It was early the next day that a sandy-headed small boy brought a note to Conkling at his hotel in Weston. The note was from Julia Keswick. It merely said "Come at once."
The brevity of that note disturbed him, but he lost no time in responding to its summons. When, as he started out, he once more caught sight of Lavinia Keswick in the old family chariot, this time proceeding somberly down the main street of Weston, he interpreted that migration as a ponderable reason for the hurried summons. But he remained ill at ease, even as he crossed the parched lawn and dispersed the ducks gabbling about the house front.
The door opened before he had a chance to knock. The girl obviously had been on guard, awaiting him. Her hand, when he took it, was passive, and she did not return his smile. Her face seemed preoccupied and pinched. Yet if she looked older, she looked none the less lovely to him.
She said it in little more than a whisper, as her eyes met his.
"Know what?" he had to ask, so intent was he on what the moment held for him.
"That we were together last night," she told him.
"And what does that mean?" he asked, surprised the next moment at her look of tragic intensity.
"It means, I suppose, that I at last have to act for myself. But I'd rather not talk about it now. The one thing I want is for you to come up and look over the pictures while we've still the chance."
"I'm ready," he said.
"We must go quietly," she warned him.
"Why?" he asked.
"Because this is one of the things in which I'm acting for myself," she said in the gloom of the hallway, once the door was shut behind him.
She piloted him deeper into that gloom, and up a stairway with black-walnut bannisters. Then after a moment of waiting silence at the stairhead they crept along the second gloomy hallway, passed through a door which they closed behind them, and faced a flight of steep and narrow steps leading to the upper story. There the girl, after a moment's thought, returned to the closed door behind her and quietly turned a key in the lock. Then she motioned to Conkling to mount the little stairway, where the light hung strong above their well of gloom.
He found himself, when he had emerged into that light, in a hip-roofed attic with a row of dormer windows along the north. It impressed him at first as little more than a large lumber room, for it was littered, like other rural attics he had seen, with broken furniture and frayed traveling trunks, with disorderly packing boxes and obsolete bric-a-brac and the banished impedimenta of an earlier generation. A stratum of golden light flowed in through the one window on the east. This light-band was filled with floating motes, so active that it seemed like subaqueous life in its native element.
But the commonplaceness ebbed out of that dusty attic as Conkling, looking about, made out what was most unmistakably the remains of a Roman bath, a portion of a carved reredos in time-blackened oak, and beside a fractured ewer of cloisonné enamel a painted statuette that reminded him of the Artemis in the Museo Nazionale at Naples. He noticed a second sarcophagus, less imperfect than the one he had already observed in the dooryard, an empty easel with its heavy-timbered framework draped with cobwebs, and an artist's manikin without a head. Beyond these, in a cleared space which lay toward the southern wall of the attic studio, he discerned a vague pile covered with yellowed cotton sheeting.
This pile, he assumed, was the pictures. Yet those pictures, in some way, had already become subsidiary. A greater interest had usurped their place in his mind. But the sense of being on the threshold of some great adventure remained with him as he watched the girl cross the dusty floor and proceed, without speaking, to lift away the faded cotton coverings.
What was to be revealed by those movements he could not tell. But it impressed him as being a pretty ridiculous way of treasuring canvases of any value or any origin, to leave them unprotected in an old fire trap of a farm-house attic. The whole thing, in fact, was ridiculous. The only element that redeemed it, that vitalized it, to him was the stooping, ardent figure with the strong side light on the creamy white of her throat and chin.
But the girl, as he stood studying her, had turned and looked at him.
"How shall I show them?" she asked in a moderated voice which he first accepted as awe, but later remembered to be based on ordinary caution.
"Just as they come," he told her, as casually as he could, intent on impressing her with that sustained deliberateness which one expects of the critic. "One at a time, if you can manage them. And I'll tell you when to change."
She showed him first what must have been a small collection of family portraits, for only lineal ties and obligations, he felt, could extenuate the somber monstrosities which silently anathematized him from their dusty frames.
"These don't count, of course," she said, noticing the absence of all approval from his intent face.
He could see the excitement under which she was laboring, for all her restraint. He felt vaguely yet persistently sorry for her. It was not an auspicious beginning, and he would have to be more circumspect, more non-committal. For whatever happened, however things turned out, it was going to mean more to her than he had imagined.
"This," she said in little more than a whisper as she placed a small canvas for his inspection, "is the Holbein."
He stepped forward a little, apparently to study it more intently. But the movement was scarcely necessary, for he saw almost at a glance that the thing was nothing more than a copy by an ordinarily adept student. More than once, in fact, he had sat before the original in Munich. But he wondered how he was going to tell her.
Her questioning eye, in fact, was already on his face. So after deliberately prolonging his study he merely nodded his head.
"The next, please," he said with judicial matter-of-factness.
"This is one of the Constables," she quietly told him, catching her cue from that achieved impersonality of his.
His heart went down as he examined it, for it stood a confirmation of his earlier fears. The canvas in front of him was a copy, and nothing more. It was a much cleverer copy than the first one. But that scarcely excused the effrontery of the forgery, for the painting was signed. On the frame, too, was a lettered medallion, soberly attempting to authenticate it as a Constable.
"This was your father's collection, was it not?" he asked the girl.
"Yes," she told him.
"And he was an artist as well as a collector?"
She shook her head.
"He was not a good artist. But he loved pictures."
"And these he brought back with him after his different visits to Europe?"
"I think that was it, but my aunt has always refused to talk about them."
"She hated my father. She blames him for all the troubles that have come into her life."
"And now she takes that hate out on you?"
The girl did not answer his question. Instead, she placed a smaller canvas for his inspection and said: "Would you care to see the Corot now?"
It was the same story over again, only this time the copy was of a canvas with which he was not familiar; and again he wondered how he was going to be able to tell her. She became conscious of his increasing gravity.
"You don't like them?" she asked at a venture.
The only thing he liked in all that dusty-aired attic was the slender, stooping figure with its aura of repressed ardencies. But this, he knew, was not the time to say so.
"How do you feel about them?" he countered, watching her as she turned toward him and absently rubbed her fingers together. It struck him at first as a movement of repudiation, but he remembered that it was merely an effort to remove the attic dust from her hands.
"It's hard to explain," was her answer. "Some of them I dislike and some of them I can't understand, and there are a few of them I almost hate."
"Why?" he asked.
"I don't think I could make it clear to you," was all she said.
He saw no light through the blind wall of his dilemma, and he could not quite see how the first move was to be made. So he asked, in a merciful effort at postponement: "What pictures were taken from this collection?"
"My father took the ones he liked when he went away the last time. He took them all but one." She had misunderstood him.
"No; you spoke of your Aunt Georgina carrying some of them downstairs when she fell," he reminded her. "What were they, besides the Bouguereau?"
She met his glance courageously in the clear light that flooded them.
"One was a copy of Manet's Breakfast on the Grass and the other was the Olympe."
He began to divine the demands he had made on her courage.
"They were nudes?"
"Yes," she acknowledged.
"And that was the reason they were removed?" he asked, smiling in spite of himself.
"They hate everything like that."
He found it harder than ever to go on. So he said almost curtly: "Let's see the Correggio."
She turned back to the stacked canvases.
"Now the others," he commanded, after he had confirmed his suspicions as to the larger canvas with the mendacious medallion on its tarnished frame.
He went through them patiently, and the inspection left him more depressed than he could understand. Yet he was tired of equivocation. He felt that nothing was to be gained by any further deferment of the death sentence.
"I'm afraid I have a very great disappointment for you," he began as gently as he could.
He watched her as she turned slowly away and stared at the stacked canvases and the strips of faded cotton littering the floor. He could detect no stirring of emotion on her face, and for a moment he thought she had failed to catch at the note of forewarning in his voice.
"You mean they're not so valuable—not so valuable in the matter of dollars and cents—as my Aunt Georgina has been led to believe they are?"
"I'm sorry," said Conkling, "but the two Constables are only copies, and there's no chance of being mistaken when I say the Holbein is a palpable forgery. The Correggio is not even worth considering. It impresses me as a gallery student's sketch—the sort of thing they used to sell to tourists by the mile. Strictly speaking, it has no commercial value. As for the others—well, candidly, I'm afraid it would scarcely pay you to put them in an agent's hands. They're not the character of work a city dealer could handle—could handle with any degree of profit to you and your aunts, I mean."
She studied his face with her questioning, grave eyes.
"I was afraid so," she finally said, with a new listlessness in her voice.
"I know it hurts," he said, moving toward her, "and I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what?" she asked with no reciprocal movement.
"That instead of bringing you happiness at the very first I've only been able to bring you the other thing."
"I wasn't thinking about myself," she told him. "I was thinking more about them."
He knew that she meant the two strange old women with whom she lived, with whom she had lived; and in the strong side light, as she stood there still vital and ardent and unawakened, he tried to picture her face as it might be in the years to come, pinched with time and penury, devitalized by the vampire seasons which would drink up the blood from her warm bosom, dulled and hardened by the mean and monotonous years of backwater existence. She impressed him as too warm and rich to be wasted on that sterile air, and he fell to wondering how she would respond to the world as he knew it, to that tranquil and sophisticated world which would be so new to her. Under the fuller sun of freedom, he told himself, she would open up like one of the tea roses in the old manor-house garden below them. He imagined her emerging from the Pennsylvania Station in a taxi-cab, with all New York towering about her in the pale gold of early autumn. But that thought stopped short, for she was speaking again.
"It was their only hope," she was saying, with her meditative eyes on the leaning array of canvases. "It seemed the only thing that could have saved them from all their hopelessness, from all the misery that has made them what they are."
He thought of that sepulchral pair, immured in their withered and Old World narrownesses, but he thought of them without pity. They were as set as granite, those two old vultures, and nothing would ever move them—would ever change them.
"It will mean just keeping on in the same old way until the end," he heard the voice of Julia Keswick saying.
"But surely there's some way out for them," he protested without giving much thought to his words.
"There is!" asserted the girl with a flash of what seemed defiance on her face.
"What is it?" he asked.
"There is a painting I haven't shown you."
He noticed for the first time that her face had grown almost colorless. He could see the lips that carried a touch of rebelliousness, framing themselves into what seemed a line of fortitude. It added to her air of maturity. Yet she became girlish again as she met his glance with what was almost a look of audacity.
"I didn't intend you to see it," she told him, and he felt that there was now almost a challenge in that steady gaze of hers.
"Why not?" he asked, nettled by a sense of remoteness drifting between them.
"Because I know my aunts would not wish it to be seen. It has been kept hidden year after year."
"Why?" repeated Conkling.
She was silent for a moment or two. She was no longer looking at him. But for the second time he became conscious of the achieved air of fortitude in her averted face.
"They would say it was—it was sinful."
She stood silent a moment when he asked for the reason.
"Because it's a nude," she finally said, looking up at him. He had no means of judging what that moment was costing her. He could even afford to smile a little.
"Well," he demanded, "what of that?"
"I've already told you that my aunts do not approve of such things," she said with an appeal in her eyes which he could not understand.
"Do you?" he queried almost bruskly. He noticed that her pallor had increased in the last minute or two.
"Yes, I do," she said with a return of her earlier defiant tone. "I can't help feeling that this picture is beautiful. I know there is nothing wrong about it—that there is nothing to be ashamed of in looking at it."
"Why should there be?" he demanded.
The girl's glance wandered involuntarily back toward the stairhead.
"They would say it was wrong."
That reiterated use of the pronoun began to impress him with the extent to which "they" had dominated and dwarfed her life.
"But some of the world's most beautiful and most valuable pictures are nudes," he protested. "Surely we don't need to go into all that!"
"I've felt that way," she said after a silence, as though the confession were a relinquishment of something momentous, of something which she would not lightly part with.
"Would you rather I didn't see this picture?" he asked with a second wind of patience, troubled by the look on her face.
"No!" she said almost with fierceness. "I want you to see it! You must see it!"