Chapter V. The Mystery of the Rose Garden
 

The acquaintance of Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange had developed rapidly into friendship.

The man whom the world had chosen to place upon one of the highest pinnacles of its literary favor, and who--through some queer twist in his nature--was so lonely and embittered by his exaltation, seemed to find in the younger man who stood with the crowd at the foot of the ladder, something that marked him as different from his fellows.

Whether it was the artist's mother; some sacredly hidden memories of Lagrange's past; or, perhaps, some fancied recognition of the artist's genius and its possibilities; the strange man gave no hint; but he constantly sought the company of Aaron King, with an openness that made his preference for the painter's society very evident. If he had said anything about it, at all, Conrad Lagrange, likely, would have accounted for his interest, upon the ground that his dog, Czar, found the companionship agreeable. Their friendship, meanwhile--in the eyes of the world--conferred a peculiar distinction upon the young man--a distinction not at all displeasing to the ambitious artist; and the value of which he, probably, overrated.

To Aaron King--aside from the subtle flattery of the famous novelist's attention--there was in the personality of the odd character a something that appealed to him with peculiar strength. Perhaps it was that the man's words, so often sharp and stinging with bitter sarcasm, seemed always to carry a hidden meaning that gave, as it were, glimpses of another nature buried deeply beneath a wreck of ruined dreams and disappointing achievements. Or, it may have been that, under all the cruel, world-hardness of the thoughts expressed, the young man sensed an undertone of pathetic sadness. Or, again, perhaps, it was those rare moments, when--on some walk that carried them beyond the outskirts of the town, and brought the mountains into unobstructed view--the clouds of bitterness were lifted; and the man spoke with poetic feeling of the realities of life, and of the true glory and mission of the arts; counseling his friend with an intelligence as true and delicate as it was rare and fine.

It was nearly two months after Conrad Lagrange had introduced the young man at the house on Fairlands Heights. The hour was late. The painter--returning from a dinner and an evening at the Taine home--found the novelist, with pipe and dog, in a deserted corner of the hotel veranda. Dropping into the chair that was placed as if it awaited his coming, the artist--with no word of greeting to the man--bent over the brown head that was thrust so insistently against his knee, as Czar, with gently waving tail, made him welcome. Looking affectionately into the brown eyes while he stroked the silky coat, the young man answered in the language that all dogs understand; while the novelist, from under his scowling brows, regarded the two intently.

"They were disappointed that you were not there," said the painter, presently. "Mrs. Taine, particularly, charged me to say that she will not forgive, until you do proper penance for your sin."

"I had better company," retorted the other. "Czar and I went for a look at the mountains. I suppose you have noticed that Czar does not care for the Fairlands Heights crowd. He is very peculiar in his friendships--for a dog. His instincts are remarkable."

At the sound of his name, Czar transferred his attentions, for a moment, to his master; then stretched himself in his accustomed place beside the novelist's chair.

The artist laughed. "I did my best to invent an acceptable excuse for you; but she said it was no use--nothing short of your own personal prayers for mercy would do."

"Humph; you should have reminded her that I purchased an indulgence some weeks ago."

Again, the other laughed shortly. Watching him closely, Conrad Lagrange said, in his most sneering tones, "I trust, young man, that you are not failing to make good use of your opportunities. Let's see--dinner and the evening five times--afternoon calls as many--with motor trips to points of interest--and one theater party to Los Angeles--believe me; it is not often that struggling genius is so rewarded--before it has accomplished anything bad enough to merit such attention."

"I have been idling most shamefully, haven't I?" said the artist.

"Idling!" rasped the other. "You have been the busiest hay-maker in the land. These scientific, intensive cultivation farmers of California are not in your class when it comes to utilizing the sunshine. Take my advice and continue your present activity without bothering yourself by any sentimental thoughts of your palette and brushes. The mere vulgar tools of your craft are of minor importance to one of your genius and opportunity."

Then, in a half embarrassed manner, Aaron King made his announcement. "That may all be," he said, "but just the same, I am going to work."

"I knew it"--returned the other, in mocking triumph--"I knew it the moment you came up the steps there. I could tell it by your walk; by the air with which you carried yourself; by your manner, your voice, your laugh--you fairly reek of prosperity and achievement--you are going to paint her portrait."

"And why not?" retorted the young man, rather sharply, a trifle nettled by the other's tone.

"Why not, indeed!" murmured the novelist. "Indeed, yes--by all means! It is so exactly the right thing to do that it is startling. You scale the heights of fame with such confident certainty in every move that it is positively uncanny to watch you."

"If one's work is true, I fail to see why one should not take advantage of any influence that can contribute to his success," said the painter. "I assure you I am not so wealthy that I can afford to refuse such an attractive commission. You must admit that the beautiful Mrs. Taine is a subject worthy the brush of any artist; and I suppose it is conceivable that I might be ambitious to make a genuinely good job of it."

The older man, as though touched by the evident sincerity of the artist's words, dropped his sneering tone and spoke earnestly; "The beautiful Mrs. Taine is a subject worthy a master's brush, my friend. But take my word for it, if you paint her portrait as a master would paint it, you will sign your own death warrant--so far as your popularity and fame as an artist goes."

"I don't believe it," declared Aaron King, flatly.

"I know you don't. If you did, and still accepted the commission, you wouldn't be fit to associate with honest dogs like Czar, here."

"But why"--persisted the artist--"why do you insist that my portrait of Mrs. Taine will be disastrous to my success, just to the degree that it is a work of genuine merit?"

To which the novelist answered, cryptically, "If you have not the eyes to see the reason, it will matter little whether you know it or not. If you do see the reason, and, still, produce a portrait that pleases your sitter, then you will have paid the price; you will receive your reward; and"--the speaker's tone grew sad and bitter--"you will be what I am."

With this, he arose abruptly and, without another word, stalked into the hotel; the dog following with quiet dignity, at his heels.

From the beginning of their acquaintance, almost, the novelist and the artist had dropped into the habit of taking their meals together. At breakfast, the next morning, Conrad Lagrange reopened the conversation he had so abruptly closed the night before. "I suppose," he said, "that you will set up a studio, and do the thing in proper style?"

"Mrs. Taine told me of a place that is for rent, and that she thinks would be just the thing," returned the young man. "It is across the road from that big grove owned by Mr. Taine. I was wondering if you would care to walk out that way with me this morning and help me look it over."

The older man's hearty acceptance of the invitation assured the artist of his genuine interest, and, an hour later--after Aaron King had interviewed the agent and secured the keys, with the privilege of inspecting the premises--the two set out together.

They found the place on the eastern edge of the town; half-hidden by the orange groves that surrounded it on every side. The height of the palms that grew along the road in front, the pepper and eucalyptus trees that overshadowed the house, and the size of the orange-trees that shut in the little yard with walls of green, marked the place as having been established before the wealth of the far-away East discovered the peculiar charm of the Fairlands hills. The lawn, the walks, and the drive were unkempt and overgrown with weeds. The house itself,--a small cottage with a wide porch across the front and on the side to the west,--unpainted for many seasons, was tinted by the brush of the elements, a soft and restful gray.

But the artist and his friend, as they approached, exclaimed aloud at the beauty of the scene; for, as if rejoicing in their freedom from restraint, the roses had claimed the dwelling, so neglected by man, as their own. Up every post of the porch they had climbed; over the porch roof, they spread their wealth of color; over the gables, screening the windows with graceful lattice of vine and branch and leaf and bloom; up to the ridge and over the cornice, to the roof of the house itself--even to the top of the chimney they had won their way--and there, as if in an ecstasy of wanton loveliness, flung, a spray of glorious, perfumed beauty high into the air.

On the front porch, the men turned to look away over the gentle slope of the orange groves, on the other side of the road, to the towering peaks and high ridges of the mountains--gleaming cold and white in the winter of their altitude. To the northeast, San Bernardino reared his head in lonely majesty--looking directly down upon the foothills and the feeble dwellers in the valley below. Far beyond, and surrounded by the higher ridges and peaks and canyons of the range, San Gorgonio sat enthroned in the skies--the ruler of them all. From the northeast, westward, they viewed the mighty sweep of the main range to Cajon Pass and the San Gabriels, beyond, with San Antonio, Cucamonga, and their sister peaks lifting their heads above their fellows. In the immediate landscape, no house or building was to be seen. The dark-green mass of the orange groves hid every work of man's building between them and the tawny foothills save the gable and chimney of a neighboring cottage on the west.

"Listen"--said Conrad Lagrange, in a low tone, moved as always by the grandeur and beauty of the scene--"listen! Don't you hear them calling? Don't you feel the mountains sending their message to these poor insects who squirm and wriggle in this bit of muck men call their world? God, man! if only we, in our work, would heed the message of the hills!"

The novelist spoke with such intensity of feeling--with such bitter sadness and regret in his voice--that Aaron King could not reply.

Turning, the artist unlocked the door, and they entered the cottage.

They found the interior of the house well arranged, and not in bad repair. "Just the thing for a bachelor's housekeeping"--was the painter's verdict--"but for a studio--impossible," and there was a touch of regret in his voice.

"Let's continue our exploration," said the novelist, hopefully. "There's a barn out there." And they went out of the house, and down the drive on the eastern side of the yard.

Here, again, they saw the roses in full possession of the place--by man, deserted. From foundation to roof, the building--a small simple structure--was almost hidden under a mass of vines. There was one large room below; with a loft above. The stable was in the rear. Built, evidently, at a later date than the house, the building was in better repair. The walls, so hidden without by the roses, were well sided; the floors were well laid. The big, sliding, main door opened on the drive in front; between it and the corner, to the west, was a small door; and in the western end, a window.

Looking curiously from this window, Conrad Lagrange uttered an exclamation, and hurried abruptly from the building. The artist followed.

From the end of the barn, and extending, the full width of the building, to the west line of the yard, was a rose garden--such a garden as Aaron King had never seen. On three sides, the little plot was enclosed by a tall hedge of Ragged Robins; above the hedge, on the south and west, was the dark-green wall of the orange grove; on the north, the pepper and eucalyptus trees in the yard, and a view of the distant mountains; and on the east, the vine-hidden end of the barn. Against the southern wall,--and, so, directly opposite the trellised, vine-covered arch of the entrance,--a small, lattice bower, with a rustic table and seats within, was completely covered, as was the barn, by the magically woven tapestry of the flowers. In the corner of the hedge farthest from the entrance they found a narrow gate. Unlike the rest of the premises, the garden was in perfect order--the roses trimmed and cared for; the walks neatly edged and clean; with no weed or sign of untidiness or neglect anywhere.

The two men had come upon the spot so suddenly--so unexpectedly--the contrast with the neglected grounds and buildings was so marked--that they looked at each other in silence. The little retreat--so lovely, so hidden by its own beauty from the world, so cared for by careful hands--seemed haunted by an invisible spirit. Very quietly,--almost reverently,--they moved about; talking in low tones, as though half expecting--they knew not what.

"Some one loves this place," said the novelist, softly, when they stood, again, in the entrance.

And the artist answered in the same hushed voice, "I wonder what it means?"

When they were again in the barn, Aaron King became eagerly enthusiastic over the possibilities of the big room. "Some rightly toned burlap on the walls and ceiling,"--he pointed out,--"with floor covering and rugs in harmony; there"--rolling back the big door as he spoke--"your north light; some hangings and screens to hide the stairway to the loft, and the stable door; your entrance over here in the corner, nicely out of the way; and the window looking into the garden--it's great man, great!"

"And," answered Conrad Lagrange, from where he stood in the big front door, "the mountains! Don't forget the mountains. The soft, steady, north light on your canvas, and a message from the mountains to your soul, through the same window, should make it a good place to work, Mr. Painter-man. I suppose over here"--he moved away from the window, and spoke in his mocking way--"over here, you will have a tea-table for the ladies of the circle elect--who will come to, 'oh', and, 'ah', their admiration of the newly discovered genius, and to chatter their misunderstandings of his art. Of course, there will be a page in velvet and gold. By all means, get hold of an oriental kid of some kind--oriental junk is quite the rage this year. You should take advantage of every influence that can contribute to your success, you know. And, whatever you do, don't fail to consult the 'Goddess' about these essentials of your craft. Many a promising genius has been lost to fame, through inviting the wrong people to take tea in his studio. But"--he finished whimsically, looking from the window into the garden--"but what the devil do you suppose the spirit who lives out there will think about it all."

       *       *       *       *       *

The days of the two following weeks were busy days for Aaron King. He leased the place in the orange groves, and set men to work making it habitable. The lawn and grounds were trimmed and put in order; the interior of the house was renovated by painter and paper-hanger; and the barn, under the artist's direction, was transformed into an ideal studio. There was a trip to Los Angeles--quite fortunately upon a day when Mrs. Taine must go to the city shopping--for rugs and hangings; and another trip to purchase the tools of the artist's craft. And, at last, there was a Chinese cook and housekeeper to find; with supplies for his kitchen. It was at Conrad Lagrange's suggestion, that, from the first, every one was given strict orders to keep out of the rose garden.

Every day, the novelist--accompanied, always, by Czar--walked out that way to see how things were progressing; and often,--if he had not been too busy to notice,--Aaron King might have seen a look of wistfulness in the keen, baffling eyes of the famous man--so world-weary and sad. And, while he did not cease to mock and jeer and offer sarcastic advice to his younger friend, the touch of pathos--that, like a minor chord, was so often heard in his most caustic and cruel speeches--was more pronounced. As for Czar--he always returned to the hotel with evident reluctance; and managed to express, in his dog way, the thoughts his distinguished master would not put in words.

Very often, too, the big touring car from the house on Fairlands Heights stopped in front of the cottage, while the occupants inspected the premises, and--with many exclamations of flattering praise, and a few suggestions--made manifest their interest.

In time, it was finished and ready--from the big easel by the great, north window in the studio, to the white-jacketed Yee Kee in the kitchen. When the last workman was gone with his tools; and the two men, after looking about the place for an hour, were standing on the front porch; Conrad Lagrange said, "And the stage is set. The scene shifters are off. The audience is waiting. Ring up the curtain for the next act. Even Czar has looked upon everything and calls it good--heh Czar?"

The dog went to him; and, for some minutes, the novelist looked down into the brown eyes of his four-footed companion who seemed so to understand. Still fondling the dog,--without looking at the artist,--the older man continued, "You will have your things moved over in the morning, I suppose? Or, will we lunch together, once more?"

Aaron King laughed--as a boy who has prepared a surprise, and has been struggling manfully to keep the secret until the proper moment should arrive. Placing his hand on the older man's shoulder, he answered meaningly, "I had planned that we would move in the morning." At the other's puzzled expression he laughed again.

"We?" said the novelist, facing his friend, quickly.

"Come here," returned the other. "I must show you something you haven't seen."

He led the way to a room that they had decided he would not need, and the door of which was locked. Taking a key from his pocket, he handed it to his friend.

"What's this?" said the older man, looking foolishly at the key in his hand.

"It's the key to that door," returned the other, with a gleeful chuckle. Then--"Unlock it."

"Unlock it?"

"Sure--that's what I gave you the key for."

Conrad Lagrange obeyed. Through the open door, he saw, not the bare and empty room he supposed was there, but a bedroom--charmingly furnished, complete in every detail. Turning, he faced his companion silently, inquiringly--with a look that Aaron King had never before seen in those strange, baffling eyes.

"It's yours"--said the artist, hastily--"if you care to come. You'll have a free hand here, you know; for I will be in the studio much of the time. Kee will cook the things you like. You and Czar can come and go as you will. There is the arbor in the rose garden, you know, and see here"--he stepped to the window--"I chose this room for you, because it looks out upon your mountains."

The strange man stood at the window for, what seemed to the artist, a long time. Suddenly, he turned to say sharply, "Young man, why did you do this?"

"Why"--stammered the other, disconcerted--"because I want you--because I thought you would like to come. I beg your pardon--if I have made a mistake--but surely, no harm has been done."

"And you think you could stand living with me--for any length of time?"

The' painter laughed with relief. "Oh, that's it! I didn't know you had such a tender conscience. You scared me for a minute, I should think you would know by this time that you can't phase me with your wicked tongue."

The novelist's face twisted into a grotesque smile. "I warn you--I will flay you and your friends just the same. You need it for the good of your soul."

"As often and as hard as you like"--returned the other, heartily--"just so it's for the good of my soul. You will come?"

"You will permit me to stand my share of the expense?"

"Anything you like--if you will only come."

The older man said gently,--for the first time calling the artist by his given name,--"Aaron, I believe that you are the only person in the world who would, really want me; and I know that you are the only person in the world to whom I would be grateful for such an invitation."

The artist was about to reply, when the big automobile stopped in front of the house. Czar, on the porch, gave a low growl of disapproval; and, through the open door, they saw Mr. Taine and his wife with James Rutlidge and Louise.

The novelist said something, under his breath, that had a vicious sound--quite unlike his words of the moment before. Czar, in disgust, retreated to the shelter of Yee Kee's domain. With a laugh, the younger man went out to meet his friends.

"Are you at home this afternoon, Sir Artist?" called Mrs. Taine, gaily, as he went down the walk.

"I will always be at home to the right people," he answered, greeting the other members of the party.

As they moved toward the house,--Mr. Taine choking and coughing, his daughter chattering and exclaiming, and James Rutlidge critically observing,--Mrs. Taine dropped a little back to Aaron King's side. "And are you really established, at last?" she asked eagerly; with a charming, confidential air.

"We move to-morrow morning," he answered.

"We?" she questioned.

"Conrad Lagrange and I. He is going to live with me, you know."

"Oh!"

It is remarkable how much meaning a woman can crowd into that one small syllable; particularly, when she draws a little away from you as she speaks it.

"Why," he murmured apologetically, "don't you approve?"

Mrs. Taine's beautiful eyebrows went up inquiringly--"And why should I either approve or disapprove?"

The young man was saved by the arrival of his guests at the porch steps, and by the appearance of Conrad Lagrange, in the doorway.

"How delightful!" exclaimed Mrs. Taine, heartily; as she, in turn, greeted the famous novelist. "Mr. King was just telling me that you were going to share this dear little place with him. I quite envy you both."

The others had passed into the house.

"You are sometimes guilty of saying twisty things yourself, aren't you?" returned the man; and, as he spoke, his remarkable eyes were fixed upon her as though reading her innermost thoughts.

She flushed under his meaning gaze, but carried it off gaily with--"Oh dear! I wonder if my maid has hooked me up properly, this time?"

They left Mr. Taine in an easy chair, with a bottle of his favorite whisky; and went over the place--from the arbor in the rose garden to Yee Kee's pantry--Mr. Rutlidge, critically and authoritatively approving; Louise, effervescing the same sugary nothings at every step; Mrs. Taine, with a pretty air of proprietorship; Conrad Lagrange, thoughtfully watching; and Aaron King, himself, irresponsibly gay and boyishly proud as he exhibited his achievements.

In the studio, Mrs. Taine--standing before the big easel--demanded to know of the artist, when he would begin her portrait--she was so interested, so eager to begin--how soon could she come? Louise assumed a worshipful attitude, and, gazing at the young man with reverent eyes, waited breathlessly. James Rutlidge drew near, condescendingly attentive, to the center of attraction. Conrad Lagrange turned his back.

"Really," murmured the painter, "I hope you will not be too impatient, Mrs. Taine, I fear I cannot be ready for some time yet. I suppose I must confess to being over-sensitive to my environment; for it is a fact that my working mood does not come upon me readily amid strange surroundings. When I have become acclimated, as it were, I will be ready for you."

"How wonderful!" breathed Louise.

"Quite right," agreed Mr. Rutlidge.

"Whenever you are ready," said Mrs. Taine, submissively.

When their friends from the Heights were gone, Conrad Lagrange looked the artist up and down, as he said with cutting sarcasm, "You did that very nicely. Over-sensitive to your environment, hell! If you are a bit fine strung, you have no business to make a show of it. It's a weakness, not a virtue. And the man who makes capital out of any man's weakness,--even of his own,--is either a criminal or a fool or both."

Then they went back to the hotel for dinner.

The next morning, the artist and the novelist moved from the hotel, to establish themselves in the little house in the orange groves--the little house with its unobstructed view of the mountains, and with its rose garden, so mysteriously tended.