Read CHAPTER ELEVEN of The Flirt , free online book, by Booth Tarkington, on

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

“`Insult’?” repeated her father, in angry astonishment.

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

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

“I do not!”

“He does!  He does!” cried Cora.  “He said that I was ­I was too much `interested’ in Mr. Corliss.”

“Is that an `insult’?” the father demanded sharply.

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

“I did nothing of the kind,” shouted the old man.

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

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

The unfortunate man hung his head.  “I don’t see what all that has to do with it ­”

She seemed to leap at him.  “You don’t?  You don’t?”

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

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

“I’m not keeping him from anything.  He didn’t say ­”

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

“Now wait,” said Madison.  “I talked this over with Richard two days ago ­”

Cora stamped her foot again in frantic exasperation.  “I’m talking about this afternoon!”

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

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

“Well, if it isn’t important, what difference does it make whether I give it or not?”

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

“That’s why I can’t do it,” he interrupted.

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

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

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

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

“They’ve got her to bed,” announced the boy.  “The doctor’s up there.”

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

“You sick, too?” asked Hedrick.

“No.  Run along with that ammonia.”

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

“And you’re sure her heart trouble isn’t organic?” she asked.

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

“Ye-es ­she ­”

“Ah!  A little upset on account of opposition to a plan she’d formed, perhaps?”

“Well ­partly,” assented the mother.

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

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

“You think she’s going to be all right, Sloane?” he asked with an effort.

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

“I’m all ­right.”

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

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

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

“I’m all right now,” panted Madison, drinking the water Hedrick brought him.

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

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

“What’s the matter?”

“I want,” said Madison thickly ­“I want ­to speak to Cora.”

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

“Do you ­think I’m a –­a pretty sick man, Sloane?” asked Madison after a long silence, speaking with difficulty.

“Oh, you’re sick, all right,” the doctor conceded.

“I ­I want to speak to Jennie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No `immediate’ danger,” corrected Laura.  “And besides, Doctor Sloane said you were to stay in bed until to-morrow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, poor, poor papa!  Oh, poor, poor Richard!”