Chapter XL. Facing the Truth
 

As Brian Oakley had predicted, the disappearance of James Rutlidge occupied columns in the newspapers, from coast to coast. In every article he was headlined as "A Distinguished Citizen;" "A Famous Critic;" "A Prominent Figure in the World of Art;" "One of the Greatest Living Authorities;" "Leader in the Modern School;" "Of Powerful Influence Upon the Artistic Production of the Age." The story of the unknown mountain girl's abduction and escape was a news item of a single day; but the disappearance of James Rutlidge kept the press busy for weeks. It may be dismissed here with the simple statement that the mystery has never been solved.

Of the unknown man who had taken Sibyl away into the mountains, and who had escaped, the world has never heard. Of the convict who died but did not die in the hills, the world knows nothing. That is, the world knows nothing of the man in this connection. But Aaron and Sibyl, some years later, knew what became of Henry Marston--which does not, at all, belong to this story.

Upon his return with Conrad Lagrange to their home in the orange groves, Aaron King plunged into his work with a purpose very different from the motive that had prompted him when first he took up his brushes in the studio that looked out upon the mountains and the rose garden.

Day after day, as he gave himself to his great picture,--"The Feast of Materialism,"--he knew the joy of the worker who, in his art, surrenders himself to a noble purpose--a joy that is very different from the light, passing pleasure that comes from the mere exercise of technical skill. The artist did not, now, need to drive himself to his task, as the begging musician on the street corner forces himself to play to the passing crowd, for the pennies that are dropped in his tin cup. Rather was he driven by the conviction of a great truth, and by the realization of its woeful need in the world, to such adequate expression as his mastery of the tools of his craft would permit He was not, now, the slave of his technical knowledge; striving to produce a something that should be merely technically good. He was a master, compelling the medium of his art to serve him; as he, in turn, was compelled to serve the truth that had mastered him.

Sometimes, with Conrad Lagrange, he went for an evening hour to the little house next door. Sometimes Sibyl and Myra Willard would drop in at the studio, in the afternoon. The girl never, now, came alone. But every day, as the artist worked, the music of her violin came to him, out of the orange grove, with its message from the hills. And the painter at his easel, reading aright the message, worked and waited; knowing surely that when she was ready she would come.

Letters from Mrs. Taine were frequent. Aaron King, reading them--nearly always under the quizzing eyes of Conrad Lagrange, whose custom it was to bring the daily mail--carefully tore them into little pieces and dropped them into the waste basket, without comment.

Once, the novelist asked with mock gravity, "Have you no thought for the day of judgment, young man? Do you not know that your sins will surely find you out?"

The artist laughed. "It is so written in the law, I believe."

The other continued solemnly, "Your recklessness is only hastening the end. If you don't answer those letters you will be forced, shortly, to meet the consequences face to face."

"I suppose so," returned the painter, indifferently. "But I have my answer ready, you know."

"You mean that portrait?"

"Yes."

The novelist laughed grimly. "I think it will do the trick. But, believe me, there will be consequences!"

The artist was in his studio, at work upon the big picture, when Mrs. Taine called, the day of her return to Fairlands.

It was well on in the afternoon. Conrad Lagrange and Czar had started for a walk, but had gone, as usual, only as far as the neighboring house. Yee Kee, meeting Mrs. Taine at the door, explained, doubtfully, that the artist was at his work. He would go tell Mr. King that Mrs. Taine was here.

"Never mind, Kee. I will tell him myself," she answered; and, before the Chinaman could protest, she was on her way to the studio.

"Damn!" said the Celestial eloquently; and retired to his kitchen to ruminate upon the ways of "Mellican women."

Mrs. Taine pushed open the door of the studio, so quietly, that the painter, standing at his easel and engrossed with his work, did not notice her presence. For several moments the woman stood watching him, paying no heed to the picture, seeing only the man. When he did not look around, she said, "Are you too busy to even look at me?"

With an exclamation, he faced her; then, as quickly, turned again; with hand outstretched to draw the easel curtain. But, as though obeying a second thought that came quickly upon the heels of the first impulse, he did not complete the movement. Instead, he laid his palette and brushes beside his color-box, and greeted her with, "How do you do, Mrs. Taine? When did you return to Fairlands? Is Miss Taine with you?"

"Louise is abroad," she answered. "I--I preferred California. I arrived this afternoon." She went a step toward him. "You--you don't seem very glad to see me."

The painter colored, but she continued impulsively, without waiting for his reply. "If you only knew all that I have been doing for you!--the wires I have pulled; the influences I have interested; the critics and newspaper men that I have talked to! Of course I couldn't do anything in a large public way, so soon after Mr. Taine's death, you know; but I have been busy, just the same, and everything is fixed. When our picture is exhibited next season, you will find yourself not only a famous painter, but a social success as well." She paused. When he still did not speak, she went on, with an air of troubled sadness; "I do miss Jim's help though. Isn't it frightful the way he disappeared? Where do you suppose he is? I can't--I won't--believe that anything has happened to him. It's all just one of his schemes to get himself talked about. You'll see that he will appear again, safe and sound, when the papers stop filling their columns about him. I know Jim Rutlidge, too well."

Aaron King thought of those bones, picked bare by the carrion birds, at the foot of the cliff. "It seems to be one of the mysteries of the day," he said. "Commonplace enough, no doubt, if one only had the key to it."

Mrs. Taine had evidently not been in Fairlands long enough to hear the story of Sibyl's disappearance--for which the artist mentally gave thanks.

"I am glad for one thing," continued the woman, her mind intent upon the main purpose of her call. "Jim had already written a splendid criticism of your picture--before he went away--and I have it. All this newspaper talk about him will only help to attract attention to what he has said about you. They are saying such nice things of him and his devotion to art, you know--it is all bound to help you." She waited for his approval, and for some expression of his gratitude.

"I fear, Mrs. Taine," he said slowly, "that you are making a mistake."

She laughed nervously, and answered with forced gaiety. "Not me. I'm too old a hand at the game not to know just how far I dare or dare not go."

"I do not mean that"--he returned--"I mean that I can not do my part. I fear you are mistaken in me."

Again, she laughed. "What nonsense! I like for you to be modest, of course--that will be one of your greatest charms. But if you are worried about the quality of your work--forget it, my dear boy. Once I have made you the rage, no one will stop to think whether your pictures are good or bad. The art is not in what you do, but in how you get it before the world. Ask Conrad Lagrange if I am not right."

"As to that," returned the artist, "Mr. Lagrange agrees with you, perfectly."

"But what is this that you are doing now? Will it be ready for the exhibition too?" She looked past him, at the big canvas; and he, watching her curiously stepped aside.

Parts of the picture were little more than sketched in, but still, line and color spoke with accusing truth the spirit of the company that had gathered at the banquet in the home on Fairlands Heights, the night of Mr. Taine's death. The figures were not portraits, it is true, but they expressed with striking fidelity, the lives and characters of those who had, that night, been assembled by Mrs. Taine to meet the artist. The figure in the picture, standing with uplifted glass and drunken pose at the head of the table--with bestial, lust-worn face, disease-shrunken limbs, and dying, licentious eyes fixed upon the beautiful girl musician--might easily have been Mr. Taine himself. The distinguished writers, and critics; the representatives of the social world and of wealth; Conrad Lagrange with cold, cynical, mocking, smile; Mrs. Taine with her pretense of modest dress that only emphasized her immodesty; and, in the midst of the unclean minded crew, the lovely innocence and the unconscious purity of the mountain girl with her violin, offering to them that which they were incapable of receiving--it was all there upon the canvas, as the artist had seen it that night. The picture cried aloud the intellectual degradation and the spiritual depravity of that class who, arrogating to themselves the authority of leaders in culture and art, by their approval and patronage of dangerous falsehood and sham in picture or story, make possible such characters as James Rutlidge.

Aaron King, watching Mrs. Taine as she looked at the picture on the easel, saw a look of doubt and uncertainty come over her face. Once, she turned toward him, as if to speak; but, without a word, looked again at the canvas. She seemed perplexed and puzzled, as though she caught glimpses of something in the picture that she did not rightly understand Then, as she looked, her eyes kindled with contemptuous scorn, and there was a pronounced sneer in her cold tones as she said, "Really, I don't believe I care for you to do this sort of thing." She laughed shortly. "It reminds one a little of that dinner at our house. Don't you think? It's the girl with the violin, I suppose."

"There are no portraits in it, Mrs. Taine," said the artist, quietly.

"No? Well, I think you'd better stick to your portraits. This is a great picture though," she admitted thoughtfully. "It, it grips you so. I can't seem to get away from it. I can see that it will create a sensation. But just the same, I don't like it. It's not nice, like your portrait of me. By the way"--and she turned eagerly from the big canvas as though glad to escape a distasteful subject--"do you remember that I have never seen my picture yet? Where do you keep it?"

The painter indicated another easel, near the one upon which he was at work, "It is there, Mrs. Taine."

"Oh," she said with a pleased smile. "You keep it on the easel, still!" Playfully, she added, "Do you look at it often?--that you have it so handy?"

"Yes," said the artist, "I must admit that I have looked at it frequently." He did not explain why he looked at her portrait while he was working upon the larger picture.

"How nice of you," she answered "Please let me see it now. I remember when you wanted to repaint it, you said you would put on the canvas just what you thought of me; have you? I wonder!"

"I would rather that you judge for yourself, Mrs. Taine," he answered, and drew the curtain that hid the painting.

As the woman looked upon that portrait of herself, into which Aaron King had painted, with all the skill at his command, everything that he had seen in her face as she posed for him, she stood a moment as though stunned. Then, with a gesture of horror and shame, she shrank back, as though the painted thing accused her of being what, indeed, she really was.

Turning to the artist, imploringly, she whispered, "Is it--is it--true? Am I--am I that?"

Aaron King, remembering how she had sent the girl he loved so nearly to a shameful end, and thinking of those bones at the foot of the cliff, answered justly; "At least, madam, there is more truth in that picture than in the things you said to Miss Andres, here in this room, the day you left Fairlands."

Her face went white with quick rage, but, controling herself, she said, "And where is the picture of your mistress? I should like to see it again, please."

"Gladly, madam," returned the artist. "Because you are a woman, it is the only answer I can make to your charge; which, permit me to say, is as false as that portrait of you is true."

Quickly he pushed another easel to a position beside the one that held Mrs. Taine's portrait, and drew the curtain.

The effect, for a moment, silenced even Mrs. Taine--but only for a moment. A character that is the product of certain years of schooling in the thought and spirit of the class in which Mrs. Taine belonged, is not transformed by a single exhibition of painted truth. From the two portraits, the woman turned to the larger canvas. Then she faced the artist.

"You fool!" she said with bitter rage. "O you fool! Do you think that you will ever be permitted to exhibit such trash as this?" she waved her hand to include the three paintings. "Do you think that I am going to drag you up the ladder of social position to fame and to wealth for such reward as that?" she singled out her own portrait. "Bah! you are impossible--impossible! I have been mad to think that I could make anything out of you. As for your idiotic claim that you have painted the truth--" She seized a large palette knife that lay with the artist's tools upon the table, and springing to her portrait, hacked and mutilated the canvas. The artist stood motionless making no effort to stop her. When the picture was utterly defaced she threw it at his feet. "That, for your truth, Mr. King!" With a quick motion, she turned toward the other portrait.

But the artist, who had guessed her purpose, caught her hand. "That picture was yours, madam--this one is mine." There was a significant ring of triumph in his voice.

Neither Aaron King nor Mrs. Taine had noticed three people who had entered the rose garden, from the orange grove, through the little gate in the corner of the hedge. Conrad Lagrange, Myra Willard and Sibyl were going to the studio; deliberately bent upon interrupting the artist at his work. They sometimes--as Conrad Lagrange put it--made, thus, a life-saving crew of three; dragging the painter to safety when the waves of inspiration were about to overwhelm him. Czar, of course, took an active part in these rescues.

As the three friends approached the trellised arch that opened from the garden into the yard, a few feet from the studio door, the sound of Mrs. Taine's angry voice, came clearly through the open window.

Conrad Lagrange stopped. "Evidently, Mr. King has company," he said, dryly.

"It is Mrs. Taine, is it not?" asked Sibyl, quietly, recognizing the woman's voice.

"Yes," answered the novelist.

The woman with the disfigured face said hurriedly, "Come, Sibyl, we must go back. We will not disturb Mr. King, now, Mr. Lagrange. You two come over this evening." They saw her face white and frightened.

"I believe I'll go back with you, if you don't mind," returned Conrad Lagrange, with his twisted grin; "I don't think I want any of that in there, either." To the dog who was moving toward the studio door, he added; "Here, Czar, you mustn't interrupt the lady. You're not in her class."

They were moving away, when Mrs. Taine's voice came again, clearly and distinctly, through the window.

"Oh, very well. I wish you joy of your possession. I promise you, though, that the world shall never hear of this portrait of your mistress. If you dare try to exhibit it, I shall see that the people to whom you must look for your patronage know how you found the original, an innocent, mountain girl, and brought her to your studio to live with you. Fairlands has already talked enough, but my influence has prevented it from going too far. You may be very sure that from now on I shall not exert myself to deny it."

The artist's friends in the rose garden, again, stopped involuntarily. Sibyl uttered a low exclamation.

Conrad Lagrange looked at Myra Willard. "I think," he said in a low tone, "that the time has come. Can you do it?"

"Yes. I--I--must," returned the woman. She spoke to the girl, who, being a little in advance, had not heard the novelist's words, "Sibyl, dear, will you go on home, please? Mr, Lagrange will stay with me. I--I will join you presently."

At a look from Conrad Lagrange, the girl obeyed.

"Go with Sibyl, Czar," said the novelist; and the girl and the dog went quickly away through the garden.

In the studio, Aaron King gazed at the angry woman in amazement. "Mrs. Taine," he said, with quiet dignity, "I must tell you that I hope to make Miss Andres my wife."

She laughed harshly. "And what has that to do with it?"

"I thought that if you knew, it might help you to understand the situation," he answered simply.

"I understand the situation, very well," she retorted, "but you do not appear to. The situation is this: I--I was interested in you--as an artist. I, because my position in the world enabled me to help you, commissioned you to paint my portrait. You are unknown, with no name, no place in the world. I could have given you success. I could have introduced you to the people that you must know if you are to succeed. My influence would insure you a favorable reception from those who make the reputations of men like you. I could have made you the rage. I could have made you famous. And now--"

"Now," he said calmly, "you will exert your influence to hinder me in my work. Because I have not pleased you, you will use whatever power you have to ruin me. Is that what you mean, Mrs. Taine?"

"You have made your choice. You must take the consequences," she replied coldly, and turned to leave the studio.

In the doorway, stood the woman with the disfigured face.

Conrad Lagrange stood near.

XLI

Marks of the Beast

When Mrs. Taine would have passed out of the studio, the woman with the disfigured face said, "Wait madam, I must speak to you."

Aaron King recalled that strange scene at the depot, the day of his arrival in Fairlands.

"I have nothing to say to you"--returned Mrs. Taine, coldly--"stand aside please."

But Conrad Lagrange quietly closed the door. "I think, Mrs. Taine," he remarked dryly, "than you will be interested in what Miss Willard has to say."

"Oh, very well," returned the other, making the best of the situation. "Evidently, you heard what I just said to your protege."

The novelist answered, "We did. Accept my compliments madam; you did it very nicely."

"Thanks," she retorted, "I see you still play your role of protector. You might tell your charge whether or not I am mistaken as to the probable result of his--ah--artistic conscientiousness."

"Mr. King knows that you are not. You have, indeed, put the situation rather mildly. It is a sad fact, but, never-the-less, a fact, that the noblest work is often forced to remain unrecognized and unknown to the world by the same methods that are used to exalt the unworthy. You undoubtedly have the power of which you boast, Mrs. Taine, but--"

"But what?" she said triumphantly. "You think I will hesitate to use my influence?"

"I know you will not use it--in this case," came the unexpected answer.

She laughed mockingly, "And why not? What will prevent?"

"The one thing on earth, that you fear, madam"--answered Conrad Lagrange--"the eyes of the world."

Aaron King listened, amazed.

"I don't think I understand," said Mrs. Taine, coldly.

"No? That is what Miss Willard proposes to explain," returned the novelist.

She turned haughtily toward the woman with the disfigured face. "What can this poor creature say to anything I propose?"

Myra Willard answered gently, sadly, "Have you no kindness, no sympathy at all, madam? Is there nothing but cruel selfishness in your heart?"

"You are insolent," retorted the other, sharply. "Say what you have to say and be brief."

Myra Willard drew close to the woman and looked long and searchingly into her face. The other returned her gaze with contemptuous indifference.

"I have been sorry for you," said Myra Willard slowly. "I have not wished to speak. But I know what you said to Sibyl, here in the studio; and I overheard what you said to Mr. King, a few minutes ago. I cannot keep silent."

"Proceed," said Mrs. Taine, shortly. "Say what you have to say, and be done with it."

Myra Willard obeyed. "Mrs. Taine, twenty-six years ago, your guardian, the father of James Rutlidge won the love of a young girl. It does not matter who she was. She was beautiful and innocent That was her misfortune. Beauty and innocence often bring pain and sorrow, madam, in a world where there are too many men like Mr. Rutlidge, and his son. The girl thought the man--she did not know him by his real name--her lover. She thought that he became her husband. A baby was born to the girl who believed herself a wife; and the young mother was happy. For a short time, she was very happy.

"Then, the awakening came. The girl mother was holding her baby to her breast, and singing, as happy mothers do, when a strange woman appeared in the open door of the room. She was a beautiful woman, richly dressed; but her face was distorted with passion. The young mother did not understand. She did not know, then, that the woman was Mrs. Rutlidge--the true wife of the father of her child. She knew that, afterward. The woman, in the doorway lifted her hand as though to throw something, and the mother, instinctively, bowed her head to shield her baby. Then something that burned like fire struck her face and neck. She screamed in agony, and fainted.

"The rest of the story does not matter, I think. The injured mother was taken to the hospital. When she recovered, she learned that Mrs. Rutlidge was dead--a suicide. Later, Mr. Rutlidge took the baby to raise as his ward; telling the world that the child was the daughter of a relative who had died at its birth. You must understand that when the disfigured mother of the baby came to know the truth, she believed that it would be better for the little one if the facts of its birth were never known. The wealthy Mr. Rutlidge could give his ward every advantage of culture and social position. The child would grow to womanhood with no stain upon her name. Because she felt she owed her baby this, the only thing that she could give her, the mother consented and disappeared.

"Madam," finished Myra Willard, slowly, "a little of the acid that burned that mother's face fell upon the shoulder of her illegitimate baby."

"God!" exclaimed the artist.

Throughout Myra Willard's story, Mrs. Taine stood like a woman of stone. At the end, she gazed at the woman's disfigured face, as though fascinated with horror, while her hands moved to finger the buttons of her dress. Unconscious of what she was doing, as though under some strange spell, without removing her gaze from Myra Willard's marred features she opened the waist of her dress and bared to them her right shoulder. It was marked by a broad scar like the scars that disfigured the face of her mother.

Myra Willard started forward, impelled by the mother instinct. "My baby, my poor, poor girl!"

The words broke the spell. Drawing back with an air of cold, unconquerable pride, the woman looked at Conrad Lagrange. "And now," she said, as she swiftly rearranged her dress, "perhaps you will be good enough to tell me why you have done this."

Myra Willard turned away to sink into a chair, white and trembling. Aaron King stepped quickly to her side, and, placing his hand gently on her shoulder waited for the novelist to speak.

"Miss Willard told you this story because I asked her to," said Conrad Lagrange. "I asked her to tell you because it gives me the power to protect the two people who are dearer to me than all the world."

"Still in your role of protector, I see," sneered Mrs. Taine.

"Exactly, madam. It happens that I was a reporter on a certain newspaper when the incidents just related occurred. I wrote the story for the press. In fact, it was the story that gave me my start in yellow journalism, from which I graduated the novelist of your acquaintance. I know the newspaper game thoroughly, Mrs. Taine. I know the truth of this story that you have just heard. Permit me to say, that I know how to write in the approved newspaper style, and to add that my name insures a wide hearing. Proceed to carry out your threats, and I promise you that I will give this attractive bit of news, in all its colorful details, to every newspaper in the land. Can't you see the headlines? 'Startling Revelation,' 'The Secret of the Beautiful Mrs. Taine's Shoulders,' 'Why a Leader in the Social World makes Modesty her Fad,' 'The Parentage of a Social Leader.' Do you understand, madam? Use your influence to interfere with or to hinder Mr. King in his work; or fail to use your influence to contradict the lies you have already started about the character of Miss Andres; and I will use the influence of my pen and the prestige of my name to put you before the eyes of the world for what you are."

For a moment the woman looked at him, defiantly. Then, as she grasped the full significance of what he had said, she slowly bowed her head.

Conrad Lagrange opened the door.

As she went out, the woman with the disfigured face started forward, holding out her hands appealingly.

Mrs. Taine did not look back, but went quickly toward the big automobile that was waiting in front of the house.