in the valley below for a new constellation of the heavenly bodies. Quite likely, too, some lonely dweller, high up among the distant mountain peaks, looked down upon the sparkling bauble that lay for the moment, as it were, on the wide lap of the night, and smiled in quiet amusement that the earth children should attach such value to so fragile a toy.

As they passed the massive, stone pillars of the entrance to the grounds, Conrad Lagrange said, "Really, Aaron, don't you feel a little ashamed of yourself?--coming here to-night, after the outrageous return you have made for the generous hospitality of these people? You know that if Mrs. Taine had seen what you have done to her portrait, you could force the pearly gates easier than you could break in here."

The artist laughed. "To tell the truth, I don't feel exactly at home. But what the deuce can I do? After my intimacy with them, all these months, I can't assume that they are going to make my picture a reason for refusing to recognize me, can I? As I see it, they, not I, must take the initiative. I can't say: 'Well, I've told the truth about you, so throw me out'."

The novelist grinned. "Thus it is when 'Art' becomes entangled with the family of 'Materialism.' It's hard to break away from the flesh-pots--even when you know you are on the road to the Promised Land. But don't worry--'The Age' will take the initiative fast enough when she sees your portrait of her. Wow! In the meantime, let's play their game to-night, and take what spoils the gods may send. There will be material here for pictures and stories a plenty." As they went up the wide steps and under the portal into the glare of the lights, and caught the sound of the voices within, he added under his breath, "Lord, man, but 'tis a pretty show!--if only things were called by their right names. That old Babylonian, Belshazzar, had nothing on us moderns after all, did he? Watch out for the writing upon the wall."

When Aaron King and his companion entered the spacious rooms where the pride of Fairlands Heights and the eastern lions were assembled, a buzz of comment went round the glittering company. Aside from the fact that Mrs. Taine, with practised skill, had prepared the way for her protege, by subtly stimulating the curiosity of her guests--the appearance of the two men, alone, would have attracted their attention The artist, with his strong, splendidly proportioned, athletic body, and his handsome, clean-cut intellectual face--calmly sure of himself--with the air of one who knows that his veins are rich with the wealth of many generations of true culture and refinement; and the novelist--easily the most famous of his day--tall, emaciated, grotesquely stooped--with his homely face seamed and lined, world-worn and old, and his sharp eyes peering from under his craggy brows with that analyzing, cynical, half-pathetic half-humorous expression--certainly presented a contrast too striking to escape notice.

For an instant, as comrades side by side upon a battle-field might do, they glanced over the scene. To the painter's eye, the assembled guests appeared as a glittering, shimmering, scintillating, cloud-like mass that, never still, stirred within itself, in slow, graceful restless motions--forming always, without purpose new combinations and groupings that were broken up, even as they were shaped, to be reformed; with the black spots and splashes of the men's conventional dress ever changing amid the brighter colors and textures of the women's gowns; the warm flesh tints of bare white arms and shoulders, gleaming here and there; and the flash and sparkle of jewels, threading the sheen of silks and the filmy softness of laces. Into the artist's mind--fresh from the tragic earnestness of his day's work, and still under the enduring spell of his weeks in the mountains--flashed a sentence from a good old book; "For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away."

Then they were greeting, with conventional nothings their beautiful hostess; who, with a charming air of triumphant--but not too triumphant--proprietorship received them and passed them on, with a low spoken word to Aaron King; "I will take charge of you later."

Conrad Lagrange, before they drifted apart, found opportunity to growl in his companion's ear; "A near-great musician--an actress of divorce court fame--an art critic, boon companion of our friend Rutlidge--two free-lance yellow journalists--a poet--with leading culture-club women of various brands, and a mob of mere fashion and wealth. The pickings should be good. Look at 'Materialism', over there."

In a wheeled chair, attended by a servant in livery, a little apart from the center of the scene,--as though the pageant of life was about to move on without him,--but still, with desperate grip, holding his place in the picture, sat the genius of it all--the millionaire. The creature's wasted, skeleton-like limbs, were clothed grotesquely in conventional evening dress. His haggard, bestial face--repulsive with every mark of his wicked, licentious years--grinned with an insane determination to take the place that was his by right of his money bags; while his glazed and sunken eyes shone with fitful gleams, as he rallied the last of his vital forces, with a devilish defiance of the end that was so inevitably near.

As Aaron King, in the splendid strength of his inheritance, went to pay his respects to the master of the house, that poor product of our age was seized by a paroxysm of coughing, that shook him--gasping and choking--almost into unconsciousness. The ready attendant held out a glass of whisky, and he clutched the goblet with skinny hands that, in their trembling eagerness, rattled the crystal against his teeth. In the momentary respite afforded by the powerful stimulant, he lifted his yellow, claw-like hand to wipe the clammy beads of sweat that gathered upon his wrinkled, ape-like brow; and the painter saw, on one bony, talon-like finger, the gleaming flash of a magnificent diamond.

Mr. Taine greeted the artist with his husky whisper "Hello, old chap--glad to see you!" Peering into the laughing, chattering, glittering, throng he added, "Some beauties here to-night, heh? Gad! my boy, but I've seen the day I'd be out there among them! Ha, ha! Mrs. Taine, Louise, and Jim tried to shelve me--but I fooled 'em. Damn me, but I'm game for a good time yet! A little off my feed, and under the weather; but game, you understand, game as hell!" Then to the attendant--"Where's that whisky?" And, again, his yellow, claw-like hand--with that beautiful diamond, a gleaming point of pure, white light--lifted the glass to his grinning lips.

When Mrs. Taine appeared to claim the artist, her husband--huddled in his chair, an unclean heap of all but decaying flesh--watched them go, with hidden, impotent rage.

A few moments later, as Mrs. Taine and her charge were leaving one group of celebrities in search of another they encountered Conrad Lagrange. "What's this I see?" gibed the novelist, mockingly. "Is it 'Art being led by Beauty to the Judges and Executioners'? or, is it 'Beauty presenting an Artist to the Gods of Modern Art'?"

"You had better be helping a good cause instead of making fun, Mr. Lagrange," the woman retorted. "You weren't always so famous yourself that you could afford to be indifferent, you know."

Aaron King laughed as his friend replied, "Never fear, madam, never fear--I shall be on hand to assist at the obsequies."

In the shifting of the groups and figures, when dinner was announced, the young man found himself, again, within reach of Conrad Lagrange; and the novelist whispered, with a grin, "Now for the flesh-pots in earnest. You will be really out of place in the next act, Aaron. Only we artists who have sold our souls have a right to the price of our shame. You should dine upon a crust, you know. A genius without his crust, huh! A devil without his tail, or an ass without his long ears!"

Most conspicuous in the brilliant throng assembled in that banquet hall, was the horrid figure of Mr. Taine who sat in his wheeled chair at the head of the table; his liveried attendant by his side. Frequently--as though compelled--eyes were turned toward that master of the feast, who was, himself, so far past feasting; and toward his beautiful young wife--the only woman in the room, whose shoulders and arms were not bare.

At first, the talk moved somewhat heavily. Neighbor chattered nothings to neighbor in low tones. It was as though the foreboding presence of some grim, unbidden guest overshadowed the spirits of the company But gradually the scene became more animated The glitter of silver and crystal on the board; the sparkle of jewels and the wealth of shimmering colors that costumed the diners; with the strains of music that came from somewhere behind a floral screen that filled the air with fragrance; concealed, as it were, the hideous image of immorality which was the presiding genius of the feast. As the glare of a too bright light blinds the eyes to the ditch across one's path, so the brilliancy of their surroundings blinded the eyes of his guests to the meaning of that horrid figure in the seat of highest honor. But rich foods and rare wines soon loose the tongues that chatter the thoughts of those who do not think. As the glasses were filled and refilled again, the scene took color from the sparkling goblets. Voices were raised to a higher pitch. Shrill or boisterous laughter rang out, as jest and story went the rounds. It was Mrs. Taine, now, rather than her husband, who dominated the scene. With cheeks flushed and eyes bright she set the pace, nor permitted any laggards.

Conrad Lagrange watched, cool and cynical--his worn face twisted into a mocking smile; his keen, baffling eyes, from under their scowling brows, seeing all, understanding all. Aaron King, weary with the work of the past days, endured--wishing it was over.

The evening was well under way when Mrs. Taine held up her hand. In the silence, she said, "Listen! I have a real treat for you, to-night, friends. Listen!" As she spoke the last word, her eyes met the eyes of the artist, in mocking, challenging humor. He was wondering what she meant, when,--from behind that screen of flowers,--soft and low, poignantly sweet and thrilling in its purity of tone, came the music of the violin that he had learned to know so well.

Instantly, the painter understood. Mrs. Taine had employed Sibyl Andres to play for her guests that evening; thinking to tease the artist by presenting his mountain comrade in the guise of a hired servant. Why the girl had not told him, he did not know. Perhaps she had thought to enjoy his surprise. The effect of the girl's presence--or rather of her music, for she, herself, could not be seen--upon the artist was quite other than Mrs. Taine intended.

Under the spell of the spirit that spoke in the violin, Aaron King was carried far from his glittering surroundings. Again, he stood where the bright waters of Clear Creek tumbled among the granite boulders, and where he had first moved to answer the call of that music of the hills. Again, he followed the old wagon road to the cedar thicket; and, in the little, grassy opening with its wild roses, its encircling wilderness growth, and its old log house under the sheltering sycamores, saw a beautiful girl dancing with the unconscious grace of a woodland sprite, her arms upheld in greeting to the mountains. Once again, he was painting in the sacred quiet of the spring glade where she had come to him with her three gifts; where, in maidenly innocence, she had danced the dance of the butterflies; and, later, with her music, had lifted their friendship to heights of purity as far above the comprehension of the company that listened to her now, as the mountain peaks among the stars that night were high above the house on Fairlands Heights.

The music ceased. It was followed by the loud clapping of hands--with exclamations in high-pitched voices. "Who is it?" "Where did you find him?" "What's his name?"--for they judged, from Mrs. Taine's introductory words, that she expected them to show their appreciation.

Mrs. Taine laughed, and, with her eyes mockingly upon the artist's face answered lightly, "Oh, she is a discovery of mine. She teaches music, and plays in one of the Fairlands churches."

"You are a wonder," said one of the illustrious critics, admiringly. And lifting his glass, he cried, "Here's to our beautiful and talented hostess--the patron saint of all the arts--the friend of all true artists."

In the quiet that followed the enthusiastic endorsement of the distinguished gentleman's words, another voice said, "If it's a girl, can't we see her?" "Yes, yes," came from several. "Please, Mrs. Taine, bring her out." "Have her play again." "Will she?"

Mrs. Taine laughed. "Certainly, she will. That's what she's here for--to amuse you." And, again, as she spoke, her eyes met the eyes of Aaron King.

At her signal, a servant left the room. A moment later, the mountain girl, dressed in simple white, with no jewel or ornament other than a rose in her soft, brown hair, stood before that company. Unconscious of the eyes that fed upon her loveliness; there was the faintest shadow of a smile upon her face as she met, in one swift glance, the artist's look; then, raising her violin, she made music for the revelers, at the will of Mrs. Taine. As she stood there in the modest naturalness of her winsome beauty--innocent and pure as the flowers that formed the screen behind her; hired to amuse the worthy friends and guests of that hideously repulsive devotee of lust and licentiousness who, from his wheeled chair, was glaring at her with eyes that burned insanely--she seemed, as indeed she was, a spirit from another world.

James Rutlidge, his heavy features flushed with drink, was gazing at the girl with a look that betrayed his sensual passion. The face of Conrad Lagrange was dark and grim with scowling appreciation of the situation. Mrs. Taine was looking at the artist. And Aaron King, watching his girl comrade of the hills as she seemed to listen for the music which she in turn drew from the instrument, felt,--by the very force of the contrast between her and her surroundings he had never felt before, the power and charm of her personality--felt--and knew that Sibyl Andres had come into his life to stay.

In the flood of emotions that swept over him, and in the mental and spiritual exultation caused by her music and by her presence amid such scenes; it was given the painter to understand that she had, in truth, brought to him the strength, the purity, and the beauty of the hills; that she had, in truth, shown him the paths that lead to the mountain heights; that it was her unconscious influence and teaching that had made it impossible for him to prostitute his genius to win favor in the eyes of the world. He knew, now, that in those days when he had painted her portrait, as she stood with outstretched hands in the golden light among the roses, he had mixed his colors with the best love that a man may offer a woman. And he knew that the repainting of that false portrait of Mrs. Taine, with all that it would cost him, was his first offering to that love.

The girl musician finished playing and slipped away. When they would have recalled her, Mrs. Taine--too well schooled to betray a hint of the emotions aroused by what she had just seen as she watched Aaron King--shook her head.

At that instant, Mr. Taine rose to his feet, supporting himself by holding with shaking hands to the table. A hush, sudden as the hush of death, fell upon the company. The millionaire's attendant put out his hand to steady his master, and another servant stepped quickly forward. But the man who clung so tenaciously to his last bit of life, with a drunken strength in his dying limbs, shook them off, saying in a hoarse whisper, "Never mind! Never mind--you fools--can't you see I'm game!"

In the quiet of the room, that a moment before rang with excited voices and shrill laughter, the man's husky, straining, whispered boast sounded like the mocking of some invisible, fiendish presence at the feast.

Lifting a glass of whisky with that yellow, claw-like hand upon which the great diamond gleamed--a spot of flawless purity; with his repulsive features twisted into a grewsome ugliness by his straining effort to force his diseased vocal chords to make his words heard; the wretched creature said: "Here's to our girl musician. The prettiest--lassie that I--have seen for many a day--and I think I know a pretty girl--when I see one too. Who comes bright and fresh--from her mountains, to amuse us--and to add, to the beauty--and grace and wit and genius--that so distinguishes this company--the flavor and the freedom of her wild-wood home. Her music--is good, you'll all agree--" he paused to cough and to look inquiringly around, while every one nodded approval and smiled encouragingly. "Her music is good--but I--maintain that she, herself, is better. To me--her beauty is more pleasing to the eye--than--her fiddling can possibly--be to the ear!" Again he was forced to pause, while his guests, with hand and voice, applauded the clever words. Lifting the glass of whisky toward his lips that, by his effort to speak, were drawn back in a repulsive grin, he leered at the celebrities sitting nearest. "I suppose to-morrow--if we desire the company of these distinguished artists--we will have to follow--them to the mountains. I don't blame you, gentlemen--if I was not--ah--temporarily incapacitated--I would certainly--go for a little trip to the inspiring hills--myself. Even if I don't know--as much about music and art as some of you." Again his words were interrupted by that racking cough, the sound of which was lost in the applause that greeted his witticism. Lifting the glass once more, he continued, "So here's to our girl musician--who is her own--lovely self so much more attractive than any music--she can ever make." He drained the glass, and sank back into his chair, exhausted by his effort.

Aaron King was on the point of springing to his feet, when Conrad Lagrange caught his eye with a warning look. Instantly, he remembered what the result would be if he should yield to his impulse. Wild with indignation, rage, and burning shame, he knew that to betray himself would be to invite a thousand sneering questions and insinuations to besmirch the name of the girl he loved.

In the continued applause and laughter that followed the drinking of the millionaire's toast, the artist caught the admiring words, "Bully old sport." "Isn't he game?" "He has certainly traveled some pace in his day." "The girl is a beauty." "Let's have her in again." This last expression was so insistently echoed that Mrs. Taine--who, through it all, had been covertly watching Aaron King's face, and whose eyes were blazing now with something more than the effect of the wine she had been drinking--was forced to yield. A servant left the room, and, a moment later, reappeared, followed by Sibyl.

The girl was greeted, now, by hearty applause which she, accepting as an expression of the company's appreciation of her music, received with smiling pleasure. The artist, his heart and soul aflame with his awakening love, fought for self-control. Conrad Lagrange, catching his eye, again, silently bade him wait.

Sibyl lifted her violin and the noisy company was stilled. Slowly, under the spell of the music that, to him, was a message from the mountain heights, Aaron King grew calm. His tense muscles relaxed. His twitching nerves became steady. He felt himself as it were, lifted out of and above the scene that a moment before had so stirred him to indignant anger. His brain worked with that clearness and precision which he had known while repainting Mrs. Taine's portrait. Wrath gave way to pity; indignation to contempt. In confidence, he smiled to think how little the girl he loved needed his poor defense against the animalism that dominated the company she was hired to amuse. With every eye in the room fixed upon her as she played, she was as far removed from those who had applauded the suggestive words of the dying sensualist as her music was beyond their true comprehension.

Then it was that the genius of the artist awoke. As the flash of a search-light in the darkness of night brings out with startling clearness the details of the scene upon which it is turned, the painter saw before him his picture. With trained eye and carefully acquired skill, he studied the scene; impressing upon his memory every detail--the rich appointments of the room; the glittering lights; the gleaming silver and crystal; the sparkling jewels and shimmering laces; the bare shoulders; the wine-flushed faces and feverish eyes; and, in the seat of honor, the disease-wasted form and repulsive, sin-marked countenance of Mr. Taine who--almost unconscious with his exertion--was still feeding the last flickering flame of his lustful life with the vision of the girl whose beauty his toast had profaned: and in the midst of that company--expressing as it did the spirit of an age that is ruled by material wealth and dominated by the passions of the flesh--the center of every eye, yet, still, in her purity and innocence, removed and apart from them all; standing in her simple dress of white against the background of flowers--the mountain girl with her violin--offering to them the highest, holiest, gift of the gods--her music. Upon the girl's lovely, winsome face, was a look, now, of troubled doubt. Her wide, blue eyes, as she played, were pleading, questioning, half fearful--as though she sensed, instinctively the presence of the spirit she could not understand; and felt, in spite of the pretense of the applause that had greeted her, the rejection of her offering.

Not only did the artist, in that moment of conception see his picture and feel the forces that were expressed by every character in the composition, but the title, even, came to him as clearly as if Conrad Lagrange had uttered it aloud, "The Feast of Materialism."

Sibyl Andres finished her music, and quickly withdrew as if to escape the noisy applause. Amid the sound of the clapping hands and boisterous voices, Mr. Taine, summoning the last of his wasted strength, again struggled to his feet. With those claw-like hands he held to the table for support; while--shaking in every limb, his features twisted into a horrid, leering grin--he looked from face to face of the hushed and silent company; with glazed eyes in which the light that flickered so feebly was still the light of an impotent lust.

Twice, the man essayed to speak, but could not. The room grew still as death. Then, suddenly--as they looked--he lifted that yellow, skinny hand, to his wrinkled, ape-like brow, and--partially loosing, thus, his supporting grip upon the table--fell back, in a ghastly heap of diseased flesh and fine raiment; in the midst of which blazed the great diamond--as though the cold, pure beauty of the inanimate stone triumphed in a life more vital than that of its wearer.

His servants carried the unconscious master of the house from the room. Mrs. Taine, excusing herself, followed.

In the confusion that ensued, the musicians, hidden behind the floral screen, struck up a lively air. Some of the guests made quiet preparations for leaving. A group of those men--famous in the world of art and letters--under the influence of the wine they had taken so freely, laughed loudly at some coarse jest. Others, thinking, perhaps,--if they could be said to think at all,--that their host's attack was not serious, renewed conversations and bravely attempted to restore a semblance of animation to the interrupted revelries.

Aaron King worked his way to the side of Conrad Lagrange, "For God's sake, old man, let's get out of here."

"I'll find Rutlidge or Louise or some one," returned the other, and disappeared.

As the artist waited, through the open door of an adjoining room, he caught sight of Sibyl Andres; who, with her violin-case in her hand, was about to leave. Obeying his impulse, he went to her.

"What in the world are you doing here?" he said almost roughly--extending his hand to take the instrument she carried.

She seemed a little bewildered by his manner, but smiled as she retained her violin. "I am here to earn my bread and butter, sir. What are you doing here?"

"I beg your pardon," he said. "I did not mean to be rude."

She laughed, then, with a troubled air--"But is it not right for me to be here? It is all right for me to play for these people, isn't it? Myra didn't want me to come, but we needed the money, and Mrs. Taine was so generous. I didn't tell you and Mr. Lagrange because I wanted the fun of surprising you." As he stood looking at her so gravely, she put out her hand impulsively to his arm. "What is it, oh, what is it? How have I done wrong?"

"You have done no wrong, my dear girl," he answered "It is only that--"

He was interrupted by the cold, clear voice of Mrs. Taine, who had entered the room, unnoticed by them. "I see you are going, Miss Andres. Good-night. I will mail you a check to-morrow. Your music was very satisfactory. An automobile is waiting to take you home. Good night."

Before Aaron King could speak, the girl was gone.

"Mr. Lagrange and I were just about to go," said the artist, as the woman faced him. "I hope Mr. Taine has not suffered severely from the excitement of the evening?"

The woman's cheeks were flushed, and her eyes were bright with feverish excitement. Going close to him, she said in a low, hurried tone, "No, no, you must not go. Mr. Taine is all right in his room. Every one else is having a good time. You must not go. Come, I have had no opportunity, at all, to have you to myself for a single moment. Come, I--"

As she had interrupted Aaron King's reply to Sibyl Andres, the cool, sarcastic tones of Conrad Lagrange's deep voice interrupted her. "Mrs. Taine, they are hunting for you all over the house. Your husband is calling for you. I'm sure that Mr. King will excuse you, under the circumstances."