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The Flirt
by Booth Tarkington
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"Told Cora yet?" he asked, with scornful laughter.

"Told me what?" Cora looked quickly up from her plate.

"Oh, nothing about this Corliss," he returned scathingly. "Don't get excited."

"Hedrick!" remonstrated his mother, out of habit.

"She never thinks of anything else these days," he retorted. "Rides with him every evening in his pe-rin-sley hired machine, doesn't she?"

"Really, you should be more careful about the way you handle a spoon, Hedrick," said Cora languidly, and with at least a foundation of fact. "It is not the proper implement for decorating the cheeks. We all need nourishment, but it is so difficult when one sees a deposit of breakfast-food in the ear of one's vis-a-vis."

Hedrick too impulsively felt of his ears and was but the worse stung to find them immaculate and the latter half of the indictment unjustified.

"Spoon!" he cried. "I wouldn't talk about spoons if I were you, Cora-lee! After what I saw in the library the other night, believe me, you're the one of this family that better be careful how you 'handle a spoon'!"

Cora had a moment of panic. She let the cup she was lifting drop noisily upon its saucer, and gazed whitely at the boy, her mouth opening wide.

"Oh, no!" he went on, with a dreadful laugh. "I didn't hear you asking this Corliss to kiss you! Oh, no!"

At this, though her mother and Laura both started, a faint, odd relief showed itself in Cora's expression. She recovered herself.

"You little liar!" she flashed, and, with a single quick look at her mother, as of one too proud to appeal, left the room.

"Hedrick, Hedrick, Hedrick!" wailed Mrs. Madison. "And she told me you drove her from the table last night too, right before Miss Peirce!" Miss Peirce was the nurse, fortunately at this moment in the sick-room.

"I did hear her ask him that," he insisted, sullenly. "Don't you believe it?"

"Certainly not!"

Burning with outrage, he also left his meal unfinished and departed in high dignity. He passed through the kitchen, however, on his way out of the house; but, finding an unusual politeness to the cook nothing except its own reward, went on his way with a bitter perception of the emptiness of the world and other places.

"Your father managed to talk more last night," said Mrs. Madison pathetically to Laura. "He made me understand that he was fretting about how little we'd been able to give our children; so few advantages; it's always troubled him terribly. But sometimes I wonder if we've done right: we've neither of us ever exercised any discipline. We just couldn't bear to. You see, not having any money, or the things money could buy, to give, I think we've instinctively tried to make up for it by indulgence in other ways, and perhaps it's been a bad thing. Not," she added hastily, "not that you aren't all three the best children any mother and father ever had! He said so. He said the only trouble was that our children were too good for us." She shook her head remorsefully throughout Laura's natural reply to this; was silent a while; then, as she rose, she said timidly, not looking at her daughter: "Of course Hedrick didn't mean to tell an outright lie. They were just talking, and perhaps he—perhaps he heard something that made him think what he did. People are so often mistaken in what they hear, even when they're talking right to each other, and——"

"Isn't it more likely," said Laura, gravely, "that Cora was telling some story or incident, and that Hedrick overheard that part of it, and thought she was speaking directly to Mr. Corliss?"

"Of course!" cried the mother with instant and buoyant relief; and when the three ladies convened, a little later, Cora (unquestioned) not only confirmed this explanation, but repeated in detail the story she had related to Mr. Corliss. Laura had been quick.

Hedrick passed a variegated morning among comrades. He obtained prestige as having a father like-to-die, but another boy turned up who had learned to chew tobacco. Then Hedrick was pronounced inferior to others in turning "cartwheels," but succeeded in a wrestling match for an apple, which he needed. Later, he was chased empty-handed from the rear of an ice-wagon, but greatly admired for his retorts to the vociferous chaser: the other boys rightly considered that what he said to the ice-man was much more horrible than what the ice-man said to him. The ice-man had a fair vocabulary, but it lacked pliancy; seemed stiff and fastidious compared with the flexible Saxon in which Hedrick sketched a family tree lacking, perhaps, some plausibility as having produced even an ice-man, but curiously interesting zoologically.

He came home at noon with the flush of this victory new upon his brow. He felt equal to anything, and upon Cora's appearing at lunch with a blithe, bright air and a new arrangement of her hair, he opened a fresh campaign with ill-omened bravado.

"Ear-muffs in style for September, are they?" he inquired in allusion to a symmetrical and becoming undulation upon each side of her head. "Too bad Ray Vilas can't come any more; he'd like those, I know he would."

Cora, who was talking jauntily to her mother, went on without heeding. She affected her enunciation at times with a slight lisp; spoke preciously and over-exquisitely, purposely mincing the letter R, at the same time assuming a manner of artificial distinction and conscious elegance which never failed to produce in her brother the last stage of exasperation. She did this now. Charming woman, that dear Mrs. Villard, she prattled. "I met her downtown this morning. Dear mamma, you should but have seen her delight when she saw me. She was but just returned from Bar Harbor——"

"'Baw-hawbaw'!" Poor Hedrick was successfully infuriated immediately. "What in thunder is 'Baw-hawbaw'? Mrs. Villawd! Baw-hawbaw! Oh, maw!"

"She had no idea she should find me in town, she said," Cora ran on, happily. "She came back early on account of the children having to be sent to school. She has such adorable children—beautiful, dimpled babes——"

"SLUSH! SLUSH! LUV-A-LY SLUSH!"

"—And her dear son, Egerton Villard, he's grown to be such a comely lad, and he has the most charming courtly manners: he helped his mother out of her carriage with all the air of a man of the world, and bowed to me as to a duchess. I think he might be a great influence for good if the dear Villards would but sometimes let him associate a little with our unfortunate Hedrick. Egerton Villard is really distingue; he has a beautiful head; and if he could be induced but to let Hedrick follow him about but a little——"

"I'll beat his beautiful head off for him if he but butts in on me but a little!" Hedrick promised earnestly. "Idiot!"

Cora turned toward him innocently. "What did you say, Hedrick?"

"I said 'Idiot'!"

"You mean Egerton Villard?"

"Both of you!"

"You think I'm an idiot, Hedrick?" Her tone was calm, merely inquisitive.

"Yes, I do!"

"Oh, no," she said pleasantly. "Don't you think if I were really an idiot I'd be even fonder of you than I am?"

It took his breath. In a panic he sat waiting he knew not what; but Cora blandly resumed her interrupted remarks to her mother, beginning a description of Mrs. Villard's dress; Laura was talking unconcernedly to Miss Peirce; no one appeared to be aware that anything unusual had been said. His breath came back, and, summoning his presence of mind, he found himself able to consider his position with some degree of assurance. Perhaps, after all, Cora's retort had been merely a coincidence. He went over and over it in his mind, making a pretence, meanwhile, to be busy with his plate. "If I were really an idiot." . . . It was the "really" that troubled him. But for that one word, he could have decided that her remark was a coincidence; but "really" was ominous; had a sinister ring. "If I were really an idiot!" Suddenly the pleasant clouds that had obscured his memory of the fatal evening were swept away as by a monstrous Hand: it all came back to him with sickening clearness. So is it always with the sinner with his sin and its threatened discovery. Again, in his miserable mind, he sat beside Lolita on the fence, with the moon shining through her hair; and he knew—for he had often read it—that a man could be punished his whole life through for a single moment's weakness. A man might become rich, great, honoured, and have a large family, but his one soft sin would follow him, hunt him out and pull him down at last. "Really an idiot!" Did that relentless Comanche, Cora, know this Thing? He shuddered. Then he fell back upon his faith in Providence. It could not be that she knew! Ah, no! Heaven would not let the world be so bad as that! And yet it did sometimes become negligent—he remembered the case of a baby-girl cousin who fell into the bath-tub and was drowned. Providence had allowed that: What assurance had he that it would not go a step farther?

"Why, Hedrick," said Cora, turning toward him cheerfully, "you're not really eating anything; you're only pretending to." His heart sank with apprehension. Was it coming? "You really must eat," she went on. "School begins so soon, you must be strong, you know. How we shall miss you here at home during your hours of work!"

With that, the burden fell from his shoulders, his increasing terrors took wing. If Laura had told his ghastly secret to Cora, the latter would not have had recourse to such weak satire as this. Cora was not the kind of person to try a popgun on an enemy when she had a thirteen-inch gun at her disposal; so he reasoned; and in the gush of his relief and happiness, responded:

"You're a little too cocky lately, Cora-lee: I wish you were my daughter—just about five minutes!"

Cora looked upon him fondly. "What would you do to me," she inquired with a terrible sweetness—"darling little boy?"

Hedrick's head swam. The blow was square in the face; it jarred every bone; the world seemed to topple. His mother, rising from her chair, choked slightly, and hurried to join the nurse, who was already on her way upstairs. Cora sent an affectionate laugh across the table to her stunned antagonist.

"You wouldn't beat me, would you, dear?" she murmured. "I'm almost sure you wouldn't; not if I asked you to kiss me some more."

All doubt was gone, the last hope fled! The worst had arrived. A vision of the awful future flamed across his staggered mind. The doors to the arena were flung open: the wild beasts howled for hunger of him; the spectators waited.

Cora began lightly to sing:

. . . "Dear, Would thou wert near To hear me tell how fair thou art! Since thou art gone I mourn all alone, Oh, my Lolita——"

She broke off to explain: "It's one of those passionate little Spanish serenades, Hedrick. I'll sing it for your boy-friends next time they come to play in the yard. I think they'd like it. When they know why you like it so much, I'm sure they will. Of course you do like it—you roguish little lover!" A spasm rewarded this demoniacal phrase. "Darling little boy, the serenade goes on like this:

Oh, my Lolita, come to my heart: Oh, come beloved, love let me press thee, While I caress thee In one long kiss, Lolita! Lolita come! Let me——"

Hedrick sprang to his feet with a yell of agony. "Laura Madison, you tattle-tale," he bellowed, "I'll never forgive you as long as I live! I'll get even with you if it takes a thousand years!"

With that, and pausing merely to kick a rung out of a chair which happened to be in his way, he rushed from the room.

His sisters had risen to go, and Cora flung her arms round Laura in ecstacy. "You mean old viper!" she cried. "You could have told me days ago! It's almost too good to be true: it's the first time in my whole life I've felt safe from the Pest for a moment!"

Laura shook her head. "My conscience troubles me; it did seem as if I ought to tell you—and mamma thought so, too; and I gave him warning, but now that I have done it, it seems rather mean and——"

"No!" exclaimed Cora. "You just gave me a chance to protect myself for once, thank heaven!" And she picked up her skirts and danced her way into the front hall.

"I'm afraid," said Laura, following, "I shouldn't have done it."

"Oh, Laura," cried the younger girl, "I am having the best time, these days! This just caps it." She lowered her voice, but her eyes grew even brighter. "I think I've shown a certain gentleman a few things he didn't understand!"

"Who, dear?"

"Val," returned Cora lightly; "Valentine Corliss. I think he knows a little more about women than he did when he first came here."

"You've had a difference with him?" asked Laura with eager hopefulness. "You've broken with him?"

"Oh, Lord, no! Nothing like that." Cora leaned to her confidentially. "He told me, once, he'd be at the feet of any woman that could help put through an affair like his oil scheme, and I decided I'd just show him what I could do. He'd talk about it to me; then he'd laugh at me. That very Sunday when I got papa to go in——"

"But he didn't," said Laura helplessly. "He only said he'd try to——when he gets well."

"It's all the same—and it'll be a great thing for him, too," said Cora, gayly. "Well, that very afternoon before Val left, he practically told me I was no good. Of course he didn't use just those words—that isn't his way—but he laughed at me. And haven't I shown him! I sent Richard a note that very night saying papa had consented to be secretary of the company, and Richard had said he'd go in if papa did that, and he couldn't break his word——"

"I know," said Laura, sighing. "I know."

"Laura"—Cora spoke with sudden gravity—"did you ever know anybody like me? I'm almost getting superstitious about it, because it seems to me I always get just what I set out to get. I believe I could have anything in the world if I tried for it."

"I hope so, if you tried for something good for you," said Laura sadly. "Cora, dear, you will—you will be a little easy on Hedrick, won't you?"

Cora leaned against the newel and laughed till she was exhausted.



CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Mr. Trumble's offices were heralded by a neat blazon upon the principal door, "Wade J. Trumble, Mortgages and Loans"; and the gentleman thus comfortably, proclaimed, emerging from that door upon a September noontide, burlesqued a start of surprise at sight of a figure unlocking an opposite door which exhibited the name, "Ray Vilas," and below it, the cryptic phrase, "Probate Law."

"Water!" murmured Mr. Trumble, affecting to faint. "You ain't going in there, are you, Ray?" He followed the other into the office, and stood leaning against a bookcase, with his hands in his pockets, while Vilas raised the two windows, which were obscured by a film of smoke-deposit: there was a thin coat of fine sifted dust over everything. "Better not sit down, Ray," continued Trumble, warningly. "You'll spoil your clothes and you might get a client. That word 'Probate' on the door ain't going to keep 'em out forever. You recognize the old place, I s'pose? You must have been here at least twice since you moved in. What's the matter? Dick Lindley hasn't missionaried you into any idea of working, has he? Oh, no, I see: the Richfield Hotel bar has closed—you've managed to drink it all at last!"

"Have you heard how old man Madison is to-day?" asked Ray, dusting his fingers with a handkerchief.

"Somebody told me yesterday he was about the same. He's not going to get well."

"How do you know?" Ray spoke quickly.

"Stroke too severe. People never recover——"

"Oh, yes, they do, too."

Trumble began hotly: "I beg to dif——" but checked himself, manifesting a slight confusion. "That is, I know they don't. Old Madison may live a while, if you call that getting well; but he'll never be the same man he was. Doctor Sloane says it was a bad stroke. Says it was 'induced by heat prostration and excitement.' 'Excitement!'" he repeated with a sour laugh. "Yep, I expect a man could get all the excitement he wanted in that house, especially if he was her daddy. Poor old man, I don't believe he's got five thousand dollars in the world, and look how she dresses!"

Ray opened a compartment beneath one of the bookcases, and found a bottle and some glasses. "Aha," he muttered, "our janitor doesn't drink, I perceive. Join me?" Mr. Trumble accepted, and Ray explained, cheerfully: "Richard Lindley's got me so cowed I'm afraid to go near any of my old joints. You see, he trails me; the scoundrel has kept me sober for whole days at a time, and I've been mortified, having old friends see me in that condition; so I have to sneak up here to my own office to drink to Cora, now and then. You mustn't tell him. What's she been doing to you, lately?"

The little man addressed grew red with the sharp, resentful memory. "Oh, nothing! Just struck me in the face with her parasol on the public street, that's all!" He gave an account of his walk to church with Cora. "I'm through with that girl!" he exclaimed vindictively, in conclusion. "It was the damnedest thing you ever saw in your life: right in broad daylight, in front of the church. And she laughed when she did it; you'd have thought she was knocking a puppy out of her way. She can't do that to me twice, I tell you. What the devil do you see to laugh at?"

"You'll be around," returned his companion, refilling the glasses, "asking for more, the first chance she gives you. Here's her health!"

"I don't drink it!" cried Mr. Trumble angrily.

"And I'm through with her for good, I tell you! I'm not your kind: I don't let a girl like that upset me till I can't think of anything else, and go making such an ass of myself that the whole town gabbles about it. Cora Madison's seen the last of me, I'll thank you to notice. She's never been half-decent to me; cut dances with me all last winter; kept me hanging round the outskirts of every crowd she was in; stuck me with Laura and her mother every time she had a chance; then has the nerve to try to use me, so's she can make a bigger hit with a new man! You can bet your head I'm through! She'll get paid though! Oh, she'll get paid for it!"

"How?" laughed Ray.

It was a difficult question. "You wait and see," responded the threatener, feebly. "Just wait and see. She's wild about this Corliss, I tell you," he continued, with renewed vehemence. "She's crazy about him; she's lost her head at last——"

"You mean he's going to avenge you?"

"No, I don't, though he might, if she decided to marry him."

"Do you know," said Ray slowly, glancing over his glass at his nervous companion, "it doesn't strike me that Mr. Valentine Corliss has much the air of a marrying man."

"He has the air to me," observed Mr. Trumble, "of a darned bad lot! But I have to hand it to him: he's a wizard. He's got something besides his good looks—a man that could get Cora Madison interested in 'business'! In oil! Cora Madison! How do you suppose——"

His companion began to laugh again. "You don't really suppose he talked his oil business to her, do you, Trumble?"

"He must have. Else how could she——"

"Oh, no, Cora herself never talks upon any subject but one; she never listens to any other either."

"Then how in thunder did he——"

"If Cora asks you if you think it will rain," interrupted Vilas, "doesn't she really seem to be asking: 'Do you love me? How much?' Suppose Mr. Corliss is an expert in the same line. Of course he can talk about oil!"

"He strikes me," said Trumble, "as just about the slickest customer that ever hit this town. I like Richard Lindley, and I hope he'll see his fifty thousand dollars again. I wouldn't have given Corliss thirty cents."

"Why do you think he's a crook?"

"I don't say that," returned Trumble. "All I know about him is that he's done some of the finest work to get fifty thousand dollars put in his hands that I ever heard of. And all anybody knows about him is that he lived here seventeen years ago, and comes back claiming to know where there's oil in Italy. He shows some maps and papers and gets cablegrams signed 'Moliterno.' Then he talks about selling the old Corliss house here, where the Madisons live, and putting the money into his oil company: he does that to sound plausible, but I have good reason to know that house was mortgaged to its full value within a month after his aunt left it to him. He'll not get a cent if it's sold. That's all. And he's got Cora Madison so crazy over him that she makes life a hell for poor old Lindley until he puts all he's saved into the bubble. The scheme may be all right. How do I know? There's no way to tell, without going over there, and Corliss won't let anybody do that—oh, he's got a plausible excuse for it! But I'm sorry for Lindley: he's so crazy about Cora, he's soft. And she's so crazy about Corliss she's soft! Well, I used to be crazy about her myself, but I'm not soft—I'm not the Lindley kind of loon, thank heaven!"

"What kind are you, Trumble?" asked Ray, mildly.

"Not your kind either," retorted the other going to the door. "She cut me on the street the other day; she's quit speaking to me. If you've got any money, why don't you take it over to the hotel and give it to Corliss? She might start speaking to you again. I'm going to lunch!" He slammed the door behind him.

Ray Vilas, left alone, elevated his heels to the sill, and stared out of the window a long time at a gravelled roof which presented little of interest. He replenished his glass and his imagination frequently, the latter being so stirred that when, about three o'clock, he noticed the inroads he had made upon the bottle, tears of self-pity came to his eyes. "Poor little drunkard!" he said aloud. "Go ahead and do it. Isn't anything you won't do!" And, having washed his face at a basin in a corner, he set his hat slightly upon one side, picked up a walking stick and departed jauntily, and, to the outward eye, presentably sober.

Mr. Valentine Corliss would be glad to see him, the clerk at the Richfield Hotel reported, after sending up a card, and upon Ray's following the card, Mr. Valentine Corliss in person confirmed the message with considerable amusement and a cordiality in which there was some mixture of the quizzical. He was the taller; and the robust manliness of his appearance, his splendid health and boxer's figure offered a sharp contrast to the superlatively lean tippler. Corliss was humorously aware of his advantage: his greeting seemed really to say, "Hello, my funny bug, here you are again!" though the words of his salutation were entirely courteous; and he followed it with a hospitable offer.

"No," said Vilas; "I won't drink with you." He spoke so gently that the form of his refusal, usually interpreted as truculent, escaped the other's notice. He also declined a cigar, apologetically asking permission to light one of his own cigarettes; then, as he sank into a velour-covered chair, apologized again for the particular attention he was bestowing upon the apartment, which he recognized as one of the suites de luxe of the hotel.

"'Parlour, bedroom, and bath,'" he continued, with a melancholy smile; "and 'Lachrymae,' and 'A Reading from Homer.' Sometimes they have 'The Music Lesson,' or 'Winter Scene' or 'A Neapolitan Fisher Lad' instead of 'Lachrymae,' but they always have 'A Reading from Homer.' When you opened the door, a moment ago, I had a very strong impression that something extraordinary would some time happen to me in this room."

"Well," suggested Corliss, "you refused a drink in it."

"Even more wonderful than that," said Ray, glancing about the place curiously. "It may be a sense of something painful that already has happened here—perhaps long ago, before your occupancy. It has a pathos."

"Most hotel rooms have had something happen in them," said Corliss lightly. "I believe the managers usually change the door numbers if what happens is especially unpleasant. Probably they change some of the rugs, also."

"I feel——" Ray paused, frowning. "I feel as if some one had killed himself here."

"Then no doubt some of the rugs have been changed."

"No doubt." The caller laughed and waved his hand in dismissal of the topic. "Well, Mr. Corliss," he went on, shifting to a brisker tone, "I have come to make my fortune, too. You are Midas. Am I of sufficient importance to be touched?"

Valentine Corliss gave him sidelong an almost imperceptibly brief glance of sharpest scrutiny—it was like the wink of a camera shutter—but laughed in the same instant. "Which way do you mean that?"

"You have been quick," returned the visitor, repaying that glance with equal swiftness, "to seize upon the American idiom. I mean: How small a contribution would you be willing to receive toward your support!"

Corliss did not glance again at Ray; instead, he looked interested in the smoke of his cigar. "'Contribution,'" he repeated, with no inflection whatever. "'Toward my support.'"

"I mean, of course, how small an investment in your oil company."

"Oh, anything, anything," returned the promoter, with quick amiability. "We need to sell all the stock we can."

"All the money you can get?"

"Precisely. It's really a colossal proposition, Mr. Vilas." Corliss spoke with brisk enthusiasm. "It's a perfectly certain enormous profit upon everything that goes in. Prince Moliterno cables me later investigations show that the oil-field is more than twice as large as we thought when I left Naples. He's on the ground now, buying up what he can, secretly."

"I had an impression from Richard Lindley that the secret had been discovered."

"Oh, yes; but only by a few, and those are trying to keep it quiet from the others, of course."

"I see. Does your partner know of your success in raising a large investment?"

"You mean Lindley's? Certainly." Corliss waved his hand in light deprecation. "Of course that's something, but Moliterno would hardly be apt to think of it as very large! You see he's putting in about five times that much, himself, and I've already turned over to him double it for myself. Still, it counts—certainly; and of course it will be a great thing for Lindley."

"I fear," Ray said hesitatingly, "you won't be much interested in my drop for your bucket. I have twelve hundred dollars in the world; and it is in the bank—I stopped there on my way here. To be exact, I have twelve hundred and forty-seven dollars and fifty-one cents. My dear sir, will you allow me to purchase one thousand dollars' worth of stock? I will keep the two hundred and forty-seven dollars and fifty-one cents to live on—I may need an egg while waiting for you to make me rich. Will you accept so small an investment?"

"Certainly," said Corliss, laughing. "Why not? You may as well profit by the chance as any one. I'll send you the stock certificates—we put them at par. I'm attending to that myself, as our secretary, Mr. Madison, is unable to take up his duties."

Vilas took a cheque-book and a fountain-pen from his pocket.

"Oh, any time, any time," said Corliss cheerfully, observing the new investor's movement.

"Now, I think," returned Vilas quietly. "How shall I make it out?"

"Oh, to me, I suppose," answered Corliss indifferently. "That will save a little trouble, and I can turn it over to Moliterno, by cable, as I did Lindley's. I'll give you a receipt——"

"You need not mind that," said Ray. "Really it is of no importance."

"Of course the cheque itself is a receipt," remarked Corliss, tossing it carelessly upon a desk. "You'll have some handsome returns for that slip of paper, Mr. Vilas."

"In that blithe hope I came," said Ray airily.

"I am confident of it. I have my own ways of divination, Mr. Corliss. I have gleams." He rose as if to go, but stood looking thoughtfully about the apartment again. "Singular impression," he murmured. "Not exactly as if I'd seen it in a dream; and yet—and yet——"

"You have symptoms of clairvoyance at times, I take it." The conscious, smooth superiority of the dexterous man playing with an inconsequent opponent resounded in this speech, clear as the humming of a struck bell; and Vilas shot him a single open glance of fire from hectic eyes. For that instant, the frailer buck trumpeted challenge. Corliss—broad-shouldered, supple of waist, graceful and strong—smiled down negligently; yet the very air between the two men seemed charged with an invisible explosive. Ray laughed quickly, as in undisturbed good nature; then, flourishing his stick, turned toward the door.

"Oh, no, it isn't clairvoyance—no more than when I told you that your only real interest is women." He paused, his hand upon the door-knob. "I'm a quaint mixture, however: perhaps I should be handled with care."

"Very good of you," laughed Corliss—"this warning. The afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting you I think I remember your implying that you were a mere marionette."

"A haggard harlequin!" snapped Vilas, waving his hand to a mirror across the room. "Don't I look it?" And the phrase fitted him with tragic accuracy. "You see? What a merry wedding-guest I'll be! I invite you to join me on the nuptial eve."

"Thanks. Who's getting married: when the nuptial eve?"

Ray opened the door, and, turning, rolled his eyes fantastically. "Haven't you heard?" he cried. "When Hecate marries John Barleycorn!" He bowed low. "Mr. Midas, adieu."

Corliss stood in the doorway and watched him walk down the long hall to the elevator. There, Ray turned and waved his hand, the other responding with gayety which was not assumed: Vilas might be insane, or drunk, or both, but the signature upon his cheque was unassailable.

Corliss closed the door and began to pace his apartment thoughtfully. His expression manifested a peculiar phenomenon. In company, or upon the street, or when he talked with men, the open look and frank eyes of this stalwart young man were disarming and his most winning assets. But now, as he paced alone in his apartment, now that he was not upon exhibition, now when there was no eye to behold him, and there was no reason to dissimulate or veil a single thought or feeling, his look was anything but open; the last trace of frankness disappeared; the muscles at mouth and eyes shifted; lines and planes intermingled and altered subtly; there was a moment of misty transformation—and the face of another man emerged. It was the face of a man uninstructed in mercy; it was a shrewd and planning face: alert, resourceful, elaborately perceptive, and flawlessly hard. But, beyond all, it was the face of a man perpetually on guard.

He had the air of debating a question, his hands in his pockets, his handsome forehead lined with a temporary indecision. His sentry-go extended the length of his two rooms, and each time he came back into his bedroom his glance fell consideringly upon a steamer-trunk of the largest size, at the foot of his bed. The trunk was partially packed as if for departure. And, indeed, it was the question of departure which he was debating.

He was a man of varied dexterities, and he had one faculty of high value, which had often saved him, had never betrayed him; it was intuitive and equal to a sixth sense: he always knew when it was time to go. An inner voice warned him; he trusted to it and obeyed it. And it had spoken now, and there was his trunk half-packed in answer. But he had stopped midway in his packing, because he had never yet failed to make a clean sweep where there was the slightest chance for one; he hated to leave a big job before it was completely finished—and Mr. Wade Trumble had refused to invest in the oil-fields of Basilicata.

Corliss paused beside the trunk, stood a moment immersed in thought; then nodded once, decisively, and, turning to a dressing-table, began to place some silver-mounted brushes and bottles in a leather travelling-case.

There was a knock at the outer door. He frowned, set down what he had in his hands, went to the door and opened it to find Mr. Pryor, that plain citizen, awaiting entrance.

Corliss remained motionless in an arrested attitude, his hand upon the knob of the opened door. His position did not alter; he became almost unnaturally still, a rigidity which seemed to increase. Then he looked quickly behind him, over his shoulder, and back again, with a swift movement of the head.

"No," said Pryor, at that. "I don't want you. I just thought I'd have two minutes' talk with you. All right?"

"All right," said Corliss quietly. "Come in." He turned carelessly, and walked away from the door keeping between his guest and the desk. When he reached the desk, he turned again and leaned against it, his back to it, but in the action of turning his hand had swept a sheet of note-paper over Ray Vilas's cheque—a too conspicuous oblong of pale blue. Pryor had come in and closed the door.

"I don't know," he began, regarding the other through his glasses, with steady eyes, "that I'm going to interfere with you at all, Corliss. I just happened to strike you—I wasn't looking for you. I'm on vacation, visiting my married daughter that lives here, and I don't want to mix in if I can help it."

Corliss laughed, easily. "There's nothing for you to mix in. You couldn't if you wanted to."

"Well, I hope that's true," said Pryor, with an air of indulgence, curiously like that of a teacher for a pupil who promises improvement. "I do indeed. There isn't anybody I'd like to see turn straight more than you. You're educated and cultured, and refined, and smarter than all hell. It would be a big thing. That's one reason I'm taking the trouble to talk to you."

"I told you I wasn't doing anything," said Corliss with a petulance as oddly like that of a pupil as the other's indulgence was like that of a tutor. "This is my own town; I own property here, and I came here to sell it. I can prove it in half-a-minute's telephoning. Where do you come in?"

"Easy, easy," said Pryor, soothingly. "I've just told you I don't want to come in at all."

"Then what do you want?"

"I came to tell you just one thing: to go easy up there at Mr. Madison's house."

Corliss laughed contemptuously. "It's my house. I own it. That's the property I came here to sell."

"Oh, I know," responded Pryor. "That part of it's all right. But I've seen you several times with that young lady, and you looked pretty thick, to me. You know you haven't got any business doing such things, Corliss. I know your record from Buda Pesth to Copenhagen and——"

"See here, my friend," said the younger man, angrily, "you may be a tiptop spotter for the government when it comes to running down some poor old lady that's bought a string of pearls in the Rue de la Paix——"

"I've been in the service twenty-eight years," remarked Pryor, mildly.

"All right," said the other with a gesture of impatience; "and you got me once, all right. Well, that's over, isn't it? Have I tried anything since?"

"Not in that line," said Pryor.

"Well, what business have you with any other line?" demanded Corliss angrily. "Who made you general supervisor of public morals? I want to know——"

"Now, what's the use your getting excited? I'm just here to tell you that I'm going to keep an eye on you. I don't know many people here, and I haven't taken any particular pains to look you up. For all I know, you're only here to sell your house, as you say. But I know old man Madison a little, and I kind of took a fancy to him; he's a mighty nice old man, and he's got a nice family. He's sick and it won't do to trouble him; but—honest, Corliss—if you don't slack off in that neighbourhood a little, I'll have to have a talk with the young lady herself."

A derisory light showed faintly in the younger man's eyes as he inquired, softly: "That all, Mr. Pryor?"

"No. Don't try anything on out here. Not in any of your lines."

"I don't mean to."

"That's right. Sell your house and clear out. You'll find it healthy." He went to the door. "So far as I can see," he observed, ruminatively, "you haven't brought any of that Moliterno crowd you used to work with over to this side with you."

"I haven't seen Moliterno for two years," said Corliss, sharply.

"Well, I've said my say." Pryor gave him a last word as he went out. "You keep away from that little girl."

"Ass!" exclaimed Corliss, as the door closed. He exhaled a deep breath sharply, and broke into a laugh. Then he went quickly into his bedroom and began to throw the things out of his trunk.



CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Hedrick Madison's eyes were not of marble; his heart was not flint nor his skin steel plate: he was flesh and tender; he was a vulnerable, breathing boy, with highly developed capacities for pain which were now being taxed to their utmost. Once he had loved to run, to leap, to disport himself in the sun, to drink deep of the free air; he had loved life and one or two of his fellowmen. He had borne himself buoyantly, with jaunty self-confidence, even with some intolerance toward the weaknesses of others, not infrequently displaying merriment over their mischances; but his time had found him at last; the evil day had come. Indian Summer was Indian for him, indeed: sweet death were welcome; no charity was left in him. He leaped no more, but walked broodingly and sought the dark places. And yet it could not be said that times were dull for him: the luckless picket who finds himself in an open eighty-acre field, under the eye of a sharpshooter up a tree, would not be apt to describe the experience as dull. And Cora never missed a shot; she loved the work; her pleasure in it was almost as agonizing for the target as was the accuracy of her fire.

She was ingenious: the horrible facts at her disposal were damaging enough in all conscience: but they did not content her. She invented a love-story, assuming that Hedrick was living it: he was supposed to be pining for Lolita, to be fading, day-by-day, because of enforced separation; and she contrived this to such an effect of reality, and with such a diabolical affectation of delicacy in referring to it, that the mere remark, with gentle sympathy, "I think poor Hedrick is looking a little better to-day," infallibly produced something closely resembling a spasm. She formed the habit of never mentioning her brother in his presence except as "poor Hedrick," a too obvious commiseration of his pretended attachment—which met with like success. Most dreadful of all, she invented romantic phrases and expressions assumed to have been spoken or written by Hedrick in reference to his unhappiness; and she repeated them so persistently, yet always with such apparent sincerity of belief that they were quotations from him, and not her inventions, that the driven youth knew a fear, sometimes, that the horrid things were actually of his own perpetration.

The most withering of these was, "Torn from her I love by the ruthless hand of a parent. . . ." It was not completed; Cora never got any further with it, nor was there need: a howl of fury invariably assured her of an effect as satisfactory as could possibly have been obtained by an effort less impressionistic. Life became a series of easy victories for Cora, and she made them somehow the more deadly for Hedrick by not seeming to look at him in his affliction, nor even to be aiming his way: he never could tell when the next shot was coming. At the table, the ladies of his family might be deep in dress, or discussing Mr. Madison's slowly improving condition, when Cora, with utter irrelevance, would sigh, and, looking sadly into her coffee, murmur, "Ah, fond mem'ries!" or, "Why am I haunted by the dead past?" or, the dreadful, "Torn from her I love by the ruthless hand of a parent. . . ."

There was compassion in Laura's eyes and in his mother's, but Cora was irresistible, and they always ended by laughing in spite of themselves; and though they pleaded for Hedrick in private, their remonstrances proved strikingly ineffective. Hedrick was the only person who had ever used the high hand with Cora: she found repayment too congenial. In the daytime he could not go in the front yard, but Cora's window would open and a tenderly smiling Cora lean out to call affectionately, "Don't walk on the grass—darling little boy!" Or, she would nod happily to him and begin to sing:

"Oh come beloved, love let me press thee, While I caress thee In one long kiss, Lolita. . . . "

One terror still hung over him. If it fell—as it might at any fatal moment—then the utmost were indeed done upon him; and this apprehension bathed his soul in night. In his own circle of congenial age and sex he was, by virtue of superior bitterness and precocity of speech, a chief—a moral castigator, a satirist of manners, a creator of stinging nicknames; and many nourished unhealed grievances which they had little hope of satisfying against him; those who attempted it invariably departing with more to avenge than they had brought with them. Let these once know what Cora knew. . . . The vision was unthinkable!

It was Cora's patent desire to release the hideous item, to spread the scandal broadcast among his fellows—to ring it from the school-bells, to send it winging on the hot winds of Hades! The boys had always liked his yard and the empty stable to play in, and the devices he now employed to divert their activities elsewhere were worthy of a great strategist. His energy and an abnormal ingenuity accomplished incredible things: school had been in session several weeks and only one boy had come within conversational distance of Cora;—him Hedrick bore away bodily, in simulation of resistless high spirits, a brilliant exhibition of stagecraft.

And then Cora's friend, Mrs. Villard, removed her son Egerton from the private school he had hitherto attended, and he made his appearance in Hedrick's class, one morning at the public school. Hedrick's eye lighted with a savage gleam; timidly the first joy he had known for a thousand years crept into his grim heart. After school, Egerton expiated a part of Cora's cruelty. It was a very small part, and the exploit no more than infinitesimally soothing to the conqueror, but when Egerton finally got home he was no sight for a mother.

Thus Hedrick wrought his own doom: Mrs. Villard telephoned to Cora, and Cora went immediately to see her.

It happened to Hedrick that he was late leaving home the next morning. His entrance into his classroom was an undeniable sensation, and within ten minutes the teacher had lost all control of the school. It became necessary to send for the principal. Recess was a frantic nightmare for Hedrick, and his homeward progress at noon a procession of such uproarious screamers as were his equals in speed. The nethermost depths were reached when an ignoble pigtailed person he had always trodden upon flat-footed screamed across the fence from next door, as he reached fancied sanctuary in his own backyard:

"Kiss me some more, darling little boy!"

This worm, established upon the fence opposite the conservatory windows, and in direct view from the table in the dining-room, shrieked the accursed request at short intervals throughout the luncheon hour. The humour of childhood is sometimes almost intrusive.

And now began a life for Hedrick which may be rather painfully but truthfully likened to a prolongation of the experiences of a rat that finds itself in the middle of a crowded street in daylight: there is plenty of excitement but no pleasure. He was pursued, harried, hounded from early morning till nightfall, and even in his bed would hear shrill shouts go down the sidewalk from the throats of juvenile fly-by-nights: "Oh dar-ling lit-oh darling lit-oh lit-le boy, lit-le boy, kiss me some more!" And one day he overheard a remark which strengthened his growing conviction that the cataclysm had affected the whole United States: it was a teacher who spoke, explaining to another a disturbance in the hall of the school. She said, behind her hand:

"He kissed an idiot."

Laura had not even remotely foreseen the consequences of her revelation, nor, indeed, did she now properly estimate their effect upon Hedrick. She and her mother were both sorry for him, and did what they could to alleviate his misfortunes, but there was an inevitable remnant of amusement in their sympathy. Youth, at war, affects stoicism but not resignation: in truth, resignation was not much in Hedrick's line, and it would be far from the fact to say that he was softened by his sufferings. He brooded profoundly and his brightest thought was revenge. It was not upon Cora that his chief bitterness turned. Cora had always been the constant, open enemy: warfare between them was a regular condition of life; and unconsciously, and without "thinking it out," he recognized the naturalness of her seizing upon the deadliest weapon against him that came to her hand. There was nothing unexpected in that: no, the treachery, to his mind, lay in the act of Laura, that non-combatant, who had furnished the natural and habitual enemy with this scourge. At all times, and with or without cause, he ever stood ready to do anything possible for the reduction of Cora's cockiness, but now it was for the taking-down of Laura and the repayment of her uncalled-for and overwhelming assistance to the opposite camp that he lay awake nights and kept his imagination hot. Laura was a serene person, so neutral—outwardly, at least—and so little concerned for herself in any matter he could bring to mind, that for purposes of revenge she was a difficult proposition. And then, in a desperate hour, he remembered her book.

Only once had he glimpsed it, but she had shown unmistakable agitation of a mysterious sort as she wrote in it, and, upon observing his presence, a prompt determination to prevent his reading a word of what she had written. Therefore, it was something peculiarly sacred and intimate. This deduction was proved by the care she exercised in keeping the book concealed from all eyes. A slow satisfaction began to permeate him: he made up his mind to find that padlocked ledger.

He determined with devoted ardour that when he found it he would make the worst possible use of it: the worst, that is, for Laura. As for consequences to himself, he was beyond them. There is an Irish play in which an old woman finds that she no longer fears the sea when it has drowned the last of her sons; it can do nothing more to her. Hedrick no longer feared anything.

The book was somewhere in Laura's room, he knew that; and there were enough opportunities to search, though Laura had a way of coming in unexpectedly which was embarrassing; and he suffered from a sense of inadequacy when—on the occasion of his first new attempt—he answered the casual inquiry as to his presence by saying that he "had a headache." He felt there was something indirect in the reply; but Laura was unsuspicious and showed no disposition to be analytical. After this, he took the precaution to bring a school-book with him and she often found the boy seated quietly by her west window immersed in study: he said he thought his headaches came from his eyes and that the west light "sort of eased them a little."

The ledger remained undiscovered, although probably there has never been a room more thoroughly and painstakingly searched, without its floor being taken up and its walls torn down. The most mysterious, and, at the same time, the most maddening thing about it was the apparent simplicity of the task. He was certain that the room contained the book: listening, barefooted, outside the door at night, he had heard the pen scratching. The room was as plain as a room can be, and small. There was a scantily filled clothes-press; he had explored every cubic inch of it. There was the small writing table with one drawer; it held only some note-paper and a box of pen-points. There was a bureau; to his certain knowledge it contained no secret whatever. There were a few giltless chairs, and a white "wash-stand," a mere basin and slab with exposed plumbing. Lastly, there was the bed, a very large and ugly "Eastlake" contrivance; he had acquired a close acquaintance with all of it except the interior of the huge mattress itself, and here, he finally concluded, must of necessity be the solution. The surface of the mattress he knew to be unbroken; nevertheless the book was there. He had recently stimulated his deductive powers with a narrative of French journalistic sagacity in a similar case; and he applied French reasoning. The ledger existed. It was somewhere in the room. He had searched everything except the interior of the mattress. The ledger was in that interior.

The exploration thus become necessary presented some difficulties. Detection in the act would involve explanations hard to invent; it would not do to say he was looking for his knife; and he could not think of any excuse altogether free from a flavour of insincerity. A lameness beset them all and made them liable to suspicion; and Laura, once suspicious, might be petty enough to destroy the book, and so put it out of his power forever. He must await the right opportunity, and, after a racking exercise of patience, at last he saw it coming.

Doctor Sloane had permitted his patient to come down stairs for an increasing interval each day. Mr. Madison crept, rather than walked, leaning upon his wife and closely attended by Miss Peirce. He spoke with difficulty and not clearly; still, there was a perceptible improvement, and his family were falling into the habit of speaking of him as almost well. On that account, Mrs. Madison urged her daughters to accept an invitation from the mother of the once courtly Egerton Villard. It was at breakfast that the matter was discussed.

"Of course Cora must go," Laura began, "but——"

"But nothing!" interrupted Cora. "How would it look if I went and you didn't? Everybody knows papa's almost well, and they'd think it silly for us to give up the first real dance since last spring on that account; yet they're just spiteful enough, if I went and you stayed home, to call me a 'girl of no heart.' Besides," she added sweetly, "we ought to go to show Mrs. Villard we aren't hurt because Egerton takes so little notice of poor Hedrick."

Hedrick's lips moved silently, as in prayer.

"I'd rather not," said Laura. "I doubt if I'd have a very good time."

"You would, too," returned her sister, decidedly. "The men like to dance with you; you dance every bit as well as I do, and that black lace is the most becoming dress you ever had. Nobody ever remembers a black dress, anyway, unless it's cut very conspicuously, and yours isn't. I can't go without you; they love to say nasty things about me, and you're too good a sister to give 'em this chance, you old dear." She laughed and nodded affectionately across the table at Laura. "You've got to go!"

"Yes, it would be nicer," said the mother. And so it was settled. It was simultaneously settled in Hedrick's mind that the night of the dance should mark his discovery of the ledger. He would have some industrious hours alone with the mysterious mattress, safe from intrusion.

Meekly he lifted his eyes from his plate. "I'm glad you're going, sister Laura," he said in a gentle voice. "I think a change will do you good."

"Isn't it wonderful," exclaimed Cora, appealing to the others to observe him, "what an improvement a disappointment in love can make in deportment?"

For once, Hedrick only smiled.



CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Laura had spent some thoughtful hours upon her black lace dress with results that astonished her family: it became a ball-gown—and a splendidly effective one. She arranged her dark hair in a more elaborate fashion than ever before, in a close coronal of faintly lustrous braids; she had no jewellery and obviously needed none. Her last action but one before she left her room was to dispose of the slender chain and key she always wore round her neck; then her final glance at the mirror—which fairly revealed a lovely woman—ended in a deprecatory little "face" she made at herself. It meant: "Yes, old lady, you fancy yourself very passable in here all by yourself, don't you? Just wait: you'll be standing beside Cora in a moment!"

And when she did stand beside Cora, in the latter's room, a moment later, her thought seemed warranted. Cora, radiant-eyed, in high bloom, and exquisite from head to foot in a shimmering white dancing-dress, a glittering crescent fastening the silver fillet that bound her vivid hair, was a flame of enchantment. Mrs. Madison, almost weeping with delight, led her daughters proudly, an arm round the waist of each, into her husband's room. Propped with pillows, he reclined in an armchair while Miss Peirce prepared his bed, an occupation she gave over upon this dazzling entrance, departing tactfully.

"Look at these," cried the mother; "—from our garden, Jim, dear! Don't we feel rich, you and I?"

"And—and—Laura," said the sick man, with the slow and imperfect enunication caused by his disease; "Laura looks pretty—too."

"Isn't she adorable!" Cora exclaimed warmly. "She decided to be the portrait of a young duchess, you see, all stately splendour—made of snow and midnight!"

"Hear! hear!" laughed Laura; but she blushed with pleasure, and taking Cora's hand in hers lifted it to her lips.

"And do you see Cora's crescent?" demanded Mrs. Madison. "What do you think of that for magnificence? She went down town this morning with seven dollars, and came back with that and her party gloves and a dollar in change! Isn't she a bargainer? Even for rhinestones they are the cheapest things you ever heard of. They look precisely like stones of the very finest water." They did—so precisely, indeed, that if the resemblance did not amount to actual identity, then had a jeweller of the town been able to deceive the eye of Valentine Corliss, which was an eye singularly learned in such matters.

"They're—both smart girls," said Madison, "both of them. And they look—beautiful, to-night—both. Laura is—amazing!"

When they had gone, Mrs. Madison returned from the stairway, and, kneeling beside her husband, put her arms round him gently: she had seen the tear that was marking its irregular pathway down his flaccid, gray cheek, and she understood.

"Don't. Don't worry, Jim," she whispered. "Those bright, beautiful things!—aren't they treasures?"

"It's—it's Laura," he said. "Cora will be all right. She looks out for—herself. I'm—I'm afraid for—Laura. Aren't you?"

"No, no," she protested. "I'm not afraid for either of them." But she was: the mother had always been afraid for Cora.

. . . . At the dance, the two girls, attended up the stairway to the ballroom by a chattering covey of black-coats, made a sensational entrance to a gallant fanfare of music, an effect which may have been timed to the premonitory tuning of instruments heard during the ascent; at all events, it was a great success; and Cora, standing revealed under the wide gilt archway, might have been a lithe and shining figure from the year eighteen-hundred-and-one, about to dance at the Luxembourg. She placed her hand upon the sleeve of Richard Lindley, and, glancing intelligently over his shoulder into the eyes of Valentine Corliss, glided rhythmically away.

People looked at her; they always did. Not only the non-dancers watched her; eyes everywhere were upon her, even though the owners gyrated, glided and dipped on distant orbits. The other girls watched her, as a rule, with a profound, an almost passionate curiosity; and they were prompt to speak well of her to men, except in trustworthy intimacy, because they did not enjoy being wrongfully thought jealous. Many of them kept somewhat aloof from her; but none of them ever nowadays showed "superiority" in her presence, or snubbed her: that had been tried and proved disastrous in rebound. Cora never failed to pay her score—and with a terrifying interest added, her native tendency being to take two eyes for an eye and the whole jaw for a tooth. They let her alone, though they asked and asked among themselves the never-monotonous question: "Why do men fall in love with girls like that?" a riddle which, solved, makes wives condescending to their husbands.

Most of the people at this dance had known one another as friends, or antagonists, or indifferent acquaintances, for years, and in such an assembly there are always two worlds, that of the women and that of the men. Each has its own vision, radically different from that of the other; but the greatest difference is that the men are unaware of the other world, only a few of them—usually queer ones like Ray Vilas—vaguely perceiving that there are two visions, while all the women understand both perfectly. The men splash about on the surface; the women keep their eyes open under water. Or, the life of the assembly is like a bright tapestry: the men take it as a picture and are not troubled to know how it is produced; but women are weavers. There was a Beauty of far-flung renown at Mrs. Villard's to-night: Mary Kane, a creature so made and coloured that young men at sight of her became as water and older men were apt to wonder regretfully why all women could not have been made like Mary. She was a kindly soul, and never intentionally outshone her sisters; but the perfect sumptuousness of her had sometimes tried the amiability of Cora Madison, to whom such success without effort and without spark seemed unfair, as well as bovine. Miss Kane was a central figure at the dance, shining tranquilly in a new triumph: that day her engagement had been announced to Mr. George Wattling, a young man of no special attainments, but desirable in his possessions and suitable to his happiness. The pair radiated the pardonable, gay importance of newly engaged people, and Cora, who had never before bestowed any notice upon Mr. Wattling, now examined him with thoughtful attention.

Finding him at her elbow in a group about a punch bowl, between dances, she offered warm felicitations. "But I don't suppose you care whether I care for you to be happy or not," she added, with a little plaintive laugh;—"you've always hated me so!"

Mr. Wattling was startled: never before had he imagined that Cora Madison had given him a thought; but there was not only thought, there was feeling, in this speech. She seemed to be concealing with bravery an even deeper feeling than the one inadvertently expressed. "Why, what on earth makes you think that?" he exclaimed.

"Think it? I know it!" She gave him a strange look, luminous yet mysterious, a curtain withdrawn only to show a shining mist with something undefined but dazzling beyond. "I've always known it!" And she turned away from him abruptly.

He sprang after her. "But you're wrong. I've never——"

"Oh, yes, you have." They began to discuss it, and for better consideration of the theme it became necessary for Cora to "cut" the next dance, promised to another, and to give it to Mr. Wattling. They danced several times together, and Mr. Wattling's expression was serious. The weavers of the tapestry smiled and whispered things the men would not have understood—nor believed.

Ray Vilas, seated alone in a recessed and softly lighted gallery, did not once lose sight of the flitting sorceress. With his elbows on the railing, he leaned out, his head swaying slowly and mechanically as she swept up and down the tumultuously moving room, his passionate eyes gaunt and brilliant with his hunger. And something very like a general thrill passed over the assembly when, a little later, it was seen that he was dancing with her. Laura, catching a glimpse of this couple, started and looked profoundly disturbed.

The extravagance of Vilas's passion and the depths he sounded, in his absurd despair when discarded, had been matters of almost public gossip; he was accounted a somewhat scandalous and unbalanced but picturesque figure; and for the lady whose light hand had wrought such havoc upon him to be seen dancing with him was sufficiently startling to elicit the universal remark—evidently considered superlative—that it was "just like Cora Madison!" Cora usually perceived, with an admirably clear head, all that went on about her; and she was conscious of increasing the sensation, when after a few turns round the room, she allowed her partner to conduct her to a secluding grove of palms in the gallery. She sank into the chair he offered, and, fixing her eyes upon a small lamp of coloured glass which hung overhead, ostentatiously looked bored.

"At your feet, Cora," he said, seating himself upon a stool, and leaning toward her. "Isn't it appropriate that we should talk to music—we two? It shouldn't be that quick step though—not dance-music—should it?"

"Don't know 'm sure," murmured Cora.

"You were kind to dance with me," he said huskily. "I dared to speak to you——"

She did not change her attitude nor the direction of her glance. "I couldn't cut you very well with the whole town looking on. I'm tired of being talked about. Besides, I don't care much who I dance with—so he doesn't step on me."

"Cora," he said, "it is the prelude to 'L'Arlesienne' that they should play for you and me. Yes, I think it should be that."

"Never heard of it."

"It's just a rustic tragedy, the story of a boy in the south of France who lets love become his whole life, and then—it kills him."

"Sounds very stupid," she commented languidly.

"People do sometimes die of love, even nowadays," he said, tremulously—"in the South."

She let her eyes drift indifferently to him and perceived that he was trembling from head to foot; that his hands and knees shook piteously; that his lips quivered and twitched; and, at sight of this agitation, an expression of strong distaste came to her face.

"I see." Her eyes returned to the lamp. "You're from the South, and of course it's going to kill you."

"You didn't speak the exact words you had in your mind.'"

"Oh, what words did I have 'in my mind'?" she asked impatiently.

"What you really meant was: 'If it does kill you, what of it?'"

She laughed, and sighed as for release.

"Cora," he said huskily, "I understand you a little because you possess me. I've never—literally never—had another thought since the first time I saw you: nothing but you. I think of you—actually every moment. Drunk or sober, asleep or—awake, it's nothing but you, you, you! It will never be different: I don't know why I can't get over it—I only know I can't. You own me; you burn like a hot coal in my heart. You're through with me, I know. You drained me dry. You're like a child who eats so heartily of what he likes that he never touches it again. And I'm a dish you're sick of. Oh, it's all plain enough, I can tell you. I'm not exciting any more—no, just a nauseous slave!"

"Do you want people to hear you?" she inquired angrily, for his voice had risen.

He tempered his tone. "Cora, when you liked me you went a pretty clipping gait with me," he said, trembling even more than before. "But you're infinitely more infatuated with this Toreador of a Corliss than you were with me; you're lost in him; you're slaving for him as I would for you. How far are you going with——"

"Do you want me to walk away and leave you?" she asked, suddenly sitting up straight and looking at him with dilating eyes. "If you want a 'scene'——"

"It's over," he said, more calmly. "I know now how dangerous the man is. Of course you will tell him I said that." He laughed quietly. "Well—between a dangerous chap and a desperate one, we may look for some lively times! Do you know, I believe I think about as continuously of him, lately, as I do of you. That's why I put almost my last cent into his oil company, and got what may be almost my last dance with you!"

"I wouldn't call it 'almost' your last dance with me!" she returned icily. "Not after what you've said. I had a foolish idea you could behave—well, at least decently."

"Did Corliss tell you that I insulted him in his rooms at the hotel?"

"You!" She laughed, genuinely. "I see him letting you!"

"He did, however. By manner and in speech I purposely and deliberately insulted him. You'll tell him every word of this, of course, and he'll laugh at it, but I give myself the pleasure of telling you. I put the proposition of an 'investment' to him in a way nobody not a crook would have allowed to be smoothed over—and he allowed it to be smoothed over. He ate it! I felt he was a swindler when he was showing Richard Lindley his maps and papers, and now I've proved it to myself, and it's worth the price." Often, when they had danced, and often during this interview, his eyes lifted curiously to the white flaming crescent in her hair; now they fixed themselves upon it, and in a flash of divination he cried: "You wear it for me!"

She did not understand. "Finished raving?" she inquired.

"I gave Corliss a thousand dollars," he said, slowly. "Considering the fact that it was my last, I flatter myself it was not unhandsomely done—though I may never need it. It has struck me that the sum was about what a man who had just cleaned up fifty thousand might regard as a sort of 'extra'—'for lagniappe'—and that he might have thought it an appropriate amount to invest in a present some jewels perhaps—to place in the hair of a pretty friend!"

She sprang to her feet, furious, but he stood in front of her and was able to bar the way for a moment.

"Cora, I'll have a last word with you if I have to hold you," he said with great rapidity and in a voice which shook with the intense repression he was putting upon himself. "We do one thing in the South, where I came from. We protect our women——"

"This looks like it! Keeping me when——"

"I love you," he said, his face whiter than she had ever seen it. "I love you! I'm your dog! You take care of yourself if you want to take care of anybody else! As sure as——"

"My dance, Miss Madison." A young gentleman on vacation from the navy had approached, and, with perfect unconsciousness of what he was interrupting, but with well-founded certainty that he was welcome to the lady, urged his claim in a confident voice. "I thought it would never come, you know; but it's here at last and so am I." He laughed propitiatingly.

Ray yielded now at once. She moved him aside with her gloved forearm as if he were merely an awkward stranger who unwittingly stood between her and the claiming partner. Carrying the gesture farther, she took the latter's arm, and smilingly, and without a backward glance, passed onward and left the gallery. The lieutenant, who had met her once or twice before, was her partner for the succeeding dance as well, and, having noted the advantages of the place where he had discovered her, persuaded her to return there to sit through the second. Then without any fatiguing preamble, he proposed marriage. Cora did not accept, but effected a compromise, which, for the present, was to consist of an exchange of photographs (his to be in uniform) and letters.

She was having an evening to her heart. Ray's attack on Corliss had no dimming effect; her thought of it being that she was "used to his raving"; it meant nothing; and since Ray had prophesied she would tell Corliss about it, she decided not to do so.

The naval young gentleman and Valentine Corliss were the greatest of all the lions among ladies that night; she had easily annexed the lieutenant, and Corliss was hers already; though, for a purpose, she had not yet been seen in company with him. He was visibly "making an impression." His name, as he had said to Richard Lindley, was held in honour in the town; and there was a flavour of fancied romance in his absence since boyhood in unknown parts, and his return now with a 'foreign air' and a bow that almost took the breath of some of the younger recipients. He was, too, in his way, the handsomest man in the room; and the smiling, open frankness of his look, the ready cordiality of his manner, were found very winning. He caused plenty of flutter.

Cora waited till the evening was half over before she gave him any visible attention. Then, during a silence of the music, between two dances, she made him a negligent sign with her hand, the gesture of one indifferently beckoning a creature who is certain to come, and went on talking casually to the man who was with her. Corliss was the length of the room from her, chatting gayly with a large group of girls and women; but he immediately nodded to her, made his bow to individuals of the group, and crossed the vacant, glistening floor to her. Cora gave him no greeting whatever; she dismissed her former partner and carelessly turned away with Corliss to some chairs in a corner.

"Do you see that?" asked Vilas, leaning over the balcony railing with Richard Lindley. "Look! She's showing the other girls—don't you see? He's the New Man; she let 'em hope she wasn't going in for him; a lot of them probably didn't even know that she knew him. She sent him out on parade till they're all excited about him; now she shows 'em he's entirely her property—and does it so matter-of-factly that it's rubbed in twice as hard as if she seemed to take some pains about it. He doesn't dance: she'll sit out with him now, till they all read the tag she's put on him. She says she hates being talked about. She lives on it!—so long as it's envious. And did you see her with that chap from the navy? Neptune thinks he's dallying with Venus perhaps, but he'll get——"

Lindley looked at him commiseratingly. "I think I never saw prettier decorations. Have you noticed, Ray? Must have used a thousand chrysanthemums."

"Toreador!" whispered the other between his teeth, looking at Corliss; then, turning to his companion, he asked: "Has it occurred to you to get any information about Basilicata, or about the ancestral domain of the Moliterni, from our consul-general at Naples?"

Richard hesitated. "Well—yes. Yes, I did think of that. Yes, I thought of it."

"But you didn't do it."

"No. That is, I haven't yet. You see, Corliss explained to me that——"

His friend interrupted him with a sour laugh. "Oh, certainly! He's one of the greatest explainers ever welcomed to our city!"

Richard said mildly: "And then, Ray, once I've gone into a thing I—I don't like to seem suspicious."

"Poor old Dick!" returned Vilas compassionately. "You kind, easy, sincere men are so conscientiously untruthful with yourselves. You know in your heart that Cora would be furious with you if you seemed suspicious, and she's been so nice to you since you put in your savings to please her, that you can't bear to risk offending her. She's twisted you around her little finger, and the unnamed fear that haunts you is that you won't be allowed to stay there—even twisted!"

"Pretty decorations, Ray," said Richard; but he grew very red.

"Do you know what you'll do," asked Ray, regarding him keenly, "if this Don Giovanni from Sunny It' is shown up as a plain get-rich-quick swindler?"

"I haven't considered——"

"You would do precisely," said Ray, "nothing! Cora'd see to that. You'd sigh and go to work again, beginning at the beginning where you were years ago, and doing it all over. Admirable resignation, but not for me! I'm a stockholder in his company and in shape to 'take steps'! I don't know if I'd be patient enough to make them legal—perhaps I should. He may be safe on the legal side. I'll know more about that when I find out if there is a Prince Moliterno in Naples who owns land in Basilicata."

"You don't doubt it?"

"I doubt everything! In this particular matter I'll have less to doubt when I get an answer from the consul-general. I've written, you see."

Lindley looked disturbed. "You have?"

Vilas read him at a glance. "You're afraid to find out!" he cried. Then he set his hand on the other's shoulder. "If there ever was a God's fool, it's you, Dick Lindley. Really, I wonder the world hasn't kicked you around more than it has; you'd never kick back! You're as easy as an old shoe. Cora makes you unhappy," he went on, and with the very mention of her name, his voice shook with passion,—"but on my soul I don't believe you know what jealousy means: you don't even understand hate; you don't eat your heart——"

"Let's go and eat something better," suggested Richard, laughing. "There's a continuous supper downstairs and I hear it's very good."

Ray smiled, rescued for a second from himself. "There isn't anything better than your heart, you old window-pane, and I'm glad you don't eat it. And if I ever mix it up with Don Giovanni T. Corliss—'T' stands for Toreador—I do believe it'll be partly on your——" He paused, leaving the sentence unfinished, as his attention was caught by the abysmal attitude of a figure in another part of the gallery: Mr. Wade Trumble, alone in a corner, sitting upon the small of his small back, munching at an unlighted cigar and otherwise manifesting a biting gloom. Ray drew Lindley's attention to this tableau of pain. "Here's a three of us!" he said. He turned to look down into the rhythmic kaleidoscope of dancers. "And there goes the girl we all ought to be morbid about."

"Who is that?"

"Laura Madison. Why aren't we? What a self-respecting creature she is, with that cool, sweet steadiness of hers—she's like a mountain lake. She's lovely and she plays like an angel, but so far as anybody's ever thinking about her is concerned she might almost as well not exist. Yet she's really beautiful to-night, if you can manage to think of her except as a sort of retinue for Cora."

"She is rather beautiful to-night. Laura's always a very nice-looking girl," said Richard, and with the advent of an idea, he added: "I think one reason she isn't more conspicuous and thought about is that she is so quiet," and, upon his companion's greeting this inspiration with a burst of laughter, "Yes, that was a brilliant deduction," he said; "but I do think she's about the quietest person I ever knew. I've noticed there are times when she'll scarcely speak at all for half an hour, or even more."

"You're not precisely noisy yourself," said Ray. "Have you danced with her this evening?"

"Why, no," returned the other, in a tone which showed this omission to be a discovery; "not yet. I must, of course."

"Yes, she's really 'rather' beautiful. Also, she dances 'rather' better than any other girl in town. Go and perform your painful duty."

"Perhaps I'd better," said Richard thoughtfully, not perceiving the satire. "At any rate, I'll ask her for the next."

He found it unengaged. There came to Laura's face an April change as he approached, and she saw he meant to ask her to dance. And, as they swam out into the maelstrom, he noticed it, and remarked that it was rather warm, to which she replied by a cheerful nod. Presently there came into Richard's mind the thought that he was really an excellent dancer; but he did not recall that he had always formed the same pleasing estimate of himself when he danced with Laura, nor realize that other young men enjoyed similar self-help when dancing with her. And yet he repeated to her what Ray had said of her dancing, and when she laughed as in appreciation of a thing intended humorously, he laughed, too, but insisted that she did dance "very well indeed." She laughed again at that, and they danced on, not talking. He had no sense of "guiding" her; there was no feeling of effort whatever; she seemed to move spontaneously with his wish, not to his touch; indeed, he was not sensible of touching her at all.

"Why, Laura," he exclaimed suddenly, "you dance beautifully!"

She stumbled and almost fell; saved herself by clutching at his arm; he caught her; and the pair stopped where they were, in the middle of the floor. A flash of dazed incredulity from her dark eyes swept him; there was something in it of the child dodging an unexpected blow.

"Did I trip you?" he asked anxiously.

"No," she laughed, quickly, and her cheeks grew even redder. "I tripped myself. Wasn't that too bad—just when you were thinking that I danced well! Let's sit down. May we?"

They went to some chairs against a wall. There, as they sat, Cora swung by them, dancing again with her lieutenant, and looking up trancedly into the gallant eyes of the triumphant and intoxicated young man. Visibly, she was a woman with a suitor's embracing arm about her. Richard's eyes followed them.

"Ah, don't!" said Laura in a low voice.

He turned to her. "Don't what?"

"I didn't mean to speak out loud," she said tremulously. "But I meant: don't look so troubled. It doesn't mean anything at all—her coquetting with that bird of passage. He's going away in the morning."

"I don't think I was troubling about that."

"Well, whatever it was"—she paused, and laughed with a plaintive timidity—"why, just don't trouble about it!"

"Do I look very much troubled?" he asked seriously.

"Yes. And you don't look very gay when you're not!" She laughed with more assurance now. "I think you're always the wistfulest looking man I ever saw."

"Everybody laughs at me, I believe," he said, with continued seriousness. "Even Ray Vilas thinks I'm an utter fool. Am I, do you think?"

He turned as he spoke and glanced inquiringly into her eyes. What he saw surprised and dismayed him.

"For heaven's sake, don't cry!" he whispered hurriedly.

She bent her head, turning her face from him.

"I've been very hopeful lately," he said. "Cora has been so kind to me since I did what she wanted me to, that I——" He gave a deep sigh. "But if you're that sorry for me, my chances with her must be pretty desperate."

She did not alter her attitude, but with her down-bent face still away from him, said huskily: "It isn't you I'm sorry for. You mustn't ever give up; you must keep on trying and trying. If you give up, I don't know what will become of her!"

A moment later she rose suddenly to her feet. "Let's finish our dance," she said, giving him her hand. "I'm sure I won't stumble again."



CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The two girls let themselves into the house noiselessly, and, turning out the hall-light, left for them by their mother, crept upstairs on tiptoe; and went through the upper hall directly to Laura's room—Cora's being nearer the sick-room. At their age it is proper that a gayety be used three times: in anticipation, and actually, and in after-rehearsal. The last was of course now in order: they went to Laura's room to "talk it over." There was no gas-fixture in this small chamber; but they found Laura's oil-lamp burning brightly upon her writing-table.

"How queer!" said Laura with some surprise, as she closed the door. "Mother never leaves the lamp lit for me; she's always so afraid of lamps exploding."

"Perhaps Miss Peirce came in here to read, and forgot to turn it out," suggested Cora, seating herself on the edge of the bed and letting her silk wrap fall from her shoulders. "Oh, Laura, wasn't he gorgeous. . . ."

She referred to the gallant defender of our seas, it appeared, and while Laura undressed and got into a wrapper, Cora recounted in detail the history of the impetuous sailor's enthrallment;—a resume predicted three hours earlier by a gleeful whisper hissed across the maritime shoulder as the sisters swung near each other during a waltz: "proposed!"

"I've always heard they're horribly inconstant," she said, regretfully. "But, oh, Laura, wasn't he beautiful to look at! Do you think he's more beautiful than Val? No—don't tell me if you do. I don't want to hear it! Val was so provoking: he didn't seem to mind it at all. He's nothing but a big brute sometimes: he wouldn't even admit that he minded, when I asked him. I was idiot enough to ask; I couldn't help it; he was so tantalizing and exasperating—laughing at me. I never knew anybody like him; he's so sure of himself and he can be so cold. Sometimes I wonder if he really cares about anything, deep down in his heart—anything except himself. He seems so selfish: there are times when he almost makes me hate him; but just when I get to thinking I do, I find I don't—he's so deliciously strong, and there's such a big luxury in being understood: I always feel he knows me clear to the bone, somehow! But, oh," she sighed regretfully, "doesn't a uniform become a man? They ought to all wear 'em. It would look silly on such a little goat as that Wade Trumble, though: nothing could make him look like a whole man. Did you see him glaring at me? Beast! I was going to be so nice and kittenish and do all my prettiest tricks for him, to help Val with his oil company. Val thinks Wade would come in yet, if I'D only get him in the mood to have another talk with Val about it; but the spiteful little rat wouldn't come near me. I believe that was one of the reasons Val laughed at me and pretended not to mind my getting proposed to. He must have minded; he couldn't have helped minding it, really. That's his way; he's so mean—he won't show things. He knows me. I can't keep anything from him; he reads me like a signboard; and then about himself he keeps me guessing, and I can't tell when I've guessed right. Ray Vilas behaved disgustingly, of course; he was horrid and awful. I might have expected it. I suppose Richard was wailing his tiresome sorrows on your poor shoulder——"

"No," said Laura. "He was very cheerful. He seemed glad you were having a good time."

"He didn't look particularly cheerful at me. I never saw so slow a man: I wonder when he's going to find out about that pendant. Val would have seen it the instant I put it on. And, oh, Laura! isn't George Wattling funny? He's just soft! He's good-looking though," she continued pensively, adding, "I promised to motor out to the Country Club with him to-morrow for tea."

"Oh, Cora," protested Laura, "no! Please don't!"

"I've promised; so I'll have to, now." Cora laughed. "It'll do Mary Kane good. Oh, I'm not going to bother much with him—he makes me tired. I never saw anything so complacent as that girl when she came in to-night, as if her little Georgie was the greatest capture the world had ever seen. . . ."

She chattered on. Laura, passive, listened with a thoughtful expression, somewhat preoccupied. The talker yawned at last.

"It must be after three," she said, listlessly, having gone over her evening so often that the colours were beginning to fade. She yawned again. "Laura," she remarked absently, "I don't see how you can sleep in this bed; it sags so."

"I've never noticed it," said her sister. "It's a very comfortable old bed."

Cora went to her to be unfastened, reverting to the lieutenant during the operation, and kissing the tire-woman warmly at its conclusion. "You're always so sweet to me, Laura," she said affectionately. "I don't know how you manage it. You're so good"—she laughed—"sometimes I wonder how you stand me. If I were you, I'm positive I couldn't stand me at all!" Another kiss and a hearty embrace, and she picked up her wrap and skurried silently through the hall to her own room.

It was very late, but Laura wrote for almost an hour in her book (which was undisturbed) before she felt drowsy. Then she extinguished the lamp, put the book away and got into bed.

It was almost as if she had attempted to lie upon the empty air: the mattress sagged under her weight as if it had been a hammock; and something tore with a ripping sound. There was a crash, and a choked yell from a muffled voice somewhere, as the bed gave way. For an instant, Laura fought wildly in an entanglement of what she insufficiently perceived to be springs, slats and bedclothes with something alive squirming underneath. She cleared herself and sprang free, screaming, but even in her fright she remembered her father and clapped her hand over her mouth that she might keep from screaming again. She dove at the door, opened it, and fled through the hall to Cora's room, still holding her hand over her mouth.

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