Chapter XXXI. As the World Sees
 

It was three days after the incidents just related when an automobile from Fairlands Heights stopped at the home of Aaron King and the novelist.

Mrs. Taine, dressed in black and heavily veiled, went, alone, to the house, where Yee Kee appeared in answer to her ring.

There was no one at home, the Chinaman said. He did not know where the artist was. He had gone off somewhere with Mr. Lagrange and the dog. Perhaps they would return in a few minutes; perhaps not until dinner time.

Mrs. Taine was exceedingly anxious to see Mr. King. She was going away, and must see him, if possible, before she left. She would come in, and, if Yee Kee would get her pen and paper, would write a little note, explaining--in case she should miss him. The Chinaman silently placed the writing material before her, and disappeared.

Before sitting down to her letter, the woman paced the floor restlessly, in nervous agitation. Her face, when she had thrown back the veil, appeared old and worn, with dark circles under the eyes, and a drawn look to the weary, downward droop of the lips. As she moved about the room, nervously fingering the books and trifles upon the table or the mantle, she seemed beside herself with anxiety. She went to the window to stand looking out as if hoping for the return of the artist. She went to the open door of his bedroom, her hands clenched, her limbs trembling, her face betraying the agony of her mind.

With Louise, she was leaving that evening, at four o'clock, for the East--with the body of her husband. She could not go without seeing again the man whom, as Mr. Taine had rightly said, she loved--loved with the only love of which--because of her environment and life--she was capable. She still believed in her power over him whose passion she had besieged with all the lure of her physical beauty, but that which she had seen in his face as he had watched the girl musician the night of the dinner, filled her with fear. Presently, in her desperation, when the artist did not return, she seated herself at the table to put upon paper, as best she could, the things she had come to say.

Her letter finished, she looked at her watch. Calling the Chinaman, she asked for a key to the studio, explaining that she wished to see her picture. She still hoped for the artist's return and that her letter would not be necessary. She hoped, too, that in her portrait, which she had not yet seen, she might find some evidence of the painter's passion for her. She had not forgotten his saying that he would put upon the canvas what he thought of her, nor could she fail to recall his manner and her interpretation of it as he had worked upon the picture.

In the studio, she stood before the easel, scarce daring to draw the curtain. But, calling up in her mind the emotions and thoughts of the hours she had spent in that room alone with the artist, she was made bold by her reestablished belief in his passion and by her convictions that were founded upon her own desires. Under the stimulating influence of her thoughts, a flush of color stole into her cheeks, her eyes grew bright with the light of triumphant anticipation. With an eager hand she boldly drew aside the curtain.

The picture upon the easel was the artist's portrait of Sibyl Andres.

With an exclamation that was not unlike fear, Mrs. Taine drew back from the canvas. Looking at the beautiful painting,--in which the artist had pictured, with unconscious love and an almost religious fidelity, the spirit of the girl who was so like the flowers among which she stood,--the woman was moved by many conflicting emotions. Surprise, disappointment admiration, envy, jealousy, sadness, regret, and anger swept over her. Blinded by bitter tears, with a choking sob, in an agony of remorse and shame, she turned away her face from the gaze of those pure eyes. Then, as the flame of her passion withered her shame, hot rage dried her tears, and she sprang forward with an animal-like fierceness, to destroy the picture. But, even as she put forth her hand, she hesitated and drew back, afraid. As she stood thus in doubt--halting between her impulse and her fear--a sound at the door behind her drew her attention. She turned to face the beautiful original of the portrait Instantly the woman of the world had herself perfectly in hand.

Sibyl Andres drew back with an embarrassed, "I beg your pardon. I thought--" and would have fled.

But Mrs. Taine, with perfect cordiality, said quickly, "O how do you do, Miss Andres; come in."

She seemed so sincere in the welcome that was implied in her voice and manner; while her face, together with her somber garb of mourning, was so expressive of sadness and grief that the girl's gentle heart was touched. Going forward, with that natural, dignity that belongs to those whose minds and hearts are unsullied by habitual pretense of feeling and sham emotions, Sibyl spoke a few well chosen words of sympathy.

Mrs. Taine received the girl's expression of condolence with a manner that was perfect in its semblance of carefully controlled sorrow and grief, yet managed, skillfully, to suggest the wide social distance that separated the widow of Mr. Taine from the unknown, mountain girl. Then, as if courageously determined not to dwell upon her bereavement, she said, "I was just looking, again, at Mr. King's picture--for which you posed. It is beautiful, isn't it? He told me that you were an exceptionally clever model--quite the best he has ever had."

The girl--disarmed by her own genuine feeling of sympathy for the speaker--was troubled at something that seemed to lie beneath the kindly words of the experienced woman. "To me, it is beautiful," she returned doubtfully. "But, of course, I don't know. Mr. Lagrange thinks, though, that it is really a splendid portrait."

Mrs. Taine smiled with a confident air, as one might smile at a child. "Mr. Lagrange, my dear, is a famous novelist--but he really knows very little of pictures."

"Perhaps you are right," returned Sibyl, simply. "But the picture is not to be shown as a portrait of me, at all."

Again, that knowing smile. "So I understand, of course. Under the circumstances, you would scarcely expect it, would you?"

Sibyl, not in the least understanding what the woman meant, answered doubtfully, "No. I--I did not wish it shown as my portrait."

Mrs. Taine, studying the girl's face, became very earnest in her kindly interest; as if, moved out of the goodness of her heart, she stooped from her high place to advise and counsel one of her own sex, who was so wholly ignorant of the world. "I fear, my dear, that you know very little of artists and their methods."

To which the girl replied, "I never knew an artist before I met Mr. King, this summer, in the mountains."

Still watching her face closely, Mrs. Taine said, with gentle solicitude, "May I tell you something for your own good, Miss Andres?"

"Certainly, if you please, Mrs. Taine."

"An artist," said the older woman, carefully, with an air of positive knowledge, "must find the subjects for his pictures in life. As he goes about, he is constantly on the look-out for new faces or figures that are of interest to him--or, that may be used by him to make pictures of interest. The subjects--or, I should say, the people who pose for him--are nothing at all to the artist--aside from his picture, you see--no more than his paints and brushes and canvas. Often, they are professional models, whom he hires as one hires any sort of service, you know. Sometimes--" she paused as if hesitating, then continued gently--"sometimes they are people like yourself, who happen to appeal to his artistic fancy, and whom he can persuade to pose for him."

The girl's face was white. She stared at the woman with pleading, frightened dismay. She made a pitiful attempt to speak, but could not.

The older woman, watching her, continued, "Forgive me, dear child. I do not wish to hurt you. But Mr. King is so careless. I told him he should be careful that you did not misunderstand his interest in you. But he laughed at me. He said that it was your innocence that he wanted to paint, and cautioned me not to warn you until his picture was finished." She turned to look at the picture on the easel with the air of a critic. "He really has caught it very well. Aaron--Mr. King is so good at that sort of thing. He never permits his models to know exactly what he is after, you see, but leads them, cleverly, to exhibit, unconsciously, the particular thing that he wishes to get into his picture."

When the tortured girl had been given time to grasp the full import of her words, the woman said again,--turning toward Sibyl, as she spoke, with a smiling air that was intended to show the intimacy between herself and the artist,--"Have you seen his portrait of me?"

"No," faltered Sibyl. "Mr. King told me not to look at it. It has always been covered when I have been in the studio."

Again, Mrs. Taine smiled, as though there was some reason, known only to herself and the painter, why he did not wish the girl to see the portrait. "And do you come to the studio often--alone as you came to-day?" she asked, still kindly, as though from her experience she was seeking to counsel the girl. "I mean--have you been coming since the picture for which you posed was finished?"

The girl's white cheeks grew red with embarrassment and shame as she answered, falteringly, "Yes."

"You poor child! Really, I must scold Aaron for this. After my warning him, too, that people were talking about his intimacy with you in the mountains It is quite too bad of him! He will ruin himself, if he is not more careful." She seemed sincerely troubled over the situation.

"I--I do not understand, Mrs. Taine," faltered Sibyl. "Do you mean that my--that Mr. King's friendship for me has harmed him? That I--that it is wrong for me to come here?"

"Surely, Miss Andres, you must understand what I mean."

"No, I--I do not know. Tell me, please."

Mrs. Taine hesitated as though reluctant. Then, as if forced by her sense of duty, she spoke. "The truth is, my dear, that your being with Mr. King in the mountains--going to his camp as familiarly as you did, and spending so much time alone with him in the hills--and then your coming here so often, has led people to say unpleasant things."

"But what do people say?" persisted Sibyl.

The answer came with cruel deliberateness; "That you are not only Mr. King's model, but that you are his mistress as well."

Sibyl Andres shrank back from the woman as though she had received a blow in the face. Her cheeks and brow and neck were crimson. With a little cry, she buried her face in her hands.

The kind voice of the older woman continued, "You see, dear, whether it is true or not, the effect is exactly the same. If in the eyes of the world your relations to Mr. King are--are wrong, it is as bad as though it were actually true. I felt that I must tell you, child, not alone for your own good but for the sake of Mr. King and his work--for the sake of his position in the world. Frankly, if you continue to compromise him and his good name by coming like this to his studio, it will ruin him. The world may not care particularly whether Mr. King keeps a mistress or not, but people will not countenance his open association with her, even under the pretext that she is a model."

As she finished, Mrs. Taine looked at her watch. "Dear me, I really must be going. I have already spent more time than I intended. Good-by, Miss Andres. I know you will forgive me if I have hurt you."

The girl looked at her with the pain and terror filled eyes of some gentle wild creature that can not understand the cruelty of the trap that holds it fast. "Yes--yes, I--I suppose you know best. You must know more than I. I--thank you, Mrs. Taine. I--"

When Mrs. Taine was gone, Sibyl Andres sat for a little while before her portrait; wondering, dumbly, at the happiness of that face upon the canvas. There were no tears. She could not cry. Her eyes burned hot and dry. Her lips were parched. Rising, she drew the curtain carefully to hide the picture, and started toward the door. She paused. Going to the easel that held the other picture, she laid her hand upon the curtain. Again, she paused. Aaron King had said that she must not look at that picture--Conrad Lagrange had said that she must not--why? She did not know why.

Perhaps--if the mountain girl had drawn aside the curtain and had looked upon the face of Mrs. Taine as Aaron King had painted it--perhaps the rest of my story would not have happened.

But, true to the wish of her friends, even in her misery, Sibyl Andres held her hand. At the door of the studio, she turned again, to look long and lingeringly about the room. Then she went out, closing and locking the door, and leaving the key on a hidden nail, as her custom was.

Going slowly, lingeringly, through the rose garden to the little gate in the hedge, she disappeared in the orange grove.

Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange, returning from a long walk, overtook Myra Willard, who was returning from town, just as the woman of the disfigured face arrived at the gate of the little house in the orange grove. For a moment, the three stood chatting--as neighbors will,--then the two men went on to their own home. Czar, racing ahead, announced their coming to Yee Kee and the Chinaman met them as they entered the living-room. Telling them of Mrs. Taine's visit, he gave Aaron King the letter that she had left for him.

As the artist, conscious of the scrutinizing gaze of his friend, read the closely written pages, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment and shame. When he had finished, he faced the novelist's eyes steadily and, without speaking, deliberately and methodically tore Mrs. Taine's letter into tiny fragments. Dropping the scraps of paper into the waste basket, he dusted his hands together with a significant gesture and looked at his watch. "Her train left at four o'clock. It is now four-thirty."

"For which," returned Conrad Lagrange, solemnly, "let us give thanks."

As the novelist spoke, Czar, on the porch outside, gave a low "woof" that signalized the approach of a friend.

Looking through the open door, they saw Myra Willard coming hurriedly up the walk. They could see that the woman was greatly agitated, and went quicklv forward to meet her.

Women of Myra Willard's strength of character--particularly those who have passed through the furnace of some terrible experience as she so evidently had--are not given to loud, uncontrolled expression of emotion. That she was alarmed and troubled was evident. Her face was white, her eyes were frightened and she trembled so that Aaron King helped her to a seat; but she told them clearly, with no unnecessary, hysterical exclamations, what had happened. Upon entering the house, after parting from the two men at the gate, a few minutes before, she had found a letter from Sibyl. The girl was gone.

As she spoke, she handed the letter to Conrad Lagrange who read it and gave it to the artist. It was a pitiful little note--rather vague--saying only that she must go away at once; assuring Myra that she had not meant to do wrong; asking her to tell Mr. King and the novelist good-by; and begging the artist's forgiveness that she had not understood.

Aaron King looked from the letter in his hand to the faces of his two friends, in consternation. "Do you understand this, Miss Willard?" he asked, when he could speak.

The woman shook her head. "Only that something has happened to make the child think that her friendship with you has injured you; and that she has gone away for your sake. She--she thought so much of you, Mr. King."

"And I--I love her, Miss Willard. I should have told you soon. I tell you now to reassure you. I love her."

Aaron King made his declaration to his two friends with a simple dignity, but with a feeling that thrilled them with the force of his earnestness and the purity and strength of his passion.

Conrad Lagrange--world-worn, scarred by his years of contact with the unclean, the vicious, and debasing passions of mankind--grasped the young man's hand, while his eyes shone with an emotion his habitual reserve could not conceal. "I'm glad for you, Aaron"--he said, adding reverently--"as your mother would be glad."

"I have known that you would tell me this, sometime Mr. King," said Myra Willard. "I knew it, I think, before you, yourself, realized; and I, too, am glad--glad for my girl, because I know what such a love will mean to her. But why--why has she gone like this? Where has she gone? Oh, my girl, my girl!" For a moment, the distracted woman was on the point of breaking down; but with an effort of her will, she controlled herself.

"It's clear enough what has sent her away," growled Conrad Lagrange, with a warning glance to the artist. "Some one has filled her mind with the notion that her friendship with Aaron has been causing talk. I think there's no doubt as to where she's gone."

"You mean the mountains?" asked Myra Willard, quickly.

"Yes. I'd stake my life that she has gone straight to Brian Oakley. Think! Where else would she go?"

"She has sometimes borrowed a saddle-horse from your neighbor up the road, hasn't she, Miss Willard?" asked Aaron King.

"Yes. I'll run over there at once."

Conrad Lagrange spoke quickly; "Don't let them think anything unusual has happened. We'll go over to your house and wait for you there."

Fifteen minutes later, Myra Willard returned. Sibyl had borrowed the horse; asking them if she might keep it until the next day. She did not say where she was going. She had left about four o'clock.

"That will put her at Brian's by nine," said the novelist.

"And I will arrive there about the same time," added Aaron King, eagerly. "It's now five-thirty. She has an hour's start; but I'll ride an hour harder."

"With an automobile you could overtake her," said Myra Willard.

"I know," returned the artist, "but if I take a horse, we can ride back together."

He started through the grove, toward the other house, on a run.