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   Chapter 28 No.28

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 9903

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Those next weeks were full of plans and hopes on Eleanor's part, and gratitude on Maurice's part. But she would not let him say that he was grateful, or that she was generous; he had told her, of course, how Mrs. Houghton had guessed long ago what had happened, and how she had urged him to trust his wife's nobility-but Eleanor would not let him call her "noble"; "Don't say it! And don't be 'grateful,' I just love you," she said; "and if you only knew what it means to me to be able to do anything for you! It's so long since you've needed me, Maurice."

The pathos of her sense of uselessness made his eyes sting. "I couldn't get along without you," he told her.

Once, on a rainy April Sunday morning, when they were talking about Jacky (Maurice had gone to see him the day before, and was gnashing his teeth over some cheerful obliquity on the part of Lily)-Maurice said, emphatically: "Gosh! Nelly, I don't know what I'd do without you!"

She, sitting on a stool at his side (and looking, poor woman! old enough to be his mother), was radiant.

"And you don't enjoy talking to Lily?" she said-just for the happiness of hearing, again, his horrified protest, "I should say not! There's nothing she can talk about."

"She doesn't know about books and things? She hasn't-brains?"

"Brains? She probably never read anything in her life! She has lots of sense, but no intellect. She hasn't an idea beyond food and flowers-and Jacky."

"I wish I had her idea about food," Eleanor said, simply.

It was her fairness toward Lily that amazed him; it made him reproach himself for his stupidity in not having confessed to her long ago! "Why was I such a fool, Eleanor, as not to know that you were a big woman? Mrs. Houghton knew it. Why, even Edith knew it! She told me you'd forgive anything."

"What!" She rose abruptly and stood looking at him with suddenly angry eyes. "Does Edith know?" she said.

"No! Of course she doesn't know-this! But one day she and I were taking a walk, and I was thinking what a devilish mess I was in.... And I suppose Edith saw I was down by the head, and she got to talking about you-"

"You let her talk about me!"

"She was saying how perfectly fine you had been about the mountain-"

"I don't need Edith Houghton's approval of my conduct, Maurice." She was trembling, and her face was quite pale. He rushed in deeper than ever:

"I was only saying I felt so-badly, because I had failed to make you happy. Of course I didn't say how! And she said, 'Don't have any secrets from Eleanor!'"

"So it was Edith who made you-"

For a moment Maurice was too dismayed to speak; besides, he didn't know what to say. What he did say was that she misunderstood him. "Good heavens! Eleanor, you didn't think I'd tell Edith a thing like that? Or that I'd tell any woman, when I didn't tell you? But Edith knew you better than I did; she said no matter what I'd done (I just happened to say I was a skunk), you loved me enough to forgive me. And you have forgiven me."

"Yes," she said, in a whisper; "I've forgiven you."

She went over to the window, and stood perfectly silent. It was raining steadily; the river, a block away, was hidden in the yellow fog; down in the yard, the tables and chairs under the poplar dripped and dripped. As for Maurice, it was as if some dark finger had stretched out and touched a bubble.... She was the same Eleanor.

But he did not dwell upon this revealing moment; it was enough that at last he could stop lying, and that Eleanor would help him about Jacky! He called her back from the window and made her sit down again beside him, pretending not to see how her hands were trembling. Then he went on talking about Jacky.

"His latest achievement is an infernal mouth harmonicon."

She said, listlessly, "I wish I could give him music lessons."

"He's crazy about music; trails hand organs all over Medfield!" Maurice said, with a great effort to be cheerfully casual; "but, Heaven knows, I'd be glad if you could give him lessons in anything! Manners, for instance. He hasn't any. Or grammar; I told him not to say 'ain't,' and, if you please! he told his mother she mustn't say it! Lily got on her ear."

She smiled faintly. "I wish I could see him," she said.

She had urged this more than once, but it had not seemed practicable. "I can't bring him here," Maurice explained; "he'd blurt out to Lily where he'd been, and she'd get uneasy. Even as it is, I live in dread that she'll pack up and clear out with him."

"She shan't take him away!" Eleanor said; she was eager again;-after all, Edith, for all her impertinence in advising Maurice how to treat his wife!-Edith could not break in upon an intimacy like this!

Her incessant talk about Jacky (which might have bored Maurice just a little, if it had not touched him) gave her, in some subtle, spiritual way, a sense of approaching motherhood: she made preparations! She planned littl

e gifts for him;-Maurice had told her of Jacky's lively interest in benefits to come; once, she thought, "I suppose he's too old to have one of those funny papers in his room? I saw such a pretty one to-day, little rabbits in trousers!"-For by this time she had determined that, somehow, she would get possession of him! In these maternal moments she feared no rivalry from Edith Houghton. Jacky would save her from Edith!

"Oh, Maurice! I must see him," she said once.

"I'll fix it so you can," he told her. But it was two months before he was able to fix it; then "Forepaws" came to town, and the way was clear! He would take Jacky, and Eleanor should go and have a seat near by, and come up and speak to the youngster, as any admiring stranger might, and, indeed, often did, for Jacky was a striking child-his eyes blue and keen, his skin very clear, and his cheeks glowing with health. "If he goes home and tells Lily a lady spoke to him," Maurice said, "she won't think anything of it."

"May I give him some candy?"

"No; he has too much of it as it is; get one of those tin horns for him. He'll raise Cain for Lily, I suppose; but we won't have to listen to him!" (That "we" so fed Eleanor's starved soul, that she thought of Edith Houghton with a sort of gay contempt: "I'm not afraid of her!")

The plan for seeing Jacky went through easily enough. "I'll take that boy of yours to the circus," Maurice told Lily, carelessly, one day.

"Why, that's awful kind in you, Mr. Curtis; but ain't you afraid somebody'll see you luggin' a child around?"

"Lots of men take kids to the circus-just as an excuse to go themselves."

So Maurice and the eight-year-old Jacky, in a new sailor suit, and a face so clean that it shone, walked in among the gilded cages, felt the sawdust under their feet, smelled the wild animals, heard the yelps of the jackals, the booming roar of lions, and the screeching chatter of the monkeys. And as Jacky dragged his father from cage to cage, a yard or two behind them came Eleanor.... Now and then, over Jacky's head, she caught Maurice's eye; and they both smiled.

When a speechless Jacky was taken into the central tent to sit on a narrow bench, and drink pink lemonade and eat peanuts, Eleanor was quite near him. He was unconscious of her presence-unconscious of everything! except the blare of the band, the elephants, the performing dogs-especially the poor, strained performing dogs! He never spoke once; his eyes were fixed on the rings; he didn't see his father watching him, amused and proud; still less did he see the lady who had been at his heels in the animal tent, and who now kept her mournful dark eyes on his face. When the last horse gave the last kick and trotted out through the exit, with its mysterious canvas walls, Jacky was in a daze of bliss. He sat, open-mouthed, staring at the empty, trampled sawdust.

"Come along, young man!" Maurice said; "do you want to stay here all night?"

"I'm going to be a circus rider," said Jacky, solemnly.

It was then that the "lady" spoke to him-her voice broke twice: "Well, little boy, did you like the circus?" the lady said. She was so pale that Maurice put his hand on her arm.

"Better sit down, Nelly," he said, kindly, under his breath.

She shook her head. "No ... Jacky, don't you want to tell me your name?"

"But you know my name," said Jacky, with a bored look.

Maurice gave her a warning glance, and she tried to cover her blunder: "I heard your father-I mean this gentleman-call you 'Jacky,'" she explained-panting, for Maurice's quick frown frightened her. "Here's a present for you," she said.

"Present!" said Jacky-and made a joyous grab at the horn, which he immediately put to his lips; but before it could emit its ear-piercing screech, Maurice struck it down.

"Where are your manners? Say 'Thank you' to the lady."

Jacky sighed, but murmured, "'Ank you."

Eleanor, her chin trembling, said: "May I kiss him?"

"'Course," Maurice said, huskily.

She bent down and kissed him with trembling lips-"Ach!-you make me all wet," Jacky said, frowning at her tears on his rosy cheek.

Later, as Maurice pulled his reluctant son out on to the pavement, he was so moved that he almost forgot that she was still the old Eleanor; he didn't even listen to his little boy's passionate assertion that he would be a flying-trapeze man. As he walked along beside his wife to put her on the car he spoke with great tenderness:

"I'll leave him at Lily's, and then I'll come right home, dear, and we'll talk things over."

When he and his son got back to Maple Street, Jacky was blowing that infernal horn so that the whole neighborhood was aware of his ecstasy. Lily, waiting for them at the gate, put her hands over her ears.

"My soul and body! For the land's sake, stop! Who give you that horrid thing?"

"An old lady," said Jacky-and blew a shattering screech on Eleanor's horn.

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