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   Chapter 30 No.30

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 11692

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


When Maurice got back to the firelit library, he said, filling his pipe with rather elaborate attention, and trying to speak with good-natured carelessness, "I'm afraid Edith thought you didn't want her, Nelly." He was sorry the next moment that he had said even as much as that: Eleanor was breathing quickly, and her dark, sad eyes were hard with anger.

"I don't," she said

Maurice said, sharply, "You have never liked her!"

"Why should I like her? She talks to you incessantly. And now, she looks at you; here-before me! Looks at you."

"Eleanor, what on earth-"

"Oh, I saw her, when you were talking over there by the window; I watched her. She looked at you! I am not blind. I understand what it means when a girl looks at a man that way. And now she's planning to be in Mercer for three months? Well, that's simply to be near you. She'd like to live in the same house with you, I suppose! If it wasn't for me, she'd be in love with you-perhaps she is, anyhow? Yes, I think she is." There was a sick silence. "And, perhaps," she said, with a gasp, "you are in love with her?"

He was dumb. The suddenness of the attack completely routed him-its suddenness; but more than its suddenness was a leaping question in his own mind. When she said, "You are in love with her?" an appalled "Am I?" was on his lips. Instantly he knew, what he had not known, at any rate articulately, that he was in love with Edith. His thoughts broke in galloping confusion; his hand, holding the hot bowl of his pipe, trembled. He tried to speak, stammered, said, with a sort of gasp, "Don't-don't say a thing like that!" Then he got his breath, and ended, with a composure that kept his words slow and his voice cold, "It is terrible to say a thing like that to me."

She flung out her hands. "What more can I do for you than I have done? Oh, Maurice-Maurice, no woman could love you more than I do?... Could they?"

"I am grateful; I-" He tried to speak gently, but his voice had begun to shake with angry terror; it was abominable, this thing she had said! (But ... it was true.) "No; no woman could have done more for me than you have, Eleanor; I am grateful."

"Grateful? Yes. You give me gratitude." Maurice was speechless. "I thought, perhaps, you loved me," she said. A minute later he heard her going upstairs to her own room.

He stood staring after her, open-mouthed. Then he said, under his breath, "Good God!" After a while he went over to the fireplace, and, standing with one hand on the mantelpiece, he kicked the charred logs on the hearth together. "This room is cold. I must build the fire up.... Yes, it's true.... The wood is too green to burn. I'll order from another man next time.... I suppose I've been in love with her for a good while. I wonder if it began that night Jacky was sick ... and she kissed me? No; it must have been before that." He stooped and mended the fire, piling the logs together with slow exactness: "What life might have been!" He took up the bellows and urged a little flame to rise and flicker and lap the wood, then burst to crackling blaze. After a while he said, "Poor Nelly!" But he had himself in hand by that time, and, though this terrifying knowledge was surging in him, he knew that his voice would not betray him. He went upstairs to comfort her with kindly assurances that she was wrong. ("More lies," he thought, wearily.)

But apparently she didn't need comforting! She was smoothing her hair before the glass, and seemed perfectly calm. He had expected tears, and violent reproaches, which he was prepared to meet with either good-natured ridicule or quiet falsehood, as the occasion might demand. But nothing was demanded. She continued to brush her hair; so he found it quite easy to come up behind her and lay a hand on her shoulder, and say, "Nelly, dear, that wasn't a nice thing to say!"

She did not meet his eyes in the mirror; she only said (she was trembling), "I suppose it wasn't."

Maurice was puzzled, but he said, casually, that he was sorry to have to rush off that night. "I've got to take the Limited for St. Louis. Mr. Weston wants some papers put through. I hate to leave you."

She made no answer.

"I shall be gone a week, maybe more; because if I don't pull the chestnut out of the fire in St. Louis, I'll have to go to some other places."

She hardly heard him; she was saying to herself: "I oughtn't to have told him she was in love with him; it may make him think so, himself!"

"Guess I'll pack my grip now," he said.

"Maurice," she said, breathlessly, "I didn't mean-" She was so frightened that she couldn't finish her sentence; but he said, with kindly understanding:

"Of course you didn't!"

It flashed into her mind that if she left him alone, he would know that what she had said was so meaningless that she didn't think it worth talking about. "I-I'm going to Auntie's to dinner," she told him, on the spur of the moment. "Do you mind?"

"No; of course not. Wait a second, and I'll walk round with you."

She said, unsteadily, "Oh no; you've got your packing to do-" Then she kissed him swiftly, and hurried downstairs.

"But Eleanor, wait!" he called; "I'll go with-"

She had gone. He heard the front door close. He stood still in his perplexity. What was the matter? She had got over that jealousy of Edith in an instant; got over it, and accepted his departure without all those wearying protestations of love and loneliness to which he was accustomed. "Is she angry," he told himself; "or just ashamed of having been so foolish?" Mechanically, he picked out some neckties from his drawer, and paused.... "But she wasn't foolish. I do love Edith.... How did she get on to it? She is so good to me about Jacky-and I love Edith!" He went on packing his grip. "I wonder if any man ever paid as I am paying?-I'll c

all her up at Mrs. Newbolt's, before I go, and say good-by."

No doubt he would have done so, but when he went downstairs he found Johnny Bennett, smoking comfortably before that very cheerful little fire.

"I dropped in," said Johnny, "to ask for some dinner."

"If you'll take pot luck," said Maurice; "Eleanor isn't at home, and I don't know what the lady below stairs will work off on us." (It would be a relief, he thought, to have somebody at table, so that he would not be alone with his own confusion.)

"I came," Johnny said, "to tell you I'm off."

"Off? When? Where to? I thought your electric performances were panning out so well-"

"Oh, they're panning out all right," John said; "but they'll pan out better in South America. I'm going the first of the month."

"South America! What's the matter with Pennsylvania?"

"Well," Johnny said; "I thought I'd light out-"

Then they began to talk climate, and consulates, which carried them through dinner, and went on in the library, and Maurice's surface interest in Johnny's affairs, at least kept him from thinking of his own dismay.

"But I supposed," he said, and paused, "I sort of thought you-had reasons for staying round here?"

"There's no use hanging round," John said; "it's better to pull out altogether. It's easier that way," he said, simply. "So I'm off for a year. They wanted me to sign for three years, but I said, 'one.' Things may look better for me when I get home."

Maurice, standing with his back to the fire, his hands in his pocket, looked down at the steady youngster-looked at the mild eyes behind those large spectacles, looked at the clean, strong lines of the jaw and forehead. A good fellow. A very good fellow. He wondered why Edith wouldn't take him? ("It couldn't make any difference to me," he thought; "and I want her to be happy.")

"Johnny," he said, "you can say, 'Mind your business,' before I begin, if you want to. But I don't think anybody's cutting you out? Better 'try, try again.'"

Johnny took his pipe from his mouth, bent forward to shake the ashes out of it, and stared into the fire. Then he said, clearing his throat once or twice: "I've bothered her, 'trying,' I thought I'd start on a new tack."

"You'll get her yet!" Maurice encouraged him. He wondered, as he spoke, how he could speak so lightly, urging old Johnny to go ahead and make another stab at it, and, maybe, "get her"! He wondered if he was looking at things the way the dead look at the living? He was not, he thought, suffering, as he had suffered in those first moments when Eleanor had flung the truth at him. "You'll get her yet," he said, vaguely.

Johnny took out his tobacco pouch, and began to fill his pipe, poking his thumb down into the bowl with slow precision, then holding it on a level with his eyes and squinting at it, to make sure it was smooth; he seemed profoundly engrossed by that pipe-but he put it in his mouth without lighting it.

"Well, I don't know," he said; "I haven't an awful lot of hope that I'll ever get her. But I thought I'd try this way. Maybe, if she doesn't see me for a year...."

"There's nobody ahead of you, anyway," Maurice said, absently.

"Well, I don't know," John Bennett said again.

His voice was so harsh that Maurice's preoccupation sharpened into uneasy attention. Johnny's hopes and fears had not really touched him. His encouraging platitudes were only a way of smothering his own thoughts. But that, "Well, I don't know-" woke a keenly attentive fear: was there anybody else? ("Not that that could make any difference to me.")

"You 'don't know'?" he said; "how do you mean? You think there is somebody?"

Johnny Bennett was silent; he had an impulse to say "you are several kinds of a fool, old man." But he was silent.

"Why, Great Scott!" Maurice protested. "Buried up there in the mountains, she hardly knows a fellow-except you!-and me," he added, with a laugh.

"I think," said John, huskily, "she has ... some kind of an ideal up her sleeve. And I don't fill the bill. Imagination, you know. A-a sort of Sir Walter Raleigh business. Remember how she was always sort of dotty on Sir Walter Raleigh? An ideal, don't you know"; Johnny rambled on: "Girls are that way. Only Edith's the kind that sticks to things."

"'Try, try again,'" said Maurice, mechanically; but his blood suddenly pounded in his ears.

"I'm going to," Johnny said, calmly; and began to talk South America. Indeed, he talked so long that Maurice, catching sight of the clock, exclaimed that he would have to run!

"Johnny, get Eleanor on the wire, will you; at Mrs. Newbolt's, and tell her I'd have called her up, but I got delayed, and had to leg it to catch the train? Or maybe you wouldn't mind going round there, and walking home with her?"

"Glad to," said Johnny.

When Maurice, swinging on to the last platform of the last Pullman, was able to sit down in his section, he was absorbed in Johnny Bennett's affairs. "What did he mean by saying that? Did he mean-" Johnny's enigmatical words rang in his ears; "I said to 'try again; nobody was cutting him out.' And he said 'She has some kind of an ideal up her sleeve.' ... 'A Sir Walter Raleigh business' ..."

Johnny Bennett, walking toward Mrs. Newbolt's, was also thinking, in his calm way, of just what he had said there by Maurice's fireside. "Of course he doesn't see why she hasn't fallen in love with anybody else. Any decent fellow would be stupid about that sort of thing. But it's been that way ever since she was a child. And I've loved her ever since then, too. All the same, I'll only sign up for a year. Then I'll make another stab at it ..."

When he rang Mrs. Newbolt's doorbell, and was told that Eleanor had not been there, he was perplexed. "I must have misunderstood Maurice," he thought.

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