Book One
Chapter XII. A Climax
 

One afternoon, about two weeks later, Kirk, returning to the studio from an unprofitable raid into the region of the dealers, found on the table a card bearing the name of Mrs. Robert Wilbur. This had been crossed out, and beneath it, in a straggly hand, the name Miss Wilbur had been written.

The phenomenon of a caller at the cell of the two hermits was so strange that he awaited Ruth's arrival with more than his customary impatience. She would be able to identify the visitor. George Pennicut, questioned on the point, had no information of any value to impart. A very pretty young lady she was, said George, with what you might call a lively manner. She had seemed disappointed at finding nobody at home. No, she had left no message.

Ruth, arriving a few moments later, was met by Kirk with the card in his hand.

"Can you throw any light on this?" he said. "Who is Miss Wilbur, who has what you might call a lively manner and appears disappointed when she does not find us at home?"

Ruth looked at the card.

"Sybil Wilbur? I wonder what she wants."

"Who is she? Let's get that settled first."

"Oh, she's a girl I used to know. I haven't seen her for two years. I thought she had forgotten my existence."

"Call her up on the phone. If we don't solve this mystery we shan't sleep to-night. It's like Robinson Crusoe and the footprint."

Ruth went to the telephone. After a short conversation she turned to Kirk with sparkling eyes and the air of one with news to impart.

"Kirk! She wants you to paint her portrait!"

"What!"

"She's engaged to Bailey! Just got engaged! And the first thing she does is to insist on his letting her come to you for her portrait," Ruth bubbled with laughter. "It's to be a birthday present for Bailey, and Bailey has got to pay for it. That's so exactly like Sybil."

"I hope the portrait will be. She's taking chances."

"I think it's simply sweet of her. She's a real friend."

"At fairly long intervals, apparently. Did you say you had not seen her for two years?"

"She is an erratic little thing with an awfully good heart. I feel touched at her remembering us. Oh, Kirk, you must do a simply wonderful portrait, something that everybody will talk about, and then our fortune will be made! You will become the only painter that people will go to for their portraits."

Kirk did not answer. His experiences of late had developed in him an unwonted mistrust of his powers. To this was added the knowledge that, except for an impressionist study of Ruth for private exhibition only, he had never attempted a portrait. To be called upon suddenly like this to show his powers gave him much the same feeling which he had experienced when called upon as a child to recite poetry before an audience. It was a species of stage fright.

But it was certainly a chance. Portrait-painting was an uncommonly lucrative line of business. His imagination, stirred by Ruth's, saw visions of wealthy applicants turned away from the studio door owing to pressure of work on the part of the famous man for whose services they were bidding vast sums.

"By Jove!" he said thoughtfully.

Another aspect of the matter occurred to him.

"I wonder what Bailey thinks about it!"

"Oh, he's probably so much in love with her that he doesn't mind what she does. Besides, Bailey likes you."

"Does he?"

"Oh, well, if he doesn't, he will. This will bring you together."

"I suppose he knows about it?"

"Oh, yes. Sybil said he did. It's all settled. She will be here to-morrow for the first sitting."

Kirk spoke the fear that was in his mind.

"Ruth, old girl, I'm horribly nervous about this. I am taken with a sort of second sight. I see myself making a ghastly failure of this job and Bailey knocking me down and refusing to come across with the cheque."

"Sybil is bringing the cheque with her to-morrow," said Ruth simply.

"Is she?" said Kirk. "Now I wonder if that makes it worse or better. I'm trying to think!"

Sybil Wilbur fluttered in next day at noon, a tiny, restless creature who darted about the studio like a humming-bird. She effervesced with the joy of life. She uttered little squeaks of delight at everything she saw. She hugged Ruth, beamed at Kirk, went wild over William Bannister, thought the studio too cute for words, insisted on being shown all over it, and talked incessantly.

It was about two o'clock before she actually began to sit, and even then she was no statue. A thought would come into her small head and she would whirl round to impart it to Ruth, destroying in a second the pose which it had taken Kirk ten painful minutes to fix.

Kirk was too amused to be irritated. She was such a friendly little soul and so obviously devoted to Ruth that he felt she was entitled to be a nuisance as a sitter. He wondered more and more what weird principle of selection had been at work to bring Bailey and this butterfly together. He had never given any deep thought to the study of his brother-in-law's character; but, from his small knowledge of him, he would have imagined some one a trifle more substantial and serious as the ideal wife for him. Life, he conceived, was to Bailey a stately march. Sybil Wilbur evidently looked on it as a mad gallop.

Ruth felt the same. She was fond of Sybil, but she could not see her as the fore-ordained Mrs. Bailey.

"I suppose she swept him off his feet," she said. "It just shows that you never really get to know a person even if you're their sister. Bailey must have all sorts of hidden sides to his character which I never noticed--unless she has. But I don't think there is much of that about Sybil. She's just a child. But she's very amusing, isn't she? She enjoys life so furiously."

"I think Bailey will find her rather a handful. Does she ever sit still, by the way? If she is going to act right along as she did to-day this portrait will look like that cubist picture of the 'Dance at the Spring'."

As the sittings went on Miss Wilbur consented gradually to simmer down and the portrait progressed with a fair amount of speed. But Kirk was conscious every day of a growing sensation of panic. He was trying his very hardest, but it was bad work, and he knew it.

His hand had never had very much cunning, but what it had had it had lost in the years of his idleness. Every day showed him more clearly that the portrait of Miss Wilbur, on which so much depended, was an amateurish daub. He worked doggedly on, but his heart was cold with that chill that grips the artist when he looks on his work and sees it to be bad.

At last it was finished. Ruth thought it splendid. Sybil Wilbur pronounced it cute, as she did most things. Kirk could hardly bear to look at it. In its finished state it was worse than he could have believed possible.

In the old days he had been a fair painter with one or two bad faults. Now the faults seemed to have grown like weeds, choking whatever of merit he might once have possessed. This was a horrible production, and he was profoundly thankful when it was packed up and removed from the studio. But behind his thankfulness lurked the feeling that all was not yet over, that there was worse to come.

It came.

It was heralded by a tearful telephone call from Miss Wilbur, who rang up Ruth with the agitated information that "Bailey didn't seem to like it." And on the heels of the message came Bailey in person, pink from forehead to collar, and almost as wrathful as he had been on the great occasion of his first visit to the studio. His annoyance robbed his speech of its normal stateliness. He struck a colloquial note unusual with him.

"I guess you know what I've come about," he said.

He had found Kirk alone in the studio, as ill luck would have it. In the absence of Ruth he ventured to speak more freely than he would have done in her presence.

"It's an infernal outrage," he went on. "I've been stung, and you know it."

Kirk said nothing. His silence infuriated Bailey.

"It's the portrait I'm speaking about--the portrait, if you have the nerve to call it that, of Miss Wilbur. I was against her sitting to you from the first, but she insisted. Now she's sorry."

"It's as bad as all that, is it?" said Kirk dully. He felt curiously indisposed to fight. A listlessness had gripped him. He was even a little sorry for Bailey. He saw his point of view and sympathized with it.

"Yes," said Bailey fiercely. "It is, and you know it."

Kirk nodded. Bailey was quite right. He did know it.

"It's a joke," went on Bailey shrilly. "I can't hang it up. People would laugh at it. And to think that I paid you all that money for it. I could have got a real artist for half the price."

"That is easily remedied," said Kirk. "I will send you a cheque to-morrow."

Bailey was not to be appeased. The venom of more than three years cried out for utterance. He had always held definite views upon Kirk, and Heaven had sent him the opportunity of expressing them.

"Yes, I dare say," he said contemptuously. "That would settle the whole thing, wouldn't it? What do you think you are--a millionaire? Talking as if that amount of money made no difference to you? Where does my sister come in? How about Ruth? You sneak her away from her home and then-----"

Kirk's lethargy left him. He flushed.

"I think that will be about all, Bannister?" he said. He spoke quietly, but his voice trembled.

But Bailey's long-dammed hatred, having at last found an outlet, was not to be checked in a moment.

"Will it? Will it? The hell it will. Let me tell you that I came here to talk straight to you, and I'm going to do it. It's about time you had your darned dime-novel romance shown up to you the way it strikes somebody else. You think you're a tremendous dashing twentieth-century Young Lochinvar, don't you? You thought you had done a pretty smooth bit of work when you sneaked Ruth away! You! You haven't enough backbone in you even to make a bluff at working to support her. You're just what my father said you were--a loafer who pretends to be an artist. You've got away with it up to now, but you've shown yourself up at last. You damned waster!"

Kirk walked to the door and flung it open.

"You're perfectly right, Bannister," he said quietly. "Everything you have said is quite true. And now would you mind going?"

"I've not finished yet."

"Yes, you have."

Bailey hesitated. The first time frenzy had left him, and he was beginning to be a little ashamed of himself for having expressed his views in a manner which, though satisfying, was, he felt, less dignified than he could have wished.

He looked at Kirk, who was standing stiffly by the door. Something in his attitude decided Bailey to leave well alone. Such had been his indignation that it was only now that for the first time it struck him that his statement of opinion had not been made without considerable bodily danger to himself. Jarred nerves had stood him in the stead of courage; but now his nerves were soothed and he saw things clearly.

He choked down what he had intended to say and walked out. Kirk closed the door softly behind him and began to pace the studio floor as he had done on that night when Ruth had fought for her life in the room upstairs.

His mind worked slowly at first. Then, as it cleared, he began to think more and more rapidly, till the thoughts leaped and ran like tongues of fire scorching him.

It was all true. That was what hurt. Every word that Bailey had flung at him had been strictly just.

He had thought himself a fine, romantic fellow. He was a waster and a loafer who pretended to be an artist. He had thrown away the little talent he had once possessed. He had behaved shamefully to Ruth, shirking his responsibilities and idling through life. He realized it now, when it was too late.

Suddenly through the chaos of his reflections there shone out clearly one coherent thought, the recollection of what Hank Jardine had offered to him. "If ever you are in a real tight corner----"

       *       *       *       *       *

His brain cleared. He sat down calmly to wait for Ruth. His mind was made up. Hank's offer was the way out, the only way out, and he must take it.