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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 13853

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was three days after the young husband, lying in the grass, his cheek on his wife's hand, had made his careless prophecy about "whistling," that Henry Houghton, jogging along in the sunshine toward Grafton for the morning mail, slapped a rein down on Lion's fat back, and whistled, placidly enough.... (But that was before he reached the post office.) His wife, whose sweet and rosy bulk took up most of the space on the seat, listened, smiling with content. When he was placid, she was placid; when he wasn't, which happened now and then, she was an alertly reasonable woman, defending him from himself, and wrenching from his hand, with ironic gayety, or rallying seriousness, the dagger of his discontent with what he called his "failure" in life-which was what most people called his success-a business career, chosen because the support of several inescapable blood relations was not compatible with his own profession of painting. All his training and hope had been centered upon art. The fact that, after renouncing it, an admirably managed cotton mill provided bread and butter for sickly sisters and wasteful brothers, to say nothing of his own modest prosperity, never made up to him for the career of a struggling and probably unsuccessful artist-which he might have had. He ran his cotton mill, and supported all the family undesirables until, gradually, death and marriage took the various millstones from around his neck; then he retired, as the saying is-although it was really setting sail again for life-to his studio (with a farmhouse attached) in the mountains. There had been a year of passionate work and expectation-but his pictures were dead. "I sold my birthright for a bale of cotton," he said, briefly.

But he still stayed on the farm, and dreamed in his studio and tried to teach his little, inartistic Edith to draw, and mourned. As for business, he said, "Go to the devil!"-except as he looked after Maurice Curtis's affairs; this because the boy's father had been his friend. But it was the consciousness of the bartered birthright and the dead pictures in his studio which kept him from "whistling" very often. However, on this June morning, plodding along between blossoming fields, climbing wooded hills, and clattering through dusky covered bridges, he was not thinking of his pictures; so, naturally enough, he whistled; a very different whistling from that which Maurice, lying in the grass beside his wife of fifty-four minutes, had foreseen for him-when the mail should be distributed! Once, just from sheer content, he stopped his:

Did you ever ever ever

In your life life life

See the devil devil devil

Or his wife wife wife-"

and turned and looked at his Mary.

"Nice day, Kit?" he said; and she said, "Lovely!" Then she brushed her elderly rosy cheek against his shabby coat and kissed it. They had been married for thirty years, and she had held up his hands as he placed upon the altar of a repugnant duty, the offering of a great renunciation. She had hoped that the birth of their last, and only living, child, Edith, would reconcile him to the material results of the renunciation; but he was as indifferent to money for his girl as he had been for himself.... So there they were, now, living rather carefully, in an old stone farmhouse on one of the green foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. The thing that came nearest to soothing the bruises on his mind was the possibilities he saw in Maurice.

"The inconsequence of the scamp amounts to genius!" he used to tell his Mary with admiring displeasure at one or another of Maurice's scrapes. "Heaven knows what he'll do before he gets to the top of Fool Hill, and begins to run on the State Road! Look at this mid-year performance. He ought to be kicked for flunking. He simply dropped everything except his music! Apparently he can't study. Even spelling is a matter of private judgment with Maurice! Oh, of course, I know I ought to have scalped him; his father would have scalped him. But somehow the scoundrel gets round me! I suppose its because, though he is provoking, he is never irritating. And he's as much of a fool as I was at his age! That keeps me fair to him. Well, he has stuff in him, that boy. He's as truthful as Edith; an appalling tribute, I know-but you like it in a cub. And there's no flapdoodle about him; and he never cried baby in his life. And he has imagination and music and poetry! Edith is a nice little clod compared to him."

The affection of these two people for Maurice could hardly have been greater if he had been their son. "Mother loves Maurice better 'an she loves me," Edith used to reflect; "I guess it's because he never gets muddy the way I do, and tracks dirt into the house. He wipes his feet."

"What do you suppose," Mrs. Houghton said, remembering this summing up of things, "Edith told me this morning that the reason I loved Maurice more than I loved her-"

"What!"

"Yes; isn't she funny?-was because he 'wiped his feet when he came into the house.'"

Edith's father stopped whistling, and smiled: "That child is as practical as a shuttle; but she hasn't a mean streak in her!" he said, with satisfaction, and began to whistle again. "Nice girl," he said, after a while; "but the most rationalizing youngster! I hope she'll get foolish before she falls in love. Mary, one of these days, when she grows up, perhaps she and Maurice-?"

"Matchmaker!" she said, horrified; then objected: "Can't she rationalize and fall in love too? I'm rather given to reason myself, Henry."

"Yes, honey; you are now; but you were as sweet a fool as anybody when you fell in love, thank God." She laughed, and he said, resignedly, "I suppose you'll have an hour's shopping to do? You have only one of the vices of your sex, Mary, you have the 'shopping mind.' However, with all thy faults I love thee still.... We'll go to the post office first; then I can read my letters while you are colloguing with the storekeepers."

Mrs. Houghton, looking at her list, agreed, and when he got out for the mail she was still checking off people and purchases; it was only when she had added one or two more errands that she suddenly awoke to the fact that he was very slow in coming back with the letters. "Stupid!" she thought, "opening your mail in the post office, instead of keeping it to read while I'm shopping!"-but even as she reproached him, he came out and climbed into the buggy, in very evident perturbation.

"Where do you want to go?" he said; she, asking no questions (marvelous woman!) told him. He said "G'tap!" angrily; Lion backed, and the wheel screeched against the curb. "Oh, g'on!" he said. Lion switched his tail, caught a rein under it, and trotted off. Mr. Houghton leaned over the dashboard, swore softly, and gave the horse a slap with the rescued rein. But the outburst loosened the dumb distress that had settled upon him in the po

st office; he gave a despairing grunt:

"Well! Maurice has come the final cropper."

"Smith's next, dear," she said; "What is it, Henry?"

"He's gone on the rocks (druggist Smith, or fish Smith?)"

"Druggist. Has Maurice been drinking?" She could not keep the anxiety out of her voice.

"Drinking? He could be as drunk as a lord and I wouldn't-Whoa, Lion!... Get me some shaving soap, Kit!" he called after her, as she went into the shop.

When she came back with her packages and got into the buggy, she said, quietly, "Tell me, Henry."

"He has simply done what I put him in the way of doing when I gave him a letter of introduction to that Mrs. Newbolt, in Mercer."

"Newbolt? I don't remember-"

"Yes, you do. Pop eyes. Fat. Talked every minute, and everything she said a nonsequitur. I used to wonder why her husband didn't choke her. He was on our board. Died the year we came up here. Talked to death, probably."

"Oh yes. I remember her. Well?"

"I thought she might make things pleasant for Maurice while he was cramming. He doesn't know a soul in Mercer, and Bradley's game leg wouldn't help out with sociability. So I gave him letters to two or three people. Mrs. Newbolt was one of them. I hated her, because she dropped her g's; but she had good food, and I thought she'd ask him to dinner once in a while."

"Well?"

"She did. And he's married her niece."

"What! Without your consent! I'm shocked that Mrs. Newbolt permitted-"

"Probably her permission wasn't asked, any more than mine."

"You mean an elopement? How outrageous in Maurice!" Mrs. Houghton said.

Her husband agreed. "Abominable! Mary, do you mind if I smoke?"

"Very much; but you'll do it all the same. I suppose the girl's a mere child?" Then she quailed. "Henry!-she's respectable, isn't she? I couldn't bear it, if-if she was some-dreadful person."

He sheltered a sputtering match in his curving hand and lighted a cigar; then he said, "Oh, I suppose she's respectable enough; but she's certainly 'dreadful.' He says she's a music teacher. Probably caught him that way. Music would lead Maurice by the nose. Confound that boy! And his father trusted me." His face twitched with distress. "As for being a 'mere child,'-there; read his letter."

She took it, fumbling about for her spectacles; halfway through, she gave an exclamation of dismay. "'A few years older'?-she must be twenty years older!"

"Good heavens, Mary!"

"Well, perhaps not quite twenty, but-"

Henry Houghton groaned. "I'll tell Bradley my opinion of him as a coach."

"My dear, Mr. Bradley couldn't have prevented it.... Yes; I remember her perfectly. She came to tea with Mrs. Newbolt several times. Rather a temperamental person, I thought."

"'Temperamental'? May the Lord have mercy on him!" he said. "Yes, it comes back to me. Dark eyes? Looked like one of Rossetti's women?"

"Yes. Handsome, but a little stupid. She's proved that by marrying Maurice! Oh, what a fool!" Then she tried to console him: "But one of the happiest marriages I ever knew, was between a man of thirty and a much older woman."

"But not between a boy of nineteen and a much older woman! The trouble is not her age but his youth. Why didn't she adopt him?... I bet the aunt's cussing, too."

"Probably. Well, we've got to think what to do," Mary Houghton said.

"Do? What do you mean? Get a divorce for him?"

"He's just married; he doesn't want a divorce yet," she said, simply; and her husband laughed, in spite of his consternation.

"Oh, lord, I wish I was asleep! I've always been afraid he'd go high-diddle-diddling off with some shady girl;-but I swear, that would have been better than marrying his grandmother! Mary, what I can't understand, is the woman. He's a child, almost; and vanity at having a woman of forty fall in love with him explains him. And, besides, Maurice is no Eurydice; music would lead him into hell, not out of it. It's the other fool that puzzles me."

His wife sighed; "If her mind keeps young, it won't matter so much about her body."

"My dear," he said, dryly, "human critters are human critters. In ten years it will be an impossible situation."

But again she contradicted him: "No! Unhappiness is possible; but not inevitable!"

"Dear Goose, may a simple man ask how it is to be avoided?"

"By unselfishness," she said; "no marriage ever went on the rocks where both 'human critters' were unselfish! But I hope this poor, foolish woman's mind will keep young. If it doesn't, well, Maurice will just have to be tactful. If he is, it may not be so very bad," she said, with determined optimism.

"Kit, when a man has to be 'tactful' with his wife, God help him!-or a woman with her husband," he added in a sudden tender afterthought. "We've never been 'tactful' with each other, Mary?" She smiled, and put her cheek against his shoulder. "'Tactfulness' between a husband and wife," said Henry Houghton, "is confession that their marriage is a failure. You may tell 'em so, from me."

"You may tell them yourself!" she retorted. "What are they going to live on?" she pondered "Can his allowance be increased?"

"It can't. You know his father's will. He won't get his money until he's twenty-five."

"He'll have to go to work," she said; "which means not going back to college, I suppose?"

"Yes," he said, grimly; "who would support his lady-love while he was in college? And it means giving up his music," he added.

"If he makes as much out of his renunciation as you have out of yours," she said, calmly, "we may bless this poor woman yet."

"Oh, you old humbug," he told her-but he smiled.

Then she repeated to him an old, old formula for peace; "'Consider the stars,' Henry, and young foolishness will seem very small. Maurice's elopement won't upset the universe."

They were both silent for a while; then Mary Houghton said, "I'll write the invitation to them; but you must second it when you answer his letter."

"Invitation? What invitation?"

"Why, to come and stay at Green Hill until you can find something for him to do."

"I'll be hanged if I invite her! I'll have nothing to do with her! Maurice can come, of course; but he can't bring-"

His wife laughed, and he, too, gave a reluctant chuckle. "I suppose I've got to?" he groaned.

"Of course, you've got to!" she said.

The rest of the ride back to the old stone house among its great trees, halfway up the mountain, was silent. Mrs. Houghton was thinking what room she would give the bride and groom-for the little room Maurice had had in all his vacations since he became her husband's ward was not suitable. "Edith will have to let them have her room," she thought. She knew she could count on Edith not to make a fuss. "It's such a comfort that Edith has sense," she ruminated aloud.

But her husband was silent; there was no more whistling for Henry Houghton that day.

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