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   Chapter 22 No.22

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 14362

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Edith's flight to one of the schoolhouses was not the entire release that Eleanor expected.

"Look here, Skeezics," Maurice had announced; "you can't turn me down this way! You've got to come to supper every Sunday night!-when I'm at home. Isn't that so, Nelly?"

Eleanor said, bleakly: "Why, if Edith would like to, of course. But I shouldn't think she'd care to come in to town at six, and rush out to Medfield right after supper."

"I don't mind," Edith said.

"You bet she won't rush off right after supper!" Maurice said; "I won't let her. And if she doesn't get in here by three o'clock, I'll know the reason why!"

So Edith came in every Sunday afternoon at three-and Eleanor never left her alone with Maurice for a moment! She sat and watched them; saw Edith's unconcealed affection for Maurice, saw Maurice's pleasure in Edith, saw his entire forgetfulness of herself,-and as she sat, silently, watching, watching, jealousy was like a fire in her breast.

However, in spite of Eleanor, sitting on the other side of the fire, in bitter silence, those Sunday afternoons were delightful to Edith. She and Maurice were more serious with each other now. His feeling about her was that she was a mighty pretty girl, who had sense, and who, as he expressed it, "spoke his language." Her feeling about him was a frankly expressed appreciation which Eleanor called "flattery." She had an eager respect for his opinions, based on admiration for what she called to herself his hard-pan goodness. "How he keeps civil to Eleanor, I don't know!" Edith used to think. Sometimes, watching his civility-his patience, his kindness, and especially his ability to hold his tongue under the provocation of some laconic and foolish criticism from Eleanor-Edith felt the old thrill of the Sir Walter Raleigh moment. Yes; there was no one on earth like Maurice! Then she thought, contritely, of good old Johnny. "If I hadn't known Maurice, I might have liked Johnny," she thought; "he is a lamb." When she reflected upon Eleanor, something in her generous, careless young heart hardened: "She's not nice to Maurice!" She had no sympathy for Eleanor. Youth, having never suffered, is brutally unsympathetic. Edith had known nothing but love,-given and received; so of course she could not sympathize with Eleanor!

When the Sunday-night suppers were over, Eleanor and Maurice escorted their guest back to Fern Hill; Edith always said, "Don't bother to go home with me, Eleanor!" And Maurice always said, "I'll look after the tyke, Nelly, you needn't go"; and Eleanor always said, "Oh, I don't mind." Which was, of course, her way of "locking the door" to keep her cat from a roof that became more alluring with every bolt and bar which shut him from it.

On these trolley rides through Medfield Maurice was apt to be rather silent, and he had a nervous way of looking toward the rear platform whenever the car stopped to take on a passenger-"although," he told himself, "what difference would it make if Lily did get on board? She's so fat now, Edith wouldn't know her. And as for Lily, she's white. She'd play up, like a 'perfect lady'!"

He was quite easy about Lily. He hadn't seen her for more than a year, and she made no demands on him. She was living in the two-family house on Ash Street, with the dressmaker and her three children and feeble-minded father, in the lower flat. There was the desired back yard for Jacky, where a thicket of golden glow lounged against the fence, and where, tinder stretching clothes lines, a tiny garden overflowed with color and perfume. Every day little Lily would leave her own work (which was heavy, for she had several "mealers") and run downstairs to help Mrs. Hayes wash and dress the imbecile old man. And she kept a pot of hyacinths blooming on his window sill.

Maurice (with grinding economies) sent her a quarterly money order, and felt that he was, as he expressed it to himself, "square with the game,"-with the Lily-and-Jacky game. He could never be square with the game he played with Eleanor; and as for his own "game," his steadily pursued secretiveness was a denial of his own standards which permanently crippled his self-respect. Though, curiously enough, these years of careful lying had made him, on every subject except those connected with the household in Medfield, of a most scrupulous truthfulness. Indeed, the office still called him "G. Washington."

Jacky was six that winter-a handsome, spoiled little boy. He looked like Maurice-the same friendly, eager, very bright blue eyes and the same shock of blond hair. Lily's ideas of discipline were, of course, ruining him, to which fact Maurice was entirely indifferent; his feeling about Jacky was nothing but a sort of spiritual nausea; Jacky was not only an economic nuisance, but he had made him a liar! He said to himself that of course he didn't want anything to happen to the brat ("that would break Lily's heart!"), but-

Then in March, something did happen to him. It was on a Sunday that the child came down with scarlet fever, and Lily, in her terror, did the one thing that she had never done, and that Maurice, in his certainty of her "whiteness," felt sure she never would or could do: she sent a telegram-to his house!

It had been a cold, sunny day. Just before luncheon Eleanor had been summoned to Mrs. O'Brien's: "Donny is kind of pining; do please come and sing to him, Miss Eleanor," the worried grandmother wrote, and Eleanor hadn't the heart to refuse. "I suppose," she thought, looking at Maurice and Edith, "they'll be glad to get rid of me!" They were squabbling happily as to whether altruism was not merely a form of selfishness; Edith had flung, "Idiot!" at Maurice; and Maurice had retorted, "I never expect a woman to reason!" It was the kind of squabbling which is the hall mark of friendship and humor, and it would have been impossible between Eleanor and her husband.... She left them, burning with impatience to get down to Mrs. O'Brien's and back again in the shortest possible time. As soon as she was out of the house Maurice disposed of altruism by a brief laying down of the law:

"There's no such thing as disinterestedness. You never do anything for anybody, except for what you get out of it for yourself.... Let's go skating?"

The suggestion was not the result of premeditation; Maurice, politely opening the front door for his wife, had realized, as he stood on the threshold and a biting wind flung a handful of powdery snow in his face,-the sparkling coldness of the day; and he thought to himself, "this is about the last chance for skating! There'll be a thaw next week." So, when he came back, whistling, to the library, he said: "Are you game for skating? It's cold as blazes!"

And Edith said: "You bet I am! Only we'll have to go to Fern Hill for my skates!"

Maurice said, "All right!" and off they went, the glowing vigor and youth of them a beauty in itself!

So it was that when Eleanor got home, after having gently and patiently sung to poor Donny for nearly an hour, the library was empty; but a note on the mantelpiece said: "We've gone skating.-E. and M." "She waited until I wen

t out," Eleanor thought; "then she suggested it to him!" She sat down, huddling over the fire, and thinking how Maurice neglected her; "He doesn't want me. He likes to go off with Edith, alone!" They had probably gone to the river-"our river!"-that broad part just below the meadow, where there was apt to be good skating. That made her remember the September day and the picnic, when Edith had talked about jealousy-"Bingoism," she had called it. "She tried to attract him by being smart. I detest smartness!" The burning pain under her breastbone was intolerable. She thought of the impertinent things Edith had said that day-and the ridiculous inference that if the person of whom you were jealous, was more attractive in any way than you were yourself, it was unreasonable to be jealous;-"get busy, and be attractive!" Edith had said, with pert shallowness. "She doesn't know what she's talking about!" Eleanor said; and jealousy seared her mind as a flame might have seared her flesh. "I haven't skated since I was a girl.... I-I believe next winter I'll take it up again." The tears stood in her eyes.

It was at that moment that the telegram was brought into the library.

"Mr. Curtis isn't in," Eleanor told the maid; then she did what anyone would do, in the absence of the person to whom the dispatch was addressed; signed for it ... opened it ... read it.

Jacky's sick; please come over quick.

L. D.

"There's no answer," she said. When the maid had left the room, Maurice's wife moistened the flap of the flimsy brown envelope-it had been caught only on one side; got up, went into the hall, laid the dispatch on the table, came back to the library, and fainted dead away.

No one heard her fall, so no one came to help her-except her little dog, scrabbling stiffly out of his basket, and coming to crouch, whining, against her shoulder. It was only a minute before her eyelids flickered open;-closed-opened again. After a while she tried to rise, clutching with one hand at the rung of a chair, and with the other trying to prop herself up; but her head swam, and she sank back. She lay still for a minute; then realized that if Maurice came in and found her there on the floor, he would know that she had read the telegram.... So again she tried to pull herself up; caught at the edge of his desk, turned sick, saw everything black; tried again; then, slowly, the room whirling about her, got into a chair and lay back, crumpled up, blindly dizzy, and conscious of only one thing: she must get upstairs to her own room before Edith and Maurice came home! She didn't know why she wanted to do this; she was even a little surprised at herself, as she had been surprised when, that night on the mountain, "to save Maurice," she had, instinctively, done one sensible thing after another. So now she knew that, when he came home with Edith, Maurice must be saved "a scene." He must not discover, yet, that ... she knew.

For of course now, it was knowledge, not suspicion: Maurice was summoned to see a sick boy called Jacky; Jacky was the child of L. D.; and L. D. was the Dale woman, who had lived in the house on Maple Street. Her shameful suspicion had not been shameful! It had been the recognition of a fact.... Clutching at supporting chairs, Eleanor, somehow, got out of the library; saw that brown envelope in the hall, stopped (holding with one hand to the table), to make sure it was sealed. Bingo, following her, whimpered to be lifted and carried upstairs, but she didn't notice him. She just clung to the banisters and toiled up to her room. She pushed open her door and looked at her bed, desiring it so passionately that it seemed to her she couldn't live to reach it-to fall into it, as one might fall into the grave, enamored with death. Down in the hall the little dog cried. She didn't faint again. She just lay there, without feeling, or suffering. After a while she heard the front door open and close; heard Edith's voice: "Hullo, Eleanor! Where are you? We've had a bully time!" Heard Maurice: "Headache, Nelly? Too ba-" Then silence; he must have seen the envelope-picked it up-read it.... That was why he didn't finish that word-so hideously exact!-"bad." After a while he came tiptoeing into the room.

"Headache? Sorry. Anything I can do?"

"No."

He did not urge; he was too engrossed in the shock of an escaped catastrophe; suppose Eleanor had read that dispatch! Good God! Was Lily mad? He must go and see her, quick, and say-He grew so angry as he thought of what he was going to say that he did not hear Edith's friendly comments on "poor dear Eleanor."

"Edith," he said, "that-that dispatch: I've got to see somebody on business. Awfully sorry to take you out to Fern Hill before supper, but I'm afraid I've got to rush off-"

"'Course! But don't bother to take me home. I can go by myself."

"No. It's all right. I have time; but I've got to go right off. I hate to drag you away before supper-"

"That's of no consequence!" she said, but she gave Maurice a swift look. What was the matter with him? His forehead, under that thatch of light hair, was so lined, and his lips were set in such a harsh line, that he looked actually old! Edith sobered into real anxiety. "I wish," she said, "that you wouldn't go out to Fern Hill; you'll have to come all the way back to town for your appointment!"

He said, "No: the-the appointment is on that side of the river." On the trolley there was no more conversation than there might have been if Eleanor had been present. At Edith's door he said, "'Night-"

But as he turned away, she called to him, "Maurice!" Then ran down the steps and put her hand on his arm: "Maurice, look here; is there anything I can do? You're bothered!"

He gave a grunt of laughter. "To be exact, Edith, I'm damned bothered. I've been several kinds of a fool."

"You haven't! And it wouldn't make any difference if you had. Maurice, you're a perfect lamb! I won't have you call yourself names! Why"-her eyes were passionate with tenderness, but she laughed-"I used to call you 'Sir Walter Raleigh,' you know, because you're great, simply great! Maurice, I bet on you every time! Do tell me what's the matter? Maybe I can help. Father says I have lots of sense."

Maurice shook his head. "You do have sense! I wish I had half as much. No, Skeezics; there's nothing anybody can do. I pay as I go. But you're the dearest girl on earth!"

She caught at his hand, flung her arm around his shoulder, and kissed him: "You are the dearest boy on earth!" Before he could get his breath to reply, she flew into the house-flew upstairs-flew into her own room, and banged the door shut. "Maurice is unhappy!" she said. The tears started, and she stamped her foot. "I can't bear it! Old darling Maurice-what makes him unhappy? I could kill anybody that hurts Maurice!" She began to take off her hat, her fingers trembling-then stopped and frowned: "I believe Eleanor's been nasty to him? I'd like to choke her!" Suddenly her cheeks burned; she stood still, and caught her lower lip between her teeth; "I don't care! I'm glad I did it. I-I'd do it again! ... Darling old Maurice!"

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