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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 23179

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


But the time arrived when Mrs. Houghton was certain that she "liked" Maurice's wife. It would have come sooner if Eleanor's real sweetness had not been hidden by her tiresome timidity ... a thunderstorm sent her, blanched and panting, to sit huddled on her bed, shutters closed, shades drawn; she schemed not to go upstairs by herself in the dark; she was preoccupied when old Lion took them off on a slow, jogging drive, for fear of a runaway.

Everybody was aware of her nervousness. Until it bored him, Henry Houghton was touched by it;-probably there is no man who is so intelligent that the Clinging Vine makes no appeal to him. Mrs. Houghton was impatient with it. Edith, who could not understand fear in any form, tried, in her friendly little way, to reason Eleanor out of one panic or another. The servants joked among themselves at the foolishness of "Mrs. Maurice"; and the monosyllabic Johnny Bennett, when told of some of Eleanor's scares, was bored. "Let's play Indian," said Johnny.

It was only Maurice who found all the scares-just as he found the silences and small jealousies-adorable! The silences meant unspeakable depths of thought; the jealousies were a sign of love. The terrors called for his protecting strength! One of the unfair irrationalities of love is that it may, at first, be attracted by the defects of the beloved, and later repelled by them. Maurice loved Eleanor for her defects. Once, when he and Edith were helping Mrs. Houghton weed her garden, he stopped grubbing, and sat down in the gold and bronze glitter of coreopsis, to expatiate upon the exquisiteness of the defects. Her wonderful mind: "She doesn't talk, because she is always thinking; her ideas are way over my head!" Her funny timidity: "She wants me to take care of her!" Her love: "She's-it sounds absurd!-but she's jealous, because she's so-well, fond of me, don't you know, that she sort of objects to having people round. Did you ever hear of anything so absurd?"

"I certainly never did," his old friend said, dryly.

"Well, but"-Maurice defended his wife-"it's because she cares about me, don't you know? She-well, this is in confidence-she said once that she'd like to live on a desert island, just with me!"

"So would I," said Edith. Her mother laughed:

"Tell her desert islands have to have a 'man Friday'-to say nothing of a few 'women Thursdays'!"

Eleanor was, Maurice said, like music heard far off, through mists and moonlight in a dark garden, "full of-of-what are those sweet-smelling things, that bloom only at night?" (Mary Houghton looked fatigued.) "Well, anyway, what I mean is that she isn't like ordinary people, like me-"

"Or Johnny," Edith broke in, earnestly.

"Johnny? Gosh! Why, Mrs. Houghton, things that don't touch most human beings, affect her terribly. The dark, or thunderstorms, or-or anything, makes her nervous. You understand?"

Mrs. Houghton said yes, she understood, but she would leave the rest of the weeding to her assistants ... In the studio, dropping her dusty garden gloves on a fresh canvas lying on the table, she almost wept:

"Henry, it is too tragic! She is such a goose, and he is so silly about her! What shall we do?"

"I'll tell you what not to do-spoil my new canvas! If you really want my advice:-tell Eleanor that the greatest compliment any husband can pay his wife is contained in four words: 'You never bore me'; and that if she isn't careful Maurice will never compliment her."

Down in the garden, no one was aware of any tragedy. "When I go to Fern Hill," Edith said, "I'm going to tell all the girls I know Eleanor! I'm 'ordinary,' too, beside her. And so is mother."

Maurice agreed. "We are all crude, compared to her."

Edith sighed with joy; if she had had any inclination to be contemptuous of Eleanor's timidity, it vanished when it was pointed out to her that it was really a sign of the Bride's infinite superiority.... So the three Houghtons accepted-one with amused pity, and the other with concern, and the third with admiration of such super-refinement,-the fact that Eleanor was a coward. Yet if she had not been a coward, something she did would not have been particularly brave, nor would it have wrung from Mary Houghton the admission: "I like her!"

The conquering incident happened in August. The hut up in the woods meant to Maurice and Edith and Johnny that eager grasping at hardship with which Age has no sympathy, but which is the very essence of Youth. Within a week of her arrival at Green Hill, Eleanor (who did not like hardship;) had been carried off for a day of eating smoky food, cooked on a camp fire, and watching cloud shadows drift across the valley and up and over the hills; she had wondered, silently, why Maurice liked this very tiring sort of thing?-and especially why he liked to have Edith go along! "A child of her age is such a nuisance," Eleanor thought. But he did like it, all of it!-the fatigue, and the smoke, and the grubby food-and Edith!-he liked it so much that, just before the time set for their departure for Mercer-and the position in a real-estate office, which had been secured for Maurice-he said:

"Nelly, let's camp out up in the cabin for our last week, all by ourselves!"

Edith's face fell, and so, for that matter, did the Bride's. Edith said, "By yourselves? Not Johnny and me, too?" And Eleanor said, "At night? Oh, Maurice!"

"It will be beautiful," he said; "there'll be a moon next week, and we'll sit up there and look down into the valley, and see the treetops lift up out of the mist-like islands from the foam of 'faerylands forlorn'! You'll love it."

"I'm crazy about camping," said Edith, eagerly;-and waited for an invitation, which was not forthcoming. Instead, Maurice, talking his plans over with her, made it quite clear that her room was better than her company. It was Edith's first experience in being left out, and it sobered her a little; but she swallowed the affront with her usual good sense:

"I guess he likes Eleanor more 'an me, so, 'course, it's nice to be by himself with her."

The prospect of being "by themselves" for a week was deeply moving to Maurice. And even Eleanor, though she quaked at the idea of spiders or thunderstorms, thought of the passion of it with a thrill. "We'll be all alone!" she said to herself.

The morning that they started gypsying, everything was very impatient and delightful. The packing, the rolling up of blankets, the stowing of cooking utensils, the consulting of food lists to make sure nothing was being forgotten-all meant much tearing about and bossing; then came the loading the stuff into the light wagon, which, with old Lion, Mr. Houghton had offered to convey the campers (and a temporary Edith) up to the top of the mountain. Edith was, of course, frankly envious, but accepted the privilege of even a day in camp with humble gratitude.

"Rover and Johnny and I will come up pretty often, even if it's only for an hour, because Eleanor must not hurt her hands by washing dishes," she said, earnestly (still fishing for an invitation).

But Maurice only agreed, as earnestly: "No! Imagine Eleanor washing dishes! But I don't want you to stay all night, Buster," he told her, candidly; then he paused in his work, flung up his arms with a great breath of joyousness. "Great Scott!" he said. "I don't see why gypsies ever die!"

Edith felt an answering throb of ecstasy. "Oh, Maurice, I wish you and I were gypsies!" she said. She did not in the least resent his candor as to her presence during the week of camping; though just before they started her feelings really were a little hurt: it happened that in trying to help Eleanor pack, she was close enough to her to notice a thread on her hair; instantly, she put out a friendly and officious thumb and finger to remove it-at which Eleanor winced, and said, "Ouch!"

"I thought it was a white thread," Edith explained, abashed.

Eleanor said, sharply, "Please don't touch my hair!" which conveyed nothing to Edith except that the Bride-who instantly ran up to her room-"was mad." When she came back (the "thread" having disappeared) Edith was full of apologies.

"Awfully sorry I mussed your hair," she said.

She went up the mountain with them, walking on the hard grades, and trying to placate Eleanor by keeping a hand on Lion's bridle, so that she might feel sure he wouldn't run away. When at last, rather blown and perspiring, they reached the camp, Eleanor got out of the wagon and said she wanted to "help"; but Edith, still contrite about the "thread," said: "Not I'm not going to have you hurt your lovely hands!" In the late afternoon, having saved Eleanor's hands in every possible way, she left them, and thinking, without the slightest rancor, of the rough bliss she was not asked to share, went running down the mountain with Rover at her heels.

Eleanor, wondering at her willingness to take that long road home with only the lumbering old dog for company, was intensely glad to have her go.

"Girls of that age are so uninteresting," she told Maurice; "and now we'll be all by ourselves!"

"Yes; Adam and Eve," he said; "and twilight; and the world spread out like a garden! Do you see that glimmer over there to the left? That's the beginning of the river-our river!"

He had made her comfortable with some cushions piled against the trunk of a tree, and lighted a fire in a ring of blackened stones; then he brought her her supper, and ate his own on his knees beside her, watching eagerly for ways to serve her, laughing because she cringed when, from an overhanging bough, a spider let himself down upon her skirt, and hurrying to bring her a fresh cup of coffee, because an unhappy ant had scalded himself to death in her first cup. Afterward he would not let her "hurt her hands" by washing the dishes. When this was over, and the dusk was deepening, he went into the woods to the "lean-to" in which Lion was quartered, to see that the old horse was comfortable, but a minute later came crashing back through the underbrush, laughing, but provoked.

"That imp, Edith, didn't hitch him securely, and the old fellow has walked home, if you please-!"

"Lion-gone? Oh, what shall we do?"

"Ill pull the wagon down when I want to go back for food."

"Pull it?"

"Won't need much pulling! It will go down by itself. If I put you in it, I'll have to rope a log on behind as a brake, or it would run over me! I bet I give Edith a piece of my mind, when I get hold of her. But it doesn't really matter. I think I like it better to have not even Lion. Just you-and the stars. They are beginning to prick out," he said. He stretched himself on the ground beside her, his hands clasped under his head, and his happy eyes looking up into the abyss. "Sing, Star, sing!" he said. So she sang, softly:

How many times do I love again?

Tell me how many beads there are

In a silver chain

Of evening rain

Unraveled from the tumbling main

And threading the eye of a yellow star-

So many times-

"It looks," she broke off, "a little black in the west? And-was that lightning?"

"Only heat lightning. And if it should storm,-I have you here, in my arms, alone!" He turned and caught her to him, and his mouth crushed hers. Her eyes closed, and her passion answered his, and all that he whispered. Yet while he kissed her, her eyes opened and she looked furtively beyond him, toward that gathering blackness.

They lay there together in the starlit dark, for a long time, his head on her breast. Sometimes she thrilled

at his touch or low word, and sometimes she held his hand against her lips and kissed it-which made him protest-but suddenly he said, "By George! Nelly, I believe we are going to have a shower!"

Instantly she was alert with fright, and sat up, and looked down into the valley, where the heat lightning, which had been winking along the line of the hills, suddenly sharpened into a flash. "Oh!" she said, and held her breath until, from very far off, came a faint grumble of thunder. "Oh, Maurice!" she said, "it is horrible to be out here-if it thunders!"

"We won't be. Well go into the cabin, and we'll hear the rain on the roof, and the clash of the branches; and we'll see the lightning through the chinks-and I'll have you! Oh, Nelly, we shall be part of the storm!-and nothing in God's world can separate us."

But this time she could not answer with any elemental impulse; she had no understanding of "being part of the storm"; instead, she watched the horizon. "Oh!" she said, flinching. "I don't like it. What shall we do? Maurice, it is going to thunder!"

"I think I did feel a drop of rain," he said,-and held out his hand: "Yes, Star, rain! It's begun!" He helped her to her feet, gathered up some of the cushions, and hurried her toward the little shelter. She ran ahead of him, her very feet reluctant, lest the possible "snake" should curl in the darkness against her ankles; but once in the cabin, with a candle lighted, she could not see the lightning, so she was able to laugh at herself; when Maurice went out for the rest of the cushions, she charged him to hurry! "The storm will be here in a minute!" she called to him. And he called back:

"I'll only be a second!"

She stood in the doorway looking after him, and saw his figure outlined against the glimmer of their fire, which had already felt the spatter of the coming storm and was dying down; then, even as she looked, he seemed to plunge forward, and fall-the thud of that fall was like a blow on her throat! She gasped, "Maurice-" And again, "Maurice! Have you hurt yourself?"

He did not rise. A splash of rain struck her face; the mountain darkness was slit by a rapier of lightning, and there was a sudden violent illumination; she saw the tree and the cushions, and Maurice on the ground-then blackness, and a tremendous crash of thunder.

"Maurice!" she called. "Maurice!" The branches over the roof began to move and rustle, and there was a sudden downpour of rain; the camp fire went out, as if an extinguisher had covered it. She stood in the doorway for a breathless instant, then ran back into the cabin, and, catching the candle from the table, stepped out into the blackness; instantly the wind bore the little flame away!-then seemed to grip her, and twist her about, and beat her back into the house. In her terror she screamed his name; and as she did so, another flash of lightning showed her his figure, motionless on the ground.

"He is dead" she said to herself, in a whisper. "What shall I do?" Then, suddenly, she knew what to do: she remembered that she had noticed a lantern hanging on the wall near the door; and now something impelled her to get it. In the stifling darkness of the shack she felt her way to it, held its oily ring in her hand, thought, frantically, of matches, groped along toward the mantelpiece, stumbled over a chair-and clutched at the match box! Something made her open the isinglass slide, strike a match, and touch the blackened wick with the sulphurous sputter of flame,-the next moment, with the lighted lantern in her hand, she was out in the sheeting blackness of the rain!-running!-running!-toward that still figure by the deadened fire. Just before she reached it a twig rolled under her foot, and she said, "A snake,"-but she did not flinch. As she gained the circle of stones, a flash of lightning, with its instant and terrific crack and bellow of thunder, showed her a streak of blood on Maurice's face.... He had tripped and fallen, and his head had struck one of the blackened stones.

"He is dead," she said again, aloud. She put the lantern on the ground and knelt beside him; she had an idea that she should place her hand on his heart to see if he were alive. "He isn't," she told herself; but she laid her fingers, which were shaking so that she could not unfasten his coat, somewhere on his left side; she did not know whether there was any pulse; she knew nothing, except that he was "dead." She said this in a whisper, over and over. "He is dead. He is dead." The rain came down in torrents; the trees creaked and groaned in the wind; twice there were flashes of lightning and appalling roars of thunder. Maurice was perfectly still. The smoky glimmer of the lantern played on the thin streak of blood and made it look as though it was moving-trickling-

Then Eleanor began to think: "There ought to be a doctor...." If she left him, to bring help, he might bleed to death before she could get back to him. Instantly, as she said that, she knew that she did not believe that he was dead! She knew that she had hope. With hope, a single thought possessed her. She must take him down the mountain.... But how? She could not carry him;-she had managed to prop him up against her knee, his blond head lolling forward, awfully, on his breast-but she knew that to carry him would be impossible. And Lion was not there! "I couldn't have harnessed him if he were," she thought.

She was entirely calm, but her mind was working rapidly: The wagon was in the lean-to! Could she get him into it? The road was downhill.... Almost to Doctor Bennett's door....

Instantly she sprang to her feet and, with the pale gleam of the lantern zigzagging across the path, she ran back to the shed; just as she reached it, a glimmer of light fell on the soaked earth, and she looked up with a start and saw the moon peering out between two ragged, swiftly moving clouds; then all was black again-but the rain was lessening, and there had been no lightning for several minutes. "He will die; I must save him," she said, her lips stiff with horror. She lifted the shafts of the wagon, and gave a little pull; it moved easily enough, and, guiding it along the slight decline, she brought it to Maurice's side. There, looking at him, she said again, rigidly:

"He will die; I must save him."

As Henry Houghton said afterward, "It was impossible!-so she did it."

It took her more than an hour to do it, to pull and lift and shove the inert figure! Afterward she used to wonder how she had done it; wonder how she had given the final push, which got his sagging body up on to the floor of the wagon! It had strained every part of her;-her shoulder against his hips, her head in the small of his back, her hands gripping his heavy, dangling legs. She was soaking wet; her hair had loosened, and stray locks were plastered across her forehead. She grunted like a toiling animal.

It seemed as if her heart would crack with her effort, her muscles tear; she forgot the retreating rumble of the storm, the brooding, dripping forest stillness; she forgot even her certainty that he would die. She entirely forgot herself. She only knew-straining, gasping, sweating-that she must get the body-the dead body perhaps!-into the wagon. And she did it! Just as she did it, she heard a faint groan. Her heart stood still with terror, then beat frantically with joy.

He was alive!

She ran back to the cabin for the cushions he had saved from the rain, and pushed them under his head; then tied the lantern to the whip socket; then recalled what he had said about "roping a log on behind as a brake." "Of course!" she thought; and managed,-the splinters tearing her hands-to fasten a fairly heavy piece of wood under the rear axle, so that it might bump along behind the wagon as a drag. She pondered as she did these things why she should know so certainly how they must be done? But when they were done, she said, "Now!"... and went and stood between the shafts.

It was after midnight when the descent began. The moon rode high among fleecy clouds, but on either side of the road gulfs of darkness lay under motionless foliage. Sometimes the smoky light from the swaying lantern shone on a wet black branch, snapped by the gale and lying in the path, and Eleanor, seeing it, wedging her heels into the mud and sliding stones of the road, and straining backward between the shafts, would say, "A snake.... I must save Maurice." Sometimes she would hear, above the crunching of the wheels behind her, a faint noise in the undergrowth: a breaking twig, a brushing sound, as of a furtive footstep-and she would say, "A man.... I must save Maurice."

The yellow flame of the lantern was burning white in the dawn, as, holding back against the weight of the wagon-the palms of her bleeding hands clenched on the shafts, her feet slipping, her ankles twisted and wrenched-by and by, with the tears of physical suffering streaming down her face, she reached the foot of the mountain. The, thin, cool air of morning flowed about her in crystalline stillness; suddenly the sun tipped the green bowl of the world, and all at once shadows fell across the road like bars. They seemed to her, in her daze of terror and exhaustion, insurmountable: the road was level now, but she pulled and pulled, agonizingly, over those bars of nothingness; then one wheel sank into a rut, and the wagon came to a dead standstill; but at the same moment she saw ahead of her, among the trees, Doctor Bennett's dark, sleeping house. So, dropping the shafts, she went stumbling and running, to pound on the door, and gasp out:

"Come-help-Maurice-come-"

* * *

"I think," she said afterward, lying like a broken thing upon her bed, "I was able to do it, because I kept saying, 'I must save Maurice.' Of course, to save Maurice, I wouldn't mind dying."

"My dear, you are magnificent!" Mary Houghton said, huskily. Then she told her husband: "Henry, I like her! I never thought I would, but I do."

"I'll never say 'Mr. F.'s aunt' again!" he promised, with real contrition.

It was Eleanor's conquering moment, for everybody liked her, and everybody said she was 'magnificent'-except Maurice, who, as he got well, said almost nothing.

"I can't talk about it," was all he had to say, choking. "She's given her life for mine," he told the doctor.

"I hope not," Doctor Bennett said, "I hope not. But it will take months, Maurice, for her to get over this. As for saving your life, my boy, she didn't. She made things a lot more dangerous for you. She did the wrong thing-with greatness! You'd have come to, after a while. But don't tell her so."

"Well, I should say not!" Maurice said, hotly. "She'll never know that! And anyway, sir, I don't believe it. I believe she saved my life."

"Well, suit yourself," the doctor said, good-naturedly; "but I tell you one thing: whether she saved your life or not, she did a really wonderful thing-considering her temperament."

Maurice frowned: "I don't think her temperament makes any difference. It would have been wonderful for anybody."

"Well, suit yourself," Doctor Bennett said again; "only, if Edith had done it, say, for Johnny, who weighs nearly as much as you, I wouldn't have called it particularly wonderful."

"Oh, Edith," Maurice said, grinning; "no; I suppose not. I see what you mean." And to himself he added: "Edith is like an ox, compared to Star. Just flesh and blood. No nerves. No soul. Doctor Bennett was right. Eleanor's temperament does make it more wonderful."

* * *

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