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   Chapter 26 No.26

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 26075

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


During the next two days at Green Hill, Eleanor's dislike of Edith had no chance to break into silent flames, for the girl was so quiet that not even Eleanor could see anything in her behavior to Maurice to criticize. It was Maurice who did the criticizing!

"Edith, come down into the garden; I want to read something to you."

"Can't. Have to write letters."

"Edith, if you'll come into the studio I'll play you something I've patched up."

"I'm a heathen about music. Let's sit with Eleanor."

"Skeezics, what's the matter with you? Why won't you come and walk? You're getting lazy in your old age!"

"Busy," Edith said, vaguely.

At this point Maurice insisted, and Edith sneaked out to the back entry and telephoned Johnny Bennett: "Come over, lazybones, and take some exercise!"

John came, with leaps and bounds, so to speak, and Maurice said, grumpily:

"What do you lug Johnny in for?"

So, during the rest of her visit (with John Bennett as Maurice's chaperon!) Eleanor merely ached with dislike of Edith; but, even so, she had the small relief of not having to say to herself: "Is he seeing Mrs. Dale, now? ... Did he go to her house yesterday?" Of course, as soon as she went back to Mercer those silent questions began again; and her audible question nagged Maurice whenever he was in the house: "Did you go to the theater last night? ... Yes? Did you go alone? ... Will you be home to-night to dinner? ... No? Where are you going?"

Maurice, answering with bored patience, thought, with tender amusement, of Edith's advice, "Tell Eleanor." How little she knew!

He did not see Edith very often that next winter, "which is just as well," he thought. But his analysis stopped there; he did not ask himself why it was just as well. She made flying visits to Mercer, for shopping or luncheons, so he had glimpses of her, and whenever he saw her he was conscious of a little wistful change in her, for she was shy with him-Edith, shy!-and much gentler. When they discussed the Eternities or the ball game, she never pounded his arm with an energetic and dissenting fist, nor was there ever the faintest suggestion of the sexless "rough-house" of their old jokes! As for coming to town, she explained that she was too busy; she had taken the burden of housekeeping from her mother, and she was doing a good deal of hard reading preparatory to a course of technical training in domestic science, to which she was looking forward when she could find time for it. But whenever she did come to Mercer, she did her duty by rushing in to see Eleanor! Eleanor's criticisms of her, when she rushed out again, always made Maurice silently, but deeply, irritated. The criticisms lessened in the fall, because Eleanor had the pitiful preoccupation of watching poor Don O'Brien fade out of the world; and when he had gone she had to push her own misery aside while his grandmother's heart broke into the meager tears of age upon her "Miss Eleanor's" breast. But, besides that, she did not have the opportunity to criticize Edith, for the Houghtons went abroad.

So the rest of that year went dully by. To Eleanor, it was a time of spasmodic effort to regain Maurice's love; spasmodic, because when she had visions-hideous visions! of Maurice and the "other woman,"-then, her aspirations to regain his love, which had been born in that agony of recognized complicity in his faithlessness, would shrivel up in the vehement flame of jealousy. To Maurice, it was a time of endurance; of vague thoughts of Edith, but of no mental disloyalty to his wife. Its only brightness lay in those rare visits to Medfield, when Jacky looked at him like a worshiping puppy, and asked forty thousand questions which he couldn't answer! They were very careful visits, made only when Maurice was sure Eleanor would not be going to "look for a cook." He always balanced his brief pleasure of an hour with his little boy by an added gentleness to his wife-perhaps a bunch of violets, bought at the florist's on Maple Street where Lily got her flower pots or her bulbs. He was very lonely, and increasingly bothered about Jacky. ... "Lily will let him go plumb to hell. But I put him on the toboggan! ... I'm responsible for his existence," he used to think. And sometimes he repeated the words he had spoken that night when he had felt the first stir of fatherhood, "My little Jacky."

He would hardly have said he loved the child; love had come so gradually, that he had not recognized it! Yet it had come. It had been added to those other intimations of God, which also he had not recognized. Personal Joy on his wedding day had been the first; and the next had come when he looked up at the heights of Law among the stars, and then there had been the terrifying vision of the awfulness of Life, at Jacky's birth. Now, into his soul, arid with long untruth, came this flooding in of Love-which in itself is Life, and Joy, and the fulfilling of Law! Or, as he had said, once, carelessly, "Call it God."

This pursuing God, this inescapable God! was making him acutely uncomfortable now, about Jacky. Maurice felt the discomfort, but he did not recognize it as Salvation, or know Whose mercy sent it! He merely did what most of us do when we suffer: he gave the credit of his pain to the devil-not to Infinite Love. "Oh," the poor fellow thought, coming back one day from a call at the little secret house on Maple Street, "the devil's getting his money's worth out of me; well, I won't squeal about that! But he's getting his money's worth out of my boy, too. She's ruining him!"

He said this once when he had been rather recklessly daring in seeing "his boy." It was Saturday afternoon, and Jacky was free from his detested school. Maurice had given him a new sled, and then had "fallen," as he expressed it, to the little fellow's entreaty: "Mr. Curtis, if you'll come up to the hill, I'll show you how she'll go!" But before they started Maurice had a disagreeable five minutes with Lily. She had told him, tears of laughter running down her rosy cheeks, of some performance of Jacky's. He had asked her, she said, about his paw; "and I said his name was Mr. George Dale, and he died ten or eleven years ago of consumption-had to tell him something, you know! An' he says,-he's great on arithmetic,-'Poor paw!' he says, 'how many years was that before I was born?' I declare, I was all balled up!" Then, as she wiped her laughing eyes, she had grown suddenly angry: "I'm going to take him away from his new Sunday school; the teacher-it was her did the Paul Pry act, and asked him about his father;-well, I guess she ain't much of a lady; I never see her name in the Sunday papers;-she came down on Jacky because he told her a 'lie'; that's what she called it, 'a lie'! Said he'd go to hell if he told lies. I said, 'I won't have you threatening my child!' I declare I felt like saying, 'You go to hell yourself!' but of course I don't say things that ain't refined."

"Well, but Lily, the little beggar must tell the truth-"

"Mr. Curtis, Jacky didn't say anything but what you or me would say a dozen times a day. He just told her he hadn't a library book out, when he had. Seems he forgot to bring it back, so, 'course, he just said he hadn't any book. Well, this teacher, she put the lie onto him. It's a vulgar word, 'lie.' And as for hell, they say society people don't believe there is such a place any more."

When he and his little son walked away (Jacky dragging his magnificent sled), Maurice was nervously anxious to counteract such views.

"Jacobus," he said, "I'm going to tell you something: Big men never say anything that isn't so! Do you get on to that?" (In his own mind he added, "I'm a sweet person to tell him that!") "Promise me you'll never say anything that isn't just exactly so," said Maurice.

"Yes, sir," said Jacky. "Say, Mr. Curtis, have you got teeth you can take out?" When Maurice said, rather absently, that he had not, Jacky's dismay was pathetic. "Why, maw can do that," he said, reproachfully. It was the first flaw in his idol. It took several minutes to recover from the shock of disappointment; then he said: "Lookee here!" He paused beside a hydrant, and with his mittened hand broke off a long icicle, held it up and turned it about so that the sun flashed on it. "Handsome, ain't it?" he asked, timidly.

Maurice said yes, it was "handsome";-"but suppose you say 'isn't it' instead of 'ain't it.' 'Ain't' is not a nice word. And remember what I told you about telling the truth."

"Yes, sir," said Jacky, and trudged along, pulling his sled with one hand and carrying his icicle in the other.

After this paternal effort, Maurice stood in the snow watching the crowd of children-red-cheeked, shrill-voiced-sliding down Winpole Hill and yelling and snow-balling each other as they pulled their sleds up to the top of the slope again. It was during one of these panting tugs uphill, that Jacky saw fit to slap a fellow coaster, a little, snub-nosed girl with a sniffling cold in her head, and all muffled up in dirty scarves. Instantly Maurice, striding in among the children, took his son by the arm, and said, sharply:

"Young man, apologize! Quick! Or I'll take you home!"

Jacky gaped. "Pol'gize?"

"Say you're sorry! Out with it. Tell the little girl you're sorry you hit her."

"But I ain't," Jacky explained, anxiously; "an' you said I mustn't say what ain't so."

"Well, tell her you won't do it again," Maurice commanded, evading, as perplexed fathers must, moral contradictions.

Jacky, bewildered, said to his howling playmate, "I don't like you, but I won't hit you again, less I have to; then I'll lick the tar out of you!" He paused, rummaged in his pocket, produced a horrid precious little gray lump of something, and handed it to her. "Gum," he said, briefly.

Maurice, taking another step into paternal wisdom, was deaf to the statute of limitation in the apology; but walking home with the little boy, he said to himself, "She's ruining him!" and fell into such moody silence that he didn't even notice Jacky's obedient struggles with "isn't." Once, a week later, as a result of this experience, he tried to make some ethical suggestions to Lily. She was displaying her latest triumph-a rosebush, blossoming in February! And Maurice, duly admiring the glowing flower, against its background of soot-speckled snowdrift on the window sill, began upon Jacky's morals. Lily's good-humored face hardened.

"Mr. Curtis, you don't need to worry about Jacky! He don't steal, and he don't swear,-much; and he's never been pinched, and he's awful handsome; and, my God! what more do you want? I ain't going to make his life miserable by tellin' him to talk grammar, or do the polite act!"

"Lily, I only mean I want him to turn out well, and he won't unless he tells the truth-"

"He'll turn out good. You needn't worry. Anybody's got to have sense about telling the truth; you can't just plunk everything out! I-I believe I'll go and live in New York."

Instantly Maurice was silenced. "She mustn't take him away!" he thought, despairingly.

His fear that she would do so was a constant worry.... His work in the Weston real-estate office involved occasional business trips of a few days, and his long hours on trains were filled with this increasing anxiety about Jacky. "If she takes him away from Mercer, and I can't ever see him, nothing can save him! But, damn it! what can I do?" he would say. He tried to reassure himself by counting up Lily's good points; her present uprightness; her honest friendliness to him; her almost insane devotion to Jacky, and her pathetic aspiration for respectability, which was summed up in that one word of collective emptiness,-"Society." But immediately her bad points clamored in his mind; her ignorance and unmorality and vulgarity. "Truth is just a matter of expediency with her. If he gets to be a liar, I'll boot him!" Maurice would think of these bad points until he got perfectly frantic! His sense of wanting advice was like an ache in his mind-for there was no one who could advise him. Then, quite unexpectedly, advice came....

In the fall the Houghtons got back from Europe. Maurice saw them only between trains in Mercer, for Henry Houghton was in a great hurry to get up to Green Hill, and Edith, too, was exercised about her trunks and the unpacking of her treasures of reminiscence. But Mrs. Houghton said: "We shall be coming down to do some shopping before Christmas. No! We'll not inflict ourselves upon Eleanor! We'll go to the hotel; you will both take dinner with us."

They came, and Maurice and Eleanor dined with them, as Mrs. Houghton had insisted that they should; but only Mrs. Houghton accepted Eleanor's repaying hospitality.

"Mother has virtue enough for the family," Edith said; "I'm going to stay here with father."

"It will be a jewel in your crown," Henry Houghton told his Mary.

"Why not collect jewels for your crown?" she inquired. "Henry, Ma

urice looks troubled. What do you suppose is the matter?"

"He does look seedy," he agreed; "poke about and find out what's wrong. You can do it better if your inelegant offspring isn't around, and if I'm not there, either. He won't open his lips to me! I think it's money. He's carrying a pretty heavy load. But he never peeps.... I wish he wouldn't economize on cigars, though; he offered me one yesterday, and politeness compelled me to smoke it!"

"'Peeps'!" said Edith; "how elegant!"

So that was how it happened that Mary Houghton went alone to dine with Maurice and Eleanor. But she couldn't discover, in Maurice's talk or Eleanor's silences, any hint of financial anxiety. "So," she said to herself, "it isn't money that worries him." When he walked back with her to the hotel after dinner, he was thinking, "She'd know what to do about Jacky." But of course he couldn't ask her what to do! He could never ask anybody-except, perhaps, Mr. Houghton; and what would he, an old man, know about bringing up a little boy? He was listening, not very closely, to Mrs. Houghton's talk of the Custom House; but when she said, "John Bennett met us on the dock," he was suddenly attentive.

"Has Edith-?" he began.

She laughed ruefully. "No. Young people are not what they were in my day. Edith is not a bit sentimental."

Maurice was silent. When they reached the hotel, they went upstairs into a vast, bleak parlor, and steered their way among enormous plush armchairs to a sofa. A few electric bulbs, glaring among the glass prisms of a remote chandelier, made a dim light-but not too dim for Mary Houghton to see that Maurice's face was drawn and worried; involuntarily she said:

"You dear boy, I wish you didn't look so careworn!"

"I'm bothered about something," he said.

"Your uncle Henry told me to 'poke around,' and see if you were troubled about money?" she said, smiling.

"Oh, not especially. I'm always more or less strapped. But money isn't worth bothering about, really."

"If you 'consider the stars,' you will find very few things are worth bothering about! Except, of course, wrongdoing."

And, to his own astonishment, he found himself saying, "I'm afraid that's where I come in!" As he spoke, he remembered that night of the eclipse-oh, those moon-washed depths, those stupendous serenities of Law and Beauty which, together, are Truth! How passionately he had desired Truth. And now Mrs. Houghton was saying "Consider the stars." "If I could only tell her!" he thought.

"If the wrongdoing is behind you," said Mary Houghton, "let it go."

"It won't let me go," he said, with nervous lightness. "Though it's behind me, all right!"

Which made her say, gently, "Maurice, perhaps I know what troubles you?" His start made her add, quickly: "Your uncle Henry has never betrayed your confidence; but ... I guessed, long ago, that something had gone wrong. I don't know how wrong-"

"Oh, Mrs. Houghton," he said, despairingly, "awfully wrong! Awfully-awfully wrong!" He put his elbow on his knee, and rested his chin on his clenched fist; she was silent. Then he said: "You've always been an angel to me. I am glad you guessed. Because-I don't know what to do."

"About the woman?"

"No. The boy."

"Oh!" she said; "a child!"

Her dismay was like a blow. "But you said you had 'guessed'?"

"I guessed that there was a woman; but I didn't know-" She put her arm over his shoulders and kissed him. "My poor Maurice!" The tears stood in her eyes.

"I told you it was 'awful,'" he said, simply; "yes, it is my little boy; I'm worried to death about him. Lily-that's her name-is perfectly all right; she means well, and adores him, and all that; but-" Then he told her what Jacky's mother had been and what she was now; and the illustrations he gave of Lily's ignorance of ethical standards made Mary Houghton cringe. "She's ruining the little fellow," he said; "he's not mean nor a coward-I'll say that for him! But he lies whenever he feels like it, and honesty only means not getting 'pinched.' She's awfully ambitious for him; but her idea of success is what she calls 'Society,' Oh, it's such a relief to speak to you, Mrs. Houghton! I haven't a soul I can talk to."

"Maurice, can't you get him?" Her voice was shocked.

He almost laughed. "Wild horses wouldn't drag him from Lily!"

She was silent before the complexity of the situation-the furtive paternity, with its bewildered sense of responsibility, in conflict with the passion of the dam!

"I have to be so infernally secret," Maurice said. "If it wasn't for that, I could train him a little, because he's fond of me," he explained-and for a moment his face relaxed into one of his old charming smiles. "He really is an awfully fine little beggar. I swear I believe he's musical! And he's confoundedly clever. Why, he said-" Mrs. Houghton could have wept with the pitifulness of it! For Maurice went on, like any proud young father, with a story of how his little boy had said this or done that. "But he's fresh, sometimes, and he's the kind that, if he got fresh, ought to be licked. She can't make him mind; but"-here the poor, shamed pride shone again in his blue eyes-"he minds me!"

Mary Houghton was silent; she tried to consider the stars, but her dismay at a child endangered, came between her and the eternal tranquillities. "The boy must be saved," she thought, "at any cost! It isn't a question of Maurice's happiness; it's a question of his obligation."

"This thing of having a secret hanging round your neck is hell!" Maurice told her. "Every minute I think-'Suppose Eleanor should find out?'"

Mrs. Houghton put her hand on his knee. "The only way to escape from the fear of being found out, Maurice, is to be found out. Get rid of the millstone. Tell Eleanor."

"You don't know Eleanor," he said, dryly.

"Yes, I do. She loves you so much that she would forgive you. And with forgiveness would come helpfulness with the little boy. The child is the important one-not you, nor Eleanor, nor the woman. Oh, Maurice, a child is the most precious thing in the world! You must save him!"

"Don't you suppose I want to? But, good God! I'm helpless."

"If you tell Eleanor, you won't be 'helpless.'"

"You don't understand. She's jealous of-of everybody."

"Telling her will prove to her she needn't be jealous of-this person. And the chance to do something for you would mean so much to her. She will forgive you-Eleanor can always do a big thing! Remember the mountain? Maurice! Let her do another great thing for you. Let her help you save your child, by making it possible for you to be open and aboveboard, and see him all you want to-all you ought to. Oh, Maurice dear, it would have been better, of course, if you had told Eleanor at first. You wouldn't have had to carry this awful load for all these years. But tell her now! Give her the chance to be generous. Let her help you to do your duty to the little boy. Maurice, his character, and his happiness, are your job! Just as much your job as if he had been Eleanor's child, instead of the child of this woman. Perhaps more so, for that reason. Don't you see that? Tell Eleanor, so that you can save him!"

The appeal was like a bugle note. Maurice-discouraged, thwarted, hopeless-heard it, and his heart quickened. This inverted idea of recompense-of making up to Eleanor for having secretly robbed her, by telling her she had been robbed!-stirred some hope in him. He did not love his wife; he was profoundly tired of her; but suppose, now, he did throw himself upon her generosity and give her a chance to prove that love which was a daily fatigue to him? Mere Truth would, as Mrs. Houghton said, go far toward saving Jacky. He was silent for a long time. Then Mary Houghton said:

"I ought to tell you, Maurice, that Henry-who is the very best man in the world, as well as the wisest!-doesn't agree with me about this matter of confession. He doesn't understand women! He thinks you ought not to tell Eleanor."

"I know. He said so. That first night, when I told him the whole hideous business, he said so. And I thought he was right. I'm afraid I still think so."

"He was wrong. Maurice, save the child! Tell Eleanor."

"That is what Edith said."

"Edith!" Mary Houghton was stupefied.

"Oh, not about this. I only mean Edith said once, 'Don't have a secret from Eleanor.'"

"She was right," Edith's mother said, getting her breath.

Then they were silent again. A distant measure of ragtime floated up from the lobby; once, as a heavy team passed down in the street, the chandelier swayed, and little lights flickered among the faintly clicking prisms. Mrs. Houghton looked at him-and looked away. Maurice was thirty-one; his face was patient and melancholy; the old crinkling laughter rarely made gay wrinkles about his eyes, yet wrinkles were there, and his lips were cynical. Suddenly, he turned and struck his hand on hers:

"I'll do it," he said....

Late that night Henry Houghton, listening to his Mary's story of this talk, looked almost frightened. "Mary, it's an awful risk-Eleanor will never stand up to it!"

"I think she will."

"My dear, when it comes to children, you-with your stars!-get down to the elemental straighter than I do; I know that! And I admit that it is terrible for Maurice's child to be scrapped, as he will be if he is brought up by this impossible person. But as for Eleanor's helping Maurice to save him from the scrap heap, you overlook the fact that to tell a jealous woman that she has cause for jealousy is about as safe as to take a lighted match into a powder magazine. There'll be an explosion."

"Well," she said, "suppose there is?"

"Good heavens, Mary! Do you realize what that means? She'll leave him!"

"I don't believe she will," his wife said, "but if she does, he can at least see all he wants of the boy. He seems to be an unusually bright child."

Her husband nodded. "Yes; Nature isn't shocked at illegitimacy; and God doesn't penalize it."

"But you do," she said, quickly, "when you won't admit that Jacky is the crux of the whole thing! It isn't poor Maurice who ought to be considered, nor that sad, tragic old Eleanor; nor the dreadful person in Medfield. But just that little child-whom Maurice has brought into the world."

"Do you mean," her husband said, aghast, "that if Eleanor saw fit to divorce him, you think he should marry this 'Lily,' so that he could get the child?"

She did shrink at that. "Well-" she hesitated.

He saw his advantage, and followed it: "He couldn't get complete possession in any other way! Unless he were legally the father, the woman could, at any minute, carry off this-what did you say his name was?-Jacky?-to Kamchatka, if she wanted to! Or she might very well marry somebody else; that kind do. Then Maurice wouldn't have any finger in the pie! No; really to get control of the child, he'd have to marry her, which, as you yourself admit, is impossible."

"I don't admit it."

"Mary! You must be reasonable; you know it would be shocking! So why not keep things as they are? Why run the risk of an explosion, by confessing to Eleanor?"

Mary Houghton pondered, silently.

"Kit," he said, "this is a 'condition and not a theory'; the woman was-was common, you know. Maurice doesn't owe her anything; he has paid the piper ten times over! Any further payment, like ruining his career by 'making an honest woman' of her,-granting an explosion and then Eleanor's divorcing him,-would be not only wrong, but ridiculous; which is worse! Maurice is an able fellow; I rather expect to see him go in for politics one of these days. Imagine this 'Lily' at the head of his table! Or even imagine her as a fireside companion!"

"It would be terrible," she admitted-her voice trembled-"but Jacky's life is more important than Maurice's dinner table. And fireside happiness is less important than the meeting of an obligation! Henry, Maurice made a bad woman Jacky's mother; he owes her nothing. But do you mean to say that you don't think he owes the child a decent father?"

"My darling," Henry Houghton said, tenderly, "you are really a little crazy. You are like your stars, you so 'steadfastly pursue your shining,' that you fail to see that, in this dark world of men, there has to be compromise. If this impossible situation should arise-which God forbid!-if the explosion should come, and Eleanor should leave him, of course Maurice wouldn't marry the woman! I should consider him a candidate for an insane asylum if he thought of such a thing. He would simply do what he could for the boy, and that would be the end of it."

"Oh," she said, "don't you see? It would be the beginning of it!-The beginning of an evil influence in the world; a bad little boy, growing into a bad man-and his own father permitting it! But," she ended, with a sudden uplifted look, "the 'situation,' as you call it, won't arise; Eleanor will prevent it! Eleanor will save Jacky."

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