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THE FLIRT

BY
BOOTH TARKINGTON



To
SUSANAH


THE FLIRT

CHAPTER ONE

Valentine Corliss walked up Corliss Street the hottest afternoon
of that hot August, a year ago, wearing a suit of white serge
which attracted a little attention from those observers who were
able to observe anything except the heat. The coat was shaped
delicately; it outlined the wearer, and, fitting him as women's
clothes fit women, suggested an effeminacy not an attribute of the
tall Corliss. The effeminacy belonged all to the tailor, an artist
plying far from Corliss Street, for the coat would have
encountered a hundred of its fellows at Trouville or Ostende this
very day. Corliss Street is the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, the
Park Lane, the Fifth Avenue, of Capitol City, that smoky
illuminant of our great central levels, but although it esteems
itself an established cosmopolitan thoroughfare, it is still
provincial enough to be watchful; and even in its torrid languor
took some note of the alien garment.

Mr. Corliss, treading for the first time in seventeen years the
pavements of this namesake of his grandfather, mildly repaid its
interest in himself. The street, once the most peaceful in the
world, he thought, had changed. It was still long and straight,
still shaded by trees so noble that they were betrothed, here and
there, high over the wide white roadway, the shimmering tunnels
thus contrived shot with gold and blue; but its pristine complete
restfulness was departed: gasoline had arrived, and a pedestrian,
even this August day of heat, must glance two ways before
crossing.

Architectural transformations, as vital, staggered the returned
native. In his boyhood that posthumously libelled sovereign lady,
Anne, had terribly prevailed among the dwellings on this highway;
now, however, there was little left of the jig-saw's hare-brained
ministrations; but the growing pains of the adolescent city had
wrought some madness here. There had been a revolution which was a
riot; and, plainly incited by a new outbreak of the colonies, the
Goth, the Tudor, and the Tuscan had harried the upper reaches to a
turmoil attaining its climax in a howl or two from the Spanish
Moor.

Yet it was a pleasant street in spite of its improvements; in
spite, too, of a long, gray smoke-plume crossing the summer sky
and dropping an occasional atomy of coal upon Mr. Corliss's white
coat. The green continuous masses of tree-foliage, lawn, and
shrubbery were splendidly asserted; there was a faint wholesome
odour from the fine block pavement of the roadway, white, save
where the snailish water-wagon laid its long strips of steaming
brown. Locusts, serenaders of the heat, invisible among the
branches, rasped their interminable cadences, competing bitterly
with the monotonous chattering of lawn-mowers propelled by
glistening black men over the level swards beneath. And though
porch and terrace were left to vacant wicker chairs and
swinging-seats, and to flowers and plants in jars and green boxes,
and the people sat unseen - and, it might be guessed, unclad for
exhibition, in the dimmer recesses of their houses - nevertheless,
a summery girl under an alluring parasol now and then prettily
trod the sidewalks, and did not altogether suppress an ample
consciousness of the white pedestrian's stalwart grace; nor was
his quick glance too distressingly modest to be aware of these
faint but attractive perturbations.

A few of the oldest houses remained as he remembered them, and
there were two or three relics of mansard and cupola days; but the
herd of cast-iron deer that once guarded these lawns, standing
sentinel to all true gentry: Whither were they fled? In his
boyhood, one specimen betokened a family of position and
affluence; two, one on each side of the front walk, spoke of a
noble opulence; two and a fountain were overwhelming. He wondered
in what obscure thickets that once proud herd now grazed; and then
he smiled, as through a leafy opening of shrubbery he caught a
glimpse of a last survivor, still loyally alert, the haughty head
thrown back in everlasting challenge and one foreleg lifted,
standing in a vast and shadowy backyard with a clothesline
fastened to its antlers.

Mr. Corliss remembered that backyard very well: it was an old
battlefield whereon he had conquered; and he wondered if "the
Lindley boys" still lived there, and if Richard Lindley would hate
him now as implacably as then.

A hundred yards farther on, he paused before a house more familiar
to him than any other, and gave it a moment's whimsical attention,
without emotion.

It was a shabby old brick structure, and it stood among the
gayest, the most flamboyant dwellings of all Corliss Street like a
bewildered tramp surrounded by carnival maskers. It held place
full in the course of the fury for demolition and rebuilding, but
remained unaltered - even unrepaired, one might have thought - since
the early seventies, when it was built. There was a sagging
cornice, and the nauseous brown which the walls had years ago been
painted was sooted to a repellent dinge, so cracked and peeled
that the haggard red bricks were exposed, like a beggar through
the holes in his coat. It was one of those houses which are large
without being commodious; its very tall, very narrow windows, with
their attenuated, rusty inside shutters, boasting to the passerby
of high ceilings but betraying the miserly floor spaces. At each
side of the front door was a high and cramped bay-window, one of
them insanely culminating in a little six-sided tower of slate,
and both of them girdled above the basement windows by a narrow
porch, which ran across the front of the house and gave access to
the shallow vestibule. However, a pleasant circumstance modified
the gloom of this edifice and assured it a remnant of reserve and
dignity in its ill-considered old age: it stood back a fine
hundred feet from the highway, and was shielded in part by a
friendly group of maple trees and one glorious elm, hoary, robust,
and majestic, a veteran of the days when this was forest ground.

Mr. Corliss concluded his momentary pause by walking up the broken
cement path, which was hard beset by plantain-weed and the long
grass of the ill-kept lawn. Ascending the steps, he was assailed
by an odour as of vehement bananas, a diffusion from some painful
little chairs standing in the long, high, dim, rather sorrowful
hall disclosed beyond the open double doors. They were stiff
little chairs of an inconsequent, mongrel pattern; armless, with
perforated wooden seats; legs tortured by the lathe to a semblance
of buttons strung on a rod; and they had that day received a
streaky coat of a gilding preparation which exhaled the olfactory
vehemence mentioned. Their present station was temporary, their
purpose, as obviously, to dry; and they were doing some incidental
gilding on their own account, leaving blots and splashes and
sporadic little round footprints on the hardwood floor.

The old-fashioned brass bell-handle upon the caller's right
drooped from its socket in a dead fag, but after comprehensive
manipulation on the part of the young man, and equal complaint
on its own, it was constrained to permit a dim tinkle remotely.
Somewhere in the interior a woman's voice, not young, sang a
repeated fragment of "Lead, Kindly Light," to the accompaniment
of a flapping dust-cloth, sounds which ceased upon a second
successful encounter with the bell. Ensued a silence, probably to
be interpreted as a period of whispered consultation out of range;
a younger voice called softly and urgently, "Laura!" and a
dark-eyed, dark-haired girl of something over twenty made her
appearance to Mr. Corliss.

At sight of her he instantly restored a thin gold card-case to the
pocket whence he was in the act of removing it. She looked at him
with only grave, impersonal inquiry; no appreciative invoice of
him was to be detected in her quiet eyes, which may have surprised
him, possibly the more because he was aware there was plenty of
appreciation in his own kindling glance. She was very white and
black, this lady. Tall, trim, clear, she looked cool in spite of
the black winter skirt she wore, an effect helped somewhat,
perhaps, by the crisp freshness of her white waist, with its
masculine collar and slim black tie, and undoubtedly by the even
and lustreless light ivory of her skin, against which the strong
black eyebrows and undulated black hair were lined with attractive
precision; but, most of all, that coolness was the emanation of
her undisturbed and tranquil eyes. They were not phlegmatic: a
continuing spark glowed far within them, not ardently, but
steadily and inscrutably, like the fixed stars in winter.

Mr. Valentine Corliss, of Paris and Naples, removed his
white-ribboned straw hat and bowed as no one had ever bowed in
that doorway. This most vivid salutation - accomplished by adding
something to a rather quick inclination of the body from the hips,
with the back and neck held straight expressed deference without
affecting or inviting cordiality. It was an elaborate little
formality of a kind fancifully called "foreign," and evidently
habitual to the performer.

It produced no outward effect upon the recipient. Such
self-control is unusual.

"Is Mr. Madison at home? My name is Valentine Corliss."

"He is at home." She indicated an open doorway upon her right.
"Will you wait in there?"

"Thank you," said Mr. Corliss, passing within. "I shall be - - "
He left the sentence unfinished, for he was already alone, and at
liberty to reflect upon the extraordinary coolness of this cool
young woman.

The room, with its closed blinds, was soothingly dark after the
riotous sun without, a grateful obscurity which was one of two
attractions discovered in it by Mr. Corliss while he waited. It
was a depressing little chamber, disproportionately high,
uncheered by seven chairs (each of a different family, but all
belonging to the same knobby species, and all upholstered a
repellent blue), a scratched "inlaid table," likewise knobby, and
a dangerous looking small sofa - turbulent furniture, warmly
harmonious, however, in a common challenge to the visitor to take
comfort in any of it. A once-gilt gas chandelier hung from the
distant ceiling, with three globes of frosted glass, but
undeniable evidence that five were intended; and two of the three
had been severely bitten. There was a hostile little coal-grate,
making a mouth under a mantel of imitation black marble, behind an
old blue-satin fire-screen upon which red cat-tails and an owl
over a pond had been roughly embroidered in high relief, this owl
motive being the inspiration of innumerable other owls reflected
in innumerable other ponds in the formerly silver moonlight with
which the walls were papered. Corliss thought he remembered that
in his boyhood, when it was known as "the parlour" (though he
guessed that the Madison family called it "the reception room,"
now) this was the place where his aunt received callers who, she
justifiably hoped, would not linger. Altogether, it struck him
that it might be a good test-room for an alienist: no incipient
lunacy would remain incipient here.

There was one incongruity which surprised him - a wicker
waste-paper basket, so nonsensically out of place in this arid
cell, where not the wildest hare-brain could picture any one
coming to read or write, that he bestowed upon it a particular,
frowning attention, and so discovered the second attractive
possession of the room. A fresh and lovely pink rose, just opening
full from the bud, lay in the bottom of the basket.

There was a rustling somewhere in the house and a murmur, above
which a boy's voice became audible in emphatic but
undistinguishable complaint. A whispering followed, and a woman
exclaimed protestingly, "Cora!" And then a startlingly pretty girl
came carelessly into the room through the open door.

She was humming "Quand I' Amour Meurt" in a gay preoccupation, and
evidently sought something upon the table in the centre of the
room, for she continued her progress toward it several steps
before realizing the presence of a visitor. She was a year or so
younger than the girl who had admitted him, fairer and obviously
more plastic, more expressive, more perishable, a great deal more
insistently feminine; though it was to be seen that they were
sisters. This one had eyes almost as dark as the other's, but
these were not cool; they were sweet, unrestful, and seeking;
brilliant with a vivacious hunger: and not Diana but huntresses
more ardent have such eyes. Her hair was much lighter than her
sister's; it was the colour of dry corn-silk in the sun; and she
was the shorter by a head, rounder everywhere and not so slender;
but no dumpling: she was exquisitely made. There was a softness
about her: something of velvet, nothing of mush. She diffused with
her entrance a radiance of gayety and of gentleness; sunlight ran
with her. She seemed the incarnation of a caressing smile.

She was point-device. Her close, white skirt hung from a plainly
embroidered white waist to a silken instep; and from the crown of
her charming head to the tall heels of her graceful white suede
slippers, heels of a sweeter curve than the waist of a violin, she
was as modern and lovely as this dingy old house was belated and
hideous.

Mr. Valentine Corliss spared the fraction of a second for another
glance at the rose in the waste-basket.

The girl saw him before she reached the table, gave a little gasp
of surprise, and halted with one hand carried prettily to her
breast.

"Oh!" she said impulsively; "I _beg_ your pardon. I didn't know
there was - - I was looking for a book I thought I - - "

She stopped, whelmed with a breath-taking shyness, her eyes, after
one quick but condensed encounter with those of Mr. Corliss,
falling beneath exquisite lashes. Her voice was one to stir all
men: it needs not many words for a supremely beautiful
"speaking-voice" to be recognized for what it is; and this girl's
was like herself, hauntingly lovely. The intelligent young man
immediately realized that no one who heard it could ever forget
it.

"I see," she faltered, turning to leave the room; "it isn't
here - the book."

"There's something else of yours here," said Corliss.

"Is there?" She paused, hesitating at the door, looking at him
over her shoulder uncertainly.

"You dropped this rose." He lifted the rose from the waste-basket
and repeated the bow he had made at the front door. This time it
was not altogether wasted.

"I?"

"Yes. You lost it. It belongs to you."

"Yes - it does. How curious!" she said slowly. "How curious it
happened to be _there_!" She stepped to take it from him, her eyes
upon his in charming astonishment. "And how odd that - - " She
stopped; then said quickly:

"How did you know it was _my_ rose?"

"Any one would know!"

Her expression of surprise was instantaneously merged in a flash
of honest pleasure and admiration, such as only an artist may feel
in the presence of a little masterpiece by a fellow-craftsman.

Happily, anticlimax was spared them by the arrival of the person
for whom the visitor had asked at the door, and the young man
retained the rose in his hand.

Mr. Madison, a shapeless hillock with a large, harassed, red face,
evidently suffered from the heat: his gray hair was rumpled back
from a damp forehead; the sleeves of his black alpaca coat were
pulled up to the elbow above his uncuffed white shirtsleeves; and
he carried in one mottled hand the ruins of a palm-leaf fan, in
the other a balled wet handkerchief which released an aroma of
camphor upon the banana-burdened air. He bore evidences of
inadequate adjustment after a disturbed siesta, but, exercising a
mechanical cordiality, preceded himself into the room by a genial
half-cough and a hearty, "Well-well-well," as if wishing to
indicate a spirit of polite, even excited, hospitality.

"I expected you might be turning up, after your letter," he said,
shaking hands. "Well, well, well! I remember you as a boy.
Wouldn't have known you, of course; but I expect you'll find the
town about as much changed as you are."

With a father's blindness to all that is really vital, he
concluded his greeting inconsequently: "Oh, this is my little girl
Cora."

"Run along, little girl," said the fat father.

His little girl's radiant glance at the alert visitor imparted her
thorough comprehension of all the old man's absurdities, which had
reached their climax in her dismissal. Her parting look, falling
from Corliss's face to the waste-basket at his feet, just touched
the rose in his hand as she passed through the door.



CHAPTER TWO

Cora paused in the hall at a point about twenty feet from the
door, a girlish stratagem frequently of surprising advantage to
the practitioner; but the two men had begun to speak of the
weather. Suffering a momentary disappointment, she went on,
stepping silently, and passed through a door at the end of the
hall into a large and barren looking dining-room, stiffly and
skimpily furnished, but well-lighted, owing to the fact that one
end of it had been transformed into a narrow "conservatory," a
glass alcove now tenanted by two dried palms and a number of
vacant jars and earthen crocks.

Here her sister sat by an open window, repairing masculine
underwear; and a handsome, shabby, dirty boy of about thirteen
sprawled on the floor of the "conservatory" unloosing upon its
innocent, cracked, old black and white tiles a ghastly family of
snakes, owls, and visaged crescent moons, in orange, green, and
other loathsome chalks. As Cora entered from the hall, a woman of
fifty came in at a door opposite, and, a dust-cloth retained under
her left arm, an unsheathed weapon ready for emergency, leaned
sociably against the door-casing and continued to polish a
tablespoon with a bit of powdered chamois-skin. She was tall and
slightly bent; and, like the flat, old, silver spoon in her hand,
seemed to have been worn thin by use; yet it was plain that the
three young people in the room "got their looks" from her. Her
eyes, if tired, were tolerant and fond; and her voice held its
youth and something of the music of Cora's.

"What is he like?" She addressed the daughter by the window.

"Why don't you ask Coralie?" suggested the sprawling artist,
relaxing his hideous labour. He pronounced his sister's name with
intense bitterness. He called it "Cora-_lee_," with an implication
far from subtle that his sister had at some time thus Gallicized
herself, presumably for masculine favour; and he was pleased to
receive tribute to his satire in a flash of dislike from her
lovely eyes.

"I ask Laura because it was Laura who went to the door," Mrs.
Madison answered. "I do not ask Cora because Cora hasn't seen him.
Do I satisfy you, Hedrick?"

"`Cora hasn't seen him!'" the boy hooted mockingly. "She hasn't?
She was peeking out of the library shutters when he came up the
front walk, and she wouldn't let me go to the door; she told Laura
to go, but first she took the library waste-basket and laid one o'
them roses - - "

"_Those_ roses," said Cora sharply. "He _will_ hang around the
neighbours' stables. I think you ought to do something about it,
mother."

"_Them_ roses!" repeated Hedrick fiercely. "One o' them roses Dick
Lindley sent her this morning. Laid it in the waste-basket and
sneaked it into the reception room for an excuse to go galloping
in and - - "

"`Galloping'?" said Mrs. Madison gravely.

"It was a pretty bum excuse," continued the unaffected youth, "but
you bet your life you'll never beat our Cora-_lee_ when there's a
person in pants on the premises! It's sickening." He rose, and
performed something like a toe-dance, a supposed imitation of his
sister's mincing approach to the visitor. "Oh, dear, I am such a
little sweety! Here I am all alone just reeking with
Browning-and-Tennyson and thinking to myself about such lovely
things, and walking around looking for my nice, pretty rose. Where
can it be? Oh heavens, Mister, are _you_ here? Oh my, I never,
never thought that there was a _man_ here! How you frighten me!
See what a shy little thing I am? You _do see, don't_ you, old
sweeticums? Ta, ta, here's papa. Remember me by that rose, 'cause
it's just like me. Me and it's twins, you see, cutie-sugar!" The
diabolical boy then concluded with a reversion to the severity of
his own manner: "If she was _my_ daughter I'd whip her!"

His indignation was left in the air, for the three ladies had
instinctively united against him, treacherously including his
private feud in the sex-war of the ages: Cora jumped lightly upon
the table and sat whistling and polishing the nails of one hand
upon the palm of another; Laura continued to sew without looking
up, and Mrs. Madison, conquering a tendency to laugh, preserved a
serene countenance and said ruminatively:

"They were all rather queer, the Corlisses."

Hedrick stared incredulously, baffled; but men must expect these
things, and this was no doubt a helpful item in his education.

"I wonder if he wants to sell the house," said Mrs. Madison.

"I wish he would. Anything that would make father get out of it!"
Cora exclaimed. "I hope Mr. Corliss will burn it if he doesn't
sell it."

"He might want to live here himself."

"He!" Cora emitted a derisive outcry.

Her mother gave her a quick, odd look, in which there was a real
alarm. "What is he like, Cora?"

"Awfully foreign and distinguished!"

This brought Hedrick to confront her with a leap as of some wild
animal under a lash. He landed close to her; his face awful.

"Princely, I should call him," said Cora, her enthusiasm
undaunted. "Distinctly princely!"

"Princely," moaned Hedrick. "Pe-rin-sley!"

"Hedrick!" Mrs. Madison reproved him automatically. "In what way
is he `foreign,' Cora?"

"Oh, every way." Cora let her glance rest dreamily upon the goaded
boy. "He has a splendid head set upon a magnificent torso - - "

"_Torso_!" Hedrick whispered hoarsely.

"Tall, a glorious figure - like a young guardsman's." Madness was
gathering in her brother's eyes; and observing it with quiet
pleasure, she added: "One sees immediately he has the grand
manner, the bel air."

Hedrick exploded. "`_Bel air_'!" he screamed, and began to jump up
and down, tossing his arms frantically, and gasping with emotion.
"Oh, bel air! Oh, blah! `Henry Esmond!' Been readin' `Henry
Esmond!' Oh, you be-yoo-tiful Cora-Beatrix-a-_lee_! Magganifisent
torso! Gull_o_-rious figgi-your! Bel air! Oh, slush! Oh, luv-a-ly
slush!" He cast himself convulsively upon the floor, full length.
"Luv-a-ly, _luv_-a-ly slush!"

"He is thirty, I should say," continued Cora, thoughtfully.
"Yes - about thirty. A strong, keen face, rather tanned. He's
between fair and dark - - "

Hedrick raised himself to the attitude of the "Dying Gaul." "And
with `hair slightly silvered at the temples!' _Ain_'t his hair
slightly silvered at the temples?" he cried imploringly. "Oh,
sister, in pity's name let his hair be slightly silvered at the
temples? Only three grains of corn, your Grace; my children are
starving!"

He collapsed again, laid his face upon his extended arms, and
writhed.

"He has rather wonderful eyes," said Cora. "They seem to look
right through you."

"Slush, slush, luv-a-ly slush," came in muffled tones from the
floor.

"And he wears his clothes so well - so differently! You feel at
once that he's not a person, but a personage."

Hedrick sat up, his eyes closed, his features contorted as with
agony, and chanted, impromptu:

"Slush, slush, luv-a-ly, slush!
Le'ss all go a-swimmin' in a dollar's worth o' mush.
Slush in the morning, slush at night,
If I don't get my slush I'm bound to get tight!"

"Hedrick!" said his mother.

"Altogether I should say that Mr. Valentine Corliss looks as if he
lived up to his name," Cora went on tranquilly. "Valentine Corliss
of Corliss Street - I think I rather like the sound of that name."
She let her beautiful voice linger upon it, caressingly.
"Valentine Corliss."

Hedrick opened his eyes, allowed his countenance to resume its
ordinary proportions, and spoke another name slowly and with
honeyed thoughtfulness:

"Ray Vilas."

This was the shot that told. Cora sprang down from the table with
an exclamation.

Hedrick, subduing elation, added gently, in a mournful whisper:

"_Poor_ old Dick Lindley!"

His efforts to sting his sister were completely successful at
last: Cora was visibly agitated, and appealed hotly to her mother.


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