The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter II. 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.