The Lost Titian
Conkling stopped his car. He drew up, dry and dust-laden, in the narrow green gullet of the side-road overhung with sycamore and soft maple. A cooler breath of air sighed out through the oval frame of verdure slightly powdered with road-dust and slightly suggestive of a woman with prematurely silvered temples.
Conkling sat staring down the open throat of the hill-lane which dropped away like a waterfall toward the misty blue of Lake Erie. To the east he could see the opal green of Rond-Eau, iridescent as mercury in its verdigris-tinted shadow-box of rushes and wild-rice. Beyond that confusion of intermingling greens he could see the long line of Pointe Aux Pins, seeming neither main-land nor cloud-land, but floating aerially in the veiled light, as misted and mirage-like as the ghostly plume of smoke trailing behind a ghostly coal-boat nosing slowly in toward the harbor. Directly in front of him he could see only the diminishing mottled terraces of the tree-tops salvaged with the paler green of willows where the lake-cliffs ended abruptly in the pallid blue of the water. A mile out on this water, hazy with the windless heat of August, he could discern the vague L of a pile-driver, floating beside a row of pound-stakes. It floated there ghostly and insubstantial, a blurred and lonely shadow that seemed to belong more to the air than to the water.
Conkling liked that view, with its receding vistas and its abrupt suggestion of repose. He liked it so much that he regretted not having seen it in spring, in the virginal greenery of its first awakenings. He even surrendered to an impulse to dip deeper into it, by releasing his foot-brake and letting his car coast quietly down the overarched incline of broken shadow and sunlight. That impassive and almost noiseless descent, with his engine silent, seemed to him like an aerial flight into some older and sleepier world. When a cushioning carpet of pine-needles finally brought him to a stop, he was satisfied to sit there, within twenty paces of a weather-bleached gate which marked a gap in the straggling undergrowth of cedar.
This gate, as a gate, challenged his attention. Yet he studied it for several minutes before reaching for his pack easel and thumb box and climbing down from his car-seat. Then he proceeded to inspect the gate at closer range. It was antiquated and uninviting and it sagged on one hinge. But beyond it, he found as he leaned across its moldering top bar, lay an arresting vista of checkered sunlight and cool green shadow centering in the warm red of a brick manor-house.
That glimpse of an unexpected old garden, cool and shadowy and secluded behind the sheltering cedars, held him so close that he overlooked the No Trespassing sign which semaphored so forbiddingly down at him from a half-dead silver birch. For here in the heart of a country which had impressed him as a land without a past he had stumbled across a homestead with the true patina of time upon it.
And here, he told himself, was surely a chance for some of that old walnut and mahogany for which, in the eyes of the native, he stood ready to pay romantic prices.
So closely did he inspect the red-brick manor-house that it was several minutes before he became conscious of the girl standing within ten paces of him. She stood there in a birdlike attitude of arrested movement, with her body pressed in close to the hedge, as though timorously anxious to escape his eye. And he realized, as he stared at her, how some unconsidered protective coloration was causing her to merge into the brocaded background of that ruinous old garden. For she wore a lilac-colored sunbonnet and a frock of flowered organdie, and her hands were incased in a pair of russet gauntlets which had plainly known better days. Conkling could see that she had been engaged in clipping streamers of wild grape from the hedge which half screened her. She still held a pair of rusty-looking rose shears in her fingers.
He no longer studied the garden, with its sundial slightly awry and its unused fountain and its shadowed turf-slope and ragged paths edged with perennials. It was the girl that held his attention, and oddly enough, his first vague feeling of depression slipped away from him. Just what lay at the root of that depression he could not have said. But he felt so like a wanderer into regions of desolation touched with mystery that the opening lines of Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came kept recurring to his mind. And it struck him as odd that he should spot a figure so vivid in a background so dolorous. For the girl's eyes were a cornflower blue, made deeper in color by the thickly planted black lashes. Her hair, which even the abundant hood of the sunbonnet could not altogether hide, was a burnished mahogany brown. Yet her face itself, which struck him as austere and a trifle pinched, held its undertones suggestive of still youthful vitalities, of unawakened ardencies. It was the lips, he decided, with the faintly rebellious lines about their warmth, which did the trick. But there was breeding in that face, and something even more than breeding; something which he could not quite decipher, but was content in the end to write down as intensity. This played the added trick of making her seem, to Conkling, like a child prematurely aged, vaguely silvered by the life about her, the same as her roadside sycamores had been silvered by dust. Yet as his quick gaze rested on the gravely innocent eyes and the rose-like cream and pink of the arm above the gauntlet-top he was again perplexed by a persistent sense of girlishness.
Those gravely non-committal eyes, however, were no longer even covertly observing him. The gloved hands were once more decorously busy among the grapevine tendrils. Conkling could see, by that austere preoccupation, that the grave-eyed young lady with the rose shears was respectably eliminating him from her universe. He felt his color deepen. Yet it was only by audacity, he knew, that he could win his point. And the vague but universal air of impoverishment which overhung the place breathed life into his newer boldness. He pushed open the gate and stepped through it.
"Could I sketch a corner of your garden?" he inquired with all the casualness at his command.
The face under the sunbonnet turned slowly in his direction. But the eyes were still austerely non-committal.
In that short monosyllable he noticed many things. He noticed a certain sharp fastidiousness of tone which spoke of caste. He caught from it a note of warning mixed with a cool and condescending forbearance. But in it, most of all, he found a beauty of timbre, a full-throated English resonance which he had not expected to stumble across in that higher-voiced Canadian countryside. This was no peasant type, and the crisp monosyllable was apparently intended to remind him of the fact.
"Would you mind if I tried a water color of one end of your garden?" Conkling repeated, parading the folded stool and easel and thumb box, which had obviously escaped her attention.
The rose shears went on with their clipping. She was weighing his request, and as she did so she reverted oddly back to the child type. He found it hard to think of her as a woman. She seemed disturbed by the matter-of-factness with which he had put a matter-of-fact question. But it was plain that he was an outlander, a stranger unversed in the traditions of those reticent byways.
"If you wish to," she finally said, without stopping in her work.
It struck Conkling as odd that her face should go pale over a decision so trivial. It struck him as equally odd, when he unfolded stool and easel in the shadow of the cedar hedge, that the thin face should just as suddenly flush again. For he had sagaciously made note of the direction in which the girl was working her way along this hedge, and he chose his position so that her activities, as time went on, would not take her farther away from him. Yet he opened up his thumb box and fell to work without further addressing her, only too conscious of the uninterrupted clicking of the shears behind him. If he sniffed an aroma of the idyllic in that situation he betrayed no signs of it. She had not, at any rate, taken to her heels; and he could afford to leave the outcome on the lap of time.
He turned, with a less impersonal eye, and studied the house. He was impressed by the pathos of its faded grandeur. It might at one time, built as it was in imitation of an English manor, have been a pretentious enough pile. But everything about it had long since fallen into decay. The neglected cornices drooped without paint. The mortar had fallen away from between the bricks. The dilapidated verandas, half covered with masses of Virginia creeper, showed a roof sadly broken and a railing much awry. Here and there, in the tall French windows, a pane of glass had been replaced by an unpainted board. A broken stretch of eave troughing hung from an upper facade like an unkempt tress from a faded brow. On the parched slope to the right of its main entrance wandered a flock of hungry ducks, and under the maples, beyond the ducks, hobbled a solitary and disheveled peacock, which screamed from time to time at the advent of a stranger within its domains. On the nearer side of the house, beyond parterres of weeds and brambles which might at one time have been a rose garden, stood a tilted chicken brooder which had once been painted red, and the ruins of a cider press, with a row of overturned beehives in the background.
To the south, where the lawn sloped down to the empty fountain basin and was bisected by a narrow walk along which still flamed the valiant and invincible perennials, the aspect was less ruinous. Conkling could make out iris and phlox and ragged sailor and golden glow and tiger lilies in a glorious tangle and riot of color. Beyond the sundial he could discern an arbor with broken seats, and beyond that again the heavy and huddled foliage which on all sides screened in from the outside world that little area of color and quietness. The next moment, however, his casually wandering glance came to a stop. It came to a stop abruptly, with his startled attention balking as a colt balks at a shadow across the roadway of reason. For before him, in the unequivocal open light of the afternoon, he saw an overturned marble sarcophagus. It was the sort of thing one stumbled across now and then in Italy, the sort of thing he had himself seen crated and lowered into ships' holds at Palermo and Catania, the sort of thing they kept behind brass railings in New World museums. But here it stood weather-stained on a slope of turf, with three tin milk-pans sunning on its mottled upturned bottom.
He sat squinting at the strange thing for a full minute. Then he turned to speak to the girl in the lilac sunbonnet.
But he did not speak. For from the direction of the house came the sound of a new and quite unexpected voice. It was a thin and acrid voice, obviously barbed with indignation.
"Julia!" was the repeated and reproving cry which echoed through the quietness.
The girl with the rose shears, more childlike than ever, turned a frightened face toward the house. But she did not answer.
"Is that a man in the grounds?" demanded the distant monitorial voice. And Conkling, for the first time, was no longer at his ease.
"Y-yes," the girl called hesitatingly back.
Her face was quite pale, and the meekness in her voice rather disturbed the man at the easel. He peered about for the author of that over-disturbing challenge, but he could see nothing.
"Lavinia," commanded the shrill and mysteriously distant voice—and Conkling for a moment wondered why that name should fret his memory with an uncaptured association—"Lavinia, unchain Nero at once!"
Conkling caught a sound like a gasp from the girl with the shears.
"Please don't mind," she said without turning her head. "He's so old!"
"Who's so old?" asked Conkling. He had begun to repack his thumb box.
"Nero. I have to soak his bread crusts for him. He has no teeth left. But I really think you ought to go!"
There was no misjudging her distress. It amounted almost to terror, and the mystery of it was sufficient to revive his audacity.
"May I come back?" he asked, tingling a trifle before the amazed innocence of her eyes.
"What good could it do?" she found the courage to inquire.
"That's what I intended to find out," he told her. He said it more determinedly than he had intended.
"I don't think you understand," she said with her austere and troubled eyes on his face.
"Understand what?" he demanded.
"Us!" was all she said.
And it was all she had a chance to say, for the next moment the distant and indignant voice was commanding her to come to the house, and to come at once. She went without hesitation, like a bidden child. Conkling saw the deep gloom of one of the French windows swallow up the lilac sunbonnet and the organdie gown. Then he folded his easel and his camp stool, stared for a minute or two at the decrepid peacock and the overturned sarcophagus, and told himself that without a shadow of doubt he would come back.