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Valentine Corliss walked up Corliss Street the hottest afternoon of that hot August, a year ago, wearing a suit of white serge which attracted a little attention from those observers who were able to observe anything except the heat. The coat was shaped delicately; it outlined the wearer, and, fitting him as women’s clothes fit women, suggested an effeminacy not an attribute of the tall Corliss. The effeminacy belonged all to the tailor, an artist plying far from Corliss Street, for the coat would have encountered a hundred of its fellows at Trouville or Ostende this very day. Corliss Street is the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, the Park Lane, the Fifth Avenue, of Capitol City, that smoky illuminant of our great central levels, but although it esteems itself an established cosmopolitan thoroughfare, it is still provincial enough to be watchful; and even in its torrid languor took some note of the alien garment.
Mr. Corliss, treading for the first time in seventeen years the pavements of this namesake of his grandfather, mildly repaid its interest in himself. The street, once the most peaceful in the world, he thought, had changed. It was still long and straight, still shaded by trees so noble that they were betrothed, here and there, high over the wide white roadway, the shimmering tunnels thus contrived shot with gold and blue; but its pristine complete restfulness was departed: gasoline had arrived, and a pedestrian, even this August day of heat, must glance two ways before crossing.
Architectural transformations, as vital, staggered the returned native. In his boyhood that posthumously libelled sovereign lady, Anne, had terribly prevailed among the dwellings on this highway; now, however, there was little left of the jig-saw’s hare-brained ministrations; but the growing pains of the adolescent city had wrought some madness here. There had been a revolution which was a riot; and, plainly incited by a new outbreak of the colonies, the Goth, the Tudor, and the Tuscan had harried the upper reaches to a turmoil attaining its climax in a howl or two from the Spanish Moor.
Yet it was a pleasant street in spite of its improvements; in spite, too, of a long, gray smoke-plume crossing the summer sky and dropping an occasional atomy of coal upon Mr. Corliss’s white coat. The green continuous masses of tree-foliage, lawn, and shrubbery were splendidly asserted; there was a faint wholesome odour from the fine block pavement of the roadway, white, save where the snailish water-wagon laid its long strips of steaming brown. Locusts, serenaders of the heat, invisible among the branches, rasped their interminable cadences, competing bitterly with the monotonous chattering of lawn-mowers propelled by glistening black men over the level swards beneath. And though porch and terrace were left to vacant wicker chairs and swinging-seats, and to flowers and plants in jars and green boxes, and the people sat unseen–and, it might be guessed, unclad for exhibition, in the dimmer recesses of their houses–nevertheless, a summery girl under an alluring parasol now and then prettily trod the sidewalks, and did not altogether suppress an ample consciousness of the white pedestrian’s stalwart grace; nor was his quick glance too distressingly modest to be aware of these faint but attractive perturbations.
A few of the oldest houses remained as he remembered them, and there were two or three relics of mansard and cupola days; but the herd of cast-iron deer that once guarded these lawns, standing sentinel to all true gentry: Whither were they fled? In his boyhood, one specimen betokened a family of position and affluence; two, one on each side of the front walk, spoke of a noble opulence; two and a fountain were overwhelming. He wondered in what obscure thickets that once proud herd now grazed; and then he smiled, as through a leafy opening of shrubbery he caught a glimpse of a last survivor, still loyally alert, the haughty head thrown back in everlasting challenge and one foreleg lifted, standing in a vast and shadowy backyard with a clothesline fastened to its antlers.
Mr. Corliss remembered that backyard very well: it was an old battlefield whereon he had conquered; and he wondered if “the Lindley boys” still lived there, and if Richard Lindley would hate him now as implacably as then.
A hundred yards farther on, he paused before a house more familiar to him than any other, and gave it a moment’s whimsical attention, without emotion.
It was a shabby old brick structure, and it stood among the gayest, the most flamboyant dwellings of all Corliss Street like a bewildered tramp surrounded by carnival maskers. It held place full in the course of the fury for demolition and rebuilding, but remained unaltered–even unrepaired, one might have thought–since the early seventies, when it was built. There was a sagging cornice, and the nauseous brown which the walls had years ago been painted was sooted to a repellent dinge, so cracked and peeled that the haggard red bricks were exposed, like a beggar through the holes in his coat. It was one of those houses which are large without being commodious; its very tall, very narrow windows, with their attenuated, rusty inside shutters, boasting to the passerby of high ceilings but betraying the miserly floor spaces. At each side of the front door was a high and cramped bay-window, one of them insanely culminating in a little six-sided tower of slate, and both of them girdled above the basement windows by a narrow porch, which ran across the front of the house and gave access to the shallow vestibule. However, a pleasant circumstance modified the gloom of this edifice and assured it a remnant of reserve and dignity in its ill-considered old age: it stood back a fine hundred feet from the highway, and was shielded in part by a friendly group of maple trees and one glorious elm, hoary, robust, and majestic, a veteran of the days when this was forest ground.
Mr. Corliss concluded his momentary pause by walking up the broken cement path, which was hard beset by plantain-weed and the long grass of the ill-kept lawn. Ascending the steps, he was assailed by an odour as of vehement bananas, a diffusion from some painful little chairs standing in the long, high, dim, rather sorrowful hall disclosed beyond the open double doors. They were stiff little chairs of an inconsequent, mongrel pattern; armless, with perforated wooden seats; legs tortured by the lathe to a semblance of buttons strung on a rod; and they had that day received a streaky coat of a gilding preparation which exhaled the olfactory vehemence mentioned. Their present station was temporary, their purpose, as obviously, to dry; and they were doing some incidental gilding on their own account, leaving blots and splashes and sporadic little round footprints on the hardwood floor.
The old-fashioned brass bell-handle upon the caller’s right drooped from its socket in a dead fag, but after comprehensive manipulation on the part of the young man, and equal complaint on its own, it was constrained to permit a dim tinkle remotely. Somewhere in the interior a woman’s voice, not young, sang a repeated fragment of “Lead, Kindly Light,” to the accompaniment of a flapping dust-cloth, sounds which ceased upon a second successful encounter with the bell. Ensued a silence, probably to be interpreted as a period of whispered consultation out of range; a younger voice called softly and urgently, “Laura!” and a dark-eyed, dark-haired girl of something over twenty made her appearance to Mr. Corliss.
At sight of her he instantly restored a thin gold card-case to the pocket whence he was in the act of removing it. She looked at him with only grave, impersonal inquiry; no appreciative invoice of him was to be detected in her quiet eyes, which may have surprised him, possibly the more because he was aware there was plenty of appreciation in his own kindling glance. She was very white and black, this lady. Tall, trim, clear, she looked cool in spite of the black winter skirt she wore, an effect helped somewhat, perhaps, by the crisp freshness of her white waist, with its masculine collar and slim black tie, and undoubtedly by the even and lustreless light ivory of her skin, against which the strong black eyebrows and undulated black hair were lined with attractive precision; but, most of all, that coolness was the emanation of her undisturbed and tranquil eyes. They were not phlegmatic: a continuing spark glowed far within them, not ardently, but steadily and inscrutably, like the fixed stars in winter.
Mr. Valentine Corliss, of Paris and Naples, removed his white-ribboned straw hat and bowed as no one had ever bowed in that doorway. This most vivid salutation–accomplished by adding something to a rather quick inclination of the body from the hips, with the back and neck held straight expressed deference without affecting or inviting cordiality. It was an elaborate little formality of a kind fancifully called “foreign,” and evidently habitual to the performer.
It produced no outward effect upon the recipient. Such self-control is unusual.
“Is Mr. Madison at home? My name is Valentine Corliss.”
“He is at home.” She indicated an open doorway upon her right. “Will you wait in there?”
“Thank you,” said Mr. Corliss, passing within. “I shall be—-” He left the sentence unfinished, for he was already alone, and at liberty to reflect upon the extraordinary coolness of this cool young woman.
The room, with its closed blinds, was soothingly dark after the riotous sun without, a grateful obscurity which was one of two attractions discovered in it by Mr. Corliss while he waited. It was a depressing little chamber, disproportionately high, uncheered by seven chairs (each of a different family, but all belonging to the same knobby species, and all upholstered a repellent blue), a scratched “inlaid table,” likewise knobby, and a dangerous looking small sofa–turbulent furniture, warmly harmonious, however, in a common challenge to the visitor to take comfort in any of it. A once-gilt gas chandelier hung from the distant ceiling, with three globes of frosted glass, but undeniable evidence that five were intended; and two of the three had been severely bitten. There was a hostile little coal-grate, making a mouth under a mantel of imitation black marble, behind an old blue-satin fire-screen upon which red cat-tails and an owl over a pond had been roughly embroidered in high relief, this owl motive being the inspiration of innumerable other owls reflected in innumerable other ponds in the formerly silver moonlight with which the walls were papered. Corliss thought he remembered that in his boyhood, when it was known as “the parlour” (though he guessed that the Madison family called it “the reception room,” now) this was the place where his aunt received callers who, she justifiably hoped, would not linger. Altogether, it struck him that it might be a good test-room for an alienist: no incipient lunacy would remain incipient here.
There was one incongruity which surprised him–a wicker waste-paper basket, so nonsensically out of place in this arid cell, where not the wildest hare-brain could picture any one coming to read or write, that he bestowed upon it a particular, frowning attention, and so discovered the second attractive possession of the room. A fresh and lovely pink rose, just opening full from the bud, lay in the bottom of the basket.
There was a rustling somewhere in the house and a murmur, above which a boy’s voice became audible in emphatic but undistinguishable complaint. A whispering followed, and a woman exclaimed protestingly, “Cora!” And then a startlingly pretty girl came carelessly into the room through the open door.
She was humming “Quand I’ Amour Meurt” in a gay preoccupation, and evidently sought something upon the table in the centre of the room, for she continued her progress toward it several steps before realizing the presence of a visitor. She was a year or so younger than the girl who had admitted him, fairer and obviously more plastic, more expressive, more perishable, a great deal more insistently feminine; though it was to be seen that they were sisters. This one had eyes almost as dark as the other’s, but these were not cool; they were sweet, unrestful, and seeking; brilliant with a vivacious hunger: and not Diana but huntresses more ardent have such eyes. Her hair was much lighter than her sister’s; it was the colour of dry corn-silk in the sun; and she was the shorter by a head, rounder everywhere and not so slender; but no dumpling: she was exquisitely made. There was a softness about her: something of velvet, nothing of mush. She diffused with her entrance a radiance of gayety and of gentleness; sunlight ran with her. She seemed the incarnation of a caressing smile.
She was point-device. Her close, white skirt hung from a plainly embroidered white waist to a silken instep; and from the crown of her charming head to the tall heels of her graceful white suede slippers, heels of a sweeter curve than the waist of a violin, she was as modern and lovely as this dingy old house was belated and hideous.
Mr. Valentine Corliss spared the fraction of a second for another glance at the rose in the waste-basket.
The girl saw him before she reached the table, gave a little gasp of surprise, and halted with one hand carried prettily to her breast.
“Oh!” she said impulsively; “I _beg_ your pardon. I didn’t know there was—- I was looking for a book I thought I—-“
She stopped, whelmed with a breath-taking shyness, her eyes, after one quick but condensed encounter with those of Mr. Corliss, falling beneath exquisite lashes. Her voice was one to stir all men: it needs not many words for a supremely beautiful “speaking-voice” to be recognized for what it is; and this girl’s was like herself, hauntingly lovely. The intelligent young man immediately realized that no one who heard it could ever forget it.
“I see,” she faltered, turning to leave the room; “it isn’t here–the book.”
“There’s something else of yours here,” said Corliss.
“Is there?” She paused, hesitating at the door, looking at him over her shoulder uncertainly.
“You dropped this rose.” He lifted the rose from the waste-basket and repeated the bow he had made at the front door. This time it was not altogether wasted.
“Yes. You lost it. It belongs to you.”
“Yes–it does. How curious!” she said slowly. “How curious it happened to be _there_!” She stepped to take it from him, her eyes upon his in charming astonishment. “And how odd that—-” She stopped; then said quickly:
“How did you know it was _my_ rose?”
“Any one would know!”
Her expression of surprise was instantaneously merged in a flash of honest pleasure and admiration, such as only an artist may feel in the presence of a little masterpiece by a fellow-craftsman.
Happily, anticlimax was spared them by the arrival of the person for whom the visitor had asked at the door, and the young man retained the rose in his hand.
Mr. Madison, a shapeless hillock with a large, harassed, red face, evidently suffered from the heat: his gray hair was rumpled back from a damp forehead; the sleeves of his black alpaca coat were pulled up to the elbow above his uncuffed white shirtsleeves; and he carried in one mottled hand the ruins of a palm-leaf fan, in the other a balled wet handkerchief which released an aroma of camphor upon the banana-burdened air. He bore evidences of inadequate adjustment after a disturbed siesta, but, exercising a mechanical cordiality, preceded himself into the room by a genial half-cough and a hearty, “Well-well-well,” as if wishing to indicate a spirit of polite, even excited, hospitality.
“I expected you might be turning up, after your letter,” he said, shaking hands. “Well, well, well! I remember you as a boy. Wouldn’t have known you, of course; but I expect you’ll find the town about as much changed as you are.”
With a father’s blindness to all that is really vital, he concluded his greeting inconsequently: “Oh, this is my little girl Cora.”
“Run along, little girl,” said the fat father.
His little girl’s radiant glance at the alert visitor imparted her thorough comprehension of all the old man’s absurdities, which had reached their climax in her dismissal. Her parting look, falling from Corliss’s face to the waste-basket at his feet, just touched the rose in his hand as she passed through the door.
Cora paused in the hall at a point about twenty feet from the door, a girlish stratagem frequently of surprising advantage to the practitioner; but the two men had begun to speak of the weather. Suffering a momentary disappointment, she went on, stepping silently, and passed through a door at the end of the hall into a large and barren looking dining-room, stiffly and skimpily furnished, but well-lighted, owing to the fact that one end of it had been transformed into a narrow “conservatory,” a glass alcove now tenanted by two dried palms and a number of vacant jars and earthen crocks.
Here her sister sat by an open window, repairing masculine underwear; and a handsome, shabby, dirty boy of about thirteen sprawled on the floor of the “conservatory” unloosing upon its innocent, cracked, old black and white tiles a ghastly family of snakes, owls, and visaged crescent moons, in orange, green, and other loathsome chalks. As Cora entered from the hall, a woman of fifty came in at a door opposite, and, a dust-cloth retained under her left arm, an unsheathed weapon ready for emergency, leaned sociably against the door-casing and continued to polish a tablespoon with a bit of powdered chamois-skin. She was tall and slightly bent; and, like the flat, old, silver spoon in her hand, seemed to have been worn thin by use; yet it was plain that the three young people in the room “got their looks” from her. Her eyes, if tired, were tolerant and fond; and her voice held its youth and something of the music of Cora’s.
“What is he like?” She addressed the daughter by the window.
“Why don’t you ask Coralie?” suggested the sprawling artist, relaxing his hideous labour. He pronounced his sister’s name with intense bitterness. He called it “Cora-_lee_,” with an implication far from subtle that his sister had at some time thus Gallicized herself, presumably for masculine favour; and he was pleased to receive tribute to his satire in a flash of dislike from her lovely eyes.
“I ask Laura because it was Laura who went to the door,” Mrs. Madison answered. “I do not ask Cora because Cora hasn’t seen him. Do I satisfy you, Hedrick?”
“`Cora hasn’t seen him!'” the boy hooted mockingly. “She hasn’t? She was peeking out of the library shutters when he came up the front walk, and she wouldn’t let me go to the door; she told Laura to go, but first she took the library waste-basket and laid one o’ them roses—-“
“_Those_ roses,” said Cora sharply. “He _will_ hang around the neighbours’ stables. I think you ought to do something about it, mother.”
“_Them_ roses!” repeated Hedrick fiercely. “One o’ them roses Dick Lindley sent her this morning. Laid it in the waste-basket and sneaked it into the reception room for an excuse to go galloping in and—-“
“`Galloping’?” said Mrs. Madison gravely.
“It was a pretty bum excuse,” continued the unaffected youth, “but you bet your life you’ll never beat our Cora-_lee_ when there’s a person in pants on the premises! It’s sickening.” He rose, and performed something like a toe-dance, a supposed imitation of his sister’s mincing approach to the visitor. “Oh, dear, I am such a little sweety! Here I am all alone just reeking with Browning-and-Tennyson and thinking to myself about such lovely things, and walking around looking for my nice, pretty rose. Where can it be? Oh heavens, Mister, are _you_ here? Oh my, I never, never thought that there was a _man_ here! How you frighten me! See what a shy little thing I am? You _do see, don’t_ you, old sweeticums? Ta, ta, here’s papa. Remember me by that rose, ’cause it’s just like me. Me and it’s twins, you see, cutie-sugar!” The diabolical boy then concluded with a reversion to the severity of his own manner: “If she was _my_ daughter I’d whip her!”
His indignation was left in the air, for the three ladies had instinctively united against him, treacherously including his private feud in the sex-war of the ages: Cora jumped lightly upon the table and sat whistling and polishing the nails of one hand upon the palm of another; Laura continued to sew without looking up, and Mrs. Madison, conquering a tendency to laugh, preserved a serene countenance and said ruminatively:
“They were all rather queer, the Corlisses.”
Hedrick stared incredulously, baffled; but men must expect these things, and this was no doubt a helpful item in his education.
“I wonder if he wants to sell the house,” said Mrs. Madison.
“I wish he would. Anything that would make father get out of it!” Cora exclaimed. “I hope Mr. Corliss will burn it if he doesn’t sell it.”
“He might want to live here himself.”
“He!” Cora emitted a derisive outcry.
Her mother gave her a quick, odd look, in which there was a real alarm. “What is he like, Cora?”
“Awfully foreign and distinguished!”
This brought Hedrick to confront her with a leap as of some wild animal under a lash. He landed close to her; his face awful.
“Princely, I should call him,” said Cora, her enthusiasm undaunted. “Distinctly princely!”
“Princely,” moaned Hedrick. “Pe-rin-sley!”
“Hedrick!” Mrs. Madison reproved him automatically. “In what way is he `foreign,’ Cora?”
“Oh, every way.” Cora let her glance rest dreamily upon the goaded boy. “He has a splendid head set upon a magnificent torso—-“
“_Torso_!” Hedrick whispered hoarsely.
“Tall, a glorious figure–like a young guardsman’s.” Madness was gathering in her brother’s eyes; and observing it with quiet pleasure, she added: “One sees immediately he has the grand manner, the bel air.”
Hedrick exploded. “`_Bel air_’!” he screamed, and began to jump up and down, tossing his arms frantically, and gasping with emotion. “Oh, bel air! Oh, blah! `Henry Esmond!’ Been readin’ `Henry Esmond!’ Oh, you be-yoo-tiful Cora-Beatrix-a-_lee_! Magganifisent torso! Gull_o_-rious figgi-your! Bel air! Oh, slush! Oh, luv-a-ly slush!” He cast himself convulsively upon the floor, full length. “Luv-a-ly, _luv_-a-ly slush!”
“He is thirty, I should say,” continued Cora, thoughtfully. “Yes–about thirty. A strong, keen face, rather tanned. He’s between fair and dark—-“
Hedrick raised himself to the attitude of the “Dying Gaul.” “And with `hair slightly silvered at the temples!’ _Ain_’t his hair slightly silvered at the temples?” he cried imploringly. “Oh, sister, in pity’s name let his hair be slightly silvered at the temples? Only three grains of corn, your Grace; my children are starving!”
He collapsed again, laid his face upon his extended arms, and writhed.
“He has rather wonderful eyes,” said Cora. “They seem to look right through you.”
“Slush, slush, luv-a-ly slush,” came in muffled tones from the floor.
“And he wears his clothes so well–so differently! You feel at once that he’s not a person, but a personage.”
Hedrick sat up, his eyes closed, his features contorted as with agony, and chanted, impromptu:
“Slush, slush, luv-a-ly, slush!
Le’ss all go a-swimmin’ in a dollar’s worth o’ mush. Slush in the morning, slush at night,
If I don’t get my slush I’m bound to get tight!”
“Hedrick!” said his mother.
“Altogether I should say that Mr. Valentine Corliss looks as if he lived up to his name,” Cora went on tranquilly. “Valentine Corliss of Corliss Street–I think I rather like the sound of that name.” She let her beautiful voice linger upon it, caressingly. “Valentine Corliss.”
Hedrick opened his eyes, allowed his countenance to resume its ordinary proportions, and spoke another name slowly and with honeyed thoughtfulness:
This was the shot that told. Cora sprang down from the table with an exclamation.
Hedrick, subduing elation, added gently, in a mournful whisper:
“_Poor_ old Dick Lindley!”
His efforts to sting his sister were completely successful at last: Cora was visibly agitated, and appealed hotly to her mother. “Am I to bear this kind of thing all my life? Aren’t you _ever_ going to punish his insolence?”
“Hedrick, Hedrick!” said Mrs. Madison sadly.
Cora turned to the girl by the window with a pathetic gesture. “Laura—-” she said, and hesitated.
Laura Madison looked up into her sister’s troubled eyes.
“I feel so morbid,” said Cora, flushing a little and glancing away. “I wish—-” She stopped.
The silent Laura set aside her work, rose and went out of the room. Her cheeks, too, had reddened faintly, a circumstance sharply noted by the terrible boy. He sat where he was, asprawl, propped by his arms behind him, watching with acute concentration the injured departure of Cora, following her sister. At the door, Cora, without pausing, threw him a look over her shoulder: a full-eyed shot of frankest hatred.
A few moments later, magnificent chords sounded through the house. The piano was old, but tuned to the middle of the note, and the keys were swept by a master hand. The wires were not hammered; they were touched knowingly as by the player’s own fingers, and so they sang–and from out among the chords there stole an errant melody. This was not “piano-playing” and not a pianist’s triumphant nimbleness–it was music. Art is the language of a heart that knows how to speak, and a heart that knew how was speaking here. What it told was something immeasurably wistful, something that might have welled up in the breast of a young girl standing at twilight in an April orchard. It was the inexpressible made into sound, an improvisation by a master player.
“You hear what she’s up to?” said Hedrick, turning his head at last. But his mother had departed.
He again extended himself flat upon the floor, face downward, this time as a necessary preliminary to rising after a manner of his own invention. Mysteriously he became higher in the middle, his body slowly forming first a round and then a pointed arch, with forehead, knees, and elbows touching the floor. A brilliantly executed manoeuvre closed his Gothic period, set him upright and upon his feet; then, without ostentation, he proceeded to the kitchen, where he found his mother polishing a sugar-bowl.
He challenged her with a damnatory gesture in the direction of the music. “You hear what Cora’s up to?”
Mrs. Madison’s expression was disturbed; she gave her son a look almost of appeal, and said, gently:
“I believe there’s nothing precisely criminal in her getting Laura to play for her. Laura’s playing always soothes her when she feels out of sorts–and–you weren’t very considerate of her, Hedrick. You upset her.”
“Mentioning Ray Vilas, you mean?” he demanded.
“You weren’t kind.”
“She deserves it. Look at her! _You_ know why she’s got Laura at the piano now.”
“It’s–it’s because you worried her,” his mother faltered evasively. “Besides, it is very hot, and Cora isn’t as strong as she looks. She said she felt morbid and—-“
“Morbid? Blah!” interrupted the direct boy. “She’s started after this Corliss man just like she did for Vilas. If I was Dick Lindley I wouldn’t stand for Cora’s—-“
“Hedrick!” His mother checked his outburst pleadingly. “Cora has so much harder time than the other girls; they’re all so much better off. They seem to get everything they want, just by asking: nice clothes and jewellery–and automobiles. That seems to make a great difference nowadays; they all seem to have automobiles. We’re so dreadfully poor, and Cora has to struggle so for what good times she—-“
“Her?” the boy jibed bitterly. “I don’t see her doing any particular struggling.” He waved his hand in a wide gesture. “She takes it _all_!”
“There, there!” the mother said, and, as if feeling the need of placating this harsh judge, continued gently: “Cora isn’t strong, Hedrick, and she does have a hard time. Almost every one of the other girls in her set is at the seashore or somewhere having a gay summer. You don’t realize, but it’s mortifying to have to be the only one to stay at home, with everybody knowing it’s because your father can’t afford to send her. And this house is so hopeless,” Mrs. Madison went on, extending her plea hopefully; “it’s impossible to make it attractive, but Cora keeps trying and trying: she was all morning on her knees gilding those chairs for the music-room, poor child, and—-“
“`Music-room’!” sneered the boy. “Gilt chairs! All show-off! That’s all she ever thinks about. It’s all there is to Cora, just show-off, so she’ll get a string o’ fellows chasin’ after her. She’s started for this Corliss just exactly the way she did for Ray Vilas!”
“Just look at her!” he cried vehemently. “Don’t you know she’s tryin’ to make this Corliss think it’s _her_ playin’ the piano right now?”
“Didn’t she do that with Ray Vilas?” he demanded quickly. “Wasn’t that exactly what she did the first time he ever came here–got Laura to play and made him think it was _her_? Didn’t she?”
“Oh–just in fun.” Mrs. Madison’s tone lacked conviction; she turned, a little confusedly, from the glaring boy and fumbled among the silver on the kitchen table. “Besides–she told him afterward that it was Laura.”
“He walked in on her one day when she was battin’ away at the piano herself with her back to the door. Then she pretended it had been a joke, and he was so far gone by that time he didn’t care. He’s crazy, anyway,” added the youth, casually. “Who is this Corliss?”
“He owns this house. His family were early settlers and used to be very prominent, but they’re all dead except this one. His mother was a widow; she went abroad to live and took him with her when he was about your age, and I don’t think he’s ever been back since.”
“Did he use to live in this house?”
“No; an aunt of his did. She left it to him when she died, two years ago. Your father was agent for her.”
“You think this Corliss wants to sell it?”
“It’s been for sale all the time he’s owned it. That’s why we moved here; it made the rent low.”
“Is he rich?”
“They used to have money, but maybe it’s all spent. It seemed to me he might want to raise money on the house, because I don’t see any other reason that could bring him back here. He’s already mortgaged it pretty heavily, your father told me. I don’t—-” Mrs. Madison paused abruptly, her eyes widening at a dismaying thought. “Oh, I do hope your father will know better than to ask him to stay to dinner!”
Hedrick’s expression became cryptic. “Father won’t ask him,” he said. “But I’ll bet you a thousand dollars he stays!”
The mother followed her son’s thought and did not seek to elicit verbal explanation of the certainty which justified so large a venture. “Oh, I hope not,” she said. “Sarah’s threatening to leave, anyway; and she gets so cross if there’s extra cooking on wash-days.”
“Well, Sarah’ll have to get cross,” said the boy grimly; “and _I_’ll have to plug out and go for a quart of brick ice-cream and carry it home in all this heat; and Laura and you’ll have to stand over the stove with Sarah; and father’ll have to change his shirt; and we’ll all have to toil and moil and sweat and suffer while Cora-lee sits out on the front porch and talks toodle-do-dums to her new duke. And then she’ll have _you_ go out and kid him along while—-“
“Yes, you will!–while she gets herself all dressed and powdered up again. After that, she’ll do her share of the work: she’ll strain her poor back carryin’ Dick Lindley’s flowers down the back stairs and stickin’ ’em in a vase over a hole in the tablecloth that Laura hasn’t had time to sew up. You wait and see!”
The gloomy realism of this prophecy was not without effect upon the seer’s mother. “Oh, no!” she exclaimed, protestingly. “We really can’t manage it. I’m sure Cora won’t want to ask him—-“
“No; I’m sure she wouldn’t think of it, but if she does I’ll tell her we can’t. We really can’t, to-day.”
Her son looked pityingly upon her. “She ought to be _my _ daughter,” he said, the sinister implication all too plain;–“just about five minutes!”
With that, he effectively closed the interview and left her.
He returned to his abandoned art labours in the “conservatory,” and meditatively perpetrated monstrosities upon the tiles for the next half-hour, at the end of which he concealed his box of chalks, with an anxiety possibly not unwarranted, beneath the sideboard; and made his way toward the front door, first glancing, unseen, into the kitchen where his mother still pursued the silver. He walked through the hall on tiptoe, taking care to step upon the much stained and worn strip of “Turkish” carpet, and not upon the more resonant wooden floor. The music had ceased long since.
The open doorway was like a brilliantly painted picture hung upon the darkness of the hall, though its human centre of interest was no startling bit of work, consisting of Mr. Madison pottering aimlessly about the sun-flooded, unkempt lawn, fanning himself, and now and then stooping to pull up one of the thousands of plantain-weeds that beset the grass. With him the little spy had no concern; but from a part of the porch out of sight from the hall came Cora’s exquisite voice and the light and pleasant baritone of the visitor. Hedrick flattened himself in a corner just inside the door.
“I should break any engagement whatsoever if I had one,” Mr. Corliss was saying with what the eavesdropper considered an offensively “foreign” accent and an equally unjustifiable gallantry; “but of course I haven’t: I am so utterly a stranger here. Your mother is immensely hospitable to wish you to ask me, and I’ll be only too glad to stay. Perhaps after dinner you’ll be very, very kind and play again? Of course you know how remarkable such—-“
“Oh, just improvising,” Cora tossed off, carelessly, with a deprecatory ripple of laughter. “It’s purely with the mood, you see. I can’t make myself do things. No; I fancy I shall not play again today.”
There was a moment’s silence.
“Shan’t I fasten that in your buttonhole for you,” said Cora.
“You see how patiently I’ve been awaiting the offer!”
There was another little silence; and the listener was able to construct a picture (possibly in part from an active memory) of Cora’s delicate hands uplifted to the gentleman’s lapel and Cora’s eyes for a moment likewise uplifted.
“Yes, one has moods,” she said, dreamily. “I am _all_ moods. I think you are too, Mr. Corliss. You _look_ moody. Aren’t you?”
A horrible grin might have been seen to disfigure the shadow in the corner just within the doorway.
It was cooler outdoors, after dinner, in the dusk of that evening; nevertheless three members of the Madison family denied themselves the breeze, and, as by a tacitly recognized and habitual house-rule, so disposed themselves as to afford the most agreeable isolation for the younger daughter and the guest, who occupied wicker chairs upon the porch. The mother and father sat beneath a hot, gas droplight in the small “library”; Mrs. Madison with an evening newspaper, her husband with “King Solomon’s Mines”; and Laura, after crisply declining an urgent request from Hedrick to play, had disappeared upstairs. The inimical lad alone was inspired for the ungrateful role of duenna.
He sat upon the topmost of the porch steps with the air of being permanently implanted; leaning forward, elbows on knees, cheeks on palms, in a treacherous affectation of profound reverie; and his back (all of him that was plainly visible in the hall light) tauntingly close to a delicate foot which would, God wot! willingly have launched him into the darkness beyond. It was his dreadful pleasure to understand wholly the itching of that shapely silk and satin foot.
The gas-light from the hall laid a broad orange path to the steps–Cora and her companion sat just beyond it, his whiteness gray, and she a pale ethereality in the shadow. She wore an evening gown that revealed a vague lilac through white, and shimmered upon her like a vapour. She was very quiet; and there was a wan sweetness about her, an exhalation of wistfulness. Cora, in the evening, was more like a rose than ever. She was fragrant in the dusk. The spell she cast was an Undine’s: it was not to be thought so exquisite a thing as she could last. And who may know how she managed to say what she did in the silence and darkness? For it was said–without words, without touch, even without a look–as plainly as if she had spoken or written the message: “If I am a rose, I am one to be worn and borne away. Are you the man?”
With the fall of night, the street they faced had become still, save for an infrequent squawk of irritation on the part of one of the passing automobiles, gadding for the most part silently, like fireflies. But after a time a strolling trio of negroes came singing along the sidewalk.
“In the evening, by the moonlight, you could hear those banjos ringing;
In the evening, by the moonlight, you could hear those darkies singing.
How the ole folks would injoy it; they would sit all night an’ lis-sun,
As we sang I-I-N the evening BY-Y-Y the moonlight.’
“Ah, _that_ takes me back!” exclaimed Corliss. “That’s as it used to be. I might be a boy again.”
“And I suppose this old house has many memories for you?” said Cora, softly.
“Not very many. My, old-maid aunt didn’t like me overmuch, I believe; and I wasn’t here often. My mother and I lived far down the street. A big apartment-house stands there now, I noticed as I was walking out here this afternoon–the `Verema,’ it is called, absurdly enough!”
“Ray Vilas lives there,” volunteered Hedrick, not altering his position.
“Vilas?” said the visitor politely, with a casual recollection that the name had been once or twice emphasized by the youth at dinner. “I don’t remember Vilas among the old names here.”
“It wasn’t, I guess,” said Hedrick. “Ray Vilas has only been here about two years. He came from Kentucky.”
“A great friend of yours, I suppose.”
“He ain’t a boy,” said Hedrick, and returned to silence without further explanation.
“How cool and kind the stars are to-night,” said Cora, very gently.
She leaned forward from her chair, extending a white arm along the iron railing of the porch; bending toward Corliss, and speaking toward him and away from Hedrick in as low a voice as possible, probably entertaining a reasonable hope of not being overheard.
“I love things that are cool and kind,” she said. “I love things that are cool and strong. I love iron.” She moved her arm caressingly upon the railing. “I love its cool, smooth touch. Any strong life must have iron in it. I like iron in men.”
She leaned a very little closer to him.
“Have you iron in you, Mr. Corliss?” she asked.
At these words the frayed edge of Hedrick’s broad white collar was lifted perceptibly from his coat, as if by a shudder passing over the back and shoulders beneath.
“If I have not,” answered Corliss in a low voice, “I will have–now!”
“Tell me about yourself,” she said.
“Dear lady,” he began–and it was an effective beginning, for a sigh of pleasure parted her lips as he spoke–“there is nothing interesting to tell. I have spent a very commonplace life.”
“I think not. You shouldn’t call any life commonplace that has escaped _this_!” The lovely voice was all the richer for the pain that shook it now. “This monotony, this unending desert of ashes, this death in life!”
“This town, you mean?”
“This prison, I mean! Everything. Tell me what lies outside of it. You can.”
“What makes you think I can?”
“I don’t need to answer that. You understand perfectly.”
Valentine Corliss drew in his breath with a sound murmurous of delight, and for a time they did not speak.
“Yes,” he said, finally, “I think I do.”
“There are meetings in the desert,” he went on, slowly. “A lonely traveller finds another at a spring, sometimes.”
“And sometimes they find that they speak the same language?”
His answer came, almost in a whisper:
“`Even as you and I.'”
“`Even as you and I,'” she echoed, even more faintly.
Cora breathed rapidly in the silence that followed; she had every appearance of a woman deeply and mysteriously stirred. Her companion watched her keenly in the dusk, and whatever the reciprocal symptoms of emotion he may have exhibited, they were far from tumultuous, bearing more likeness to the quiet satisfaction of a good card-player taking what may prove to be a decisive trick.
After a time she leaned back in her chair again, and began to fan herself slowly.
“You have lived in the Orient, haven’t you, Mr. Corliss?” she said in an ordinary tone.
“Not lived. I’ve been East once or twice. I spend a greater part of the year at Posilipo.”
“Where is that?”
“On the fringe of Naples.”
“Do you live in a hotel?”
“No.” A slight surprise sounded in his voice. “I have a villa there.”
“Do you know what that seems to me?” Cora asked gravely, after a pause; then answered herself, after another: “Like magic. Like a strange, beautiful dream.”
“Yes, it is beautiful,” he said.
“Then tell me: What do you do there?”
“I spend a lot of time on the water in a boat.”
“On sapphires and emeralds and turquoises and rubies, melted and blown into waves.”
“And you go yachting over that glory?”
“Fishing with my crew–and loafing.”
“But your boat is really a yacht, isn’t it?”
“Oh, it might be called anything,” he laughed.
“And your sailors are Italian fishermen?”
Hedrick slew a mosquito upon his temple, smiting himself hard. “No, they’re Chinese!” he muttered hoarsely.
“They’re Neapolitans,” said Corliss.
“Do they wear red sashes and earrings?” asked Cora.
“One of them wears earrings and a derby hat!”
“Ah!” she protested, turning to him again. “You don’t tell me. You let me cross-question you, but you don’t tell me things! Don’t you see? I want to know what _life_ is! I want to know of strange seas, of strange people, of pain and of danger, of great music, of curious thoughts! What are the Neapolitan women like?”
“They fade early.”
She leaned closer to him. “Before the fading have you–have you loved–many?”
“All the pretty ones I ever saw,” he answered gayly, but with something in his tone (as there was in hers) which implied that all the time they were really talking of things other than those spoken. Yet here this secret subject seemed to come near the surface.
She let him hear a genuine little snap of her teeth. “I _thought_ you were like that!”
He laughed. “Ah, but you were sure to see it!”
“You could ‘a’ seen a Neapolitan woman yesterday, Cora,” said Hedrick, obligingly, “if you’d looked out the front window. She was working a hurdy-gurdy up and down this neighbourhood all afternoon.” He turned genially to face his sister, and added: “Ray Vilas used to say there were lots of pretty girls in Lexington.”
Cora sprang to her feet. “You’re not smoking,” she said to Corliss hurriedly, as upon a sudden discovery. “Let me get you some matches.”
She had entered the house before he could protest, and Hedrick, looking down the hall, was acutely aware that she dived desperately into the library. But, however tragic the cry for justice she uttered there, it certainly was not prolonged; and the almost instantaneous quickness of her reappearance upon the porch, with matches in her hand, made this one of the occasions when her brother had to admit that in her own line Cora was a miracle.
“So thoughtless of me,” she said cheerfully, resuming her seat. She dropped the matches into Mr. Corliss’s hand with a fleeting touch of her finger-tips upon his palm. “Of course you wanted to smoke. I can’t think why I didn’t realize it before. I must have—-“
A voice called from within, commanding in no, uncertain tones.
“Hedrick! I should like to see you!” Hedrick rose, and, looking neither to the right nor, to the left, went stonily into the house, and appeared before the powers.
“Call me?” he inquired with the air of cheerful readiness to proceed upon any errand, no matter how difficult.
Mr. Madison countered diplomacy with gloom.
“I don’t know what to do with you. Why can’t you let your sister alone?”
“Has Laura been complaining of me?”
“Oh, Hedrick!” said Mrs. Madison.
Hedrick himself felt the justice of her reproof: his reference to Laura was poor work, he knew. He hung his head and began to scrape the carpet with the side of his shoe.
“Well, what’d Cora say I been doing to her?”
“You know perfectly well what you’ve been doing,” said Mr. Madison sharply.
“Nothing at all; just sitting on the steps. What’d she _say_?”
His father evidently considered it wiser not to repeat the text of accusation. “You know what you did,” he said heavily.
“Oho!” Hedrick’s eyes became severe, and his sire’s evasively shifted from them.
“You keep away from the porch,” said the father, uneasily.
“You mean what I said about Ray Vilas?” asked the boy.
Both parents looked uncomfortable, and Mr. Madison, turning a leaf in his book, gave a mediocre imitation of an austere person resuming his reading after an impertinent interruption.
“That’s what you mean,” said the boy accusingly. “Ray Vilas!”
“Just you keep away from that porch.”
“Because I happened to mention Ray Vilas?” demanded Hedrick.
“You let your sister alone.”
“I got a right to know what she said, haven’t I?”
There was no response, which appeared to satisfy Hedrick perfectly. Neither parent met his glance; the mother troubled and the father dogged, while the boy rejoiced sternly in some occult triumph. He inflated his scant chest in pomp and hurled at the defeated pair the well-known words:
“I wish she was _my_ daughter–about five minutes!”
New sounds from without–men’s voices in greeting, and a ripple of response from Cora somewhat lacking in enthusiasm–afforded Mr. Madison unmistakable relief, and an errand upon which to send his deadly offspring.
Hedrick, after a reconnaissance in the hall, obeyed at leisure. Closing the library door nonchalantly behind him, he found himself at the foot of a flight of unillumined back stairs, where his manner underwent a swift alteration, for here was an adventure to be gone about with ceremony. “Ventre St. Gris!” he muttered hoarsely, and loosened the long rapier in the shabby sheath at his side. For, with the closing of the door, he had become a Huguenot gentleman, over forty and a little grizzled perhaps, but modest and unassuming; wiry, alert, lightning-quick, with a wrist of steel and a heart of gold; and he was about to ascend the stairs of an unknown house at Blois in total darkness. He went up, crouching, ready for anything, without a footfall, not even causing a hideous creak; and gained the top in safety. Here he turned into an obscure passage, and at the end of it beheld, through an open door, a little room in which a dark-eyed lady sat writing in a book by the light of an oil lamp.
The wary Huguenot remained in the shadow and observed her.
Laura was writing in an old ledger she had found in the attic, blank and unused. She had rebound it herself in heavy gray leather; and fitted it with a tiny padlock and key. She wore the key under her dress upon a very thin silver chain round her neck. Upon the first page of the book was written a date, now more than a year past, the month was June–and beneath it:
“Love came to me to-day.”
Nothing more was written upon that page.
Laura, at this writing, looked piquantly unfamiliar to her brother: her eyes were moist and bright; her cheeks were flushed and as she bent low, intently close to the book, a loosened wavy strand of her dark hair almost touched the page. Hedrick had never before seen her wearing an expression so “becoming” as the eager and tremulous warmth of this; though sometimes, at the piano, she would play in a reverie which wrought such glamour about her that even a brother was obliged to consider her rather handsome. She looked more than handsome now, so strangely lovely, in fact, that his eyes watered painfully with the protracted struggle to read a little of the writing in her book before she discovered him.
He gave it up at last, and lounged forward blinking, with the air of finding it sweet to do nothing.
“Whatch’ writin’?” he asked in simple carelessness.
At the first sound of his movement she closed the book in a flash; then, with a startled, protective gesture, extended her arms over it, covering it.
“What is it, Hedrick?” she asked, breathlessly.
“What’s the padlock for?”
“Nothing,” she panted. “What is it you want?”
“You writin’ poetry?”
Laura’s eyes dilated; she looked dangerous.
“Oh, I don’t care about your old book,” said Hedrick, with an amused nonchalance Talleyrand might have admired. “There’s callers, and you have to come down.”
“Who sent you?”
“A man I’ve often noticed around the house,” he replied blightingly. “You may have seen him–I think his name’s Madison. His wife and he both sent for you.”
One of Laura’s hands instinctively began to arrange her hair, but the other remained upon the book. “Who is it calling?”
“Richard Lindley and that Wade Trumble.”
Laura rose, standing between her brother and the table. “Tell mother I will come down.”
Hedrick moved a little nearer, whereupon, observing his eye, she put her right hand behind her upon the book. She was not deceived, and boys are not only superb strategic actors sometimes, but calamitously quick. Appearing to be unaware of her careful defence, he leaned against the wall and crossed his feet in an original and interesting manner.
“Of course _you_ understand,” he said cosily. “Cora wants to keep this Corliss in a corner of the porch where she can coo at him; so you and mother’ll have to raise a ballyhoo for Dick Lindley and that Wade Trumble. It’d been funny if Dick hadn’t noticed anybody was there and kissed her. What on earth does he want to stay engaged to her for, anyway?”
“You don’t know that she is engaged to Mr. Lindley, Hedrick.”
“Get out!” he hooted. “What’s the use talking like that to me? A blind mackerel could see she’s let poor old Lindley think he’s High Man with her these last few months; but he’ll have to hit the pike now, I reckon, ’cause this Corliss is altogether too pe-rin-sley for Dick’s class. Lee roy est mort. Vive lee roy!”
“Hedrick, won’t you please run along? I want to change my dress.”
“What for? There was company for dinner and you didn’t change then.”
Laura’s flushed cheeks flushed deeper, and in her confusion she answered too quickly. “I only have one evening gown. I–of course I can’t wear it every night.”
“Well, then,” he returned triumphantly, “what do you want to put it on now for?”
“_Please_ run along, Hedrick,” she pleaded.
“You didn’t for this Corliss,” he persisted sharply. “You know Dick Lindley couldn’t see anybody but Cora to save his life, and I don’t suppose there’s a girl on earth fool enough to dress up for that Wade Trum—-“
“Hedrick!” Laura’s voice rang with a warning which he remembered to have heard upon a few previous occasions when she had easily proved herself physically stronger than he. “Go and tell mother I’m coming,” she said.
He began to whistle “Beulah Land” as he went, but, with the swift closing of the door behind him, abandoned that pathetically optimistic hymn prematurely, after the third bar.
Twenty minutes later, when Laura came out and went downstairs, a fine straight figure in her black evening gown, the Sieur de Marsac–that hard-bitten Huguenot, whose middle-aged shabbiness was but the outward and deceptive seeming of the longest head and the best sword in France–emerged cautiously from the passageway and stood listening until her footsteps were heard descending the front stairs. Nevertheless, the most painstaking search of her room, a search as systematic as it was feverish, failed to reveal where she had hidden the book.
He returned wearily to the porch.
A prophet has always been supposed to take some pleasure, perhaps morbid, in seeing his predictions fulfilled; and it may have been a consolation to the gloomy heart of Hedrick, sorely injured by Laura’s offensive care of her treasure, to find the grouping upon the porch as he had foretold: Cora and Mr. Corliss sitting a little aloof from the others, far enough to permit their holding an indistinct and murmurous conversation of their own. Their sequestration, even by so short a distance, gave them an appearance of intimacy which probably accounted for the rather absent greeting bestowed by Mr. Lindley upon the son of the house, who met him with some favour.
This Richard Lindley was a thin, friendly looking young man with a pleasing, old-fashioned face which suggested that if he were minded to be portrayed it should be by the daguerreotype, and that a high, black stock would have been more suitable to him than his businesslike, modern neck-gear. He had fine eyes, which seemed habitually concerned with faraway things, though when he looked at Cora they sparkled; however, it cannot be said that the sparkling continued at its brightest when his glance wandered (as it not infrequently did this evening) from her lovely head to the rose in Mr. Corliss’s white coat.
Hedrick, resuming a position upon the top step between the two groups, found the conversation of the larger annoying because it prevented him from hearing that of the smaller. It was carried on for the greater part by his mother and Mr. Trumble; Laura sat silent between these two; and Lindley’s mood was obviously contemplative. Mr. Wade Trumble, twenty-six, small, earnest, and already beginning to lose his hair, was talkative enough.
He was one of those people who are so continuously aggressive that they are negligible. “What’s the matter here? Nobody pays any attention to me. I’M important!” He might have had that legend engraved on his card, it spoke from everything else that was his: face, voice, gesture–even from his clothes, for they also clamoured for attention without receiving it. Worn by another man, their extravagance of shape and shade might have advertised a self-sacrificing effort for the picturesque; but upon Mr. Trumble they paradoxically confirmed an impression that he was well off and close. Certainly this was the impression confirmed in the mind of the shrewdest and most experienced observer on that veranda. The accomplished Valentine Corliss was quite able to share Cora’s detachment satisfactorily, and be very actively aware of other things at the same time. For instance: Richard Lindley’s preoccupation had neither escaped him nor remained unconnected in his mind with that gentleman’s somewhat attentive notice of the present position of a certain rose.
Mr. Trumble took up Mrs. Madison’s placid weather talk as if it had been a flaunting challenge; he made it a matter of conscience and for argument; for he was a doughty champion, it appeared, when nothings were in question, one of those stern men who will have accuracy in the banal, insisting upon portent in talk meant to be slid over as mere courteous sound.
“I don’t know about that, now,” he said with severe emphasis. “I don’t know about that at all. I can’t say I agree with you. In fact, I do not agree with you: it was hotter in the early part of July, year before last, than it has been at any time this summer. Several degrees hotter–several degrees.”
“I fear I must beg to differ with you,” he said, catching the poor lady again, a moment later. “I beg to differ decidedly. Other places get a great deal more heat. Look at Egypt.”
“Permit me to disagree,” he interrupted her at once, when she pathetically squirmed to another subject. “There’s more than one side to this matter. You are looking at this matter from a totally wrong angle. . . . Let me inform you that statistics. . . .” Mrs. Madison’s gentle voice was no more than just audible in the short intervals he permitted; a blind listener would have thought Mr. Trumble at the telephone. Hedrick was thankful when his mother finally gave up altogether the display of her ignorance, inaccuracy, and general misinformation, and Trumble talked alone. That must have been the young man’s object; certainly he had struggled for it; and so it must have pleased him. He talked on and on and on; he passed from one topic to another with no pause; swinging over the gaps with a “Now you take,” or, “And that reminds me,” filling many a vacancy with “So-and-so and so-and-so,” and other stencils, while casting about for material to continue. Everything was italicized, the significant and the trivial, to the same monotone of emphasis. Death and shoe-laces were all the same to him.
Anything was all the same to him so long as he talked.
Hedrick’s irritation was gradually dispelled; and, becoming used to the sound, he found it lulling; relaxed his attitude and drowsed; Mr. Lindley was obviously lost in a reverie; Mrs. Madison, her hand shading her eyes, went over her market-list for the morrow and otherwise set her house in order; Laura alone sat straight in her chair; and her face was toward the vocalist, but as she was in deep shadow her expression could not be guessed. However, one person in that group must have listened with genuine pleasure–else why did he talk?
It was the returned native whose departure at last rang the curtain on the monologue. The end of the long sheltered seclusion of Cora and her companion was a whispered word. He spoke it first:
Cora gave a keen, quick, indrawn sigh–not of sorrow–and sank back in her chair, as he touched her hand in farewell and rose to go. She remained where she was, motionless and silent in the dark, while he crossed to Mrs. Madison, and prefaced a leave-taking unusually formal for these precincts with his mannered bow. He shook hands with Richard Lindley, asking genially:
“Do you still live where you did–just below here?”
“When I passed by there this afternoon,” said Corliss, “it recalled a stupendous conflict we had, once upon a time; but I couldn’t remember the cause.”
“I remember the cause,” said Mr. Lindley, but, stopping rather short, omitted to state it. “At all events, it was settled.”
“Yes,” said the other quietly. “You whipped me.”
“Did I so?” Corliss laughed gayly. “We mustn’t let it happen again!”
Mr. Trumble joined the parting guest, making simultaneous adieus with unmistakable elation. Mr. Trumble’s dreadful entertainment had made it a happy evening for him.
As they went down the steps together, the top of his head just above the level of his companion’s shoulder, he lifted to Corliss a searching gaze like an actor’s hopeful scrutiny of a new acquaintance; and before they reached the street his bark rang eagerly on the stilly night: “Now _there_ is a point on which I beg to differ with you. . . .”
Mrs. Madison gave Lindley her hand. “I think I’ll go in. Good-night, Richard. Come, Hedrick!”
Hedrick rose, groaning, and batted his eyes painfully as he faced the hall light. “What’d you and this Corliss fight about?” he asked, sleepily.
“Nothing,” said Lindley.
“You said you remembered.”
“Oh, I remember a lot of useless things.”
“Well, what was it? I want to know what you fought about.”
“Come, Hedrick,” repeated his mother, setting a gently urgent hand on his shoulder.
“I won’t,” said the boy impatiently, shaking her off and growing suddenly very wideawake and determined. “I won’t move a step till he tells me what they fought about. Not a step!”
“Well–it was about a `show.’ We were only boys, you know–younger than you, perhaps.”
“A boy-circus he and my brother got up in our yard. I wasn’t in it.”
“Well, what did you fight about?”
“I thought Val Corliss wasn’t quite fair to my brother. That’s all.”
“No, it isn’t! How wasn’t he fair?”
“They sold tickets to the other boys; and I thought my brother didn’t get his share.”
“This Corliss kept it all?”
“Oh, something like that,” said Lindley, laughing.
“Probably I was in the wrong.”
“And he licked you?”
“All over the place!”
“I wish I’d seen it,” said Hedrick, not unsympathetically, but as a sportsman. And he consented to be led away.
Laura had been standing at the top of the steps looking down the street, where Corliss and his brisk companion had emerged momentarily from deep shadows under the trees into the illumination of a swinging arc-lamp at the corner. They disappeared; and she turned, and, smiling, gave the delaying guest her hand in good-night.
His expression, which was somewhat troubled, changed to one of surprise as her face came into the light, for it was transfigured. Deeply flushed, her eyes luminous, she wore that shining look Hedrick had seen as she wrote in her secret book.
“Why, Laura!” said Lindley, wondering.
She said good-night again, and went in slowly. As she reached the foot of the stairs, she heard him moving a chair upon the porch, and Cora speaking sharply:
“Please don’t sit close to me!” There was a sudden shrillness in the voice of honey, and the six words were run so rapidly together they seemed to form but one. After a moment Cora added, with a deprecatory ripple of laughter not quite free from the same shrillness:
“You see, Richard, it’s so–it’s so hot, to-night.”
Half an hour later, when Lindley had gone, Cora closed the front doors in a manner which drew an immediate cry of agony from the room where her father was trying to sleep. She stood on tiptoe to turn out the gas-light in the hall; but for a time the key resisted the insufficient pressure of her finger-tips: the little orange flame, with its black-green crescent over the armature, so maliciously like the “eye” of a peacock feather, limned the exquisite planes of the upturned face; modelled them with soft and regular shadows; painted a sullen loveliness. The key turned a little, but not enough; and she whispered to herself a monosyllable not usually attributed to the vocabulary of a damsel of rank. Next moment, her expression flashed in a brilliant change, like that of a pouting child suddenly remembering that tomorrow is Christmas. The key surrendered instantly, and she ran gayly up the familiar stairs in the darkness.
The transom of Laura’s door shone brightly; but the knob, turning uselessly in Cora’s hand, proved the door itself not so hospitable. There was a brief rustling within the room; the bolt snapped, and Laura opened the door.
“Why, Laura,” said Cora, observing her sister with transient curiosity, “you haven’t undressed. What have you been doing? Something’s the matter with you. I know what it is,” she added, laughing, as she seated herself on the edge of the old black-walnut bed. “You’re in love with Wade Trumble!”
“He’s a strong man,” observed Laura. “A remarkable throat.”
“Horrible little person!” said Cora, forgetting what she owed the unfortunate Mr. Trumble for the vocal wall which had so effectively sheltered her earlier in the evening. “He’s like one of those booming June-bugs, batting against the walls, falling into lamp-chimneys—–“
“He doesn’t get very near the light he wants,” said Laura.
“Me? Yes, he would like to, the rat! But he’s consoled when he can get any one to listen to his awful chatter. He makes up to himself among women for the way he gets sat on at the club. But he has his use: he shows off the other men so, by contrast. Oh, Laura!” She lifted both hands to her cheeks, which were beautiful with a quick suffusion of high colour. “Isn’t he gorgeous!”
“Yes,” said Laura gently, “I’ve always thought so.”
“Now what’s the use of that?” asked Cora peevishly, “with _me_? I didn’t mean Richard Lindley. You _know_ what I mean.”
“Yes–of course–I do,” Laura said.
Cora gave her a long look in which a childlike pleading mingled with a faint, strange trouble; then this glance wandered moodily from the face of her sister to her own slippers, which she elevated to meet her descending line of vision.
“And you know I can’t help it,” she said, shifting quickly to the role of accuser. “So what’s the use of behaving like the Pest?” She let her feet drop to the floor again, and her voice trembled a little as she went on: “Laura, you don’t know what I had to endure from him to-night. I really don’t think I can stand it to live in the same house any longer with that frightful little devil. He’s been throwing Ray Vilas’s name at me until–oh, it was ghastly to-night! And then–then—-” Her tremulousness increased. “I haven’t said anything about it all day, but I _met_ him on the street downtown, this morning—-“
“You met Vilas?” Laura looked startled. “Did he speak to you?”
“`Speak to me!'” Cora’s exclamation shook with a half-laugh of hysteria. “He made an awful _scene_! He came out of the Richfield Hotel barroom on Main Street just as I was going into the jeweller’s next door, and he stopped and bowed like a monkey, square in front of me, and–and he took off his hat and set it on the pavement at my feet and told me to kick it into the gutter! Everybody stopped and stared; and I couldn’t get by him. And he said–he said I’d kicked his heart into the gutter and he didn’t want it to catch cold without a hat! And wouldn’t I please be so kind as to kick—-” She choked with angry mortification. “It was horrible! People were stopping and laughing, and a rowdy began to make fun of Ray, and pushed him, and they got into a scuffle, and I ran into the jeweller’s and almost fainted.”
“He is insane!” said Laura, aghast.
“He’s nothing of the kind; he’s just a brute. He does it to make people say I’m the cause of his drinking; and everybody in this gossipy old town _does_ say it–just because I got bored to death with his everlasting do-you-love-me-to-day-as-well-as-yesterday style of torment, and couldn’t help liking Richard better. Yes, every old cat in town says I ruined him, and that’s what he wants them to say. It’s so unmanly! I wish he’d die! Yes, I _do_ wish he would! Why doesn’t he kill himself?”
“Ah, don’t say that,” protested Laura.
“Why not? He’s threatened to enough. And I’m afraid to go out of the house because I can’t tell when I’ll meet him or what he’ll do. I was almost sick in that jeweller’s shop, this morning, and so upset I came away without getting my pendant. There’s _another_ thing I’ve got to go through, I suppose!” She pounded the yielding pillow desperately. “Oh, oh, oh! Life isn’t worth living–it seems to me sometimes as if everybody in the world spent his time trying to think up ways to make it harder for me! I couldn’t have worn the pendant, though, even if I’d got it,” she went on, becoming thoughtful. “It’s Richard’s silly old engagement ring, you know,” she explained, lightly. “I had it made up into a pendant, and heaven knows how I’m going to get Richard to see it the right way. He was so unreasonable tonight.”
“Was he cross about Mr. Corliss monopolizing you?”
“Oh, you know how he is,” said Cora. “He didn’t speak of it exactly. But after you’d gone, he asked me—-” She stopped with a little gulp, an expression of keen distaste about her mouth.
“Oh, he wants me to wear my ring,” she continued, with sudden rapidity: “and how the dickens _can_ I when I can’t even tell him it’s been made into a pendant! He wants to speak to father; he wants to _announce_ it. He’s sold out his business for what he thinks is a good deal of money, and he wants me to marry him next month and take some miserable little trip, I don’t know where, for a few weeks, before he invests what he’s made in another business. Oh!” she cried. “It’s a _horrible_ thing to ask a girl to do: to settle down–just housekeeping, housekeeping, housekeeping forever in this stupid, stupid town! It’s so unfair! Men are just possessive; they think it’s loving you to want to possess you themselves. A beautiful `love’! It’s so mean! Men!” She sprang up and threw out both arms in a vehement gesture of revolt. “Damn ’em, I wish they’d let me _alone_!”
Laura’s eyes had lost their quiet; they showed a glint of tears, and she was breathing quickly. In this crisis of emotion the two girls went to each other silently; Cora turned, and Laura began to unfasten Cora’s dress in the back.
“Poor Richard!” said Laura presently, putting into her mouth a tiny pearl button which had detached itself at her touch. “This was his first evening in the overflow. No wonder he was troubled!”
“Pooh!” said Cora. “As if you and mamma weren’t good enough for him to talk to! He’s spoiled. He’s so used to being called `the most popular man in town’ and knowing that every girl on Corliss Street wanted to marry him—-” She broke off, and exclaimed sharply: “I wish they would!”
“Oh, I suppose you mean that’s the reason _I_ went in for him?”
“No, no,” explained Laura hurriedly. “I only meant, stand still.”
“Well, it was!” And Cora’s abrupt laugh had the glad, free ring fancy attaches to the merry confidences of a buccaneer in trusted company.
Laura knelt to continue unfastening the dress; and when it was finished she extended three of the tiny buttons in her hand. “They’re always loose on a new dress,” she said. “I’ll sew them all on tight, to-morrow.”
Cora smiled lovingly. “You good old thing,” she said. “You looked pretty to-night.”
“That’s nice!” Laura laughed, as she dropped the buttons into a little drawer of her bureau. It was an ugly, cheap, old bureau, its veneer loosened and peeling, the mirror small and flawed–a piece of furniture in keeping with the room, which was small, plain and hot, its only ornamental adjunct being a silver-framed photograph of Mrs. Madison, with Cora, as a child of seven or eight, upon her lap.
“You really do look ever so pretty,” asserted Cora.
“I wonder if I look as well as I did the last time I heard I was pretty,” said the other. “That was at the Assembly in March. Coming down the stairs, I heard a man from out of town say, `That black-haired Miss Madison is a pretty girl.’ And some one with him said, `Yes; you’ll think so until you meet her sister!'”
“You are an old dear!” Cora enfolded her delightedly; then, drawing back, exclaimed: “You _know_ he’s gorgeous!” And with a feverish little ripple of laughter, caught her dress together in the back and sped through the hall to her own room.
This was a very different affair from Laura’s, much cooler and larger; occupying half the width of the house; and a rather expensive struggle had made it pretty and even luxurious. The window curtains and the wall-paper were fresh, and of a quiet blue; there was a large divan of the same colour; a light desk, prettily equipped, occupied a corner; and between two gilt gas-brackets, whose patent burners were shielded by fringed silk shades, stood a cheval-glass six feet high. The door of a very large clothes-pantry stood open, showing a fine company of dresses, suspended from forms in an orderly manner; near by, a rosewood cabinet exhibited a delicate collection of shoes and slippers upon its four shelves. A dressing-table, charmingly littered with everything, took the place of a bureau; and upon it, in a massive silver frame, was a large photograph of Mr. Richard Lindley. The frame was handsome, but somewhat battered: it had seen service. However, the photograph was quite new.
There were photographs everywhere–photographs framed and unframed; photographs large and photographs small, the fresh and the faded; tintypes, kodaks, “full lengths,” “cabinets,” groups–every kind of photograph; and among them were several of Cora herself, one of her mother, one of Laura, and two others of girls. All the rest were sterner. Two or three were seamed across with cracks, hastily recalled sentences to destruction; and here and there remained tokens of a draughtsman’s over-generous struggle to confer upon some of the smooth-shaven faces additional manliness in the shape of sweeping moustaches, long beards, goatees, mutton-chops, and, in the case of one gentleman of a blond, delicate and tenor-like beauty, neck-whiskers;–decorations in many instances so deeply and damply pencilled that subsequent attempts at erasure had failed of great success. Certainly, Hedrick had his own way of relieving dull times.
Cora turned up the lights at the sides of the cheval-glass, looked at herself earnestly, then absently, and began to loosen her hair. Her lifted hands hesitated; she re-arranged the slight displacement of her hair already effected; set two chairs before the mirror, seated herself in one; pulled up her dress, where it was slipping from her shoulder, rested an arm upon the back of the other chair as, earlier in the evening, she had rested it upon the iron railing of the porch, and, leaning forward, assumed as exactly as possible the attitude in which she had sat so long beside Valentine Corliss. She leaned very slowly closer and yet closer to the mirror; a rich colour spread over her; her eyes, gazing into themselves, became dreamy, inexpressibly wistful, cloudily sweet; her breath was tumultuous. “`Even as you and I’?” she whispered.
Then, in the final moment of this after-the-fact rehearsal, as her face almost touched the glass, she forgot how and what she had looked to Corliss; she forgot him; she forgot him utterly: she leaped to her feet and kissed the mirrored lips with a sort of passion.
“You _darling_!” she cried. Cora’s christening had been unimaginative, for the name means only, “maiden.” She should have been called Narcissa.
The rhapsody was over instantly, leaving an emotional vacuum like a silence at the dentist’s. Cora yawned, and resumed the loosening of her hair.
When she had put on her nightgown, she went from one window to another, closing the shutters against the coming of the morning light to wake her. As she reached the last window, a sudden high wind rushed among the trees outside; a white flare leaped at her face, startling her; there was a boom and rattle as of the brasses, cymbals, and kettle-drums of some fatal orchestra; and almost at once it began to rain.
And with that, from the distance came a voice, singing; and at the first sound of it, though it was far away and almost indistinguishable, Cora started more violently than at the lightning; she sprang to the mirror lights, put them out; threw herself upon the bed, and huddled there in the darkness.
The wind passed; the heart of the storm was miles away; this was only its fringe; but the rain pattered sharply upon the thick foliage outside her windows; and the singing voice came slowly up the street.
It was a strange voice: high-pitched and hoarse–and not quite human, so utter was the animal abandon of it.
“I love a lassie, a bonnie, bonnie lassie,” it wailed and piped, coming nearer; and the gay little air–wrought to a grotesque of itself by this wild, high voice in the rain–might have been a banshee’s love-song.
“I love a lassie, a bonnie, bonnie lassie. She’s as pure as the lily in the dell—-“
The voice grew louder; came in front of the house; came into the yard; came and sang just under Cora’s window. There it fell silent a moment; then was lifted in a long peal of imbecile laughter, and sang again:
“Then slowly, slowly rase she up
And slowly she came nigh him,
And when she drew the curtain by– `Young man I think you’re dyin’.'”
Cora’s door opened and closed softly, and Laura, barefooted, stole to the bed and put an arm about the shaking form of her sister.
“The drunken beast!” sobbed Cora. “It’s to disgrace me! That’s what he wants. He’d like nothing better than headlines in the papers: `Ray Vilas arrested at the Madison residence’!” She choked with anger and mortification. “The neighbours—-“
“They’re nearly all away,” whispered Laura. “You needn’t fear—-“
The voice stopped singing, and began to mumble incoherently; then it rose again in a lamentable outcry:
“Oh, God of the fallen, be Thou merciful to me! Be Thou merciful–merciful–_merciful_” . . .
“MERCIFUL, MERCIFUL, MERCIFUL!” it shrieked, over and over, with increasing loudness, and to such nerve-racking effect that Cora, gasping, beat the bedclothes frantically with her hands at each iteration.
The transom over the door became luminous; some one had lighted the gas in the upper hall. Both girls jumped from the bed, ran to the door, and opened it. Their mother, wearing a red wrapper, was standing at the head of the stairs, which Mr. Madison, in his night-shirt and slippers, was slowly and heavily descending.
Before he reached the front door, the voice outside ceased its dreadful plaint with the abrupt anti-climax of a phonograph stopped in the middle of a record. There was the sound of a struggle and wrestling, a turmoil in the wet shrubberies, branches cracking.
“Let me go, da—-” cried the voice, drowned again at half a word, as by a powerful hand upon a screaming mouth.
The old man opened the front door, stepped out, closing it behind him; and the three women looked at each other wanly during a hushed interval like that in a sleeping-car at night when the train stops. Presently he came in again, and started up the stairs, heavily and slowly, as he had gone down.
“Richard Lindley stopped him,” he said, sighing with the ascent, and not looking up. “He heard him as he came along the street, and dressed as quick as he could, and ran up and got him. Richard’s taken him away.”
He went to his own room, panting, mopping his damp gray hair with his fat wrist, and looking at no one.
Cora began to cry again. It was an hour before any of this family had recovered sufficient poise to realize, with the shuddering gratitude of adventurers spared from the abyss, that, under Providence, Hedrick had not wakened!
Much light shatters much loveliness; but a pretty girl who looks pretty outdoors on a dazzling hot summer morning is prettier then than ever. Cora knew it; of course she knew it; she knew exactly how she looked, as she left the concrete bridge behind her at the upper end of Corliss Street and turned into a shrub-bordered bypath of the river park. In imagination she stood at the turn of the path just ahead, watching her own approach: she saw herself as a picture–the white-domed parasol, with its cheerful pale-green lining, a background for her white hat, her corn-silk hair, and her delicately flushed face. She saw her pale, live arms through their thin sleeves, and the light grasp of her gloved fingers upon the glistening stick of the parasol; she saw the long, simple lines of her close white dress and their graceful interchanging movements with the alternate advance of her white shoes over the fine gravel path; she saw the dazzling splashes of sunshine playing upon her through the changeful branches overhead. Cora never lacked a gallery: she sat there herself.
She refreshed the eyes of a respectable burgess of sixty, a person so colourless that no one, after passing him, could have remembered anything about him except that he wore glasses and some sort of moustache; and to Cora’s vision he was as near transparent as any man could be, yet she did not miss the almost imperceptible signs of his approval, as they met and continued on their opposite ways. She did not glance round, nor did he pause in his slow walk; neither was she clairvoyant; none the less, she knew that he turned his head and looked back at her.
The path led away from the drives and more public walks of the park, to a low hill, thoughtfully untouched by the gardener and left to the shadowy thickets and good-smelling underbrush of its rich native woodland. And here, by a brown bench, waited a tall gentleman in white.
They touched hands and sat without speaking. For several moments they continued the silence, then turned slowly and looked at each other; then looked slowly and gravely away, as if to an audience in front of them. They knew how to do it; but probably a critic in the first row would have concluded that Cora felt it even more than Valentine Corliss enjoyed it.
“I suppose this is very clandestine,” she said, after a deep breath. “I don’t think I care, though.”
“I hope you do,” he smiled, “so that I could think your coming means more.”
“Then I’ll care,” she said, and looked at him again.
“You dear!” he exclaimed deliberately.
She bit her lip and looked down, but not before he had seen the quick dilation of her ardent eyes. “I wanted to be out of doors,” she said. “I’m afraid there’s one thing of yours I don’t like, Mr. Corliss.”
“I’ll throw it away, then. Tell me.”
“Your house. I don’t like living in it, very much. I’m sorry you _can’t_ throw it away.”
“I’m thinking of doing that very thing,” he laughed. “But I’m glad I found the rose in that queer old waste-basket first.”
“Not too much like a rose, sometimes,” she said. “I think this morning I’m a little like some of the old doors up on the third floor: I feel rather unhinged, Mr. Corliss.”
“You don’t look it, Miss Madison!”
“I didn’t sleep very well.” She bestowed upon him a glance which transmuted her actual explanation into, “I couldn’t sleep for thinking of you.” It was perfectly definite; but the acute gentleman laughed genially.
“Go on with you!” he said.
Her eyes sparkled, and she joined laughter with him. “But it’s true: you did keep me awake. Besides, I had a serenade.”
“Serenade? I had an idea they didn’t do that any more over here. I remember the young men going about at night with an orchestra sometimes when I was a boy, but I supposed—-“
“Oh, it wasn’t much like that,” she interrupted, carelessly. “I don’t think that sort of thing has been done for years and years. It wasn’t an orchestra–just a man singing under my window.”
“With a guitar?”
“No.” She laughed a little. “Just singing.”
“But it rained last night,” said Corliss, puzzled.
“Oh, _he_ wouldn’t mind that!”
“How stupid of me! Of course, he wouldn’t. Was it Richard Lindley?”
“I see. Yes, that was a bad guess: I’m sure Lindley’s just the same steady-going, sober, plodding old horse he was as a boy. His picture doesn’t fit a romantic frame–singing under a lady’s window in a thunderstorm! Your serenader must have been very young.”
“He is,” said Cora. “I suppose he’s about twenty-three; just a boy–and a very annoying one, too!”
Her companion looked at her narrowly. “By any chance, is he the person your little brother seemed so fond of mentioning–Mr. Vilas?”
Cora gave a genuine start. “Good heavens! What makes you think that?” she cried, but she was sufficiently disconcerted to confirm his amused suspicion.
“So it was Mr. Vilas,” he said. “He’s one of the jilted, of course.”
“Oh, `jilted’!” she exclaimed. “All the wild boys that a girl can’t make herself like aren’t `jilted,’ are they?”
“I believe I should say–yes,” he returned. “Yes, in this instance, just about all of them.”
“Is every woman a target for you, Mr. Corliss? I suppose you know that you have a most uncomfortable way of shooting up the landscape.” She stirred uneasily, and moved away from him to the other end of the bench.
“I didn’t miss that time,” he laughed. “Don’t you ever miss?”
He leaned quickly toward her and answered in a low voice: “You can be sure I’m not going to miss anything about _you_.”
It was as if his bending near her had been to rouge her. But it cannot be said that she disliked his effect upon her; for the deep breath she drew in audibly, through her shut teeth, was a signal of delight; and then followed one of those fraught silences not uncharacteristic of dialogues with Cora.
Presently, she gracefully and uselessly smoothed her hair from the left temple with the backs of her fingers, of course finishing the gesture prettily by tucking in a hairpin tighter above the nape of her neck. Then, with recovered coolness, she asked:
“Did you come all the way from Italy just to sell our old house, Mr. Corliss?”
“Perhaps that was part of why I came,” he said, gayly. “I need a great deal of money, Miss Cora Madison.”
“For your villa and your yacht?”
“No; I’m a magician, dear lady—-“
“Yes,” she said, almost angrily. “Of course you know it!”
“You mock me! No; I’m going to make everybody rich who will trust me. I have a secret, and it’s worth a mountain of gold. I’ve put all I have into it, and will put in everything else I can get for myself, but it’s going to take a great deal more than that. And everybody who goes into it will come out on Monte Cristo’s island.”
“Then I’m sorry papa hasn’t anything to put in,” she said.
“But he has: his experience in business and his integrity. I want him to be secretary of my company. Will you help me to get him?” he laughed.
“Do you want me to?” she asked with a quick, serious glance straight in his eyes, one which he met admirably.
“I have an extremely definite impression,” he said lightly, “that you can make anybody you know do just what you want him to.”
“And I have another that you have still another `extremely definite impression’ that takes rank over that,” she said, but not with his lightness, for her tone was faintly rueful. “It is that you can make _me_ do just what you want me to.”
Mr. Valentine Corliss threw himself back on the bench and laughed aloud. “What a girl!” he cried. Then for a fraction of a second he set his hand over hers, an evanescent touch at which her whole body started and visibly thrilled.
She lifted her gloved hand and looked at it with an odd wonder; her alert emotions, always too ready, flinging their banners to her cheeks again.