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   Chapter 4 FOUR

The Flirt By Booth Tarkington Characters: 13960

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Laura, at this writing, looked piquantly unfamiliar to her brother: her eyes were moist and bright; her cheeks were flushed and as she bent low, intently close to the book, a loosened wavy strand of her dark hair almost touched the page. Hedrick had never before seen her wearing an expression so "becoming" as the eager and tremulous warmth of this; though sometimes, at the piano, she would play in a reverie which wrought such glamour about her that even a brother was obliged to consider her rather handsome. She looked more than handsome now, so strangely lovely, in fact, that his eyes watered painfully with the protracted struggle to read a little of the writing in her book before she discovered him.

He gave it up at last, and lounged forward blinking, with the air of finding it sweet to do nothing.

"Whatch' writin'?" he asked in simple carelessness.

At the first sound of his movement she closed the book in a flash; then, with a startled, protective gesture, extended her arms over it, covering it.

"What is it, Hedrick?" she asked, breathlessly.

"What's the padlock for?"

"Nothing," she panted. "What is it you want?"

"You writin' poetry?"

Laura's eyes dilated; she looked dangerous.

"Oh, I don't care about your old book," said Hedrick, with an amused nonchalance Talleyrand might have admired. "There's callers, and you have to come down."

"Who sent you?"

"A man I've often noticed around the house," he replied blightingly. "You may have seen him-I think his name's Madison. His wife and he both sent for you."

One of Laura's hands instinctively began to arrange her hair, but the other remained upon the book. "Who is it calling?"

"Richard Lindley and that Wade Trumble."

Laura rose, standing between her brother and the table. "Tell mother I will come down."

Hedrick moved a little nearer, whereupon, observing his eye, she put her right hand behind her upon the book. She was not deceived, and boys are not only superb strategic actors sometimes, but calamitously quick. Appearing to be unaware of her careful defence, he leaned against the wall and crossed his feet in an original and interesting manner.

"Of course you understand," he said cosily. "Cora wants to keep this Corliss in a corner of the porch where she can coo at him; so you and mother'll have to raise a ballyhoo for Dick Lindley and that Wade Trumble. It'd been funny if Dick hadn't noticed anybody was there and kissed her. What on earth does he want to stay engaged to her for, anyway?"

"You don't know that she is engaged to Mr. Lindley, Hedrick."

"Get out!" he hooted. "What's the use talking like that to me? A blind mackerel could see she's let poor old Lindley think he's High Man with her these last few months; but he'll have to hit the pike now, I reckon, 'cause this Corliss is altogether too pe-rin-sley for Dick's class. Lee roy est mort. Vive lee roy!"

"Hedrick, won't you please run along? I want to change my dress."

"What for? There was company for dinner and you didn't change then."

Laura's flushed cheeks flushed deeper, and in her confusion she answered too quickly. "I only have one evening gown. I-of course I can't wear it every night."

"Well, then," he returned triumphantly, "what do you want to put it on now for?"

"Please run along, Hedrick," she pleaded.

"You didn't for this Corliss," he persisted sharply. "You know Dick Lindley couldn't see anybody but Cora to save his life, and I don't suppose there's a girl on earth fool enough to dress up for that Wade Trum--"

"Hedrick!" Laura's voice rang with a warning which he remembered to have heard upon a few previous occasions when she had easily proved herself physically stronger than he. "Go and tell mother I'm coming," she said.

He began to whistle "Beulah Land" as he went, but, with the swift closing of the door behind him, abandoned that pathetically optimistic hymn prematurely, after the third bar.

Twenty minutes later, when Laura came out and went downstairs, a fine straight figure in her black evening gown, the Sieur de Marsac-that hard-bitten Huguenot, whose middle-aged shabbiness was but the outward and deceptive seeming of the longest head and the best sword in France-emerged cautiously from the passageway and stood listening until her footsteps were heard descending the front stairs. Nevertheless, the most painstaking search of her room, a search as systematic as it was feverish, failed to reveal where she had hidden the book.

He returned wearily to the porch.

A prophet has always been supposed to take some pleasure, perhaps morbid, in seeing his predictions fulfilled; and it may have been a consolation to the gloomy heart of Hedrick, sorely injured by Laura's offensive care of her treasure, to find the grouping upon the porch as he had foretold: Cora and Mr. Corliss sitting a little aloof from the others, far enough to permit their holding an indistinct and murmurous conversation of their own. Their sequestration, even by so short a distance, gave them an appearance of intimacy which probably accounted for the rather absent greeting bestowed by Mr. Lindley upon the son of the house, who met him with some favour.

This Richard Lindley was a thin, friendly looking young man with a pleasing, old-fashioned face which suggested that if he were minded to be portrayed it should be by the daguerreotype, and that a high, black stock would have been more suitable to him than his businesslike, modern neck-gear. He had fine eyes, which seemed habitually concerned with faraway things, though when he looked at Cora they sparkled; however, it cannot be said that the sparkling continued at its brightest when his glance wandered (as it not infrequently did this evening) from her lovely head to the rose in Mr. Corliss's white coat.

Hedrick, resuming a position upon the top step between the two groups, found the conversation of the larger annoying because it prevented him from hearing that of the smaller. It was carried on for the greater part by his mother and Mr. Trumble; Laura sat silent between these two; and Lindley's mood was obviously contemplative. Mr. Wade Trumble, twenty-six, small, earnest, and already beginning to lose his hair, was talkative enough.

He was one of those people who are so continuously aggressive that they are negligible. "What's the matter here? Nobody pays any attention to me. I'M important!" He might have had that legend engraved on his card, it spoke from everything else that was his: face, voice, gesture-even from his clothes, for they also clamoured for attention without receiving it. Worn by another man, their extravagance of shape and shade might have advertised a self-sacrificing effort for the picturesque; but upon Mr. Trumble they paradoxically confirmed an impression that he was well off and close. Certainly this was the impression confirmed in the mind of the shrewdest and most experienced observer on that veranda. The

accomplished Valentine Corliss was quite able to share Cora's detachment satisfactorily, and be very actively aware of other things at the same time. For instance: Richard Lindley's preoccupation had neither escaped him nor remained unconnected in his mind with that gentleman's somewhat attentive notice of the present position of a certain rose.

Mr. Trumble took up Mrs. Madison's placid weather talk as if it had been a flaunting challenge; he made it a matter of conscience and for argument; for he was a doughty champion, it appeared, when nothings were in question, one of those stern men who will have accuracy in the banal, insisting upon portent in talk meant to be slid over as mere courteous sound.

"I don't know about that, now," he said with severe emphasis. "I don't know about that at all. I can't say I agree with you. In fact, I do not agree with you: it was hotter in the early part of July, year before last, than it has been at any time this summer. Several degrees hotter-several degrees."

"I fear I must beg to differ with you," he said, catching the poor lady again, a moment later. "I beg to differ decidedly. Other places get a great deal more heat. Look at Egypt."

"Permit me to disagree," he interrupted her at once, when she pathetically squirmed to another subject. "There's more than one side to this matter. You are looking at this matter from a totally wrong angle. . . . Let me inform you that statistics. . . ." Mrs. Madison's gentle voice was no more than just audible in the short intervals he permitted; a blind listener would have thought Mr. Trumble at the telephone. Hedrick was thankful when his mother finally gave up altogether the display of her ignorance, inaccuracy, and general misinformation, and Trumble talked alone. That must have been the young man's object; certainly he had struggled for it; and so it must have pleased him. He talked on and on and on; he passed from one topic to another with no pause; swinging over the gaps with a "Now you take," or, "And that reminds me," filling many a vacancy with "So-and-so and so-and-so," and other stencils, while casting about for material to continue. Everything was italicized, the significant and the trivial, to the same monotone of emphasis. Death and shoe-laces were all the same to him.

Anything was all the same to him so long as he talked.

Hedrick's irritation was gradually dispelled; and, becoming used to the sound, he found it lulling; relaxed his attitude and drowsed; Mr. Lindley was obviously lost in a reverie; Mrs. Madison, her hand shading her eyes, went over her market-list for the morrow and otherwise set her house in order; Laura alone sat straight in her chair; and her face was toward the vocalist, but as she was in deep shadow her expression could not be guessed. However, one person in that group must have listened with genuine pleasure-else why did he talk?

It was the returned native whose departure at last rang the curtain on the monologue. The end of the long sheltered seclusion of Cora and her companion was a whispered word. He spoke it first:

"To-morrow?"

"To-morrow."

Cora gave a keen, quick, indrawn sigh-not of sorrow-and sank back in her chair, as he touched her hand in farewell and rose to go. She remained where she was, motionless and silent in the dark, while he crossed to Mrs. Madison, and prefaced a leave-taking unusually formal for these precincts with his mannered bow. He shook hands with Richard Lindley, asking genially:

"Do you still live where you did-just below here?"

"Yes."

"When I passed by there this afternoon," said Corliss, "it recalled a stupendous conflict we had, once upon a time; but I couldn't remember the cause."

"I remember the cause," said Mr. Lindley, but, stopping rather short, omitted to state it. "At all events, it was settled."

"Yes," said the other quietly. "You whipped me."

"Did I so?" Corliss laughed gayly. "We mustn't let it happen again!"

Mr. Trumble joined the parting guest, making simultaneous adieus with unmistakable elation. Mr. Trumble's dreadful entertainment had made it a happy evening for him.

As they went down the steps together, the top of his head just above the level of his companion's shoulder, he lifted to Corliss a searching gaze like an actor's hopeful scrutiny of a new acquaintance; and before they reached the street his bark rang eagerly on the stilly night: "Now there is a point on which I beg to differ with you. . . ."

Mrs. Madison gave Lindley her hand. "I think I'll go in.

Good-night, Richard. Come, Hedrick!"

Hedrick rose, groaning, and batted his eyes painfully as he faced the hall light. "What'd you and this Corliss fight about?" he asked, sleepily.

"Nothing," said Lindley.

"You said you remembered."

"Oh, I remember a lot of useless things."

"Well, what was it? I want to know what you fought about."

"Come, Hedrick," repeated his mother, setting a gently urgent hand on his shoulder.

"I won't," said the boy impatiently, shaking her off and growing suddenly very wideawake and determined. "I won't move a step till he tells me what they fought about. Not a step!"

"Well-it was about a `show.' We were only boys, you know-younger than you, perhaps."

"A circus?"

"A boy-circus he and my brother got up in our yard. I wasn't in it."

"Well, what did you fight about?"

"I thought Val Corliss wasn't quite fair to my brother. That's all."

"No, it isn't! How wasn't he fair?"

"They sold tickets to the other boys; and I thought my brother didn't get his share."

"This Corliss kept it all?"

"Oh, something like that," said Lindley, laughing.

"Probably I was in the wrong."

"And he licked you?"

"All over the place!"

"I wish I'd seen it," said Hedrick, not unsympathetically, but as a sportsman. And he consented to be led away.

Laura had been standing at the top of the steps looking down the street, where Corliss and his brisk companion had emerged momentarily from deep shadows under the trees into the illumination of a swinging arc-lamp at the corner. They disappeared; and she turned, and, smiling, gave the delaying guest her hand in good-night.

His expression, which was somewhat troubled, changed to one of

surprise as her face came into the light, for it was transfigured.

Deeply flushed, her eyes luminous, she wore that shining look

Hedrick had seen as she wrote in her secret book.

"Why, Laura!" said Lindley, wondering.

She said good-night again, and went in slowly. As she reached the foot of the stairs, she heard him moving a chair upon the porch, and Cora speaking sharply:

"Please don't sit close to me!" There was a sudden shrillness in the voice of honey, and the six words were run so rapidly together they seemed to form but one. After a moment Cora added, with a deprecatory ripple of laughter not quite free from the same shrillness:

"You see, Richard, it's so-it's so hot, to-night."

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