Read CHAPTER III of The Common Law, free online book, by Robert W. Chambers, on ReadCentral.com.

One day toward the middle of June Valerie did not arrive on time at the studio.  She had never before been late.

About two o’clock Sam Ogilvy sauntered in, a skull pipe in his mouth, his hair rumpled: 

“It’s that damn mermaid of mine,” he said, “can’t you come up and look at her and tell me what’s the trouble, Kelly?”

“Not now.  Who’s posing?”

“Rita.  She’s in a volatile humour, too ­fidgets; denies fidgeting; reproaches me for making her keep quiet; says I draw like a bum chimney ­no wonder my work’s rotten!  Besides, she’s in a tub of water, wearing that suit of fish-scales I had made for Violet Cliland, and she says it’s too tight and she’s tired of the job, anyway.  Fancy my mental condition.”

“Oh, she won’t throw you down.  Rita is a good sport,” said Neville.

“I hope so.  It’s an important picture.  Really, Kelly, it’s great stuff ­a still, turquoise-tinted pool among wet rocks; ebb tide; a corking little mermaid caught in a pool left by the receding waves ­all tones and subtle values,” he declared, waving his arm.

“Don’t paint things in the air with your thumb,” said Neville, coldly.  “No wonder Rita is nervous.”

“Rita is nervous,” said Ogilvy, “because she’s been on a bat and supped somewhere until the coy and rosy dawn chased her homeward.  And your pretty paragon, Miss West, was with the party ­”

“What?” said Neville, sharply.

“Sure thing!  Harry Annan, Rita, Burleson, Valerie ­and I don’t know who else.  They feasted somewhere east of Coney ­where the best is like the wuerst ­and ultimately became full of green corn, clams, watermelon, and assorted fidgets....  Can’t you come up and look at my picture?”

Neville got up, frowning, and followed Ogilvy upstairs.

Rita Tevis, swathed in a blanket from which protruded a dripping tinselled fish’s tail, sat disconsolately on a chair, knitting a red-silk necktie for some party of the second part, as yet unidentified.

“Mr. Neville,” she said, “Sam has been quarrelling with me every minute while I’m doing my best in that horrid tub of water.  If anybody thinks it’s a comfortable pose, let them try it!  I wish ­I wish I could have the happiness of seeing Sam afloat in this old fish-scale suit with every spangle sticking into him and his legs cramped into this unspeakable tail!”

She extended a bare arm, shook hands, pulled up her blanket wrap, and resumed her knitting with a fierce glance at Ogilvy, who had attempted an appealing smile.

Neville stood stock-still before the canvas.  The picture promised well; it was really beautiful ­the combined result of several outdoor studies now being cleverly worked up.  But Ogilvy’s pictures never kept their promise.

“Also,” observed Rita, reproachfully, “I posed en plein air for those rainbow sketches of his ­and though it was a lonely cove with a cunningly secluded little crescent beach, I was horribly afraid of somebody coming ­and besides I got most cruelly sun-burned ­”

“Rita!  You said you enjoyed that excursion!” exclaimed Ogilvy, with pathos.

“I said it to flatter that enormous vanity of yours, Sam.  I had a perfectly wretched time.”

“What sort of a time did you have last evening?” inquired Neville, turning from the picture.

“Horrid.  Everybody ate too much, and Valerie spooned with a new man ­I don’t remember his name.  She went out in a canoe with him and they sang ‘She kissed him on the gangplank when the boat moved out.’”

Neville, silent, turned to the picture once more.  In a low rapid voice he indicated to Ogilvy where matters might be differently treated, stepped back a few paces, nodded decisively, and turned again to Rita: 

“I’ve been waiting for Miss West,” he said.  “Have you any reason to think that she might not keep her appointment this morning?”

“She had a headache when we got home,” said Rita.  “She stayed with me last night.  I left her asleep.  Why don’t you ring her up.  You know my number.”

“All right,” said Neville, shortly, and went out.

When he first tried to ring her up the wire was busy.  It was a party wire, yet a curious uneasiness set him pacing the studio, smoking, brows knitted, until he decided it was time to try again.

This time he recognised her distant voice:  “Hello ­hello! Is that you, Mr. Neville?”

“Valerie!”

“Oh, it is you, Kelly?  I hoped you would call me up.  I knew it must be you!”

“Yes, it is.  What the deuce is the matter?  Are you ill?”

“Oh, dear, no.’”

What, then?”

“I was so sleepy, Kelly.  Please forgive me.  We had such a late party ­and it was daylight before I went to bed.  Please forgive me; won’t you?”

“When I called you a few minutes ago your wire was busy.  Were you conversing?”

“Yes.  I was talking to Jose Querida.”

“H’m!”

“Jose was with us last evening....  I went canoeing with him.  He just called me up to ask how I felt.”

“Hunh!”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Are you annoyed, Louis?”

“No!”

“Oh, I thought it sounded as though you were irritated.  I am so ashamed at having overslept.  Who told you I was here?  Oh, Rita, I suppose.  Poor child, she was more faithful than I. The alarm clock woke her and she was plucky enough to get up ­and I only yawned and thought of you, and I was so sleepy!  Are you sure you do forgive me?”

“Of course.”

“You don’t say it very kindly.”

“I mean it cordially,” he snapped.  He could hear her sigh:  “I suppose you do.”  Then she added: 

“I am dressing, Kelly.  I don’t wish for any breakfast, and I’ll come to the studio as soon as I can ­”

“Take your breakfast first!”

“No, I really don’t care for ­”

“All right.  Come ahead.”

“I will.  Good-bye, Kelly, dear.”

He rang off, picked up the telephone again, called the great Hotel Regina, and ordered breakfast sent to his studio immediately.

When Valerie arrived she found silver, crystal, and snowy linen awaiting her with chilled grapefruit, African melon, fragrant coffee, toast, and pigeon’s eggs poached on Astrakan caviar.

“Oh, Louis!” she exclaimed, enraptured; “I don’t deserve this ­but it is perfectly dear of you ­and I am hungry!...  Good-morning,” she added, shyly extending a fresh cool hand; “I am really none the worse for wear you see.”

That was plain enough.  In her fresh and youthful beauty the only sign of the night’s unwisdom was in the scarcely perceptible violet tint under her thick lashes.  Her skin was clear and white and dewy fresh, her dark eyes unwearied ­her gracefully slender presence fairly fragrant with health and vigour.

She seated herself ­offered to share with him in dumb appeal, urged him in delicious pantomime, and smiled encouragingly as he reluctantly found a chair beside her and divided the magnificent melon.

“Did you have a good time?” he asked, trying not to speak ungraciously.

“Y-yes....  It was a silly sort of a time.”

“Silly?”

“I was rather sentimental ­with Querida.”

He said nothing ­grimly.

“I told you last night, Louis.  Why couldn’t you see me?”

“I was dining out; I couldn’t.”

She sipped her chilled grapefruit meditatively: 

“I hadn’t seen you for a week,” she laughed, glancing sideways at him, “and that lonely feeling began about five o’clock; and I called you up at seven because I couldn’t stand it....  But you wouldn’t see me; and so when Rita and the others came in a big touring car ­do you blame me very much for going with them?”

“No.”

Her expression became serious, a trifle appealing: 

“My room isn’t very attractive,” she said, timidly.  “It is scarcely big enough for the iron bed and one chair ­and I get so tired trying to read or sew every evening by the gas ­and it’s very hot in there.”

“Are you making excuses for going?”

“I do not know....  Unless people ask me, I have nowhere to go except to my room; and when a girl sits there evening after evening alone it ­it is not very gay.”

She tried the rich, luscious melon with much content, and presently her smile came back: 

“Louis, it was a funny party.  To begin we had one of those terrible clambakes ­like a huge, horrid feast of the Middle Ages ­and it did not agree with everybody ­or perhaps it was because we weren’t middle-aged ­or perhaps it was just the beer.  I drank water; so did the beautiful Jose Querida....  I think he is pretty nearly the handsomest man I ever saw; don’t you?”

“He’s handsome, cultivated, a charming conversationalist, and a really great painter,” said Neville, drily.

She looked absently at the melon; tasted it:  “He is very romantic ... when he laughs and shows those beautiful, even teeth....  He’s really quite adorable, Kelly ­and so gentle and considerate ­”

“That’s the Latin in him.”

“His parents were born in New York.”

She sipped her coffee, tried a pigeon egg, inquired what it was, ate it, enchanted.

“How thoroughly nice you always are to me, Kelly!” she said, looking up in the engagingly fearless way characteristic of her when with him.

“Isn’t everybody nice to you?” he said with a shrug which escaped her notice.

“Nice?” She coloured a trifle and laughed.  “Not in your way, Kelly.  In the sillier sense they are ­some of them.”

“Even Querida?” he said, carelessly.

“Oh, just like other men ­generously ready for any event.  What self-sacrificing opportunists men are!  After all, Kelly,” she added, slipping easily into the vernacular, “it’s always up to the girl.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, I think so.  I knew perfectly well that I had no business to let Querida’s arm remain around me.  But ­there was a moon, Kelly.”

“Certainly.”

“Why do you say ’certainly’?”

“Because there was one.”

“But you say it in a manner ­” She hesitated, continued her breakfast in leisurely reflection for a while, then: 

“Louis?”

“Yes.”

“Am I too frank with you?”

“Why?”

“I don’t know; I was just thinking.  I tell you pretty nearly everything.  If I didn’t have you to tell ­have somebody ­” She considered, with brows slightly knitted ­“if I didn’t have somebody to talk to, it wouldn’t be very good for me.  I realise that.”

“You need a grandmother,” he said, drily; “and I’m the closest resemblance to one procurable.”

The imagery struck her as humorous and she laughed.

“Poor Kelly,” she said aloud to herself, “he is used and abused and imposed upon, and in revenge he offers his ungrateful tormentor delicious breakfasts. What shall his reward be? ­or must he await it in Paradise where he truly belongs amid the martyrs and the blessed saints!”

Neville grunted.

“Oh, oh! such a post-Raphaelite scowl!  Job won’t bow to you when you go aloft, Kelly.  Besides, polite martyrs smile pleasantly while enduring torment....  What are you going to do with me to-day?” she added, glancing around with frank curiosity at an easel which was set with a full-length virgin canvas.

“Portrait,” he replied, tersely.

“Oh,” she said, surprised.  He had never before painted her clothed.

From moment to moment, as she leisurely breakfasted, she glanced around at the canvas, interested in the new idea of his painting her draped; a trifle perplexed, too.

“Louis,” she said, “I don’t quite see how you’re ever going to find a purchaser for just a plain portrait of me.”

He said, irritably:  “I don’t have to work for a living every minute, do I?  For Heaven’s sake give me a day off to study.”

“But ­it seems like wasted time ­”

“What is wasted time?”

“Why just to paint a portrait of me as I am.  Isn’t it?” She looked up smilingly, perfectly innocent of any self-consciousness.  “In the big canvases for the Byzantine Theatre you always made my features too radiant, too glorious for portraits.  It seems rather a slump to paint me as I am ­just a girl in street clothes.”

A singular expression passed over his face.

“Yes,” he said, after a moment ­“just a girl in street clothes.  No clouds, no sky, no diaphanous draperies of silk; no folds of cloth of gold; no gemmed girdles, no jewels.  Nothing of the old glamour, the old glory; no sunburst laced with mist; no ’light that never was on sea or land.’ ...  Just a young girl standing in the half light of my studio....  And by God! ­if I can not do it ­the rest is worthless.”

Amazed at his tone and expression she turned quickly, set back her cup, remained gazing at him, bewildered by the first note of bitterness she had ever heard in his voice.

He had risen and walked to his easel, back partly turned.  She saw him fussing with his palette, colours, and brushes, watched him for a few moments, then she went away into the farther room where she had a glass shelf to herself with toilet requisites ­a casual and dainty gift from him.

When she returned he was still bending over his colour-table; and she walked up and laid her hand on his shoulder ­not quite understanding why she did it.

He straightened up to his full stature, surprised, turning his head to meet a very clear, very sweetly disturbed gaze.

“Kelly, dear, are you unhappy?”

“Why ­no.”

“You seem to be a little discontented.”

“I hope I am.  It’s a healthy sign.”

“Healthy?”

“Certainly.  The satisfied never get anywhere....  That Byzanite business has begun to wear on my nerves.”

“Thousands and thousands of people have gone to see it, and have praised it.  You know what the papers have been saying ­”

Under her light hand she felt the impatient movement of his shoulders, and her hand fell away.

“Don’t you care for it, now that it’s finished?” she asked, wondering.

“I’m devilish sick of it,” he said, so savagely that every nerve in her recoiled with a tiny shock.  She remained silent, motionless, awaiting his pleasure.  He set his palette, frowning.  She had never before seen him like this.

After a while she said, quietly:  “If you are waiting for me, please tell me what you expect me to do, because I don’t know, Kelly.”

“Oh, just stand over there,” he said, vaguely; “just walk about and stop anywhere when you feel like stopping.”

She walked a few steps at hazard, partly turned to look back at him with a movement adorable in its hesitation.

“Don’t budge!” he said, brusquely.

“Am I to remain like this?”

“Exactly.”

He picked up a bit of white chalk, went over to her, knelt down, and traced on the floor the outline of her shoes.

Then he went back, and, with his superbly cool assurance, began to draw with his brush upon the untouched canvas.

From where she stood, and as far as she could determine, he seemed, however, to work less rapidly than usual ­with a trifle less decision ­less precision.  Another thing she noticed; the calm had vanished from his face.  The vivid animation, the cool self-confidence, the half indolent relapse into careless certainty ­all familiar phases of the man as she had so often seen him painting ­were now not perceptible.  There seemed to be, too, a curious lack of authority about his brush strokes at intervals ­moments of grave perplexity, indecision almost resembling the hesitation of inexperience ­and for the first time she saw in his gray eyes the narrowing concentration of mental uncertainty.

It seemed to her sometimes as though she were looking at a total stranger.  She had never thought of him as having any capacity for the ordinary and lesser ills, vanities, and vexations ­the trivial worries that beset other artists.

“Louis?” she said, full of curiosity.

“What?” he demanded, ungraciously.

“You are not one bit like yourself to-day.”

He made no comment.  She ventured again: 

“Do I hold the pose properly?”

“Yes, thanks,” he said, absently.

“May I talk?”

“I’d rather you didn’t, Valerie, just at present.”

“All right,” she rejoined, cheerfully; but her pretty eyes watched him very earnestly, a little troubled.

When she was tired the pose ended; that had been their rule; but long after her neck and back and thighs and limbs begged for relief, she held the pose, reluctant to interrupt him.  When at last she could endure it no longer she moved; but her right leg had lost not only all sense of feeling but all power to support her; and down she came with a surprised and frightened little exclamation ­and he sprang to her and swung her to her feet again.

“Valerie!  You bad little thing!  Don’t you know enough to stop when you’re tired?”

“I ­didn’t know I was so utterly gone,” she said, bewildered.

He passed his arm around her and supported her to the sofa where she sat, demure, a little surprised at her collapse, yet shyly enjoying his disconcerted attentions to her.

“It’s your fault, Kelly.  You had such a queer expression ­not at all like you ­that I tried harder than ever to help you ­and fell down for my pains.”

“You’re an angel,” he said, contritely, “but a silly one.”

“A scared one, Kelly ­and a fallen one.”  She laughed, flexing the muscles of her benumbed leg:  “Your expression intimidated me.  I didn’t recognise you; I could not form any opinion of what was going on inside that very stern and frowning head of yours.  If you look like that I’ll never dare call you Kelly.”

“Did I seem inhuman?”

“N-no.  On the contrary ­very human ­ordinary ­like the usual ill-tempered artist man, with whom I have learned how to deal.  You know,” she added, teasingly, “that you are calm and god-like, usually ­and when you suddenly became a mere mortal ­”

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do with you,” he said; “I’ll pick you up and put you to bed.”

“I wish you would, Kelly.  I haven’t had half enough sleep.”

He sat down beside her on the sofa:  “Don’t talk any more of that god-like business,” he growled, “or I’ll find the proper punishment.”

“Would you punish me, Kelly?”

“I sure would.”

“If I displeased you?”

“You bet.”

“Really?” She turned partly toward him, half in earnest.  “Suppose ­suppose ­” but she stopped suddenly, with a light little laugh that lingered pleasantly in the vast, still room.

She said:  “I begin to think that there are two Kellys ­no, one Kelly and one Louis.  Kelly is familiar to me; I seem to have known him all my life ­the happy part of my life.  Louis I have just seen for the first time ­there at the easel, painting, peering from me to his canvas with Kelly’s good-looking eyes all narrow with worry ­”

“What on earth are you chattering about, Valerie?”

“You and Kelly....  I don’t quite know which I like best ­the dear, sweet, kind, clever, brilliant, impersonal, god-like Kelly, or this new Louis ­so very abrupt in speaking to me ­”

“Valerie, dear!  Forgive me.  I’m out of sorts somehow.  It began ­I don’t know ­waiting for you ­wondering if you could be ill ­all alone.  Then that ass, Sam Ogilvy ­oh, it’s just oversmoking I guess, or ­I don’t know what.”

She sat regarding him, head tipped unconsciously on one side in an attitude suggesting a mind concocting malice.

“Louis?”

“What?”

“You’re very attractive when you’re god-like ­”

“You little wretch!”

“But ­you’re positively dangerous when you’re human.”

“Valerie!  I’ll ­”

“The great god Kelly, or the fascinating, fearsome, erring Louis!  Which is it to be?  I’ve an idea that the time is come to decide!”

Fairly radiating a charming aura of malice she sat back, nursing one knee, distractingly pretty and defiant, saying:  “I will call you a god if I like!”

“I’ll tell you what, Valerie,” he said, half in earnest; “I’ve played grandmother to you long enough, by Heck!”

“Oh, Kelly, be lofty and Olympian!  Be a god and shame the rest of us!”

“I’ll shamefully resemble one of ’em in another moment if you continue tormenting me!”

“Which one, great one?”

“Jupiter, little lady.  He was the boss philanderer you know.”

“What is a philanderer, my Olympian friend?”

“Oh, one of those Olympian divinities who always began the day by kissing the girls all around.”

“Before breakfast?”

“Certainly.”

“It’s ­after breakfast, Kelly.”

“Luncheon and dinner still impend.”

“Besides ­I’m not a bit lonely to-day....  I’m afraid I wouldn’t let you, Kel ­I mean Louis.”

“Why didn’t you say ’Kelly’?”

“Kelly is too god-like to kiss.”

“Oh!  So that’s the difference!  Kelly isn’t human; Louis is.”

“Kelly, to me,” she admitted, “is practically kissless....  I haven’t thought about Louis in that regard.”

“Consider the matter thoroughly.”

“Do you wish me to?” She bent her head, smiling.  Then, looking up with enchanting audacity: 

“I really don’t know, Mr. Neville.  Some day when I’m lonely ­and if Louis is at home and Kelly is out ­you and I might spend an evening together on a moonlit lake and see how much of a human being Louis can be.”

She laughed, watching him under the dark lashes, charming mouth mocking him in every curve.

“Do you think you’re likely to be lonely to-night?” he asked, surprised at the slight acceleration of his pulses.

“No, I don’t.  Besides, you’d be only the great god Kelly to me this evening.  Besides that I’m going to dinner with Querida, and afterward we’re going to see the ‘Joy of the Town’ at the Folly Theatre.”

“I didn’t know,” he said, curtly.  For a few moments he sat there, looking interestedly at a familiar door-knob.  Then rising:  “Do you feel all right for posing?”

“Yes.”

Alors ­”

“Allons, mon dieu!” she laughed.

Work began.  She thought, watching him with sudden and unexpected shyness, that he seemed even more aloof, more preoccupied, more worried, more intent than before.  In this new phase the man she had known as a friend was now entirely gone, vanished!  Here stood an utter stranger, very human, very determined, very deeply perplexed, very much in earnest.  Everything about this man was unknown to her.  There seemed to be nothing about him that particularly appealed to her confidence, either; yet the very uncertainty was interesting her now ­intensely.

This other phase of his dual personality had been so completely a surprise that, captivated, curious, she could keep neither her gaze from him nor her thoughts.  Was it that she was going to miss in him the other charm, lose the delight in his speech, his impersonal and kindly manner, miss the comfortable security she had enjoyed with him, perhaps after some half gay, half sentimental conflict with lesser men?

What was she to expect from this brand-new incarnation of Louis Neville?  The delightful indifference, fascinating absent-mindedness and personal neglect of the other phase?  Would he be god enough to be less to her, now?  Man enough to be more than other men?  For a moment she had a little shrinking, a miniature panic lest this man turn too much like other men.  But she let her eyes rest on him, and knew he would not.  Whatever Protean changes might yet be reserved for her to witness, she came to the conclusion that this man was a man apart, different, and would not disappoint her no matter what he turned into.

She thought to herself:  “If I want Kelly to lean on, he’ll surely appear, god-like, impersonally nice, and kindly as ever; if I want Louis to torment and provoke and flirt with ­a little ­a very little ­I’m quite sure he’ll come, too.  Whatever else is contained in Mr. Neville I don’t know; but I like him separately and compositely, and I’m happy when I’m with him.”

With which healthy conclusion she asked if she might rest, and came around to look at the canvas.

As she had stood in silence for some time, he asked her, a little nervously, what she thought of it.

“Louis ­I don’t know.”

“Is your opinion unfavourable?”

“N-no.  I am like that, am I not?”

“In a shadowy way.  It will be like you.”

“Am I as ­interesting?”

“More so,” he said.

“Are you going to make me ­beautiful?”

“Yes ­or cut this canvas into shreds.”

“Oh-h!” she exclaimed with a soft intake of breath; “would you have the heart to destroy me after you’ve made me?”

“I don’t know what I’d do, Valerie.  I never felt just this way about anything.  If I can’t paint you ­a human, breathing you ­with all of you there on the canvas ­all of you, soul, mind, and body ­all of your beauty, your youth, your sadness, happiness ­your errors, your nobility ­you, Valerie! ­then there’s no telling what I’ll do.”

She said nothing.  Presently she resumed the pose and he his painting.

It became very still in the sunny studio.