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   Chapter 6 SIX

The Flirt By Booth Tarkington Characters: 14181

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Much light shatters much loveliness; but a pretty girl who looks pretty outdoors on a dazzling hot summer morning is prettier then than ever. Cora knew it; of course she knew it; she knew exactly how she looked, as she left the concrete bridge behind her at the upper end of Corliss Street and turned into a shrub-bordered bypath of the river park. In imagination she stood at the turn of the path just ahead, watching her own approach: she saw herself as a picture-the white-domed parasol, with its cheerful pale-green lining, a background for her white hat, her corn-silk hair, and her delicately flushed face. She saw her pale, live arms through their thin sleeves, and the light grasp of her gloved fingers upon the glistening stick of the parasol; she saw the long, simple lines of her close white dress and their graceful interchanging movements with the alternate advance of her white shoes over the fine gravel path; she saw the dazzling splashes of sunshine playing upon her through the changeful branches overhead. Cora never lacked a gallery: she sat there herself.

She refreshed the eyes of a respectable burgess of sixty, a person so colourless that no one, after passing him, could have remembered anything about him except that he wore glasses and some sort of moustache; and to Cora's vision he was as near transparent as any man could be, yet she did not miss the almost imperceptible signs of his approval, as they met and continued on their opposite ways. She did not glance round, nor did he pause in his slow walk; neither was she clairvoyant; none the less, she knew that he turned his head and looked back at her.

The path led away from the drives and more public walks of the park, to a low hill, thoughtfully untouched by the gardener and left to the shadowy thickets and good-smelling underbrush of its rich native woodland. And here, by a brown bench, waited a tall gentleman in white.

They touched hands and sat without speaking. For several moments they continued the silence, then turned slowly and looked at each other; then looked slowly and gravely away, as if to an audience in front of them. They knew how to do it; but probably a critic in the first row would have concluded that Cora felt it even more than Valentine Corliss enjoyed it.

"I suppose this is very clandestine," she said, after a deep breath. "I don't think I care, though."

"I hope you do," he smiled, "so that I could think your coming means more."

"Then I'll care," she said, and looked at him again.

"You dear!" he exclaimed deliberately.

She bit her lip and looked down, but not before he had seen the quick dilation of her ardent eyes. "I wanted to be out of doors," she said. "I'm afraid there's one thing of yours I don't like, Mr. Corliss."

"I'll throw it away, then. Tell me."

"Your house. I don't like living in it, very much. I'm sorry you can't throw it away."

"I'm thinking of doing that very thing," he laughed. "But I'm glad

I found the rose in that queer old waste-basket first."

"Not too much like a rose, sometimes," she said. "I think this morning I'm a little like some of the old doors up on the third floor: I feel rather unhinged, Mr. Corliss."

"You don't look it, Miss Madison!"

"I didn't sleep very well." She bestowed upon him a glance which transmuted her actual explanation into, "I couldn't sleep for thinking of you." It was perfectly definite; but the acute gentleman laughed genially.

"Go on with you!" he said.

Her eyes sparkled, and she joined laughter with him. "But it's true: you did keep me awake. Besides, I had a serenade."

"Serenade? I had an idea they didn't do that any more over here. I remember the young men going about at night with an orchestra sometimes when I was a boy, but I supposed--"

"Oh, it wasn't much like that," she interrupted, carelessly. "I don't think that sort of thing has been done for years and years. It wasn't an orchestra-just a man singing under my window."

"With a guitar?"

"No." She laughed a little. "Just singing."

"But it rained last night," said Corliss, puzzled.

"Oh, he wouldn't mind that!"

"How stupid of me! Of course, he wouldn't. Was it Richard

Lindley?"

"Never!"

"I see. Yes, that was a bad guess: I'm sure Lindley's just the same steady-going, sober, plodding old horse he was as a boy. His picture doesn't fit a romantic frame-singing under a lady's window in a thunderstorm! Your serenader must have been very young."

"He is," said Cora. "I suppose he's about twenty-three; just a boy-and a very annoying one, too!"

Her companion looked at her narrowly. "By any chance, is he the person your little brother seemed so fond of mentioning-Mr. Vilas?"

Cora gave a genuine start. "Good heavens! What makes you think that?" she cried, but she was sufficiently disconcerted to confirm his amused suspicion.

"So it was Mr. Vilas," he said. "He's one of the jilted, of course."

"Oh, `jilted'!" she exclaimed. "All the wild boys that a girl can't make herself like aren't `jilted,' are they?"

"I believe I should say-yes," he returned. "Yes, in this instance, just about all of them."

"Is every woman a target for you, Mr. Corliss? I suppose you know that you have a most uncomfortable way of shooting up the landscape." She stirred uneasily, and moved away from him to the other end of the bench.

"I didn't miss that time," he laughed. "Don't you ever miss?"

He leaned quickly toward her and answered in a low voice: "You can be sure I'm not going to miss anything about you."

It was as if his bending near her had been to rouge her. But it cannot be said that she disliked his effect upon her; for the deep breath she drew in audibly, through her shut teeth, was a signal of delight; and then followed one of those fraught silences not uncharacteristic of dialogues with Cora.

Presently, she gracefully and uselessly smoothed her hair from the left temple with the backs of her fingers, of course finishing the gesture prettily by tucking in a hairpin tighter above the nape of her neck. Then, with recovered coolness, she asked:

"Did you come all the way from Italy just to sell our old house,

Mr. Corliss?"

"Perhaps that was part of why I came," he said, gayly. "I need a great deal of money, Miss Cora Madison."

"For your villa and your yacht?"

"No; I'm a magician, dear lady--"

"Yes," she said, almost angrily. "Of course you know it!"

"You mock me! No; I'm going to make everybody rich who will trust me. I have a secret, and it's worth a mountain of gold. I've put all I have into it, and will put in everything else I can get for myself, but it's going to take a great deal more than that. And everybody who goes into it will come out on Monte Cristo's island."

"Then I'm sorry papa hasn't anything to put in," she said.

"But he has: his experience in business and his integrity. I want him to be secretary of my company. Will you help me to get him?" he laughed.

"Do you want me to?" she asked with a quick, serious glance straight in his eyes, one which he

met admirably.

"I have an extremely definite impression," he said lightly, "that you can make anybody you know do just what you want him to."

"And I have another that you have still another `extremely definite impression' that takes rank over that," she said, but not with his lightness, for her tone was faintly rueful. "It is that you can make me do just what you want me to."

Mr. Valentine Corliss threw himself back on the bench and laughed aloud. "What a girl!" he cried. Then for a fraction of a second he set his hand over hers, an evanescent touch at which her whole body started and visibly thrilled.

She lifted her gloved hand and looked at it with an odd wonder; her alert emotions, always too ready, flinging their banners to her cheeks again.

"Oh, I don't think it's soiled," he said, a speech which she punished with a look of starry contempt. For an instant she made him afraid that something had gone wrong with his measuring tape; but with a slow movement she set her hand softly against her hot cheek; and he was reassured: it was not his touching her that had offended her, but the allusion to it.

"Thanks," he said, very softly.

She dropped her hand to her parasol, and began, musingly, to dig little holes in the gravel of the path. "Richard Lindley is looking for investments," she said.

"I'm glad to hear he's been so successful," returned Corliss.

"He might like a share in your gold-mine."

"Thank heaven it isn't literally a gold-mine," he exclaimed. "There have been so many crooked ones exploited I don't believe you could get anybody nowadays to come in on a real one. But I think you'd make an excellent partner for an adventurer who had discovered hidden treasure; and I'm that particular kind of adventurer. I think I'll take you in."

"Do you?"

"How would you like to save a man from being ruined?"

"Ruined? You don't mean it literally?"

"Literally!" He laughed gayly. "If I don't `land' this I'm gone, smashed, finished-quite ended! Don't bother, I'm going to `land' it. And it's rather a serious compliment I'm paying you, thinking you can help me. I'd like to see a woman-just once in the world-who could manage a thing like this." He became suddenly very grave. "Good God! wouldn't I be at her feet!"

Her eyes became even more eager. "You think I-I might be a woman who could?"

"Who knows, Miss Madison? I believe--" He stopped abruptly, then in a lowered, graver voice asked: "Doesn't it somehow seem a little queer to you when we call each other, `Miss Madison' and `Mr. Corliss'?"

"Yes," she answered slowly; "it does."

"Doesn't it seem to you," he went on, in the same tone, "that we only `Miss' and `Mister' each other in fun? That though you never saw me until yesterday, we've gone pretty far beyond mere surfaces? That we did in our talk, last night?"

"Yes," she repeated; "it does."

He let a pause follow, and then said huskily:

"How far are we going?"

"I don't know." She was barely audible; but she turned deliberately, and there took place an eager exchange of looks which continued a long while. At last, and without ending this serious encounter, she whispered:

"How far do you think?"

Mr. Corliss did not answer, and a peculiar phenomenon became vaguely evident to the girl facing him: his eyes were still fixed full upon hers, but he was not actually looking at her; nevertheless, and with an extraordinarily acute attention, he was unquestionably looking at something. The direct front of pupil and iris did not waver from her; but for the time he was not aware of her; had not even heard her question. Something in the outer field of his vision had suddenly and completely engrossed him; something in that nebulous and hazy background which we see, as we say, with the white of the eye. Cora instinctively turned and looked behind her, down the path.

There was no one in sight except a little girl and the elderly burgess who had glanced over his shoulder at Cora as she entered the park; and he was, in face, mien, and attire, so thoroughly the unnoticeable, average man-on-the-street that she did not even recall him as the looker-round of a little while ago. He was strolling benevolently, the little girl clinging to one of his hands, the other holding an apple; and a composite photograph of a thousand grandfathers might have resulted in this man's picture.

As the man and little girl came slowly up the walk toward the couple on the bench there was a faint tinkle at Cora's feet: her companion's scarfpin, which had fallen from his tie. He was maladroit about picking it up, trying with thumb and forefinger to seize the pin itself, instead of the more readily grasped design of small pearls at the top, so that he pushed it a little deeper into the gravel; and then occurred a tiny coincidence: the elderly man, passing, let fall the apple from his hand, and it rolled toward the pin just as Corliss managed to secure the latter. For an instant, though the situation was so absolutely commonplace, so casual, Cora had a wandering consciousness of some mysterious tensity; a feeling like the premonition of a crisis very near at hand. This sensation was the more curious because nothing whatever happened. The man got his apple, joined in the child's laughter, and went on.

"What was it you asked me?" said Corliss, lifting his head again and restoring the pin to his tie. He gazed carelessly at the back of the grandsire, disappearing beyond a bush at a bend in the path.

"Who was that man?" said Cora with some curiosity.

"That old fellow? I haven't an idea. You see I've been away from here so many years I remember almost no one. Why?"

"I don't know, unless it was because I had an idea you were thinking of him instead of me. You didn't listen to what I said."

"That was because I was thinking so intensely of you," he began instantly. "A startlingly vivid thought of you came to me just then. Didn't I look like a man in a trance?"

"What was the thought?"

"It was a picture: I saw you standing under a great bulging sail, and the water flying by in moonlight; oh, a moon and a night such as you have never seen! and a big blue headland looming up against the moon, and crowned with lemon groves and vineyards, all sparkling with fireflies-old watch-towers and the roofs of white villas gleaming among olive orchards on the slopes-the sound of mandolins--"

"Ah!" she sighed, the elderly man, his grandchild, and his apple well-forgotten.

"Do you think it was a prophecy?" he asked.

"What do you think?" she breathed. "That was really what I asked you before."

"I think," he said slowly, "that I'm in danger of forgetting that my `hidden treasure' is the most important thing in the world."

"In great danger?" The words were not vocal.

He moved close to her; their eyes met again, with increased eagerness, and held fast; she was trembling, visibly; and her lips-parted with her tumultuous breathing-were not far from his.

"Isn't any man in great danger," he said, "if he falls in love with you?"

"Well?"

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