The Flirt

Author: Booth Tarkington

Chapter Twenty-One

That was a long night for Cora Madison, and the morning found her yellow. She made a poor breakfast, and returned from the table to her own room, but after a time descended restlessly and wandered from one room to another, staring out of the windows. Laura had gone out; Mrs. Madison was with her husband, whom she seldom left; Hedrick had departed ostensibly for school; and the house was as still as a farm in winter—an intolerable condition of things for an effervescent young woman whose diet was excitement. Cora, drumming with her fingers upon a window in the owl-haunted cell, made noises with her throat, her breath and her lips not unsuggestive of a sputtering fuse. She was heavily charged.
"Now what in thunder do YOU want?" she inquired of an elderly man who turned in from the sidewalk and with serious steps approached the house.
Pryor, having rung, found himself confronted with the lady he had come to seek. Ensued the moment of strangers meeting: invisible antennae extended and touched;—at the contact, Cora’s drew in, and she looked upon him without graciousness.
"I just called," he said placatively, smiling as if some humour lurked in his intention, "to ask how your father is. I heard downtown he wasn’t getting along quite so well."
"He’s better this morning, thanks," said Cora, preparing to close the door.
"I thought I’d just stop and ask about him. I heard he’d had another bad spell—kind of a second stroke."
"That was night before last. The doctor thinks he’s improved very much since then."
The door was closing; he coughed hastily, and detained it by speaking again. "I’ve called several times to inquire about him, but I believe it’s the first time I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to you, Miss Madison. I’m Mr. Pryor." She appeared to find no comment necessary, and he continued: "Your father did a little business for me, several years ago, and when I was here on my vacation, this summer, I was mighty sorry to hear of his sickness. I’ve had a nice bit of luck lately and got a second furlough, so I came out to spend a couple of weeks and Thanksgiving with my married daughter."
Cora supposed that it must be very pleasant.
"Yes," he returned. "But I was mighty sorry to hear your father wasn’t much better than when I left. The truth is, I wanted to have a talk with him, and I’ve been reproaching myself a good deal that I didn’t go ahead with it last summer, when he was well, only I thought then it mightn’t be necessary—might be disturbing things without much reason."
"I’m afraid you can’t have a talk with him now," she said. "The doctor says----"
"I know, I know," said Pryor, "of course. I wonder"—he hesitated, smiling faintly—"I wonder if I could have it with you instead."
"Oh, it isn’t business," he laughed, observing her expression. "That is, not exactly." His manner became very serious. "It’s about a friend of mine—at least, a man I know pretty well. Miss Madison, I saw you driving out through the park with him, yesterday noon, in an automobile. Valentine Corliss."
Cora stared at him. Honesty, friendliness, and grave concern were disclosed to her scrutiny. There was no mistaking him: he was a good man. Her mouth opened, and her eyelids flickered as from a too sudden invasion of light—the look of one perceiving the close approach of a vital crisis. But there was no surprise in her face.
"Come in," she said.

. . . . When Corliss arrived, at about eleven o’clock that morning, Sarah brought him to the library, where he found Cora waiting for him. He had the air of a man determined to be cheerful under adverse conditions: he came in briskly, and Cora closed the door behind him.
"Keep away from me," she said, pushing him back sharply, the next instant. "I’ve had enough of that for a while I believe."
He sank into a chair, affecting desolation. "Caresses blighted in the bud! Cora, one would think us really married."
She walked across the floor to a window, turned there, with her back to the light, and stood facing him, her arms folded.
"Good heavens!" he exclaimed, noting this attitude. "Is it the trial scene from a faded melodrama?" She looked steadily at him without replying. "What’s it all about to-day?" he asked lightly. "I’ll try to give you the proper cues if you’ll indicate the general nature of the scene, Cora mine."
She continued to look at him in silence.
"It’s very effective," he observed. "Brings out the figure, too. Do forgive me if you’re serious, dear lady, but never in my life was I able to take the folded-arms business seriously. It was used on the stage of all countries so much that I believe most new-school actors have dropped it. They think it lacks genuineness."
Cora waited a moment longer, then spoke. "How much chance have I to get Richard Lindley’s money back from you?"
He was astounded. "Oh, I say!"
"I had a caller, this morning," she said, slowly. "He talked about you—quite a lot! He’s told me several things about you."
"Mr. Vilas?" he asked, with a sting in his quick smile.
"No," she answered coolly. "Much older."
At that he jumped up, stepped quickly close to her, and swept her with an intense and brilliant scrutiny.
"Pryor, by God!" he cried.
"He knows you pretty well," she said. "So do now!"
He swung away from her, back to his chair, dropped into it and began to laugh. "Old Pryor! Doddering old Pryor! Doddering old ass of a Pryor! So he did! Blood of an angel! what a stew, what a stew!" He rose again, mirthless. "Well, what did he say?"
She had begun to tremble, not with fear. "He said a good deal."
"Well, what was it? What did he tell you?"
"I think you’ll find it plenty!"
"Come on!"
"YOU!" She pointed at him.
"Let’s have it."
"He told me"—she burst out furiously—"he said you were a professional sharper!"
"Oh, no. Old Pryor doesn’t talk like that."
She came toward him. "He told me you were notorious over half of Europe," she cried vehemently. "He said he’d arrested you himself, once, in Rotterdam, for smuggling jewels, and that you were guilty, but managed to squirm out of it. He said the police had put you out of Germany and you’d be arrested if you ever tried to go back. He said there were other places you didn’t dare set foot in, and he said he could have you arrested in this country any time he wanted to, and that he was going to do it if he found you’d been doing anything wrong. Oh, yes, he told me a few things!"
He caught her by the shoulder. "See here, Cora, do you believe all this tommy-rot?"
She shook his hand off instantly. "Believe it? I know it! There isn’t a straight line in your whole soul and mind: you’re crooked all over. You’ve been crooked with ME from the start. The moment that man began to speak, I knew every word of it was true. He came to me because he thought it was right: he hasn’t anything against you on his own account; he said he LIKED you! I KNEW it was true, I tell you."
He tried to put his hand on her shoulder again, beginning to speak remonstratingly, but she cried out in a rage, broke away from him, and ran to the other end of the room.
"Keep away! Do you suppose I like you to touch me? He told me you always had been a wonder with women! Said you were famous for `handling them the right way’—using them! Ah, that was pleasant information for ME, wasn’t it! Yes, I could have confirmed him on that point. He wanted to know if I thought you’d been doing anything of that sort here. What he meant was: Had you been using me?"
"What did you tell him?" The question rang sharply on the instant.
"Ha! That gets into you, does it?" she returned bitterly. "You can’t overdo your fear of that man, I think, but didn’t tell him anything. I just listened and thanked him for the warning, and said I’d have nothing more to do with you. How COULD I tell him? Wasn’t it I that made papa lend you his name, and got Richard to hand over his money? Where does that put ME?" She choked; sobs broke her voice. "Every—every soul in town would point me out as a laughing-stock—the easiest fool out of the asylum! Do you suppose want you arrested and the whole thing in the papers? What I want is Richard’s money back, and I’m going to have it!"
"Can you be quiet for a moment and listen?" he asked gravely.
If you’ll tell me what chance I have to get it back."
"Cora," he said, "you don’t want it back."
"Oh? Don’t I?"
"No." He smiled faintly, and went on. "Now, all this nonsense of old Pryor’s isn’t worth denying. I have met him abroad; that much is true—and I suppose I have rather a gay reputation----"
She uttered a jeering shout.
"Wait!" he said. "I told you I’d cut quite a swathe, when I first talked to you about myself. Let it go for the present and come down to this question of Lindley’s investment----"
"Yes. That’s what I want you to come down to."
"As soon as Lindley paid in his check I gave him his stock certificates, and cabled the money to be used at once in the development of the oil-fields----"
"What! That man told me you’d `promoted’ a South American rubber company once, among people of the American colony in Paris. The details he gave me sounded strangely familiar!"
"You’d as well be patient, Cora. Now, that money has probably been partially spent, by this time, on tools and labour and----"
"What are you trying to----"
"I’ll show you. But first I’d like you to understand that nothing can be done to me. There’s nothing `on’ me! I’ve acted in good faith, and if the venture in oil is unsuccessful, and the money lost, I can’t be held legally responsible, nor can any one prove that I am. I could bring forty witnesses from Naples to swear they have helped to bore the wells. I’m safe as your stubborn friend, Mr. Trumble, himself. But now then, suppose that old Pryor is right—as of course he isn’t—suppose it, merely for a moment, because it will aid me to convey something to your mind. If I were the kind of man he says I am, and, being such a man, had planted the money out of reach, for my own use, what on earth would induce me to give it back?"
"I knew it!" she groaned. "I knew you wouldn’t!"
"You see," he said quietly, "it would be impossible. We must go on supposing for a moment: if I had put that money away, I might be contemplating a departure----"
"You’d better!" she cried fiercely. "He’s going to find out everything you’ve been doing. He said so. He’s heard a rumour that you were trying to raise money here; he told me so, and said he’d soon----"
"The better reason for not delaying, perhaps. Cora, see here!" He moved nearer her. "Wouldn’t I need a lot of money if I expected to have a beautiful lady to care for, and----"
"You idiot!" she screamed. "Do you think I’m going with you?"
He flushed heavily. "Well, aren’t you?" He paused, to stare at her, as she wrung her hands and sobbed with hysterical laughter. "I thought," he went on, slowly, "that you would possibly even insist on that."
"Oh, Lord, Lord, Lord!" She stamped her foot, and with both hands threw the tears from her eyes in wide and furious gestures. "He told me you were married----"
"Did you let him think you hadn’t known that?" demanded Corliss.
"I tell you I didn’t let him think ANYTHING! He said you would never be able to get a divorce: that your wife hates you too much to get one from you, and that she’ll never----"
"See here, Cora," he said harshly, "I told you I’d been married; I told you before I ever kissed you. You understood perfectly----"
"I did not! You said you HAD been. You laughed about it. You made me think it was something that had happened a long time ago. I thought of course you’d been divorced----"
"But I told you----"
"You told me after! And then you made me think you could easily get one—that it was only a matter of form and----"
"Cora," he interrupted, "you’re the most elaborate little self-deceiver I ever knew. I don’t believe you’ve ever faced yourself for an honest moment in----"
"Honest! YOU talk about `honest’! You use that word and face ME?"
He came closer, meeting her distraught eyes squarely. "You love to fool yourself, Cora, but the role of betrayed virtue doesn’t suit you very well. You’re young, but you’re a pretty experienced woman for all that, and you haven’t done anything you didn’t want to. You’ve had both eyes open every minute, and we both know it. You are just as wise as----"
"You’re lying and YOU know it! What did want to make Richard go into your scheme for? You made a fool of me."
"I’m not speaking of the money now," he returned quickly. "You’d better keep your mind on the subject. Are you coming away with me?"
"What for?" she asked.
"What FOR?" he echoed incredulously. "I want to know if you’re coming. I promise you I’ll get a divorce as soon as it’s possible----"
"Val," she said, in a tone lower than she had used since he entered the room; "Val, do you want me to come?"
"Much?" She looked at him eagerly.
"Yes, I do." His answer sounded quite genuine.
"Will it hurt you if I don’t?"
"Of course it will."
"Thank heaven for that," she said quietly.
"You honestly mean you won’t?"
"It makes me sick with laughing just to imagine it! I’ve done some hard little thinking, lately, my friend—particularly last night, and still more particularly this morning since that man was here. I’d cut my throat before I’d go with you. If you had your divorce I wouldn’t marry you—not if you were the last man on earth!"
"Cora," he cried, aghast, "what’s the matter with you? You’re too many for me sometimes. I thought I understood a few kinds of women! Now listen: I’ve offered to take you, and you can’t say----"
"Offered!" It was she who came toward him now. She came swiftly, shaking with rage, and struck him upon the breast. "`Offered’! Do you think I want to go trailing around Europe with you while Dick Lindley’s money lasts? What kind of a life are you `offering’ me? Do you suppose I’m going to have everybody saying Cora Madison ran away with a jail-bird? Do you think I’m going to dodge decent people in hotels and steamers, and leave a name in this town that—Oh, get out! I don’t want any help from you! I can take care of myself, I tell you; and I don’t have to marry YOU! I’d kill you if I could—you made a fool of me!" Her voice rose shrilly. "You made a fool of me!"
"Cora----" he began, imploringly.
"You made a fool of me!" She struck him again.
"Strike me," he said. "I love you
"Cora, I want you. I want you more than I ever----"
She screamed with hysterical laughter. "Liar, liar, liar! The same old guff. Don’t you even see it’s too late for the old rotten tricks?"
"Cora, I want you to come."
"You poor, conceited fool," she cried, "do you think you’re the only man I can marry?"
"Cora," he gasped, "you wouldn’t do that!"
"Oh, get out! Get out NOW! I’m tired of you. I never want to hear you speak again."
"Cora,"he begged. "For the last time----"
"NO! You made a fool of me!" She beat him upon the breast, striking again and again, with all her strength. "Get out, I tell you! I’m through with you!"
He tried to make her listen, to hold her wrists: he could do neither.
"Get out—get out!" she screamed. She pushed and dragged him toward the door, and threw it open. Her voice thickened; she choked and coughed, but kept on screaming: "Get out, I tell you! Get out, get out, damn you! Damn you, DAMN you! get out!"
Still continuing to strike him with all her strength, she forced him out of the door.


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Chicago: Booth Tarkington, "Chapter Twenty-One," The Flirt, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 and trans. Boswell, Robert Bruce in The Flirt (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed April 20, 2019,

MLA: Tarkington, Booth. "Chapter Twenty-One." The Flirt, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, and translated by Boswell, Robert Bruce, in The Flirt, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 20 Apr. 2019.

Harvard: Tarkington, B, 'Chapter Twenty-One' in The Flirt, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, The Flirt, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 April 2019, from