LOFTY as Jerome Humiston talked, and poetic as ^his face seemed to Bertha Haney, he was at heart infinitely more destructive than any man she had ever known; for he took a satanic delight in proving that all women were alike in their frailty. He had reached also that period of decay wherein the libertine demands novelty — where struggle is essential, and to conquer easily is to fail of the joy of victory.
He, too, had rushed to the conclusion that this girl had married an old and broken gambler for his money, and that she was of those to be easily won. Her air of demure reserve piqued him—pleased him. "She is no silly kitten," he mentally remarked, after their second meeting. "She's in for a big career. With beauty and youth and barrels of money she will go far, and I will be her guide—unless I have lost my cunning. She will share her fortune with me some day, and I will teach her to live."
He met her at the door of his studio next day with a grave and tender smile. "I'm glad you've come," he said, "but I'll have to confess that I have very little to show you here. My pictures are all down at the gallery, and some of them not yet hung. Next week they will all be in place. But sit down while I boil some tea. My friends who own this workshop are out; they'll be in soon."
"I don't believe I can stay to-day. The Captain is below."
"Please do sit down for a moment. I'll be hurt if you don't."
The studio was a big bare barn of a place with a few broad canvases upon the walls—not a bit like Humiston; and he explained that his stay in America being short, he could not afford to have a studio of his own. "I'm glad you came. You must let me take you to see my 'show' next week. Your fresh, young, Western eyes are just what I need." This was false, for he was impatient of all criticism. "I need comfort," he added, wearily smiling. "I didn't sell enough in the West to pay my railway fare."
He seemed ill as well as sad, and Bertha felt sorry for him. "Won't you come with us for a ride?"
"I'd rather have you stay and talk with me."
" Oh, I can't do that! The Captain is waiting for me. He said to bring you."
"But I don't want to go. I hate automobiles. I hate seeing sights I despise this town. I've a grouch against everything in America—except you. Let me go down and tell the Captain to take his spin alone."
"No, no," she sharply said. "I keep my word. I said I'd be back in a few minutes, and I'm going."
He sighed resignedly. "Very well; but you'll let me come to see you?"
"Why, cert! Come to dinner any day. We don't browse around much outside the hotel. We're mostly always feeding at six."
"I'll come, and you must not fail to let me show you my pictures."
"Sure thing! I want to buy one to take home with me.
He assumed great candor. "I won't say that your ability to buy one of my pictures is not of interest to me, for it is; but quite aside from that, there is something in you that appeals to me. You make me think better of the West—of America. I feel that you will find something in my pictures which the critics miss." Then, with mournful abruptness, he added: "No doubt Joe told you of my unhappy marriage—"
"No, he didn't."
"My wife cares nothing for my work. She takes no interest in anything but the frippery side of life. That's what appeals to me in you—you are so aspiring. I feel that you have such wonderful possibilities. You would spur a man to big things."
They were both standing as if he had forgotten where he was, and she, embarrassed but fascinated by his words, and especially held by his voice, dared not make a motion till he released her. He looked round him. "I don't wonder you dislike this room; it's horribly cold and depressing to me. I can't work here. I wish you could see my den in Paris. Perhaps you will let me show it to you some day. All my happiest days have been spent in France. I am more French than American now."
He took her hand again, and with a return to his studiedly cheerful manner called her to witness that she had promised to come to see his paintings. "And please remember that I am going to take you at your word and dine with you—perhaps this very night."
"All right, come along," she replied, and went away filled with wonder at the familiar, almost humble attitude he had assumed towards her.
He did indeed dine with them that night, and quite won the Captain to a belief in him. "Come again," he heartily said. And the great artist feelingly answered: " I mean to, for, strange to say, I am almost as lonesome in this big town as anybody could be." This was a lie, but Haney's sympathy was roused. "There'll always be an empty chair for you," he repeated, with a feeling that he, too, was encouraging art.
Humiston pursued this game with singular and joyous skill. He talked of the West and of politics with the Captain, and of love and art and his essentially lonely life to Bertha. He returned often to the wish that they might meet in Paris. "A trip abroad would do you infinite good," he insisted. "What you need is three years of life in Paris. With your beauty and money, and, above all, with your personal magnetism, you could reign like a queen. I wonder that you don't go. It would be worth more to you than any other possible schooling. I don't know of anything in this world that would give me greater pleasure than to show you Paris."
Bertha's silence in face of these approaches deceived him. The throbbing of her bosom, the fall of her eyelashes, were due to instinctive distrust of him. That he was more dangerous than the rough miners and cowboys of the West she could not believe, and yet she drew back in growing fear of one who openly claimed the right to plow athwart all the barriers of law and custom. His mind's flight was like that of the eagle—now rising to the sun in exultation, now falling to the gray sea to slay. At times she felt a kind of gratitude that he should be willing to sit beside her and talk — he, so skilled, so learned, so famous.