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