FOR the next two months Mr. Hamlin was professionally engaged in San Francisco and Marysville, and the transfer of Sophy from the school to her new home was effected without his supervision. From letters received by him during that interval, it seemed that the young girl had entered energetically upon her new career, and that her artistic efforts were crowned with success. There were a few Indian-ink sketches, studies made at school and expanded in her own “studio,” which were eagerly bought as soon as exhibited in the photographer’s window,—notably by a florid and inartistic bookkeeper, an old negro woman, a slangy stable boy, a gorgeously dressed and painted female, and the bearded second officer of a river steamboat, without hesitation and without comment. This, as Mr. Hamlin intelligently pointed out in a letter to Sophy, showed a general and diversified appreciation on the part of the public. Indeed, it emboldened her, in the retouching of photographs, to offer sittings to the subjects, and to undertake even large crayon copies, which had resulted in her getting so many orders that she was no longer obliged to sell her drawings, but restricted herself solely to profitable portraiture. The studio became known; even its quaint surroundings added to the popular interest, and the originality and independence of the young painter helped her to a genuine success. All this she wrote to Jack. Meantime Hannibal had assured him that he had carried out his instructions by informing “Missy” of his old master’s real occupation and reputation, but that the young lady hadn’t “took no notice.” Certainly there was no allusion to it in her letters, nor any indication in her manner. Mr. Hamlin was greatly, and it seemed to him properly, relieved. And he looked forward with considerable satisfaction to an early visit to old Hannibal’s laundry.
It must be confessed, also, that another matter, a simple affair of gallantry, was giving him an equally unusual, unexpected, and absurd annoyance, which he had never before permitted to such trivialities. In a recent visit to a fashionable watering-place, he had attracted the attention of what appeared to be a respectable, matter of fact woman, the wife of a recently elected rural Senator. She was, however, singularly beautiful, and as singularly cold. It was perhaps this quality, and her evident annoyance at some unreasoning prepossession which Jack’s fascinations exercised upon her, that heightened that reckless desire for risk and excitement which really made up the greater part of his gallantry. Nevertheless, as was his habit, he had treated her always with a charming unconsciousness of his own attentions, and a frankness that seemed inconsistent with any insidious approach. In fact, Mr. Hamlin seldom made love to anybody, but permitted it to be made to him with good-humored deprecation and cheerful skepticism. He had once, quite accidentally, while riding, come upon her when she had strayed from her own riding party, and had behaved with such unexpected circumspection and propriety, not to mention a certain thoughtful abstraction,—it was the day he had received Sophy’s letter,—that she was constrained to make the first advances. This led to a later innocent rendezvous, in which Mrs. Camperly was impelled to confide to Mr. Hamlin the fact that her husband had really never understood her. Jack listened with an understanding and sympathy quickened by long experience of such confessions. If anything had ever kept him from marriage it was this evident incompatibility of the conjugal relations with a just conception of the feminine soul and its aspirations.
And so eventually this yearning for sympathy dragged Mrs. Camperly’s clean skirts and rustic purity after Jack’s heels into various places and various situations not so clean, rural, or innocent; made her miserably unhappy in his absence, and still more miserably happy in his presence; impelled her to lie, cheat, and bear false witness; forced her to listen with mingled shame and admiration to narrow criticism of his faults, from natures so palpably inferior to his own that her moral sense was confused and shaken; gave her two distinct lives, but so unreal and feverish that, with a recklessness equal to his own, she was at last ready to merge them both into his. For the first time in his life Mr. Hamlin found himself bored at the beginning of an affair, actually hesitated, and suddenly disappeared from San Francisco.
He turned up a few days later at Aunt Chloe’s door, with various packages of presents and quite the air of a returning father of a family, to the intense delight of that lady and to Sophy’s proud gratification. For he was lost in a profuse, boyish admiration of her pretty studio, and in wholesome reverence for her art and her astounding progress. They were also amused at his awe and evident alarm at the portraits of two ladies, her latest sitters, that were still on the easels, and, in consideration of his half-assumed, half-real bashfulness, they turned their faces to the wall. Then his quick, observant eye detected a photograph of himself on the mantel.
“What’s that?” he asked suddenly.
Sophy and Aunt Chloe exchanged meaning glances. Sophy had, as a surprise to Jack, just completed a handsome crayon portrait of himself from an old photograph furnished by Hannibal, and the picture was at that moment in the window of her former patron,—the photographer.
“Oh, dat! Miss Sophy jus’ put it dar fo’ de lady sitters to look at to gib ’em a pleasant ’spresshion,” said Aunt Chloe, chuckling.
Mr. Hamlin did not laugh, but quietly slipped the photograph into his pocket. Yet, perhaps, it had not been recognized.
Then Sophy proposed to have luncheon in the studio; it was quite “Bohemian” and fashionable, and many artists did it. But to her great surprise Jack gravely objected, preferring the little parlor of Aunt Chloe, the vine-fringed windows, and the heavy respectable furniture. He thought it was profaning the studio, and then—anybody might come in. This unusual circumspection amused them, and was believed to be part of the boyish awe with which Jack regarded the models, the draperies, and the studies on the walls. Certain it was that he was much more at his ease in the parlor, and when he and Sophy were once more alone at their meal, although he ate nothing, he had regained all his old naïveté. Presently he leaned forward and placed his hand fraternally on her arm. Sophy looked up with an equally frank smile.
“You know I promised to let bygones be bygones, eh? Well, I intended it, and more,—I intended to make ’em so. I told you I’d never speak to you again of that man who tried to run you off, and I intended that no one else should. Well, as he was the only one who could talk—that meant him. But the cards are out of my hands; the game’s been played without me. For he’s dead!”
The girl started. Mr. Hamlin’s hand passed caressingly twice or thrice along her sleeve with a peculiar gentleness that seemed to magnetize her.
“Dead,” he repeated slowly. “Shot in San Diego by another man, but not by me. I had him tracked as far as that, and had my eyes on him, but it wasn’t my deal. But there,” he added, giving her magnetized arm a gentle and final tap as if to awaken it, “he’s dead, and so is the whole story. And now we’ll drop it forever.”
The girl’s downcast eyes were fixed on the table. “But there’s my sister,” she murmured.
“Did she know you went with him?” asked Jack.
“No; but she knows I ran away.”
“Well, you ran away from home to study how to be an artist, don’t you see? Some day she’ll find out you are one; that settles the whole thing.”
They were both quite cheerful again when Aunt Chloe returned to clear the table, especially Jack, who was in the best spirits, with preternaturally bright eyes and a somewhat rare color on his cheeks. Aunt Chloe, who had noticed that his breathing was hurried at times, watched him narrowly, and when later he slipped from the room, followed him into the passage. He was leaning against the wall. In an instant the negress was at his side.
“De Lawdy Gawd, Marse Jack, not agin?”
He took his handkerchief, slightly streaked with blood, from his lips and said faintly, “Yes, it came on—on the boat; but I thought the d——d thing was over. Get me out of this, quick, to some hotel, before she knows it. You can tell her I was called away. Say that”—but his breath failed him, and when Aunt Chloe caught him like a child in her strong arms he could make no resistance.
In another hour he was unconscious, with two doctors at his bedside, in the little room that had been occupied by Sophy. It was a sharp attack, but prompt attendance and skillful nursing availed; he rallied the next day, but it would be weeks, the doctors said, before he could be removed in safety. Sophy was transferred to the parlor, but spent most of her time at Jack’s bedside with Aunt Chloe, or in the studio with the door open between it and the bedroom. In spite of his enforced idleness and weakness, it was again a singularly pleasant experience to Jack; it amused him to sometimes see Sophy at her work through the open door, and when sitters came,—for he had insisted on her continuing her duties as before, keeping his invalid presence in the house a secret,—he had all the satisfaction of a mischievous boy in rehearsing to Sophy such of the conversation as could be overheard through the closed door, and speculating on the possible wonder and chagrin of the sitters had they discovered him. Even when he was convalescent and strong enough to be helped into the parlor and garden, he preferred to remain propped up in Sophy’s little bedroom. It was evident, however, that this predilection was connected with no suggestion nor reminiscence of Sophy herself. It was true that he had once asked her if it didn’t make her “feel like home.” The decided negative from Sophy seemed to mildly surprise him. “That’s odd,” he said; “now all these fixings and things,” pointing to the flowers in a vase, the little hanging shelf of books, the knickknacks on the mantel-shelf, and the few feminine ornaments that still remained, “look rather like home to me.”
So the days slipped by, and although Mr. Hamlin was soon able to walk short distances, leaning on Sophy’s arm, in the evening twilight, along the river bank, he was still missed from the haunts of dissipated men. A good many people wondered, and others, chiefly of the more irrepressible sex, were singularly concerned. Apparently one of these, one sultry afternoon, stopped before the shadowed window of a photographer’s; she was a handsome, well-dressed woman, yet bearing a certain countrylike simplicity that was unlike the restless smartness of the more urban promenaders who passed her. Nevertheless she had halted before Mr. Hamlin’s picture, which Sophy had not yet dared to bring home and present to him, and was gazing at it with rapt and breathless attention. Suddenly she shook down her veil and entered the shop. Could the proprietor kindly tell her if that portrait was the work of a local artist?
The proprietor was both proud and pleased to say that it was! It was the work of a Miss Brown, a young girl student; in fact, a mere schoolgirl one might say. He could show her others of her pictures.
Thanks. But could he tell her if this portrait was from life?
No doubt; the young lady had a studio, and he himself had sent her sitters.
And perhaps this was the portrait of one that he had sent her?
No; but she was very popular and becoming quite the fashion. Very probably this gentleman, who, he understood, was quite a public character, had heard of her, and selected her on that account.
The lady’s face flushed slightly. The photographer continued. The picture was not for sale; it was only there on exhibition; in fact it was to be returned to-morrow.
To the sitter?
He couldn’t say. It was to go back to the studio. Perhaps the sitter would be there.
And this studio? Could she have its address?
The man wrote a few lines on his card. Perhaps the lady would be kind enough to say that he had sent her. The lady, thanking him, partly lifted her veil to show a charming smile, and gracefully withdrew. The photographer was pleased. Miss Brown had evidently got another sitter, and, from that momentary glimpse of her face, it would be a picture as beautiful and attractive as the man’s. But what was the odd idea that struck him? She certainly reminded him of some one! There was the same heavy hair, only this lady’s was golden, and she was older and more mature. And he remained for a moment with knitted brows musing over his counter.
Meantime the fair stranger was making her way towards the river suburb. When she reached Aunt Chloe’s cottage, she paused, with the unfamiliar curiosity of a newcomer, over its quaint and incongruous exterior. She hesitated a moment also when Aunt Chloe appeared in the doorway, and, with a puzzled survey of her features, went upstairs to announce a visitor. There was the sound of hurried shutting of doors, of the moving of furniture, quick footsteps across the floor, and then a girlish laugh that startled her. She ascended the stairs breathlessly to Aunt Chloe’s summons, found the negress on the landing, and knocked at a door which bore a card marked “Studio.” The door opened; she entered; there were two sudden outcries that might have come from one voice.
The woman had seized Sophy by the wrist and dragged her to the window. There was a haggard look of desperation in her face akin to that which Hamlin had once seen in her sister’s eyes on the boat, as she said huskily: “I did not know you were here. I came to see the woman who had painted Mr. Hamlin’s portrait. I did not know it was you. Listen! Quick! answer me one question. Tell me—I implore you—for the sake of the mother who bore us both!—tell me—is this the man for whom you left home?”
“No! No! A hundred times no!”
Then there was a silence. Mr. Hamlin from the bedroom heard no more.
An hour later, when the two women opened the studio door, pale but composed, they were met by the anxious and tearful face of Aunt Chloe.
“Lawdy Gawd, Missy,—but dey done gone!—bofe of ’em!”
“Who is gone?” demanded Sophy, as the woman beside her trembled and grew paler still.
“Marse Jack and dat fool nigger, Hannibal.”
“Mr. Hamlin gone?” repeated Sophy incredulously. “When? Where?”
“Jess now—on de down boat. Sudden business. Didn’t like to disturb yo’ and yo’ friend. Said he’d write.”
“But he was ill—almost helpless,” gasped Sophy.
“Dat’s why he took dat old nigger. Lawdy, Missy, bress yo’ heart. Dey both knows aich udder, shuah! It’s all right. Dar now, dar dey are; listen.”
She held up her hand. A slow pulsation, that might have been the dull, labored beating of their own hearts, was making itself felt throughout the little cottage. It came nearer,—a deep regular inspiration that seemed slowly to fill and possess the whole tranquil summer twilight. It was nearer still—was abreast of the house—passed—grew fainter and at last died away like a deep-drawn sigh. It was the down boat, that was now separating Mr. Hamlin and his protégée, even as it had once brought them together.