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   Chapter 5 FIVE

The Flirt By Booth Tarkington Characters: 16461

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Half an hour later, when Lindley had gone, Cora closed the front doors in a manner which drew an immediate cry of agony from the room where her father was trying to sleep. She stood on tiptoe to turn out the gas-light in the hall; but for a time the key resisted the insufficient pressure of her finger-tips: the little orange flame, with its black-green crescent over the armature, so maliciously like the "eye" of a peacock feather, limned the exquisite planes of the upturned face; modelled them with soft and regular shadows; painted a sullen loveliness. The key turned a little, but not enough; and she whispered to herself a monosyllable not usually attributed to the vocabulary of a damsel of rank. Next moment, her expression flashed in a brilliant change, like that of a pouting child suddenly remembering that tomorrow is Christmas. The key surrendered instantly, and she ran gayly up the familiar stairs in the darkness.

The transom of Laura's door shone brightly; but the knob, turning uselessly in Cora's hand, proved the door itself not so hospitable. There was a brief rustling within the room; the bolt snapped, and Laura opened the door.

"Why, Laura," said Cora, observing her sister with transient curiosity, "you haven't undressed. What have you been doing? Something's the matter with you. I know what it is," she added, laughing, as she seated herself on the edge of the old black-walnut bed. "You're in love with Wade Trumble!"

"He's a strong man," observed Laura. "A remarkable throat."

"Horrible little person!" said Cora, forgetting what she owed the unfortunate Mr. Trumble for the vocal wall which had so effectively sheltered her earlier in the evening. "He's like one of those booming June-bugs, batting against the walls, falling into lamp-chimneys---"

"He doesn't get very near the light he wants," said Laura.

"Me? Yes, he would like to, the rat! But he's consoled when he can get any one to listen to his awful chatter. He makes up to himself among women for the way he gets sat on at the club. But he has his use: he shows off the other men so, by contrast. Oh, Laura!" She lifted both hands to her cheeks, which were beautiful with a quick suffusion of high colour. "Isn't he gorgeous!"

"Yes," said Laura gently, "I've always thought so."

"Now what's the use of that?" asked Cora peevishly, "with me? I didn't mean Richard Lindley. You know what I mean."

"Yes-of course-I do," Laura said.

Cora gave her a long look in which a childlike pleading mingled with a faint, strange trouble; then this glance wandered moodily from the face of her sister to her own slippers, which she elevated to meet her descending line of vision.

"And you know I can't help it," she said, shifting quickly to the role of accuser. "So what's the use of behaving like the Pest?" She let her feet drop to the floor again, and her voice trembled a little as she went on: "Laura, you don't know what I had to endure from him to-night. I really don't think I can stand it to live in the same house any longer with that frightful little devil. He's been throwing Ray Vilas's name at me until-oh, it was ghastly to-night! And then-then--" Her tremulousness increased. "I haven't said anything about it all day, but I met him on the street downtown, this morning--"

"You met Vilas?" Laura looked startled. "Did he speak to you?"

"`Speak to me!'" Cora's exclamation shook with a half-laugh of hysteria. "He made an awful scene! He came out of the Richfield Hotel barroom on Main Street just as I was going into the jeweller's next door, and he stopped and bowed like a monkey, square in front of me, and-and he took off his hat and set it on the pavement at my feet and told me to kick it into the gutter! Everybody stopped and stared; and I couldn't get by him. And he said-he said I'd kicked his heart into the gutter and he didn't want it to catch cold without a hat! And wouldn't I please be so kind as to kick--" She choked with angry mortification. "It was horrible! People were stopping and laughing, and a rowdy began to make fun of Ray, and pushed him, and they got into a scuffle, and I ran into the jeweller's and almost fainted."

"He is insane!" said Laura, aghast.

"He's nothing of the kind; he's just a brute. He does it to make people say I'm the cause of his drinking; and everybody in this gossipy old town does say it-just because I got bored to death with his everlasting do-you-love-me-to-day-as-well-as-yesterday style of torment, and couldn't help liking Richard better. Yes, every old cat in town says I ruined him, and that's what he wants them to say. It's so unmanly! I wish he'd die! Yes, I do wish he would! Why doesn't he kill himself?"

"Ah, don't say that," protested Laura.

"Why not? He's threatened to enough. And I'm afraid to go out of the house because I can't tell when I'll meet him or what he'll do. I was almost sick in that jeweller's shop, this morning, and so upset I came away without getting my pendant. There's another thing I've got to go through, I suppose!" She pounded the yielding pillow desperately. "Oh, oh, oh! Life isn't worth living-it seems to me sometimes as if everybody in the world spent his time trying to think up ways to make it harder for me! I couldn't have worn the pendant, though, even if I'd got it," she went on, becoming thoughtful. "It's Richard's silly old engagement ring, you know," she explained, lightly. "I had it made up into a pendant, and heaven knows how I'm going to get Richard to see it the right way. He was so unreasonable tonight."

"Was he cross about Mr. Corliss monopolizing you?"

"Oh, you know how he is," said Cora. "He didn't speak of it exactly. But after you'd gone, he asked me--" She stopped with a little gulp, an expression of keen distaste about her mouth.

"Oh, he wants me to wear my ring," she continued, with sudden rapidity: "and how the dickens can I when I can't even tell him it's been made into a pendant! He wants to speak to father; he wants to announce it. He's sold out his business for what he thinks is a good deal of money, and he wants me to marry him next month and take some miserable little trip, I don't know where, for a few weeks, before he invests what he's made in another business. Oh!" she cried. "It's a horrible thing to ask a girl to do: to settle down-just housekeeping, housekeeping, housekeeping forever in this stupid, stupid town! It's so unfair! Men are just possessive; they think it's loving you to want to possess you themselves. A beautiful `love'! It's so mean! Men!" She sprang up and threw out both arms in a vehement gesture of revolt. "Damn 'em, I wish they'd let me alone!"

Laura's eyes had lost their quiet; they showed a glint of tears, and she was breathing quickly. In this crisis of emotion the two girls went to each other silently; Cora turned, and Laura began to unfasten Cora's dress in the back.

"Poor Richard!" said Laura presently, putting into her mouth a tiny pearl button which had detached itself at her touch. "This was his first evening in the overflow. No wonder he was troubled!"

"Pooh!" said Cora. "As if you and mamma weren't good enough for him to talk to! He's spoiled. He's so used to being called `the most popular man in town' and knowing that every girl on Corliss Street wanted to marry him--" She broke off, and exclaimed sharply: "I wish they would!"

"Cora!"

"Oh, I suppose you mean that's the reason I went in for him?"

"No, no," explained Laura hurriedly. "I only meant, stand still."

"Well, it was!" And Cora's abrupt laugh had the glad, free ring fancy attaches to the merry confidences of a buccaneer in trusted company.

Laura knelt to continue unfastening the dress; and when it was finished she extended three of the tiny buttons in her hand. "They're always loose on a new dress," she said. "I'll sew them all on tight, to-morrow."

Cora smiled lovingly. "You good old thing," she said. "You looked pretty to-night."

"That's nice!" Laura laughed, as she dropped the buttons into a little drawer of her bureau. It was an ugly, cheap, old bureau, its veneer loosened and peeling, the mirror small and flawed-a piece of furniture in keeping with the room, w

hich was small, plain and hot, its only ornamental adjunct being a silver-framed photograph of Mrs. Madison, with Cora, as a child of seven or eight, upon her lap.

"You really do look ever so pretty," asserted Cora.

"I wonder if I look as well as I did the last time I heard I was pretty," said the other. "That was at the Assembly in March. Coming down the stairs, I heard a man from out of town say, `That black-haired Miss Madison is a pretty girl.' And some one with him said, `Yes; you'll think so until you meet her sister!'"

"You are an old dear!" Cora enfolded her delightedly; then, drawing back, exclaimed: "You know he's gorgeous!" And with a feverish little ripple of laughter, caught her dress together in the back and sped through the hall to her own room.

This was a very different affair from Laura's, much cooler and larger; occupying half the width of the house; and a rather expensive struggle had made it pretty and even luxurious. The window curtains and the wall-paper were fresh, and of a quiet blue; there was a large divan of the same colour; a light desk, prettily equipped, occupied a corner; and between two gilt gas-brackets, whose patent burners were shielded by fringed silk shades, stood a cheval-glass six feet high. The door of a very large clothes-pantry stood open, showing a fine company of dresses, suspended from forms in an orderly manner; near by, a rosewood cabinet exhibited a delicate collection of shoes and slippers upon its four shelves. A dressing-table, charmingly littered with everything, took the place of a bureau; and upon it, in a massive silver frame, was a large photograph of Mr. Richard Lindley. The frame was handsome, but somewhat battered: it had seen service. However, the photograph was quite new.

There were photographs everywhere-photographs framed and unframed; photographs large and photographs small, the fresh and the faded; tintypes, kodaks, "full lengths," "cabinets," groups-every kind of photograph; and among them were several of Cora herself, one of her mother, one of Laura, and two others of girls. All the rest were sterner. Two or three were seamed across with cracks, hastily recalled sentences to destruction; and here and there remained tokens of a draughtsman's over-generous struggle to confer upon some of the smooth-shaven faces additional manliness in the shape of sweeping moustaches, long beards, goatees, mutton-chops, and, in the case of one gentleman of a blond, delicate and tenor-like beauty, neck-whiskers;-decorations in many instances so deeply and damply pencilled that subsequent attempts at erasure had failed of great success. Certainly, Hedrick had his own way of relieving dull times.

Cora turned up the lights at the sides of the cheval-glass, looked at herself earnestly, then absently, and began to loosen her hair. Her lifted hands hesitated; she re-arranged the slight displacement of her hair already effected; set two chairs before the mirror, seated herself in one; pulled up her dress, where it was slipping from her shoulder, rested an arm upon the back of the other chair as, earlier in the evening, she had rested it upon the iron railing of the porch, and, leaning forward, assumed as exactly as possible the attitude in which she had sat so long beside Valentine Corliss. She leaned very slowly closer and yet closer to the mirror; a rich colour spread over her; her eyes, gazing into themselves, became dreamy, inexpressibly wistful, cloudily sweet; her breath was tumultuous. "`Even as you and I'?" she whispered.

Then, in the final moment of this after-the-fact rehearsal, as her face almost touched the glass, she forgot how and what she had looked to Corliss; she forgot him; she forgot him utterly: she leaped to her feet and kissed the mirrored lips with a sort of passion.

"You darling!" she cried. Cora's christening had been unimaginative, for the name means only, "maiden." She should have been called Narcissa.

The rhapsody was over instantly, leaving an emotional vacuum like a silence at the dentist's. Cora yawned, and resumed the loosening of her hair.

When she had put on her nightgown, she went from one window to another, closing the shutters against the coming of the morning light to wake her. As she reached the last window, a sudden high wind rushed among the trees outside; a white flare leaped at her face, startling her; there was a boom and rattle as of the brasses, cymbals, and kettle-drums of some fatal orchestra; and almost at once it began to rain.

And with that, from the distance came a voice, singing; and at the first sound of it, though it was far away and almost indistinguishable, Cora started more violently than at the lightning; she sprang to the mirror lights, put them out; threw herself upon the bed, and huddled there in the darkness.

The wind passed; the heart of the storm was miles away; this was only its fringe; but the rain pattered sharply upon the thick foliage outside her windows; and the singing voice came slowly up the street.

It was a strange voice: high-pitched and hoarse-and not quite human, so utter was the animal abandon of it.

"I love a lassie, a bonnie, bonnie lassie," it wailed and piped, coming nearer; and the gay little air-wrought to a grotesque of itself by this wild, high voice in the rain-might have been a banshee's love-song.

"I love a lassie, a bonnie, bonnie lassie.

She's as pure as the lily in the dell--"

The voice grew louder; came in front of the house; came into the yard; came and sang just under Cora's window. There it fell silent a moment; then was lifted in a long peal of imbecile laughter, and sang again:

"Then slowly, slowly rase she up

And slowly she came nigh him,

And when she drew the curtain by-

`Young man I think you're dyin'.'"

Cora's door opened and closed softly, and Laura, barefooted, stole to the bed and put an arm about the shaking form of her sister.

"The drunken beast!" sobbed Cora. "It's to disgrace me! That's what he wants. He'd like nothing better than headlines in the papers: `Ray Vilas arrested at the Madison residence'!" She choked with anger and mortification. "The neighbours--"

"They're nearly all away," whispered Laura. "You needn't fear--"

"Hark!"

The voice stopped singing, and began to mumble incoherently; then it rose again in a lamentable outcry:

"Oh, God of the fallen, be Thou merciful to me! Be Thou merciful-merciful-merciful" . . .

"MERCIFUL, MERCIFUL, MERCIFUL!" it shrieked, over and over, with increasing loudness, and to such nerve-racking effect that Cora, gasping, beat the bedclothes frantically with her hands at each iteration.

The transom over the door became luminous; some one had lighted the gas in the upper hall. Both girls jumped from the bed, ran to the door, and opened it. Their mother, wearing a red wrapper, was standing at the head of the stairs, which Mr. Madison, in his night-shirt and slippers, was slowly and heavily descending.

Before he reached the front door, the voice outside ceased its dreadful plaint with the abrupt anti-climax of a phonograph stopped in the middle of a record. There was the sound of a struggle and wrestling, a turmoil in the wet shrubberies, branches cracking.

"Let me go, da--" cried the voice, drowned again at half a word, as by a powerful hand upon a screaming mouth.

The old man opened the front door, stepped out, closing it behind him; and the three women looked at each other wanly during a hushed interval like that in a sleeping-car at night when the train stops. Presently he came in again, and started up the stairs, heavily and slowly, as he had gone down.

"Richard Lindley stopped him," he said, sighing with the ascent, and not looking up. "He heard him as he came along the street, and dressed as quick as he could, and ran up and got him. Richard's taken him away."

He went to his own room, panting, mopping his damp gray hair with his fat wrist, and looking at no one.

Cora began to cry again. It was an hour before any of this family had recovered sufficient poise to realize, with the shuddering gratitude of adventurers spared from the abyss, that, under Providence, Hedrick had not wakened!

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