MoboReader> Romance > The Flirt

   Chapter 1 ONE

The Flirt By Booth Tarkington Characters: 16590

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Valentine Corliss walked up Corliss Street the hottest afternoon of that hot August, a year ago, wearing a suit of white serge which attracted a little attention from those observers who were able to observe anything except the heat. The coat was shaped delicately; it outlined the wearer, and, fitting him as women's clothes fit women, suggested an effeminacy not an attribute of the tall Corliss. The effeminacy belonged all to the tailor, an artist plying far from Corliss Street, for the coat would have encountered a hundred of its fellows at Trouville or Ostende this very day. Corliss Street is the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, the Park Lane, the Fifth Avenue, of Capitol City, that smoky illuminant of our great central levels, but although it esteems itself an established cosmopolitan thoroughfare, it is still provincial enough to be watchful; and even in its torrid languor took some note of the alien garment.

Mr. Corliss, treading for the first time in seventeen years the pavements of this namesake of his grandfather, mildly repaid its interest in himself. The street, once the most peaceful in the world, he thought, had changed. It was still long and straight, still shaded by trees so noble that they were betrothed, here and there, high over the wide white roadway, the shimmering tunnels thus contrived shot with gold and blue; but its pristine complete restfulness was departed: gasoline had arrived, and a pedestrian, even this August day of heat, must glance two ways before crossing.

Architectural transformations, as vital, staggered the returned native. In his boyhood that posthumously libelled sovereign lady, Anne, had terribly prevailed among the dwellings on this highway; now, however, there was little left of the jig-saw's hare-brained ministrations; but the growing pains of the adolescent city had wrought some madness here. There had been a revolution which was a riot; and, plainly incited by a new outbreak of the colonies, the Goth, the Tudor, and the Tuscan had harried the upper reaches to a turmoil attaining its climax in a howl or two from the Spanish Moor.

Yet it was a pleasant street in spite of its improvements; in spite, too, of a long, gray smoke-plume crossing the summer sky and dropping an occasional atomy of coal upon Mr. Corliss's white coat. The green continuous masses of tree-foliage, lawn, and shrubbery were splendidly asserted; there was a faint wholesome odour from the fine block pavement of the roadway, white, save where the snailish water-wagon laid its long strips of steaming brown. Locusts, serenaders of the heat, invisible among the branches, rasped their interminable cadences, competing bitterly with the monotonous chattering of lawn-mowers propelled by glistening black men over the level swards beneath. And though porch and terrace were left to vacant wicker chairs and swinging-seats, and to flowers and plants in jars and green boxes, and the people sat unseen-and, it might be guessed, unclad for exhibition, in the dimmer recesses of their houses-nevertheless, a summery girl under an alluring parasol now and then prettily trod the sidewalks, and did not altogether suppress an ample consciousness of the white pedestrian's stalwart grace; nor was his quick glance too distressingly modest to be aware of these faint but attractive perturbations.

A few of the oldest houses remained as he remembered them, and there were two or three relics of mansard and cupola days; but the herd of cast-iron deer that once guarded these lawns, standing sentinel to all true gentry: Whither were they fled? In his boyhood, one specimen betokened a family of position and affluence; two, one on each side of the front walk, spoke of a noble opulence; two and a fountain were overwhelming. He wondered in what obscure thickets that once proud herd now grazed; and then he smiled, as through a leafy opening of shrubbery he caught a glimpse of a last survivor, still loyally alert, the haughty head thrown back in everlasting challenge and one foreleg lifted, standing in a vast and shadowy backyard with a clothesline fastened to its antlers.

Mr. Corliss remembered that backyard very well: it was an old battlefield whereon he had conquered; and he wondered if "the Lindley boys" still lived there, and if Richard Lindley would hate him now as implacably as then.

A hundred yards farther on, he paused before a house more familiar to him than any other, and gave it a moment's whimsical attention, without emotion.

It was a shabby old brick structure, and it stood among the gayest, the most flamboyant dwellings of all Corliss Street like a bewildered tramp surrounded by carnival maskers. It held place full in the course of the fury for demolition and rebuilding, but remained unaltered-even unrepaired, one might have thought-since the early seventies, when it was built. There was a sagging cornice, and the nauseous brown which the walls had years ago been painted was sooted to a repellent dinge, so cracked and peeled that the haggard red bricks were exposed, like a beggar through the holes in his coat. It was one of those houses which are large without being commodious; its very tall, very narrow windows, with their attenuated, rusty inside shutters, boasting to the passerby of high ceilings but betraying the miserly floor spaces. At each side of the front door was a high and cramped bay-window, one of them insanely culminating in a little six-sided tower of slate, and both of them girdled above the basement windows by a narrow porch, which ran across the front of the house and gave access to the shallow vestibule. However, a pleasant circumstance modified the gloom of this edifice and assured it a remnant of reserve and dignity in its ill-considered old age: it stood back a fine hundred feet from the highway, and was shielded in part by a friendly group of maple trees and one glorious elm, hoary, robust, and majestic, a veteran of the days when this was forest ground.

Mr. Corliss concluded his momentary pause by walking up the broken cement path, which was hard beset by plantain-weed and the long grass of the ill-kept lawn. Ascending the steps, he was assailed by an odour as of vehement bananas, a diffusion from some painful little chairs standing in the long, high, dim, rather sorrowful hall disclosed beyond the open double doors. They were stiff little chairs of an inconsequent, mongrel pattern; armless, with perforated wooden seats; legs tortured by the lathe to a semblance of buttons strung on a rod; and they had that day received a streaky coat of a gilding preparation which exhaled the olfactory vehemence mentioned. Their present station was temporary, their purpose, as obviously, to dry; and they were doing some incidental gilding on their own account, leaving blots and splashes and sporadic little round footprints on the hardwood floor.

The old-fashioned brass bell-handle upon the caller's right drooped from its socket in a dead fag, but after comprehensive manipulation on the part of the young man, and equal complaint on its own, it was constrained to permit a dim tinkle remotely. Somewhere in the interior a woman's voice, not young, sang a repeated fragment of "Lead, Kindly Light," to the accompaniment of a flapping dust-cloth, sounds which ceased upon a second successful encounter with the bell. Ensued a silence, probably to be interpreted as a period of whispered consultation out of range; a younger voice called softly and urgently, "Laura!" and a dark-eyed, dark-haired girl of something over twenty made her appearance to Mr. Corliss.

At sight of her he instantly restored a thin gold card-case to the pocket whence he was in the act of removing it. She looked at him with only grave, impersonal inquiry; no appreciative invoice of him was to be detected in her quiet eyes, which may have surprised him, possibly the more because he was aware there was plenty of appreciation in his own kindling glance. She was very white and black, this lady. Tall, trim, clear, she looked cool in spite of the black winter skirt she wore, an effect helped somewhat, perhaps, by the crisp freshness of her white waist, with its masculine collar and slim black tie, and undoubtedly by the even and lustreless light ivory of her skin, again

st which the strong black eyebrows and undulated black hair were lined with attractive precision; but, most of all, that coolness was the emanation of her undisturbed and tranquil eyes. They were not phlegmatic: a continuing spark glowed far within them, not ardently, but steadily and inscrutably, like the fixed stars in winter.

Mr. Valentine Corliss, of Paris and Naples, removed his white-ribboned straw hat and bowed as no one had ever bowed in that doorway. This most vivid salutation-accomplished by adding something to a rather quick inclination of the body from the hips, with the back and neck held straight expressed deference without affecting or inviting cordiality. It was an elaborate little formality of a kind fancifully called "foreign," and evidently habitual to the performer.

It produced no outward effect upon the recipient. Such self-control is unusual.

"Is Mr. Madison at home? My name is Valentine Corliss."

"He is at home." She indicated an open doorway upon her right.

"Will you wait in there?"

"Thank you," said Mr. Corliss, passing within. "I shall be--" He left the sentence unfinished, for he was already alone, and at liberty to reflect upon the extraordinary coolness of this cool young woman.

The room, with its closed blinds, was soothingly dark after the riotous sun without, a grateful obscurity which was one of two attractions discovered in it by Mr. Corliss while he waited. It was a depressing little chamber, disproportionately high, uncheered by seven chairs (each of a different family, but all belonging to the same knobby species, and all upholstered a repellent blue), a scratched "inlaid table," likewise knobby, and a dangerous looking small sofa-turbulent furniture, warmly harmonious, however, in a common challenge to the visitor to take comfort in any of it. A once-gilt gas chandelier hung from the distant ceiling, with three globes of frosted glass, but undeniable evidence that five were intended; and two of the three had been severely bitten. There was a hostile little coal-grate, making a mouth under a mantel of imitation black marble, behind an old blue-satin fire-screen upon which red cat-tails and an owl over a pond had been roughly embroidered in high relief, this owl motive being the inspiration of innumerable other owls reflected in innumerable other ponds in the formerly silver moonlight with which the walls were papered. Corliss thought he remembered that in his boyhood, when it was known as "the parlour" (though he guessed that the Madison family called it "the reception room," now) this was the place where his aunt received callers who, she justifiably hoped, would not linger. Altogether, it struck him that it might be a good test-room for an alienist: no incipient lunacy would remain incipient here.

There was one incongruity which surprised him-a wicker waste-paper basket, so nonsensically out of place in this arid cell, where not the wildest hare-brain could picture any one coming to read or write, that he bestowed upon it a particular, frowning attention, and so discovered the second attractive possession of the room. A fresh and lovely pink rose, just opening full from the bud, lay in the bottom of the basket.

There was a rustling somewhere in the house and a murmur, above which a boy's voice became audible in emphatic but undistinguishable complaint. A whispering followed, and a woman exclaimed protestingly, "Cora!" And then a startlingly pretty girl came carelessly into the room through the open door.

She was humming "Quand I' Amour Meurt" in a gay preoccupation, and evidently sought something upon the table in the centre of the room, for she continued her progress toward it several steps before realizing the presence of a visitor. She was a year or so younger than the girl who had admitted him, fairer and obviously more plastic, more expressive, more perishable, a great deal more insistently feminine; though it was to be seen that they were sisters. This one had eyes almost as dark as the other's, but these were not cool; they were sweet, unrestful, and seeking; brilliant with a vivacious hunger: and not Diana but huntresses more ardent have such eyes. Her hair was much lighter than her sister's; it was the colour of dry corn-silk in the sun; and she was the shorter by a head, rounder everywhere and not so slender; but no dumpling: she was exquisitely made. There was a softness about her: something of velvet, nothing of mush. She diffused with her entrance a radiance of gayety and of gentleness; sunlight ran with her. She seemed the incarnation of a caressing smile.

She was point-device. Her close, white skirt hung from a plainly embroidered white waist to a silken instep; and from the crown of her charming head to the tall heels of her graceful white suede slippers, heels of a sweeter curve than the waist of a violin, she was as modern and lovely as this dingy old house was belated and hideous.

Mr. Valentine Corliss spared the fraction of a second for another glance at the rose in the waste-basket.

The girl saw him before she reached the table, gave a little gasp of surprise, and halted with one hand carried prettily to her breast.

"Oh!" she said impulsively; "I beg your pardon. I didn't know there was-- I was looking for a book I thought I--"

She stopped, whelmed with a breath-taking shyness, her eyes, after one quick but condensed encounter with those of Mr. Corliss, falling beneath exquisite lashes. Her voice was one to stir all men: it needs not many words for a supremely beautiful "speaking-voice" to be recognized for what it is; and this girl's was like herself, hauntingly lovely. The intelligent young man immediately realized that no one who heard it could ever forget it.

"I see," she faltered, turning to leave the room; "it isn't here-the book."

"There's something else of yours here," said Corliss.

"Is there?" She paused, hesitating at the door, looking at him over her shoulder uncertainly.

"You dropped this rose." He lifted the rose from the waste-basket and repeated the bow he had made at the front door. This time it was not altogether wasted.

"I?"

"Yes. You lost it. It belongs to you."

"Yes-it does. How curious!" she said slowly. "How curious it happened to be there!" She stepped to take it from him, her eyes upon his in charming astonishment. "And how odd that--" She stopped; then said quickly:

"How did you know it was my rose?"

"Any one would know!"

Her expression of surprise was instantaneously merged in a flash of honest pleasure and admiration, such as only an artist may feel in the presence of a little masterpiece by a fellow-craftsman.

Happily, anticlimax was spared them by the arrival of the person for whom the visitor had asked at the door, and the young man retained the rose in his hand.

Mr. Madison, a shapeless hillock with a large, harassed, red face, evidently suffered from the heat: his gray hair was rumpled back from a damp forehead; the sleeves of his black alpaca coat were pulled up to the elbow above his uncuffed white shirtsleeves; and he carried in one mottled hand the ruins of a palm-leaf fan, in the other a balled wet handkerchief which released an aroma of camphor upon the banana-burdened air. He bore evidences of inadequate adjustment after a disturbed siesta, but, exercising a mechanical cordiality, preceded himself into the room by a genial half-cough and a hearty, "Well-well-well," as if wishing to indicate a spirit of polite, even excited, hospitality.

"I expected you might be turning up, after your letter," he said, shaking hands. "Well, well, well! I remember you as a boy. Wouldn't have known you, of course; but I expect you'll find the town about as much changed as you are."

With a father's blindness to all that is really vital, he concluded his greeting inconsequently: "Oh, this is my little girl Cora."

"Run along, little girl," said the fat father.

His little girl's radiant glance at the alert visitor imparted her thorough comprehension of all the old man's absurdities, which had reached their climax in her dismissal. Her parting look, falling from Corliss's face to the waste-basket at his feet, just touched the rose in his hand as she passed through the door.

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