Chapter XLII. Aaron King's Success
 

The winter months were past.

Aaron King was sitting before his finished picture. The colors were still fresh upon the canvas that, to-day, hangs in an honored place in one of the great galleries of the world. To the last careful touch, the artist had put into his painted message, the best he had to give. Back of every line and brush-stroke there was the deep conviction of a worthy motive. For an hour, he had been sitting there, before the easel, brush and palette in hand, without touching the canvas. He could do no more.

Laying aside his tools, he went to his desk, and took from the drawer, that package of his mother's letters. He pushed a deep arm-chair in front of his picture, and again seated himself. As he read letter after letter, he lifted his eyes, at almost every sentence from the written pages to his work. It was as though he were submitting his picture to a final test--as, indeed, he was. He had reached the last letter when Conrad Lagrange entered the studio; Czar at his heels.

Every day, while the picture was growing under the artist's hand, his friend had watched it take on beauty and power. He did not need to speak of the finished painting, now.

"Well, lad," he said, "the old letters again?"

The artist, caressing the dog's silky head as it was thrust against his knee, answered, "Yes, I finished the picture two hours ago. I have been having a private exhibition all on my own hook. Listen." From the letter in his hand he read:

"It is right for you to be ambitious, my son. I would not have you otherwise. Without a strong desire to reach some height that in the distance lifts above the level of the present, a man becomes a laggard on the highway of life--a mere loafer by the wayside--slothful, indolent--slipping easily, as the years go, into the most despicable of places--the place of a human parasite that, contributing nothing to the wealth of the race, feeds upon the strength of the multitude of toilers who pass him by. But ambition, my boy, is like to all the other gifts that lead men Godward. It must be a noble ambition, nobly controlled. A mere striving for place and power, without a saving sense of the responsibility conferred by that place and power, is ignoble. Such an ambition, I know--as you will some day come to understand--is not a blessing but a curse. It is the curse from which our age is suffering sorely; and which, if it be not lifted, will continue to vitiate the strength and poison the life of the race.

"Because I would have your ambition, a safe and worthy ambition, Aaron, I ask that the supreme and final test of any work that comes from your hand may be this; that it satisfy you, yourself--that you may be not ashamed to sit down alone with your work, and thus to look it squarely in the face. Not critics, nor authorities, not popular opinion, not even law or religion, must be the court of final appeal when you are, by what you do, brought to bar; but by you, yourself, the judgment must be rendered. And this, too, is true, my son, by that judgment and that judgment alone, you will truly live or you will truly die."

"And that"--said the novelist--so famous in the eyes of the world, so infamous in his own sight--"and that is what she tried to make me believe, when she and I were young together. But I would not. I would not accept it. I thought if I could win fame that she--" he checked himself suddenly.

"But you have led me to accept it, old man," cried the artist heartily. "You have opened my eyes. You have helped me to understand my mother, as I never could have understood her, alone."

Conrad Lagrange smiled. "Perhaps," he admitted whimsically. "No doubt good may sometimes be accomplished by the presentation of a horrible example. But go on with your private exhibition. I'll not keep you longer. Come, Czar."

In spite of the artist's protests, he left the studio.

While the painter was putting away his letters, the novelist and the dog went through the rose garden and the orange grove, straight to the little house next door. They walked as though on a definite mission.

Sibyl and Myra Willard were sitting on the porch.

"Howdy, neighbor," called the girl, as the tall, ungainly form of the famous novelist appeared. "You seem to be the bearer of news. What is the latest word from the seat of war?"

"It is finished," said Conrad Lagrange, returning Myra's gentle greeting, and accepting the chair that Sibyl offered.

"The picture?" said the girl eagerly, a quick color flushing her cheeks. "Is the picture finished?"

"Finished," returned the novelist. "I just left him mooning over it like a mother over a brand-new baby."

They laughed together, and when, a moment later, the girl slipped into the house and did not return, the woman with the disfigured face and the famous novelist looked at each other with smiling eyes. When Czar, with sudden interest, started around the corner of the house, his master said suggestively, "Czar, you better stay here with the old folks."

Passing through the house, and out of the kitchen door, Sibyl ran, lightly, through the orange grove, to the little gate in the corner of the Ragged Robin hedge. A moment she paused, hesitating, then, stealing cautiously into the rose garden, she darted in quick flight to the shelter of the arbor; where she parted the screen of vines to gain a view of the studio.

Between the big, north window and the window that opened into the garden, she saw the artist. She saw, too, the big canvas upon the easel. But Aaron King was not, now, looking at his work just finished. He was sitting before that other picture into which he had unconsciously painted, not only the truth that he saw in the winsome loveliness of the girl who posed for him with outstretshed hands among the roses, but his love for her as well.

With a low laugh, Sibyl drew back. Swiftly, as she had reached the arbor, she crossed the garden, and a moment later, paused at the studio door. Again she hesitated--then, gently,--so gently that the artist, lost in his dreams, did not hear,--she opened the door. For a little, she stood watching him. Softly, she took a few steps toward him. The artist, as though sensing her presence, started and looked around.

She was standing as she stood in the picture; her hands outstretched, a smile of welcome on her lips, the light of gladness in her eyes.

As he rose from his chair before the easel, she went to him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Not many days later, there was a quiet wedding, at Sibyl's old home in the hills. Besides the two young people and the clergyman, only Brian Oakley, Mrs. Oakley, Conrad Lagrange and Myra Willard were present. These friends who had prepared the old place for the mating ones, after a simple dinner following the ceremony, returned down the canyon to the Station.

Standing arm in arm, where the old road turns around the cedar thicket, and where the artist had first seen the girl, Sibyl and Aaron watched them go. From the other side of roaring Clear Creek, they turned to wave hats and handkerchiefs; the two in the shadow of the cedars answered; Czar barked joyful congratulations; and the wagon disappeared in the wilderness growth.

Instead of turning back to the house behind them, the two, without speaking, as though obeying a common impulse, set out down the canyon.

A little later they stood in the old spring glade, where the alders bore, still, in the smooth, gray bark of their trunks, the memories of long-ago lovers; where the light fell, slanting softly through the screen of leaf and branch and vine and virgin's-bower, upon the granite boulder and the cress-mottled waters of the spring, as through the window traceries of a vast and quiet cathedral; and where the distant roar of the mountain stream trembled in the air like the deep tones of some great organ.

Sibyl, dressed in her brown, mountain costume, was sitting on the boulder, when the artist said softly, "Look!"

Lifting her eyes, as he pointed, she saw two butterflies--it might almost have been the same two--with zigzag flight, through the opening in the draperies of virgin's-bower. With parted lips and flushed cheeks, the girl watched. Then--as the beautiful creatures, in their aerial waltz, whirled above her head--she rose, and lightly, gracefully,--almost as her winged companions,--accompanied them in their dance.

The winged emblems of innocence and purity flitted away over the willow wall. The girl, with bright eyes and smiling lips--half laughing, half serious--looked toward her mate. He held out his arms and she went to him.