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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 11268

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A moody Maurice, who puzzled her, and a faultfinding Eleanor, whom she was too generous to understand, drove the sixteen-year-old Edith into a real appreciation of Johnny Bennett. With him, she was still in the stage of unsentimental frankness that pierced ruthlessly to what she conceived to be the realities; and because she was as unselfconscious as a tree, she was entirely indifferent to the fact that Johnny was a boy and she was a girl, Johnny, however, nearsighted and in enormous shell-rimmed spectacles, and still inarticulate, was quite aware of it; more definitely so every week,-for he saw her on Saturdays and Sundays. "And it's the greatest possible relief to talk to you!" Edith told him.

Johnny accepted the tribute as his due. They had been coasting, and now, on the hilltop, were sitting on their sleds, resting. "Gosh! it's hot!" Johnny said: he had taken off his red sweater and tied its sleeves around his neck; "zero? You try pulling both those sleds up here, and you'll think it's the Fourth of July," Johnny said, adjusting his spectacles with a mittened hand. He frequently reverted to the grumpy stage-yet now, looking at Edith, grumpiness vanished. She was breathless from the long climb, and her white teeth showed between her parted, panting lips: her cheeks were burning with frosty pink. Johnny looked, and looked away, and sighed.

"Johnny," Edith said, "why do you suppose Eleanor gives me so many call-downs? 'Course I hate music; and once I said she was always pounding on the piano-and she didn't seem to like it!" Edith was genuinely puzzled. "I can't understand Eleanor," she said; "she makes me tired."

"I should think she'd make Maurice tired!" Johnny said, and added: "That's the worst of getting married. I shall never marry."

"When I was a child," Edith said, "I always said that when I grew up I was going to marry Maurice, because he was just like Sir Walter Raleigh. Wasn't that a joke?"

Johnny saw nothing amusing in such foolishness; he said that Maurice was old enough to be her father! As for himself, he felt, he said, that marriage was a mistake. "Women hamper a man dreadfully. Still-I may marry," Johnny conceded; "but it will be somebody very young, so I can train her mind. I want a woman (if I decide to marry) to be just the kind I want. Otherwise, you get hung up with Eleanors."

Edith lifted her chin. "Well, I like that! Why shouldn't she train your mind?"

"Because," Johnny said, firmly, "the man's mind is the stronger."

Edith screamed with laughter, and threw a handful of snow in his neck. "B-r-r-r!" she said; "it's getting cold! I'll knock the spots out of you on belly bumps!" She got on her feet, shook the snow from the edge of her skirt, flung herself face down on her sled, and shot like a blue comet over the icy slope. Johnny sped after her, his big sled taking flying leaps over the kiss-me-quicks. They reached the bottom of the hill almost together, and Johnny, looking at her standing there, breathless and rosy, with shining eyes which were as impersonal as stars, said to himself, with emotion:

"She's got sense-for a girl." His heart was pounding in his broad chest, but he couldn't think of a thing to say. He was still dumb when she said good-by to him at Maurice's door.

"Why don't you come to dinner next Saturday?" she said, carelessly; "Maurice will be away all week on business; but he'll be back Saturday."

Johnny mumbled something to the effect that he could survive, even if Maurice wasn't back.

"I couldn't," Edith said. "I should simply die, in this house, if it wasn't for Maurice!"

As, whistling, she ran upstairs, Edith thought to herself that Johnny was a lamb! "But, compared to Maurice, he's awfully uninteresting." Edith, openly and audibly, compared every male creature to Maurice, and none of them ever measured up to him! His very moodiness had its charm; when he sat down at the piano after dinner and scowled over some new music, or when he lounged in his big chair and smoked, his face absorbed to the point of sternness, Edith, loving him "next to father and mother," watched him, and wondered what he was thinking about? Sometimes he came out of his abstraction and teased her, and then she sparkled into gay impertinences; sometimes he asked her what she thought of this or that phrasing, "...though you are a barbarian, Skeezics, about music"; sometimes he would pull a book from the shelf over his desk and read a poem to her; and he was really interested in her opinion,-ardently appreciative if he liked the poem; if he didn't, it was "the limit."

Maurice was at home that Saturday night for which Edith had thrown the careless invitation to Johnny; and Mrs. Newbolt also dropped in to dinner. It was not a pleasant dinner. Eleanor sat in one of her empty silences; saw Maurice frown at an overdone leg of lamb; heard her aunt's stream of comments on her housekeeping; listened to Edith's teasing chatter to Johnny;-"What can Maurice see in her!" She thought. Before dinner was over, she excused herself; she had a headache, she said. "You won't mind, Auntie, will you?"

Mrs. Newbolt said, heartily, "Not a bit! My dear mother used to-"

Eleanor, picking up little Bingo, went with lagging step out of the room.

"Children," said Mrs. Newbolt, "why don't you make taffy this evening?"

"That's sense," said Edith; "let's! It's Mary's night out. Sorry poor old Eleanor isn't up to it."

Maurice frowned; "Look here, Edith, that isn't-respectful."

Edith looked so blankly astonished that Mrs. Newbolt defended her: "But Eleanor does look old! And she'll lose her figg

er if she isn't careful! My dear grandmother-used to say, 'Girls, I'd rather have you lose your vir-'"

"Don't raise Cain in the kitchen, you two," Maurice said, hastily; "Eleanor hates noise."

Edith, subdued by his rebuke, said she wouldn't raise Cain; and, indeed, she and Johnny were preternaturally quiet until things had been cleared away and the taffy could be started. When it was on the stove, there was at least ten minutes of whispering while they watched the black molasses shimmer into the first yellow rings. Then Johnny, in a low voice, talked for a good while of something he called "Philosophy"-which seemed to consist in a profound disbelief in everything. "Take religion," said Johnny. "I'd like to discuss it with you; I think you have a very good mind-for a woman. Religion is an illustration of what I mean. It's a delusion. A complete delusion. I have ceased to believe in anything."

"Oh, Johnny, how awful!" said Edith, stirring the seething sweetness; "Johnny, be a lamb, and get me a tumbler of cold water, will you, to try this stuff?"

Johnny brought the water ("Oh, how young she is!" he thought), and Edith poured a trickle of taffy into it.

"Is it done?" Edith said, and held out the brittle string of candy; he bit at it, and said he guessed so. Then they poured the foamy stuff into a pan, and put it in the refrigerator. "We'll wait till it gets stiff," said Edith.

"I think," said Johnny, in a low voice, "your hair is handsomer than most women's. I'm particular about a woman's hair."

Edith, sitting on the edge of the table, displaying very pretty ankles, put an appraising hand over the brown braids that were wound around her head in a sort of fillet. "Are you?" she said, and began to yawn-but stopped short, her mouth still open, for Johnny Bennett was looking at her! "Let's go into the library," she said, hurriedly.

"I like it out here," Johnny objected.

But as he spoke Maurice lounged into the kitchen. "Stiff?" he said.

"No; won't be for ages," Edith said-and instantly the desire to fly to the library ceased, especially as Mrs. Newbolt came trundling in. With Maurice astride one of the wooden chairs, his blue eyes droll and teasing, and Mrs. Newbolt enthroned in adipose good nature close to the stove, Edith was perfectly willing to stay in the kitchen!

"I say!" Maurice said. "Let's pull the stuff!"

Johnny looked cross. "What," he asked himself, "are Maurice and Mrs. Newbolt butting in for?" Then he softened, for Maurice was teasing Edith, and Mrs. Newbolt was tasting the candy, and the next minute all was in delightful uproar of stickiness and excitement, and Johnny, exploding into wild cackles of laughter, felt quite young for the next hour.

Eleanor, upstairs, with Bingo's little silken head on her breast, did not feel young; she heard the noise, and smelled the boiling molasses, and knew that Mary would be cross when she came home and found the kitchen in a mess. "How can Maurice stand such childishness!" She lay there with a cologne-soaked handkerchief on her forehead, and sighed with pain. "Why doesn't he stop them?" she thought. She heard his shout of laughter, and Edith's screaming giggle, and moved her head to find a cool place on the pillow. "She's too old to romp with him." Suddenly she sat up, tense and listening; he was enjoying himself-and she was suffering! "If he had a headache, I would sit with him; I wouldn't leave him alone!" But she was sick in bed,-and he was having a good time-with Edith. Her resentment was not exactly jealousy; it was fear; the same fear she had felt when Maurice had told her how Edith had rushed into his room the night of the great storm, the fear of Youth! She moved Bingo gently, stroking him until he seemed to be asleep; then sat up, and put her feet on the floor. The folded handkerchief slipped from her forehead, and she pressed her hands against her temples. "I'm going downstairs," she said to herself; "I won't be left out!" She felt a sick qualm as she got on to her feet, and went over to look at herself in the mirror ... her face was pale, and her hair, wet with cologne, was pasted down in straggling locks on her forehead; she tried to smooth it. "Oh, I look old enough to be-his aunt," she said, hopelessly. When she opened her door she heard a little thud behind her; it was Bingo, scrambling off the bed to follow her; as she went downstairs, unsteadily, and clinging to the banisters, he stepped on her skirt, so she had to stoop and pick him up. At the closed kitchen door she paused for a moment, leaning against the wall; her head swam. Bingo, held in one trembling arm, put out his little pink tongue and licked her cheek. "I won't be left out," she said again. Just as her hand touched the knob there was an outburst of joyous yells, and a whack! as a lump of taffy, flung by one of the roisterers, hit the resounding panel of the door-then Mrs. Newbolt's fat chuckle, and Johnny's voice vociferating that Edith was the limit, and Maurice-"Edith, if you put that stuff in my hair, I'll skin you alive!"

"Boil her in oil!" yelled Johnny.

Eleanor turned around and crept back to the stairs; she caught at the newel post, and stood, gasping; then, somehow, she climbed up to her room. There, lifting Bingo into his basket, she sank on her bed, groping blindly for the damp handkerchief to put across her forehead. "Mary will give notice," she said. After a while, as the throbbing grew less acute, she said, "He's their age." Bingo, crawling out of his basket, scrabbled up on to the bed; she felt his little loving cold nose against her face.

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