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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 21283

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was after Mr. Houghton had swallowed the scorched soup and meditated infanticide, that boarding became inevitable. Several times that winter Maurice said that Hannah "was the limit; so let's board?"

And toward spring, in spite of the cavorting lambs and waddling ducks in the little waiting, empty room upstairs, Eleanor yielded. "We can go to housekeeping again," she thought, "if-"

So the third year of their marriage opened in a boarding house. They moved (Bingo again banished to Mrs. O'Brien), on their wedding anniversary, and instead of celebrating by going out to "their river," they spent a hot, grimy day settling down in their third-floor front.

"If people come to see us," said Maurice, ruefully, standing with his hands in his pockets surveying their new quarters, "they'll have to sit on the piano!"

"Nobody'll come," Eleanor said.

Maurice's eyes narrowed: "I believe you need 'em, Nelly? I knock up against people at the office, and I know several fellows and girls outside-"

"What girls?"

"Oh, the fellows' sisters; but you-"

"I don't want anybody but you!"

Maurice was silent. Two years ago, when Eleanor had said almost the same thing: she was willing to live on a desert island, with him!-it had been oil on the flames of his love; now, it puzzled him. He didn't want to live on a desert island, with anybody! He needed more than one man "Friday," and any women "Thursdays" who might come along were joyously welcomed. "I am a social beggar, myself," he said; and began to whistle and fuss about, trying to bring order out of a chaos of books and photographs and sheet music. She sat watching him-the alert, vigorous figure; the keen face under the shock of blond hair; the blue eyes that crinkled so easily into laughter. Her face was thinner, and there were rings of fatigue under her dark eyes, and that little nursery in the house they had left, made a swelling sense of emptiness in her heart. ("If I see any awfully pretty nursery paper this winter, I'll buy it, and have it ready,-in case we should have to get another house," she thought.) "Oh, do stop whistling," she said; "it goes through me!"

"Poor Nelly!" he said, kindly, and stopped.

The astonishing thing about the "boarding-house marriage," is that it ever survives the strain of the woman's idleness and the man's discomfort! But it does, occasionally. Even this marriage survived Miss Ladd's boarding house, for a time. At first it went smoothly enough because Maurice couldn't blame Eleanor's cook, and Eleanor couldn't say that "nothing she did pleased Maurice"; so two reasons for irritability were eliminated; but a new reason appeared: Maurice's eager interest in everything and everybody-especially everybody!-and his endless good nature, overflowed around the boarding-house table. Everyone liked him, which Eleanor entirely understood; but he liked everyone,-which she didn't understand.

The note of this mutual liking was struck the very first night when Maurice went down into the dingy basement dining room; he and Eleanor made rather a sensation as they entered: Eleanor, handsome and silent, produced the impression of cold reserve; Maurice, amiable and talkative, gave a little shock of interest and pleasure to the fifteen or twenty people eating indifferent food about a table covered with a not very fresh cloth. Before the meal was over he had made himself agreeable to an elderly woman on his left, ventured some drollery to a pretty high-school teacher of mathematics opposite him, and given a man at the end of the table the score. When Eleanor rose, Maurice had to rise, too, though his dessert was not quite devoured; and as the couple left the room there was a murmur of pleasure:

"A real addition to our family," said Miss Ladd.

The bond salesman said, "I wonder if he'll go to the ball game with me on Saturday? I'll get the tickets."

The school-teacher said, "He's awfully good looking."

The widow's comment was only, "Nice boy."

Upstairs in their own room, Maurice said: "What pleasant people! Nelly, let's get some fun out of this; don't dash up here the minute you swallow your food!"

She wondered, silently, how he could call them "pleasant"! To her they were all rather common, pushing persons, who wanted to talk to Maurice. But as her one desire was to do what he liked, she really did try to help him "get some fun out of them." Every night at dinner she smiled laboriously when he teased the teacher, and she listened to the elderly woman in mourning, whose clever talk was so absorbing to Maurice that sometimes he didn't hear his wife speaking to him! Yes; Eleanor tried. Yet, in less than a month Maurice found himself beside a boarder of his own sex, instead of Mrs. Davis, and saw that the school-teacher was too far down the table for jokes. When he asked why their seats had been changed, Eleanor said she had felt a draught-which caused the widow to smile, and write on a piece of paper an arithmetical statement: "Selfishness + vanity - humor = jealousy." She handed it to the teacher, who laughed and shrugged her shoulders:

"But she's awfully in love with him," she conceded, under her breath.

The older woman shook her head: "No, my dear; she isn't. No jealous woman knows the meaning of love."

But Eleanor did not see Miss Moore's contemptuous smile, or Mrs. Davis's grave glance. One of the pitiful things about jealous people is that they don't know how amusing-or else boring-or else irritating-they are to an observant and entirely unsympathetic world! Eleanor had no idea that the whole tableful of people knew she was jealous, and found her ridiculous. She only knew that Maurice seemed to like them-which meant that her society "wasn't enough for him "! So she tried to make it enough for him. At dinner she talked to him so animatedly (and so personally) that no one else could get a word in edgewise. Dinner over, she was uneasy until she had dragged her eager-eyed young husband up to the desert island of their third-floor front-a dingy room, with a black-marble mantelpiece, and a worn and frowzy carpet. There were some steel engravings, dim under their old glasses, on the wall,-Evangeline, and Lincoln's Cabinet, and Daniel Webster in a rumpled shirt and a long swallowtail;-all of which Eleanor's looking-glass and the mirrored doors of a black-walnut wardrobe, reflected in multiplying dullness.

Maurice's charming good nature in that first boarding winter never failed. Eleanor's silences-which he had long since discovered were merely empty, not mysterious-were at least no tax on his patience; so he never once called her "silly." He did, occasionally, feel a faint uneasiness lest people might think she was older than he-which was, of course, the beginning of self-consciousness as to what he had done in marrying her. But he loved her. He still loved her. "She isn't very well," he used to defend her to Mrs. Newbolt; "she nearly killed herself, saving my life. She's not been the same girl since."

"'Girl'?" said Mrs. Newbolt; "she's exactly the same woman, only more so because she's older. I hope she won't lose her figger; she's gettin' thin. My dear grandmother-she was a Dennison; fat; I can hear her now talkin' to her daughters: 'Girls! Don't lose your figgers!' She had red hair."

Eleanor had not lost her figure; it was still graciously erect, and with lovely curves of bosom and shoulders; but, somehow, she seemed older-older even than she was! Perhaps because of her efforts to be girlish? It was as if she wore clothes she had outgrown-clothes that were too tight and too short. She used Maurice's slang without its virile appropriateness; when they accepted an invitation from one of Maurice's new acquaintances, her anxiety to be of his generation was pathetic-or ludicrous, as one happened to look at it. These friends of Maurice's seemed to have innumerable interests in common with him that she knew nothing about-and jokes! How tired she got of their jokes, which were mostly preposterous badinage, expressed with entire solemnity and ending in yells of laughter. Yet she tried to laugh, too; though she rarely knew what it was all about. There is nothing which divides the generations more sharply than their ideas of humor. But Eleanor tried, very pitifully hard, to be silly with the kind of silliness which Maurice seemed to enjoy; but, alas! she only achieved the silliness which he-like every husband on earth!-hated: the silliness of small jealousies. Once she told Maurice she didn't like those dinner parties that his friends were always asking them to,-"I think it's nicer here," she said.

And he said, cheerfully: "Don't go! I don't mind going alone."

"I know you don't," she said, wistfully.... "Why can't he be satisfied to stay at home with me?" she said once to her aunt; and Mrs. Newbolt told her why:

"Because you don't interest him. Eleanor! if you want to keep that boy, urge him to go out and have a good time, without you!" Then she added some poignantly true remarks: "My dear father used to say, 'Just as many men are faithless to their wives because their wives have plain minds, as because other women have pretty faces.' Well, I'm afraid poor dear mother's mind was plain; that's why I always made an effort to talk to your uncle, and be entertainin'. And I'll tell you another thing-for if I have a virtue it's candor-if you let him see you're jealous, he'll make it worth your while! You've got a rip in the back seam of your waist. No man ever keeps on lovin' a jealous woman; he just pretends to, to keep the peace."

Of course this was as unintelligible to Eleanor as it is to all women of her type of mind. So, instead of considering Maurice's enjoyment of society, she committed the absurdity of urging him to enjoy what she enjoyed-a solitude of two. To herself she explained his desire to see other people, by saying it was because they had no children. "When we have a child, he won't want to be with those boys and girls! Oh, why don't we have a baby?" Her longing for children was like physical hunger. But only Mrs. O'Brien understood it. When Eleanor went, in her faithful way, two or three times a week, to sing to little sickly Don (and pet the boarding and rather pining Bingo), Mrs. O'Brien, listening to the little songs, pretty and silly, would draw a puckery hand over her eyes: "She'd ought to have a dozen of her own! If that boy don't treat her good, I'll iron off every button he's got!"

When Eleanor (hoping for a baby) worried lest Maurice's hopes, too, were disappointed, her gentleness to him was passionate and beseec

hing; but sometimes, watching his attention to other people, the gentleness grew rigid in an accusation that, because they hadn't a child, he was "getting tired of her"! Whenever she said this foolish thing, there would come, afterward, a rain of repentant tears. But repentance cannot always change the result of foolish words-and the result is so often out of proportion to the words! As Maurice had said that day in their meadow, of Professor Bradley and the banana skin-a very little thing "can throw the switches," in human life!

It was the "little thing" of a lead pencil, in keeping the accounts of their endless games of solitaire, that threw the switches now, for Maurice Curtis.... He happened to produce a very soft pencil, which he had borrowed, he said, "from a darned pretty woman he was showing a house to," and had forgotten to return to her.

Eleanor said it seemed to her bad taste to talk of a strange woman that way: "If she's a lady she wouldn't want a man she didn't know to speak so-so lightly of her."

"I have yet to meet one of your sex who objects to being called pretty," Maurice said, dryly.

To which Eleanor replied that she preferred a hard lead pencil, anyhow,-but her wishes seemed to be of no importance! "You're tired of me, Maurice." He said, "Oh, damn!" She said, "I won't have you swear at me!"

He pushed back his chair, toppled the flimsy table over, scattering all the cards on the floor. The falling table struck her knee; she screamed; he flung out of the room-out of the house, into the hot darkness of an August night.... The switches were thrown....

Down on Tyler Street there had been another quarrel-as trivial as the difference of opinion as to hard and soft lead pencils, and again human lives were shifted from one track to another. It was Lily who ran out into the darkness, and wandered through the streets; then strayed down to the bridge that spanned the hurrying black water of that same river which, two years before, had lisped and laughed under Maurice and Eleanor's happy eyes. Lily, watching the current, thought angrily of Batty-then a passing elbow jostled her and some one said, "Beg pardon!" She turned and saw Maurice.

"Well, I do say!" she said; and Maurice, pausing at the voice in the dark, began a brief, "Excuse me; I stumbled-" saw who it was, and said, "Why, Miss Lily! How are you? I haven't seen you for an age!"

She answered with some small jocosity; then suddenly struck her little fist on the railing. "Well, I'm just miserable; that's how I am, if you want to know! Batty-"

Maurice frowned. "Has that pup hurt you?"

She nodded: "I don't know why I put up with him!"

"Shake him!" he advised, good-naturedly.

"I 'ain't got any other friend." She spoke with half-laughing anger; indeed, she was so pretty and so plucky that he forgot, for a moment, the irritation at Eleanor which had driven him out into the night, and it came into his mind that something ought to be done for girls like this. He remembered that Eleanor herself had said so, "Perhaps I could do something for her?" Eleanor had said.

"She isn't bad," he thought, looking at Lily; "she's just a fool, like all of 'em. But there ought to be some way of fishing 'em out of the gutter, before they get to the very bottom. Maybe Eleanor could give her a hand up?" Then he asked her about herself: Had she friends? Where did her family live? Could she do any work? He was rather diverted by his own philanthropy, but it seemed to him that it would be the decent thing to advise the girl, seriously. "I'll talk to her," he thought. "Come on!" he said; "let's hunt up some place and have something to eat."

"I ain't hungry," she said-then saw the careless straightforwardness of his face, and was straightforward herself: "I guess I'd better be going home."

"Oh, come on," he urged her.

She yielded, with a little rollicking chuckle; and as they walked toward a part of town more suitable for such excursions, she confided to him she was twenty, and she'd been "around" for a year.

("Twenty-five, if she's a day," he thought.)

They strolled along for several blocks before discovering, in the purlieus of Tyler Street, a dingy "ice-cream parlor," eminently fitted for interviews with the Lilys of the locality. At a marble-topped table, translucent with years of ice-cream rendezvous, they waited for his order to be filled, and she saw the amused honesty of his face and he saw the good nature of hers; which made him think again of Eleanor's wish to help her.

He urged some indifferent cake upon her, and joked about how many saucers of ice cream they could consume between them; then he became serious: Why didn't she drop Batty?

"Oh," she said, "if I only could drop him! I hate him. He's the first friend I've had."

"Was he really the-the first?" Maurice said. His question was the old human interest of playing with fire, but he supposed that it was a desire to raise the fallen.

"Well, except ... there was a man; I expected to marry him. Then Batty, he come along."

"I see," said Maurice. "Where's the first man?"

"I don't know. I was only sixteen."

"Damn him!" Maurice said, sympathetically. He was so moved that he ordered more ice cream; then it occurred to him that he ought to let her know that he was entirely a philanthropist. "My wife and I'll help you," he said.

"Oh ... you're married? You're real young!" she commented.

"I'm no chicken. My wife and I think exactly alike about these things. Of course she's not a prude. She understands life, just as I do. And she'd love to be a real friend to you. She'll put you on your feet, and think none the worse of you. Tell me about yourself," he urged, intimately; he felt some deep satisfaction stir within him, which he supposed was his recognition of a moral purpose. But she drew back into her own reserves.

"They always ask that," she thought; and the momentary reality she had shown hardened into the easy lying of her business: she told this or that-the cruel father of fiction, who tried to drive her into marriage with the rich old man; the wicked lover who destroyed trusting innocence; the inevitable facilis descensus-Batty at last. And now the ice-cream parlor in this dirty street, with the clear-eyed, handsome, amused young man, who had forgotten his own anger in the impulse, so frequent in the very young and very upright man, to "save" some little creature of the gutter! As for Maurice, he said to himself, "She's a sweet little thing; and not really bad."

He was right there: Lily was not bad; she was as far from sin as she was from virtue-just a little, unmoral, very amiable animal.

As for Maurice, he continued to discuss her future of rectitude and honor-his imagination reaching in a bound amazing heights. Why not be a trained nurse?-and have a hospital of her own, and gather about her, as assistants, girls who-"well, had had a tough time of it," he said, delicately. As he talked, fatigue at the boredom of his highly moral sentiments crept into her face. She swallowed an occasional yawn, and murmured to most of his statements, "Is that so?" She was sleepy, and wished he would stop talking....

"Guess I'll be going along," she said, good-naturedly.

"I'll come and see you to-morrow," Maurice said, impassioned with the idea of saving her; "then I'll tell you what my wife will do for you."

They went out together and walked toward Lily's rooms; but somehow they both fell silent. Lily was again afraid of Batty, and Maurice's exhilaration had begun to ebb; there came into his mind the bleak remembrance of the overturned table and Eleanor's sobs....

At the door of the apartment house where Lily lived, she said, nervously, "I'd ask you to come in, but he-"

"Oh, I understand; I've no desire to meet the gentleman! What time will I come to-morrow, when he's not around?"

She reflected, uneasily: "Well, I ain't sure-"

Before she could finish, Batty loomed up beside them. He was plainly drunk. "I lost my key," he said; "and I've been waiting-"

"Good night, Miss Lily," Maurice said,-"If he's nasty to her, I'll go back," he thought. He was only halfway down the block when he heard a little piping scream-"O-o-o-w! O-o-o-w!" He turned, and saw her trying to pull her hand away from Batty's twisting grip: he was at her side in a moment: "Here! Drop it!" he said, sharply-and landed an extremely neat blow on the drunken man's jaw. Batty, rubbing his cheek, and staring at this very unexpected assailant in profound and giggling astonishment, slouched into the house.

"He 'most twisted my hand off!" Lily said; "oh, ain't he the beast?" She cringed and shook her bruised wrist, then gave Maurice an admiring look. "My soul and body! you lit into him good!" she said; "what am I going to do? I'm afraid to go in."

"If I had a house of my own," Maurice said, "I'd take you home, and my wife would look after you. But we are boarding.... Haven't you some friend you could go to for to-night? ... To-morrow my wife will come and see you," he declared.

"Oh, gracious me, no!" In the midst of her anger she couldn't help laughing. ("He's a reg'lar baby!" she thought.) "No; your wife's a busy society lady, I'm sure. Don't bother about me. I'll just wait round till he goes to sleep." She dabbed at her eyes with a little wet ball of a handkerchief.

"Here, take mine," he said. And with this larger and dryer piece of linen, she did manage to make her face more presentable.

"When he's asleep, I'll slip in," she said.

"Well, let's go and sit down somewhere," Maurice suggested. She agreed, and there was some haphazard wandering about in the darkness, then a weary sitting on a bench in the park, marking time till Batty would surely be asleep.

"You sure handed one out to him," Lily said.

Maurice chuckled at the role of knight-errant which she seemed to discern in him, but he talked earnestly of her future, and once or twice, soothed by his voice, she dozed-but he didn't know it. Indeed, he told himself afterward that her silences showed how his words were sinking in! "It only goes to prove," he thought, when at midnight he left her at her own door, "that the flower is in all of them! If you only go about it right, you can bring their purity to the surface! She felt all I said. Eleanor will be awfully interested in her."

He was quite sure about Eleanor; he had entirely forgiven her; he wanted to wake her up, and sit on the edge of her bed, and tell her of his evening, and what a glorious thing it would be to lift one lovely young soul from the gutter.

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