Read CHAPTER V - A FLANK MOVEMENT of The Firing Line, free online book, by Robert W. Chambers, on ReadCentral.com.

Young Hamil, moving thoughtfully along through the gardens, caught a glimpse of a group under the palms which halted him for an instant, then brought him forward, hat off, hand cordially outstretched.

“Awf’lly glad to see you, Virginia; this is very jolly; hello, Cuyp!  How are you, Colonel Vetchen ­oh! how do you do, Mr. Classon!” as the latter came trotting down the path, twirling a limber walking-stick.

“How-dee-do!  How-dee-do!” piped Courtlandt Classon, with a rickety abandon almost paternal; and, replying literally, Hamil admitted his excellent physical condition.

Virginia Suydam, reclining in her basket chair, very picturesque in a broad hat, smiled at him out of her peculiar bluish-green eyes, while Courtlandt Classon fussed and fussed and patted his shoulder; an old beau who had toddled about Manhattan in the days when the town was gay below Bleecker Street, when brownstone was for the rich alone, when the family horses wore their tails long and a proud Ethiope held the reins, when Saratoga was the goal of fashion, and old General Jan Van-der-Duynck pronounced his own name “Wonnerdink,” with profane accompaniment.

They were all most affable ­Van Tassel Cuyp with the automatic nervous snicker that deepened the furrows from nostril to mouth, a tall stoop-shouldered man of scant forty with the high colour, long, nervous nose, and dull eye of Dutch descent; and Colonel Augustus Magnelius Pietrus Vetchen, scion of an illustrious line whose ancestors had been colonial governors and judges before the British flag floated from the New Amsterdam fort.  His daughter was the celebrated beauty, Mrs. Tom O’Hara.  She had married O’Hara and so many incredible millions that people insisted that was why Colonel Vetchen’s eyebrows expressed the acute slant of perpetual astonishment.

So they were all cordial, for was he not related to the late General Garret Suydam and, therefore, distantly to them all?  And these men who took themselves and their lineage so seriously, took Hamil seriously; and he often attempted to appreciate it seriously, but his sense of humour was too strong.  They were all good people, kindly and harmless snobs; and when he had made his adieux under the shadow of the white portico, he lingered a moment to observe the obsolete gallantry with which Mr. Classon and Colonel Vetchen wafted Virginia up the steps.

Cuyp lingered to venture a heavy pleasantry or two which distorted his long nose into a series of white-ridged wrinkles, then he ambled away and disappeared within the abode of that divinity who shapes our ends, the manicure; and Hamil turned once more toward the gardens.

The hour was still early; of course too unconventional to leave cards on the Cardross family, even too early for a business visit; but he thought he would stroll past the villa, the white walls of which he had dimly seen the evening before.  Besides his Calypso was there.  Alas! for Calypso.  Yet his heart tuned up a trifle as he thought of seeing her so soon again.

And so, a somewhat pensive but wholly attractive and self-confident young opportunist in white flannels, he sauntered through the hotel gardens and out along the dazzling shell-road.

No need for him to make inquiries of passing negroes; no need to ask where the House of Cardross might be found; for although he had seen it only by starlight, and the white sunshine now transformed everything under its unfamiliar glare, he remembered his way, étape by étape, from the foliated iron grille of Whitehall to the ancient cannon bedded in rusting trunnions; and from that mass of Spanish bronze, southward under the tall palms, past hedges of vermilion hibiscus and perfumed oleander, past villa after villa embowered in purple, white, and crimson flowering vines, and far away inland along the snowy road until, at the turn, a gigantic banyan tree sprawled across the sky and the lilac-odour of china-berry in bloom stole subtly through the aromatic confusion, pure, sweet, refreshing in all its exquisite integrity.

“Calypso’s own fragrance,” he thought to himself ­remembering the intimate perfume of her hair and gown as she passed so near to him in the lantern light when he had spoken without discretion.

And suddenly the reminiscent humour faded from his eyes and mouth as he remembered what his aunt had said of this young girl; and, halting in his tracks, he recalled what she herself had said; that the harmless liberties another girl might venture to take with informality, armoured in an assurance above common convention, she could not venture.  And now he knew why....  She had expected him to learn that she was an adopted daughter; in the light of his new knowledge he understood that.  No doubt it was generally known.  But the child had not expected him to know more than that; and, her own knowledge of the hopeless truth, plainly enough, was the key to that note of bitterness which he had detected at times, and even spoken of ­that curious maturity forced by unhappy self-knowledge, that apathetic indifference stirred at moments to a quick sensitive alertness almost resembling self-defence.  She was aware of her own story; that was certain.  And the acid of that knowledge was etching the designs of character upon a physical adolescence unprepared for such biting reaction.

He was sorry he knew it, feeling ashamed of his own guiltless invasion of the girl’s privacy.

The only reparation possible was to forget it.  Like an honourable card-player who inadvertently sees his opponent’s cards, he must play his hand exactly as he would have in the beginning.  And that, he believed, would be perfectly simple.

Reassured he looked across the lawns toward the Cardross villa, a big house of coquina cement, very beautiful in its pseudo-Spanish architecture, red-tiled roofs, cool patias, arcades, and courts; the formality of terrace, wall, and fountain charmingly disguised under a riot of bloom and foliage.

The house stood farther away than he had imagined, for here the public road ended abruptly in a winding hammock-trail, and to the east the private drive of marl ran between high gates of wrought iron swung wide between carved coquina pillars.

And the house itself was very much larger than he had imagined; the starlight had illuminated only a small portion of its white façade, tricking him; for this was almost a palace ­one of those fine vigorously designed mansions, so imposing in simplicity, nicknamed by smug humility ­a “cottage,” or “villa.”

“By jingo, it’s noble!” he exclaimed, the exotic dignity of the house dawning on him by degrees as he moved forward and the southern ocean sprang into view, turquoise and amethyst inlaid streak on streak to the still horizon.

“What a chance!” he repeated under his breath; “what a chance for the noblest park ever softened into formality!  And the untouched forests beyond! ­and the lagoons! ­and the dunes to the east ­and the sea!  Lord, Lord,” he whispered with unconscious reverence, “what an Eden!”

One of the white-haired, black-skinned children of men ­though the point is locally disputed ­looked up from the grass where he squatted gathering ripe fruit under a sapodilla tree; and to an inquiry: 

“Yaas-suh, yaas-suh; Mistuh Cahdhoss in de pomelo g’ove, suh, feedin’ mud-cat to de wile-puss.”

“Doing what?”

“Feedin’ mud-fish to de wile-cat, de wile lynx-cat, suh.”  The aged negro rose, hat doffed, juicy traces of forbidden sapodillas on his face which he naively removed with the back of the blackest and most grotesquely wrinkled hand Hamil had ever seen.

“Yaas-suh; ‘scusin’ de ’gator, wile-cat love de mud-fish mostest; yaas, suh.  Olé torm-cat he fish de crick lak he was no ’count Seminole trash ­”

“One moment, uncle,” interrupted Hamil, smiling; “is that the pomelo grove?  And is that gentleman yonder Mr. Cardross?”

“Yaas-suh.”

He stood silent a moment thoughtfully watching the distant figure through the vista of green leaves, white blossoms, and great clusters of fruit hanging like globes of palest gold in the sun.

“I think,” he said absently, “that I’ll step over and speak to Mr. Cardross....  Thank you, uncle....  What kind of fruit is that you’re gathering?”

“Sappydilla, suh.”

Hamil laughed; he had heard that a darky would barter ’possum, ham-bone, and soul immortal for a ripe sapodilla; he had also once, much farther northward, seen the distressing spectacle of Savannah negroes loading a freight car with watermelons; and it struck him now that it was equally rash to commission this aged uncle on any such business as the gathering of sapodillas for family consumption.

The rolling, moist, and guileless eye of the old man whose slightly pained expression made it plain that he divined exactly what Hamil had been thinking, set the young man laughing outright.

“Don’t worry, uncle,” he said; “they’re not my sapodillas”; and he walked toward the pomelo grove, the old man, a picture of outraged innocence, looking after him, thoughtlessly biting into an enormous and juicy specimen of the forbidden fruit as he looked.

There was a high fence of woven wire around the grove; through scented vistas, spotted with sunshine, fruit and blossoms hung together amid tender foliage of glossy green; palms and palmettos stood with broad drooping fronds here and there among the citrus trees, and the brown woody litter which covered the ground was all starred with fallen flowers.

The gate was open, and as Hamil stepped in he met a well-built, active man in white flannels coming out; and both halted abruptly.

“I am looking for Mr. Cardross,” said the younger man.

“I am Mr. Cardross.”

Hamil nodded.  “I mean that I am looking for Mr. Cardross, senior ­”

“I am Mr. Cardross, senior.”

Hamil gazed at this active gentleman who could scarcely be the father of married children; and yet, as he looked, the crisp, thick hair, the clear sun-bronzed skin which had misled him might after all belong to that type of young-old men less common in America than in England.  And Hamil also realised that his hair was silvered, not blond, and that neither the hands nor the eyes of this man were the hands and eyes of youth.

“I am Garret Hamil,” he said.

“I recognise you perfectly.  I supposed you older ­until my daughter showed me your picture in the News two weeks ago!”

“I supposed you older ­until this minute.”

“I am!”

Looking squarely into each other’s faces they laughed and shook hands.

“When did you come, Mr. Hamil?”

“Last night from Nassau.”

“Where are you stopping?”

Hamil told him.

“Your rooms are ready here.  It’s very good of you to come to see me at once ­”

“It’s very good of you to want me ­”

“Want you, man alive!  Of course I want you!  I’m all on edge over this landscape scheme; I’ve done nothing since we arrived from the North but ride over and over the place ­and I’ve not half covered it yet.  That’s the way we’ll begin work, isn’t it?  Knock about together and get a general idea of the country; isn’t that the best way?”

“Yes, certainly ­”

“I thought so.  The way to learn a country is to ride over it, fish over it, shoot over it, sail around it, camp in it ­that’s my notion of thoroughly understanding a region.  If you’re going to improve it you’ve got to care something about it ­begin to like it ­find pleasure in it, understand it.  Isn’t that true, Mr. Hamil?”

“Yes ­in a measure ­”

“Of course it’s true,” repeated Cardross with his quick engaging laugh; “if a man doesn’t care for a thing he’s not fitted to alter or modify it.  I’ve often thought that those old French landscape men must have dearly loved the country they made so beautiful ­loved it intelligently ­for they left so much wild beauty edging the formality of their creations.  Do you happen to remember the Chasse at Versailles?  And that’s what I want here!  You don’t mind my instructing you in your own profession, do you?”

They both laughed again, apparently qualified to understand one another.

Cardross said:  “I’m glad you’re young; I’m glad you’ve come.  This is going to be the pleasantest winter of my life.  There isn’t anything I’d rather do than just this kind of thing ­if you’ll let me tag after you and talk about it.  You don’t mind, do you?”

“No, I don’t,” said Hamil sincerely.

“We’ll probably have rows,” suggested Cardross; “I may want vistas and terraces and fountains where they ought not to be.”

“Oh, no, you won’t,” replied Hamil, laughing; “you’ll understand things when I give reasons.”

“That’s what I want ­reasons.  If anybody would only give me reasons! ­but nobody does.  Listen; will you come up to the house with me and meet my family?  And then you’ll lunch with them ­I’ve a business luncheon at the club ­unfortunately ­but I’ll come back.  Meanwhile there’ll be somebody to show you about, or you can run out to the Inlet in one of the motor-boats if you like, or do anything you like that may amuse you; the main thing is for you to be amused, to find this place agreeable, to like this kind of country, to like us. Then you can do good work, Mr. Hamil.”

A grinning negro shuffled up and closed the gate as they left the grove together and started across the lawn.  Cardross, cordial in his quick, vigorous manner, strolled with his hands in his coat pockets, planting each white-shod foot firmly as he walked, frequently turning head and shoulders squarely toward his companion when speaking.

He must have been over fifty; he did not appear forty; still, on closer and more detailed inspection Hamil understood how much his alert, well-made figure had to do with the first impression of youth.  Yet his expression had nothing in it of that shadow which falls with years ­nothing to show to the world that he had once taken the world by the throat and wrung a fortune out of it ­nothing of the hard gravity or the underlying sadness of almost ruthless success, and the responsibility for it.

Yet, from the first, Hamil had been aware of all that was behind this unstudied frankness, this friendly vigour.  There was a man, there ­every inch a man, but exactly of what sort the younger man had not yet decided.

A faded and very stout lady, gowned with elaborate simplicity, yet somehow suggesting well-bred untidiness, rolled toward them, propelled in a wheeled-chair by a black servant.

“Dear,” said Mr. Cardross, “this is Mr. Hamil.”  And Mrs. Cardross offered him her chubby hand and said a little more than he expected.  Then, to her husband, languidly: 

“They’re playing tennis, Neville.  If Mr. Hamil would care to play there are tennis-shoes belonging to Gray and Acton.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Cardross,” said Hamil, “but, as a matter of fact, I am not yet acclimated.”

“You feel a little sleepy?” drawled Mrs. Cardross, maternally solicitous; “everybody does for the first few days.”  And to her husband:  “Jessie and Cecile are playing; Shiela must be somewhere about ­You will lunch with us, Mr. Hamil?  There’s to be a tennis luncheon under the oaks ­we’d really like to have you if you can stay.”

Hamil accepted as simply as the invitation was given; Mrs. Cardross exchanged a few words with her husband in that perfectly natural drawl which at first might have been mistaken for languid affectation; then she smiled at Hamil and turned around in her basket chair, parasol tilted, and the black boy began slowly pedalling her away across the lawn.

“We’ll step over to the tennis-courts,” said Cardross, replacing the straw hat which he had removed to salute his wife; “they’re having a sort of scratch-tournament I believe ­my daughters and some other young people.  I think you’ll find the courts rather pretty.”

The grounds were certainly quaint; spaces for four white marl courts had been cleared, hewn out of the solid jungle which walled them in with a noble living growth of live oak, cedar, magnolia, and palmetto.  And on these courts a very gay company of young people in white were playing or applauding the players while the snowy balls flew across the nets and the resonant blows of the bats rang out.

And first Mr. Cardross presented Hamil to his handsome married daughter, Mrs. Acton Carrick, a jolly, freckled, young matron who showed her teeth when she smiled and shook hands like her father; and then he was made known to the youngest daughter, Cecile Cardross, small, plump, and sun-tanned, with ruddy hair and mischief in every feature.

There was, also, a willowy Miss Staines and a blond Miss Anan, and a very young Mr. Anan ­a brother ­and a grave and gaunt Mr. Gatewood and a stout Mr. Ellison, and a number of others less easy to remember.

“This wholesale introduction business is always perplexing,” observed Cardross; “but they’ll all remember you, and after a time you’ll begin to distinguish them from the shrubbery.  No” ­as Mrs. Carrick asked Hamil if he cared to play ­“he would rather look on this time, Jessie.  Go ahead; we are not interrupting you; where is Shiela ­”

And Hamil, chancing to turn, saw her, tennis-bat tucked under one bare arm, emerging from the jungle path; and at the same instant she caught sight of him.  Both little chalked shoes stood stockstill ­for a second only ­then she came forward, leisurely, continuing to eat the ripe guava with which she had been occupied.

Cardross, advancing, said:  “This is Mr. Hamil, dearest; and,” to the young man:  “My daughter Shiela.”

She nodded politely.

“Now I’ve got to go, Shiela,” continued Cardross.  “Hamil, you’ll amuse yourself, won’t you, until I return after luncheon?  Shiela, Mr. Hamil doesn’t care to play tennis; so if you’ll find out what he does care to do ­” He saluted the young people gaily and started across the lawn where a very black boy with a chair stood ready to convey him to the village and across the railroad tracks to that demure little flower-embowered cottage the interior of which presents such an amazing contrast to the exterior.