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The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 20665

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Love is as strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

THE SONG OF SOLOMON, VIII, 6.

There is nothing in the world nobler, and lovelier, and more absurd, than a boy's lovemaking. And the joyousness of it!...

The boy of nineteen, Maurice Curtis, who on a certain June day lay in the blossoming grass at his wife's feet and looked up into her dark eyes, was embodied Joy! The joy of the warm earth, of the sunshine glinting on the slipping ripples of the river and sifting through the cream-white blossoms of the locust which reared its sheltering branches over their heads; the joy of mating insects and birds, of the whole exulting, creating universe!-the unselfconscious, irresponsible, wholly beautiful Joy of passion which is without apprehension or humor. The eyes of the woman who sat in the grass beside this very young man, answered his eyes with Love. But it was a more human love than his, because there was doubt in its exultation....

The boy took out his watch and looked at it.

"We have been married," he said, "exactly fifty-four minutes."

"I can't believe it!" she said.

"If I love you like this after fifty-four minutes of married life, how do you suppose I shall feel after fifty-four years of it?" He flung an arm about her waist, and hid his face against her knee. "We are married," he said, in a smothered voice.

She bent over and kissed his thick hair, silently. At which he sat up and looked at her with blue, eager eyes.

"It just came over me! Oh, Eleanor, suppose I hadn't got you? You said 'No' six times. You certainly did behave very badly," he said, showing his white teeth in a broad grin.

"Some people win say I behaved very badly when I said 'Yes.'"

"Tell 'em to go to thunder! What does Mrs. Maurice Curtis (doesn't that sound pretty fine?) care for a lot of old cats? Don't we know that we are in heaven?" He caught her hand and crushed it against his mouth. "I wish," he said, very low, "I almost wish I could die, now, here! At your feet. It seems as if I couldn't live, I am so-" He stopped. So-what? Words are ridiculously inadequate things!... "Happiness" wasn't the name of that fire in his breast, Happiness? "Why, it's God," he said to himself; "God." Aloud, he said, again, "We are married!"

She did not speak-she was a creature of alluring silences-she just put her hand in his. Suddenly she began to sing; there was a very noble quality in the serene sweetness of her voice:

"O thou with dewy locks, who lookest down

Through the clear windows of the morning, ten

Thine angel eyes upon our western isle,

Which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring!"

That last word rose like a flight of wings into the blue air. Her husband looked at her; for a compelling instant his eyes dredged the depths of hers, so that all the joyous, frightened woman in her retreated behind a flutter of laughter.

"'O Spring!'" he repeated; "we are Spring, Nelly-you and I.... I'll never forget the first time I heard you sing that; snowing like blazes it was,-do you remember? But I swear I felt this hot grass then in Mrs. Newbolt's parlor, with all those awful bric-à-brac things around! Yes," he said, putting his hand on a little sun-drenched bowlder jutting from the earth beside him; "I felt this sun on my hand! And when you came to 'O Spring!' I saw this sky-" He stopped, pulled three blades of grass and began to braid them into a ring. "Lord!" he said, and his voice was suddenly startled; "what a darned little thing can throw the switches for a man! Because I didn't get by in Math. D and Ec 2, and had to crawl out to Mercer to cram with old Bradley-I met you! Eleanor! Isn't it wonderful? A little thing like that-just falling down in mathematics-changed my whole life?" The wild gayety in his eyes sobered. "I happened to come to Mercer-and, you are my wife." His fingers, holding the little grassy ring, trembled; but the next instant he threw himself back on the grass, and kicked up his heels in a preposterous gesture of ecstasy. Then caught her hand, slipped the braided ring over that plain circle of gold which had been on her finger for fifty-four minutes, kissed it-and the palm of her hand-and said, "You never can escape me! Eleanor, your voice played the deuce with me. I rushed home and read every poem in my volume of Blake. Go on; give us the rest."

She smiled;

".... And let our winds

Kiss thy perfumed garments; let us taste

Thy morn and evening breath!..."

"Oh-stop! I can't bear it," he said, huskily; and, turning on his face, he kissed the grass, earth's "perfumed garment," snow-sprinkled with locust blossoms....

But the moment of passion left him serious. "When I think of Mrs. Newbolt," he said, "I could commit murder." In his own mind he was saying, "I've rescued her!"

"Auntie doesn't mean to be unkind," Eleanor explained, simply; "only, she never understood me-Maurice! Be careful! There's a little ant-don't step on it."

She made him pause in his diatribe against Mrs. Newbolt and move his heel while she pushed the ant aside with a clover blossom. Her anxious gentleness made him laugh, but it seemed to him perfectly beautiful. Then he went on about Mrs. Newbolt:

"Of course she couldn't understand you! You might as well expect a high-tempered cow to understand a violin solo."

"How mad she'd be to be called a cow! Oh, Maurice, do you suppose she's got my letter by this time? I left it on her bureau. She'll rage!"

"Let her rage. Nothing can separate us now."

Thus they dismissed Mrs. Newbolt, and the shock she was probably experiencing at that very moment, while reading Eleanor's letter announcing that, at thirty-nine, she was going to marry this very young man.

"No; nothing can part us," Eleanor said; "forever and ever." And again they were silent-islanded in rippling tides of wind-blown grass, with the warm fragrance of dropping locust blossoms infolding them, and in their ears the endless murmur of the river. Then Eleanor said, suddenly: "Maurice!-Mr. Houghton? What will he do when he hears? He'll think an 'elopement' is dreadful."

He chuckled. "Uncle Henry?-He isn't really my uncle, but I call him that;-he won't rage. He'll just whistle. People of his age have to whistle, to show they're alive. I have reason to believe," the cub said, "that he 'whistled' when I flunked in my mid-years. Well, I felt sorry, myself-on his account," Maurice said, with the serious and amiable condescension of youth. "I hated to jar him. But-gosh! I'd have flunked A B C's, for this. Nelly, I tell you heaven hasn't got anything on this! As for Uncle Henry, I'll write him to-morrow that I had to get married sort of in a hurry, because Mrs. Newbolt wanted to haul you off to Europe. He'll understand. He's white. And he won't really mind-after the first biff;-that will take him below the belt, I suppose, poor old Uncle Henry! But after that, he'll adore you. He adores beauty."

Her delight in his praise made her almost beautiful; but she protested that he was a goose. Then she took the little grass ring from her finger and slipped it into her pocketbook. "I'm going to keep it always," she said. "How about Mrs. Houghton?"

"She'll love you! She's a peach. And little Skeezics-"

"Who is Skeezics?"

"Edith. Their kid. Eleven years old. She paid me the compliment of announcing, when she was seven, that she was going to marry me when she grew up! But I believe, now, she has a crush on Sir Walter Raleigh. She'll adore you, too."

"I'm afraid of them all," she confessed; "they won't like-an elopement."

"They'll fall over themselves with joy to think I'm settled for life! I'm afraid I've been a cussed nuisance to Uncle Henry," he said, ruefully; "always doing fool things, you know,-I mean when I was a boy. And he's been great, always. But I know he's been afraid I'd take a wild flight in actresses."

"'Wild' flight? What will he call-" She caught her breath.

"He'll call it a 'wild flight in angels'!" he said.

The word made her put a laughing and protesting hand (which he kissed) over his lips. Then she said that she remembered Mr. Houghton: "I met him a long time ago; when-when you were a little boy."

"And yet here you are, 'Mrs. Maurice Curtis!' Isn't it supreme?" he demanded. The moment was so beyond words that it made him sophomoric-which was appropriate enough, even though his freshman year had been halted by those examinations, which had so "jarred" his guardian. "I'll be twenty in September," he said. Evidently the thought of his increasing years gave him pleasure. That Eleanor's years were also increasing did not occur to him; and no wonder, for, compared to people like Mr. and Mrs. Houghton, Eleanor was young enough!-only thirty-nine. It was back in the 'nineties that she had met her husband's guardian, who, in those days, had been the owner of a cotton mill in Mercer, but who now, instead of making money, cultivated potatoes (and tried to paint). Eleanor knew the Houghtons when they were Mercer mill folk, and, as she said, this charming youngster-living then in Philadelphia-had been "a little boy"; now, here he was, her husband for "fifty-four minutes." And she was almost forty, and he was nineteen. That Henry Houghton, up on his mountain farm, pottering about in his big, dusty studio, and delving among his potatoes, would whistle, was to be expected.

"But who cares?" Maurice said. "It isn't his funeral."

"He'll think it's yours," she retorted, with a little laugh. She was not much given to laughter. Her life had been singularly monotonous and, having seen very little of the world, she had that self-distrust which is afraid to laugh unless other people are laughing, too. She taught singing at Fern Hill, a private school in Mercer's suburbs. She did not care for the older pupils, but she was devoted to the very little girls. She played wonderfully on the piano, and suffered from indigestion; her face was at times almost beautiful; she had a round, full chin, and a lovely red lower lip; her forehead was very white, with soft, dark hair rippling away from it. Certainly, she had moments of beauty. She talked very little; perhaps because she hadn't the chance to talk-living, as she did, wit

h an aunt who monopolized the conversation. She had no close friends;-her shyness was so often mistaken for hauteur, that she did not inspire friendship in women of her own age, and Mrs. Newbolt's elderly acquaintances were merely condescending to her, and gave her good advice; so it was a negative sort of life. Indeed, her sky terrier, Bingo, and her laundress, Mrs. O'Brien, to whose crippled baby grandson she was endlessly kind, knew her better than any of the people among whom she lived. When Maurice Curtis, cramming in Mercer because Destiny had broken his tutor's leg there, and presenting (with the bored reluctance of a boy) a letter of introduction from his guardian to Mrs. Newbolt-when Maurice met Mrs. Newbolt's niece, something happened. Perhaps because he felt her starved longing for personal happiness, or perhaps her obvious pleasure in listening, silently, to his eager talk, touched his young vanity; whatever the reason was, the boy was fascinated by her. He had ("cussing," as he had expressed it to himself) accepted an invitation to dine with the "ancient dame" (again his phrase!)-and behold the reward of merit:-the niece!-a gentle, handsome woman, whose age never struck him, probably because her mind was as immature as his own. Before dinner was over Eleanor's silence-silence is very moving to youth, for who knows what it hides?-and her deep, still eyes, lured him like a mystery. Then, after dinner ("a darned good dinner," Maurice had conceded to himself) the calm niece sang, and instantly he knew that it was Beauty which hid in silence-and he was in love with her! He had dined with her on Tuesday, called on Wednesday, proposed on Friday;-it was all quite like Solomon Grundy! except that, although she had fallen in love with him almost as instantly as he had fallen in love with her, she had, over and over again, refused him. During the period of her refusals the boy's love glowed like a furnace; it brought both power and maturity into his fresh, ardent, sensitive face. He threw every thought to the winds-except the thought of rescuing his princess from Mrs. Newbolt's imprisoning bric-a-bràc. As for his "cramming" the tutor into whose hands Mr. Houghton had committed his ward's very defective trigonometry and economics, Mr. Bradley, held in Mercer because of an annoying accident, said to himself that his intentions were honest, but if Curtis didn't turn up for three days running, he would utilize the time his pupil was paying for by writing a paper on "The Fourth Dimension."

Maurice was in some new dimension himself! Except "old Brad," he knew almost no one in Mercer, so he had no confidant; and because his passion was, perforce, inarticulate, his candid forehead gathered wrinkles of positive suffering, which made him look as old as Eleanor, who, dazed by the first very exciting thing that had ever happened to her,-the experience of being adored (and adored by a boy, which is a heady thing to a woman of her age!)-Eleanor was saying to herself a dozen times a day: "I mustn't say 'yes'! Oh, what shall I do?" Then suddenly there came a day when the rush of his passion decided what she would do....

Her aunt had announced that she was going to Europe. "I'm goin' to take you," Mrs. Newbolt said. "I don't know what would become of you if I left you alone! You are about as capable as a baby. That was a great phrase of your dear uncle Thomas's-'capable as a baby,' I'm perfectly sure the parlor ceilin' has got to be tinted this spring. When does your school close? We'll go the minute it closes. You can board Bingo with Mrs. O'Brien."

Eleanor, deeply hurt, was tempted to retort with the announcement that she needn't be "left alone"; she might get married! But she was silent; she never knew what to say when assailed by the older woman's tongue. She just wrote Maurice, helplessly, that she was going abroad.

He was panic-stricken. Going abroad? Uncle Henry's ancient dame was a she-devil, to carry her off! Then, in the midst of his anger, he recognized his opportunity: "The hell-cat has done me a good turn, I do believe! I'll get her! Bless the woman! I'll pay her passage myself, if she'll only go and never come back!"

It was on the heels of Mrs. Newbolt's candor about Eleanor's "capableness" that he swept her resistance away. "You've got to marry me," he told her; "that's all there is to it." He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a marriage license. "I'll call for you to-morrow at ten; we'll go to the mayor's office. I've got it all fixed up. So, you see there's no getting out of it."

"But," she protested, dazzled by the sheer, beautiful, impertinence of it, "Maurice, I can't-I won't-I-"

"You will," he said. "To-morrow's Saturday," he added, practically, "and there's no school, so you're free." He rose.... "Better leave a letter for your aunt. I'll be here at five minutes to ten. Be ready!" He paused and looked hard at her; caught her roughly in his arms, kissed her on her mouth, and walked out of the room.

The mere violence of it lifted her into the Great Adventure! When he commanded, "Be ready!" she, with a gasp, said, "Yes."

Well; they had gone to the mayor's office, and been married; then they had got on a car and ridden through Mercer's dingy outskirts to the end of the route in Medfield, where, beyond suburban uglinesses, there were glimpses of green fields.

Once as the car rushed along, screeching around curves and banging over switches, Eleanor said, "I've come out here four times a week for four years, to Fern Hill."

And Maurice said: "Well, that's over! No more school-teaching for you!"

She smiled, then sighed. "I'll miss my little people," she said.

But except for that they were silent. When they left the car, he led the way across a meadow to the bank of the river; there they sat down under the locust, and he kissed her, quietly; then, for a while, still dumb with the wonder of themselves, they watched the sky, and the sailing white clouds, and the river-flowing-flowing; and each other.

"Fifty-four minutes," he had said....

So they sat there and planned for the endless future-the "fifty-four years."

"When we have our golden wedding," he said, "we shall come back here, and sit under this tree-" He paused; he would be-let's see: nineteen, plus fifty, makes sixty-nine. He did not go farther with his mental arithmetic, and say thirty-nine plus fifty; he was thinking only of himself, not of her. In fifty years he would be, he told himself, an old man.

And what would happen in all these fifty golden years? "You know, long before that time, perhaps it won't be-just us?" he said.

The color leaped to her face; she nodded, finding no words in which to expand that joyous "perhaps," which touched the quick in her. Instantly that sum in addition which he had not essayed in his own mind, became unimportant in hers. What difference did the twenty severing years make, after all? Her heart rose with a bound-she had a quick vision of a little head against her bosom! But she could not put it into words. She only challenged, him:

"I am not clever like you. Do you think you can love a stupid person for fifty years?"

"For a thousand years!-but you're not stupid."

She looked doubtful; then went on confessing: "Auntie says I'm a dummy, because I don't talk very much. And I'm awfully timid. And she says I'm jealous."

"You don't talk because you're always thinking; that's one of the most fascinating things about you, Eleanor,-you keep me wondering what on earth you're thinking about. It's the mystery of you that gets me! And if you're 'timid'-well, so long as you're not afraid of me, the more scared you are, the better I like it. A man," said Maurice, "likes to feel that he protects his-his wife." He paused and repeated the glowing word ... "his wife!" For a moment he could not go on with their careless talk; then he was practical again. That word "protect" was too robust for sentimentality. "As for being jealous, that, about me, is a joke! And if you were, it would only mean that you loved me-so I would be flattered. I hope you'll be jealous! Eleanor, promise me you'll be jealous?" They both laughed; then he said: "I've made up my mind to one thing. I won't go back to college."

"Oh, Maurice!"

He was very matter of fact. "I'm a married man; I'm going to support my wife!" He ran his fingers through his thick blond hair in ridiculous pantomime of terrified responsibility. "Yes, sir! I'm out for dollars. Well, I'm glad I haven't any near relations to get on their ear, and try and mind my business for me. Of course," he ruminated, "Bradley will kick like a steer, when I tell him he's bounced! But that will be on account of money. Oh, I'll pay him, all same," he said, largely. "Yes; I'm going to get a job." His face sobered into serious happiness. "My allowance won't provide bones for Bingo! So it's business for me."

She looked a little frightened. "Oh, have I made you go to work?" She had never asked him about money; she had plunged into matrimony without the slightest knowledge of his income.

"I'll chuck Bradley, and I'll chuck college," he announced, "I've got to! Of course, ultimately, I'll have plenty of money. Mr. Houghton has dry-nursed what father left me, and he has done mighty well with it; but I can't touch it till I'm twenty-five-worse luck! Father had theories about a fellow being kept down to brass tacks and earning his living, before he inherited money another man had earned-that's the way he put it. Queer idea. So, I must get a job. Uncle Henry'll help me. You may bet on it that Mrs. Maurice Curtis shall not wash dishes, nor yet feed the swine, but live on strawberries, sugar, and-What's the rest of it?"

"I have a little money of my own," she said; "six hundred a year."

"It will pay for your hairpins," he said, and put out his hand and touched her hair-black, and very soft and wavy "but the strawberries I shall provide."

"I never thought about money," she confessed.

"Of course not! Angels don't think about money."

* * *

"So they were married"; and in the meadow, fifty-four minutes later, the sun and wind and moving shadows, and the river-flowing-flowing-heralded the golden years, and ended the saying: "lived happy ever afterward."

* * *

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