The Admirable Collentine
The love story of a girl who gambled in kisses
CHARLES J. CORNYUS
PAUL COLLENTINE was interesting; no denying that. A topic of conversation as welcome to the bored five o’clock tea group on the verandah of the Riverside Golf and Country Club as a juicy bone to a family of starving Airedales. For ten minutes they had watched Old Man Martin putting aimlessly about the first green, trying to guess what he was saying as the ball persistently ignored the cup. Then Carla Forster started it:
“Have any of you seen Paul Collentine?”
“He’s in India or South Africa or some such place,” replied Amy Carter, plump and feline, who was adding to her plumpness with an opulent cake that had cream thick as mortar on it.
“He’s home,” asserted Carla. “And he’s seen some of you people too, I gather. He surely has his eyes wide open.”
Everyone there, with one lovely exception, showed honest curiosity and expectation.
Carla always did have the most interesting, fascinating things to relate. Carla’s insolent, appraising eyes studied the group of seven, and came to a satisfied focus on the tanned, faintly flushed, elfin face of Kennethe Lee.
“Oh-ho!” said Carla, her lips parted in a smile of barbed pleasantry. “Oh-ho! Why should a maiden blush?”
“Oh-ho, yourself,” retorted Kennethe, unsmiling. And she thought: “Cat! Great, yellow, mouse-hungry cat! Everyone knows you worship Paul Collentine, and that it’s disgustingly one-sided. Oh, well, I’m the goat,
The barrage of eyes—fourteen all-seeing eyes, of every conceivable hue, from Beryl Whitcomb’s green and blue combination to theslate-grey orbs of old Mrs. Keith-Crosby— surveyed Kennethe Lee with no vestige of mercy in their depths or shallows.
“What has she been up to now? Please speak louder.” Old Mrs. Keith-Crosby, with a face like a venerable turkey’s, all folds and wrinkles, leaned forward and beamed at Carla.
Kennethe Lee was the youngest, the most impudent and irrepressible of the younger set.
She needed taking down; needed it badly, thought Mrs. Keith-Crosby, as she glared for an instant at Kennethe’s carelessly crossed knees.
“So you’re the nymph who was going around kissing strange men all over the links this morning. Well, Ken, you would. And naturally you would pick Captain Collentine for an audience.” This was Carla at her worst.
“He should not have been snooping,” said Kennethe hotly. “They weren’t strange men either—just Nick Kenney and Bill Armbruster. It was only a wager. Jane Beck and I played a foursome with them and lost. They were meaningless kisses, but, of course, to a casual observer ...”
“Of course,” echoed Carla. “And Paul has been in Burma, if you must know. He’s not used to modern girls. He wondered if it was customary here to kiss all more or less personable females. He is the kind of man who thinks a kiss should neither be lightly given nor lightly taken—sort of a pledge, you know, of love and allegiance.”
“Rot!” said Kennethe. “I’ll wager he’s like all the other men; and could kiss and forget and go blithely on his way, to kiss and forget again.”
“You come of a betting strain, don’t you?” said Carla. It was a legend that Morton Lee, Kennethe’s uncle, had gambled away several fortunes; some said he had made a final wager with the devil and lost. “How much will you wager?”
“Haven’t anything much right now,” Kennethe said with forced calmness, “except the new set of clubs Uncle Dave gave me. I’ll bet them against what have you, Carla, that Captain Collentine will kiss me and forget.”
“You have nerve.” Carla was stung. She was older than Kennethe by five years and she knew Paul Collentine well; whereas Kennethe had been only a longlegged, gangling, red-headed schoolgirl when Paul was last at home.
“Not nerve, so much as plain common sense and
knowledge of male psychology. Your Captain Collentine — I’ll grant you he is a sort of Admirable Crichton -is no different from any other man, nor is he any better than the rest. He will want to kiss me within the week; then Nick and Bill can look as superciliously at him as he did at them. What are you betting, Carla?”
Carla laughed maliciously. The idea of this tomboy with the flamboyant, close-cut hair, saucy nose and impudent eyes, presuming to declare that she could make Paul Collentine do within the week what Carla had failed to accomplish in many years! It was preposterous.
Only a madcap, fiery-tempered minx like Kennethe Lee would dare try it.
“You see that new sport roadster out there, the black one with green wire wheels and trim? Well, I’m laying that against your precious clubs—about twenty to one odds,
I should say—that you can’t do it.”
Kennethe was staggered. Carla was not wontedly so reckless. Perhaps Carla was right and she was very much wrong; perhaps Paul was different from the rest of men and had not even an Achilles’ heel.
“Consider it done,” said Kennethe. “You are a Wordsworthian group here; seven of you. I’ll report one week from today.”
“You’ll have nothing to report.” Carla was nettled, the rest of the tea-drinkers derisive or contemptuous. Mrs. Keith-Crosby was seething inside like a boiling caldron and her eyes wore glassy with the strain of it, but all she could utter was:
“Captain Collentine the idea little chit of a thing like you !”
“But then,” smiled Kennethe, rising, “there was, you must remember, the Trojan War; also the Battle of Actium. You’ll please excuse me now till I map out my campaign.”
“So now arises in the land a new Helen and Cleopatra,” giggled Amy Carter, who secretly admired Kennethe. “Do start something, Kennie.”
KENNETHE had started something. It was a terribly rash thing to wager that she could bring Paul Collentine to such a state of docility or imbecility that he would seek to kiss her. She remembered Paul from her earliest days. First, as a tall, brown and handsome youth down from the university for the summer holidays; always golfing or playing tennis or swimming; a bit solitary and always very splendid. She had christened him then, “The Admirable Collentine,” and had hero-worshipped him. Then there was the war, and Paul coming home with a collection of medals and ribbons outdoing those which he had won at school. Five years ago he had gone away, and Kennethe had forgotten him —no, not quite. Far back in the dim, untroubled, precious places of her mind he lingered, tall, lean and brown. He had a niche there. Or was it in her heart? She did not really know.
She had hated him, she told herself when he strolled over the rise by the eighteenth hole and saw Bill and Nick claiming their tribute. Jane Beck had coyly run away, knowing that they’d claim Kennethe first anyway and then follow her. It had looked rather outrageous, Kennethe had to admit. But even so, there was no need for Paul to look like a cleric who had wandered by accident into some lurid Saturnalia. What was it to him, anyway?
“He’s just a prude,” she told herself. “He has no right to look down on me because of that; no right to laugh at Bill and Nick either, even though they are sort of asses at times. He’s just, just ..."
Kennethe could not find words to say what Paul was. Truth to tell, he was just as he had been; tall, hard-bitten, brown, keen of profile, eyes startlingly blue and direct, and hands long and sinewy. He had not spoken to her
when he passed the oseulatory tableau on the green. Probably he hadn’t known her, though she well remembered her last meeting with him five years ago.
That was on May Day, when there was a festival in Riverside. She was dressed in white and felt very warm and uncomfortable. There was an irritating pebble in the heel of her shoe, and she was thinking how much more sensible it would be to put the Maypole down on the river shore and dance in the cool water.
Paul had arrived with the vicar, Mr. Porteous. And Paul had said:
“Hello, young Kennethe. What a charming little gipsy you are! I suppose when I come back you’ll have lost the ‘rustic, woodland air,’ but be more wildly clad—like the rest of ye moderns, alas!’’
Kennethe, walking home across the links and through the woodland path to Brueside, her father’s house, thought of that now and wondered if Paul had found her so. Hardly, she reflected. She w;as browner now than then and tanned deeply; and there were dark roses under the brown skin of her cheeks.
Perhaps the yellow sweater and white pleated skirt, the gay sport shoes, were wilder garb than the simple white dress of the May Day long ago. But even so . . .
Funny, it was almost Maytime now. There were violets—tender, purple, infinitely graceful things—peeping up along the borders of the path through the woods; star-flowers, white and ethereal; strawberry blossoms; mayfiowers and ferns, all curled and scrolled like the heads of fairy fiddles. Had Paul designedly picked this time to come back?
Was it just hunger for the scenes of home, the wide, blue river, the dark bluffs, the hills in their evergreen garb, touched here and there with the brightness of new leaves on birch and willow?
Perhaps she was a hard, reckless, little idiot to make a wager like that with Carla Forster—Carla, who, everyone knew, had loved Paul long and hopefully. Carla was so much lovelier, so much more the lady than she. Carla’s skin neither browned nor burned.
It was always white, creamy, and her yellowish blonde hair was as pale flame compared with Kennethe’s red-gold mane. And Carla was poised, eternally cool and patrician. If Paul Collentine could not or would not accept Carla’s love, was it likely he would want even so much as a kiss from one less lovely?
Kennethe began to lose heart. Paul himself, by his tacit disapproval of her antics with Nick and Bill, and Carla, by her urbane taunting, had stung her into that rash wager.
It was the misfortune of her family that they could not decline to take a dare. How could she get Paul to kiss her? He had a trick of looking right through one. No doubt, he would look right through her the next time they met. All she could do was try to mal^e him; after which, if successful, she would say:
“You found it something to marvel at when you saw other men kissing me; now you’ll admit it’s quite a natural phenomenon, since you had the desire yourself and succumbed to it.” That would be a nasty triumph. Perhaps, if he tried to kiss her, she wouldn’t let him—still more nasty.
\\/HAT with one thing and another,
^ ’ Kennethe was in no amiable frame of mind w'hen she reached home. She banged her clubs down on the verandah, and sank wearily into the red and black cushioned softness of the porch-swing. She had a date with Nick Kenny tonight. They would go out to Gondola Point and dance. She would be bored. They’d stroll on the beach, and Nick, after a long silence would say: “The stars are lovely tonight, but they’re no brighter than your eyes, Ken.” Nick always said that.
She knew what he was going to say so well that she could chant it with him. Sometimes she did.
Nick did not mind. He loved her, which was silly; for she didn’t in the least love him. He was a nice boy; earnest, plodding along and getting somewhere in his father’s shipping office in Saint John, slowly but certainly, after the manner of the ambitious tortoise in the fable. But there was nothing pulse-stirring about Nick. The extent of his romantic imagination was just that bit about the stars being not so bright as her eyes. It was good enough, the first time, but that was long ago.
Voices from the living-room sifted through the screened window' behind her seat; her father’s, and Uncle Dave’s, and another one:
“Yes, Mr. Lee, I do find it a bit different after five
years. Kiddies whom I last saw in pinafores, dancing about the green on May Day, are grown up now. Things are more free and easy too, I think. A kiss has lost its significance ...” Captain Collentine, no less!
“If it ever had any,” snorted Uncle Dave, sixty and a bachelor.
“I think it had once,” Paul continued easily. “Yes, I am sure it had. With some people it probably still has. But to these modern girls, these—er—flappers, it is just about as vital as a handshake. It may or may not con-
note something deeper. Usually, I am forced to believe, it doesn’t.”
“I’ve never given it much thought.” This from her father. “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you, Paul.” “I don’t, sir. I just find it a trifle hard to grasp—in some cases. I suppose I’ll get used to it. But it seems unutterably cheap for a charming girl ...”
“Rats!” growled Uncle Dave, and Kennethe could see him viciously chewing his cigar. “You will be like the rest of ’em in no time, my boy. There’s been a lot of nonsense said and w'ritten about love, and all that. I’m glad to see the youngsters getting away from it.” Paul laughed, and that w'as the end of that discussion. Kennethe’s brow was puckered. So he thought her
conduct “unutterably cheap,” did he? The smug, selfassured idiot! She became more determined than ever to go through with it; to dangle Captain Paul Collentine’s dark brown scalp along with the others she had lifted thus early in life.
AT DINNER she was the essence of sweet maidenliness and old-fashioned girlhood. She wore a long dress, not to please Paul but because it was in style. She was very quiet, very demure, and did not meet him brazenly on equal terms, as girls now are wont to do. She had seen the play, “Rosemary,” a fortnight before and she took Betty Cruikshank as her model—childlike, guileless, virginal. And she scored in the part.
Paul made no mention of the scene on the links except to say:
“I’m not sure that I recognized you this morning, Kennethe. Perhaps it wasn’t you?” “Oh yes, it was. Her lips tightened as she thought: “Yes, my man, it was I. But this simple, unassuming maiden is not. This is Betty of the play. I’m acting—for a kiss.” There was no kiss that night, merely an invitation to play golf on the morrow. Well, even that was a triumph; the beginning of success. She would show Carla Forster and the rest that she had lost no time and was well on her way to winning. Paul had a way of looking at her, of bending his brown face down to hers, of letting a certain earnestness creep into his voice and a deep intensity into his eyes that told her he was far from impregnable. She hoped the victory would be easy. She wanted to have it done with, for qualms were coming to her. Often she had to steel herself against a faint sense of shame that threatened to undermine her attack and turn it into broken retreat.
They went to the golf club next day, and the day after that, but Paul was still aloof. Nick Kenney hovered constantly in the offing. There was a speculative, puzzled, wondering look in Paul’s eyes, succeeding the tenderness that had been there. Yet that tenderness would creep back, and sometimes it would frighten her.
When they walked home through the woods, along a violet-bordered path, with willows arching overhead, with the chuckling brook streaming like silver over the rocks under a tiny footbridge and making a pool where speckled trout darted, Kennethe was afraid, actually afraid, that he was going to kiss her. She dreaded victory. She didn’t want to win that silly, disgusting bet now. She wanted him to kiss her; wanted it achingly, as she had never before wanted anything—but not until the week was up and she could submit with a clear conscience.
She encouraged Nick to accompany her and Paul. He w'as a protection for her. Carla and the rest, she knew, were watching her every move, waiting for the dénouement; some few hoping she would win, most of them sure of her defeat and humiliation. When the second last day came, Mrs. Keith-Crosby beamed upon her, anticipating that soon she w'ould be able to crow loudly. It wasn’t often that the old lady had a chance to crow over any smart youngster.
Kennethe grew more miserable as the stipulated time drew to a close. The suspense was agonizing. When she was alone with Paul, when she looked about the links . nd saw no one else, she would move quickly away from him, fearful that he might give expression to that which was in his eyes.
But the last evening, the last few hours came w'hen on the stroke of twelve the wager would be lost or won.
It was May Day. Kennethe went to the village green, after dinner with Nick, to watch the children romp and dance; the little girls all in white, as she had been. She watched them wistfully, almost enviously, thinking of that night five years before, a blue-hazed, starry, gentle night so much like this one, when she had played there, even as they; when Paul and the vicar had spoken to her, a brown, wild-eyed little pixie. It seemed like only yesterday, that meeting. Nov she knew that she loved Paul, had loved him from that night, perhaps from long before. She was thankful that her wager wras lost. It seemed cheap and unworthy now to have made such a bet. If he had kissed her and then learned w'hat it meant to her, he would never again believe in her sincerity. He would despise her. No man likes to be made a fool of, especially by a woman.
Continued on page 71
The Admirable Collentine
Continued from page 8
“I’m safe now,” mused Kennethe happily. The village clock had struck three-quarters after eleven; the children had long since gone; their elders, who had stopped to dance and gossip, were going too. “I’ll tell him about the bet tomorrow,” she decided. “I’ll say I’m sorry; and if he believes, if he cares ...”
Abrupt'y Nick Kenney wTas removed from her side by the vicar; the same Mr. Porteous of five years ago, a benign, fatherly old soul, now a little more benign, a little more fatherly and grey, who went through life whisking people away from other people; always bent on some mysterious business.
“I’ll be around to drive you home. If I don’t return shortly, wait for me at the ' ar, Ken,” was all Nick had time to say before Mr. Porteous spirited him off into the gloom of the Common.
Paul Collentine appeared out of the gloom. He must have been standing near, watching, waiting for his chance. The vicar must have known he was there. Kennethe wondered suddenly if the vicar and Paul didn’t share many things. She shrank away from the touch of his hand on her arm. The time was not up yet. There remained a few minutes. He might . . .
“Nick should be back in a moment,” she said uneasily, trying in vain to see what had become of her escort. “He—he told me to wait at his car. I’ll go there. I think I can find it. There are so many . . . ”
“Please don’t hurry, Kennethe,” Paul said softly, smiling faintly down at her. “I’ve waited all evening for this opportunity; thought it would never come. You see, I’m going away tomorrow. I want a chance to say good-by.”
“You-—you’re going away—back to Burma?”
“Perhaps to Burma.” His voice was weary. “I do not know. One gets to a point where one place is as good as another — or as bad.”
“Oh, I see,” said Kennethe hollowly. “I had no idea you were going so soon. It’s good-by then, Paul.”
“Seems, milady, that it is. What! Is it so late? Twelve o’clock, midnight?”
The village clock began to strike the hour. It was over at last, the week, the last few days of which had been Gethsemane. He was going away, and no harm was done; none except that an ineffably painful ache would be left in her breast. The clock’s deep tone was like a knell—five, six—a knell for her love.
Paul caught her in his arms, held her hard, kissed her with strange, boyish gentleness, as if he feared to hurt her— suddenly and irresistibly. And in that instant he released her.
“There,” he said, his voice hard and cold. “You win your'cheap little bet, Kennethe. I couldn’t see you lose, because the other side didn’t play fair and gave you away. So you win. But always remember, child, you were wagering your golf clubs against ... a man’s happiness. I came back here for one thing only . . . you !”
He turned abruptly and left her. She could not call to him, could not move from that tragic, wondrous spot. The manner of his going was more cruel than a slap on the face. Tears came; tears of grief, of anger. Long moments passed and then she groped her way to Nick’s car. He was warming the engine. She climbed in beside him, snuggled down in the seat, and sobbed.
The car slid away, gathered speed 1 where the road curved white through the village, passed the. church and rattled over the iron bridge.
“I—I can’t help it, Nick,” she moaned. “I’m a fool, a little beast into the bargain. I. . . I love him, Nick. Always have, I guess, from the time I was a kiddie.
You've always been so decent, you’ll j understand. I repented of the fool bet I made with Carla as soon as I saw what he j was like. And now . . . now he’s going ; away to . . . to Bu—Burma!”
It was cruel of Nick to laugh. Nick j had never laughed like that before. It startled Kennethe. She jerked up in | her seat.
“Oh !” she gasped.
The car stopped abruptly. It seemed to fling her into Paul Collentine’s arms, j They closed about her strongly, and this j time he did not let her go.
“I sent Nick on his way, Kennethe,” he explained. “Voices sound much alike with engine accompaniment. I just couldn’t leave you like that. I was silly— hurt pride and all that. I thought you and Nick were engaged. The source of all my information is, I fear, none too reliable. Do you really mean it about that bet, about being sorry and all that ... ?”
“Yes, Paul. If—if you had gone away, I’d have committed—manslaughter with those clubs.”
“But you’ve won.”
“More than I wagered for. I’ll never bet again. One can’t afford to gamble with kisses. They—they ‘connote’ so
“Sometimes, Ken ... as now.”
THE group of seven graced the western end of the country club verandah the following afternoon at the tea hour. Kennethe was late. She came at last, carrying her clubs, the prized clubs which Uncle Dave had given her. She walked in among the wicker chairs and deposited the bag at Carla Forster’s feet.
“You win,” she said.
“Of course,” returned Carla, unruffled, sipping her tea. “I had no thought of losing.”
“Of course,” echoed Mrs. KeithCrosby. “Now you insolent little—”
“I wagered that Paul Collentine would, within the week, kiss me and forget aí other men do. That was the bet, wasn’t it?”
“Precisely,” agreed Carla.
Kennethe took a deep breath and gazed around at her elders.
“Well, he kissed me, but he can’t forget. So we’re going to be married. Sorry I can’t stay for tea . . . Paul’s waiting.” Silence, deep, utter, descended like a pall on the group. Only old Mrs. KeithCrosby, who had not heard very well, or had not believed what she did hear, piped up, demanding a repetition of Kennethe’s remarks.
“What did she say? What did the little chit say? Are you all mummies?” And louder still: “What did she say?”
“A mouthful,” muttered someone from the shadows.