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   Chapter 15 FLASHLIGHTS

Mrs. Red Pepper By Grace S. Richmond Characters: 20991

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Please tilt your parasol back the least bit more, Miss Austin. That's it! Now walk toward me, up this path, till you reach the rosebush."

Miss Austin, a tall, thin young woman clad in white muslin and wearing also a prim expression with which her photographer had been struggling for some time in vain, obeyed these directions to the letter. Her lips in lines of order and discretion, her skirts hanging in perfect folds, she advanced up the straggling path, the picture of maidenly composure. The nearer she drew to the rosebush the more fixed became the look of meeting a serious obstacle and overcoming it by sheer force of will.

Charlotte Ruston, standing by her camera focussed on the spot of path beside the rosebush, drew a stifled, impatient breath. "I'm going to scream at her in a minute," she thought, "or fall in a faint. I wonder which would startle her out of herself most."

"Do you mind," she said aloud, "if I tell you how perfectly charming you look?"

Miss Austin's lips tightened into a little set smile, more artificial than ever. But just as she reached the rosebush a motor car rushed up the street and came to a standstill before the gate in Charlotte's hedge. Out of the car-a conspicuous affair of a strong yellow colour, and hitherto unseen in the town-descended a figure in a dust-coat, a figure upon which Miss Edith Austin had never set eyes before. Pausing by the rosebush she looked toward the scene at the gate, and her face relaxed into an expression of alert interest.

The camera clicked unnoticed. Quicker than a flash Charlotte had gone through a series of motions and had made a second exposure, smiling delightedly to herself.

"It's a gentleman to see you," called Miss Austin, softly, as the heavily built figure in the dust-coat opened the gate and advanced up the path.

Miss Ruston made all secure about her camera, and turned to meet the full and smiling gaze of the newcomer, standing, cap in hand, just behind her. He was a man who might have been thirty or forty-it would not have been easy for a stranger to tell which at first glance, for his fair hair was thick upon his head, his face fresh and unwrinkled, and his eyes bright. Yet about him was an air of having been encountering men and things for a long time, and of understanding them pretty well.

"Mr. Brant!" Charlotte's tone was that of complete surprise.

"You were not expecting me?" He shook hands, gazing at her in undisguised pleasure. He was not much taller than she, and the afternoon sun was at his back, so he had the advantage.

"I certainly was not. How does it happen? A business journey?"

"A most luckily opportune one-for me. It brought me within a hundred miles, and my descriptions to my friend of an interesting region did the rest."

His eyes swerved to the figure of Miss Edith Austin, standing tensely by the rosebush, an observer whose whole aspect denoted eager absorption in the meeting before her. Charlotte presented him. Miss Austin expressed herself as assured of his being a stranger to the town the moment her eyes fell upon him.

"And a very dusty and disreputable one, I'm afraid," Mr. Brant declared. "I should have stopped at some hotel and made myself presentable," he explained to Charlotte, "if I had not been afraid I should lose a minute out of the short time Van Schoonhoven agrees to leave me here."

Charlotte took him to the house and left him politely trying to converse with her grandmother-at tremendous odds, for he was not a rival of Red Pepper Burns in his fondness for old ladies, not to mention deaf ones. The photographer returned to her sitter.

"I have several pictures of you now, Miss Austin," she said, "and I think among them we shall find one you will like."

"But aren't you going to have one of this last pose?" Miss Austin inquired, anxiously. "Of course, I know you have company now-"

"That doesn't matter. But I have two exposures, by the rosebush, and I think they are both good. I have kept you standing for quite a long time, and I want you to see proofs of these before we try any more."

"I haven't once known when you were taking me. I can't help feeling that if you just let me know when you were going to take the picture I could be better prepared."

"One can be a bit too much prepared. The best one I ever had made of me was done an instant after I had carelessly taken a seat where the operator requested. I looked up and asked, 'How do you want me to sit?' He answered, 'Just as pleases you. I have already taken the picture.'"

"Dear me! How methods change! Our best photographer here is always so careful about every line of drapery, and just how you hold your chin I don't see how you can just snap a person and be sure of an artistic result."

"You can't. And perhaps you won't like these at all. But I will show you proofs to-morrow. And if they are not right we'll try again, if you are willing."

Miss Austin went away, parasol held stiffly above her head, though the sun was behind her. She was wondering, as she went, who the man was who had come to see Miss Ruston, and she arrived without much difficulty at the conclusion that he was probably going to marry her. His speech about being in such haste to reach her that he couldn't take time to go to a hotel and make himself neat seemed to her sure evidence that the two were upon a footing more intimate than that of mere friendship.

"If you are not too proud," said Miss Ruston to Mr. Eugene Brant, "you may come into the kitchen and wash your hands and face. Afterward you may stroll about my garden while I get supper."

"I am not too proud to wash my face in your kitchen," responded Mr. Brant, following her with alacrity, "but I shall not be willing to stroll about your garden while you get supper. After supper, if you like, we will explore it to its mystic end down by the currant bushes I see from the window here."

He accepted the basin of water Charlotte gave him, as gracefully as she presented it, dried his face upon the little towel she handed him, and declared himself much refreshed. She did not apologize for the lack of a guest-room where he might remove the signs of dusty travel, nor did she allude to the absence within the house of most of the appliances considered necessary in these days for creature comfort. But she dismissed him to the garden with a finality against which his pleadings to be allowed to be of use to her proved of no avail, and only when, after a half-hour, she appeared in the doorway with a pail, and approached the old well nearby, did he discover a chance to show his devotion.

"If you knew what fun I should consider it to be carrying plates and things around for you in there," said he, as he drew the water for her, "you wouldn't keep me out here. What do you imagine I came a hundred miles out of my way for-to study the possibilities of landscape gardening as applied to miniature estates like these of yours?"

"You might do much worse," she responded promptly. "I have spent not a little thought on just how much trimming to give my old shrubbery and how much to leave in a wild tangle. Will you come in now and have supper? We will take it with Granny in the front room."

Mr. Brant was hungry, after his long drive, and he eyed with satisfaction the small table by the door, set out with fine old china and linen. He consumed two juicy hot chops with keen relish, accompanied as they were by well-cooked rice. A simple salad followed, and gave way to a dish of choice peaches, upon which his hostess poured plenty of rich cream. She gave him also two cups of extremely good coffee, and he rose from the repast feeling content, though the fact that he had made a heartier meal than either of the ladies had not escaped him.

By and by he had his way, and took Charlotte out to the garden. Little Madam Chase had been put to bed at what she called "early candle-light," because such an hour best suited her.

"Well, are you going to do me the honour of telling me all about it?" Mr. Brant asked, as he settled himself upon the old bench by Charlotte's side. He scanned her closely once more in the waning light.

"What do you want me to tell you?"

"Just what I ask-all about your coming here. How you get on. What it means to you. Your hopes-your fears, if you have any. I realize, better than you do, perhaps, that this is not a small venture for you to make. I am interested-you understand how interested-to know just the situation."

His tone was that of a brother, warm and kind. She responded to it.

"I am doing as well as I could expect. Almost every day I have a sitter-sometimes two. My friends are very good; they bring me every one who will come. People seem to like the things I do-some of them."

"Almost every day you have a sitter!" he repeated. "Do you call that doing well? How long have you been here?"

"Just seven weeks. Yes, I do call that doing well. It takes time to become established, of course. Now that I have made pictures of many of the prominent people others will follow, I'm confident. You know this isn't the portrait season-too many have cameras of their own and are taking snapshots of outdoor scenes, with themselves in the foreground."

"You don't find yourself wishing you had stayed in the city, as I advised?"

"Not a bit. I want more experience first. I want to be able to do work I needn't apologize for when I really begin with a city studio."

"You are doing finished work, in my opinion."

"Not in mine."

He laughed. "There is nothing weak about your will," said he.

"I hope not. I need a strong one."

"Granted, if you mean to persist in making your own way. But I live in hope that when you have demonstrated to your own satisfaction that you are perfectly competent to hew out that way for yourself, you will be willing to let some stouter pair of arms take a turn with the axe."

His tone had meaning in it, but she turned it aside.

"Could anybody take your studio away from you? Even though you don't do it for a living, but only because you adore it, could you be induced to give it up?"

"I'm not trying to induce you to give yours up. I'll build a separate one for you right beside mine, any time you say the word, and you shall pursue your avocation in perfect freedom. All I object to is your making the thing your vocation. I know of a better one for you."

She shook her head. "We went over all this ground-over and over it-bef

ore I came away. Why do you come out here and begin it all over again? I don't want to talk about it."

"I came because I had to see for myself what sort of a place you were in. I had a notion that it wasn't good enough. It isn't. You can't be comfortable in it, through the most of the year. Neither can Madam Chase."

"We can be perfectly comfortable." She spoke quickly and decidedly. "You know absolutely that I wouldn't sacrifice what is dearest to me in the world for the sake of having my own way. The little house is primitive, but Granny can be made as snug in it as in any stone mansion."

"The thing may tumble down about your ears in the first high wind."

"It will not. Dr. Burns went over it thoroughly, and says it is much more substantial than it looks."

"Dr. Burns! May I ask who the gentleman is?"

"My neighbour across the street. He is devoted to Granny, and had as many fears as you could have before he tested the house."

"Is he married?"

"Certainly." It was impossible to help laughing a little at his tone, which was that of a jealous boy.

"Thank heaven for that! I'm suspicious of men who are devoted to your grandmother, charming old lady though she is. But, in spite of Dr. Burns's invaluable opinion, I must beg to differ with him. You can't be comfortable in that chicken-coop through the winter."

"I don't know," Charlotte said slowly, sitting up very straight in the twilight, and looking steadily in front of her, "that you have any right to care whether we are comfortable or not."

"No right to care? Not the right of an old friend? Charlotte, you wouldn't deny me that? Why, child, I saw you grow up. I was your father's trusted friend, in spite of being much younger than he. And I'm not so much older than you, after all-only fifteen years. You might at least let me play at being elder brother to you."

"I did let you play that for a long, long time. It was only when-"

She paused. He took her up.

"Only when I began to intimate that the relation wasn't fully satisfying that you began to give me the cold shoulder. You haven't even written to me since you've been here. Are you aware of that?"

She nodded. "There was nothing to write. And I've been very busy."

He drew in his breath, held it for a minute, and let it go again explosively.

"Charlotte," said he, presently, "it seems to me I've lost ground with you. I wish I knew why. You know perfectly well that I won't bother you with my suit if you won't listen to it,-at least, I won't bother you with it all the time. I don't promise to give up hope. But what I can't bear is to have you treat me as if you wouldn't have even my friendship any longer. It hurts to hear you say I have no right to care whether you live in a comfortable home or not."

She turned impulsively. "Then I take it back. You have a certain right, it's true. You have been a good friend, and I owe you much. It's because I'm foolishly sensitive about this little cottage. I can see, of course, that it looks like a poor place to a man who lives in one of the finest houses in the State of Maryland, but I can't let that influence me. If you happened to be the sort of man who loves to go off into the woods and live in a log shack for a whole hunting-season you'd understand its charm for me. I don't in the least mind washing my face in a tin basin. You do mind."

"Not when you offer it. But it's not the tin basin I object to. That is-"

"It is the tin basin. You don't like to see a woman live in such a plain way. But I tell you this, Mr. Brant: she can be just as much a woman of refinement-"

"My dear girl-"

"Yes, I lost my temper for a minute," she admitted. "I shouldn't have said that. I shouldn't offend you by implying that you don't know it. What I mean is that the luxuries you consider essential are not essential. I was brought up among them. I loved them as you do. It is good for me to do without them-I am conscious of it every day. I shall be a stronger woman and a better woman if I can learn not to care."

"But you haven't wholly learned yet." He said it with satisfaction.

"I have learned!" She flung it at him. "I don't mind living in this simple way, except when a man like you comes along and tries, deliberately tries, to make me conscious of it."

He leaned toward her with a sudden, passionate gesture. "Charlotte, forgive me! It is because I long so to take you away from it, to give you the sort of home you have known in the old days. It fits you so well-that sort of home. You were a princess in the old home; you would be a queen in a new one."

"Oh, don't!"

"All right, I won't."

There was silence between them for some time after this. Brant sat with his hands clenched and resting upon his knees, his head bent a little. Charlotte had turned and laid one bended arm upon the high back of the old bench-her head rested against it. She was the first to speak, in the light tone with which her sex is accustomed to let a situation down from the heights of strong emotion to a more normal level.

"What do you do with a sitter who won't let you bring out her best points, but insists on making herself into the stiffest sort of a lay figure?"

"Chloroform her and relax the tension." Brant's tone was grim. Then, suddenly, he looked up. "Will you let me go in and make a flashlight of you by a new method I've worked out? I promise you you'll find it a trick worth knowing."

"I shall be delighted. You've taught me half I know, and I'm more grateful than I seem."

"I hope that's true," he said, still in the grim tone, as they went up the garden path toward the house.

Inside the house he became the exponent of the art of which he was past master. His study was to him only a diversion, but he had become distinguished in it as an amateur who played at being a professional for the interest of it, and who possessed a collection of photographic portraits of half the celebrities in the world. With eager interest Charlotte watched him manipulate improvised screens and devices for casting light and shadow, and when he posed her understood the result he meant to produce.

"Oh, that will give a new effect!" she said, delightedly. "I should never have thought of it in the world."

"It will almost absolutely overcome the flatness of the flashlight, as you will see when we develop it-if you will let me stay so long. Now-"

The flash flared and died. Brant smiled with gratification. If he knew what he was doing he had a new portrait of Charlotte Ruston which would surpass anything he had yet made of her. It seemed to him that during these last weeks she had grown even more desirable than he had ever known her. There had always been a spirit and enchantment about her personality which had been his undoing, but there was now a quality in it which was well nigh his despair-the quality born of self-sacrifice and endeavour, those invisible but potent agencies in the creating of the highest type of womanly charm.

The pair went into the dark-room together. Here, at least, Mr. Brant was able to give sincere approval. Although the place was cramped no necessary detail was lacking. Charlotte had not spared expense in transporting material or in fitting the spot with the requisite conveniences for swift and sure work. In a very few minutes Brant was showing his pupil the negative, which her trained eye was fully able to appreciate.

"Oh, that will make a perfect print," she exclaimed, everything else forgotten in the joy of the artist over the overcoming of difficulties. "You certainly have conquered almost the last obstacle to the making of flashlight portraits. That will be soft as daylight. I will make the print to-morrow and let you know."

"You don't mean to send me merely a report of its appearance, I hope."

She laughed. "Of course I'll make a print for you, if you want it. Perhaps you'll admit, when you see the setting, that the old room isn't such an inartistic choice for a photographer."

"The old room is delightful-as a background. But when your feet are freezing on its cold floor, in the dead of next winter-Never mind, we won't go back to that. I admit it's a September night, and there's no use in my borrowing trouble. Besides, I suppose I must be off in half an hour. Let's make the most of it."

They sat in the room in question and talked of developers and fixing-baths, of processes and results, and Charlotte found such interest in these technical topics that she glowed and sparkled as another woman might have done at talk of quite different things. She knew well enough that nobody could give her greater aid or inspiration in her work than Eugene Brant, whose signature upon any portrait meant approval in the large world where he was known.

In spite of his over-heaviness of outline he was not an uninteresting figure as he sat there. His face had not taken on superfluous flesh as his body had acquired weight, and its lines were good to the eye of the artist. His eye was clear, his smile full and not lacking in a certain winning quality which spoke of sympathy and understanding. One who had never before seen him would not doubt that here was a man worth acquaintance, in spite of the fact that his only labour was in the pursuit of a fancy rather than in the making of a living.

The hour came for his reluctant departure. Standing on Charlotte's shaky little porch he looked up at her as she stood on the threshold above him. Against the light in the room behind her the outlines of her lithe young figure were to him adorable. He took her hand and held it for a minute with a strong pressure which spoke for him of his longing to keep it in his permanent possession.

"Will you send me off with the assurance that at least my friendship is still something to you?" he asked her. "You can be as independent as you like, but you need friends. Or, if that has small weight with you, let me appeal to your generosity. I need your friendship even more than you need mine."

"Unhappy Mr. Brant." She was smiling. "So few friends, so few pleasures, he needs poor Charlotte Ruston's support!"

"Poor Charlotte Ruston is a greater inspiration to Eugene Brant's good work than any dozen of his fashionable patrons."

"I am honoured-truly. And, of course, we are friends, the best of friends. I will send you the print soon. Thank you for coming. You have helped me very much."

With which he was obliged to be content.

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