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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 23515

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The next fall, however, the boarding did come to an end, and they went to housekeeping. It was Mrs. Houghton who brought this about. Edith was to enter Fern Hill School in the fall, and her mother had an inspiration: "Let her board with Eleanor and Maurice! The trolley goes right out to Medfield, and it will be very convenient for her. Also, it will help them with expenses," Mrs. Houghton said, comfortably.

"But why can't she live at the school?" Edith's father objected, with a troubled look; somehow, he did not like the idea of his girl in that pathetic household, which was at once so conscious and so unconscious of its own instability! "Why does she have to be with Eleanor and Maurice?" Henry Houghton said.

"Eleanor has the refinement that a hobbledehoy like Edith needs," Mrs. Houghton explained; "and I think the child will have better food than at Fern Hill. School food is always horrid."

"But won't Eleanor's dullness afflict Buster?" he said, doubtfully; then-because at that moment Edith banged into the room to show her shuddering mother a garter snake she had captured-he added, with complacent subtlety, "as for food, I, personally, prefer a dinner of herbs with an interesting woman, than a stalled ox and Eleanor."

Which caused Edith to say, "Is Eleanor uninteresting, father?"

"Good heavens, no!" said Mr. Houghton, with an alarmed look; "of course she isn't! What put such an idea into your head?" And as Buster and her squirming prize departed, he told his Mary that her daughter was destroying his nervous system. "She'll repeat that to Eleanor," he groaned.

His wife had no sympathy for him; "You deserve anything you may get!" she said, severely; and proceeded to write to Eleanor to make her proposition. If they cared to take Edith, she said, they could hire a house and stop boarding-"which is dreadful for both of your digestions; and I will be glad if this plan appeals to you, to feel that Edith is with anyone who has such gentle manners as you."

Eleanor, reading the friendly words at the boarding-house breakfast table, said quickly to herself, "I don't want her... She would monopolize Maurice!" Then she hesitated; "He would be more comfortable in a house of his own... But Edith? Oh, I don't want her!"

She turned to show the letter to Maurice, but he was sitting sidewise, one arm over the back of his chair, in vociferous discussion with a fellow boarder. "No, sir!" he was declaring; "if they revise the rules again, they'll revise the guts out of the whole blessed game; they'll make it all muscle and no mind."

"But football isn't any intellectual stunt," the other boarder insisted.

"It is-to a degree. The old flying wedge-"

"Maurice!" Eleanor said again; but Maurice, impassioned about "rules," didn't even hear her. She gave his arm a little friendly shake. "Maurice! You are the limit, with your old football!"

He turned, laughing, and took the letter from her hand. As he read it, his face changed sharply. "But Fern Hill is in Medfield!" he exclaimed.

"I suppose she could take the trolley almost to the school grounds," Eleanor conceded, reluctantly.

"Why can't she live out there? It's a boarding school, isn't it?" (She might meet Lily on the car!)

For a moment she accepted his decision with relief; then the thought of his comfort urged her: "I know of an awfully attractive house, with a garden. Little Bingo could hide his bones in it."

"No," he said, sharply; "it wouldn't do. I don't want her."

Instantly Eleanor was buoyantly ready to have Edith ... he "didn't want her!" When Maurice rose from the table she went to the front door with him, detaining him-until the pretty school-teacher was well on her way down the street;-with tender charges to take care of himself. Then, in the darkness of the hall, with Maurice very uneasy lest some one might see them, she kissed him good-by. "If we could afford to keep house without taking Edith," she said, "I'd rather not have her. (Kiss me again-no-body's looking!) But we can't. So let's have her."

"In two years I'll have my own money," he reminded her; "this hard sledding is only temporary." But she looked so disappointed that he hesitated; after all, if she wanted a house so much he ought not to stand in the way. Poor Eleanor hadn't much fun! And, as far as he was concerned, he would like to have Edith around. "It's only the Medfield part of it I don't like," he told himself. Yet Lily, on Maple Street, a mile from Fern Hill, was a needle in a haystack! (And even if Edith should ever see her, she wouldn't know her.) ... "If you really want to have her," he told Eleanor, "go ahead."

So that was how it happened that Edith burst in upon Eleanor's dear domesticity of two. Maurice, having once agreed to his wife's wish, was rather pleased at the prospect. "It will help on money," he thought; "another hundred a year will come in handy to Lily. And it will be sort of nice to have Buster in the house."

Lily had not said she must have another hundred. She did not even think so. "I can swing it!" Lily had said, sturdily. And she did; but of course, as Maurice, to his intense discomfort, knew only too well, it was hard to swing it. Even with what help he could give her, she couldn't possibly have got along if she had not been astonishingly efficient and thrifty, always looking at both sides of a cent! "I ain't smoking any more," Lily said once; "well, 'tain't only to save money; but I don't want Jacky to be getting any funny ideas!" (this when "Ernest Augustus" was only a few months old!) She had a tiny house on Maple Street, with a sun-baked front yard, in which a few shrubs caught the dust on their meager foliage; and she had a border of pansies in the shade under the bay window;-"I must have flowers!" Lily said, apologetically;-and she had three roomers, and she had scraped the locality for mealers. She would have made more money if she had not fed her boarders so well. "But there!" said Lily; "if I give 'em nice food, they'll stay!" But, all the same, Maurice knew that two or three dollars more a week would "come in handy." His sense of irritated responsibility about her made him long for that twenty-fifth birthday which would bring him his own money. For, in spite of Lily's thriftiness, her expenses, as well as her toil, kept increasing, and Maurice, cursing himself whenever he thought that but for him she would be "on easy street" at Marston's, had begun the inevitable borrowing. The payment of the interest on his note was a tax on his salary; yet not so taxing as the necessity of being constantly on guard against some careless word which might make Eleanor ask questions about that salary.

But Eleanor asked very few questions about anything so practical as income. Her interest in money matters, now, in regard to Edith, was merely that Edith was a means to an end-Maurice could have his own home! The finding a house, under Mrs. Newbolt's candid guidance-and Maurice's worried reminders that he couldn't "afford" more than so much rent!-gave Eleanor the pleasantest summer she had had since that first summer when, in the meadow, she and Maurice had watched the clouds, and the locust blossoms, and told each other that nothing in heaven or earth, or the waters under the earth, could part them...

The old house they finally secured was in an unfashionable locality; there was a tailor shop next door and an undertaker across the street, and a clanging trolley car screeched on the curve at the end of the block; but the dignity of the pillared doorway, and the carved window casings, had appealed to Maurice; and also the discovery in the parlor, behind a monstrous air-tight stove, of a bricked-up fireplace (which he promptly tore open), all combined to make undertakers and tailors, as neighbors, unimportant! On the rear of the house was an iron veranda-roped with wistaria; below, inclosed in a crumbling brick wall, was the back yard-"Garden, if you please!" Maurice announced-for Bingo's bones. Clumps of Madonna lilies had bloomed here, and died, and bloomed again, for almost a century; the yard was shaded by a silver poplar, which would gray and whiten in the wind in hot weather, or delicately etch itself against a wintry sky. A little path, with moss between the bricks and always damp in the shadow of the poplar, led from the basement door to an iron gate; through its rusty bars one could see, a block away, the slipping gleam of the river, hurrying down from "their meadow," to disappear under the bridge. Maurice said he would build a seat around the poplar, "... and we'll put a table under it, and paint it green, and have tea there in the afternoon! Skeezics will like that."

"Edith looks healthy," said Mrs. Newbolt; "my dear father used to say he liked healthy females. Old-fashioned word-females. Well, I'm afraid dear father liked 'em too much. But my dear mother-she was a Dennison-pretended not to see it. She had sense. Great thing in married life, to have sense, and know what not to see! Pity Edith's not musical. Have you a cook? I believe she'd have caught you, Maurice, if Eleanor hadn't got in ahead! I brought a chocolate drop for Bingo. Here, Bingo!"

Bingo, silky and snarly, climbed on to her steeply sloping black-satin lap, ate the chocolate drop-keeping all the while a liquid and adoring eye upon his mistress-then slid down and ran to curl up on Eleanor's skirt.

By September the moving and seat building were accomplished-the last not entirely on Edith's account; it was part of Maurice's painstaking desire to do something-anything!-for "poor Eleanor," as he named her in his remorseful thought. There was never a day-indeed, there was not often an hour!-when his own meanness to his wife (combined with disgust at being a liar) did not ache somewhere in the back of his mind. So he tried, in all sorts of anxious ways, to please her. He almost never saw Lily; but the thought of her often brought Eleanor a box of candy or a bunch of violets. Such expenditures were slightly easier for him now, because he had had another small raise,-which this time he had told Eleanor about. On the strength of it he said to himself that he supposed he ought to give Lily a little something extra? So on the day when Mrs. Houghton and Edith were to arrive in Mercer, he went out to Medfield to tell Jacky's mother that she might count on a few dollars more each month. The last time he had seen her, Lily had told him that Jacky "was fussing with his teeth something fierce. I had to hire a little girl from across the street," she said, "to take him out in the perambulator, or else I couldn't 'tend to my cooking. It costs money to live, Mr. Curtis," Lily had said, "and eggs are going up, awful!" She had never gone back to the familiarity of those days when she called him "Curt." That he, dull and preoccupied, still called her Lily gave her, somehow, such a respectful consciousness of his superiority that she had hesitated to speak of anything so intimate as eggs... "Yes, I must give her something extra," Maurice thought, remembering the "cost" of living. "Talk about paying the piper! I bet I'm paying him, all right!"

He was to meet Mrs. Houghton at seven-thirty that night, and it occurred to him that if he told Eleanor he had some extra work to do at his desk he could wedge this call in between office hours and the time when he must go to the station-("and they call me 'G. Washington'!") He felt no special cautiousness in going out to Maple Street; the few people he knew in Mercer did not frequent this locality, and if any of them should chance to see him-a most remote possibility!-why, was he not in the real-estate business, and constantly looking at houses? On

this particular afternoon, jolting along in the trolley car, he grimly amused himself with the thought of what he would do if, say, Eleanor herself should see him turning that infernally shrill bell on Lily's door. It was a wild flight of imagination, for Eleanor never would see him-never could see him! Eleanor, who only went to Medfield when their wedding anniversary came round, and she dragged him out to sit by the river and sentimentalize! He thought of the loveliness of that past June-and the contrasting and ironic ugliness of the present September.... Now, the little secret house in the purlieus of Mercer's smoke and grime; then, the river, and the rippling tides of grass and clover, and the blue sky-and that ass, lying at the feet of a woman old enough to be his mother!

He laughed as he swung off the car-then frowned; for he saw that to reach Lily's door he would have to pass a baby carriage standing just inside the gate. He didn't glance into the carriage at the roly-poly youngster. He never, on the rare occasions when he went to see Lily, looked at his child if he could avoid doing so-and she never asked him to. Once, annoyed at Jacky's shrill noisiness, he had protested, frowning: "Can't you keep it quiet? It needs a spanking!" After that indifferent criticism ("For I don't care how she brings it up!") Lily had not wanted him to see her baby. She could not have said just why-perhaps it was fear lest Maurice would notice his growing perfection-but when Jacky's father came she kept Jacky in the background! On this September afternoon she said, as she opened the door:

"Why, you're a great stranger! Come right in! Wait a second till I get Jacky. I've just nursed him and I put him out there so I could watch him while I scrubbed the porch." She ran out to the gate, then pushed the carriage up the path.

"Let me help you," Maurice said, politely; adding to himself, "Damn-damn-!" Stepping backward, he lifted the front wheels, and with Lily's help pulled the perambulator on to the little porch and over the threshold into the house-which always shone with immaculate neatness and ugly comfort. He kept his eyes away from the sleeping face on the pillow. Together they got the carriage into the hall-Lily fumbling all the while with one hand to fasten the front of her dress and skipping a button or two as she did so; but he had a glimpse of the heavy abundance of her bosom, and thought to himself that, esthetically, maternity was rather unpleasant.

"Go on into the parlor and sit down," she said; "I'll put him in the kitchen," She pushed the elaborate wicker perambulator, adorned with bows of blue-satin ribbon, down a dark entry smelling of very good soup stock. When she came back she found Maurice, his hat and stick in his hands, standing in her tiny front room, where the sunny window was full of geraniums and scraggly rose bushes. "I got 'em in early. And I dug up my dahlias-I was afraid of frost. (Mercy! I must clean that window on the outside!) Well, you are a stranger!" she said, again, good-naturedly. Then she sighed: "Mr. Curtis, Jacky seems kind o' sick. He's been coughing, and he's hot. Would you send for a doctor, if you was me?"

"Why, if you're worried, yes," Maurice said, impatiently; "I was just passing, and-No, thank you; I won't sit down. I was passing, and I thought I'd look in and give you a-a little present. If the youngster's upset, it will come in well," he ended, as his hand sought his waistcoat pocket. Lily's face was instantly anxious.

"What! Did you think he looked sick, too? I was kind of worried, but if you noticed it-"

"I didn't in the least," he said, frowning; "I didn't look at him."

"He 'ain't never been what you'd call sick," Lily tried to reassure herself; "he's a reg'lar rascal!" she ended, tenderly; her eyes-those curious amber eyes, through which sometimes a tigress looks!-looked now at Maurice in passionate motherhood.

Maurice, putting the money down on the table, said, "I wish I could do more for you, Lily; but I'm dreadfully strapped."

"Say, now, you take it right back! I can get along; I got my two upstairs rooms rented, and I've got a new mealer. And if Jacky only keeps well, I can manage fine. But that girl that's been wheelin' him has measles at her house-little slut!" Lily said (the yellow eyes glared); "she didn't let on to me about it. Wanted her two dollars a week! If Jacky's caught 'em, I-I'll see to her!"

"Oh, he's all right," Maurice said; he didn't like "it"-although, if it hadn't been for "it" he would probably, long before this, have slipped down into the mere comfort of Lily; "it" held him prisoner in self-contempt; "it," or perhaps the larger It? the It which he had seen first in his glorious, passionately selfish ecstasy on his wedding day; then glimpsed in the awful orderliness of the universe,-the It that held the stars in their courses! Perhaps the tiny, personal thing, Joy, and the stupendous, impersonal thing, Law, and the mysterious, unseen thing, Life, were all one? "Call it God," Maurice had said of ecstasy, and again of order; he did not call Jacky's milky lips "God." The little personality which he had made was not in the least God to him! On the contrary, it was a nuisance and a terror, and a financial anxiety. He shrank from the thought of it, and kept "decent," merely through disgust at the child as an entity-an entity which had driven him into loathsome evasions and secrecies which once in a while sharpened into little lies. But he was faintly sorry, now, to see Lily look unhappy about the Thing; and he even had a friendly impulse to comfort her: "Jacky's all right! But I'll send a doctor in, if you want me to. I saw a doctor's shingle out as I came around the corner."

She said she'd be awfully obliged; and he, looking at his watch, and realizing that Mrs. Houghton's train was due in less than an hour, hurried off.

The doctor's bell was not answered promptly; then the doctor detained him by writing down the address, getting it wrong, correcting it, and saying: "Mrs. Dale? Oh yes; you are Mr. Dale?"

"No-not at all! Just a friend. I happened to be calling, and Mrs. Dale asked me to stop and ask you to come in."

Then he rushed off. On the way to town, staring out of the window of the car, he tingled all over at Doctor Nelson's question: "You are Mr. Dale?"... "Why the devil did I offer to get a doctor? I wish Lily would move to the ends of the earth; or that the brat would get well; or-or something."

There was a little delay in reaching the station, and when he got there, it was to find that Mrs. Houghton's train was in and she and Edith, shifting for themselves, had presumably taken a hack to find their way to Maurice's house. He was mortified, but annoyed, too, because it involved giving Eleanor some sort of lying explanation for his discourtesy. "I'll have to cook up some kind of yarn!" he thought, disgustedly...

When Edith and her mother had arrived, unaccompanied by Maurice, Eleanor was sharply worried; had anything happened to him? Oh, she was afraid something had happened to him! "Where do you suppose he is?" she said, over and over. "I'm always so afraid he's been run over!" And when Maurice, flushed and apologetic, appeared, she was so relieved that she was cross. What on earth had detained him? "How did you miss them?"

So Maurice immediately told half of the truth,-this being easier for him than an out-and-out lie. He had been detained because he had to go and see a house in Medfield. "Awfully sorry, Mrs. Houghton!"

Eleanor said she should have thought he needn't have stayed long enough to be late at the station! Well, he hadn't stayed long; but the-"the tenant was afraid her baby had measles and she had asked him to go and get a doctor, and-"

"Of course!" Mrs. Houghton said; "don't give it a thought, Maurice. John Bennett met us-you knew he was at the Polytechnical?-and brought us here. But, anyhow, Edith and I were quite capable of looking out for ourselves; weren't we, Edith?"

Edith, almost sixteen now, long-legged, silent, and friendly, said, "Yes, mother" and helped herself so liberally to butter that her hostess thought to herself, "Gracious!"

However, assured that Maurice had not been run over, Eleanor was really indifferent to Edith's appetite, for the sum Mrs. Houghton had offered for the girl's board was generous. So, proud of the new house, and pleased with sitting at the head of her own table, and hoping that Maurice would like the pudding, which, with infinite fussing, she had made with her own hands, she felt both happy and hospitable. She told Edith to take some more butter (which she did!); and tell Johnny to come to dinner some night, "and we'll have some music," she added, kindly.

"Johnny doesn't like music," said Edith; "well, I don't, either. But I guess he'll come. He likes food."

Edith effaced herself a good deal in the few days that, her mother stayed on in Mercer to launch her at Fern Hill; effaced herself, indeed, so much that Maurice, full of preoccupations of his own, was hardly aware of her presence!... He had had a scared note from Lily:

Doctor Nelson says he's awful sick, and I've got to have a nurse. I don't like to, because I can't bear to have anybody do for him but me, and she charges so much. Makes me tired to see her all fussed up in white dresses-I suppose it's her laundry I'm paying for! That little girl he caught it from ought to be sent to a Reformatory. I'm afraid my new mealer'll go, if she thinks there's anything catching in the house. I hate to ask you-

The scented, lavender-colored envelope was on Maurice's desk at the office the morning after Mrs. Houghton and Edith arrived. When he had read it, and torn it into minute scraps, Maurice had something else to think of than Edith! He knew Lily wouldn't want to leave "her" baby to go out and cash a money order, and checks were dangerous; so he must take that trip to Medfield again. "Well," said Maurice-pulled and jerked out to Maple Street on the leash of an ineradicable sense of decency-"the devil is getting his money's worth out of me!"

He entered No. 16 without turning the clanging bell, for the door was ajar. Lily was in the entry, talking to the doctor, who gave Mrs. Dale's "friend" a rather keen look. "Oh, Mr. Curtis, he's awful sick!" Lily said; she was haggard with fright.

Maurice, swearing to himself for having arrived at that particular moment, said, coldly, "Too bad."

"Oh, we'll pull him through," the doctor said, with a kind look at Lily. She caught his hand and kissed it, and burst out crying. The two men looked at each other-one amused, the other shrinking with disgust at his own moral squalor. Then from the floor above came a whimpering cry, and Lily, calling passionately, "Yes, Sweety! Maw's coming!" flew upstairs.

"I'll look in this evening," Doctor Nelson said, and took himself off, rubbing the back of his hand on his trousers. "I wonder if there's any funny business there?" he reflected. But he thought no more about it until weeks afterward, when he happened, one day, in the bank, to stand before Maurice, waiting his turn at the teller's window. He said, "Hello!" and Maurice said, "Hello!" and added that it was a cold day. The fact that Maurice said not a word about that recovering little patient in Medfield made the doctor's mind revert to the possibilities he had recognized in Lily's entry.

"Yet he looks too decent for that sort of thing," the doctor thought; "well, it's a rum world." Then Maurice took his turn at the window, and Doctor Nelson put his notes in his pocket, and the two men nodded to each other, and said, "By," and went their separate ways.

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