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   Chapter 2 TWO

The Flirt By Booth Tarkington Characters: 18468

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Cora paused in the hall at a point about twenty feet from the door, a girlish stratagem frequently of surprising advantage to the practitioner; but the two men had begun to speak of the weather. Suffering a momentary disappointment, she went on, stepping silently, and passed through a door at the end of the hall into a large and barren looking dining-room, stiffly and skimpily furnished, but well-lighted, owing to the fact that one end of it had been transformed into a narrow "conservatory," a glass alcove now tenanted by two dried palms and a number of vacant jars and earthen crocks.

Here her sister sat by an open window, repairing masculine underwear; and a handsome, shabby, dirty boy of about thirteen sprawled on the floor of the "conservatory" unloosing upon its innocent, cracked, old black and white tiles a ghastly family of snakes, owls, and visaged crescent moons, in orange, green, and other loathsome chalks. As Cora entered from the hall, a woman of fifty came in at a door opposite, and, a dust-cloth retained under her left arm, an unsheathed weapon ready for emergency, leaned sociably against the door-casing and continued to polish a tablespoon with a bit of powdered chamois-skin. She was tall and slightly bent; and, like the flat, old, silver spoon in her hand, seemed to have been worn thin by use; yet it was plain that the three young people in the room "got their looks" from her. Her eyes, if tired, were tolerant and fond; and her voice held its youth and something of the music of Cora's.

"What is he like?" She addressed the daughter by the window.

"Why don't you ask Coralie?" suggested the sprawling artist, relaxing his hideous labour. He pronounced his sister's name with intense bitterness. He called it "Cora-lee," with an implication far from subtle that his sister had at some time thus Gallicized herself, presumably for masculine favour; and he was pleased to receive tribute to his satire in a flash of dislike from her lovely eyes.

"I ask Laura because it was Laura who went to the door," Mrs.

Madison answered. "I do not ask Cora because Cora hasn't seen him.

Do I satisfy you, Hedrick?"

"`Cora hasn't seen him!'" the boy hooted mockingly. "She hasn't? She was peeking out of the library shutters when he came up the front walk, and she wouldn't let me go to the door; she told Laura to go, but first she took the library waste-basket and laid one o' them roses--"

"Those roses," said Cora sharply. "He will hang around the neighbours' stables. I think you ought to do something about it, mother."

"Them roses!" repeated Hedrick fiercely. "One o' them roses Dick Lindley sent her this morning. Laid it in the waste-basket and sneaked it into the reception room for an excuse to go galloping in and--"

"`Galloping'?" said Mrs. Madison gravely.

"It was a pretty bum excuse," continued the unaffected youth, "but you bet your life you'll never beat our Cora-lee when there's a person in pants on the premises! It's sickening." He rose, and performed something like a toe-dance, a supposed imitation of his sister's mincing approach to the visitor. "Oh, dear, I am such a little sweety! Here I am all alone just reeking with Browning-and-Tennyson and thinking to myself about such lovely things, and walking around looking for my nice, pretty rose. Where can it be? Oh heavens, Mister, are you here? Oh my, I never, never thought that there was a man here! How you frighten me! See what a shy little thing I am? You do see, don't you, old sweeticums? Ta, ta, here's papa. Remember me by that rose, 'cause it's just like me. Me and it's twins, you see, cutie-sugar!" The diabolical boy then concluded with a reversion to the severity of his own manner: "If she was my daughter I'd whip her!"

His indignation was left in the air, for the three ladies had instinctively united against him, treacherously including his private feud in the sex-war of the ages: Cora jumped lightly upon the table and sat whistling and polishing the nails of one hand upon the palm of another; Laura continued to sew without looking up, and Mrs. Madison, conquering a tendency to laugh, preserved a serene countenance and said ruminatively:

"They were all rather queer, the Corlisses."

Hedrick stared incredulously, baffled; but men must expect these things, and this was no doubt a helpful item in his education.

"I wonder if he wants to sell the house," said Mrs. Madison.

"I wish he would. Anything that would make father get out of it!" Cora exclaimed. "I hope Mr. Corliss will burn it if he doesn't sell it."

"He might want to live here himself."

"He!" Cora emitted a derisive outcry.

Her mother gave her a quick, odd look, in which there was a real alarm. "What is he like, Cora?"

"Awfully foreign and distinguished!"

This brought Hedrick to confront her with a leap as of some wild animal under a lash. He landed close to her; his face awful.

"Princely, I should call him," said Cora, her enthusiasm undaunted. "Distinctly princely!"

"Princely," moaned Hedrick. "Pe-rin-sley!"

"Hedrick!" Mrs. Madison reproved him automatically. "In what way is he `foreign,' Cora?"

"Oh, every way." Cora let her glance rest dreamily upon the goaded boy. "He has a splendid head set upon a magnificent torso--"

"Torso!" Hedrick whispered hoarsely.

"Tall, a glorious figure-like a young guardsman's." Madness was gathering in her brother's eyes; and observing it with quiet pleasure, she added: "One sees immediately he has the grand manner, the bel air."

Hedrick exploded. "`Bel air'!" he screamed, and began to jump up and down, tossing his arms frantically, and gasping with emotion. "Oh, bel air! Oh, blah! `Henry Esmond!' Been readin' `Henry Esmond!' Oh, you be-yoo-tiful Cora-Beatrix-a-lee! Magganifisent torso! Gull_o_-rious figgi-your! Bel air! Oh, slush! Oh, luv-a-ly slush!" He cast himself convulsively upon the floor, full length. "Luv-a-ly, luv-a-ly slush!"

"He is thirty, I should say," continued Cora, thoughtfully. "Yes-about thirty. A strong, keen face, rather tanned. He's between fair and dark--"

Hedrick raised himself to the attitude of the "Dying Gaul." "And with `hair slightly silvered at the temples!' Ain't his hair slightly silvered at the temples?" he cried imploringly. "Oh, sister, in pity's name let his hair be slightly silvered at the temples? Only three grains of corn, your Grace; my children are starving!"

He collapsed again, laid his face upon his extended arms, and writhed.

"He has rather wonderful eyes," said Cora. "They seem to look right through you."

"Slush, slush, luv-a-ly slush," came in muffled tones from the floor.

"And he wears his clothes so well-so differently! You feel at once that he's not a person, but a personage."

Hedrick sat up, his eyes closed, his features contorted as with agony, and chanted, impromptu:

"Slush, slush, luv-a-ly, slush!

Le'ss all go a-swimmin' in a dollar's worth o' mush.

Slush in the morning, slush at night,

If I don't get my slush I'm bound to get tight!"

"Hedrick!" said his mother.

"Altogether I should say that Mr. Valentine Corliss looks as if he lived up to his name," Cora went on tranquilly. "Valentine Corliss of Corliss Street-I think I rather like the sound of that name." She let her beautiful voice linger upon it, caressingly. "Valentine Corliss."

Hedrick opened his eyes, allowed his countenance to resume its ordinary proportions, and spoke another name slowly and with honeyed thoughtfulness:

"Ray Vilas."

This was the shot that told. Cora sprang down from the table with an exclamation.

Hedrick, subduing elation, added gently, in a mournful whisper:

"Poor old Dick Lindley!"

His efforts to sting his sister were completely successful at last: Cora was visibly agitated, and appealed hotly to her mother. "Am I to bear this kind of thing all my life? Aren't you ever going to punish his insolence?"

"Hedrick, Hedrick!" said Mrs. Madison sadly.

Cora turned to the girl by the window with a pathetic gesture.

"Laura--" she said, and hesitated.

Laura Madison looked up into her sister's troubled eyes.

"I feel so morbid," said Cora, flushing a little and glancing away. "I wish--" She stopped.

The silent Laura set aside her work, rose and went out of the room. Her cheeks, too, had reddened faintly, a circumstance sharply noted by the terrible boy. He sat where he was, asprawl, propped by his arms behind him, watching with acute concentration the injured departure of Cora, following her sister. At the door, Cora, without pausing, threw him a look over her shoulder: a full-eyed shot of frankest hatred.

A few moments later, magnificent chords sounded through the house. The piano was old, but tuned to the middle of the note, and the keys were swept by a master hand. The wires were not hammered; they were touched knowingly as by the player's own fingers, and so they sang-and from out among the chords there stole an errant melody. This was not "piano-playing" and not a pianist's triumphant nimbleness-it was music. Art is the language of a heart that knows how to speak, and a heart that knew how was speaking here. What it told was something immeas

urably wistful, something that might have welled up in the breast of a young girl standing at twilight in an April orchard. It was the inexpressible made into sound, an improvisation by a master player.

"You hear what she's up to?" said Hedrick, turning his head at last. But his mother had departed.

He again extended himself flat upon the floor, face downward, this time as a necessary preliminary to rising after a manner of his own invention. Mysteriously he became higher in the middle, his body slowly forming first a round and then a pointed arch, with forehead, knees, and elbows touching the floor. A brilliantly executed manoeuvre closed his Gothic period, set him upright and upon his feet; then, without ostentation, he proceeded to the kitchen, where he found his mother polishing a sugar-bowl.

He challenged her with a damnatory gesture in the direction of the music. "You hear what Cora's up to?"

Mrs. Madison's expression was disturbed; she gave her son a look almost of appeal, and said, gently:

"I believe there's nothing precisely criminal in her getting Laura to play for her. Laura's playing always soothes her when she feels out of sorts-and-you weren't very considerate of her, Hedrick. You upset her."

"Mentioning Ray Vilas, you mean?" he demanded.

"You weren't kind."

"She deserves it. Look at her! You know why she's got Laura at the piano now."

"It's-it's because you worried her," his mother faltered evasively. "Besides, it is very hot, and Cora isn't as strong as she looks. She said she felt morbid and--"

"Morbid? Blah!" interrupted the direct boy. "She's started after this Corliss man just like she did for Vilas. If I was Dick Lindley I wouldn't stand for Cora's--"

"Hedrick!" His mother checked his outburst pleadingly. "Cora has so much harder time than the other girls; they're all so much better off. They seem to get everything they want, just by asking: nice clothes and jewellery-and automobiles. That seems to make a great difference nowadays; they all seem to have automobiles. We're so dreadfully poor, and Cora has to struggle so for what good times she--"

"Her?" the boy jibed bitterly. "I don't see her doing any particular struggling." He waved his hand in a wide gesture. "She takes it all!"

"There, there!" the mother said, and, as if feeling the need of placating this harsh judge, continued gently: "Cora isn't strong, Hedrick, and she does have a hard time. Almost every one of the other girls in her set is at the seashore or somewhere having a gay summer. You don't realize, but it's mortifying to have to be the only one to stay at home, with everybody knowing it's because your father can't afford to send her. And this house is so hopeless," Mrs. Madison went on, extending her plea hopefully; "it's impossible to make it attractive, but Cora keeps trying and trying: she was all morning on her knees gilding those chairs for the music-room, poor child, and--"

"`Music-room'!" sneered the boy. "Gilt chairs! All show-off!

That's all she ever thinks about. It's all there is to Cora, just

show-off, so she'll get a string o' fellows chasin' after her.

She's started for this Corliss just exactly the way she did for

Ray Vilas!"

"Hedrick!"

"Just look at her!" he cried vehemently. "Don't you know she's tryin' to make this Corliss think it's her playin' the piano right now?"

"Oh, no--"

"Didn't she do that with Ray Vilas?" he demanded quickly. "Wasn't that exactly what she did the first time he ever came here-got Laura to play and made him think it was her? Didn't she?"

"Oh-just in fun." Mrs. Madison's tone lacked conviction; she turned, a little confusedly, from the glaring boy and fumbled among the silver on the kitchen table. "Besides-she told him afterward that it was Laura."

"He walked in on her one day when she was battin' away at the piano herself with her back to the door. Then she pretended it had been a joke, and he was so far gone by that time he didn't care. He's crazy, anyway," added the youth, casually. "Who is this Corliss?"

"He owns this house. His family were early settlers and used to be very prominent, but they're all dead except this one. His mother was a widow; she went abroad to live and took him with her when he was about your age, and I don't think he's ever been back since."

"Did he use to live in this house?"

"No; an aunt of his did. She left it to him when she died, two years ago. Your father was agent for her."

"You think this Corliss wants to sell it?"

"It's been for sale all the time he's owned it. That's why we moved here; it made the rent low."

"Is he rich?"

"They used to have money, but maybe it's all spent. It seemed to me he might want to raise money on the house, because I don't see any other reason that could bring him back here. He's already mortgaged it pretty heavily, your father told me. I don't--" Mrs. Madison paused abruptly, her eyes widening at a dismaying thought. "Oh, I do hope your father will know better than to ask him to stay to dinner!"

Hedrick's expression became cryptic. "Father won't ask him," he said. "But I'll bet you a thousand dollars he stays!"

The mother followed her son's thought and did not seek to elicit verbal explanation of the certainty which justified so large a venture. "Oh, I hope not," she said. "Sarah's threatening to leave, anyway; and she gets so cross if there's extra cooking on wash-days."

"Well, Sarah'll have to get cross," said the boy grimly; "and I'll have to plug out and go for a quart of brick ice-cream and carry it home in all this heat; and Laura and you'll have to stand over the stove with Sarah; and father'll have to change his shirt; and we'll all have to toil and moil and sweat and suffer while Cora-lee sits out on the front porch and talks toodle-do-dums to her new duke. And then she'll have you go out and kid him along while--"

"Hedrick!"

"Yes, you will!-while she gets herself all dressed and powdered up again. After that, she'll do her share of the work: she'll strain her poor back carryin' Dick Lindley's flowers down the back stairs and stickin' 'em in a vase over a hole in the tablecloth that Laura hasn't had time to sew up. You wait and see!"

The gloomy realism of this prophecy was not without effect upon the seer's mother. "Oh, no!" she exclaimed, protestingly. "We really can't manage it. I'm sure Cora won't want to ask him--"

"You'll see!"

"No; I'm sure she wouldn't think of it, but if she does I'll tell her we can't. We really can't, to-day."

Her son looked pityingly upon her. "She ought to be my daughter," he said, the sinister implication all too plain;-"just about five minutes!"

With that, he effectively closed the interview and left her.

He returned to his abandoned art labours in the "conservatory," and meditatively perpetrated monstrosities upon the tiles for the next half-hour, at the end of which he concealed his box of chalks, with an anxiety possibly not unwarranted, beneath the sideboard; and made his way toward the front door, first glancing, unseen, into the kitchen where his mother still pursued the silver. He walked through the hall on tiptoe, taking care to step upon the much stained and worn strip of "Turkish" carpet, and not upon the more resonant wooden floor. The music had ceased long since.

The open doorway was like a brilliantly painted picture hung upon the darkness of the hall, though its human centre of interest was no startling bit of work, consisting of Mr. Madison pottering aimlessly about the sun-flooded, unkempt lawn, fanning himself, and now and then stooping to pull up one of the thousands of plantain-weeds that beset the grass. With him the little spy had no concern; but from a part of the porch out of sight from the hall came Cora's exquisite voice and the light and pleasant baritone of the visitor. Hedrick flattened himself in a corner just inside the door.

"I should break any engagement whatsoever if I had one," Mr. Corliss was saying with what the eavesdropper considered an offensively "foreign" accent and an equally unjustifiable gallantry; "but of course I haven't: I am so utterly a stranger here. Your mother is immensely hospitable to wish you to ask me, and I'll be only too glad to stay. Perhaps after dinner you'll be very, very kind and play again? Of course you know how remarkable such--"

"Oh, just improvising," Cora tossed off, carelessly, with a deprecatory ripple of laughter. "It's purely with the mood, you see. I can't make myself do things. No; I fancy I shall not play again today."

There was a moment's silence.

"Shan't I fasten that in your buttonhole for you," said Cora.

"You see how patiently I've been awaiting the offer!"

There was another little silence; and the listener was able to construct a picture (possibly in part from an active memory) of Cora's delicate hands uplifted to the gentleman's lapel and Cora's eyes for a moment likewise uplifted.

"Yes, one has moods," she said, dreamily. "I am all moods. I think you are too, Mr. Corliss. You look moody. Aren't you?"

A horrible grin might have been seen to disfigure the shadow in the corner just within the doorway.

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