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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 15371

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Edith, reflecting upon her first dinner party, wished Johnny had seen her, all dressed up. Then she pondered the possibilities of her allowance: If she was "going out," oughtn't she to have a real evening dress? But this daring thought faded very soon, for there didn't seem to be any dinner parties ahead. Mrs. Newbolt's supper table was, as Maurice said, sarcastically, the extent of the "Curtises' social whirl"-a fact which did not trouble him in the least! He had his own social whirl. He had made a man-circle for himself; some of the fellows in the office were his sort, he told Edith, and it was evident that their bachelor habits appealed to him, for he dined out frequently; and when he did, he was careful not to tell Eleanor where he was going, because once or twice, when he had told her, she had called up the club or house on the telephone about midnight to inquire if "Mr. Curtis had started home?" ... "I was worried about you, it was so late," she defended herself against his irritated mortification. He used to report these stag parties to Edith, telling her some of the stories he had heard; it didn't occur to him to tell any stories to Eleanor, because, as Henry Houghton had once said, Maurice and his wife didn't "have the same taste in jokes." When Edith chuckled over this or that witticism (or frowned at any opinion contrary to Maurice's opinion!) Eleanor sat in unsmiling silence. It was about this time Maurice fell into the way of saying "we" to Edith: "We" will have tea in the garden; "we" will put in a lot of bulbs on each side of the brick path; "we" will go down to the square and hear the election returns. Occasionally he remembered to say, "Why don't you come along, Eleanor?"

"No, thank you," she said; and sometimes, to herself, she added, "He keeps me out." The jealous woman always says this, never realizing the deeper truth, which is that she keeps herself out! Maurice did not notice how, all that winter, Eleanor was keeping herself out. She was steadily retreating into some inner solitude of her own. No one noticed it, except Mrs. O'Brien-and perhaps fat, elderly, snarling Bingo, who must sometimes, when his small pink tongue lapped her cheek, have tasted tears. By another year, Eleanor's mind had so utterly diverged from Maurice's that not even his remorse (which he had grown used to, as one grows used to some encysted thing) could achieve for them any unity of living. She bored him, and he hurt her; she loved him and tried to please him; he didn't love her, but tried to be polite; he was not often angry with her, he wasn't fond enough of her to be angry! So, forgetful of that security of the Stars-Truth!-to which he had once aspired, he grew dully used to the arid safety of untruth,-though sometimes he swore softly to himself at the tiresome irony of the office nickname which, with an occasional gilt hatchet, still persisted. He would remember that evening of panic at the Mortons', and think, lazily, "She can't possibly get on Lily's track!" So Lily lived in anxious thriftiness at 16 Maple Street; and Maurice, no longer acutely afraid of her, and only seeing her two or three times a year, was more or less able to forget her, in his growing pleasure in Edith's presence in his house-a pleasure quite obvious to Eleanor.

As for Edith, she used to wonder, sometimes, why Eleanor was so "up stage"? (that was her latest slang); but it did not trouble her much, for she was too generous to put two and two together. "Eleanor has nervous prostration," she used to tell herself, with good-natured excuse for some especial coldness; and she even tried, once in a while, "to make things pleasant for poor old Eleanor!" "I lug her in," she told Johnny.

"She's a dose," said Johnny.

"Yes," Edith agreed; "she's stupid. But I'm going to pull off a picnic, some Sunday, to cheer her up. 'Course you needn't come, if you don't want to."

Johnny, looking properly bored, said, briefly, "I don't mind."

This was in mid-September. "Are you game for it, Eleanor?" Edith said one night at dinner; "we can find some pleasant place by the river-"

"I know a bully place," Maurice said, "in the Medfield meadows; remember, Eleanor? We went there on our trolley wedding trip," he informed Edith.

Eleanor, struggling between the pleasure of Maurice's "remember," and antagonism at sharing that sacred remembering with Edith, objected; "It may rain."

"Oh, come on," Edith rallied her: "be a sport! It won't kill you if it does rain!"

But Maurice, after his impulsive recollection of the "bully place," remembered that the trolley car which would take them out to the river, must pass Lily's door; "I hope it will rain," he thought, uneasily.

However, on that serene September Sunday a week later, it didn't rain; and Maurice fell into the spirit of Edith's plans; for, after all, even if the car did pass Lily's ugly little house, it wouldn't mean anything to anybody! "I'll sit with my back to that side of the street," he told himself. "It's safe enough! And it will give Buster a good time." He didn't realize that he rather hankered for a good time himself; to be sure, he felt a hundred years old! But money was no longer a very keen anxiety (he had passed his twenty-fifth birthday); and the day was glittering with sunshine, and Edith would make coffee, and Eleanor would sing. Yes! Edith should have a good time!

They went clanging gayly along over the bridge, down Maple Street, and through the suburbs of Medfield until they came to the end of the car line, where they piled out, with all their impediments, and started for the river and the big locust.

"You'll sing, Nelly," Maurice said-Eleanor's face lighted with pleasure;-"and I'll tell Edith how a girl ought to behave on her wedding trip, and you can instruct Johnny how to elope."

Then, with little Bingo springing joyously, but rather stiffly, ahead of them, they tramped across the yellowing stubble of the mowed field, talking of their coffee, and whether there would be too much wind for their fire-and all the while Maurice was aware of Lily at No. 16; and Eleanor was remembering her hope of a time when she and Maurice would be coming here, and it would not be "just us"! and Johnny was thinking that Edith was intelligent-for a woman; and Edith was telling herself that this kind of thing was some sense!

Eleanor, sitting down under the old locust, watched the three young people. She wondered when Maurice would tell her to sing. "The river is a lovely accompaniment, isn't it?" she hinted. No one replied.

"I'm going in wading after dinner," Edith announced; "what do you say, boys? Let's take off our shoes and stockings, and walk down to the second bridge. Eleanor can sit here and guard our things."

"I'm with you!" Maurice said; and Johnny said he didn't mind; but Eleanor protested.

"You'll get your skirts wringing wet, Edith. And-I thought we were to sit here and sing?"

"Oh, you can sing any old time," Edith said, lifting the lid of the coffee pot and stirring the brown froth with a convenient stick.

"And I'm just to look on?" Eleanor said.

"Why, wade, if you want to," her husband said; "It's safe enough to leave Edith's things here."

After that he was too much absorbed in shooing ants off the marmalade to give any thought to his wife. The luncheon (except to her) was the usual delightful discomfort of balancing coffee cups on uncertain knees, and waving off wasps, and upsetting glasses of water. Maurice talked about the ball game, and Edith gossiped darkly of her teachers, and Johnny Bennett ate enormously and looked at Edith.

Eleanor neither ate nor gossiped; but she

, too, watched Edith-and listened. Bingo, in his mistress's lap, had snarled at Johnny when he took Eleanor's empty cup away, which led Edith to say that he was jealous.

"I don't call it 'jealous,'" Eleanor said, "to be fond of a person."

"You can't really be fond of anybody, and be jealous," Edith announced; "or if you are, it is just Bingoism."

This brought a quick protest from Eleanor, which was followed by the inevitable discussion; Edith began it by quoting, "'Love forgets self, and jealousy remembers self.'"

Maurice grinned and said nothing-it was enough for him to see Eleanor hit, hard! But Johnny protested:

"If your girl monkeys round with another fellow," he said, "you have a right to be jealous."

"Of course," said Eleanor.

"No, sir!" said Edith. "You have a right to be unhappy. If the other fellow's nicer than you-I mean if he has something that attracts her that you haven't, of course you'd be unhappy! (though you could get busy and be nice yourself.) Or, if he's not as nice as you, you'd be unhappy, because you'd be so awfully disappointed in her. But there's no jealousy about that kind of thing! Jealousy is hogging all the love for yourself. Like Bingo! And I call it plain garden selfishness-and no sense, either, because you don't gain anything by it. Do you think you do, Maurice? ... For Heaven's sake, hand me the sandwiches!"

Maurice didn't express his thoughts; he just roared with laughter. Eleanor reddened; Johnny, handing the sandwiches, said that, though Edith generally could reason pretty well-for a woman-in this particular matter she was 'way off.

"You are long on logic, Edith," Maurice agreed; "but short on human nature; (she hasn't an idea how the shoe fits!)."

"The reason I'm so up on jealousy," Edith explained, complacently, "is because yesterday, in English Lit., our professor worked off a lot of quotations on us. Listen to this (only I can't say just exactly the words!): 'Though jealousy be produced by love, as ashes by fire, yet jealousy'-oh, what does come next? Oh yes; I know-'yet jealousy extinguishes love, as ashes smother flames.'"

"Who said that?" Maurice said.

Edith said she'd forgotten: "But I bet it's true. I'd simply hate a jealous person, no matter how much they loved me! Wouldn't you, Eleanor? Wouldn't you hate Maurice if he was jealous of you? I declare I don't see how you can be so fond of Bingo!"

Maurice, suddenly ashamed of himself for his pleasure in seeing Eleanor hit, was saying, inaudibly, "Good Lord! what will she say next?" To keep her quiet, he said, good-naturedly, "Don't you want to sing, Nelly?"

She said, very low, "No." Her throat ached with the pain of knowing that the one little contribution she could make to the occasion was not really wanted!

Maurice did not urge her. He and the other two took off their shoes and stockings; and went with squeals across the stubble, down a steep bank, to a pebbly point of sand, round which a sunny swirl of water chattered loudly, then went romping off into sparkling shallows. Edith's lifted skirt, as she stepped into the current, assured her against the wetting Eleanor had foreseen, and also showed her pretty legs-and Eleanor, on the bank, her tensely trembling hand cuddling Bingo against her knee, "guarded" her things! It was at this moment that her old, unrecognized envy of Youth turned into a perfectly recognizable fear of Age. Edith was a woman now, not a child! "And I-dislike her!" Eleanor said to herself. She sat there alone, thinking of Edith's defects-her big mouth, her bad manners, her loud voice; and as she thought,-watching the waders all the while with tear-blurred eyes until a turn in the current hid them-she felt this new dislike flowing in upon her: "He talks to her; and forgets all about me!" ... She was deeply hurt. "He says she has 'brains.' ... He doesn't mind it when she says she 'doesn't care for music,' which is rude to me! And she talks about jealousy! She knows I'm jealous. Any woman who loves her husband is jealous."

Of course this pathetically false opinion made it impossible for her to realize that jealousy is just a form of self-love, nor could she enlarge upon Edith's na?ve generalization and say that, if a woman suffers because she is not the equal of the rival who gains her lover's love-that is not jealousy! It is the anguish of recognizing her own defects, and it may be very noble. If she suffers because the rival is her inferior, that is not jealousy; it is the anguish of recognizing defects in her lover, and it, too, is noble, for she is unhappy, not because he has slighted her, but because he has slighted himself! Jealousy has no such noble elements; it is the unhappiness that Bingo knows-an ignoble agony! ... But Eleanor, like many pitiful wives, did not know this. Sitting there on the bank of the river, without aspiration for herself or regret for Maurice, she knew only the anguish of being neglected. "He wouldn't have left me six years ago," she said; "He doesn't even ask me if I want to wade! I don't; but he didn't ask me. He just went off with her!"

Suddenly, her fingers trembling, she began to take off her shoes and stockings. She would do what Edith did! ... It was a tremor of aspiration!-an effort to develop in herself a quality he liked in Edith. She went, barefooted, with wincing cautiousness, and with Bingo stepping gingerly along beside her, across the mowed grass; then, haltingly, down the bank to the sandy edge of the river; there, while the little dog looked up at her anxiously, she dipped a white, uncertain foot into the water-and as she hesitated to essay the yielding mud, and the slimy things under the stones, she heard the returning splash of wading feet. A minute later the three youngsters appeared, Edith's skirts now very well above the danger line of wetness, and the two men offering eager guiding hands, which were entirely disdained! Then as, from under the leaning trees, they rounded the bend, there came an astonished chorus:

"Why, look at Eleanor!"

"Your skirt's in the water," Edith warned her; "hitch it up, and 'come on in-the water's fine!'"

She shook her head, and turned to climb up the bank.

"'The King of France,'" Edith quoted, satirically, "'marched down a hill, and then marched up again!'"

Eleanor was silent. When the three began to put on their shoes and stockings, Eleanor, putting on her own, her skirt wet and drabbled about her ankles, heard Maurice and Johnny offering to tie Edith's shoestrings-a task which Edith, with condescending giggles, permitted. Both of the boys-for Maurice seemed suddenly as much of a boy as Johnny!-went on their knees to tie, and re-tie, the brown ribbons, Maurice with gleeful and ridiculous deference.

"Want me to tie your shoestrings for you, Nelly?" he said over his shoulder.

"I am capable of tying my own, thank you," she said, so icily that the three playfellows looked at one another and Maurice, reddening sharply, said:

"Give us a song, Nelly!" But she sitting with clenched hands and tensely silent, shook her head. She was too wounded to speak. For the rest of the poor little picnic, with its gathering up of fragments and burning paper napkins-the conversation was labored and conscious.

On the trolley going home, Edith was the only one who tried to talk; Eleanor, holding Bingo in her lap, was dumb; and Johnny-hunting about for an excuse to "get away from the whole blamed outfit!" only said "M-m" now and then. But Maurice said nothing at all. After all, what can a man say when his wife has made a fool of herself?

"Even Lily would have had more sense!" he thought.

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