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   Chapter 18 No.18

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 18086

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


That dismal festivity of the meadow marked the time when Maurice began to live in his own house only from a sense of duty ... and because Edith was there! A fact which Eleanor's aunt recognized almost as soon as Eleanor did; so, with her usual candor, Mrs. Newbolt took occasion to point things out to her niece. She had bidden Eleanor come to dinner, and Eleanor had said she would-"if Maurice happened to be going out."

"Better come when he's not going out, so he can be at home and amuse Edith!" said Mrs. Newbolt. "Eleanor, my dear father used to say that women were puffect fools, because they never could realize that if they left the door open, a cat would put on his slippers and sit by the fire and knit; if they locked it, he'd climb up the chimney, but what he'd feel free to prowl on the roof!"

Eleanor preferred to "lock the door"; and certainly during that next winter Edith's gay interest in every topic under heaven was a roof on which Maurice prowled whenever he could! Sometimes he stayed at home in the evening, just to talk to her! When he did, those "brains" which Eleanor resented, made him indifferent to many badly cooked dinners-during which Eleanor sat at the table and saw his enjoyment, and felt that dislike of their "boarder," which had become acute the day of the picnic, hardening into something like hatred. She wondered how he endured the girl's chatter? Sometimes she hinted as much, but Edith never knew she was being criticized! She was too generous to recognize the significance of what she called (to herself) Eleanor's grouch, and Maurice's delight in such unselfconsciousness helped to keep her ignorant, for he held his tongue-with prodigious effort!-even when Eleanor hit Edith over his shoulder. If he defended her, he told himself, the fat would be in the fire! So, as no one pointed out to Edith what the grouch meant, she had not the faintest idea that Eleanor was saying to herself, "Oh, if I could only get rid of her!" And as no one pointed out to Eleanor that the way to hold Maurice was not to get rid of Edith, but to "open the door," that corrosive thing the girl had called "Bingoism" kept the anger of the day in the field smoldering in her mind. It was like a banked fire eating into her deepest consciousness; it burned all that winter; it was still burning even when the summer vacation came and Edith went home. Her departure was an immense relief to Eleanor; she told Maurice she didn't want her to come back, ever!

"Why not?" he said, sharply; "I like having her here. Besides, think of telling Uncle Henry we didn't want Edith next winter! If you have the nerve for that, I haven't." Eleanor had not the nerve; so when, at the end of June, Edith rushed home, it was understood that she would be with Maurice and Eleanor during the next term.... That was the summer that marked the seventh year of their marriage-and the fourth year of Jacky, over in the little frame house on Maple Street. But it was the first year of a knowledge, surprisingly delayed!-which came to Edith; namely, that Johnny Bennett was "queer."

It may have been this "queerness" which made her attach herself to Eleanor, who, in August, went to Green Hill for the usual two weeks' visit. Maurice had to go away on office business three or four times during that fortnight, but he came up for one Sunday. He had insisted upon Eleanor's going, because, he said, she needed the change. "Can't you come?" she pleaded. "Do take some extra time from the office!"

"And be docked? Can't afford it!" he said; "but I'll get one week-end in with you," he promised her, looking forward with real satisfaction to the solitude of his own house. So Eleanor, saying she couldn't understand why he was so awfully economical now that he had his own money!-came alone,-full of remorse at deserting him, and worry because of his loneliness, and leaving a pining Bingo behind her. But, to her silent annoyance, as soon as she arrived at Green Hill she encountered a new and tiresome attentiveness from Edith! Edith was inescapably polite. She did not urge upon Eleanor any of those strenuous amusements to which she and Johnny were devoted; she merely gave up the amusements, and, as Johnny expressed it, "stuck to Eleanor"! Eleanor couldn't understand it, and when Maurice at last arrived, Johnny's perplexity became audible:

"Perhaps," he told Edith, satirically, "you may be able, now, to tear yourself away from Eleanor, and go fishing with me? You fish pretty well-for a woman. Maurice can lug her round."

"I will, if Maurice will go, too," Edith said.

"What do you drag him in for?"-John paused; understanding dawned upon him: "She doesn't want to be by herself with me!" His tanned face slowly reddened, and those brown eyes of his behind the big spectacles grew keen. He didn't speak for quite a long time; then he said, very low, "I'll be here to-morrow morning at four-thirty. Be ready. I'll dig bait."

"All right," said Edith; after which, for the first time in her life, she played a shabby trick on Johnny Bennett; as soon as he had gone home, she invited Eleanor (who promptly declined), and Maurice (who as promptly accepted), to go fishing, too! Then, having got what she wanted, she reproached herself: "Johnny'll be mad as fury. But when he gets to saying things to me he makes me feel funny in the back of my neck. Besides, I want Maurice."

The fishermen were to assemble in the grayness of the August dawn; and Johnny was, as usual, prepared to throw a handful of gravel at Edith's window to hurry her downstairs. But when he loomed up in the mist, who should be on the porch, fooling with a rod, but Maurice!

"What's he butting in for?" Johnny thought, looking so cross that Edith, coming out with the luncheon basket, was really remorseful. "Hullo, Johnny," she said. ("I never played it on him before," she was thinking.) But at that moment her remorse was lost in alarm, for standing in the doorway was Eleanor, her hair caught up in a hurried twist, a wrapper over her shoulders, her bare feet thrust into pink bedroom slippers. (Forty-six looks fifty-six at 4.30 A.M.)

"Darling," Eleanor said, "I believe I'd like to go up to the cabin to-day. Do let's do it-just you and I!"

The three young people all spoke at once:

Johnny said: "Good scheme! We'll excuse Maurice."

Edith said, "Oh, Eleanor, Maurice loves fishing!"

And Maurice said: "I sort of think I'd like to catch a sucker or two in this pool Johnny is always cracking up. I bet he's in for a big jolt about his trout! You come, too?"

"I'd get so awfully tired. And I-I thought we could have a day together up on the mountain," she ended, wistfully.

There was a dead silence. Johnny was thinking: "Gosh! I hope she gets him." And Edith was thinking, "I'd like to choke her!" Maurice's thoughts could not be spoken; he merely said, "All right; if you want to."

"I don't believe I'll go fishing, either," Edith said.

Eleanor, on the threshold, turned quickly: "Please don't stay at home on my account!"

But Maurice settled it. "I'll not go," he said, patiently; "but you must, Edith." He threw down his rod and went into the house; Eleanor, in her flopping pink slippers, hurried after him....

"I did so want to have you to myself," she said; "you don't mind not going fishing with those children, do you?"

He said, listlessly: "Oh no. But don't let's attempt the cabin stunt." Then he stood at the window and watched Johnny and Edith, with fishing rods and lunch basket, disappear down the road into the fog. He was too bored to be irritated; he only counted the hours until he could get back to Mercer, and the office, and the table under the silver poplar. "I'll get hold of the Mortons, and Hannah can give us some sort of grub, and then we'll go to a show," he thought. "I can stick it out here for thirty-six hours more."

He stuck it out that morning by sitting in Mr. Houghton's studio, one leg across the arm of his chair, reading and smoking. Once Eleanor came in and asked him if he was all right. He said, briefly, "Yes."

But she was uneasy: "Maurice, I'll play tennis with you?"

This at least made him chuckle. "You? How long since? My dear, you couldn't play a set to save your life!"

After that she let him alone for a while. Early in the afternoon the need to make up to him for what she had done grew intolerable: "Darling, let's play solitaire?"

"I'm going to write letters."

She left him to his letters for an hour, then came again: "Let's walk!"

"Well, if you want to," Maurice said, and yawned. So they trudged off. Eleanor, walking very close to her husband, was thinking, heavily, how far they were apart; but she did her best to amuse him by anxious ponderings of household expenses. He, sheering off to the other side of the road to escape her intimate and jostling shoulder, was thinking of the expenses of another household, and making no effort whatever to amuse her. His silence confessed an irritation which she felt but could not

understand; so by and by she fell silent, too, though the helpless tears stood in her eyes. Then, apparently, he put his annoyance, whatever it was, behind him.

"Nelly," he said, "let's go down by the West Branch and meet Edith and Johnny? They'll be coming home that way, 'laden with trout,' I suppose," he ended, sarcastically.

Eleanor began to say, "Oh no!" Then something, she didn't know what, made her say, "Well, all right." As they turned into the wood road that ran up toward the mountain, she said another unexpected thing:

"Maurice, I'm tired. I'll go home; you go on by yourself, and-and meet Johnny." She didn't know, herself, why she said it! Perhaps, it was just an effort to make up for what she had done in the morning?

Maurice, astonished, made some half-hearted protest; he would go back with her? But she said no, and walked home alone. Her throat ached with unshed tears. "He likes to be with her! He doesn't want me,-and I love him-I love him!"

* * *

The two youngsters had made a long day of it. On their way to the brook that morning, crashing through underbrush, climbing rotting rail fences that were hidden in docks and briers, balancing on the precarious slipperiness of mossy rocks, the triumphant Johnny, his heart warm with gratitude to Eleanor, had led his captive and irritated Edith. When they broke through low-hanging boughs and found the pool, the trout possibilities of which Johnny had so earnestly "cracked up," Edith was distinctly grumpy. "Eleanor is a selfish thing," she said. "Gimme a worm."

"I think Maurice would have been cussedly selfish not to do what she wanted," Johnny said; "my idea of marriage is that a man must do everything his wife wants."

"Maurice is never selfish! He's great, simply great!" Edith said.

"Oh, he's decent enough," Johnny admitted, then he paused, frowning, for he couldn't open his bait box; he banged it on a stone, pried his knife under the lid, swore at it-and turned very red. Edith giggled.

"Let me try," she said.

"No use; the rotten thing's stuck."

But she took it, shook it, gave an easy twist, and the maddening lid-loosened, of course, by Johnny's exertions-came off! Edith shrieked with joy; but Johnny, though mortified, was immensely relieved. They sat down on a sloping rock, and talked bait, and the grave and spectacled Johnny became his old self, scolding Edith for talking so loudly. "Girls," he said, "are born not fishermen!" Then they waded out into the stream, and began to cast. It was broad daylight by this time, and the woods were filling with netted sunbeams; the water whispered and chuckled.

"Pretty nice?" Johnny said, in a low voice; and Edith, all her grumpiness flown, said:

"You bet it is!" Then, as an afterthought, she called back, "But Eleanor is the limit!"

Johnny, forgetting his gratitude to Eleanor, said, savagely: "Keep quiet! You scared him off! Gosh! girls are awful."

So Edith kept quiet, and he wandered up the stream, and she wandered down the stream, and they fished, and they fished-and they never caught a thing.

"I had one bite," Johnny said when, at about eleven, fiercely hungry, they met on the bank where they had left their lunch basket; "but you burst out about Eleanor, and drove him off. Girls simply can't fish."

Edith was contrite-but doubted the bite. Then they sat down on a mossy rock, and ate stacks of sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, and watched the water, and talked, talked, talked. At least Edith talked-mostly about Maurice. Johnny lit his pipe, puffed once or twice, then let it go out and sat staring into the green wall of the woods on the other side of the brook. Then, suddenly, quietly, he began to speak....

"I want to say something."

"The mosquitoes here are awful!" Edith said, nervously; "don't you think we'd better go home?"

"Look here, Edith; you've got to be half decent to me-unless, of course, you've soured on me? If you have, I'll shut up."

"Johnny, don't be an idiot! 'Course I haven't soured on you. You're the oldest friend I've got. Older than Maurice, even."

"Well, I guess I am an older friend than Maurice! But lately you've treated me like a dog. You skulk round to keep from being by ourselves. You never give me a chance to open my head to you-"

"Johnny, that's perfectly absurd! I've had to look after Eleanor-"

"Eleanor nothing! It's me you want to shake."

"I do not want to shake you! I'm just busy."

"Edith, I care a lot about you. I don't care much for girls, as a rule. But you're not girly. And every time I try to talk to you, you sidestep me."

"Now, Johnny-"

"But I'm going to tell you, all the same." He made a clutch at the sopping-wet hem of her skirt. "I will say it! I care an awful lot about you. I'm not a boy. I want to marry you."

There was a dead silence; then Edith said, despairingly, "Oh, Johnny, how perfectly horrid you are!" He gasped. "You simply spoil everything with this sort of ... of ... of talk."

"You mean you don't like me?" His face twitched.

"Like you? I like you awfully! That's why I'm so mad at you. Why, I'm awfully fond of you-"

"Edith!"

"I mean I never had a friend like you. I've always liked you ten times better than any silly old girl friend I ever had. I've liked you almost as much as Maurice. Of course I shall never like anybody as much as Maurice. He comes next to father and mother. But now you go and-and talk ... I just can't bear it," Edith said, and fumbled for her pocket handkerchief; "I hate talk." Her eyes overflowed.

"Edith! Look here; now, don't! Honestly, I can stand being turned down, but I can't stand-that. Edith, please! I never saw you do that-girl stunt. I'll never bother you again, if you'll just stop crying!"

Edith, unable to find her handkerchief, bent over and wiped her eyes on her dress. "I'm not crying," she said, huskily; "but-"

"I think," John Bennett said, "honestly, Edith, I think I've loved you all my life."

"And I have loved you," she said; "You are a lamb! Oh, Johnny, I'm perfectly crazy about you!"

His swiftly illuminating face made her add, hastily, "and now you go and spoil everything!"

"I won't spoil things, Skeezics," he said, gently; "oh, say, Edith, let up on crying! That breaks me all up."

But Edith, having discovered her handkerchief, was mopping very flushed cheeks and mumbling on about her own woes. "Why can't you be satisfied just to go on the way we always have? Why can't you be satisfied to have me like you almost as much as I like Maurice?"

"Maurice!" the young man said, with a helpless laugh. "Oh, Edith, you are several kinds of a goose! In the first place, Maurice is married; and in the second place, he's old enough to be your father-"

"He isn't old enough to be my father! And I shall never like anybody as much as Maurice, because there isn't anybody like him in the entire world. I've always thought he was exactly like Sir Walter Raleigh. Besides, I shall never marry anybody! But I mean, I don't see why it isn't enough for you to have me awfully fond of you?"

"Well, it isn't," Johnny said, briefly, "but don't you worry." He was white, but his tenderness was like a new sense. Edith had never seen this Johnny. Her entirely selfish impatience turned to shyness. "Edith," he said, very gently, "you don't understand, dear. You're awfully young-younger than your age. I didn't take in how young you were-talking about Maurice! I suppose it's because you know so few girls, that you are so young. Well; I can't hang round with you any more, as if we were ten years old. You see, I-I love you, Edith. That makes the difference ... dear."

"Oh," said Edith, desperately, "how perfectly horrid-" She looked really distracted, poor child! (but that was the moment when her preposterous youthfulness ceased.) She jumped to her feet so suddenly that Johnny, who had begun, his fingers trembling, to scrape out the bowl of his pipe, dropped his jackknife, which rolled down the steeply sloping rock into the water. "Oh, I'm so sorry!" Edith said.

John sighed. "Oh, that's nothing," he said, and slid over the moss and ferns to the water's edge; there, lying flat on his stomach, his sleeve rolled up, he thrust his bare white arm into the dark and troutless depths of the pool, and salvaged his knife. Edith, on the bank, began furiously to pack up. When Johnny climbed back to her she said she wanted to go home, "now!"

"All right," he said again, gently.

So, silently, they started homeward; and never in her life had Edith been so glad to see any human creature as she was to see Maurice on the West Branch Road! But she let him do all the talking. To herself she was saying, "It's all Eleanor's fault for not letting him come this morning! I just hate her!..."

That night her father said to her mother, rather sadly, "Mary, our little girl has grown up. Johnny Bennett is casting sheep's eyes at her."

"Nonsense!" said Mary Houghton, comfortably; "she's a perfect child, and so is he."

* * *

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