He had forgotten where be sat, but he was not neglecting his hostess. He took a satanic satisfaction in seeing her lovely eyes widen and glow as he went on. Subtly flattering her by including her among the very few who could understand his ideals, he seemed to draw her apart to his side—appealing to her for support against the coarse and foolish hosts represented by the Mosses, while Marshall Haney sat in a kind of stupor, his eyes alone speaking, as if to ask: "What the divil is the little man with the cough so hot about ?"
Moss, accustomed to Humiston's savage diatribes, roared out objections or laughed him to scorn, while Mrs. Moss tried her best to turn the mad artist's mind upon more suitable subjects. He had been deeply hurt and financially distressed by the failure of his exhibits in Pittsburg and Chicago, and was now taking it out on his friends. His passion, his bitter, vengeful cry against the ignorant masses of the world was something Bertha had read about, but never felt; but she quivered now with the half-disclosed fury of the disappointed austere soul.
Could it be possible that this savage man, so worn and ill, had painted those dim, vague pictures of flowerlike girls whose limbs were involved in blossoming vines ?
He concluded at last: "The only place in the world to-day for an artist is Paris. In no other city can he live his own life in frank fulness, and find patrons who see the subtlest meaning of a line."
Bertha was tired of all this—mentally weary and confused; and she felt very grateful to Mrs. Moss, who came to the rescue the moment Humiston paused.
"There, Mrs. Haney, that is the end of Professor Jerry Spoopendyke's lecture on the undesirability of America as a place of residence—for him. Of course, he don't mind selling his pictures just to enlighten our night of ignorance, but as for going to Sunday-school or keeping the decalogue, that's our job."
Humiston had the grace to smile. "I beg youi pardon, Mrs. Haney, I have been a fool. But that monkey over there—Joe Moss—provoked me with his accursed heresies about the democracy of art. Art has no democracy, and democracy will never have an art—"
"There, there!" warned Moss, "you said all that before."
The painter wrenched himself away and turned to Bertha. '" You are coming to New York, Mrs. Haney ?"
"I don't know," she said. "We may."
"If you do, don't fail to let me know. I would like to see you."
"All right," said Bertha, "I'll send you a line." And her frank smile made him sorry to say good-bye even for the day.
As Mart was going up the elevator he sighed and said: "It takes all kinds of people to make up a world —Mr. Hummockstone is wan of the t'others. He has a grouch agin the universe. Sure but he's been housin' a gnawin' serpent. How 'twill all end I dunno."
When alone in her room, Bertha's mind again reverted to Ben Fordyce. As she compared him with Humiston, he seemed handsomer and more boyishly frank than ever. What did Joe Moss mean by calling Mr. Humiston "blase\" She had seen that word in novels and it always meant something wicked. How could this weary, sick man be wicked? She pitied him and wished to help him. "Why should he take so much interest in me ? He don't have to. Of course the Mosses are nice to me on Congdon's account, but why does this great artist want me to come to his studio in New York ? He talks poor, so maybe he wants me to buy some of his pictures." That her money was a lure for wasps she did not yet realize. That the waiters and clerks buzzed round her because she was rich, she knew; but that these men, who talked of beauty and the higher life, could flatter her with attentions with a base motive was incredible.
She was shrewd as her Yankee forbears, but she was also an idealist, and these artist folk now seemed to her the highest types she had ever known or was likely to know. She felt the mystery and the power in Humiston's personality, and his bitter and rebellious, almost blasphemous, words were counterpoised by his paintings, which she acknowledged to be beautiful— too beautiful for her to comprehend. He looked like a man of sorrow and weary of battle, and she longed to know more about him. When he was not fierce he was melancholy; evidently his life had been a failure. "Why shouldn't I buy some of his pictures?" she asked herself.
Hitherto the answer to any such question had been, "Can we afford it ?" but now another and deeper query came in answer, like an echo: "Is it right to spend Mart Haney's money? I am only his trained nurse, not his wife," and she now knew that she could not be his wife. She shrank from the weight of his hand, and each day made clearer the wide spaces of years, of family, of ideals, which lay between them. The kiss Ben Fordyce had pressed upon her lips had brought this revelation. But of this she was not yet aware; she was only conscious of a growing dread of the future. Her duties as his nurse were lightening. Lucius, indeed, now took many of her tasks upon himself, and she no longer helped him with his shoes or coat, and, what was still more significant, she could not calmly think of going back to these wifely services.
She dwelt treacherously on Haney's own admission: that she had been in a sense entrapped. He had believed himself a dying man at the time, and she had been too excited, too exalted by the lurid romance of the scene to be clear about anything save the wish and the will to save him; and now she knew that at bottom of all her willingness to serve him lay the consciousness that he was on his death-bed. Afterwards he had been to her only a big-hearted, generous friend, in need of love and companionship. This understanding had made it easy for her to prepare his meals, to help him, as a nurse would help him, to dress and undress. She had lost all of the fear and much of the admiration in which she used to greet him as he swung into the office of her little hotel. He had become to her an invalid, a child to be jollied and humored, and yet respected; for no one could have been kinder or more scrupulously just than he. And it was the recollection of all his acts of self-sacrifice and loving patience which gave her assurance that he would never require obedience, though he might sue for it.
Her danger lay in herself. "If he does ask me to be his real wife—then I must either agree or leave. It won't be right for me to take all these benefits unless—"
And with this thought, the big house in the Springs, the sleek horses, their shining carriages, the auto-car, her dresses, the service of the big hotel, and the consideration her husband's money gave to her, all assumed a new and corrupting lustre. She was growing accustomed to luxury and the thought of giving it up made her shiver like one who faces a plunge into a dark night and an icy river. Besides, her sacrifice would involve others. Her mother, her brother, were already roundly ensnared in Mart's bounty.
Her head was aching with it all, when a comforting thought came to her. It was not necessary to decide it at that moment, and with a sigh of relief she threw it aside and sat down to write a letter to her mother.
"I ought to have written before, but I've been jumped right into the middle of things here. The letters Frank Congdon gave me took me into an artistic bunch about as gay and queer as Frank is, but they've been mighty nice to me. I've been setting for my bust to Mr. Moss, who is a sculptor. He has a big studio clear on the top of one of the tallest blocks here and has some dandy lamps and things. I've bought some to bring back. I met a Mr. Humiston there from New York, and he made a sketch of me— wants me to see his studio in New York. I don't know whether I'll go on or let Mart go with Lucius. Lucius is all right—I don't see how I got on without him. He knows everything. I wish I had half the education he's got. He's up on all the society ways and puts me on. For instance, he told me the nice thing would be to give a dinner to this artist push and to the people that Dorothy give me a letter to, and I'm going to do it. Lucius will look out for the whole thing. You should see the way the waiters tend. I reckon Lucius has told 'em we're made of money. I'm afraid we're getting spoilt, Muzz. It would be pretty tough to go back to the hotel now, wouldn't it ?
"We went to see Mart's sister, Fanny. Her house was a sight. It was clean enough, but littered—well, litter is no name for it—but she's a good old thing and so is McArdle. He sat and looked at us the whole time like a turkey blind in one eye—never said a word the whole time but 'pass the p-taties.' I liked him though. He's a kind of sculptor, too—makes patterns for all these little acorns and leaves and do-funnies on stoves. They've got forty-'leven children and need help and I'm perfectly willing Mart should help 'em. We're looking up houses now. He's going to buy a place for 'em on the west side. Wednesday night I went to see the Doctor Brents, Dorothy's friends. They had a dinner—very nice, but they all kind o' sat 'round and waited for us to perform. I guess they thought we were mountain lions. But they didn't make much out o' me. They was one chap there with goggles who looked at Mart like an undertaker. He's a scientific doctor—one of these fellers that invent new ways of doing things. His name is Halliday. I liked Dr. Brent pretty well—but Mrs. Brent only so-so. The doctor wants to 'dagnose' Mart's case—says it won't cost a cent. We all went to a show at night and the Captain was just about petered to a point. He's better though. The lower altitude helps his circulation. I guess his heart is affected. He's afraid now he won't ever be able to go back to the mines. He wants to slide on to New York and see his father and wants me to go—but I'd rather come home—I'm homesick for the hills. They're nice to me here—but I want to see the old Peak once more. Tell" (here she wrote "Ben" and blotted it) "tell Mr. Fordyce that we're all right and to keep us posted every day. We see by the papers that the mine-owners are going to throw the unions out of business. If they try that they'll be war again. We'll be home soon—or at least I will. I'm getting home-sicker every minute as I write."
She added a postscript. "Don't show my letters to any one. I wish I'd 'a' liad a little more schooling."