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   Chapter 3 THREE

The Flirt By Booth Tarkington Characters: 12979

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


It was cooler outdoors, after dinner, in the dusk of that evening; nevertheless three members of the Madison family denied themselves the breeze, and, as by a tacitly recognized and habitual house-rule, so disposed themselves as to afford the most agreeable isolation for the younger daughter and the guest, who occupied wicker chairs upon the porch. The mother and father sat beneath a hot, gas droplight in the small "library"; Mrs. Madison with an evening newspaper, her husband with "King Solomon's Mines"; and Laura, after crisply declining an urgent request from Hedrick to play, had disappeared upstairs. The inimical lad alone was inspired for the ungrateful role of duenna.

He sat upon the topmost of the porch steps with the air of being permanently implanted; leaning forward, elbows on knees, cheeks on palms, in a treacherous affectation of profound reverie; and his back (all of him that was plainly visible in the hall light) tauntingly close to a delicate foot which would, God wot! willingly have launched him into the darkness beyond. It was his dreadful pleasure to understand wholly the itching of that shapely silk and satin foot.

The gas-light from the hall laid a broad orange path to the steps-Cora and her companion sat just beyond it, his whiteness gray, and she a pale ethereality in the shadow. She wore an evening gown that revealed a vague lilac through white, and shimmered upon her like a vapour. She was very quiet; and there was a wan sweetness about her, an exhalation of wistfulness. Cora, in the evening, was more like a rose than ever. She was fragrant in the dusk. The spell she cast was an Undine's: it was not to be thought so exquisite a thing as she could last. And who may know how she managed to say what she did in the silence and darkness? For it was said-without words, without touch, even without a look-as plainly as if she had spoken or written the message: "If I am a rose, I am one to be worn and borne away. Are you the man?"

With the fall of night, the street they faced had become still, save for an infrequent squawk of irritation on the part of one of the passing automobiles, gadding for the most part silently, like fireflies. But after a time a strolling trio of negroes came singing along the sidewalk.

"In the evening, by the moonlight, you could hear

those banjos ringing;

In the evening, by the moonlight, you could hear

those darkies singing.

How the ole folks would injoy it; they would sit

all night an' lis-sun,

As we sang I-I-N the evening BY-Y-Y the moonlight.'

"Ah, that takes me back!" exclaimed Corliss. "That's as it used to be. I might be a boy again."

"And I suppose this old house has many memories for you?" said

Cora, softly.

"Not very many. My, old-maid aunt didn't like me overmuch, I believe; and I wasn't here often. My mother and I lived far down the street. A big apartment-house stands there now, I noticed as I was walking out here this afternoon-the `Verema,' it is called, absurdly enough!"

"Ray Vilas lives there," volunteered Hedrick, not altering his position.

"Vilas?" said the visitor politely, with a casual recollection that the name had been once or twice emphasized by the youth at dinner. "I don't remember Vilas among the old names here."

"It wasn't, I guess," said Hedrick. "Ray Vilas has only been here about two years. He came from Kentucky."

"A great friend of yours, I suppose."

"He ain't a boy," said Hedrick, and returned to silence without further explanation.

"How cool and kind the stars are to-night," said Cora, very gently.

She leaned forward from her chair, extending a white arm along the iron railing of the porch; bending toward Corliss, and speaking toward him and away from Hedrick in as low a voice as possible, probably entertaining a reasonable hope of not being overheard.

"I love things that are cool and kind," she said. "I love things that are cool and strong. I love iron." She moved her arm caressingly upon the railing. "I love its cool, smooth touch. Any strong life must have iron in it. I like iron in men."

She leaned a very little closer to him.

"Have you iron in you, Mr. Corliss?" she asked.

At these words the frayed edge of Hedrick's broad white collar was lifted perceptibly from his coat, as if by a shudder passing over the back and shoulders beneath.

"If I have not," answered Corliss in a low voice, "I will have-now!"

"Tell me about yourself," she said.

"Dear lady," he began-and it was an effective beginning, for a sigh of pleasure parted her lips as he spoke-"there is nothing interesting to tell. I have spent a very commonplace life."

"I think not. You shouldn't call any life commonplace that has escaped this!" The lovely voice was all the richer for the pain that shook it now. "This monotony, this unending desert of ashes, this death in life!"

"This town, you mean?"

"This prison, I mean! Everything. Tell me what lies outside of it.

You can."

"What makes you think I can?"

"I don't need to answer that. You understand perfectly."

Valentine Corliss drew in his breath with a sound murmurous of delight, and for a time they did not speak.

"Yes," he said, finally, "I think I do."

"There are meetings in the desert," he went on, slowly. "A lonely traveller finds another at a spring, sometimes."

"And sometimes they find that they speak the same language?"

His answer came, almost in a whisper:

"`Even as you and I.'"

"`Even as you and I,'" she echoed, even more faintly.

"Yes."

Cora breathed rapidly in the silence that followed; she had every appearance of a woman deeply and mysteriously stirred. Her companion watched her keenly in the dusk, and whatever the reciprocal symptoms of emotion he may have exhibited, they were far from tumultuous, bearing more likeness to the quiet satisfaction of a good card-player taking what may prove to be a decisive trick.

After a time she leaned back in her chair again, and began to fan herself slowly.

"You have lived in the Orient, haven't you, Mr. Corliss?" she said in an ordinary tone.

"Not lived. I've been East once or twice. I spend a greater part of the year at Posilipo."

"Where is that?"

"On the fringe of Naples."

"Do you live in a hotel?"

"No." A slight surprise sounded in his voice. "I have a villa there."

"Do you know what that seems to me?" Cora asked gravely, after a pause; then answered herself, after another: "Like mag

ic. Like a strange, beautiful dream."

"Yes, it is beautiful," he said.

"Then tell me: What do you do there?"

"I spend a lot of time on the water in a boat."

"Sailing?"

"On sapphires and emeralds and turquoises and rubies, melted and blown into waves."

"And you go yachting over that glory?"

"Fishing with my crew-and loafing."

"But your boat is really a yacht, isn't it?"

"Oh, it might be called anything," he laughed.

"And your sailors are Italian fishermen?"

Hedrick slew a mosquito upon his temple, smiting himself hard.

"No, they're Chinese!" he muttered hoarsely.

"They're Neapolitans," said Corliss.

"Do they wear red sashes and earrings?" asked Cora.

"One of them wears earrings and a derby hat!"

"Ah!" she protested, turning to him again. "You don't tell me. You let me cross-question you, but you don't tell me things! Don't you see? I want to know what life is! I want to know of strange seas, of strange people, of pain and of danger, of great music, of curious thoughts! What are the Neapolitan women like?"

"They fade early."

She leaned closer to him. "Before the fading have you-have you loved-many?"

"All the pretty ones I ever saw," he answered gayly, but with something in his tone (as there was in hers) which implied that all the time they were really talking of things other than those spoken. Yet here this secret subject seemed to come near the surface.

She let him hear a genuine little snap of her teeth. "I thought you were like that!"

He laughed. "Ah, but you were sure to see it!"

"You could 'a' seen a Neapolitan woman yesterday, Cora," said Hedrick, obligingly, "if you'd looked out the front window. She was working a hurdy-gurdy up and down this neighbourhood all afternoon." He turned genially to face his sister, and added: "Ray Vilas used to say there were lots of pretty girls in Lexington."

Cora sprang to her feet. "You're not smoking," she said to Corliss hurriedly, as upon a sudden discovery. "Let me get you some matches."

She had entered the house before he could protest, and Hedrick, looking down the hall, was acutely aware that she dived desperately into the library. But, however tragic the cry for justice she uttered there, it certainly was not prolonged; and the almost instantaneous quickness of her reappearance upon the porch, with matches in her hand, made this one of the occasions when her brother had to admit that in her own line Cora was a miracle.

"So thoughtless of me," she said cheerfully, resuming her seat. She dropped the matches into Mr. Corliss's hand with a fleeting touch of her finger-tips upon his palm. "Of course you wanted to smoke. I can't think why I didn't realize it before. I must have--"

A voice called from within, commanding in no, uncertain tones.

"Hedrick! I should like to see you!" Hedrick rose, and, looking neither to the right nor, to the left, went stonily into the house, and appeared before the powers.

"Call me?" he inquired with the air of cheerful readiness to proceed upon any errand, no matter how difficult.

Mr. Madison countered diplomacy with gloom.

"I don't know what to do with you. Why can't you let your sister alone?"

"Has Laura been complaining of me?"

"Oh, Hedrick!" said Mrs. Madison.

Hedrick himself felt the justice of her reproof: his reference to Laura was poor work, he knew. He hung his head and began to scrape the carpet with the side of his shoe.

"Well, what'd Cora say I been doing to her?"

"You know perfectly well what you've been doing," said Mr. Madison sharply.

"Nothing at all; just sitting on the steps. What'd she say?"

His father evidently considered it wiser not to repeat the text of accusation. "You know what you did," he said heavily.

"Oho!" Hedrick's eyes became severe, and his sire's evasively shifted from them.

"You keep away from the porch," said the father, uneasily.

"You mean what I said about Ray Vilas?" asked the boy.

Both parents looked uncomfortable, and Mr. Madison, turning a leaf in his book, gave a mediocre imitation of an austere person resuming his reading after an impertinent interruption.

"That's what you mean," said the boy accusingly. "Ray Vilas!"

"Just you keep away from that porch."

"Because I happened to mention Ray Vilas?" demanded Hedrick.

"You let your sister alone."

"I got a right to know what she said, haven't I?"

There was no response, which appeared to satisfy Hedrick perfectly. Neither parent met his glance; the mother troubled and the father dogged, while the boy rejoiced sternly in some occult triumph. He inflated his scant chest in pomp and hurled at the defeated pair the well-known words:

"I wish she was my daughter-about five minutes!"

New sounds from without-men's voices in greeting, and a ripple of response from Cora somewhat lacking in enthusiasm-afforded Mr. Madison unmistakable relief, and an errand upon which to send his deadly offspring.

Hedrick, after a reconnaissance in the hall, obeyed at leisure. Closing the library door nonchalantly behind him, he found himself at the foot of a flight of unillumined back stairs, where his manner underwent a swift alteration, for here was an adventure to be gone about with ceremony. "Ventre St. Gris!" he muttered hoarsely, and loosened the long rapier in the shabby sheath at his side. For, with the closing of the door, he had become a Huguenot gentleman, over forty and a little grizzled perhaps, but modest and unassuming; wiry, alert, lightning-quick, with a wrist of steel and a heart of gold; and he was about to ascend the stairs of an unknown house at Blois in total darkness. He went up, crouching, ready for anything, without a footfall, not even causing a hideous creak; and gained the top in safety. Here he turned into an obscure passage, and at the end of it beheld, through an open door, a little room in which a dark-eyed lady sat writing in a book by the light of an oil lamp.

The wary Huguenot remained in the shadow and observed her.

Laura was writing in an old ledger she had found in the attic, blank and unused. She had rebound it herself in heavy gray leather; and fitted it with a tiny padlock and key. She wore the key under her dress upon a very thin silver chain round her neck. Upon the first page of the book was written a date, now more than a year past, the month was June-and beneath it:

"Love came to me to-day."

Nothing more was written upon that page.

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