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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 27754

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Yet Henry Houghton had moments of fearing that he would lose his bet, for Maurice was such a very damned fool! One might have guessed as much when he would not admit that Lily was lying. She might be blackmailing him, he said; she might be a "crow"; but she wasn't lying. When his guardian had talked it all out with him, and written a letter which Maurice was to take to a lawyer ("she'll want to get rid of the child; they always want to get rid of the child; so she may let you off easier if you say you'll see that it is cared for; and we'll have Hayes put it in black and white") when all these arrangements had been made, Maurice almost dished the whole thing (so Mr. Houghton expressed it) by saying-again as if the words burst up from some choked well of truthfulness:

"Uncle Henry, it isn't blackmail; and-and I've got to be half decent!"

Down from the upper hall came a sweet, anxious voice: "Maurice, darling! It's twelve o'clock! What are you doing?"

Mr. Houghton called back: "We're talking business, Eleanor. I'll send him up in a quarter of an hour. Don't lose your beauty sleep, my dear. (Mary must tell her not to be such an idiot!)" Then he looked at Maurice: "My boy, you can't be decent with a leech. You've got to leave this to Hayes."

"She isn't a leech. I ought to help her, I'll see her myself."

"My dear fellow, don't be a bigger ass than you can help! You can meet what you see fit to call your responsibilities, as a few other conscientious fools have done before you; though," he added, heavily, "I hope she won't suck you dry! How you are going to squeeze out the money, I don't know! I can't help you much. But you mustn't appear in this for a single minute. Hayes will see her, and buy her off."

Maurice shook his head, despairingly: "Uncle Henry, she's common; but she's not vicious. She's a nice little thing. I know Lily! I'll see her. I'll have to! I'll tell her I'll-I'll help her." No wonder poor Henry Houghton feared he would lose his bet! "I know you think I'm easy meat," Maurice said; "but I'm not. Only," his face was anguished, "I've got to be half decent."

It was after one o'clock when the two men went upstairs, though there had been another summons over the banisters: "Maurice! Why don't you come to bed?" When they parted at Maurice's door, Mr. Houghton struck his ward on the shoulder and whispered, "You're more than half decent. I'll bet on you!" and Maurice whispered back:

"You're white, Uncle Henry!"

He went into his room on tiptoe, but Eleanor heard him and said, sleepily, "What on earth have you been talking about?"

"Business," Maurice told her.

"Who was your lavender-colored letter from?" Eleanor said, yawning; "I forgot to ask you. It was awfully scented!"

There was an instant's pause; Maurice's lips were dry;-then he said:

"From a woman... About a house. (My God! I've lied to her!)" he said to himself...

Mary Houghton, reading comfortably in bed, looked up at her old husband over her spectacles. "I've heated some cocoa, dear," she said. "Drink it before you undress; you are worn out. What kept you downstairs until this hour?"

"Business."

Mary Houghton smiled: "Might as well tell the truth."

"Oh, Kit, it's a horrid mess!" he groaned; "I thought that boy had got to the top of Fool Hill when he married Eleanor! But he hadn't."

"Can't tell me, I suppose?"

"No. Mary, mayn't I have a cigar? I'm really awfully used up, and-"

"Henry! You are perfectly depraved! No; you may not. Drink your cocoa, honey. And consider the stars;-they shine, even above Fool Hill. And 'messes' look mighty small beside the Pleiades!" Then she turned a page of her novel, and added, "Poor Eleanor."

"I don't know why you say 'Poor Eleanor'!"

"Because I know that Maurice isn't sharing his 'mess' with her."

"You are uncanny!" Henry Houghton said, stirring his cocoa and looking at her admiringly.

"No; merely intelligent. Henry, don't let him have any secrets from Eleanor! Tell him to tell her. She'll forgive him."

"She's not that kind, Mary."

"Dear, almost every woman is 'that kind'! It's deception, not confession, that makes them-the other kind. If Maurice will confess-"

"I haven't said there was anything to confess," he protested, in alarm.

"Oh no; certainly not. You haven't said a word! (Well; you may have just one of those little cigars-you poor dear!) Henry, listen: If Maurice hangs a secret round his neck it will drown him."

"If Eleanor would make cocoa for him at one o'clock in the morning there would be no chance for secrets. Kit, I have long known that you are the wisest, as well as the most virtuous and most lovable of your sex, and that I shall only get to heaven by hanging on to your petticoats; but in this one particular I am much more intelligent than you."

"Heaven send you a good opinion of yourself!" his wife murmured.

But he insisted. "On certain subjects women prefer to be lied to."

"Did any woman ever tell you so?" she inquired, dryly.

He shrugged his shoulders, put his cup down, and came over to give her a kiss.

"Which is to say, 'Hold your tongue'?" his Mary inquired.

"Oh, never!" he said, and in spite of his distress he laughed; but he looked at her tenderly. "The Lord was good to me, Mary, when He made you take me."

That talk in the studio marked the moment when Maurice Curtis turned his back on youth. It was the beginning of the retreat of an ardent and gayly candid boy into the adult sophistications of Secrecy. The next day when he and Eleanor returned to Mercer, he sat in the car watching with unseeing eyes the back of her head,-her swaying hat, the softly curling tendrils of dark hair in the nape of her neck-and he saw before him a narrow path, leading-across quaking bogs of evasions!-toward a goal of always menaced safety. Mr. Houghton had indicated the path in that midnight talk, and Maurice's first step upon it would be his promise to relieve Lily of the support of her child-"on condition that she would never communicate with him again." After that, Henry Houghton said, "the lawyer will clinch things; and nobody will ever be the wiser!" Because Eleanor was the woman she was, he saw no way of escape for Maurice, except through this bog of secrecy, where any careless step might plunge him into a lie. He had not dared to point out that other path, which his Mary thought so much safer than the sucking shakiness of the swamp-the rough and terrible path of confession, which lies across the firm aridities of Truth, and leads to that orderly freedom of the stars to which Maurice had once aspired! So now the boy was going back to Mercer to plunge into the pitfalls and limitless shades of concealment. He did it with a hard purpose of endurance, without hope, and also without complaint.

"If I can just avoid out-and-out lying," he told himself, "I can take my medicine. But if I have to lie-!"

He knew the full bitterness of his medicine when he went to see Lily...

He went the very next day, after office hours... There had been a temptation to postpone the taking of the medicine, because it had been difficult to escape from Eleanor. The well-ordered household at Green Hill had fired her with an impulse to try housekeeping again, and she wanted to urge the idea upon Maurice:

"We would be so much more comfortable; and I could have little Bingo!"

"We can't afford it," he said. (Oh, how many things he wouldn't be able to afford, now!)

"It wouldn't cost much more. I'll come down to the office this afternoon and walk home with you, and tell you what I've thought out about it."

Maurice said he had to-to go and see an apartment house at five.

"That's no matter! I'll meet you and walk along with you."

"I have several other places to go."

That hurt her. "If you don't want me-"

He was so absorbed that her words had no meaning to him. "Good-by," he said, mechanically-and the next moment he was on his way.

At the office his employer gave him a keen glance. "You look used up, Curtis; got a cold?" Mr. Weston asked, kindly.

Maurice, sick in spirit, said, "No, sir; I'm all right."

And so the minutes of the long day ticked themselves away, each a separate pang of disgust and shame, until five o'clock came, and he started for Lily's.

While he waited in the unswept vestibule of an incredibly ornate frame apartment house for the answer to his ring, and the usual: "My goodness! Is that you? Come on up!" he had the feeling of one who stands at a closed door, knowing that when he opens it and enters he will look upon a dead face. The door was Lily's, and the face was the face of his dead youth. Carelessness was over for Maurice, and irresponsibility. And hope, too, he thought, and enthusiasm, and ambition. All over! All dead. All lying stiff and still on the other side of a shiny golden-oak door, with its half window hung with a Nottingham lace curtain. When he started up the three flights of stairs to that little flat where he was to look upon his dead, he was calm to the point of listlessness. "My own fault. My own fault," he said.

She was waiting for him on the landing, her fresh cleanness in fragrant contrast to the forlorn untidiness of the stairways. They went into her parlor together and he began to speak at once.

"I got your letter. No; I won't sit down. I-"

"My soul and body! You're all in!" Lily said, startled, "Let me get you some whisky-"

"No, please, nothing! Lily, I'm ... awfully sorry, I-I'll do what I can. I-"

She put her hands over her face; he went on mechanically, with his carefully prepared sentences, ending with:

"There's no reason why we should meet any more. But I want you to know that the-the-it, will be taken care of. My lawyer will see you about it; I'll have it placed somewhere."

She dropped her hands and looked at him, her little, pretty face amazed and twitching: "Do you mean you'll take my baby?"

"I'll see that it's provided for."

"I ain't that kind of a girl!" They were standing, one on either side of a highly varnished table, on which, on a little brass tray, a cigarette stub was still smoldering. "I don't want anything out of you"-Lily paused; then said, "Mr. Curtis"-(the fact that she didn't call him "Curt" showed her recognition of a change in their relationship)-"I'm not on the grab. I can keep on at Marston's for quite a bit. All I want is just if you can help me in February? But I'll never give my baby up! My first one died."

"Your first-"

"So I'll never, never give it up!" Her shallow, honest, amber-colored eyes overflowed with bliss. "I'll just love it!" she said.

Maurice felt an almost physical collapse; neither he nor Henry Houghton had reckoned on maternal love. Mr. Houghton had implied that Lily's kind did not have maternal love. "She'll leave it on a convenient doorstep-unless she's a white blackbird," Henry Houghton had said. Maurice, too, had taken for granted Lily's eagerness to get rid of the child. In his amazement now, at this revelation of an unknown Lily-a white blackbird Lily!-he began, angrily, to argue: "It is impossible for you to keep it! Impossible! I won't permit it-"

"I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world! I'll take care of it. You needn't worry for fear I'll put it onto you."

"But I won't have you keep it! I promise you I'll look after it. You must go away, somewhere. Anywhere!"

"But I don't want to leave Mercer," she said, simply.

In his despairing confusion, he sat down on the little bowlegged sofa and looked at her; Lily, sitting beside him, put her hand on his-which quivered at the touch. "Don't you worry! I'd never play you any mean trick. You treated me good, and I'll never treat you mean; I 'ain't forgot the way you handed it out to Batty! I'll never let on to anybody. Say-I believe you're afraid I'll try a hold-up on you some day? Why, Mr. Curtis, I wouldn't do a thing like that-no, not for a million dollars! Look here; if it will make you easy in your mind, I'll put it down in writing; I'll say it ain't yours! Will that make you easy in your mind?" Her kind eyes were full of anxious pity for him. "I'll do anything for you, but I won't give up my baby."

She was trying to help him! He was so angry and so frightened that he felt sick at his stomach; but he knew that she was trying to help him!

"You see," she explained, "the first one died; now I'm going to have another, and you bet I'm going to have things nice for her! I'm going to buy a parlor organ. And I'll have her learned to play. It's going to be a girl. Oh, won't I dress her pretty! But I'll never come down on you about her. Now, don't you worry."

The generosity of her! She'd "put it down in writing"! "I told Uncle Henry she was white," he thought. But in spite of her whiteness his blue eyes were wide with horror; all those plans, of Lily in another city, and an unacknowledged child, in still another city-for of course it could not be in Mercer any more than Lily could!-all these safe arrangements faded into a swift vision of Lily, in this apartment, with it! Lily, meeting him on the street!-a flash of imagination showed him Lily, pushing a baby carriage! For just a moment sheer terror made that dead Youth of his stir.

"You can't keep it!" he said again, hoarsely; "I tell you, I won't allow it! I'll look after it. But I won't have it here! And I won't ever see you."

"You needn't," she said, reassuringly; "and I'll never bother you. That ain't me!"

He was dumb.

"An' look," she said, cheerfully; "honest, it's better for you. What would you do, looking after a little girl? Why, you couldn't even curl her hair in the mornings!" Maurice shuddered. "And I'll never ask you for a cent, if you can just make it convenient to help me in February?"

"Of course I'll help you," he said; then, sud

denly, his anger fell into despair. "Oh, what a damned fool I was!"

"All gentlemen are," she tried to comfort him. Her generosity made him blush. Added to his shame because of what he had done to Eleanor, was a new shame at his own thoughts about this little, kind, bad, honest woman! "Look here," Lily said; "if you're strapped, never mind about helping me. They'll take you at the Maternity free, if you can't pay. So I'll go there; and I'll say I'm married; I'll say my husband was Mr. George Dale, and he's dead; I'll never peep your name. Now, don't you worry! I'll keep on at Marston's for four months, anyway. Yes; I'll buy me a ring and call myself Mrs. Dale; I guess I'll say Mrs. Robert Dale; Robert's a classier name than George. And nobody can say anything to my baby."

"Of course I'll give you whatever you need for-when-when it's born," he said. He was fumbling with his pocketbook; he had nothing more to say about leaving Mercer.

She took the money doubtfully. "I won't want it yet awhile," she said.

"I'll make it more if I can," he told her; he got up, hesitated, then put out his hand. For a single instant, just for her pluck, he was almost fond of her. "Take care of yourself," he said, huskily; and the next minute he was plunging down those three flights of unswept stairs to the street. "My own fault-my own fault," he said, again; "oh, what a cussed, cussed, cussed fool!"

It was over, this dreadful interview! this looking at the dead face of his Youth. Over, and he was back again just where he was when he came in. Nothing settled. Lily-who was so much more generous than he!-would still be in Mercer, waiting for this terrible child. His child!

He had accomplished nothing, and he saw before him the dismaying prospect of admitting his failure to Mr. Houghton. The only comfort in the whole hideous business was that he wouldn't have to pull a lawyer into it, and pay a big fee! He was frantic with worry about expense. Well, he must strike Mr. Weston for a raise!... which he wouldn't tell Eleanor about. A second step into the bog of Secrecy!

When he got home, Eleanor, in the dingy third-floor front, was waiting for him, alert and tender, and gay with purpose: "Maurice! I've counted expenses, and I'm sure we can go to housekeeping! And I can have little Bingo. Mrs. O'Brien says he's just pining away for me!"

"We can't afford it," he said again, doggedly.

"I believe," she said, "you like this horrid place, because you have people to talk to!"

"It's well enough," he said. He was standing with his back to her, his clenched hands in his pockets, staring out of the window. His very attitude, the stubbornness of his shoulders, showed his determination not to go to housekeeping.

"What is the matter, Maurice?" she said, her voice trembling. "You are not happy! Oh, what can I do?" she said, despairingly.

"I am as happy as I deserve to be," he said, without turning his head.

She came and stood beside him, resting her cheek on his shoulder. "Oh," she said, passionately, "if I only had a child! You are disappointed because we have no-"

His recoil was so sharp that she could not finish her sentence, but clutched at his arm to steady herself; before she could reproach him for his abruptness he had caught up his hat and left the room. She stood there quivering. "He would be happier and love me more, if we had a child!" she said again. She thought of the joy with which, when they first went to housekeeping, she had bought that foolish, pretty nursery paper-and again the old disappointment ached under her breastbone. Tears were just ready to overflow; but there was a knock at the door and old Mrs. O'Brien came in with her basket of laundry; she gave her beloved Miss Eleanor a keen look "It's worried you are, my dear? It ain't the wash, is it?"

Eleanor tried to laugh, but the laugh ended in a sob. "No. It's-it's only-" Then she said something in a whisper.

"No baby? Bless you, he don't want no babies! What would a handsome young man like him be wanting a baby for? No! And it would take your good looks, my dear. Keep handsome, Miss Eleanor, and you needn't worry about babies! And say, Miss Eleanor, never let on to him if you see him give a look at any of his lady friends. I'm old, my dear, but I noticed, with all my husbands-and I've had three-that if you tell'em you see'em lookin' at other ladies, they'll look again!-just to spite you. Don't notice'em, and they'll not do it. Men is children."

Eleanor, laughing in spite of her pain, said Mr. Curtis didn't "look at other ladies; but-but," she said, wistfully, "I hope I'll have a baby." Then she wiped her eyes, hugged old O'Brien, and promised to "quit worrying." But she didn't "quit," for Maurice's face did not lighten.

Henry Houghton, too, saw the aging heaviness of the young face when, having received the report of that interview with Lily, he came down to Mercer to go over the whole affair and see what must be done. But there was nothing to be done. Up in his room in the hotel he and Maurice thrashed it all out:

"She prefers to stay in Mercer," Maurice explained; "and she'll stay. There's nothing I can do; absolutely nothing! But she'll play fair. I'm not afraid of Lily."

If Mr. Houghton wished, uneasily, that his ward was afraid of Lily, he did not say so. He only told Maurice again that he was "betting on him."

"You won't lose," Maurice said, laconically.

"Perhaps," Henry Houghton said, doubtfully, "I ought to say that Mrs. Houghton-who is the wisest woman I know, as well as the best-has an idea that in matters of this sort, frankness is the best course. But in your case (of which, of course, she knows nothing) I don't agree with her."

"It would be impossible," Maurice said, briefly. And his guardian, whose belief in secrecy had been shaken, momentarily, by his Mary's opinion, felt that, so long as he had quoted her, his conscience was clear. So he only told the boy again he was sure he could bet on him! And because shame, and those bleak words "my own fault," kept the spiritual part of Maurice alive,-(and because Lily was a white blackbird!) the bet stood.

But he made no promises about the future. However much of a liar Maurice was going to be, to Eleanor, he would not, he told himself, lie to this old friend by saying he would never see Lily again. The truth was, some inarticulate moral instinct made him know that there would come a time when he would have to see her... During all that winter, when he sat, night after night, at Miss Ladd's dinner table, and Eleanor fended off Miss Moore and the widow, or when, in those long evenings in their own room they played solitaire, he was thinking of Lily, thinking of that inner summons to what he called "decency," which would, he knew, drive him-in three months-in two months-in one month!-to Lily's door. By and by it was three weeks-two weeks-one week! Then came days when he said, in terror, "I'll go to-morrow." And again: "To-morrow, I must go. Damn it! I must!" So at last, he went, lashed and driven by that mastering "decency"!

He had bought a box of roses, and, looping two fingers through its strings, he walked twice around the block past the ugly apartment house before he could make up his mind to enter. He wondered whether Lily had died? Women do die, sometimes. "Of course I don't want anything to happen to her; but-" Then he wondered, with a sudden pang of hope, if anything had happened to-It? "They're born dead, sometimes!" Nothing wrong in wishing that, for the Thing would be better off dead than alive. He wished he was dead himself! ... The third time he came to the apartment house the string of the box was cutting into his fingers, and that made him stop, and set his teeth, and push open the door of the vestibule. He touched the button under the name "Dale," and called up, huskily, "Is Miss-Mrs. Dale in?" A brisk voice asked his name. "A friend of Mrs. Dale's," he said, very low. There seemed to be a colloquy somewhere, and then he was told to "come right along!" He turned to the stairway, and as he walked slowly up, it came into his mind that this was the way a man might climb the scaffold steps: Step... Step... Step-his very feet refusing! Step... Step-and Lily's door. The nurse, who met him on the landing, said Mrs. Dale would be glad to see him....

She was in bed, very white and radiant, and with a queer, blanketed bundle on one arm; if she was, as the nurse said, "glad to see him," she did not show it. She was too absorbed in some gladness of her own to feel any other kind of gladness. As Maurice handed her the box of roses, she smiled vaguely and said. "Why, you're real kind!" Then she said, eagerly, "He was born the day the pink hyacinth came out! Want to see him?" Her voice thrilled with joy. Without waiting for his answer-or even giving a look at the roses the nurse was lifting out of their waxed papers, she raised a fold of the blanket and her eyes seemed to feed on the little red face with its tightly shut eyes and tiny wet lips.

Maurice looked-and his heart seemed to drop, shuddering, in his breast. "How nasty!" he thought; but aloud he said, stammering, "Why it's-quite a baby."

"You may hold him," she said; there was a passionate generosity in her voice.

Maurice tried to cover his recoil by saying, "Oh, I might drop it."

Lily was not looking at him; it seemed as if she was glad not to give up the roll of blankets, even for a minute. "He's perfectly lovely. He's a reg'lar rascal! The doctor said he was a wonderful child. I'm going to have him christened Ernest Augustus; I want a swell name. But I'll call him Jacky." She strained her head sidewise to kiss the red, puckered flesh, that looked like a face, and in which suddenly a little orifice showed itself, from which came a small, squeaking sound. Maurice, under the shock of that sound, stood rigid; but Lily's feeble arms cuddled the bundle against her breast; she said, "Sweety-Sweety-Sweety!"

The young man sat there speechless.... This terrible squirming piece of flesh-was part of himself! "I wouldn't touch it for a million dollars!" he was thinking. He got up and said: "Good-by. I hope you-"

Lily was not listening; she said good-by without lifting her eyes from the child's face.

Maurice stumbled out to the staircase, with little cold thrills running down his back. The experience of recognizing the significance of what he had done-the setting in motion that stupendous and eternal Exfoliating, called; Life; the seeing a Thing, himself, separated from himself! himself, going on in spite of himself!-brought a surge of engulfing horror. This elemental shock is not unknown to men who look for the first time at their first-born; instantly the feeling may disappear, swallowed up in love and pride. But where, as with Maurice, there is neither pride nor love, the shock remains. His organic dismay was so overwhelming that he said to himself he would never see Lily again-because he would not see It!-which was, in fact, "he," instead of the girl Lily had wanted. But though his spiritual disgust for what he called, in his own mind, "the whole hideous business," did not lessen, he did, later, through the pressure of those heavy words, "my own fault," go to see Lily-she had taken a little house out in Medfield-just to put down on the table, awkwardly, an envelope with some bills in it. He didn't inquire about It, and he got out of the house as quickly as possible.

Lily had no resentment at his lack of feeling for the child; the baby was so entirely hers that she did not think of it as his, too. This sense of possession, never menaced on Maurice's part by even a flicker of interest in the little thing, kept them to the furtive and very formal acquaintance of giving and receiving what money he could spare-or, oftener, couldn't spare! As a result, he thought of Jacky only in relation to his income. Every time some personal expenditure tempted him, he summed up the child's existence in four disgusted and angry words, "I can't afford it." But it was for Lily's sake, not Jacky's, that he economized! He was wretchedly aware that if it had not been for Jacky, Lily might still be a "saleslady" at Marston's, earning good wages. Instead, she was taking lodgers-and it was not easy to get them!-so that she could be at home and look after the baby.

Maurice aged ten years in that first winter of rigid and unexplainable penuriousness, and of a secrecy which meant perilous skirtings of downright lying; for Eleanor occasionally asked why they had so little money to spend? He had requested a raise-and not mentioned to Eleanor the fact that he had got it. When she complained because his salary was so low, he told her Weston was paying him all he was worth, and he wouldn't strike for more! "So it's impossible to go to housekeeping," he said-for of course she continued to urge housekeeping, saying that she couldn't understand why they had to be so economical! But he refused, patiently. To be patient, Maurice did not need, now, to remind himself of the mountain and her faithfulness to him; he had only to remind himself of the yellow-brick apartment house, and his faithlessness to her. "I've got to be kind, or I'd be a skunk," he used to think. So he was very kind. He did not burst out at her with irritated mortification when she telephoned to the office to know if "Mr. Curtis's headache was better";-he had suffered so much that he had gone beyond the self-consciousness of mortification;-and he walked with her in the park on Sunday afternoons to exercise Bingo; and on their anniversary he sat beside her in the grass, under the locust tree, and watched the river-their river, which had brought Lily into his life!-and listened to the lovely voice:

"O thou with dewy locks who lookest down!"

* * *

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