Chapter XXX. In the Same Hour
 

In a splendid chamber, surrounded by every comfort and luxury that dollars could buy, and attended by liveried servants, Mr. Taine was dying.

The physician who met Mrs. Taine at the door, answered her look of inquiry with; "Your husband is very near the end, madam." Beside the bed, sat Louise, wringing her hands and moaning. James Rutlidge stood near. Without speaking, Mrs. Taine went forward.

The doctor, bending over his patient, with his fingers upon the skeleton-like wrist, said, "Mr. Taine, Mr. Taine, your wife is here."

In response, the eyes, deep sunken under the wrinkled brow, opened; the loosely hanging, sensual lips quivered.

The physician spoke again; "Your wife is here, Mr. Taine."

A sudden gleam of light flared up in the glazed eyes. The doctor could have sworn that the lips were twisted into a shadow of a ghastly, mocking smile. As if summoning, by a supreme effort of his will, from some unguessed depths of his being, the last remnant of his remaining strength, the man looked about the room and, in a hoarse whisper, said, "Send the others away--everybody--but her."

"O papa, papa!" exclaimed poor Louise, protestingly.

"Never mind, daughter," came the whispered answer from the bed. "Try to be game, girl--game as your father. Take her away, Jim."

As the physician passed Mrs. Taine, who had thus far stood like a statue, seemingly incapable of thought or feeling or movement, he said in a low tone, "I will be just outside the door, madam; easily within call."

When only the woman was left in the room with her husband, the dying man spoke again; "Come here. Stand where I can see you."

Mechanically, she obeyed; moving to a position near the foot of the bed.

After a moment's silence, during which he seemed to be rallying the very last of his vital forces for the effort, he said, "Well--the game is played--out. You think--you're the winner. You're--wrong--damn you--you're wrong. I wasn't--so drunk to-night that--I couldn't see." His face twisted in a hideous, malicious grin. "You--love--that artist fellow. Your--interest in his art is--all rot. It's him you want--and you--you have been thinking--you'd get him--with my money--the same as I got you. But you won't. You've--lost him already. I'm glad--you love him--damn glad--because--I know that after--what he's seen of me--even if he didn't love--that mountain--girl, he wouldn't wipe--his feet on you. You've tortured me--you've mocked--and sneered and laughed--at me--in my suffering--you fiend--and I've--tried my damnedest--to pay you back. What I couldn't do--the man you love--will--do for me. You'll suffer--now in earnest. You thought you'd be a--sure winner--as soon--as I was out of--the game. But you've lost--you've lost--you've lost! I saw your love for him--in your--face to-night--as I have seen--it every time--you two were together. I saw his love--for the girl--too--and I--saw--that you--saw it. I--I--wouldn't--wouldn't die--until I'd told you--that I knew." He paused to gather his strength for the last evil effort of his evil life.

The woman--who had stood, frozen with horror, her eyes fixed upon the face of the dying man, as though under a dreadful spell--cowered before him, livid with fear. Cringing, helpless--as though before some infernal monster--she hid her face; while her husband, struggling for breath to make her hear, called her every foul name he could master--derided her with fiendish glee--mocked her, taunted her, cursed her--with words too vile to print. With an oath and a profane wish for her future upon his lips, the end came. The sensual mouth opened--the diseased wasted limbs shuddered--the insane light in the lust-worn eyes went out.

With a scream, Mrs. Taine sank unconscious upon the floor beside the bed.

From the lower part of the house came the faint sounds of the few remaining revelers.

       *       *       *       *       *

When Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange left the house on Fairlands Heights that night, they walked quickly, as though eager to escape from the brilliantly lighted vicinity. Neither spoke until they were some distance away. Then the novelist, checking his quick stride, pointed toward the shadowy bulk of the mountains that heaved their mighty crests and peaks in solemn grandeur high into the midnight sky.

"Well, boy," he said, "the mountains are still there. It's good to see them again, isn't it?"

Reaching home, the older man bade his friend good night. But the artist, declaring that he was not yet ready to turn in, went, with pipe and Czar for company, to sit for a while on the porch.

Looking away over the dark mass of the orange groves to the distant peaks, he lived over again, in his thoughts, those weeks of comradeship with Sibyl Andres in the hills. Every incident of their friendship he recalled--every hour they had spent together amid the scenes she loved--reviewing every conversation--questioning searching, wondering, hoping, fearing.

Later, he went out into the rose garden--her garden--where the air was fragrant with the perfume of the flowers she tended with such loving care. In the soft, still darkness of the night, the place seemed haunted by her presence. Quietly, he moved here and there among the roses--to the little gate in the Ragged Robin hedge, through which she came and went; to the vine-covered arbor where she had watched him at his work; and to the spot where she had stood, day after day, with hands outstretched in greeting, while he worked to make the colors and lines upon his canvas tell the secret of her loveliness. He remembered how he had felt her presence in those days when he had laughingly insisted to Conrad Lagrange that the place was haunted. He remembered how, even when she was unknown to him, her music had always moved him--how her message from the hills had seemed to call to the best that was in him.

So it was, that, as he recalled these things,--as he lived again the days of his companionship with her and realized how she had come into his life, how she had appealed always to the best of him, and satisfied always his best needs,--he came to know the answer to his questions--to his doubts and fears and hopes. There, in the rose garden, with its dark walls of hedge and vine and grove, in the still night under the stars, with his face to the distant mountains, he knew that the mountain girl would not deny him--that, when she was ready, she would come to him.

In the hour when Mr. Taine, with the last strength of his evil life, profanely cursed the woman that his gold had bought to serve his licentious will--and cursing--died; Aaron King--inspired by the character and purity of the woman he loved, and by whom he knew he was loved, and dreaming of their comradeship that was to be--dedicated himself anew to the ministry of his art and so entered into that more abundant life which belongs by divine right to all who will claim it.

But it was not given Aaron King to know that before Sibyl Andres could come to him he must be tested by a trial that would tax his manhood's best strength to the uttermost. In that night of his awakened love, as he dreamed of the days of its realization, the man did not know that the days of his testing were so near at hand.