Read CHAPTER FOURTEEN of The Flirt , free online book, by Booth Tarkington, on ReadCentral.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kiss me some more, darling little boy!”

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

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

He kissed an idiot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course Cora must go,” Laura began, “but ­”

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

Hedrick’s lips moved silently, as in prayer.

“I’d rather not,” said Laura.  “I doubt if I’d have a very good time.”

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

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

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

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

For once, Hedrick only smiled.