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The Flirt
by Booth Tarkington
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Mr. Vilas shifted his position in the hammock uneasily; Joe's honest intentions to be of cheer to the sufferer were not wholly successful.

"I tole Mist' Richard," the kindly servitor continued, "it was a mighty good thing his ma gone up Norf endurin' the hot spell. Sence Mist' Will die she can't hardly bear to see drunkum man aroun' the house. Mist' Richard hardly ever tech nothin' himself no more. You goin' feel better, suh, out in the f'esh air," he concluded, comfortingly as he moved away.

"Joe!"

"Yessuh."

Mr. Vilas pulled himself upright for a moment. "What use in the world do you reckon one julep is to me?"

"Mist' Richard say to give you one drink ef you ask' for it, suh," answered Joe, looking troubled.

"Well, you've told me enough now about last night to make any man hang himself, and I'm beginning to remember enough more——"

"Pshaw, Mist' Vilas," the coloured man interrupted, deprecatingly, "you din' broke nothin'! You on'y had couple glass' wine too much. You din' make no trouble at all; jes' went right off to bed. You ought seen some vem ole times me an Mist' Richard use to have 'ith Mist' Will——"

"Joe!"

"Yessuh."

"I want three more juleps and I want them right away."

The troubled expression upon the coloured man's face deepened. "Mist' Richard say jes' one, suh," he said reluctantly. "I'm afraid——"

"Joe."

"Yessuh."

"I don't know," said Ray Vilas slowly, "whether or not you ever heard that I was born and raised in Kentucky."

"Yessuh," returned Joe humbly. "I heerd so."

"Well, then," said the young man in a quiet voice, "you go and get me three juleps. I'll settle it with Mr. Richard."

"Yessuh."

But it was with a fifth of these renovators that Lindley found his guest occupied, an hour later, while upon a small table nearby a sixth, untouched, awaited disposal beside an emptied coffee-cup. Also, Mr. Vilas was smoking a cigarette with unshadowed pleasure; his eye was bright, his expression care-free; and he was sitting up in the hammock, swinging cheerfully, and singing the "Marseillaise." Richard approached through the yard, coming from the street without entering the house; and anxiety was manifest in the glance he threw at the green-topped glass upon the table, and in his greeting.

"Hail, gloom!" returned Mr. Vilas, cordially, and, observing the anxious glance, he swiftly removed the untouched goblet from the table to his own immediate possession. "Two simultaneous juleps will enhance the higher welfare," he explained airily. "Sir, your Mr. Varden was induced to place a somewhat larger order with us than he protested to be your intention. Trusting you to exonerate him from all so-and-so and that these few words, etcetera!" He depleted the elder glass of its liquor, waved it in the air, cried, "Health, host!" and set it upon the table. "I believe I do not err in assuming my cup-bearer's name to be Varden, although he himself, in his simple Americo-Africanism, is pleased to pluralize it. Do I fret you, host?"

"Not in the least," said Richard, dropping upon a rustic bench, and beginning to fan himself with his straw hat. "What's the use of fretting about a boy who hasn't sense enough to fret about himself?"

"'Boy?'" Mr. Vilas affected puzzlement. "Do I hear aright? Sir, do you boy me? Bethink you, I am now the shell of five mint-juleps plus, and am pot-valiant. And is this mere capacity itself to be lightly boyed? Again, do I not wear a man's garment, a man's garnitures? Heed your answer; for this serge, these flannels, and these silks are yours, and though I may not fill them to the utmost, I do to the longmost, precisely. I am the stature of a man; had it not been for your razor I should wear the beard of a man; therefore I'll not be boyed. What have you to say in defence?"

"Hadn't you better let me get Joe to bring you something to eat?" asked Richard.

"Eat?" Mr. Vilas disposed of the suggestion with mournful hauteur. "There! For the once I forgive you. Let the subject never be mentioned between us again. We will tactfully turn to a topic of interest. My memories of last evening, at first hazy and somewhat disconcerting, now merely amuse me. Following the pleasant Spanish custom, I went a-serenading, but was kidnapped from beneath the precious casement by—by a zealous arrival. Host, 'zealous arrival' is not the julep in action: it is a triumph of paraphrase."

"I wish you'd let Joe take you back to bed," said Richard.

"Always bent on thoughts of the flesh," observed the other sadly. "Beds are for bodies, and I am become a thing of spirit. My soul is grateful a little for your care of its casing. You behold, I am generous: I am able to thank my successor to Carmen!"

Lindley's back stiffened. "Vilas!"

"Spare me your protests." The younger man waved his hand languidly. "You wish not to confer upon this subject——"

"It's a subject we'll omit," said Richard.

His companion stopped swinging, allowed the hammock to come to rest; his air of badinage fell from him; for the moment he seemed entirely sober; and he spoke with gentleness. "Mr. Lindley, if you please, I am still a gentleman—at times."

"I beg your pardon," said Richard quickly.

"No need of that!" The speaker's former careless and boisterous manner instantly resumed possession. "You must permit me to speak of a wholly fictitious lady, a creature of my wanton fancy, sir, whom I call Carmen. It will enable me to relieve my burdened soul of some remarks I have long wished to address to your excellent self."

"Oh, all right," muttered Richard, much annoyed.

"Let us imagine," continued Mr. Vilas, beginning to swing again, "that I thought I had won this Carmen——"

Lindley uttered an exclamation, shifted his position in his chair, and fixed a bored attention upon the passing vehicles in the glimpse of the street afforded between the house and the shrubberies along the side fence. The other, without appearing to note his annoyance, went on, cheerfully:

"She was a precocious huntress: early in youth she passed through the accumulator stage, leaving it to the crude or village belle to rejoice in numbers and the excitement of teasing cubs in the bear-pit. It is the nature of this imagined Carmen to play fiercely with one imitation of love after another: a man thinks he wins her, but it is merely that she has chosen him—for a while. And Carmen can have what she chooses; if the man exists who could show her that she cannot, she would follow him through the devil's dance; but neither you nor I would be that man, my dear sir. We assume that Carmen's eyes have been mine—her heart is another matter—and that she has grown weary of my somewhat Sicilian manner of looking into them, and, following her nature and the law of periodicity which Carmens must bow to, she seeks a cooler gaze and calls Mr. Richard Lindley to come and take a turn at looking. Now, Mr. Richard Lindley is straight as a die: he will not even show that he hears the call until he is sure that I have been dismissed: therefore, I have no quarrel with him. Also, I cannot even hate him, for in my clearer julep vision I see that he is but an interregnum. Let me not offend my friend: chagrin is to be his as it is mine. I was a strong draught, he but the quieting potion our Carmen took to settle it. We shall be brothers in woe some day. Nothing in the universe lasts except Hell: Life is running water; Love, a looking-glass; Death, an empty theatre! That reminds me: as you are not listening I will sing."

He finished his drink and lifted his voice hilariously:

"The heavenly stars far above her, The wind of the infinite sea, Who know all her perfidy, love her, So why call it madness in me? Ah, why call it madness——"

He set his glass with a crash upon the table, staring over his companion's shoulder.

"What, if you please, is the royal exile who thus seeks refuge in our hermitage?"

His host had already observed the approaching visitor with some surprise, and none too graciously. It was Valentine Corliss: he had turned in from the street and was crossing the lawn to join the two young men. Lindley rose, and, greeting him with sufficient cordiality, introduced Mr. Vilas, who bestowed upon the newcomer a very lively interest.

"You are as welcome, Mr. Corliss," said this previous guest, earnestly, "as if these sylvan shades were mine. I hail you, not only for your own sake, but because your presence encourages a hope that our host may offer refreshment to the entire company."

Corliss smilingly declined to be a party to this diplomacy, and seated himself beside Richard Lindley on the bench.

"Then I relapse!" exclaimed Mr. Vilas, throwing himself back full-length in the hammock. "I am not replete, but content. I shall meditate. Gentlemen, speak on!"

He waved his hand in a gracious gesture, indicating his intention to remain silent, and lay quiet, his eyes fixed steadfastly upon Corliss.

"I was coming to call on you," said the latter to Lindley, "but I saw you from the street and thought you mightn't mind my being as informal as I used to be, so many years ago."

"Of course," said Richard.

"I have a sinister purpose in coming," Mr. Corliss laughingly went on. "I want to bore you a little first, and then make your fortune. No doubt that's an old story to you, but I happen to be one of the adventurers whose argosies are laden with real cargoes. Nobody knows who has or hasn't money to invest nowadays, and of course I've no means of knowing whether you have or not—you see what a direct chap I am—but if you have, or can lay hold of some, I can show you how to make it bring you an immense deal more."

"Naturally," said Richard pleasantly, "I shall be glad if you can do that."

"Then I'll come to the point. It is exceedingly simple; that's certainly one attractive thing about it." Corliss took some papers and unmounted photographs from his pocket, and began to spread them open on the bench between himself and Richard. "No doubt you know Southern Italy as well as I do."

"Oh, I don't 'know' it. I've been to Naples; down to Paestum; drove from Salerno to Sorrentoby Amalfi; but that was years ago."

"Here's a large scale map that will refresh your memory." He unfolded it and laid it across their knees; it was frayed with wear along the folds, and had been heavily marked and dotted with red and blue pencillings. "My millions are in this large irregular section," he continued. "It's the anklebone and instep of Italy's boot; this sizable province called Basilicata, east of Salerno, north of Calabria. And I'll not hang fire on the point, Lindley. What I've got there is oil."

"Olives?" asked Richard, puzzled.

"Hardly!" Corliss laughed. "Though of course one doesn't connect petroleum with the thought of Italy, and of all Italy, Southern Italy. But in spite of the years I've lived there, I've discovered myself to be so essentially American and commercial that I want to drench the surface of that antique soil with the brown, bad-smelling crude oil that lies so deep beneath it. Basilicata is the coming great oil-field of the world—and that's my secret. I dare to tell it here, as I shouldn't dare in Naples."

"Shouldn't 'dare'?" Richard repeated, with growing interest, and no doubt having some vague expectation of a tale of the Camorra. To him Naples had always seemed of all cities the most elusive and incomprehensible, a laughing, thieving, begging, mandolin-playing, music-and-murder haunted metropolis, about which anything was plausible; and this impression was not unique, as no inconsiderable proportion of Mr. Lindley's fellow-countrymen share it, a fact thoroughly comprehended by the returned native.

"It isn't a case of not daring on account of any bodily danger," explained Corliss.

"No," Richard smiled reminiscently. "I don't believe that would have much weight with you if it were. You certainly showed no symptoms of that sort in your extreme youth. I remember you had the name of being about the most daring and foolhardy boy in town."

"I grew up to be cautious enough in business, though," said the other, shaking his head gravely. "I haven't been able to afford not being careful." He adjusted the map—a prefatory gesture. "Now, I'll make this whole affair perfectly clear to you. It's a simple matter, as are most big things. I'll begin by telling you of Moliterno—he's been my most intimate friend in that part of the continent for a great many years; since I went there as a boy, in fact."

He sketched a portrait of his friend, Prince Moliterno, bachelor chief of a historic house, the soul of honour, "land-poor"; owning leagues and leagues of land, hills and mountains, broken towers and ruins, in central Basilicata, a province described as wild country and rough, off the rails and not easy to reach. Moliterno and the narrator had gone there to shoot; Corliss had seen "surface oil" upon the streams and pools; he recalled the discovery of oil near his own boyhood home in America; had talked of it to Moliterno, and both men had become more and more interested, then excited. They decided to sink a well.

Corliss described picturesquely the difficulties of this enterprise, the hardships and disappointments; how they dragged the big tools over the mountains by mule power; how they had kept it all secret; how he and Moliterno had done everything with the help of peasant labourers and one experienced man, who had "seen service in the Persian oil-fields."

He gave the business reality, colouring it with details relevant and irrelevant, anecdotes and wayside incidents: he was fluent, elaborate, explicit throughout. They sank five wells, he said, "at the angles of this irregular pentagon you see here on the map, outlined in blue. These red circles are the wells." Four of the wells "came in tremendous," but they had managed to get them sealed after wasting—he was "sorry to think how many thousand barrels of oil." The fifth well was so enormous that they had not been able to seal it at the time of the speaker's departure for America.

"But I had a cablegram this morning," he added, "letting me know they've managed to do it at last. Here is, the cablegram." He handed Richard a form signed "Antonio Moliterno."

"Now, to go back to what I said about not 'daring' to speak of this in Naples," he continued, smiling. "The fear is financial, not physical."

The knowledge of the lucky strike, he explained, must be kept from the "Neapolitan money-sharks." A third of the land so rich in oil already belonged to the Moliterno estates, but it was necessary to obtain possession of the other two thirds "before the secret leaks into Naples." So far, it was safe, the peasants of Basilicata being "as medieval a lot as one could wish." He related that these peasants thought that the devils hiding inside the mountains had been stabbed by the drills, and that the oil was devils' blood.

"You can see some of the country people hanging about, staring at a well, in this kodak, though it's not a very good one." He put into Richard's hand a small, blurred photograph showing a spouting well with an indistinct crowd standing in an irregular semicircle before it.

"Is this the Basilicatan peasant costume?" asked Richard, indicating a figure in the foreground, the only one revealed at all definitely. "It looks more oriental. Isn't the man wearing a fez?"

"Let me see," responded Mr. Corliss very quickly. "Perhaps I gave you the wrong picture. Oh, no," he laughed easily, holding the kodak closer to his eyes; "that's all right: it is a fez. That's old Salviati, our engineer, the man I spoke of who'd worked in Persia, you know; he's always worn a fez since then. Got in the habit of it out there and says he'll never give it up. Moliterno's always chaffing him about it. He's a faithful old chap, Salviati."

"I see." Lindley looked thoughtfully at the picture, which the other carelessly returned to his hand. "There seems to be a lot of oil there."

"It's one of the smaller wells at that. And you can see from the kodak that it's just 'blowing'—not an eruption from being 'shot,' or the people wouldn't stand so near. Yes; there's an ocean of oil under that whole province; but we want a lot of money to get at it. It's mountain country; our wells will all have to go over fifteen-hundred feet, and that's expensive. We want to pipe the oil to Salerno, where the Standard's ships will take it from us, and it will need a great deal for that. But most of all we want money to get hold of the land; we must control the whole field, and it's big!"

"How did you happen to come here to finance it?"

"I was getting to that. Moliterno himself is as honourable a man as breathes God's air. But my experience has been that Neapolitan capitalists are about the cleverest and slipperiest financiers in the world. We could have financed it twenty times over in Naples in a day, but neither Moliterno nor I was willing to trust them. The thing is enormous, you see—a really colossal fortune—and Italian law is full of ins and outs, and the first man we talked to confidentially would have given us his word to play straight, and, the instant we left him, would have flown post-haste for Basilicata and grabbed for himself the two thirds of the field not yet in our hands. Moliterno and I talked it over many, many times; we thought of going to Rome for the money, to Paris, to London, to New York; but I happened to remember the old house here that my aunt had left me—I wanted to sell it, to add whatever it brought to the money I've already put in—and then it struck me I might raise the rest here as well as anywhere else."

The other nodded. "I understand."

"I suppose you'll think me rather sentimental," Corliss went on, with a laugh which unexpectedly betrayed a little shyness. "I've never forgotten that I was born here—was a boy here. In all my wanderings I've always really thought of this as home."

His voice trembled slightly and his face flushed; he smiled deprecatingly as though in apology for these symptoms of emotion; and at that both listeners felt (perhaps with surprise) the man's strong attraction. There was something very engaging about him: in the frankness of his look and in the slight tremor in his voice; there was something appealing and yet manly in the confession, by this thoroughgoing cosmopolite, of his real feeling for the home-town.

"Of course I know how very few people, even among the 'old citizens,' would have any recollection whatever of me," he went on; "but that doesn't make any difference in my sentiment for the place and its people. That street out yonder was named for my grandfather: there's a statue of my great uncle in the State House yard; all my own blood: belonged here, and though I have been a wanderer and may not be remembered—naturally am not remembered—yet the name is honoured here, and I—I——" He faltered again, then concluded with quiet earnestness: "I thought that if my good luck was destined to bring fortunes to others, it might as well be to my own kind—that at least I'd offer them the chance before I offered it to any one else." He turned and looked Richard in the face. "That's why I'm here, Mr. Lindley."

The other impulsively put out his hand. "I understand," he said heartily.

"Thank you." Corliss changed his tone for one less serious. "You've listened very patiently and I hope you'll be rewarded for it. Certainly you will if you decide to come in with us. May I leave the maps and descriptions with you?"

"Yes, indeed. I'll look them over carefully and have another talk with you about it."

"Thank heaven, that's over!" exclaimed the lounger in the hammock, who had not once removed his fascinated stare from the expressive face of Valentine Corliss. "If you have now concluded with dull care, allow me to put a vital question: Mr. Corliss, do you sing?"

The gentleman addressed favoured him with a quizzical glance from between half-closed lids, and probably checking an impulse to remark that he happened to know that his questioner sometimes sang, replied merely, "No."

"It is a pity."

"Why?"

"Nothing," returned the other, inconsequently. "It just struck me that you ought to sing the Toreador song."

Richard Lindley, placing the notes and maps in his pocket, dropped them, and, stooping, began to gather the scattered papers with a very red face. Corliss, however, laughed good-naturedly.

"That's most flattering," he said; "though there are other things in 'Carmen' I prefer—probably because one doesn't hear them so eternally."

Vilas pulled himself up to a sitting position and began to swing again. "Observe our host, Mr. Corliss," he commanded gayly. "He is a kind old Dobbin, much beloved, but cares damn little to hear you or me speak of music. He'd even rather discuss your oil business than listen to us talk of women, whereas nothing except women ever really interests you, my dear sir. He's not our kind of man," he concluded, mournfully; "not at all our kind of man!"

"I hope," Corliss suggested, "he's going to be my kind of man in the development of these oil-fields."

"How ridic"—Mr. Vilas triumphed over the word after a slight struggle—"ulous! I shall review that: ridiculous of you to pretend to be interested in oil-fields. You are not that sort of person whatever. Nothing could be clearer than that you would never waste the time demanded by fields of oil. Groundlings call this 'the mechanical age'—a vulgar error. My dear sir, you and I know that it is the age of Woman! Even poets have begun to see that she is alive. Formerly we did not speak of her at all, but of late years she has become such a scandal that she is getting talked about. Even our dramas, which used to be all blood, have become all flesh. I wish I were dead—but will continue my harangue because the thought is pellucid. Women selecting men to mate with are of only two kinds, just as there are but two kinds of children in a toy-shop. One child sets its fancy on one partic"—the orator paused, then continued—"on one certain toy and will make a distressing scene if she doesn't get it: she will have that one; she will go straight to it, clasp it and keep it; she won't have any other. The other kind of woman is to be understood if you will make the experiment of taking the other kind of child to a toy-shop and telling her you will buy her any toy in the place, but that you will buy her only one. If you do this in the morning, she will still be in the shop when it is closing for the night, because, though she runs to each toy in turn with excitement and delight, she sees another over her shoulder, and the one she has not touched is always her choice—until she has touched it! Some get broken in the handling. For my part, my wires are working rather rustily, but I must obey the Stage-Manager. For my requiem I wish somebody would ask them to play Gounod's masterpiece."

"What's that?" asked Corliss, amused.

"'The Funeral March of a Marionette!'"

"I suppose you mean that for a cheerful way of announcing that you are a fatalist."

"Fatalism? That is only a word," declared Mr. Vilas gravely. "If I am not a puppet then I am a god. Somehow, I do not seem to be a god. If a god is a god, one thinks he would know it himself. I now yield the floor. Thanking you cordially, I believe there is a lady walking yonder who commands salutation."

He rose to his feet, bowing profoundly. Cora Madison was passing, strolling rather briskly down the street, not in the direction of her home. She waved her parasol with careless gayety to the trio under the trees, and, going on, was lost to their sight.

"Hello!" exclaimed Corliss, looking at his watch with a start of surprise. "I have two letters to write for the evening mail. I must be off."

At this, Ray Vilas's eyes—still fixed upon him, as they had been throughout the visit—opened to their fullest capacity, in a gaze of only partially alcoholic wildness.

Entirely aware of this singular glare, but not in the least disconcerted by it, the recipient proffered his easy farewells. "I had no idea it was so late. Good afternoon. Mr. Vilas, I have been delighted with your diagnosis. Lindley, I'm at your disposal when you've looked over my data. My very warm thanks for your patience, and—addio!"

Lindley looked after him as he strode quickly away across the green lawn, turning, at the street, in the direction Cora had taken; and the troubled Richard felt his heart sink with vague but miserable apprehension. There was a gasp of desperation beside him, and the sound of Ray Vilas's lips parting and closing with little noises of pain.

"So he knows her," said the boy, his thin body shaking. "Look at him, damn him! See his deep chest, that conqueror's walk, the easy, confident, male pride of him: a true-born, natural rake—the Toreador all over!"

His agitation passed suddenly; he broke into a loud laugh, and flung a reckless hand to his companion's shoulder.

"You good old fool," he cried. "You'll never play Don Jose!"



CHAPTER EIGHT

Hedrick Madison, like too many other people, had never thought seriously about the moon; nor ever had he encouraged it to become his familiar; and he underwent his first experience of its incomparable betrayals one brilliant night during the last week of that hot month. The preface to this romantic evening was substantial and prosaic: four times during dinner was he copiously replenished with hash, which occasioned so rich a surfeit within him that, upon the conclusion of the meal, he found himself in no condition to retort appropriately to a solicitous warning from Cora to keep away from the cat. Indeed, it was half an hour later, and he was sitting—to his own consciousness too heavily—upon the back fence, when belated inspiration arrived. But there is no sound where there is no ear to hear, and no repartee, alas! when the wretch who said the first part has gone, so that Cora remained unscathed as from his alley solitude Hedrick hurled in the teeth of the rising moon these bitter words:

"Oh, no; our cat only eats soft meat!"

He renewed a morbid silence, and the moon, with its customary deliberation, swung clear of a sweeping branch of the big elm in the front yard and shone full upon him. Nothing warned the fated youth not to sit there; no shadow of imminent catastrophe tinted that brightness: no angel whisper came to him, bidding him begone—and to go in a hurry and as far as possible. No; he sat upon the fence an inoffensive lad, and—except for still feeling his hash somewhat, and a gradually dispersing rancour concerning the cat—at peace. It is for such lulled mortals that the ever-lurking Furies save their most hideous surprises.

Chin on palms, he looked idly at the moon, and the moon inscrutably returned his stare. Plausible, bright, bland, it gave no sign that it was at its awful work. For the bride of night is like a card-dealer whose fingers move so swiftly through the pack the trickery goes unseen.

This moon upon which he was placidly gazing, because he had nothing else to do, betokened nought to Hedrick: to him it was the moon of any other night, the old moon; certainly no moon of his delight. Withal, it may never be gazed upon so fixedly and so protractedly—no matter how languidly—with entire impunity. That light breeds a bug in the brain. Who can deny how the moon wrought this thing under the hair of unconscious Hedrick, or doubt its responsibility for the thing that happened?

"Little boy!"

It was a very soft, small voice, silky and queer; and at first Hedrick had little suspicion that it could be addressing him: the most rigid self-analysis could have revealed to him no possibility of his fitting so ignominious a description.

"Oh, little boy!"

He looked over his shoulder and saw, standing in the alley behind him, a girl of about his own age. She was daintily dressed and had beautiful hair which was all shining in pale gold.

"Little boy!"

She was smiling up at him, and once more she used that wantonly inaccurate vocative:

"Little boy!"

Hedrick grunted unencouragingly. "Who you callin' 'little boy'?"

For reply she began to climb the fence. It was high, but the young lady was astonishingly agile, and not even to be deterred by several faint wails from tearing and ripping fabrics—casualties which appeared to be entirely beneath her notice. Arriving at the top rather dishevelled, and with irregular pennons here and there flung to the breeze from her attire, she seated herself cosily beside the dumbfounded Hedrick.

She turned her face to him and smiled—and there was something about her smile which Hedrick did not like. It discomforted him; nothing more. In sunlight he would have had the better chance to comprehend; but, unhappily, this was moonshine.

"Kiss me, little boy!" she said.

"I won't!" exclaimed the shocked and indignant Hedrick, edging uneasily away from her.

"Let's play," she said cheerfully.

"Play what?"

"I like chickens. Did you know I like chickens?"

The rather singular lack of connection in her remarks struck him as a misplaced effort at humour.

"You're having lots of fun with me, aren't you?" he growled.

She instantly moved close to him and lifted her face to his.

"Kiss me, darling little boy!" she said.

There was something more than uncommonly queer about this stranger, an unearthliness of which he was confusedly perceptive, but she was not without a curious kind of prettiness, and her pale gold hair was beautiful. The doomed lad saw the moon shining through it.

"Kiss me, darling little boy!" she repeated.

His head whirled; for the moment she seemed divine.

George Washington used profanity at the Battle of Monmouth. Hedrick kissed her.

He instantly pushed her away with strong distaste. "There!" he said angrily. "I hope that'll satisfy you!" He belonged to his sex.

"Kiss me some more, darling little boy!" she cried, and flung her arms about him.

With a smothered shout of dismay he tried to push her off, and they fell from the fence together, into the yard, at the cost of further and almost fatal injuries to the lady's apparel.

Hedrick was first upon his feet. "Haven't you got any sense?" he demanded.

She smiled unwaveringly, rose (without assistance) and repeated: "Kiss me some more, darling little boy!"

"No, I won't! I wouldn't for a thousand dollars!"

Apparently, she did not consider this discouraging. She began to advance endearingly, while he retreated backward. "Kiss me some——"

"I won't, I tell you!" Hedrick kept stepping away, moving in a desperate circle. He resorted to a brutal formula: "You make me sick!"

"Kiss me some more, darling lit——"

"I won't!" he bellowed. "And if you say that again I'll——"

"Kiss me some more, darling little boy!" She flung herself at him, and with a yell of terror he turned and ran at top-speed.

She pursued, laughing sweetly, and calling loudly as she ran, "Kiss me some more, darling little boy! Kiss me some more, darling little boy!"

The stricken Hedrick knew not whither to direct his flight: he dared not dash for the street with this imminent tattered incubus—she was almost upon him—and he frantically made for the kitchen door, only to swerve with a gasp of despair as his foot touched the step, for she was at his heels, and he was sickeningly assured she would cheerfully follow him through the house, shouting that damning refrain for all ears. A strangling fear took him by the throat—if Cora should come to be a spectator of this unspeakable flight, if Cora should hear that horrid plea for love! Then farewell peace; indeed, farewell all joy in life forever!

Panting sobbingly, he ducked under the amorous vampire's arm and fled on. He zigzagged desperately to and fro across the broad, empty backyard, a small hand ever and anon managing to clutch his shoulder, the awful petition in his ears:

"Kiss me some more, darling little boy!"

"Hedrick!"

Emerging from the kitchen door, Laura stood and gazed in wonder as the two eerie figures sped by her, circled, ducked, dodged, flew madly on. This commonplace purlieu was become the scene of a witch-chase; the moonlight fell upon the ghastly flitting face of the pursued, uplifted in agony, white, wet, with fay eyes; also it illumined the unreal elf following close, a breeze-blown fantasy in rags.

"Kiss me some more, darling little boy!"

Laura uttered a sharp exclamation. "Stand still, Hedrick!" she called. "You must!"

Hedrick made a piteous effort to increase his speed.

"It's Lolita Martin," called Laura. "She must have her way or nothing can be done with her. Stand still!"

Hedrick had never heard of Lolita Martin, but the added information concerning her was not ineffective: it operated as a spur; and Laura joined the hunt.

"Stand still!" she cried to the wretched quarry. "She's run away. She must be taken home. Stop, Hedrick! You must stop!"

Hedrick had no intention of stopping, but Laura was a runner, and, as he dodged the other, caught and held him fast. The next instant, Lolita, laughing happily, flung her arms round his neck from behind.

"Lemme go!" shuddered Hedrick. "Lemme go!"

"Kiss me again, darl——"

"I—woof!" He became inarticulate.

"She isn't quite right," his sister whispered hurriedly in his ear. "She has spells when she's weak mentally. You must be kind to her. She only wants you to——"

"'Only'!" he echoed hoarsely. "I won't ki——" He was unable to finish the word.

"We must get her home," said Laura anxiously. "Will you come with me, Lolita, dear?"

Apparently Lolita had no consciousness whatever of Laura's presence. Instead of replying, she tightened her grasp upon Hedrick and warmly reiterated her request.

"Shut up, you parrot!" hissed the goaded boy.

"Perhaps she'll go if you let her walk with her arms round your neck," suggested Laura.

"If I what?"

"Let's try it. We've got to get her home; her mother must be frantic about her. Come, let's see if she'll go with us that way."

With convincing earnestness, Hedrick refused to make the experiment until Laura suggested that he remain with Lolita while she summoned assistance; then, as no alternative appeared, his spirit broke utterly, and he consented to the trial, stipulating with a last burst of vehemence that the progress of the unthinkable pageant should be through the alley.

"Come, Lolita," said Laura coaxingly. "We're going for a nice walk." At the adjective, Hedrick's burdened shoulders were racked with a brief spasm, which recurred as his sister added: "Your darling little boy will let you keep hold of him."

Lolita seemed content. Laughing gayly, she offered no opposition, but, maintaining her embrace with both arms and walking somewhat sidewise, went willingly enough; and the three slowly crossed the yard, passed through the empty stable and out into the alley. When they reached the cross-street at the alley's upper end, Hedrick balked flatly.

Laura expostulated, then entreated. Hedrick refused with sincere loathing to be seen upon the street occupying his present position in the group. Laura assured him that there was no one to see; he replied that the moon was bright and the evening early; he would die, and readily, but he would not set foot in the street. Unfortunately, he had selected an unfavourable spot for argument: they were already within a yard or two of the street; and a strange boy, passing, stopped and observed, and whistled discourteously.

"Ain't he the spooner!" remarked this unknown with hideous admiration.

"I'll thank you," returned Hedrick haughtily, "to go on about your own business."

"Kiss me some more, darling little boy!" said Lolita.

The strange boy squawked, wailed, screamed with laughter, howled the loving petition in a dozen keys of mockery, while Hedrick writhed and Lolita clung. Enriched by a new and great experience, the torturer trotted on, leaving viperish cachinnations in his wake.

But the martyrdom was at an end. A woman, hurrying past, bareheaded, was greeted by a cry of delight from Lolita, who released Hedrick and ran to her with outstretched arms.

"We were bringing her home, Mrs. Martin," said Laura, reassuringly. "She's all right; nothing's the matter except that her dress got torn. We found her playing in our yard."

"I thank you a thousand times, Miss Madison," cried Lolita's mother, and flutteringly plunged into a description of her anxiety, her search for Lolita, and concluded with renewed expressions of gratitude for the child's safe return, an outpouring of thankfulness and joy wholly incomprehensible to Hedrick.

"Not at all," said Laura cheerfully. "Come, Hedrick. We'll go home by the street, I think." She touched his shoulder, and he went with her in stunned obedience. He was not able to face the incredible thing that had happened to him: he walked in a trance of horror.

"Poor little girl!" said Laura gently, with what seemed to her brother an indefensibly misplaced compassion. "Usually they have her live in an institution for people afflicted as she is, but they brought her home for a visit last week, I believe. Of course you didn't understand, but I think you should have been more thoughtful. Really, you shouldn't have flirted with her."

Hedrick stopped short.

"'Flirted'!" His voice was beginning to show symptoms of changing, this year; it rose to a falsetto wail, flickered and went out.

With the departure of Lolita in safety, what had seemed bizarre and piteous became obscured, and another aspect of the adventure was presented to Laura. The sufferings of the arrogant are not wholly depressing to the spectator; and of arrogance Hedrick had ever been a master. She began to shake; a convulsion took her, and suddenly she sat upon the curbstone without dignity, and laughed as he had never seen her.

A horrid distrust of her rose within him: he began to realize in what plight he stood, what terrors o'erhung.

"Look here," he said miserably, "are you—you aren't—you don't have to go and—and talk about this, do you?"

"No, Hedrick," she responded, rising and controlling herself somewhat. "Not so long as you're good."

This was no reassuring answer.

"And politer to Cora," she added.

Seemingly he heard the lash of a slave-whip crack in the air. The future grew dark.

"I know you'll try"—she said; and the unhappy lad felt that her assurance was justified; but she had not concluded the sentence—"darling little boy," she capped it, choking slightly.

"No other little girl ever fell in love with you, did there, Hedrick?" she asked, and, receiving an incoherent but furious reply, she was again overcome, so that she must lean against the fence to recover. "It seems—so—so curious," she explained, gasping, "that the first one—the—the only one—should be an—a—an——" She was unable to continue.

Hedrick's distrust became painfully increased: he began to feel that he disliked Laura.

She was still wiping her eyes and subject to recurrent outbursts when they reached their own abode; and as he bitterly flung himself into a chair upon the vacant front porch, he heard her stifling an attack as she mounted the stairs to her own room. He swung the chair about, with its back to the street, and sat facing the wall. He saw nothing. There are profundities in the abyss which reveal no glimpse of the sky.

Presently he heard his father coughing near by; and the sound was hateful, because it seemed secure and unshamed. It was a cough of moral superiority; and just then the son would have liked to believe that his parent's boyhood had been one of degradation as complete as his own; but no one with this comfortable cough could ever have plumbed such depths: his imagination refused the picture he was bitterly certain that Mr. Madison had never kissed an idiot.

Hedrick had a dread that his father might speak to him; he was in no condition for light conversation. But Mr. Madison was unaware of his son's near presence, and continued upon his purposeless way. He was smoking his one nightly cigar and enjoying the moonlight. He drifted out toward the sidewalk and was accosted by a passing acquaintance, a comfortable burgess of sixty, leading a child of six or seven, by the hand.

"Out taking the air, are you, Mr. Madison?" said the pedestrian, pausing.

"Yes; just trying to cool off," returned the other. "How are you, Pryor, anyway? I haven't seen you for a long time."

"Not since last summer," said Pryor. "I only get here once or twice a year, to see my married daughter. I always try to spend August with her if I can. She's still living in that little house, over on the next street, I bought for her through your real-estate company. I suppose you're still in the same business?"

"Yes. Pretty slack, these days."

"I suppose so, I suppose so," responded Mr. Pryor, nodding. "Summer, I suppose it usually is. Well, I don't know when I'll be going out on the road again myself. Business is pretty slack all over the country this year."

"Let's see—I've forgotten," said Madison ruminatively. "You travel, don't you?"

"For a New York house," affirmed Mr. Pryor. He did not, however, mention his "line." "Yes-sir," he added, merely as a decoration, and then said briskly: "I see you have a fine family, Mr. Madison; yes-sir, a fine family; I've passed here several times lately and I've noticed 'em: fine family. Let's see, you've got four, haven't you?"

"Three," said Madison. "Two girls and a boy."

"Well, sir, that's mighty nice," observed Mr. Pryor; "mighty nice! I only have my one daughter, and of course me living in New York when I'm at home, and her here, why, I don't get to see much of her. You got both your daughters living with you, haven't you?"

"Yes, right here at home."

"Let's see: neither of 'em's married, I believe?"

"No; not yet."

"Seems to me now," said Pryor, taking off his glasses and wiping them, "seems to me I did hear somebody say one of 'em was going to be married engaged, maybe."

"No," said Madison. "Not that I know of."

"Well, I suppose you'd be the first to know! Yes-sir." And both men laughed their appreciation of this folly. "They're mighty good-looking girls, that's certain," continued Mr. Pryor. "And one of 'em's as fine a dresser as you'll meet this side the Rue de la Paix."

"You mean in Paris?" asked Madison, slightly surprised at this allusion. "You've been over there, Pryor?"

"Oh, sometimes," was the response. "My business takes me over, now and then. I think it's one of your daughters I've noticed dresses so well. Isn't one of 'em a mighty pretty girl about twenty-one or two, with a fine head of hair sort of lightish brown, beautiful figure, and carries a white parasol with a green lining sometimes?"

"Yes, that's Cora, I guess."

"Pretty name, too," said Pryor approvingly. "Yes-sir. I saw her going into a florist's, downtown, the other day, with a fine-looking young fellow—I can't think of his name. Let's see: my daughter was with me, and she'd heard his name—said his family used to be big people in this town and——"

"Oh," said Madison, "young Corliss."

"Corliss!" exclaimed Mr. Pryor, with satisfaction. "That's it, Corliss. Well, sir," he chuckled, "from the way he was looking at your Miss Cora it struck me he seemed kind of anxious for her name to be Corliss, too."

"Well, hardly I expect," said the other. "They just barely know each other: he's only been here a few weeks; they haven't had time to get much acquainted, you see."

"I suppose not," agreed Mr. Pryor, with perfect readiness. "I suppose not. I'll bet he tries all he can to get acquainted though; he looked pretty smart to me. Doesn't he come about as often as the law allows?"

"I shouldn't be surprised," said Madison indifferently. "He doesn't know many people about here any more, and it's lonesome for him at the hotel. But I guess he comes to see the whole family; I left him in the library a little while ago, talking to my wife."

"That's the way! Get around the old folks first!" Mr. Pryor chuckled cordially; then in a mildly inquisitive tone he said: "Seems to be a fine, square young fellow, I expect?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Pretty name, 'Cora'," said Pryor.

"What's this little girl's name?" Mr. Madison indicated the child, who had stood with heroic patience throughout the incomprehensible dialogue.

"Lottie, for her mother. She's a good little girl."

"She is so! I've got a young son she ought to know," remarked Mr. Madison serenely, with an elderly father's total unconsciousness of the bridgeless gap between seven and thirteen. "He'd like to play with her. I'll call him."

"I expect we better be getting on," said Pryor. "It's near Lottie's bedtime; we just came out for our evening walk."

"Well, he can come and shake hands with her anyway," urged Hedrick's father. "Then they'll know each other, and they can play some other time." He turned toward the house and called loudly:

"Hedrick!"

There was no response. Behind the back of his chair Hedrick could not be seen. He was still sitting immovable, his eyes torpidly fixed upon the wall.

"Hed-rick!"

Silence.

"Oh, Hed-rick!" shouted his father. "Come out here! I want you to meet a little girl! Come and see a nice little girl!"

Mr. Pryor's grandchild was denied the pleasure. At the ghastly words "little girl," Hedrick dropped from his chair flat upon the floor, crawled to the end of the porch, wriggled through the railing, and immersed himself in deep shadow against the side of the house.

Here he removed his shoes, noiselessly mounted to the sill of one of the library windows, then reconnoitred through a slit in the blinds before entering.

The gas burned low in the "drop-light"—almost too dimly to reveal the two people upon a sofa across the room. It was a faint murmur from one of them that caused Hedrick to pause and peer more sharply. They were Cora and Corliss; he was bending close to her; her face was lifting to his.

"Ah, kiss me! Kiss me!" she whispered.

Hedrick dropped from the sill, climbed through a window of the kitchen, hurried up the back-stairs, and reached his own apartment in time to be violently ill in seclusion.



CHAPTER NINE

Villages are scattered plentifully over the unstable buttresses of Vesuvius, and the inhabitants sleep o' nights: Why not? Quite unaware that he was much of their condition, Mr. Madison bade his incidental gossip and the tiny Lottie good-night, and sought his early bed. He maintained in good faith that Saturday night was "a great night to sleep," because of the later hour for rising; probably having also some factitious conviction that there prevailed a hush preparative of the Sabbath. As a matter of fact, in summer, the other members of his family always looked uncommonly haggard at the Sunday breakfast-table. Accepting without question his preposterous legend of additional matutinal slumber, they postponed retiring to a late hour, and were awakened—simultaneously with thousands of fellow-sufferers—at about half-after five on Sunday morning, by a journalistic uprising. Over the town, in these early hours, rampaged the small vendors of the manifold sheets: local papers and papers from greater cities, hawker succeeding hawker with yell upon yell and brain-piercing shrillings in unbearable cadences. No good burgher ever complained: the people bore it, as in winter they bore the smoke that injured their health, ruined their linen, spoiled their complexions, forbade all hope of beauty and comfort in their city, and destroyed the sweetness of their homes and of their wives. It is an incredibly patient citizenry and exalts its persecutors.

Of the Madison family, Cora probably suffered most; and this was the time when it was no advantage to have the front bedroom. She had not slept until close upon dawn, and the hawkers woke her irreparably; she could but rage upon her hot pillow. By and by, there came a token that another anguish kept company with hers. She had left her door open for a better circulation of the warm and languid air, and from Hedrick's room issued an "oof!" of agonized disgust. Cora little suspected that the youth reeked not of newsboys: Hedrick's miseries were introspective.

The cries from the street were interminable; each howler in turn heard faintly in the distance, then in crescendo until he had passed and another succeeded him, and all the while Cora lay tossing and whispering between clenched teeth. Having ample reason, that morning, to prefer sleep to thinking, sleep was impossible. But she fought for it: she did not easily surrender what she wanted; and she struggled on, with closed eyes, long after she had heard the others go down to breakfast.

About a hundred yards from her windows, to the rear, were the open windows of a church which fronted the next street, and stood dos-a-dos to the dwelling of the Madisons. The Sunday-school hour had been advanced for the hot weather, and, partly on this account, and partly because of the summer absence of many families, the attendants were few. But the young voices were conducted, rather than accompanied, in pious melody by a cornetist who worthily thought to amend, in his single person, what lack of volume this paucity occasioned. He was a slender young man in hot black clothes; he wore the unfacaded collar fatally and unanimously adopted by all adam's-apple men of morals; he was washed, fair, flat-skulled, clean-minded, and industrious; and the only noise of any kind he ever made in the world was on Sunday.

"Prashus joowuls, sweet joowuls, thee jams off iz crowowun," sang the little voices feebly. They were almost unheard; but the young man helped them out: figuratively, he put them out. And the cornet was heard: it was heard for blocks and blocks; it was heard over all that part of the town—in the vicinity of the church it was the only thing that could be heard. In his daily walk this cornetist had no enemies: he was kind-hearted; he would not have shot a mad dog; he gladly nursed the sick. He sat upon the platform before the children; he swelled, perspired and blew, and felt that it was a good blowing. If other thoughts vapoured upon the borders of his mind, they were of the dinner he would eat, soon after noon, at the house of one of the frilled, white-muslin teachers. He was serene. His eyes were not blasted; his heart was not instantly withered; his thin, bluish hair did not fall from his head; his limbs were not detached from his torso—yet these misfortunes had been desired for him, with comprehension and sincerity, at the first flat blat of his brassy horn.

It is impossible to imagine the state of mind of this young cornetist, could he have known that he had caused the prettiest girl in town to jump violently out of bed with what petitions upon her lips regarding his present whereabouts and future detention! It happened that during the course of his Sunday walk on Corliss Street, that very afternoon, he saw her—was hard-smitten by her beauty, and for weeks thereafter laid unsuccessful plans to "meet" her. Her image was imprinted: he talked about her to his boarding-house friends and office acquaintances, his favourite description being, "the sweetest-looking lady I ever laid eyes on."

Cora, descending to the breakfast-table rather white herself, was not unpleasantly shocked by the haggard aspect of Hedrick, who, with Laura and Mrs. Madison, still lingered.

"Good-morning, Cora," he said politely, and while she stared, in suspicious surprise, he passed her a plate of toast with ostentatious courtesy; but before she could take one of the slices, "Wait," he said; "it's very nice toast, but I'm afraid it isn't hot. I'll take it to the kitchen and have it warmed for you." And he took the plate and went out, walking softly.

Cora turned to her mother, appalled. "He'll be sick!" she said.

Mrs. Madison shook her head and smiled sadly.

"He helped to wait on all of us: he must have been doing something awful."

"More likely he wants permission to do something awful."

Laura looked out of the window.

"There, Cora," said Hedrick kindly, when he brought the toast; "you'll find that nice and hot."

She regarded him steadfastly, but with modesty he avoided her eye. "You wouldn't make such a radical change in your nature, Hedrick," she said, with a puzzled frown, "just to get out of going to church, would you?"

"I don't want to get out of going to church," he said. He gulped slightly. "I like church."

And church-time found him marching decorously beside his father, the three ladies forming a rear rank; a small company in the very thin procession of fanning women and mopping men whose destination was the gray stone church at the foot of Corliss Street. The locusts railed overhead: Hedrick looked neither to the right nor to the left.

They passed a club, of which a lower window was vacated simultaneously with their coming into view; and a small but ornate figure in pale gray crash hurried down the steps and attached itself to the second row of Madisons. "Good-morning," said Mr. Wade Trumble. "Thought I'd take a look-in at church this morning myself."

Care of this encumbrance was usually expected of Laura and Mrs. Madison, but to their surprise Cora offered a sprightly rejoinder and presently dropped behind them with Mr. Trumble. Mr. Trumble was also surprised and, as naively, pleased.

"What's happened?" he asked with cheerful frankness. "You haven't given me a chance to talk to you for a long while."

"Haven't I?" she smiled enigmatically. "I don't think you've tried very hard."

This was too careless; it did not quite serve, even for Trumble. "What's up?" he asked, not without shrewdness. "Is Richard Lindley out of town?"

"I don't know."

"I see. Perhaps it's this new chap, Corliss? Has he left?"

"What nonsense! What have they got to do with my being nice to you?" She gave him a dangerous smile, and it wrought upon him visibly.

"Don't you ever be nice to me unless you mean it," he said feebly.

Cora looked grave and sweet; she seemed mysteriously moved. "I never do anything I don't mean," she said in a low voice which thrilled the little man. This was machine-work, easy and accurate.

"Cora——" he began, breathlessly.

"There!" she exclaimed, shifting on the instant to a lively brusqueness. "That's enough for you just now. We're on our way to church!"

Trumble felt almost that she had accepted him.

"Have you got your penny for the contribution box?" she smiled. "I suppose you really give a great deal to the church. I hear you're richer and richer."

"I do pretty well," he returned, coolly. "You can know just how well, if you like."

"Not on Sunday," she laughed; then went on, admiringly, "I hear you're very dashing in your speculations."

"Then you've heard wrong, because I don't speculate," he returned. "I'm not a gambler—except on certainties. I guess I disappointed a friend of yours the other day because I wouldn't back him on a thousand-to-one shot."

"Who was that?" she asked, with an expression entirely veiled.

"Corliss. He came to see me; wanted me to put real money into an oil scheme. Too thin!"

"Why is it 'too thin'?" she asked carelessly.

"Too far away, for one thing—somewhere in Italy. Anybody who put up his cash would have to do it on Corliss's bare word that he's struck oil."

"Well?" She turned her face to him, and a faint perturbation was manifest in her tone. "Isn't Mr. Corliss's 'bare word' supposed to be perfectly good?"

"Oh, I suppose so, but I don't know. He isn't known here: nobody really knows anything about him except that he was born here. Besides, I wouldn't make an investment on my own father's bare word, if he happened to be alive."

"Perhaps not!" Cora spoke impulsively, a sudden anger getting the better of her, but she controlled it immediately. "Of course I don't mean that," she laughed, sweetly. "But I happen to think Mr. Corliss's scheme a very handsome one, and I want my friends to make their fortunes, of course. Richard Lindley and papa are going into it."

"I'll bet they don't," said Trumble promptly. "Lindley told me he'd looked it over and couldn't see his way to."

"He did?" Cora stiffened perceptibly and bit her lip.

Trumble began to laugh. "This is funny: you trying to talk business! So Corliss has been telling you about it?"

"Yes, he has; and I understand it perfectly. I think there's an enormous fortune in it, and you'd better not laugh at me: a woman's instinct about such things is better than a man's experience sometimes."

"You'll find neither Lindley nor your father are going to think so," he returned skeptically.

She gave him a deep, sweet look. "But I mustn't be disappointed in you," she said, with the suggestion of a tremor in her voice, "whatever they do! You'll take my advice, won't you—Wade?"

"I'll take your advice in anything but business." He shook his head ominously.

"And wouldn't you take my advice in business,"—she asked very slowly and significantly—"under any circumstances?"

"You mean," he said huskily, "if you were my wife?"

She looked away, and slightly inclined her head. "No," he answered doggedly, "I wouldn't. You know mighty well that's what I want you to be, and I'd give my soul for the tip of your shoe, but business is an entirely different matter, and I——"

"Wade!" she said, with wonderful and thrilling sweetness. They had reached the church; Hedrick and his father had entered; Mrs. Madison and Laura were waiting on the steps. Cora and Trumble came to a stop some yards away. "Wade, I—I want you to go into this."

"Can't do it," he said stubbornly. "If you ever make up your mind to marry me, I'll spend all the money you like on you, but you'll have to keep to the woman's side of the house."

"You make it pretty hard for me to be nice to you," she returned, and the tremor now more evident in her voice was perfectly genuine. "You positively refuse to do this—for me?"

"Yes I do. I wouldn't buy sight-unseen to please God 'lmighty, Cora Madison." He looked at her shrewdly, struck by a sudden thought. "Did Corliss ask you to try and get me in?"

"He did not," she responded, icily. "Your refusal is final?"

"Certainly!" He struck the pavement a smart rap with his walking-stick. "By George, I believe he did ask you! That spoils church for me this morning; I'll not go in. When you quit playing games, let me know. You needn't try to work me any more, because I won't stand for it, but if you ever get tired of playing, come and tell me so." He uttered a bark of rueful laughter. "Ha! I must say that gentleman has an interesting way of combining business with pleasure!"

Under favourable circumstances the blow Cora dealt him might have been physically more violent. "Good-morning," she laughed, gayly. "I'm not bothering much about Mr. Corliss's oil in Italy. I had a bet with Laura I could keep you from saying 'I beg to differ,' or talking about the weather for five minutes. She'll have to pay me!"

Then, still laughing, she lowered her parasol, and with superb impudence, brushed it smartly across his face; turned on her heel, and, red with fury, joined her mother and sister, and went into the church.

The service failed to occupy her attention: she had much in her thoughts to distract her. Nevertheless, she bestowed some wonderment upon the devotion with which her brother observed each ceremonial rite. He joined in prayer with real fervour; he sang earnestly and loudly; a great appeal sounded in his changing voice; and during the sermon he sat with his eyes upon the minister in a stricken fixity. All this was so remarkable that Cora could not choose but ponder upon it, and, observing Hedrick furtively, she caught, if not a clue itself, at least a glimpse of one. She saw Laura's clear profile becoming subtly agitated; then noticed a shimmer of Laura's dark eye as it wandered to Hedrick and so swiftly away it seemed not to dare to remain. Cora was quick: she perceived that Laura was repressing a constant desire to laugh and that she feared to look at Hedrick lest it overwhelm her. So Laura knew what had wrought the miracle. Cora made up her mind to explore this secret passage.

When the service was over and the people were placidly buzzing their way up the aisles, Cora felt herself drawn to look across the church, and following the telepathic impulse, turned her head to encounter the gaze of Ray Vilas. He was ascending the opposite aisle, walking beside Richard Lindley. He looked less pale than usual, though his thinness was so extreme it was like emaciation; but his eyes were clear and quiet, and the look he gave her was strangely gentle. Cora frowned and turned away her head with an air of annoyance. They came near each other in the convergence at the doors; but he made no effort to address her, and, moving away through the crowd as quickly as possible, disappeared.

Valentine Corliss was disclosed in the vestibule. He reached her an instant in advance of Mr. Lindley, who had suffered himself to be impeded; and Cora quickly handed the former her parasol, lightly taking his arm. Thus the slow Richard found himself walking beside Laura in a scattered group, its detached portion consisting of his near-betrothed and Corliss; for although the dexterous pair were first to leave the church, they contrived to be passed almost at once, and, assuming the position of trailers, lagged far behind on the homeward way.

Laura and Richard walked in the unmitigated glare of the sun; he had taken her black umbrella and conscientiously held it aloft, but over nobody. They walked in silence: they were quiet people, both of them; and Richard, not "talkative" under any circumstances, never had anything whatever to say to Laura Madison. He had known her for many years, ever since her childhood; seldom indeed formulating or expressing a definite thought about her, though sometimes it was vaguely of his consciousness that she played the piano nicely, and even then her music had taken its place as but a colour of Cora's background. For to him, as to every one else (including Laura), Laura was in nothing her sister's competitor. She was a neutral-tinted figure, taken-for-granted, obscured, and so near being nobody at all, that, as Richard Lindley walked beside her this morning, he glanced back at the lagging couple and uttered a long and almost sonorous sigh, which he would have been ashamed for anybody to hear; and then actually proceeded on his way without the slightest realization that anybody had heard it.

She understood. And she did not disturb the trance; she did nothing to make him observe that she was there. She walked on with head, shoulders, and back scorching in the fierce sun, and allowed him to continue shading the pavement before them with her umbrella. When they reached the house she gently took the umbrella from him and thanked him; and he mechanically raised his hat.

They had walked more than a mile together; he had not spoken a word, and he did not even know it.



CHAPTER TEN

Dinner on Sunday, the most elaborate feast of the week for the Madisons, was always set for one o'clock in the afternoon, and sometimes began before two, but not to-day: the escorts of both daughters remained, and a change of costume by Cora occasioned a long postponement. Justice demands the admission that her reappearance in a glamour of lilac was reward for the delay; nothing more ravishing was ever seen, she was warrantably informed by the quicker of the two guests, in a moment's whispered tete-a-tete across the banisters as she descended. Another wait followed while she prettily arranged upon the table some dozens of asters from a small garden-bed, tilled, planted, and tended by Laura. Meanwhile, Mrs. Madison constantly turned the other cheek to the cook. Laura assisted in the pacification; Hedrick froze the ice-cream to an impenetrable solidity; and the nominal head of the family sat upon the front porch with the two young men, and wiped his wrists and rambled politically till they were summoned to the dining-room.

Cora did the talking for the table. She was in high spirits; no trace remained of a haggard night: there was a bloom upon her—she was radiant. Her gayety may have had some inspiration in her daring, for round her throat she wore a miraculously slender chain of gold and enamel, with a pendant of minute pale sapphires scrolled about a rather large and very white diamond. Laura started when she saw it, and involuntarily threw a glance almost of terror at Richard Lindley. But that melancholy and absent-minded gentleman observed neither the glance nor the jewel. He saw Cora's eyes, when they were vouchsafed to his vision, and when they were not he apparently saw nothing at all.

With the general exodus from the table, Cora asked Laura to come to the piano and play, a request which brought a snort from Hedrick, who was taken off his guard. Catching Laura's eye, he applied a handkerchief with renewed presence of mind, affecting to have sneezed, and stared searchingly over it at Corliss. He perceived that the man remained unmoved, evidently already informed that it was Laura who was the musician. Cora must be going it pretty fast this time: such was the form of her brother's deduction.

When Laura opened the piano, Richard had taken a seat beside Cora, and Corliss stood leaning in the doorway. The player lost herself in a wandering medley, echoes from "Boheme" and "Pagliacci"; then drifted into improvisation and played her heart into it magnificently—a heart released to happiness. The still air of the room filled with wonderful, golden sound: a song like the song of a mother flying from earth to a child in the stars, a torrential tenderness, unpent and glorying in freedom. The flooding, triumphant chords rose, crashed—stopped with a shattering abruptness. Laura's hands fell to her sides, then were raised to her glowing face and concealed it for a moment. She shivered; a quick, deep sigh heaved her breast; and she came back to herself like a prisoner leaving a window at the warden's voice.

She turned. Cora and Corliss had left the room. Richard was sitting beside a vacant chair, staring helplessly at the open door.

If he had been vaguely conscious of Laura's playing, which is possible, certainly he was unaware that it had ceased.

"The others have gone out to the porch," she said composedly, and rose. "Shan't we join them?"

"What?" he returned, blankly. "I beg your pardon——"

"Let's go out on the porch with the others."

"No, I——" He got to his feet confusedly. "I was thinking—— I believe I'd best be going home."

"Not 'best,' I think," she said. "Not even better!"

"I don't see," he said, his perplexity only increased.

"Mr. Corliss would," she retorted quickly. "Come on: we'll go and sit with them." And she compelled his obedience by preceding him with such a confident assumption that he would follow that he did.

The fugitive pair were not upon the porch, however; they were discovered in the shade of a tree behind the house, seated upon a rug, and occupied in a conversation which would not have disturbed a sick-room. The pursuers came upon them, boldly sat beside them; and Laura began to talk with unwonted fluency to Corliss, but within five minutes found herself alone with Richard Lindley upon the rug. Cora had promised to show Mr. Corliss an "old print" in the library—so Cora said.

Lindley gave the remaining lady a desolate and faintly reproachful look. He was kind, but he was a man; and Laura saw that this last abandonment was being attributed in part to her.

She reddened, and, being not an angel, observed with crispness: "Certainly. You're quite right: it's my fault!"

"What did you say?" he asked vacantly.

She looked at him rather fixedly; his own gaze had returned to the angle of the house beyond which the other couple had just disappeared. "I said," she answered, slowly, "I thought it wouldn't rain this, afternoon."

His wistful eyes absently swept the serene sky which had been cloudless for several days. "No, I suppose not," he murmured.

"Richard," she said with a little sharpness, "will you please listen to me for a moment?"

"Oh—what?" He was like a diver coming up out of deep water. "What did you say?" He laughed apologetically. "Wasn't I listening? I beg your pardon. What is it, Laura?"

"Why do you let Mr. Corliss take Cora away from you like that?" she asked gravely.

"He doesn't," the young man returned with a rueful shake of the head. "Don't you see? It's Cora that goes."

"Why do you let her, then?"

He sighed. "I don't seem to be able to keep up with Cora, especially when she's punishing me. I couldn't do something she asked me to, last night——"

"Invest with Mr. Corliss?" asked Laura quickly.

"Yes. It seemed to trouble her that I couldn't. She's convinced it's a good thing: she thinks it would make a great fortune for us——"

"'Us'?" repeated Laura gently. "You mean for you and her? When you're——"

"When we're married. Yes," he said thoughtfully, "that's the way she stated it. She wanted me to put in all I have——"

"Don't do it!" said Laura decidedly.

He glanced at her with sharp inquiry. "Do you mean you would distrust Mr. Corliss?"

"I wasn't thinking of that: I don't know whether I'd trust him or not—I think I wouldn't; there's something veiled about him, and I don't believe he is an easy man to know. What I meant was that I don't believe it would really be a good thing for you with Cora."

"It would please her, of course—thinking I deferred so much to her judgment."

"Don't do it!" she said again, impulsively.

"I don't see how I can," he returned sorrowfully.

"It's my work for all the years since I got out of college, and if I lost it I'd have to begin all over again. It would mean postponing everything. Cora isn't a girl you can ask to share a little salary, and if it were a question of years, perhaps— perhaps Cora might not feel she could wait for me, you see."

He made this explanation with plaintive and boyish sincerity, hesitatingly, and as if pleading a cause. And Laura, after a long look at him, turned away, and in her eyes were actual tears of compassion for the incredible simpleton.

"I see," she said. "Perhaps she might not."

"Of course," he went on, "she's fond of having nice things, and she thinks this is a great chance for us to be millionaires; and then, too, I think she may feel that it would please Mr. Corliss and help to save him from disappointment. She seems to have taken a great fancy to him."

Laura glanced at him, but did not speak.

"He is attractive," continued Richard feebly. "I think he has a great deal of what people call 'magnetism': he's the kind of man who somehow makes you want to do what he wants you to. He seems a manly, straightforward sort, too—so far as one can tell—and when he came to me with his scheme I was strongly inclined to go into it. But it is too big a gamble, and I can't, though I was sorry to disappoint him myself. He was perfectly cheerful about it and so pleasant it made me feel small. I don't wonder at all that Cora likes him so much. Besides, he seems to understand her."

Laura looked very grave. "I think he does," she said slowly.

"And then he's 'different,'" said Richard. "He's more a 'man of the world' than most of us here: she never saw anything just like him before, and she's seen us all her life. She likes change, of course. That's natural," he said gently. "Poor Vilas says she wants a man to be different every day, and if he isn't, then she wants a different man every day."

"You've rather taken Ray Vilas under your wing, haven't you?" asked Laura.

"Oh, no," he answered deprecatingly. "I only try to keep him with me so he'll stay away from downtown as much as possible."

"Does he talk much of Cora?"

"All the time. There's no stopping him. I suppose he can't help it, because he thinks of nothing else."

"Isn't that rather—rather queer for you?"

"'Queer'?" he repeated.

"No, I suppose not!" She laughed impatiently. "And probably you don't think it's 'queer' of you to sit here helplessly, and let another man take your place——"

"But I don't 'let' him, Laura," he protested.

"No, he just does it!"

"Well," he smiled, "you must admit my efforts to supplant him haven't——"

"It won't take any effort now," she said, rising quickly. Valentine Corliss came into their view upon the sidewalk in front, taking his departure. Seeing that they observed him, he lifted his hat to Laura and nodded a cordial good-day to Lindley. Then he went on.

Just before he reached the corner of the lot, he encountered upon the pavement a citizen of elderly and plain appearance, strolling with a grandchild. The two men met and passed, each upon his opposite way, without pausing and without salutation, and neither Richard nor Laura, whose eyes were upon the meeting, perceived that they had taken cognizance of each other. But one had asked a question and the other had answered.

Mr. Pryor spoke in a low monotone, with a rapidity as singular as the restrained but perceptible emphasis he put upon one word of his question.

"I got you in the park," he said; and it is to be deduced that "got" was argot. "You're not doing anything here, are you?"

"No!" answered Corliss with condensed venom, his back already to the other. He fanned himself with his hat as he went on. Mr. Pryor strolled up the street with imperturbable benevolence.

"Your coast is cleared," said Laura, "since you wouldn't clear it yourself."

"Wish me luck," said Richard as he left her.

She nodded brightly.

Before he disappeared, he looked back to her again (which profoundly surprised her) and smiled rather disconsolately, shaking his head as in prophecy of no very encouraging reception indoors. The manner of this glance recalled to Laura what his mother had once said of him. "Richard is one of those sweet, helpless men that some women adore and others despise. They fall in love with the ones that despise them."

An ostentatious cough made her face about, being obviously designed to that effect; and she beheld her brother in the act of walking slowly across the yard with his back to her. He halted upon the border of her small garden of asters, regarded it anxiously, then spread his handkerchief upon the ground, knelt upon it, and with thoughtful care uprooted a few weeds which were beginning to sprout, and also such vagrant blades of grass as encroached upon the floral territory. He had the air of a virtuous man performing a good action which would never become known. Plainly, he thought himself in solitude and all unobserved.

It was a touching picture, pious and humble. Done into coloured glass, the kneeling boy and the asters—submerged in ardent sunshine—would have appropriately enriched a cathedral: Boyhood of Saint Florus the Gardener.

Laura heartlessly turned her back, and, affecting an interest in her sleeve, very soon experienced the sensation of being stared at with some poignancy from behind. Unchanged in attitude, she unravelled an imaginary thread, whereupon the cough reached her again, shrill and loud, its insistence not lacking in pathos.

She approached him, driftingly. No sign that he was aware came from the busied boy, though he coughed again, hollowly now—a proof that he was an artist. "All right, Hedrick," she said kindly. "I heard you the first time."

He looked up with utter incomprehension. "I'm afraid I've caught cold," he said, simply. "I got a good many weeds out before breakfast, and the ground was damp."

Hedrick was of the New School: everything direct, real, no striving for effect, no pressure on the stroke. He did his work: you could take it or leave it.

"You mustn't strain so, dear," returned his sister, shaking her head. "It won't last if you do. You see this is only the first day."

Struck to the heart by so brutal a misconception, he put all his wrongs into one look, rose in manly dignity, picked up his handkerchief, and left her.

Her eyes followed him, not without remorse: it was an exit which would have moved the bass-violist of a theatre orchestra. Sighing, she went to her own room by way of the kitchen and the back-stairs, and, having locked her door, brought the padlocked book from its hiding-place.

"I think I should not have played as I did, an hour ago," she wrote. "It stirs me too greatly and I am afraid it makes me inclined to self-pity afterward, and I must never let myself feel that! If I once begin to feel sorry for myself. . . . But I will not! No. You are here in the world. You exist. You are! That is the great thing to know and it must be enough for me. It is. I played to You. I played just love to you—all the yearning tenderness—all the supreme kindness I want to give you. Isn't love really just glorified kindness? No, there is something more. . . . I feel it, though I do not know how to say it. But it was in my playing—I played it and played it. Suddenly I felt that in my playing I had shouted it from the housetops, that I had told the secret to all the world and everybody knew. I stopped, and for a moment it seemed to me that I was dying of shame. But no one understood. No one had even listened. . . . Sometimes it seems to me that I am like Cora, that I am very deeply her sister in some things. My heart goes all to You—my revelation of it, my release of it, my outlet of it is all here in these pages (except when I play as I did to-day and as I shall not play again) and perhaps the writing keeps me quiet. Cora scatters her own releasings: she is looking for the You she may never find; and perhaps the penalty for scattering is never finding. Sometimes I think the seeking has reacted and that now she seeks only what will make her feel. I hope she has not found it: I am afraid of this new man—not only for your sake, dear. I felt repelled by his glance at me the first time I saw him. I did not like it—I cannot say just why, unless that it seemed too intimate. I am afraid of him for her, which is a queer sort of feeling because she has alw——"

Laura's writing stopped there, for that day, interrupted by a hurried rapping upon the door and her mother's voice calling her with stress and urgency.

The opening of the door revealed Mrs. Madison in a state of anxious perturbation, and admitted the sound of loud weeping and agitated voices from below.

"Please go down," implored the mother. "You can do more with her than I can. She and your father have been having a terrible scene since Richard went home."

Laura hurried down to the library.



CHAPTER ELEVEN

"Oh, come in, Laura!" cried her sister, as Laura appeared in the doorway. "Don't stand there! Come in if you want to take part in a grand old family row!" With a furious and tear-stained face, she was confronting her father who stood before her in a resolute attitude and a profuse perspiration. "Shut the door!" shouted Cora violently, adding, as Laura obeyed, "Do you want that little Pest in here? Probably he's eavesdropping anyway. But what difference does it make? I don't care. Let him hear! Let anybody hear that wants to! They can hear how I'm tortured if they like. I didn't close my eyes last night, and now I'm being tortured. Papa!" She stamped her foot. "Are you going to take back that insult to me?"

"'Insult'?" repeated her father, in angry astonishment.

"Pshaw," said Laura, laughing soothingly and coming to her. "You know that's nonsense, Cora. Kind old papa couldn't do that if he tried. Dear, you know he never insulted anybody in his——"

"Don't touch me!" screamed Cora, repulsing her. "Listen, if you've got to, but let me alone. He did too! He did! He knows what he said!"

"I do not!"

"He does! He does!" cried Cora. "He said that I was—I was too much 'interested' in Mr. Corliss."

"Is that an 'insult'?" the father demanded sharply.

"It was the way he said it," Cora protested, sobbing. "He meant something he didn't say. He did! He did! He meant to insult me!"

"I did nothing of the kind," shouted the old man.

"I don't know what you're talking about. I said I couldn't understand your getting so excited about the fellow's affairs and that you seemed to take a mighty sudden interest in him."

"Well, what if I do?" she screamed. "Haven't I a right to be interested in what I choose? I've got to be interested in something, haven't I? You don't make life very interesting, do you? Do you think it's interesting to spend the summer in this horrible old house with the paper falling off the walls and our rotten old furniture that I work my hands off trying to make look decent and can't, and every other girl I know at the seashore with motor-cars and motor-boats, or getting a trip abroad and buying her clothes in Paris? What do you offer to interest me?"

The unfortunate man hung his head. "I don't see what all that has to do with it——"

She seemed to leap at him. "You don't? You don't?"

"No, I don't. And I don't see why you're so crazy to please young Corliss about this business unless you're infatuated with him. I had an idea—and I was pleased with it, too, because Richard's a steady fellow—that you were just about engaged to Richard Lindley, and——"

"Engaged!" she cried, repeating the word with bitter contempt. "Engaged! You don't suppose I'll marry him unless I want to, do you? I will if it suits me. I won't if it suits me not to; understand that! I don't consider myself engaged to anybody, and you needn't either. What on earth has that got to do with your keeping Richard Lindley from doing what Mr. Corliss wants him to?"

"I'm not keeping him from anything. He didn't say——"

"He did!" stormed Cora. "He said he would if you went into it. He told me this afternoon, an hour ago."

"Now wait," said Madison. "I talked this over with Richard two days ago——"

Cora stamped her foot again in frantic exasperation. "I'm talking about this afternoon!"

"Two days ago," he repeated doggedly; "and we came to the same conclusion: it won't do. He said he couldn't go into it unless he went over there to Italy—and saw for himself just what he was putting his money into, and Corliss had told him that it couldn't be done; that there wasn't time, and showed him a cablegram from his Italian partner saying the secret had leaked out and that they'd have to form the company in Naples and sell the stock over there if it couldn't be done here within the next week. Corliss said he had to ask for an immediate answer, and so Richard told him no, yesterday."

"Oh, my God!" groaned Cora. "What has that got to do with your going into it? You're not going to risk any money! I don't ask you to spend anything, do I? You haven't got it if I did. All Mr. Corliss wants is your name. Can't you give even that? What importance is it?"

"Well, if it isn't important, what difference does it make whether I give it or not?"

She flung up her arms as in despairing appeal for patience. "It is important to him! Richard will do it if you will be secretary of the company: he promised me. Mr. Corliss told me your name was worth everything here: that men said downtown you could have been rich long ago if you hadn't been so square. Richard trusts you; he says you're the most trusted man in town——"

"That's why I can't do it," he interrupted.

"No!" Her vehemence increased suddenly to its utmost. "No! Don't you say that, because it's a lie. That isn't the reason you won't do it. You won't do it because you think it would please me! You're afraid it might make me happy! Happy—happy—happy!" She beat her breast and cast herself headlong upon the sofa, sobbing wildly. "Don't come near me!" she screamed at Laura, and sprang to her feet again, dishevelled and frantic. "Oh, Christ in heaven! is there such a thing as happiness in this beast of a world? I want to leave it. I want to go away: I want so to die: Why can't I? Why can't I! Why can't I! Oh, God, why can't I die? Why can't——"

Her passion culminated in a shriek: she gasped, was convulsed from head to foot for a dreadful moment, tore at the bosom of her dress with rigid bent fingers, swayed; then collapsed all at once. Laura caught her, and got her upon the sofa. In the hall, Mrs. Madison could be heard running and screaming to Hedrick to go for the doctor. Next instant, she burst into the room with brandy and camphor.

"I could only find these; the ammonia bottle's empty," she panted; and the miserable father started hatless, for the drug-store, a faint, choked wail from the stricken girl sounding in his ears: "It's—it's my heart, mamma."

It was four blocks to the nearest pharmacy; he made what haste he could in the great heat, but to himself he seemed double his usual weight; and the more he tried to hurry, the less speed appeared obtainable from his heavy legs. When he reached the place at last, he found it crowded with noisy customers about the "soda-fount"; and the clerks were stonily slow: they seemed to know that they were "already in eternity." He got very short of breath on the way home; he ceased to perspire and became unnaturally dry; the air was aflame and the sun shot fire upon his bare head. His feet inclined to strange disobediences: he walked the last block waveringly. A solemn Hedrick met him at the door.

"They've got her to bed," announced the boy. "The doctor's up there."

"Take this ammonia up," said Madison huskily, and sat down upon a lower step of the stairway with a jolt, closing his eyes.

"You sick, too?" asked Hedrick.

"No. Run along with that ammonia."

It seemed to Madison a long time that he sat there alone, and he felt very dizzy. Once he tried to rise, but had to give it up and remain sitting with his eyes shut. At last he heard Cora's door open and close; and his wife and the doctor came slowly down the stairs, Mrs. Madison talking in the anxious yet relieved voice of one who leaves a sick-room wherein the physician pronounces progress encouraging.

"And you're sure her heart trouble isn't organic?" she asked.

"Her heart is all right," her companion assured her. "There's nothing serious; the trouble is nervous. I think you'll find she'll be better after a good sleep. Just keep her quiet. Hadn't she been in a state of considerable excitement?"

"Ye-es—she——"

"Ah! A little upset on account of opposition to a plan she'd formed, perhaps?"

"Well—partly," assented the mother.

"I see," he returned, adding with some dryness: "I thought it just possible."

Madison got to his feet, and stepped down from the stairs for them to pass him. He leaned heavily against the wall.

"You think she's going to be all right, Sloane?" he asked with an effort.

"No cause to worry," returned the physician. "You can let her stay in bed to-day if she wants to but——" He broke off, looking keenly at Madison's face, which was the colour of poppies. "Hello! what's up with you?"

"I'm all—right."

"Oh, you are?" retorted Sloane with sarcasm. "Sit down," he commanded. "Sit right where you are—on the stairs, here," and, having enforced the order, took a stethoscope from his pocket. "Get him a glass of water," he said to Hedrick, who was at his elbow.

"Doctor!" exclaimed Mrs. Madison. "He isn't going to be sick, is he? You don't think he's sick now?"

"I shouldn't call him very well," answered the physician rather grimly, placing his stethoscope upon Madison's breast. "Get his room ready for him." She gave him a piteous look, struck with fear; then obeyed a gesture and ran flutteringly up the stairs.

"I'm all right now," panted Madison, drinking the water Hedrick brought him.

"You're not so darned all right," said Sloane coolly, as he pocketed his stethoscope. "Come, let me help you up. We're going to get you to bed."

There was an effort at protest, but the physician had his way, and the two ascended the stairs slowly, Sloane's arm round his new patient. At Cora's door, the latter paused.

"What's the matter?"

"I want," said Madison thickly—"I want—to speak to Cora."

"We'll pass that up just now," returned the other brusquely, and led him on. Madison was almost helpless: he murmured in a husky, uncertain voice, and suffered himself to be put to bed. There, the doctor "worked" with him; cold "applications" were ordered; Laura was summoned from the other sick-bed; Hedrick sent flying with prescriptions, then to telephone for a nurse. The two women attempted questions at intervals, but Sloane replied with orders, and kept them busy.

"Do you—think I'm a—-a pretty sick man, Sloane?" asked Madison after a long silence, speaking with difficulty.

"Oh, you're sick, all right," the doctor conceded.

"I—I want to speak to Jennie."

His wife rushed to the bed, and knelt beside it.

"Don't you go to confessing your sins," said Doctor Sloane crossly. "You're coming out of the woods all right, and you'll be sorry if you tell her too, much. I'll begin a little flirtation with you, Miss Laura, if you please." And he motioned to her to follow him into the hall.

"Your father is pretty sick," he told her, "and he may be sicker before we get him into shape again. But you needn't be worried right now; I think he's not in immediate danger." He turned at the sound of Mrs. Madison's step, behind him, and repeated to her what he had just said to Laura. "I hope your husband didn't give himself away enough to be punished when we get him on his feet again," he concluded cheerfully.

She shook her head, tried to smile through tears, and, crossing the hall, entered Cora's room. She came back after a moment, and, rejoining the other two at her husband's bedside, found the sick man in a stertorous sleep. Presently the nurse arrived, and upon the physician's pointed intimation that there were "too many people around," Laura went to Cora's room. She halted on the threshold in surprise. Cora was dressing.

"Mamma says the doctor says he's all right," said Cora lightly, "and I'm feeling so much better myself I thought I'd put on something loose and go downstairs. I think there's more air down there."

"Papa isn't all right, dear," said Laura, staring perplexedly at Cora's idea of "something loose," an equipment inclusive of something particularly close. "The doctor says he is very sick."

"I don't believe it," returned Cora promptly. "Old Sloane never did know anything. Besides, mamma told me he said papa isn't in any danger."

"No 'immediate' danger," corrected Laura. "And besides, Doctor Sloane said you were to stay in bed until to-morrow."

"I can't help that." Cora went on with her lacing impatiently. "I'm not going to lie and stifle in this heat when I feel perfectly well again—not for an old idiot like Sloane! He didn't even have sense enough to give me any medicine." She laughed. "Lucky thing he didn't: I'd have thrown it out of the window. Kick that slipper to me, will you, dear?"

Laura knelt and put the slipper on her sister's foot. "Cora, dear," she said, "you're just going to put on a negligee and go down and sit in the library, aren't you?"

"Laura!" The tone was more than impatient. "I wish I could be let alone for five whole minutes some time in my life! Don't you think I've stood enough for one day? I can't bear to be questioned, questioned, questioned! What do you do it for? Don't you see I can't stand anything more? If you can't let me alone I do wish you'd keep out of my room."

Laura rose and went out; but as she left the door, Cora called after her with a rueful laugh: "Laura, I know I'm a little devil!"

Half an hour later, Laura, suffering because she had made no reply to this peace-offering, and wishing to atone, sought Cora downstairs and found no one. She decided that Cora must still be in her own room; she would go to her there. But as she passed the open front door, she saw Cora upon the sidewalk in front of the house. She wore a new and elaborate motoring costume, charmingly becoming, and was in the act of mounting to a seat beside Valentine Corliss in a long, powerful-looking, white "roadster" automobile. The engine burst into staccato thunder, sobered down; the wheels began to move both Cora and Corliss were laughing and there was an air of triumph about them—Cora's veil streamed and fluttered: and in a flash they were gone.

Laura stared at the suddenly vacated space where they had been. At a thought she started. Then she rushed upstairs to her mother, who was sitting in the hall near her husband's door.

"Mamma," whispered Laura, flinging herself upon her knees beside her, "when papa wanted to speak to you, was it a message to Cora?"

"Yes, dear. He told me to tell her he was sorry he'd made her sick, and that if he got well he'd try to do what she asked him to."

Laura nodded cheerfully. "And he will get well, darling mother," she said, as she rose. "I'll come back in a minute and sit with you."

Her return was not so quick as she promised, for she lay a long time weeping upon her pillow, whispering over and over:

"Oh, poor, poor papa! Oh, poor, poor Richard!"



CHAPTER TWELVE

Within a week Mr. Madison's illness was a settled institution in the household; the presence of the nurse lost novelty, even to Hedrick, and became a part of life; the day was measured by the three regular visits of the doctor. To the younger members of the family it seemed already that their father had always been sick, and that he always would be; indeed, to Cora and Hedrick he had become only a weak and querulous voice beyond a closed door. Doctor Sloane was serious but reassuring, his daily announcement being that his patient was in "no immediate danger."

Mrs. Madison did not share her children's sanguine adaptability; and, of the three, Cora was the greatest solace to the mother's troubled heart, though Mrs. Madison never recognized this without a sense of injustice to Laura, for Laura now was housewife and housekeeper—that is, she did all the work except the cooking, and on "wash-day" she did that. But Cora's help was to the very spirit itself, for she was sprightly in these hours of trial: with indomitable gayety she cheered her mother, inspiring in her a firmer confidence, and, most stimulating of all, Cora steadfastly refused to consider her father's condition as serious, or its outcome as doubtful.

Old Sloane exaggerated, she said; and she made fun of his gravity, his clothes and his walk, which she mimicked till she drew a reluctant and protesting laugh from even her mother. Mrs. Madison was sure she "couldn't get through" this experience save for Cora, who was indeed the light of the threatened house.

Strange perversities of this world: Cora's gayety was almost unbearable to her brother. Not because he thought it either unfeeling or out of place under the circumstances (an aspect he failed to consider), but because years of warfare had so frequently made him connect cheerfulness on her part with some unworthily won triumph over himself that habit prevailed, and he could not be a witness of her high spirits without a strong sense of injury. Additionally, he was subject to a deeply implanted suspicion of any appearance of unusual happiness in her as having source, if not in his own defeat, then in something vaguely "soft" and wholly distasteful. She grated upon him; he chafed, and his sufferings reached the surface. Finally, in a reckless moment, one evening at dinner, he broke out with a shout and hurled a newly devised couplet concerning luv-a-ly slush at his, sister's head. The nurse was present: Cora left the table; and Hedrick later received a serious warning from Laura. She suggested that it might become expedient to place him in Cora's power.

"Cora knows perfectly well that something peculiar happened to you," she advised him. "And she knows that I know what it was; and she says it isn't very sisterly of me not to tell her. Now, Hedrick, there was no secret about it; you didn't confide your—your trouble to me, and it would be perfectly honourable of me to tell it. I wont{sic} unless you make me, but if you can't be polite and keep peace with Cora—at least while papa is sick I think it may be necessary. I believe," she finished with imperfect gravity, "that it—it would keep things quieter."

The thoughts of a boy may be long, long thoughts, but he cannot persistently remember to fear a threatened catastrophe. Youth is too quickly intimate with peril. Hedrick had become familiar with his own, had grown so accustomed to it he was in danger of forgetting it altogether; therefore it was out of perspective. The episode of Lolita had begun to appear as a thing of the distant and clouded past: time is so long at thirteen. Added to this, his late immaculate deportment had been, as Laura suggested, a severe strain; the machinery of his nature was out of adjustment and demanded a violent reaction before it could get to running again at average speed. Also, it is evident that his destruction had been planned on high, for he was mad enough to answer flippantly:

"Tell her! Go on and tell her—I give you leaf! that wasn't anything anyway—just helped you get a little idiot girl home. What is there to that? I never saw her before; never saw her again; didn't have half as much to do with her as you did yourself. She was a lot more your friend than mine; I didn't even know her. I guess you'll have to get something better on me than that, before you try to boss this ranch, Laura Madison!"

That night, in bed, he wondered if he had not been perhaps a trifle rash; but the day was bright when he awoke, and no apprehension shadowed his morning face as he appeared at the breakfast table. On the contrary, a great weight had lifted from him; clearly his defiance had been the proper thing; he had shown Laura that her power over him was but imaginary. Hypnotized by his own words to her, he believed them; and his previous terrors became gossamer; nay, they were now merely laughable. His own remorse and shame were wholly blotted from memory, and he could not understand why in the world he had been so afraid, nor why he had felt it so necessary to placate Laura. She looked very meek this morning. That showed! The strong hand was the right policy in dealing with women. He was tempted to insane daring: the rash, unfortunate child waltzed on the lip of the crater.

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