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   Chapter 29 No.29

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 11235

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

From the day of the circus, Jacky became, to Eleanor, not a symbol of Maurice's unfaithfulness, but a hope for the future. The thought of his mother was only the scar of a wound, which Maurice, in some single slashing moment, had made in her heart. She was crippled by it, of course. But the wound had healed so she could forget the scar-because Maurice had never loved Lily, never found her "interesting," never wanted to wander about with her, in a dark garden, and talk

Of shoes-and ships-and sealing wax- And cabbages-and kings ...

To be sure the scar ached dully once in a while; but Eleanor knew that if she could get possession of Jacky she would be protected against other wounds-wounds which would never heal! She said to herself that Maurice would never think of Edith Houghton if he had Jacky! But how should she get Jacky?

For months she revolved countless schemes to persuade Lily to resign him; schemes so futile that Maurice, listening to them every night when he got home from the office, was touched, of course; but by and by he was also a little uneasy. He had told her where Lily lived, then regretted it, for once she walked up and down before the house on Maple Street for an hour, hoping to see "the woman," but failing, because Lily and Jacky happened to be in town that afternoon.

"I have a great mind to steal him for you!" she said, telling Maurice of her fruitless effort.

He protested, too disturbed at her mere presence on Lily's street to notice her attempt at a joke. "If Lily should imagine that we were interested in Jacky, she'd run!" he explained; "it's dangerous, Nelly, really. You mustn't go near her!"

She promised she wouldn't; but every day of that Mercer winter of low-hanging smoke and damp chilliness, she longed to get possession of the child-first to make Maurice happy; then with the craving, driving, elemental desire for maternity; and then for self-protection,-Jacky would vanquish Edith!

So she brooded: a child!

"If I could only get him, it wouldn't be 'just us'!" ... "A boy's clothes are not as pretty as a girl's, but a little rough suit would be awfully attractive.... I'd give him music lessons.... We could go out to our field in June. And he would take off his shoes and stockings and wade!" How foolish Edith's grown-up childishness of wading looked, compared to the scene which she visualized-a little, handsome boy, standing in the shallow rippling water, bareheaded, probably; the sunshine sifting down through the locust blossoms and touching that thatch of yellow hair, and glinting into those blue eyes. "He would call me 'Mamma'!" Then she hummed to herself, "'O Spring!' Oh, I must have him!" Her hope became such an obsession that its irrationality did not strike her. It was so in her mind that she even spoke of it once to Mrs. Houghton. "I know you know?" she said; "Maurice told me he told you."

Mary Houghton said, hesitatingly, "I think I know what you mean."

This was in March. Mrs. Houghton and Edith were in town for a few days' shopping, and of course they meant to see Eleanor. "I'll go to the dressmaker's," Edith had told her mother, "and then I'll corral Maurice, and we'll drop in on Mrs. Newbolt, and then I'll meet you at Eleanor's. I don't hanker for a long call on Eleanor." Edith's gayly candid face hardened.

So it was that Mrs. Houghton had arrived ahead of her girl, and the two older women were alone before a little smoldering fire in the library. Eleanor had left her tea tray to go across the room and give little helpless Bingo a lump of sugar. "He only eats what I give him," she said; "dear old Bingo! I think he actually suffers, he's so jealous." Then, pouring Mrs. Houghton's tea, she suddenly spoke: "I know you-know?" When Mary Houghton said, gravely, yes, she "knew," Eleanor said, "Oh, Mrs. Houghton, Maurice and I are nearer to each other than we ever were before!"

"That's as it should be. And as I knew it would be, too. You've done a noble thing, Eleanor."

"No! No! Don't say that! It was nothing. Because I-love him so. And he never cared for that woman. She has no brains, he says. But what I want is to get the boy for him. Oh, he must have the boy!" Then she told Mrs. Houghton how Maurice went to see the child. "He goes once a week, though he says she's jealous if he makes too many suggestions; so he has to be very careful or she would get angry. But he has managed it so I have seen him; last summer he took him to the circus, and I sat near them. And twice he's had him in the park and I spoke to him. And on Christmas he took him to the movies; I sat beside him. And I buttoned his coat when he went out!" Her eyes were rapt.

Mary Houghton, listening, said to herself, "Now what will Henry Houghton say about the 'explosion'? I shall rub it into him when I get home!" ... "Eleanor, you are magnificent!" she said.

"But how could I do anything else-if I loved Maurice?" Eleanor said. "Oh, I do want him to have Jacky! We must make a man of him. It would be wicked to let Lily ruin him! And I want to give him music lessons. He has Maurice's blue eyes."

It was infinitely pathetic, this woman with gray hair, telling of her young husband's joy in his little son-who was not hers. And Eleanor's sense of the paramount importance of the child gave Mrs. Houghton a new and real respect for her. Aloud, she agreed heartily with the statement that Jacky must be saved from Lily.

"She isn't bad," Eleanor explained; "but she's just like an animal, Maurice says. Devoted to Jacky, but no more idea of right and wrong than-than Bingo!" She was so happy tha

t she laughed, and looked almost young-but at that moment the street door opened, closed, and in the hall some one else laughed. Instantly Eleanor looked old. "It's Edith," she said, coldly.

It was-with Maurice in tow. "I haled him forth from his office," Edith said; "and we went to see your aunt, Eleanor. She's a lamb!"

"Tea?" Eleanor said, briefly.

"Yes, indeed!" Edith said. She looked very pretty-cheeks glowing and brown hair flying about the rounded brim of a brown fur toque.

Maurice, keeping an eye on her, was gently kind to his wife. "Head better, Nelly?" Then, having secured his tea, he drew Edith over to the window and they went on with some discussion which had paused as they entered the house.

Eleanor, watching them, and making another cup of tea for Mrs. Houghton, spilled the boiling water on the tray and on her own hand.

"My dear!" said Mrs. Houghton, "you have scalded yourself!"

And, indeed, Eleanor whitened with the pain of her smarting, puffing fingers. But she said, her eyes fixed on Edith, "What are they talking about?" Mrs. Houghton's look of surprise made her add: "Edith seems so interested. I just wondered...." She had caught a phrase or two:

"I can take the spring course,-it's three months. I think our University Domestic Science Department is just every bit as good as any of the Eastern ones."

"Where did you two meet each other?" Eleanor called, sharply.

"Why, I told you," Edith said, coming over to the tea table; "I dragged him from his desk!"

"Come, Edith, we must go," Mrs. Houghton said, rising.

"Why don't you stay to dinner?" Maurice urged-but Eleanor was silent. "If you are in town next week, Skeezics, you've got to put up here. Understand? Tell her so, Eleanor!"

Eleanor said nothing. Mrs. Houghton said she was afraid it wouldn't be convenient.

Eleanor said nothing.

"Of course you will come here!" Maurice said; he was sharply angry at his wife.

In the momentary and embarrassing pause, the color flew into Edith's face, but she was elaborately indifferent. "Good-by, Eleanor; good-by, Maurice!"

"I'm going to escort you to the hotel," Maurice said; and, over his shoulder to Eleanor: "I've got to rush off to St. Louis to-night, Eleanor. That Greenleaf business. Has Mrs. O'Brien brought my things home?"'

"I'll see," she said, mechanically....

Nobody had much to say on that walk to the hotel; but when Maurice had left them, and the two ladies were in their room, Edith faced her mother:

"What is the matter?"

"You mean with Eleanor? She has a headache, I suppose."

"Mother, don't squirm! You know just as well as I do that she doesn't want me to stay with them. Why not?" She did not wait for an answer, which, indeed, her mother could not immediately find. "Well, Heaven knows I'm not pining to be with her! I shall run in to-morrow morning, and tell her that Mrs. Newbolt asked me to stay with her.... Mother, how could Maurice have fallen in love with Eleanor?" Her voice trembled; she went over to the window and stood looking down into the street; her hands were clenched behind her, and her soft young chin was rigid. "He was just a boy," she said; her eyes were blurring so that the street was a gray fog; "how could Eleanor?" It seemed as if her own ardent, innocent body felt the recoil of Maurice's youth from Eleanor's age! She thought of that dark place in his past, which she had accepted with pain, but always with defending excuses; she excused him again, now, in her thoughts: "Eleanor was impossible! That's why somebody else ... caught him. And it was long ago. And Eleanor's old enough to be his mother. He never could have loved her!" Suddenly she had a fleeting, but real, pity for Eleanor: "Poor thing!" Aloud she said, huskily, over her shoulder, "If she had really loved him, she wouldn't have done such a terrible thing as marry him."

Mrs. Houghton, reading the evening paper, said, briefly, "She loves him now, my dear."

"Oh!" Edith said, passionately, "sometimes I am sorry for Eleanor-and then the next minute I perfectly hate her!"

"She was only forty when she married him," Mary Houghton said; "that isn't old at all! And I have always been sorry for her." She looked up over her spectacles at the tense young figure by the window, outlined against the yellow sunset; saw those clenched hands, heard the impetuous voice break on a word,-and forgot Eleanor in a more intimate anxiety: "Of course," she said, "such a difference in age as there is between Maurice and Eleanor is a pity. But Maurice is devoted to her, and with reason. She has been generous when he has been unkind. I happen to know that."

"Maurice couldn't be unkind!"

Her mother ignored this. "And remember another thing, Edith: It isn't years that decide whether a marriage is a failure. One of the happiest marriages I ever knew was between a woman of fifty and a man of thirty. You see-" she paused, and took off her spectacles, and tapped the arm of her chair, thoughtfully: "You see, Edith, you don't understand. You are so appallingly young! You think Love speaks only through the senses. My dear, Love's highest speech is in the Spirit; the language of the senses is only it's pretty, stammering, divine baby-talk!" Edith was silent. Her mother went on: "Yes, it isn't age that decides things. It's selfishness or unselfishness. At present Eleanor is extraordinarily unselfish, so I believe they may yet be very happy."

"Oh, I hope so, of course," Edith said-and put up a furtive finger to wipe first one cheek, and then the other.... "Poor Maurice!" she said.

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