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   Chapter 31 No.31

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 14711

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Eleanor had no intention of going to Mrs. Newbolt's. "She'd talk Edith to me!" she said to herself; "I can't understand why she likes her!" Instead of dining with her aunt, she meant to walk about the streets until she was sure that Maurice had started for the train; then she would go back to her own house. So she wandered down the avenue until, tired of looking with unseeing eyes into shop windows, it occurred to her to go into the park; there, on a bench on one of the unfrequented paths, she sat down, hoping that no one would recognize her; it was cold, and she shivered and looked at her watch. Only six o'clock! It would be two hours before Maurice would leave the house for the station. It seemed absurd to be here in the dampness of the March evening; but she couldn't go home and get into any discussion with him; she might burst out again about Edith!-which always made him angry. She wished that she had not told him that Edith was in love with him. "It ought to disgust him, but it might flatter him!" And she oughtn't to have said that other thing; she oughtn't to have accused him of caring for Edith. "Of course he doesn't. And it was a horrid thing to say. I was angry, because I was jealous; but it wasn't true. I wish I hadn't said it. I'll write to him, and ask him to forgive me." But the other thing was true: "I saw it in her eyes! She loves him. But I oughtn't to have put the idea into his head!"

The more she thought of what she had put into Maurice's head, the more uneasy she became. Oh, if she only had Jacky! Then, Edith could be as brazen as she pleased, and Maurice would never notice her! "Of course he doesn't love her; I'm certain of that!" she said again and again,-and all her schemes, wise and foolish, for getting possession of the boy, began to crowd into her mind.

Then an idea came to her which fairly took her breath away! A perfectly wild idea, which she dared not stop to analyze: suppose, instead of sitting here in the cold, she should go, now, boldly, to Lily, and ask for Jacky? "I believe I could persuade her to give him to us! She wouldn't do it for Maurice, but she might for me!"

She got on her feet with a spring! Her spiritual energy was like her physical energy that night on the mountain. Again she was lifting-lifting! This time it was the weight of a Love which might die! She was dragging it, carrying it! her very soul straining under her purpose of keeping it alive by the touch of a child's hand! ... Why not go and see Lily now? "She'll have finished her supper by the time I get to her house; it's at the very end of Maple Street!" If Lily consented, Eleanor might even get back to her own house in time to see Maurice, and tell him what she had accomplished before he started for his train! But she would have to hurry....

She actually ran out of the park toward the street; then stood for an endless five minutes, waiting for the Medfield car. "Perhaps I can make her let me bring Jacky home with me!" she said-which showed to what heights beyond common sense she had risen.

At the little house on Maple Street she rang the bell, though she had a crazy impulse to bang upon the door to hurry Lily! But she rang, and rang again, before she heard a child's voice: "Maw. Somebody at the door."

"Well, go open it, can't you?"

She heard little scuffing steps on the oilcloth in the hall; then the door opened, and Jacky stood there. He fixed his blue, impersonal eyes upon her, and waited.

"Is your mother in?" Eleanor said, breathlessly.

"Yes, ma'am," said Jacky.

"Who is it?" Lily called to him; she was somewhere in the back of the house, and Eleanor could hear the clatter of dishes being gathered up from an unseen supper table. Jacky, unable to answer his mother's question, was calmly silent.

"My land! That child's a reg'lar dummy! Jacky, who is it?"

"I do' know," Jacky called back.

"I am Mrs. Curtis," Eleanor said; "I want to see your mother."

"She says," Jacky called-then paused, because it occurred to him to hang on to the door knob and swing back and forth, his heels scraping over the oilcloth; "she says," said Jacky, "she's Mrs. Curtis."

The noise of the dishes stopped short. In the dining room Lily stood stock-still; "My God!" she said. Then her eyes narrowed and her jaw set; she whipped off her apron and turned down her sleeves; she had made up her mind: "I'll lie it through."

She came out in the hall, which was scented with rose geraniums and reeked with the smell of bacon fat, and said, with mincing politeness, "Were you wishing to see me?"

"Yes," Eleanor said.

"Step right in," said Lily, opening the parlor door. "Won't you be seated?" Then she struck a match on the sole of her shoe, lit the gas, blew out the match, and turned to look at her visitor. She put her hand over her mouth and gasped. Under her breath she said, "His mother!"

"Mrs. Dale," Eleanor began-

"Well, there!" said Lily, pleasantly (but she was pale); "I guess you have the advantage of me. What did you say your name was?"

"My name is Curtis. Mrs. Dale, I-I know about your little boy."

"Is that so?" Lily said, with the simper proper when speaking to strangers.

"I mean," Eleanor said, "I know about-" her lips were so dry she stopped to moisten them-"about Mr. Curtis and you."

"I ain't acquainted with your son."

Eleanor caught her breath, but went on, "I haven't come to reproach you."

Lily tossed her head. "Reproach? Me? Well, I must say, I don't see no cause why you should! I don't know no Mr. Curtis!" She was alertly on guard for Maurice; "I guess you've mixed me up with some other lady."

"Please!" Eleanor said; "I know. He told me-about Jacky."

Instantly Lily's desire to defend Maurice was tempered by impatience with him; the idea of him letting on to his mother! Then, noticing her boy, who was silently observing the caller from the doorway, she said:

"Jacky! Go right out of this room."

"Won't," said Jacky. "She gimme the horn," he remarked.

"Aw, now, sweety, go on out!" Lily entreated.

Jacky said, calmly, "Won't."

At which his mother got up and stamped her foot. "Clear right out of this room, or I'll see to you! Do you hear me? Go on, now, or I'll give you a reg'lar spanking!"

Jacky ran. He never obeyed her when he could help it, but he always recognized the moment when he couldn't help it. Lily closed the door, and stood with her back against it, looking at her caller.

"Well," she said, "if you are on to it, I'm sure you ain't going to make trouble for him with his wife."

"I am his wife."

"His wife?" They looked at each other for a speechess moment. Then the tears sprang to Lily's eyes. "Oh, you poor soul!" she said. "Say, don't feel bad! It's pretty near ten years ago; he was just a kid. Since then-honest to God, I give you my word, he 'ain't hardly said 'How do you do' to me!"

"I know," Eleanor said; her hands were gripped hard together; "I know that. I know he has been ... perfectly true to me-lately. I am not saying a word about that. It's the child. I want to make a proposition to you about the child." Her lips trembled, but she smiled; she remembered to smile, because if she didn't look pleasant Lily might get angry. She was a little frightened; but she gave a nervous laugh. She spoke with gentleness, almost with sweet

ness. "I came to see you, Mrs. Dale, because I hope you and I can make some arrangement about the little boy. I want to help you by relieving you of-of his support. I mean," said Eleanor, still smiling with her trembling lips, "I mean, I will take him, and bring him up, so as to save you the expense." Lily's amazed recoil made her break into entreaty; "My husband wants him, and I do, too! I thought perhaps you'd let him go home with me to-night? I-I promise I'll take the best of care of him!"

Lily was too dumfounded to speak, but her thoughts raced. "For the land's sake!" she said under her breath. She was sitting down now, but her hands in her lap had doubled into rosy fighting fists.

Her silence terrified Eleanor. "If you'll give him to me," she said, "I will do anything for you-anything! If you'll just let Mr. Curtis have him." She did not mean to, but suddenly she was crying, and began to fumble for her handkerchief.

"Well, if this ain't the limit!" said Lily, and jumped up and ran to her, and put her arms around her. ("Here, take mine! It's clean.") "Say, I'm that sorry for you, I don't know what to do!" Her own tears overflowed.

Eleanor, wincing away from the gush of perfumery from the little clean handkerchief, clutched at Lily's small plump hand-"I'll tell you what to do," Eleanor said; "Give me Jacky!"

Lily, kneeling beside her, cried, honestly and openly. "There!-now!" she said, patting Eleanor's shoulder; "don't you cry! Mrs. Curtis, now look,"-she spoke soothingly, as if to a child, with her arm around Eleanor-"you know I can't let my little boy go? Why, think how you'd feel yourself, if you had a little boy and anybody tried to get him. Would you give him up? 'Course you wouldn't! Why, I wouldn't let Jacky go away from me, even for a day, not for the world! An' he ain't anything to Mr. Curtis. Honest! That's the truth. Now, don't you cry, dear!"

"You can see him often; I promise you, you can see him."

In spite of her pity, Lily's yellow eyes gleamed: "'See' my own child? Well, I guess!"

"I'll give you anything," Eleanor said; "I have a little money-about six hundred dollars a year; I'll give it to you, if you'll let Mr. Curtis have him."

"Sell Jacky for six hundred dollars?" Lily said. "I wouldn't sell him for six thousand dollars, or six million!" She drew away from Eleanor's beseeching hands. "How long has Mr. Curtis thought enough of Jacky to pay six hundred dollars for him? You can tell Mr. Curtis, from me, that I ain't no cheap trader, to give away my child for six hundred dollars!" She sprang up, putting her clenched fists on her fat hips, and wagging her head. "Why," she demanded, raucously, "didn't you have a child of your own for him, 'stead of trying to get another woman's child away from her?"

It was a hideous blow. Eleanor gasped with pain; and instantly Lily's anger was gone.

"Say! I didn't mean that! 'Course you couldn't, at your age. I oughtn't to have said it!"

Eleanor, dumb for a moment after that deadly question, began, faintly: "Mr. Curtis will do so much for him, Mrs. Dale; he'll educate him, and-"

"I can educate him," Lily said; "you tell Mr. Curtis that; you tell him I thank him for nothing!-I can educate my child to beat the band. I don't want any help from him. But-" she was on her knees again, stroking Eleanor's shoulder-"but if he's mean to you because you haven't had any children, I-I-I'll see to him! Well-I've always thought, what with him fussing about 'grammar,' and 'truth,' he'd be a hard man to live with. But if he's been mean to you he'd ought to be ashamed of himself!"

"Oh, he doesn't even know that I have come!" Eleanor said; "he mustn't know it. Oh, please!" She was terrified. "Don't tell him, Mrs. Dale. Promise me you won't! He would be angry."

Her frightened despair was pitiful; Lily was at her wits' end. "My soul and body!" she thought, "what am I going to do with her?" But what was all this business? Mrs. Curtis asking for Jacky-and Mr. Curtis not knowing it? What was all this funny business? "Now I tell you," she said; "you and me are just two ladies who understand each other, and I'm going to be straight with you: if Mr. Curtis is trying to get my child away from me, he'll have a sweet time doing it! There's other places than Medfield to live in. I have a friend in New York, a society lady; she's always after me to come and live there. Mind! I'm not mad at you, you poor woman that couldn't have a baby-it's him I'm mad at! He knows Jacky is mine, and I'll go to New York before I'll-"

"Oh, don't say that!" Eleanor pleaded; "my husband hasn't tried to get Jacky; it's just I!"

She saw, with panic, that what Maurice had said was true-Lily might "run"! If she did, there would be no hope of getting Jacky ... and Edith would be in Mercer....

"Mrs. Dale, promise me you'll stay in Medfield? It was only I who was trying to get Jacky; Mr. Curtis never thought of such a thing! I wanted him. I'd do everything for him; I'd-I'd give him music lessons."

"Honest," said Lily, soberly, "I believe you're crazy."

She looked crazy-this poor, gray-haired woman of pitiful dignity and breeding. ("I bet she's sixty!" Lily thought)-this old, childless woman, with a "Mrs." to her name, pleading with a mother to give up her boy, so he could have "music lessons"! "And Mr. Curtis's up against that," Lily thought, and instantly her anger at Maurice ebbed. "There, dear," she said, touching Eleanor's wet cheeks gently with that perfumed handkerchief; "I don't believe you've had any supper. I'm going to get you something to eat-"

"No, please; please no!" Eleanor said. She had risen. She thought, "If she says 'dear' again, I'll-I'll die!" ... "I promise you on my word of honor," she said, faintly, "that I won't try to take Jacky away from you, if-" she paused; it was terrible to have a secret with this woman; it put her in her power, but she couldn't help it-"I won't try to get him, if you won't tell Mr. Curtis that I ... have been here? Please promise me!"

"Don't you worry," Lily said, reassuringly; "I won't give you away to him."

Eleanor was moving, stumbling a little, toward the door; Lily hesitated, then ran and caught her own coat and hat from the rack in the hall.

"Wait!" she said, pinning her hat on at a hasty and uncertain angle; "I'm going with you! It ain't right for you to go by yourself ... Jacky," she called out to the kitchen, "you be a good boy! Maw'll be home soon."

Eleanor shook her head in wordless protest. But Lily had tucked her hand under her arm, and was walking along beside her. "He ought to look out for you!" Lily said; "I declare, I've a mind to tell that man what I think of him!" On the car, while Eleanor with shaking hands was opening her purse, Lily quickly paid both fares, saying, politely, in answer to Eleanor's confused protest, "That's all right!" There was no talk between them. Lily was too perplexed to say anything, and Eleanor was too frightened. So they rode, side by side, almost to Maurice's door. There, standing on the step while Eleanor took her latch key from her pocketbook, Lily said, cheerfully, "Now you go and get a cup of tea-you're all wore out!" Then she hurried off to catch a Medfield car. "I declare," said little Lily, "I don't know which is the worse off, him or her!"

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