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Dennis went back to the store in a maze of hopes and fears, but hope predominated. Christine could not be indifferent and treat him as she did, if she had a particle of sincerity, and with a lover's faith he would not believe her false, though he knew her to be so faulty.
"At any rate," he said to himself, "in this new arrangement I have all the opportunity a man could ask, and if I cannot develop her plainly manifested interest into something more decisive by such companionship, I may as well despair;" and he determined to avail himself of every advantage within his reach in making the most of what he deemed a rare stroke of fortune. His greatly increased salary enabled him to dress with that taste and even elegance so pleasing to a lady's eye, and he had withal acquired that ease and grace of manner which familiarity with the best society bestows.
It is also well to tell the reader that after some hesitation Dennis had confided his feelings to his mother, and received from her the warmest sympathy. To Ethel Fleet's unworldly nature, that he should fall in love with and marry his employer's daughter seemed eminently fitting, with just a spice of beautiful romance. And it was her son's happiness and Christine's beauty that she thought of, not Mr. Ludolph's money. In truth, such was her admiration for her son, she felt that with all her wealth the young lady would receive a greater honor than she conferred. Though Dennis wrote with the partiality of a lover, he could not so portray Christine's character but that his mother felt the deepest anxiety, and often sighed in sad foreboding of serious trouble in the future.
From Mrs. Fleet's knowledge of her son's passion, Christine, though she knew it not, received another advantage of incalculable value. Dennis had painted an excellent little cabinet likeness of her, and sent it to his mother. In the quiet of the night she would sit down before that picture, and by her strong imagination summon her ideal of Christine, and then lead her directly to Christ, as parents brought their children of old. Could such prayers and faith be in vain? Faith is often sorely tried in this world, but never tried in vain.
Day after day Dennis went to Mr. Ludolph's new home during the morning hours, and Christine's spell worked with bewildering and increasing power. While she tortured him with many doubts and fears, his hope grew to be almost a certainty that he had at last made a place for himself in her heart. Sometimes the whole story of his love trembled on his lips, but she never permitted its utterance. That she determined should be reserved for the climax. He usually met her alone, but noticed that in the presence of others she was cool and undemonstrative. Mr. Ludolph rarely saw them together, and, when he did, there was nothing in his daughter's manner to awaken suspicion. This perfectly acted indifference in the presence of others, and equally well acted regard when alone, often puzzled Dennis sorely. But at last he concluded: "She is wiser than I. She knows that I am in no condition now to make proposals for her hand; therefore it is better that there should be no recognized understanding between us;" and he resolved to be as prudent as she. Then again she would so awaken his jealousy and fears that he would feel that he must know his fate--that anything was better than such torturing uncertainty.
As for Christine, two processes were going on in her mind--one that she recognized, and one that she did not.
Her artistic aims were clear and definite. In the first place she meant perfectly to master the human face as it expressed emotions, especially such as were of a tender nature; and in the second place she intended to paint a picture that in itself would make her famous. She chose a most difficult and delicate subject--of the character she had ever failed in--a declaration of love.
When Dennis began to work again in her presence, the picture was well advanced.
In a grand old hall, whose sides were decorated with armor and weapons, a young man stood pleading his cause with a lady whose hand he held. The young girl's face was so averted that only a beautiful profile was visible, but her form and attitude were grace itself. The lovers stood in an angle of the hall near an open window, through which was seen a fine landscape, a picture within a picture. But Christine meant to concentrate all her power and skill on the young knight's face. This should be eloquent with all the feeling and passion that the human face could express, and she would insure its truthfulness to life by copying life itself--the reality. Dennis Fleet was the human victim that she was offering on the altar of her ambition.
Much of the picture was merely in outline, but she finished the form and features of the suppliant in all save the expression, and this she meant to paint from his face whenever she was in the right mood and could bring matters to a crisis.
After he had been coming to the house two or three times a week for nearly a month she felt that she was ready for the final scene, and yet she dreaded it, she had staked so much hope upon it. It also provoked her to find that she was really afraid of him. His was such a strong, sincere nature, that she felt increasingly the wrong of trifling with it. In vain she tried to quiet herself by saying, "I do not care a straw for him, and he will soon get over his infatuation on discovering the truth."
But she had a lesson to learn as well as he, for as we have intimated, unrecognized as yet, there was a process going on in her mind that in time would make strange havoc in her cold philosophy. Her heart's long winter was slowly breaking up; her girlish passion, intense as it was foolish, proved that she had a heart. Everything had been against her. Everything in her experience and education, and especially in her father's strong character and prejudices, had combined to deaden and to chill her; and had these influences continued, she would undoubtedly have become as cold and hard as some whom we find in advanced life with natures like the poles, where the ice gathers year after year, but never melts.
But in Dennis Fleet she met a nature as positive as she was becoming negative. He was so warm and earnest that when she commenced to fan his love into a stronger flame for purely artistic purposes, as she vowed to herself, some sparks of the sacred fire fell on the cold altar of her own heart and slowly began to kindle.
But this awakening would not now be that of a child, but of a woman. Therefore, Mr. Ludolph, beware!
But she had yet much to learn in the hard, strange school of experience before she would truly know herself or her own needs.
Success in art, however, was still her ruling passion. And though strange misgivings annoyed and perplexed her, though her respect for Dennis daily increased, and at times a sudden pity and softness made her little hands hesitate before giving an additional wrench to the rack of uncertainty upon which she kept him; still, she would not for the world have abandoned her purpose, and such compunctions were as yet but the little back eddies of the strong current.
One day, in the latter part of August, Christine felt herself in the mood to give the finishing touch to the principal figure in her picture. The day was somewhat hazy, the light subdued and favorable for artistic work. Though she had prolonged Dennis's labors, to his secret delight and great encouragement, she could not keep him employed much longer.
She sent for him to come over in the afternoon. "Some brackets, carvings, and pictures had come for her studio, and she wished him to put them up," she said, coolly, as he entered.
He had come glowing with hope and almost assurance, for, the last time they had parted, she had dismissed him with unusual kindness. But here was one of those capricious changes again that he could not understand.
She took her seat at her easel, saying, with a nod and a smile, "I can direct you here, for I am in a mood for work this afternoon."
He bowed quietly and went on with his task. Her rather cool reception oppressed him, and the tormenting question presented itself, for the hundredth time, "Can she in any degree feel as I do?" He longed to settle the matter by plain, straightforward action.
Her maid knocked at the door, saying, "The mail, mademoiselle."
A dainty note was handed her, which seemed decidedly pleasing, and Dennis noticed as she read it that she wore on her finger a solitaire diamond that he had not seen before. His latent jealousy was aroused. She saw that her spell was working, and smiled. Soon she said: "Mr. Fleet, you seem very grave. What is the matter?"
He answered, curtly, "Nothing."
She looked at him with a pretty, pained surprise. At the same time her heart smote her. His face was so pale and thin, and indicated such real suffering, that she pitied him more than ever. But she would have suffered much herself for the sake of success, and she was not one to hesitate long over the suffering of another. She compressed her lips as she said, mentally: "Art is first, and these transient feelings are secondary. There is little in the world but that has cost some one deeply." She did not know how profound a truth this was.
After a few moments Dennis said, in a tone that had a jealous tinge, "Miss Ludolph, your correspondent seems to interest you deeply."
"And you also, I think," she replied, with an arch smile; "and you will be interested still more when you have read this;" and she offered him the note.
"I have no right--do not think me prying," said he, flushing.
"I give the right. You know a lady can give many rights--if she chooses," she added, significantly.
He looked at her eagerly.
Her eyes fell consciously, and her cheeks glowed with excitement, for she felt that the critical moment had come. But instantly her proud, resolute nature aroused as never before, and she determined to make the most of the occasion, let the consequences be what they might. Therefore she worked eagerly and watched him closely. Never had she been so conscious of power. She felt inspired, capable of placing on the canvas anything she chose. If in this mood she could succeed in bringing into his face just the expression she desired, she could catch it and fix it forever, and with it make a laurel (not a hymeneal) wreath for her own brow. But what could Dennis know of all this? To him the glowing cheek and eyes so lustrous told a different tale; and hope--sweet, exquisite, almost assured--sprang up in his heart.
And he meant that it should be assured. He would speak that day if it were possible, and know his happiness, instead of fondly believing and hoping that all was sure. Then he would be as prudent and patient as she desired. Thus Christine was destined to have her wish fulfilled.
She continued: "The note is from a special friend of yours; indeed I think you form a little mutual-admiration society, and you are spoken of, so I think you had better read it."
"I shall not read the note," said Dennis; "but you may tell me, if you choose, what you think the writer will have no objection to my knowing."
"And do you mean to suggest that you do not know who wrote the note? I can inform you that you are to be invited to a moonlight sail and musicale on the water. Is not that a chance for romance?"
"And will you go?" asked Dennis, eagerly.
"Yes, if you will," she said, in a low tone, giving him a sidelong glance.
This was too much for Dennis, the manner more than the words, and taken together they would have led any earnest man to committal. He was about to speak eagerly, but she was not quite ready.
"Moreover," she continued, quickly, while Dennis stood before her with cheeks alternately hot and pale, "this special friend who invites you will be there. Now don't pretend ignorance of her name."
"I suppose you mean Miss Winthrop," said Dennis, flushing.
"Ah, you blush, do you? Well, it is my turn to ask pardon for seeming curiosity."
He drew a few steps nearer to her, and the expression she had so longed to see came into his face. She looked at him earnestly with her whole soul in her eyes. She would photograph him on memory, if possible. For a moment or two he hesitated, embarrassed by her steady gaze, and seemingly at a loss for words. Then, in a low, deep tone he said, "You, better than any one, know that I have no cause to blush at the mention of Miss Winthrop's name."
She did not answer, but was painting rapidly. He thought this was due to natural excitement expressing itself in nervous action. But she did not discourage him, and this he felt was everything. With his heart in his eyes and tones, he said: "Oh, Christine, what is the use of wearing this transparent mask any longer? Your quick woman's eye has seen for weeks the devoted love I cherish for you. I have heard much of woman's intuitions. Perhaps you saw my love before I recognized it myself, since your grace and beauty caused it to grow unconsciously while I was your humble attendant. But, Christine, believe me, if you will but utter in words what I fondly believe I have read in your kindly glances and manner, though so delicately veiled--if you will give me the strength and rest which come of assured hope--I know that not far in the future I shall be able to place at your feet more than mere wealth. I, too, hope to be an artist, and you have been my chief inspiration. I could show you a picture now that would tell more of what I mean than can my poor words. There is a richer and happier world than you have yet known, and oh, how I have prayed that I might lead you into it!" and in words of burning eloquence he proceeded to tell the story of his love.
She heard him as in a dream. She understood his words, remembered them afterward, but so intent was she on her darling purpose that she heeded them not. His voice sounded far away, and every power of mind and body was concentrated to transfer his expression to the canvas before her. Even he, blinded as he was by his emotions, occupied by the long pent-up torrent of feeling that he was pouring into her unheeding ear, wondered at her strange, dazzling beauty and peculiar manner.
After speaking a moment or two, the blur over his eyes and the confusion of his mind began to pass away, and he was perplexed beyond measure at the way she was receiving the open declaration of his love. She was painting through it all, not with the nervous, random stroke of one who sought to hide excitement and embarrassment in occupation. She was working earnestly, consciously, with precision, and, what was strangest of all, she seemed so intent upon his face that his words, which would have been such music to any woman that loved, were apparently unheard. He stopped, but the break in his passionate flow of language was unnoted.
"Christine, listen to me!" he cried, in an agony of fear and perplexity. The tone of his appeal might have stirred a marble bosom to pity, but she only raised her left hand deprecatingly as if warding off an interruption, while she worked with intense eagerness with her right.
"Christine!" a frown contracted her brow for a second, but she worked on.
He looked at her as if fearing she had lost her reason, but there was no madness in her swift, intelligent strokes. Then like a flash the thought came to him: "It is my face, not myself, that she wants! This, then, has been the secret of her new hope as an artist. She would not feel, as I told her she must, but she would call out and copy my emotion; and this scene, which means life or death to me, is to her but a lesson in art, and I am no more than the human subject under the surgeon's knife. But surely no anatomist is so cruel as to put in his lancet before the man is dead."
Every particle of color receded from his face, and he watched her manner for the confirmation of his thought.
Her face was indeed a study. A beautiful smile parted her lips, her eyes glowed with the exultation of assured and almost accomplished success, and she looked like an inspired priestess at a Greek oracle.
But a bitterness beyond words was filling his heart.
A few more skilful strokes, and she threw down her brush, crying in ecstatic tones, "Eureka! Eureka!" as she stood before the painting in rapt admiration. In an instant he stood by her side. With all the pride of triumph she pointed to the picture, and said: "Criticise that, if you can! Deny that there is soul, life, feeling there, if you dare! Is that painting but a 'beautiful corpse'?"
Dennis saw a figure and features suggesting his own, pleading with all the eloquence of true love before the averted face of the maiden in the picture. It was indeed a triumph, having all the power of the reality.
He passed his hand quickly across his forehead, as if to repel some terrible delusion, while yet he whispered its reality to himself, in silent, despairing confession: "Ah, my God! How cold she must be when she can see any one look like that, and yet copy the expression as from a painted face upon the wall!"
Then, his own pride and indignation rising, he determined at once to know the truth; whether he held any place in her heart, or whether the picture was all, and he nothing.
Drawing a step nearer, as if to examine more closely, he seized a brush of paint and drew it over the face that had cost both him and Christine so much, and then turned and looked at her.
For a moment she stood paralyzed, so great seemed the disaster. Then she turned on him in fury. "How dare you!" she exclaimed.
Only equal anger, and the consciousness of right, could have sustained any man under the lightning of her eyes.
"Rather, let me ask, how dare you?" he replied, in the deep, concentrated voice of passion; and lover and lady stood before the ruined picture with blazing eyes. In the same low, stern voice he continued, "I see the secret of your artistic hope now, Miss Ludolph, but permit me to say that you have made your first and last success, and there in that black stain, most appropriately black, is the result."
She looked as if she could have torn him to atoms.
"You have been false," he continued. "You have acted a lie before me for weeks. You have deceived in that which is most sacred, and with sacrilegious hands have trifled with that which every true man regards as holy."
She trembled beneath his stern, accusing words. Conscience echoed them, anger and courage were fast deserting her in the presence of the aroused and more powerful spirit of her wronged lover. But she said, petulantly, "Nonsense! You know well that half the ladies of the city would have flirted with you from mere vanity and love of power; my motive was infinitely beyond this."
Until now this had almost seemed sufficient reason to excuse her action, but she distrusted it even to loathing as she saw the look of scorn come out on his noble face.
"And is that your best plea for falsehood? A moment since I loved you with a devotion that you will never receive again. But now I despise you."
"Sir!" she cried, her face scarlet with shame and anger, "leave this room!"
"Yes, in a moment, and never again to enter it while Christine Ludolph is as false in character as she is beautiful in person. But before I go, you, in your pride and luxury, shall hear the truth for once. Not only have you been false, but you have been what no true woman ever can be--cruel as death. Your pencil has been a stiletto with which you have slowly felt for my heart. You have dipped your brush in human suffering as if it were common paint. Giotto stabbed a man and mercifully took him off by a few quick pangs, that he might paint his dying look. You, more cruel, accomplish your purpose by slow, remorseless torture. Merciful Heaven only knows what I have suffered since you smiled and frowned on me by turns, but I felt that if I could only win your love I would gladly endure all. You falsely made me believe that I had won it, and yet all the while you were dissecting my heart, as a surgeon might a living subject. And now what have you to offer to solace the bitterness of coming years? Do you not know that such deeds make men bad, faithless, devilish? Never dream of success till you are changed utterly. Only the noble in deed and in truth can reach high and noble art."
She sat before the disfigured picture with her face bowed in her hands.
She thought he was gone, but still remained motionless like one doomed. A few moments passed and she was startled by hearing his voice again. It was no longer harsh and stern, but sad, grave, and pitiful. "Miss Ludolph, may God forgive you."
She trembled. Pride and better feeling were contending for the mastery. After a few moments she sprang up and reached out her hands; but he was gone now in very truth.
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