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   Chapter 23 No.23

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 13388

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


When Jacky's father-with that honest young kiss warm upon his cheek-reached the little "two-family" house, he saw the red sign on the door: Scarlet Fever.

"He's got it," he thought, fiercely; "but why in hell did she send for me?-and a telegram!-to the house! She's mad." He was panting with anger as he pressed the button at Lily's door; "I'll tell her I'll never see her again, long as I live!" Furious words were on the tip of his tongue; then she opened the door, and he was dumb.

"Oh, Mr. Curtis-don't-don't let them take Jacky! Oh, Mr. Curtis!" She flung herself upon him, sobbing frantically. "Don't let them-I'll kill them if they touch Jacky! Oh, my soul and body! He'll die if they take him-I won't let them take him-" She was shaking and stammering and gasping. "I won't have him touched.... You got to stop them-"

"Lily, don't! What's the matter?"

"This woman downstairs 's about crazy, because she has three children. I hope they all catch it and die and go to hell! She's shut up there with 'em in her flat. She won't put her nose outside the door! She come up here this morning, and saw Jacky, and she said it was scarlet fever. Seems she knew what it was, 'cause she had a boy die of it-glad he did! And she sent-the slut!-a complaint to the Board of Health-and the doctor, he come this afternoon, and said it was! And he said he was going to take Jacky to-night!"

Her voice made him cringe; her yellow tigress eyes blazed at him; he had known that Lily, for all her good humor, had occasional sharp gusts of temper, little squalls that raced over summer seas of kindliness! But he had never seen this Lily: A ferocious, raucous Lily, madly maternal! A Lily of the pavements.... "An' I said he wasn't going to do no such thing! An' I said I'd stop it: I said I'd take the law to him; I said I'd get Jacky's father: I-"

"Good God! Lily-"

"Oh, what do I care about you? I ain't goin' to kill Jacky to protect you! You got to stop them taking him!" She clutched his arm and shook it: "I never asked nothing of you, yet. I ask it now, and you'll do it, or I'll tell everybody in town that he's yours-" Her menacing voice broke and failed, but her lips kept moving; those kind, efficient hands of hers, clutching at him, were the claws of a mother beast. Maurice took her arm and guided her into the little parlor, where a row of hyacinths on the window sill made the air overpoweringly sweet; he sat down beside her on the sofa.

"Get steady, Lily, and tell me: I'll see what can be done. But there's to be no father business about it, you understand? I'm just a 'friend.'"

So, stammering and breaking into sobs and even whispered screams, and more outrageous abuse of her fellow tenant, she told him: It was scarlet fever, and there were children in the house. The Board of Health, "sicked on by that damned woman," said that Jacky must go to the hospital-to the contagious ward. "And the doctor said he'd be better off there; he said they could do for him better than me-me, his mother! They're going to send a ambulance-I telegraphed you at four o'clock-and here it is six! You must have got it by five-why didn't you come? Oh-my God, Jacky!" Her suffering was naked; shocking to witness! It made Maurice forget his own dismay.

"I was out," he began to explain, "and-"

But she went on, beads of foam gathering in the corners of her mouth: "I didn't telephone, for fear she'd get on to it." He could see that she was angry at her own consideration. "I'd ought to have sent for you when he come down with it!" ... Where had he been all this time, anyway!-and her nearly out of her head thinkin' this rotten woman downstairs was sicking the Board o' Health on to her! "And look how I've washed her father for her! I'll spit on him if-if-if anything happens to Jacky. Yes, I tell you, and you mind what I say: If Jacky dies, I'll kill her-my soul and body, I'll kill her anyway!"

"Lily, get steady. I'll fix things for you. I'll go to the Board of Health and see what can be done; just as-as a friend of yours, you understand."

From the next room came a wailing voice: "Maw-"

"Yes, Sweety; in a minute-" She grasped Maurice's hand, clung to it, kissed it. "Mr. Curtis, I'll never make trouble for you after this! Oh, I'll go to New York, and live there, if you want me to. I'll do anything, if you just make 'em leave Jacky! (Yes, darling Sweety, maw's coming.) You'll do it? Oh, I knew you'd do it!" She ran out of the room.

He got up, beside himself with perplexity: but even as he tried to think what on earth he could do, the doctor came. The ambulance would arrive, he said, with bored cheerfulness, in twenty minutes. Lily, rushing from Jacky's bedside, flew at him with set teeth, her trembling hands gripping the white sleeve of his linen jacket.

"This gentleman's a friend of mine," she said, jerking her head toward Maurice; "he says you shan't carry Jacky off!"

The doctor's relief at having a man to talk to was obvious. And while Maurice was trying to get in a word, there came another whimper from the room where Jacky lay, red and blotched, talking brokenly to himself: "Maw!" Lily ran to him, leaving the two men alone.

"Thank Heaven!" the doctor said; "I'd about as soon argue with a hornet as a mother. She's nearly crazy! I'll tell you the situation." He told it, and Maurice listened, frowning.

"What can be done?" he said; "I-I am only an acquaintance; I hardly know Mrs. Dale; but she sent for me. She's frantic at the idea of the boy being taken away from her."

"He'll have to be taken away! Besides, he'll have ten times better care in the hospital than he could have here."

"Can she go with him?" Maurice said.

"Why, if she can afford to take a private room-"

"Good heavens! money's no object; anything to keep her from doing some wild thing!"

"You a relation?" the doctor asked.

"Not the slightest. I-knew her husband."

"The thing for you to do," said the doctor, "is to hustle right out to a telephone; call up the hospital. Get Doctor Nelson, if you can-"

"Nelson!"

"Yes; if not, get Baker; tell him I-" then followed concise directions; "But try and get Nelson; he's the top man. They're frightfully crowded, and if you fool with understrappers, you'll get turned down. I'd do it, but I've got to stay here and see that she doesn't get perfectly crazy."

Almost before the doctor finished his directions, Maurice was rushing downstairs.... That next half hour was a nightmare. He ran up the street, slippery with ice; saw over a drug store the blue sign of the public telephone, and dashed in-to wait interminably outside the booth! A girl in a silly hat was drawling i

nto the transmitter. Once Maurice, pacing frantically up and down, heard her flat laugh; then, to his dismay, he saw her, through the glass of the door, instead of hanging up the receiver, drop a coin into the slot....

"Damn! Another five minutes!"

He turned and struck his fist on the counter. "Why the devil don't you have two booths here?" he demanded.

The druggist, lounging against the soda-water fountain, smiled calmly: "You can search me. Ask the company."

"Can't you stop that woman? My business is important. For God's sake pull her out!"

"She's telephoning her beau, I guess. Who's going to stop a lady telephoning her beau? Not me."

The feather gave a last flirtatious jerk-and the booth was empty.

Maurice, closing its double doors, and shutting himself into the tiny box where the fetid air seemed to take him by the throat and the space was so narrow he could hardly crowd his long legs into it, rushed into another delay. Wrong number! ... When at last he got the right number and the hospital, there were the usual deliberate questions; and the, "I'll connect you with So-and-so's desk." Maurice, sitting with the receiver to his ear, could feel the blood pounding in his temples. His mind whirled with the possibilities of what Lily might say in his absence: "She'll tell the doctor my name-" As his wire was connected, first with one authority and then with another, each authority asked the same question, "Are you one of the family?" And to each he gave the same answer, "No; a friend; the doctor asked me to call you up."

Finally came the voice of the "top man"-the voice which had spoken in Lily's narrow hall six years ago, the voice which had joked with Edith at the Mortons' dinner party, the voice which had burst into extravagant guffaws under the silver poplar in his own garden-Doctor Nelson's voice-curt, impersonal: "Who is this speaking?"

Then Maurice's voice, disguised into a gruff treble, "A friend."

"One of the family?"

"No."

Five minutes later Maurice, coming out of that horrible little booth, the matter arranged at an expense which, later, would give Jacky's father some bad moments, was cold from head to foot. When he reached Lily's house the ambulance was waiting at the door. Upstairs, the doctor said, "Well?"

And Lily said: "Did you do it? If you didn't, I'll-"

"I did," Maurice said. Then he asked if he could be of any further service.

"No; the orderly will get him downstairs. He's too heavy for Mrs. Dale to carry. She's got her things all ready. You-" he said, smiling at Maurice, "Mr.-? I didn't get your name. You look all in!"

Maurice shook his head: "I'm all right. Mrs. Dale will you step in here? I want to speak to you a minute." As Lily preceded him into the dining room, he said, quickly, to the doctor, "I want to tell her not to worry about money, you know." To Lily-when he closed the door-he was briefly ruthless: "I'll pay for everything. But I just want to say, if he dies-"

She screamed out, "No-no!"

"He won't," he said, angrily; "but if he does, you are to say his father's dead. Do you understand? Say his name was-what did you call it?-William?"

"I don't know. My God! what difference does it make? Call it anything! John."

"Well, say his father was John Dale of New York, and he's dead. Promise me!"

She promised-"Honest to God!" her face was furrowed with fright. As they went back to the doctor Maurice had a glimpse of Lily's bedroom, where Jacky, rolled in a blanket, was vociferating that he would not be carried downstairs by the orderly.

"Oh, Sweety," Lily entreated; "see, nice pretty gentleman! Let him carry you?"

"Won't," said Jacky.

At which Maurice said, decidedly: "Behave yourself, Jacobus! I'll carry you."

Instantly Jacky stopped crying: "You throwed away the present I give you," he said; "but," he conceded, "you may carry me."

The doctor objected. "It isn't safe-"

"Oh, let's get it over," Maurice said, sharply; "I shan't see any children. It's safe enough! Anything to stop this scene!"

The bothered doctor half consented, and Maurice lifted Jacky, very gently; as he did so, the little fellow somehow squirmed a hand out of the infolding blanket, and made a hot clutch for his father's ear; he gripped it so firmly that, in spite of Maurice's wincing expostulation, he pulled the big blond head over sidewise until it rested on his own little head. That burning grip held Maurice prisoner all the way downstairs; it chained him to the child until they reached the street. There the clutch relaxed, but for one poignant moment, as Maurice lifted Jacky into the ambulance, father and son looked into each other's eyes, and Maurice said-the words suddenly tumbling from his lips:

"Now, my little Jacky, you'll be good, won't you?" Then the ambulance rolled softly away, and he stood on the curbstone and felt his heart swelling in his throat: "Why did I say 'my'?" As he walked home he tried to explain the possessing word away: "Of course I'd say 'my' to any child; it didn't mean anything! But suppose the orderly had heard me?" Even while he thus denied the Holy Spirit within him, he was feeling again that hot, ridiculous tug on his ear. "I was the only one who could manage him," he thought.... "Of course what I said didn't mean anything."

He stopped on the bridge and looked down into the water-black and swift and smooth between floating cakes of ice. Now and then a star glimmered on a slipping ripple; on the iron bridge farther up the river a row of lights were strung like a necklace across the empty darkness.... Somewhere, in the maze of streets at one end of the bridge, was Eleanor, lying in bed with a desperate headache. Somewhere, in the maze of streets at the other end of the bridge, was Lily, taking "his" little Jacky to the hospital. Somewhere, on one of the hillsides beyond Medfield, was Edith in the schoolhouse. And Eleanor was loving him and trusting him; and Lily was "blessing him" (so she had told him) for his goodness; and Edith was "betting on him"! ... "I wonder if anybody was ever as rotten as I am?" Maurice pondered.

Then he forgot his "rottenness," and smiled. "He obeyed me! Lily couldn't do a thing with him; what did he mean about the 'present'? I believe it was that old cigar! He must have seen me pitch it into the gutter. He wanted me to carry him; wouldn't look at that orderly! What made him grab my ear?"

When Maurice said that, down, down, under his rage at Lily, under his fear of exposure, under his nauseating disgust at himself-something stirred, something fluttered. The tremor of a moral conception:

Paternal pride.

"What a grip!"

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