The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XI. Go Look In Your Mirror, You Fool
As the Taine automobile left Aaron King and his friend, that afternoon, Mrs. Taine spoke to the chauffeur; "You may stop a moment, at the next house, Henry."
If she had fired a gun, James Rutlidge could not have turned with a more startled suddenness.
"What in thunder do you want there?" he demanded shortly.
"I want to stop," she returned calmly.
"But I must get down town, at once," he protested. "I have already lost the best part of the afternoon."
"Your business seems to have become important very suddenly," she observed, sarcastically.
"I have something to do besides making calls with you," he retorted. "Go on, Henry."
Mrs. Taine spoke sharply; "Really, Jim, you are going too far. Henry, turn in at the house." The machine moved toward the curb and stopped. As she stepped from the car, she added, "I will only be a minute, Jim."
Rutlidge growled an inarticulate curse.
"What deviltry do you suppose she is up to now," rasped Mr. Taine.
Which brought from his daughter the usual protest,--"O, papa, don't,"
As Mrs. Taine approached the house, Sibyl Andres--busy among the flowers that bordered the walk--heard the woman's step, and stood quietly waiting her. Mrs. Taine's face was perfect in its expression of cordial interest, with just enough--but not too much--of a conscious, well-bred superiority. The girl's countenance was lighted by an expression of childlike surprise and wonder. What had brought this well-known leader in the social world from Fairlands Heights to the poor, little house in the orange grove, so far down the hill?
"Good afternoon," said the caller. "You are Miss Andres, are you not?"
"Yes," returned the girl, with a smile. "Won't you come in? I will call Miss Willard."
"Oh, thank you, no. I have only a moment. My friends are waiting. I am Mrs. Taine."
"Yes, I know. I have often seen you passing."
The other turned abruptly. "What beautiful flowers."
"Aren't they lovely," agreed Sibyl, with frank pleasure at the visitor's appreciation. "Let me give you a bunch." Swiftly she gathered a generous armful.
Mrs. Taine protested, but the girl presented her offering with such grace and winsomeness that the other could not refuse. As she received the gift, the perfect features of the woman of the world were colored by a blush that even she could not control. "I understand, Miss Andres," she said, "that you are an accomplished violinist."
"I teach and play in Park Church," was the simple answer.
"I have never happened to hear you, myself,"--said Mrs. Taine smoothly,--"but my friends who live next door--Mr. Lagrange and Mr. King--have told me about you."
"Oh!" The girl's voice was vaguely troubled, while the other, watching, saw the blush that colored her warmly tinted cheeks.
"It is good of you to play for them," continued the woman from Fairlands Heights, casually. "You must enjoy the society of such famous men, very much. There are a great many people, you know, who would envy you your friendship with them."
The girl replied quickly, "O, but you are mistaken. I am not acquainted with them, at all; that is--not with Mr. King--I have never spoken to him--and I only met Mr. Lagrange, for a few minutes, by accident."
"Indeed! But I am forgetting the purpose of my call, and my friends will become impatient. Do you ever play for private entertainments, Miss Andres?--for--say a dinner, or a reception, you know?"
"I would be very glad for such an engagement, Mrs. Taine. I must earn what I can with my music, and there are not enough pupils to occupy all my time. But perhaps you should hear me play, first. I will get my violin."
Mrs. Taine checked her, "Oh, no, indeed. It is quite unnecessary, my dear. The opinion of your distinguished neighbors is quite enough. I shall keep you in mind for some future occasion. I just wished to learn if you would accept such an engagement. Good-by. Thanks--so much--for your flowers."
She was upon the point of turning away, when a low cry from the nearby porch startled them both. Turning, they saw the woman with the disfigured face, standing in the doorway; an expression of mingled wonder, love, and supplication upon her hideously marred features. As they looked, she started toward them,--impulsively stretching out her arms, as though the gesture was an involuntary expression of some deep emotion,--then checked herself, suddenly as though in doubt.
Sibyl Andres uttered an exclamation. "Why, Myra! what is it, dear?"
Mrs. Taine turned away with a gesture of horror, saying to the girl in a low, hurried voice, "Dear me, how dreadful! I really must be going."
As she went down the flower-bordered path towards the street, the woman on the porch, again, stretched out her arms appealingly. Then, as Sibyl reached her side, the poor creature clasped the girl in a close embrace, and burst into bitter tears.
* * * * *
Upon the return of the Taines and James Rutlidge to the house on Fairlands Heights, Mrs. Taine retired immediately to her own luxuriously appointed apartments.
At dinner, a maid brought to the household word that her mistress was suffering from a severe headache and would not be down and begged that she might not be disturbed during the evening.
Alone in her room, Mrs. Taine--her headache being wholly conventional--gave herself unreservedly to the thoughts that she could not, under the eyes of others, entertain without restraint. She was seated at a window that looked down upon the carefully graded levels of the envying Fairlanders and across the wide sweep of the valley below to the mountains which, from that lofty point of vantage, could be seen from the base of their lowest foothills to the crests of their highest peaks. But the woman who lived on the Heights of Fairlands saw neither the homes of their neighbors, the busy valley below, nor the mountains that lifted so far above them all. Her thoughts were centered upon what, to her, was more than these.
When night was gathering over the scene, her maid entered softly. Mrs. Taine dismissed the woman with a word, telling her not to return until she rang. Leaving the window, after drawing the shades close, she paced the now lighted room, in troubled uneasiness of mind. Here and there, she paused to touch or handle some familiar object--a photograph in a silver frame, a book on the carved table, the trifles on her open desk, or an ornamental vase on the mantle--then moved restlessly away to continue her aimless exercise. When the silence was rudely broken by the sound of a knock at her door, she stood still--a look of anger marring the well-schooled beauty of her features.
The knock was repeated.
With an exclamation of impatient annoyance, she crossed the room, and flung open the door.
Without leave or apology, her husband entered; and, as he did so, was seized by a paroxysm of coughing that sent him reeling, gasping and breathless, to the nearest chair.
Mrs. Taine stood watching her husband coldly, with a curious, speculative expression on her face that she made no attempt to hide. When his torture was abated--for the time--leaving him exhausted and trembling with weakness, she said coldly, "Well, what do you want? What are you doing here?"
The man lifted his pallid, haggard face and, with a yellow, claw-like hand wiped the beads of clammy sweat from his forehead; while his deep-sunken eyes leered at her with an insane light.
The woman was at no pains to conceal her disgust. In her voice there was no hint of pity. "Didn't Marie tell you that I wished to be alone?"
"Of course," he jeered in his rasping whisper, "that's why I came." He gave a hideous resemblance to a laugh, which ended in a cough--and, again, he drew his skinny, shaking hand across his damp forehead "That's the time that a man should visit his wife, isn't it? When she is alone. Or"--he grinned mockingly--"when she wishes to be?"
She regarded him with open scorn and loathing. "You unclean beast! Will you take yourself out of my room?"
He gazed at her, as a malevolent devil might gloat over a soul delivered up for torture. "Not until I choose to go, my dear."
Suddenly changing her manner, she smiled with deliberate, mocking humor. While he watched, she moved leisurely to a deep, many-cushioned couch; and, arranging the pillows, reclined among them in the careless abandonment of voluptuous ease and physical content. Openly, ostentatiously, she exhibited herself to his burning gaze in various graceful poses--lifting her arms above her head to adjust a cushion more to her liking; turning and stretching her beautiful body; moving her limbs with sinuous enjoyment--as disregardful of his presence as though she were alone. At last she spoke in cool, even, colorless tones; "Perhaps you will tell me what you want?"
The wretched victim of his own unbridled sensuality shook with inarticulate rage. Choking and coughing he writhed in his chair--his emaciated limbs twisted grotesquely; his sallow face bathed in perspiration his claw-like hands opening and closing; his bloodless lips curled back from his yellow teeth, in a horrid grin of impotent fury. And all the while she lay watching him with that pitiless, mocking, smile. It was as though the malevolent devil and the tortured soul had suddenly changed places.
When the man could speak, he reviled her, in his rasping whisper, with curses that it seemed must blister his tongue. She received his effort with jeering laughter and taunting words; moving her body, now and then, among the cushions, with an air of purely physical enjoyment that, to the other, was maddening.
"If this is all you came for,"--she said, easily,--"might have spared yourself the effort--don't you think?"
Controlling himself, in a measure, he returned, "I came to tell you that your intimacy with that damned painter must stop."
Her eyes narrowed slightly. One hand, hidden in the cushions, clenched until her rings hurt. "Just what do you mean by my intimacy?" she asked evenly.
"You know what I mean," he replied coarsely. "I mean what intimacy with a man always means to a woman like you."
"The only meaning that a creature of your foul mind can understand," she retorted smoothly. "If it were worth while to tell you the truth, I would say that my conduct when alone with Mr. King has been as proper as--as when I am alone with you."
The taunt maddened him. Interrupted by spells of coughing--choking, gasping, fighting for breath, his eyes blazing with hatred and lust, mingling his words with oaths and curses--he raged at her. "And do you think--that, because I am so nearly dead,--I do not resent what--I saw, to-day? Do you think--I am so far gone that I cannot--understand--your interest in this man,--after--watching you, together, all--the afternoon? Has there been any one--in his studio, except you two, when--he was painting you in that dress--which you--designed for his benefit? Oh, no, indeed,--you and your--genius could not be interrupted,--for the sake--of his art. His art! Great God!--was there ever such a damnable farce--since hell was invented? Art!--you--you--you!--" crazed with jealous fury, he pointed at her with his yellow, shaking, skeleton fingers; and struggled to raise his voice above that rasping whisper until the cords of his scrawny neck stood out and his face was distorted with the strain of his effort--"You! painted as a--modest Quaker Maid,--with all the charm of innocence,--virtue, and religious piety in your face. You! And that picture will be exhibited--and written about--as a work of art! You'll pull all the strings,--and use all your influence,--and the thing--will be received as a--masterpiece."
"And," she added calmly, "you will write a check--and lie, as you did this afternoon."
Without heeding her remark, he went on,--"You know the picture is worthless. He knows it,--Conrad Lagrange knows it,--Jim Rutlidge knows it,--the whole damned clique and gang of you know it, He's like all his kind,--a pretender,--a poser,--playing into the hands--of such women as you; to win social position--and wealth. And we and our kind--we pretend to believe--in such damned parasites,--and exalt them and what we--call their art,--and keep them in luxury, and buy their pictures;--because they prostitute--their talents to gratify our vanity. We know it's all a damned sham--and a pretense that if they were real artists,--with an honest workman's respect for their work,--they wouldn't--recognize us."
"Don't forget to send him a check,"--she murmured--"you can't afford to neglect it, you know--think how people would talk."
"Don't worry," he replied. "There'll be no talk. I'll send the genius his check--for making love--to my wife in the sacred name of art,--and I'll lie--about his picture with--the rest of you. But there will be--no more of your intimacy with him. You're my wife,--in spite of hell,--and from now on--I'll see--that you are true--to me. Your sickening pose--of modesty in dress shall be something--more than a pose. For the little time I have left,--I'll have--you to--myself or I'll kill you."
His reference to her refusal to uncover her shoulders in public broke the woman's calm and aroused her to a cold fury. Springing to her feet, she stood over him as he sat huddled in his chair, exhausted by his effort.
"What is your silly, idle threat beside the fact," she said with stinging scorn. "To have killed me, instead of making me your wife, would have been a kindness greater than you are capable of. You know how unspeakably vile you were when you bought me. You know how every hour of my life with you has been a torment to me. You should be grateful that I have helped you to live your lie--that I have played the game of respectability with you--that I am willing to play it a little while longer, until you lay down your hand for good, and release us both.
"Suppose I were what you think me? What right have you to object to my pleasures? Have you--in all your life of idle, vicious, luxury--have you ever feared to do evil if it appealed to your bestial nature? You know you have not. You have feared only the appearance of evil. To be as evil as you like so long as you can avoid the appearance of evil; that's the game you have taught me to play. That's the game we have played together. That's the game we and our kind insist the artists and writers shall help us play. That's the only game I know, and, by the rule of our game, so long as the world sees nothing, I shall do what pleases me.
"You have had your day with me. You have had what you paid for. What right have you to deny me, now, an hour's forgetfulness? When I think of what I might have been, but for you, I wonder that I have cared to live, and I would not--except for the poor sport of torturing you.
"You scoff at Mr. King's portrait of me because he has not painted me as I am! What would you have said if he had painted me as I am? What would you say if Conrad Lagrange should write the truth about us and our kind, for his millions of readers? You sneer at me because I cannot uncover my shoulders in the conventional dress of my class, and so make a virtue of a necessity and deceive the world by a pretense of modesty. Go look in your mirror, you fool! Your right to sneer at me for my poor little pretense is denied you by every line of your repulsive countenance Now get out. I'm going to retire."
And she rang for her maid.