MRS. CHESTER CARROLL was filled, surfeited, satiated, with fiction. As she laid aside the flaringly-covered copy of the latest "best seller," she reclined luxuriously on her softly cushioned chaise longue and heaved a deep sigh.
Mrs. Chester Carroll allowed her mind to review the plot of the story she had just read—it was the same pill as of old. with a sugar coating of a new taste. In chapter one the heroine was depicted as being on the brink of ruin—moral ruin. In chapter two she slipped one foot over the edge. From the commencement of chapter three until the end of chapter thirty-two she hung there teetering. In chapter thirty-three she decided that virtue wasn't worth the fight and prepared to fling herself into the ever-ready villain's arms. In chapter thirty-four she does it—but the hero comes along at the psychological moment with the belated offer of marriage, and they leave for Palm Beach in his new yacht.
She had known it would be like that even before she opened the book. Somehow, the time worn plot never grew dull for her. She loved to fight the heroine's fight with her, to share the strenuous delights of the battle against the husky villain's wiles, to—I blush to admit it—to turn page after page in the hope that some one of the heroines would yield—and the hero fail to play his part of virtue-saver.
That was Corinne Carroll's chiefest disappointment. The virtue of the "best seller" heroines was too iron-clad. It heated to the fusing-point, and then refused to fuse. Eventually it became a mania with her, this search for a heroine of qualities more human than they of cloth covers.
And gradually the desires of her search had transmuted themselves into the very fibre of her being. Without strict analysis of her own emotions, she determined that as authors would not make their heroines act as she wished them to, she would prove that it might be done.
Horrors! The conclusion is readily drawn. Mrs. Corinne Carroll was an unmoral woman! Terrifying! But let it go at that, for it is the truth, the strict truth, and nothing but the truth.
It is almost a waste of words to explain that Mrs. Corinne Carroll was the legal spouse of a very rich man who sat daily on the Stock Exchange and was in the way of affording many luxuries which he did not have—and the many which he did have. And also that Chester Carroll neglected his wife shamefully in his mad rush after dollars to add to his already countless horde. And also that there was a tertium quid!
It was this third person, the second man, the family friend, that put the idea in Corinne's head. In all her pet novels it was the family friend who essayed the wrecking of the home. And always the procedure was the same. The husband, money-mad, succeeded in throwing wife and friend together until propinquity got in its villainous work—only to be thwarted by a latent awakening of the husband's love for frail wifie. The friend always fell in love with the wife, despite his better nature; the wife with the friend because hers was a temperamental nature which craved love.
But in vaguely determining to carry the thing through to a highly-colored conclusion—with nary a thought to the drab dusk to follow—Corinne faced facts as facts; and the facts she faced are those which are either handled in the epilogue of a novel, or else are not handled at all. And these were the facts.
First: Joe Manning, the all-important family friend, was not in love with her. Furthermore, he was a true friend to Chester Carroll, and harbored no home-wrecking ambitions.
Second: Joe Manning acted suspiciously as though he thought pretty well of another and less attached female, against whom it was rumored he had directed love-thoughts leading eventually to the altar.
Third: Mrs. Corinne Carroll knew that one solution of the difficulty would be denied her in the event that her transgression should be discovered by the irate husband—the husband is always irate—and that is that he should never come in at the wrong-right time and find her embroidering pink and blue garments of lilliputian proportions.
But she also fairly marshaled her facts on the other side of the picture. They loomed up about this way:
First: Joe Manning was one hundred per cent. man, which means that he was fifty per cent. angel and fifty per cent. devil. He was big, strong, handsome, and intensely virile.
Second: she was thoroughly feminine, of no little beauty, and with a figure that artist friends of the family had discreetly raved over, and which brought glitters to the eyes of many of them. Also, by reason of the tabloid instructions absorbed from her fiction diet, she was thoroughly adept in the weak points of masculine man.
Third: although the husbands in fiction always suspected, her husband never would. He wasn't that kind, and he'd never believe that she was.
Fourth: she was inexpressibly bored, and sick and tired of convention.
Fifth: even if she succeeded in her little plan, she would be safe; she not being of a hysterical nature herself, and Joe Manning being a gentleman and notoriously close-mouthed.
And so, with thoughts of the future as vague as the suggestion of a cloud on an early-morning horizon, she—to use the vernacular—went to it.
And once in it, she kept at it. She dined alone with Joe Manning, and sought him on every possible occasion. She practised with all the art at her command the various and sundry little tricks which her favorite authors always made use of. She studied those things which interested him and spoke learnedly of them, thereby showing a flattering interest in him and his work. She touched him whenever possible, thereby helping along the good work which Pater Propinquity always does.
She let it be known by look, word, and action that she was infatuated with him. And in due course of time she saw that she was winning her battle; for there was an unmistakable gleam in his eyes as he watched her when they were alone, a heaving of the chest and a nervous clasping of his big, strong hands, which were readable as the printed page of one of her pet books. And just about that time the last vague suggestion of fear which had lodged persistently in Mrs. Chester Carroll's mind was routed. Propinquity had cut with a double-edged sword: in brief, she was glad that she had done what she had; and insanity had usurped cold reason.
Her psychical capitulation was principally due to the fact that Joe Manning's surrender had not come without a struggle. With amazing lack of ego, he had for a long time refused to credit the evidence of his senses—the evidence which told him that his friend's wife loved him. But once he surrendered, he did so unconditionally.
Joe Manning was no fool; and he knew Corinne. He knew her well enough to read the signs, and he realized that her love for him was the passion of an adult, awakened woman. He knew what it meant; and by that time he had reached the point where he didn't care.
And the climax came one night when they had been to the theatre together. Chester Carroll was in Chicago. Corinne, her bosom rising and falling with a knowledge that the time had arrived, invited Joe Manning to her private sitting-room at midnight. She flung her evening wrap across a lounge, thereby disclosing a wealth of perfect, ivory-tinted flesh. Her attitude was one of surrender, of eagerness for capture; her every gesture inviting, alluring, tantalizing.
And Joe Manning forgot that this was the wife of his best friend, he forgot the ethics of manhood, he forgot everything save that she had aroused his most powerful feelings and that she was his for the asking. His voice was choked and hoarse as he spoke, after staring at her for full a minute in speechless wonder.
"Corrine," he gasped, "you—are—exquisite!"
Her being thrilled at the words, at the timbre of his voice.
"You think so?"
"'Think so'! Good God! You are the most—" His big fists clenched, and the perspiration stood out in little beads on his forehead.
She advanced slowly toward him, and paused close to him, her perfect bosom rising and falling tumultuously. The very passion of her permeated the room. Chester Carroll was forgotten.
"Corinne!" Joe's cry was hoarse, desperate, reckless.
Imperceptibly she swayed toward him. His huge arms closed convulsively about her. He pulled her to him with a herculean display of brute strength. His hot face bent to hers and forced it back. He rained burning kisses on her parted lips.
For a second she lay passive. Then she writhed and tore loose with a sudden accession of unnatural strength. She stood erect and quivering. Then her hand flashed out against his cheek stingingly.
"You—you—beast!" she sibilated. "You beast!"
He stared at her, suddenly deathly cold. His jaw sagged.
"Go!" she panted. "And never let me see your face again! Go!"
Slowly, wonderingly, he made his way out of her private sitting-room. His world had become chaos. Life had become stark—appallingly stark.
The front door slammed as he left. In her room, Corinne Carroll—Mrs. Chester Carroll—furiously brushed her lips where his had so feverishly pressed. Then she collapsed into a little sobbing heap on the floor.
"How dared he!" she moaned, with the heart-wrung fervor of outraged virtue. "How dared he! The beast!"
Which proves, probably, that fiction is neither more nor less strange than truth!