The Chicago papers were still filled with criticism of his work and his theories, and this discussion, as well as the appearance of his portrait in the magazines, had made of him a very exalted person in little Mrs. Haney's eyes, and the interest he took in her was too subtly flattering not to affect her. He seemed fond of the Captain, too, and often joined them in their trips about the city, and the fellows who had known Humiston in Paris and who did not know Bertha nodded knowingly. "Jerry's amusing himself, as usual. I wonder who she is?"
He explained his poverty one day as he sat with her in the little gallery where his paintings were hung. "The fact is, while other men have been painting to order and doing 'stunts' for the Salon, I've gone on refining, seeking new shades, new allurements, subordinating line to color, story to harmony, till my work is sublimated beyond my public. The people that bought my things once can't follow me; it is only now and then that a man, or a woman feels what I'm after —and so I live. I hold all things beautiful to paint, America does not."
He liked her all the better because she did not try to say what she thought of his pictures, and when she insisted on taking one of them home he quickly stopped her. "I'm not asking you to take pity on me," he sharply said. And in this lay the subtlest touch of flattery he had yet used: the idea that she, an ignorant mountain girl, could be accused of patronizing a man so distinguished, so gifted as he, moved her in spite of all warnings. Why should she not use her money to help this wonderful artist ?
She insisted on a picture, and asked him to select one for her. "I've got a big house out in the Springs, and I'd like something of yours."
"Not out of this collection," he declared. "These are not the ones on which my fame rests. The ones that represent me are in the cellar."
Her eyes were wide in question. "What do you mean by that?"
"American dealers won't include my best things in the exhibit—-they are too 'direct' They are stored over here in a warehouse. I'd like to show them to you. Will you come?" he asked, with eager eyes.
And she, with a sense of being distinguished above the great public, consented. Humiston rose animatedly. "Let's go over and see them now."
His gentle camaraderie, his eagerness, touched Bertha, and when he took her arm to help her into the elevator or to make sure she did not stumble at the crossing she was stirred—not as Ben's hand had moved her, but her blood nevertheless palpably quickened. Was it not wonderful that she, so lately from the mountains, should be walking here in the midst of the thronging multitudes of a great city street in the company of one of the chief artists of the world ?
Humiston, crafty, cruel, unscrupulous, returned to his abuse of the city, and explained to her that American dealers had no real appreciation of art. "They sell anything that will sell, any cheap daub, and yet they dared to refuse to exhibit my best things! It was the same in Pittsburg and Buffalo; they're all alike. But what can you expect of these densely material towns ? Beauty means only prettiness to them.
The salesman of the shop, accustomed to seeing Humiston pass in and out with friends, paid no special heed to the painter as he led Bertha into the farther room, where a few of his pictures hung among a dozen Others. No one was in the gallery, and just as she was wondering where the other paintings could be, he opened a door (which was cut out of the wall and partly concealed by paintings), and smilingly said: "Here is the inner temple. Enter."
She obeyed with a little hesitation, for the storeroom was not well lighted, and she had a wild bird's distrust of dark, enclosing walls.
Humiston shut the door behind him and followed her, plaintively saying: "Isn't it hard lines to have to bring my friends into this hole to show my masterpieces ?" And by this she inferred that there was nothing unusual in the experience.
It was a long, bare hall, filled with boxes and littered with bits of excelsior, and Bertha looked about her uneasily while Humiston bent over some canvases stacked on the floor. He seemed to be selecting one with care. An electric lamp was swinging from the ceiling, and under it stood a large easel, and on this he placed a canvas, and, stepping back with eyes fixed on her, said with spirit: "This is one of my best. It was in the new Salon—here is the number. And yet it may not be exhibited in this rotten town."
Bertha inwardly recoiled from the canvas, for it was a painting of a nude figure of a girl at the bath. The critics had said, "It is naked, rather than nude," and the dealers objected to it on this ground, and to the Western girl it was both shocking and ugly. Before she had caught her breath he continued, in a tone that was at once a seduction and a defence: "There is nothing more beautiful in the world than the female form; it is the flower of flowers. Why should it not be painted?" And then, while still he argued for the return of the Greek's love of beauty, covering his moral depravity with the mantle of the philosopher, he placed another canvas before her—something so unrefined, so animal, so destructive of womanly modesty and of all reserve, that any one looking upon it would instantly know that the man who had painted it was a degenerate demon—an associate of dissolute models, an anarchist in the world of women. It was fit only for the banquet-halls of the damned.
Bertha stared at it—fascinated by the sense of the tempter's nearness. It was as if a satyr had suddenly revealed his lawless soul to her. Her thinking for an instant chained her feet, and her silence emboldened him.
Even as she turned to flee she felt his arm about her waist, his breath upon her cheek. " Don't go!" he pleaded, and in his eyes was the same look she had seen in the face of Charles Haney. At last he stood revealed. His artist soul could stoop as low in purpose as a drunken tramp. Beating him off with her strong hands, she ran down the hall and burst into the brilliantly lighted exhibition room such a picture of affrighted, outraged girlhood that the salesman stared upon her in wonder. His look of surprise warned Bertha of her danger. Composing herself by tremendous effort of the will, she closed the door and walked slowly out into the street, her brain in a tumult of anger and shame.
It seemed at the moment as if every man she had ever known was a brute-demon seeking to destroy her. She understood now the reason for the great painter's flattering deference to her opinion. From the first he had sought to blind her. His ways were subtler than those of Charles Haney and his like, but his soul was no higher; it was indeed more ignoble, for he was of those who claim to dispense learning and light. Pretending to add beauty to the world, he was ready to feed himself at the cost of a woman's soul. She recalled Mrs. Moss' hints about his life in Paris, and understood at last that he had wilfully misread her homage and trust. A realization of this perfidy filled her with a fury of hate and disgust. Was Ben Fordyce like all the rest ? Did his candor, his sweetness of smile, but veil another mode of approach? Was his kiss as vile in its disloyalty, his embrace as remorseless in its design ?
She walked back along the shining avenue to her hotel with drooping head. She knew the worst of Humiston now. She burned with helpless wrath as she dwelt upon his assumptions of superiority. She hated the whole glittering, unresting, lavish city at the moment, and her soul longed for the silence of the peaks to the west. She turned to her husband as one who seeks a tower of refuge in time of war.