Chapter VII. Mrs. Taine in Quaker Gray
 

Aaron King seemed loth to begin his work on the portrait of Mrs. Taine. Day after day, without apparent reason, he put it off--spending the hours in wandering aimlessly about the place, idling on the porch, or doing nothing in his studio. He would start from the house to the building at the end of the rose garden, as though moved by some clearly defined purpose--and then, for an hour or more, would dawdle among the things of his craft, with irresolute mind--turning over his sketches and drawings with uncertain hands, as though searching for something he knew was not there; toying with his paints and brushes; or sitting before his empty easel, looking away through the big window to the distant mountains. He seemed incapable of fixing his mind upon the task to which he attached so much importance. Several times, Mrs. Taine called, but he begged her to be patient; and she, with pretended awe of the moods of genius, waited.

Conrad Lagrange jeered and mocked, offered sneering advice or sarcastic compliment; and, under it all, was keenly watchful and sympathetic-- understanding better than the artist himself, perhaps, the secret of the painter's hesitation. Every day,--sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon or evening unseen musician, in the orange grove wrought for them melodie that, whether grave or gay, always carried, somehow, the feeling that had so moved them in the mysterious darkness of that first evening.

They knew, now, of course, that the musician lived in the neighboring house--the gable and chimney of which was just visible above the orange-trees. But that was all. Obedient to some whimsical impulse that prompted them both, and was born, no doubt, of the circumstance and mood of that first evening, they did not seek to learn more. They feared--though they did not say it--that to learn the identity of the musician would rob them of the peculiar pleasure they found in the music, itself. So they spoke always of their unknown neighbor in a fanciful vein, as in like humor they spoke of the spirit that Aaron King still insisted haunted the place, or as they alluded to the mystery of the carefully tended rose garden.

When the artist could put it off no longer, a day was finally set when Mrs. Taine was to come for the beginning of her portrait. The appointed hour found the artist in his studio. A canvas stood ready upon the easel; palette, colors and brushes were at hand. The painter was standing at the big, north window, looking up away to the mountains--the mountains that the novelist said called so insistently. Suddenly, he turned his head to listen. Sweetly clear and low, through the green wall of the orange-trees, came the music of that hidden violin.

As he stood there,--with his eyes fixed upon the mountains, listening to the spirit that spoke in the tones of the unseen instrument,--Aaron King knew, all at once, that the passing moment was one of those rare moments--that come, all unexpectedly--when, with prophetic vision, one sees clearly the end of the course he pursues and the destiny that waits him at its completion. As clearly, too, he saw the other way, and knew the meaning of the vision. But seldom is the strength given to man, in such moments, to choose for himself. Though he may see the other way clearly, his feet cling to the path he has elected to follow; nor will he, unless some one takes him by the hand saying, "Come," turn aside.

A voice, not at all in harmony with the music, broke upon the artist's consciousness. He turned to see Mrs. Taine standing expectantly in the open door. "Hush!" said the painter, still under the spell of that moment so big with possibilities. "Listen,"--with a gesture, he checked her advance,--"listen."

A look of haughty surprise flashed over the woman's too perfect features. Then, as her ear caught the tones of the violin, she half turned--but only for a moment.

"Very clever, isn't it," she said as she came forward "It must be old Professor Becker. He lives somewhere around here, I understand. They say he is very good."

The artist looked at her for an instant, in amazement Then, as his normal mind asserted itself, he burst into an embarrassed laugh.

At her look of puzzled inquiry, he said, "I beg your pardon, Mrs. Taine. I did not realize how harshly I greeted you. The fact is I--I was dreaming"--he turned suggestively toward the canvas upon the easel. "You see I was expecting you--I was thinking--then the music came--and--well--when you actually appeared in the flesh, I did not for the moment realize that it was really you."

"How charming of you!" she returned. "To be made the subject of an artist's dream--really it is quite the nicest compliment I have ever received. Tell me, do you like me in this?" she slipped the wrap she wore from her shoulders, and stood before him, gowned in the simple, gray dress of a Quaker Maid. Deliberately, she turned her beautiful self about for his critical inspection. Moving to and fro, sitting, half-reclining, standing--in various graceful poses she invited, challenged, dared, his closest attention--professional attention, of course--to every curve and detail.

In spite of its simplicity of color and line, the gown still bore the unmistakable stamp of the wearer's world. The severity of line was subtly made to emphasize the voluptuousness of the body that was covered but not hidden. The quiet color was made to accentuate the flesh the dress concealed only to reveal. The very lack of ornament but served to center the attention upon the charms that so loudly professed to scorn them. It was worldliness speaking in the quiet voice of religion. It was vulgarity advertising itself in terms of good taste. She had made modesty the handmaiden of blatant immodesty, and the daring impudence of it all fairly stunned the painter.

"Oh dear!" she said, watching his face, "I fear you don't like it, at all--and I thought it such a beautiful little gown. You told me to wear whatever I pleased, you know."

"It is a beautiful gown," he said--then added impulsively, "and you are beautiful in it. You would be beautiful in anything."

She shook her head; favoring him with an understanding smile. "You say that to please me. I can see that you don't like me this way."

"But I do," he insisted. "I like you that way, immensely. I was a bit surprised, that's all. You see, I thought, of course, that you would select an evening gown of some sort--something, you know, that would fit your social position--your place in the world. In this costume, the beauty of your shoulders--"

Lowering her eyes as if embarrassed, she said coldly, "The beauty of my shoulders is not for the public. I have never worn--I will not wear--one of those dreadful, immodest gowns."

Aaron King was bewildered. Suddenly, he remembered what Conrad Lagrange had said about her fad. But after so frankly exhibiting herself before him, dressed as she was in a gown that was deliberately planned to advertise her physical charms, to be particular about baring her shoulders in a conventional costume--! It was quite too much.

"Again, I beg your pardon, Mrs. Taine," he managed to say. "I did not know. Under the circumstances, this is exactly the thing. Your portrait, in what is so frankly a costume assumed for the purpose, takes us out of the dilemma very nicely, indeed."

"Why, that's exactly what I thought," she returned eagerly. "And this is so in keeping with my real tastes--don't you see? A real portrait--I mean a serious work of art, you know--should always be something more than a mere likeness, should it not? Don't you think that to be genuinely good, a portrait must reveal the spirit and character--must portray the soul, as well as the features? I do so want this to be a truly great picture--for your sake." Her manner seemed to say that she was doing it all for him. "I have never permitted any one to paint my portrait before, you know," she added meaningly.

"You are very kind, Mrs. Taine," he returned gravely. "Believe me, I do appreciate this opportunity I shall do my best to express my appreciation here"--he indicated the canvas on the easel.

When his sitter was posed to his liking, and the artist, with a few bold, sweeping, strokes of the charcoal had roughed out his subject on the canvas, and was bending over his color-box--he said, casually, to put her at ease, "You came alone this afternoon, did you?"

"Oh, no, indeed! I brought Louise with me. I shall always bring her, or some one. One cannot be too careful, you know," she added with simulated artlessness.

The painter, studying her face, replied mechanically "No indeed."

As he turned back to his canvas, Mrs. Taine continued, "I left her in the house, with a box of chocolates and a novel. I felt that you would rather we were alone."

"Please don't look down," said the artist. "I want your eyes about here"--he indicated a picture on the wall, a little back and to the left of where he stood at the easel.

After this, there was silence in the studio, for a little while. Mrs. Taine obediently kept the pose; her eyes upon the point the artist had indicated; but--as the man, himself, was almost directly in her line of vision--it was easy for her to watch him at his work, when his eyes were on his canvas or palette. The arrangement was admirable in that it relieved the tedium of the hour for the sitter; and gave her face an expression of animated interest that, truthfully fixed upon the canvas, should insure the fame and future of any painter.

It would be quite too much to say that Aaron King became absorbed in his occupation. Thorough master of the tools of his craft, and of his own technic, as well; he was interested in the mere exercising of his skill, but he in no sense lost himself in his work. Two or three times, Mrs. Taine saw him glance quickly over his shoulder, as though expecting some one. Once, for quite a moment, he deliberately turned from his easel to stand at the window, looking up at the distant mountain peaks. Several times, he seemed to be listening.

"May I talk?" she said at last.

"Why, certainly," he returned. "I want you to feel perfectly at ease. You must be altogether at home here. Just let yourself go--say what you like, with no conventional restraints whatever--consider me a mechanical something that is no more than an article of furniture--be as thoroughly yourself as if alone in your own room."

"How funny," she said musingly.

"Not at all"--he returned--"just a matter of business."

"But it would be funny if I were to take you at your word," she replied; suddenly breaking the pose and meeting his gaze squarely. "Is it--is it quite necessary for the mechanical something to look at me like that?"

"I said that you were to consider me as an article of furniture. I didn't say that I felt like a table or chair."

"Oh!"

"Don't look down; keep the pose, please," came somewhat sharply from the man at the easel, as though he were mentally taking himself in hand.

After that, she watched him with increasing interest and, when he turned his head in that listening attitude, a curious, resentful light came into her eyes.

Presently, she asked abruptly, "What is it that you hear?"

"I thought I heard music," he answered, coloring slightly and turning to his work with suddenly absorbing interest.

"The violin that so enchanted you when I came to break the spell?" she persisted playfully--though the light in her eyes was not a playful light.

"Yes," he answered shortly; stepping back and shading his eyes with his hand for a careful look at his canvas.

"And don't you know who it is?"

"You said it was an old professor somebody."

"That was my first guess," she retorted. "Was I right?"

"I don't know."

"But it comes from that little box of a house, next door, doesn't it?"

"Evidently," the artist answered. Then, laying aside his palette and brushes he said abruptly, "That is all for to-day; thank you."

"Oh, so soon!" she exclaimed; and the regret in her voice was very pleasing to the man who was decidedly not a mechanical something.

She started eagerly forward toward the easel. But the artist, with a quick motion, drew a curtain across the canvas, to hide his work; while he checked her with--"Not yet, please. I don't want you to see it until I say you may."

"How mean of you," she protested; charmingly submissive. Then, eagerly--"And do you want me to-morrow? You do, don't you?"

"Yes, please--at the same hour."

When the Quaker Maiden's dress was safely hidden under her wrap, Mrs. Taine stood, for a moment, looking thoughtfully about the studio; while the artist waited at the door, ready to escort her to the automobile. "I am going to love this room," she said slowly; and, for the first time, her voice was genuinely sincere, with a hint of wistfulness in its tone that made him regard her wonderingly.

She went to him impulsively. "Will you, when you are famous--when you are a great artist and all the great and famous people go to you to have their portraits painted--will you remember poor me, I wonder?"

"Am I really going to be famous?" he returned doubtfully. "Are you so sure that this picture will mean success?"

"Of course I am sure--I know. You want to succeed don't you?"

Aaron King returned her look, for a moment, without answering. Then, with a quick, fierce determination that betrayed a depth of feeling she had never before seen in him, he exclaimed, "Do I want to succeed! I--I must succeed. I tell you I must."

And the woman answered very softly, with her hand upon his arm, "And you shall--you shall."

       *       *       *       *       *

Conrad Lagrange and Czar found the artist on the front porch, pulling moodily at his pipe.

"Is it all over for to-day?" asked the novelist as he stood looking down upon the young man with that peculiarly piercing, baffling gaze.

"All over," replied the artist, answering the greeting thrust of Czar's muzzle against his knee, with caressing hand. "Where did you fly to?"

The other dropped into a chair. "I would fly anywhere to escape being entertained by that Ragtime' piece of human nonentity--Louise Taine. I saw them coming, just in time." He was filling his pipe as he spoke. "And how did the work go?"

"All right," replied the painter, indifferently.

The older man shot a curious sidewise glance at his moody companion; then, striking a match, he gave careful attention to his pipe. Watching the cloud of blue smoke, he said quizzingly, "I suppose 'Her Majesty' was royally apparelled for the occasion-properly arrayed in purple and fine linen; as befits the dignity of her state?"

The artist turned at the mocking, suggestive tone and answered savagely, "I suppose you have got to know, damn you! I'm painting her as a Quaker Maiden."

Conrad Lagrange's reply was as surprising in its way as was the outburst of the artist. Instead of the tirade of biting sarcasm and stinging abuse that the painter expected, the older man only gazed at him from under his scowling brows and, shaking his head, sadly, said with sincere regret and understanding "You poor fellow! It must be hell." Then, as his keen mind grasped the full significance of the artist's words, he murmured meditatively, "The personification of the age masquerading in Quaker gray--Shades of the giants who used to be! What an opportunity--if you only had the nerve to do it."

The artist flung out his hand in protest as he rose from his chair to pace up and down the porch. "Don't, Lagrange, don't! I can't stand it, just now."

"All right." said the other, heartily, "I won't." Rising, he put his hand on his friend's shoulder. "Come, let's go for a look at the roses, before Yee Kee calls us to dinner."

In the garden, the artist's eye caught sight of something white lying in the well-kept path. With an exclamation, he went quickly to pick it up. It was a dainty square of lace--a handkerchief--with an exquisitely embroidered "S" in the corner.

The two men looked at each other in silence; with smiling, questioning eyes.