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   Chapter 25 FIVE 25

The Flirt By Booth Tarkington Characters: 13620

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


There is a song of parting, an intentionally pathetic song, which contains the line, "All the tomorrows shall be as to-day," meaning equally gloomy. Young singers, loving this line, take care to pronounce the words with unusual distinctness: the listener may feel that the performer has the capacity for great and consistent suffering. It is not, of course, that youth loves unhappiness, but the appearance of it, its supposed picturesqueness. Youth runs from what is pathetic, but hangs fondly upon pathos. It is the idea of sorrow, not sorrow, which charms: and so the young singer dwells upon those lingering tomorrows, happy in the conception of a permanent wretchedness incurred in the interest of sentiment. For youth believes in permanence.

It is when we are young that we say, "I shall never," and "I shall always," not knowing that we are only time's atoms in a crucible of incredible change. An old man scarce dares say, "I have never," for he knows that if he searches he will find, probably, that he has. "All, all is change."

It was an evening during the winter holidays when Mrs. Lindley, coming to sit by the fire in her son's smoking-room, where Richard sat glooming, narrated her legend of the Devil of Lisieux. It must have been her legend: the people of Lisieux know nothing of it; but this Richard the Guileless took it for tradition, as she alleged it, and had no suspicion that she had spent the afternoon inventing it.

She did not begin the recital immediately upon taking her chair, across the hearth from her son; she led up to it. She was an ample, fresh-coloured, lively woman; and like her son only in being a kind soul: he got neither his mortal seriousness nor his dreaminess from her. She was more than content with Cora's abandonment of him, though, as chivalrousness was not demanded of her, she would have preferred that he should have been the jilt. She thought Richard well off in his release, even at the price of all his savings. But there was something to hope, even in that matter, Pryor wrote from Paris encouragingly: he believed that Moliterno might be frightened or forced into at least a partial restitution; though Richard would not count upon it, and had "begun at the beginning" again, as a small-salaried clerk in a bank, trudging patiently to work in the morning and home in the evening, a long-faced, tired young man, more absent than ever, lifeless, and with no interest in anything outside his own broodings. His mother, pleased with his misfortune in love, was of course troubled that it should cause him to suffer. She knew she could not heal him; but she also knew that everything is healed in time, and that sometimes it is possible for people to help time a little.

Her first remark to her son, this evening, was that to the best of her memory she had never used the word "hellion." And, upon his saying gently, no, he thought it probable that she never had, but seeking no farther and dropping his eyes to the burning wood, apparently under the impression that the subject was closed, she informed him brusquely that it was her intention to say it now.

"What is it you want to say, mother?"

"If I can bring myself to use the word `hellion'," she returned, "I'm going to say that of all the heaven-born, whole-souled and consistent ones I ever knew Hedrick Madison is the King."

"In what new way?" he inquired.

"Egerton Villard. Egerton used to be the neatest, best-mannered, best-dressed boy in town; but he looks and behaves like a Digger Indian since he's taken to following Hedrick around. Mrs. Villard says it's the greatest sorrow of her life, but she's quite powerless: the boy is Hedrick's slave. The other day she sent a servant after him, and just bringing him home nearly ruined her limousine. He was solidly covered with molasses, over his clothes and all, from head to foot, and then he'd rolled in hay and chicken feathers to be a gnu for Hedrick to kodak in the African Wilds of the Madisons' stable. Egerton didn't know what a gnu was, but Hedrick told him that was the way to be one, he said. Then, when they'd got him scraped and boiled, and most of his hair pulled out, a policemen came to arrest him for stealing the jug of molasses at a corner grocery."

Richard nodded, and smiled faintly for comment. They sat in silence for a while.

"I saw Mrs. Madison yesterday," said his mother. "She seemed very cheerful; her husband is able to talk almost perfectly again, though he doesn't get downstairs. Laura reads to him a great deal."

He nodded again, his gaze not moving from the fire.

"Laura was with her mother," said Mrs. Lindley. "She looked very fetching in a black cloth suit and a fur hat-old ones her sister left, I suspect, but very becoming, for all that. Laura's `going out' more than usual this winter. She's really the belle of the holiday dances, I hear. Of course she would be", she added, thoughtfully-"now."

"Why should she be `now' more than before?"

"Oh, Laura's quite blossomed," Mrs. Lindley answered. "I think she's had some great anxieties relieved. Of course both she and her mother must have worried about Cora as much as they waited on her. It must be a great burden lifted to have her comfortably settled, or, at least, disposed of. I thought they both looked better. But I have a special theory about Laura: I suppose you'll laugh at me--"

"Oh, no."

"I wish you would sometimes," she said wistfully, "so only you laughed. My idea is that Laura was in love with that poor little Trumble, too."

"What?" He looked up at that.

"Yes; girls fall in love with anybody. I fancy she cared very deeply for him; but I think she's a strong, sane woman, now. She's about the steadiest, coolest person I know-and I know her better, lately, than I used to. I think she made up her mind that she'd not sit down and mope over her unhappiness, and that she'd get over what caused it; and she took the very best remedy: she began going about, going everywhere, and she went gayly, too! And I'm sure she's cured; I'm sure she doesn't care the snap of her fingers for Wade Trumble or any man alive. She's having a pretty good time, I imagine: she has everything in the world except money, and she's never cared at all about that. She's young, and she dresses well-these days-and she's one of the handsomest girls in town; she plays like a poet, and she dances well--"

"Yes," said Richard;-reflectively, "she does dance well."

"And from what I hear from Mrs. Villard," continued his mother, "I guess she has enough young men in love with her to keep any girl busy."

He was interested enough to show some surprise. "In love with

Laura?"

"Four, I hear." The best of women are sometimes the readiest with impromptu statistics.

"Well, well!" he said, mildly.

"You see, Laura has taken to smiling on the world, and the world smiles back at her. It's not a bad world about that, Richard."

"No," he sighed. "I suppose not."

"But there's more than that in this case, my dear son."

"Is there?"

The intelligent and gentle matron laughed as though at some unexpected turn of memory and said:

"Speaking of Hedrick, did you ever hear the story of the Devil of

Lisieux, Richard?"

"I think not; at least, I don't remember it."

"Lisieux is a little town in Normandy," she said. "I was there a few days with your father, one summer, long ago. It's a country full of old stories, folklore, and traditions; and the people still believe in the Old Scratch pretty literally. This legend was of the time when he came to Lisieux. The people knew he was coming because a wise woman had said that he was on the way, and predicted that he would arrive at the time of the great fair. Everybody was in great distress, because they knew that whoever looked at him would become bewitched, but, of course, they had to go to the fair. The wise woman was able to give them a little comfort; she said some one was coming with the devil, and that the people must not notice the devil, but keep their eyes fastened on this other-then they would be free of the fiend's influence. But, when the devil arrived at the fair, nobody even looked to see who his companion was, for the devil was so picturesque, so vivid, all in flaming scarlet and orange, and he capered and danced and sang so that nobody could help looking at him-and, after looking once, they couldn't look away until they were thoroughly under his spell. So they were all bewitched, and began to scream and howl and roll on the ground, and turn on each other and brawl, and `commit all manner of excesses.' Then the wise woman was able to exorcise the devil, and he sank into the ground; but his companion stayed, and the people came to their senses, and looked, and they saw that it was an angel. The angel had been there all the time that the fiend was, of course. So they have a saying now, that there may be angels with us, but we don't notice them when the devil's about."

She did not look at her son as she finished, and she had hurried through the latter part of her "legend" with increasing timidity. The parallel was more severe, now that she put it to him, than she intended; it sounded savage; and she feared she had overshot her mark. Laura, of course, was the other, the companion; she had been actually a companion for the vivid sister, everywhere with her at the fair, and never considered: now she emerged from her overshadowed obscurity, and people were able to see her as an individual-heretofore she had been merely the retinue of a flaming Cora. But the "legend" was not very gallant to Cora!

Mrs. Lindley knew that it hurt her son; she felt it without looking at him, and before he gave a sign. As it was, he did not speak, but, after a few moments, rose and went quietly out of the room: then she heard the front door open and close. She sat by his fire a long, long time and was sorry-and wondered.

When Richard came home from his cold night-prowl in the snowy streets, he found a sheet of note paper upon his pillow:

"Dearest Richard, I didn't mean that anybody you ever cared for was a d--l. I only meant that often the world finds out that there are lovely people it hasn't noticed."

. . . He reproached himself, then, for the reproach his leaving her had been; he had a susceptible and annoying conscience, this unfortunate Richard. He found it hard to get to sleep, that night; and was kept awake long after he had planned how he would make up to his mother for having received her "legend" so freezingly. What kept him awake, after that, was a dim, rhythmic sound coming from the house next door, where a holiday dance was in progress-music far away and slender: fiddle, 'cello, horn, bassoon, drums, all rollicking away almost the night-long, seeping through the walls to his restless pillow. Finally, when belated drowsiness came, the throbbing tunes mingled with his half-dreams, and he heard the light shuffling of multitudinous feet over the dancing-floor, and became certain that Laura's were among them. He saw her, gliding, swinging, laughing, and happy and the picture did not please him: it seemed to him that she would have been much better employed sitting in black to write of a hopeless love. Coquetting with four suitors was not only inconsistent; it was unbecoming. It "suited Cora's style," but in Laura it was outrageous. When he woke, in the morning, he was dreaming of her: dressed as Parthenia, beautiful, and throwing roses to an acclaiming crowd through which she was borne on a shield upon the shoulders of four Antinouses. Richard thought it scandalous.

His indignation with her had not worn off when he descended to breakfast, but he made up to his mother for having troubled her. Then, to cap his gallantry, he observed that several inches of snow must have fallen during the night; it would be well packed upon the streets by noon; he would get a sleigh, after lunch, and take her driving. It was a holiday.

She thanked him, but half-declined. "I'm afraid it's too cold for me, but there are lots of nice girls in town, Richard, who won't mind weather."

"But I asked you!" It was finally left an open question for the afternoon to settle; and, upon her urging, he went out for a walk. She stood at the window to watch him, and, when she saw that he turned northward, she sank into a chair, instead of going to give Joe Varden his after-breakfast instructions, and fell into a deep reverie.

Outdoors, it was a biting cold morning, wind-swept and gray; and with air so frosty-pure no one might breathe it and stay bilious: neither in body nor bilious in spirit. It was a wind to sweep the yellow from jaundiced cheeks and make them rosy; a wind to clear dulled eyes; it was a wind to lift foolish hearts, to lift them so high they might touch heaven and go winging down the sky, the wildest of wild-geese.

. . . When the bell rang, Laura was kneeling before the library fire, which she had just kindled, and she had not risen when Sarah brought Richard to the doorway. She was shabby enough, poor Cinderella! looking up, so frightened, when her prince appeared.

She had not been to the dance.

She had not four suitors. She had none.

He came toward her. She rose and stepped back a little. Ashes had blown upon her, and, oh, the old, old thought of the woman born to be a mother! she was afraid his clothes might get dusty if he came too close.

But to Richard she looked very beautiful; and a strange thing happened: trembling, he saw that the firelight upon her face was brighter than any firelight he had ever seen.

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