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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 13573

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The heat and the wind-and remorse-gave Eleanor such a prolonged headache that Maurice, in real anxiety and without consulting her-wrote to Mrs. Houghton that "Nelly was awfully used up by the hot weather," and might he bring her to Green Hill now, instead of later? Her prompt and friendly telegram, "Come at once," made him tell his wife that he was going to pack her off to the mountains, quick!

She began to say no, she couldn't manage it; "I-I can't leave Bingo" (she was hunting for an excuse not to leave Maurice), "Bingo is so miserable if I am out of his sight."

"You can take him,-old Rover's gone to heaven. Think you can start to-morrow?" He sat down beside her and took her hand in his warm young paw; the pity of her made him frown-pity, and an intolerable annoyance at himself! She, a woman twice his age, had married him, when, of course, she ought to have told him not to be a little fool; "...wiped my nose and sent me home!" he thought, with cynical humor. But, all the same, she loved him. And he had played her a damned cheap trick!-which was hidden safely away in the two-family house on Ash Street. "Hidden." What a detestable word! It flashed into Maurice's mind that if, that night among the stars, he had made a clean breast of it all to Eleanor, he wouldn't now be going through this business of hiding things-and covering them up by innumerable, squalid little falsenesses. "There would have been a bust-up, and she might have left me. But that would have been the end of it!" he thought; he would have been free from what he had once compared to a dead hen tied around a dog's neck-the clinging corruption of a lie! The Truth would have made him free. Aloud, he said, "Star,"-she caught her breath at the old lovely word-"I'll go to Green Hill with you, and take care of you for a few days. I'm sure I can fix it up at the office."

The tears leaped to her eyes. "Oh, Maurice!" she said; "I haven't been nice to you. I'm afraid I'm-rather temperamental. I-I get to fancying things. One day last week I-had horrid thoughts about you."

"About me?" he said, laughing; "well, no doubt I deserved 'em!"

"No!" she said, passionately; "no-you didn't! I know you didn't. But I-" With the melody of that old name in her ears, her thoughts were too shameful to be confessed. She wouldn't tell him how she had wronged him in her mind; she would just say: "Don't keep things from me, darling! Be frank with me, Maurice. And-" she stopped and tried to laugh, but her mournful eyes dredged his to find an indorsement of her own certainties-"and tell me you don't love anybody else?"

She held her breath for his answer:

"You bet I don't!"

The humor of such a question almost made him laugh. In his own mind he was saying, "Lily, and Love? Good Lord!"

Eleanor, putting her hand on his, said, in a whisper, "But we have no children. Do you mind-very much?"

"Great Scott! no. Don't worry about that. That's the last thing I think of! Now, when do you think you can start?" He spoke with wearied but determined gentleness.

She did not detect the weariness,-the gentleness made her so happy; he called her "Star"! He said he didn't love anyone else! He said he didn't mind because they had no children.... Oh, how dreadful for her to have had those shameful fears-and out in "their meadow," too! It was sacrilege.... Aloud, she said she could be ready by the first of the week; "And you'll stay with me? Can't you take two weeks?" she entreated.

"Oh, I can't afford that" he said; "but I guess I can manage one...."

Later that day, when she told Mrs. Newbolt-who had come home for a fortnight-what Maurice had planned for her, Eleanor's happiness ebbed a little in the realization that he would be in town all by himself, "for a whole week! He'll go off with the Mortons, I suppose," she said, uneasily.

"Well," said Mrs. Newbolt, with what was, for her, astonishing brevity, "why shouldn't he? Don't forget what my dear father said about cats: 'Open the door!' Tell Maurice you want him to go off with the Mortons!"

Of course Eleanor told him nothing of the sort. But she was obliged, at Green Hill, to watch him "going off" with Edith. "I should think," she said once, "that Mrs. Houghton wouldn't want her to be wandering about with you, alone."

"Perhaps Mrs. Houghton doesn't consider me a desperate character," he said, dryly; "and, besides, Johnny Bennett chaperones us!"

Sometimes not even John's presence satisfied Eleanor, and she chaperoned her husband herself. She did it very openly one day toward the end of Maurice's little vacation. Henry Houghton had said, "Look here; you boys" (of course Johnny was hanging around) "must earn your salt! We've got to get the second mowing in before night. I'll present you both with a pitchfork."

To which Maurice replied, "Bully!"

"Me, too!" said Edith.

And John said, "I'll be glad to be of any assistance, sir."

("How their answers sum those youngsters up!" Mr. Houghton told his Mary.)

Eleanor, dogging Maurice to a deserted spot on the porch, said, uneasily, "Don't do it, darling; it's too hot for you."

But he only laughed, and started off with the other two to work all morning in the splendid heat and dazzle of the field. "Skeezics, don't be so strenuous!" he commanded, once; and Johnny was really nervous:

"It's too hot for you, Buster."

"Too hot for your grandmother!" Edith said-bare-armed, open-throated, her creamy neck reddening with sunburn.

Toward noon, Maurice's chaperon, toiling out across the hot stubble to watch him, called from under an umbrella, "Edith! You'll get freckled."

"When I begin to worry about my complexion, I'll let you know," Edith retorted; "Maurice, your biceps are simply great!"

"How she flatters him!" Eleanor thought; "And she knows he is looking at her." He was! Edith, lifting a forkful of hay, throwing the weight on her right thigh and straining backward with upraised arms, her big hat tumbling over one ear, and the sweat making her hair curl all around her forehead, was something any man would like to look at! No man would want to look at Eleanor-a tired, dull, jealous woman, whose eyes were blinking from the glare and whose face sagged with elderly fatigue. She turned silently and went away. "He likes to be with her-but he doesn't say so. Oh, if he would only be frank!" Her eyes blurred, but she would not let the tears come, so they fell backward into her heart-which brimmed with them, to overflow, after a while, in bitter words.

Edith, watching the retreating figure, never guessing those unshed tears, said, despairingly, to herself, "I suppose I ought to go home with her?" She dropped her pitchfork; "I'll come back after dinner, boys," she said; "I must look after Eleano

r now."

"Quitter!" Maurice jeered; but Johnny said, "I'm glad she's gone; it's too much for a girl." His eyes followed her as she went running over the field to catch up with Eleanor, who, on the way back to the house, only poke once; she told Edith that flattery was bad taste the cup overflowed! "Men hate flattery," she said.

"Hate it?" said Edith, "they lap it up!"

When the two young men sat down under an oak for their noon hour, with a bucket of buttermilk standing precariously in the grass beside them, John said again, anxiously, "It was too hot for her; I hope she won't have a headache."

"She always has headaches," Maurice said, carelessly.

"What!" said Bennett, alarmed; "she's never said a word to me about headaches."

"Oh, you mean Edith? I thought you meant Eleanor. Edith never had a headache in her life! Some girl, Johnny?"

"Has that just struck you?" said John.

Maurice fished some grass seeds out of the buttermilk, took a deep draught of it, and looked at his companion, lying full length on the stubble in the shadow of the oak. It came to him with a curious shock that Bennett was in love. No "calf love" this time! Just a young man's love for a young woman-sound and natural, and beautiful, and right.... "I wonder," Maurice thought, "does she know it?"

It seemed as if Johnny, puffing at his pipe, and slapping a mosquito on his lean brown hand, answered his thought:

"Edith's astonishingly young. She doesn't realize that she's grown up." There was a pause; "Or that I have."

Maurice was silent; he suddenly felt old. These two-these children!-believing in love, and in each other, were in a world of their own; a world which knew no hidden household in the purlieus of Mercer; no handsome, menacing, six-year-old child; no faded, jealous woman, overflowing with wearisome caresses! In this springtime world was Edith-vigorous, and sweet, and supremely reasonable;-and never temperamental! And this young man, loving her.... Maurice turned over on his face in the grass; but he did not kiss the earth's "perfumed garment"; he bit his own clenched fist.

He was very silent for the rest of their day in the field for one thing, they had to work at a high pitch, for then were blue-black clouds in the west! At a little after three Edith came out again, but not to help.

"I had to put on my glad rags," she said, sadly, "because some people are coming to tea. I hate 'em-I mean the rags."

Maurice stopped long enough to turn and look at her, and say, "They're mighty pretty!" And so, indeed, they were-a blue organdie, with white ribbons around the waist, and a big white hat with a pink rose in a knot of black velvet on the brim. "How's Eleanor?" he said, beginning to skewer a bale of hay on to his pitchfork.

"She's afraid there's going to be a thunderstorm," Edith said; "that's why I came out here. She wants you, Maurice."

"All right," he said, briefly; and struck his fork down in the earth. "I've got to go, Johnny."

To do one's duty without love is doubtless better than to fail in doing one's duty, but it has its risks. Maurice's heartless "kindness" to his wife was like a desert creeping across fertile earth; the eager generosity of boyhood had long ago hardened into the gray aridity of mere endurance.

Edith turned and walked back with him; they were both silent until Maurice said, "You've got Johnny's scalp all right, Skeezics."

"Don't be silly!" she said; her annoyance made her look so mature that he was apologetic; was she in love with the cub? He was suddenly dismayed, though he could not have said why. "I don't like jokes like that," Edith said.

"I beg your pardon, Edith. I somehow forget you're grown up," he said, and sighed.

She laughed. "Eleanor and you have my age on your minds! Eleanor informed me that I was too old to be rampaging round making hay with you two boys! And she thinks I 'flatter' you," Edith said, grinning. "I trust I'm not injuring your immortal soul, Maurice, and making you vain of your muscle?"

Instantly he was angry. Eleanor, daring to interfere between himself and Edith? He was silent for the rest of the walk home; and he was still silent when he went up to his wife's room and found her lying on her bed, old Bingo snoozing beside her-windows closed, shades down. "Oh, Maurice!" she said, with a gasp of relief; "I was so afraid you would get caught in a thunderstorm!"

"Don't be so absurd!" he said.

"I-I love you; that's why I am 'absurd,'" she said, piteously. It was as if she held to his lips the cup of her heart, brimming with those unshed tears,-but is there any man who would not turn away from a cup that holds so bitter a draught?

Maurice turned away. "This room is insufferably hot!" he said. He let a window curtain roll up with a jerk, and flung open a window.

She was silent.

"I wish," he said, "that you'd let up on Edith. You're always criticizing her. I don't like it."

* * *

That night Johnny Bennett, somehow, lured Edith out on to the porch to say good night. The thunderstorm had come and gone, and the drenched garden was heavy with wet fragrance.

"Let's sit down," Johnny said; then, beseechingly, "Edith, don't you feel a little differently about me, now?"

"Oh, Johnny, dear!"

"Just a little, Edith? You don't know what it would mean to me, just to hope?"

"Johnny, I am awfully fond of you, but-"

"Well, never mind," he said, patiently, "I'll wait."

He went down the steps, hesitated, and, while Edith was still squeezing a little wet ball of a handkerchief against her eyes, came back.

"Do you mind if I ask you just one question, Edith?"

"Of course not! Only, Johnny, it just about kills me to be-horrid to you."

"Have you really got to be horrid?" said John Bennett.

"Johnny, I can't help it!"

"Is it because there's any other fellow, Edith? That's the question I wanted to ask you."

She was silent.

"Edith, I really think I have a right to know?"

Still she didn't speak.

"Of course, if there is-"

"There isn't!" she broke in.... "Why, Johnny, you're the best friend I have. No; there isn't anybody else. The honest truth is, I don't believe I'm the sort of girl that gets married. I can't imagine caring for anybody as much as I care for father and mother and Maurice. I-I'm not sentimental, Johnny, a bit. I'm awfully fond of you; awfully! You come next to Maurice. But-but not that way. That's the truth, Johnny. I'm perfectly straight with you; you know that? And you won't throw me over, will you? If I lost you, I declare I-I don't know what I'd do! You won't give me up, will you?"

John Bennett was silent for a long minute; then he said, "No, Edith; I'll never give you up, dear." And he went away into the darkness.

* * *

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