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   Chapter 19 No.19

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 13707

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Curiously enough, though Edith's mother did not recognize what was going on between "the children," Eleanor did. When she came back to Mercer, a week later, she overflowed about it to Maurice. "Calf love!" she summed it up.

"She didn't look down on that kind of love seven years ago," he thought, cynically. But he didn't say so; no matter what his thoughts were, he was always kind to Eleanor. Lily, over in Medfield; Lily, in the small, secret house; Lily, with the good-looking little boy-blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked, blond-haired!-the squalid memory of Lily, said to him, over and over: "You are a confounded liar; so the least you can do is to be decent to Eleanor."

So he was kind.

"I couldn't bear myself," he used to think, "if I wasn't-but, O Lord!"

That "O Lord!" was his summing up of a growing and demoralizing sense of the worthlessness and unreality of life. Like Solomon (and all the rest of us, who see the universe as a mirror for ourselves!) he appraised humanity at his valuation of himself. He didn't use Solomon's six words, but the eight of his generation were just as exact-"The whole blooming outfit is a rotten lie! If," he reflected, "deceit isn't on my 'Lily' line, it is on a thousand other lines." From the small cowardices of appreciations and admirations which one did not really feel, up through the bread-and-butter necessities of business, on into the ridiculousness of what is called "Democracy" or "Liberty"-on, even, into those emotional evasions of logic and reason labeled "Religion"-all lies-all lies! he told himself. "And I," he used to think, looking back on seven years of marriage, "I am the most accomplished liar of the whole shootin' match!... If they get off that G. Washington gag on me any more at the office, somebody'll get their head punched."

All the same, even if he did say, "O Lord!" he was carefully kind to his boring wife.

But when Edith (suddenly grown up, it seemed to Maurice) came back for the fall term, he said "O Lord!" less frequently. The world began to seem to him a less rotten place. "Nice to have you round again, Skeezics!" he told her; and Eleanor, listening, went up to her room, and sat with her fingers pressed hard on her eyes. "It's dreadful to have her around! How can I get rid of her?" she thought. Very often now the flame of jealousy flared up; it scorched her whenever she recognized Edith's "brains," whenever she noticed some gay fearlessness, or easy capability; whenever she watched the girl's high-handed treatment of Maurice: criticizing him! Telling him he was mean because he was always saying he "couldn't afford things"! Declaring that she wished he would stop his everlasting practicing-and apparently not caring a copper for him! If Edith said, "Oh, Maurice, you are a perfect idiot!" Eleanor would see him grin with pleasure; but when Eleanor put her arms around him and kissed him, he sighed. To Maurice's wife these things were all like oil on fire; but it never occurred to her to try to develop in herself any of the qualities he seemed to find attractive in Edith. Instead, she thought of that June day in the meadow by the river when he said he loved her inefficiency-he loved her timidity, and, oh, how he had loved her love! He had made her promise to be jealous! Eleanor was not a reasoning person-probably no jealous woman is; but she did recognize the fact that what made him love her then, made him impatient with her now. This seemed to her irrational; and so, of course, it was!-just as the tide is irrational, or the turning of the earth on its axis is irrational. Nature has nothing to do with reason. So, in its deep and beautiful and animal beginnings, Love, too, is irrational. It has to ascend to Reason! But Eleanor did not know these things. All she knew was that Maurice hurt her, a dozen times a day.

She was brooding over this one Sunday afternoon in late September, when, at the open window of her bedroom, with Bingo snoozing in her lap, she listened to Edith, down in the garden: "How about a jug of dahlias on the table?"

And Maurice: "Bully! Say, Edith, why couldn't we have a yellow scheme for the grub? Orange cup, and that sort of fussy business you make out of cheese and the yolks of eggs? And yellow cakes?"

"Splendid! I'll mix up some perfectly stunning little sponge cakes, 'Lemon Queens.' Yellow as anything!"

This was all to get ready for a tea under the silver poplar, which was dropping yellow leaves down on the green table, and the mossy brick path, and the chairs for the company. The Mortons were coming, and there would be, Eleanor told herself, wearily, the usual shrieking over flat jokes,-Edith's jokes, mostly. Her dislike of Edith was a burning ache below her breastbone. "Maurice has her, so he doesn't want me," she thought; then suddenly she got up and hurried downstairs. "I'll fix the table!" she said, peremptorily.

"It's all done," Edith said; "doesn't it look pretty? Oh, Eleanor, let me put a dahlia behind your ear! You'll look like a Spanish lady!" She put the gorgeous flower into the soft disorder of Eleanor's dark hair, avoiding Bingo's angry objections, and said, with open admiration, "Eleanor, you are handsome! I adore dahlias!" she announced; "those quilly ones, red on the outside and yellow inside! There are some stunning ones on Maple Street, where I saw that Dale woman. Wonder if she'd sell some roots?"

The color flew into Maurice's face. "Did you get your bicycle mended?" he said.

Instantly Edith forgot the dahlias, and plunged into bicycle technicalities, ending with the query, "Why don't you squeeze out some money, and buy one of those cheap little automobiles, Maurice, you mean old thing!"

"Can't afford it," Maurice said.

But Eleanor was puzzled. There had been a hurried note in Maurice's voice when he asked Edith about her bicycle-an imperative changing of the subject! She looked at him wonderingly. Why should he change the subject? Was he annoyed at Edith's bad taste in referring to the creature? But Edith's taste was always bad, and Maurice was not generally so sensitive to it; not as sensitive as he ought to be! Or as he had been in those old days when he had said that Eleanor was too lovely to know the wickedness of the world, and he "didn't want her to"! She was really perplexed; and when Edith rushed off to make the cakes, and Maurice went indoors, she sat there in the garden, looking absently out through the rusty bars of the iron gate at the distant glimmer of the river, and wondered: "Why?"

She was still wondering even when the Mortons arrived, bringing with them-of all people!-Doctor Nelson. ("Gosh!" said Maurice.) "We're celebrating his appointment at the hospital; he's the new superintendent!" Mrs. Morton explained.

Eleanor said, mechanically, "So glad to see you, Doctor Nelson!" But

she was saying to herself, "Why was Maurice provoked when Edith spoke of Mrs. Dale?" When some more noisy and very young people arrived, she was too abstracted to talk to them. She was so silent that most of them forgot her; until Mrs. Morton, suddenly remembering her existence, tried to be conversational:

"I suppose Mr. Curtis told you of our wild adventure on the river in August, when we got beached and spent the afternoon on a mud flat?"

"No," Eleanor said, vaguely. But afterward, when the guests had gone, she said to Maurice, "Why didn't you tell me about your adventure with the Mortons?"

"He told me," Edith said, complacently.

"I forgot, I suppose," Maurice said, carelessly, and lounged off into the house to sit down at the piano-where lie immediately "forgot" not only the adventure on the river-but even his dismay at seeing Doctor Nelson!-who by this time was, of course, quite certain that it was a "rum world."

That winter-although he was not conscious of it-Maurice's "forgetfulness" in regard to his wife became more and more marked, so it was a year of darkening loneliness for Eleanor. She was at last on that "desert island"-which had once seemed so desirable to her;-she had nothing to interest her except her music (and the quality of her voice was changing, pathetically); furthermore, Maurice rarely asked her to sing, so the passion had gone out of what voice she had! She didn't care for books; she didn't know how to sew; and, except for Mrs. Newbolt, there was no one she wanted to see. Often, in her empty evenings, while Edith was in her own room studying, she sat by the fire and cried, and broke her heart upon her desire for a child-"then he would be happy, and stay at home!"

It was a dull house; so dull that Edith made up her mind to get out of it for her next winter at Fern Hill. When she went home for the Easter vacation, she expressed decided opinions: "Father, once, ages ago"-she was sitting on her father's knee, and tormenting him by trying to take his cigar away from him-"you got off something about the dinner of herbs and Eleanor's stalled ox-"

"Good heavens, Buster! You haven't said that before Eleanor?"

"Ha! I got a rise out of you!" Edith said, joyfully; "I haven't mentioned it, yet; but I shall make a point of doing so unless you order two pounds of candy for me, at once. Well, I suppose what you meant was that Eleanor is stupid?"

"Mary," said Henry Houghton, "your blackmailing daughter is displaying a glimmer of intelligence."

"I'm only reminding you of your own remark," Edith said, "to explain why I want to be in one of the dormitories next winter. Eleanor is stupid-though she's never fed me on stalled ox! And I think she sort of doesn't like it because I'm not awfully fond of music."

"You are an absolute heathen about music," her father said.

"Well, it bores me," Edith explained, cheerfully; "though I adore Maurice's playing. Maurice is a lamb, and I adore just being in the house with him! But she's nasty to him sometimes. And when she is, I'd like to choke her!"

"Edith-Edith-" her mother remonstrated. And her father reminded her that she must not lose her temper.

"Let your other parent be a warning to you as to the horrors of an uncontrolled temper," said Henry Houghton; "I have known your mother, in one of her outbursts of fury, so far forget herself as to say, 'Oh, my!'"

Edith grinned, but insisted, "Eleanor is dull as all get out!"

"Consider the stars," Mrs. Houghton encouraged her.

But Mr. Houghton said, "Mary, you've got to do something about this girl's English! ... You miss John Bennett?" he asked Edith (Johnny was taking a special course in an Eastern institute of technology).

"He did well enough to fill in the chinks," Edith said, carelessly; "but it's Maurice's being away that takes the starch out of me. He's everlastingly tearing off on business. And when he's at home-" Edith was suddenly grave-"of course Maurice is always 'the boy stands on the burning deck'; but you can't help seeing that he's fed up on poor old Eleanor! Sometimes I wonder he ever does come home! If I were in his place, when she gets to nagging I'd go right up in the air! I'd say, well,-something. But he keeps his tongue between his teeth."

That evening, when Henry Houghton was alone with his wife, he said what he thought about Maurice: "He is standing on the burning deck of this pathetic marriage of his, magnificently. He never bats an eyelash! (Your daughter's slang is vulgar.)"

"Eleanor is the pathetic one," Mary Houghton said, sadly; "Maurice has grown cynical-which is a sort of protection to him, I suppose. Yes; I'm afraid Edith is right; she'd better be out at the school next winter. It isn't well for a girl to see differences between a husband and wife.... Henry, you shan't have another cigar! That's the third since supper! Dear, what is the trouble about Maurice?"

"Mary, things have come to a pretty pass, when you snoop around and count up my cigars! I will smoke!" But he withdrew an empty hand from his cigar box, and said, sighing, "I wish I could tell you about Maurice; Kit; but I can't betray his confidence."

"If I guessed, you wouldn't betray anything?"

"Well, no. But-"

"I guessed it a good while ago. Some foolishness about a woman, of course. Or-or badness?" she ended, sadly.

He nodded. "I wish I was asleep whenever I think of it! Mary, there are some pretty steep grades on Fool Hill, and he's had hard climbing.... It's ancient history now; but I can't go into it."

"Of course not. Oh, my poor Maurice! Does Eleanor know?"

"Heavens, no! It wouldn't do."

"Honey, the unforgivable thing, to a woman, is not the sin, but the deceit. And, besides, Eleanor loves him enough to forgive him. She would die for him, I really believe!"

"Yet the green-eyed monster looks out of her eyes if he plays checkers with Edith! My darling," said Henry Houghton, "as I have before remarked, your ignorance on this one subject is colossal. Women can't stand truth."

"It's a provision of nature, then, that all men are liars?" she inquired, sweetly; "Henry, the loss of Edith's board won't trouble Maurice much, will it?"

"Not as much, of course, now that he has all his money; but he has to scratch gravel to make four ends meet," Henry Houghton said.

"Four ends!" she said; "oh, is it as bad as that? He has to support-somebody?"

He said, "Yes; so long as you have guessed. Mary, I really must have a smoke."

"Why am I so weak-minded as to give in to you!" she sighed; then handed him the cigar box, and scratched a match for him; he held her wrist-the sputtering match in her fingers-lighted the cigar, blew out the match, and kissed her hand.

"You are a snooper and a porcupine about tobacco; but otherwise quite a nice woman," he said.

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