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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 14018

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The cloud of their first difference had blown over almost before they felt its shadow, and the sky of love was as clear as the lucid beryl of the summer night. Yet even the passing shadow of the cloud kept both the woman and the boy repentant and a little frightened; he, because he thought he had offended her by some lack of delicacy; she, because she thought she had shocked him by what he might think was harshness to a child. Even a week afterward, as they journeyed up to Green Hill in a dusty accommodation train, there was an uneasy memory of that cloud-black with Maurice's dullness, and livid with the zigzag flash of Eleanor's irritation-and then the little shower of tears! ... What had brought the cloud? Would it ever return? ... As for those twenty dividing years, they never thought of them!

In the train they held each other's hands under the cover of a newspaper; and sometimes Maurice's foot touched hers, and then they looked at each other, and smiled-but each was wondering: his wonder was, "What made her offended at Edith?" And hers was, "How can he like to be with an eleven-year-old child!" Their talk, however, confessed no wonderings! It was the happy commonplace of companionship: Mrs. Newbolt and her departure for Europe; would Mrs. O'Brien be good to Bingo? what Maurice's business should be. Then Maurice yawned, and said he was glad that the commencement exercises at Fern Hill were over; and she said she was glad, too; she had danced, she said, until she had a pain in her side! After which he read his paper, and she looked out of the window at the flying landscape. Suddenly she said:

"That girl you danced with last night-you danced with her three times!" she said, with sweet reproach-"didn't know we were married!-she wasn't a Fern Hill girl. She told me she had been dancing with my 'nephew.'"

"Did she?... Eleanor, look at that elm tree, standing all alone in the field, like-like a wineglass full of summer!"

For a moment she didn't understand his readiness to change the subject-then she had a flash of instinct: "I believe she said the same thing to you!"

"Oh, she got off some fool thing." The annoyance in his voice was like a rapier thrust of certainty.

"I knew it! But I don't care. Why should I care?"

"You shouldn't. Besides, it was only funny. I was tremendously amused."

She turned and looked out of the window.

Maurice lifted the paper which had been such a convenient shelter for clasping hands, and seemed to read for a while. Then he said, abruptly, "I only thought it was funny for her to make such a mistake."

She was silent.

"Eleanor, don't be-that way!"

"What 'way'? You mean"-her voice trembled-"feel hurt to have you dance three times, with a girl who said an uncomplimentary thing about me?"

"But it wasn't uncomplimentary! It was just a silly mistake anyone might make-" He stopped abruptly, for there were tears in her eyes-and instantly his tenderness infolded her like sunshine. But even while he was making her talk of other things-the heat, or the landscape-he was a little preoccupied; he was trying to explain this tiny, ridiculous, lovely unreasonableness, by tracking it back to some failure of sensitiveness on his own part. It occurred to him that he could do this better if he were by himself-not sitting beside her, faintly conscious of her tenseness. So he said, abruptly, "Star, if you don't mind, I'll go and have a smoke."

"All right," she said; "give me the paper; I haven't looked at the news for days!" She was trembling a little. The mistake of a silly girl had had, at first, no significance, it was just, as it always is to the newly married woman, amusing to be supposed not to be married! But that Maurice, knowing of the mistake, had not mentioned its absurdity, woke an uneasy consciousness that he had thought it might annoy her! Why should it annoy her?-unless the reason of the mistake was as obvious to him as to the girl?-whom he had found attractive enough to dance with three times! It was as if a careless hand had pushed open a closed door, and given Maurice's wife a glimpse of a dark landscape, the very existence of which her love had so vehemently denied.

An hour later, however, when Maurice returned, she was serene again. Love had closed the door-bolted it! barred it! and the gray landscape of dividing years was forgotten. And as her face had cleared, so had his. He had explained her annoyance by calling himself a clod! "She hated not to be thought married-of course!" What a brute he was not to have recognized the subtle loveliness of a sensitiveness like that! He wanted to tell her so, but he could only push the newspaper toward her and slip his hand under it to feel for hers-which he clutched and gripped so hard that her rings cut into the flesh. She laughed, and opened her pocketbook and showed him the little circle of grass which he had slipped over her wedding ring after fifty-four minutes of married life. At which his whole face radiated. It was as if, through those gay blue eyes of his, he poured pure joy from his heart into hers.

"Be careful," he threatened: "one minute more, and I'll kiss you right here, before people!"

She snapped her purse shut in pretended terror, but after that they held hands under the newspaper, and were perfectly happy-until the moment came of meeting the Houghtons on the platform at the junction; then happiness gave way to embarrassment.

Henry Houghton, obliged to throw away a half-smoked cigar, and, saying under his breath that he wished he was asleep, was cross; but his wife was pleasantly commonplace. She kissed the bride, and the groom, too, and said that Edith was in a great state of excitement about them! Then she condoled with Eleanor about the heat, and told Maurice there were cinders on his hat. But not even her careful matter-of-courseness could make the moment anything but awkward. In the four-mile drive to Green Hill-during which Eleanor said she hoped old Lion wouldn't run away;-the young husband seemed to grow younger and younger; and his wife, in her effort to talk to Mr. Houghton, seemed to grow older and older....

"If I didn't happen to know she was a fool," Henry Houghton said to his Mary, washing his hands before going down to supper, "I should think she was quite a nice woman-she's so good looking."

"Henry! At your time of life, are you deciding a woman's 'niceness' by her looks?"

"But tell her she mustn't bore him," he said, ignoring the rebuke. "Tell her that when it comes to wives, every husband on earth is Mr. F.'s aunt-he 'hates a fool'!"

"Why not tell her yourself?" she said: then she sighed; "why did she do it?"

"She did it," he instructed her, "because the flattery of a boy's lovemaking went to her head. I have an idea that she was hungry for happiness-so it was champagne on an empty stomach. Think of the starvation dullness of living with that Newbolt female, who drops her g's all over the floor! Edith likes her," he

added.

"Oh, Edith!" said Edith's mother, with a shrug; "well; if you can explain Eleanor, perhaps you can explain Maurice?"

"That's easy; anything in petticoats will answer as a peg for a man (we are the idealizing sex) to hang his heart on. Then, there's her music-and her pathos. For she is pathetic, Kit?"

But Mary Houghton shook her head: "It is Maurice who is pathetic-my poor Maurice!..."

When they went down to the east porch, with its great white columns, and its broad steps leading into Mrs. Houghton's gay and fragrant garden, they found Edith there before them-sitting on the top step, her arms around her knees, her worshiping eyes fixed on the Bride. Edith had nothing to say; it was enough to look at the "bridal couple," as the kitchen had named them. When her father and mother appeared, she did manage, in the momentary bustle of rising and offering chairs, to say to Maurice:

"Oh, isn't she lovely! Oh, Maurice, let's go out behind the barn after supper and talk! Maurice, did she bring her harp? I want to see her play on it! I saw her wedding ring," she ended, in an ecstatic whisper.

"She doesn't play on the harp; she plays on the piano. Did you twig her hair?" Maurice whispered back; "it's like black down!"

Edith was speechless with adoration; she wished, passionately, that Maurice would put his coat down for the Bride to step on, like Sir Walter Raleigh! "for she is a Queen!" Edith thought: then Maurice pulled one of her pigtails and she kicked him-and after that she was forgotten, for the grown people began to talk, and say it had been a hot day, and that the strawberries needed rain-but Eleanor hoped there wouldn't be a thunderstorm.

"They have to say things, I suppose," Edith reflected, patiently: "but after supper, Maurice and I will talk." So she bore with her father and mother, who certainly tried to be conversational. The Bride, Edith noticed, was rather silent, and Maurice, though grown up to the extent of being married, hadn't much to say-but once he winked at Edith and again tried to pull her hair,-so she knew that he, also, was patient. She was too absorbed to return the wink. She just stared at Eleanor. She only dared to speak to her once; then, breathlessly: "I-I'm going to go to your school, when I'm sixteen." It was as if she looked forward to a pilgrimage to a shrine! It was impossible not to see the worship in her face; Eleanor saw her smile made Edith almost choke with bliss. But, like herself, the Bride had nothing to say. Eleanor just sat in sweet, empty silence, and watched Maurice, twisting old Rover's ears, and answering Mrs. Houghton's maternal questions about his winter underclothing and moths; she caught that wink at Edith, and the occasional broad grin when Mrs. Houghton scolded him for some carelessness, and the ridiculous gesture of tearing his hair when she said he was a scamp to have forgotten this or that. Looking at the careless youth of him, she laughed to herself for sheer joy in the beauty of it!

But Edith's plan for barn conversation with Maurice fell through, because after supper, with an air of complete self-justification, he said to his hosts, "Now you must hear Eleanor sing!"

At which she protested, "Oh, Maurice, no!"

The Houghtons, however, were polite; so they all went into the studio, and, standing in the twilight, with Maurice playing her accompaniment, she sang, very simply, and with quite poignant beauty, the song of "Golden Numbers," with its serene refrain:

"O sweet, O sweet content!"

"Lovely, my dear," Mrs. Houghton said, and Maurice was radiant.

"Is Mr. F. your father?" Edith said, timidly; and while Eleanor was giving her maiden name, Edith's terrified father said, in a ferocious aside, "Mary! Kill that child!" Late that night he told his wife she really must do something about Edith: "Fortunately, Eleanor is as ignorant of Dickens as of 'most everything else. I bet she never read Little Dorrit. But, for God's sake, muzzle that daughter of yours! ... Mary, you see how he was caught?-the woman's voice."

"Don't call her 'the woman'!"

"Well, vampire. Kit, what do you make of her?"

"I wish I knew what to make of her! I feel sure she is really and truly good. But, oh, Henry, she's so mortal dull! She hasn't a spark of humor in her."

"'Course not. If she had, she wouldn't have married him. But he has humor! Better warn her that a short cut to matrimonial unhappiness is not to have the same taste in jokes! Mary, maybe, her music will hold him?"

"Maybe," said Mary Houghton, sighing.

"'Consider the stars,'" he quoted, sarcastically; but she took the sting out of his gibe by saying, very simply:

"Yes, I try to."

"He is good stuff," her husband said; "straight as a string! When he came into the studio to talk things over he was as sober as if he were fifty, and hadn't made an ass of himself. He took up the income question in a surprisingly businesslike way; then he said that of course he knew I didn't like it-his giving up college and flying off the handle, and getting married without saying anything to me. 'But,' he said, 'Eleanor's aunt is an old hell-cat;-she was going to drag Eleanor abroad, and I had to get her out of her clutches!' ... I think," Henry Houghton interrupted himself, "that's one explanation of Maurice: rescuing a forlorn damsel. Well, I was perfectly direct with him; I said, 'My dear fellow, Mrs. Newbolt is not a hell-cat; and the elopement was in bad taste. Elopements are always in bad taste. But the elopement is the least important part of it. The difference in age is the serious thing.' I got it out of him just what it is-almost twenty years. She might be his mother!-he admitted that he had had to lie about himself to get the license. I said, 'Your age is the dangerous thing, Maurice, not hers; and it's up to you to keep steady!' Of course he didn't believe me," said Mr. Houghton, sighing. "He's in love all right, poor infant! The next thing is for me to find a job for him.... She is good looking, Mary?" She nodded, and he said again, "A pre-Raphaelite woman; those full red lips, and that lovely black hair growing so low on her forehead. And a really good voice. And a charming figure. But I tell you one thing: she's got to stop twitting on facts. Did you hear her say, 'Maurice is so ridiculously young, he doesn't remember'-? I don't know what it was he didn't remember. Something unimportant. But she must not put ideas about his youth into his head. He'll know it soon enough! You tell her that."

"Thank you so much!" said Mary Houghton. "Henry, you mustn't say things before Edith! Suppose Eleanor had known her Little Dorrit?"

"She doesn't know anything; and she has nothing to say."

"Well, it might be worse," she encouraged him. "Suppose she were talkative?"

He nodded: "Yes; a dull woman is bad, and a talkative woman is bad; but a dull talkative woman is hell."

"My dear! I'm glad Edith's in bed. Well, I think I like her."

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