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THE VISION SPLENDID (9)

2006-08-28 22:51

    "Man is for woman made, And woman made for man As the spur is for the jade, As the scabbard for the blade, As for liquor is the can, So man's for woman made, And woman made for man."

    THE HERO STUDIES THE MONA LISA SMILE IN ITS PROPER SETTING. INCIDENTALLY, HE MEETS AN EMPIRE BUILDER

    Since James was not courting observation he took as inconspicuous a way as possible to The Brakes. He was irritably conscious of the incongruity of his elaborate afternoon dress with the habits of democratic Verden, which had been too busy "boosting" itself into a great city, or at least one in the making, to have found time to establish as yet a leisure class.

    Leaving the car at the entrance to Lakeview Park, he cut across it by sinuous byways where madronas and alders isolated him from the twilit green of the open lawn. Though it was still early the soft winter dusk of the Pacific Northwest was beginning to render objects indistinct. This perhaps may have been the reason he failed to notice the skulking figure among the trees that dogged him to his destination.

    James laughed at himself for the exaggerated precaution he took to cover a perfectly defensible action. Why shouldn't he visit at the house of

    P. C. Frome? Entirely clear as to his right, he yet preferred his call not to become a matter of public gossip. For he did not need to be told that there would be ugly rumors if it should get out that Big Tim had called at his office for a conference and he had subsequently been seen going to The Brakes. Dunderheads not broad enough to separate social from political intercourse would be quick to talk unpleasantly about it. Deflecting from the path into a carriage driveway, he came through a woody hollow to the rear of The Brakes. The grounds were spacious, rolling toward the road beyond in a falling sweep of wellkept lawn. He skirted the green till he came to a "raveled walk that zig-zagged up through the grass, leaving to the left the rough fern-clad bluff that gave the place its name.

    The man who let him in had apparently received his instructions, for he led Farnum to a rather small room in the rear of the big house. Its single occupant was reclining luxuriantly among a number of pillows on a lounge. From her lips a tiny spiral of smoke rose like incense to the ceiling. James was conscious of a little ripple of surprise as he looked down upon the copper crown of splendid hair above which rested the thin nimbus of smoke. He had expected a less intimate reception.

    But the astonishment had been sponged from his face before Valencia Van Tyle rose and came forward, cigarette in hand.

    "You did find time."

    "Was it likely I wouldn't?"

    "How should I know?" her little shrug seemed to say with an indifference that bordered on insolence.

    James was piqued. After all then she had not opened to him the door to her friendship. She was merely amusing herself with him as a provincial _pis aller._

    Perhaps she saw his disappointment, for she added with a touch of warmth: "I'm glad you came. Truth is, I'm bored to death of myself."

    "Then I ought to be welcome, for if I don't exorcise the devils of ennui you can now blame me."

    "I shall. Try that big chair, and one of these Egyptians."

    He helped himself to a cigarette and lit up as casually as if he had been in the habit of smoking in the lounging rooms of the ladies he knew. She watched him sink lazily into the chair and let his glance go wandering over the room. In his face she read the indolent sense of pleasure he found in sharing so intimately this sanctum of her more personal life.

    The room was a bit barbaric in its warmth of color, as barbaric as was the young woman herself in spite of her super-civilization. The walls, done in an old rose, were gilded and festooned to meet a ceiling almost Venetian in its scheme of decoration. Pink predominated in the brocaded tapestries and in the rugs, and the furniture was a luxurious modern compromise with the Louis Quinze. There were flowers in profusion——his gaze fell upon the American Beauties he had sent an hour or two ago——and a disorder of popular magazines and French novels. Farnum did not need to be told that the room was as much an exotic as its mistress. "You think?" her amused voice demanded when his eyes came back to her. "that the room seems made especially for you."

    She volunteered information. "My uncle gave me a free hand to arrange and decorate it."

    As he looked at her, smoking daintily in the fling of the fire glow, every inch the pampered heiress of the ages, his blood quickened to an appreciation of the sensuous charm of sex she breathed forth so indifferently. The clinging crepe-de-chine—— except in public she did not pretend even to a conventional mourning for the scamp whose name she bore lent accent to her soft, rounded curves, and the slow, regular rise and fall of her breathing beneath the filmy lace promised a perfect fullness of bust and throat. He was keenly responsive to the physical allure of sex, and Valencia Van Tyle was endowed with more than her share of magnetic aura.

    "You have expressed yourself. It's like you," he said with finality.

    Her tawny eyes met his confident appraisal ironically. "Indeed! You know then what I am like?"

    "One uses his eyes, and such brains as heaven has granted him," he ventured lightly.

    "And what am I like?" she asked indolently.

    "I'm hoping to know that better soon——I merely guess now."

    "They say all women are egoists——and some men." She breathed her soft inscrutable ripple of laughter. "Let me hasten to confess, and crave a picture of myself."

    "But the subject deserves an artist," he parried.

    "He's afraid," she murmured to the fire. "He makes and unmakes senators——this Warwick; but he's afraid of a girl."

    James lit a fresh cigarette in smiling silence.

    "He has met me once——twice——no, three times," she meditated aloud. "But he knows what I'm like. He boasts of his divination and when one puts him to the test he repudiates."

    "All I should have claimed is that I know I don't know what you are like."

    "Which is something," she conceded. "It's a good deal," he claimed for himself. "It shows a beginning of understanding. And——given the opportunity——I hope to know more." He questioned of her eyes how far he might go. "It's the incomprehensible that lures. It piques interest and lends magic. Behind those eyelids a little weary all the subtle hidden meaning of the ages shadows. The gods forbid that I should claim to hold the answer to the eternal mystery of woman."

    "Dear me! I ask for a photograph and he gives me a poem," she mocked, touching an electric button.

    "I try merely to interpret the poem."

    She looked at him under lowered lids with a growing interest. Her experience had not warranted her in hoping that he would prove worth while. It would be clear gain if he were to disappoint her agreeably.

    "I think I have read somewhere that the function of present-day criticism is to befog the mind and blur the object criticised."

    He considered an answer, but gave it up when a maid appeared with a tray, and after a minute of deft arrangement disappeared to return with the added paraphernalia that goes to the making and consuming of afternoon tea.

    James watched in a pleasant content the easy grace with which the flashing hands of his hostess manipulated the brew. Presently she flung open a wing of the elaborate cellaret that stood near and disclosed a gleaming array of cut-glass decanters. Her fingers hovered over them.

    "Cognac?"

    "Think I'll take my tea straight just as you make it."

    "Most Western men don't care for afternoon tea. You should hear my father on the subject."

    "I can imagine him." He smiled. "But if he has tried it with you I should think he'd be converted."

    She laughed at him in the slow tantalizing way that might mean anything or nothing. "I absolve you of the necessity of saying pretty things. Instead, you may continue that portrait you were drawing when the maid interrupted."

    "It's a subject I can't do justice."

    She laughed disdainfully. "I thought it was time for the flattery. As if I couldn't extort that from any man. It's the A B C of our education. But the truth about one's self——the unpalatable, bitter truth——there's a sting of unexpected pleasure in hearing that judicially."

    "And do you get that pleasure often?"

    "Not often. Men are dreadful cowards, you know. My father is about the only man who dares tell it to me."

    Farnum put down his cup and studied her. She was leaning back with her fingers laced behind her head. He wondered whether she knew with what effectiveness the posture set off her ripe charms——the fine modeling of the full white throat, the perfect curves of the dainty arms bare to the elbows, the daring set of the tawny, tilted head. A spark glowed in his eyes.

    "Far be it from me to deny you an accessible pleasure, though I sacrifice myself to give it. But my sketch must be merely subjective. I draw the picture as I see it."

    She sipped her tea with an air of considering the matter. "You promise at least a family likeness, with not an ugly wrinkle of character smoothed away."

    "I don't even promise that. For how am I to know what meaning lurks behind that subtle, shadowy smile? There's irony in it——and scorn——and sensuous charm——but back of them all is the great enigma."

    "He's off," she derided slangily.

    "And that enigma is the complex YOU I want to learn. Of course you're a specialized type, a product of artistic hothouse propagation. You're so exquisite in your fastidiousness that to be near you is a luxury. Simplicity and you have not a bowing acquaintance. One looks to see your most casual act freighted with intentions not obvious."

    "The poor man thinks I invited him here to propose to him," she told the fire gravely, stretching out her little slippered feet toward it.

    He laughed. "I'm not so presumptuous. You wouldn't aim at such small game. You would be quite capable of it if you wanted to, but you don't. But I'm devoured with curiosity to know why you asked me, though of course I shan't find out."

    Her narrowed eyes swept him with amusement. "If I knew myself!

    Alice says it was to make a fool of you. I don't think she is right. But if she is I'm in to score a failure. You're too coolheaded and——" She stopped, her eyes sparkling with the daring of her unvoiced suggestion.

    "Say it," he nodded.

    "——and selfish to be anybody's fool. Perhaps I asked you just in the hope you might prove interesting."

    He got up and stood with his arm on the mantel. From his superior height he looked down on her dainty insolent perfection, answering not too seriously the challenge of her eyes. No matter what she meant——how much or how little she was wonderfully attractive. The provocation of the mocking little face lured mightily.

    "I am going to prove interested at any rate. Let's hope it may be a preliminary to being interesting."

    "But it never does. Symptoms of too great interest bore one. I enjoy more the men who are impervious to me. Now there's my father. He comes nearer understanding me than anybody else, but he's quite adamantine to my wiles."

    "I shall order a suit of chain armor at once."

    "An unnecessary expense. Your emotions are quite under control," she told him saucily.

    "I wish I were as sure."

    "I thought you promised to be interesting," she complained.

    "Now you're afraid I'm going to make love to you. Let me relieve your mind. I'm not."

    "I knew you wouldn't be so stupid," she assured him.

    "No objection to my admiring your artistic effect at a distance, as a spectator in a gallery?"

    "I shall expect that," she rippled.

    "Just as one does a picture too expensive to own."

    "I suppose I AM expensive."

    "Not a doubt of it. But if you don't mind I'll come occasionally to the gallery to study the masterpiece."

    "I'll mind if you don't."

    Voices were heard approaching along the hall. The portieres parted. The immediate effect on Farnum of the great figure that filled the doorway was one of masterful authority. A massive head crested a figure of extraordinary power. Gray as a mediaeval castle, age had not yet touched his gnarled strength. The keen steady eyes, the close straight lips, the shaggy eyebrows heavy and overhanging, gave accent to the rugged force of this grim freebooter who had reversed the law of nature which decrees that railroads shall follow civilization. Scorning the established rule of progress, he had spiked his rails through untrodden forests and unexplored canons to watch the pioneer come after by the road he had blazed. Chief among the makers of the Northwest, he yearly conceived and executed with amazing audacity enterprises that would have marked as monumental the life work of lesser men.

    Farnum, rising from his seat unconsciously as a tribute of respect, acknowledged thus tacitly the presence of greatness in the person of Joe Powers.

    The straight lips of the empire builder tightened as his eyes gleamed over the soft luxury of his daughter's boudoir. James would have been hard put to it to conceive any contrast greater than the one between this modern berserk and the pampered daughter of his wealth. A Hun or a Vandal gazing down with barbaric scorn on some decadent paramour of captured Rome was the most analogous simile Farnum's brain could summon. What freak of nature, he wondered, had been responsible for so alien an offspring to this ruthless builder? And what under heaven had the two in common except the blood that ran in both their veins?

    Peter C. Frome, who had followed his brother-in-law into the room, introduced the young man to the railroad king.

    The great man's grip drove the blood from Farnum's hand.

    "I've heard about you, young man. What do you mean by getting in my way?"

    The young man's veins glowed. He had made Joe Powers notice him. Not for worlds would he have winked an eyelash, though the bones of his hand felt as if they were being ground to powder.

    "Do I get in your way, sir?" he asked innocently.

    "Do you?" boomed the deep bass of the railroader. "You and that mad brother of yours."

    "He's my cousin," James explained.

    "Brother or cousin, he's got to get off the track or be run over. And you, too, with that smooth tongue of yours."

    Farnum laughed. "Jeff's pretty solid. He may ditch the train, sir."

    "No!" roared Powers. "He'll be flung into the ditch." He turned abruptly to Frome. "Peter, take me to a room where I can talk to this young man. I need him."

    "'Come into my little parlor,' said the spider to the fly."

    They wheeled as at a common rein to the sound of the young mocking voice. Alice Frome had come in unnoticed and was standing in the doorway smiling at them. The effect she produced was demurely daring. The long lines of her slender sylph-like body, the girlishness of her golden charm, were vigorously contradicted in their suggestion of shyness by the square tilted chin and the challenge in the dancing eyes.

    "Alice," admonished her father with a deprecatory apology in his voice to his brother-in-law.

    Powers knit his shaggy brows in a frown not at all grim. The young woman smiled back confidently. She could go farther with him than anybody else in the world could, and she knew it. For he recognized in her vigorous strength of fiber a kinship of the spirit closer than that between him and his own daughter. An autocrat to the marrow, it pleased him to recognize her an exception to his rule. Valencia was also an exception, but in a different way.

    "Have you any remarks to make, Miss Frome?" he asked.

    "Oh, I've made it," returned the girl unabashed. She turned to James and shook hands with him. "How do you do, Mr. Farnum? I see you are going to be tied to Uncle Joe's kite, too."

    Was there in her voice just a hint of scorn? James did not know. He laughed a little uneasily.

    "Shall I be swallowed up alive, Miss Frome?"

    "You think you won't, but you will. He always gets what he wants."

    For all the warmth and energy of youth in her there was a vivid spiritual quality that had always made a deep appeal to James. He sensed the something fine and exquisite she breathed forth and did reverence to it. "And what does he want now?" the young man parried. "He wants YOU." "Unless you would like him yourself, Alice," her uncle countered. The color washed into her cheeks. "Not just now, thank you. I was

    merely giving him a friendly warning." "I'm awfully obliged to you. I'll be on my guard," laughed James. He stepped across to the lounge to make his farewell to Mrs. Van Tyle. "You'll come again," she said in a low voice. "Whenever the gallery is open——if I am sent a ticket of admission." "Wouldn't it be better to apply for a ticket and not wait for it to be

    sent?" "I think it would——and to apply for one often." "I am waiting, Mr. Farnum," interrupted Powers impatiently. To the young man the suggestion sounded like a command. He bowed

    to Alice and followed the great man out of the room.

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