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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 25692

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was after this act of revealing and unnecessary courage, that the Houghton family entirely accepted Eleanor. There were a few days of anxiety about her, and about Maurice, too; for, though his slight concussion was not exactly alarming-yet, "Keep your shirt on," Doctor Bennett cautioned him; "don't get gay. And don't talk to Mrs. Curtis." So Maurice lay in his bed in another room, and entered, silently, into a new understanding of love, which, as soon as he was permitted to see Eleanor, he tried stumblingly to share with her.

Physically, she was terribly prostrated; but spiritually, feeding on those stumbling words, she rejoiced like a strong man to run a race! She saw no confession in the fact that everybody was astonished at what she had done; she was astonished herself. "I wasn't afraid!" she said, wonderingly.

"It was because you liked Maurice more than you were scared," Edith said; she offered this explanation the day that Maurice had been allowed to come across the hall, rather shakily, to adore his wife.

His first sight of her was a great shock.... The strain of that terrible night had blanched and withered her face; there were lines on her forehead that never left it.

Edith, sneaking in behind him, said under her breath: "Goodness! Don't she look old!"

She did. But as Maurice fell on his knees beside her, it seemed as if she drank youth from his lips. Under his kisses her worn face bloomed with joy.

"It was nothing-nothing," she insisted, stroking his thick hair with her trembling hand, and trying to silence his words of wondering worship.

"I was not worthy of it.... To think that you-" He hid his face on her shoulder.

Afterward, when he went back to his own room, she lay, smiling tranquilly to herself; her look was the look one sees on the face of a woman who, in that pallid hour after the supreme achievement of birth, has looked upon her child. She was entirely happy. From the open door of Maurice's room came, now and then, the murmur of Edith's honest little voice, or Maurice's chuckle. They were talking about her, she knew, and the happy color burned in her cheeks. When he came in for his second visit, late that afternoon, she asked him, archly, what he and Edith had been talking about so long in his room?

"I believe you were telling her what a goose I am about thunderstorms," she said.

"I was not!" he declared-and her eyes shone. But when she urged-

"Well, what were you talking about?" he couldn't remember anything but a silly story of Edith's hens. He repeated it, and Eleanor sighed; how could he be interested in anything so childish!

As it happened, he was not; he had scarcely listened to Edith. The only thing that interested Maurice now, was what Eleanor had done for him! Thinking of it, he brooded over her, silently, his cheek against hers, then Mrs. Houghton came in and banished him, saying that Eleanor must go to sleep; "and you and Edith must keep quiet!" she said.

He was so contrite that, tiptoeing to his own room, he told poor faithful Edith her voice was too loud: "You disturb Eleanor. So dry up, Skeezics!"

As he grew stronger, and was able to go downstairs, Edith felt freer to talk to him-for down on the porch, or out in the garden, her eager young voice would not reach those languid ears. Then, suddenly, all her chances to talk stopped: "What's the matter with Maurice?" she pondered, crossly; "he's backed out of helping me. Why can't he go on shingling the chicken coop?" For it was while this delightful work was under way that it, and "talk," came to an abrupt end.

The shingling, begun joyously by the big boy and the little girl on Monday, promised several delightfully busy mornings.... Of course the setting out for Mercer had been postponed; there was no possibility of moving Eleanor for the present; so Maurice's "business career," as he called it, with grinning pomposity, had to be delayed-Eleanor turned white at the mere suggestion of convalascing at Green Hill without him! Consequently Maurice, when not worshiping his wife, had nothing to do, and Edith had seized the opportunity to make him useful.... "We'll shingle my henhouse," she had announced. Maurice liked the scheme as much as she did. The September air, the smell of the fresh shingles, the sitting with one leg doubled under you, and the other outstretched on the hot slope of the roof, the tap-tapping of the hammers, the bossing of Edith, the trying to talk of Eleanor, and thunderstorms, while you hold eight nails between your lips; then the pause while Edith climbs down the ladder and runs to the kitchen for hot cookies; all these things would be a delightful occupation for any intelligent person!

"It'll take three mornings to do it," Edith said, importantly; and Maurice said:

"It will, because you keep putting the wrong end up! I wish Eleanor was well enough to do it," he said-and then burst into self-derisive chuckles: "Imagine Eleanor straddling that ridgepole! It would scare her stiff!"

It was after this talk that Maurice "backed out" on the job-but Edith never knew why. She saw no connection between the unfinished roof, and the fact that that same afternoon, sitting on the floor in the Bride's room, she had, in her anxiety to be entertaining, repeated Maurice's remark about the ridgepole. Eleanor, who had had an empty morning, listening to the distant tapping of hammers, had drooped a weary lip.

"I should hate it. Horrid, dirty work!"

"Oh no! It's nice, clean work," Edith corrected her.

"But you wouldn't like it, of course," she said, with satisfaction; "you'd be scared! You're scared of everything, Maurice says. You were scared to death, up on the mountain."

Eleanor was silent.

"He thinks it's lovely for you to be scared; it's funny about Maurice," said Edith, thoughtfully; "he doesn't like it when I'm scared-not that I ever am, now, but I used to be when I was a child."

The color flickered on Eleanor's cheeks: "Edith, I'll rest now," she said; her voice broke.

Edith looked at her, open-mouthed. "Why, Eleanor!" she said; "what's the matter? Are you mad at anything? Have you a stomachache? I'll run for mother!"

"There's nothing the matter. But-but I wish you'd tell Maurice to come and speak to me."

Edith tore downstairs, and out of the front door: "Maurice! Where are you?"-then, catching sight of him, reading and smoking in a hammock slung between two of the big columns on the east porch, she rushed at him, and pulled him to his astonished feet. "Eleanor wants you! Something's the matter, and-"

Before she could finish, Maurice was tearing upstairs, two steps at a time....

And so it was that Edith, sulkily, worked on the roof by herself.

Yet Maurice had not entirely "backed out." ... The very next morning, before Edith was awake, he had gone out to the henhouse, and, alone, done more than his share of the shingling.

"But, Maurice, why didn't you wake me?" Edith protested, when she discovered what he had done. "I'd have gone out, too!"

"I liked doing it by myself," Maurice evaded.

And for five minutes Edith was sulky again. "He puts on airs, 'cause he's married! Well, I don't care. He can shingle the whole roof by himself if he wants to! I don't like married men, anyhow."

The married man had, indeed, wanted to be by himself-to put the nails in his mouth, and to sit on the cold, slippery shingles in the gray September morning, and to tap-tap-tap-and think, and think.

But he didn't like his thoughts very well....

He thought how he had rushed upstairs, terrified lest Eleanor was fainting or had a "stomachache," or something-and found her sitting up in bed, her cheeks red and glazed with tears, her round, full chin quivering. He thought how he had tried to make out what she was driving at about Edith, and the chicken coop, and the ridgepole!

"You told Edith I was scared!"

Maurice's bewilderment was full of stumbling questions: "Told Edith? When? What?"

And as she said "when" and "what," ending with, "You said I am scared!" Maurice could only say, blankly. "But my darling, you are!"

"You may think I am a fool, but to tell Edith so-"

"But Great Scott! I didn't!"

"I won't have you talking me over with Edith; she's a child! It was just what you did when you danced three times with that girl who said-Edith is as rude as she was!-and she's a child. How can you like to be with a child?" Of course, it was all her fear of Youth,-but Eleanor did not know that; she thought she was hurt at the boy's neglect. Her face, wet with tears, was twitching, her voice-that lovely voice!-was shrill in his astonished ears....

Maurice, on the sloping roof, in the chill September dawn, his fingers numb on the frosty nails, stopped hammering, and leaned his chin on his fist, and thought: "She's sick. She almost killed herself to save me; so her nerve has all gone. That's why she talked-that way." He put a shingle in its place, and planted a nail; "it was because she was scared that what she did was so brave! I couldn't make her see that the more scared she was, the braver she was. It wouldn't have been brave in that gump, Edith, without a nerve in her body. But why is she down on Edith? I suppose she's a nuisance to a person with a wonderful mind like Eleanor's. Talks too much. I'll tell her to dry up when she's with Eleanor." And again he heard that strange voice: "You like to talk to a child."

Maurice, pounding away on Edith's roof, grew hot with misery, not because it was so terrible to have Eleanor angry with him; not even because he had finally got mad, and answered back, and said, "Don't be silly!" The real misery was something far deeper than this half-amused remorse. It was that those harmless, scolding words of his held a perfectly new idea: he had said, "Don't be silly." Was Eleanor silly?

Now, to a man whose feeling about his wife has been a sort of awe, this question is terrifying. Maurice, in his boy's heart, had worshiped in Eleanor, not just the god of Love, but the love of God. And was she-silly? No! Of course not! He pounded violently, hit his thumb, put it into his mouth, then proceeded, mumblingly, to bring his god back from the lower shrine of a pitying heart, to the high alter of a justifying mind: Eleanor was ill.... She was nervous.... She was an exquisite being of mist and music and courage and love! So of course she was sensitive to things ordinary people did not feel. Saying this, and fitting the shingles into place, suddenly the warm and happy wave of confident idealism began to flood in upon him, and immediately his mind as well as his heart was satisfied. He reproached himself for having been scared lest his star was just a common candle, like himself. He had been cruel to judge her, as he might have judged her had she been well-or a gump like Edith! For had she been well, she would not have been "silly"! Had she been well-instead of lying there in her bed, white and strained and trembling, all because she had saved his life, harnessing herself to that wagon, and bringing him, in the darkness, through a thousand terrors-nonexistent, to be sure, but none the less real-to safety and life! Oh, how could he have even thought the word "silly"? He was ashamed and humble; never again would he be cross to her! "Silly? I'm the silly one! I'm an ass. I'll tell her so! I don't suppose she'll ever forgive me. She said I 'didn't understand her'; well, I didn't! But she'll never have cause to say it again! I understand her now," Then, once more, he thought, frowning, "But why is she so down on Edith?"

That Eleanor's irritation was jealousy-not of Edith, but of Edith's years-never occurred to him. So all he said was, "She oughtn't to be down on Edith; she has always appreciated her!" Edith had never said that Eleanor was "silly"! But so long as it bothered Eleanor (being nervous) to have the imp round, he'd tell her not to be a nuisance. "You can say anything to Skeezics; she has sense. She understands."

But all the same, Maurice shingled his part of the henhouse before breakfast.

Maurice did not call Eleanor "silly" again for a long time. There was always-when she was unreasonable-the curbing memory that her reasonableness had been shaken by that assault of darkness and fear, and the terrible fatigue of saving his robust young life. Furthermore, Doctor Bennett-telling Henry Houghton that Eleanor had done the worst possible thing, "magnificently"-told Maurice she had "nervous prostration,"-a cloaking phrase which kindly doctors often give to perplexed husbands, so that the egotism of sickly wives may be covered up! So Maurice, repeating to himself these useful words, saw only ill health, not silliness, in Eleanor's occasional tears. It was a week after the shingling of the henhouse,

that, leaving her to recuperate still further at Green Hill, he started in on his job of "office boy"-his jocose title for his position in the real-estate office in Mercer. Eleanor did not want to be left, and said so, wistfully.

"I'll come up for Sundays," Maurice comforted her, tenderly.

On these weekly visits the Houghtons were impressed by his tenderness; he played solitaire with his wife by the hour; he read poetry to her until she fell asleep; and he told her everything he had done and every person he had seen, while he was away from her! But the rest of the household didn't get much enjoyment out of Eleanor. Even the adoring Edith had moments when admiration had to be propped up by Doctor Bennett's phrase. As, for instance, on one of Maurice's precious Sundays, he and she and Johnny Bennett and Rover and old Lion climbed up to the cabin to make things shipshape before closing the place for the winter.

"You'll be away from me all day," Eleanor said, and her eyes filled.

Maurice said he hated to leave her, but he had always helped Edith on this closing-up job.

"Oh, well; go, if you want to," Eleanor said; "but I don't see how you can enjoy being with a perfect child, like Edith!"

Maurice went-not very happily. But it was such a fine, tingling day of hard work, in a joyous wind, with resulting appetites, and much yelling at each other-"Here, drop that!" ... "Hurry up, slow poke!"-that he was happy again before he knew it. After the work was over they had a lazy hour before the fire, their eyes stinging with smoke which seemed to envelop them, no matter on which side they sat; an hour in which Rover drowsed at Maurice's feet, and Johnny, in spectacles, read A Boy's Adventures in the Forests of Brazil, and Edith gabbled about Eleanor....

"Oh, I wish I was married," Edith said; "I'd just love to save my husband's life!"

Maurice said little, except to ask Johnny if he had got to such and such a place in the Adventures, or to assent to Edith's ecstasies; but once he sighed, and said Eleanor was awfully pulled down by that-that night.

"I should think," Edith said, "you'd feel she'd just about died for you, like people in history who died for each other."

"I do," Maurice said, soberly.

When they drove home in the dusk, Maurice singing, loudly; Edith, on the front seat of the wagon, snuggling against him; Johnny standing up, balancing himself by holding on to their shoulders, and old Rover jogging along on the footpath,-they were all in great spirits, until a turn in the road showed them Eleanor, sitting on a log, looking rather white.

"Suffering snakes!" said Maurice, breaking off in the middle of a word. Before Lion could quite stop, he was at his wife's side. "Eleanor! How did you get here? ... You walked? Oh, Star, you oughtn't to have done such a thing!"

"I was frightened about you. It was so late. I was afraid something had happened. I came to look for you."

Edith and Johnny looked on aghast; then Edith called out: "Why, Eleanor! I wouldn't let anything happen to Maurice!"

Maurice, kneeling beside his wife, had put his arms around her and was soothing her with all sorts of gentlenesses: "Dear, you mustn't worry so! Nelly, don't cry; why, darling, we were having such a good time, we never noticed that it was getting late ..."

"You forgot me," Eleanor said; "as long as you had Edith, you never thought how I might worry!" She hid her face in her hands.

Maurice came back to the wagon; "Edith," he said, in a low voice, "would you and Johnny mind getting out and walking? I'll bring Eleanor along later. I'm sorry, but she's-she's tired."

Edith said in a whisper, "'Course not!" Then, without a look behind her at the crying woman on the log, and the patient, mortified boy bending over her, she, and the disgusted and more deliberate Johnny, ran down the road into the twilight. Edith was utterly bewildered. With her inarticulate consciousness of the impropriety of emotion, naked, in public! was the shyness of a child in meeting a stranger-for that crying woman was practically a stranger. She wasn't the Bride-silent and lovely! At Johnny's gate she said, briefly, "'Night!" and went on, running-running in the dusk. When she reached the house, and found her father and mother on the east porch, she was breathless, which accounted for her brevity in saying that Maurice and Eleanor were coming-and she was just starved! In the dining room, eating a very large supper, she listened for the wheels of the wagon and reflected: "Why was Eleanor mad at me? She was mad at Maurice, too. But most at me. Why?" She took an enormous spoonful of sliced peaches, and stared blankly ahead of her.

Ten minutes later, hearing wheels grating on the gravel at the front door, and Maurice's voice, subdued and apologetic, she pushed her chair away from the table, rushed through the pantry and up the back stairs. She didn't know why she fled. She only knew that she couldn't face Eleanor, who would sit with Maurice while he bolted a supper for which-though Edith didn't know it!-all appetite had gone. In her room in the ell, Edith shut the door, and, standing with her back against it, tried to answer her own question:

"Why was Eleanor mad?" But she couldn't answer it. Jealousy, as an emotion, in herself or anybody else, was absolutely unknown to her. She had probably never even heard the word-except in the Second Commandment, or as a laughing reproach to old Rover-so she really did not know enough to use it now to describe Eleanor's behavior. She only said, "Maybe it's the nervous prostration? Well, I don't like her very much. I'm glad she won't be at Fern Hill when I go there." To be a Bride-and yet to cry before people! "Crying before people," Edith said, "is just like taking off all your clothes before people-I don't care how bad her nervous prostration is; it isn't nice! But why is she mad at me? That isn't sense."

You can't run other people's feelings to cover, and try to find their cause, without mental and moral development; all this analysis lessened very visibly Edith's childishness; also, it made her rather rudely cold to Eleanor, whose effort to reinstate herself in the glories of the little girl's imagination only resulted in still another and entirely new feeling in Edith's mind-contempt.

"If she had a right to be mad at me yesterday-why isn't she mad to-day?" Edith reasoned.

Eleanor was quick to feel the contempt. "I don't care for Edith," she told Maurice, who looked surprised.

"She's only a child," he said.

Edith seemed especially a child now to Maurice, since he had embarked on his job at Mercer. Not only was she unimportant to him, but, in spite of his mortification at that scene on the road, his Saturday-night returns to his wife were blowing the fires of his love into such a glory of devotion, that Edith was practically nonexistent! His one thought was to take Eleanor to Mercer. He wanted her all to himself! Also, he had a vague purpose of being on his dignity with a lot of those Mercer people: Eleanor's aunt, just back from Europe; Brown and Hastings-cubs! But below this was the inarticulate feeling that, away from the Houghtons, especially away from Edith, he might forget his impulse to use-for a second time-that dreadful word "silly."

So, as the 20th of October approached-the day when they were to go back to town-he felt a distinct relief in getting away from Green Hill. The relief was general. Edith felt it, which was very unlike Edith, who had always sniffled (in private) at Maurice's departure! And her father and mother felt it:

"Eleanor's mind," Henry Houghton said, "is exactly like a drum-sound comes out of emptiness!"

"But Maurice seems to like the sound," Mrs. Houghton reminded him; "and she loves him."

"She wants to monopolize him," her husband said; "I don't call that love; I call it jealousy. It must be uncomfortable to be jealous," he ruminated; "but the really serious thing about it is that it will bore any man to death. Point that out to her, Mary! Tell her that jealousy is self-love, plus the consciousness of your own inferiority to the person of whom you are jealous. And it has the same effect on love that water has on fire. My definition ought to be in a dictionary!" he added, complacently.

"What sweet jobs you do arrange for me!" she said; "and as for your definition, I can give you a better one-and briefer: 'Jealousy is Human Natur'! But I don't believe Eleanor's jealous, Henry; she's only conscious, poor girl! of Maurice's youth. But there is something I am going to tell her...."

She told her the day before the bridal couple (Edith still reveled in the phrase!) started for Mercer. "Come out into the orchard," Mary Houghton called upstairs to Eleanor, "and help me gather windfalls for jelly."

"I must pack Maurice's things," Eleanor called over the banisters, doubtfully; "he's a perfect boy about packing; he put his boots in with his collars."

"Oh, come along!" said Mrs. Houghton. And Eleanor yielded, scolding happily while she pinned her hat on before the mirror in the hall.

In the orchard they picked up some apples, then sat down on the bleached stubble of the mowed hillside and looked over at the dark mass of the mountain, behind which a red sun was trampling waist deep through leaden clouds. "How can I bring it in?" Mrs. Houghton thought; "it won't do to just throw a warning at her!"

But she didn't have to throw it; Eleanor invited it. "I'm glad we're going to the hotel, just at first," she said; "Auntie says I don't know anything about keeping house, and I get worried for fear I won't make Maurice comfortable. I tell him so all the time!"

"I wouldn't put things into his head, Eleanor," Mrs. Houghton said (beginning her "warning"); "I mean things that you don't want him to feel. I remember when my first baby was coming-the little boy we lost-" she stopped and bit her lip; the "baby" had been gone for nearly twenty years, but he was still her little boy-"I was very forlorn, and I couldn't do anything, or go anywhere; and Henry stayed at home with me like a saint. Well, I told my father that I had told Henry it was hard on him to 'sit at home with an invalid wife.' And father said, 'If you tell him so often enough, he'll agree with you,' There's a good deal in that, Eleanor?"

"I suppose there is," Maurice's wife said, vaguely.

"So, if I were you," Mrs. Houghton said, still feeling her way, "I wouldn't give him the idea that you are any-well, older than he is. A wife might be fifty years older than her husband, and if her spirit was young, years wouldn't make a bit of difference!"

Eleanor took this somewhat roundabout advice very well. "The only thing in the world I want," she said, simply, "is to make him happy."

They went back to the house in silence. But that night Eleanor paused in putting some last things into her trunk, and, going over to Maurice, kissed his thick hair. "Maurice," she said, "are you happy?"

"You bet I am!"

"You haven't said so once to-day."

"I haven't said I'm alive," he said, grinning. "Oh, Star, won't it be wonderful when we can go away from the whole caboodle of 'em, and just be by ourselves?"

"That's what I want!" she said; "just to be alone with you. I wish we could live on a desert island!..."

Down in the studio, Mr. Houghton, smoking up to the fire limit a cigar grudgingly permitted by his wife ("It's your eighth to-day," she reproached him), Henry Houghton, listening to his Mary's account of the talk in the orchard, told her what he thought of her: "May you be forgiven! Your intentions are doubtless excellent, but your truthfulness leaves something to be desired: 'Years won't make any difference'? Mary! Mary!"

But she defended herself: "I mean, 'years' can't kill love-the highest love-the love that grows out of, and then outgrows, the senses! The body may be just an old glove-shabby, maybe; but if the hand inside the glove is alive, what real difference does the shabbiness make? If Eleanor's mind doesn't get rheumatic, and if she will forget herself!-they'll be all right. But if she thinks of herself-" Mary Houghton sighed; her husband ended her sentence for her:

"She'll upset the whole kettle of fish?"

"What I'm afraid of," she said, with a troubled look, "is that you are right:-she's inclined to be jealous, I saw her frown when he was playing checkers with Edith. I wanted to tell her, but didn't dare to, that jealousy is as amusing to people who don't feel it, as it is undignified in people who do."

"My darling, you are a brute," said Mr. Houghton; "I have long suspected it, in re tobacco. As for Eleanor, I would never have such cruel thoughts! I belong to the gentler sex. I would merely refer her to Mr. F.'s aunt."

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