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   Chapter 16 No.16

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 10298

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

"What a kid Johnny Bennett is!" Maurice told Eleanor. He was detailing to her, while he was scrubbing the stickiness of the kitchen festivities off his hands, what had happened downstairs. "But do you know, I believe he's soft on Edith! How old is he?"

"He's nearly nineteen. Children, both of them."

"Nineteen?" Maurice said, astounded. Nineteen! Johnny? "Why, I was nineteen, when-" He paused. She was silent. Suddenly Maurice felt pity. He had run the gamut of many emotions in the last four years-love, and fright, and repentance, and agonies of shame, and sometimes anger; but he had never touched pity. It stabbed him now, and its dagger blade was sawtoothed with remorse. He looked at his wife, lying there with closed eyes, her pillow damp where the wet handkerchief had slipped from her temples, and her beautiful mouth sagging with pain. "Oh, I must be nice to her, poor thing!" he thought. Aloud he said, "Poor Eleanor!"

Instantly her dark eyes opened in startled joy; his tenderness lifted her into indifference to that throbbing in her temples. "I don't mind anything," she said, "if you love me."

"Can't I do something for your head?"

"Just kiss me, darling," she said.

He kissed her, for he was sorry for her. But he was thinking of himself. "I was Johnny Bennett's age, when ... And I wanted to kiss her! My God! I may have to keep up this kissing business for-for forty years!" And whenever he was kissing her, he would have to think how he was deceiving her; he would have to think of Lily. Yes; he had been a "kid," like Johnny! How could she have done it! Pity sharpened into anger: How could she have taken advantage of a boy? Well; he had had his fling. To be sure, he was paying for it now, not only in anxiety about money, but in shame, and furtiveness, and the corroding consciousness of being a liar, and in the complete shipwreck of every purpose and ambition that a young man ought to have. "And that day, in the field, I called it love!" He would have been amused at the cynical memory, if he had not been so bitter. "Love? Rot! Still, I ought to be kinder to her;-but I can't bear to look at her. She's an old woman."

Eleanor put out her hot, trembling hand and groped for his. "Good night, darling," she said; "my head's better."

"So glad," he said.

The next morning, as Eleanor, rather white and shaky, was dressing, she said, "Edith doesn't seem to realize that she is too old to be so free and easy with Johnny Bennett-and you."

"She's getting mighty good looking," Maurice said.

"She has too much color," Eleanor said, quickly.

Maurice was right. During Edith's second winter in Mercer she grew prettier all the time; poor, speechless Johnny, looking at her through his spectacles, was quite miserable. He told some of his intimate friends that life was a bad joke.

"I shall never marry; just do some big work, and then get out. There is nothing really worth while. Mere looks in a woman don't attract me," Johnny said.

But that Maurice found "looks" attractive, began to be obvious to Eleanor, who, night after night, at the dinner table, watched the smiling, shining, careless thing-Youth!-sitting there on Maurice's right, and felt herself withering in the dividing years. As a result, the annoyance which, when Edith was a child, she had felt at her childishness, began to harden into irritation at her womanliness. "I wish I could get her out of the house!" she used to think, helplessly.

She felt this irritation especially when they all went, one night, to dine with Tom Morton, who had just married and gone to housekeeping. It was a somewhat looked-forward-to event, although Eleanor thought Edith too young to dine out, and also the shabbiness of Maurice's evening clothes was on her mind. "Do get a new dress suit!" she urged; and he gave the stereotyped answer: "Can't afford it."

They started for the Mortons' gayly enough; but Maurice's gayety went out like a candle in the wind when, as he followed Eleanor and Edith into the parlor, he saw, and after a puzzled moment recognized, the third man in the Morton dinner of six-the man who had stood in Lily's little hall and said that the child would "pull through." ... The spiritual squalor of that scene flashed back in sharp visualization: the doctor; Lily, her amber eyes overflowing with tears, kissing his hand; Jacky's fretful cry from upstairs.... Here he was! that same kindly medical man, "getting off some guff to Mrs. Morton," Maurice told himself, in agonized uncertainty as to what he had better do. Should he recognize him? Or pretend not to know him? It galloped through his mind that if he did "know" him, Eleanor would ask questions. Oh, he knew Eleanor's questions! But if he didn't "know" him, Doctor Nelson would know that questions might be asked. The instant's hesitation between the two risks was decided by Doctor Nelson. He put out his hand and said, "Oh, how are you?" So Maurice said, "Oh, how are you?" as carelessly as anybody else.

Eleanor, when the doctor was introduced, said, a little surprised, "You know my husband?"

"I think I've met Mr. Curtis somewhere," Doct

or Nelson said, vaguely.

"He knows so many people I don't," she thought, but she said nothing. No one noticed her silence-or Maurice's, either! The doctor, and Morton, and the handsome bride, were listening to Edith, amused, apparently, at her crudity and ignorance.

"Oh yes," Eleanor heard her say; "Eleanor's voice is perfectly fine, father says. I'm not musical. Father says I don't know the difference between 'Yankee Doodle' and 'Old Hundred.' Father say-" and so on.

"She's tiresome!" Eleanor told herself. Later, as she sat at the little dinner table, all gay with flowers and the bride's new candlesticks and glittering bonbon dishes ("Hetty's showing off our loot," the bridegroom said, proudly), Eleanor, looking on, and straining sometimes to be silly like the rest of them, said to herself, bleakly, that the doctor, who looked fifty, had been asked on her account. When he began to talk to her it was all she could do to say, "Really?" or, "Of course!" at the proper places; she was absorbed in watching Edith-the vivid face, the broad smile, the voice so full of preposterous certainties! "I look old," she thought; and indeed she did-most unnecessarily! for she was only forty-four. Her throat suddenly ached with unshed tears of longing to be young. Yet if she had not been so bitter she would have seen that Maurice looked almost as old as she did! And no wonder. His consternation at the sight of Doctor Nelson had been panic! He could hardly eat. Naturally, the preoccupation of the two Curtises threw the burden of talk upon the others. Doctor Nelson gave himself up to his hostess, and Morton found Edith's ardors, upon every subject under heaven, most diverting; he teased her and baited her, and her eyes grew more shining, and her cheeks pinker, and her gayety more contagious with every repartee she flung back at him. Mrs. Morton struggled heroically with Maurice's heaviness, but she told her husband afterward, that Mr. Curtis was nearly as dull as his wife! "I couldn't make him talk!" she said. After a while she gave up trying to make him talk, and listened to Edith's story of what happened when she was a little girl and came to Mercer with her father:

"A terrible shipwreck!" Edith said; "I remember it because of Maurice's gallantry in giving the flopping girl his coat-he was a perfect Sir Walter Raleigh! Remember, Maurice?"

Maurice said, briefly, that he "remembered"; "if she says Dale, I'm dished," he thought; aloud, he said that the river was growing impossible for boating; which caused them to drop the subject of the flopping girl, and talk about Mercer's increasing dinginess, at which Edith said, eagerly:

"You ought to see our mountains-no smoke there!"

Then, of course, came tales of camping, and, most animatedly, the story of Eleanor's wonderful rescue of Maurice.

"She pulled that great big Maurice all the way down to Doctor Bennett's! And we were all so proud of her!"

Eleanor protested: "It was nothing at all." Maurice, in his own mind, was saying, "I wish she'd left me there!"

When the ladies left the gentlemen to their cigars, Edith was bubbling over with anxiety to confide to Mrs. Morton the joke about the "lady's cheeks coming off," and that gave the married women the chance to express melancholy convictions as to the wickedness of the world, to which Edith listened with much interest.

"I think my painted lady lives in Medfield," she said.

"Why, how do you know?" Eleanor exclaimed, surprised.

"Why, don't you remember the time I saw her, with that blue-eyed baby? She was just going into a house on Maple Street."

It was at this moment that the gentlemen entered, so there was no further talk of painted ladies; and, besides, Maurice was alert to catch Eleanor's eye, and go home! "Edith is capable of saying anything!" he was thinking, desperately.

However, Edith said nothing alarming, and Maurice was able to get her safely away from the powder magazine in the shape of the amiable doctor, who, following them a few minutes later, was saying to himself: "How scared he was! Yet he looks like a good fellow at bottom. A rum world-a rum world!"

The "good fellow" hurried his womenkind down the street in angry preoccupation. As soon as he and Eleanor were alone, he said, "When does Edith graduate?"

"She has two years more."

"Oh, Lord!" Maurice said, despairingly; "has she got to be around for two years?" Eleanor's face lightened, but Maurice was instantly repentant. "I ought to be ashamed of myself for saying that! Edith's fine; and she has brains; but-"

"She monopolized the conversation to-night," Eleanor said; "Maurice, it is very improper for her to keep talking all the time about that horrid woman!"

The sharpness of his agreement made her look at him in surprise. "She mustn't talk about Mrs. Dale!" he said, angrily.

"Dale? Is that her name?" said Eleanor.

"I don't know. I think so; didn't Edith call her that? Well, anyway, she mustn't keep talking about her!"

His irritation was so marked, that Eleanor's heart warmed; but she said, wearily, "I'll be glad myself when she graduates."

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