Read CHAPTER IV - RECONNAISSANCE of The Firing Line, free online book, by Robert W. Chambers, on ReadCentral.com.

Hamil awoke early:  long before breakfast he was shaved, dressed, and hungry; but in the hotel late rising appeared to be fashionable, and through the bewildering maze of halls and corridors nobody was yet astir except a few children and their maids.

So he sauntered about the acres of floor space from rotunda to music room, from desk to sun parlour, through the endless carpeted tunnel leading to the station, and back again, taking his bearings in this wilderness of runways so profusely embowered with palms and furniture.

In one wide corridor, lined like a street with shops, clerks were rearranging show windows; and Hamil strolled from the jewellers to the brilliant but dubious display of an Armenian rug dealer; from a New York milliner’s exhibition, where one or two blond, sleepy-eyed young women moved languidly about, to an exasperating show of shells, curiosities, and local photographs which quenched further curiosity.

However, beyond the shops, at the distant end of an Axminster vista flanked by cabbage-palms and masterpieces from Grand Rapids, he saw sunshine and the green tops of trees; and he made toward the oasis, coming out along a white colonnade overlooking the hotel gardens.

It was early enough for any ambitious bird to sing, but there were few song-birds in the gardens ­a palm warbler or two, and a pair of subdued mocking-birds not inclined to be tuneful.  Everywhere, however, purple and bronze grackle appeared, flying or walking busily over the lawns, sunlight striking the rainbow hackle on their necks, and their pale-yellow or bright-orange eyes staring boldly at the gardeners who dawdled about the flowery labyrinths with watering-can and jointed hose.  And from every shrub and tree came the mildly unpleasant calling of the grackle, and the blackbirds along the lagoon answered with their own unmusical “Co-ca-chee! ­Co-ca-chee-e!”

Somehow, to Hamil, the sunshine seemed to reveal more petty defects in this semi-tropical landscape than he could have divined the night before under the unblemished magic of the stars.  For the grass was not real grass, but only that sparse, bunchy, sun-crisped substitute from Bermuda; here and there wind-battered palmetto fronds hung burnt and bronzed; and the vast hotel, which through the darkness he had seen piled up above the trees in cliff-like beauty against the stars, was actually remarkable only for its size and lack of architectural interest.

He began to wonder whether the inhabitants of its thousand rooms, aware of the pitiless clarity of this semi-tropical morning sunlight, shunned it lest it reveal unsuspected defects in those pretty lantern-lit faces of which he had had glimpses in the gardens’ enchanted dusk the night before.  However, the sunshine seemed to render the little children only the lovelier, and he sat on the railing, his back against a pillar, watching them racing about with their nurses, until the breakfast hour at last came around and found him at table, no longer hungry.

A stream of old ladies and gentlemen continued toddling into the breakfast rooms where an acre or two of tables, like a profuse crop of mushrooms, disturbed the monotony of the hotel interior with a monotony still more pronounced.  However, there was hazy sunshine in the place and a glimpse of blessed green outside, and the leisurely negroes brought him fruit which was almost as good as the New York winter markets afforded, and his breakfast amused him mildly.

The people, too, amused him ­so many dozens of old ladies and gentlemen, all so remarkably alike in a common absence of distinguishing traits ­a sort of homogeneous, expressionless similarity which was rather amazing as they doubtless had gathered there from all sections of the Republic.

But the children were delightful, and all over the vast room he could distinguish their fresh little faces like tufts of flowers set in a waste of dusty stubble, and amid the culinary clatter their clear, gay little voices broke through cheerfully at moments, grateful as the morning chatter of sparrows in early spring.

When Hamil left his table he halted to ask an imposing head-waiter whether Miss Palliser might be expected to breakfast, and was informed that she breakfasted and lunched in her rooms and dined always in the cafe.

So he stopped at the desk and sent up his card.

A number of young people evidently equipped for the golf links now pervaded hall and corridor; others, elaborately veiled for motoring, stopped at the desk for letters on their way into the outer sunshine.

A row of rather silent but important-looking gentlemen, morning cigars afire, gradually formed ranks in arm-chairs under the colonnade; people passing and repassing began to greet each other with more vivacity; veranda and foyer became almost animated as the crowd increased.  And now a demure bride or two emerged in all the radiance of perfect love and raiment, squired by him, braving the searching sunshine with confidence in her beauty, her plumage, and a kindly planet; and, in pitiful contrast, here and there some waxen-faced invalid, wheeled by a trained nurse, in cap and cuffs, through sunless halls into the clear sea air, to lie motionless, with leaden lids scarcely parted, in the glory of a perfect day.

A gentleman, rotund of abdomen, wearing a stubby red moustache, screwed a cigar firmly into the off corner of his mouth and, after looking aggressively at Hamil for fully half a minute, said: 

“Southern Pacific sold off at the close.”

“Indeed,” said Hamil.

“It’s like picking daisies,” said the gentleman impressively.  And, after a pause, during which he continued to survey the younger man:  “What name?” he inquired, as though Hamil had been persistently attempting to inform him.

Hamil told him good-naturedly.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hamil.  My name is Rawley ­probably the name is familiar to you? ­Ambrose Rawley” ­he coughed ­“by profession a botanist.”

Hamil smiled, recognising in the name the most outrageously expensive of New York florists who had made a fortune in cut flowers.

“Have a drink?” persisted Mr. Rawley.  “No?  Too early for you?  Well, let’s get a couple of niggers and wheel-chairs.”

But Hamil declined with the easy good-humour which characterised him; and a few moments later, learning at the office that his aunt would receive him, followed his negro guide through endless carpeted labyrinths and was ushered by a maid into a sunny reception-room.

“Garry! ­you dear boy!” exclaimed his amazingly youthful aunt, holding out both arms to him from the door of her bedroom, partly ajar.  “No ­don’t come near me; I’m not even in complete negligee yet, but I will be in one minute when Titine fastens me up and makes the most of my scanty locks ­” She looked out at him with a laugh and gave her head a little jerk forward, and her splendid chestnut hair came tumbling down in the sunshine.

“You’re prettier than ever,” said her nephew; “they’ll take us for bride and groom as usual.  I say, Constance, I suppose they’ve followed you down here.”

“Who, Garry,” ­very innocently.

“The faithful three, Colonel Vetchen, Cuyp, and old ­I mean the gracefully mature Courtlandt Classon.  Are they here?”

“I believe so, dear,” admitted his aunt demurely.  “And, Garry, so is Virginia Suydam.”

“Really,” he said, suddenly subdued as his aunt who was forty and looked twenty-five came forward in her pretty chamber-gown, and placed two firm white arms around him and kissed him squarely and with vigour.

“You dear!” she said; “you certainly are the best-looking boy in all Florida.  When did you come?  Is Jim Wayward’s yacht here still?  And why didn’t he come to see me?”

“The Ariani sailed for Miami last night after I landed.  I left my card, but the office people rang and rang and could get no answer ­”

“I was in bed!  How stupid of me!  I retired early because Virginia and I had been dissipating shamefully all the week and my aged bones required a rest....  And now tell me all about this new commission of yours.  I have met the Cardross family; everybody at Palm Beach is talking about the magnificent park Mr. Cardross is planning; and your picture has appeared in the local paper, and I’ve told everybody you’re quite wonderful, and everybody now is informing everybody else that you’re quite wonderful!”

His very gay aunt lay back in her great soft chair, pushing with both fair hands the masses of chestnut hair from her forehead, and smiling at him out of her golden brown eyes ­the jolliest, frankest of eyes ­the sort even women trust instinctively at first glimpse.

So he sat there and told her all about his commission and how this man, Neville Cardross, whom he had never even seen, had written to him and asked him to make the most splendid park in America around the Cardross villa, and had invited him to be his guest during his stay in Florida.

“They evidently are nice people from the way Mr. Cardross writes,” he said.  “You say you know them, Constance?”

“I’ve met them several times ­the way you meet people here.  They have a villa ­rather imposing in an exotic fashion.  Why, yes, Garry, they are nice; dreadfully wealthy, tremendously popular.  Mrs. Carrick, the married daughter, is very agreeable; her mother is amiable and dreadfully stout.  Then there’s a boy of your age ­Gray Cardross ­a well-mannered youth who drives motors, and whom Mr. Classon calls a ‘speed-mad cub.’  Then there is Cecile Cardross ­a debutante of last winter, and then ­” Miss Palliser hesitated, crossed one knee over the other, and sat gently swinging her slippered foot and looking at her nephew.

“Does that conclude the list of the Cardross family?” he asked.

“N-no.  There remains the beauty of the family, Shiela.”  She continued to survey him with smiling intentness, and went on slowly: 

“Shiela Cardross; the girl here.  People are quite mad about her, I assure you.  My dear, every man at Palm Beach tags after her; rows of callow youths sit and gaze at her very footprints in the sand when she crosses the beach; she turns masculine heads to the verge of permanent dislocation.  No guilty man escapes; even Courtlandt Classon is meditating treachery to me, and Mr. Cuyp has long been wavering and Gussie Vetchen too! the wretch!...  We poor women try hard to like her ­but, Garry, is it human to love such a girl?”

“It’s divine, Constance, so you’ll like her.”

“Oh, yes; thank you.  Well, I do; I don’t know her well, but I’m inclined to like her ­in a way....  There’s something else, though.”  She considered her handsome nephew steadily.  “You are to be a guest there while this work of yours is in hand?”

“Yes ­I believe so.”

“Then, dear, without the slightest unworthy impulse or the faintest trace of malice, I wish to put you on your guard.  It’s horrid, but I must.”

“On my guard!” he repeated.

“Yes ­forearm you, Garry.  Shiela Cardross is a rather bewildering beauty.  She is French convent-bred, clever and cultivated and extremely talented.  Besides that she has every fashionable grace and accomplishment at the ends of her pretty fingers ­and she has a way with her ­a way of looking at you ­which is pure murder to the average man.  And beside that she is very simple and sweet to everybody.  As an assassin of hearts she’s equipped to slay yours, Garry.”

“Well?” he inquired, laughing.  And added:  “Let her slay.  Why not?”

“This, dear.  And you who know me will acquit me of any ignoble motive if I say that she is not your social equal, Garry.”

“What!  I thought you said ­”

“Yes ­about the others.  But it is not the same with Shiela Cardross.  I ­it seems cruel to say it ­but it is for your sake ­to effectually forestall any possible accident ­that I am going to tell you that this very lovely girl, Shiela, is an adopted child, not a daughter.  That exceedingly horrid old gossip, Mrs. Van Dieman, told me that the girl was a foundling taken by Mr. and Mrs. Cardross from the Staten Island asylum.  And I’m afraid Mrs. Van Dieman knows what she’s talking about because she founded and still supports the asylum.”

Hamil looked gravely across at his aunt.  “The poor little girl,” he said slowly.  “Lord, but that’s tough! and tougher still to have Mrs. Van Dieman taking the trouble to spread the news.  Can’t you shut her up?”

“It is tough, Garret.  I suppose they all are dreadfully sensitive about it.  I begged Mrs. Van Dieman to keep her own counsel.  But she won’t.  And you know, dear, that it would make no difference to me in my relations with the girl ­except that” ­she hesitated, smiling ­“she is not good enough for you, Garry, and so, if you catch the prevailing contagion, and fall a victim, you have been inoculated now and will have the malady lightly.”

“My frivolous and fascinating aunt,” he said, “have you ever known me to catch any prevailing ­”

“O Garret!  You know you have! ­dozens of times ­”

“I’ve been civilly attentive to several girls ­”

“I wish to goodness you’d marry Virginia Suydam; but you won’t.”

“Virginia!” he repeated, astonished.

“Yes, I do; I wish you were safely and suitably married.  I’m worried, Garry; you are becoming too good-looking not to get into some horrid complication ­as poor Jim Wayward did; and now he’s done for, finished!  Oh, I wish I didn’t feel so responsible for you.  And I wish you weren’t going to the Cardrosses’ to live for months!”

He leaned forward, laughing, and took his aunt’s slim hands between his own sunburned fists.  “You cunning little thing,” he said, “if you talk that way I’ll marry you off to one of the faithful three; you and Virginia too.  Lord, do you think I’m down here to cut capers when I’ve enough hard work ahead to drive a dozen men crazy for a year?  As for your beautiful Miss Cardross ­why I saw a girl in a boat ­not long ago ­who really was a beauty.  I mean to find her, some day; and that is something for you to worry about!”

“Garry! Tell me!”

But he rose, still laughing, and saluted Miss Palliser’s hands.

“If you and Virginia have nothing better on I’ll dine with you at eight.  Yes?  No?”

“Of course.  Where are you going now?”

“To report to Mr. Cardross ­and brave beauty in its bower,” he added mischievously.  “I’ll doubtless be bowled over first shot and come around for a dinner and a blessing at eight this evening.”

“Don’t joke about it,” she said as they rose together and stood for a moment at the window looking down into the flowering gardens.

“Is it not a jolly scene?” she added ­“the fountain against the green, and the flowers and the sunshine everywhere, and all those light summer gowns outdoors in January, and ­” She checked herself and laid her hand on his arm; “Garry, do you see that girl in the wheel-chair! ­the one just turning into the gardens!”

He had already seen her.  Suddenly his heart stood still in dread of what his aunt was about to say.  He knew already somehow that she was going to say it, yet when she spoke the tiny shock came just the same.

“That,” said his aunt, “is Shiela Cardross.  Is she not too lovely for words?”

“Yes,” he said, “she is very beautiful.”

For a while they stood together there at the window, then he said good-bye in a rather subdued manner which made his aunt laugh that jolly, clear laugh which never appealed to him in vain.

“You’re not mortally stricken already at your first view of her, are you?” she asked.

“Not mortally,” he said.

“Then fall a victim and recover quickly.  And don’t let me sit here too long without seeing you; will you?”

She went to the door with him, one arm linked in his, brown eyes bright with her pride and confidence in him ­in this tall, wholesome, clean-built boy, already on the verge of distinction in his rather unusual profession.  And she saw in him all the strength and engaging good looks of his dead father, and all the clear and lovable sincerity of his mother ­her only sister ­now also dead.

“You will come to see me sometimes ­won’t you, Garry?” she repeated wistfully.

“Of course I will.  Give my love to Virginia and my amused regards to the faithful three.”

And so they parted, he to saunter down into the cool gardens on his way to call on Mr. Cardross; she to pace the floor, excited by his arrival, her heart beating with happiness, pride, solicitude for the young fellow who was like brother and son to her ­this handsome, affectionate, generous boy who had steadily from the very first declined to accept one penny of her comfortable little fortune lest she be deprived of the least luxury or convenience, and who had doggedly educated and prepared himself, and contrived to live within the scanty means he had inherited.

And now at last the boy saw success ahead, and Miss Palliser was happy, dreaming brilliant dreams for him, conjuring vague splendours for the future ­success unbounded, honours, the esteem of all good men; this, for her boy.  And ­if it must be ­love, in its season ­with the inevitable separation and a slow dissolution of an intimacy which had held for her all she desired in life ­his companionship, his happiness, his fortune; this also she dreamed for his sake.  Yes ­knowing she could not always keep him, and that it must come inexorably, she dreamed of love for him ­and marriage.

And, as she stood now by the sunny window, idly intent on her vision, without warning the face of Shiela Cardross glimmered through the dream, growing clearer, distinct in every curve and tint of its exquisite perfection; and she stared at the mental vision, evoking it with all the imagination of her inner consciousness, unquiet yet curious, striving to look into the phantom’s eyes ­clear, direct eyes which she remembered; and a thrill of foreboding touched her, lest the boy she loved might find in the sweetness of these clear eyes a peril not lightly overcome.

“She is so unusually beautiful,” said Miss Palliser aloud, unconscious that she had spoken.  And she added, wondering, “God knows what blood is in her veins to form a body so divine.”