The Eyes of the World
By Harold Bell Wright
Author of "That Printer of Udells," "The Shepherd of the Hills," "The Calling of Dan Matthews," "The Winning of Barbara Worth," "Their Yesterdays," Etc.
To Benjamin H. Pearson
Student, Artist, Gentleman
in appreciation of the friendship that began on the "Pipe-Line Trail," at the camp in the sycamores back of the old orchard, and among the higher peaks of the San Bernardinos; and because this story will always mean more to him than to any one else,—this book, with all good wishes, is
H. B. W.
"Tecolote Rancho," April 13, 1914.
"I have learned To look on Nature not as in the hour Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes The sad, still music of humanity, Not harsh or grating, though of ample power To chasten and subdue. And I have felt, A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is in the lights of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man. A motion and a spirit that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thoughts, And rolls through all things.
Therefore am I still A lover of the meadows and the woods And mountains......... ....... And this prayer I make, Knowing that Nature never did betray The heart that loved her. 'Tis her privilege Through all the years of this one life, to lead From joy to joy; for she can so inform The mind that is within us—so impress With quietness and beauty, and so feed With lofty thoughts—that neither evil tongues, Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men, Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all The dreary intercourse of daily life, Shalt e'er prevail against us, or disturb Our cheerful faith."
I. His Inheritance II. The Woman With the Disfigured Face III. The Famous Conrad Lagrange IV. At the House on Fairlands Heights V. The Mystery of the Rose Garden VI. An Unknown Friend VII. Mrs. Taine in Quaker Gray VIII. The Portrait That Was Not a Portrait IX. Conrad Lagrange's Adventure X. A Cry in the Night XI. Go Look in Your Mirror, You Fool XII. First Fruits of His Shame XIII. Myra Willard's Challenge XIV. In the Mountains XV. The Forest Ranger's Story XVI. When the Canyon Gates Are Shut XVII. Confessions in the Spring Glade XVIII. Sibyl Andres and the Butterflies XIX. The Three Gifts and their Meanings XX. Myra's Prayer and the Ranger's Warning XXI. The Last Climb XXII. Shadows of Coming Events XXIII. Outside the Canyon Gates Again XXIV. James Rutlidge Makes a Mistake XXV. On the Pipe-Line Trail XXVI. I Want You Just as You Are XXVII. The Answer XXVIII. You're Ruined, My Boy XXIX. The Hand Writing On The Wall XXX. In the Same Hour XXXI. As the World Sees XXXII. The Mysterious Disappearance XXXIII. Beginning the Search XXXIV. The Tracks on Granite Peak XXXV. A Hard Way XXXVI. What Should He Do XXXVII. The Man Was Insane XXXVIII. An Inevitable Conflict XXXIX. The Better Way XL. Facing the Truth XLI. Marks of the Beast XLII. Aaron King's Success
Illustrations from Oil Paintings
F. Graham Cootes
A curious expression of baffling, quizzing, half pathetic, and wholly cynical, interrogation
"Well, what do you want? What are you doing here?"
Still she did not speak
The Eyes of the World
It was winter—cold and snow and ice and naked trees and leaden clouds and stinging wind.
The house was an ancient mansion on an old street in that city of culture which has given to the history of our nation—to education, to religion, to the sciences, and to the arts—so many illustrious names.
In the changing years, before the beginning of my story, the woman's immediate friends and associates had moved from the neighborhood to the newer and more fashionable districts of a younger generation. In that city of her father's there were few of her old companions left. There were fewer who remembered. The distinguished leaders in the world of art and letters, whose voices had been so often heard within the walls of her home, had, one by one, passed on; leaving their works and their names to their children. The children, in the greedy rush of these younger times, had too readily forgotten the woman who, to the culture and genius of a passing day, had been hostess and friend.
The apartment was pitifully bare and empty. Ruthlessly it had been stripped of its treasures of art and its proud luxuries. But, even in its naked necessities the room managed, still, to evidence the rare intelligence and the exquisite refinement of its dying tenant.
The face upon the pillow, so wasted by sickness, was marked by the death-gray. The eyes, deep in their hollows between the fleshless forehead and the prominent cheek-bones, were closed; the lips were livid; the nose was sharp and pinched; the colorless cheeks were sunken; but the outlines were still delicately drawn and the proportions nobly fashioned. It was, still, the face of a gentlewoman. In the ashen lips, only, was there a sign of life; and they trembled and fluttered in their effort to utter the words that an indomitable spirit gave them to speak.
"To-day—to-day—he will—come." The voice was a thin, broken whisper; but colored, still, with pride and gladness.
A young woman in the uniform of a trained nurse turned quickly from the window. With soft, professional step, she crossed the room to bend over the bed. Her trained fingers sought the skeleton wrist; she spoke slowly, distinctly, with careful clearness; and, under the cool professionalism of her words, there was a tone of marked respect. "What is it, madam?"
The sunken eyes opened. As a burst of sunlight through the suddenly opened doors of a sepulchre, the death-gray face was illumed. In those eyes, clear and burning, the nurse saw all that remained of a powerful personality. In their shadowy depths, she saw the last glowing embers of the vital fire gathered; carefully nursed and tended; kept alive by a will that was clinging, with almost superhuman tenacity, to a definite purpose. Dying, this woman would not die—could not die—until the end for which she willed to live should be accomplished. In the very grasp of Death, she was forcing Death to stay his hand—without life, she was holding Death at bay.
It was magnificent, and the gentle face under the nurse's cap shone with appreciation and admiration as she smiled her sympathy and understanding.
"My son—my son—will come—to-day." The voice was stronger, and, with the eyes, expressed a conviction—a certainty—with the faintest shadow of a question.
The nurse looked at her watch. "The boat was due in New York, early this morning, madam."
A step sounded in the hall outside. The nurse started, and turned quickly toward the door. But the woman said, "The doctor." And, again, the fire that burned in those sunken eyes was hidden wearily under their dark lids.
The white-haired physician and the nurse, at the farther end of the room, spoke together in low tones. Said the physician,—incredulous,—"You say there is no change?"
"None that I can detect," breathed the nurse. "It is wonderful!"
"Her mind is clear?"
"As though she were in perfect health."
The doctor took the nurse's chart. For a moment, he studied it in silence. He gave it back with a gesture of amazement. "God! nurse," he whispered, "she should be in her grave by now! It's a miracle! But she has always been like that—" he continued, half to himself, looking with troubled admiration toward the bed at the other end of the room—"always."
He went slowly forward to the chair that the nurse placed for him. Seating himself quietly beside his patient, and bending forward with intense interest, his fine old head bowed, he regarded with more than professional care the wasted face upon the pillow.
The doctor remembered, too well, when those finely moulded features—now, so worn by sorrow, so marked by sickness, so ghastly in the hue of death—were rounded with young-woman health and tinted with rare loveliness. He recalled that day when he saw her a bride. He remembered the sweet, proud dignity of her young wifehood. He saw her, again, when her face shone with the glad triumph and the holy joy of motherhood.
The old physician turned from his patient, to look with sorrowful eyes about the room that was to witness the end.
Why was such a woman dying like this? Why was a life of such rich mental and spiritual endowments—of such wealth of true culture—coming to its close in such material poverty?
The doctor was one of the few who knew. He was one of the few who understood that, to the woman herself, it was necessary.
There were those who—without understanding, for the sake of the years that were gone—would have surrounded her with the material comforts to which, in her younger days, she had been accustomed. The doctor knew that there was one—a friend of her childhood, famous, now, in the world of books—who would have come from the ends of the earth to care for her. All that a human being could do for her, in those days of her life's tragedy, that one had done. Then—because he understood—he had gone away. Her own son did not know—could not, in his young manhood, have understood, if he had known—would not understand when he came. Perhaps, some day, he would understand—perhaps.
When the physician turned again toward the bed, to touch with gentle fingers the wrist of his patient, his eyes were wet.
At his touch, her eyes opened to regard him with affectionate trust and gratitude.
"Well Mary," he said almost bruskly.
The lips fashioned the ghost of a smile; into her eyes came the gleam of that old time challenging spirit. "Well—Doctor George," she answered. Then,—"I—told you—I would not—go—until he came. I must—have my way—still—you see. He will—come—to-day He must come."
"Yes, Mary," returned the doctor,—his fingers still on the thin wrist, and his eyes studying her face with professional keenness,—"yes, of course."
"And George—you will not forget—your promise? You will—give me a few minutes—of strength—when he comes—so that I can tell him? I—I—must tell him myself—George. You—will do—this last thing—for me?"
"Yes, Mary, of course," he answered again. "Everything shall be as you wish—as I promised."
"Thank you—George. Thank you—my dear—dear—old friend."
The nurse—who had been standing at the window—stepped quickly to the table that held a few bottles, glasses, and instruments. The doctor looked at her sharply. She nodded a silent answer, as she opened a small, flat, leather case. With his fingers still on his patient's wrist, the physician spoke a word of instruction; and, in a moment, the nurse placed a hypodermic needle in his hand.
As the doctor gave the instrument, again, to his assistant, a quick step sounded in the hall outside.
The patient turned her head. Her eager eyes were fixed upon the door; her voice—stronger, now, with the strength of the powerful stimulant—rang out; "My boy—my boy—he is here! George, nurse, my boy is here!"
The door opened. A young man of perhaps twenty-two years stood on the threshold.
The most casual observer would have seen that he was a son of the dying woman. In the full flush of his young manhood's vigor, there was the same modeling of the mouth, the same nose with finely turned nostrils, the same dark eyes under a breadth of forehead; while the determined chin and the well-squared jaw, together with a rather remarkable fineness of line, told of an inherited mental and spiritual strength and grace as charming as it is, in these days, rare. His dress was that of a gentleman of culture and social position. His very bearing evidenced that he had never been without means to gratify the legitimate tastes of a cultivated and refined intelligence.
As he paused an instant in the open door to glance about that poverty stricken room, a look of bewildering amazement swept over his handsome face. He started to draw back—as if he had unintentionally entered the wrong apartment. Looking at the doctor, his lips parted as if to apologize for his intrusion. But before he could speak, his eyes met the eyes of the woman on the bed.
With a cry of horror, he sprang forward;—"Mother! Mother!"
As he knelt there by the bed, when the first moments of their meeting were past, he turned his face toward the doctor. From the physician his gaze went to the nurse, then back again to his mother's old friend. His eyes were burning with shame and sorrow—with pain and doubt and accusation. His low voice was tense with emotion, as he demanded, "What does this mean? Why is my mother here like—like this?"—his eyes swept the bare room again.
The dying woman answered. "I will explain, my boy. It is to tell you, that I have waited."
At a look from the doctor, the nurse quietly followed the physician from the room.
It was not long. When she had finished, the false strength that had kept the woman alive until she had accomplished that which she conceived to be her last duty, failed quickly.
"You will—promise—you will?"
"Yes, mother, yes."
"Your education—your training—your blood—they—are—all—that—I can—give you, my son."
"O mother, mother! why did you not tell me before? Why did I not know!" The cry was a protest—an expression of bitterest shame and sorrow.
She smiled. "It—was—all that I could do—for you—my son—the only way—I could—help. I do not—regret the cost. You will—not forget?"
"Never, mother, never."
"You promise—to—to regain that—which—your father—"
Solemnly the answer came,—in an agony of devotion and love,—"I promise—yes, mother, I promise."
* * * * *
A month later, the young man was traveling, as fast as modern steam and steel could carry him, toward the western edge of the continent.
He was flying from the city of his birth, as from a place accursed. He had set his face toward a new land—determined to work out, there, his promise—the promise that he did not, at the first, understand.
How he misunderstood,—how he attempted to use his inheritance to carry out what he first thought was his mother's wish,—and how he came at last to understand, is the story that I have to tell.
The Woman with the Disfigured Face
The Golden State Limited, with two laboring engines, was climbing the desert side of San Gorgonio Pass.
Now San Gorgonio Pass—as all men should know—is one of the two eastern gateways to the beautiful heart of Southern California. It is, therefore, the gateway to the scenes of my story.
As the heavy train zigzagged up the long, barren slope of the mountain, in its effort to lessen the heavy grade, the young man on the platform of the observation car could see, far to the east, the shimmering, sun-filled haze that lies, always, like a veil of mystery, over the vast reaches of the Colorado Desert. Now and then, as the Express swung around the curves, he gained a view of the lonely, snow-piled peaks of the San Bernardinos; with old San Gorgonio, lifting above the pine-fringed ridges of the lower Galenas, shining, silvery white, against the blue. Again, on the southern side of the pass, he saw San Jacinto's crags and cliffs rising almost sheer from the right-of-way.
But the man watching the ever-changing panorama of gorgeously colored and fantastically unreal landscape was not thinking of the scenes that, to him, were new and strange. His thoughts were far away. Among those mountains grouped about San Gorgonio, the real value of the inheritance he had received from his mother was to be tested. On the pine-fringed ridge of the Galenas, among those granite cliffs and jagged peaks, the mettle of his manhood was to be tried under a strain such as few men in this commonplace work-a-day old world are-subjected to. But the young man did not know this.
On the long journey across the continent, he had paid little heed to the sights that so interested his fellow passengers. To his fellow passengers, themselves, he had been as indifferent. To those who had approached him casually, as the sometimes tedious hours passed, he had been quietly and courteously unresponsive. This well-bred but decidedly marked disinclination to mingle with them, together with the undeniably distinguished appearance of the young man, only served to center the interest of the little world of the Pullmans more strongly upon him. Keeping to himself, and engrossed with his own thoughts, he became the object of many idle conjectures.
Among the passengers whose curious eyes were so often turned in his direction, there was one whose interest was always carefully veiled. She was a woman of evident rank and distinction in that world where rank and distinction are determined wholly by dollars and by such social position as dollars can buy. She was beautiful; but with that carefully studied, wholly self-conscious—one is tempted to say professional—beauty of her kind. Her full rounded, splendidly developed body was gowned to accentuate the alluring curves of her sex. With such skill was this deliberate appeal to the physical hidden under a cloak of a pretending modesty that its charm was the more effectively revealed. Her features were almost too perfect. She was too coldly sure of herself—too perfectly trained in the art of self-repression. For a woman as young as she evidently was, she seemed to know too much. The careful indifference of her countenance seemed to say, "I am too well schooled in life to make mistakes." She was traveling with two companions—a fluffy, fluttering, characterless shadow of womanhood, and a man—an invalid who seldom left the privacy of the drawing-room which he occupied.
As the train neared the summit of the pass, the young man on the observation car platform looked at his watch. A few miles more and he would arrive at his destination. Rising to his feet, he drew a deep breath of the glorious, sun-filled air. With his back to the door, and looking away into the distance, he did not notice the woman who, stepping from the car at that moment, stood directly behind him, steadying herself by the brass railing in front of the window. To their idly observing fellow passengers, the woman, too, appeared interested in the distant landscape. She might have been looking at the only other occupant of the platform. The passengers, from where they sat, could not have told.
As he stood there,—against the background of the primitive, many-colored landscape,—the young man might easily have attracted the attention of any one. He would have attracted attention in a crowd. Tall, with an athletic trimness of limb, a good breadth of shoulder, and a fine head poised with that natural, unconscious pride of the well-bred—he kept his feet on the unsteady platform of the car with that easy grace which marks only well-conditioned muscles, and is rarely seen save in those whose lives are sanely clean.
The Express had entered the yards at the summit station, and was gradually lessening its speed. Just as the man turned to enter the car, the train came to a full stop, and the sudden jar threw him almost into the arms of the woman. For an instant, while he was struggling to regain his balance, he was so close to her that their garments touched. Indeed, he only prevented an actual collision by throwing his arm across her shoulder and catching the side of the car window against which she was leaning.
In that moment, while his face was so close to hers that she might have felt his breath upon her cheek and he was involuntarily looking straight into her eyes, the man felt, queerly, that the woman was not shrinking from him. In fact, one less occupied with other thoughts might have construed her bold, open look, her slightly parted lips and flushed cheeks, as a welcome—quite as though she were in the habit of having handsome young men throw themselves into her arms.
Then, with a hint of a smile in his eyes, he was saying, conventionally, "I beg your pardon. It was very stupid of me."
As he spoke, a mask of cold indifference slipped over her face. Without deigning to notice his courteous apology, she looked away, and, moving to the railing of the platform, became ostensibly interested in the busy activity of the railroad yards.
Had the woman—in that instant when his arm was over her shoulder and his eyes were looking into hers—smiled, the incident would have slipped quickly from his mind. As it was, the flash-like impression of the moment remained, and—
Down the steep grade of the narrow San Timateo Canyon, on the coast side of the mountain pass, the Overland thundered on the last stretch of its long race to the western edge of the continent. And now, from the car windows, the passengers caught tantalizing glimpses of bright pastures with their herds of contented dairy cows, and with their white ranch buildings set in the shade of giant pepper and eucalyptus trees. On the rounded shoulders and steep flanks of the foothills that form the sides of the canyon, the barley fields looked down upon the meadows; and, now and then, in the whirling landscape winding side canyons—beautiful with live-oak and laurel, with greasewood and sage—led the eye away toward the pine-fringed ridges of the Galenas while above, the higher snow-clad peaks and domes of the San Bernardinos still shone coldly against the blue.
In the Pullman, there was a stir of awakening interest The travel-wearied passengers, laying aside books and magazines and cards, renewed conversations that, in the last monotonous hours of the desert part of the journey, had lagged painfully. Throughout the train, there was an air of eager expectancy; a bustling movement of preparation. The woman of the observation car platform had disappeared into her stateroom. The young man gathered his things together in readiness to leave the train at the next stop.
In the flying pictures framed by the windows, the dairy pastures and meadows were being replaced by small vineyards and orchards; the canyon wall, on the northern side, became higher and steeper, shutting out the mountains in the distance and showing only a fringe of trees on the sharp rim; while against the gray and yellow and brown and green of the chaparral on the steep, untilled bluffs, shone the silvery softness of the olive trees that border the arroyo at their feet.
With a long, triumphant shriek, the flying overland train—from the lands of ice and snow—from barren deserts and lonely mountains—rushed from the narrow mouth of the canyon, and swept out into the beautiful San Bernardino Valley where the travelers were greeted by wide, green miles of orange and lemon and walnut and olive groves—by many acres of gardens and vineyards and orchards. Amid these groves and gardens, the towns and cities are set; their streets and buildings half hidden in wildernesses of eucalyptus and peppers and palms; while—towering above the loveliness of the valley and visible now from the sweeping lines of their foothills to the gleaming white of their lonely peaks—rises, in blue-veiled, cloud-flecked steeps and purple shaded canyons, the beauty and grandeur of the mountains.
It was January. To those who had so recently left the winter lands, the Southern California scene—so richly colored with its many shades of living green, so warm in its golden sunlight—seemed a dream of fairyland. It was as though that break in the mountain wall had ushered them suddenly into another world—a world, strange, indeed, to eyes accustomed to snow and ice and naked trees and leaden clouds.
Among the many little cities half concealed in the luxurious, semi-tropical verdure of the wide valley at the foot of the mountains, Fairlands—if you ask a citizen of that well-known mecca of the tourist—is easily the Queen. As for that! all our Southern California cities are set in wildernesses of beauty; all are in wide valleys; all are at the foot of the mountains; all are meccas for tourists; each one—if you ask a citizen—is the Queen. If you, perchance should question this fact—write for our advertising literature.
Passengers on the Golden State Limited—as perhaps you know—do not go direct to Fairlands. They change at Fairlands Junction. The little city, itself, is set in the lap of the hills that form the southern side of the valley, some three miles from the main line. It is as though this particular "Queen" withdrew from the great highway traveled by the vulgar herd—in the proud aloofness of her superior clay, sufficient unto herself. The soil out of which Fairlands is made is much richer, it is said, than the common dirt of her sister cities less than fifteen miles distant. A difference of only a few feet in elevation seems, strangely, to give her a much more rarefied air. Her proudest boast is that she has a larger number of millionaires in proportion to her population than any other city in the land.
It was these peculiar and well-known advantages of Fairlands that led the young man of my story to select it as the starting point of his worthy ambition. And Fairlands is a good place for one so richly endowed with an inheritance that cannot be expressed in dollars to try his strength. Given such a community, amid such surroundings, with a man like the young man of my story, and something may be depended upon to happen.
While the travelers from the East, bound for Fairlands, were waiting at the Junction for the local train that would take them through the orange groves to their journey's end, the young man noticed the woman of the observation car platform with her two companions. And now, as he paced to and fro, enjoying the exercise after the days of confinement in the Pullman, he observed them with stimulated interest—they, too, were going to Fairlands.
The man of the party, though certainly not old in years, was frightfully aged by dissipation and disease. The gross, sensual mouth with its loose-hanging lips; the blotched and clammy skin; the pale, watery eyes with their inflamed rims and flabby pouches; the sunken chest, skinny neck and limbs; and the thin rasping voice—all cried aloud the shame of a misspent life. It was as clearly evident that he was a man of wealth and, in the eyes of the world, of an enviable social rank.
As the young man passed and repassed them, where they stood under the big pepper tree that shades the depot, the man—in his harsh, throaty whisper, between spasms of coughing—was cursing the train service, the country, the weather; and, apparently, whatever else he could think of as being worthy or unworthy his impotent ill-temper. The shadowy suggestion of womanhood—glancing toward the young man—was saying, with affected giggles, "O papa, don't! Oh isn't it perfectly lovely! O papa, don't! Do hush! What will people think?" This last variation of his daughter's plaint must have given the man some satisfaction, at least, for it furnished him another target for his pointless shafts; and he fairly outdid himself in politely damning whoever might presume to think anything at all of him; with the net result that two Mexicans, who were loafing near enough to hear, grinned with admiring amusement. The woman stood a little apart from the others. Coldly indifferent alike to the man's cursing and coughing and to the daughter's ejaculations, she appeared to be looking at the mountains. But the young man fancied that, once or twice, as he faced about at the end of his beat, her eyes were turned in his direction.
When the Fairlands train came in, the three found seats conveniently turned, near the forward end of the car. The young man, in passing, glanced down; and the woman, who had taken the chair next to the aisle, looked up full into his face.
Again, as their eyes met, the man felt—as when they had stood so close together on the platform of the observation car—that she did not shrink from him. It was only for an instant. Then, glancing about for a seat, he saw another face—a face, in its outlines, so like the one into which he had just looked, and yet so different—so far removed in its expression and meaning—that it fixed his attention instantly—compelling his interest.
As this woman sat looking from the car window away toward the distant mountain peaks, the young man thought he had never seen a more perfect profile; nor a countenance that expressed such a beautiful blending of wistful longing, of patient fortitude, and saintly resignation. It was the face of a Madonna,—but a Madonna after the crucifixion,—pathetic in its lonely sorrow, inspiring in its spiritual strength, and holy in its purity and freedom from earthly passions.
She was near his mother's age; and looking at her—as he moved down the aisle—his mother's face, as he had known it before their last meeting, came to him with startling vividness. For an instant, he paused, moved to take the chair beside her; but the next two seats were vacant, and he had no excuse for intruding. Arranging his grips, he quickly seated himself next to the window; and again, with eager interest, turned toward the woman in the chair ahead. Involuntarily, he started with astonishment and pity.
The woman—still gazing from the window at the distant mountain peaks, and seemingly unconscious of her surroundings—presented now, to the man's shocked and compassionate gaze, the other side of her face. It was hideously disfigured by a great scar that—covering the entire cheek and neck—distorted the corner of the mouth, drew down the lower lid of the eye, and twisted her features into an ugly caricature. Even the ear, half hidden under the soft, gray-threaded hair, had not escaped, but was deformed by the same dreadful agent that had wrought such ruin to one of the loveliest countenances the man had ever looked upon.
When the train stopped at Fairlands, and the passengers crowded into the aisle to make their way out, of the characters belonging to my story, the woman with the man and his daughter went first. Following them, a half car-length of people between, went the woman with the disfigured face.
On the depot platform, as they moved toward the street, the young man still held his place near the woman who had so awakened his pitying interest. The three Overland passengers were met by a heavy-faced thick-necked man who escorted them to a luxurious touring car.
The invalid and his daughter had entered the automobile when their escort, in turning toward the other member of the party, saw the woman with the disfigured face—who was now quite near. Instantly, he paused. And there was a smile of recognition on his somewhat coarse features as, lifting his hat, he bowed with—the young man fancied—condescending politeness. The woman standing by his side with her hand upon the door of the automobile, seeing her companion saluting some one, turned—and the next moment, the two women, whose features seemed so like—yet so unlike—were face to face.
The young man saw the woman with the disfigured face stop short. For an instant, she stood as though dazed by an unexpected blow. Then, holding out her hands with a half-pleading, half-groping gesture, she staggered and would have fallen had he not stepped to her side.
"Permit me, madam; you are ill."
She neither spoke nor moved; but, with her eyes fixed upon the woman by the automobile, allowed him to support her—seemingly unconscious of his presence. And never before had the young man seen such anguish of spirit written in a human countenance.
The one who had saluted her, advanced—as though to offer his services. But, as he moved toward her, she shrank back with a low—"No, no!" And such a look of horror and fear came into her eyes that the man by her side felt his muscles tense with indignation.
Looking straight into the heavy face of the stranger, he said curtly, "I think you had better go on."
With a careless shrug, the other turned and went back to the automobile, where he spoke in a low tone to his companions.
The woman, who had been watching with a cold indifference, stepped into the car. The man took his seat by the chauffeur. As the big machine moved away, the woman with the disfigured face, again made as if to stretch forth her hands in a pleading gesture.
The young man spoke pityingly; "May I assist you to a carriage, madam?"
At his words, she looked up at him and—seeming to find in his face the strength she needed—answered in a low voice, "Thank you, sir; I am better now. I will he all right, presently, if you will put me on the car." She indicated a street-car that was just stopping at the crossing.
"Are you quite sure that you are strong enough?" he asked kindly, as he walked with her toward the car.
"Yes,"—with a sad attempt to smile,—"yes, and I thank you very much, sir, for your gentle courtesy."
He assisted her up the step of the car, and stood with bared head as she passed inside, and the conductor gave the signal.
The incident had attracted little attention from the passengers who were hurrying from the train. Their minds were too intent upon other things to more than glance at this little ripple on the surface of life. Those who had chanced to notice the woman's agitation had seen, also, that she was being cared for; and so had passed on, giving the scene no second thought.
When the man returned from the street to his grips on the depot platform, the hacks and hotel buses were gone. As he stood looking about, questioningly, for some one who might direct him to a hotel, his eyes fell upon a strange individual who was regarding him intently.
Fully six feet in height, the observer was so lean that he suggested the unpleasant appearance of a living skeleton. His narrow shoulders were so rounded, his form was so stooped, that the young man's first thought was to wonder how tall he would really be if he could stand erect. His long, thin face, seamed and lined, was striking in its grotesque ugliness. From under his craggy, scowling brows, his sharp green-gray eyes peered with a curious expression of baffling, quizzing, half pathetic, and wholly cynical, interrogation. He was smoking a straight, much-used brier pipe. At his feet, lay a beautiful Irish Setter dog.
Half hidden by a supporting column of the depot portico—as if to escape the notice of the people in the automobile—he had been watching the woman with the disfigured face, with more than casual interest. He turned, now, upon the young man who had so kindly given her assistance.
In answer to the stranger's inquiry, with a curt sentence and a nod of his head he directed him to a hotel—two blocks away.
Thanking him, the young man, carrying his grips, set out. Upon reaching the street, he involuntarily turned to look back.
The oddly appearing character had not moved from his place, but stood, still looking after the stranger—the brier pipe in his mouth, the Irish Setter at his feet.
The Famous Conrad Lagrange
When the young man reached the hotel, he went at once to his room, where he passed the time between the hour of his arrival and the evening meal.
Upon his return to the lobby, the first object that attracted his eyes was the uncouth figure of the man whom he had seen at the depot, and who had directed him to the hotel.
That oddly appearing individual, his brier pipe still in his mouth and the Irish Setter at his feet, was standing—or rather lounging—at the clerk's counter, bending over the register; an attitude which—making his skeleton-like form more round shouldered than ever—caused him to present the general outlines of a rude interrogation point.
In the dining-room, a few minutes later, the two men sat at adjoining tables; and the young man heard his neighbor bullying the waiters and commenting in an audible undertone, upon every dish that was served to him—swearing by all the heathen gods, known and unknown, that there was nothing fit to eat in the house; and that if it were not for the fact that there was no place else in the cursed town that served half so good, he would not touch a mouthful in the place. Then, to the other's secret amusement he fell to right heartily and made an astonishing meal of the really excellent viands he had so roundly vilified.
Dinner over, the young man went with his cigar to the long veranda; intent upon enjoying the restful quiet of the evening after the tiresome days on the train. Carrying a chair to an unoccupied corner, he had his cigar just nicely under way when the Irish Setter—with all the dignity of his royal blood—approached. Resting a seal-brown head, with its long silky ears, confidently upon the stranger's knee, the dog looked up into the man's face with an expression of hearty good-fellowship in his soft, golden-brown eyes that was irresistible.
"Good dog," said the man, heartily, "good old fellow," and stroked the sleek head and neck, affectionately.
A whiff of pipe smoke drifted over his shoulder, and he looked around. The dog's master stood just behind him; regarding him with that quizzing, half pathetic, half humorous, and altogether cynical expression.
The young man who had been so unresponsive to the advances of his fellow passengers, for some reason—unknown, probably, to himself—now took the initiative. "You have a fine dog here, sir," he said encouragingly.
Without replying, the other turned away and in another moment returned with a chair; whereupon the dog, with slightly waving, feathery tail, transferred his attention to his master.
Caressing the seal-brown head with a gentle hand, and apparently speaking to the soft eyes that looked up at him so understandingly, the man said, "If the human race was fit to associate with such dogs, the world would be a more comfortable place to live in." The deep voice that rumbled up from some unguessed depths of that sunken chest was remarkable in its suggestion of a virile power that the general appearance of the man seemed to deny. Facing his companion suddenly, he asked with a direct bluntness, "Are you not Aaron King—son of the Aaron King of New England political fame?"
Under the searching gaze of those green-gray eyes, the young man flushed. "Yes; my father was active in New England politics," he answered simply. "Did you know him?"
"Very well"—returned the other—"very well." He repeated the two words with a suggestive emphasis; his eyes—with that curious, baffling, questioning look—still fixed upon his companion's face.
The red in Aaron King's cheeks deepened.
Looking away, the strange man added, with a softer note in his rough voice, "I thought I knew you, when I saw you at the depot. Your mother and I were boy and girl together. There is a little of her face in yours. If you have as much of her character, you are to be congratulated—and—so are the rest of us." The last words were spoken, apparently, to the dog; who, still looking up at him, seemed to express with slow-waving tail, an understanding of thoughts that were only partly put into words.
There was an impersonality in the man's personalities that made it impossible for the subject of his observations to take offense.
Aaron King—when it was evident that the man had no thought of introducing himself—said, with the fine courtesy that seemed always to find expression in his voice and manner, "May I ask your name, sir?"
The other, without turning his eyes from the dog, answered, "Conrad Lagrange."
The young man smiled. "I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Lagrange. Surely, you are not the famous novelist of that name?"
"And why, 'surely not'?" retorted the other, again turning his face quickly toward his companion. "Am I not distinguished enough in appearance? Do I look like the mob? True, I am a scrawny, humpbacked crooked-faced, scarecrow of a man—but what matters that, if I do not look like the mob? What is called fame is as scrawny and humpbacked and crooked-faced as my body—but what matters that? Famous or infamous—to not look like the mob is the thing."
It is impossible to put in print the peculiar humor of pathetic regret, of sarcasm born of contempt, of intolerant intellectual pride, that marked the last sentence, which was addressed to the dog, as though the speaker turned from his human companion to a more worthy listener.
When Aaron King could find no words to reply, the novelist shot another question at him, with startling suddenness. "Do you read my books?"
The other began a halting answer to the effect that everybody read Conrad Lagrange's books. But the distinguished author interrupted; "Don't take the trouble to lie—out of politeness. I shall ask you to tell me about them and you will be in a hole."
The young man laughed as he said, with straight-forward frankness, "I have read only one, Mr. Lagrange."
"The—ah—why—the one, you know—where the husband of one woman falls in love with the wife of another who is in love with the husband of some one else. Pshaw!—what is the title? I mean the one that created such a furore, you know."
"Yes"—said the man, to his dog—"O yes, Czar—I am the famous Conrad Lagrange. I observe"—he added, turning to the other, with twinkling eyes—"I observe, Mr. King, that you really do have a good bit of your mother's character. That you do not read my books is a recommendation that I, better than any one, know how to appreciate." The light of humor went from his face, suddenly, as it had come. Again he turned away; and his deep voice was gentle as he continued, "Your mother is a rare and beautiful spirit, sir. Knowing her regard for the true and genuine,—her love for the pure and beautiful,—I scarcely expected to find her son interested in the realism of my fiction. I congratulate you, young man"—he paused; then added with indescribable bitterness—"that you have not read my books."
For a few moments, Aaron King did not answer. At last, with quiet dignity, he said, "My mother was a remarkable woman, Mr. Lagrange."
The other faced him quickly. "You say was? Do you mean—?"
"My mother is dead, sir. I was called home from abroad by her illness."
For a little, the older man sat looking into the gathering dusk. Then, deliberately, he refilled his brier pipe, and, rising, said to his dog, "Come, Czar—it's time to go."
Without a word of parting to his human companion with the dog moving sedately by his side, he disappeared into the darkness of the night.
* * * * *
All the next day, Aaron King—in the hotel dining-room, the lobby, and on the veranda—watched for the famous novelist. Even on the streets of the little city, he found himself hoping to catch a glimpse of the uncouth figure and the homely, world-worn face of the man whose unusual personality had so attracted him. The day was nearly gone when Conrad Lagrange again appeared. As on the evening before, the young man was smoking his after-dinner cigar on the veranda, when the Irish Setter and a whiff of pipe smoke announced the strange character's presence.
Without taking a seat, the novelist said, "I always have a look at the mountains, at this time of the day, Mr. King—would you care to come? These mountains are the real thing, you know, and well worth seeing—particularly at this hour." There was a gentle softness in his deep voice, now—as unlike his usual speech as his physical appearance was unlike that of his younger companion.
Aaron King arose quickly. "Thank you, Mr, Lagrange; I will go with pleasure."
Accompanied by the dog, they followed the avenue, under the giant pepper trees that shut out the sky with their gnarled limbs and gracefully drooping branches, to the edge of the little city; where the view to the north and northeast was unobstructed by houses. Just where the street became a road, Conrad Lagrange—putting his hand upon his companion's arm—said in a low voice, "This is the place."
Behind them, beautiful Fairlands lay, half lost, in its wilderness of trees and flowers. Immediately in the foreground, a large tract of unimproved land brought the wild grasses and plants to their very feet. Beyond these acres—upon which there were no trees—the orange groves were massed in dark green blocks and squares; with, here and there, thin rows of palms; clumps of peppers; or tall, plume-like eucalyptus; to mark the roads and the ranch homes. Beyond this—and rising, seemingly, out of the groves—the San Bernardinos heaved their mighty masses into the sky. It was almost dark. The city's lamps were lighted. The outlines of grove and garden were fast being lost in the deepening dusk. The foothills, with the lower spurs and ridges of the mountains, were softly modeled in dark blue against the deeper purple of the canyons and gorges. Upon the cloudless sky that was lighted with clearest saffron, the lines of the higher crests were sharply drawn; while the lonely, snow-capped peaks,—ten thousand feet above the darkening valley below,—catching the last rays of the sun, glowed rose-pink—changing to salmon—deepening into mauve—as the light failed.
Aaron King broke the silence by drawing a long breath—as one who could find no words to express his emotions.
Conrad Lagrange spoke sadly; "And to think that there are,—in this city of ten thousand,—probably, nine thousand nine hundred and ninety people who never see it."
With a short laugh, the young man said, "It makes my fingers fairly itch for my palette and brushes—though it's not at all my sort of thing."
The other turned toward him quickly. "You are an artist?"
"I had just completed my three years study abroad when mother's illness brought me home. I was fortunate enough to get one on the line, and they say—over there—that I had a good chance. I don't know how it will go here at home." There was a note of anxiety in his voice.
"What do you do?"
With his face again toward the mountains, the novelist said thoughtfully, "This West country will produce some mighty artists, Mr. King. By far the greater part of this land must remain, always, in its primitive naturalness. It will always be easier, here, than in the city crowded East, for a man to be himself. There is less of that spirit which is born of clubs and cliques and clans and schools—with their fine-spun theorizing, and their impudent assumption that they are divinely commissioned to sit in judgment. There is less of artistic tea-drinking, esthetic posing, and soulful talk; and more opportunity for that loneliness out of which great art comes. The atmosphere of these mountains and deserts and seas inspires to a self-assertion, rather than to a clinging fast to the traditions and culture of others—and what, after all, is a great artist, but one who greatly asserts himself?"
The younger man answered in a like vein; "Mr. Lagrange, your words recall to my mind a thought in one of mother's favorite books. She quoted from the volume so often that, as a youngster, I almost knew it by heart, and, in turn, it became my favorite. Indeed, I think that, with mother's aid as an interpreter, it has had more influence upon my life than any other one book. This is the thought: 'To understand the message of the mountains; to love them for what they are; and, in terms of every-day life, to give expression to that understanding and love—is a mark of true greatness of soul.' I do not know the author. The book is anonymous."
"I am the author of that book, sir," the strange man answered with simple dignity, "—or, rather,—I should say,—I was the author," he added, with a burst of his bitter, sarcastic humor. "For God's sake don't betray me. I am, now, the famous Conrad Lagrange, you understand. I have a name to protect." His deep voice was shaken with feeling. His worn and rugged features twitched and worked with emotion.
Aaron King listened in amazement to the words that were spoken by the famous novelist with such pathetic regret and stinging self-accusation. Not knowing how to reply, he said casually, "You are working here, Mr. Lagrange?"
"Working! Me? I don't work anywhere. I am a literary scavenger. I haunt the intellectual slaughter pens, and live by the putrid offal that self-respecting writers reject. I glean the stinking materials for my stories from the sewers and cesspools of life. For the dollars they pay, I furnish my readers with those thrills that public decency forbids them to experience at first hand. I am a procurer for the purposes of mental prostitution. My books breed moral pestilence and spiritual disease. The unholy filth I write fouls the minds and pollutes the imaginations of my readers. I am an instigator of degrading immorality and unmentionable crimes. Work! No, young man, I don't work. Just now, I'm doing penance in this damned town. My rotten imaginings have proven too much—even for me—and the doctors sent me West to recuperate,"
The artist could find no words that would answer. In silence, the two men turned away from the mountains, and started back along the avenue by which they had come.
When they had walked some little distance, the young man said, "This is your first visit to Fairlands, Mr. Lagrange?"
"I was here last year"—answered the other—"here and in the hills yonder. Have you been much in the mountains?"
"Not in California. This is my first trip to the West. I have seen something of the mountains, though, at tourist resorts—abroad."
"Which means," commented the other, "that you have never seen them at all."
Aaron King laughed. "I dare say you are right."
"And you—?" asked the novelist, abruptly, eyeing his companion. "What brought you to this community that thinks so much more of its millionaires than it does of its mountains? Have you come to Fairlands to work?"
"I hope to," answered the artist. "There are—there are reasons why I do not care to work, for the present, in the East. I confess it was because I understood that Fairlands offered exceptional opportunities for a portrait painter that I came here. To succeed in my work, you know, one must come in touch with people of influence. It is sometimes easier to interest them when they are away from their homes—in some place like this—where their social duties and business cares are not so pressing."
"There is no question of the material that Fairlands has to offer, Mr. King," returned the novelist, in his grim, sarcastic humor. "God! how I envy you!" he added, with a flash of earnest passion. "You are young—You are beginning your life work—You are looking forward to success—You—"
"I must succeed"—the painter interrupted impetuously—"I must."
"Succeed in what? What do you mean by success?"
"Surely, you should understand what I mean by success," the younger man retorted. "You who have gained—"
"Oh, yes; I forgot"—came the quick interruption—"I am the famous Conrad Lagrange. Of course, you, too, must succeed. You must become the famous Aaron King. But perhaps you will tell me why you must, as you call it, succeed?"
The artist hesitated before answering; then said with anxious earnestness, "I don't think I can explain Mr. Lagrange. My mother—" he paused.
The older man stopped short, and, turning, stood for a little with his face towards the mountains where San Bernardino's pyramid-like peak was thrust among the stars. When he spoke, every bit of that bitter humor was gone from his deep voice. "I beg your pardon, Mr. King"—he said slowly—"I am as ugly and misshapen in spirit as in body."
But when they had walked some way—again in silence—and were drawing near the hotel, the momentary change in his mood passed. In a tone of stinging sarcasm he said. "You are on the right road, Mr. King. You did well to come to Fairlands. It is quite evident that you have mastered the modern technic of your art. To acquire fame, you have only to paint pictures of fast women who have no morals at all—making them appear as innocent maidens, because they have the price to pay, and, in the eyes of the world, are of social importance. Put upon your canvases what the world will call portraits of distinguished citizens—making low-browed money—thugs to look like noble patriots, and bloody butchers of humanity like benevolent saints. You need give yourself no uneasiness about your success. It is easy. Get in with the right people; use your family name and your distinguished ancestors; pull a few judicious advertising wires; do a few artistic stunts; get yourself into the papers long and often, no matter how; make yourself a fad; become a pet of the social autocrats—and your fame is assured. And—you will be what I am."
The young man, quietly ignoring the humor of the novelist's words, said protestingly, "But, surely, to portray human nature is legitimate art, Mr. Lagrange. Your great artists that the West is to produce will not necessarily be landscape painters or write essays upon nature, will they?"
"To portray human nature is legitimate work for an artist, yes"—agreed the novelist—"but he must portray human nature plus. The forces that shape human nature are the forces that must be felt in the picture and in the story. That these determining forces are so seldom seen by the eyes of the world, is the reason for pictures and stories. The artist who fails to realize for his world the character-creating elements in the life which he essays to paint or write, fails, to just that degree, in being an artist; or is self-branded by his work as criminally careless, a charlatan or a liar. That one who, for a price, presents a picture or a story without regard for the influence of his production upon the characters of those who receive it, commits a crime for which human law provides no adequate punishment. Being the famous Conrad Lagrange, you understand, I have the right to say this. You will probably believe it, some day—if you do not now. That is, you will believe it if you have the soul and the intelligence of an artist—if you have not—it will not matter—and you will be happy in your success."
As the novelist finished speaking, the two men arrived at the hotel steps, where they halted, with that indecision of chance acquaintances who have no plans beyond the passing moment, yet who, in mutual interest, would extend the time of their brief companionship. While they stood there, each hesitating to make the advance, a big touring car rolled up the driveway, and stopped under the full light of the veranda. Aaron King recognized the lady of the observation car platform, with her two traveling companions and the heavy-faced man who had met them at the depot. As the party greeted the novelist and he returned their salutation, the artist turned away to find again the chair, where, an hour before, the strange character who was to play so large a part in his life and work had found him. The dog, Czar, as if preferring the companionship of the artist to the company of those who were engaging his master's attention, followed the young man.
From where he sat, the painter could see the tall, uncouth figure of the famous novelist standing beside the automobile, while the occupants of the car were, apparently, absorbingly interested in what he was saying. The beautiful face of the woman was brightly animated as she evidently took the lead in the conversation. The artist could see her laughing and shaking her head. Once, he even heard her speak the writer's name; whereupon, every lounger upon the veranda, within hearing, turned to observe the party with curious interest. Several times, the young man noted that she glanced in his direction, half inquiringly, with a suggestion of being pleased, as though she were glad to have seen him in company with her celebrated friend. Then the man who held so large a place in the eyes of the world drew back, lifting his hat; the automobile started forward; the party called, "Good night." The woman's voice rose clear—so that the spectators might easily understand—"Remember, Mr. Lagrange—I shall expect you Thursday—day after to-morrow."
As Conrad Lagrange came up the hotel steps, the eyes of all were upon him; but he—apparently unconscious of the company—went straight to the artist; where, without a word, he dropped into the vacant chair by the young man's side, and began thoughtfully refilling his brier pipe. Flipping the match over the veranda railing, and expelling a prodigious cloud of smoke, the novelist said grimly, "And there—my fellow artist—go your masters. I trust you observed them with proper reverence. I would have introduced you, but I do not like to take the initiative in such outrages. That will come soon enough. The young should be permitted to enjoy their freedom while they may."
Aaron King laughed. "Thank you for your consideration," he returned, "but I do not think I am in any immediate danger."
"Which"—the other retorted dryly—"betrays either innocence, caution, or an unusual understanding of life. I am not, now, prepared to say whether you know too much or too little."
"I confess to a degree of curiosity," said the artist. "I traveled in the same Pullman with three of the party. May I ask the names of your friends?"
The other answered in his bitterest vein; "I have no friends, Mr. King—I have only admirers. As for their names"—he continued—"there is no reason why I should withhold either who they are or what they are. Besides, I observed that the reigning 'Goddess' in the realm of 'Modern Art' has her eye upon you, already. As I shall very soon be commanded to drag you to her 'Court,' it is well for you to be prepared."
The young man laughed as the other paused to puff vigorously at his brier pipe.
"That red-faced, bull-necked brute, is James Rutlidge, the son and heir of old Jim Rutlidge," continued the novelist. "Jim inherited a few odd millions from his father, and killed himself spending them in unmentionable ways. The son is most worthily carrying out his father's mission, with bright prospects of exceeding his distinguished parent's fondest dreams. But, unfortunately, he is hampered by lack of adequate capital—the bulk of the family wealth having gone with the old man."
"Do you mean James Rutlidge—the great critic?" exclaimed Aaron King, with increased interest.
"The same," answered the other, with his twisted smile. "I thought you would recognize his name. As an artist, you will undoubtedly have much to do with him. His friendship is one of the things that are vital to your success. Believe me, his power in modern art is a red-faced, bull-necked power that you will do well to recognize. Of his companions," he went on, "the horrible example is Edward J. Taine—friend and fellow martyr of James Rutlidge, Senior. Satan, perhaps, can explain how he has managed to outlive his partner. His home is in New York, but he has a big house on Fairlands Heights, with large orange groves in this district. He comes here winters for his health. He'll die before long. The effervescing young creature is his daughter, Louise—by his first wife. The 'Goddess'—who is not much older than his daughter—is the present Mrs. Taine."
The artist's exclamation drew a sarcastic chuckle from the other. "I am prepared, now, to testify to your unworldly innocence of heart and mind," he gibed. "And, pray, why not his wife? You see, she was the ward of old Rutlidge—a niece, it is said. Mrs. Rutlidge—as you have no doubt heard—killed herself. It was shortly after her death that Jim took this little one into his home. She and young Jim grew up together. What was more natural or fitting than that her guardian—when he was about to depart from this sad world where human flesh is not able to endure an unlimited amount of dissipation—should give the girl as a lively souvenir to his bosom friend and companion of his unmentionable deviltries? The transaction also enabled him, you understand, to draw upon the Taine millions; and so permitted him to finish his distinguished career with credit. You, with your artist's extravagant fancy, have, no doubt, been thinking of her as fashioned for love. I assure you she knows better. The world in which she has been schooled has left her no hazy ideas as to what she was made for."
"I have heard of the Taines," said the younger man, thoughtfully. "I suppose this is the same family. They are very prominent in the social world, and quite generous patrons of the arts?"
"In the eyes of the world," said the novelist, "they are the noblest of our Nobility. They dwell in the rarefied atmosphere of millions. By the dollarless multitudes they are envied. They assume to be the cultured of the cultured. Patrons of the arts! Why, man, they have autographed copies of all my books! They and their kind feed me and my kind. They will feed you, sir, or by God you'll starve! But you need have no fear that the crust of genius will be your portion," he added meaningly. "As I remarked—the 'Goddess' has her eye upon you."
"And why do you so distinguish the lady?" asked the artist, quietly amused—with just a hint of well-bred condescension. "Has Mrs. Taine such powerful influence in the world of art?"
If Conrad Lagrange noticed his companion's manner he passed it by. "I perceive," he said, "that you are still somewhat lacking in the rudiments of your profession. The statement of faith adhered to by modern climbers on the ladder of fame—such as I have been, and you aspire to be—is that 'Pull' wins. Our creed is 'Graft.' By 'Influence' we stand, by 'Influence' we fall. It pleases Mrs. Taine to be, in the world of art, a lobbyist. She knows the insides of the inside rings and cliques and committees that say what is, and what is not, art; that declare who shall be, and who shall not be, artists. She has power with those who, in their might, grant position and place in the halls of fame; as their kinsmen in the political world pass the plums to those who court their favor. The great critics who thunder anathemas at the poor devils who are outside, eat out of her hand. Jim Rutlidge and his unholy crew are at her beck and call. Jim, you see, needing all he can get of the Taine millions, hopes to marry Louise. You can scarcely blame the young and beautiful Mrs. Taine for not being interested in her husband—who is going to die so soon. The poor girl must have some amusement, so she interests herself in art, don't you know. She gives more dinners to artists and critics; buys more pictures and causes more pictures to be bought; mothers more art-culture clubs; discovers more new and startling geniuses; in short, has a larger and better trained company of lions than any one else in the business. She deals in lions. It's her fad to collect them—same as others collect butterflies or postage stamps. She has one other fad that is less harmful and just as deceptive—a carefully nourished reputation for prudery. I sometimes think the Gods must laugh or choke. That woman would no more speak to you without a proper introduction than she would appear on the street without shoes or stockings. She has never been seen in an evening gown. Her beautiful shoulders have never been immodestly bared to the eyes of the world."
The artist thought of that moment on the observation car platform.
Presently, the novelist—refilling his pipe—said whimsically, "Some day, Mr. King, I shall write a true story. It shall be a novel of to-day, with characters drawn from life; and these characters, in my story, shall bear the names of the forces that have made them what they are and which they, in turn, have come to represent. I mean those forces that are so coloring and shaping the life and thought of this age."
"That ought to be interesting," said the other, "but I am not quite sure that I understand."
"Probably you don't. You have not been thinking much of these things. You have your eye upon Fame, and that old witch lives in another direction. To illustrate—our bull-necked friend and illustrious critic, James Rutlidge, in my story, will be named 'Sensual.' His distinguished father was one 'Lust.' The horrible example, Mr. Edward Taine,—boon companion of 'Lust,'—is 'Materialism'."
"Good!" laughed the artist. "I see; go on. Who is the daughter of 'Materialism?'"
"'Ragtime'," promptly returned the novelist, with a grin. "Who else could she be?"
"And Mrs. Taine?" urged the other.
The novelist responded quickly; "Why, the reigning 'Goddess' in the realm of 'Modern Art,' is 'The Age,' of course. Do you see? 'The Age' given over to 'Materialism' for base purposes by his companion, 'Lust.' And you——" he paused.
"Go on," cried the young man, "who or what am I in your story?"
"You, sir,"—answered Conrad Lagrange, seriously,—"in my story of modern life, represent Art. It remains to be seen whether 'The Age' will add you to her collection, or whether some other influence will intervene."
"And you"—persisted the artist—"surely you are in the story."
"I am very much in the story," the other answered. "My name is 'Civilization.' My story will be published when I am dead. I have a reputation to sustain, you know."
Aaron King was not laughing, now. Something, that lay deep hidden beneath the rude exterior of the man, made itself felt in his deep voice. Some powerful force, underlying his whimsical words, gripped the artist's mind—compelling him to search for hidden meanings in the novelist's fanciful suggestions.
A few moments passed in silence before the young man said slowly, "I met a character, yesterday, Mr. Lagrange, that might be added to your cast."
"There are several that will be added to my cast," the other answered dryly.
To which the painter returned, "Did you notice that woman with the disfigured face, at the depot?"
Conrad Lagrange looked at his companion, quickly. "Yes."
"Do you know her?" questioned the artist.
"No. Why do you ask?"
"Only because she interested me, and because she seemed to know your friends—Mr. Rutlidge and Mrs. Taine."
The novelist knocked the ashes from his pipe by tapping it on the veranda railing. The action seemed to express a peculiar mental effort; as though he were striving to recall something that had gone from his memory. "I saw what happened at the depot, of course," he said slowly. "I have seen the woman before. She lives here in Fairlands. Her name is Miss Willard. No one seems to know much about her. I can't get over the impression that I ought to know her—that I have met and known her somewhere years ago. Her manner, yesterday, at seeing Mrs. Taine, was certainly very strange." As if to free his mind from the unsuccessful effort to remember, he rose to his feet. "But why should she be added to the characters in my novel, Mr. King? What does she represent?"
"Her name,"—said the artist,—"in your study of life, is suggested by her face—so beautiful on the one side—so distorted on the other—her name should be 'Symbol'."
"There really is hope for you," returned the older man, with his quizzing smile. "Good night. Come, Czar." He passed into the hotel—the dog at his heels.
It was two days later—Thursday—that Conrad Lagrange made his memorable visit to the Taines—memorable, in my story, because, at that time, Mrs. Taine gave such unmistakable evidence of her interest in Aaron King and his future.
At the House on Fairlands Heights
As my friend the social scientist would say; it is a phenomenon peculiar to urban life, that the social strata are more or less clearly defined geographically.
That is,—in the English of everyday,—people of different classes live in different parts of the city. As certain streets and blocks are given to the wholesale establishments, others to retail stores, and still others to the manufacturing plants; so there are the tenement districts, the slums, and the streets where may be found the homes of wealth and fashion.
In Fairlands, the social rating is largely marked by altitude. The city, lying in the lap of the hills and looking a little down upon the valley—plebeian business together with those who do the work of Fairlands occupies the lowest levels in the corporate limits. The heights are held by Fairlands' Pride. Between these two extremes, the Fairlanders are graded fairly by the levels they occupy. It is most gratifying to observe how generally the citizens of this fortunate community aspire to higher things; and to note that the peculiarly proud spirit of this people is undoubtedly explained by this happy arrangement which enables every one to look down upon his neighbor.
The view from the winter home of the Taines was magnificent.
From the window of the room where Mrs. Taine sat, that afternoon, one could have looked down upon all Fairlands. One might, indeed, have done better than that. Looking over the wealth of semi-tropical foliage that—save for the tower of the red-brick Y.M.C.A. building, the white, municipal flagstaff, and the steeples and belfries of the churches—hid the city, one might have looked up at the mountains. High, high, above the low levels occupied by the hill-climbing Fairlanders, the mountains lift their heads in solemn dignity; looking down upon the loftiest Fairlander of them all—looking down upon even the Taines themselves.
But the glory of Mrs. Taine's God was not declared by the mountains. She sat by the window, indeed, but her eyes were upon the open pages of a book—a popular novel that by some strange legal lapse of the governmental conscience was—and is still—permitted in print.
The author of the story that so engrossed Mrs. Taine was—in her opinion—almost as great in literature as Conrad Lagrange, himself. By those in authority who pronounce upon the worthiness or the unworthiness of writer folk, he is, to-day, said to be one of the greatest writers of his generation. He is a realist—a modern of the moderns. His pen has never been debased by an inartistic and antiquated idealism. His claim to genius rests securely upon the fact that he has no ideals. He writes for that select circle of leaders who, like the Taines and the Rutlidges, are capable of appreciating his art. All of which means that he tells filthy stories in good English. That his stories are identical in material and motive with the vile yarns that are permitted only in the lowest class barber shops and in disreputable bar-rooms, in no way detracts from the admiring praise of his critics, the generosity of his publishers, or the appreciation of those for whom he writes.
With tottering step and feeble, shaking limbs, Edward Taine entered the apartment. As he stood, silently looking at his young wife, his glazed, red-rimmed eyes fed upon her voluptuous beauty with a look of sullen, impotent lustfulness that was near insanity. A spasm of coughing seized him; he gasped and choked, his wasted body shaken and racked, his dissipated face hideously distorted by the violence of the paroxysm. Wrecked by the flesh he had lived to gratify, he was now the mocked and tortured slave of the very devils of unholy passion that he had so often invoked to serve him. Repulsive as he was, he was an object to awaken the deepest pity.
Mrs. Taine, looking up from her novel, watched him curiously—without moving or changing her attitude of luxurious repose—without speaking. Almost, one would have said, a shade of a smile was upon her too perfect features.
When the man—who had dropped weak and exhausted into a chair—could speak, he glared at her in a pitiful rage, and, in his throaty whisper, said with a curse, "You seem to be amused."
Still, she did not speak. A tantalizing smile broke over her face, and she stretched her beautiful body lazily in her chair, as a well-conditioned animal stirs in sleek, physical contentment.
Again, with curses, he said, "I'm glad you so enjoy my company. To be laughed at, even, is better than your damned indifference."
"You misjudge me," she answered in a voice that, low and soft, was still richly colored by the wealth of vitality that found expression in her splendid body. "I am not at all indifferent to your condition—quite the contrary. I am intensely interested. As for the amusement you afford me—please consider—for three years I have amused you. Can you deny me my turn?"
He laughed with a hideously mirthless chuckle as he returned with ghastly humor, "I have had the worth of my money. I advise you to make the most of your opportunity. I shall make things as pleasant for you as I can, while I am with you, but, as you know, I am liable to leave you at any time, now."
"Pray don't hurry away," she replied sweetly. "I shall miss you so when you are gone."
He glared at her while she laughed mockingly.
"Where is everybody?" he asked. "The place is as lonely as a tomb."
"Louise is out riding with Jim."
"And what are you doing at home?" he demanded suspiciously.
"Me? Oh I remained to care for you—to keep you from being lonely."
"You lie. You are expecting some one."
"Who is it this time?" he persisted.
"Your insinuations are so unwarranted," she murmured.
"Whom are you expecting?"
"Dear me! how persistently you look for evil," she mocked. "You know perfectly well that, thanks to my tact, I am considered quite the model wife. You really should cultivate a more trusting disposition."
Another fit of coughing seized him, and while he suffered she again watched him with that curious air of interest. When he could command his voice, he gasped in a choking whisper, "You fiend! I know, and you know that I know. Am I so innocent that Jack Hanover, and Charlie Rodgers, and Black Whitman, and as many more of their kind, can make love to you under my very nose without my knowing it? You take damned good care—posing as a prude with your fad about immodest dress—that the world sees nothing; but you have never troubled to hide it from me."
Deliberately, she arose and stood before him. "And why should I trouble to hide anything from you?" she demanded. "Look at me"—she posed as if to exhibit for his critical inspection the charm of her physical beauty—"Look at me; am I to waste all this upon you? You tell me that you have had your money's worth—surely, the purchase price is mine to spend as I will. Even suppose that I were as evil as your foul mind sees me, what right have you to object? Are you so chaste that you dare cast a stone at me? Am I to have no pleasure in this hell you have made for me but the horrible pleasure of watching you in the hell you have made for yourself? Be satisfied that the world does not see your shame—though it's from no consideration of you, but wholly for myself, that I am careful. As for my modesty—you know it is not a fad but a necessity."
"That is just it"—he retorted—"it is the way you make a fad of a necessity! Forced to hide your shoulders, you make a virtue of concealment. You make capital of the very thing of which you are ashamed."
"And is not that exactly what we all do?" she asked with brutal cynicism. "Do you not fear the eyes of the world as much as I? Be satisfied that I play the game of respectability with you—that I give the world no cause for talk. You may as well be," she finished with devilish frankness, "for you are past helping yourself in the matter."
As she finished, a servant appeared to announce Mr. Conrad Lagrange; and the tall, uncouth figure of the novelist stood framed in the doorway; his sharp eyes regarding them with that peculiar, quizzing, baffling look.
Edward Taine laughed with that horrid chuckle. "Howdy-do, Lagrange—glad to see you."
Mrs. Taine went forward to greet the caller; saying as she gave him her hand, "You arrived just in time, Mr. Lagrange; Edward and I were discussing your latest book. We think it a masterpiece of realistic fiction. I'm sure it will add immensely to your fame. I hear it talked of everywhere as the most popular novel of the year. You wonderful man! How do you do it?"
"I don't do it," answered Conrad Lagrange, looking straight into her eyes. "It does itself. My books are really true products of the age that reads them; and—to paraphrase a statesman who was himself a product of his age—for those who read my books they are just the kind of books that I would expect such people to read."
Mrs. Taine looked at him with a curious, half-doubtful half-wistful expression; as though she glimpsed a hint of a meaning that did not appear upon the surface of his words. "You do say such—such—twisty things," she murmured. "I don't think I always understand what you mean; but when you look at me that way, I feel as though my maid had neglected to finish hooking me up."
The novelist bowed in mock gallantry—a movement which made his ungainly form appear more grotesque than ever. "Indeed, madam, to my humble eyes, you are most beautifully and fittingly—ah—hooked up." He turned toward the invalid. "And how is the fortunate husband of the charming Mrs. Taine to-day?"
"Fine, Lagrange, fine," said the man—a cough interrupting his words. "Really, I think that Gertrude is unduly alarmed about my condition. In this glorious climate, I feel like a three-year-old."
"You are looking quite like yourself," returned the novelist.
"There's nothing at all the matter with me but a slight bronchial trouble," continued the other, coughing again. Then, to his wife—"Dearest, won't you ring, please; I'm sure it's time for my toddy; perhaps Mr. Lagrange will join me in a drink. What'll it be, Lagrange?"
"Nothing, thanks, at this hour."
"No? But you'll pardon me, I'm sure—Doctor's orders you know."
A servant appeared. Mrs. Taine took the glass and carried it to her husband with her own hand, saying with tender solicitude, "Don't you think, dear, that you should lie down for a while? Mr. Lagrange will remain for dinner, you know. You must not tire yourself. I'm sure he will excuse you. I'll manage somehow to amuse him until Jim and Louise return."
"I believe I will rest a little, Gertrude." He turned to the guest—"While there is nothing really wrong, you know, Lagrange, still it's best to be on the safe side."
"By all means," said the novelist, heartily. "You should take care of yourself. Don't, I beg, permit me to detain you."
Mrs. Taine, with careful tenderness, accompanied her husband to the door. When he had passed from the room, she faced the novelist, with—"Don't you think Edward is really very much worse, Mr. Lagrange? I keep up appearances, you know, but—" she paused with a charming air of perplexed and worried anxiety.
"Your husband is certainly not a well man, madam—but you keep up appearances wonderfully. I really don't see how you manage it. But I suppose that for one of your nature it is natural."
Again, she received his words with that look of doubtful understanding—as though sensing some meaning beneath the polite, commonplace surface. Then, as if to lead away from the subject—"You must really tell me what you think of our California home. I told you in New York, you remember, that I should ask you, the first thing. We were so sorry to have missed you last year. Please be frank. Isn't it beautiful?"
"Very beautiful"—he answered—"exquisite taste—perfect harmony with modern art." His quizzing eyes twinkled, and a caricature of a smile distorted his face. "It fairly smells to heaven of the flesh pots."
She laughed merrily. "The odor should not be unfamiliar to you," she retorted. "By all accounts, your royalties are making you immensely rich. How wonderful it must be to be famous—to know that the whole world is talking about you! And that reminds me—who is your distinguished looking friend at the hotel? I was dying to ask you, the other night, but didn't dare. I know he is somebody famous."
Conrad Lagrange, studying her face, answered reluctantly, "No, he is not famous; but I fear he is going to be."
"Another twisty saying," she retorted. "But I mean to have an answer, so you may as well speak plainly. Have you known him long? What is his name? And what is he—a writer?"
"His name is Aaron King. His mother and I grew up in the same neighborhood. He is an artist."
"How romantic! Do you mean that he belongs to that old family of New England Kings?"
"He is the last of them. His father was Aaron King—a prominent lawyer and politician in his state."
"Oh, yes! I remember! Wasn't there something whispered at the time of his death—some scandal that was hushed up—money stolen—or something? What was it? I can't think."
"Whatever it was, Mrs. Taine, the son had nothing to do with it. Don't you think we might let the dead man stay safely buried?" There was an ominous glint in Conrad Lagrange's eyes.
Mrs. Taine answered hurriedly, "Indeed, yes, Mr. Lagrange. You are right. And you shall bring Mr. King out to see me. If he is as nice as he looks, I promise you I will be very good to him. Perhaps I may even help him a little, through Jim, you know—bring him in touch with the right people and that sort of thing. What does he paint?"
"Portraits." The novelist's tone was curt.
"Then I am sure I could do a great deal for him."
"And I am sure you would do a great deal to him," said Conrad Lagrange, bluntly.
She laughed again. "And just what do you mean by that, Mr. Lagrange? I'm not sure whether it is complimentary or otherwise."
"That depends upon what you consider complimentary," retorted the other. "As I told you—Aaron King is an artist."
Again, she favored him with that look of doubtful understanding; shaking her head with mock sadness, and making a long sigh. "Another twister"—she said woefully—"just when we were getting along so beautifully, too. Won't you try again?"
"In words of one syllable then—let him alone. He is, to-day, exactly where I was twenty years ago. For God's sake, let him alone. Play your game with those who are no loss to the world; or with those who, like me, are already lost. Let this man do his work. Don't make him what I am."
"Oh dear, oh dear," she laughed, "and these are words of one syllable! You talk as though I were a dreadful dragon seeking a genius to devour!"
"You are," said the novelist, gruffly.
"How nice. I'm all shivery with delight, already. You really must bring him now, you see. You might as well, for, if you don't, I'll manage some other way when you are not around to protect him. You don't want to trust him to me unprotected, do you?"
"No, and I won't," retorted Conrad Lagrange—which, though Mrs. Taine did not remark it, was also a twister.
"But after all, perhaps he won't come," she said with mock anxiety.
"Don't worry madam—he's just as much a fool as the rest of us."
As the novelist spoke, they heard the voices of Miss Taine and her escort, James Rutlidge. Mrs. Taine had only time to shake a finger in playful warning at her companion, and to whisper, "Mind you bring your artist to me, or I'll get him when you're not looking; and listen, don't tell Jim about him; I must see what he is like, first."
At lunch, the next day, Conrad Lagrange greeted the artist in his bitterest humor. "And how is the famous Aaron King, to-day? I trust that the greatest portrait painter of the age is well; that the hotel people have been properly attentive to the comfort of their illustrious guest? The world of art can ill afford to have its rarest genius suffer from any lack of the service that is due his greatness."
The young man's face flushed at his companion's mocking tone; but he laughed. "I missed you at breakfast."
"I was sleeping off the effect of my intellectual debauch—it takes time to recover from a dinner with 'Materialism,' 'Sensual,' 'Ragtime' and 'The Age'," the other returned, the menu in his hand. "What slop are they offering to put in our troughs for this noon's feed?"
Again, Aaron King laughed. But as the novelist, with characteristic comments and instructions to the waitress, ordered his lunch, the artist watched him as though waiting with interest his further remarks on the subject of his evening with the Taines.
When the girl was gone, Conrad Lagrange turned again to his companion, and from under his scowling brows regarded him much as a withered scientist might regard an interesting insect under his glass. "Permit me to congratulate you," he said suggestively—as though the bug had succeeded in acting in some manner fully expected by the scientist but wholly disgusting to him.
The artist colored again as he returned curiously, "Upon what?"
"Upon the start you have made toward the goal you hope to reach."
"What do you mean?"
"Mrs. Taine wants you."
"You are pleased to be facetious." Under the eyes of his companion, Aaron King felt that his reply did not at all conceal his satisfaction.
"I am pleased to be exact. I repeat—Mrs. Taine wants you. I am ordered by the reigning 'Goddess' of 'Modern Art'—'The Age'—to bring you into her 'Court.' You have won favor in her sight. She finds you good to look at. She hopes to find you—as good as you look. If you do not disappoint her, your fame is assured."
"Nonsense," said the artist, somewhat sharply; nettled by the obvious meaning and by the sneering sarcasm of the novelist's words and tone.
To which the other returned suggestively, "It is precisely because you can say, 'nonsense,' when you know it is no nonsense at all, but the exact truth, that your chance for fame is so good, my friend."
"And did some reigning 'Goddess' insure your success and fame?"
The older man turned his peculiar, penetrating, baffling eyes full upon his companion's face, and in a voice full of cynical sadness answered, "Exactly so. I paid court to the powers that be. They gave me the reward I sought; and—they made me what I am."
So it came about that Conrad Lagrange, in due time, introduced Aaron King to the house on Fairlands Heights. Or,—as the novelist put it,—he, "Civilization",—in obedience to the commands of her "Royal Highness", "The Age",—presented the artist at her "Majesty's Court"; that the young man might sue for the royal favor.
It was, perhaps, a month after the presentation ceremony, that the painter made what—to him, at least—was an important announcement.
The Mystery of the Rose Garden
The acquaintance of Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange had developed rapidly into friendship.
The man whom the world had chosen to place upon one of the highest pinnacles of its literary favor, and who—through some queer twist in his nature—was so lonely and embittered by his exaltation, seemed to find in the younger man who stood with the crowd at the foot of the ladder, something that marked him as different from his fellows.
Whether it was the artist's mother; some sacredly hidden memories of Lagrange's past; or, perhaps, some fancied recognition of the artist's genius and its possibilities; the strange man gave no hint; but he constantly sought the company of Aaron King, with an openness that made his preference for the painter's society very evident. If he had said anything about it, at all, Conrad Lagrange, likely, would have accounted for his interest, upon the ground that his dog, Czar, found the companionship agreeable. Their friendship, meanwhile—in the eyes of the world—conferred a peculiar distinction upon the young man—a distinction not at all displeasing to the ambitious artist; and the value of which he, probably, overrated.