Chapter VIII. The Portrait That Was Not a Portrait
 

Aaron King was putting the last touches to his portrait of the woman who--Conrad Lagrange said--was the personification of the age.

From that evening when the young man told his friend the story of his mother's sacrifice, their friendship had become like that friendship which passeth the love of women. While the novelist, true to his promise, did not cease to flay his younger companion--for the good of the artist's soul--those moments when his gentler moods ruled his speech were, perhaps, more frequent; and the artist was more and more learning to appreciate the rare imagination, the delicacy of feeling, the intellectual brilliancy, and the keenness of mental vision that distinguished the man whose life was so embittered by the use he had made of his own rich gifts.

The novelist steadily refused to look at the picture while the work was in progress. He said, bluntly, that he preferred to run no risk of interfering with the young man's chance for fame; and that it would be quite enough for him to look upon his friend's shame when it was accomplished; without witnessing the process in its various stages. The artist laughed to hide the embarrassing fact that he was rather pleased to be left to himself with this particular picture.

Conrad Lagrange did not, however, refuse to accompany his friend, occasionally, to the house on Fairlands Heights; where the painter continued to spend much of his time. When Mrs. Taine made mocking references to the novelist's promise not to leave the artist unprotected to her tender mercies, he always answered with some--as she said--twisty saying; to the effect that the present situation in no way lessened his determination to save the young man from the influences that would accomplish the ruin of his genius. "If"--he always added--"if he is worth saving; which remains to be seen." Always, at the Taine home, they met James Rutlidge. Frequently the celebrated critic dropped in at the cottage in the orange grove.

Under the skillful management of Rutlidge,--at the request of Mrs. Taine,--the newspapers were already busy with the name and work of Aaron King. True, the critic had never seen the artist's work; but, never-the-less, the papers and magazines throughout the country often mentioned the high order of the painter's genius. There were little stories of his study and success abroad; tactful references to his aristocratic family; entertaining accounts of his romantic life with the famous novelist in the orange groves of Fairlands, and of how, in his California studio among the roses, the distinguished painter was at work upon a portrait of the well-known social leader, Mrs. Taine--this being the first portrait ever painted of that famous beauty. That the picture would create a sensation at the exhibition, was the unanimous verdict of all who had been permitted to see the marvelous creation by this rare genius whose work was so little known in this country.

Said Conrad Lagrange--"It is all so easy."

Once or twice, the artist or his friend had seen the woman of the disfigured face; and the novelist still tried in vain to fix her in his memory. Every day, they heard, in the depths of the neighboring orange grove, the music of that unseen violin. They spoke, often, in playful mood, of the spirit that haunted the place; but they made no effort to solve the mystery of the carefully tended rose garden. They knew that whoever cared for the roses worked there only in the early morning hours; and they carefully avoided going into the yard back of the house until after breakfast. They felt that an investigation might rob them of the peculiar humor of their fancy--a fancy that was to them, both, such a pleasure; and gave to their home amid the orange-trees and roses such an added charm.

But the other member of the trio of friends was not so reticent. Czar had formed an--to his most proper dogship--unusual habit. Frequently, when the three were sitting on the porch in the evening, he would rise suddenly from his place beside his master's chair, and walking sedately to the side of the porch facing that neighboring gable and chimney, would stand listening attentively; then, without so much as a "by-your-leave," he would leap to the ground, and vanish somewhere around the corner of the house. Later, he would come sedately back; greeting each, in turn, with that insistent thrust his soft muzzle against a knee; and assuring them, in the wordless speech of his expressive, brown eyes, that his mission had been a most proper one, and that they might trust him to make no foolish mistakes that would mar the peace and harmony of their little household. The men never failed to agree with him that it was all right. In fact, so fully did they trust him that they never even stepped to the corner of the porch to see where he went; nor would they leave their chairs until he had returned.

Upon those days when Mrs. Taine came to the studio,--being always careful that Louise accompanied her as far as the house,--Conrad Lagrange vanished. The man swore by all the strange and wonderful gods he knew--and they were many--that he feared to spend an hour with that effervescing young female devotee of the Arts--lest the mountains in their wrath should fall upon him.

But that day, when Mrs. Taine came for the last sitting, the novelist--engaged in interesting talk with the artist--forgot.

"You are caught," cried the painter, gleefully, as the big automobile stopped at the gate.

"I'll be damned if I am," retorted the novelist, with no profane intent but with meaning quite literal; and, seizing a book, he bolted through the kitchen--nearly upsetting the startled Yee Kee.

"What's matte'," inquired the Chinaman, putting his head in at the living-room door; his almond eyes as wide as they could go, with an expression of celestial consternation that convulsed the artist. Catching sight of the automobile, his oriental features wrinkled into a yellow grin of understanding; "Oh! see um come! Ha! I know. He all time go, she come. He say no like lagtime gal. Dog Cza', him all time gone, too; him no like lagtime--all same Miste' Laglange. Ha! I go, too," and he, in turn, vanished.

"You are early, to-day," said Aaron King, as he escorted Mrs. Taine to the studio.

Just inside the door, she turned impulsively to face him--standing close, her beautifully groomed and voluptuous body instinct with the lure of her sex, her too perfect features slightly flushed, and her eyes submissively downcast. "And have you forgotten that this is the last time I can come?" she asked in a low tone.

"Surely not"--he returned calmly--"you are coming to-morrow, with the others, aren't you?" Her husband with James Rutlidge and Louise Taine were invited for the next day, to view the portrait.

"Oh, but that will be so different!" She loosed the wrap she wore, and threw it aside with an indescribable familiar gesture. "You don't realize what these hours have meant to me--how could you? You do not live in my world. Your world is--is so different You do not know--you do not know." With a sudden burst of passion, she added, "The world that I live in is hell; and this--this--oh, it has been heavenly!"

Her words, her voice, the poise of her figure, the gesture with outstretched arms--it was all so nearly an invitation, so nearly a surrender of herself to him, that the man started forward impulsively. For the moment he forgot his work--he forgot everything--he was conscious only of the woman who stood before him. But even as the light of triumph blazed up in the woman's eyes, the man halted,--drew back; and his face was turned from her as he listened to the sweetly appealing message of the gentle spirit that made itself felt in the music of that hidden violin. It was as though, in truth, the mountains, themselves,--from their calm heights so remote from the little world wherein men live their baser tragedies,--watched over him. "Don't you think we had better proceed with our work?" he said calmly.

The light in the woman's eyes changed to anger which she turned away to hide. Without replying, she went to her place and assumed the pose; and, as she had watched him day after day when his eyes were upon the canvas, she watched him now. Since that first day, when she had questioned him about the unseen musician, they had not mentioned the subject, although--as was inevitable under the circumstances--their intimacy had grown. But not once had he turned from his work in that listening attitude, or looked from the window as though half-expecting some one, without her noting it. And, always, her eyes had flashed with resentment, which she had promptly concealed when the painter, again turning to his easel, had looked from his canvas to her face.

Scarcely was the artist well started in his work, that afternoon, when the music ceased. Presently, Mrs. Taine broke her watchful silence, with the quite casual remark; "Your musical neighbor is still unknown to you, I suppose?"

"Yes,"--he answered smiling, as though more to himself than at her,--"we have never tried to make her acquaintance."

The woman caught him up quickly; "To make her acquaintance? Why do you say, 'her,' if you do not know who it is?"

The artist was confused. "Did I say, her?" he questioned, his face flushed with embarrassment. "It was a slip of the tongue. Neither Conrad Lagrange nor I know anything about our neighbor."

She laughed ironically. "And you could know so easily."

"I suppose so; but we have never cared to. We prefer to accept the music as it comes to us--impersonally--for what it is--not for whoever makes it." He spoke coldly, as though the subject was distasteful to him, under the circumstances of the moment.

But the woman persisted. "Well, I know who it is. Shall I tell you?"

"No. I do not care to know. I am not interested in the musician."

"Oh, but you might be, you know," she retorted.

"Please take the pose," returned Aaron King professionally. Mrs. Taine, wisely, for the time, dropped the subject; contenting herself with a meaning laugh.

The artist silently gave all his attention to the nearly finished portrait. He was not painting, now, with full brush and swift sure strokes,--as had been his way when building up his picture,--but worked with occasional deft touches here and there; drawing back from the canvas often, to study it intently, his eyes glancing swiftly from the picture to the sitter's face and back again to the portrait; then stepping forward quickly, ready brush in hand; to withdraw an instant later for another long and searching study. Presently, with an air of relief, he laid aside his palette and brushes; and turning to Mrs. Taine, with a smile, held out his hand. "Come," he said, "tell me if I have done well or ill."

"It is finished?" she cried. "I may see it?"

"It is all that I can do"--he answered--"come." He led her to the easel, where they stood side by side before his work.

The picture, still fresh from the painter's brush, was a portrait of Mrs. Taine--yet not a portrait. Exquisite in coloring and in its harmony of tone and line, it betrayed in every careful detail--in every mark of the brush--the thoughtful, painstaking care--the thorough knowledge and highly trained skill of an artist who was, at least, master of his own technic. But--if one might say so--the painting was more a picture than a portrait. The face upon the canvas was the face of Mrs. Taine, indeed, in that the features were her features; but it was also the face of a sweetly modest Quaker Maid. The too perfect, too well cared for face of the beautiful woman of the world was, on the canvas, given the charm of a natural unconscious loveliness. The eyes that had watched the artist with such certain knowledge of life and with the boldness born of that knowledge were, in the picture, beautiful with the charm of innocent maidenhood. The very coloring and the arrangement of the hair were changed subtly to express, not the skill of high-priced beauty-doctors and of fashionable hair-dressers, but the instinctive care of womanliness. The costume that, when worn by the woman, expressed so fully her true character; in the picture, became the emblem of a pure and deeply religious spirit.

Mrs. Taine turned impulsively to the artist, and, placing her hand upon his arm, exclaimed in delight, "Oh, is it true? Am I really so beautiful?"

The artist laughed. "You like it?"

"Like it? How could I help liking it? It is lovely."

"I am glad," he returned. "I hoped it would please you."

"And you"--she asked, with eager eyes--"are you satisfied with it? Does it seem good to you?"

"Oh, as for that," he answered, "I suppose one is never satisfied. I know the work is good--in a way. But it is very far from what it should be, I fear. I feel that, after all, I have not made the most of my opportunity." He spoke with a shade of sadness.

Again, she put out her hand impulsively to touch his arm, as she answered eagerly, "Ah, but no one else will say that. No one else will dare. It will be the sensation of the year--I tell you. Just you wait until Jim Rutlidge sees it. Wait until it is hung for exhibition, and he tells the world about it. Everybody worth while will be coming to you then. And I--I will remember these hours with you, and be glad that I could help--even so little. Will you remember them, too, I wonder. Are you glad the picture is finished?"

"And are you not glad?" he returned meaningly.

They had both forgotten the painting before them. They did not see it. They each saw only the other.

"No, I am not glad," she said in a low tone. "People would very soon be talking if I should come here, alone--now that the picture is finished."

"I suppose in any case you will be leaving Fairlands soon, for the summer," he returned slowly.

"O listen,"--she cried with quick eagerness--"we are going to Lake Silence. What's to hinder your coming too? Everybody goes there, you know. Won't you come?"

"But would it be altogether safe?" He reflected doubtfully.

"Why, of course,--Mr. Taine, Louise, and Jim,--we are all going together--don't you see? I don't believe you want to go," she pouted. "I believe you want to forget."

Her alluring manner, the invitation conveyed in her words and voice, the touch of her hand on his arm, and the nearness of her person, fairly swept the man off his feet. With quick passion, he caught her hand, and his words came with reckless heat. "You know that I will not forget you. You know that I could not, if I would. Do you think that I have been so engrossed with my brushes and canvas that I have been unconscious of you? What is that painted thing beside your own beautiful self? Do you think that because I must turn myself into a machine to make a photograph of your beauty, I am insensible to its charm? I am not a machine. I am a man; as you are a woman; and I--"

She checked him suddenly--stepping aside with a quick movement, and the words, "Hush, some one is coming."

The artist, too, heard voices, just without the door.

Mrs. Taine moved swiftly across the room toward her wrap. Aaron King, going to his easel, drew the velvet curtain to hide the picture.