Chapter VI. An Unknown Friend
 

When Yee Kee announced lunch, the artist, the novelist, and the dog were settled in their new home. In the afternoon, the painter spent an hour or two fussing over portfolios of old sketches, in his studio; while Conrad Lagrange and Czar lounged on the front porch.

Once, the dog rose quietly, and, walking sedately to the edge of the porch toward the west, stood for some minutes gazing intently into the dark green mass of the orange grave. At last, as if concluding that whatever it was it was all right, he went calmly back to his place beside the novelist's chair.

"Do you know,"--said the artist, as they sat on the porch that evening, with their after-dinner pipes,--"I believe this old place is haunted."

"If it isn't, it ought to be," answered the other, contentedly--playing with Czar's silky ears. "A good ghost would fit in nicely here, wouldn't it--or he, or she. Its spookship would travel far to find a more delightful place for spooking in, and--providing, of course, she were a perfectly respectable hant--what a charming addition to our family he would make. When it was weary of moping and mowing and sobbing and wailing and gibbering, she could curl up at the foot of your bed and sleep; as Czar, here, curls up and sleeps at the foot of mine. A good ghost, you know--if he becomes really attached to you--is as constant and faithful and affectionate and companionable as a good dog."

"B-r-r-r," said the artist. And Czar turned to look at him, questioningly.

"All the same"--the painter continued--"when I was out there in the studio, I could feel some one watching me--you know the feeling."

Conrad Lagrange returned mockingly, "I trust your over-sensitive, artistic temperament is not to be so influenced by our ghostly visitor that you will be unfitted for your work."

The other laughed. Then he said seriously, "Joking aside, Lagrange, I feel a presentiment--I can't put it into words--but--I feel that I am going to begin the real work of my life right here. I"--he hesitated--"it seems to me that I can sense some influence that I can't define--it's the mystery of the rose garden, perhaps," he finished with another short laugh.

The man, who, in the eyes of the world, had won so large a measure of the success that his friend desired; and whose life was so embittered by the things for which he was envied by many; made no reply other than his slow, twisted smile.

Silently, they watched the purple shadows of the mountains deepen; and saw the outlines of the tawny foothills grow vague and dim, until they were lost in the dusky monotone of the evening. The last faint tint of sunset color went from the sky back of the San Gabriels; while, close to the mountain peaks and ridges, the stars came out. The rows and the contour of the orange groves could no longer be distinguished the forms of the nearby trees were lost--the rich, lustrous green of their foliage brushed out with the dull black of the night; while the twinkling lights of the distant towns and hamlets, in the valley below, shone as sparkling jewels on the inky, velvet robe that, fold on fold, lay over the landscape.

When the two had smoked in silence, for some time, the artist said slowly, "You knew my mother very well, did you not, Mr. Lagrange?"

"We were children together, Aaron." As he spoke, the man's deep voice was gentle, as always, when the young man's mother was mentioned.

Again, for a little, neither spoke. As they sat looking away to the mountains, each seemed occupied with his own thoughts. Yet each felt that the other, to a degree, understood what he, himself, was thinking.

Once more, the artist broke the silence,--facing his mother's friend with quiet resolution,--as though he felt himself forced to speak but knew not exactly how to begin. "Did you know her well--after--after my father's death--and while I was abroad?"

The other bowed his head--"Yes."

"Very well?"

"Very well."

As if at loss for words, Aaron King still hesitated. "Mr. Lagrange," he said, at last, "there are some things about--about mother--that I would like to tell you--that I think she would want me to tell you, under the circumstances."

"Yes," said Conrad Lagrange, gently.

"Well,--to begin,--you know, perhaps, how much mother and I have always been--" his fine voice broke and the older man bowed his head; but, with a slight lift of his determined chin, the painter went on calmly--"to each other. After father's death, until I was seventeen, we were never separated. She was my only teacher. Then I went away to school, seeing her only during my vacations, which we always spent, together in the country. Three years ago, I went abroad to finish my study. I did not see her again until--until I was called home."

"I know," came in low tones from the other.

"But, sir, while it seemed necessary that I should be away from home,--that we should be separated,--all through this period, we exchanged almost daily letters; planning for the future, and looking forward to the time when we could, again, be together."

"I know, Aaron. It was very unusual--and very beautiful."

"When we were together, before I went away, I was a mere lad," continued the artist. "I knew in a general way that father had been a successful lawyer, and quite prominent in politics; and--because there was no change in our manner of living after his death, and there seemed to be always money for whatever we wanted, I suppose--I assumed, thoughtlessly, that there would always be plenty. During the years while I was at school, there was never, in any way, the slightest hint in mother's letters that would lead me to question the abundance of her resources. When they called me home,--" his voice broke, "--I found my mother dying--almost in poverty--our home stripped of the art treasures she loved--her own room, even, empty of everything save the barest necessities." In bitter sorrow and shame, the young man buried his face in his hands.

The novelist, his gaunt features twitching with the emotion that even his long schooling in the tragedies of life could not suppress, waited silently.

When the artist had regained, in a measure, his self-control, he continued,--and every word came from him in shame and humiliation,--"Before she died, she told me about--my father. In the settlement of his affairs, at the time of his death, it appeared that he had taken advantage of the confidence of certain clients and had betrayed his trust; appropriating large sums to his own interests. He had even taken advantage of mother's influence in certain circles, and, relying upon her unquestioning faith in his integrity, had made her an unconscious instrument in furthering his schemes."

Conrad Lagrange made as if to speak, but checked himself and waited for the other to continue.

Aaron King went on; "Out of regard for my mother, the matter was kept as quiet as possible. The one who suffered the heaviest loss was able to protect her--in a measure. All the others were fully reimbursed. But mother--it would have been easier for her if she had died then. She withdrew from her friends and from the life she loved--she denied herself to all who sought her and devoted her life to me. Above all, she planned to keep me in ignorance of the truth until I should be equipped to win the place in the world that she coveted for me. It was for that, she sent me away, and kept me from home. As the demands for my educational expenses grew naturally heavier, she supplemented the slender resources, left in the final settlement of my father's estate, by sacrificing the treasures of her home, and by giving up the luxuries to which she had been accustomed from childhood. She even provided for me after her death--not wealth, but a comfortable amount, sufficient to support me in good circumstances until I can gain recognition and an income from my work."

Under the lash of his memories, the young man sprang to his feet.

"In God's name, Lagrange, why did not some one tell me? I did not know--I did not know--I thought--O mother, mother, mother--why did you do it? Why was I not told? All these years I have lived a selfish fool, and you--you--I would have given up everything--I would have worked in a ditch, rather than accept this."

The deep, quiet voice of Conrad Lagrange broke the stillness that followed the storm of the artist's passionate words. "And that is the answer, Aaron. She knew, too well, that you would not have accepted her sacrifice, if you had known. That is why she kept the secret until you had finished your education. She forbade her friends--she forbade me to interfere. And don't you see that she was right? Don't you see it? We would have done her the greatest injustice if we had, against her will, deprived her of this privilege. Her splendid pride, her high sense of honor, her nobility of spirit demanded the sacrifice. It was her right. God forgive me--I tried to make her see it otherwise--but she knew best. She always knew best, Aaron. Her only hope of regaining for you that self-respect and that position in life to which you--by right of birth and natural endowment--are entitled, was in you. The name which she had given to you could be restored to honor by you only. To train and equip you for your work, and to enable you, unhampered by need, to gain your footing, was the determined passion of her life. Her sacrifice, her suffering to that end, was the only restitution she could make to you for that which your father had squandered. Her proud spirit, her fine intelligence, her mother love for you, demanded it."

"I know," returned the artist. "She told me before she died. She made me understand. She said that it was my inheritance. She asked for my promise that I would be true to her purpose. Her last words were an expression of her confidence that I would not disappoint her--that I would win a place and name that would wipe out the shame of my father's dishonor. And I will, Lagrange, I must. Mother--mother shall not be disappointed--she shall not be disappointed."

"No,"--said the older man, so softly that the other, torn by the passion of his own thoughts, did not hear,--"No, Aaron, your mother will not be disappointed."

For a time longer they sat in silence. Then the young man said, "I wish I knew the name of my mother's friend--the one who suffered the heaviest loss through my father, and who so generously protected her in the crisis. I would like to thank him, at least. I begged her to tell me, but she would not. She said he would not want me to know--that for me to attempt to reimburse him would, to his mind, rob him of his real reward."

Conrad Lagrange, his head bowed, spoke quietly to the dog at his feet. Rising, Czar laid his soft muzzle on his master's knee and looked up into the homely, world-worn face. Gently, the strange man--so lonely and embittered in the fame that he had won--at a price--stroked the brown head. "Your mother knew best, Aaron," he said slowly, without looking at his companion. "You must believe that she knew best. Her beautiful spirit could not lead her astray. She was right in this, also. Your sentiment does you honor, but you must respect her wish. Whoever the man was--she had reasons, I am sure, for feeling as she did--that it would be better for you not to know. It was some one, perhaps, whose influence upon you, she had cause to fear."

"It was very strange," returned the artist, hesitatingly. "Perhaps I ought not to say it. But I felt that, as you suggest, she feared for me to know. She seemed to want to tell me, but did not, for my sake. It was very strange."

Conrad Lagrange made no reply.

"I wanted you to know about mother,"--continued the artist,--"because I would like you to understand why--why I must succeed in my work."

The older man smiled to himself, in the dusk. "I have always known why you must succeed, Aaron," he returned. "I have never questioned your motives. I question only your understanding of success. I question--if you will pardon me--your understanding of your mother's wish for you."

Then, in one of those rare momentary moods, when he seemed to reveal to his young friend his real nature that lay so deeply hidden from the world, he added, "You are right, Aaron. This place is haunted--haunted by the spirit of the mountains, yonder--haunted by the spirit of the rose garden, out there. The silent strength of the hills, and the loveliness of the garden will attend you in your studio, as you work. I do not wonder that you feel a presentiment that your artistic future is to be shaped here; for between these influences and the other influences that will be brought to bear upon you, you will be forced to decide. May the God of all true art and artists help you to make no mistake. Listen!"

As though in answer to the solemn words of the man who spoke from the fullness of a life-long experience and from the depths of a life-old love, a strain of music came from out the fragrant darkness. Somewhere, hidden in the depths of the orange grove, the soul of a true musician was seeking expression in the tones of a violin.

Softly, sadly, with poignant clearness, the music lifted into the night--low and pleadingly at first; then stronger and more vibrant with feeling, as though sweetly insistent in its call; swelling next in volume and passion, as though in warning of some threatening evil; ringing with loving fear; sobbing, wailing, moaning, in anguish; clearly, gloriously, triumphant, at last; then sinking into solemn, reverent benediction--losing itself, finally, in the darkness, even as it had come.

The two men, so fashioned by nature to receive such music, listened with emotions they could not have put into words. For the moment, the music to them was the voice of the guarding, calling, warning spirit of the mountains that, in their calm, majestic strength, were so far removed from the petty passions and longings of the baser world at their feet--it was the voice of the loving intimacy, the sweet purity, and the sacred beauty of the spirit of the garden. It was as though the things of which Conrad Lagrange had just spoken so reverently had cried aloud to them, out of the night, in confirmation of his words.