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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 15226

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


When, a year after his marriage, Maurice began to awaken to Eleanor's realities, maturity had come to him with a bound. But it was almost age that fell upon him when Lily's realities confronted him. In the late afternoon, as he and Edith and the silent Johnny walked down the mountain, he was dizzy with terror of Lily!

She was blackmailing him.

But even as he said the word, he had an uprush of courage; he would get a lawyer, and shut her up! That's what you do when anybody blackmails you. Perfectly simple. "A lawyer will shut her up!" It was a hideous mess, and he had no money to spend on lawyers; but it would never get out-the newspapers couldn't get hold of it-because a lawyer would shut her up! Though, probably, he'd have to give her some money? How much would he have to give her? And how much would he have to pay the lawyer? He had a crazy vision of Lily's attaching his salary. He imagined a dialogue with his employer: "A case of blackmail, sir." "Don't worry about it, Curtis; we'll shut her up." This brought an instant's warm sense of safety, which as instantly vanished-and again he was walking down the road, with Edith beside him, talking, talking... Eleanor would have to know... No! She wouldn't! He could keep it a secret. But he'd have to tell Mr. Houghton. Then Mrs. Houghton would know! Again a wave of nausea swept over him, and he shuddered; then said to himself: "No: Uncle Henry's white. He won't even tell her."

Edith was asking him something; he said, "Yes," entirely at random-and was at once involved in a snarl of other questions, and other random answers. Under his breath he thought, despairingly, "Won't she ever stop talking! ... Edith, I'll give you fifty cents if you'll keep quiet."

Edith was willing enough to be quiet; "But," she added, practically, "would you mind giving me the fifty cents now, Maurice? You always tear off to Eleanor the minute you get home, and I'm afraid you'll forget it."

He put his hand in his pocket and produced the half dollar. "Anything to keep you still!" he said.

"You don't mind if I talk to Johnny?"

He didn't answer; at that moment he was not aware of her existence, still less Johnny's, for a frightful thought had stabbed him: Suppose it wasn't blackmail? Suppose Lily had told the truth? Suppose "it" was his? "She can't prove it-she can't prove it!" he said, aloud.

"Prove what? Who can't?" Edith said, interested.

Maurice didn't hear her. Suddenly he felt too sick to follow his own thought, and go to the bottom of things; he was afraid to touch the bottom! He made a desperate effort to keep on the surface of his terror by saying: "It's all Eleanor's fault. Damnation! Her idiotic jealousy drove me out of the house that Sunday afternoon!"

At this moment Johnny Bennett and Edith broke into shrieks of laughter. "Say, Maurice," Johnny began-

"Can't you children be quiet for five minutes?" Maurice said. Johnny whistled and, behind his spectacles, made big eyes at Edith. "What's he got on his little chest?" Johnny inquired. But Maurice was deaf to sarcasm.... "It all goes back to Eleanor!"

Under the chatter of the other two, it was easier to say this than to say, "Is Lily telling the truth?" It was easier to hate Eleanor than to think about Lily. And, hating, he said again, aloud, the single agonized word.

Edith stood stock-still with amazement; she could not believe her ears. Maurice had said-? As for Maurice, his head bent as if he were walking in a high wind he strode on, leaving her in the road staring after him.

"Johnny!" said Edith; "did you hear?"

"That's nothing," Johnny said; "I say it often, when mother ain't round. At least I say the first part."

"Oh, Johnny!" Edith said, dismayed.

To Maurice, rushing on alone, the relief of hating Eleanor was lost in the uprush of that ghastly possibility: "If it is mine?"

Something in him struggled to say: "If it is, why, then, I must-But it isn't!" Maurice was, for the moment, a horribly scared boy; his instinct was to run to cover at any cost. He forgot Edith, coming home by herself after Johnny should turn in at his own gate; he was conscious only of his need to be alone to think this thing out and decide what he must do. There was no possible privacy in the house. "If I go up to our room," he thought, frantically, "Eleanor'll burst in on me, and then she'll get on to it that there's something the matter!" Suddenly he remembered the chicken coop. "It's late. Edith won't be coming in." So he skulked around behind the house and the stable, and up the gravel path to the henhouse. Lifting the rusty latch, he stepped quietly into the dusky, feathery shelter. "I can think the damned business out, here," he thought. There was a scuffling "cluck" on the roosts, but when he sat down on an overturned box, the fowls settled into stillness and, except for an occasional sleepy squawk, the place was quiet. He drew a long breath, and dropped his chin on his fist. "Now I'll think," he said. Then, through the cobwebby windows, he saw in the yellowing west the new moon, and below it the line of distant hills. An old pine tree stretched a shaggy branch across the window, and he said to himself that the moon and the hills and the branch were like a Japanese print.

He took the letter out of his pocket-his very fingers shrinking as he touched it-and straining his eyes in the gathering dusk, he read it all through. Then he looked at the moon, which was sliding-sliding behind the pine. Yes, that ragged branch was very Japanese. If he hadn't gone out on the river that night with Edith, he would never have met Lily. The thing he had said on his wedding day, in the meadow, about "switches," flashed into his mind: "A little thing can throw the switches."

"Ten minutes in a rowboat," he said,-"and this!" One of the hens clucked. "I'll fight," he said. "Lots of men come up against this sort of thing, and they hand the whole rotten business over to a lawyer. I'll fight. Or I'll move.... Perhaps that's the best way? I'll just tell Eleanor we've got to live in New York. Damn it! she'd ask why? I'll say I have a job there. Lily'd never be able to find me in New York." The moon slipped out below the pine, and hung for a dim moment in the haze. Maurice's mind went through a long and involved plan of concealing his address from Lily when he moved to New York.... "But what would we live on while I was finding a job?" ... Suddenly thought stopped short; he just watched the moon, and listened to a muffled stir among the hens. Then he took out his knife, and began to cut little notches on the window sill. "I'll fight," he said, mechanically.

There were running steps on the gravel path, and instantly he was on his feet. He had the presence of mind to put his hand into a nest, so that when Edith came in she reproached him for getting ahead of her in collecting eggs.

"How many have you got? Two? Griselda was on the nest when I started up the mountain, but I thought there was another egg there?"

"Only one," he said, thickly, and handed it to her.

"Come on in the house," Edith commanded; "I suppose," she said, resignedly, "Eleanor is playing on the piano!" (Edith, as her adoration of Eleanor lessened, was frankly bored by her music.)

"All right," Maurice said, and followed her.

Edith asked no questions; Maurice's "word" on the road had sobered her too much for talk. "He's mad about something," she thought; "but I never heard Maurice say-that!" She didn't quite like to repeat what he had said, though Johnny had confessed to saying "part of it." "I don't

believe he ever did," Edith thought; "he's putting on airs! But for Maurice to say all of it!-that was wrong," said Edith, gravely.

They went out of the henhouse together in silence. Maurice was saying to himself, "I might not be able to get a job in New York... I'll fight." Yet certain traditional decencies, slowly emerging from the welter of his rage and terror, made him add, "If it was mine, I'd have to give her something... But it isn't. I'll fight."

He was so absorbed that before he knew it he had followed Edith to the studio, where, in the twilight. Mr. and Mrs. Houghton were sitting on the sofa together, hand in hand, and Eleanor was at the piano singing, softly, old songs that her hosts loved.

"If," said Henry Houghton, listening, "heaven is any better than this, I shall consider it needless extravagance on the part of the Almighty,"-and he held his wife's hand against his lips. Maurice, at the door, turned away and would have gone upstairs, but Mr. Houghton called out: "Sit down, man! If I had the luck to have a wife who could sing, I'd keep her at it! Sit down!" Eleanor's voice, lovely and noble and serene, went on:

"To add to golden numbers, golden numbers!

0 sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!"

Maurice sat down; it was as if, after beating against crashing seas with a cargo of shame and fear, he had turned suddenly into a still harbor: the faintly lighted studio, the stillness of the summer evening, the lovely voice-the peace and dignity and safety of it all gave him a strange sense of unreality... Then, suddenly, he heard them all laughing and telling Eleanor they were sorry for her, to have such an unappreciative husband!-and he realized that the fatigue of terror had made him fall asleep. Later, when he came to the supper table, he was still dazed. He said he had a headache, and could not eat; instantly Eleanor's anxiety was alert. She suggested hot-water bags and mustard plasters, until Mr. Houghton said to himself: "How does he stand it? Mary must tell her not to be a mother to him-or a grandmother."

All that hot evening, out on the porch, Maurice was silent-so silent that, as they separated for the night, his guardian put a hand on his shoulder, "Come into the studio," he said; "I want to show you a thing I've been muddling over."

Maurice followed him into the vast, shadowy, untidy room ("No females with dusters allowed on the premises!" Henry Houghton used to say), glanced at a half-finished canvas, said, "Fine!" and turned away.

"Anything out of kilter? I mean, besides your headache?"

"Well ... yes."

("He's going to say he's hard up-the extravagant cuss!" Henry Houghton thought, with the old provoked affection.)

"I'm bothered about ... something," Maurice began.

("He's squabbled with Eleanor. I wish I was asleep!")

"Uncle Henry," Maurice said, "if you were going to see a lawyer, who would you see?"

"I wouldn't see him. Lawyers make their cake by cooking up other people's troubles. Sit down. Let's talk it out." He settled himself in a corner of the ragged old horsehair sofa which faced the empty fireplace and motioned Maurice to a chair. "I thought it wasn't all headache; what's the matter, boy?"

Maurice sat down, cleared his throat, and put his hands in his pockets so they would not betray him. "I-" he said.

Mr. Houghton appeared absorbed in biting off the end of his cigar.

"I-" Maurice said again.

"Maurice," said Henry Houghton, "keep the peace. If you and Eleanor have fallen out, don't stand on your dignity. Go upstairs and say you're sorry, whether you are or not. Don't talk about lawyers."

"My God!" said Maurice; "did you suppose it was that?"

Mr. Houghton stopped biting the end of his cigar, and looked at him. "Why, yes; I did. You and she are rather foolish, you know. So I supposed-"

Maurice dropped his face on his arms on the big dusty table, littered with pamphlets and charcoal studies and squeezed-out paint tubes. After a while he lifted his head: "That's nothing. I wish it was that."

The older man rose and stood with his back to the mantelpiece. They both heard the clock ticking loudly. Then, almost in a whisper, Maurice said:

"I've been-blackmailed."

Mr. Houghton whistled.

"I've had a letter from a woman. She says-"

"Has she got anything on you?"

"No proof; but-"

"But you have made a fool of yourself?"

"Yes."

Mr. Houghton sat down again. "Go on," he said.

Maurice reached for a maulstick lying across the table; then leaned over, his elbows on his knees, and tried, with two trembling forefingers, to make it stand upright on the floor. "She's common. She can't prove it's-mine." His effort to keep the stick vertical with those two shaking fingers was agonizing.

"Begin at the beginning," Henry Houghton said.

Maurice let the maulstick drop against his shoulder and sunk his head on his hands. Suddenly he sat up: "What's the use of lying? She's not bad all through." The truth seemed to tear him as he uttered it. "That's the worst of it," he groaned. "If she was, I'd know what to do. But probably she's not lying... She says it's mine. Yes; I pretty well know she's not lying."

"We'll go on the supposition that she is. I have yet to see a white crow. How much does she want?"

"She's only asked me to help her, when-it's born. And of course, if it is mine, I-"

"We won't concede the 'if.'"

"Uncle Henry," said the haggard boy, "I'm several kinds of a fool, but I'm not a skunk. I've got to be decent"

"You should have thought of decency sooner."

"I know. I know."

"You'd better tell me the whole thing. Then we'll talk lawyers."

So Maurice began the squalid story. Twice he stopped, choking down excuses that laid the blame on Eleanor.... "It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been-been bothered." And again, "Something had thrown me off the track; and I met Lily, and-"

At last it was all said, and he had not skulked behind his wife. He had told everything, except those explaining things that could not be told.

When the story was ended there was silence. The older man, guessing the untold things, could not trust himself to speak his pity and anger and dismay. But in that moment of silence the comfort of confession made the tears stand in the boy's eyes; he said, impulsively, "Uncle Henry, I thought you'd kick me out of the house!"

Henry Houghton blew his nose, and spoke with husky harshness. "Eleanor has no suspicions?" (He, too, was choking down references to Eleanor which must not be spoken.)

"No. Do you think I ought to-to tell-?"

"No! No! With some women you could make a clean breast... I know a woman-her husband hadn't a secret from her; and I know he was a fool before his marriage! He made a clean breast of it, and she married him. But she knew the soul of him, you see? She knew that this sort of rotten foolishness was only his body. So he worshiped her. Naturally. Properly. She meant God to him... Mighty few women like that! Candidly, I don't think your wife is one of them. Besides, this is after marriage. That's different, Maurice. Very different. It isn't a square deal."

Maurice made a miserable shamed sound of agreement. Then he said, huskily, "Of course I won't lie; I'll just-not tell her."

"The thing for us to do," said Mr. Houghton, "is to get you out of this mess. Then you'll keep straight? Some fellows wouldn't. You will, because-" he paused; Maurice looked at him with scared eyes-"because if a man is sufficiently aware of having been a damned fool, he's immune. I'll bet on you, Maurice."

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