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   Chapter 24 No.24

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 15816

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


After a tornado comes quietness; again the sun shines, and birds sing, and many small things look up, unhurt. It was incredible to Maurice, eating his breakfast the next morning, reading his paper, opening his letters, and glancing at a pale Eleanor, heavy-eyed and silent, that his world was still the same world that it had been before he had picked up the sealed telegram on the hall table. He asked Eleanor how she felt; told her to take care of herself; said he'd not be at home to dinner, and went off to his office.... He was safe! Those two minutes in the dining room of Lily's flat, while the white-jacketed orderly was trying to persuade the protesting Jacky to let him carry him downstairs, had removed any immediate alarm; Lily had promised not to communicate with Jacky's father.

So Maurice, walking to the office, told himself that everything was all right-but "a close call!" Then he thought of Jacky, who, at his command, had so instantly "behaved himself"; and of that grip on his ear; and again that pang of something he did not recognize made him swallow hard. "Poor little beggar!" he thought: "I wonder how he is? I wonder if he'll pull through?" He hoped he would. "Tough on Lily, if anything happens." But his anxiety-though he did not know it-was not entirely on Lily's account. For the first time in the child's life, Maurice was aware of Jacky as a possession. The tornado of the night before-the anger and fear and pity-had plowed down below the surface of his mind, and touched that subsoil of conscious responsibility for creation, the realization that, whether through love or through selfishness, the man who brings a child into this terrible, squalid, glorious world, is a creator, even as God is the Creator. So Maurice, sitting at his desk that next day, answering a client on the telephone, or making an appointment to go and "look at a house," was really feeling in his heart-not love, of course, but a consciousness of his own relation to that little flushed, suffering body out in the contagious ward of the hospital in Medfield. "Will he pull through?" Maurice asked himself. It was six years ago that, standing at the door of a yellow-brick apartment house, with two fingers looped through the strings of a box of roses, Jacky's father had said, "Perhaps it will be born dead!" How dry his lips had been that day with the hope of death! Now, suddenly, his lips were dry with fear that the kid wouldn't pull through-which would be "tough on Lily." His face was stern with this new emotion of anxiety which was gradually becoming pain; he even forgot how scared he had been at the thought that Eleanor might have opened that telegram. "I swear, I wish I hadn't hurt his feelings about that cigar stub!" he said. Then he remembered Eleanor: "I could wring Lily's neck!" But Eleanor hadn't opened the telegram; and Maurice hoped Jacky would get well-because "it would be tough on Lily" if he didn't. Thus he dismissed his wife. So long as Lily's recklessness had not done any harm, it was easy to dismiss her-so very far had she receded into the dull, patiently-to-be-endured, background of life!

The Eleanor of the next few weeks, who seemed just a little more melancholy and silent than usual, a little more devoted to old Bingo, did not attract his attention in any way. But when Edith came in on the following Sunday, he had his wife sufficiently on his mind to say, in a quick aside:

"Edith, don't give me away on being sort of upset last Sunday night, will you?" (As he spoke, he remembered that swift kiss. "Nice little Skeezics!" he thought.) But he finished his sentence with perfect matter-of-factness: "it was just a-a little personal worry. I don't want Eleanor bothered, you understand?"

"Of course," said Edith, gravely

And so it was that in another month or two, with reliance upon Edith's discretion, and satisfaction in a recovering Jacky, the track of the tornado in Maurice's mind was quite covered up with the old, ugly, commonplace of furtive security. In the security Maurice was conscious, in a kindly way, that poor old Eleanor looked pretty seedy; so he brought her some flowers once in a while; not as often as he would have liked to, for, though he had more money now, eight weeks of a private room in a hospital "kind o' makes a dent in your income," Maurice told himself; "but I don't begrudge it," he thought; "I'm glad the kid got well."

So, after that night of terror and turmoil,-when Eleanor had fainted-Maurice's life in his own house settled again into the old tranquil forlornness, enlivened only by those Sunday-afternoon visits from Edith.

And Eleanor?... There had been some dumb days, when she moved about the house or sat opposite Maurice at table, or exercised Bingo, like an automaton. Sometimes she sat at her window, looking down through the bare branches of the poplar at the still, wintry garden; the painted table, heaped with grimy snow slowly melting in the chill March sunshine; the dead stalks of the lilies on each side of the icy bricks of the path; the rusty bars of the iron gate, through which, now and then, came the glimmer, a block away, of the river-"their river"! Sometimes for an hour her mind numbly considered these things; then would come a fierce throb of pain: "He was all the time saying he 'couldn't afford' things; that was so he could give her money, I suppose?" Then blank listlessness again. She did not suffer very much. She was too stunned to suffer. She merely said to herself, vaguely, "I'll leave him." It may have been on the third day that, when she said, "I will leave him; he has been false to me," her mind whispered back, very faintly, like an echo, "He has been false to himself." For just a moment she loved him enough to think that he had sinned. Maurice has sinned! When she said that, the dismay of it made her forget herself. She said it with horror, and after a while she added a question: "Why did he do it?" Then came beating its way up through anger and wounded pride, and suffering love, still another question: "Was it my fault that he did it? Did he fall in love with that frightful woman because I failed him?" Instantly her mind sheered off from this question: "I did everything I knew how to make him happy! I would have died to make him happy. I adored him! How could he care for that common, ignorant woman I saw on the porch? A woman who wasn't a lady. A-a bad woman!" But yet the question repeated itself: "Why? Why?" It demanded an answer: Why did Maurice-high-minded, pure-hearted, overflowing with a love as beautiful, and as perfect as Youth itself-how could Maurice be drawn to such a woman? And by and by the answer struggled to her lips, tearing her heart as it came with dreadful pain: "He did it because I didn't make him happy."

Just as Maurice, recognizing the responsibility of creation, had, at the touch of his son's little hand, felt the tremor of a moral conception, so now Eleanor, barren so long! felt the pangs of a birth of spiritual responsibility: "I didn't make him happy, so-Oh, my poor Maurice, it was my fault!"... But of course this divine self-forgetfulness in self-reproach, was as feeble as any new-born thing. When it stirred, and uttered little elemental sounds-"my fault, my fault"-she forgot the wrong he had done her, in seeing the wrong he had done himself.... "Oh, my Maurice-my Maurice!" But most of the time she did not hear this frail cry of the sense of sin! She thought entirely and angrily of herself; she said, over and over, that she was going to leave him. She was absorbed in hideous and poignant imaginings, based on that organic curiosity which is experienced only by the woman who meditates upon "the other woman." When these visions overwhelmed her, she said she wouldn't leave him-she would hold him! She wouldn't give him up to that frightful creature, whom he-kissed.... "Oh, my God! He k

isses her!" No; she wouldn't give him up; she would just accuse him; just tell him she knew he had been false; tell him there was no use lying about it! Then, perhaps, say she would forgive him?... Yes; if he would promise to throw the vile woman over, she would forgive him. She did not, of course, reflect that forgiveness is not a thing that can be promised; it cannot be manufactured. It comes in exact proportion as we love the sinner more and self less.

And forgiveness is not forgetfulness! It is more love.

Eleanor did not know this. So, except for those occasional cooling and divine moments of blaming herself, she scorched and shriveled in the flames of self-love. And as usual, she was speechless. There were many of these silent hours (which were such a matter of course to Maurice that he never noticed them!) before she gathered herself together, and decided that she would not leave him. She would fight! How? "Oh, I can't think!" she moaned. So those first days passed-days of impotent determinations, which whirled and alternated, and contradicted each other.

Once Maurice, glancing at her over his newspaper at breakfast, thought to himself, "She hasn't said a word since she got up! Poor Eleanor!..." Then he remembered how he had once supposed these silences of hers were full of things too lovely and profound for words! He frowned, and read the sporting page, and forgot her silences, and her, too. But he did not forget Jacky. "I'll buy the kid a ball," he was thinking....

So the days passed, and each day Eleanor dredged her silences, to find words: "What shall I say to him?" for of course she must say something! She must "have it out with him," as the phrase is. Sometimes she would decide to burst into a statement of the fact: "Somebody called 'L. D.' has a claim upon you, because she sends for you when 'Jacky' is sick. I am certain that 'Jacky' is your child! I am certain that 'L.D.' is Mrs. Dale. I am certain that you don't love me...." And he would say-Then her heart would stand still: What would he say? He would say, "I stopped loving you because you are old." And to that would come her own terrible assent: "I had no right to marry him-he was only nineteen. I had no right..." (Thus did that new-born sense of her own complicity in Maurice's sin raise its feeble voice!) And little by little the Voice became stronger: "I didn't make him happy not because I was old, but because I was selfish...." So, in alternating gusts of anger and fear, and outraged pride,-and self-forgetting horror for Maurice,-her soul began to awake. Again and again she counted the reasons why he had not been happy, beginning with the obvious reason, his youth and her age: But that did not explain it. "We had no children." That did not explain it! Nor, "I wasn't a good housekeeper"; nor, "I didn't do things with him ... I didn't skate, and walk, and joke with him"; nor, "I didn't entertain him. Auntie always said men must be entertained. I-I am stupid." There was no explanation in such things; neither dullness nor inefficiency was enough to drive a man like Maurice Curtis into dishonor or faithlessness! Then came the real explanation-which jealousy so rarely puts into words: "I was selfish." At first, this bleak truthfulness was only momentary. Almost immediately she was swept from the noble pain of knowing that Maurice had been false to himself; swept from the sense of her own share in that falseness, swept back to the insult to herself! Back to self-love. With this was the fear that if she accused him, if she told him that she knew he was false to her, if she made him very angry, he would leave her, and go and live with this woman-who had given him a child ... Yet every morning when she got up, she would say to herself, "I'll tell him to-day." And every night when she went to bed, "To-morrow."

Still she did not "have it out with him." Then weeks pushed in between her and that Sunday afternoon when the resealed telegram had been put on the hall table. And by and by it was a month, and still she could not speak. And after a while it was June-June, and the anniversary (which Maurice happened to forget, and to which Eleanor's suffering love would not permit her to refer!). By that June day, that marked nine of the golden fifty years, Eleanor had done what many another sad and injured woman has done-dug a grave in her heart, and buried Trust and Pride in it; and then watched the grave night and day. Sometimes, as she watched, her thought was: "If he would tell me the truth, even now, I would forgive him. It is his living a lie, every day, every minute, that I can't bear!" Then she would look at Maurice-sitting at the piano, perhaps, playing dreamily, or standing up in front of the fireplace filling his pipe, and poking old Bingo with his foot and telling him he was getting too fat; "You're 'losin' your figger,' Bingo!" Eleanor, looking and listening, would say to herself, "Is he thinking of Mrs. Dale, now?" And all day long, when she was alone (watching the grave), she would think: "Where is he now? Is he with her? Oh, I think I will follow him,-and watch.... Was he with her last night when he said he had gone to the theater? ... Is he lying to me when he says he has to go away on business, and is he really with her? It's the lying I can't bear! If only he would not lie to me!... Does she call him 'Maurice'? Perhaps she called him 'darling'?" The thought of an intimacy like that, was oil on the vehement flame!

"You look dreadfully, Eleanor," Mrs. Newbolt told her once, her pale, protruding eyes full of real anxiety. "I'd go and see a doctor, if I were you."

"I'm well enough," Eleanor said, listlessly.

"At your age," said her aunt, "you never can tell what's goin' on inside! Here's a piece of candy for Bingo-he's too fat. My dear father used to say that a man's soul and his gizzard could hold a lot of secrets. It's the same with women. So look out for your gizzard. Here, Bingo!"

Eleanor was silent. She had just come from Mrs. O'Brien's, where she had given the slowly failing Donny a happy hour, and she was tired. Mrs. Newbolt found her alone in the garden, sitting under the shimmering silver poplar. The lilies were just coming into bloom, and on the age-blackened iron trellis of the veranda the wistaria had flung its purple scarves among the thin fringes of its new leaves. The green tea table was bare: "I'd give you a cup of tea," Eleanor said, "but Maurice is going out to dinner, so I told Mary not to keep the fire up, just for me."

"Maurice goin' out to dinner! Why, it's your weddin' day! Eleanor, if I have one virtue, it's candor: Maurice oughtn't to be out to dinner so much-and on your anniversary, too! Of course, it's just what I expected when you married him; but that's done, and I'm not one to keep throwin' it up at you. If you want to hold him, now, you've got to keep your figger, and set a good table. Yes, and leave the door open! Edith has a figger. She entertains him, just the way I used to entertain your dear uncle-by talkin'. I'd have Bingo put away, if I were you; he's too old to be comfortable. You got to make him want to sit by the fire and knit! But here you are, sittin' by yourself, lookin' like a dead fish. A man don't like a dead fish-unless it's cooked! I used to broil shad for your dear uncle." For an instant she had no words to express that culinary perfection by which she had kept the deceased Mr. Newbolt's stomach faithful to her. "Yes, you've got to be entertainin', or else he'll go up the chimney, and out to dinner, and forget what Day it is!"

Eleanor's sudden pallor made her stop midway in her torrent of frankness; it was then she said, again, really alarmed: "See a doctor! You know," she added, jocosely; "if you die, he'll marry Edith; and you wouldn't like that!"

"No," Eleanor said, faintly, "I wouldn't like that."

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