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   Chapter 32 No.32

The Vehement Flame By Margaret Wade Campbell Deland Characters: 11529

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Eleanor, letting herself into her silent house, saw, with relief, that the library was dark, and knew that Maurice had gone to the station and she could be alone. She felt her way into the room, blundering against his big chair; the fire was almost out, and without waiting to turn on the light she thrust some kindling under a charred log and knelt down and took up the bellows. A spark brightened, ran backward under the film of ashes, then a flame hesitated, caught-and there was a little winking blaze.

"Another failure," Eleanor said. She remembered with what eager hope she had started for Lily's house; "I was going to 'bring him home' with me! What a fool I was! ... I always fail," she said. Once more, she had "marched up a hill-and-then-marched-down-again"! Her sense of failure was like a dragging weight under her breastbone! She had not made Maurice happy; she had not given him children; she had not kept Edith out of his life. Failure! Failure! "But he loves me; he said so, when I told him I forgave him about Lily. Of course I oughtn't to have married him. But I loved him ... so much. And I did want to have just a little happiness! I never had had any." She sat there, the bellows in her white, ineffectual hands, looking into the fire; how capable Lily's hands were! She remembered the sturdy left hand, and that shiny band of gold ... Then she looked at her own slender wedding ring, and that made her think of the circle of braided grass; and the locust blossoms; and the field-and the children who were to come there on the wedding anniversaries! And now-Maurice's child called another woman "mother"!... Well, she had tried to bring him back to Maurice; tried, and failed, with hideous humiliation-for, instead of bringing Jacky back, this "mother" had brought her back!... "And she paid my car fare!" It was intolerable. "I must send her five cents, somehow!"

She sat on the floor, leaning against Maurice's chair, until midnight; the log burned through, broke apart, and smoldered into ashes. Once she put her cheek down on the broad arm of the chair, then kissed it-for his hand had rested on it!-his dear young hand-In the deepening chilliness, watching the ashes, she ached with the sense of her last failure; but most of the time she thought of Edith, and of what she believed she had read in those humorous, candid eyes. "She dared, before me!-to show him that she was in love with him! He doesn't care for her-I know that. But I won't have her come here, to my own house, and make love to him. How can I keep her from coming? Oh, if I could only get Jacky!"

But she couldn't get him. She had accepted that as final. The talk in Lily's parlor proved that there was not the slightest hope of getting Jacky. So the only thing for her to do was to keep Edith out of her house. When, at nearly one o'clock, shivering, she went up to her room, she was absorbed in thinking how she could do this. With any other girl it would have been simple enough; never invite her! But not Edith. Edith came without an invitation. Edith had, Eleanor thought, "no delicacy." She had always been that way. She had always lacked ordinary refinement! From the very first, she had run after Maurice. "She is capable of kissing him," Eleanor told herself; "and saying she did it because he was like a brother!" Strangely enough, in this blaze of jealousy she had no flicker of resentment at Lily! Lily (now that she had seen her) was to Eleanor merely the woman to whom Jacky belonged. Looking back on those months that followed her discovery of Lily, and contrasting the agony she had felt then with her despair about Edith now, she was faintly surprised at the difference in her pain. This was probably because faithlessness of the body is not so deadly an insult to Love as faithlessness of the mind. But Eleanor did not, of course, make any such explanation. She just said to herself that Maurice had been a boy when he had been untrue to her, and she herself had been, in some ways, to blame; and he had confessed, and been forgiven. So Lily was now of no consequence-except as she interfered with Eleanor's passionate wish to have Jacky. So she did not hate Lily, or fear her (though she was humiliated at that car fare!). But she did hate Edith, and fear of her was agony.... So she would, somehow, keep her out of the house!

Just as she was getting into bed, she wiped her eyes, then cringed at a gust of perfumery-and realized that she had brought Lily's handkerchief back with her! It was a last abasement: the woman's horrible handkerchief. She burst into hysterical weeping.... The next morning, when she came down to breakfast, her face was haggard with those ravaging tears, and with the fatigue of hating. Even before she had her coffee, she burned the scented scrap of machine-embroidered linen, pressing it down between the logs in the library fireplace; but she could not burn her hate; it burned her!

She was so worn out that when, a little before luncheon, Edith suddenly came breezily in, she was, at first, too confused to know what to say to her.... It was an incredibly mild day; on the shady side of the back yard there was still a sooty heap of melting snow, but the sky was turquoise, soaring without a cloud and brimmed with light, so that the shadows of the bare branches of the poplar, clear-cut like jet, crisscrossed on the brick path; in the border, the brown fangs of the tulips had bitten up through the wet earth, and two militant crocuses had raised their tight-furled purple standards. Eleanor, tempted by the sunshine, had come here, muffled up in an elderly white shawl, to sit by the little painted table-built so long ago for Edith's pleasure! She had put old Bingo's basket in the sun, and stroked h

im gently; he was very helpless now, and ate nothing except from her hands.

"Poor little Bingo!" Eleanor said; "dear little Bingo!" Bingo growled, and Eleanor looked up to see why-Edith was on the iron veranda.

"Hullo!" Edith said, gayly; "isn't it a wonderful day? I just ran in-" She came down the twisted stairway and, unasked and smiling, sat down at the table. "Bingo! Don't you know your friends? One would think I was a burglar! Oh, Eleanor, the tulips are up! Do you remember when Maurice and I planted them?"

Eleanor's throat tightened. She made some gasping assent.

"I came 'round," Edith said-her frank eyes looked straight into Eleanor's eyes, dark and agonized-"I ran in, because I'm afraid you thought, yesterday, that I wanted to quarter myself on you? And I just wanted to say, don't give it a thought! I perfectly understand that sometimes it's inconvenient to have company, and-"

"It's not inconvenient to have company," Eleanor said.

Edith stopped short. ("What a dead give-away!" she thought; "she dislikes me!") Then she tried, generously, to cover the "give-away" up: She said something about guests and servants: "We're having an awful time at Green Hill-servants are the limit! When a maid stays six weeks, we call her an old family retainer!"

Eleanor said, "I have no difficulty with maids. That is not why I prefer not to have ... company."

By this time, of course, Edith's one thought was to get away, with dignity; but dignity, when you've had your face slapped, is almost impossible. So Edith (being Edith!) chose Truth, and didn't trouble herself with dignity! "Eleanor," she said, "I know it's me you don't want. I felt it last night. I'm afraid I've done something that has offended you. Have I? Truly, Eleanor, I haven't meant to! What is it? Let's talk it out. Eleanor, what have I done?" She put her hands down on Eleanor's, clasped rigidly on the table.

"Please!" Eleanor said, and drew her hands away.

"Oh," Edith said, pitifully, "you are troubled!"

Eleanor said, with a gasp: "Not at all ... Edith, I am afraid I must ask you to ... excuse me. I'm busy."

Edith was too amazed to speak; she could not, indeed, think of anything to say! This wasn't "dislike." "Why, she hates me!" she thought. "Why does she hate me? Shall I not notice it? Shall I talk about something else?" But she could not talk of anything else; she could only speak her swift, honest thought: "Eleanor, why do you dislike me? Maurice and I have been friends-we have been like brother and sister-ever since I can remember. Oh, Eleanor, I want you to like me, too! Please don't keep me away from you and Maurice!"

Eleanor said, rapidly: "He's not your brother; and it would be difficult to keep you away from him. You go to his office to find him."

There was a dead silence. Edith grew very pale. At last she understood. Eleanor was jealous ... Of her! They looked at each other, the angry woman and the dumfounded girl. "Jealous? Of me?" Edith thought. "Why me? Maurice only cares for me as if I was his sister! ... And I don't do Eleanor any harm by-loving him." ... Eleanor was gasping out a torrent of assailing words:

"Girls are different from what they were in my day. Then, they didn't openly run after men! Now, apparently, they do. Certainly you do. You always have. I'm not blind, Edith. I have known what was going on; when you were living with us and I had a headache, you used to talk to him, and try and be clever-to make him think I was dull, when it was only that-I was too ill to talk! And you kept him down in the garden until midnight, when he might have been sitting with me on the porch. And you made him go skating. And now you look at him! I know what that means. A girl doesn't look that way at a man, unless-"

There was dead silence.

"Unless she's in love with him. But don't think that, though you are in love with him, he cares for you! He does not. He cares for no one but me. He told me so."

Silence.

"Can you deny that you care for my husband?" Edith opened her lips-and closed them again. "You don't deny it," Eleanor said; "you can't." She put her head down on her arms on the table; her fifty years engulfed her. She said, in a whisper, "He doesn't love me."

Instantly Edith's arms were around her. "Eleanor, dear! Don't-don't! He does love you-he does! I'd perfectly hate him if he didn't! Oh, Eleanor, poor Eleanor! Don't cry; Maurice does love you. He doesn't care a copper for me!" The tears were running down her face. She bent and kissed Eleanor's hands, clenched on the table, and then tried to draw the gray head against her tender young breast.

Eleanor put out frantic hands, as if to push away some suffocating pressure. Both of these women-Lily, with her car fare and her handkerchief; Edith, with her impudent "advice" to Maurice not to have secrets from his wife-pitied her! She would not be pitied by them!

"Don't touch me!" she said, furiously; "you love my husband."

Edith heard her own blood pounding in her ears.

"Don't you?" said Eleanor; her face was furrowed with pain; "Don't you?"

It was a moment of naked truth. "I have loved Maurice," Edith said, steadily, "ever since I was a child. I always shall. I would like to love you, too, Eleanor, if you would let me. But nothing-nothing! shall ever break up my ... affection for Maurice."

"You might as well call it love."

Edith, rising, said, very low: "Well, I will call it love. I am not ashamed. I am not wronging you. You have no need to be jealous of me, Eleanor. He cares nothing for me."

Eleanor struck the table with her clenched fists. "You shall never have him!" she said.

Edith turned, silently, and went up the veranda stairs and out of the house.

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